American Top 40 PastBlast, 11/20/82: Billy Joel, “Pressure”

My small high school didn’t offer a calculus course when I was a senior—I took a class called Advanced Math instead. Among other things, we learned trigonometry (a good thing) and how to interpolate values of logarithms from a table (not remotely useful now—ah, those pre-calculator days). Still, I wasn’t hesitant about signing up for first-semester calculus as I began my trek at Transy; math had long been my thing, and was one of my intended majors, besides.

There were two sections of Calculus I on offer for Fall Term 1982, taught by different professors. Over the summer I wrote a letter to Susan, my soon-to-be Student Orientation Leader, seeking advice on which one to take. “I had Dr. Shannon for calculus and recommend him. He challenged me.” (I’m paraphrasing, since—shocker, I know—I don’t appear to have that letter anymore.) That was all I needed to hear: David Shannon, at 1:30 MWF, immediately prior to my chemistry class, it would be.

Classes began the Wednesday after Labor Day. I had Thursdays completely free of classes or labs that fall, and I remember spending hours in my room that first Thursday, thinking about polynomial inequalities, including some involving absolute value. It was my first inkling that there was much more going on in math—and this was “only” pre-calculus material—than I’d previously considered. We quickly moved on to limits and an introduction to the derivative of a function, along with some of its interpretations.

According to the calendar I kept that fall, the first test was on the last Wednesday of September, just three weeks after we’d started. I felt good about much of the exam but found myself stumped on two questions, the second of which has stayed with me throughout the years.

Looking at that test forty years later, I see it’s plenty lengthy for a fifty-minute period. My suspicion now is that I took too long with the first problem that gave me fits to spend much time at all on this one. The scribbling you see came after the exam had been returned to me with “0/5” written halfway down the page—it’s much fainter, more informal, than everything else I’d supplied in real time. But you can see to the right of Dr. Shannon’s sketch the essential part of the question’s solution: you set the slope of the line joining (4,8) to an arbitrary point on the curve equal to the slope of the tangent line at that arbitrary point as given by the derivative. It becomes a second-degree equation that you must solve via the quadratic formula.

Over the next week or so, Dr. Shannon reinforced the notion that the value of the derivative at a point measures the slope of the tangent line; it dawned on me that he had been prodding us, trying to make us think a little about how the ideas we’d been discussing could lead us to new places. I wasn’t unhappy about the missed points—I was fascinated (after all, he’d written, “very good paper!” at the top of the test next to my score).

This wasn’t the moment that I decided to throw my lot in with mathematics instead of computer science. But it almost certainly was a factor in David Shannon becoming a role model and trusted mentor, in taking as many classes from him as possible. We remain in touch to this day, meeting for lunch once this past summer.

One of my favorite things about that exam question is that “she” appears four times in it; I am confident I noticed it during those final minutes before I submitted the paper. I know now that Dr. Shannon is a voracious reader and keeps well informed of world events, so I believe it likely there was literally a cosmic rationale for that choice. The conceit probably arose from one (or both) of two things: the turn Svetlana Savitskaya had taken aboard the Soviet space station Salyut 7 just one month earlier, or the announcement from the previous spring that Sally Ride would be the first U.S. woman to go into space, aboard Challenger the following year.

(No, I don’t have “We Didn’t Start the Fire” going through my head right now—why do you ask?)

Speaking of Billy Joel, The Nylon Curtain is one of the albums I most closely associate with that first fall of college, having been released toward the end of September. I didn’t purchase it, but I’m thinking my then-roommate did and played (at least) the first side some when I was around—it feels like I’ve known “Laura” and “Goodnight Saigon” forever. “Scandinavian Skies” received play on the local AOR station. Lunch conversations often featured semi-passionate discussions about new music, and first single “Pressure” (at its peak of #20) wasn’t a complete hit with my crowd, maybe because it seemed such a departure from the pop bliss of Glass Houses? I probably dig it myself more today than I did at the time.

While I don’t recall feeling any particular pressure getting ready for those calculus exams, I did quickly realize the need to be prepared for hard and interesting questions from Dr. Shannon. I finally nailed one three semesters later, in differential equations.

One last note: the Challenger disaster occurred in January of my senior year at Transy. Outside of the horror of watching the replay of the explosion, my primary memory of the day is sitting in Dr. Shannon’s office that afternoon, numbly talking with him about it. Two women astronauts, Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe, had been aboard.

Letters from JK: November 13, 1987

It’s a late Monday afternoon this past mid-June, Martha’s birthday. Part of the celebration is take-out from our favorite Indian place in Lexington, and I’m just about to leave to pick it up when the mail truck pulls into our cul-de-sac. There’s a surprise for me, an envelope from Judy. I really must head out, but I do take time to open it. Inside is a brief note from her—“I found this and thought you’d want to have it”—and something else that leaves me breathless: a fragment of a letter from James, something he never finished. I glance only at the first couple of lines.

The rest will have to wait until after dinner is retrieved and served. I spend most of the time in the car wondering what I’ve been missing for 35 years.

Judy has been helping James’s children in the wake of his death, searching for important papers and sorting through various boxes at his house. In the course of things she had come across his collection of correspondence from the 80s and beyond, including letters from yours truly; the partial missive was laying nearby. She’s 100% right about my interest.

It’s undated, less than two full pages in length. He is indeed writing from a bar—Lynagh’s is an Irish-style pub on the outskirts of UK’s campus.

As I read through the first time, I’m trying to pin down when it might have been written. The second paragraph begins, “Life in Lexville is pretty great these days. My teaching is a blast, and my classes are actually interesting and not seriously deadly.” That places it in the fall of 1987—he didn’t have an assistantship during the 86-87 year. James’s father had died unexpectedly toward the end of September—the overall happy tone initially makes me wonder if it isn’t from before that. On the other hand, there’s also mention of final projects.

It almost wouldn’t be a James letter without an external stimulus being remarked upon.

In his head, he’s encouraging them to move on to a nearby establishment.

Next, he gives brief updates on various Transy-era folks I know: Suzanne and Amir, who are fellow CS grad students; Warren, who’s back in town pursuing a Master’s in English; and on-and-off-and-currently-on-again girlfriend Stacey (she “continues to expound on the immorality of Artificial Intelligence”).

We’re quickly approaching the end of this gift out of nowhere, and the last sentence has a vital clue to the letter’s date.

A quick internet search reveals the S&C appearance occurred on 11/13/87. By day’s end, I’ve found clips on YouTube. Cher wants no part of a vocal reunion, but of course Dave manages to goad her into it.

After I finish my second passthrough, I text THANK YOU THANK YOU to Judy; we then talk on the phone for a while—James’s memorial service is coming up in less than two weeks and she is helping with the planning. She speculates that he simply forgot about these pages after stuffing them in his bag as he left Lynagh’s (he did write and send another letter about ten days later).

This afternoon, on the 35th anniversary of this newly (re-)discovered small slice of James’s life, I drove to Lexington and retraced his steps on that Friday evening.

Lynagh’s is about halfway between the house he was renting and his home-away-from-home in the Patterson Office Tower at UK. My guess is that he went to the bar directly from POT to kick off his weekend.

Suzanne tells me the office she and James shared was on the 8th floor of Patterson. I was in the building occasionally as an undergraduate but don’t recall visiting him there during our grad school years.

Not unexpectedly, the doors to Patterson are locked on Sundays. Just as I am giving the last door a try, a man who must have an office somewhere within walks up and lets me in by scanning his ID on a reader. I check out floors 7-9, searching in vain for computer science office space. I then recall that UK’s CS department was integrated into the College of Engineering years ago and moved across campus. I feel confident that behind one of the doors I passed by that now houses teaching assistants for the math department was the room where James and Suzanne had their office.

As I walk down Euclid Ave toward Lynagh’s, I try to imagine being 23-year-old James, messenger bag slung over my shoulder, slowly ambling along in the dark on a warmish Friday November evening (Weather Underground claims 11/13/87 was a sunny day in the mid-60s). I’m paying attention to the buildings as I pass; while the trees must be taller than they were then, there’s nothing on this stretch that looks less than forty years old. The only mind trick to employ on my way today, then, is ignoring the temps in the mid-30s.

Lynagh’s is part of University Plaza, a strip mall on the corner of Euclid and Woodland Avenues. I’ve decided to go in and have a drink in memory of the occasion (not a killer beer, though, as I have to drive myself home afterward—most likely I’ll get a watered-down Coke). There’s just one small issue: the place is closed. I find on my phone a Reddit thread—take that as you will—that claims they were closed down several months ago, after insurability issues for (take your pick from several reasons provided, most involving serving to underage patrons) arose. The empty parking lot should have been a clue that something was amiss.

Thus thwarted on this portion of the experience, I carry on down Woodland Ave for several blocks, past a number of lovely homes that must be close to a century old. A right on Central, then the third left onto Old Lafayette Avenue (the “Old” wasn’t there in the day—a number of years ago Lexington re-christened some streets to facilitate emergency service response). 141 is the second house on the left.

It still looks much as I remember it. If I’m recalling correctly, James was renting only the front half of the lower level of the house. The TV was set up in that front room on the right; I’d guess he would watch Letterman there with the lights off.

I hang around on the street for just a few minutes, then begin the walk back to my car, which is parked not far from Lynagh’s. After I climb in, I take the letter from my pocket (yes, I’ve brought it with me) and read it aloud. I’m mourning my friend but am grateful for having learned about that November 13 of years ago. It wasn’t any sort of message to me from the beyond, I know. Nonetheless, it carries an immediacy now it wouldn’t have held had he stuck those two pages in with his next letter way back when.

Now that I’m back home, it’s time to watch a little Letterman. Their performance of the song that became even more famous a few years later for playing at 6:00am on February 2 in Punxsutawney, PA comes near the very end.

Postscript: Buried in my own bin of letters from friends is one I started in June 1988 to college friend Kathy Jo. I think it may be time to pass that along.

Forgotten Albums: The Darling Buds, Erotica

When I moved back to Kentucky in the fall of 1992, I had been a semi-obsessive CD collector for about three years, especially interested in scouring used and cut-out bins (the codependent friendship I’d formed with Greg during that time hadn’t helped, of course). So it’s no surprise that in the weeks following my return to the Lexington area I made a mission of locating as many independent music stores as I could. I can now think of three places I frequented often back then: two in strip malls on the outer beltway that runs around the south side of town and one–my favorite–adjacent to the University of Kentucky campus. That last one still exists, formerly known as Cut Corner Records, now CD Central (there could have been an ownership change along the way). I probably bought most new releases there, including the disk under discussion today.

The Welsh band Darling Buds has received notice in this space multiple times previously–in Modern Rock Tracks posts, in mixtape reviews, etc. Greg had put me onto their debut album Pop Said… not long after he and I met in early 1990; my ardor deepened when Crawdaddy came out later that year. That made third album Erotica a must-purchase when I saw it in the racks at Cut Corner thirty years ago this month. When I put the disk in my player back home, though, I wasn’t sure what to think initially.

The Buds started pretty much in the punk-pop vein (I see various reviews of Pop Said… point to Blondie as a likely influence) and incorporated various Madchester elements on Crawdaddy. Erotica carried over producer Stephen Street from that sophomore album, yet much changed: the pace is overall more languid, the songs longer. I’m not the scholar of early 90s British musical fashions and fads I might like to be, but there are certainly shoegaze stylings, specifically those of My Bloody Valentine, throughout.

I listened to Erotica a fair amount initially, though it never grabbed me the way their first two albums did. It’s been interesting to note in recent days that AllMusic lists it as its Pick for the Buds, and that Trouser Press also thinks it’s perhaps their best. I wouldn’t go that far (my vote is for Crawdaddy), but listening again now I at least see some merit to the argument. If this album is new to you, see what you think of these selections.

Things kick off with a tune that’s definitely not a Fixx cover:

“Please Yourself” is listed on Wikipedia as the third single (and maybe it was in the U.K.?), but my feeble mind is telling me it was the first promoted track on this side of the pond. I have a 4-track CD-single for it that also includes “Sure Thing,” another of Erotica‘s singles.

My favorite track is “Angels Fallen.” It’s song six on the CD, which means I’ve always thought of it as leading off side two…

I’m also a fan of “Long Day in the Universe,” which appeared on the soundtrack for So I Married an Axe Murderer. Sometime the following year I scored a 4-track promo-only CD-single at Cut Corner (those used bins did have gold in them from time to time…)

Two tracks I’d come to forget over the years stood out on re-listening this past week. One is “Isolation;” I can’t quite put my finger what song it’s reminding me of now (I’m picking up a mid-60s vibe), but I sure am regretting my earlier disregard for it. The other is the closing track, “If,” coming as close as any song on Erotica to their earlier sound (while still embracing the new). It will certainly be going into semi-steady rotation around here.

The band lost their contract/broke up/stopped recording after Erotica. It’d be twenty-five years before vocalist Andrea Lewis reconstituted a version of the band for an EP on Odd Box Records, a Welsh indie label that unfortunately has since gone under. They did get together (after a fashion) for an updated version of “Isolation” early on in the pandemic. I’d love for them to find another outlet for future recordings, and if I’m ever in the Cardiff area when they get together for a show, you can be sure I’ll be in attendance.

Modern Rock Tracks, 10/3/92

My first day on the job as an assistant prof of math was also the day that Hurricane Andrew strafed Homestead, FL. My office that year was three doors down from the one I’ve occupied since–one of my new colleagues was on leave, taking classes toward a doctorate at the University of Kentucky, so I temporarily took over his space. I had four different preparations, all new to me. I certainly came to understand a lot of undergraduate math much better in those years as I had to figure out how to explain stuff to other people.

Every fall we get a two-day break in October; this year’s is tomorrow and Friday. It must have been around the same time thirty years ago, and I couldn’t resist the chance to head back to Illinois for the weekend. The main memory I have of the trip is watching one of the debates at Jay and Michelle’s house, perhaps the veep debate when Ross Perot’s running mate Vice Admiral James Stockdale famously uttered, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

When I wasn’t teaching or getting ready to do so, I was either playing Minesweeper on the new Windows 3.1 machine in my office or checking out music stores in Lexington, forever on the hunt for CDs. I count six acts below whose 1992 releases wound up in my collection.

28. Mary’s Danish, “Leave It Alone”
That breakthrough never happened for this L.A. outfit, and they split following the release of American Standard. They opened for the Darling Buds on tour that fall; Greg scored perhaps my most treasured rock-related artifact from Buds singer Andrea Lewis when he saw the two acts in concert that December.

25. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Breaking the Girl”
RHCP’s more sedate songs definitely hold more appeal for me. There’s a lot to recommend here–syncopated rhythm, cacophonous percussion solo, flute sounds from the mellotron…what more could one want?

23. Morrissey, “Glamorous Glue”
Moz has been a frequent presence on this chart throughout this series of posts, though I don’t make note of his contributions all that often. Today I’m enjoying the muscular guitar work on “Glamorous Glue,” so he gets mentioned this time (okay, “Tomorrow” is also on here at #15).

22. Utah Saints, “Something Good”
It’s been stunning and immensely satisfying to see “Running Up That Hill” click with the youngins this year. It’s not the first time since 1985, though, a cut from Hounds of Love has resurfaced: a British house duo that looked to the American West for their name sampled “Cloudbusting” (both vocals and video) to great effect only seven years after it first hit the scene.

21. Sinéad O’Connor, “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home”
O’Connor’s next move after her breakthrough cover of Prince was to take on this Loretta Lynn classic. It’s a fascinating re-invention that was soon to be overshadowed by a public outcry: 10/3/92 was the day of the Saturday Night Live appearance during which O’Connor tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II.

19. Kitchens of Distinction, “Smiling”
Straightforward pop out of the UK. The Death of Cool wound up in my collection on a whim, and this track from it graced one of my 1994 mixtapes. I dig the band’s name.

13. Screaming Trees, “Nearly Lost You”
Trees singer Mark Lanegan passed away this past February at the age of 57. While “Nearly Lost You” is a fantastic track, I’ll always think fondly of Lanegan for contributing vocals to “Sneakers” on the Sandra Boynton children’s CD Dog Train (a favorite in our house fifteen or so years ago).

11. Too Much Joy, “Donna Everywhere”
Catchy tune and sophomoric lyrics, neither of which should surprise any fan of the band.

10. 10000 Maniacs, “These Are Days”
Our Time in Eden turned out to be the swan studio album for the Natalie Merchant-era of 10K Maniacs. It was quite the way to go out, as it’s their most fully realized work.

Thirty years on, “These Are Days” has become one of my songs-of-the-year for 2022; you can read why here.

8. Pearl Jam, “Jeremy”
Never was a particular fan of this one, but feels like I should mention its presence. It was inescapable on MTV for far too long.

6. Sugar, “Helpless”
A few weeks ago my Twitter feed made sure I knew that last month marked 30 years since Copper Blue‘s release. I’ve really soured on “A Good Idea” over the years, but “Helpless” is a delight.

4. R.E.M., “Drive”
Those opening weeks at my new job sure saw the release of a lot of great albums (see #10 above, #2 below, among others). Most of the time I think that Automatic for the People is the best of the bunch, even if this homage to “Rock On” didn’t jazz me initially.

3. INXS, “Not Enough Time”
I’m not sure why INXS’s star faded as quickly as it did after Kick. Here we are, just two albums out, and this is their final Top 40 hit. Darn fine song, too.

2. Suzanne Vega, “Blood Makes Noise”
Mitchell Froom took Peter Case, Los Lobos, and Vega all on wild-but-rewarding rides in the studio in 1992. 99.9°F was quite the departure from Suzy V’s earlier work, but I was on board from the start.

1. Peter Gabriel, “Digging in the Dirt”
Gabriel’s six-year break between So and Us coincided perfectly with my years away from Kentucky. The video for “Digging in the Dirt” feels somewhat like an attempt to recreate the magic of “Sledgehammer.” Even if Peter came up short on that front, this is a very nice song.

AT40’s 40 Top Rock and Roll Acts of the 1950s

This past weekend I listened to Premiere’s rebroadcast of the 9/27/75 AT40. In those days, the crack AT40 staff would often assemble special countdowns to play on the first weekend of each quarter; on this show, Casey reminded us each hour that the following week he would be traveling back to the beginning of the rock era to reveal the 40 Top Rock and Roll Acts of the 1950s. Perhaps it’s obvious why Premiere hasn’t to date offered up this special in the AT40: The 70s series–the audience for 50s music, even by artists whose names still resonate a bit, is small and dwindling with each passing year. Nonetheless, it’s dawned on me over these past few days that I had once heard that show (and had handwritten notes about it), even though it was played before I knew of AT40‘s existence. How could that be?

I went ferreting through my pile of miscellaneous chart-related materials and found what I was looking for in the small, blue, wire-bound memo book that contains other treasures (including notes on a few 1976 episodes of the National Album Countdown). I only noted the artists (not always accurately, as you can see), not the songs Casey spun.

It’s the jarring transition between #11 and #10 on the second page that’s the vital clue to unwind what must have happened.

WSAI originally began playing AT40 in October 1975 (Casey had welcomed it aboard on 10/18) but pulled the plug after the 9/4/76 show. Sufficient was the hue and cry that they brought it back six weeks later, starting with the 10/16 countdown. It’s here that informed speculation starts: they almost assuredly announced the return in advance and decided to kick things off the week before by dusting off and playing the disks from the 10/4/75 50s special–there’s no doubt I would have tuned in, regardless of what Casey had queued up. Why am I saying the weekend of 10/9? That’s the week that “She’s Gone” and “Shake Your Booty” were #10 and #9, respectively. The rest of that week’s Top 10 is on the next page of the pad, courtesy of the Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer. I likely had been hoping to hear the regular offering.

This was a show my father would have loved, and I can only hope that he was in the room with me as it played. I have distinct recollections of hearing “Honky Tonk” at #40 and “Come Softly to Me” at #37, and it may have been that evening that I learned of Dad’s fondness for Jim Lowe’s “The Green Door.” It was a gift to have the chance to hear it, a gift to still have an artifact to remind me.

I did write down the top 10 acts several pages later in the memo book, along with a few of the songs there were featured (several acts got two songs). You can also see one of the pen-and-paper games my sister and I liked to play at the time; it appears I emerged victorious that time.

(For those curious about all the tunes on the show, here’s a link to the cue sheet posted on the Charis Music Group website.)

Stereo Review In Review: September 1985

Between what feels like a busier-than-normal start to the school year and recently coming down with a cold (pretty sure it wasn’t COVID, thankfully), I haven’t been able to carve out much time for musings here as of late. I’m hoping I can change that going forward; here’s something I’ve been trying to work through all month.

I’m guessing this issue of SR arrived at my parents’ house in late August, and that I leafed through it not long before I took off for my senior year of college. There are some reviews (Dire Straits, Petty, plus one other that you can already guess) I distinctly remember seeing then.

Articles
A few pieces about speakers: how to go about purchasing them, what you should listen to when testing them, and a look at new technologies being developed in service of the reproduction of sound.

Basic Handel, by Stoddard Lincoln
In recognition of the tricentennial of George Frideric’s birth, SR presents an annotated list of recommended recordings for one’s collection.

This month’s reviewers are Chris Albertson, Phyl Garland, Louis Meredith, Alanna Nash, Mark Peel, Peter Reilly, and Steve Simels.

Best of the Month
–Bob Dylan, Empire Burlesque (SS) “Overall, however, the music suggests a kind of barely checked rage that is marvelously bracing. And it’s nice to have Dylan waxing apoplectic rather than apocalyptic for a change.”
–Sting, The Dream of the Blue Turtles (MP) “Now that Sting no longer has to invent an image for himself, this is the most relaxed music he has ever made…a less driven, quasi-jazz style that is clean, uncluttered, and gracefully low-key without being wimpy.”

Featured Reviews
–Sam Cooke, One Night Stand—Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (PG) “For the first time on records, everyone can hear the gutsier Cooke who was known to those who followed his career from the beginning.”
–Suzanne Vega, S/T (SS) “…as haunting and powerful a (mostly) acoustic album as anybody has made in years. It’s a dark, obsessive cycle of songs about relationships and feelings in a poetic style that might be called Zen Jesuit.”  It took more than a year, but this review eventually led me to purchase Suzanne Vega, a key moment in my turn toward women singer-songwriters. It’s one of the SR pieces that’s had the most influence on my musical tastes (perhaps behind only that for Marshall Crenshaw’s debut, also penned by Simels three years earlier).
–Cris Williamson, Prairie Fire (AN) “Making unpredictable, breathtaking dips and turns, her urgent but sophisticated soprano is a ready guide on a joyous journey of the spirit, a journey that anyone who cares about personal identity, universal quest, or literate music will surely want to take.”

Other Disks Reviewed
–The Boomtown Rats, In the Long Grass (MP) “This is an album of mature mayhem that stops just short of head-knocking and glass-shattering.”
The Breakfast Club soundtrack (SS) “Masterminded by Keith Forsey, this record collects a bunch of extremely forgettable neo-New Wave time-wasters.”
–Eric Clapton, Behind the Sun (SS) “Well, the Eric Clapton (here) sure doesn’t sound like a bluesman. He sounds more like a cross between Toto and Air Supply.”
–Miles Davis, You’re Under Arrest (CA) “Fans may find some profundity in these grooves, but I hear not a trace.”
–Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms (MP) “It’s not the step forward Love Over Gold and Local Hero were. But even when Knopfler stands pat, he provides stimulating, thought-provoking, and entertaining listening.”
–Eurythmics, 1984 (MP) “The problem, of course, is that because 1984 succeeds so well in conveying the gloomy landscape of Orwell’s cautionary novel, there are virtually no ‘home applications’ for this record, unless you’ve got youngsters whose minds you want programmed for Big Brother.”
–Dan Fogelberg, High Country Snows (AN) “But—and this is a very important but—if you forget about pre-conceived notions and just enjoy what’s here, you’ll probably have a fine time.”
–The Kendalls, Two Heart Harmony (AN) “But to their credit…the Kendalls still manage to remain stalwartly themselves on this outing—they just sound a lot less old-fashioned, and a lot less like hicks.”
–Kathy Mattea, From My Heart (AN) “I’m not bowled over by the songs, but Mattea is a real find, and worth checking out.”
–Men at Work, Two Hearts (MP) “Hay’s songs here are awful—singsong, nursery-rhyme melodies and nonsensical, non-sequitur lyrics that grow more wearisome and annoying with each hearing…it’s growing increasingly clear that the tremendous success of Men at Work’s first album was a fluke.”
–Graham Parker and the Shot, Steady Nerves (SS) “His last album, The Real Macaw, found him both angry and tuneful, but this new one, disappointingly, finds him simply peevish.”
–Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Southern Accents (SS) “…a nearly unlistenable mess, easily the worst record of Petty’s career.”
–Rick Springfield, Tao (SS) “Somebody give this boy a massage and a couple of Valium, or at least take away his drum machines.”
–Dionne Warwick, Finder of Lost Loves (PR) “…while it’s now way past the days of ‘San Jose,’ there are still a few flickers of excitement when Warwick and Bacharach work together.”
–Willie and the Poor Boys, S/T (SS) “Still, everyone concerned seems to be having a good time, and as oldies tributes go, this one catches the sound of the music far more accurately than, say, Robert Plant’s recent Honeydrippers project.”
–Bill Withers, Watching You Watching Me (PG) “Although it has been five years since Bill Withers released an album, his singular sound, with its folksy, homespun quality and uninhibited sentimentality, is instantly recognizable on this new one.”
–Paul Young, The Secret of Association (MP) “Young is ostensibly a soul singer, but this is soul robbed of its humanity by production that can’t distinguish between tinkering and arranging.”

Video Reviews
–David Bowie, Serious Moonlight (LM) “The crack band Bowie assembled sounds awfully good except on some of the lusher, older material…(h)e also plays to the camera like the pro he is, though whether you find his emoting intense or merely hammy is purely a matter of taste.”
–Queen, The Works (LM) “Sure, the band’s music is utterly meaningless, big-budget arena-rock at its most contrived, but it’s so massively overproduced that you just know it’s being purveyed with a wink. Not so coincidentally, it’s also ideal video fodder…”
–Michael Stanley Band (LM) “…derives mostly from a concert in front of a hometown (Cleveland) crowd, and chances are that you’ll find it fairly tedious if you’re not a fan. Fortunately, though, the tape opens with three made-for-MTV videos, and they’re another story altogether.”
–Tears for Fears (LM) Three videos from The Hurting. “The common theme here is the quest for order and meaning in today’s complex world, and the emotions and anxieties that accompany it make for some pretty provocative music as well as some fairly seductive concept videos.”
–38 Special, Wild-Eyed and Live (AN) “Overall, this is a thoroughly professional job and one of the best concert videos on the market.”

Songs Casey Never Played, 9/10/83

This was the first weekend back on campus for my sophomore year of college; classes would have started the previous Wednesday. James and I had picked a room on the top floor of our non-air conditioned dorm. The hot weather that lasted well into September that year may have made us question the wisdom of the choice…

As ever, there were songs being released then that would never grace American Top 40. Here are six, including some by acts who enjoyed great commercial success within a couple of years.

92. Tears for Fears, “Change”
As big a fan of Songs from the Big Chair as I became, you’d think I would’ve checked in on The Hurting before 1987, after I’d already been in Illinois for a year. Jim, one of my two roommates at the time, had it on one of those newfangled CD-things, which I quickly ripped onto a cassette.

I don’t believe “Change” (on its way down after reaching #73) made the Lexington radio scene at the time it was a single, and if someone played it in the dorm, well, that completely slipped by me. It and “Pale Shelter” are my personal faves from The Hurting.

86. Herbie Hancock, “Rockit”
This was around the time I became more invested in MTV (my parents were soon to move to a house that had cable so I could check it out over weekends at home). Thus, I got enough exposure to “Rockit” to believe it had some chance to become a bigger hit than its eventual #71 peak.

72. The S.O.S. Band, “Just Be Good to Me”
This and the next one did receive play on at least one Lexington station that fall. I have a feeling I didn’t connect “Just Be Good to Me” at the time as being by the band who’d given us “Take Your Time” three years earlier. It’s one of the first songs written and produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and deserved a better fate than a high of #55.

70. Midnight Star, “Freak-a-Zoid”
Talk about your jams. I’m sure Midnight Star derived some of its attention in my sphere due to their local connection (they formed in Frankfort, less than 30 miles away from Lexington), but they earned every bit of it. Somehow “Freak-a Zoid” reached just #66.

(Which is better? This one or “No Parking on the Dance Floor”? I lean toward the latter.)

62. Wham!, “Bad Boys”
The second U.K. band in this post who’d make it big with their second album. George (like Curt above) sure looks mighty young in the video. While “Bad Boys” was a huge hit in their homeland, it only made #60 here.

47. Heart, “How Can I Refuse”
IMO, this was the best single Heart had released since, oh, “Straight On” almost five years earlier. Passionworks was their first album not to produce a Top 40 single (this peaked three spots higher), though it was really just another stop on a continuing decline in sales and popularity. They were soon dropped by Epic; new label Capitol would make them use outside writers for what turned out to be all the singles from their 1985 smash comeback.

Bonus content! It’s one of the three sheets I picked up over the summer of 1983 that list the hot-and-happening tunes being played on Cincinnati’s then-AM pop hits station. I almost certainly got them at a record store in the Florence Mall, this one not long before heading back to Transy. Note that all six of the songs featured here are listed, plus several others I could have chosen.

I’m not sure what the Springfield/Kihn thing is about–setlist.fm says that both were in Tucson (though at different locations) that day. My guess is that the station broadcast a recording of recent concerts…

Letters From JK: Late August, 1985

Those attending the service held in late June for my college roommate James had the opportunity to share memories of our too-soon departed dear friend. I elected not to focus on the times we spent together on campus in my remarks; instead, I used the two dozen or so letters he’d sent me between 1983 and 1989 as a jumping-off point for telling folks what he had meant to me. The period of most frequent exchange was the two years following our graduation from Transy in 1986, but we also had written each other over various college breaks.

These letters are treasures, alternately funny and serious, joyful and sarcastic, thoughtful and aggravated. Much like James himself.

During the summer of 1985, James and I lived on opposite ends of the fourth floor of Clay Hall. Mark H moved in with me, since we both had what was essentially a paid internship at IBM, while James was programming for TU’s Computing Services for the second summer in a row. By early- to mid-August, we had both decamped from Lexington on a short break before our senior year began.

There were two exchanges of letters over the last ten days of that August. In honor of what would have been James’s 58th birthday, here are highlights from those pieces of mail. The first is dated 8/21; the second is undated but likely written on 8/28. Some of you checking this out knew James and may hear his voice in your head as you read the excerpts below. Even if he’s a complete stranger to you, though, I hope I can offer a bit of insight into what my friend was like, at least around the time he was turning 21. (I also hope he wouldn’t be upset with me for doing this.)

Item: James is working on an online bulletin board system (BBS).
In recent months, a student a couple of years behind us has gotten a BBS up and running on Transy’s mainframe. Known as IS/TU (Information System/Transylvania University, I believe), it has message boards and a chat function, and can be reached from off-campus by dial-up. James apparently has had the chance to look a little under IS/TU’s hood while working for Computing Services over the summer and has spied an opportunity to make improvements. Much of August has been spent sketching out his own BBS, for the moment called ‘SNOT! (get it?). He goes on at length, particularly about how little unusable space ‘SNOT! will create by using dynamic message length instead of fixed length. He’s hoping he can finish the coding by December and that it will replace IS/TU because of its awesomeness.

I have to show up on campus a few days earlier than most other returning students (not long after Labor Day) to help with new student move-in and orientation, so he plans to move in at the same time I do in order to hang out in the computer lab all weekend and get working on it.

Alas, real life and schoolwork interceded; as far as I know, ‘SNOT! never got much off the ground.

(Side note: That fall, IS/TU became quite popular with a segment of the Transy student body. A couple of fellow CS majors discovered that it could be quite easily hacked and proceeded to do so. James and I were on the fringe of this action; my single contribution to the project was writing a program that would capture the number of logins for each account and then apply a sort routine to create a list of the top 10 most frequent users—yes, while completely skeevy, I recognize this was resonant with other interests in my life.)

Item: He’s already thinking about post-collegiate nostalgic get-togethers.
One Saturday in July, a number of the folks in our circle who were around for the summer took a day trip to Mammoth Cave National Park. We had a grand time, inspiring the following last-minute addition to the first letter.

There have been a few confabs across the years but unsurprisingly, life took us all in various directions, making an annual gathering difficult if not impossible.

But guess what came up in conversation at dinner after the memorial service? Expression of the desire to meet up regularly at occasions other than funerals.

Item: He’s enthusiastic about recent LP purchases.
In the week between the two letters, he travels the thirty miles between home to Lexington to run some errands. While there he drops by Camelot Music (remember those?) in Fayette Mall and picks up “two cheap albums.” The first is One Hit Wonders!, a compilation filled with tunes from 15-20 years ago. He notes it includes (among others) “The Rapper,” “Psychotic Reaction,” “Ride Captain Ride,” and “Smile a Little Smile for Me.” Several of the songs he lists are preceded by “!!! ->” to indicate particular ardor.

As for the second, well, I’ll let him tell you.

Over the years, it’s become increasingly common for me to think of this passage when John, Cass, Michelle, and Denny cross my mind/come on the radio.

Item: He’s having an existential crisis.
The most serious segment in these letters begins, “In other depressing news and something which will make you fear that I’ll come running at you with a knife in the middle of the night, I’ve been really ‘messed up’ lately.” He goes on to detail one reason why he stays up so late, particularly when he’s at home.

This apparently has been going on for about a year-and-a-half, and to his credit, he indicates he’s considering counseling.

In typical James fashion, he ends by trying to lighten the mood: “Why do I suddenly feel like I’m in a 501 Jeans commercial.”

Item: He’s making plans for a late October show at WTLX.
By coincidence, James’s then-girlfriend, my ex-gf (with whom James has remained very good friends after our breakup), and Jon Anderson of Yes all share a birthday, and James is settling on what he wants to play during his 10pm-midnight shift on the Thursday of that week.

My ex was well-known to hold strongly feminist views; right or wrong, James liked to tease/prod/provoke his friends from time to time. I do have doubts that the show came together as laid out here (except for the Yes portion).

Near the end of the second letter, out of nowhere, comes a paragraph full of kindness:

I was hesitant to include this; however, I believe it says more about James than it does me. I’ve remarked to people recently that James and I perhaps weren’t best friends in college, but rather the right level of friend to be roommates. Nevertheless, there was a period of roughly three years, maybe beginning right around this time, where we opened up to one another about our highs and lows, particularly in letters. I’m incredibly grateful for that, and for having held on to evidence of it.

Even though the end of October is eight weeks out, here are a love song from the past and something featuring Jon Anderson’s voice. I’ll skip the sexist stuff.

Although We May Not Meet Still You Know Me Well

When the moment arrived, I actually got a bit of a lump in my throat, surprised at the small surge of emotion.

Guess what song they’re playing?

Martha, Ben, and I drove north to Cincinnati last Friday to see Al Stewart in concert. The show had originally been scheduled for May 20, but a bout of covid Al had caught about ten days beforehand had knocked him off the circuit temporarily. I was fortunate that when the make-up date was announced, it was still on the weekend since my fall semester would already have begun.

We left home several hours before showtime because, well, you never know how bad traffic might be crossing the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River. Our early dinner, on the Kentucky side, was calzones at LaRosa’s, a well-known and well-regarded local pizza/Italian chain. The I-75 North gods were smiling on us that day, and we weaved our way into the Clifton area of town, not far from the University of Cincinnati, with relative ease. We had time enough before the doors opened to scope out Torn Light Records, an interesting place selling vinyl, cassettes, and CDs, as well as to grab some Graeter’s ice cream (another local fave).

Our ultimate destination was the Ludlow Garage, an L-shaped room in the basement of a former automobile shop. Not surprisingly, the stage resides in the corner of the L; our seats were about two-thirds of the way back in the less deep bank of seats (the “horizontal” part of the L). Total capacity is about 500. It’s plenty intimate, but we discovered that the sightlines aren’t entirely great–there’s not enough slope up away from the stage, so heads in the row or two in front of you are capable of blocking your view.

We enjoyed the music, though, even if it could have benefited from being just a tad less loud. Stewart is using The Empty Pockets, an indie quartet out of Chicago, as his backing band, and they also serve as opening act. They played five tunes from their just-released album Outside Spectrum, along with a cover of Fairport Convention’s “Meet on the Ledge.” The performance was fine, but I’m having a hard time classifying their sound; it’s part bluesy-bar band, part pop-rock, with elements of torch singing and maybe a tiny bit of goth tossed in as well. They feature a twin vocal attack, with appealing harmonies from keyboard player Erika Brett and guitarist Josh Solomon. I think overall Ben liked them more than I did, but there were a couple of tunes, including the title track of the new record, to which I can see myself circling back.

After a half-hour break, the band came back out with Stewart in tow, and over the next hour-plus, the five of them, plus flutist/saxophonist/percussionist Marc Macisso, rolled through about a dozen tunes from Al’s storied collection. I counted five songs from Year of the Cat and two from Time Passages. Because he was in Ohio, Al felt compelled to pay homage to one of its native sons who became President, playing the jaunty “Warren Harding.” While I really like that cut from Past, Present and Future, I fear it took the place of long-time favorite “Flying Sorcery” based on my perusal of setlists from recent shows.

Stewart has a breezy, charming presence on stage and is a natural storyteller (one tale was about taking guitar lessons from fellow Dorset native Robert Fripp when Al was a youngster). Overall, the Empty Pockets did his work justice, perhaps primarily through Solomon’s guitar support. Macisso was excellent, nailing the flute on “Antarctica” and sax solos on “Time Passages.” It was fine that Al had to drop an octave on the occasional phrase.

The last tune of the set was the one for which I’d been waiting. I didn’t know how it would feel to hear “Year of the Cat,” which I’ve been calling my favorite song of all-time since I was 13 years old, performed live. As I noted at the top, things came closer than expected to getting the better of me. I concentrated on being present in the moment, stopping briefly to take a couple of photos toward the end. So what if it wasn’t as polished as the studio version I’ve loved since the winter of 1977? It was still a bucket list slice of time.

The encore was a cover of Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero,” Stewart paying tribute to the man who showed him a musical path forward. One by one, the Pockets left the stage, finally leaving just Stewart and Macisso (now playing harmonica). I wished it would have gone on longer, but Al turns 77 in less than two weeks–it was plenty enough.

Immediately prior to “Year of the Cat,” they played this introspective, meta piece about the art and act of musical performance. No, I won’t ever meet you, Al, but I do indeed feel I know some portion of you through your work. Thank you kindly for what you’ve given to the world, and to me.

I’ve Always Been In Your Mind

A baker’s half-dozen of moments from an adolescence and early adulthood of fandom for Olivia Newton-John:

“Let Me Be There”
It’s late 1973 or early 1974 when I first hear her voice. Like most of my musical discoveries in those days, this gift arrives while riding with the rest of my family in my father’s black 1971 LTD. (It’s nighttime, as it is so often in those memories.) The deep bass background vocals helped the song stand out, but I’m certain I paid enough attention that I knew her name going forward.

Looking back now, I’m a little surprised that it took just a little over a year for Olivia to go from here to two #1 singles–it felt longer than that at the time.

“Come On Over”
ON-J’s first wave of popularity had already crested by April 1976, to the point where her singles didn’t automatically receive airplay on WSAI, Cincinnati’s AM Top 40 station. This twelve-year-old had recently disovered AT40, however, so I got to learn about (and greatly enjoy) this Barry Gibb-penned tune anyway. It’s among the first of many songs from the second half of the 70s I’ll know only because of listening to Casey.

“Hopelessly Devoted to You”
Around the time that Grease was set to make a splash (mid-May 1978), Olivia hosted a special on ABC. While I doubt I actually watched the show, I was completely captivated by the photo appearing in the TV Guide Close Up that talked it up.


I may as well confess–I clipped this out of our TV Guide back then (remember, I was 14). I spent a little time yesterday rummaging through where I thought it’d be if I still had it but came up empty. This image, courtesy of imdb.com, will have to do.

I didn’t see Grease until a Sunday afternoon toward the end of August (my freshman year of HS began the next day). By that time, “You’re the One That I Want” had already come and gone from the charts, while “Summer Nights” and “Hopeless Devoted to You” were in full ascent. (Even before I saw the movie, I accurately sensed where each of the three appeared in it.)

Olivia was in the process of a remarkable career pivot, one whose success was surpassed at the time only by that of the Bee Gees. In the coming months, I would dig on both of the hit singles from Totally Hot; the wink in the line “Where did my innocence go?” from “A Little More Love” did not escape my notice.

“Magic”
Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first Olivia Newton-John 45 I ever purchased. (I did eventually buy “Sam,” several years after it was a hit.) All the singles from Xanadu were huge hits with me. The title song and “Suddenly” both topped the personal Top 50 charts I was maintaining at the time, but “Magic” dwarfed those feats, spending four weeks at #1, eleven weeks in the Top 3; I rated it as my second favorite song of the year. Yes, I saw the movie at the time–I have no regrets.

“Twist of Fate”
Easily my favorite song of hers post-Xanadu. “Physical” was fine though I didn’t really understand its ten-week run at #1 on the Hot 100, while “Heart Attack,” charting just as I started college, held no appeal at all. I think it’s the drive of the beat, the urgency in the chorus, that make “Twist of Fate” stand out. Yes, I saw Two of a Kind at the time–there may be some regrets over that choice.

“Soul Kiss”
Sexy Liv tries for one more big hit but comes up empty. When James and I put together a radio show documenting highs and lows of the music of 1985, I crowned this “Most Boring Song of the Year.” (Another friend thought that the second word of the title should have been replaced with a different four-letter word.) I’ll admit it took me decades to acquire any feel for what was going on here.

“The Rumour”
What goes around, comes around. Olivia was approaching forty, so she went back to her AC roots, though without the country inflections. I was well into my grad school years and learned about “The Rumour” via VH-1 and one of the less rock-oriented stations in Champaign-Urbana. I was aware of Elton John’s contributions at the time, but you wouldn’t have to be told to suss it out.

For a decent while, Olivia Newton-John absolutely was one of my favorites; as you can imagine, much of her music is interwoven with the fabric of my formative years. I applaud both her talent and her courage. She was a treasure.