Archive for the ‘Bookshelf’ Category

Keeping Odd & Pop Happy

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

It’s been a couple of years since we checked in with my imaginary alter egos, tuneheads Odd and Pop. I think they’re happy here in the condo. There are fewer records, of course, about 1,000 LPs instead of the 3,000 or so that were crammed into the EITW studios on the East Side, but there are more CDs and reference books these days, as the passing pandemic seasons here resulted in – as I’m certain is true elsewhere – fairly frequent online shopping sprees.

Anyway, they’re here, Odd and Pop, with their internal radios tuned to different stations.

Pop likes the familiar, the pleasant, the unchallenging. He loves records he’s heard a thousand times, and if he wants variety, he’ll gladly listen to a thousand different records he’s heard a thousand times before. He’s the reason why the digital shelves once held eighty-four different versions of “The Girl From Ipanema.” (The external hard drive crash three years ago eliminated many of them, and he’s been scheming to get them back ever since.)

Odd, however, likes different things. Very different. He’s the one whose eyes widened with joy the other day when the mail carrier dropped off, with its accompanying CD, the book Stomp and Swerve, subtitled “American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924.” He laughed loudly when he learned that the tune “The Smiler,” written by Percy Wenrich and recorded sometime around 1908 by the Zon-O-Phone Concert Band, was craftily subtitled “A Joplin Rag” not because of any connection with ragtime giant Scott Joplin but because Percy Wenrich was born in Joplin, Missouri.

And . . . well, here it is. The date of 1907 on the video may well be correct.

And, of course, Pop says it’s not fair that Odd gets a treat and he does not. So, okay, we’ll check the list of covers of “The Girl From Ipanema” at Second Hand Songs and choose something he’s not heard before. A foreign language, maybe. And that’s fine with him, as long as the melody is familiar.

And here’s Finnish singer Laila Kinnunen with “Ipaneman Tyttö,” recorded on November 10, 1964, and released later that year on the Scandia label. (Odd likes it, too.)

Another One On The Shelf

Wednesday, August 26th, 2020

The mail carrier dropped off another reference book by chart maven Joel Whitburn this week: Billboard #1s, 1950-1991.

The book lists the No. 1 records on the magazine’s various charts for each week. For instance, in the edition published the first Saturday of September 1953, the day on which I made my debut, the magazine’s various No. 1 records were:

“Vaya Con Dios” by Les Paul and Mary Ford on the pop best-seller and jukebox charts.
“No Other Love” by Perry Como on the pop disk jockey chart.
“Crying In The Chapel” by the Orioles on the R&B best seller and jukebox charts.
“A Dear John Letter” by Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky on the country best-seller chart.
“It’s Been So Long” by Webb Pierce on the country disk jockey chart.
“Hey, Joe” by Carl Smith on the country jukebox chart.

I’ve heard only two of those: “Vaya Con Dios” and “Crying In The Chapel.” I’ll have to spend some time at YouTube for the others. But in the meantime, let’s look at another week, say the first week of June 1971, when I graduated from high school. By that time, the magazine had four singles charts and three album charts. The No. 1 records on the various charts were:

“Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones on the Hot 100.
“Want Ads” by the Honey Cone on the R&B chart.
“You’re My Man” by Lynn Anderson on the country chart.
“Rainy Days & Mondays” by the Carpenters on the easy listening chart.
Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones on the pop album chart.
Maybe Tomorrow by the Jackson 5 on the R&B album chart.
Rose Garden by Lynn Anderson on the country album chart.

Those are more familiar, obviously, than the No. 1s from the 1953 charts. I don’t know the Anderson single, nor am I familiar with her album or the album from the Jackson 5.

We’ll look at one more list today, the No. 1 records from the first week of December 1977, which was my first full week as a reporter at the Monticello Times:

“You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone on the Hot 100.
“Serpentine Fire” by Earth, Wind & Fire on the R&B chart.
“Here You Come Again” by Dolly Parton on the country chart.
“How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees on the easy listening chart.
Simple Dreams by Linda Ronstadt on the pop album chart.
Rose Royce II/In Full Bloom by Rose Royce on the R&B album chart.
Elvis In Concert by Elvis Presley on the country album chart.

I know all the singles, as might be expected. I had the LP of the Ronstadt album and it’s on the digital shelves. I’ve never owned the Rose Royce or Elvis albums although there’s a little bit of Rose Royce and a lot of Elvis on the digital shelves. (Oddly, I do not find a listing for an album titled Rose Royce II. The group’s second album was In Full Bloom, so maybe it was an informal title used somewhere. I dunno.)

As for a tune for today, I checked, and Earth, Wind & Fire has been featured here only three times in thirteen-plus years, so here’s “Serpentine Fire.” (This is the track from the album All ’N’ All. From what I can see at Discogs, the single was nine seconds shorter.)

Saturday Single No. 701

Saturday, August 15th, 2020

Of all the books about music on my shelves – and there are many, encompassing biographies, histories, chart references and more – the one that’s least used, I would guess, is The Billboard Book Of No. 2 Hits.

Written by Christopher G. Feldman, the book catalogs the records that have peaked at No. 2 on the magazine’s main singles chart(s) from 1955 through 1999. (Yeah, it’s more than twenty years out of date now, but since the focus of this blog is generally the years, oh, from 1965 to 1977, that doesn’t matter.) Feldman provides a brief history of the record and notes which record (or records) kept it from reaching the top of the chart.

(The book starts in 1955 because – and I don’t know why I’m explaining this to readers who most likely already know it – that was the year when “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets became the first rock & roll record to reach No. 1 on any of the magazine’s charts, kind of a Big Bang for chart geeks.)

The first entry in Feldman’s book is for “Melody Of Love” by Billy Vaughan & His Orchestra, which hit No. 2 during the first week of March 1955 on both the Best Seller and Disc Jockey charts. Vaughan’s instrumental version was one of five covers of the 1903 song (some with newly written lyrics) to chart in 1955. It was blocked from the top spot by the McGuire Sisters’ “Sincerely.”

The year with the most records peaking at No. 2 was 1969 with sixteen, three of them – “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising” and “Green River” – by Creedence Clearwater Revival. (CCR also peaked at No. 2 twice in 1970 with “Travelin’ Band” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” but remarkably never hit No. 1.)

And because we looked at a chart from 1977 yesterday, I’m just going to list the records that peaked at No. 2 that year and see what we can find for a single this morning. The records from 1977 in Feldman’s book are:

“Fly Like An Eagle” by Steve Miller
“I’m In You” by Peter Frampton
“Your Love Has Lifted Me (Higher & Higher)” by Rita Coolidge
“Float On” by the Floaters
“Keep It Comin’ Love” by KC & The Sunshine Band
“Nobody Does It Better” by Carly Simon
“Boogie Nights” by Heatwave
“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” by Crystal Gayle

Two of those – the singles by Frampton and Coolidge – were in the chart we looked at yesterday. A few of the others, I’ve featured before. But it seems I’ve never, in this blog’s thirteen-plus years, featured a record by KC & The Sunshine Band. So, okay. “Keep It Comin’ Love” was at No. 2 for three weeks in October 1977, kept from the top spot by “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” by Meco and “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone. And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

‘Breathless’

Thursday, December 27th, 2018

A little more than a month ago, while digging into tracks recorded on November 24, I noted a difficulty in tracking the performance of “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover” as recorded on November 24, 1941, by Glenn Miller & His Orchestra. I wrote, “My reference library has a historical gap in it; Pop Memories gets me to 1940, and [Joel] Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles picks things up in 1955. For the fifteen years in between, I’m on my own.”

Pop HitsWell, I am on my own no longer. One of the Christmas gift the Texas Gal gave me this week was Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Pop Hits, subtitled Singles & Albums 1940-1954. That means I now have the tools necessary to make mistakes about music throughout the Twentieth Century.

I’ve not yet spent a lot of time digging into the book. The holiday and household chores it delayed have kept me busy. But I plan to spend some time paging through and browsing later today. For now, I think I’m going to play some Games With Numbers. I’ll take today’s date – 12/27/18 – and go to Page 57 in the book. I’ll find the twelfth listed record, and we’ll see if we get lucky. (If the twelfth listed record is not available at YouTube, we’ll move to the eighteenth and see how that goes.)

We land on a 1942 record credited to Shep Fields & His New Music: “Breathless.” The record was the first with that credits. Until then, Fields’ reed-heavy music had been credited to Shep Fields & His Rippling Rhythm Orchestra.

Fields, who was born in 1910 in Brooklyn, formed his own band in 1929, and starting in 1936, was a fixture in the charts for the next four years, charting thirty-six records between 1936 and 1943. Seven of those records went to No. 1, with the most successful being 1939’s “South Of The Border (Down Mexico Way),” which stayed on top of the chart for five weeks.

“Breathless,” the tune we landed on today, came near the end of Fields’ run on the charts. It wasn’t a national hit; the information in Billboard Pop Hits says that “Breathless” spent one week at No. 17 on the magazine’s Midwestern Best Sellers chart. Beyond that, perhaps the most interesting thing about “Breathless” is that – as Whitburn notes – the vocal was performed by Ken Curtis, who twenty-some years later would achieve fame by portraying the character Festus on the television show Gunsmoke.

Here’s “Breathless.”

Saturday Single No. 600

Saturday, July 14th, 2018

So, what do we know about No. 600? Well, let’s head to the reference books.

Our first stop is The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh’s 1989 listing of the 1,001 greatest singles, where No. 600 is “If It Ain’t One Thing . . . It’s Another,” a 1982 release by Richard “Dimples” Fields. Marsh notes that the single “uses Fields’s sweet gospel falsetto and a groove that owes a lot to Superfly-era Curtis Mayfield to salvage a lyric that’s as detailed and pained (though not nearly as poetic) as ‘What’s Going On.’ It’s as if,” Marsh goes on “the Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins had awakened from his romantic reveries and decided to take a hard look at real life.” The single, released on the Boardwalk label, went to No. 47 in the Billboard Hot 100 and spent three weeks at No. 1 on the magazine’s R&B chart. Listening to it for the first time this morning, I’m left pretty much unmoved.

Flipping the pages of the 2005 tome 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, edited by Robert Dimery, we find Page 600 occupied by Sonic Youth’s 1988 release Daydream Nation. Ignacio Julià – the author, with Jaime Gonzalo Julià, of the 1994 book about the group I Dreamed Of Noise – writes that the album “refined a quest that had started in the New York underground of the early 1980s and had experimented along the way with minimalisation and hardcore.” Like much music from the early 1980s, Daydream Nation had never reached my ears until this morning. I obviously don’t have time while writing to even listen to the entire album (much less absorb it), but a quick listen to a few tracks tells me that Sonic Youth’s music is not my deal.

Taking up another tome, I flip the 2001 edition of The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll to page 600. The first full listing on the page is Malo, the band formed in San Francisco in 1971 by Jorge Santana, Carlos’ brother. I am reassured. I have heard a great deal of Malo, with all four of the band’s early 1970s albums on the digital shelves. The encyclopedia’s entry, of course, is little more than a bland recapping of when albums and singles were released and who came and went from the band’s personnel at those times. So I quickly check the band’s entry in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles (a volume we’ll revisit in a moment) and verify that the band’s “Suavecito” was Malo’s lone Top 40 hit, reaching No. 18 in early May of 1972. The rest of Malo’s four 1970s albums are well-worth hearing, but “Suavecito” – good in its long form and sublime as a single – towers above all. And as my pal Yah Shure said here almost eight years ago, “One spin of the ‘Suavecito’ 45 and it’s like late spring-early summer, no matter what the time of year.”

The first entry on Page 600 of {The New} Rolling Stone Album Guide, released in 2004, is for Offspring, described as “one of the biggest bands to emerge from the pop-punk explosion of the mid-’90s, boasting hook-filled, frat-friendly anthems and a metallic gleam that referred back to the old-school sludge that L.A. punks fell for when they burned out on adrenaline.” And I thought I wrote twisty run-on sentences that leave readers going “Huh?” Based on just that little bit of work from writer Keith Harris, some quick listening to a few Offspring tracks, and my sense of my own tastes, I’ll walk on.

Reopening the Whitburn book, we find on the top of Page 600 the slender entry for Art Lund, a Salt Lake City native who sang baritone with Benny Goodman’s band during the 1940s, billed as both Art Lund and Art London. In 1947, Lund had a No. 1 hit with “Mam’selle,” a tune originally found in the movie The Razor’s Edge. His entry in Top Pop Singles, which compiles chart data beginning in 1955, lists only his 1958 single “Philadelphia U.S.A.,” a bland piece of pop that peaked in Billboard at No. 89.

And that’s enough of that. I had hoped that Saturday Single No. 600 would be something new and exciting, but maybe that’s too much to hope for after more than 2,100 posts. We’re going to pass on Sonic Youth, the Offspring, Richard “Dimples” Fields and Art Lund (though “Mam’selle” is a sweet song, I don’t care for Lund’s vocal). That leaves us with Malo, and it’s been almost eight years since “Suavecito” showed up here. That’s an eternity in blogtime, so with no regret, Saturday Single No. 600 is Malo’s 1972 single “Suavecito.”

Saturday Single No. 474

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Well, I went to see the doctor yesterday about my back. Dr. Julie wasn’t available; I saw another doctor in her group or subset or pod or whatever they call it at the big complex just northwest of St. Cloud. He listened as I told him how it started and how it felt, then he poked my back at various places, pushed and pulled my legs in various directions, and thought for a moment.

Then he told me that it was basically a muscle strain gone wild, and he prescribed a series of pills – a descending quantity of a steroid for a week – and gave me some exercises to do.

I can take pills well, but I’m not all that good at staying with an exercise regimen. I’ll try, though. And it’s nice to pass on the good news that after twenty-four hours of pills and (a little of) the exercises, my back feels much better.

But given yesterday’s visit and other events, as well as the fact that the Texas Gal and I need to run some errands (one of which will no doubt include Chinese food), I have little to offer here. So I thought I’d grab four reference books and see which artist is the first mentioned on Page 474. And from there, we’ll find a single for today.

The New Rolling Stone Album Guide starts its “L” section on Page 474, and the first artist listed is k.d. lang. I have three albums by ms. lang on the digital shelves, so we have something to work with if we go that direction.

In Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, we find the Isley Brothers in mid-section at the top of Page 474. There’s plenty of Isley stuff on the digital shelves, so we’ll see.

The single ranked at No. 474 in Dave Marsh’s The Heart Of Rock & Soul is the 1956 hit “I’m In Love Again” by Fats Domino. There’s lots of Fats here, too.

And the album listed on Page 474 of the tome 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is Motorhead’s No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith. That one is, probably unsurprisingly, not on any shelves here, digital or otherwise.

Well, I’ve featured the Isleys a lot over the years, as I have Fats. I’ve not done much with k.d. lang. Still, I’m of the mind that one should listen to Fats Domino whenever one has the chance. So here’s “I’m In Love Again.” It went to No. 3 in 1956, says Whitburn (No. 9 on the R&B chart). And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

My Russian Fascination

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

At the top of my reading pile these days is The Zhivago Affair, the tale of how Russian author Boris Pasternak came to write the novel Dr. Zhivago, how he came to have the novel first published in 1957 in Italy (to the absolute dismay and anger of Soviet authorities who wanted it not to be published at all), and how the United States’ CIA used the novel as an anti-Soviet tool.

I’m about halfway through the book, written by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, and I find it fascinating, as I do many books, movies and pieces of music that have any connection with Russia. That fascination has endured for many years, built on a number of things, including (but likely not limited to) watching and reading the news of the Cold War centered on Moscow and Washington during my childhood; playing the many pieces of Russian and Eastern European music that my orchestra director at St. Cloud Tech High School selected for our repertoire; seeing the 1965 film version of Dr. Zhivago not long after it came out; spending six days in 1973 in Moscow and the city that was then called Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg, as it was at its founding in 1703); and learning (and watching as an adult) the arc of Russian history from ambitious empire to Soviet linchpin to chaotic democracy to today’s authoritarian state.

When that fascination was developing, in the late 1960s, I tried to read Pasternak’s novel and found it confusing and not a little boring. For years, as an adult, I had a leather-bound copy of the novel on my shelf and never read it. That copy is gone now; I evidently sold it during the lean years of the late 1990s. And as I read The Zhivago Affair, I’m tempted to try Dr. Zhivago once again. I’ll also likely take another look at the David Lean film. I ordered it several years ago from Netflix but for some reason never finished watching it; what I did see confirmed my long-standing impression of it as sprawling but likely easier to digest than the novel itself.

With the movie, of course, comes the music: Maurice Jarre’s soundtrack, for which he won a deserved Academy Award. During recent late evenings, I’ve been using the expanded version of the soundtrack as background music for The Zhivago Affair just as I once used Tchaikovsky’s music – including, of course, the “1812 Overture” – for a long-abandoned reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Another book I need to try again, I guess.) Jarre’s themes and motifs echo Russian music; the real thing also comes out of the speakers here frequently, from Tchaikovsky to Borodin to Glinka to a scavenged collection of maybe 300 Russian folk songs and the two-CD set The Best of the Red Army Choir.

The listening is easy. Reading, of course, takes more time (and sometimes much more effort). There are Russian books beyond Tolstoy’s masterpiece that I need to read, including a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment that was signed and dated by my dad in 1948. And I need to accelerate my reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, at which I’ve been poking for years. (Fortunately, Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Soviet forced labor camps – and of the various government agencies that sent millions to those camps – is more anecdotal than narrative, so reading bits and pieces at a time is an approach that seems to work.)

So is this fascination of mine with things Russian – especially with the period from, oh, 1900 through 1950 – just a historical interest? I don’t think so. It feels deeper than that, like the grip that Stonehenge has had on me over the years. I think that the soul I carry through this life – or that carries me, more fittingly – knows Russia well. That’s all I can say. Would I like to be able to say more? Well, yes, but the best I can do is guess at this point. And beyond indulging in a little bit of supposition over a beer with friends, I’m better off finishing The Zhivago Affair and then turning my attention to other works that might enlighten me, helping me to know (once again, I think) the history and culture of a place that seems so alien and yet so familiar.

Here’s Maurice Jarre’s “Main Title” from the 1965 film Dr. Zhivago.

Peaking At No. 2 . . .

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

One of the quirkier books on my music reference shelf is the Billboard Book of No. 2 Singles, a volume by Christopher G. Feldman that was published in 2000. It gathers together chart data and brief essays on the 400 or so records that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart between 1955 and 1999.*

The singles thus highlighted go from “Melody of Love” by Billy Vaughn & His Orchestra, which was No. 2 for one week in March 1955 and was blocked from the top spot by the McGuire Sister’s “Sincerely” all the way to “Back At One” by Brian McKnight (and boy, that’s an unsettling video), which was No. 2 for eight weeks in late 1999 and early 2000 but was blocked from No. 1 by the Santana/Rob Thomas single “Smooth.”

(The number “400” is an estimate; I was hoping that somewhere in the book Feldman would list the total, but if he did, I can’t spot it this morning. And yes, there’s been a lot of music out since 2000, and an update would be nice, but the book nevertheless covers the years in which I’m most interested.)

I wondered which years had the most records that peaked at No. 2, wondering as well if calculating that would show any sort of pattern. If there is a pattern, I imagine that finding it would take more time and analysis than I’ve going to devote to it this morning. But here are the years when there were more than ten records that peaked at No. 2.

1958: 12
1959: 13
1963: 11
1966: 13
1967: 13
1968: 14
1969: 16
1972: 12
1973: 12
1986: 11
1987: 11
1988: 11
1989: 14
1990: 14

I looked at the No. 1 records from 1969 to see if there were any juggernauts there, and there were: In the spring, the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” was No. 1 for six weeks, followed immediately by the Beatles’ “Get Back,” which was No. 1 for five weeks. And that summer, Zager & Evans’ “In The Year 2525” took over the top spot for six weeks. Those three records blocked six other singles from the top spot.

It might be interesting to carefully scan Feldman’s book to see which No. 1 hit blocked more records from the top spot than any other. I’m not going to take the time to do that, at least not today, but I played some hunches: In 1960, Percy Faith’s “Theme From A Summer Place” was No. 1 for nine weeks and blocked five other records from the top spot. In 1977, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” was No. 1 for ten weeks and blocked four other records from the top spot. In 1981, Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” and Diana Ross’ “Endless Love” were both No. 1 for nine weeks and both blocked three other records from No. 1. And in 1968, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” was No. 1 for nine weeks and blocked three other singles from the top spot.

And as there are with most books of this ilk, there are lists in the back: Through 1999 (and these may have changed, of course), the artist with the most No. 2 hits was Madonna with six, and the honor of having the most No. 2 hits without ever reaching No. 1 went to Creedence Clearwater Revival, which hit No. 2 five times.

And three groups hit No. 2 with three consecutive records:

Blood, Sweat & Tears with “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die.”

The Carpenters with “Rainy Days & Mondays,” “Superstar” and “Hurting Each Other.”

CCR with “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising” and “Green River.”

To end this, I thought I’d go to the middle of the book and find a No. 2 single to highlight. The book is 288 pages, and the first entry on Page 144 is Eddie Kendricks’ “Boogie Down,” which was No. 2 for two weeks in March 1974. In a horrible miscarriage of radio justice, Kendricks’ record was blocked from the top spot by Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun.”

)

*At the time that the first twenty-nine entries in his book were charting, Feldman notes, Billboard issued a number of weekly charts; he used the Best Sellers in Stores chart for those entries, and for the entries from August 4, 1958 on, he used the Billboard Hot 100.

‘Nightfall’

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God! – Ralph Waldo Emerson

John W. Campbell, the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) from late 1937 until his death in 1971, didn’t agree with Emerson. Rather, he said, “I think men would go mad.”

That contention formed the basis for Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story, “Nightfall.” As related in Asimov’s autobiography,* Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after the two discussed Emerson’s quote. And Asimov put together a story that combines psychology, astronomy, archeology and religion, a story that remains potent today, even more than seventy years after its publication. How potent? It’s been some decades since I last read the story, but it’s stayed vivid enough in my memory for me to discuss it at length yesterday with a clerk at a downtown used bookstore.

Asimov’s story takes place on a planet called Lagash. Here’s the synopsis, somewhat abridged and edited, from Wikipedia:

The fictional planet Lagash . . . is located in a stellar system containing six suns (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta are the only ones named in the short story), which keep the whole planet continuously illuminated; total darkness is unknown, and as a result so are all the stars outside the planet’s stellar system.

A group of scientists from Saro University begin to make a series of related discoveries: Sheerin 501, a psychologist, researches the effects of prolonged exposure to darkness; Siferra 89, an archaeologist, finds evidence of multiple cyclical collapses of civilization which have occurred regularly about every 2000 years, and Beenay 25 is an astronomer who has discovered irregularities in the orbit of Lagash around its primary sun. Beenay takes his findings to his superior at the university, Aton, who formulated the Theory of Universal Gravitation. This prompts the astronomers at Saro University to seek the cause of this anomaly. Eventually they discover that the only possible cause of the deviation is an astronomical body that orbits Lagash.

Beenay, through his friend Theremon 762, a reporter, has learned some of the beliefs of the group known as the Cult. They believe the world would be destroyed in a darkness with the appearance of stars that unleash a torrent of fire. Beenay combines what he has learned about the repetitive collapses at the archaeological site, and the new theory of potential eclipses; he concludes that once every 2049 years the one sun visible is eclipsed, resulting in a brief “night.” His theory is that this “night” was so horrifying to the people who experienced it that they desperately sought out any light source to try to drive it away, particularly by frantically starting fires which burned down and destroyed their successive civilizations.

Since the current population of Lagash has never experienced general darkness, the scientists conclude that the darkness would traumatize the people and that they would need to prepare for it. When nightfall occurs, however, the scientists (who have prepared themselves for darkness) and the rest of the planet are most surprised by the sight of hitherto invisible stars outside the six-star system filling the sky. Unfortunately, because the inhabitants of Lagash never saw other stars in the sky, their civilization had come to believe that their six-star system contained the entirety of the universe. In one horrifying instant, anyone gazing at the night sky – the first night sky which they have ever known – is suddenly faced with the reality that the universe contains many millions upon billions of stars: the awesome, horrifying realization of just how vast the universe truly is drives them insane. The short story concludes with the arrival of the night and a crimson glow that was “not the glow of a sun,” with the implication that societal collapse has occurred once again.

I first came across “Nightfall” in the early 1970s, when nearly all of my leisure reading was science fiction, clearing the shelves of the work of Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury (whose fiction, as I’ve noted here before, frequently crossed the barrier into fantasy) and any other writer whose work crossed my path in company with the work of those four giants. And one day, I chanced in a bookstore to find a volume titled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And in its pages, I found “Nightfall.”

It turns out that, in 1965, the Science Fiction Writers of America had established the Nebula Awards, a science fiction equivalent of the Grammys or the Oscars. (The Nebula Awards thus joined the Hugo Awards given by the World Science Fiction Society since 1953.) And in 1968, in an attempt to honor deserving work published before the Nebula Awards were established, the American writers group selected the contents of, and then published, three volumes of its Hall of Fame: one volume of short stories and two of novellas. I had chanced upon the first volume, and in its foreword, I believe, it was noted that of all the short stories selected for the Hall of Fame, Asimov’s “Nightfall” had received the most votes and was thus considered the best science fiction story written before 1965.

I finished the first volume, concurring with the voters’ opinions about the quality of “Nightfall,” and I soon bought and read the two companion volumes. About twenty-five years later, during my scuffling in the mid-1990s, I sold the three volumes and the rest of my science fiction collection so that my cats could eat. In recent years, I’ve thought about replacing those three volumes, perhaps in hardcover. And I’ve pondered the tale of “Nightfall” at various and odd times over the years; like all good fiction, it’s stayed with me. And in an entirely unexpected manner, it came back into my life again yesterday.

I had books to return to the public library, and the Texas Gal and I had things to get at the grocery store, so I thought I’d run to the library, find something new to read and then pick her up from work. A fine plan, except that the library was closed for yesterday’s Presidents Day holiday. I put my books into the exterior book drop and looked at my watch. I had more time available than I wanted to spend sitting in the car with nothing to read, and not quite enough time to make it worthwhile to go home. So I headed to the used bookstore on St. Germain, a couple blocks upstream from the Texas Gal’s office, looking for something in paperback that I’d not read before or at least for a few decades.

I’d recently posted at Facebook a meme offering a cogent quote from Isaac Asimov, so I headed to the beginning of the science fiction shelves. And I found Nightfall, a 1990 novel written by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, another name well-remembered from my early 1970s’ science fiction binge. The blurb on the back cites the 1941 short story, and goes on: “But the short story isn’t the whole story. Now, Dr. Asimov has teamed with multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robert Silverberg to explore and expand one of the most awe-inspiring concepts in the history of science fiction. In this novel, you will witness Nightfall – and much more. You will learn what happens at Daybreak.”

There are a few changes: The planet is now called Kalgash, and the suns have different names, but there are familiar characters beginning to face familiar circumstances. I’m forty pages in, and I’m hooked.

And to close this with music, here’s the spare and somewhat unsettling track “Nightfall” by the Incredible String Band. It’s the last track on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which came out, coincidentally, the same year as that first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: 1968.

*Wikipedia does not specify which of Asimov’s autobiographies includes the tale of the writing of “Nightfall.” Asimov wrote three autobiographies, and after his 1992 death, his widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov, edited the three into one volume, supplemented with some of the writer’s letters. That fourth volume is titled It’s Been A Good Life.

Andrew Greeley, 1928-2013

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

When novels by Father Andrew Greeley began popping up on the shelves at the local drug stores in Monticello during the early 1980s, I was not interested. I’d glance at the titles – The Cardinal Sins and Thy Brother’s Wife were the first two I saw – and I’d think “genre romance, at best.” That judgment was supported by the cover artwork: The first showed the bare back of a lissome lady otherwise swathed in red bedclothes and the second showed an equally attractive woman holding in one hand and between her teeth a gold chain on which was suspended a gold cross.

Those two titles left the drug store shelves and other titles by Greeley replaced them over the next five years or so. I was aware of them, but let them come and go: Ascent into Hell, Lord of the Dance, Virgin and Martyr, Angels of September. If I thought about Greeley and his books at all, I reflected only that the man had obviously found a niche and formula that served him well. Romance novels were not my deal.

I had nothing against genre fiction. Robert Ludlum was still alive and still writing his occasionally clunky but always diverting spy thrillers, and I gladly laid down my shekels every year for another one of his books. That was especially true for the three Ludlum novels that chronicled the tale of Jason Bourne, the intelligence operative struck with amnesia whom I consider one of the greatest inventions in popular American fiction.

Then, one morning in late 1987 as I looked for lunchtime diversion in the library at Minot State University, I chanced upon the portion of the stacks where Greeley’s novels were shelved. Their presence surprised me. Perhaps the man’s work was not as genre-bound as I’d thought. If that were the case, well, I was beginning work on at least two fiction projects, and I thought I might learn something about writing popular fiction as I read. Finally, I was hungry, and there was nothing that said I had to keep reading past lunchtime if I found the book lacking.

So I grabbed one of Greeley’s books from the shelf – I think it was The Cardinal Sins – and once I opened it, I found myself reluctant to close it. Once I got home, I read until early morning, and then finished the book, eyes weary, the next day. Then I went back to the university library and got another Greeley. Once I’d finished with the backlog, I looked and waited for new titles. And so it went through the years, one novel after another, until 2007, when Greeley had an accident that left him with a brain injury and the writing stopped. He passed on at the age of eighty-five during the last days of May, partly as a result of that injury from six years ago.

I’ve learned in the years since first dismissing his work, of course, that Greeley was far more than just a novelist. He was, as Wikipedia puts it, “an Irish-American Roman Catholic priest, sociologist, journalist and popular novelist.” His work at the latter three vocations often put him at odds with the powers of the Catholic church, and his relations with the church were sometimes strained. I don’t know much about his work as a sociologist nor much about his work as a journalist – I’ve told myself many times I should explore his work in both areas – but I’d venture that Greeley did at least some of his most effective work as a priest through his fiction.

A caveat: I’m not a Roman Catholic. I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I grew up as a Lutheran, and in many ways, I am culturally a Lutheran still. I did, however, grow up in a Catholic city; most of my friends when I was young were Catholic; the Texas Gal grew up as a Catholic; and, in the broad swath of Protestantism, Lutherans do not stand horribly far – even though there are some vital differences – from the Church of Rome.

What does all that mean? Just that, even with all that contradictory background swirling around my life, I know ministry when I see it. And in every page of Andrew Greeley’s novels, there is ministry. Without much preaching and with generally interesting plot lines from 1981 through 2007, Greeley tended to his readers, entertaining and guiding them through their lives by detailing crises and celebrations for his characters. The message was fundamentally the same, both in his basic fictional universe with its close-knit families of Cronins, Ryans and more and in the mystery stories that featured his two greatest creations, priest and philosopher Blackie Ryan and musician and mystic Nuala Anne McGrail.

That message? That there is grace in the world. Those would be Greeley’s words. Mine would be different: The Universe gives us what we need. (That’s not always the same as what we want, of course.) As different as the words might be, the ideas are the same: There is something that is unknowable that is greater than we are, and that unknowable something can give us the tools and opportunities to make our lives better. And I’m willing to label those tools and opportunities as grace.

Along with subtle ministry, grace was a constant in Greeley’s books, which have brought me hours of pleasure through the years. Those elements only worked, however, because Greeley’s novels also provided strong stories, interesting and vital characters, a sense of community and engaging mysteries both temporal and cosmic. And I’ll miss all of that. The end of Andrew Greeley’s writing life six years ago left a hole in the library shelves for me; the end of his physical life last month only made that hole larger.

As long as we’re talking about grace, here’s “State of Grace” by Patti Scialfa. It’s from her 2004 album 23rd Street Lullaby.