I was in junior high in 1973. We had a touchy-feely curricula that included courses like “Worthy Use of Leisure Time” (where, among other things, we learned to play tennis with hard-to-break wooden paddles, easy-to-break stringed racquets being way too expensive) and “World of Work.”
I find that my memories of the latter have now been boiled down to two gentlemen:
The first was an “Agriculture” teacher who frequently snorted at the ridiculousness of the former, once showed us an egg he had plucked from his hen-house that morning with a half-formed chick still inside, and had his smart aleck assistant answer the question “What is the longest war in history?” after the rest of us had shot our bolt. (I had opined The Hundred Years War….after which virtually every other kid named virtually every other war you ever heard of, each of them apparently convinced that every war ever fought had lasted longer than a century–it wasn’t one of the classes that gathered up the smart kids).
Answer: “The war between man and bugs.”
Ah, the seventies.
I honestly don’t recall the name of the course the second gentleman taught (I’ll call him Mr. J.). It probably had “social” in the title, though. He was a youngish, cool, hip black guy. I think every junior high was required to have one back then. But, actually, as he liked to remind us, he was mixed race, which he assured us meant that, in the coming revolution, he would be shot by both sides.
Another thing he told us was that, in that same revolution–which he wasn’t advocating, just predicting–black people would have a distinct advantage. As I recall, his rap went something like: “Brother goes down to the mall and starts shooting, he’s gonna get fifty white people before the police shoot him. Probably take a few officers with him, too. Fifty to one. I like those odds.”
Honestly, we didn’t even think it was weird. Mr. J., he had it going on! Speaking the truth to the hopelessly square little seventh graders! We could dig it. We weren’t that hopelessly square.
I haven’t thought about him all that often over the years. Hadn’t thought about him in more than a decade I reckon.
Until I started hearing the reports from Dallas tonight, that is.
What, you thought the long hot summer I’ve been telling you about was going to be limited to Donald Trump rallies and art-house showings of Medium Cool?
I bet not.
And, hey, Mr. J, I can’t believe you didn’t play this for us!
The radio soundtrack of the weeks after my dad died in 2008 turned up something rare for those days: a song I liked.
The song was being played on the country stations, which I was just on the verge of quitting. The death of the old “I ain’t the one lost am I?” spirit that lay at the back of “don’t tread on me” had been coming for a while. By 2008, country, as it had existed since it came down from the mountains to Knoxville and Bristol in the late twenties, was lying down, wheezing itself to a noisy death, to be reborn as a pale imitation of modern pop, which is itself a pale imitation of Tin Pan Alley that operates as though rock and roll and soul (and, for that matter, country) never existed..
I’m speaking vocally, of course, but it seems to have affected the songwriting and production styles as well. Vocals always do. In the absence of distinctive voices, which are just conduits for distinctive spirits, everything else dies too. That’s why the overlords are always pathologically invested in reigning voices in, if and when they can’t shut them down. (Sending Elvis off to the army was the most notorious example of this, but hardly the only one.)
So it was odd that the song I liked, at that personally and existentially depressing moment–my dad dead, the economy in free-fall, the war in Iraq being sold as a “victory”–was by Montgomery Gentry.
Montgomery Gentry were two guys who had been enormously successful representing, maybe defining, the “dude-bro” division of Nashville’s modernity. They were a duo: good singers pumping up average song-mill material with the usual fake passion that such material deserved. They got it just right exactly once, with that year’s “Roll With Me.”
Did it help (or even matter) that their names were writ large on a huge billboard just south of Dothan, Alabama, that I used to pass once a week during the several months when I was riding around to various hospitals and doctor’s offices, trying to straighten out the tangle of bureaucratic mendacity at the back of my dad’s stack of medical bills?
Big sign or not, string of gold records or not, I barely knew who Montgomery Gentry were at the time and I barely know who they are now. Without their one moment, I’d have no reason to recall them at all. One way you know a form is dying is when it can produce big stars who leave no trace and country, like every other form, had plenty of those from about the mid-nineties onward (after having few, if any, such in the decades prior–you might not care for Jim Reeves or Eddy Arnold, might not think them “country” enough, but you couldn’t dismiss them).
Which all just means there is no way of fully explaining “Roll With Me.”
But a partial explanation lay in its second verse, which summed up the contemporary fakery so skillfully it laid it wide open. There were a few pedestrian lines about a mother losing her son, the singer attending the funeral, him realizing “we all just have our time.” Perfectly cliched.
Except, in the fall of 2008, with a “change” election looming (which would, of course, change nothing), it was impossible to hear the careful avoidance of specificity–and the uncharacteristically subdued passion in the vocal–as anything but a pure damnation of sending soldiers to die for fake victories, decade after decade, that dovetailed with the singer’s world-weary acceptance of losing his ability to care about anything but his own specific future with the woman he wants to roll with.
We all just have our time, indeed.
One of the things that happened in my father’s time was we took a driving trip from Florida to upstate New York (a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame). On the way we made several stops coming and going. My brother’s place in North Carolina, Washington, D.C. ,Gettysburg, Times Square (a long story for another time–my dad could produce ’em), Chattanooga.
Nice memories. Dad had just retired from mission work (my mother had passed two years earlier), so it was a period of what the shrinks call “closure.” I don’t know if my dad found it for himself. I don’t even know if he was looking. But he may have delivered it to someone else.
I had seen the Viet Nam Memorial, in D.C., in the summer of ’87, but dad hadn’t and he wanted to. That was the main reason we stopped. We went down the wall, the way people do. We stood around and contemplated the tragedy of it all, the way people do. We couldn’t think of much to say, the way people can’t.
At some point, we were standing at the back of the crowds, the small groups coming and going before the wall itself. After a time, I wandered off a bit, lost in my own thoughts, staring at nothing.
Dad stayed where he was, his hands characteristically folded in front of him, a pleasant, habitually unreadable half-smile on his face. When I started back towards him, I saw a man who looked to be in his early-thirties walking alone, straight through the crowd towards my father. When he reached him he simply collapsed into dad’s arms. I walked up just in time to hear dad say “Your brother?” The man couldn’t speak. After a while, he nodded.
This is where we like to say “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” I’ve known hundreds of “better” Christians than my dad. Not one of them would a roughneck good old boy from Georgia have walked to, straight through a crowd, seeking comfort from a stranger no less total than anyone else by that wall. (“Atlanta” he said when my father asked where he was from. “Tallahassee,” I said, as my father, who was really from Tennessee, nodded. All of it, down to the nod, was code for Southern born, which is code for “born to be the shock troops.” In this case, as we didn’t have to say, “like your brother,” who I also didn’t have to say “could have been mine.” It’s the same code, whether you were a conscientious objector, like dad in WWII, or a skeptic like me, or lost a brother in Nam like some and it doesn’t even matter if we’re not the only ones. We all know how it’s “supposed” to work. And even if we’re not the only ones who know, we’re the first Americans who also know what it’s like to lose and, worse, what it’s like to lose in the name of history’s near-sorriest cause. Never kid yourself it doesn’t make a difference.)
There was nothing really to say after that. We didn’t have any long conversation. A few words of condolence. A good-bye. A southern-style see-you-down-the-road by which we mean in heaven because we know it doesn’t have a chance in hell of ever happening here. My dad didn’t say he was a minister. He didn’t have to. Some things those who were born to be the shock troops just know.
We waited until he was long gone. Then dad said it was time for us to go, too.
That was 1989. Closure. Maybe.
By 2008, we all knew there weren’t going to be any more walls to commemorate the dead. A lot of us knew that the present war would be never-ending. Some of us even knew it was planned that way, because, well, how else?
And these days, I can pull up the video for “Roll With Me” on YouTube (missed it entirely the first time around, country video never was my thing), and see that Montgomery Gentry didn’t leave the obvious interpretation entirely to chance. What was merely implied in the song–that the mother was gold star, the son a fatality of a war that was, is, and always will be, fought for no purpose except to punish whoever is willing to sacrifice)–is made explicit in the video.
Specific or not, though, every bit of that was in my air–and ninety percent of it was in everybody’s–when “Roll With Me” came on the radio a few weeks after my dad died, nearly twenty years after he comforted a boy who lost his brother in the last useless war. And, of course, nothing has changed since. Except for the rate of decline–now stalling, now accelerating–nothing will.The only question left is whether we’ll leave enough to provide a guide-map for the mullers and the seekers the next time round.
Now that I think about it (and why today, I have no idea), hearing “Roll With Me” may have been the first time a certain phrase entered my once cautiously optimistic mind. Yeah, I think that’s right. I think they might have formed the first time I heard that blues lick and didn’t even care what was coming. My pre-conscious mind at work, saying “Goodbye us.”
Just for starters, this memory was triggered by “We Got the Beat” playing on the radio between here and the grocery store last night. It made me smile, of course, but it also made me realize something I had not quite gleaned from the other thousand times I’ve heard it, which was that it was the last great hit surf instrumentalt, not recognized as such because it was disguised by the presence of a few strung-together words and the fact that the band was the wrong gender. Then as now, everybody recognized how affirmative the Go-Go’s were. Then as now, very few understood how disrupting they were. Or how unlikely.
The word back then was “well, there will surely be a lot of big girl bands now.”
My word was: “Not if they have to play like that, there won’t be.”
More on how that all worked out later.
And now for 1982…and a little bit of 1984.
1982 was the year I literally didn’t walk across the street to see the Go-Go’s.
They played the Tallahassee Leon County Civic Center in September. I still lived in the tiny, roach-infested apartment that had been home to my FSU years. I would move to a bigger, less crummy, apartment a few weeks later. But in the meantime I was literally a stone’s throw from the TLCCC. The only space separating its front door from mine was the back yard of the FSU Law School.
And the only post-70s band that ever had or would matter to me the way so many sixties and seventies bands had or would was playing in support of the first album by a self-contained all-female band to hit #1 in Billboard.
I already loved them so I kind of wanted to go. Three things held me back.
I was broke.
I would have had to go alone.
I thought there’d be more time.
It was probably the third reason that kept me from going. I was (and am) used to being broke. I was (and am) used to doing things alone.
And, back then, I was used to thinking there would be more time.
I wasn’t used to thinking this last part all the time. Part of the time I was used to thinking my time would end very shortly. This made doing certain things difficult. Among those certain things was arranging to attend a concert you didn’t strictly have the money for and would have to attend alone, even if it was right across the street and even if the band playing was the Go-Go’s.
It would have been doable. But I would have needed to achieve and sustain a certain mood.
I didn’t achieve or sustain the mood, so I didn’t go. At the back of it all, “There will be more time” was double-edged for me.
I was sure there would be more time for them, that they would last many years, make many albums. I wasn’t so sure about me.
On the night that they played Tallahassee I ventured from my apartment to the grocery store. Kind of like last night.
Only that night, unlike last night, the concert was just letting out and there was a little more traffic than usual. Not killer traffic, not like a football game, but enough to have me waiting at a light in front of a long line of cars when the door of the car behind me opened and what I soon discerned was a Top Five girl got out and started running towards my car.
(In case you’re wondering, a Top Five girl is one of the handful you never forget. Sometimes there are more than five, sometimes less, but five’s a good average. Nobody has many more than that. And nobody who manages to survive–as, improbably, I did–has many less.)
Anyway, Top Five girl was drop dead gorgeous and she ran up to my window–it was a ’71 Maverick, no AC, so, it being September in Florida, I didn’t need to roll the window down–and started talking a mile-a-minute about the concert and how great it was and whether I had gone?
“No,” I said. “No money.”
“It’s too bad,” she said. “They were so-o-o-o great.”
After that, we chatted amiably for a bit. Then the light changed and she said “Well, bye!” and sprinted back to the car full of kids which she had no doubt left on one of those dares that get offered to certain personality types just because they are those types and get answered by them for the same reason.
I’m sure she didn’t mean to depress me. It didn’t come across as an “I’m gorgeous and having fun and riding in a cool car and you’re so-o-o-o-o not” kind of moment. She seemed to be mostly interested in making a memorable night a little more memorable. And, to tell the truth, if she hadn’t done just that, I probably wouldn’t remember the circumstances of the night I didn’t walk across the street to see the Go-Go’s very vividly at all.
Instead, it became seared in the memory, an indelible part of my “Go-Go’s Experience,” which I’m still considering writing about at length one of these days.
What happened last night, though, after “We Got the Beat” on the radio opened this particular seam, was I went searching for videos on YouTube and the comments’ sections of several of those videos led me to a search that led, in turn, to this bit of news.
The Go-Go’s are saying farewell.
Well, the Go-Go’s, like many bands, have said “farewell” before. They said farewell for the first time in 1984, barely two years after I didn’t walk across the street to see them the only time they would ever play my neck of the woods, and barely two months after they delivered the bit of rock and roll (about which, maybe more some day) that allowed me to survive myself (I wasn’t threatened by anything or anyone else, unless you count the Devil, which, honestly, I didn’t).
So maybe this isn’t really farewell. Heck, the Who are doing a farewell tour this year, too, and I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve said farewell.
In any case, I won’t be going to see them. I won’t, even though their opener, in Clearwater, is within reach. I won’t even consider it because they said farewell to Kathy Valentine a couple of years ago and, with the Go-Go’s as with so few others, if it’s not all of them, it’s not them.
I knew that back in 1982. I certainly knew it in 1984.
I haven’t forgot, because I haven’t forgot who they were, even if maybe, sadly, they have. They were the first all-writing, all-singing, all-playing all-female band to put an album at the top of the Billboard chart. Yes, they were that. And thirty-four years later, they are still the last.
Like I said then: “Not if they have to play like that.”
And like I’ve said before: When there is only one of something, there is usually a reason.
The Go-Go’s were first and last for a very simple reason, a reason that came to mind yet again when they came on the radio last night.
They were perfect. Right down to the last track on what, if they really are saying farewell, will be their last album….
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.
I remember hearing this on the radio exactly once when it came out and thinking: “Jesus, she’s got a chance to be Brenda Lee.”
I wasn’t thinking about record sales (by Billboard‘s count, Lee was the highest charting and bestselling female vocalist of the 1960s). Once Hannah Montana broke, there was never any question about Cyrus selling records. The new model of fame generates it’s own momentum more reliably than even the previous quite reliable models.
Which meant record sales were a matter of course.
I was thinking, instead, that she could be the next in the straight, firm line that had, sticking only to the dead center, stretched from Jackie DeShannon to Stevie Nicks to Sheryl Crow and, moving just a little outside the center, included nearly every important female rock or country singer for four decades running and produced literally hundreds of great records.
It’s a great, undervalued tradition and when I heard “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” riding around in my car in 2009, I had assumed it was dying out.
That it might be rescued by Hannah Montana brought a smile.
After that brief moment of hope, though, Miley started making “adult” records that were, of course, no better than the records all the other adults make these days. She also started selling a lot of them, pro forma, and I basically lost interest on the basis of my single, unyielding criteria: You don’t make great records, I don’t care about your shtick.
So, frankly, until this week, I assumed Miley had abandoned her talent in favor of the proper Show Biz model for the twenty-first century, as defined by John Lydon and perfected by Madonna and Donald Trump.
Make all your safe moves look like “risks.”
Or, as Hannah Montana would have it…
Understandable enough. I don’t begrudge anybody their success and there’s a reason why the easy road is easy and the tough road is tough.
But then Sheila O’Malley posted this a few days ago…
…and complicated my own easy, comfortable analysis.
I’m not sure about the reigning “let ’em do what they want, haters-gonna-hate” aesthetic either as a social model in general or a usual exception for celebrities who get to ignore the rules anyway. I don’t find the line between what I owe myself and what I owe the world to be quite so stark and I’m a little suspicious of those who do.
And, based on the YouTube surfing I did after I watched Sheila’s video link, I’m not sure Miley Cyrus is all that clear about it either.
The main problem I’ve had with her “in your face” act is that, on her, it has always felt forced and faked, by which I mean even more forced and faked than the usual forced fakery (most recently exemplified by Beyonce’s Super Bowl appearance, where the politics were faked right along with the idea that she can dance any better than oh, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus and produced the usual predictably fake outrage and seriously unfaked legion of yawns).
While it felt like that with David Bowie and Madonna sometimes, too, they were genius record-makers, in charge of every facet of their careers and their personas. And if, say, John Lydon couldn’t say the former, he could at least pretend to the latter long enough and well enough to make it stick as a kind of perverse integrity.
All these years later, it feels like Miley Cyrus, hiding back there somewhere behind the butch haircut and the hilariously (or, depending on your view, pathetically) bad twerking, is still trying to have the best of both worlds. That, for all the attempts to conform, there’s still some part of her that doesn’t quite fit and yearns to breathe free.
I suspect that part is called a singer.
Ten years after Britney Spears came to the same crossroads, she’s a footnote. If Cyrus, a much bigger talent, doesn’t want to be left beside the same highway, she’ll have to make up her mind soon.
I wonder if the choice she makes will say more about her or about us.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
My memories of September 11, 2001 are the common ones. Shock. Disgust. Horror. Sadness. Anger.
My memories of September 11, 2002 might be a bit more singular.
By then I had long since emailed a friend, after George W. Bush’s pathetic speech to Congress (universally lauded at the time by the entire political class and their coterie of media bootlickers, with a few professors thrown in for good measure). The email said:
“I hope we don’t need a leader in this fight we’re about to have, because that sure wasn’t Churchill up there.”
I have a knack, it seems, for being right only about the things I really wish I was wrong about.
By then, I had also seen all the memorial services/concerts etc. and been moved by an occasional performance, the most memorable being Limp Bizkit’s version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” which never made me want to listen to Limp Bizkit but did light a warm place in my heart for the original which had not previously existed but has not diminished in the long dreary years since.
By then, I had heard “W” tell us we should go shopping. Things would be alright.
By then, I had been reminded, way more than once and by chillingly, dishearteningly, real world events, of Franklin Roosevelt, breaking into “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” on the Firesign Theater’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once, When You’re Not Anywhere at All, to announce our complete and unconditional surrender.
By then, I knew, in my heart, which is the only truly knowing place, that the United States was beyond satire, that we might last another thousand years as a political economy or a name in a World Atlas, but we’re done as an idea and an idea is all we ever were that was worth anything.
By then, not to get all gloomy or anything, I had already decided it was time to start devoting such energies as I had left for this sort of navel gazing to figuring out where we went wrong–how Rock and Roll America had turned into Lay Down and Die America.
By then, I knew the response of a handful of passengers on Flight 93 was the only meaningful response there would ever be.
So when I was riding around in my car on September 11, 2002, doing errands while listening to the Oldies Station (Oldies Stations being just one more thing that has disappeared in the years since, at least around here), I was prepared to feel nothing in the way of all the emotions I mentioned above.
Figured if no ranking member of the ruling elite was prepared to commit to anything more than somber statements and crocodile tears, there was no percentage in me remembering.
Then a particular song came on the radio, and it was exactly the last song in the universe that could have been connected to any abstract idea of forcing me out of myself, not allowing me to avoid feeling something, even if I could never quite know what it was.
Not even now.
Sometimes, things are just a mystery…So I won’t even try to explain why this made me feel something, on September 11, 2002, when nothing else, not even my Christian concern for the lost, could make me feel anything at all…
Terry Teachout (who can be followed on the “About Last Night” link in the blogroll) has a feature he calls Lookback, wherein he revisits posts of yesteryear. A day or so ago, he re-posted something from 2006 which can be found here.
If you follow the link inside the link you can read the whole piece from back when. Just FYI, the reader he is quoting is yours truly (which gives me a feeling akin to something Steven Rubio–who can also be followed in the blogroll–has written about lately, wherein one goes looking for references or simply starts looking around….and runs into oneself).
Regarding Terry’s piece, I think any regular reader of this blog knows where I stand on the high/low/middlebrow thing. As in, I don’t think it means anything at all. It happens the song in question, Abba’s “SOS,” has always reached me. It reached me even in the days when I didn’t like much of anything else they did and it was probably the reason I kept coming back to them until quite a bit more actually sank in.
And it reaches me now. I like Terry’s picks for other not-so-guilty pleasures and really appreciate his thoughtful respons, but I’m not sure he got my main point (my fault, because I sort of danced around the subject).
What I really should have said was that I thought “SOS” was great and didn’t need even the slightest qualification or apology.
I still don’t.
And I swear on a stack of bibles I don’t care what Aggy’s wearing. No need to take my eye Lord. With me, it’s all about the music!
Mentions of Jimmy Stewart’s birthday around the internet today (he would have been 107), prompted a flashback to July 2, 1997. I was on my way to my sister’s house in South Florida, driving across Highway 40 (which connects I-75 to I-95 for those who want to avoid Orlando or the Florida Turnpike).
In those days, I still listened to radio on the road more often than not (of late, I generally try to have a good supply of CDs available for anything longer than a trip to town) and whatever station was playing, I was, in fact, just thinking about what tape I wanted to hear (cassette days for me back then…I’m notoriously resistant to technological change) when I hit Highway 40’s well known dead spots when the standard issue hip-hep-happy dee-jay’s voice suddenly took on a somber tone and announced that the iconic film actor James Stewart had passed away.
After a few lines of the usual bio and not-quite-canned remorse he faded to black and let the next song play without comment.
I’m sure it was just the next thing in the playlist, but, on July 2, 1997, I bet you could have searched a top 40 catalog for anything that had come out in the past five years (usually the furthest back anyone will ever reach for an “oldie” on a hip-hep-happy station in any era) and never found proof that sound sometimes matters more than words quite as convincing as this:
Back in the mid-eighties, some curmudgeonly grad-student who reviewed music for my local college newspaper (now long-defunct…I don’t know about these days, or even if they still have college newspapers anymore, but in those days curmudgeonly grad-students were pretty much standard issue for the music gig at a college paper), mentioned that the newly popular Bangles had left their best days behind them (as pretty much all bands do, of course, when they sell too many records to be a secret curmudgeons can keep to themselves anymore), and those of us not in the know should really hear their first LP, the one that hadn’t sold, or better yet, their one-and-only EP (which featured the standard “departed member”) or even better still, the truly obscure cover they had done of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
I either already had, or soon acquired, that first LP which really is their best and also really is one of the greatest albums ever made.
Soon after that, I found their EP, which was pretty fine, too.
Then I spent the ensuing thirty years buying whatever else they made and keeping a permanently frustrated eye out for that elusive Dylan song.
Since I couldn’t find it–or even a reference to it–anywhere, even in the age of YouTube and the internet, I finally decided that the curmudgeon must have made a mistake and meant to refer to their non-LP version of the Grassroots’ Dylanesque knockoff “Where Were You When I Needed You,” which had showed up on the band’s various best ofs over the years.
In other words I thought I was done with it.
Then this week arrives and I’m idly searching for something or other that leads me to a Greil Marcus column which is posted at his website (and which I would have seen a few years ago if The Believer, God love ’em, had let out another entry or two from behind the firewall) and, lo and behold, I find I’m not done with it at all.
Turns out the Bangles (or maybe just Susanna Hoffs), had done a Dylan song in 1984. Only it wasn’t “I Shall Be Released,” but “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” meaning I either misread, misremembered, or relied a bit too foolishly on the reading or remembering skills of a curmudgeonly grad student way back when).
And because we live in an age when YouTube is pretty much the only step forward mankind has made since at least 1980, I was even able to follow the link and hear the actual song, which, at least when you listen to the video version Marcus recommends, is everything he says it is and everything I might have wanted it to be after thirty years of waiting. (And in case you don’t care to follow the link, you can see and hear it in it’s all-everything-ness right here and now…)
Then you can go back, pre-fame, pre- anything but the naked ambition to forget the seventies ever happened and pick up the thread everybody else had let go and see where it could take them….
..or you can go forward, to five minutes before the standard-issue acrimonious breakup, when they were everything they ever wanted to be, including quite possibly the best rock and roll band in the world….I mean, laugh if you want, but do you really think anybody else could have come this close to proving it by way of Simon and Garfunkel?