Posts Tagged ‘Tower of Power’

Saturday Single No. 512

Saturday, October 8th, 2016

As of this morning, the RealPlayer holds 89,711 clips, most of them music. (As I’ve noted before, I do keep about twenty spoken word clips in the player; most of those are dialogue from movies, as it amuses me to have, say, Dean Wormer from Animal House pop up between, oh, Hank Snow and Wishbone Ash to tell me, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”)

Over on the other side of the music systems here, the iPod currently has 3,649 tracks (or about 4 percent of the overall sorted and tagged files), most of those music as well. I added a few things to both players yesterday. When I add music, I add it into the alphabetical file folders that feed the RealPlayer first and then cherry-pick for the iPod, usually just grabbing a few tracks off a new album, but sometimes adding the entire new album.

Yesterday’s additions to the iPod included one new album, And Still I Rise by the Heritage Blues Orchestra, related to the quintet that Rob and I saw a couple of weeks ago at the nearby College of St. Benedict. On the CD, the basic quintet – which has three of the same musicians that we heard – is supplemented by horns, so the sound is not quite as spare, but the repertoire is the same and the music is very, very good. I also brought into the iPod this morning a few tunes by Rita Coolidge. I’d needed to listen to her version of “Fever” for a musical project scheduled for November, and I tossed a couple more tunes by the Delta Lady into the iPod at the same time.

Readers can see where this is going, I’m sure, given that it’s Saturday: I thought I’d see what five random tracks the iPod/iTunes throw to us this morning as a source for a featured single.

First up: “Lorena” by Jimmy LaFave, who’s shown up here a few times. The track came from a 2011 collection titled Dark River: Songs of the Civil War Era. “Lorena,” says Wikpedia, “is an antebellum song with Northern origins. The lyrics were written in 1856 by Rev. Henry D. L. Webster, after a broken engagement. He wrote a long poem about his fiancée but changed her name to ‘Lorena,’ an adaptation of ‘Lenore’ from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem ‘The Raven.’ Henry Webster’s friend Joseph Philbrick Webster wrote the music, and the song was first published in Chicago in 1857.” Here’s the final verse:

It matters little now, Lorena,
The past is in the eternal past;
Our heads will soon lie low, Lorena,
Life’s tide is ebbing out so fast.
There is a Future! O, thank God!
Of life this is so small a part!
’Tis dust to dust beneath the sod;
But there, up there, ’tis heart to heart.

From there, we jump to The Band and “Right As Rain,” a track from the group’s final 1970s studio album, Islands, from 1977. The album was seen as a contract-closer, packaged by the group for Capitol so that the group’s grand finale as envisioned by Robbie Robertson, The Last Waltz, could be released on Warner Bros. Islands isn’t a great album, by any means, landing far away from the quality of The Band’s first two albums. But it’s always going to sit on my shelves as part of the oeuvre of one of my favorite groups, and “Right As Rain” was probably the best track on the album.

The third spot this morning falls to “The Road,” the second track to the second album by the group that started as Chicago Transit Authority. Often called Chicago II, the silver-covered double album is actually just titled Chicago, as the group changed its name when the real Chicago Transit Authority balked at sharing the name. “The Road” is a decent horn-driven track, but it’s one that I have a hard time assessing critically: Chicago was one of the first two rock albums I bought with my own money, yearning for “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” the nearly side-long suite I’d heard via a cassette taped from the Twin Cities’ KQRS. When I got the album, I restrained myself from jumping immediately to Side Two and started at the top. Thus, “The Road” was one of the first tracks I heard when the album was mine, and although the suite that begins with “Make Me Smile” will always be my favorite Chicago piece, “The Road” reminds me of those long-ago days when I began to explore rock beyond what I was hearing on Top 40 radio. That means I love the track and am likely deaf to whatever its drawbacks may be.

Speaking of Top 40, we’ll slide back a few years from Chicago to 1967 and one of the singles that even a dorkish ninth-grader who listened to Al Hirt knew about: “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred & His Playboy Band. The record – with its title gently mocking the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” – popped into the Billboard Hot 100 in November of 1967 and spent sixteen weeks in the chart, two of them at No. 1. And this morning, even with the sound turned off for a few moments to focus on writing, I can hear every turn of the record in my head, meaning that I’ve either listened to it too many times over the course of these forty-nine years or it’s a brilliantly constructed and produced pop record. I vote for the latter.

And we close our brief trek with a track from Tower of Power that carries with it potent memories both good and bad. “So Very Hard To Go” by Tower of Power was one of the songs that I played during my days with Jake’s band out in Eden Prairie back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Found on the 1973 Tower of Power album, the classic ToP track – it went to No. 17 on the Hot 100 and to No 11 on the Billboard R&B chart – reminds me of the joy and camaraderie I found playing with Jake and the guys, but it also reminds me of the grief I felt when Jake and the guys decided they could move on without me. As I wrote some years ago, I’ve consciously forgiven Jake and the guys for that rejection, but some days I’m still vulnerable to those memories and the feelings they evoke. This is one of those days.

So. My head says “Lorena,” but my heart, well, it calls for Tower of Power. Both songs, of course, are bittersweet, and it should be no surprise that I love that flavor. “Lorena” is lovely, and maybe we’ll get back to LaFave’s version of it someday, but this morning, it’s Tower of Power that pulls me in, and that’s why – even though it was featured here a few years ago – the 1973 track “So Very Hard To Go” is today’s Saturday Single.

A Bunch Of ‘Sorry’ Songs

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

The Texas Gal and I have a friend who’s been looking for a used printer, and I told that friend Sunday that I’d send her the phone number and email address of Dale the Computer Guy down on Wilson Avenue.

I forgot.

I sent the info yesterday in an apologetic email, and this morning, I got back a kind email saying my delay was not a problem. But it got me to wondering how many recordings among the 75,000 currently logged into the RealPlayer have the word “sorry” in their titles.

I was surprised. There are only thirty-eight such recordings (and one album: the Gin Blossoms’ 1996 effort Congratulations I’m Sorry). Those recordings span the years, however, starting with the 1935 single “Who’s Sorry Now” by Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies and ending with a 2013 version of the same song recorded by Karen Elson for the HBO show Boardwalk Empire.

Here’s the western swing version from Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies:

It’s worth noting that “Who’s Sorry Now” seems to be a pretty sturdy song. Written by Ted Snyder, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, it was first recorded in 1923 by a number of folks including Isham Jones (whom we met here last autumn when we were listening to versions of “I’ll See You In My Dreams”), and according to the information at SecondHand Songs, it’s been recorded several times in every decade since then except the 1930s (and I’ll bet there are recordings from that decade that have not yet been listed at the website). The most recent version noted there before Elson’s 1920s-styled take on the tune is one from Mary Byrne, a 2010 contestant in the United Kingdom’s version of the singing contest, The X Factor.

But what else did we find when searching for “sorry”? Well, the second-oldest recording stashed here in the EITW studios with “sorry” in its title is from 1951, when Johnny Bond saw his “Sick, Sober & Sorry” go to No. 7 on the Billboard country chart. And the second most-recent is from quirky singer-songwriter Feist, whose “I’m Sorry” was released on her 2007 album, The Reminder.

Looking chronologically, and picking one track from each decade from the 1950s on, we find some gems: “I’m Sorry” by the Platters went to No. 11 on the Billboard jukebox chart and to No. 15 on the R&B chart in 1957. (And yes, we doubled up on the 1950s, considering we’d hit the Johnny Bond record, but it’s worth it for the Platters.) From 1962, we find “Someday After Awhile (You’ll Be Sorry)” by bluesman Freddy King (a departure from his normal “Freddie” spelling).

In the 1970s, we find the funky “Both Sorry Over Nothin’” from Tower of Power’s 1973 self-titled album. The pickings in the files from the 1980s are pretty slender, so we’ll skip over one track each by the Moody Blues and the Hothouse Flowers and head to the 1990s. And that’s where we find the atmospheric “Not Sorry” by the Cranberries from their 1993 album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?

And we have one more stop with “sorry,” heading back to 1968 and the regrets expressed by the HAL 9000 computer in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Saturday Single No. 361

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

I’m heading out this morning for a day of Strat-O-Matic baseball at my pal Dan’s house. I had to skip his annual tournament last year, but Rick and Rob managed my 1941 Yankees in my absence. I don’t recall how the Yanks did, but I know they didn’t get out of the four-team division round into the semifinals.

Beyond being a great team, the 1941 Yankees attract me because of the presence of one of my favorite all-time players, second baseman Joe Gordon. And as always, I’ve got a Joe Gordon baseball card in my wallet. It is, however, a 1950 card, and by the time 1950 rolled around, Joe was playing in Cleveland in the last season of what was a Hall of Fame (2009) career. But there may be some mojo in the card anyway, so maybe this is the 1941 Yanks’ year.

Even if it’s not, today is still going to be a fun day, which means that Dan and I and his other guests are going to be taking advice from Tower of Power. Here, from the 1976 album Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now, is “You Ought To Be Having Fun,” today’s Saturday Single.

‘So Very Hard To Go . . .’

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

My eyes wandered down the Billboard Hot 100 from July 21, 1973, the other morning. The titles and artists at the top of the chart were familiar and brought back a summer of sweeping floors, doing maintenance on audiovisual equipment and sitting by my bedroom window late into the night, wondering what I would find that coming school year in Denmark.

Topping the list were Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles” and the Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More.” My gaze moved downward, passing “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple, “Diamond Girl” by Seals & Crofts and “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich.

And my eyes stopped at “So Very Hard To Go” by Tower of Power, parked at No. 18. I know the record, but I don’t remember it belonging to that summer, not like the ones mentioned above nor like the records that bracketed it on that chart: Diana Ross’ “Touch Me In The Morning” and Chicago’s “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.” I don’t recall hearing the Tower of Power record on either KDWB or WJON, and I don’t recall it popping up on the jukebox in St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center.

It likely showed up in all those places, but it did so without making an impression on me. The incomplete surveys at the Oldiesloon for WDGY, the Twin Cities’ other main Top 40 station, show “So Very Hard To Go” peaking at No. 15 in early August, and the Airheads Radio Survey Archive tells me that on Chicago’s WLS – an occasional late-night stop for me – the record went to No. 17 in July. So the record was around, and I just missed it.

Nationally, “So Very Hard To Go” went to No. 17 on the Hot 100, No. 36 on the Adult Contemporary chart and No. 11 on the R&B chart. On all three charts it was the highest-placing record Tower of Power ever released. And it’s still a great record, one I wish I recalled from that summer of work and preparation.

So how did I get to “So Very Hard To Go” if it didn’t stick from that summer forty years ago? Well, when I was playing in Jacques’ band in the latter half of the 1990s, our lead singer suggested we tackle some Tower of Power tunes. We settled on “So Very Hard To Go” and “Get Yo’ Feet Back On The Ground” from the 1973 album Tower of Power, and “Don’t Change Horses (In The Middle Of A Stream)” from 1974’s Back to Oakland. We found charts for the three songs and off we went. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t try “You’re Still A Young Man,” but we did okay on the three we chose. And I checked my LP collection and put lots of Tower of Power on my shopping list.

Some Walkin’ Goin’ On

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

A few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to get back – if only in a small way – to writing and editing for actual compensation. So I began thinking and writing down ideas. As I wondered where I might find a market for editing and proofreading, I realized that across the river there is a state university with something like 16,000 students, the vast majority of whom will have to write one or two research papers a semester.

So I put together a one-page promotion piece with the bottom edge of the page turned into tear-off slips with an email address. And I spent two hours yesterday morning walking around the campus of St. Cloud State, pinning my promotional piece to public billboards. I learned that some classroom buildings – generally those recently constructed or remodeled – have no public bulletin boards. In the buildings that have generally retained their purposes and designs since I was a student at SCS a good many years ago, however, the bulletin boards remained.

I probably put up about thirty-five pieces yesterday in six different buildings, and I likely walked a little more than a mile to do so (maybe more; I had to double back several times in buildings to get to all the corridors, and several of the buildings had two or three stories). It’s been a while since I walked that far. Now, I have no doubt that being more active is a good thing, and a few aches and pains in the long run will be a small price. But this morning, it’s a little hard to move.

So here are a few tunes about walking.

“Walkin’ Up Hip Street” by Tower of Power. This lively and funky instrumental comes from TOP’s 1975 album Urban Renewal. The album went to No. 22.

“Walking Out On You” by Spencer Wiggins. I’ve mentioned Wiggins before, who recorded a series of lively soul singles for the Goldwax label without having much, if any, of a chart presence. This 1966 track was released as Goldwax 312.

“Walk On” by the Reindeer Army. I know nothing about the Reindeer Army although I can make two assumptions: First, the group found its name in a line from Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Second, the group sounds like a collection of studio musicians. Other than that, this 1970 release on Laurie is a blank. I found the track in one of the massive Lost Jukebox collections that one still might be able to find by hanging around blogs and boards.

“A Walk in the Black Forest” by Horst Jankowski. This instrumental with the jaunty solo piano was a No. 12 hit in 1965 for German jazzman Jankowski. (Say those last three words real fast, if you can!) He reached the Hot 100 again later that year when “Simpel Gimpel” went to No. 91.

“Walk On Water” by Ambergris. I wrote about Ambergris and shared the band’s lone album – from 1970 – five years ago, which is something like a hundred years in blogtime. For those who love horn bands, the group is still a fun listen. Back then, I wrote that “Walk On Water” was one of the album’s highlights, a judgment that still holds.

“Walking Blues” by Son House (with Willie Brown on guitar, Joe Martin on fiddle and LeRoy Williams on harmonica). This is one of the classic songs in the blues canon, and this take was recorded by folklorist Alan Lomax near Memphis in 1941. House first recorded his version of the song in 1930 for Paramount, and that performance was pretty strong although it’s difficult to listen to because of the poor quality of the surviving recordings. House’s performance here for Lomax is pretty powerful, too.

On The Disabled List

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Well, the good news first: We have a new perennial garden in the upper portion of the lawn, a space a little larger than four feet square where – we hope – the golden spirea, the two barberrys  and a few succulents in a small rock garden will take root and flourish long after we’ve plucked our last weed.

The bad news: I discovered – beginning two days ago and continuing at least into today – that removing a little more than four square feet of sod, sod that had likely been undisturbed for at least sixty years, is not something I can do at the age of fifty-seven without paying a price. I may have prevailed over the sod, but the effort seems to have placed me on the blogger’s version of the disabled list: As the muscles in my back and thighs complain, I find it difficult to focus on writing.

I’m hoping those complaints ease off by tomorrow, because I’ve been digging into the Billboard chart for this week in 1979, and several of the tunes I’ve found there encourage dancing, including separate and unlikely tunes by Roxy Music and Frank Zappa. I’d hate to miss the chance to present those here simply because of timing and shrubbery.

As an alternative for this morning, I dug briefly into the Billboard Hot 100 from May 26, 1973, thirty-eight years ago today, and I found a tune that brings back good memories. Now, I never knew Tower of Power’s “So Very Hard To Go” back in 1973, when it went to No. 17, giving the Oakland-based band its only Top 20 hit.

But when I played in Jake’s band during the 1990s, “So Very Hard To Go” was one of the tunes that showed up on the set list for every party we had. It was also one of our go-to tunes when we were just spending a Thursday evening out at Jake’s, having fun. And those are good enough reasons to put it in this space today.

Chart Digging: December 9, 1972

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

As we sit in early December, the tale is well known among football fans:

The Minnesota Vikings, a good bet for the Super Bowl going into the season, have disappointed their fans with less than stellar play. Despite the return of a veteran quarterback bound for the Hall of Fame, the team has floundered. And fans are left wondering what the hell happened.

Football fans among my readers will recognize the scenario above. It sounds like this year, right? Yeah, but it’s actually about 1972. The quarterback in question was Fran Tarkenton, who returned to Minnesota via a trade with the New York Giants. Tarkenton was seen as the crucial piece for a team that had been defensively dominant but offensively challenged the previous two seasons. Certainly a team that had gone 23-5 during the past two seasons without a top quarterback would achieve greatness with a quarterback as gifted as Tarkenton under center.

Well, sometimes the ball bounces funny ways. The Vikings lost four of their first six games in 1972 – twice by three points, twice by two points – and couldn’t recover. They gave it a good shot, though. By this date  – December 9 – in 1972, the Vikes had won four out of five games and were 7-5 with two games remaining: One against Green Bay and one in San Francisco. If they won those two games, they’d win their fifth straight division title and head to the playoffs.

I’m tempted to say that I knew thirty-eight years ago today – it was a Saturday – that the Vikings would lose those final two games. But I was nineteen and blissfully unaware of the disappointments to come, both then and for the next thirty-eight years. So I had no doubts that the Vikings would take care of the Packers the next day and then defeat the 49ers. And on Sunday, a college friend and I headed to campus and joined a rowdy bunch in one of the dorms’ television rooms, where a newfangled thing called cable TV brought in the broadcast of one of the stations in Duluth. (The Twin Cities market was, as was the norm in those days, blacked out during Vikings home games.)

The rowdiness went away quickly that Sunday afternoon. And my pal Gary and I and a bunch of guys I never knew watched mostly in silence as the Packers of quarterback Scott Hunter and the marvelously named running back MacArthur Lane took down the Vikings 23-10 and quashed that season’s hope. (I wonder if the Packer fans among my readers recall that game.) On the following Saturday, I watched the Vikings blow a late lead and lose 20-17 to San Francisco and finish the season at 7-7.

But all that was ahead on December 9, 1972, the Saturday before the Green Bay game. There was hope. And, no doubt, there was music at one point in the day or another. If I turned on the radio at some time during that Saturday – and I probably did – I most likely heard something from the Billboard Top Ten released that day:

“I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy
“Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” by the Temptations
“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
“I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash
“You Ought To Be With Me” by Al Green
“Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul
“It Never Rains In Southern California” by Albert Hammond
“Ventura Highway” by America
“Clair” by Gilbert O’Sullivan
“I’m Stone In Love With You” by the Stylistics

Boy, there’s some good stuff in there, but there’s also some stuff that, well, overstayed its welcome in my ears after very few listens. I can live without ever hearing “Clair” again, and I was never fond of the Albert Hammond single, either. And I’m of two minds about “I Am Woman.” Its anthemic quality and its obvious popularity make it an aural landmark, one of those time-and-place tunes that can – when I am reminded of it – toss me back into the fall of 1972 when the only places I felt sure about what I was doing were my music theory classes and the college radio station, where I dabbled in sports reporting.

On the other hand, when I hear “I Am Woman” rather than just think about it – and I do hear it on occasion, as it is in the RealPlayer and shows up every couple thousand hours or so – I note immediately that the record’s deficiencies, chiefly its clunky earnestness, have not helped it age well.

Anyway, take “I Am Woman,” “Clair” and the Albert Hammond tune out of that bunch, and you’ve got a decent half-hour of listening with a few stellar moments from the Temptations, Harold Melvin and his guys and the Stylistics.

And there were – as there almost always are – interesting things a little lower in the Hot 100. Carole King’s “Been to Canaan” was sitting at No. 40. The record, King’s seventh Top 40 hit, would peak at No. 24, spending the first two weeks of 1973 at that spot. (“Been to Canaan” would top the Adult Contemporary chart for one week.) King would have six more Top 40 hits, with the last coming in 1980.

Two spots further down, J. J. Cale’s “Lies” was in its second week at No. 42 and would go no higher. Cale’s only Top 40 hit was 1972’s “Crazy Mama,” which went to No. 22.  According to All-Music Guide, Cale had two other records reach the Hot 100: “After Midnight” went to No. 42 in 1972, and “Hey Baby” got to No. 96 in 1976.

Blue Haze, according to the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, was a group of studio musicians assembled in England by producers Johnny Arthey and Phil Swern. The group’s reggae version of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” – the pop standard written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach – was sitting at No. 54 thirty-eight years ago today, on its way to No. 27 on the pop chart and to No. 5 on the Adult Contemporary chart. This was the second time a version of the song made the Top 40: The Platters’ version sat at No. 1 for three weeks in 1959. As for Blue Haze, AMG lists several other songs the group recorded, among them the standards “Unchained Melody” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Those might be interesting listening.

Dropping a little further down into the Hot 100, we find Tower of Power. “Down to the Nightclub” was sitting at No. 66 on December 9, 1972, but would go no higher. Earlier in the year, “You’re Still A Young Man” had reached No. 29. Two more Top 40 singles would follow: “So Very Hard To Go” would go to No. 17 in 1973, and “Don’t Change Horses (In The Middle Of A Stream)” would reach No. 26 in 1974. A few other releases over the years would hit the Hot 100, and ToP had – by AMG’s count – thirteen singles on the R&B chart in the 1970s. I can’t find a video of the studio version of “Down to the Nightclub,” but I did find a good recording of a 1986 performance at the Maintenance Shop at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa.

I don’t recall the group Brighter Side of Darkness at all, nor do I remember the group’s one hit, “Love Jones.” But listening to it this morning, it sounds exactly like 1972. Thirty-eight years ago today, the record was sitting at No. 80, on its way to No. 16. According to AMG, the group was made up mostly of high school students from Chicago, and lead singer Daryl Lamont was only twelve years old. (The video here presents, I think, the album version of the tune. The single ran about 3:20, from what I can tell.) The record was the group’s only hit, but when you come up with something as good as this, once is good enough.

Valerie Simpson is far better known as part of Ashford & Simpson, the stellar song-writing team she formed with Nickolas Ashford. (The duo then began recording and performing in 1973 and married in 1974, reaching the Top 40 twice – in 1979 and 1985 – and the R&B and dance charts many times.) In 1971, Simpson released the album Exposed and followed that a year later with a self-titled album. “Silly Wasn’t I” came from the latter album and was sitting at No. 96 on December 9, 1972. It would peak at No. 63 on the Hot 100 and at No. 24 on the R&B chart.

Of ‘Miracles’ and Miracles

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Five of the six songs in this week’s installment of the Ultimate Jukebox take me places, which is probably not a surprise, as those five fall temporally into what I imagine could be called my “sweet spot,” after the place on a baseball player’s bat that makes the ball soar. My sweet spot is the years 1970 through 1975, a time when music was just about the most important thing in my life. And if there were events and people that were more important during those years, then their passages through my life were marked by records.

The sixth record in this set, which is actually the oldest, has no real time or place associations for me, as it came out when I was five years old and I didn’t hear it until I was much older than that. It’s a great record, or it wouldn’t be here, but my connection to it is less visceral.

What intrigued me about the other five records when I first looked at the random selection for this week was that, even though they do come from a relatively brief span of time, hearing them now puts me in five different places. One of them puts me in the shelter of my bedroom, listening to my old RCA radio on an early spring day. Another puts me in one of the trap houses at the gun club that I mentioned in my most recent post, with the same RCA radio keeping me company as I earn part of my sixty dollars.

By the time the third of the five records in question was released, I’d just started my second year of college, and the tune places me in Atwood Center, which is a little odd, as I didn’t start spending a lot of time there until a bit later than that. And then the fourth record drops me down in one of the strangest places any record puts me: It’s a sticky summer evening, and I’m with Rick and our occasional pal Gary, standing in line at the Dairy Queen. (There are in fact, two records that put me in that moment, and I can only assume that we heard them from a radio or from speakers in the ceiling as we waited in line; the other Dairy Queen record did not make it into the Ultimate Jukebox.)

In a little bit, I’ll untangle any mysteries about which of those four records puts me where. But before I do, I’ll look at the fifth of those records, which is probably the most powerful in its association with its time. The very first, almost tentative strains of Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles” whirl me back to the autumn of 1975, a season I’ve written about many times before. The place is the tree-lined wide sidewalk between Centennial Hall and Stewart Hall on the campus of St. Cloud State. I’m heading from Centennial, where I work at the periodicals counter, to Stewart, where the mass communications department has its offices and where most of my classes take place. To my immediate left is Atwood Center, where my friends and I gather at The Table.

It must be October, as the leaves on the trees are yellow. (That makes sense, as the single – an edit of the album track – entered the Top 40 in late September and hung around for thirteen weeks, peaking at No. 3.) And I’m thinking as I walk – and as I did numerous times during that autumn – that miracles do happen. I was alive, I had good friends and I liked my classes. I hadn’t yet found the romantic miracle that Marty Balin was singing about, but in time, I hoped, that would come. For the moment, I was thriving, and that was miracle enough.

There are plenty of passionate listeners and critics who over the years have derided Grace Slick, Marty Balin and company for selling out at one time or another in pursuit of hit records. Did that happen with Red Octopus in 1975? Or later, with Earth or Nuclear Furniture? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I liked the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers, and I didn’t care much for some of the rest of the Airplane’s catalog. I liked Red Octopus and didn’t care much for a lot of the stuff that followed (though for sentimental reasons, “Sara” from 1986 can tug at me).

So what does all that have to do with the price of cookies in Tonga? I’m not entirely sure, but I think what I’m nibbling at is the weight of expectations and demand that a storied past can put on performers.  No, Red Octopus did not sound like Surrealistic Pillow, but then, 1975 did not sound like, or feel like, 1967. I do think that as Starship, the performers we’re talking about here lost their ways and ended up producing boring records. But the problem to me was that the records were boring, not that the records didn’t sound like 1967 or 1969 or whatever year one might have in mind. And I think that over the years, lots of people have carped at Red Octopus because it didn’t sound like classic Airplane.

Well, how could it? The times had changed, and so had the group. And I think Red Octopus holds up pretty well as an album: There are a couple of clinkers, yes, but there is also a cluster of good tracks and, of course, one genuine miracle.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 24
“Rave On” by Buddy Holly, Coral 61985 [1958]
“Reflections of My Life” by Marmalade, London 20058 [1970]
“Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric, Columbia 45154 [1970]
“You’re Still A Young Man” by Tower of Power from Bump City [1972]
“Diamond Girl” by Seals & Crofts from Diamond Girl [1973]
“Miracles” by Jefferson Starship from Red Octopus [1975]

A friend of mine and I once talked about putting together a book and website about the history of rock music using the metaphor of a forest. The story of rock, we thought, would stem from the performers we were calling the Five Big Trees. It was a horribly simplistic idea, and I think I knew that at the time, which may be why the project never went anywhere. To begin, any reasonable forest of rock ’n’ roll would of course have more than five big trees. But one of the things we got right was naming Buddy Holly as one of those big trees. First, the music he released in his tragically short career remains interesting and vital today. It should also be noted that he pretty much invented the idea of a group that not only wrote its own songs but also had a great deal of influence over the production of its records in the studio. “Rave On” was one of Holly’s lesser hits – it went to No. 37 in the summer of 1958 – but to me, it holds all of the virtues of Holly’s music: a good beat, cogent lyrics, a strong melody and that idiosyncratic hiccup:

Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life” is the song that puts me in my room with my radio. I remember sitting up on my bed reading when these simple and melancholy chords came out of the speaker, followed by drums, a liquid bass line and some of the saddest lyrics I’d ever heard. A Scottish group, Marmalade released albums through the 1970s and on into the ’80s, but until a couple of years ago, I don’t know that I’d ever heard anything by the band but its one hit. “Reflections of My Life” went to No. 10 in the spring of 1970 and, beyond the trigger of memory, still sounds interesting today. (I find it odd that All-Music Guide begins its entry with the statement: “Marmalade is . . . best remembered today for one record, their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’.” That’s not the universe I live in; is it that way for anyone else?)

I’ve written about Pacific Gas & Electric’s single “Are You Ready” a couple of times: I noted that hearing it in my bunker was one of the indelible memories of working at the trap shoot in 1970, and I detailed the difficulty of finding the short version of the song, which was evidently issued only as a disk jockey release. (Thanks again, Yah Shure!) The long version was interesting the first couple of times I heard it, but it just doesn’t do anything for me anymore.  The short version, the one I heard coming out of my radio, still kicks:

The horn section for Tower of Power is renowned not only for its work on the group’s albums but also for its session and guest work. And it’s always amazing when listening to Tower of Power’s work to hear how well that horn section is integrated into an R&B/funk context. (My first hearing of that integration sometime in the early 1970s wouldn’t have been such a surprise, of course, if I’d ever really listened to James Brown.) I’m not sure that “You’re Still A Young Man” contains the best work that the TOP horns ever did, but the song’s opening cascade of horns is to me one of the classic moments in the group’s history. The record earned TOP the first of its three hits, going to No. 29 in the late summer of 1972. And all I can figure is that I heard the record at least once on the jukebox at Atwood Center, because when those horns start their intro, there I am.

James Seals and Dash Crofts first hit the charts in 1972, after fourteen years of playing together either in bands or as a duo. And for a time, the duo was so successful that it’s hard to say whether their sound fit the times or whether it in some ways defined the times. I know that for several years back then, every nightspot I went to that offered live music regularly booked singer-songwriter duos with guitars and tight harmonies. And Seals & Crofts’ early hits were – and still are – great records: melodic, with great hooks and good lyrics (though those lyrics could get over-wrought; the best example might be “Hummingbird”). Two of their singles will show up in this project; today’s selection, “Diamond Girl,” is the record that puts me in line at the Dairy Queen during the summer of 1973, waiting for a frozen treat and preparing to leave home. Whatever the reason for the song staying with me, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The single – an edit of the album track – went to No. 6 that summer.

The Changed In A Changed Land

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

I spent part of last evening watching the final episode of the HBO miniseries The Pacific, the tale of a cluster of U.S. Marines in World War II. The battles were over, and the Marines were going home, changed by their experiences both in and between battles and returning to families and friends whose lives had gone on without them for the period of their absence.

I haven’t watched every episode of the miniseries; I plan to go back and do so. But last evening’s show intrigued me. Part of that is that I’ve long been fascinated by the tales of the home front during World War II. The stories of those who stayed behind while millions of men went off to battle tug at me for some reason. I’m interested in the history of the war, certainly, the war in Europe in particular, but I feel a kinship for some reason with those who stayed home. That’s one of the reasons that my reporting project for my master’s degree many years ago was a lengthy examination of life in Columbia, Missouri, during World War II.

And the experience of coming home from war also intrigues me. The scenes in that last episode of The Pacific reminded me of one of the classic American films. One of the best movies I’ve ever seen – mannered and slow-paced though it seems today – is William Wyler’s 1946 feature, The Best Years of Our Lives, which tells the tales of several Americans – some of whom went to war and some of whom stayed home – as they try to adjust to post-war life.

Both last evening’s episode of The Pacific and Wyler’s film, which I saw years ago, reminded me of a brief chapter in my own life, my return to St. Cloud after spending nearly nine months going to school in Denmark. I know how foolish that sounds. It would be obscene to equate museum-hopping in Copenhagen with being shot at on Iwo Jima. But I’m not doing that: I’m looking at the experience of being away and coming back. Still, the comparison would seem specious to me if it weren’t for something my dad said to me not long after I came back to St. Cloud.

I wasn’t quite lost, but I knew that I wasn’t fitting back into my life the way I had expected to. My friends laughed at my stories, but I knew that I’d experienced more than funny tales while I was gone, and either I was unable to communicate how my life had felt during my time in Denmark or they were unable to grasp what I was trying to get across to them.

And I felt out of place, in ways large and small. I recall two moments: The first happened late on the first evening I was back, as I drove home from having a cup of coffee with a young ladyfriend I’d missed. As I drove past the campus of St. Cloud State, the thought ran through my mind: “I’m back in St. Cloud. This morning, I was in Copenhagen. Something about that doesn’t seem fair.” The second instance took place a couple of days later in a gathering of friends when someone made a reference to a commercial pitchman whose antics had become a running punch line. My friends all laughed as I sat silent, not getting the joke.

And that night, my dad told me he’d been through the same thing in 1945 when he’d gotten home from his World War II service in India and China. “You weren’t in a war,” he said. “But you’ve had an intense experience, something that only the other people who were there with you can understand. And those who weren’t there will never really grasp how it was.” And there was a flip side, he said: “While you were gone, lives went on here. People will talk about things that happened, and all of them will know the story, but you won’t. In time, that will happen less and less.”

He was right about all of that, Dad was. And I was reminded of that conversation as I watched the characters in The Pacific deal with their returns, all of them hauling back to the States much more emotional baggage than I brought with me when I came home in May of 1974. And as I thought about the parallels, I realized that it was thirty-six years ago this week that I packed my two suitcases, spent one last night in Copenhagen, and got on a plane to come home.

So I turned, as I so often do, to the music, and dug into the deeper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 that came out during the week I got off that plane, bringing my changes home to a place that had also changed.

Eddie Kendricks: “Son of Sagittarius,” No. 45 as of May 25, 1974, later peaked at No. 28

Four Tops: “One Chain Don’t Make No Prison,” No. 56 as of May 25, 1974, later peaked at No. 41.

Tower of Power: “Time Will Tell,” No. 69 as of May 25, 1974, peak position.