On the first weekend of January 2007, Premiere Networks began offering remastered AT40s from the 1970s to terrestrial radio stations (it was 1/31/76, for the record). This past weekend, 11/24/79–the last regular Casey-voiced countdown from that 9.5 year span–was finally re-played. It had been the only remaining such show for two years, ever since 12/1/79 had been rebroadcast toward the end of 2020. Obsessive AT40-philes (raises hand, I suppose) can perhaps breathe a little easier now that they’re all out there.
(It’s not a surprise that the last shows to see the light of day were from 1979. Premiere initially was unsure what to do with 70s countdowns between 10/7/78 and 12/22/79, after AT40 had become a four-hour affair. They didn’t offer any up from that block until November 2010, and even then it was only the last three hours. The first hour began being provided as optional about 18 months later, and to do this day only a few stations will play it–I can imagine the pain it could be for stations to deal with the variable length. Many thanks go to Matt, who has compiled and curated the history of the series’ offerings in a thread on the AT40 Fun & Games site.)
As for the special shows consisting of all or mostly pre-70s songs, my guess is those aren’t likely ever to be wheeled out. The same is largely true for guest-hosted shows, though a couple have been offered as bonuses in recent years following the passing of said guest host (Dick Clark, Mark Elliott). I’ve been tuning in now (again) for more than a decade; while I haven’t heard them all yet, I’m among the many who are grateful for all those who’ve labored over this project, particularly Shannon Lynn. I joke with my wife that should I ever get dementia she’ll have to endure my blathering on about the Top 40 and the songs of my youth–I suspect that all these weekends since 2012 I’ve been spending in Casey’s company have only increased that likelihood?
I’m one of the few people I know who isn’t a big fan of Cheap Trick’s breakthrough single, the at Budokan version of “I Want You to Want Me.” (I mean, it’s not bad–it just never captivated me.) The lead single/title song from the studio album that followed, though? That’s absolutely the stuff, my fave song of theirs to this day. I didn’t know “Surrender” at the time, so I wasn’t aware of how “Dream Police” echoes it to a decent extent. But the energy, the strings, the three 3/4 measures inserted in the driving instrumental toward the end–I can’t get enough of it. They really should have had more hits.
Casey introduced “Dream Police” on the 11/24/79 show (its last week on, at its peak of #26) by connecting it to Orwell’s 1984 (though he didn’t use the term “thought police”).
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.
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.