Notes and scenes from the end of the first year of college:
1) My May Term class was a lit topics course, Studies in Short Fiction. The professor was Dr. Holmes, the same fellow I’d had back in the fall for my composition course. He’d come to Transy in the early 60s, having been Ivy-trained at Cornell and Columbia. Maybe he had a bit of the patrician in his demeanor but on the whole was eager to engage with students. His comments on papers were generous though occasionally hard to decipher. (He seemed plenty old to me at the time, but I’m able to determine I’m now the age he was then. Yikes.) We read stories in an anthology and also imbibed from Joyce’s Dubliners and a Chekhov collection. As much as I enjoyed writing, looking back at my work I can tell I definitely needed the feedback. I’m glad I took the class–I still have a deep appreciation and affection for the short story format.
2) Having just one class for two hours a day gave one plenty of free time (they didn’t call it “Play Term” for nothing). I’d been maintaining some sort of distance running program, as I participated in a rain-soaked 10K race in mid-May, my second and final effort at that distance. Top 40 radio ruled in James’s and my dorm room, I suspect largely at my behest. (I’ve been trying to bring to mind what James was taking that May–thinking it was a history course, since he was a minor. Would that I could consult him.) For two weeks in May, I taped a ranking of my favorite songs to the door of our room (the outside, of course, so others could bear witness to my excellent taste). The second was that for 5/21, our last weekend before finals.
That spring of 1983 remains one of my favorite periods for pop music, and I’m still very much okay with all ten of these tunes.
3) Voting in the Kentucky primary would occur on 5/24, the same day as my final exam. 1983 was a gubernatorial election year (only KY, LA, and MS choose governors the year before a presidential election). Back in the day the Democratic nominee was highly likely to prevail in November, and that year featured a fierce, three-way competition among Martha Layne Collins (then Lt. Governor), Harvey Sloane (mayor of Louisville) and Grady Stumbo (a physician from the eastern part of the commonwealth). All three would score more than 30% of the primary vote, with Collins eking out a victory over Sloane by a little more than 4500 votes. (She would win in November over Republican nominee and future Baseball Hall of Famer/U.S. Senator Jim Bunning by a little more than 10 percentage points.)
The ads on television must have been incessant that spring, since I’d been inspired also to put this on our door, maybe right below my top 10 list:
About that write-in line…my college and grad school friends can attest that my father wasn’t shy in the least about disclosing his political loyalties to anyone and everyone. The young woman I was dating at the time apparently felt obliged to offer him up as an option.
4) The last entry in the diary I’d started the previous August came on 5/20; this was the first time I’d written in it in four months. It acknowledges the upcoming time apart between my girlfriend and me, notes that my sister’s HS graduation would also be on 5/24, and discusses my high school friend Frank’s relatively-new-yet-very-serious dating relationship (I’ve been asked to be best man at the as-of-then unscheduled wedding). While I wrap up with “maybe I’ll be becoming more acquainted with this book in the near future,” I’d never put pen to it again.
My favorite at the time was #5 in America, in the second of a four-week run at that position. Despite its nod toward novelty, “She Blinded Me with Science” seemed to be a pretty big hit all around me–I’ve noted before how a hall-mate was fond of blasting it at high volume after classes were over for the day. While I wouldn’t see the video for months (I lived in an MTV desert), the 45 quickly found a spot in my collection.
While it wasn’t perfect, on a personal level that spring turned out to be the high point of the year. The next several months would be quite bumpy, and it was entirely of my own doing.
Thirty-four years later, on an unseasonably cool and rainy day toward the end of April 2017, I met up with college friend Pat in Lexington to participate in the local March for Science. James was there as well, with his wife Amy and their two children; most of us carried homemade signs (mine read “Science Makes Our Children’s Future Brighter”). I’d guess that several hundred people gathered next to the county courthouse that afternoon to first walk southeast on Short St. and then northwest on Main St. Afterward, we gathered in a nearby covered space where we could learn about local organizations whose goals likely aligned with those of attendees and grab a warm drink. They had music playing in the background, and it was perhaps no real surprise when at one point Thomas Dolby came over the speakers.
I fear that in the years since we’ve learned that too many folks are blinded to, not with, the stuff.
Let’s stick with the same time period mined in last week’s Songs Casey Never Played; in fact, the intersection of acts addressed below with that post is very much nonempty. Lots of good stuff in this one.
I think these late 70s/early 80s issues of SR are the ones nearest to my heart. The number of reviews in each issue declined starting around 1984, so I look back now and appreciate all the more the density of their efforts during this period. Additionally, as I was moving into my mid- and late teens, I perhaps recognized a higher percentage of the artists being written up.
Article Zita Allen interviews Stevie Wonder Allen gives a brief overview of Wonder’s career to date and then talks with him about his most recent release, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. The process Wonder undergoes to create the soundtrack for a movie, with the music keyed to the visual, is involved and interesting.
Our reviewers this month are Chris Albertson, Edward Buxbaum, Noel Coppage, Phyl Garland, Peter Reilly, Steve Simels, and Joel Vance.
Best of the Month –Gene Parsons, Melodies (NC) “Parsons, a former Byrd, has a serviceable plain voice, but he sings with feeling, and in this case he sings only songs he obviously cares about.” –Ray, Goodman, & Brown, S/T (JV) “The prominent bass and the tenor/falsetto have not been in fashion for over a decade, but RG & B restore them to their original roles.” –The Searchers, S/T (SS) “…the result—their first album in almost a decade—is something of a small miracle: a thoroughly modern, utterly captivating record that rocks like mad, retains the essence of the original sound, and in general is as fully (if not more) satisfying as anything churned out recently by the group’s younger heirs.”
Recordings of Special Merit –Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band, S/T (EB) “Do yourself a favor: before you dance your way through these songs, sit down and listen.” –Blossom Dearie, Needlepoint Magic Volume V (PR) “To listen…is to be given a painless lesson in how very fine popular singing can be when it is practiced by a real artist. When you add to it Dearie’s wit, style, musicianship, and shrewd whimsey you have a one-of-a-kind listening experience.” –Robert Gordon, Bad Boy (SS) “…probably the best album Gordon’s done, a near flawless mix of period re-creation…and rockabilly/New Wave fusion…” –J. Geils Band, Love Stinks (JV) “J. Geils is probably the ultimate in blues-derived rock bands. Few other groups manage to embellish the two simple and limited forms without overloading them.” –Cheryl Lynn, In Love (PG) “Her splendid new album, the second of her short career, is enough to propel even the stodgiest soul to his feet; it explodes with volcanic force, generating enough energy to fuel a cross-country bus.” –The Specials, S/T (SS) “The Specials do (ska) very well; they know that, as with reggae, the sound is as important as the notes, which means some raggedness around the edges is necessary or the stuff degenerates into Sergio Mendes/Martin Denney island exotica.” –Tavares, Supercharged (PG) “…the ear-catching arrangements and instrumentals are deftly interwoven with the voices, which are employed with polished flexibility.”
Featured Reviews –Three albums by or featuring Chico Freeman (CA) “Freeman’s music gives me hope because it is original without being absurd, because it gets its tonal character from the inherent qualities of the instruments and its direction from his own distinct personality.” –Peggy Lee, Close Enough for Love (PR) “There is a vague disco tinge to the arrangements, but that interferes only about as much as an up-to-date setting for a really important diamond would…” –Mireille Matheiu, Mireille Mathieu Sings Paul Anka (PR) “Like Piaf, like Garland, like Streisand, her combination of torrential emotion and fierce conviction can singe the ears of anyone willing to give her a listen.” –Bonnie Pointer, S/T (PG) “…she compensates for her vocal limitations with musical imagination and a keen sense of what works.” –Linda Ronstadt, Mad Love (NC) “In lesser hands such a venture would have gone belly-up on the New Wave, but this—to the degree anyone can take it on its own terms—is a well-intended, spirited, almost plucky little album.” –Grace Slick, Dreams (Mark Peel, before he was brought on staff) “What I do not hear is the Grace Slick who contributed to such Airplane successes as ‘Greasy Heart’ and ‘Somebody to Love’ and who, most important, contributed something that was, for better or for worse, recognizably and memorably hers.” –Warren Zevon, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (SS) “In any case, slickness is not the problem with (this album). Chalk it up instead to a creative dry spell, celebrate the not inconsiderable virtues of the best things in it, and then hope that Zevon does what he promised he’d do after Excitable Boy—move to New York City.”
Other Disks Reviewed –The Babys, Union Jacks (JV) “The mid-youth malaise they are currently dispensing isn’t interesting to anyone who has passed through it unless it’s expressed in an unusual or startling way.” –The Buggles, The Age of Plastic (SS) “They can’t sing worth a lick, their technological obsessios are already clichés, and for all their studio tinkering, they finally come off about as moderinist as, say, the Electric Prunes.” –D. L. Byron, This Day and Age (NC) “Byron’s songs are mostly the expected nonsense about scrounging around in the streets—him and his version of Wendy, they were born to run, you can bet your tee-shirt on that—and his singing is projected from the same physical spot as Springsteen’s, the voice gathered up in the top of the throat and squeezed out at ya.” –Heart, Bebe Le Strange (JV) “Parts of the album are interesting, parts are dull, and parts are silly; some skill and talent do show through now and then.” –The Jam, Setting Sons (Mark Peel) “They work in two time-honored British traditions: writing sardonically witty lyrics that strike right at the soft white underbelly of the bourgeoisie and affixing to these clever lyrics a barrage of noise from which the conventional musical elements of melody, harmony, dynamic variation, and rhythm seem to be absent.” Clearly, Peel was trying to impress the editors! –The Knack, …but the little girls understand (SS) “Great composers steal, said Stravinsky, while mediocre ones borrow. Well, the Knack borrows like crazy here…and the recorded results prove that Igor was right on the money. There isn’t a note her that suggests an original idea.” –Lipps Inc., Mouth to Mouth (EB) “Somebody’s got to get in there and pull the vocal tracks and the strings forward from time to time, to refocus our attention from the thumping monotony of the beat.” –Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle (JV) “Nobody so far has figured out how to use the synthesizer as an instrument instead of a machine, and Numan certainly isn’t a contender for the solution.” –Rush, Permanent Waves (JV) “Loud groups that play overblown material at great length irritate me, but I’m inclined to be charitable with Rush. I suppose what I like about them is that they are personally modest, work hard for a living, and entertain rather than manipulate their audiences.” –Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Against the Wind (Mark Peel) “I am more sympathetic to Seger’s reminiscences. At their most affecting—Seger is often a very affecting songwriter—they deal with the choices made, the friends left behind, the incidents of experience that must certainly weigh heavily on someone like Seger, now looking back down a long hard road.”
Disco, alas, had been in retreat for several months by this time, with me nearing the end of my sophomore year in HS and in possession of a driver’s license for about a month. With softer rock largely ascending to take its place, perhaps it’s not too surprising there were several rockers that had the AT40 door slammed in their faces. Let’s take a quick tour through six of them.
96. The Cretones, “Real Love” The first half of 1980 was this L.A. band’s moment in the sun, such as it was. Debut LP Thin Red Line came out, including their only charting single (it would soon reach #79), and Linda Ronstadt covered three of their songs on Mad Love. It’s feeling like I need to give this album a solid listen or two. Leader Mark Goldenberg went on to write or co-write 80s hits “Automatic,” “Along Comes a Woman,” and “Soul Kiss.”
83. The Knack, “Can’t Put a Price on Love” Top 40 days for Doug Feiger and the boys had ended two months earlier, when “Baby Talks Dirty” stalled out at #38. This bluesy number from ...But the Little Girls Understand was a reasonable enough choice for second single, but we were already moving on. “Can’t Put a Price on Love” had already fallen from a #62 peak.
76. The Babys, “Midnight Rendezvous” If “Midnight Rendezvous” had a bridge and a third verse, it might have been the Babys’ second-best song, behind only “Isn’t It Time.” As it is, I kinda get how it didn’t climb above #72.
74. The Little River Band, “It’s Not a Wonder” I honestly can’t tell you why I know this song as well as I do–I’m certain I heard it more often in record stores (twice at most?) than I did on the radio. That chorus, that guitar lick toward the end, though…they just lodged in my brain instantly. This live version of a song originally on First Under the Wire would soon top out at #51.
61. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Here Comes My Girl” I have nothing new to write about “Here Comes My Girl” that hasn’t already been put in print or pixels. Just a damn fine song that unjustifiably peaked only two spots higher; I suppose most folks who would have purchased a 45 already had the LP.
48. Red Rider, “White Hot” Not sure how “White Hot” escaped my notice back then–“Lunatic Fringe” sure didn’t 18 months later. I guess this was a little before I veered more toward the AOR side of the dial. Pretty sure I could have identified the year it came out just by listening–sounds very much of its time. It wouldn’t climb any higher than this.
I went to three concerts last week, two in the Philly area and one outside DC, the first I’d attended post-arrival of COVID. It was quite the memorable experience, full of joy and intense sorrow. I’m sure I’m about to blather on at too great a length, but some of the details are worth it to me to record.
The long weekend had its origins over two years ago, in an aborted trip to see 10,000 Maniacs at the Birchmere in northern Virginia with my grad school friend Greg—I was to fly in on a Thursday evening, see the show Friday, and get back to KY in time for my Monday classes (I had scheduled exams for the Friday). Trouble was, the date of the concert was March 20, 2020—I don’t remember now which came first, me cancelling my flight or the venue cancelling the show.
Then in the summer of 2021, Greg and I began planning a make-up show of sorts, settling on seeing Suzanne Vega, who would be playing in NJ near Philadelphia on a Friday night in October. We bought tickets, I booked a flight…and then the show got cancelled about ten days before it was scheduled (oddly, the only show on the tour that got nixed).
Greg got back in touch early this year when he learned that Vega would be touring again and had scheduled what appeared to be a make-up show on April 22. The timing was good, as it was again on a Friday, so I could schedule an exam on that day and arrange for a colleague to proctor it; we were back in business. As the weeks passed, Greg kept making suggestions: 10,000 Maniacs would be back at the Birchmere on April 23—wanna go? And then Aimee Mann announced her tour dates, also playing suburban Philly on April 21—wanna go? I figured out a way to handle my Thursday class and said yes to it all—they’re all acts I’ve loved for years. I wound up flying in on Wednesday evening.
Departure from NoVa was a little before noon on Thursday, after I’d held individual Zoom conferences with my students about final projects. We were getting primed for the Mann show by listening to her latest album, Queens of the Summer Hotel, when Judy called. Now, Judy is a dear friend from college, but hearing from her on an early Thursday afternoon made some alarm bells go off. When I could tell she was upset and asked me if I were sitting down, I knew what was coming next: James, my college roommate of more than 3.5 years, a central star in the constellation of connections from that era, had died that morning. I knew his health hadn’t been all that good recently, but the news was still quite a jolt.
Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent talking and messaging with other friends, sharing the news and commiserating. Greg let me ramble on about James while we completed our journey, giving me space to process and begin grieving. I can imagine writing more about my roomie sometime in the not terribly distant future, but you can learn a lot about James by reading this beautiful, touching tribute that our friend Warren pulled together almost instantaneously. Suffice it to say for now that I’ve been experiencing a pervasive sense of sadness over the last week-plus.
The shows were all very good to great. The venue on Thursday was the Keswick Theatre, tucked away in an interesting stretch of apartment buildings and small shops in Glenside, PA. The layout of the place was nonstandard: after you enter, you walk maybe 50 feet to get to the lobby, which then opens directly on the right into the theater. It’s a little under a century old and has been restored to a reasonable extent over the last 35 years; it appeared as if it once had a balcony. Capacity was, I’d guess, around 900.
We’d grabbed mighty-good-but-too-large cheesesteaks (with provolone, not Whiz—sorry, Philly faithful) on the way and ate them in a small park behind the theater. Our seats were in the middle section, nine rows back from the stage. Mann didn’t play any of my very favorites, but the songs she’d chosen went together well and suited my mood reasonably. She and her band were tight; I have no complaints.
During the encore, Mann addressed the recent dustup that occurred when Steely Dan removed her as opening act for their upcoming tour. Several weeks ago, she’d tweeted, “All is forgiven if Donald just tells me what Brooklyn is about,” and soon after, Fagen sent her a lengthy letter explaining how the song on Can’t Buy a Thrill emerged from watching a certain fellow who lived in Fagen and Becker’s neighborhood in that borough in the early 70s. She then played the song for us.
This was the only one of the three shows to have an opener, Mann’s long-time friend and collaborator Jonathan Coulton. His songs tried to be funny, but Greg and I agreed there was something missing in them, maybe a connection between the humor and anything particularly real-life. Aimee joined Coulton on stage for two of his eight songs, and he returned the favor early in her set.
We moved west on Friday to Phoenixville, where Vega would be performing in the Colonial Theatre, another long-lived structure (almost 120 years old) that’s been restored relatively recently and offers both concerts and movies. It’s perhaps best known for being the site of a famous scene from the 50’s movie The Blob (Blobfest has become an annual summer event there). Greg had scored VIP passes for us along with front-row seats for the show, so at 5:30, we and about twenty other folks got inside and watched Vega and her guitarist Gerry Leonard warm up on three tunes; she also answered a few questions from those gathered, the most interesting of which centered on the Grateful Dead Rainforest Benefit concert to which she contributed in September 1988.
I had a small moment in the sun during the sound check. One of the songs she sang then was “Walk on the Wild Side,” which she’d covered on her most recent album An Evening of New York Songs and Stories. Vega had forgotten the lyric sheet and asked for help from the crowd about the name of the fifth character in Reed’s song. Several of us went a-Googling, and when the time came for that verse to be sung, she cupped her hand to her ear for help, She heard and acknowledged with a nod my shout of “Jackie!”
When it was over, we went across the street to a brewpub; the appetizers we ordered became dinner. Greg’s cousin Kate, who lived in the area, swung by and joined us—it was the first time they’d gotten together in about five years.
As we walked back to the theater, Greg had a mission: find someone on whom to bestow two tickets (he’d bought a second pair next to us, initially with the idea that Kate might use them, but that didn’t pan out). We were just inside the doors where the box office was when a couple walked in, inquiring about availability. Apparently, the show was sold out (capacity was around 650, we were told), but Greg sidled next to them and made an offer too good to refuse. That’s how Francesco and Lauren, our new friends, came to join us for the show.
Vega was fabulous—if forced to choose, hers was the best show of the three. It was just she and Leonard on stage the entire concert. As promised, she told stories (I knew that “Gypsy” was about a man she’d met at a summer camp they both had worked when she was in her late teens, but I learned that “In Liverpool” was a sequel to “Gypsy” and that she’d reconnected with the man years later). She was very comfortable in her own skin, which I think allowed her to be alternately sensual (“Caramel”) and playful (a DNA-ish version of “Tom’s Diner”). There were plenty of highlights, and she played many songs from her catalog that I dearly enjoy. Continuing with what became a theme that lasted the entire trip, she also did a cover during her encore, a wonderful take on Blondie’s “Dreaming.”
Francesco and Lauren invited us to join them for a drink afterward. We learned that she grew up somewhat nearby while he came from northern Italy; they’d met when they worked together on a project for a pharmaceutical company, and now lived on a small farm just outside of town. They were both just very nice, and our lengthy conversation was a lot of fun. Kate also swung by again to follow up with Greg on some of their earlier chat, and we got a great group photo before parting ways. Random acts of kindness do pay off.
We took the scenic route on the way back to VA on Saturday, veering west and bypassing toll roads; lunch was at an awesome creperie in Lancaster. Traffic got worse the closer we got to DC—given it was the weekend, I’m all the more glad I don’t have to deal with it on an ongoing basis. We headed straight to the Birchmere in Alexandria, arriving around 3:30 and lining up alongside the building. Their doors open at 5, but the order in which you show up affects your seating options, as you’re given a numbered ticket when you enter, just like those you’d get to wait in line at a grocery store deli. (There were only three people in front of us.) Between 5 and 6 we all gathered in a large anteroom, visiting the bar and/or gift shop. Greg and I both got Maniacs shirts, and we met up with Gordon, an old friend of Greg’s from his youth in NY who now lives in the area. At 6, ticket numbers were called and the three of us secured a table right in front of the stage, a little right of center. We then ordered dinner, and shortly after 7:30 the lights dimmed, and the six band members (plus a female backup singer) ascended to the stage.
The show largely consisted of well-known songs from the Natalie Merchant era, with a few later tunes and a couple of covers thrown in (their encore included a delightful version of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”). The playing was solid, and the band overall appeared to be having a good time. I went going in wondering how Mary Ramsey would approach singing songs mostly written by Merchant. Ramsey’s voice turns out to be a decent match for her predecessor’s without falling into imitation (it’s not quite as full as Merchant’s, though, and this is where the backup singer helped). The occasional turns Ramsey took on her viola added value to many songs.
About halfway through, bass player Steve Gustafson got hold of one of the band’s 40th anniversary t-shirts available for purchase, reminding the audience they could stop by the gift shop for swag after the show. He then looked around at the audience in front of him and tossed the shirt to Greg. Since this was the same shirt he’d just purchased, he handed it off to me (I’d gotten a different style). Gustafson looked a little surprised/miffed, so Greg showed him it was a duplicate.
After the show ended, several members of the band joined the remaining crowd in the anteroom (a nice touch, for sure). Greg got to tell Gustafson that he’d also been the recipient of the shirt when the Maniacs had been there in the fall (Greg likes to go early in case you can’t tell). That first shirt had been too small, so it’d wound up with Greg’s wife Katie.
My flight home on Sunday didn’t depart until after 9pm (fortunately, a non-stop), so around noon Greg drove me from their home in Vienna to Leesburg, where Tony, the high school classmate I’ve both known the longest and maintained closest ties to over the years, lives with his wife Lisa. It was our first in-person get-together in almost four years, and we had a fabulous afternoon catching up, shooting some pool in their basement, and grabbing some nice pad thai from a nearby restaurant. Tony was gracious enough to drop me off at the airport, and before long I was deep in the process of getting back to wrapping up the semester at the college.
The title of this post comes from the final song in the Maniacs’ encore, “These Are Days.” It’s caused me to meditate a little on the difference between blessing and luck. Not that I have any great insight about the matter, but it seems to me that both come to one regardless of merit, although blessing does imply that there’s a blesser.
The weekend wound up being centered on three of my best friends, from three different phases of my life. Blessing, luck, or both, I realized once again how glad I am that Tony and I both moved to Walton in the summer of 1972, how good it was to spend quality time with Greg when he (okay, we) needed it, and how grateful I am to the powers-that-were at Transy who assigned James and me to adjacent rooms in the fall of 1982, so that it could occur to us both a few months later that we might be a better match than those to whom we were originally assigned.
Here are live versions of three songs I heard on my trip, though in all cases what you hear below is at least a little different from how they were presented last week.
Just like last August, the powers-that-be at Premiere have scheduled shows from 1986 and 1982 for rebroadcast on consecutive weekends. Then, preparations to decamp for grad school and college were on my mind; now, I’m thinking back on those final weeks of college and high school. This past weekend I rummaged through my brain and a bin of college memorabilia to pull out artifacts from my senior spring, a couple of which are tangible. Here are three short tales.
I. Transy observes a 4-4-1 calendar, with the spring term ending right around this time of year. One of the classes I took my final spring was a general education course called something akin to Music Theory for the Liberal Arts Student, to fulfill a distribution requirement. My recollection is that it was interesting enough, though given past experiences with piano lessons and band, perhaps I would have enjoyed a similar course designed for majors more? Anyway, the professor was in her first year on campus, her specialty in composition.
Fast forward almost six years. I’m at the interview in NW Indiana I mentioned in last week’s post, talking with one of the members of the search committee. He pulls out a picture with three people in it, asking if I recognize them. I do know two–they’re faculty in English and art at my undergraduate institution. The third turns out to be that music theory instructor, to whom my interviewer is now married–he tells me that when he mentioned that Transylvania was on an applicant’s resume, she was able to verify I’d once been her student (gradebooks are forever). I suspect he’s been waiting for this moment for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve kind of blown it. (In retrospect, I half-wonder if the connection didn’t play at least a minor role in securing an on-campus interview. My faux pas had nothing to do with failing to merit an offer, though.)
II. At the end of my junior year I was elected president of our campus’s leadership honorary, Omicron Delta Kappa. In March 1986, I flew down to Baton Rouge to represent Transy at ODK’s national conference. Two items of mild note from the trip: 1) one piece of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was being held at LSU at the same time as the conference, and one morning I shared a hotel elevator with then-Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins; 2) I also got to briefly meet Frank Rose, a bigwig in the ODK leadership structure. Rose had assumed the presidency of Transy in the early 50s, about halfway through my father’s time there, despite being only about a decade older than Dad. He left Transy after several years to become president at the University of Alabama. Desegregation occurred during his tenure in Tuscaloosa; he also hired Paul “Bear” Bryant away from the University of Kentucky’s football team. Dad knew Dr. Rose, of course, and regarded him with esteem, so he was glad I was able to introduce myself.
Transy’s circle (that’s what ODK calls their chapters) was the Lampas Circle, Lampas being the name of TU’s leadership honorary prior to pursuing national affiliation. Early in the school year, we’d been approached by the national office about inviting Lampas members from the past to become formal ODK members. I somewhat naively went along with this effort, and in March we sent out letters to appropriate alums to join us for an induction service on the first Sunday in May. Perhaps not too surprisingly, only a few folks (one of whom was my father) accepted–I assume most just ignored it. One invitee, an alum from the late 60s, did take the time to respond in memorable fashion, cc-ing the college President along the way.
Looking back, she was hardly wrong to see the invitation as a money grab. And I’d obviously been sloppy in not clearly identifying myself in the letter. While I think in part I simply had the misfortune of being a convenient target for venting, I actively chose to hold on to this letter as a reminder to stay humble and not get too wrapped up in self-importance.
III. The “1” in the 4-4-1 calendar is a four-week period known as May Term. Students take just one class, frequently a non-standard offering. My last May Term class was a topics course in Archaeology. Ostensibly taught by the college’s anthropology prof, it was in reality directed by an archaeology Ph.D. candidate from UK; I imagine we were helping him with his doctoral research. We first learned a little about field techniques, and then got to put them into practice on a real dig. Our site was farmland south and east of Lexington, just outside the small burg of Athens (for the non-locals, it’s pronounced AY-thens; if you think that’s funny, wait until you hear how we say the name of the town due west of Lexington known as Versailles). Evidence of past Native American settlement had been found in some of the farm’s fields, and our task was to discover what we could over a two-plus week period. We started by laying out plots via elementary surveying and then tucking in, taking off a layer at a time, moving on once we’d found what we could. One of the course requirements was to keep a journal of daily activity–while we had to hand them over at the end of the term, you know that I made photocopies before I did so. Here are two of the entries.
The final journal entry was from 5/19, just six days before my graduation ceremony. I don’t know how it all turned out, whether there was subsequent work on the site, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed the class, though.
Good times, they come and they go. I had a wonderful college experience, but by April 1986 it was just about time to move on to the next stage. Staying at Transy probably wouldn’t have been the same, been as fun.
Sade is singing about romance in “Never as Good as the First Time” (debuting at #37 on 4/19/86, heading toward a peak of #20), not four years in college, but work with me here–there are plenty of things in this world that simply aren’t as enjoyable if extended beyond their shelf life. Savor the moments, treasure them, recall them fondly, but maybe think twice before you attempt to re-create them.
By mid-April 1992, my job search for a college math position was languishing. An interview in February at a regional school in northwest Indiana had bombed (looking back it’s easy to see that now; then, I had to be told by the chair of the search committee just how far down I was on their ranked list of interviewed candidates). Around this time, a small school in Illinois to which I’d applied did send me a letter, essentially offering me a job sight unseen. That, along with the accompanying minuscule salary, set off enough red flags to cause me to quickly decline. I was beginning to countenance the possibility of staying at UIUC another year, leading me to put off scheduling the defense of my dissertation.
Probably the most memorable event of the spring was a trip to Maryland that Greg, Karl, and I took over a long Easter weekend to see Greg’s wife Katie. Like this year, Easter fell pretty late in 1992, on April 19. All three of us had research assistantships without teaching duties that spring, so we left early on Thursday morning in my 1986 Camry, easily the most reliable of the vehicles at our disposal.
It’s about 700 miles between Urbana, IL, and the Maryland suburbs northeast of DC, so despite switching off drivers, it was a pretty long day. We all crashed at Katie’s apartment–being poor grad students, Karl and I slept on couches or in sleeping bags on the living room floor. It was nice to meet Chrissie and Lisa, Katie’s roommates (and also first-year math grad students at UMD), after learning some about them over the previous months via Greg and Katie’s phone conversations.
It was a pretty laid-back time. I don’t recall going into DC to do any sightseeing–I imagine overall we stayed within a decent radius of the apartment, though I’m sure a visit to a record store or two was high on the list of things to do. I tuned into the alternative station WHFS when I could, as I had done three months earlier when in Baltimore for the math conference where I’d had some initial interviews.
The guys did drive up to Baltimore ‘s Inner Harbor on Friday evening to see the fourth-ever game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards–we sat in the right field bleachers.
The O’s won 8-0, the fourth consecutive time one of the teams had failed to score in the new park. Rick Sutcliffe started for Baltimore, pitching the last of his career 18 complete-game shutouts; the offensive hero was first baseman Randy Milligan, who had two jacks and 6 RBI. The main thing I recall from the evening, though, is the razzing from the fans (one of whom might have been Greg) that Rob Deer, playing RF for the Tigers, endured throughout.
On the way home on Easter, we made the mistake of assuming that a straight line was the quickest way between two points, and lost a few hours on the back roads of northern West Virginia and southern Ohio. I don’t know now whether it was planned in advance, but we veered a little south to Florence to spend Sunday night with my parents and sister (who happened to be home at the time), arriving back in IL on Monday afternoon. A long trip for a short visit, but well worth it.
As for what was on the Modern Rock Tracks chart (and likely WHFS’s playlist) at the time, well, let’s take a gander…
30. Cowboy Junkies, “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” This still-active Canadian outfit, best known for their cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” never could quite break through. At one point I owned Black Eyed Man but I’m not finding it in my collection now.
28. Tori Amos, “Silent All These Years” My favorite song of the year, from my favorite album of the year. I’d picked up Little Earthquakes by this time, and Greg and I had already connected Amos to her past life as Y Kant Tori Read.
WHFS was also playing her version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which is included on the soon-to-be-released “Crucify” EP) while we were visiting.
27. Peter Case, “Dream About You” I like Case’s third solo album, Six-Pack of Love, quite a bit–I believe I bought it on that trip. While I get the criticism about Mitchell Froom’s (over-)production, “Dream About You” is still a pop delight.
20. E, “Hello Cruel World” I was last-week-years-old, doing research for my radio show featuring many of the songs on this chart, when I learned that E (Mark Oliver Everett) went on to found the band Eels (“Novacaine for the Soul”) later in the decade. This catchy number deserved more attention.
18. Lush, “For Love” If Lush is on the countdown, you can be sure I’m going to note it and embed a video. “For Love” was their second and last MRT Top 10 song. It’ll be another four years before they appear here again (how “Hypocrite,” from Split, didn’t score remains a mystery to me).
17. Nirvana, “Come As You Are” Currently, the owner of the second-longest run on the chart (13 weeks)–the endurance champ is still to come.
10. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under the Bridge” I’m not a big RHCP fan by any means, but I’ve always really, really liked “Under the Bridge.” Can’t help but note, though, that seemingly every song of theirs I’ve heard on the radio since bears at least some resemblance to it.
9. Concrete Blonde, “Ghost of a Texas Ladies’ Man“ Johnette and company had peaked in various ways with their previous release Bloodletting; I wasn’t as impressed with this first single from Walking in London.
7. James, “Born of Frustration” Seven came out on the heels of the re-recorded “Sit Down” from the previous year. “Born of Frustration” was its second single, but the only one to make a dent in the U.S.
5. The Sugarcubes, “Hit” It’s been a long time since I’d heard “Hit,” but after taking a listen preparing this post, I can unequivocally say it’s the ‘Cubes best song–I’d completely forgotten how good it is. Stick Around for Joy was their swan song, though–in just over a year, we’d be treated to Björk’s first solo project, Debut.
4. Sarah McLachlan, “Into the Fire” The song that informed us that McLachlan was well on her way. The stuff on Vox is nice enough, but “Into the Fire” was a major step forward. Likely my favorite of hers.
3. David Byrne, “She’s Mad” From his second post-Heads solo album Uh-Oh. The video has lots of special effects that were revolutionary at the time but sure feel dated now. I do like the line, “If sex is a weapon, who’s winning the war?”
2. U2, “One” The previous week’s #1, in its fifteenth of twenty-three weeks in MRT-land. Sure, Bono’s lyrics got more and more precious over time, but I’m giving him a pass on this tune.
1. The Cure, “High” Wish was about a week away from its release. “High” isn’t the album’s most enduring track–we’ll be featuring that one in June–but it definitely satisfied Cure fans’ appetites after almost three years without new material.
At long last, the third installment of what’s turning into a very occasional series about the nine solo artists named Harris who hit the Billboard pop charts over the first thirty years of the rock era. (At this rate, I’ll finish about the time I turn 70, which suggests I should speed things up a bit.) As I’ve noted previously, the odd thing is that none of them hit the Top 40 more than once. This time around, it’s the most highly regarded (not to mention successful) musician of the nine, country legend Emmylou Harris. The source of inspiration? “Mister Sandman” is at #39 on this weekend’s 4/11/81 Premiere offering, embarking on a three-week ride that peaked at #37.
My write-ups about Tony Harris and Major Harris attempted to provide a bit of biography because of their relative obscurity, and also because there just wasn’t much out there. Since this isn’t the case for Emmylou Harris, I’ll largely content myself with a few choice passages about her courtesy of Stereo Review, since that’s where I would mostly have learned about her. A quick perusal of the SR archives reveals an article by Carol Offen in December 1975 (which summarizes Harris’s life and career up to her breakthrough LP Pieces of the Sky, including her serendipitous introduction to and work with Gram Parsons) and at least a half-dozen Best of the Month, Recordings of Special Merit, and featured reviews, all courtesy of Harris mega-fan Noel Coppage.
From the Offen article, a quote: “I’d rather have somebody come see me and, instead of going out and buying my album, go buy a Louvin Brothers album and experience what I experienced the first time I heard it. I would really get off on that.”
As for Coppage… –on Pieces of the Sky (BotM, 6/75): “Emmylou’s voice is smooth, it has good range and a lovely tone that shimmers on the high notes, and she complements all this with a folksinger’s straightforward phrasing.” –on Elite Hotel (RSM, 5/76): “..she simply doesn’t need quirky songs or chestnuts everyone knows by heart, just a few that really say something she can wholeheartedly connect with…” –on Blue Kentucky Girl (BotM, 5/77): “Harris has prodigious talent as a singer, and more than enough style to make her the absolute owner of a song once she’s recorded it. She also has good instincts about what kinds of songs go together…” –on Evangeline (BotM, 6/81): “…she is one of the few singers around now who give the (probably accurate) impression that they won’t do songs they don’t identify with, let alone don’t like, even if it means going without hits.”
Coppage died in late 1982, and his final reviews appeared in the March 1983 issue. Appropriately, those include one for Late Date, a live Harris album.
Despite the high praise from Coppage, despite rave reviews of later albums such as Wrecking Ball and Red Dirt Girl, I remain almost completely ignorant of Harris’s body of work. My excuse back in the late 70s/early 80s was that country music outside of Waylon Jennings wasn’t much my thing. Later, though? Now? It’s just an outright unforced error that I’m more familiar with “Emmylou” by First Aid Kit than any of the real Emmylou’s songs. I expect that to change, and soon.
I feel certain that Casey mentioned on one of those April 1981 shows that Emmylou first recorded “Mister Sandman” with Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. For years I didn’t realize that the take on the single was all Emmylou, harmonizing with herself–Ronstadt’s and Parton’s record companies wouldn’t allow the trio’s version to be released on a 45. It was on Evangeline, however; I’m thinking Kasem played the album cut at least once?
This series has made only one visit to 1985 to date, so let’s take another trip there. Many of these songs I knew pretty well back in the day, and one is a contender for my top ten of the year. Let’s roll it…
#93. Alphaville, “Forever Young” Classic fear-of-nuclear-annihilation cut, not to be confused of course with songs of the same title by Dylan or Rod. I’m amazed now this didn’t climb any higher at the time, though it was one of those songs given a second chance in the late 80s, reaching #65 in December 1988.
#89. Maze, “Back in Stride” Maze, led by Frankie Beverly, had been hitting the R&B charts regularly since 1977. This was the first of two #1 songs they had there, and it would turn out to be their fourth and final song to reach the Hot 100, getting just to #88. Nice jam.
#79. Los Lobos, “Will the Wolf Survive?” Title-ish track from their well-received major label debut, on its way to a peak one position higher; I remember both it and “Don’t Worry Baby” getting play on MTV. I’m glad for the success they enjoyed a couple of years later with songs from the La Bamba soundtrack, but I absolutely adore their underappreciated early 90s albums The Neighborhood and Kiko.
#64. Alan Parsons Project, “Let’s Talk About Me” The Top 40 days had ended for the APP the previous year with the #34-peaking “Prime Time.” The video for this first single from Vulture Culture is completely over the top, but I still find it, as well as the song itself, a little disquieting. The clip’s message about the cost of addiction to electronics rings true to this day. But I’ve always wondered about the song’s narrator: are his complaints justified, or is he just wallowing in self-pity?
#55. John Waite, “Change” Another second-chance tune. “Change” was originally a single that stiffed from Waite’s 1982 solo album Ignition. The folks putting together the Vision Quest soundtrack thought it should get another try, but alas, it was soon to stall out at #54. This is right up there with “Isn’t It Time” for me in terms of Waite-sung songs; love the video, too.
#51. Go West, “We Close Our Eyes” Given how much I saw this vid, on MTV, I’m a little surprised “We Close Our Eyes” topped out at #41. The British duo of Peter Cox and Richard Drummie got theirs a few years later, though, with the Top 10 “King of Wishful Thinking” and a high-performing AC cover of “What You Won’t Do for Love.”
Shawn Colvin is best remembered for her 1997 smash “Sunny Came Home,” which scaled the heights of various Billboard charts (#7 Hot 100, #4 Mainstream Top 40, and #1 Adult Contemporary, among others) and took home Grammy hardware for both Song and Record of the Year in 1998. It’s a good one, complete with catchy melody/chorus and a memorable bridge. I’d been following Colvin’s career for a number of years by then, including attending an engaging concert with my future wife in June 1995, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati. The breakthrough was welcome in these parts, even it wound up lasting for just that one hit record.
A Few Small Repairs, the album on which “Sunny Came Home” appears, was Colvin’s fourth release. It’s neither the one of hers I’ve listened to most nor like best, however. Those honors go to sophomore effort Fat City, which came out not longer after I began my teaching career, in the fall of 1992. While all but one song was written or co-written by Colvin, there’s a ton of star power contributing bits and pieces throughout the record. She’d gotten a great deal of positive buzz from her debut Steady On, and one suspects that Fat City was expected to be the launching pad for a commercially successful career.
The first song I heard from Fat City was “Tennessee.” I was in Oxford, OH, attending a conference on teaching at Miami University, availing myself of the opportunity to listen to my go-to modern rock station, WOXY 97X, in the evenings. To be honest, I hadn’t been as enamored of Steady On as the critics, but “Tennessee” forced me to re-evaluate. Richard Thompson works the guitar solo, and yes, that’s Bela Fleck on banjo.
Colvin’s next record was Cover Girl, full of remakes of such acts as the Police, Talking Heads, Steve Earle, and Dylan. The one song she didn’t write on Fat City was “Tenderness on the Block” by Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon, appearing on the latter’s Excitable Boy. Here’s a performance of it from just over four years ago.
My favorite Shawn Colvin song is easily “Round of Blues.” It’s already appeared in this space on one of my old mixtape write-ups, and you’ll see mention of it again in December, in a Modern Rock Tracks post. The album’s Wikipedia page notes that producer Larry Klein wrote the music for the bridge. I wish it’d been a hit.
Another winner is “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong).” Bruce Hornsby plays piano and sings backup; you can also hear Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s voice in there, as well.
“Set the Prairie on Fire” was co-written with Elly Brown, whom I know from her days in the late 80s/early 90s band Grace Pool. Not only is session drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner present, but Booker T. Jones is in the house, playing the Hammond.
The other song on Fat City that received a measure of radio love (this time, Adult Contemporary) was the album’s last track, “I Don’t Know Why.” It’s a lovely yet melancholy piece, and it garnered a nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 1994 Grammys.
I’m guessing that Fat City‘s sales did not meet expectations. Nonetheless, it showed Colvin was growing and developing, worthy of further investment. I imagine Columbia was ultimately pleased they kept her on.
Articles It’s a Special Tape Issue. Ralph Hodges discusses Tape Futures (what may be coming soon in backings, binders, and magnetic materials); Craig Stark tests a raft of Bargain Tapes (conclusion: stick with name-brands); and Gary Stock reviews the current state of Taping and the Law (is home video recording of television shows a violation of copyright law?)
Forty years later, it all sounds so quaint (not to mention antiquated).
We have what I consider more or less the classic lineup of reviewers: Chris Albertson, Noel Coppage, Phyl Garland, Paul Kresh, Mark Peel, Peter Reilly, Steve Simels, and Joel Vance.
Best of the Month –George Jones, Same Ole Me (NC) “Through it all, (Jones) keeps the back of your mind from forgetting the basic premise of the honkytonk: it is the place you go to when something’s wron. Whatever that might be, when Jones sings it sure ain’t the music.” –Mark Murphy, Bop for Kerouac (CA) “I have not always cared for the music Murphy sings, but I have never been deaf to this talent, and I am overwhelmed by the way it all seems to work its way to the surface here.” –Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Reactor (SS) “Nonetheless, this new album sounds like (Young)’s basically goofing around. But as a textbook on how to make music out of the sounds of a scrap yard, it will do very nicely.”
Recordings of Special Merit —American Musicals: Jule Styne (PR) “…Kenneth Tynan wrote that Jule Styne was ‘the most persistently underrated of all popular composers.’ After listening to this rerelease package of three of Styne’s most memorable Broadway shows, I think I agree with Tynan.” —At Home Abroad (PK) The Smithsonian releases an archival reconstruction of a 1935 Broadway show. –Duke Ellington, Symphony in Black (CA) “…the Smithsonian Jazz Repertory Ensemble does reasonably and splendidly re-create the essence of early and middle Duke.” –Barry Manilow, If I Should Love Again (PR) “Unlike many of his contemporaries, Manilow never plays down to his audiences, nor does he attempt to flatter or cajole them (as Neil Sedaka sometimes does). –Penguin Café Orchestra, S/T (MP) “…suggests what might happen if a string group like David Grisman’s were plopped down in a rural English pub and plied with two or three rounds before they’d played a note.” –Vangelis, Chariots of Fire (Irv Cohn) “The themes are simple, almost hymn-like, but sumptuously augmented by rich electronic effects, including what sounds like swelling strings and thrumming percussion.”
Featured Reviews –Martin Briley, Fear of the Unknown (JV) “He is a generously gifted songwriter but almost frighteningly misanthropic. The album is a marvel, but you may not want to hear it very often if you’re the kind of person who pays close attention to the lyrics.” –John Entwhistle, Too Late the Hero (NC) “Better still, the record offers some relief from the blandness being committed all around us in the name of pop music these days.” –Tim Hardin, Memorial Album (NC) “His work was not idealistic in narrow political terms but aesthetically, in the manner of Byron and Van Gogh…(a)nd in the manner of Byron and Van Gogh and countless other romantics before him, he sought and edge. But, as we all know now, edges can cut.” –Frank Sinatra, She Shot Me Down (Henry Pleasants) “…the album is memorable not for what he does with melodies but for what he does with words.” –Ringo Starr, Stop and Smell the Roses (JV) “…the best album that Ringo Starr has ever made, mostly because he’s allow to be himself…It is madcap, funny, rowdy, spiteful, nostalgic, and convincing.”
Other Disks Reviewed –Bee Gees, Living Eyes (NC) “This finds the Bee Gees wending their way back from the disco grave site, at times hip deep in the weeds that are already growing there. Back to where, though?” –The Cars, Shake It Up (MP) “…it rocks along a deliberate, precarious path, avoiding both outright pop and electronic minimalism.” –Elvis Costello, Almost Blue (NC) “Costello made the apparently commonplace assumption…that anybody can come in cold and perform country music—and it blew up, I’m happy to report, right in his face.” –Karla DeVito, Is This a Cool World or What? (SS) “Karla DeVito is a terrific singer and performer, cute as a bug’s ear, and one heck of a swell human being, but she has what sounds like a terminal case of Steinman’s Disease.” –Earth, Wind & Fire, Raise! (CA) “…reflects not so much poor artistic judgment as it does a general feeling of having reached a dead end.” –Kiss, (Music from) The Elder (MP) “Never mind that this is bad music. It isn’t even a passable stab at a fantasy comic book.” –The Knack, Round Trip (SS) “…a tedious failure, something like hearing a second-rate bar band trying to play late Beethoven quartets.” –The Steve Miller Band, Circle of Love (NC) “…even at his best…either Miller presumes his listeners can block out his lyrics from their heads or else he presumes his listeners are double-digit-IQ mouth breathers.” –Rush, Exit…Stage Left (JV) “Rush really needs a bigger sound to match their imagination. As it is, the earnestness and energy begin to pall, especially on a two-disc live album like this one.” –Rod Stewart, Tonight I’m Yours (JV) “…I don’t agonize much over Rod Stewart’s alleged artistic decline. He is still a highly professional and occasionally very exciting singer, as this latest album…abundantly demonstrates.” –Luther Vandross, Never Too Much (PG) “Admittedly, Vandross has a very appealing, resonantly full, and flexible singing voice, but his material…and interpretation are hardly anything to shout about.”