The River's Badge

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Learning Music

(some guys)

I didn't begin to put it all together until I was around age nine. At nine I saw Manfred Mann and most importantly, Roy Orbison, on TV for the first time. "Oh, Pretty Woman" was the absolute, bar-none best song I'd ever heard in my whole life (to date).

And this song was profound (okay, not really), but I really, really liked it:

But I also lived in an apartment attached to a country-western bar, so I was confused. Buck Owens and Bobby Bare poured out of my uncle's juke box, while my little plastic table-side radio blasted out The Dave Clark Five and the Animals. I was warbling, "There goes my baby with someone new" as part of my little cousin trio. I had the Beatles, of course, tucked in my pocket. The Beatles were still my secret in 1964.

1964 was a Pop Rocks explosion of music. Once I moved back home to the farm, I had Shindig on ABC TV, where I saw the Righteous Brothers and Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Beach Boys. And I had my big brother -- the supreme arbiter of musical taste.

It wasn't until 1965, though, that it all became clear to me. In addition to my brother, I had a best friend who I discovered music with. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to discover music with somebody who shares your sensibilities. My brother was an expert, but my friend Cathy heard the same songs at the exact same time I did, and we reveled in our shared awe.

Music was joyous in 1965. Maybe it was partly me, but I really think the music was buoyant. It was a musical renaissance. Sort of like today's sensibilities, the music before '65 had been all message-driven. It wanted us to think (think!) about things. I blame Bob Dylan. I was too young to think! Think about what? I didn't even know what the heck the folkies were complaining about. But they sure were bitchy. That wasn't music to me. Music was supposed to be fun. That's why they were called "songs"; not "dissertations". Even today, I hate, hate when people try to preach to me. "The answer is blowin' in the wind". Okay, well, blow away, dammit! Leave me the F alone!

Even the sad, morose, songs in 1965 at least had a catchy beat.

And there were the songs that made no sense, and that was the point, A guy from Dallas, Texas, named Domingo Samudio could dress as an Arab sheik and do something like this:

I frankly thought "Sloopy" was an unattractive name for a girl. It sounded like "Sloppy", or like someone who dribbled a lot.

I wonder whatever happened to the McCoys. (I used to do The Jerk, too. Didn't everybody?)

I never could figure out why Sonny Bono dressed like Fred Flintstone. It was a fashion choice, yes, but not necessarily a wise one. I half-expected him to scuttle away in a car that was powered by his fat bare toes. Nevertheless, who hasn't attempted this song on karaoke night?

I never could quite get into the Rolling Stones. That still holds true today. I have honestly tried -- honestly. I want to like them. My husband reveres them. They just don't do it for me. 

My recollection of this song is me standing outside in my circular driveway, holding my tiny transistor to my ear, and hearing a guy talking about someone smoking cigarettes, which I could relate to, because my dad smoked cigarettes. But other than that, ehh.

Shindig loved the Righteous Brothers. I loved the Righteous Brothers. This track was produced by an insane killer, which unfortunately colors my memories of the song, but geez, it's Bill Medley:

The Beach Boys were gods. Still are. I didn't know which one was Brian, or which one was Carl or Dennis, and it didn't matter. What mattered were those overly-tight white pants (just kidding! But not a wise fashion choice.) This track is notable due to the fact that they finally let Al Jardine sing lead. Of course, I didn't know that then. To me, the Beach Boys were the Beach Boys. I was not obsessed with who sang what. I still liked Little Deuce Coupe the best, although that was like a foreign language to me. I thought they were singing, "little do scoop". Which has nothing to do with this song:

Back to my brother:  He liked this song. I'd never heard the term "boondocks" before (or frankly, since). I remember pondering that word. I finally settled on "boondocks" equals "woods". I think that's wrong. But at ten, I pictured Billy Joe Royal singing about his life living inside a grove of trees. You be the judge:

My brother also had this single. He informed me that Gary Lewis was Jerry Lewis's son, like that was supposed to be a big selling point. I thought Jerry Lewis was a whiny overgrown child who was definitely not funny. There was an actual child in my household who was three years old and he was funnier than Jerry Lewis. I didn't actually mind Gary Lewis, but his entire recording was a fake, recorded by the Wrecking Crew, with even someone in the studio "helping" Gary with his vocals. 

Of course, I didn't know that in 1965. I didn't even know, or think about, how records were made. I thought they appeared by magic. I had absolutely no conception of someone standing behind a mic in a studio. In my ten-year-old mind, a bunch of guys got together and sang. That was the entire process. It was like Elvis breaking into song on the beach -- no instruments; yet I heard them. No microphone -- his voice carried across the rolling waves with nothing but a trio of dancing "friends" behind him in the sand. It's sort of how food appears on one's plate. Somebody disappears behind a door and comes out with a platter. I love magic.

People's memories are selective. Sure, when we think about '65, we know about the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan and Blah-Blah and the Blah-Blahs. But do we remember the Beau Brummels?  Well, we should, because they were on the radio all the time. You couldn't click on your transistor or flip on the car radio without hearing this song:

Speaking of Dylan, here's the deal:  I didn't know who this guy was in '65. I liked Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35, because I found it weird, and weird was good at ten years old. My brother told me the guy's real name was Robert Zimmerman and that he was from Hibbing, Minnesota. Okay. Well, good. My brother bestowed this knowledge upon me like it was very important. That's why I remember it to this day. I guess you had to be nineteen to "get" Bob Dylan; not ten. 

I still think he is a bad singer -- I mean, come on. Nevertheless, the man can write. This became clear to me when I was watching a documentary about Duluth, Minnesota, and the narrator recited a line about the city that I thought, "Wow; great line!" and then she said, "This was written by Bob Dylan." That's when I finally got it. 

This song is preternaturally long. The Beatles' tracks were 2:30, tops. It's not as long as "American Pie", which is like comparing "Achy Breaky Heart" to "Amarillo By Morning". Apples and putrefied oranges. But it's still long. Again, I did not understand at age ten that DJ's needed bathroom breaks. I thought they just sat there and listened to the records like I did. And every once in a while, they shouted out the station's call letters and the current temperature. But disc jockeys, just like real people, had to heed nature's call, so they really (really) liked this song:

I was fascinated by Roy Head when I saw him on Shindig. This was the most rubbery performer I'd ever seen! I remember worrying that his tight pants would split, but that could be just a false memory. Still, this guy was limber!

My boys were everywhere in '65. There was the Saturday morning cartoon, which was awful, but they played the songs, so, of course, I watched it. There were Beatles figurines. My mom bought me Ringo (thanks, Mom).

(notice that they all look basically the same)

 Of course, if I still had that figurine today, I would be a multi-millionaire! (Okay, maybe not.)

My boys had three records in the Billboard 100 in 1965. Here's one that doesn't get played a lot:

Another artist who's mostly forgotten, but shouldn't be, is Johnny Rivers. "Live At The Whisky A Go Go" was monumental. Never mind that they apparently didn't know how to spell "whiskey". In the early two thousands, I had the opportunity to see Johnny Rivers live, and he was still phenomenal. And everything that Jimmy Webb wrote in his awful book about Johnny means absolutely nothing to me. Mister Balloon Man.

Johnny hit the charts in 1965 with this:

Let me tell you about joyous music.

The first time I heard The Lovin' Spoonful was when "Daydream" wafted out of my transistor's speaker. What a day for a daydream. My best friend, Cathy, and I skipped along the streets of downtown Grand Forks with our radios pasted to our ears, warbling "I'm lost in a daydream, dreamin' 'bout my bundle of joy".

Then there was Zal Yankovsky. 

Zal knew that music was joyous. I don't even have to point him out to you in this video -- you'll know him. That's how music is to me.

1965 is when I learned music.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Jobs and Things

I was thinking about work tonight, which is not like me. When I leave my workplace on Friday afternoon, bye-bye! One needs to maintain a separation between work life and actual life. I know people who live for their jobs. That used to be me, but I'm older and much wiser now.

I got my first real job in 1973; and by real job, I mean one in which I didn't report to my parents. As a newly-minted high school graduate, with no idea why I would want to attend college, I realized that I needed to put my two years of typing class to use. I'd also taken two years of shorthand, but you know what? Nobody in the course of history has ever employed shorthand in an actual job. Shorthand was a scam, but I prefer to call it a "lost art", because it sounds mystic.

Living in the capitol city of my state, government jobs flowed like water. Luckily for me. I landed a job as a Clerk Typist I in the State Health Department, Division of Vital Statistics. The office housed all the birth, death, and marriage records from the early days of Dakota Territory to the present day. Of course, the first thing I did when I had the chance was scan the shelves to find my own birth certificate, and then my dad's. Then I located my mom and dad's marriage document. None of those records contained anything eye-opening. But, after all, who wouldn't have looked? There were rack upon rack of big dusty books in the bowels of the Vital Statistics office.

Folks would pop in from time to time, ride the elevator (that had its own valet) up to the seventeenth floor, fill out a form and leave with a certified copy of their record of birth. I typed up my own copy for myself; made myself three years older than I actually was, so I could go to bars and not get kicked out. (Is it okay to admit that now? I'm thinking after forty-four years, the statute of limitations has run out.)

After a few months of manning the front desk and trying to look busy during the quiet times, I was chosen to be part of a new (exciting!) project. The big dusty books had to go -- we were now going to microfilm all the ancient reposing records. Microfilm. Much like shorthand, microfilm is a remnant of a bygone era. A microfilm machine was a big camera that one slid papers under and pressed a round red button. Oh, but I bet everyone else in the office was keenly jealous! Who wouldn't be?

As an eighteen-year-old, I didn't fully understand the solemnity of my charge. We were a three-woman team -- our new supervisor and a girl named Alice and me. We had an office in the back with a door that we closed behind us. We sat at two desks -- one for the supe and one for Alice and me. And we lugged those powdery books from the shelves in the catacombs of the warehouse back to our little cubby and traced with pencil over the ancient typing that had turned faint from decades of being encased between stiff binders. Ahh, the glamour! Then each of us would take a turn behind the secret curtain and snap pictures for an hour. Over and over and over.

Do that for a day and you will never want to come back. Do it for a year and you will be tempted to hurl yourself out the seventeenth-story window.

Luckily, we had our radio. And cigarettes. It was a putrid, smoky closet that had nice tunes.

AM radio was our suicide repellent. It was all that saved us. KFYR featured all manner of songs; radio was not yet compartmentalized in 1973-74.

We heard songs like this:

That's when I realized Barbra Streisand was actually a really good singer.

Nadia's Theme, we knew, was the theme song for the Young And The Restless. You can call it what you want, but come on.

I wonder if they still use that theme song today. My soap days are long behind me, so I don't know. I suppose Katherine Chancellor is long gone. She'd be about a hundred and ten years old if she were still around. 

I told Alice she should use this next song in her wedding. She demurred. I still feel I was right:

I liked this one. I knew BJ Thomas had done the original, but Blue Swede took it to a whole new level:

I guess the bandwagon was filled to the brim with old songs done in new ways:

I never lie on this blog, or try to recreate history. This was a big hit in 1974, and we liked it:

I'm somewhat proud to say that one of the two worst songs of all time was released in 1974. It's a minor conceit, admittedly, but I'm going to claim it:

No offense to my little sister, but these next two songs remind me of her. While I, at age eleven, was grooving to the Beatles, she was stuck with tracks like this:

I won't delineate here why this next song is, to me, synonymous with tornadoes. That's a whole different scary story, but here it is:

We didn't exactly think Jim Stafford was funny, per se, but he was odd. If I was of a mind to look him up, I'd probably find that he had some serious songs. To everyone's dismay, though, he will be remembered for stuff like this:

"Star Baby" was a revelation and taught me that Burton Cummings was a sex-drenched god. But the Guess Who chose to follow that hit up with this one. Nevertheless, we liked it:

There was also this new guy who popped up around 1974. He was British. He could sing. He could definitely sing. He liked feather boas and humongous eyeglasses. 

But, boy, could he sing:

Yes, the tunes went on forever in that tiny, choke-filled room, and we tried to remember that there was actual breathing life somewhere far below the seventeenth floor.

This song was to I struggled to believe that blue sky existed somewhere...everything:

And yes, I wrote about that time. Of course.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Technology And Music

(This is essentially my sound setup in 1968.)

The first "magic music box" I remember was our kitchen radio. Mom spent almost all her waking hours in the kitchen. She liked to listen to Arthur Godfrey, who was apparently the Regis Philbin of the late fifties. If I remember correctly (and I'm sure I don't), Arthur Godfrey had a radio talk show that went on for about three hours every morning. But also, the magic box played music! And shoot me, but I didn't care how bad the songs were:

My big sisters did a fascinating dance on the kitchen linoleum to this:

That's the moment when I learned it was okay to move to music and people wouldn't point at you derisively.

Upstairs in their bedroom, my sisters had something called a "record player".

They wouldn't let me touch it, which was just mean. I did have hand-to-finger dexterity; it wasn't like I was going to crack their precious "records", which is what they called them.

The weird thing about our household was, we had scads of records, dumped inside a round ice cream container -- some with sleeves, most without -- but Mom and Dad owned nothing with which to play them. Sifting through these records, I wonder now if they were purchased at rummage sales. It was an odd collection of German drinking songs, Sheb Wooley ditties, singles by Lawrence Welk's orchestra. 

Speaking of Lawrence Welk, there was one particular record that scared the crap out of me. My parents were diehard Welk fans -- it was the fifties, after all. I played this record upstairs when my sisters weren't around, apparently because I liked being scared:

It still kind of freaks me out to this day. Maybe it's just a flashback.

So music was good, and it was also eerie. Naturally, I preferred the good. 

Mom and Dad had two albums; yes, just two. These were 33's. The dial on the record player could switch from 33's to 78's to 45's, but one needed to insert a special spindle in order to play the '45 singles my sisters were in love with. I don't why my parents owned albums, but I do know why they owned these two. I think they loved the songs so much they just had to own the LP's, even though all they could do was admire them.

Still two of the best country albums of all time. My parents had great musical taste.

I think I was five when I got my very own record player for Christmas. It was blue with snaps. Portable!

Granted, I owned no records. The most money I'd ever had up to that point was a dime my mom gave me to buy a fudge-sickle from the creamery delivery man and some foreign coins my grandpa had given me, which turned out to be worthless unless one lived in Australia. It would take me a while to build up my own personal record collection. Not to fear -- I had that ice cream "hat box" full of miscellaneous odds and ends. Basically, anything that was musical fascinated me. I will say that the music of the late fifties was not good*.

*Granted, my parents did not own any Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard singles.

I did take one record to school for kindergarten show and tell, and did a complete lip-syncing song and dance number to what I realize now was wholly inappropriate for five-year-olds:

As time went on, I managed to collect a dollar here and there (not from actual work).  I thus purchased very select '45's, mainly Beatles singles, which had the added benefit of both the A and B sides generally being good songs. This was new, as the accepted custom was to put a pile of crap on Side B. Thus, with the Beatles, I only paid fifty cents per song. Thanks, John and Paul.

My other singles were birthday gifts from friends (they were poor, too). My brother bought me a couple of LP's, which was an entirely new concept. Rock albums? Dang. 

He bought me these two:

Yes, quite the disparity. I loved the first one -- the second one I played possibly once. My brother rarely steered me wrong, though. Of course, he saved the very best LP's for himself.

Sometime around age ten I acquired a new sleek player. It looked like this:

Sure, you might ask, how is that an improvement? Well, it ran on batteries! I'm not sure now how that was an advantage -- batteries back then were not "alkaline" -- they were just plain old D batteries that ran down after five plays. But I felt like I was on the cutting edge of new technology.

I thus borrowed my brother's "Help" and "Rubber Soul" albums from his room and learned, really learned, about superior music...until my batteries ran down. I carried that battery-powered player with me to Bismarck, North Dakota, and even treated Merle Haggard to an impromptu replay of his biggest hit, outside his motel room -- apparently because he might have forgotten how the song went (or something). In my defense, I was twelve.

Around age sixteen, I had managed to save up enough money to buy myself an actual stereo sound system from JC Penney. It cost $100.00! This is sort of how it looked:

I eventually supplemented it with a big reel-to-reel, which allowed me to experiment with bouncing tracks and other stuff that I had no actual knowledge of, but which turned out to be something that actual musicians do. 

Meantime, sometime around 1970, my dad bought his latest Lincoln, which featured something that looked like this:

(Missing the cigarette smoke wafting out of the ash tray)

Eight-track tapes had some intrinsic problems. Number one, they were bulky. Dad needed to buy a special case to house his (three) tapes. The other issue someone should have considered was that the tape stopped in the middle of a song, and one would need to flip it over and insert it back into the player to hear the remainder. That sort of killed the effect.

Good music, though, is good music, and you take it where you find it. Dad owned this eight-track tape, which I maintain today is a superior effort:


Around 1980 or so, I needed a new sound system. A slick salesman at Pacific Sound told me that Bang and Olufsen was the best around, so I fell for it.
Thus, I commenced to make payments, which were penurious -- some ungodly sum like $100.00 per month. It was worth it, though, sound-wise. I will say it was the best sound system I ever owned.
Strangely, I was still a singles gal mostly, which I suppose kind of defeated the dollar output; but I did buy albums, too, which mostly consisted of Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers. 

Cassette players were more of my little sister's era. I didn't begin to buy cassette tapes until sometime in the eighties, and that's only because I owned this:

Cassettes were a means for me to capture songs off the radio. There was a program on Saturday nights that played classic rock songs. I don't remember the name of it, but I listened to it religiously, and tried my best to record songs without the DJ cutting in to blather about who sang it and what year it'd hit the charts, and other minutiae that just served to ruin my otherwise pristine recording. I compiled tape after tape of awesome lost songs.

In 1989, for Christmas, my oldest sister sent me a gift certificate for a CD. That was great, but I didn't own a CD player. I'd heard about them, but I hadn't seen the point. I already had all my music in long-play form. I could pick up the needle and drop it on whatever song I wanted to hear.

What was I going to do? Start buying up all the albums I already owned, only in CD format?


Because that gift certificate weighed on my mind, I went out and bought a CD player. This is the first, the very first, CD I purchased:

I don't know why. I guess because it was the latest CD at the time, and I liked Rodney Crowell.

The sound was a revelation to me. I don't know if a CD actually sounded better than an album, but I sure thought it did.

And thus began a lifelong buy up every album I'd ever cherished in CD format. 

Today I can buy a single song. That's nice, but something is missing. When I bought albums when I was sixteen, I got the songs I wanted and songs I didn't know, but some of those unknowns turned out to be gems. And I got to read the liner notes. I knew who the players were and who produced the album. I knew who wrote the songs. That was all vital information. One might not think it is, but it is! My musical education came from liner notes.  

So, what's the best music technology?


Hands down.

I like everything aural. I like MP3's. I haven't bought an MP3 in...forever. But who knows? I might one day hear something I want to buy.

But MP3's are rather cheap and tawdry. They're the backstreet, cynical, man-handling of music. They're music for those who don't really like music.

That said, I'm ready for what comes next. Brain-wave music? I've kind of already got that, but I'm open to its possibilities. The songs in my head don't currently feature that desire surround-sound. 

Bring it on.

I've run the gamut, but I'm not dead yet.

Friday, December 1, 2017

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today

I didn't realize until tonight that 1967 was fifty years ago! My, how time flies.

Nineteen sixty-seven was a seminal year for me. We'd moved to our new home (or "house of horrors", as I prefer to call it) in December of 1966. As an almost twelve-year-old, I'd had a naive optimism that life in this new world would be superb. Just like me to act now and think later. Not that I was given a choice in the matter.

I was caught in that shadowy crevice between my old life and my new one. I'd left my very best friend behind, but my tiny mind discarded that reality in favor of the new, exciting life I'd conjured.

My brother was twenty years old and independent. He'd left someone behind, too, but he wasn't about to discard her. Thus, he traversed Interstate 94 about two hundred times that first year, to Minnesota and back, until he could bring his soon-to-be bride back with him permanently.

My brother was granted his very own room along the long back row of motel units; room number twenty, to be exact; while I shared a skinny cubbyhole and a set of bunk beds with my little brother and sister. My big brother was never around (see previous paragraph), so if I wanted (needed) a little me-time, I grabbed a pass key from the office and made myself at home in Room 20. It wasn't exactly like his room back on the farm. He no longer had a cozy nook for his albums; his new music center was a set of dark recessed shelves illuminated by a sixty-watt light bulb, directly adjacent to his bathroom. Nevertheless, I slipped "Pleasant Valley Sunday" on his turntable and performed my own version of the jerk in front of his vanity mirror.

I was careful to leave his room the way I'd found it. I smoothed out the bedspread that I'd sat on in between mirror performances. I placed his records back on the shelf in the exact order in which he'd arranged them. I'd had years of experience with this ritual; it came second nature to me.

Then I slumped back to the "house" and did my best to ignore everyone who lived there.

Adults who relocate to a new space in the world don't even consider the things kids worry about. Moving to a brand new school in a brand new town, I fretted about how lost I would be amidst the subject matter. I'd had a bit of exposure to a new school when I was nine and had moved with my mom to Lisbon, North Dakota for part of the school year. St. Aloysius had been woefully behind. I'd felt like a complete fraud when the nuns proposed to Mom that I skip a grade. I'd always been good at memorizing and that was essentially what made me look so smart to the St. A's sisters -- I'd already committed to memory everything they were teaching.

But, now, would the Mandan school system be far ahead of where I'd left off? What if I flunked and had to repeat the sixth grade? Add to that the reality that I would need to keep my head down and not make eye contact with a bunch of disdainful strangers. I was a jittery wreck.

Mandan was big on world history. A big fat textbook with crisp white pages of stories about the "Slovakias" and a study sheet crammed with foreign words. And science. A subject that made me question why God was punishing me. I'd been so good; had gone to confession every week just like He had decreed; had made up "sins" just to have something to utter to the priest dozing inside his little velvet-lined box. I'd done everything He'd wanted me to do -- ate fish sticks on Friday -- and this was my reward?

There was not one subject Mrs. Haas taught that gave me a sense of relief. My only saving grace was that I could spell. Mrs. Haas was big on spelldowns. Every week she'd line everyone up on opposite sides of the room and challenge them to spell words. I soared. My only real competitor was the other new girl who'd shown up in Mrs. Haas' classroom the same day I did. But I vanquished her, too. Take that, Becky Weeda!

I also had to endure the indignity of taking the city bus home from school. The Mandan School District didn't have bus routes that stretched out to the boondocks. Thus, I had to hike six blocks from the elementary school to the Prince Hotel in downtown Mandan to wait for Mister Paul to pull his big blue and white bus up to the stop to take me home.

Crazy people rode that bus. There was a guy who was always sitting in the front seat -- a guy who had some kind of neck stitch. He would crick his head to the right over and over and over again while he jabbered to Mister Paul. There was a seemingly sophisticated twenty-something girl who boarded the bus every day as I was wending my way home. One afternoon she had donned Jackie O sunglasses, and complained incessantly to Mister Paul that she'd recently suffered "snow blindness". I think all of these people were insane.

I sat in the middle row, far removed from the regular eccentrics. There were, at the most, five of us riding the route, and that included the driver. Mister Paul was always nice to me, though. He had a job to do, and I think he understood that as a twelve-year-old, these freaks freaked me out. I really liked Mister Paul. The following year, as I stumbled into seventh grade, I had an English teacher who was also named Mister Paul. He was a foppish dilettante who I was aghast to learn was the son of my kindly city bus driver.

I felt like I spent my life on a bus.

To my astonishment, somewhere between December and February, I acquired a friend. Mrs. Haas' classroom was a test of my memorizing skills. I couldn't really tell Glenn from Robert. I learned quickly that Russell was a big doofus, because every time Mrs. Haas called on him, he coughed up an inane response. As a sixth grader, I feigned condescension toward Russell, but today he would make me laugh. He was rather endearing in his naivete. A North Dakota Gomer Pyle.

All the girls were pale Germanic blondes, which made me stand out even more freakishly, with my Irish red hair. The blondest of the blondes was named Alice. I sat in the row next to hers, a couple of desks forward. Prim Mrs. Haas uttered something one morning that struck me as ridiculously funny, and I had no one with whom to share my amusement. I happened to glance back and saw the blonde girl grinning at me. Every friendship I've ever formed in my life was based on humor; a bond with someone who "got it". From that day forward, this girl Alice would be the best friend I ever had.

In the metamorphic stage of our friendship, though, I still had to deal with "home". Which essentially meant getting off the bus, tromping silently through the motel office, past Mom hovering behind the check-in desk, alighting in my shared bedroom and slamming the door behind me. My conduit for obtaining music was my transistor radio and a battery-powered record player. My latest '45's were the cloud-blue Turtles hit:

I even had this one (I don't know why):

Probably my favorite single at the time was on a yellow label with a revolver that shouted, "Bang":

Speaking of The Turtles, I liked this one even more than Happy Together, despite what Ferris Bueller might say:

Nobody ever mentions the Grass Roots, but in 1967 they were a phenomenon. This was my favorite:

I didn't have a lot of '45's. I had some miscellaneous Paul Revere and the Raiders singles. Paul Revere and the Raiders was a good band -- in concept -- but not an actually good band. I liked them because I thought Mark Lindsay was cute. At twelve, cuteness is of supreme importance. I tacked photos of the band (from Tiger Beat Magazine) up on my wall. The most nicely arranged archive of a band that I never really liked.

I did buy this one, but I don't know why. Roulette Records had a psychedelic orange label that would make one dizzy if they stared at it too long. This song was something my little sister could appreciate more than me, and yet I bought it:

As ashamed as I am now of the singles I plunked down money for, at least I can say I never dropped my pennies on the counter for songs like, "Up, Up And Away". So, in retrospect, this one doesn't look or sound that bad:

Those basically sum up my paltry record collection.  

My after-school schedule consisted of trekking my way down the driveway, pouting through the "family gauntlet" (which truthfully only consisted of my mom), burrowing behind the door of my birdhouse bedroom and reposing on the bottom bunk to the same six-pack of '45 records. 

In time, my little brother and sister would appear from wherever they'd been cavorting, and would sometimes expect me to let them in the room. This dispensation was granted only rarely. They got used to it. I did let them sleep in there, for God's sake. Depending on the night's TV schedule, I may give a cursory glance to my homework early, while the evening news was on the television in the living room. If it was Monday, I parked myself in front of the big TV -- directly in front of the TV -- to catch the latest Monkees episode. I was in love with the Monkees -- for the longest time, before I had an actual friend, they were my best friends. Of course, they didn't know that...or me.

TV was a hugely important part of my life. Ironically, television was basically awful in 1967. Laugh-In, The Dean Martin Show, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C, Petticoat Junction, Family Affair. Just awful, corn-pone shows. Yet I watched them. What else was there? Those bastard Hollywood producers really thought the audience was a bunch of rubes. Or they knew we had no choice, so they didn't give a damn. The best thing on TV in 1967 was on too late for me to watch, except for Friday nights -- The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Wednesday nights I had CCD, which meant I missed nothing except my pride. Sitting behind a long table with my fellow hostages in the church basement, pretending to pay attention to Father Dukart "teach" us things, thinking, hmmm...Father is kind of cute...not grasping why he paid so much attention to the boys' side of the room. After class the boys squealed like little girls about a stupid new TV show, some space thing they called "Star Trek". Yawn.

I remember 1967 as dark. Dark and gloomy. Wintery; cold. My only goal was to get through. Step by slogging step.

Music-wise, even the top hits were gloomy. Cynical. Sure I remember my poppy songs fondly, but my transistor droned on with songs like this one, over and over:

I have no idea what that song meant, if anything. But it annoyed the hell out of me. And don't even get me started on Jefferson Airplane.

If I'm going to remember the year, though, I'd rather remember the music that was good; not the craptastic Summer of Love twaddle. (P.S. The summer of love was a scam.)

So I like these:

(Sorry for the summer of love nonsense footage, but it's still a good song.)

I made some faux paus in '67. I badgered my soon-to-be sister-in-law to barter away some long-forgotten '45 for this one, which is an awesome song and a classic:

This song I danced to in front of my brother's mirror, and I stand by it yet today:

This song sums up 1967 for me:

I know what you're thinking -- Aren't you missing some songs, Shelly? Yes, but those songs are for another time, another post. No, I haven't forgotten Jim and I haven't forgotten Felix Cavaliere.

And I'm well aware of the Whiter Shades and the Judes, but the songs featured here are how I remember 1967. Feel free to do your own retrospective.

These songs got me through.

And that, after all, was my goal.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Thanksgiving At Home

I'm not a good cook. I learned how to cook out of necessity. As a young wife, I quickly learned that men don't appreciate peanut butter toast for dinner.

My mom, on the other hand, was a renowned cook. She used recipe cards sometimes, but just as reminders. She also was a short order cook at my Uncle Howard's diner for a time in the mid-sixties, so she really had to know how to juggle. Saturday nights, that place was buzzing and she was the lone cook and often the waitress, too.

The reason she also had to wait tables was because my cousin Karen and I were immune to working. Of course, we were age nine and ten, but that's no excuse. Karen could actually pull off waitressing if she set her mind to it. She was always someone who could flip on the charm. I, on the other hand, didn't even know what "charm" meant, unless it referred to Cary Grant on a black and white TV screen in Uncle Howard's apartment.

I tried waiting tables one weekend night when it suddenly dawned on me that things were really hopping and that the people in the booths were starting to act surly.

"I'll have a pepperoni pizza," the guy said.

"Okay, what do you want on that?" I asked.

"Uh, pepperoni."

I wrote "pepperoni pizza" in my best cursive on the pad, tore off the sheet and clipped it to the clothesline that fed into the kitchen. I pulled a couple of amber plastic glasses off the pyramid, stuck them beneath the Pepsi fountain, then dropped ice cubes inside. A non-moron would have thought to put the ice in first. With over-filled glasses in hand and Pepsi-Cola running down my arm, I delivered the drinks to the table, grabbed a couple of napkins out of the metal holder and sopped up the overflowing soda.

Then I retired. Forever.

One might ask, why didn't Mom school me in the ways of cooking and acting normal? I don't know. I think maybe she was just tired. She'd already raised three kids who were three years apart in age and she still had two toddlers at home. And here she was, cooking for Uncle Howard to refill the home coffers that were direly sparse. The best she could hope was for me to stay out of the way and not embarrass her.

I also accept my share of the blame. I was sorely disinterested in homemaking. Of course, I was a kid. But still, I understand there are young girls who like cooking and baking and sewing. And cleaning. None of those girls were me. I liked coloring. I liked creating things out of bric-a-brac. Kleenex Barbie dresses. I liked making things that had never before existed. I was a dreamer. A lazy dreamer.

As a grown-up I never once made Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody went to Mom and Dad's for Thanksgiving. I was charged with bringing a "dish", just like my older sister was. My sister-in-law possessed the "mom" gene, so she'd show up with my brother and their kids and dive right in to help get dinner on the table, while I nibbled on green olives from the relish tray. My offerings were sometimes good, sometimes putrid. Don't try out new recipes for holidays when you are invited to your mom's house. Bring buns.

Mom always had the other-worldly long table set up in the living room, covered with a starched white cloth. A few candles sprinkled the table and, of course, the Hallmark paper turkey with its wings spreading out by magic -- or by some kind of accordion-pleated slight of hand. The little kids always loved playing with that turkey -- Mom had to buy a new one each year -- little hands would make a wreck of it, scrunching it together, then flaying out the "feathers", then flattening them back again.

Her relish tray held black and green olives, baby dill pickles, and red and white striped radishes. She was the only one who ate the radishes. Once she finally sat down at the table, when everyone else was already primed for a second helping, she'd crunch on those radishes. She loved them. Nobody else could tolerate them.

While I grazed the relish tray, Mom sweated over the stove top. Dad dozed in his recliner, endeavoring hopelessly to keep up with various buzzes of conversation. The little kids tromped about in the basement, their tiny feet raising a booming ruckus and the occasional squeal.

I ventured into the kitchen a couple of times; made a couple of meandering swoops; the whiff of pie crust launching my salivary glands. Mom baked pies like an actual baker would bake pies. No Pillsbury ready-to-roll crust. She actually knew how to make pie crust. I tried it once. I apparently did it wrong. She made cherry and mince meat (which I still don't know what the heck that is) and pumpkin and pecan. Sometimes chocolate.

Dad's sole duty was carving the turkey. He was actually quite proficient at it. He could carve a turkey in about five minutes, with no spatter or greasy mess. He was like a private waiting for his orders. "Richard, come in here and carve the turkey." "Yes, sergeant! I'm on it, sergeant!".

Mom made the absolute best dressing. That recipe, if there ever was a recipe, is lost to the ages. She whipped potatoes in the big kettle with her hand mixer and stirred up home-made gravy. She baked sweet potatoes with a crumble of brown sugar and miniature marshmallows.

Her only concession to pre-made conveniences was Rhode's frozen dinner rolls and canned cranberry sauce. I actually once cooked homemade cranberry sauce, and to be honest, I prefer the grooved jelly roll that shimmies out of the can.

I will say that I'm a great dishwasher. I really excel. For some reason, though, I was always relegated to drying. My sister and I held our cotton towels in hand and dickered silently over who was going to dry the big blue bowl. I liked the dishes ritual, but I never knew where anything belonged. Mom, no doubt, spent the day after Thanksgiving rearranging her cupboards, redepositing items in their proper place, after I'd stashed the potato masher atop the Corning Ware and the carving knife in the non-knife drawer.

It's odd that a holiday that revolves around eating could mean so much. I had my boys around me; my big brother cracked wise. My sister-in-law was the daughter Mom never had, even though she had four of them. My little brother was cute and happy with his two boys around him, too. Dad strained to make sense of the cacophony of cross-table talk. Mom rose out of her chair on queue, replenishing platters and bowls.

Once the dishes were done, a deck of cards was pulled out of the junk drawer and a marathon game ensued.

Then we stopped to help ourselves to delectable cherry pie with homemade whipped cream and sometimes a dollop of vanilla ice cream and tall mugs of coffee.

Wide-eyed, hopped up on caffeine, I trundled my sleepy boys into the back seat of the car and we lazed our way down the dusky streets to home.

And next year would be exactly the same.

I miss "next year".

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


I write about my life here on this blog a lot, mostly to try to make sense of it. I wasn't unique, growing up in a dysfunctional household -- every kid has his own story -- but my story is mine. I think I write a lot, too, because I was there, but I wasn't there; if that makes any sense. I was so busy trying to survive that I forgot to remember myself. This makes things difficult when I try to look back. Music is my prompt. Maybe that's why music holds such a dear place in my heart. It helps me remember me.

I wrote my autobiography and published it for a while. Then I unpublished it because I was embarrassed. I'm not really a sharing person. I wrote it for me and then realized that I told my story so well that it could be worth someone's time to read. Then I reconsidered. The point isn't to have somebody tell me that I write well. The point is to get the words down. If I was to re-write it for publication, it wouldn't be totally honest. I'm not on board with that.

I used to write songs. Used to. My husband is a songwriter and he doesn't understand why I am not flinging song after song out into the universe. Songwriting for me was a phase. I've had lots of phases in my life. I'd latch onto something and be completely immersed in it for a couple of years, sort of how my dad liked certain foods so much he ate them exclusively until he didn't. Everything is essentially finite. For years I made counted cross-stitch pictures; framed them, hung them on the wall, gave them away as gifts. Maybe for ten years in total. Then I stopped. I got tired of it. I don't know why. Crafting was a balm for me. Songwriting was like that. I did it for more than ten years, but I slowly slipped out of the need to do it. Now I don't do anything -- except blog.

The reason I bring up my songwriting is that I realized tonight that I wrote my whole life in my songs. Which leads me to wonder why I've spent so many hours putting words to paper. My husband put together a CD of our early stuff, songs I haven't heard in years. Most of them were autobiographical. Maybe that's why I stopped. Maybe I'd said all there was to say.

So, tonight instead of embedding my favorite top forty videos, I thought I would share some of my own.

I've written about the time I lived at my uncle's bar, Triple Service when I was nine years old and how that experience shaped me. When one is nine, pretty much any experience will shape them. As a farm kid, moving to a "town", which Triple Service actually wasn't in, was the absolute most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. And it granted me my life-long love affair with bars. Things like that imprint on one's mind. Had I moved to a restaurant that exclusively served spaghetti and meatballs, well, I would be in love with Italian cuisine. It doesn't take much for kids...

Ghost Town is sort of about Triple Service, too. In my early forties, I traveled back to Lisbon, North Dakota, to try to find it. The building was still there, but it was lost and forlorn. The gas pumps were no more. The building was a big white blob. The big red letters that spelled out TRIPLE SERVICE had been torn down sometime in the sixties. Somebody in town told me that the premises was now an Eagles Club or something. Well, when I traveled down the lonely road and finally found it, nobody was parked in the lot. I guess the Eagles weren't a burgeoning enterprise in Lisbon. The only remnant, the only shard that told me I was in the right place was the bulging propane tank that still squatted at the far end of the abandoned rectangle.

I wrote a song about my dad, too, once I finally reconciled inside my brain everything that had happened. It took me a long time, decades, to see things from a perspective other than my own. Actually, it didn't happen until my dad was gone. I was so proud of my dad for getting treatment (that took) for his alcoholism. I'd endured his first two failed attempts as a teenager and had eventually turned against him and banished him from my consciousness.  I gave up on him and owned up to the fact that he didn't give a damn about anyone or anything except Johnny Walker. Age has a way of bestowing wisdom:

Too, I wrote about my first real job and the new dysfunctional family I'd inherited. In our little microfilm office in the back of the Vital Statistics Department, three of us sat and traced over ancient birth and marriage records to ready them for filming. And we smoked and listened to AM radio. And Gordon Lightfoot sent a dire warning through the radio's speakers:

I wrote a lot of songs, most of which don't have accompanying videos, because I didn't much feel like creating them. Which leads me to my "lazy" song. I will not deny that I was a lazy kid. My husband played a VHS tape once of family memories, and there I was, lying back on a chaise lounge, my head propped on my elbow, looking for all the world like the most bored child in the world. I was mostly bored, I'll admit, but that's really no excuse for laziness. Apparently I was waiting for the world to come to me. It actually never did. 

I'm still waiting.
This was supposed to be a dub vocal, but we never got around to doing it right. I'll chalk it up to laziness:

This is my favorite song of all I've written.

You can take the girl out of sloth, but you can't take the sloth out of the girl.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Mel Tillis

The guys who write obituaries for newspapers are probably around thirty or so. Maybe forty at the most. Everyone knows that companies are in the midst of showing baby boomers the door. That leaves a gap when it comes to writing about someone's life, because these young guys (and/or girls) don't have a clue who Mel Tillis was. It makes me mad when I realize that an obituary consists of bits gleaned from Wikipedia. A life should mean more than that. Especially Mel Tillis's.

Country music would have been so much less if Mel Tillis hadn't come along.

When I first became involved with country music, I didn't know Mel Tillis. I might have seen "M. Tillis" in parentheses beneath the song title on a '45 single, but at that time, I only cared about who sang the song. Granted, I was only around thirteen, so I was as shallow as a...well, thirteen-year-old.

I didn't even know that the title song of my all-time favorite album (because it was Dad's all-time favorite album) was written by this Mel Tillis guy. Dad bought the LP in 1965, when I was still engrossed in the orange and yellow Capital '45's released by this group called "The Beatles".

Sorry, apparently they didn't make videos in 1965, but this is still awesome:

Seeing as how I was a remedial country music student, once my best friend Alice began schooling me in the ways of (good) country music, I caught up with this next song. Alice also was the person who taught me how to play (chord) guitar (I never actually learned how to "play"), and she taught me the intro to this song. 

Detroit City was released in 1963, and while I didn't listen to country music then, one could not help but be exposed to it, because the radio stations played an eclectic mix of musical styles. My cousin and I created a comic book about "singers when they get old". Bobby Bare was one of our subjects, but in our version he was an actual bear. Our comic was a huge hit among my Uncle Howard's bar crowd. Orders rolled in, but unfortunately we would have had to recreate the whole thing by hand over and over, so we sacrificed the big bucks (twenty-five cents) we could have made from the venture, essentially because we were lazy. 

Around 1967 Alice and I were excited to see Bobby Bare in person, but thanks to a freak winter fiasco, we never got to. We ended up going back to her house and watching the local TV broadcast of Bobby's performance. 

A lot of my musical history is tied up in Detroit City, and it was all thanks to Mel Tillis:

The very first song I ever wrote went like this:

1967, you taught me how to play
All those Merle Haggard songs
Man, he had a way
And the intro to Detroit City
I remember it today
You were my hero then
You still are today

So, again, it all started with Mel.

Much like I traveled back in time to capture songs like "City Lights", I didn't quite catch that Mel had written this hit song from 1957. Was Mel around forever? 

I never understood why this guy named Webb Pierce was considered the Hank Williams of the fifties. Pierce didn't even write his own songs! And he was rather an awful singer, but apparently the "nasal" sound worked for him. In the fifties, who was the competition? Pat Boone? The only thing I know about Webb Pierce is that he had a guitar-shaped swimming pool and he was a renowned asshole. Regardless, Mel Tillis wrote this song and Webb should have thanked him for it, but apparently that wasn't Pierce's modus operandi:

More my style was this single released in 1967:

And seriously, all this time, I had no idea that a guy named "Mel" had written these songs.

So, when did I become aware of this Mel Tillis guy? In the mid-sixties, I began hearing songs on the radio by someone who had a different sort of voice. He was no Ray Price. He sang like the words were stuck in his gullet. I was judgmental. The songs were good, but I was perplexed by the singer.

Eventually, as more of this guy's recordings got played by the DJ's, I became used to him.

In 1970, I got hooked. This is one of my favorite recordings ever.

 In the mid-seventies, Mel's career took off. He was still writing songs and still writing hit songs, like:

By then, I'd bought his live album, and it was hilarious. I never knew that Mel Tillis stuttered! Of course, if you read the various obituaries, that's practically all that is written about him.

Yea, Mel Tillis was funny. And Clint Eastwood and all the Hollywood set loved him. 

This might have been from a Clint movie, or maybe not, but I think it was:

This one, I'm pretty much convinced is from a Clint movie:

Here's one more (Mel did it better):

I'm going to guess that the most famous song Mel Tillis ever wrote was this next one. It would have been nice if Kenny Rogers had tweeted a few words and had thanked Mel for his career, but whatever. I'm not going to judge the propriety or impropriety of not acknowledging.

Mel Tillis was with me all my life and I didn't even know it. I didn't know that Mel was wrapped up in my musical belonging. 

Pay it forward, they say.

Mel paid a lot of artists' ways.

Mel Tillis is wrapped up in my musical memories. Ir's not everyone who can encompass a person's life. I wanna cry just thinking about him. And I truly miss him.

Thank you, Mel Tillis, for things I didn't even know you taught me.