Shawn Colvin is best remembered for her 1997 smash “Sunny Came Home,” which scaled the heights of various Billboard charts (#7 Hot 100, #4 Mainstream Top 40, and #1 Adult Contemporary, among others) and took home Grammy hardware for both Song and Record of the Year in 1998. It’s a good one, complete with catchy melody/chorus and a memorable bridge. I’d been following Colvin’s career for a number of years by then, including attending an engaging concert with my future wife in June 1995, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati. The breakthrough was welcome in these parts, even it wound up lasting for just that one hit record.
A Few Small Repairs, the album on which “Sunny Came Home” appears, was Colvin’s fourth release. It’s neither the one of hers I’ve listened to most nor like best, however. Those honors go to sophomore effort Fat City, which came out not longer after I began my teaching career, in the fall of 1992. While all but one song was written or co-written by Colvin, there’s a ton of star power contributing bits and pieces throughout the record. She’d gotten a great deal of positive buzz from her debut Steady On, and one suspects that Fat City was expected to be the launching pad for a commercially successful career.
The first song I heard from Fat City was “Tennessee.” I was in Oxford, OH, attending a conference on teaching at Miami University, availing myself of the opportunity to listen to my go-to modern rock station, WOXY 97X, in the evenings. To be honest, I hadn’t been as enamored of Steady On as the critics, but “Tennessee” forced me to re-evaluate. Richard Thompson works the guitar solo, and yes, that’s Bela Fleck on banjo.
Colvin’s next record was Cover Girl, full of remakes of such acts as the Police, Talking Heads, Steve Earle, and Dylan. The one song she didn’t write on Fat City was “Tenderness on the Block” by Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon, appearing on the latter’s Excitable Boy. Here’s a performance of it from just over four years ago.
My favorite Shawn Colvin song is easily “Round of Blues.” It’s already appeared in this space on one of my old mixtape write-ups, and you’ll see mention of it again in December, in a Modern Rock Tracks post. The album’s Wikipedia page notes that producer Larry Klein wrote the music for the bridge. I wish it’d been a hit.
Another winner is “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong).” Bruce Hornsby plays piano and sings backup; you can also hear Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s voice in there, as well.
“Set the Prairie on Fire” was co-written with Elly Brown, whom I know from her days in the late 80s/early 90s band Grace Pool. Not only is session drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner present, but Booker T. Jones is in the house, playing the Hammond.
The other song on Fat City that received a measure of radio love (this time, Adult Contemporary) was the album’s last track, “I Don’t Know Why.” It’s a lovely yet melancholy piece, and it garnered a nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 1994 Grammys.
I’m guessing that Fat City‘s sales did not meet expectations. Nonetheless, it showed Colvin was growing and developing, worthy of further investment. I imagine Columbia was ultimately pleased they kept her on.
To date, a decent majority of entries in the Forgotten Albums series have been for disks I bought between 1988 and 1992. That makes some sense, I was buying scads of CDs then. Relatedly, it was also when my “adult” musical tastes were forming: female singer/songwriters, folk-rock/jangle pop, melodic college/alternative, with a dollop of country tossed in here and there for good measure. The means of discovery varied–TV, friends, Rolling Stone, hearing them played in record stores–where did those days go? Today’s album is another one introduced to me by Greg after we started hanging out in early 1990, a real dazzler that had come out of Britain a couple of years earlier.
The Primitives, led by guitarist/songwriter Paul Court and vocalist Tracy Tracy, came to notice with a few singles in 1986-87 and soon garnered enough positive buzz to warrant a record deal with RCA. Some of those early songs were re-recorded and added to others to form Lovely, which came out in the spring of 1988. Full of shimmer and 60s retro-stylings, Lovely became a Top 10 LP in the U.K.; two of its songs made the U.S. Modern Rock Tracks chart as well. Let’s sample a few of its delights.
The big hit on Lovely is lead-off track “Crash,” in which Tracy gives a potential suitor the kiss-off because he’s being a bit too reckless. It was a #5 hit in Britain and made #3 on MRT here–would that the U.S. pop market had given it a shot. Two-and-a-half minutes of pop bliss.
Eastern influences abound on “Shadow.” A true highlight, it sounds like nothing else on the album (and perhaps not like anything else coming out at the time).
One of those re-recorded early singles is “Thru the Flowers.” Love the fuzz. (Here’s the original.)
“Way Behind Me” came out as a single after Lovely‘s initial release but was included on later pressings (including the U.S. version). It also found a spot on Pure, their second album. It’s likely my favorite overall Primitives tune–simply brilliant.
Another single that charted in the U.K. was “Out of Reach.” I found this clip of a 7″ version of the song–it’s somewhat shorter and has a different mix from what I’ve known and loved all these years, but well worth a listen.
Court’s vocals are more prominent on a couple of Lovely‘s songs, including the closer, “Buzz Buzz Buzz.”
Court and Tracy are still active in the Primitives–they recorded a charming pandemic version of “Buzz Buzz Buzz” almost eighteen months ago, if you’re interested in seeing them in their current incarnations.
Lovely was the Primitives’ peak, both commercially and artistically; the two followups, Pure and Galore, each have their moments but in the end aren’t as satisfying. The members of the band went their separate ways in 1992, though they did re-form seventeen years later.
Lovely is indeed a lovely album, one I find myself revisiting regularly. If it’s not familiar, I definitely recommend taking it for a spin.
There weren’t many music artists in the first half of the 90s whose work I enjoyed more than Sam Phillips. While I’d heard “Holding on to the Earth” on the radio when The Indescribable Wow was released in 1988, I didn’t add it to my collection until being blown away by her 1991 album Cruel Inventions. She completed a trifecta of close-to-perfect pop in the spring of 1994 with the Beatles-influenced Martinis and Bikinis. That summer I got to see her perform a few songs at a small festival in Washington, D.C. while visiting Greg and Katie. It was very good news when, less than a month after my wife and I returned from our honeymoon in the summer of 1996, news of a new Phillips disk dropped.
Good news until I brought it home and spun it a few times, that is.
It’s not that Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound, Lambchop) is a terrible record. It is, however, a decided drop-off from her earlier work. Many of the vocals are dour, and it feels like Phillips made a conscious decision to de-emphasize tuneful melodies. There are stylistic elements–particularly the use of a horn section–reminiscent of the late 60s, and I’ll admit they’re often used to good effect. In listening to (most of) Ominpop‘s songs this week for the first time in a good while, I recognize they’re familiar enough now to say I gave the record more chances a quarter-century ago than I remembered. It’s perhaps the case that a few are better than I initially gave them credit for then.
The album kicks off with “Entertainmen.” As the title suggests, there are multiple plays on words to be discovered (“post-humorous” and “a girl worth wading for”), as Sam tersely describes a set of damaged, and damaging, relationships.
Phillips is angry, and is letting us know. Case in point: “Plastic Is Forever.” She’s feeling alienated by technology (television in particular), and in turn she’s making music that’s at least a little alienating. The song does contain my favorite lyric on the album, though: “Pain is pleasure when it’s televised.”
One of the most appealing cuts is “Zero Zero Zero!” (which served as the title of her 1998 compilation disk). It’s got both 60s retro chic and Polynesian steel guitar, and is actually a bit of a romp–what more could one want?
Not that Phillips ever came close to a hit record, but as “Power World” fires up, one could be forgiven for thinking there’s a kernel of a single buried within. It’d greatly benefit from a more engaging chorus, though.
“Faster Pussycat to the Library!” is hands-down the best song title on the record, and may well beat out anything else from 1996. Phillips is credited with playing chamberlain in the liner notes, and this is one of the songs on which you hear it.
All the guys from R.E.M. co-wrote “Slapstick Heart,” the closer, with Phillips, although they don’t play on it. I’m a little curious to know how the collaboration came about. Again, not much melody, but there are interesting sounds.
My sense is that Omnipop‘s relative lack of positive reception precipitated an end to the relationship between Phillips and Virgin, her record label (purely a guess, but I wonder if the compilation was released simply to fulfill a contract). She’s continued recording, having released three albums on the Nonesuch label and several more on a smaller outfit over the last twenty years. I’ll confess that I haven’t given her 21st century music the level of attention it merits; perhaps I can correct that soon. You certainly can’t go wrong with any of her 1988-94 output, though.
In the early 1980s, an all-female quartet called Calamity Jane scored four minor hits on the country charts, including covers of Patsy Cline and Beatles songs. When CJ split, two of its members kept on keeping on in Nashville, putting their efforts into songwriting, invariably with one or two other collaborators. It paid off for Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose: between 1983 and 1987, six of their songs went Top 10 country (including two that made #1), performed by the likes of Janie Fricke, Lee Greenwood, Crystal Gayle, and Restless Heart–yes, they co-wrote “I’ll Still Be Loving You.”
At the end of the decade, Kennedy and Rose signed to PANGÆA Records, a label formed by Sting and distributed through I.R.S. Records (which I just learned was co-founded by Stewart Copeland’s brother Miles). They recorded ten songs they’d co-written (mostly with Pat Bunch) between 1984 and 1988, and along with two short instrumental interludes, released the set as hai ku.
Being on a subsidiary of a minor label may have made it doubly hard to get traction; hai ku never charted. The performances defy easy classification, too–while Kennedy Rose obviously have their roots in country music, there’s a folk/pop sheen that makes one wonder how it would be best promoted.
I think Kennedy Rose came to my attention via some combination of a blurb in Rolling Stone magazine and the video for first single “Love Like This” on VH-1. When this occurred exactly is lost to me now, but I became quickly interested in tracking the CD down. It took a while–Record Service in Champaign didn’t seem to carry it. The album has a 1989 date on it, but it sticks in my mind that I purchased it the following year, finally discovering it in a record store inside the Chicago Loop. hai ku got plenty of play in my apartment, but clearly not much elsewhere. Finding its tracks on YouTube is possible these days though many are barely viewed. I’m here today to see if that can be rectified a little.
It’s a shame that the catchy “Love Like This” never caught on. Carlene Carter’s version was the lead single from 1995’s Little Acts of Treason, but even she couldn’t break through with it, reaching only #70 country.
The overarching theme of the album is that of the euphoria one feels being in love with another. The loping “After Your Arms” certainly mines that vein well.
I really like the way “Love Is the Healer” builds.
“Born to Give My Love” was later covered by Martina McBride and the Forester Sisters. It’s a gorgeous, gentle song. I apologize, though, for making you suffer through clips from a Hallmark Christmas movie to hear it.
One of my favorites on the disk is the driving “Nightline,” which cuts against the other tracks in that our narrator is lusting for someone she shouldn’t but can’t help continue pursuing.
Kennedy Rose released a second album in 1994, which I also picked up. Alas, Walk the Line suffered a similar commercial fate. Highlights included “Safe in the Arms of Love,” later a Top 10 country hit by the aforementioned McBride.
If you poke around a little on YouTube, you can find clips of Kennedy Rose’s appearance in support of hai ku on Austin City Limits. As on the album, they share singing duties, harmonizing beautifully. Mary Ann Kennedy shows her versatility in playing percussion and mandolin, while Pam Rose ably handles guitar work. The videos are worth seeking out, even if that appearance didn’t help them launch. I’m glad for the songwriting success Kennedy and Rose experienced–just wish that somehow hai ku had been a bigger thing.
By the time Sire Records released the fifth volume in their Just Say… sampler series in July 1991, records, cassettes, and CDs had, as deemed necessary, been graced with some variant of the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” warning label for almost six years. U.S. record companies chose to include the labels in late 1985 after the Parents Music Resource Center began raising a ruckus (which led to a Senate hearing on what the PMRC hailed as smutty and/or violent song lyrics). Needless to say, musicians weren’t happy about the PMRC’s efforts at the time, and nerves were still raw in the summer of 1991. Sire was by this time the home of the edgier acts in the Time Warner family, generally modern/college rock groups but also rappers. The liner notes for Just Say Anything have the included acts’ angry takes on censorship, both real and perceived.
Greg had purchased this CD shortly after we moved into our new apartment, and we listened to it a few times that fall. Quite a few highlights, so let’s get on it.
The disk kicks off with a duet by John Wesley Harding and the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn, written especially for this compilation. “Warning Parental Advisory” imagines a world where it’s the mediocrities of the music biz that receive the dreaded black-and-white warning–you know, Richard Marx, Phil Collins, Heart (well, “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You” is pretty bad), L.A. Guns, Poison, etc., etc.
Next up is “Body Count,” from Ice-T’s O.G. Original Gangster, thus well earning the album’s own Advisory label.
After that, though, it’s mostly a parade of songs that wouldn’t have been completely out of place on last week’s Modern Rock Tracks recap (in fact, two of them were on that chart):
The JudyBats contributed “Don’t Drop the Baby,” a phrase which earned some good-natured fun poked in its direction from Greg and me.
Shoegaze legend Ride contributes the mesmerizing “Today.” Another band added to the get-to-know list.
One of the two actual reasons I wanted to put this post out is JSA‘s inclusion of the Throwing Muses’ “Not Too Soon.” Tonya Donelly really shines, pointing toward her upcoming departure from the Muses and the formation of Belly.
One of the classic late 70s British New Wave songs is the Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet.” This cover by the Mighty Lemon Drops is pretty straightforward, but I may just like it better than the original.
Not sure how I let Richard X. Heyman’s “Falling Away” escape my notice 30 years ago. A stone cold power pop gem, it could well be the best song on the CD; I put in my order for Hey Man last night.
The two songs this disk shared with the 8/3/91 Modern Rock Tracks chart are “Crazy,” by Seal, and the Farm’s “Groovy Train.” The latter was #17 on both the chart and the disk–I skipped over it last week, knowing I could catch up with it here. Peaked at the dreaded #41 spot on the pop chart in mid-November. Super infectious.
After a few spins in August and September, Just Say Anything got filed away, supplanted by newer discoveries. I did eventually pick up my own copy before I left Champaign-Urbana. While very much of its time, the high points make it worth the occasional listen still today.
In the spring of 1996, I was teaching four different courses: college algebra, calculus for business, calculus 1, and differential equations. To be honest I can’t think of any particularly memorable moments in the classroom that semester. Looking over the rosters, I notice that my future colleague in physics (then the son of a current colleague) was a student in DE, a young woman who in four years would become the aunt of one of my son’s better friends growing up was taking business calculus, and there was the oddity of having three students in calculus 1 (out of about twenty-five) whose last name started with Z.
(Why I know this today: I’ve spent some good part of the last couple of weeks going through stacks upon stacks of paper in my office, performing an approximately once-every-decade serious culling. A couple of days ago I came across class lists and printouts of grades assigned from my first decade on the job, the vast majority of which is now about to head to the shredder.)
I was wrapping up my fourth year at Georgetown, so the students who’d started there when I had were about to graduate. My application for tenure and promotion would be submitted after three more semesters, so much of the case I’d be presenting was already in the books. While my inability to recall high points from those early months of 1996 may not speak well of making the most of all of my pre-tenure years, I will point out that in this instance I had at least somewhat of an excuse: I was dealing with wedding plans.
Martha and I knew fairly early in our courtship that marriage was quite possibly in the cards. We’d begun dating in February of 1995, and by Christmas we were actively discussing a summer 1996 wedding. January was a scramble: making our intentions known to parents and searching for an engagement ring, which I presented to her one day shy of the anniversary of our first date. We already had a target wedding day in mind, and so next came securing the church, a venue for the reception, formal wear, attendants, a baker, a photographer, and so on, and so on. It was quite fortunate that, with only five months’ lead time, we got it all to come together on the date we wanted. While I was reasonably involved, credit where it’s due: Martha, with her excellent organizing and planning skills, took the lead on the substantial majority of everything.
It’s a good thing, too, as about a month after the school year ended, six weeks before the wedding, I came down with chicken pox. I’d managed to avoid them while growing up, but apparently I couldn’t hide forever. I’m virtually certain I picked them up from a preschooler at church. Fortunately, my case turned out to be rather mild—I think things were pretty close back to normal after about ten days. (In an odd coincidence, my sister also got chicken pox within a week or so of when I did, from her two-year old who was in day care. Her case wound up being considerably more severe than mine.) I was ready and able to help with any last details, some of which was making plans with out-of-town friends for the days leading up to the wedding.
One of the newer CDs in my collection that spring—perhaps I listened to it during my convalescence—was Lovelife, the third full-length release from Lush. I’d been a fan of theirs since early 1992, when they were part of the British shoegaze scene. Lovelife, as well as their 1994 album, Split, marked a departure from their earlier sound, definitely more conventional pop/rock. (Lush has a song called “Lovelife,” but it’s not this album’s title track–it actually appears on Split.) Co-leaders Miki Berenyi (guitars/vocals) and Emma Anderson (guitars/ethereal harmonies) divided songwriting duties evenly among Lovelife’s twelve tunes. While I don’t like every song on the album, it’s a very solid collection overall. Let’s take a listen to half of it.
Lead track “Ladykillers” was the second of three singles released in the UK and got plenty of alternative play here in the states in the late spring. It bears more than a passing resemblance to “Hypocrite” from Split, but it’s still a great, muscular tune.
Reading up on Lovelife, I’m seeing the term ‘Britpop’ applied to its sound. Maybe so, but one element that’s always struck me is what I consider a 60s vibe on many of its songs, particularly the inclusion of horns, strings, and flute. “I’ve Been Here Before” is the first of three tracks here that to my ears hearken somewhat to thirty years earlier.
“Single Girl” was the first single released; all three made it to either #21 or #22 on the British charts. Seems appropriate for a wedding-themed vid to show up here, no?
Jarvis Cocker of Pulp was recruited to sing along with Berenyi on “Ciao!” This track, in which the two parties battle over who’s better off now that their relationship is over, also served as the title of Lush’s 2001 compilation release.
Generally speaking, Berenyi wrote the rockers, Anderson the prettier tunes. “Runaway,” one of my two or three faves on the album, is in the former camp.
Lush came to an abrupt end later in 1996, when drummer Chris Aclund committed suicide in October, just 30 years old. I’m sorry for the pain he couldn’t bear, and selfishly sorry for the music this wonderful band didn’t get to make as a result. “Olympia,” Lovelife‘s closer and another gorgeous piece, ends with the unfortunately appropriate “And now, time to switch off.” (As a YouTube commenter notes: ‘last line, last song, last album.’)
I couldn’t know then what lay ahead for Lush; I was simply spending my final weeks as a single guy enjoying their new album.
If the 1980s were in part about bringing African music and rhythms to greater attention in the Western world (Remain in Light and Graceland, of course, but don’t sleep on Johnny Clegg’s work with Juluka and Savuka, or The Indestructible Beat of Soweto), then the early 90s brought Brazil’s turn to the spotlight. Once again, Paul Simon and David Byrne were among those facilitating the effort. Recently I listened to The Rhythm of the Saints for the first time in a good while; I’d forgotten how deeply those songs had seeped into my bones thirty years ago. It took a little longer for the some of the disks in the Byrne-curated Brazil Classics series to find spots in my collection. Two of them–the first (Beleza Tropical) and the third (Forró Etc.: Music of the Brazilian Northeast) in the series–found particular favor with me, the latter especially. The back cover of Forró Etc. notes, “This is party music…from people who’ve been through hard times…” My recent experiences are not remotely comparable, but I’m still in the mood to celebrate the end of a trying academic year, so let’s fire up the accordion and get moving.
Luiz Gonzaga was most responsible for popularizing Northeast Brazilian music to much of his fellow countryfolk. His career began in the early 1940s; he passed away at age 76 in 1989. Gonzaga has three solo credits and a duet among Forró Etc.‘s eighteen tracks. The disk’s opener is the groovy “O Fole Roncou” (“The Bellows Roared”), recorded in 1973.
Gal Costa’s “Festa do Interior” (I think you can translate this yourself, at least approximately) was a big hit in Brazil in the early 1980s, and understandably so.
Jose Domingos, better known as Dominguinhos, was (according to Wikipedia) a protegé of Gonzaga as a teenager, and in many ways was Gonzaga’s successor as the leader of the forró movement. He appears three times on the album (one of those as a duet). You might have already sussed out that “Querubim” means “Cherub.”
Dominguinhos died in the summer of 2013.
“O Sucesso da Zefinha” (“Little Zefa’s Success”), written and performed by Anastácia, is another excellent example of how this music makes you want to jump up and dance.
“Asa Branca” (“White Wing”) was co-written by Gonzaga in 1947 and is recorded here by his son Luiz Jr., under the name Gonzaguinha. The subject matter–extreme heat and drought, according to the translation in the liner notes–doesn’t synch up at all with the joy of the performance. I’ve long held this is my favorite song on the album.
Gonzaguinha was tragically killed in an auto accident at age 45 in 1991, just about the time this compilation was released.
Jackson do Pandeiro was another leading light of the Northeastern movement. “Chiclete com Banana” dates back to 1960; he had also already passed on (July 1982) by the time Byrne was putting together this compilation.
Not much out there about João do Vale, but his song “Estrela Miúda” (“Little Star”) seems to be moderately well-known.
Eleven more delights await if you find you want to seek Brazil Classics 3 out–it’s great stuff, and I certainly enjoy circling back to it with some frequency.
There’s a two-way race for my favorite album of 1995 between Ben Folds Five and Tomorrow the Green Grass, by the Jayhawks. I’ve gone on about the latter before, noting I discovered it in the very early days of dating my future wife, and that the Wilco/Jayhawks show I saw that summer ranks as possibly the best concert I’ve attended. It couldn’t have been long before I started investigating their earlier works Blue Earth (from 1989, on their hometown Minneapolis label Twin/Tone) and 1992 major-label debut Hollywood Town Hall, released mere weeks after I began working at Georgetown.
Over the years I’ve found I keep going back to Hollywood Town Hall periodically, and it never fails to delight. HTH, produced by George Drakoulias, was well-received critically at the time, and some consider it the ‘Hawks’ finest moment. Alas, it peaked at only #192 on Billboard‘s album chart (though it made some noise as a Heatseeker), lower than any of their next six disks. It’s more than worthy of some attention, so let’s listen in on a few tracks.
The album leads off with the only song of theirs to make the Album Rock and/or Modern Rock charts; “Waiting for the Sun” may also be the one you’re most likely to recognize now. That’s Gary Louris on lead vocals.
Next up is “Crowded in the Wings,” highlighting what made early Jayhawks music most stand out: the synergistic harmonies of Louris and co-leader Mark Olson.
“Clouds” starts off sounding like a rocker, but quickly settles in to a more gentle interplay between Louris’s and Olson’s guitars. We later find out that intro also serves as the bridge. “God of the rich man ain’t the God for the poor.”
Back in the old days, “Sister Cry” would have led off side two. It’s another bout of epic harmonizing, especially on the chorus.
My favorite on the album is “Settled Down Like Rain.” Understated playing, lyrics, and singing. Gorgeous and memorable.
I go on regularly about sequencing, particularly the importance of ending an album with the right tune. What makes a closer the “right” one? I suspect context plays a big role; sometimes it’s good to go out somberly, other times rockin’ hard. “Martin’s Song” is one of two songs on HTH that also appeared on Blue Earth. Whatever it is, it’s got that last song feel, and the band agrees–it concluded Blue Earth as well.
Olson left the band after Tomorrow the Green Grass. Louris continued on with the others for several more years (I saw them a second time in Lexington a couple years later in support of 1997’s Sound of Lies). Over the last decade, they’ve reunited, recording and touring periodically; Olson even came back for one album in 2011. Their most recent effort, XOXO, was released less than a year ago.
When I began teaching assistant duties in the fall of 1987, the students in my two Calc I recitation sections were only about five years younger than I was. Whether that made the job easier or harder, well, you’ve got me. On one hand, even if I didn’t come from the Chicago suburbs like so many of them did, we still had roughly the same popular culture references to draw upon. I could be their advocate as the need arose with the professor who ran the course and lectured three times each week. On the other, while I knew how to do first-semester calculus, that hardly meant I understood it well enough, or had enough experience with it, to help my charges better grasp course material during our Tuesday-Thursday Q&A sessions. Regardless, at least one of them must have had an okay experience: I ran into Dave occasionally around campus over the following couple of years, and in the spring of 1990, he invited me to join his fantasy baseball league (took 2nd place that year, and 3rd in 1991).
The following semester I was given complete charge of a trigonometry class. A valuable experience, but I struggled with having so much responsibility for the first time. The worst of it was determining final grades in borderline cases. After the semester ended, I received a lengthy, impassioned, typed letter from Kathleen, who’d wound up on the low end of such a decision. She and I had met in my office shortly after grades had been posted to talk about the situation, and her letter arrived in my departmental mailbox early the next week. The grade assigned had real world consequences; it would keep her from admission to the program of her choice in the College of Education. “I know this is what the numbers say but sometimes you have to look past the numbers, William, and take more of the student and the efforts into account…As students, we generally get what we deserve and we are well aware of this. In this situation, however, I do not feel that I have gotten what I deserve.” It was a very close case, and to this day I’m unconvinced I did the right thing by electing not to change Kathleen’s grade.
My remaining assignments as a TA were, with one exception, second-semester calculus. In the fall of 1988, I had two sections, taught back-to-back. This was the only time I wasn’t teaching in Altgeld Hall, the math building; instead, I was in Henry Administration, just south of Altgeld. Calc II is a fun class to teach, assuming you’re into that whole calculus thing to begin with. In my experience, though, it tends to be the hardest course in the sequence for students–determining which integration technique to use or which convergence test to apply to an infinite series can definitely be a challenge the first time through. I think my confidence (as well as my ability to explain) was on the rise by this time. I do still have the notes I made more than thirty years ago, and I continued to reference them with some frequency in my first decade or so on the job.
Kathy was in my first section that fall. A few weeks into the term, she asked me to attend an “invite a teacher to dinner” function her sorority was hosting at its house on a Friday evening. For someone who hadn’t imbibed of Greek life as an undergrad, this was an opportunity I felt I shouldn’t miss, and it turned out to be plenty interesting.The women of the sorority broke into singing a couple of times, and quite a number of fellows from a frat dropped by mid-event (I have no idea if this was expected or not) to start a back-and-forth songfest. However, this wound up being the last time I saw Kathy, as she dropped the class the following week.
I had a high school student in the other section. Kie was a senior at Uni High, a small, selective school located on campus–perhaps one or both of her parents were professors. Not terribly surprisingly, she was among the very best students in the class. She was also the most curious and inquisitive, occasionally staying after class to ask about generalizations or extensions of an example or a topic. Over the course of the semester, I learned that Kie was precocious in more ways than just mathematically. Altgeld Hall has a carillon in its tower; it normally just chimes every quarter-hour, but during the week there’s a daily fifteen-minute “show” right before noon. Kie provided that entertainment on Thursdays, and once I climbed up into the tower with her to watch her maneuver what looked like organ pedals (but were at hand level). She also had a weekly show at WEFT, Champaign-Urbana’s community radio station. I tuned into it once or twice. Her musical interest at the time was dub poetry, which has its origins in reggae.
(And now, an abrupt transition after that long intro…) I’m pretty certain it was on WEFT–maybe on the show right after Kie’s, maybe several weeks later–that I first learned of the wildly creative 3 Mustaphas 3. A collective of musicians in the UK, their conceit was they came from the Balkans and were all nephews (and a niece) of the fictitious Patrel Mustapha. They played a dizzying array of instruments, sang in a multitude of languages, and mashed together musical influences from all over the globe in an onslaught of rhythms, tempos, and time signatures. The group’s catchphrase–“Forward in All Directions!”–sums things up pretty well.
Eventually I came across the Mustaphas’ 1989 release Heart of Uncle at the Urbana Free Library, and my officemate Paul ripped it onto a cassette for me (fear not, I eventually bought a copy of the CD). I don’t have much “world music” in my collection, but Uncle is one of the most fascinating and entertaining disks I own.
Things kick off with “Awara Hoon,” sung in Hindi:
One of my favorites is the rollicking “Trois Fois Trois (City Version).” This time we’re treating to vocals in French and Spanish. It’s reprised in a ‘Country Version’ later on the album.
Several of the tracks are instrumental; I’ll embed two of them for you. First is “Sitna Lisa,” which combines elements of Celtic and Middle Eastern music.
Next is “Vi Bist Du Geveyzn Far Prohibish’n?” It’s a spirited piece that only becomes more frenzied as it builds.
“Kem Kem” is sung in Kiswahili with some beautiful harmonies.
The one tune sung in English is “Taxi Driver (I Don’t Care).” It’s pretty tame in comparison to most of the other songs.
And I’ll wrap up with the riveting and haunting “Aj Zadji Zadji Jasno Sonce,” sung in Macedonian.
As it turns out, back in Kentucky, my college roommate James and his wife Amy independently discovered the Mustaphas via their even more eclectic 1990 album Soup of the Century. That disk turned out to just about be it for 3M3–an outtake/remix album ensued, as well as a live album several years later. Maybe they felt that the string had just played itself out on this venture, and they were ready to move to other pursuits. Regardless, it’s a ride I’m glad to have found and taken.
One of the great things about teaching college is the ongoing opportunity to meet a wide range of promising young adults. That continued of course at Illinois after the fall of 1988–I still recall a number of students specifically, and wonder how things turned out for them–but for some reason, the moments you carry around in your head for years afterward happened less frequently after those initial semesters in the classroom. (I think I tend to have stronger memories of students from my first years at Georgetown, too, for what that’s worth.)
On December 18, 2000, a 41-year-old mother of two boys was killed after being struck by a speeding motorboat as she pushed her older son out of the way of the oncoming craft. The boat shouldn’t have been there, and certainly not at that speed; the family was participating in a recreational diving expedition off the shores of Cozumel, Mexico. It turned out that the boat was owned by the founder of a large Mexican supermarket chain. Ultimately a boathand confessed to being at the helm when the accident occurred, though it’s not clear that was actually the case.
It took about ten days for news of Kirsty MacColl’s tragic death to reach a 36-year-old new father in Kentucky. He put disk after disk into the CD player on top of the refrigerator; more than once that day he rocked his eight-week-old son in the kitchen, in an attempt to console (for entirely different reasons) both the boy and himself.
MacColl is best-known for her collaboration with Shane MacGowan and the Pogues on “Fairytale of New York,” one of the UK’s most popular holiday tunes (it makes an annual pilgrimage to the British pop charts these days, and is currently sitting at #4). It’s a great song, though I sure wish it didn’t include a certain word they rhyme with “maggot.” ‘Tis the season for playing it, I suppose, but that’s not what’s on my mind today.
I’d proclaimed MacColl’s Kite in real time as my favorite album of 1990–it was almost certainly the disk I’d listened to most that year. Though it’d been released in the UK in May of 1989, it would take over a year for it to land in my hands, a purchase likely spurred by a positive Rolling Stone review.
Today, on the twentieth anniversary of her passing, I’ll attempt to honor MacColl’s life and work by playing some of Kite‘s top tracks.
I’ll bet I played “Innocence,” the first song on Kite, at least ten times the day I first slipped the CD into my player. The single mix we hear in the video is different from what I’m used to hearing, but I suppose it’s close enough.
“Free World” was the lead single and reached #43 on the British charts. (Note that they dub in “wag” for “shag” in the clip below.) It’s also the name of the fan site kirstymaccoll.com.
Steve Lillywhite, MacColl’s husband at the time, produced Kite. “Days,” a Kinks cover and the biggest hit in Britain from Kite, shows off Lillywhite’s skill in multi-tracking her voice.
“Don’t Come the Cowboy with Me, Sonny Jim!” is a plaintive cry from a woman too often on the bad end of romantic encounters to a man she sees as a little different from the rest. We’ve now hit on all four UK singles from Kite.
While there are multiple tracks on Kite I love to belt out alongside Kirsty, my fave for doing that (and fave song overall) is the driving “Tread Lightly.” Best line: “I curse the day I met you but I won’t forget you/Not in my lifetime.”
MacColl had done background vocals on the Smiths’ “Ask” in the mid 80s. She maintained contact with Johnny Marr, and the two co-wrote a couple of songs for Kite. “The End of a Perfect Day” might be the best Smiths tune that Morrisey didn’t sing. (A cover of “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” is one of three bonus tracks on the CD).
Another bonus is a rousing cover of Anna and Kate McGarrigle’s “Complaint Pour Ste Catherine.” Her French sounds pretty good to me (it’s one of two songs she sings en français).
I lapped up MacColl’s next two albums, though I didn’t find them nearly as magical. Her last disk, Tropical Brainstorm, was released just a few months before her death.
Rest in peace, Kirsty–you’re certainly not forgotten.
About a year after buying Kite, I found this on the Usenet newsgroup rec.music.reviews:
I don’t remember now if I noted at the time the reviewer was a mathematician, but several years after this, I found myself in his home. I was attending a conference in Atlanta; it turns out that Mulcahy’s wife, who teaches at Emory, is an occasional collaborator with my dissertation advisor, and I’d scored an invite to a reception they were hosting. I may or may not have chatted with Mulcahy, who’s Irish, about Kirsty that evening…
I know that MacColl will appear in this space at least a couple of times in 2021; look for another cut from Kite in February.