REMEMBERING THE MAESTRO (Memory Lane: 1976, 2000)

For me, 1976 was the year.

I started listening to the radio, I started buying records (45s anyway), I started wondering what I had possibly missed. If what I was hearing every day was so overwhelming what had the past yielded?

Soon after, I started tracking backwards, searching.

Soon after that, tracking backwards became about the only thing worth doing. The present began to yield less and less. The future held no promise.

But there was a sweet spot, right there in the first half of 1976 (such a terrible year, I was later told, over and over, that it made punk necessary) when I couldn’t keep up with what went by, hour after hour, right there on Top 40 radio beaming out of southern Alabama.

I certainly didn’t have the money to buy more than a tiny fraction of what I loved.

So, for that brief little window of time, I stored musical memories. Songs I heard a handful of times played in my head, sometimes for years, until I could track them down on records. I might write about some of those songs later–I’m sure the whole “Diamonds in the Shade” concept sprang from that experience, the moment when I realized great things could come and go on the radio without leaving an impact on seemingly anyone but me.

I learned not to talk about it. People worried enough about me as it was. But I kept them in my head.

I kept looking.

As the years went by, and I tracked down literally every single one of those records: Kiki Dee’s “Once A Fool,” Billy Ocean’s “Love Really Hurts Without You,” and “L.O.D.,” Marmalade’s “Walking a Tightrope,” and oh so many more, I had a variety of deja vu experiences. Some were as great as I remembered, some almost so, some not at all.

But, whatever the final outcome, I always had one advantage aiding musical memory: I actually had a name attached to the records.

It helps. Believe me.

There was one record on that list which did not come attached with a name.

It didn’t come attached with a name because, the only time I heard it, the dee-jay didn’t say who it was by.

I didn’t worry too much at first. I remembered a line. I would recognize the song the next time it came on. Dee-jays usually gave out names with songs back then (almost the last moment when they did so). I would catch it later.

And there would be a later, because there was no way that song wasn’t going to be a hit! It was catchy and it didn’t quite sound like anything else. In those days (again, almost the last days when this was so) that was the way of hit-making. Make it catchy. Make it not quite like anything else.

I never heard the song on the radio again. I never heard anybody say who it was by.

So, as the years went by, I only had that single line, playing in my head. Thirteen words and a snatch of melody.

“You see the trouble with me,” the line went, “I can’t do nothin’ without my baby.”

Yeah, that was it. That was all of it.

You try setting out after a song based on that.

It wasn’t the words that were not quite like anything else. The words were exactly like everything else. And you can’t look up much based on a bit of sound pressed to your brain stem. Not in this world.

I accepted that those thirteen words may or may not have formed part of the record’s title. Over time, I somehow convinced myself they didn’t, maybe because looking under the “Y” (in case it started with “You See”), “T” (in case it started with “The Trouble”) and “I” (in case it started with “I Can’t”) sections of literally hundreds of alphabetized 45 bins across a good portion of the United States didn’t yield a single bite.

Eventually, I gave up. The CD revolution came along. The few on my “mystery list from ’76” that I hadn’t tracked down on 45 became available on disc. A beach music collection here, a bubble gum collection there. Turned out there were more fellow obsessives out there than I thought. Almost every one of those records had fans who had ended up working for small reissue labels catering to their fellow wanderers.

The world moved on. That melody would still come in my head now and again, but it happened less and less. To be honest, there came a moment when I didn’t bother looking anymore. I didn’t exactly give up hope–I just lost faith in my ability to make a discovery happen.

I might hear it again some day, I might not. Nothing unusual in that. Everybody who chases sounds has had some sort of similar experience. Sometimes it ends happily, sometimes it doesn’t end at all (which is the definition of “unhappily” when you are chasing sounds).

That was the state of my little buried memory in the Year of Our Lord, 2000 A.D. when I purchased a greatest hits package by an artist who had, in fact, been far more famous than any of the others I chased. Had, in fact, had a solid three-year run of smashes going back when I started listening to the radio in December of 1975.

I’m guessing that was why the dee-jay felt no need to identify his new release, back in the first few month’s of 1976. Surely, anybody who was listening to the Top 40 in those days didn’t need to be told who this guy was.

Probably they didn’t. Unless they had only started listening to the radio a few months before. Then they might need a little help.

Of course, even so, the dee-jay could hardly be blamed. There was no way to know that particular record was going to break the singer’s string of nine straight top ten R&B hits, and fail to reach the American pop chart at all (as each of the previous nine had done, with most reaching the top ten). There was no way to know that the singer’s incredible hot streak (hot by any standard, incredibly hot for a three-hundred-pound black man who sold himself as a Love God) was going to end with that record– a record that was capable of sticking deep enough in the mind of a teenage white boy that, a quarter of a century later, when he heard the first chords of the lost sound (chords he did not remember until that very moment) coming through the speakers on the other side of the house (whence he was folding towels whilst listening to the new stack of CDs), he started running towards the sound, laughing maniacally, shouting “That’ s it! That’s it!” long before Barry White sang “You see the trouble with me, I can’t do nothin’ without my baby!”

History takes strange turns. These days, I can look on the internet and see that “You See the Trouble With Me” was a hit all over Europe, #2 in the UK, even #14 on the American R&B chart. I can also see that it failed to make the Hot 100 on the U.S. pop chart.

I’ve got a sort of running theme in my head which this blog allows me to indulge. It concerns the search for “where it all went wrong.”

Barry White actually went on to have a few more big hits, even a couple of big pop hits.

But in the “where it all went wrong” debate, you could do worse than start right here with this record going nowhere. Because it still doesn’t make one bit of sense.

And if you’re wondering whether Barry himself knew the record’s value (this if from 1990)…

Barry White’s still waiting for his first Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nomination. Just in case you think nothing ever really went wrong to begin with.

GIVING IN TO THE RUSH HOUR (Memory Lane: 1988, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002 and, yeah, just yesterday)

Soon after I checked the index of Real Life Rock, the new compilation of Greil Marcus’s “Real Life” columns from 1986 to 2014, I started reading it. Good idea. I’m fifty pages in and it’s already blown past Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces as valuable cultural history.

I might pull that judgment back a bit later, but since I’m still in the Reagan Years and he’s only fallen into the “I’m so edgy” trap a few times (my usual peeve with him…No Greil, Laraine Newman’s nose job was not more tragic than John Belushi’s death), I won’t be surprised if it sustains. We’ll see if I can stand up to the inevitable “Bill Clinton made me feel like an American again” tongue jobs as well, but, for now, I have high hopes and look forward to many happy reading hours.

But speaking of cultural history, one of the things the book is reminding me of is the great CD vs. Vinyl debate of the late eighties. Of course that debate still goes on, albeit in much more muted form, and, by now, I’m pretty much comme ci comme ca. But I was a fierce defender of vinyl back then and a very slow convert to the new order.

There was a reason beyond nostalgia and the fact that CDs were clearly a means to jack up prices, a decision that, following along with the entire eighties-and-beyond approach to the political economy, prized short term profit over not merely long term profit but long term survival. (Worked like a charm, incidentally. Record companies and their multi-corp overlords made out like bandits for about fifteen years. Another fifteen years later, the music industry is toast.)

That additional reason was simple and good: early digital mastering and re-mastering was highly variable in quality. At best, which was seldom, it didn’t improve anything. At worst, which was often, it dispersed sounds that were meant to be fully integrated and sucked the life out of everything it touched.

Over time, this problem was addressed and, if there’s still nothing quite like virgin vinyl, the distance between that and a well-mastered CD (of which there are now many) has long ceased to be any kind of deal killer for me.

But it was tough hump to get over there at the first. Marcus brought the memories flooding back because, in the first part of the book, he frequently writes about the lifeless nature of the wave of poorly conceived and executed oldies’ packages that accompanied the rise of digital technology. I can well remember hearing “Kentucky Rain” on a radio station’s CD player for the first time and saying: “Never!”

I was still young then (how young you’ll find out if you stick with me another minute). I did have a vague idea that never was a long time. CDs were the coming thing, even by 1986. I managed to hold out for four whole years.

Somewhere in there, I accumulated a CD ready receiver. It didn’t mean much at first because, well, I didn’t have a CD player and I certainly didn’t have any CDs.

If you’ve been around here a while, or just know me from the outside world, you probably won’t have any trouble guessing which I bought first.

Ah, but which CD? Which CD made me cough up a few bucks, knowing good and well it might be months yet (or, in my fevered imagination) even years before I actually possessed a CD player?

Don’t even bother guessing. No matter how well you know me, you wouldn’t get it. I wouldn’t even get it myself, just by knowing me.

I had to be there.

There used to be a southern record chain called Turtle’s. In the late eighties/early nineties, something, maybe the CD boom itself, helped them expand beyond their Atlanta base and they opened an outlet in Tallahassee. As record stores went, it wasn’t anything special. Better than the mall stores. Not as good as the old Record Bar. Nowhere near as good as local legend Vinyl Fever.

Still, just about every record store has its merits. At Turtle’s they had a pretty good bargain bin. Along about 1990, I don’t recall if they were carrying any vinyl or not. But I was in there for some reason, maybe just because it was handy to the town’s good video store at the time (both to be shortly subsumed by Blockbuster, may it rest in shattered pieces…in one of life’s rare good jokes, the video store survived by moving to a new location and actually outlasted the giant by some years, though it, too, is now gone).

Whatever the reason for me being there, I happened to start browsing the bargain bin for CDs.

Well, not really browse.

It was more like I stood there, asking myself if it was any way humanly possible that some good could come of just stepping over there and going back to my roots, shuffling through cheap CDs the way I used to shuffle through cheap records. Did I still have the endless patience required to find the occasional nugget among the dross? If not, could I re-acquire it?

Were there any nuggets among this particular pile of dross?

Not much new stuff was getting released on vinyl by then. Maybe nothing was. The memory hazes.

So I stood there, hooked on the horns of a classic dilemma. Not much of a way forward. Certainly no way back.

Then my eye fell on something in particular, sitting up at the front of the bin, and I gave myself a little shake, like I was dispensing with a haint, and took the fateful step that brought me within arm’s reach.

What I saw was this:

JANEWIEDLIN

Who remembers the cost on the shrink-wrap’s price tag? $3.97 maybe? Sure, let’s go with that. Anyway it was remaindered. Its one big hit hadn’t been enough to keep it from the very large cutout bin at Turtle’s.

Once I determined the hit was on the CD, I tried to put it back. Honestly.

But it kept sticking to my hand, probably because that one big hit kept sticking in my head.

I think I was still sweating when I exited the place, my first CD purchase in hand.

I had paid money, for what I was pretty sure was going to be one song (about that I was right), that I couldn’t play for God knew how long because I didn’t have anything to play it on.

A line had definitely been crossed.

Twelve years later, when the great CD selloff of 2002 occurred, I held back exactly three items. One was the Shangri-Las’ Myrmidons of Melodrama. I’m sure you don’t need me to go on about that. One was a beach music comp that had Billy Ocean’s “Love Really Hurts Without You” on it. I missed it on 45 in 1976 and spent more than twenty years tracking it down. That one I wasn’t letting go.

And one was Jane Wiedlin’s Fur.

Which I held on to for some of the same reasons I had once held on to vinyl for so long that Fur ended up being my first CD.

I had missed “Rush Hour” on 45 in 1988. Assuming it was even on a 45. In any case, I had found it there in Turtle’s in 1990, by which time I had already decided “cassingles” would not be any kind of long term solution to my burgeoning problem–How to get hold of that one song that will drive you crazy if you can’t play it when you want to?

I had missed out on “Rush Hour” and then found it a mere two years later.

On a cheap CD.

Good thing. Because vinyl-wise, I had a better chance of tracking down “Love Really Hurts Without You.”

So I gave in, there in Turtle’s in 1990, and, really, I know it was for the best.

When the old battles finally can’t be won, you develop new strategies. Or let the kids do it. (They have, which is probably why vinyl is still around. Heck they even sell it in places like Books-A-Million now, where it tends to cost more than the CDs.)

Out of my then-new strategy one very peculiar phenomenon arose.

I developed a habit of getting up in front of my speakers whenever I played “Rush Hour” and, more or less, dancing.

The only other song that ever occasionally made me want to do anything similar was the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” The dance I used to do to that–very occasionally–was long past me by 1990. I mean, I turned thirty that year. Unless you’ve stayed in top training, you can’t run in place and clap your hands between your knees when you’re thirty. At least you can’t do it in perfect time for three choruses.

You might still be able to just do the running in place bit, though. Hence, was born the Rush Hour Dance at the Ross apartment.

It went something like this: You run in place for about the first three and half minutes, varying your toe-tap speed in time with the music, but gradually gaining intensity throughout. Then, with about forty-five seconds to go, you move out of “place” and start moving around the apartment in a circle. Short up-and-down steps at first, then longer strides as the record nears the final climax.

Then, if you are at the Ross apartment (as you’ll see in a moment, this should never be tried anywhere else), you come up behind the solid oak table with the slate top that sits between your two recliners, leap into the air and land on the beat, preferably with a windmill or two from the right arm.

And when the song is over, you hop down.

I’m not going to pretend this was some every day occurrence.

But every few months or so, for a few years, it did happen. Mostly it was for private consumption. I have a sterling reputation as a wallflower and I generally prefer to uphold it. Too much pressure, I’ve found, in leaving the world with confused and exalted expectations if you start hinting at previously hidden possibilities.

I can therefore swear that the only time any portion of the Rush Hour Dance was witnessed by other human beings was in 1994, at Doak Campbell Stadium, after Florida State scored a touchdown to tie Florida at 31-31 in the waning minutes of the game.

There was plenty of room to run in place on the row in front of me, because the people sitting all along it had shown perfectly good common sense and departed twelve minutes earlier when the score was 31-3.

If we had gone for two and made it, who knows? I might have added the leap.

As it happened, the leap was not long for the world and neither was the Rush Hour Dance.

There came a day in 1998 (or so), when I realized I hadn’t done it in a while. In fact, I hadn’t really done it since I moved to my house in 1995.

So it began to bug me a bit. Could the Rush Hour Dance be transferred?

It was one of those questions that could not go long unanswered.

Cue Fur.

Punch in Track Two.

Start running in place. Play air guitar. (Oh, did I forget to mention that? That’s important. You have to play air guitar. Otherwise you just feel stupid.)

Keep it up for three minutes plus. Feel the music. Feel the need to break out.

Start running in your circle.

Move out to the left, around the second recliner, just like always.

Become lost in ecstasy, as though time has stood still.

Realize that time has not really stood still, because your legs never used to burn like this.

Sing along. (Oh yeah, did I mention that while you’re running in place, and then just running, and playing air guitar, you have to sing? Otherwise what’s the point?)

Run along behind the recliner. Move toward the table.

Don’t look at it.

No fair looking.

Judge the leap. Get in perfect time, with “Rush Hour” and the universe.

Leap and turn at the same time.

Rise into the air.

Reach the peak.

Smile as it comes back to you that this elevation you somehow achieve during the Rush Hour Dance is at least a foot higher than you can jump normally.

Look down.

Recall at that very instant, that your solid oak, slate topped table, has been replaced by a cheap piece of plaster board and plastic tubing that will be crushed like a grape if anything larger than a marble lands on it from your present height.

Imagine yourself in traction.

Think fast, at the hyper-speed which, in fact, only the Rush Hour Dance permits.

Point your toe like a freaking ballerina.

Continue soaring through the air.

Pray.

Skim lightly over the surface with a single skip you could never repeat in a thousand years and land safely and squarely on your feet in front your speakers.

In perfect time.

Fall into one of your recliners, who cares which one, laughing hysterically like a man who just escaped being shot at.

Take ten minutes to fully catch your breath.

Resolve to retire the Rush Hour Dance. Forever.

Know that you, and the dance, went out on top, with Jane Wiedlin whispering in your own ear, and that of every Rio-t-t-t Girl and Pop Tart ever born: “We’re still the Go-Go’s. And you’re still not.”

Have a nice weekend. I have to get back to reading.