Bearing A Gift Beyond Price, Almost Free

A couple of years ago, my college hired a new professor for our Department of Communication and Media Studies. Among her duties was to resuscitate and serve as advisor for WRVG, our college’s small low-power station, which had lain dormant for much of the 2010s. She’s done a lot in a short period, figuring out how to get the station back on the air (first on campus and more recently as a stream), conducting fundraisers to refurbish the studio (yes, there’s a skeleton that serves as a mascot–his name is Otto, in honor of music going on auto-play when there’s no one around), expanding the library, and overseeing a small cadre of student DJs and other workers, mostly in the midst of a pandemic.

Not long after she started, I reached out to my new colleague to learn a little about the task before her. WRVG had been around in some form much longer than I’ve been at Georgetown (it’s actually got quite a history, only part of which is told at the station’s Wikipedia page), and despite my past experience and long-standing interest in radio, I’d never previously sought to become involved. Maybe a combination of things–our nest had just emptied, some of the folks I’ve met through blogging, learning about the demise of the station at my undergrad institution–raised my interest this time. While dealing with COVID’s impact on my teaching duties has kept me plenty occupied for the past eighteen months, I didn’t forget about WRVG; truth be told, I was harboring hope of hosting a weekly show.

My colleague was receptive to the idea when I emailed her over the summer. Last week she showed me how to work the board, yesterday I watched one of the student DJs for a while, and this afternoon, I turned on the mike and let it rip for sixty minutes. In spite of a technical issue or two and stumbling over my own tongue here and there, I had a blast. The current plan for the fall semester is to mine the contents of my digital library from 2:00-3:00pm Eastern each Thursday that school is in session. I can record my shows, and so I’m hoping to post links to them here–we’ll see. In the meantime, you can listen to the stream anytime you like at wrvg.radio12345.com. I’m definitely planning on tuning in more often.

The show today was a mix of pop/AOR tracks from 1979-1986 and songs I discovered after digging on Pandora around 2008. Here’s one of the latter, the delightful “Falling,” from Texan Ben Kweller’s 2002 album Sha Sha.

Let Me Hear You Through The Heat

This past weekend I spent my first night away from home since November 2019. Friday morning, I pointed the car first north and then west, toward the Land of Lincoln. It took much longer than expected to get there (first an accident and then construction led to more than an hour of sitting still on the interstate), but eventually I strolled back into Champaign-Urbana, home away from home during my mid-20s.

I’d made arrangements for a couple of meet-ups, first with Bruce Reznick, my advisor. Next year will be thirty years since I completed my doctorate, but Bruce is yet to retire (he’s about a decade older than I). Due to some long-planned renovations in Altgeld Hall, the math building, he’s having to move offices this summer, so I met him on campus. We walked around, got carry-out of some fine Asian cuisine for dinner, and sat at a nearby picnic table to eat and talk.

After checking out of the hotel Saturday morning, I met up with my grad school roommate John, who drove down from Chicago with a friend to hang out for a few hours. We did the Urbana Farmers Market, had lunch at an old haunt, revisited various campus sights (though due to COVID restrictions, we couldn’t enter any buildings other than the bookstore), went to a goat farm/creamery just outside of town, and hit up our favorite frozen custard stand (vanilla with banana and cold fudge–pretty tasty).

I remarked both to Bruce and John how much I enjoy being back in Champaign-Urbana. Obviously, so much has changed in the almost thirty years I’ve been gone, but yet, so much hasn’t–the quad on campus, the area around the park where I took my walk Saturday morning, downtown Urbana. What I came to realize in talking with them was that it’s really being back in Champaign-Urbana in the summer that’s especially enjoyable. Sure, it’s usually a little hotter than one might like (it was sunny and around 90° on Saturday), and not as much goes on culturally as during the school year, but honestly there’s much to recommend about a university town when its 33,000 undergraduates aren’t around. My official duties over the summer were lighter then than on average, so it was easier to be spontaneous (within budget, of course).

On the way back to KY on Saturday night, I kept the car radio off and meditated more on how many of my best feelings about and memories of the grad school years are concentrated in the summers. It wasn’t hard to begin assembling some thoughts about each of those six years, as well as some music that still takes me back there.

1987: I took a couple of classes in the first half of the summer. Math grad students were required to demonstrate reading proficiency in two foreign languages (the options were French, German, and Russian). The two French classes I took my senior year of college placed me in the second half of French for Reading, which went well enough. I also took a course in Probability Theory, in part to get me back on track for dropping a course in the spring.

A couple of years ago I wrote about an early July foray to Chicago with John. He reminded me this weekend that on our way back to Urbana from that trip on I-57, we witnessed any number of cities’ firework displays (it was July 4 weekend, after all). Since it was my Summer of Suzy V, he recalled the dubbed cassette containing her first two albums was playing on my ’86 Camry’s tape deck as we watched the parade of pyrotechnics heading south.

1988: In the spring I’d taken the first Russian for Reading course. Since I didn’t have any summer teaching duties and wouldn’t be dealing with prelim exams until January, I took Professor Hill, the Russian instructor, up on an offer: if I could translate two page-long mathematical passages sufficiently well in a timed setting (dictionary allowed), he would certify I didn’t need to take the second course. I spent a few weeks practicing–I picked a few books off the shelf in the math library, photocopied a page or three from each, and then, with trusty Russian-to-English dictionary in hand, powered through them. Imagine my shock when I got the two passages from Comrade Hill (as my officemates and I had semi-affectionately taken to calling him) and discovered that one of them was a page I’d already worked on in my practice sessions! It has to be the most similar thing I’ll ever experience to winning the lottery. The greatest stroke of luck was in choosing the book; I imagine that its spine had some degree of “memory” from having been opened wide previously (by Professor Hill?), making it more likely I’d get the ‘right’ page. I didn’t let on to him about my fortune (nor did I tell anyone in the math program)–I just accepted the passing mark. Preparation meeting opportunity, indeed.

This was a memorably hot summer, the hottest of my years in C-U, but that didn’t stop John and me from getting out to the golf course frequently. It was the year I recorded my personal best 18-hole score (45 on the front, 40 on the back, and yes, I still have the scorecard).

Union, the debut disk from Toni Childs, was one of many albums getting frequent play at that moment.

1989: In many ways, the lost summer of these years, treading water as I prepared to transition to reading papers with Bruce. Two years ago, I covered much of what went down that summer: playing math camp counselor, getting back into bridge, trips east and west. (There was plenty of golf, too.) When I was in the apartment, I was giving Blind Man’s Zoo more than the occasional spin.

1990: I’ve revisited this summer plenty enough, too: witnessing baseball history in Boston before tending to some bridge business, making the first bits on progress on dissertation research. John got married and settled back into Chicago life; in August I moved into a one-bedroom apartment and was hanging out at Sunday afternoon “barbecues” with relatively new friends.

Kirsty MacColl’s Kite was easily the album I was listening to most then.

1991: Thirty years ago this week I was in Vegas for the first time, with Mark L, Milind, and Chris, as we tried again–unsuccessfully–to win the Flight C (non-Life Master) Grand National Teams at the summer North American Bridge Championships. We stayed in a little hotel on the Strip called Westward Ho, just behind the Circus Circus and across from the Riviera. While I had some minor success at low stakes blackjack tables, I was pleased not to be bitten by the gambling bug. Had the biggest airplane ride scare of my life on the return, somewhere in Iowa: the pilot pulled up suddenly and rapidly out of descent when we were pretty close to touchdown, to circle around and try again. Clearly, I lived to tell.

More about that summer next week, but it was another Season of MacColl, as Electric Landlady had been released in late June. This is not the T-Rex/Violent Femmes song; Kirsty wrote it with Johnny Marr, and has something else entirely in mind.

1992: I didn’t defend my dissertation until late June (on my father’s birthday), but defend I did. A LOT of time that summer was spent in the car, back and forth between IL and KY as I began planning to move back for my new job, and to Canada for another bridge trip. I was listening to pop radio while on the road a little more than usual then, and invariably cranked it when Sophie B. came on.

From time to time, I think about the possibility of spending a few weeks in Champaign-Urbana, most likely during a summer break. (Nostalgia, as you know, is clearly a thing in my life.) One of the larger obstacles to doing so would be figuring out the logistics of living arrangements–could I feasibly find a UofI faculty member who’s going to be out of town for an extended period willing to ‘rent’ to a late-period mathematician and his wife? What about our house?

Maybe it’s a dream that won’t come, perhaps shouldn’t come, to fruition. After all, deeper reflection makes me aware that maybe 90% of what made C-U summers so memorable and enjoyable, so treasured now, were my friends.

Leave In Control Room

My guess is it’s not uncommon for folks who work at college radio stations to take a souvenir or two on their way out the door—given the state of the WTLX library in the fall of 1983, surely those who came before us had absconded with much of the good stuff that had at some point been there (there were hundreds of LPs in a closet, very few of which looked interesting to this then-Top 40 snob; as I believe I’ve noted before, there was no doubt a failure to recognize many quality platters). At least some of my peers and, I must confess, yours truly, may have also succumbed to this temptation. My roommate James trundled off with a few Dr. Demento disks from the 1983-84 school year and a multi-LP history of Canada, but I think he considers the big prize to be an album from West Virginia psychedelic/Christian band Mind Garage (side one of 1970’s Mind Garage Again! includes covers of “Tobacco Road” and well-known hits from Little Richard, Elvis, and the Stones, while side two was comprised of the band-penned The Electric Liturgy).

Warren took something completely different. One Saturday night in the spring semester of 1984, he, James, and I were hanging down in the station, rummaging around the library, looking I suppose for hidden gems (WTLX was off the air on Saturdays). Among a stack of reel-to-reel tapes was one with a handwritten title that immediately raised eyebrows: Uncle Pervy. Well, you know we had to check it out. Fortunately (?), the station’s ancient reel machine was still functional, and soon we were learning about the, er…, unseemly proclivities of the title character and hearing a lot of heavy breathing. It went on for several minutes, clearly sprung from the fevered imaginations of a couple of our predecessors at the station. I’d guess it was done sometime in the mid-to-late 70s; one wonders about their level of sobriety at the time of recording. I’ll admit the three of us were much more entertained by this discovery than perhaps we should have been, and that name became part of our shared lexicon over the next couple of years. Warren reports the tape is currently buried in a closet at his house.

(Aside: I wonder if the perpetrators of the UP tape have stayed in touch over the years, or see each other at reunions. Do they have a laugh about that drunken night in the radio station? There’s zero chance they’ll ever see this article, but maybe they didn’t realize they left the evidence behind, never thought someone might come across it?)

(Another aside: In messaging about all this with my friends earlier this month, Warren mentioned an album from the library he coveted but didn’t take, only to find the station’s copy (a magic-markered ‘WTLX’ on the cover was a dead giveaway) for sale a few years later at one of the used-record stores in Lexington. Makes me realize that folks weren’t always getting stuff from the station for personal collections—I imagine some of it turned into cash for Budweiser, Thunderbird, or pot.)

As for me, I didn’t (as far as I recall) spirit away any vinyl or reels when I graduated. No, I’d long had my eye on the single copy of Billboard I noticed the first time I ever set foot in the station. Dated 1/31/81, it was more than five years out of date when I liberated it from the basement of Clay Hall—despite the admonition in the upper left corner of the front page, I guess I figured no one would need it anymore or miss it. (That no one had disturbed it in the interim probably says something about the level of housekeeping we maintained.)

It’s now forty years old, and of course I still have it—let’s celebrate its birthday by taking a gander at and sharing a few of the goodies inside.

–On the cover is an advertisement for Grace Slick’s latest solo record, Welcome to the Wrecking Ball. Take a look at the breathless copy her record company provided.

Au contraire, said Steve Simels about six months later in Stereo Review: words he used to describe Slick’s efforts include ludicrous, sad, pointless, posturing, desperate, and depressing. (I’ve never heard anything from it, so I can’t weigh in.) She’d be back with the Starship within eighteen months, eventually enjoying maximum success singing about corporation games.

–The first installment of a five-week series on the 1981 Grammy nominees for Record of the Year is in this issue. They’re leading off with the eventual winner, “Sailing.” The article recaps Cross’s difficulty in landing a contract and mentions that the original choice for second single was “I Really Don’t Know Anymore” (Michael McDonald apparently put the kibosh on that). Hindsight and all that, but I can’t imagine that one being much of a hit.

–“Plasmatics Melee in Milwaukee” recounts an incident at the Palms on 1/18. Wendy O. and the band’s manager faced multiple charges, including battery, and in Williams’s case, “suggestive stage movements with a sledgehammer and with her own body” violated a city ordinance. The article includes allegations by the manager that police officers engaged in an “aggressive body search” of Williams; when she fought back, she was hit with resisting arrest. You can find additional information here.

–In “Doors Selling,” a VP of sales for Elektra notes that all twelve of the LPs from Jim Morrison and company sold more in 1980 than any year previous; ten are now gold.

–The Singles Radio Action sheet reports that nationally the Prime Movers are “9 To 5,” “Woman,” and “Hey Nineteen,” while the Top Add Ons are “Hello Again,” “Hearts On Fire,” and “What Kind of Fool.”

–WLUP in Chicago is running a contest featuring five “montage(s) of rock song snippets aired as sonic puzzles to be deciphered by listeners.” The first solver of each wins a cool $100K. The article focuses on the efforts of rival station WMET to play spoiler by ‘decoding’ the montages for their audience.

–Under Hits of the World, Ultravox’s “Vienna” is #16 in Britain, “Looking for Clues” from Robert Palmer sits at #17 in Canada, and Kate Bush is #3 in France with “Babooshka,” all evidence that taste in music here in the States at this moment was rather lacking.

–On the album reviews page: 1) Top Pop Album Picks are Marvin Gaye’s In Our Lifetime and the triple-LP Sandanista! from the Clash; 2) First Time Around, which highlights debut disks, features Stiv Bators, The Teardrop Explodes, and Yello; 3) Recommended LPs include The Skill by Australian AOR band The Sherbs (which found a spot in my collection within a year) and the latest effort from a struggling singer who’d recently scored a gig on General Hospital, playing some cat by the name of Noah Drake. Working Class Dog is described as “Catchy, mainstream rock produced by a young pro that sounds like perfect AOR fare.” Notably, “Jessie’s Girl” is not listed among its ‘Best Cuts.’

–The Hot 100 is missing, perhaps cut out to be posted on a wall at the station (alas, reviews of new singles were on the other side of that page). We do have the album chart, though. LPs in the Top 50 I eventually owned are Crimes of Passion (#2), Hi Infidelity (#12), Making Movies (#26), Christopher Cross (#31), Glass Houses (#35), and Remain In Light (#50). (My sister had Paradise Theater, which is bowing in at #18.) In the wake of John Lennon’s murder, there are scads of Beatles and Lennon albums strewn throughout the chart (and of course, Double Fantasy is #1). Dark Side of the Moon is in its 348th week on the chart, holding steady at #137 (Second in longevity is The Cars—136 weeks—barely hanging on at #198.)

If you want to view this issue in its almost entirety, you can find it (minus the Hot 100) at worldradiohistory.com

I’ve wondered from time to time how it is that magazine wound up in WTLX’s studio, and maybe why there weren’t any others. How active had the station been during the 80-81 school year? Were they trying to do a pop hits format? If so, why were there so few records, including 45s, from that time frame just two years later? I suppose I speculated about this last question up at the top; I’m just sorry that whatever momentum there had been before my cohort’s arrival on campus had stalled out.

We don’t play nearly enough Kate Bush around here, so even though I wouldn’t hear it for another six years (until I purchased The Whole Story), here’s “Babooshka”—a dark inversion of Rupert Holmes’s “Escape.”

Courtesy of Disk Jockey Records…

I’ve written before that our trips to the record store to buy vinyl for the music library at WTLX often netted us a few free promo albums that the manager at Disk Jockey Records decided he didn’t want to play in-store, particularly during the 1983-84 school year. We lucked out on a couple that proved to be hits, most notably Cyndi Lauper’s She So Unusual. The vast majority wound up being stiffs commercially, but since our library was pretty out-of-date (probably due to a combination of neglect and raids by graduating seniors of years past), it was good to have some new-ish releases on hand. I can still see several of the LP jackets in my head, even if I didn’t always give them a try (I hope other jocks did).

Let’s take a look at five disks among those that wound up in our mitts. Friends of the time–you’re welcome to remind me of others.

The Rubinoos, Party of Two
Let’s start with one I should have definitely paid more mind. I missed out on their cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which peaked at #45 in May of 1977. Six years later, the original foursome had winnowed down to a duo, Jon Rubin and Tommy Dunbar. They tried to jump start their career with this Rundgren/Utopia-produced EP. I’m pretty sure I listened to “If I Had You Back” a time or two while the station was off the air; how I didn’t dig it enough to play it during one of my shows is a big mystery.

Bill Nelson, Vistamix
I believe I knew of (by name only) Be-Bop Deluxe by the time I was in college. Former leader Bill Nelson was well into pursuing a solo career by 1984, when this compilation came out. Another one I spun a couple of times out of curiosity only–“Flaming Desire,” from a couple of years before, was the one that caught my ear.

The Circle Jerks, Golden Shower of Hits
This is the LP that broke through among me and my friends. Off-color band and album name? Urinal on the cover? Amber liquid of unknown provenance arriving from the left? Check, check, and check. Hardcore punk, with song titles like “Parade of the Horribles.” “Coup d’Etat,” and “When the Shit Hits the Fan” (an unplugged version of that last one appears on the Repo Man soundtrack–James bought that a year or so later). Not particularly my style, but it did hold quite a bit of entertainment value for several 18- and 19-year olds. I can see why a record store might not feature this during business hours.

Our favorite, and one which I’m sure I played on my show at least a couple of times, was the title track, subtitled “Jerks on 45.” It’s exactly what you think it is and if you’ve never heard it, definitely give it a listen. I won’t spoil the fun by revealing any of the songs they include, but I will say that it’s actually coherent (as opposed to, say, one of Weird Al’s polka medleys): somewhere in the last few years I read it tracks the life cycle of a relationship.

Kissing the Pink, S/T
This British group (later known simply as KTP) appears to have released this EP and their debut album, Naked, almost simultaneously. Kinda odd, since they share three cuts. One of them, “Maybe This Day,” is the only song on any of these albums to have hit the U.S pop charts, peaking at #87 in late August. If I ever threw this on the turntable, I sure don’t remember it.

Fun Boy Three, Waiting
If I’d known about the Specials back then, perhaps I would have given this album by three of their alums more of a chance. As it was, I probably couldn’t process the juxtaposition of a band with “Fun” in their names and the dour looks I saw on the cover. No doubt I gave the cover of “Our Lips Are Sealed” a shot (vocalist Terry Hall co-wrote it with Jane Wiedlin), but I wasn’t ready for such a somber take. I do wish I’d paid attention to “Tunnel of Love,” though (a Top 10 hit in the UK).

If I could be a sophomore in college all over again, I hope I’d choose to have wider musical horizons.

TP: Gaetti-Newman-Hrbek (2)

Thirty years ago today, a Tuesday, I was in Boston.

Later in the week, I’d meet up with Mark L, Milind, and Mike, the same three guys I’d traveled with to Fort Worth back in March. Then, we’d vied for the North American Collegiate Bridge Championship (we were eliminated in the semifinals). Now, we were representing District 11 in the non-Life Master division of the Grand National Teams, one of twenty-five teams spanning the U.S. and Canada left competing for the title. In the spring, we had spent a weekend in Peoria, slogging our way through a field of foursomes from across Illinois, northwest Indiana, and St. Louis, hoping to emerge the winner of a trip to the 1990 Summer Nationals. Mike had continued to coach me up across the months, and some of it was actually taking hold. While I was still easily the weak link on the team, I held my cards well enough so that we prevailed without too much worry. The District generously covered our airfare and a couple nights of lodging at the host hotel. I arranged to leave a few days ahead of the others to visit my mother’s cousin and her family, who lived in Wellesley.

Thirty years ago tonight, I was at Fenway Park.

I’ve been fortunate to visit several of baseball’s storied parks over the years. By this point, I’d seen games in Crosley, Wrigley, and Candlestick. I would attend the fourth game ever played at Camden Yards in 1992. In 2005, I’d make a pilgrimage to the first Yankee Stadium. I wouldn’t mind taking road trips someday whose main goal was to expand the list of stadia in which I’ve watched a game. On this trip to Beantown, I must have made a request of my relatives to go see the Sox. Luckily, they were in town, playing host to the Twins. My cousin Sandi and I took the T down to the park, along with a female exchange student from Europe (I don’t recall which country) who was living with some neighbors. Our seats were out in the center-field bleachers–I don’t have a ticket stub, but if I had to guess, I’d say we were either in Section 36 or 37. The pitching match-up was soft-tossing lefty Tom Bolton for the Sox vs. soft-tossing rookie right-hander Scott Erickson for the Twins. I’ve got a soft spot for Erickson–he, along with an up-and-comer named Tom Glavine, anchored the rotation for my third-place 1991 fantasy baseball team.

Thirty years ago, in the bottom of the fourth inning, the Twinkies turned a triple play.

The game was still scoreless when it went walk-double-walk to Wade Boggs, Jody Reed, and Carlos Quintana, bringing former Twin Tom Brunansky to the plate with the sacks jammed. Brunansky grounded sharply to Gary Gaetti at third, who was close enough to the bag to step on it and fire the ball to Al Newman at second, who in turn pivoted quickly enough to Kent Hrbek to nail Brunansky in a bang-bang play at first. I always go to the park hoping to see something unusual; witnessing my first triple play certainly qualified.

Thirty years ago, in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Twinkies turned a triple play.

Cincinnati native shortstop Tim Naehring had singled in an unearned run off of Erickson for Boston in the fifth, and the home nine was still up 1-0 as they came up to bat for what they hoped was the last time. Naehring led the frame off with a double against John Candelaria (who amazingly still had three seasons left in his career after this one), and Boggs followed with a walk. Skipper Joe Morgan sent the runners as Jody Reed scorched one down the third base line…straight to Gaetti, who had moved over to cover the bag. Around the horn it went again, much more easily this time. I was agog.

As the Twins came up to face closer Jeff Reardon (who indeed would get the save), the PA announcer informed the crowd that this was the first time in MLB history two triple plays had occurred in the same game. While I don’t know whether I expected that to be the case, it was hardly surprising. In this SABR article about the game, they cite a computation by a mathematics professor who claims the odds of such a feat happening as about 370,000-1. In other words, I shouldn’t expect it to occur again in my (or even my son’s) lifetime.

Other than seeing my son start a game-ending 1-4 triple play in coach-pitch Little League ball, this is (and likely will always be) the coolest baseball feat I’ve witnessed in person.

As for the bridge…alas, we were eliminated in our first match. Mike had graduated in May and would be off to Chicago for law school in another month or so. If we were to try to continue our relative success, we needed to find a new fourth. Fortunately, I’d be forming a fruitful partnership with Chris, an accounting grad student, in the fall.

Diamond Follies

Now that the semester is just about finished (I’m administering two finals today, one tomorrow, to be quickly followed by mucho grading), I’m starting to feel like I can relax just a little. As it happens, I’ll be filling some of my near-term downtime with a couple of baseball-related pursuits.

Tonight, I’ll be participating in my first ever Strat-o-Matic draft. Grad school pal Toby has been playing Strat for several years now, and over the winter he convinced me to give the league he plays in a try. I got my cards back in February, and soon spent a couple of hours punching them out and doing some sorting. Toby and I scrimmaged via Skype (he lives in the Bay Area) a few times back in the first half of March. Originally I planned to participate in the April monthly tournament, but the move to online classes scotched that. Now, though…

There are five ten-team divisions in this month’s tourney; I’ll be playing four games head-to-head against the other nine folks in my division over the next three-plus weeks. The top three from each division advance to the playoffs (best record overall gets a first-round bye). I’ll be pleased enough if I finish with close to a .500 record and don’t make anyone mad with my slow play (I’m working on getting up to speed on the rules).

I’ve done fantasy baseball off-and-on over the years but I can tell this will be a different sort of experience. I may not be the only newbie tonight–I’ve seen reports in the last week or so about substantial increases in Strat-o-Matic sales during these quarantining times.

In a different vein: recently, friend-of-the-blog Kurt Blumenau posted about a box of junk wax (a previously unopened box of 1988 Fleer baseball cards) he purchased not long ago. He’s opening the packs one at a time, and seems to be about one-sixth of the way through the box now. I was reminded that I have the opportunity to do something similar: some large number of years ago, I picked up a sealed box of 1993 Topps Series 1 cards, marked down to $6 from $15. Exactly when, where, and why? Got me; I suspect it sounded like a possibly good investment. Plus, I’ve long been a sucker for baseball cards.

And guess what? Maybe it wasn’t a total waste of money. A quick trip to eBay this afternoon revealed a box just like mine bid up to $125, with nine hours still to go. Hmmm…

I was pretty surprised that something from that era would command such interest; then I found out about Derek Jeter’s rookie card, #98, the only truly valuable piece in the whole 825-card set. Does the possibility of realizing a return tempt me? Maybe a little, but duplicating Kurt’s pleasure in opening the packs myself is just too attractive. Getting a Jeter (or even a Ken Griffey, Jr.) would simply be icing on the cake. Perhaps I’ll reward myself with a pack for each set of final grades I submit?

Look for a different sort of post on baseball in two weeks.

Is It All Inside My Head?

Our day-to-day functioning has been reasonably disrupted by some remodeling chez Harris for the past month, one result of which has been eating out a little more often than the norm. A couple of weeks ago we found ourselves at one of the local chicken-oriented fast-food places on our way to choir practice. Like pretty much every other restaurant, they were piping music in as background noise for patrons. Well…it’s background noise for most patrons. For some—trust me on this—it can be an opportunity to play mental hopscotch through time and space all while putting fork to mouth over, say, a ten-minute span. Here’s what Martha had to endure for dinner conversation that evening: vignettes about three songs that were played back-to-back-to-back, spanning sixteen years and three states. Just for kicks, you get a bonus track from each scene.

1. July 1995: The Rembrandts, “I’ll Be There for You”
The scene: a two-lane highway in southern Ohio

Martha and I had met six months prior, and it’s fair to say we’d already begun contemplating a future together. She’s nowhere to be found here, though—she was in the middle of a vacation to Germany with her sister Ruth. A black-and-white stray cat had started hanging outside my house in May; I made the mistake of offering her food, and a few weeks later she rewarded my largesse by shepherding her five kittens into the back yard. Ultimately I kept the mother, whom I named Tori—after Tori Amos, of course—and two of her babies (Ruth took in one of the others). One of those kittens was with us until Spring 2013. I had new wheels, having just traded in my light blue 86 Camry for a teal Geo Prizm. And I was in my first summer of working PAEMS, the science/math camp for high schoolers my school runs.

Those early years of PAEMS included an overnight trip. On this occasion, we drove Friday afternoon to a nature park/campsite an hour or so up the Ohio River from Cincinnati. It was beastly hot, and our accommodations were unventilated yurts—not a restful night. My student assistant was Alex, the son of a faculty colleague. Alex was majoring in math with an eye on med school, and was a few years older than the typical college senior—this was his second degree.  It was easy to trust him to drive one of our twelve-passenger vans on the way home while I rode shotgun, commanding the radio. (The next week, Alex and I would take one night off to see Wilco and the Jayhawks play in Lexington—one of my all-time favorite concerts.)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Friends; wasn’t even aware until I was writing this up that there’s a 25th anniversary celebration going on. I did come to know most of the characters’ names back in the day, was well aware of Lisa Kudrow’s “Smelly Cat,” and couldn’t escape its theme song on the radio through much of 1995. It was #1 on Billboard’s Airplay Chart at this moment, but wouldn’t get released as a single until well past peak interest (it made #17 on the Hot 100 in October).

Bonus Track: Collective Soul, “December”

2. October 2002: Sixpence None the Richer, “Breathe Your Name”
The scene: Cleaning out the garage

We’re the parents of a soon-to-be two-year-old. He’s fully mobile now but we’re grateful to learn that he’s not inclined toward climbing or other potentially dangerous levels of curiosity. We’ve recently exchanged the Prizm for a minivan—the day we purchase it, Ben strings two words together for the first time: “New car!” We more than occasionally play a cassette by the Wiggles while driving around. The van came with a CD player, and before long I’ll be burning mix CDs for listening on longer trips.

Martha’s father is dying of pancreatic cancer. We will celebrate his 85th birthday on the last Friday of the month at the nursing home where he’s now residing. I learn about the airplane crash that killed Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife watching CNN while we’re there.

Having a child means that we’re accumulating toys and kiddie modes of transportation at an increasing rate, leading to some Saturday re-organization. The season’s definitely changing; it’s cool and cloudy, and a decent wind is coming from some combination of north and west, directly into the garage. Since I’m starting to knock on the door of forty, my boombox is tuned less often to alternative music and more to Adult Top 40. The chock-full-of-accidentals “Breathe Your Name” is one of my favorites (I’d been charmed by “Kiss Me” three years earlier, too). 

Bonus Track: U2, “Electrical Storm”

3. November 1986: Peter Cetera and Amy Grant, “The Next Time I Fall”
The scene: 457 Sherman Hall

This is ground I’ve already trod (see, for instance, here and here), but in brief: not having office space with the other new math grads, I spent evenings that first semester in Champaign-Urbana in my cramped dorm room, doing homework, writing letters to college friends back in Kentucky, and learning my way around the radio dial. I could barely pick up a Top 40 station from Bloomington-Normal that utilized an automated service similar to what I’d heard a few years earlier in Lexington. Nostalgia (yes, I’ve suffered from it almost my whole life) kept me tuned in for quite a few weeks; it’s one of the primary ways I staved off falling out of the loop vis-à-vis what the cool kids were digging that autumn.

I was definitely not a fan of “The Glory of Love” back in the summer. But this follow-up, which also hit #1, well, it hits a soft spot, maybe in part because of how, and where, it transports me.

Bonus Track: Wang Chung, “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”

Beaten To The Punch

We got a satellite dish in 2005, not long after returning to KY from our year in upstate NY. Our package included a number of pre-merger Sirius radio channels, and it didn’t me take long to discover the 70s station. On Sunday nights, after Ben was down for the night, I’d listen to Dave Hoeffel’s Satellite Survey, in which he played the top 30 songs on Billboard‘s pop chart from the corresponding week of some year in the 70s. After close to two years of moderately faithful listening, I came to realize that Hoeffel recycled the same fifty countdowns (five from each year of the decade), which took a little of the fun away; additionally, the station apparently didn’t have copies of all the songs–there’d be occasions when, say, #27 wasn’t available, so the first four played would actually be #31-#28. Sometime after the 2007 merger between Sirius and XM, Hoeffel moved to the 60s channel and genuine AT40 70s shows began being rebroadcast.

The Satellite Survey lives on in 60s form, however, still hosted by Hoeffel.  Martha and I have been listening to Channel 6 in the car a little more recently, and caught most of this past weekend’s Survey after leaving Ben at college. Hoeffel kept saying he was playing tunes from August of 1962, but I found after getting back home that the rankings came from Billboard‘s 9/15/62 Hot 100. It doesn’t exactly feel fair for me to critique music that’s older than I am, but I was definitely struck by any number of things while the hits were rolling, so here we go.

–There were long stretches of songs with which I was unfamiliar, and that’s a very good thing; while decade-based stations by definition have a finite number of options, they sure seem to have playlists that are far too short. That’s not to say there weren’t some welcome classics to be heard. Outside the Top 10 we got “If I Had a Hammer,” (#35), “Surfin’ Safari” (#30), and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (#11), and the Top 5 all were in the very-good-to-outstanding range: “Green Onions,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Sheila,” and “Sherry.”

–On the other hand, after a while there was a certain sameness to the songs. Very little of it rocked, and treacly ballads abounded. Even if I hadn’t been told the year, it was easy to tell we were listening to music pre-dating the British Invasion. As it happens, it was less than eighteen months prior to the Beatles and their compatriots sweeping much of this style away.

–Some lowlights:
#23: Bobby Bare, “Shame on Me”
#17: Johnny Tillotson, “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On”
#16: Marty Robbins, “Devil Woman”
#9: Dickey Lee, “Patches”

I’m coming out fighting here, as all four of these fellows had lengthy and successful careers (in most cases more so on the Country charts); I just didn’t find any of these songs engaging. “Shame on Me” is told by a guy regretting a brief bout of cheatin’, with a couple of loooong mournful spoken word segments. Tillotson has a wonderful, pure voice, and “Pillow” is considered a country classic according to Wikipedia, but the sentiments expressed didn’t impress me even slightly. The protagonist in “Devil Woman” denies all agency and puts everything on his “temptress”–I can’t begin to imagine why Mary even wants to take him back. Pass, even though Robbins also has a magnificent voice. And “Patches” could be the worst of the bunch, a soppy tale of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks who kill themselves after the boy’s parents forbid him from seeing/marrying shanty-town-dwelling Patches. I know tragedy has always sold, but still…

–On the brighter side:
#27: Brook Benton, “Lie To Me”
#22: The Springfields, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”
#14: Claudine Clark, “Party Lights”
#12: Mary Wells, “You Beat Me To the Punch”
#8: Ray Charles, “You Don’t Know Me”

What little I knew of Benton’s work–“Rainy Night in Georgia” and a couple of duets with Dinah Washington–indicated I need to dig into his catalog. “Lie To Me” does nothing to change that.

 

“Silver Threads and Golden Needles” was easily my favorite discovery on Saturday. I knew the song to a smallish extent, but hadn’t heard the version by the trio of Dusty Springfield, her brother Tom, and Mike Hurst. I’m reading that this was the first song by a British group ever to break into the U.S. Top 20. The Springfields didn’t have the original version, but were the first to have a hit with it. It’s been subsequently covered many times, including by my father’s high school classmate Skeeter Davis, the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and the trio of Dolly, Tammy, and Loretta.

 

Claudine Clark was a true one-hit wonder, but “Party Lights,” about a teenage girl’s wish to join in on the action across the street, is pretty sweet.

 

“You Beat Me To the Punch” sounds just like a Smokey Robinson joint, so it’s no surprise that he co-wrote and produced this one for Wells. Her understated approach serves the song extremely well.

 

And Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is another one to add to my pile of albums to seek out. The arrangement on “You Don’t Know Me” sounds of its time, but Charles’s vocals are impeccable.

 

–Finally, a quick word about three instrumentals on the show:
#26: Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra, “A Swingin’ Safari”
#18: Bent Fabric and His Piano, “Alley Cat”
#10: Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez, “Rinky Dink”

Jim Bartlett wrote about Vaughn back in June, and you should definitely go there to read about “A Swingin’ Safari” and other Vaughn hits. You likely know the Grammy Award-winning “Alley Cat,” even if not by name; Fabric, from Denmark, is apparently still around, now in his mid 90s. This was the second and last Top 40 hit for Cortez–his other, “The Happy Organ,” was a #1 hit three years earlier. “Rinky Dink” sounds like it was written with the roller rink in mind.

–Why write about all this? Throughout my life, songs have regularly gotten tied down to a specific time and place. Sheerly by accident, these have become the tunes I’ll always associate with the cool, cloudy Saturday ride home through Indiana after handing Ben over to his future.

As I noted above, it doesn’t feel quite right to cast aspersions on songs I didn’t experience in real time. Looking through comments this weekend on the YouTube videos to which I’ve linked, I saw so many folks, perhaps now around 70 years old, noting the memories that come rushing back when they hear them again, even “Shame on Me” and “Patches.” If I were 12-15 years older, that could well be what I would say. As it is, I might not really want folks born a dozen or so years after I was to go browsing through my 45 collection from the late 70s…

Restoration Blues

From 1995-2010, I taught a mathematics unit as part of a summer science/math camp for high schoolers offered by my college. It ran twelve days—most years the students arrived on Father’s Day (the camp still runs—it’s going on right now). On the first Friday of the camp, we traditionally took a day-long trip to the Cincinnati Zoo, a landfill, and a guided nature program.

The timing of the camp meant that I was invariably involved with duties of some sort on my dad’s birthday (today would have been his 88th—this morning, I’ll be at the cemetery delivering flowers). My parents lived just off the interstate on the way from the zoo to the location of the nature program, and many times I arranged to break away for a brief birthday-related visit.

The music Twitter-verse went all abuzz two weeks ago when Jody Rosen published “The Day the Music Burned” in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a completely deflating account of the June 2008 blaze that destroyed countless master recordings by hundreds of artists whose work was controlled by Universal Music Group, as well as UMG’s subsequent cynical efforts both to disguise the severity of the loss and recoup damages via lawsuit. The next day my attention was directed to an article, written five years earlier, by music historian Andy Zax. Zax had not only understood then the magnitude of UMG’s losses but went on to outline, in depressing fashion, four issues surrounding the preservation of old masters: 1) existence of the tapes; 2) ability to access the tapes—storage is a big deal; 3) ability to use the tapes; 4) dealing with the corporate overlords, the big three companies that own the masters of almost all major-label recordings. Even though there’s overlap between the two articles, both are worth your time if you haven’t already read them.

It was Zax’s third point—dealing with the potential for obsolescence of the recording medium, in the sense that functioning machines needed for playback may not be sufficiently prevalent—that reminded me a segment I heard twenty years ago today on NPR’s All Things Considered. It was part of a series called Lost and Found Sound, a feature they were running on Fridays throughout 99 as everyone prepared to bid adieu to the CE years that started with a 1. (It looks like the series actually continued with some regularity through the end of 2005.)

That year we stayed at the zoo later than usual. I’d driven separately so I could swing through Florence to help Dad celebrate #68 but quickly got caught in a bad Friday afternoon traffic jam on the Ohio side of the river. Something—an accident? construction?—kept me crawling at a snail’s pace for a long time. When 4:00 rolled around, I switched the radio over to ATC; I’d guess Lost and Found Sound came on toward the end of the first half-hour. The title of the segment was “Restoration,” and I quickly learned that over the previous few months a number of listeners had sent in decades-old media they no longer could play, in the hopes that the L&FS team might help. L&FS in turn reached out to Steve Smolian, who was well-versed in extracting sounds from such objects (and who apparently is still in business today). Before the piece ended, two folks who had mailed in material were rewarded: one heard a beloved grandparent speak, and another got to listen to the voice of a sibling who’d died at a very young age. I’m not saying I got choked up at that point but I’m not saying I didn’t, either. All I’ll note is that it was a good thing I was going less than five miles an hour.

Out of all the things I’ve ever heard on NPR, that story is the one that made the deepest impression. Maybe eight years later, I did some digging around on their website, found an archived copy, and listened to it again. Yep, still a moving piece.

About ten days ago, after digesting the Rosen and Zax pieces, I went searching for it again. I easily located a summary (that’s how I re-discovered the story had originally run on Dad’s birthday). Then the irony began to set in. In the upper left corner of the page was a play button one can ordinarily click for listening. But it was grayed out; below I saw, “Only Available in Archive Formats” and a clickable “REAL MEDIA.” I clicked and I got a .ram file. When I tried to open it, there was a note from QuickTime letting me know it doesn’t play files with that extension.

And now, a brief summary of the past week:

“Well, it’s been a while, but I’ve used Real Player before, so I’ll just download it to my work laptop and…oh, there hasn’t been a Mac version supported since 2012? I’ll ask Ben to put it on his PC so I can play it…what? It says that it’s not backwards-compatible with the format of the audio file? Hmmm…maybe I’ve got an older copy of Real Player on my ten-year-old personal laptop? Or the almost as old desktop sitting in the basement? Nope, and nope.”

It could be I’m overlooking something obvious (I don’t think I’m especially savvy in this sphere), but it also could be that I and/or NPR could use a bit of Steve Smolian’s assistance. It appears that all of the Lost and Found Sound stories are in this archived format; I presume that’s true for every NPR story up to some date in the not entirely distant past.

The problem Zax identified might not be limited to recorded music.

Closing out with a song that seems vaguely appropriate for the matter at hand, released a few months after I first heard “Restoration.” “Millennium Blues” is the leadoff track of Matthew Sweet’s In Reverse. “You’ll never get the chance to recover/They say it’s not you anymore.”

Voice from the Past

Dinner at home for the three of us hasn’t been a completely regular thing these last few months. Most of that has been related to school activities of one sort or another, but with my year at an end and Ben down to just his last few days, we’ve actually sat down at the usual time these last three nights. Conversation this evening wound up starting on the topic of music: I told Ben and Martha what I’d learned about Gloria Jones and Marc Bolan after hearing one of Jones’s songs on the radio last evening (I had had no clue). Noting that she was also the first one to record “Tainted Love” turned talk to describing to Ben what ‘new wave’ music was. And so on. If you’d been there, it would make sense how I ultimately arrived at discussing some of my father’s foibles, but I ended by saying, “…even so, I’d love to be able to sit down and have a conversation with him right now.”

As dishes are being rinsed and leftovers put away, I play bad role model and check email on my phone. I notice that Warren has just posted something on his blog. Warren’s an entertaining storyteller and the first couple of lines look interesting, so I begin reading it aloud. The post concerns his history of playing in various musical groups in his younger days, his interest in being a drummer, and how he brought a certain panache to playing timpani in the Wind Ensemble at Transy. It feels like the article is meant to be spoken, with plenty of guideposts for inflection and emphasis. Various turns of phrase lead to smiles all around, and I continue on without pausing to look ahead at where things are going.

Suddenly, I’m brought into the story. Yes, I was also a performer at the concert at the center of the post, but still I wasn’t expecting to receive mention. And as I keep reading to Martha and Ben, after the show my father appears, offering Warren one of his tried-and-true witticisms in praise of my friend’s style. Even if it’s not the back-and-forth for which I had wished not ten minutes earlier, I do hear Dad’s voice, and I become a puddle.

It’s only one small piece of an article that’s well worth your while for myriad other reasons, but I’m still grateful to have Dad remembered, to hear others’ stories of their interactions with him, no matter how minor. Thanks, Warren—I needed that, even if I didn’t know it.