I’ll Meet You On The Vast Plains

As I write this, I’ve got one class and a department meeting to go before the second week of the semester is done. It’s fair to say that I’m worn down (and not exactly pumped for that weekly 4pm meeting). Some of it’s normal–being “on” in the classroom takes its toll on an introvert–but I imagine a good bit of it is the stress of being in a room with folks for 75 minutes at a time, one or more of whom might be an asymptomatic COVID carrier. I might feel a little more at ease if a few students wore their masks just a little more carefully.

Four days a week, my routine has often been something like this: 1) arrive and do final prep for first class; 2) teach first class; 3) close myself up in the office for three hours (eat the lunch I’ve brought, final prep for second class, grade/advance prep, look at Twitter feed a bit); 4) teach second class; 5) Zoom with a couple of students, a little more prep; 6) go home, maybe grade/prep some more after dinner. Due to the alternative schedule we’ve implemented, Wednesday gets to be a bit of a catch-up day for me. But I’m missing that ability to go down the hall to talk with a colleague, help a student out in the lobby, actually see people.

I do understand I’ve got it better than so many, and there are plenty of people who’d be happy to do what I’m doing. Still, I’m likely not functioning at full capacity. If I feel this tired now, after just two weeks, I’m wondering how it’ll be after six.

A couple of nights ago I was in need of a musical pick-me-up, a happy song from happier times. Scanning my CD shelves, I landed on a disk with a minor AOR hit from my second year in grad school. A little research revealed that the song ascended to a #23 peak on Billboard‘s Album Rock Tracks chart dated 11/21/87. Before we get to it, though, there was enough interesting stuff in that chart’s top 10 to stop along the way and note most of them…

#1: Bruce Springsteen, “Tunnel of Love”
#2: John Cougar Mellencamp, “Cherry Bomb”
#3: Robbie Robertson, “Showdown at Big Sky”
#4: George Harrison, “Got My Mind Set on You”

The Mellencamp was a song that played a role one time I was an on-air contestant, written up here. There are three more songs from Cloud Nine and two others from the Boss on this chart, too.

#6: Yes, “Rhythm of Love”
#9: Yes, “Love Will Find a Way”

A third song from Big Generator is farther down the list. This album was overall a Big Disappointment after the delightful 90125. While I’ve always liked the sound of “Love Will Find a Way” in spite of its dopey lyrics (“I eat at chez nous” is terrible grammar, besides), “Rhythm of Love” just never did anything for me.

#7: Rush, “Time Stand Still”
I’d definitely read an article telling the story of how Aimee Mann got to join in on this.

#10. Bourgeois Tagg, “I Don’t Mind at All”
Completely underrated Beatles-flavored tune. Made it to just #38 on the Hot 100.

The other songs in the Top 10 are tracks from Floyd and Tull that I don’t remember. There are multiple cuts from Document, Kick, …Nothing Like the Sun, and Permanent Vacation to be found on the chart, too.

But back to the reason for the post. The Radiators were a New Orleans bar/club band that worked their way up to a major-label deal in the late 80s. None of their three albums for Epic exactly broke through, but back in that fall of 1987, WPGU played “Like Dreamers Do,” from Law of the Fish, often enough for me to realize it was quite the mood-brightener. After hearing it again this week for the first time in a good while, I’ll be sure to add “mad molecule” to my repertoire of offbeat terms of endearment.

Like everyone else, I’m ready to be out and about, doing some honest, face-to-face interaction with folks. With extended family, friends from high school, college, grad school, work, church, and fellow bloggers I’ve never met in real life. A big party, somewhere out on a vast plain.

A guy can dream, right?

Both Sides, Together At Last

One of the things we’ve done for family time over the last four months is working on jigsaw puzzles, preferably of the 1000+ piece variety. We have a couple of tables set up in the basement; the smaller of the two often winds up being a base for one of us to work on a specific section of the puzzle after collecting pieces likely to comprise it. You might be able to guess who’s been (self-)appointed to assemble the playlist each time we gather.

Earlier this week I pulled out Kirsty MacColl’s 1991 album Electric Landlady (yes, I know). Kite, her previous release, was my favorite album of 1990 (I still have plans to write about it someday), so any follow-up was bound to be somewhat of a letdown. Consequently, I probably haven’t given Electric Landlady the attention over the years it merits.

Landlady‘s best-known song (deservedly so) is the opening “Walking Down Madison,” but it wasn’t long after I brought the disk home that my attention wandered to the writing credit for the disk’s second track, “All I Ever Wanted.”

Here it is; the single mix is somewhat different from that on the album.

I’ve wondered off and on over the years how Kirsty and Marshall got together to trade thoughts about a tune. Years ago, I found an interview online with Crenshaw that mentioned the collaboration, and yesterday I went looking again. I couldn’t relocate what I’d seen before, but I did come across something from 2008, one of those articles that papers do when an artist is soon to make a local appearance, usually including bits from a phone interview (this one was in The Morning Call, a Lehigh Valley affair). The thrust of the piece concerns Crenshaw’s recent success writing the title song for the movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (it nabbed a Golden Globe nomination). But Marshall goes on about a missed opportunity:

Crenshaw’s diligence was motivated partly by the regret he still feels at not trying harder when asked to contribute a song to the winsome 1996 Tom Hanks-directed cult fave “That Thing You Do!”

“I pulled something I had written with Kirsty MacColl off the shelf and sent it in…(t)he song, ‘All I Ever Wanted,’ was a single in England [in 1991]. I wrote the music, she wrote the lyrics. Later, when the film [about an Erie band that scores a hit in 1964] came out and I saw how good it was, I thought, “I could have gotten a song in this movie.”‘

Len Righi (& Marshall Crenshaw), The Morning Call, 1/17/08

I was not surprised at all to learn that Crenshaw’s contribution to “All I Ever Wanted” was the music, but the notion that he hadn’t tried to use the tune himself until That Thing You Do! didn’t sound right to me.

“(We’re Gonna) Shake Up Their Minds” is track 7 on Downtown, Crenshaw’s stellar 1985 album. I’ve been holding back on you, as I’ve actually long been hoping to unearth confirmation for a connection between it and “All I Ever Wanted,” something I sensed almost immediately way back in the summer of 1991.

Hear me out: Steve Lillywhite was married to Kirsty for about a decade beginning in 1984, and he produced Crenshaw’s 1983 album Field Day. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine MacColl hanging around during the Field Day sessions. (I also ran into a message board post yesterday claiming Lillywhite had introduced the two.) KM and MC talk shop some nights, maybe after he’s finished laying down tracks for “Monday Morning Rock” or “All I Know Right Now,” they work on a song together…a couple years later, he fashions some new lyrics for that tune as he sorts out material for his third album.

It’s not that implausible, right? Can you hear what I do?

Portable Music

Yesterday was our anniversary (#24), and we elected to celebrate by getting takeout from our favorite Indian restaurant in Lexington. As I headed out to get it, I tuned the car stereo to 1st Wave on SiriusXM; much of the trip passed listening to Richard Blade’s Monday 6pm Eastern feature, The Magnificent Seven, in which he features seven New Wave songs that were charting in Britain on the current date in one year from the 80s. This week’s trip back in time was to 7/13/81, and Blade played tunes by (in order) Kraftwerk, Visage, Ultravox, Depeche Mode, Spandau Ballet, the Tom Tom Club, and the Specials. The only one of these I really knew was “Wordy Rappinghood,” from the sixth of those bands–I was chiming in with, “What are words worth?” from the opening clicks of the typewriter. Hearing it again for the first time in a while got me thinking about the projects the various members of Talking Heads pursued in the two-plus year break between Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues. Which in turn reminded me of a cassette James toted around with him during our last year of college.

While Chris and Tina were doing their dance/funk/rap thing with the Tom Tom Club, Jerry released a solo album, The Red and the Black, and David scored Twyla Tharp’s The Catherine Wheel. In addition, a two-disk live album, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, came out (as well as the fascinating Byrne/Brian Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, though it had mostly been recorded prior to Remain in Light). By the spring of 1986, James and I had been snarfing up the Heads’ albums for about two years, but at the time none of those 1981/82 releases had yet wound up in our hands. That’s when James came across a sampler cassette: Portable Music (Eight Songs from the Latest Albums by David Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club). One thing that was cool about it was that both sides of the tape included all eight cuts–no need to get up and flip it over after twenty minutes. I never picked up a copy for myself, but that doesn’t stop me today from checking out some of what it had to offer.

Last month’s Stereo Review in Review post noted that SR was not impressed by The Catherine Wheel, but there are several songs on it I enjoy (my Illinois office-mate Will ripped a cassette with The Catherine Wheel and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts for me in 1987). One of those is “My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks).”

The cassette version (but not the LP) of Tom Tom Club had a cover of “Under the Boardwalk” that may go on just a little long.

From The Name of This Band… came this tight live version of Remain in Light‘s “Houses in Motion.”

The most fun discovery for us was “Slink,” off The Red and the Black. We may have been known to occasionally bust out, “Have you ever been in a traffic jam? Have you ever needed a gram? Well, I have. But I got over it. Uh-huh, I got over it.” Harrison’s almost maniacal laughter as he ‘sings’ these lines won me over more than it should have.

No Byrne/Eno made it onto Portable Music, alas. I’m thinking I may need to fish out that tape from Will, though, and give it another listen this afternoon.

When It’s Good It’s Wicked At The Same Time

Somewhere along the line during my college years, a stack of The Kentucky Kernel, UK’s student newspaper, began being delivered to Transy on weekdays. James was usually good for picking a copy up and bringing it back to the room. One evening in the fall of 1985, he threw that day’s issue my way, pointing to the Letters to the Editor section. It contained a call to action of sorts, from an undergraduate with a memorable name: Kakie Urch. Entitled “Radio Free Lexington,” the letter noted the absence of a student-run radio station at UK, and asked, “why not us?” We soon discovered that Urch had struck a nerve. My recollection is that over the next few months, she penned several editorials appearing in the Kernel, laying out her case and a vision.

At this point, I wandered north and west to Illinois, but James stayed in Lexington to work on a master’s degree in computer science at UK, and he would give me periodic updates on Urch and company’s quest. In March 1988, WRFL (get it?) went on the air, frequency all the way over to the left at 88.1. Their first song, the result of a poll: “C’mon Every Beatbox,” by Big Audio Dynamite. Over their first four years of existence, I would tune in on those few occasions when I was in town. Eclectic was one word for their ethos, pretty much as you’d expect for any university radio station.

When I moved back in August of 1992, I leased an apartment on the southeastern side of Lexington, about a thirty-minute drive from my office at Georgetown. For the next year-plus, WRFL was a regular companion for both portions of my commute. Even though a decent percentage of what they played was not exactly my thing, there was enough of interest to keep me coming back. Let’s take a look at a few songs that RFL threw my way back then.

Mudhoney, “Suck You Dry”
Here’s a band of ground-zero grungers, straight out of the Sub Pop/Seattle scene. This was the first single from Piece of Cake, their first major-label release. Did I mention that a decent percentage of what RFL played was not exactly my thing?

Ween, “The Stallion Pt. 3”
These guys went on to become cult favorites, but I think they were a little too out there for me. Nonetheless, I was taken in by this distinctly oddball semi-running gag (Parts 1 and 2 appeared on their previous album, while parts 4 and 5 came several years later). Also heard Pure Guava‘s single “Push Th’ Little Daisies” a few times which, come to think of it, may explain why I didn’t pursue Ween any further.

Giving due credit: you’re reading this piece now because of a tweet last night by friend-of-the-blog Kurt Blumenau. Got me thinking about the old days…

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Fuzzbox, “Pink Sunshine”
Hearing something so poppy, even if was three years old, was a welcome contrast to much of RFL’s playlist. Known in their native England as We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It, these four women started off much more punkish. For their second (and final) album Big Bang!, they enlisted the aid of Liam Sternberg on three tunes, including “Pink Sunshine.” It and two other songs on Big Bang! went Top 20 in the UK, but only “Self!” scratched the Modern Rock Tracks chart here (alas, I overlooked it in last October’s MRT post). At least as of a few years ago, vocalist Vickie Perks was still in the biz, fronting an Americana all-female band called ViX and her MsChiefs (who had their own take on “Pink Sunshine”).

Shonen Knife, “Twist Barbie”
My fave discovery from this era, a rockin’ trio of women from Japan. “Twist Barbie” is all kinds of awesome, although the song of theirs you’re most likely to have heard is an earnest cover of “Top of the World” on the Carpenters tribute album If I Were a Carpenter.

A couple of other notable cuts I learned about through RFL: “She Don’t Use Jelly,” by the Flaming Lips, and that tune from King Missile about a detachable, well, you know.

I moved to Georgetown at Christmas break in 1993; without those sorta-extended trips in the car, listening to RFL became a much less frequent pastime. But Radio Free Lexington is still very much a thing in my neck of the woods, thirty-two years old now and counting. And Kakie Urch? She’s an associate professor at UK, in, you guessed it, their School of Journalism and Media.

It’s All Beginning To Feel Like Pretending

On Monday, I could tell that more of my students are really starting to feel the strain. As time’s gone by, a higher percentage of them aren’t turning their cameras on during our Zoom sessions; most are muting themselves, too. I can understand that to a good extent, but not being able to see their faces/reactions sure makes it tougher to judge how well–or not–I’m communicating.

I think my hair may be longer than it’s been since 1985.

Classes run through next Wednesday, but in all but one of my courses, I can live with saying I’ve covered sufficient material. (My students aren’t the only ones ready to be done.) I’ve still got another round of exams to give, plus finals. It’s going to be a test writing-filled next ten days.

One fun thing that’s come out of this experience is that several of my Illinois bridge-playing friends have gotten together the last few Tuesday evenings on BridgeBase, a top online bridge site. We also Zoom so that we can engage in a bit of trash-talking. For a couple of hours, we get to act like we’re around a kitchen table in someone’s apartment in Urbana, instead of spread out across Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, and California. In many respects, we haven’t changed much at all.

It was a lovely day here. Martha and I have been going on lengthy walks the last several days, and today it felt like we saw an uptick in outdoor activity going on, not all of it performed six feet apart. I suspect lots of folks will only be getting more restless as time passes.

Right before going to bed Monday night, this song from Summerteeth (what an album) popped into my head. I was pretty bummed about my students’ seeming exhaustion; maybe the title seemed to describe their current state of mind.

Not The People That We Dream

This evening, this very moment, I’d planned to be in Alexandria, VA, on a quick weekend getaway to visit my good friend Greg and his family. I’d made arrangements to give exams this morning so that I could hop a nonstop flight into Dulles from Lexington. The attraction? A concert, of course–10,000 Maniacs. Almost thirty years after Greg had first tried to get me to go with him. This time last month, I thought it was going to actually happen. Even if it was Mary Ramsey and not Natalie Merchant on vocals, it would have been grand. Alas.

Here’s the song that would have kicked off the show (at least according to setlist.fm). Feels somehow appropriate to play it tonight.

Stay safe, everyone.

I Can’t Close My Eyes

The week about to end has been Spring Break at my institution, but heading into it, I was wondering what things would look like on the other side. Events surrounding the spread of COVID-19 around the world seemed to begin quickening last week and have only sped up since. It became apparent by Monday evening that it was unlikely classes would be resuming as normal upon completion of the break, and late Wednesday afternoon, the news broke: three additional days of break, to be followed by remote instruction, at least through April 3. I’ve been thinking since about how I’m going to make this transition–it’s going to be unlike anything I’ve attempted before. The college has identified some potentially useful tools for us and is providing a modicum of training in their use. It’s now time to get after it, I suppose.

Other than a few errands on Monday around where I grew up and several trips to the grocery, I’ve tried to keep myself remote throughout the week. I’m teaching a class in mathematical modeling this semester, and the book we use contains a unit on disease modeling; in particular, there’s a section on a model for the 2003 SARS outbreak. Just a few weeks ago, the class and I implemented it using one of our software tools, and we saw the impact of quarantining: it did indeed “flatten the curve,” allowing the outbreak to last longer but at a lower intensity throughout. I think perhaps I should have, but I didn’t realize then we were heading toward this pandemic.

One thing I’ve come to realize this week is that, at least where I live, social distancing doesn’t necessarily mean staying cooped up in the house all day. With the impending arrival of spring, it’s getting to be nice enough now for lengthy walks around the neighborhood, with or without the dog. Martha and I were out Wednesday afternoon with Buddy when a song I haven’t heard in maybe a quarter-century popped into my head.

It’s from the Questionnaires, a band out of Nashville that had two LPs stiff before breaking up. “Window to the World” was the title song from the debut, released in 1989. I imagine the CD got placed in my hands by Greg, on one of our raids on the cutout bins. It’s possible you’re (more) familiar with the version that Shawn Colvin recorded for her 1994 album Cover Girl.

So why did I think of it this week? It’s foolish to speculate about how connections are made in my brain, but it is true that lots of folks’ windows to the world are changing radically right now, and we’re quite likely to see heroes rise (and fall, I fear) in the months to come.

Whenever One Door Closes

The first photo of me with my mother, ca. March 1964.

Which drew my attention first: Glen Campbell or Anne Murray? “Country Boy” or “Shadows in the Moonlight?”

I’m standing in the hallway around the corner, twenty feet from her room, taking a short break—maybe I’m on the phone with my wife or my sister. There’s another doorway right in front of me. On the other side of the threshold, a radio belonging to a wheelchair-bound woman with dementia is playing country songs that were popular back when she could hold on to her memories. She must be quite hard of hearing as well, since the aides are keeping the music turned up LOUD for her about ten hours every day.

Mom’s been at Dover Manor for a few days, and she’s still thoroughly angry with me. Before long, she’ll move three doors down the hall, on the other side of the blaring radio, to a corner room in the front of the building, one of the only singles in the whole place. Its previous resident has just passed on.

I head back to her current room. Her roommate’s TV is tuned into the Hallmark Channel—it’s the second week of December, time for one feel-good Christmas movie after another—but Mom isn’t the slightest bit interested. 

Continue reading “Whenever One Door Closes”

I Only Like Dreaming All The Day Long

On Wednesday evening, while Martha and I were walking the dog, my high school friend Bill texted me a pleasant surprise:

That would be 19-year-old yours truly, hanging out in 220 Clay Hall, sometime in his freshman spring semester, 1983 (that’s probably about as big as I ever let my hair grow out, by the way). Bill and Tony, another HS classmate, drove down to visit me a couple of times that year, and clearly Bill brought a camera with him once. The photo, charming as it is, was re-discovered this week by Bill’s mom. I’d long forgotten how full the walls around my bed were that year. The two laminated posters to my left had been HS graduation gifts from yet another classmate (if you squint, perhaps you can tell the lower one is a Ziggy poster; she was a big fan). Was I busy with calculus HW, or my research paper on Sikhism? I don’t know, but note the clear evidence that I used a dictionary at least once while in college!

Then yesterday on the way to work, I heard a song on SiriusXM’s 1st Wave that also took me back to that room, right around this time of year. Men at Work’s “Be Good Johnny” was never released as a third single from Business As Usual here in the U.S, but TM Stereo Rock, the vendor supplying WLAP-FM’s automated playlist, added it for a few weeks anyway. I assume that the label decided against putting it out after recognizing that Cargo was almost ready to go? Granted, “Overkill” is easily Men at Work’s best single, but in the alternative world that resides in my head, “Be Good Johnny” peaked at #24 on the Hot 100 just as “Overkill” made its debut in mid-April…

Half a Lifetime Ago

There are fourteen variations on a Gregorian calendar–January 1 occurs on each day of the week in two forms (one without a Leap Day, one with). It almost always takes twenty-eight years to run through a “calendar cycle;” that is, with exceptions around most turns-of-centuries, any given date will land on each day of the week four times in any twenty-eight year span, with some version of a 5-6-11-6 pattern of years between occurrences, repeating from cycle to cycle.

Today I’m starting my third trip though a calendar cycle. I was born the Thursday after the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show; it’s pleasing enough to be able to say that “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was #1 when I made my debut. The Top 40 from two days later has lots of names and bands recognizable even now to people roughly my age, if not quite as many memorable songs.

Twenty-eight years later, I was in my last semester in grad school, trying to find a job. The #1 song then was a cultural touchstone of sorts, I suppose: “I’m Too Sexy,” by Right Said Fred. The chart has some other notable tracks–“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Mysterious Ways,” “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”– but there’s also plenty there I wasn’t giving the slightest attention (I might be looking at you, Color Me Badd). That Thursday night, Greg and I went to a concert in the 1300+-seat Foellinger Auditorium, sitting on the south edge of the main quad at the University of Illinois. I was much more familiar with the opening act, but it was a great show from start to finish. Here are two songs we heard that night, one from each of the two acts on the bill.

According to the set list from the show, “My Wife and My Dead Wife” came at the end of the first encore. What I recall is the wholly affecting performance Hitchcock gave singing it, absolutely the most striking moment of the evening. That video I’ve embedded is pretty fun; the young woman who made it plays all three of the song’s characters.

I wish I could say I was going to a concert tonight, but the primary local opportunity is Kiss playing Rupp Arena–I could stand maybe ten minutes of that. (We’re going to see the Chieftains on Saturday, instead.) And alas, I’ve become too old to care much about what’s on the Hot 100 these days.

Expect posting to be lighter than normal for the next two-plus weeks. There’s something I’ve been wanting to try to get down in writing for a while now, so most blogging-time in the near term will be going toward that project instead. I can’t tell right now if you’ll see all, some, or none of the resulting work here eventually.