Rummaging around on Facebook over the weekend, I came across a link to a piece at the Rolling Stone website offering seventeen reasons to adulate Stevie Nicks. Now, I don’t adulate Nicks, nor do I need reasons to do so, but I do admire her and like a lot of her music, both with and without Fleetwood Mac.
So I didn’t need to click through for those seventeen reasons, but the video that was embedded in the piece tempted me. And I found myself watching the Mac’s performance of “Rhiannon” on the June 11, 1976, episode of The Midnight Special.
I loved pretty much everything about that clip and wished for maybe the thousandth time that I’d paid more attention to The Midnight Special. The late-night Friday show* ran from February 1973 into May 1981, and I’m not at all sure why I didn’t watch it even occasionally, much less regularly.
During most of the early years – up to the middle of the summer of ’76, not long after above Fleetwood Mac performance – I could easily have watched the show on the old black-and-white in my room (with the sound turned down some so as not to wake my folks in the adjacent bedroom). After that, at least in a couple of places, I might have had to persuade a couple of roommates (or for a few years, the Other Half) to watch with me. But I never even tried.
So I never got on board, and I wish I had. There are selected performances from the show’s nine seasons available commercially, but I’m not about to spring the cash that Time/Life is asking for discs of those assorted performances. Instead, I wander on occasion through the valley at YouTube, finding bits and pieces of things I missed half a lifetime (or more) ago, things like Linda Ronstadt (introduced by José Feliciano as a country performer) making her way through a December 1973 performance of “You’re No Good” and a May 1977 performance of “Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band.
It’s a seemingly bottomless trove of long-ago treasure, and I can easily get lost clicking from video to video (something that happens occasionally anyway, though with less of a focus). Well, there are worse things to get hooked on, I suppose. And for this morning, we’ll close with a performance by Redbone from February 1974, when they opened “Come And Get Your Love” with a Native American dance quite possibly pulled – though I’m not certain – from the Shoshone heritage of Pat and Lolly Vegas, the group’s founders.
*The show followed The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which meant that for most of its run, The Midnight Special actually started at midnight here in the Central Time Zone. When Carson trimmed his show to an hour in late 1980, The Midnight Special aired at 11:30 our time.
Slow and insistent, the recognizable riff came from the speakers high above the floor of St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center Sunday evening.
“How are they going to do this one without the marching band?” the Texas Gal asked me in a whisper.
“I don’t know,” I whispered back as Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham continued the riff on his guitar, joined soon enough by drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. And then “Tusk” burst forth in full voice from them and Stevie Nicks and the rest of the musicians onstage Sunday: a pair of back-up singers along with another guitarist and a keyboard player.
But even as that happened, I wondered how the second half of “Tusk” – from the 1979 album of the same name – would sound without the brass and percussion provided thirty-four years ago by the University of Southern California marching band. I needn’t have worried. At exactly the right moment, the horns and drums rolled out of the speakers, and on the big screen at the back of the stage, the image changed from kaleidoscopic abstract (if foreboding) art to footage of the USC band from a video shot back in 1979.
As the song came to a thundering climax and ending, those of us in the X (as it’s called in these parts) came to our feet roaring in approval. It wasn’t the first time we’d risen like that, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Seeing Fleetwood Mac was the Texas Gal’s idea. She’s a big fan of Stevie Nicks and thus, by association, a Fleetwood Mac fan, and one evening early this year, she poked her head into the Echoes In The Wind studios and told me we were going to go see Fleetwood Mac in April. I was fine with it. I’d never had the Mac on my list of must-see artists, but I knew (and liked) the group’s music well enough that it had showed up in this space numerous times.* So off we went Sunday, joining what appeared to be about 18,000 others in St. Paul for what turned out to be a very good show.
We stopped for dinner on our way, and the Texas Gal asked me over our enchiladas which songs I was most looking forward to hearing. “Gold Dust Woman” and “The Chain,” both from 1977’s Rumours, came immediately to mind, and an instant later, I thought of “Silver Springs,” the outtake from Rumours that was released as a B-side. And then I revised my list, putting “Landslide” from 1975’s Fleetwood Mac at the top of my list.
I heard all four, including an intimate version of “Landslide” midway through the show, with Nicks accompanied only by Buckingham’s acoustic guitar. “The Chain” showed up early, following the opening “Second Hand News” and preceding the group’s only No. 1 hit, “Dreams.” “Gold Dust Woman,” with Nicks drawing applause for the third or fourth time for her whirling dance during the instrumental, came near the end of the main part of the show. And just when I’d thought I’d have to go without it, “Silver Springs” showed up as an encore, earning a place on my list of great concert moments.
All together, the twenty-three songs offered Sunday night spanned more than forty years, with the earliest being “Without You,” a song Nicks said came from “1970 or 1971,” when she and Buckingham were working toward their 1973 album Buckingham Nicks, and the most recent being the new recording “Sad Angel,” which Buckingham said was one of several new tracks recently recorded.** (The set list also included “Stand Back,” Nicks’ solo hit from 1983.)
Fleetwood Mac’s catalog from the mid-1970s on is so well known, of course, that the opening notes of nearly every song brought a roar of approval from the crowd; the loudest roar, it seemed, came for Nicks’ iconic “Rhiannon” from Fleetwood Mac. And the roars didn’t subside until about two-and-a-half hours after they began, when the band members bid us goodnight and Mick Fleetwood told us, “Be kind to one another,” as the houselights came up.
There are a few videos from Sunday’s performance at YouTube, but none are very well done. So here’s “Landslide” from the 1997 release The Dance. This is pretty much how it sounded in St. Paul.
And here, courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, is Sunday’s set list:
Second Hand News
Not That Funny
Sisters of the Moon
Never Going Back Again
Eyes of the World
Gold Dust Woman
I’m So Afraid
Go Your Own Way
*Many of those posts were, of course, from other versions of the band, as Fleetwood Mac has had several incarnations through the years: There was the blues band featuring Peter Green and Jeremy Spencer; the early 1970s band with Danny Kirwan, Bob Welch and Christine McVie; the mid-1970s band that saw Nicks and Buckingham join the McVies and Fleetwood for an extraordinary run of both popular and critical acclaim; the short-lived 1990 lineup when Buckingham was replaced by Rick Vito and Billy Burnette; and the current regrouping of John McVie, Fleetwood, Nicks and Buckingham that we saw Sunday evening. Christine McVie hasn’t worked with the group since sometime in the mid- to late 1990s, but I read online in the past few weeks that she’ll join the band onstage later this year for a couple of shows in London.
**Shortly after I posted this, I read that Fleetwood Mac has issued a four-song EP, available at iTunes, that includes both “Sad Angel” and “Without You.”
And the March of the Integers goes on, this morning reaching “Seven.”
Having looked ahead, as all good tour guides do, I see that the march is likely to end after “Ten.” Titles with numbers in them are pretty slender from “Eleven” through “Fifteen.” “Sixteen” would work (I’ll bet readers can think of six songs with “sixteen” in their titles in less than sixteen seconds), but the flow ebbs to a trickle after that.
This morning’s search through the RealPlayer for “seven,” however, turns up more than two hundred records. That total is trimmed a fair amount when we take into account the Allman Brothers Band’s 1990 album Seven Turns, French singer Françoise Hardy’s 1970 album One Nine Seven Zero, Etta James’ 1988 album Seven Year Itch, Bettye LaVette’s 1973 release Child Of The Seventies and a few other albums. We also have to ignore the two songs recorded in March 1930 in Atlanta, Georgia, by A. A. Gray & Seven-Foot Dilly and everything listed by the John Barry Seven, Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven, the Society of Seven, Sunlights’ Seven and numerous titles with the words “seventh” and “seventeen” in their titles. (No Willie Mabon, Johnny Rivers or Janis Ian today.) Still, we have enough to play with.
And we start with a Fleetwood Mac record from 1987. “Seven Wonders” was the second single released from the group’s 1987 album, Tango In The Night. It went to No. 19, which was not as high as the two singles from the album that bracket it in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles: “Big Love” went to No. 5, and “Little Lies” went to No. 4. Because of that bracketing and because of the massive overall success of that era’s Fleetwood Mac on both the singles and album charts, I think “Seven Wonders” has been a little obscured. I suppose that for some folks, a little of Stevie Nicks’ mysticism can be more than enough, and “Seven Wonders” does follow that path lyrically as well as in Nicks’ vocal delivery. That’s no problem for me, though.
We’ll stay in 1987 for a bit yet, as that was the year that Terence Trent D’Arby released Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent d’Arby, an album on which the precocious D’Arby – as noted by Rob Bowman of All-Music Guide – “wrote virtually every note, played a multitude of instruments, and claimed that this was the most important album since the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.” Now, it’s not that good, though it did spin off a couple of Top Five hits: “Wishing Well” went to No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts, and “Sign Your Name” went to No. 4 pop and No. 2 R&B. Given our focus this morning, “Seven More Days” is our landing spot. It’s an atmospheric track with intelligent lyrics and a good vocal.
When one seeks out songs using the word “seven,” then Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road” becomes one of the obvious choices. First released on Young’s 1969 album Rock, Salt & Nails, the song was covered memorably by the Eagles, as well as by groups and performers ranging from Mother Earth and Ian Mathews to Rita Coolidge and Dolly Parton. The song’s genesis is interesting, and in 2007 the now-dormant blog pole hill sanatarium presented Young’s comments on the song, as found at a website that evidently no longer exists:
I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, in the early ’60s and had a group of friends there that showed me the road. It led out of town, and after you had crossed seven bridges you found yourself out in the country on a dirt road. Spanish moss hung in the trees and there were old farms with old fences and graveyards and churches and streams. A high bank dirt road with trees. It seemed like a Disney fantasy at times. People went there to park or get stoned or just to get away from it all. I thought my friends had made up the name “Seven Bridges Road.” I found out later that it had been called by that name for over a hundred years, that people had been struck by the beauty of the road for a long time.
The Bee Gees’ 1969 album Odessa has popped up in this space before, at least once as an album and once as a source for a tune in my Ultimate Jukebox. Sprawling and at times beautiful, Odessa remains a favorite, one that I don’t pull out of the CD shelves and listen to in its entirety nearly often enough. Among its seventeen tracks are three instrumentals, two of which don’t seem to work all that well, as if the Bee Gees’ ambitions were larger than their abilities in 1969 (and if that were the case, well, the Bee Gees weren’t the only performers in that time – or any time – to fall into that category). The instrumental that works for me, however, is “Seven Seas Symphony” with its gentle and lightly accompanied piano figure leading into full-blown orchestration and back to (mostly) piano again and then again.
And we jump to 1990 and the sessions that took place after Bruce Springsteen famously fired the E Street Band. Recorded in Los Angeles during the sessions that resulted in the lightly regarded 1992 albums Human Touch and Lucky Town, “Seven Angels” has Springsteen handling guitars and bass as well as vocals. The only other musicians listed in the credits – “Seven Angels” is found on the 1998 box set Tracks – are Shawn Pelton on drums and E Streeter Roy Bittan on keyboards. Even taking into consideration Springsteen’s propensity for recording tracks and then stashing them in the vault because they don’t fit the vision he has for an album, one wonders how a track as good as “Seven Angels” was passed over for some of the stuff that was used on those two 1992 albums.
For those who were television watchers during the 1960s, Elmer Bernstein’s main theme for the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven does not raise visions of a Western (in both senses of the word) version of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic The Seven Samurai. Rather, we see the Marlboro Man, rugged in his sheepskin coat and cowboy hat, as he herds cattle and rides the mountain ridge before pausing to light up a Marlboro. Sometimes I think that all we need to know about American advertising culture – the joys of Mad Men notwithstanding – is that Bernstein’s sweeping and heroic theme became identified with Marlboro cigarettes and that Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture was better known to kids of my age as the Puffed Wheat song. I could, of course, cite many more uses of classical pieces, orchestral movie themes and popular songs for advertising, but I’d rather just sigh and listen to Bernstein’s majestic theme and try to remember John Sturges’ tale of heroism, loyalty and sacrifice.
The moments, probably from several consecutive years in the early 1960s, remain clear: I’m kneeling on the back seat of our old 1952 Ford, looking out the back window. In the distance, as we drive away on Snelling Avenue, I can see the fireworks exploding in the sky over the State Fairgrounds.
I loved the State Fair, loved its hucksters and mini-doughnuts, its farm animals and tractors, its wandering, sunburned crowds of folks doing nothing more than having fun. And when our visit to the fair was ended and we were heading back to St. Cloud, I’d look back at the blazes of red, blue and green decorating the sky over the grandstand.
And I’d sigh and then murmur, “This has been the best day of my life.”
That was probably true for the seven-year-old whiteray as summer faded in those years. A day at the State Fair was about as good as life could get. As I look back, though, I’m struck by the youthful certainty of the statement and by what seems to me a precocious desire to rank and order the events of one’s life. Did other seven-year-olds think like that? Maybe. I don’t know.
Whether they did or not, I did. And, of course, I still rank things: Favorite singles, favorite movies, best pizza, best vacation, and on and on. But as I think about those lists, the content of those rankings – the best single, the best pizza or what have you – seems to matter less than the actual act of sorting. Putting things, even if those things often seem trivial, into some kind of order allows me to frame and structure my world, I guess, so I can deal with its inconsistencies and ambiguities.
And thinking about the certainty of that seven-year-old, I ponder the seemingly impossible task – fifty-some years later – of identifying the best day of my life. There are about 21,500 to choose from now. Some of the best ones, both early and later on, ended with fireworks. One of them ended as I lay in a youth hostel in London, listening to Big Ben toll midnight. Some weren’t so obvious, like a day in mid-February 2000: I was online and checking out a chatroom for social issues, and I struck up a conversation with a chatter going by the name of “rainbow42.” She eventually became the Texas Gal.
There have been many other good days, as well, and if I were foolish enough to try to create a list of twenty or fifty or a thousand of the best days of my life, I know very well that the list would be incomplete. Not because I would forget some good days, although I would. But that list will always be incomplete because as good as some of my days have been, I have come to a point in my life where I truly believe that each day that comes to me now is the best day of my life. And that holds true whether the day brings fireworks or bells or just the quiet day-to-day moments that make up the greater portion of a life being lived.
I suppose that all of that sounds like some kind of New Age hogwash or mottos from pretty posters sold down at the bookstore. That’s really not so. I am aware that life can be hard. I’ve had more days than I care to count when I awoke to sorrow, and I know that days of grief inevitably lie ahead, as they are part of life. But grief and sorrow are absent today. I have my small pleasures – coffee and a peanut butter sandwich – at hand, and the joy of my life – my Texas Gal – is busy making pickles in the kitchen. The cats are scattered and sleeping, and my morning newspaper waits for me on the table. And I get to write and hope that others read these words and don’t either snicker or roll their eyes. All of that makes this the best day of my life.
So here’s a song that never fails to make a good day better. It’s Danny Kirwan’s instrumental, “Sunny Side of Heaven,” from Fleetwood Mac’s 1974 album, Bare Trees, and it’s the 300th Saturday Single.
We had no reason to go to Finland except to say we’d been in Finland. But a stay of less than twenty-four hours in a small northern town there led to what I suppose was the grand romantic gesture of my life.
It was April of 1974, and John the Mad Australian and I were riding the trains north from Stockholm, Sweden, heading to Narvik, Norway. Narvik was the end of the line, as far north as one could ride a train in Western Europe. Our plan was to travel overnight from Stockholm to the city of Boden, Sweden, where we would take a side trip, changing to a train that headed east to Finland, first to the border town of Tornio, and then on to the city of Kemi.
Why the detour? For me, it was just to be able to say that I’d been to Finland, I guess. I wasn’t looking for anything more adventurous than a moderate language barrier and a good beer. Nor was John, whom I’d met in Stockholm and who was tagging along companionably during my tour of the far north. “I’ve never been there, so I may as well go,” had pretty much been his attitude since we’d met over breakfast at the train station in Stockholm a couple days earlier.
So from Boden, we traveled on through Haparanda, Sweden (and the customs house where we’d be detained a day later, but that’s another story), across the Tornio River and into Finland, then through the city of Tornio and on to Kemi, maybe twenty miles further on. We found ourselves a room at a nearby hotel, stashed our backpacks and walked into Kemi’s downtown, looking for the local equivalent of a burger and a beer. The downtown area wasn’t large – Kemi has a population of 22,000 these days, and I imagine it was a little smaller then – but it was baffling, as neither John nor I spoke or read Finnish.
So we peered into windows as we walked among the shops, looking for a place that looked like a café. After some false starts, we found one, and at the counter, we each ordered the item on the menu that most closely resembled “hamburger” and we pointed at what appeared to be – and were – bottles of beer in the cooler. Thus armed with refreshment, we found an empty table, and over our dinner, John began to wonder if we could find a pair of young women to take dancing or at least to join for conversation.
He began to assess the potential of the several pairs of young women in the restaurant, and as he did, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. The two young women at the table next to us understood English well and were trying very hard not to laugh at us. I nodded at them, smiling a little sheepishly, and then I interrupted John in mid-soliloquy. “John,” I told him, “the young ladies at the next table understand English. They’re very amused.”
He looked at them and grinned, and moments later, we’d joined them at their table. The four of us finished our meals over introductions – they were Leena (pronounced Lay-na) and Ritva – and then we all went off to a nearby downstairs bar for further refreshment.
We never did dance. I spent those few hours talking mostly with Leena while John chatted with Ritva. We talked about school – she would soon complete the Finnish equivalent of high school – and about music and about life in Finland and in the United States. She’d been an exchange student in Michigan for a year, and I told her that parts of Michigan were very much like portions of Minnesota. We exchanged addresses and talked about families. Her birthday was approaching – she would be twenty – and she asked about mine. I told her the date – September 5 – and she asked, “So doesn’t that make you a virgin?”
It took me a stunned moment or two to realize she was talking about Virgo, my sign of the Zodiac. I stammered a response that was supposed to be witty and failed, and we shifted topics and talked on for another hour or so. Near the end of that hour, at about the time she said she and Ritva had to leave, I leaned over and kissed her. She kissed back, and a few minutes later, she and Ritva were gone.
John and I went back to our hotel, and the next morning, we returned to Sweden and eventually made our way north to Narvik and then south to Oslo, Norway, where we parted. He headed for the fjords at Bergen, and I went back to Denmark and – three weeks later – Minnesota. About two weeks after I got home, I got a letter from Finland. Leena apologized for asking me if I were a virgin, explaining that she simply got her English confused. I wrote back, telling her that after a moment of surprise, I’d known what she’d meant and that I took no offense.
A few weeks later, another letter arrived, and I answered, and for almost five years, letters went back and forth between St. Cloud and Kemi, between St. Cloud and Oulu – where Leena went to university – and Monticello and Oulu. Then a letter lay too long unanswered on one of our desks – probably mine – and the letters dwindled and then stopped.
Before they stopped, however, I startled her. As our friendship grew via the mail, we’d occasionally brought up the idea of meeting again and seeing if we cared about each other as much in person as it seemed we did through letters. Being in a slow spot in my life – lots of first dates but not much more than that – I tumbled that idea around in my head, polishing it like a jewel. And during the spring and summer of 1975, I slowly came to the conclusion that I should write a letter to Leena proposing marriage.
Never mind the countless practical details. I knew they were there, but I figured there was no point in examining them unless there were a reason to do so. I mentioned the idea to a few carefully selected friends, and they were supportive, noting that I should be prepared for disappointment. I understood; I knew that there was little likelihood of her accepting my offer. But I also knew that I didn’t want to wake up some morning in 2010, look at the life around me and wonder what might have been if I’d been brave and foolish back in 1975. So in September and October, I spent several evenings in the quiet snack bar at Atwood Center, drafting and redrafting my letter. Finally satisfied, I mailed it sometime in late October; the “thunk” as the mailbox closed was one of the loudest sounds in my life.
She said “No,” of course. I wasn’t surprised. Had she said “Yes,” I would have had to reorder my life, and I would have done so gladly. But the chances of that had been slender, and I passed the news to my friends and then to my family. (None of my family had any idea I’d proposed to Leena until I received her reply.) And I moved on.
So why bring this up now? Because one evening in the spring of 1975, as my grand romantic gesture was in its formative stages, I mentioned it to a young ladyfriend, asking her thoughts. She went to her stereo, put Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees on the turntable and played me the second track on side two:
And I heard, as my friend intended, “That’s why I’ve traveled far, ’cause I come so together where you are.” And it’s appropriate I connect my tale with the record, with the Fleetwood Mac hit that might have been but never was. It was issued as a single by Reprise, but went nowhere although writer Bob Welch got a No. 8 hit out of an inferior remake in 1978. But in another universe, the original version of “Sentimental Lady” was a hit. And in another universe . . . well, I’m happy with the universe I’m in. I’m glad I wrote the letter I wrote. I’m glad I got the response I expected. And I don’t have to wake up tomorrow morning and wonder what might have happened.
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 35
“Dancing in the Street” by Martha & the Vandellas, Gordy 7033 
“Bernadette” by the Four Tops, Motown 1104 
“California Soul” by Marlena Shaw from The Spice of Life 
“God, Love and Rock & Roll by Teegarden & Van Winkle, Westbound 170 
“Sentimental Lady” by Fleetwood Mac from Bare Trees 
“The Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town 
The riches of Motown continually astound me, and I imagine I’m not alone in that. I mean, Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 and the young Michael Jackson, and that’s just the very top of the mountain. Great songs, great performers, great studio musicians and great production all leave not much more to be said, except that “Dancing in the Street” went to No. 2 in autumn of 1964, and “Bernadette” went to No. 4 in the spring of 1967.
I wrote about “California Soul” once before, using Marlena Shaw’s version as a take-off point, and a few readers chimed into a discussion of the merits of their favorite versions of the song. I’ve not heard a bad version of the tune – although I’m certain there is at least one out there if I were bent on finding it – but I return to Shaw’s for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s the first version I heard of the tune, and first versions tend to stay in my head longer – not always, but frequently. And second, I’m pulled in by the dry wit in her voice as she sings of the glories of the Golden State, which gives her vocal a sense of, oh, amusement at the folks who’ve come looking for that soul she sings about. Or maybe that’s just the way she sings. Either way, it sticks with me.
Listen to Teegarden & Van Winkle now:
Cheer the light Still the fires Raise your voice for God, love, and rock and roll
We that fear The way is clear The day has come for God, love, and rock and roll
Sing your song We all belong Now’s the time for God, love, and rock and roll
“The Promised Land” is the third and final record by Bruce Springsteen in the Ultimate Jukebox, and that’s one more than anyone else has. Does that mean that Springsteen has taken over the top spot in my all-time rankings of performers and bands? I’m not at all sure. When I started sifting through more than 40,000 mp3s – and paging through reference books to make sure I hadn’t overlooked any essential tunes that weren’t in the RealPlayer – I would have made bets that Bob Dylan or the Beatles or The Band would have had more tracks than anyone else. That it was Springsteen, and that his three tracks came from two of his early albums – the other tracks were “Born to Run” and “Badlands” – tells me only that at the moment I was sifting through the tunes from 1975 and 1978, those three jumped out at me. I imagine that if I were to start over, my 228 tunes for this project would look very different. Would those three Springsteen titles still be there? Probably. As I trimmed and trimmed songs from the list, I kept finding that I could not trim off any of those three Springsteen tunes, for different reasons: “Born to Run” for its place in history and its ambition, “Badlands” because it was the first Springsteen record I ever knowingly heard, and “The Promised Land” for its harmonica and for the words: “Mister, I ain’t a poet, I’m a man, and I believe in a promised land.”
The original isn’t available on YouTube, and I can’t embed what I found there this morning, but here’s a link to a kick-ass performance of the song in Barcelona, Spain, in 2002.
I felt kind of sorry for Maynard Ferguson. It was a spring evening in 1977, maybe April but more likely May, and Ferguson and his band were on stage at the Prom Center in St. Paul. And after every number, fans in the crowd were calling out “‘Gonna Fly Now’!” as they urged Ferguson and his band to perform his current Minnesota hit.
Now, I didn’t really know Ferguson’s catalog beyond “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from ‘Rocky’)” that night. I imagine that if the single hadn’t been getting some pretty good airplay on Minnesota stations, I wouldn’t have made the trek to the Twin Cities for the show. But I was interested in hearing the rest of the show. I wanted to learn what else Ferguson and his band had to offer. And I was enjoying what I heard.
I knew, of course, that Ferguson and his mates would eventually play “Gonna Fly Now.” As I noted, the record had been getting plenty of airplay in Minnesota. That made the state one of the few markets in which Ferguson’s version of the movie theme outperformed the original from the movie soundtrack by Bill Conti; nationally, both versions entered the Billboard Hot 100 during late April of 1977. Conti’s version went to No. 1 during the first week of July, and Ferguson’s version peaked at No. 28 in late June.
The night of Ferguson’s concert, that peak was still more than a month away, but in Minnesota, we’d been hearing Ferguson’s version of the song on the radio for some time. The Academy Awards were handed out on March 28 that year, and I recall huddling later that week with a member of the music faculty at St. Cloud State, dissecting Best Song nominees “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)” by Barbara Streisand and Paul Williams (which won the Oscar) and Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.” (I didn’t yet have Conti’s version, either on 45 or on LP, so I brought along Ferguson’s LP for the comparison.) Our verdict? Conti’s composition was more exciting musically, but its lyrics – by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins – were painfully lame.
That comparison might be interesting, but the main point of the tale is that by late March/early April, I’d heard Ferguson’s version on the radio enough that I’d already sought out the album. Had that been on St. Cloud’s WJON? On KDWB from the Twin Cities? From another local station? I don’t know, but by the time I was at the Prom Center later that spring, the record had already been a hit for the trumpeter in Minnesota. So as I sat with a bunch of other St. Cloud students – all of whom knew Ferguson’s work better than I did – I groaned internally as the listeners at the fringes called for “Gonna Fly Now.”
Did they think he wasn’t going to play it?
Of course, he did, near the end of the show, and those who’d come only for the hit were satisfied. Many of those who’d come for the broader range of Ferguson’s catalog were relieved, like one of the St. Cloud folks who was in our group. “Well, that’s over,” he murmured to me as the applause for “Gonna Fly Now” faded away. A little while later, I came away from the show with a broader appreciation of Ferguson’s music and the thought that I should delve deeper into his catalog.
It took me a long time to get to that, and I have to acknowledge that I’ve only dug a little bit into the late trumpeter’s work in the past few years. I enjoy it, and I respect the man’s abilities. But jazz is never going to be my music of choice; it’s more like a place I visit now and then, enjoying the differing customs and strange sights but aware all the time that when I leave, it will be good to be back home in my homeland of blues, rock, folk and R&B.
Of course, Ferguson’s “Gonna Fly Now” isn’t jazz. It’s pop, as was a lot of his work in the 1970s, a fact that dismayed many of his long-time listeners. His earlier work and some of his later work is far more based in jazz, and some of it can be challenging listening. If some listeners were pulled into those challenges because of Ferguson’s pop work, well, that’s all right. And pop though it may be, Ferguson’s version of “Gonna Fly Now” shows off the man’s tremendous range and dynamics. That’s why it’s here in the Ultimate Jukebox:
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 28
“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals, Atlantic 2537 
“Suavecito” by Malo, Warner Bros. 7559 
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, MCA 40258 
“Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac from Fleetwood Mac 
“Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” by Maynard Ferguson, Columbia 10468 
“Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn from Marc Cohn 
The Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” falls for me into a loose category of utopian pop-rock songs, a late Sixties swath of pop music that includes – just to name two other hits – the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and Friend & Lover’s ”Reach Out In The Darkness.” What’s always struck me about those songs is their naiveté, their seeming belief that the task of reordering our lives and the world around us requires only an act of will. In other words, to quote Paul McCartney and Badfinger from another context, “If you want it, you can get it.” Simplistic? Yes, but it’s a wish/desire/hope that remains with us today in such homilies as “Be the change you want to be.” There is, I suppose, something to that, as the world can change one person at a time, but the cynic in me chuckles and then reaches for the sports section. So does that invalidate “People Got To Be Free” for me? Not at all. It’s a great record, and it’s good to be reminded at times that we should aim for better. And the Rascals perform the hell out of it, which was good enough for the record to go to No. 1 for five weeks during the late summer of 1968.
The light and airy sounds of Malo’s “Suavecito” put me on my bicycle during one of those Saturday evenings rides that were a constant for me during the summer of 1972. I wrote about those rides once before, and I can only guess that I heard Malo’s record from the loudspeakers as I sat in the bleachers at the municipal swimming pool, taking a break from my ride and nibbling on a Frozen Milkshake. There’s a longer version on the group’s self-titled album from that same year, but it gets to the point too slowly and contains less of the single’s restrained energy. I’d forgotten for years about Malo and “Suavecito,” but sometime during the 1990s, I found Malo and the group’s second album, Dos, during my crate-digging days; hearing the long version of the song reminded me of how much I liked the single as it went to No. 18 during the early summer of 1972, and when I began to collect digital music about ten years ago, the single version of “Suavecito” was pretty high on my list of wants.
I don’t have a lot to say about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” except to note two things about the record that went to No. 8 in 1974: First, the ambiguous second verse that seems to have defended Alabama Governor George Wallace doesn’t actually do so, according to a 1975 interview with the late Ronnie Van Zant, co-writer of the song. Second, I think the current Alabama license plate is just perfect:
Stevie Nicks has written a good number of great songs. She’s also written a few that tend to get lost in her personal “Rhiannon” mythology. (And that latter group does not include “Rhiannon” itself.) But to my mind, her best song is “Landslide” from the 1975 album Fleetwood Mac, the album that presented to the world Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham as the new members of the revamped Mac. Even without the subtext of Nicks’ and Buckingham’s failing relationship – a failure displayed, of course, in full light of day on 1977’s Rumours – the chorus to “Landslide” is poignant:
Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
’Cause I’ve built my life around you,
But time makes you bolder, even children get older,
And I’m getting older too.
Writing a song that name-checks prominent people and places isn’t easy. Writing a good song that does that is immensely difficult, as such efforts can easily devolve into what seems like parody. That’s what made Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis” so remarkable when it came out in 1991. Cohn piles up the references: W.C. Handy, Beale Street, Elvis Presley, Union Avenue, Graceland, the Jungle Room, Al Green, and Muriel at the Hollywood Cafe (in Robinsonville, Mississippi). And they all work. The record went to No. 13 during the summer of 1991.
One of the classic small-town fund-raisers is the fish fry. During the years I lived in Monticello, we’d occasionally make our way to the American Legion club at the west edge of town and join our friends and neighbors at long tables. The menu was always deep-fried fish – probably haddock – with french fries and cole slaw.
We’d nibble on our dinners, sip coffee and chat with whoever ended up sitting nearby. Occasionally, I’d field questions or complaints about something the newspaper had published that week. Otherwise, we’d maybe talk about the city’s plans to redevelop downtown, the upcoming school board election or the prospects for the high school’s teams – still called, amazingly enough, the Redmen – in the coming winter tournaments.
But as we sat at the tables for the Rotary Club’s annual fish fry thirty years ago this evening, we talked about none of that. All anybody wanted to talk about was a bunch of college kids, kids with names like Broten, Johnson and Eruzione; Callahan, Craig and Pavelich; Morrow, Verchota and Suter and eleven more. And we talked about Herb Brooks, the hockey coach who’d molded those twenty American college kids into a hockey team that had defeated the legendary team from the Soviet Union 4 to 3 in an Olympic medal-round game late that afternoon.
I’ve never asked anyone, but I’ve always wondered how sparse the crowd was for the first hour or so of the fish fry that evening. The hockey game began at four o’clock Central Time – officials for the ABC network, which was broadcasting the Olympics from Lake Placid, N.Y., tried to have the game switched to seven o’clock, but Soviet officials refused – and was likely over a little after six o’clock. That’s when we – my wife of the time and I – made our way to the Legion club for dinner, as I’d been listening to the game on a distant radio station, struggling to make sense of the play-by-play through a forest of static.
I imagine that many others had done the same, as it seems in memory that we were among a large group of diners who showed up about the same time. Those already dining were already talking about hockey or related topics, like why ABC – which planned to air a tape of the game that evening – didn’t show the game live at four o’clock. And there were grumbles at the Soviet officials who refused to allow the game to be moved from late afternoon to the evening. (Wikipedia notes that such a shift would have meant a four a.m. start for the game in Moscow.)
But most of the time, it seems – in the soft light of a memory thirty years old – we were shaking our heads and marveling at what those twenty American kids and their coaches had done that afternoon. After all, the Soviet team had won five of the six gold medals in hockey since 1956 (with the U.S. winning in 1960 in Squaw Valley, Calif.). Since those 1960 games, the Soviets had gone 32-1-1 over the next four Olympic tournaments and the preliminary round at Lake Placid. Games between the Soviet teams and the professionals of the National Hockey League had started in 1972, and during the two most recent series, the Soviets were 7-4-1 against the NHL’s best. In addition, in the last exhibition game for the U.S. Olympic team before the competition at Lake Placid, the Soviets had defeated the U.S. team in New York City by a 10-3 score.
So I don’t recall talking to anyone during the preceding days who thought that the U.S. boys – who’d won four and tied one of their preliminary round games – could beat the Soviets. Watching the five earlier games had cued us – hockey fans and those who were only vaguely familiar with the sport alike – that the U.S. team might be something special. And it was, advancing to the medal round with what seemed like a good chance for silver or at least bronze.
But those American kids surprised everyone, including the experts in the sporting world who’d conceded the gold medal to the Soviet team from the start, the delirious crowd in the Lake Placid arena that afternoon, and those of us all across the country who would sit in their living rooms and watch the taped game that evening. The kids probably even surprised their own coach, Herb Brooks. And there’s no doubt that they surprised the supremely talented members of the Soviet Union’s Olympic hockey team.
There were overtones to the hockey game, of course: The general sense of unease in the U.S. at the time and the international rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union – heightened by the Soviets’ 1979 invasion of Afghanistan – all made the U.S team’s victory a template for something more than a hockey game. But even as only a hockey game, it was enough. And that’s what we chewed on that evening at the Rotary fish fry, thirty years ago tonight.
These five videos and one download can all stand on their own except for noting two things: First, the original poster of “Sara” at YouTube unaccountably calls Stevie Nicks “Sara.” Second, the version of “Lost Her In The Sun” offered is the album track from Stewart’s Bombs Away Dream Babies, not the single edit. Tomorrow or Wednesday we’ll dig into the Ultimate Jukebox.
What A Weekend!
I should note that the Texas Gal and I had a wonderful weekend visiting jb of The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ and The Mrs. in Madison, Wisconsin. Billed loosely as Blog Summit & Beer Spree III, the weekend included a men’s hockey game between the University of Wisconsin and St. Cloud State, some remarkably good meals and very good brews, as well as tours of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison and Middleton’s own Capital Brewery and its National Mustard Museum. Thanks for the fun and friendship!