American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/23/88: Steve Winwood, “Valerie”

The spring of 81 gets a lot of bad-mouthing on a message board devoted to all things old-school AT40 that I read frequently, largely because of the adult-contemporary turn the charts were taking around then. I have a much more positive feeling for that period, though, and there are many tunes from then that remain favorites. On the leading front of that wave was Steve Winwood’s “While You See a Chance,” which hit the last weekend of February.

At that point I doubt I was aware of Winwood’s storied history with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, and Blind Faith, though I’d learn soon enough. It’s his 80s output that means most to me. I really liked the follow-up single, “Arc of a Diver,” and thought highly of “Still in the Game” when it came out the following year, even if both of them stalled in the upper 40s on the Hot 100 (they each made my weekly Top 50 for a short while, as well). A couple of years later, I bought a cassette of the 82 release, Talking Back to the Night, and played it often enough that I still recognized most of the songs when listening again this past week. Aside from “Still in the Game,” the one that stood out was the lead track, “Valerie.” I know now that it made #70 at the end of 82 but I don’t believe I heard it then.

Winwood blew up in 86 with his next album, Back in the High Life, which came out right after I graduated from Transy. “Higher Love” is a legitimately great song, and the album earned basically all of its accolades. In late 87 came a retrospective, Chronicles. Even with a makeover, I immediately recognized the first single, deservedly a sizable hit this time (though honestly, I favor the original—they got a little too happy with the drum machine on the remix—so I’m embedding the 82 version). It’s down to #38 in this countdown, after peaking at #9.

Even though I bought Roll with It when it was released, my interest in keeping up with Winwood’s new music was then starting to wane. Its title track is the answer to a Casey Kasem fanatic’s trivia question, however—it was the last song Casey played on his original 18-year stint as the host of AT40 (#1 on 8/6/88).

American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/20/79: Talking Heads, “Take Me to the River”

A few months ago I mentioned that my sister was quite the speedster when we were growing up. She was fiercely competitive in pretty much all phases of her life and that served her well on the cross-country course and basketball court throughout high school (and in the case of hoops, college). But her greatest success came from running track, where she focused on the sprints.

Her coaches recognized her talent immediately, while she was in 7th grade. So, it was on a Saturday in early February of 79, before her 8th grade track campaign had begun in earnest, that Amy found herself at Freedom Hall in Louisville. She was there to compete in the 60-yard dash in the Mason-Dixon Games, then a pre-eminent indoor track and field meet for both high schoolers and collegians. Rosie, a junior who ran the hurdles, was also on hand to give it a go. Dad and I drove in a separate vehicle to watch.

Nothing special happened for Amy that day; she hadn’t been training for track, and it was a BIG event with fairly stiff competition. (I remember roaming the concourse and watching all the activity going on—it was impressive.) But her coaches weren’t wrong about her promise. In ninth grade, she finished 2nd at the state meet in both the 220 and 440, as well as 3rd in the 100 in Class A (the lowest of three classifications, for the smallest schools). Injuries and the maturation of her body took their toll on her performance as a sophomore, but she managed a great comeback as a junior, qualifying again for state in those same three races. She was a marvel to watch.

As often happened back in the day, events in my life, both small and large, had a song associated with them. For that trip to the Mason-Dixon Games, it was “Take Me to the River” (#30, heading toward #26); it was on replay in my noggin throughout the day and I can only assume it’d been on the radio in the car as we were en route. It would be five years before my appreciation for the Heads would really bloom—while I know I heard “Life During Wartime” occasionally in the interim, I’m not sure I can say the same for “Psycho Killer.” Looking back, though, I take my active digging of “River” as a sign of where my musical tastes were ultimately head…, er, going.

1988 Three Female Artists Mix Tape, Part 2: Basia, Time And Tide

One of the Illinois math faculty who regularly showed up at Coslow’s on Friday afternoons in the second half of the 80s was Jerry Uhl, an analyst. Prof. Uhl was certainly one of the more memorable mathematicians in the department in those days. He had a quick wit and a voice (as well as vocal mannerisms) that easily lent to imitation—my officemate Will was known to do a not-too-shabby Uhl impersonation from time to time. I never took a class from him but he was one of the interrogators on my second try at passing a real analysis oral comprehensive exam; though I’m sure I stumbled and fumbled over the course of that hour, he and his colleague agreed I’d done acceptably. One of his advisees during my time there was the sister of recently-deposed Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

It’s fair to say that Uhl both worked hard and played hard. During my years in C-U, he lived by himself in a log home several miles east of Urbana and twice a year he invited the math department, including grad students, out for big, extended parties (once in May right after the year was over, and the other in the fall). I went to a few of these, particularly in my first three years. Yes, there was always plenty of beer, but we also had ample opportunity for outdoor games (I got my first exposure to bocce ball at one of these shindigs), strolling the grounds, and even talking some math.

I feel fairly certain it was the Saturday of Uhl’s May 88 party that I became enamored of “Time and Tide,” by Polish chanteuse Basia Trzetrzelewska.  I must have come across it on VH-1, even though it wouldn’t hit the Top 40 until a few months later. It didn’t take long for me to go out and get the disk and play the title track over and over. It’s a pretty sweet album overall, with lots of jazzy touches. I enjoyed it enough that summer to put five of its tracks on the mix tape that Jane Siberry opened—the side change comes between the second and third of them. I jumped all around again in my sequencing; these are songs 3, 8, 2, 10, and 1.

I was too timid/reserved to really get to know Jerry Uhl—he and I had almost polar opposite personalities—but it’s clear that he was warm and gracious to many, many people. For a better idea about him, here’s a link to the talk that Bruce Reznick, my dissertation advisor, gave at Uhl’s memorial service after he succumbed to cancer toward the end of 2010.













American Top 40 PastBlast Redux, 3/15/86: Opus, “Live Is Life”

Before I started this blog, I posted about songs from old AT40s on Facebook, January-July 2017. I’ll be moving them here over time. This entry has been edited somewhat from the original.

This song was part of the Austrian Invasion that hit our shores in the early part of the year (okay, it was just these guys and Falco, but at the time I believe that tripled the number of Austrian acts to hit the top 40 in the rock era).  Even though it’s plenty repetitive, I’ve always had a genuine fondness for this track–I find it a real pick-me-up.  It’s debuting at #38, and reached #32.

SotD: Stan Ridgway, “The Last Honest Man”

Last week I briefly mentioned Jon, an agronomy grad student I met playing bridge at Illinois. I think we met in 89, at the nascent student bridge club started by my good friend Mark, a fellow math grad. Jon and I played together occasionally over the next couple of years, both on campus and at the club in town. We were both close to rank beginners, but I fancied myself the better player. My recollection is that he’d gotten interested in the game through his mother.

I occasionally gave Jon rides back to his home, and it was then that the conversations would turn to music. As I said earlier, he’s the one who suggested I listen to Jane Siberry’s No Borders Here, for which I’m still exceedingly grateful.  He let me borrow some of his disks/tapes (perhaps I reciprocated–it’d be like me to do so). I distinctly recall his choice for favorite album of 1990: Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints (mine was Kirsty MacColl’s Kite). Jon was always upbeat; nothing seemed to get him down, not even my much-too-harsh carping about his card play. Katie called him “Smiling Jon.”

I’ve thought about Jon occasionally over the years, wondering what happened after he finished his degree (he wrapped up a year before I did). I hadn’t taken time to Google him until last Monday, and I was stunned to find his obituary. He’d wound up in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Arkansas, where he was a highly regarded teacher and colleague. What I found in poking around a little bit indicates he completely loved his work and that he made some real contributions to his field. He passed away in late May 2013, a couple of months after he turned 54 (it’s not lost on me I’ll be reaching that moment in my life in mid-April).

Jon and I weren’t close, but I feel some loss and regret nonetheless. I would have enjoyed reaching out to him last week, hoping that he remembered me. It’s another reminder of the need to be more present, more conscientious about relationships.

One of the albums he lent me back in the day was Stan Ridgway’s Mosquitos; he highly recommended it. I didn’t make a recording, but a couple of its songs have stuck with me through the years. Here, in honor of Jon, is one of them. Cheers, to an old friend and more importantly, a genuinely nice person. Rest well.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 1/18/86: Dream Academy, “Life in a Northern Town”

In early January 86 I drove to St. Louis to visit my friend Mark. I spent several days at his house, getting to know his parents and siblings a little (he was the youngest of four, but they’d arrived fairly close together, in approximately 13 month intervals) and seeing some of the sights the Gateway City has to offer: science museum, zoo, botanical gardens, record stores, etc. The weather was very reasonable for that time of year—sunny, dry, and in the 30s and 40s. I brought him back to Kentucky with me, as we were about to embark on our final semester at Transy.

However, I returned home with a bad headache, one that had started about halfway through my visit. It didn’t go away, even after the semester started. Some days were a little better than others, but serious head pain became an ongoing part of my life. My parents were worried enough that they came down more than once to visit in the middle of the week, taking me to lunch and trying to make me feel better. There were a couple of mornings it was so bad that I went to a clinic down the road to see what they could do. I didn’t undergo any scans or major tests; whoever saw me didn’t see or hear me describe anything that made them particularly worried. My friends Suzanne and Kathy Jo were concerned enough to make signs for my dorm door, offering words of encouragement.

Through all of it, though, I took care of business. My grades didn’t suffer. My computer science buds and I roamed the state on several weekends that winter, lugging around and setting up PCs to be used in programming competitions by high schoolers. Over spring break, I settled on Illinois as my next landing spot. I had plenty of good times with my friends.

It took a few months, but I finally started feeling better. I’d get through some days without my head bothering me much, but then it’d come back. I went back to St. Louis that summer, for Mark’s sister’s wedding, and I remember thinking that maybe it would take going back to where things started for it to end.  It didn’t quite work out that way, but by the time I headed off to Champaign-Urbana in August, I felt more or less like life was back to normal.

What was going on? It looks like it was a combination of hypochondria and stress, with a feedback loop thrown in for good measure. My head hurt, I (dumb, I know—easy to be dumb when you’re 21) started to worry that something might be seriously wrong, and that in turn made me even more tense. Not to blame my father, but I did pick up a bit of his tendency to imagine every little twinge might be really bad news. In this case, it just took much too long to come to realize the degree of control I had over the situation. (I had another, but much shorter, bout of stress-related headaches a couple of years later one summer in Illinois. Knowing what it was very likely to be helped me navigate through it pretty quickly.)

This is one of the songs I was hearing plenty during those angst-filled days in early 86. Just starting its climb here, #33 in its second week, it would get to #7. It was the second hit song to specifically mention the end of 1963. Ten years earlier, when the Four Seasons were climbing to the top of the charts, I hadn’t really thought to reflect on what had gone down around that point in time—of course, Frankie Valli and company weren’t exactly addressing world events, either. The Dream Academy makes it all too clear, though: “…with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles.” Mom was more than six months along with me when JFK was assassinated (as it happens, one of my HS classmates was born on 11/22/63); the Fab Four played Ed Sullivan for the first time four days before I was born.