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.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/5/73: First Choice, “Armed and Extremely Dangerous”

In last week’s Albert Hammond post I gave a quick shout-out to “The Free Electric Band,” a song I knew only because of its appearance on Fantastic, a K-Tel compilation that my father must have brought home toward the end of 1973. (If I had to guess, my sister and I might have requested it after seeing ads on TV; “Little Willy” would have been a big attraction.) As fate would have it, this weekend’s show features nine of that LP’s twenty-two tracks, including the songs at #1, #3, #5, and #8. But I don’t want to talk about Tony Orlando, Donny Osmond, or that mess that Vicki Lawrence sings (even if I do kind of like it). Instead, here’s a toast to a few of Fantastic‘s less well-known 1973 offerings.

Rod Stewart was in the midst of his mid-70s mini-drought between “You Wear It Well” and “Tonight’s the Night.” This Sam Cooke cover hit #59 in September.

I was really surprised to learn that Cliff Richard didn’t even chart with “Power to All Our Friends.” It was one of the cuts on Fantastic that really stood out after Amy and I took possession of the album and slapped it on the family hi-fi.

I’d be remiss not to include Hammond’s cut. It’s #89 on this chart and would reach #48 in a few weeks. Playing it a couple of times this past week has me realizing it’s quite the quality tune.

One of the greatest songs evah to peak at #40 was the top discovery I made from Fantastic. Worthy of its own post someday, but I can’t talk about this album without inserting Gunhill Road’s “Back When My Hair Was Short.”

Four of those nine Fantastic songs on the 5/5/73 show were played in the first quarter of the show; two debuts (from Barry White and Lobo), and two R&B one-hit wonders in their second week, both of which I’m thinking had received play in that ad: “I’m Doin’ Fine Now,” by New York City, and “Armed and Extremely Dangerous,” from First Choice. The latter song, courtesy of three women based in Philly, is at #34 here and would climb just seven spots higher. Casey compares them to the Honey Cone, and I’ll allow that “Armed and Extremely Dangerous” bears a resemblance, at least subject matter-wise, to “Stick Up.” It’s a tasty piece that should have fared better.

Our friend HERC has written up a number of K-Tel releases from the 70s and 80s; you can find his tribute to Fantastic here.

Stereo Review In Review: April 1979

Yesterday was the last day of classes. I still have finals to write–and of course grade–but maybe I’m spying a tiny light at the end of my tunnel. Enough, at least, to feel like I can take a tiny break to squeeze in another look back at an issue of my old pal Stereo Review. This one was thoroughly enjoyable, I must say.

Steve Simels Talks to Frank Zappa
Zappa takes on Saturday Night Live, rock criticism, the charge of being condescending to his fans, and trying to work with orchestras. You learn a lot about the man by reading these extended quotes. Way worth a read.

A Career Retrospective of the Bee Gees, by Noel Coppage
Some select quotes: 
–“Despite their assertion, ‘Words are all I have to take your heart away,’ the Bee Gees did not have—and still do not have—much of a way with words…(w)hat they really had were melodies, good, old-time, straight, lush ones. What they needed was what they’ve got now, an audience that’s not into words.”
–“(Barry) has been quoted as saying, ‘I figure there are about a dozen ways to use falsetto that have never been tried before. Believe me, I’m going to find every last one of them.’ I believe him.”
–“Changing times are the biggest threat to the Bee Gees’ lofty status. The kind of style that culminated in the Saturday Night Fever music…more than likely won’t last.”

Our reviewers this go-round are Chris Albertson, Edward Buxbaum, Noel Coppage, Phyl Garland, Paul Kresh, Peter Reilly, Steve Simels, and Joel Vance, plus a special guest appearance.

Best of the Month
–The Grateful Dead, Shakedown Street (NC) “(T)he closest to spontaneity they’ve come in a long time.”
–Peabo Bryson, Crosswinds (PG) “…he is bound…to give at least a few well-known performers a run for their money if he continues to jog so stylishly along this exceptionally promising track.”
–Helen Merrill, Something Special (PR) “…one of those timeless, priceless, classic recordings that will be reappearing again and again through the years…”

Recordings of Special Merit
–Steve Forbert, Alive on Arrival (SS) “…the first New Wave folkie…Someone to watch.”
–The J. Geils Band, Sanctuary (JV)
–Bob Marley and the Wailers, Babylon By Bus (PG)
–The Neville Brothers, S/T (JV) “(They) provide some fine examples of the charm, ease, and lilt that results when the New Orleans attitude is applied to commercial pop.”

–Dan Hartman, Instant Replay (EB)
–Side Effect, Rainbow Visions (PG)
–The Three Degrees, New Dimensions (EB)

–Noel Coward and Mary Martin, Together with Music (PK)
Too Many Girls (PK)

–Toshiko Akiyoshi, Finesse (CA)
–Louie Bellson, Prime Time (PR)

Featured Rock/Pop Reviews
–Tonio K., Life in the Foodchain (SS) “…I think I’ll have to take back my earlier disclaimer: this is the greatest album ever recorded.”  Definitely recall this review–you’ll want to read it; Simels also picked Foodchain as one of the Best of the Year in the February 1980 issue. The question remains: would I have bought it had I ever seen it in a store?
–Peter Allen, I Could Have Been a Sailor (PR) Astute readers will recall that Allen also had a featured review in last month’s March 1978 post. Reilly really thought a lot of Allen’s music; when I was looking through April issues trying to pick one, I saw another featured review in 1981.
–The Bee Gees, Spirits Having Flown (SS and NC give separate reviews)  Quite the attention being lavished on the Brothers Gibb in this one! Simels’s take was the inspiration for this sketch (wish I could give proper credit to whoever LP is):

–Alice Cooper, From the Inside (NC)
–George Harrison, S/T, and McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman, ST (SS)  Simels pans ‘em both: “Although George’s record is a tepid bore trying to be as inoffensive and suitable for FM as possible, McGuinn, Clark, and Hillman is the most unconscionable sellout in recent memory.”
–Peter Tosh, Bush Doctor (Lester Bangs)  More claims of selling out. “…if the drivel like the stuff quoted at the end of the preceding paragraph doesn’t drive you straight into the Babylonian arms of “Boogie Oogie Oogie” disco, then nothing will.”
Yiddish Folk Songs and Mazltov! (PK)
–Four compilations from the 50s and 60s on the Pacific Jazz label (CA)

Selected Other LPs Reviewed
–Neil Diamond, You Don’t Bring Me Flowers (PR)
–Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Love Beach (SS)
–Patrick Moraz, S/T (JV) “It is appropriate for Moraz to join (the Moody Blues), since he specializes in the presumptuous audio goo and the pompous, naïve abstract moralizing that originally made the Moodies successful.”
–Peaches and Herb, 2 Hot (PG)
–Pointer Sisters, Energy (PG)
–Kenny Rogers, The Gambler (PR)
–Todd Rundgren, Back to the Bars (NC)
–Tanya Tucker, TNT (PR) “The Mrs. made me burn the record right in front of her eyes. (Still got the album cover though—out in the tool shed.)”

American Top 40 PastBlast, 4/27/74: Albert Hammond, “I’m a Train”

My mother returned home in the second half of February 2014 after the better part of three weeks at the hospital and a rehab facility following surgery. Her lung cancer was causing her oxygen saturation levels to decline, so she was now, and would remain, on oxygen. A home health company brought a concentrator and enough tubing for her to wander all around the main floor of her townhouse. She learned to master portable tanks as well–at first those large ones you pull behind on wheels, later the much more compact type you could sling over your shoulder as you would a purse–for trips out, almost always to see her doctors.

The recognition that her days were decidedly finite led Mom to focus more on what would happen after she was gone. One early spring morning, I met a representative from the cemetery in Florence where her parents and older sister were buried. He and I trudged through the light snow that had fallen overnight, surveying available lots; when I reported back to Mom there was nothing especially close to her family, she said, “Well, I’ll just be buried next to Richard, then.” (I would describe my parents’ relationship through much of my life as more symbiotic than loving.)

Several weeks later, an appraiser recommended by Mom’s next-door neighbor dropped by one Saturday morning to have a look at the antiques Mom and Dad had inherited from their families. There were several items to examine in the basement, so I unplugged and toted the concentrator downstairs so that she could join in the conversation. It was one of only two or three times Mom would venture down there that year.

I was not quite two years in to my re-formed obsession with listening to AT40 at this point. Since I spent most weekends in 2014 with Mom, there are a number of the 70s shows I heard that year which immediately transport me back to her place; this week’s rebroadcast is one of them.

If memory serves, the appraisal took place six years ago this weekend, the previous occasion 4/27/74 was rebroadcast by Premiere. It was one of the times I stayed overnight on Saturday; I called Martha and Ben that evening in time for him (a seventh-grader then) to hear “The Streak” debut at #19.

The first hour of that show likely introduced me to a few songs: “Mighty Mighty,” “Thanks for Saving My Life,” and the feature, Albert Hammond’s second and final Top 40 hit, the chirpy, cheery “I’m a Train,” at its peak of #31. (I’ve long been aware, though, of another of his singles, “The Free Electric Band,” from its appearance on the 1973 K-Tel compilation Fantastic.) Everyone my age knows “It Never Rains in Southern California,” but Hammond made more of a mark as a songwriter, co-penning “Gimme Dat Ding,” “When I Need You,” “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” The younger folks probably care more about his son, AH Jr., guitarist for the Strokes.

Spring and autumn are usually my favorite seasons, and it’s the shows I heard during those periods of 2014 that have stuck with me most. Even though Mom was weighed down by adjusting to her new normal and wasn’t as well as she seemed, the spring shows still give me a sense of rebirth and optimism I associate with that time of year. The shows I heard in September and October, on the other hand, offer little but melancholy, thinking about a woman trapped at home, looking out her living room window and watching the leaves turn and fall for the final time.

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.

What We’re Doing Here Today Won’t Make The Bad Life Go Away

This college professor’s life has seemed to get only more work-consumed as the semester rolls toward its end. A few observations with just a little over two weeks to go:

–I have to believe that it’s my first-year students that have had it the roughest in the craziness of the last few weeks. They were still in the process of learning how to do college when everything got turned upside-down, and several of those I have this term are the ones who’ve struggled most to remain engaged. I’m fortunate in that my lowest-level class is first-semester calculus; based on conversations with colleagues, students in general education courses, just wanting to complete their math credit, have had more issues.

–I elected to turn the assigned meeting times for my two calculus courses into office hours/question-and-answer sessions over Zoom. Rather than try to lecture in real time, I’ve spent a good number of hours recording videos where I work examples on an iPad screen for these students to watch when convenient. Based on the number of views I’m seeing, I regret to report that to date these appear to be underutilized. Nevertheless, I’m persisting, hoping to knock out the final videos this weekend.

–I’m essentially holding class at the regularly scheduled times for my two upper-level classes. It helps that they’re smaller, but it’s also true that non-freshfolk are simply more invested in major-related courses. Rapport was already established, everyone’s showing up–it’s gone as well as I could have hoped.

–Most of the time I’m recording my Zoom sessions and linking to them afterward, so that students who can’t/don’t attend can view what they missed. I generally trim off the beginning of the video before posting, since it’s usually either students waiting for teach to arrive or me making small talk with them before getting down to business. While I’m not thrilled at all at the sound of my own voice, it’s positively painful to have to watch myself interacting with my students day after day during the editing.

What my students see on Zoom. I usually hold court in the basement; that’s our CD shelving unit on the right. In this staged shot I’m only pretending to look at a monitor I have set up next to my work laptop.

–As stressed as I am, I know many of my students have it worse than I do. I’m trying to keep that in mind in our interactions. And I feel bad for our seniors, who’ve had what’s supposed to be a celebratory last few weeks go completely off the rails.

–The pressure to “get back to business” seems to be mounting in a number of places. I get it, but I don’t see how we’re remotely ready to even begin approaching what used to be normal. Without breakthroughs on either the testing/monitoring side or the treatment side (preferably both), it sure feels like we’re in for a long, long slog. I wish that weren’t the case.

I really haven’t felt that I can take much time these last couple of weeks for writing. But it’s Friday, so I’m putting the grading and recording aside for one evening and tucking into a tape I recorded around the end of 1991. The A side is standard-issue Harris mixtape stuff, almost all of which I’d listen to anytime still. The flip contains what was then a recently-acquired favorite CD: Pop Beloved, the Reivers’ fourth album. Here’s a recap of the mixed side.

World Party, “Is It Too Late?”
“Okay. Roll it.” Kicking off with the lead track on Kurt Wallinger’s second outing as the mastermind of World Party. Goodbye Jumbo is one of my favorite albums from 1990, and we’ll be seeing two other fantastic songs from it in Modern Rock Tracks posts later this year.

Cocteau Twins, “The Spangle Maker”
Another band with a 1990 release (Heaven or Las Vegas) that had two Modern Rock hits. This one, though, is from The Pink Opaque, a compilation mostly plucked from their mid-80s EP releases. Elizabeth Fraser is at her best when you understand less than 40% of what she’s saying, which fortunately is virtually all of the time.

Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, “He Said”
A bit of a train wreck here, jumping from the ethereal jaggedness of the Twins to the hippieish musings from Brickell and company. It’s a toss-up for me as to which of the New Bohemians’ albums is better. The highs on Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars are way high, but Ghost of a Dog might have a little more consistency. “He Said” is easily my favorite on GoaD.

Loey Nelson, “Railroad Track”
The subject of my first Forgotten Albums feature. I mistakenly claimed then that “Railroad Track” was on the tape I wrote up this past January. C’est la vie.

John Hiatt, “Memphis in the Meantime”
My favorite Hiatt album is Slow Turning, but 1987’s Bring the Family, his breakthrough, is awfully good as well. Last week I mentioned that I heard “Fish and Whistle” at my college roommate’s wedding rehearsal party back in October 1991; I want to say those musicians played this prime cut that night, too.

And just when did Code-A-Phones become passé?

The Go-Betweens, “Love Goes On!”
The first half of my favorite two-fer on a tape; I liked the combination of this epic Go-Betweens song with the next one so well, I put ’em back-to-back on a mix CD a decade later. And yes, I’ve featured these two songs before. I’ll say it again, though: go get 16 Lovers Lane if you like this song–I love that album so, so much.

Sam Phillips, “Raised on Promises”
Phillips’s first three albums after moving away from the Contemporary Christian scene are all excellent; over time, I’ve come to decide that the middle one, Cruel Inventions, is the best of the bunch. “Raised on Promises” kicks off an epic trio that ends the disk. (As noted, this song has been blogged here before; that post references an event mentioned above. Everything circles around everything else, it seems.)

10000 Maniacs, “Hello In There”
I wasn’t the only one who thought of this song at John Prine’s passing last week. My good friend Greg remembered it from the CD single for “You Happy Puppet,” noting it may have been his first exposure to Prine’s work (I’m willing to bet he and I bought our copies of that single at the same time). And my blogger pal The Old Grey Cat gave the song a signal boost this past weekend, too. While I worry now that Peter Asher helped make this a little perkier than it should be, it’s always the version that plays in my head when the song gets mentioned.

Lori Carson, “Way of the Past”
When I saw last week that COVID-19 had also claimed the life of Hal Willner, I immediately recalled that he had produced Carson’s debut Shelter. The title song had appeared here in January; this is that album’s most charming track. In another world, it could have been an AC hit.

Grace Pool, “Me Without You”
Lead single from Where We Live, the second album by this New York band that went nowhere. Another song that deserved more of a look than it got; both Grace Pool albums are worth tracking down.

Depeche Mode, “Policy of Truth”
Maybe every tape needs to have a hit single on it? Probably liked this more at the time than I do now, though it’s hardly bad. I will say that it filled the tape out almost perfectly.

Easter Birthday

It’s not a quick thing to define the date on which Easter falls in a given year in the Western tradition. My understanding has long been “the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox.” That appears to be largely correct, except that unconventional definitions for both ‘full moon’ and ‘vernal equinox’ are being used–“fourteenth day of an ecclesiastical lunar month” and “March 21,” respectively, regardless of when the moon really reaches fullness or when exactly the equinox occurs.

This odd definition may contribute to the fact that there’s not any sort of easily discernible pattern to when Easter happens. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t mini-patterns, however. If one examines the data over, say, a six-hundred year period, one picks up on a semi-regular event: the same date will be Easter three (or four) times over twenty-two (or thirty-three) years, with eleven years between each occurrence. To give three examples we’re currently experiencing, there’s 1991-2002-2013-2024 for March 31; 1999-2010-2021 for April 4; and 1995-2006-2017-2028 for April 16. A fourth such mini-cycle ends today: April 12 was Easter also in 1998 and 2009.

Ninety years ago today, my mother was born. Were she still alive, this would be the fourth time she got to celebrate the start of another year on Easter. The first was her 6th, back in the middle of the Great Depression. Yes, that’s a sixty-two year gap between April 12 Easters, but that’s actually shorter than the upcoming one–the next time Easter is to occur on this date is in 2093.

I was the tiniest bit surprised to discover that prior to 1998 she hadn’t celebrated her birthday on Easter in my lifetime—I guess I’m simply recalling some gauzy sensation from my youth of the two events occurring very close in time. Martha looked for pictures from that day but didn’t find any (also a mild surprise, given how much of a shutterbug she is). We do have evidence from 2009, when Mom turned 79, though:

Light blue was the order of the day, apparently.

Other pictures capture the cake Dad had gotten from an excellent local bakery and of Mom displaying one of her gifts from us (a memoir by a fellow who worked on her parents’ farm when he was growing up, about his experiences running cross-country in high school and college–I brought it home with me after clearing out the folks’ townhouse; while writing this up, I was able to immediately find it on the bookshelf where it currently resides). There’s also a photo with both Mom and Dad in it, taken right after she successfully blew out her candles.

A lot sure can happen in eleven years.