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.

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.

Songs Casey Never Played, 8/1/81

August 1, 1981 is likely now best known as the birth date of one Music Television. It’s almost a certainty that no one reading this blog watched MTV on that day, as it started out only on a few cable systems in New Jersey. I wouldn’t learn of its existence until late 1982, but like many people my age became hooked on it as soon as I gained regular access.

While by the early 80s music videos had been filmed for a good while, they still weren’t being recorded for every single released–without an outlet like MTV, they couldn’t serve as a potential driver of sales. Below might be six cases in point–at the least, there aren’t videos available today on YouTube for any of them. Another thing they all have in common is they’re by acts whose Top 40 days were unfortunately in the rear view mirror.

94. Spider, “It Didn’t Take Long”
Their one foray into Caseyland was the #39 “New Romance (It’s a Mystery),” one of my faves from late spring 1980. This ballad-y thing was a near miss, having topped out at #43 two weeks earlier. Members of Spider included drummer Anton Fig and future star songwriter Holly Knight (Between the Lines, from which “It Didn’t Take Long” came, also includes the original version of “Better Be Good to Me”).

93. The Brothers Johnson, “The Real Thing”
George and Louis had also last appeared in the Top 40 in the spring of 1980, with “Stomp.” I remember seeing 1981’s Winners in record stores at the time, but I don’t recall ever hearing “The Real Thing.” It’s a jam, well worthy of more than its #67 peak. This was their final week ever on the pop chart.

77. Pure Prairie League, “You’re Mine Tonight”
Their last Top 40 appearance, “Still Right Here in My Heart,” had been just two months earlier. This one’s a slow burner about a guy finally scoring with the woman of his dreams (who of course is seeing/married to someone else). It was soon to reach its #68 peak, and it wouldn’t be long before Vince Gill was moving on to his brighter future as a country superstar and eventually Mr. Amy Grant.

64. Randy VanWarmer, “Suzi”
I liked “Just When I Needed You Most” fairly well when it was a spring 1979 #4 hit, though I don’t really need to hear it any more these days. “Suzi” is quite a departure from that hit, cool and menacing; I’m sorry to be learning about it only now. Already falling from its #55 peak.

47. Blackfoot, “Fly Away”
This Southern rock band out of Jacksonville had two minor hits in the second half of 1979, “Highway Song” and “Train, Train.” They couldn’t quite get back to the Top 40 with nimble rocker “Fly Away,” falling two spots short of glory. Marauder is another album whose cover takes me back to those early 80s weekly visits to Recordland.

45. Gino Vanelli, “Nightwalker”
It’s a little surprising to me to realize that Vanelli never got back to the 40 after “Living Inside Myself” had bowed out a few weeks earlier. It sure wasn’t for a lack of effort throughout the rest of the 80s.

This is the second time in a row that Gino appears in a SCNP post–last time out we featured the #42 hit “Black Cars.” This time he’s experiencing an even narrower miss–next week he’ll ascend to the most heartbreaking position on the chart and stay there for two weeks. “Nightwalker” may have deserved a better fate–it’s plenty smooth and plenty enjoyable.

Modern Rock Tracks, 8/1/92

July and August 1992 were busy months. I was trying to cram in some final good times with IL buds before I rode off into the sunset while also making preparations for that upcoming new life as an assistant prof in KY. In mid-July a bunch of us traveled to Bettendorf, IA for a couple of days of bridge; a little more than a week later, I took off with my friend Jay for Toronto to the summer nationals and another crack at the non-Life Master Grand National Teams event. This time, I was playing with Mark L, since his old partner Milind had graduated; at the other table, Jay would be with Chris, my partner in Las Vegas the year before. Unlike the previous two years, we would advance out of the first round, but that’s as far as we made it.

After saying our farewells to Mark and Chris, Jay and I headed north and east, camping out a couple of nights and taking a quick survey of Montreal. By Wednesday, 7/29, we were back in Toronto for a day of bridge and an evening of baseball.

It was a pretty good pitching matchup, Dave Stieb vs. Kevin Appier. The soon-to-be World Champions lost to the woeful Royals that evening, 5-2. It was the only time I got to see George Brett, who was in his next-to-last season, play; alas, he went 0-4 with an IBB.

From there, it was a whirlwind of travel: Thursday it was back to Champaign-Urbana, and on Friday I drove to my parents’. That was because Saturday, August 1, was my 10th year HS reunion, to be held not far from the high school at a park that hadn’t existed in the early 80s. It was a beautiful day (this was the summer that was significantly cooler than normal, likely due to the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines), and the location was perfect for those who already had small children in tow. One of my classmates who attended was then working for the public radio station at nearby Northern Kentucky University. She had a couple of tickets that she couldn’t use for Sunday night’s Mary Chapin Carpenter concert in Cincinnati–guess who snagged one of them?

The following week, it was another two trips between IL and KY. The first was to load everything for moving and then cart it to an apartment on the southeast side of Lexington; the second was to take my office-mate Paul back to Champaign–I’d needed to rent a small U-Haul and he had graciously offered to drive it. With my UIUC days literally in the rear-view mirror, I had around two weeks to tackle prepping a new set of classes and commence adjusting to the post-student life.

With all those miles being logged in SE Indiana in my ’86 Camry over those weeks, there was plenty of opportunity to listen to my then-favorite station, WOXY (97X), out of Oxford, OH. What might I have heard then? I imagine the 8/1/92 Modern Rock Tracks chart can offer some ideas.

27. PJ Harvey, “Sheela-Na-Gig”
Polly Jean was just 22 years old when her music began crashing on these shores. I’m sure I heard “Sheela-Na-Gig” at the time, though I have stronger memories from a couple years later of watching Beavis and Butt-Head comment on “50 Ft. Queenie.”

26. Toad the Wet Sprocket, “All I Want”
While I do have a fondness for some of the edgier stuff that emerged in Modern Rock world, I’m definitely a sucker for melodic, guitar-driven alterna-pop from the likes of Toad the Wet Sprocket. This would go to #15 on the Hot 100 in September.

22. Beastie Boys, “So What’cha Want”
I’ve said it before, but the Beasties’ growth into a respected act, given their juvenile initial splash, was a genuine surprise to me. You can bank on “Sabotage” getting featured in this series a couple of years from now.

21. The Levellers, “One Way”
I get an amped-up Waterboys feel from the Levellers, I guess because Mark Chadwick sounds plenty like Mike Scott to me on this tune. I purchased a promotional CD single for “One Way” at some point in the first half of the 90s; it’s a good one.

19. XTC, “Dear Madam Barnum”
I don’t think Nonsuch has as many highlights as Oranges and Lemons or (especially) Skylarking. “Dear Madam Barnum” is without a doubt one of them, both catchy and funny.

17. Paul Westerberg, “Dyslexic Heart”
16. Electronic, “Disappointed”
7. Siouxsie and the Banshees, “Face to Face”

Multiple movie soundtracks at the time were centered on or featured alternative music. “Dyslexic Heart,” my favorite of these, comes from Singles. “Disappointed” is one of three songs on the chart appearing in Cool World (the others are David Bowie’s “Real Cool World” at #25 and the resurgent “Sex on Wheelz,” from My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, at #20). “Face to Face” surfaced in Batman Returns, the only flick of the three I saw back then.

14. Catherine Wheel, “Black Metallic”
The video doesn’t look familiar, so this must be one I learned of via 97X. I’m still a fan.

13. Temple of the Dog, “Hunger Strike”
Grunge was never much my scene, but I can recognize “Hunger Strike” as a remarkable musical moment, with the iconic voices of Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder coming together before either was well-known.

12. Del Amitri, “Always the Last to Know”
While I never bought any of this Scottish group’s albums, I rather liked all three of their songs that scored U.S. airplay and chart action (of which this is the second). It would peak on the Hot 100 at #30 in October.

6. U2, “Even Better Than the Real Thing”
Bono and the boys were still pumping out the singles from Achtung Baby. Seems like they could have come up with a better line than “gonna blow right through you like a breeze,” though.

5. The Lemonheads, “It’s a Shame About Ray”
From that brief moment when Juliana Hatfield joined forces with Evan Dando. I’ve got the re-issue with the added cover of “Mrs. Robinson.” Both the title track and “Rudderless” found their way to mix tapes.

2. Faith No More, “Midlife Crisis”
It’d been a long time since I heard this one; I remember it mostly for the “bleed enough for two” line. Again, what groups like FNM were selling wasn’t what I was inclined to buy–though maybe in their case I was still appalled at the flopping fish scene from the end of the video for “Epic.”

1. B-52s, “Good Stuff”
Down to a threesome at this point after Cindy Wilson took leave. Not that this is bad, but in retrospect it feels like Cosmic Thing was not only cathartic but depleting.