Friday, July 31, 2009

We called him Coach

We're loyal to you Whitehall High
We're Orange and Black Whitehall High
We'll back you to stand as the best in the land
For you know we will say 'You-Rah-White-hall'

So carry that ball Whitehall High
We're cheering you on Whitehall High
Our team is the famed protector
On boys for we expect a
Victory from you Whitehall High

Shortly after that fight song was sung in a packed gym -- home or away -- Whitehall High School's 1967-68 basketball squad would take the court and quickly build a lead it would never relinquish. This was because Ken Stellpflug had the best little team in the land: The mighty Norsemen were unbeaten entering the postseason and ranked No. 1 among Wisconsin's small schools.

Nobody could stay on the court with this talented group, which had mowed down its overmatched Dairyland Conference opponents and had one very reachable goal in its sights: the state tournament in Madison.

The center was a 6-foot-8 carrot-topped sophomore named Ralph Rasmuson, who would be the only one to play major college ball. The forwards were clearly Divison I material: Keith Johnson and Jack Hoyer were smooth ball-handlers with deft shooting touches. Senior Eliot "Bass'' Solsrud was a great defender and rebounder, and could bring the house down with his patented two-hand set shot from the corner of the gym. Senior guards Mike Teigen and Bob Dean were Mutt and Jeff in the backcourt, Teigen a pesky jitterbug defender and assist man; Dean a cool shooter unafraid to take any shot from the key.

Those five seniors and the big redheaded sophomore did the lion's share of damage through the regular season, but Stellpflug also had a dependable bench and he substituted freely as games got out of hand. Even I would get in late for some mop-up work.

Nobody wanted to play the Norsemen. Nobody, it turned out, except the Durand Panthers, a pretty good team from the Middle Border Conference. The scrappy Panthers, playing in their home gym, pulled off an amazing upset that Saturday night in March, overcoming a 10-point deficit with two minutes to play. Whitehall thought it had the game-winner when Rasmuson scored in the lane just ahead of the buzzer, but he was called for charging and the basket was disallowed.

Stellpflug would take heat the rest of his career for the blown lead. The officials would always be blamed for several "home cooking'' calls that helped Durand during its frantic winning rally. And some people in Whitehall would never get over the devastating loss. To this day, you can walk into a bar there and find a former player or fan who wants to talk about that team, that season, that game -- and that unfulfilled dream. That's the way it is in a small town.

But you won't find Ken Stellpflug. He died overnight at age 74 of pancreatic cancer, without ever winning his elusive state title. He did take a team to Madison in 1986, but it lost in the championship game after another lead vanished in the final minutes. I sat at courtside that afternoon, and it was deja vu all over again.

I had been away for too many years when I ran into Coach at Beef & Dairy Days, Whitehall's late summer celebration. I was in the beer tent with a friend, who spotted Stellpflug and called him over. "You remember this guy, don't you Ken?'' my friend asked.

Stellpflug looked at me hard but came up blank. (In his defense, I did not -- nor do I -- resemble my high school self in any way.) "I'm sorry if I should know you,'' Stellpflug said, apologizing.

"That's OK, Coach,'' I replied. "You never knew me when I played for you, either.''

It might have been the best line ever uttered by one of Ken Stellpflug's reserves. But I'm sorry today that I said it. I'm sorry about a lot of things when it comes to Coach. Mostly I'm sorry that he's gone, that I never took the time to thank him, and that he never won a state championship. For himself, because he surely deserved one, and for the Orange and Black faithful of old Whitehall High, who are still waiting.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

How you can save newspapers

I have a friend and former newspaper colleague who will be leaving his family and loved ones soon to take a job on the other side of the planet because there are no jobs left in America. So many are out of work already...why didn't somebody think of this sooner?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

And the best might be yet to come

They're already out with the best albums of 2009 (so far) lists. Good thing, since I'm pitifully behind on my listening. If I come across a good one I tend to treat it like a single malt scotch and make it last awhile.

This can be a bit overwhelming.

As refreshing as it is to see new -- and often obscure -- artists on any "best of'' list, it shows how diluted and fractious the music market has become. In other words: anybody can make it today (at least for a moment), but good luck trying in the audio jungle. It would be interesting to view sales numbers and downloads vs. album purchases for these albums.

Here's the list from NPR's blog All Songs Considered, which was based -- like its companion list of top singles -- on a listeners' poll. I might check a few of these out, but my suspicion is I'll be happier with the narrow-minded choices I've already made in 2009. I will vouch for Neko Case (and that precious cover).

1. Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective
2. The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists
3. Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear
4. Middle Cyclone, Neko Case
5. Wilco (The Album), Wilco
6. Noble Beast, Andrew Bird
7. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix
8. It's Blitz!, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
9. Dark Was The Night, Various Artists
10. Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors
11. Far, Regina Spektor
12. Actor, St. Vincent
13. Manners, Passion Pit
14. Hold Time, M. Ward
15. Reservoir, Fanfarlo
16. Fever Ray, Fever Ray
17. Fantasies, Metric
18. Two Suns, Bat for Lashes
19. My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura
20. Dark Night of the Soul, Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse
21. The Crying Light, Antony & The Johnsons
22. The Eternal, Sonic Youth
23. The Ecstatic, Mos Def
24. Outer South, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band
25. Swoon, Silversun Pickups
26. Together Through Life, Bob Dylan
27. No Line on the Horizon, U2
28. March of the Zapotec, Beirut
29. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Pains of Being Pure at Heart
30. The Mountain, Heartless Bastards

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Considering a monarch

I was sitting outside a Starbucks today drinking my half-caf while reading some notes in preparation for an interview. That's when it happened.

A monarch butterfly appeared to be flitting through the thick Florida air in perfect sync with the music coming from the outdoor speakers. The music was Percy Faith's "Theme From a Summer Place'', surely one of the grandest songs of the ages. The butterfly never seemed to miss a beat. It was quite beautiful, just like Sandra Dee in the movie.

This remarkable moment reminded me something I was told recently. Which was: If you queue up Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon'' to the movie "The Wizard of Oz'' you will quite likely have an out-of-world experience. Now I will be the first to maintain the music to "The Wizard of Oz'' stands quite tall on its own merits. Who -- or what -- could possibly improve on Judy Garland singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow?''

Not that "Dark Side of the Moon'' doesn't have its own hypnotic powers. Nobody mentioned that drugs might somehow be involved in this experiement, but I have my suspicions. Has anybody tried this at home?

Monday, July 27, 2009

My summer in Harlem

The closest I came to Harlem growing up was the Globetrotters. Then I heard a song that transported me from my small midwestern town, deep into the dark and troubled neighborhood of New York City.

This was the Sixties, and what we had heard of Harlem in our safe, lily-white community -- stories of crime, drugs and racial unrest -- was frightening even to consider.

"Harlem Nocturne'' only added to the mystery. The song, featuring an eerie vibrato lead-in and a raucously seductive saxophone, put you on a creaky summer porch in the big city. And from that uneasy perch you were able to contemplate a world you never actually experienced or knew.

The version I owned was a 45 RPM by the Viscounts, released around 1965-66. Where it came from I can only imagine. The song was written in 1939 by Earle Hagen, who was better known as a composer of television theme songs -- including the memorable whistling tune for "The Andy Griffith Show.''

Horn players of every ilk, as well as guitarists and vibraphonists, have added their personal touches to "Harlem Nocturne'' through the years. You'll even find a ukulele version on YouTube. But none, to my untrained ear, matches the Viscounts' memorable spin. Hear it now.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Time to fire up some Cracker

Here's the first MPSB (Midsummer Public Service Bulletin) from Six String Sanctuary:

Check the tour schedule for Cracker and get your tired butt to a concert. I've circled Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa and First Avenue in Minneapolis as two promising venues. Hope to see you here, there, or somewhere along the trail.

And you might oughta be listing to "Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey'', one of the best releases of 2009. If that 11-song romp through the woods of punk'n'harmony doesn't convince you Cracker should be seen and heard live, maybe there's no honey left in your beehive.

Band leader David Lowery continues to fly under the radar, but his work on "Sunrise'' -- with some stealth support -- might encourage newcomers to go back and reconsider Camper Van Beethoven and earlier Cracker material.

You might accuse me of just flat giving up, but how's this for a summer anthem:

Turn on, tune in, drop out with me
The whole thing's coming down
So let's just get out of the way
Well I'm not paranoid, there is no conspiracy
But I swear Big Brother's watching me
Turn on, tune in, drop out, give up with me

The lyrics could have beeen written 30 years ago by Timothy Leary. The music? Definitely vintage 2009.

Here's the video.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Seven days in July, 1974

For a short spell in 1974 there was no country singer better than Bobby Bare. His quirky hit "Marie Laveau'' made it to the pinnacle that summer for one blessed week.

A week earlier Anne Murray's "He Thinks I Still Care'' had been No. 1 on the Billboard country chart. And week later Bare's reign was ended by Donna Fargo's "You Can't Be a Beacon (If You're Light Don't Shine)''.

But for seven fabulous days Bobby Bare was king of country. You would have thought that might have happened with "Detroit City'' or "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home'', two memorable songs from early in his career. But you just never know. A guy charts nearly 60 songs in his career and scores his only No. 1 with a tune about a voodoo witch.

"Marie Laveau'' came off "Lullabys, Legends and Lies'', an album of mostly oddball tunes penned by Shel Silverstein. Here's a 1980 clip of Bare performing "Marie Laveau'' in Rotterdam, complete with Dutch subtitles. Daar gaan we dan!

We gave a birthday toast to Bare on his 74th back in April, mentioning at the time how much we enjoy his 2005 Dualtone release "The Moon Was Blue.'' It's nice to know the ol' coot still gets off his fishing boat occasionally to visit the recording studio.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Those were the days, my friends

Here they are, 10 songs that defined the Whitehall High School Class of '69. Let them be argued tonight at the Dodge Street Grill (which was the Pix Theatre back in the day) on the eve of our 40th reunion.

It's a shame the chosen beers of our proud Wisconsin heritage -- Blatz, Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon -- won't be flowing along with the conversations. Sadly, they've gone the way of the old picture house (well, except for Blue Ribbon, but that was the choice of the Polaks, anyway). Miller Lite? Now this will age us: the first keg wouldn't be tapped until after our five-year reunion!

These sensory-triggering songs are listed chronologically, just the way we heard them as seniors. From the fall of 1968, returning for that final year at Memorial High School to the chants of "Orange and Black Fight Fight!'', through another cold Wisconsin winter where a warm car heater was as crucial as a sturdy AM radio antenna. (I'd argue the radio was MORE important. Our asses were already frozen; might as well have some ''mood'' music to drown out the sound of chattering teeth.)

And then, finally, spring. There always seemed to be a memorable song to wash away another gritty winter and help launch a blessed new summer in the heartland. The Mamas and Papas provided the bridge for us as freshmen with "California Dreamin'". The Young Rascals set us up twice, as sophomores and juniors, with "Groovin''' and "Beautiful Morning''. And, fittingly for our graduation sendoff, it was "Aqauarius/Let the Sunshine In'' by the Fifth Dimension.

But here are the 10 songs that mattered most during our senior year at WHS. There will be arguments about "Stand By Your Man'', the purest country song ever recorded, because not everybody in our class of 84 students was listening to country (which is to say not everybody was camped out like me in the Walgert Hotel Tap Room. Hey, I was just mopping the floor there to earn my college tuition money!)

The truth be known, "Stand by Your Man'' probably got more juke box play in Whitehall (pop. 1,446) than all the others combined. Ask Ed "Rico'' Dubiel, whose parents owned "Johnnie's & Connie's'' just around the corner from the theatre, where you could hear fiddles and steel guitars bursting through the screen door on summer evenings. Or Sharon Sosalla, whose folks frequented that beer drinking palace before opening their own "Hank & Ann's'' on Main Street, across from the bowling alley.

Lists like this can't be limited by genre. In fact, you could argue that Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A.'' -- a true crossover No. 1 in September of '68 -- deserves inclusion.

1. Magic Carpet Ride, Steppenwolf
2. Hey Jude, Beatles
3. Hush, Deep Purple
4. Abraham, Martin & John, Dion
5. Stand By Your Man, Tammy Wynette
6. I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Marvin Gaye
7. Crimson and Clover, Tommy James & the Shondells
8. Everyday People, Sly & the Family Stone
9. Touch Me, Doors
10. Proud Mary, Creedence Clearwater Revival

Sentimental favorites: "Fire'' by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, "Who's Making Love'' by Johnnie Taylor, and "Oh Happy Day'' by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

They might lobby for: "Build Me Up Buttercup'' by the Foundations, "Traces'' by the Classics IV, "Time of the Season'' by the Zombies.

Wish we could forget: "Dizzy'' by Tommy Roe, and "1, 2, 3 Red Light'' by the 1910 Fruitgum Company.

Hardest songs to keep off the list: "Born to be Wild'' (more of a summer remnant from Steppenwolf), "Worst That Could Happen'' by Brooklyn Bridge and "Those Were the Days'' by Mary Hopkin, because, my friends, those were the days...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Guess who wore the boots in that family

Strangers in their tights
Exchanging pantses...

Now how burnt is that? How about uberburnt -- did I just coin a word?

I was at a weekly newspaper in Wisconsin for a short while, way back when. It was my first job out of college, and the flaky business manager at the paper was always changing the lyrics of classic songs to make them goofy. I believe he succeeded with "Strangers in the Night,'' a No. 1 song in 1966 for Frank Sinatra.

(Does it seem like we're stuck in the Sixties here? Maybe so. It's my class reunion this weekend, and even if I don't make it back to the Hub -- that's Whitehall, Wis. -- I'll be revisiting that special time in memories and songs. We might be old farts now, but it's just as cool today as it was back then to be from the class of '69. Yeah!)

SSS has also been tripping heavily on Sinatra, but what the hell. "Strangers'' was a fine song. It was Frankie's only No. 1 of the rock era until he teamed up with his sultry go-go dancin' daughter Nancy the following year for "Somethin' Stupid.'' "Strangers'' held the Billboard top spot just one week, sandwiched between the Beatles' "Paperback Writer'' and "Hanky Panky'' by Tommy James and the Shondells.

No wheels yet -- we were sophomores-to-be -- but it was a fabulous time to be commandeering a record player (they had needles, and the records went 'round and 'round and got all scratched up) or blasting the hits of the day on the radio.

Funny thing, though. I don't remember "Strangers'' like I recall other songs from that fabulous summer. I was at Badger Boys Basketball Camp, honing my dribble penetration skills for a big season on the Norsemen "B'' squad, and no doubt that was a distraction.

However, I vividly remember Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walking'' -- which was No. 1 just 18 weeks earlier. Apparently so did the girls who began buying up those goofy boots. Go-go figure.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A world without Gordon Waller

I was unaware a key member of the British Invasion had left us until I read his obituary in Tuesday's NY Times.

Gordon Waller, half of the hit singing combo Peter and Gordon, died recently of cardiac arrest in Norwich, Conn. He was 64.

Peter and Gordon struck on a brilliant formula for success: Take songs written by Paul McCartney that the Beatles didn't record, and use rich vocal harmonies to turn them into hits. It didn't hurt that Asher's sister, the actress Jane Asher, was dating McCartney at this time. Or that they were able to snare a contract with Capitol Records.

They had good songs to work with, indeed, and their floppy hair, proper attire and good lucks befitted the British music wave. But Peter Asher and Gordon Waller deserve credit for their strong vocal arrangements, which were on par with the Everly Brothers.

Anyone growing up in that era could instantly recite the lyrics to "World Without Love'', which topped the charts in June 1964:

Please lock me away
And don't allow the day
Here inside
Where I hide
With my loneliness
I don't care what they say
I won't stay in a world without love

Here was the Billboard Top 5 on June 27, 1964:

1. World Without Love, Pete and Gordon
2. I Get Around, Beach Boys
3. Chapel of Love, Dixie Cups
4. My Boy Lollipop, Millie Small
5. People, Barbra Streisand

Little-known fact: Early in their London club days they called themselves Gordon and Peter. That just wouldn't have worked.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

By any name, the queen of country

She was so good she might have made it as Virginia Pugh, but Billy Sherrill had another idea.

And as a result, few ever started off as quickly as Tammy Wynette. After making her Top 40 debut in April 1967 with "Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad'' (which topped out at No. 3), nine of her next 11 songs made it to No. 1 on Billboard's country chart.

In July of 1970 Wynette's "He Loves Me All the Way'' became her eighth No. 1 in three years, following what might be regarded as one of the biggest 1-2 punches in country music history: "D-I-V-O-R-C-E'' and "Stand By Your Man'' (ranked Nos. 34 and 1, respectively, on CMT's 100 Greatest Country Songs). "Stand By Your Man'' also became her one crossover hit, rising to No. 19 on the pop chart.

It must have been a tough time to be Loretta Lynn, who scored three No. 1s of her own during this stretch but watched Wynette win three consecutive CMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards.

Wynette would ultimately have 20 No. 1 songs in a magical teaming with Sherrill, the Epic Records producer. That's a career worthy of Hall of Fame status -- which she easily secured shortly after her death in 1998 at age 55. It's that she scored nearly half of those chart-toppers in just three years in Music City.

Go to her MySpace page and give "You and Me'' a listen. Amazing.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20, 1969: "The Eagle has landed''

My friends at Red Beet Records in Nashville passed along this terrific video of Eric Brace performing "Tranquility Base,'' a tribute song to the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's walk. This is sweet. I last saw Eric at the Family Wash in East Nashville. Cool venue, ultra cool guy. He was on my old home turf over the weekend, playing with label compadre Peter Cooper in New Glarus, Wis., home to a brewery that produces Spotted Cow, Fat Squirrel and some other exotic labels. I'm sure the spirits moved them.

Where were you on that historic day? I was 40 feet off the ground, painting barns in Iowa while tied to a flimsy aluminum extension ladder. That was plenty scary. It was impossible to imagine being 238,000 miles from Earth.

Brace, who has been selected as writer of the week at, takes us on a smooth journey to "Tranquility Base.'' Enjoy the ride ...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Could I have some whipping on that?

I read somewhere that the 1976 song "Afternoon Delight'' is actually a double entendre. Really? There's a second meaning to these lyrics?

Gonna find my baby, gonna hold her tight
Gonna grab some afternoon delight
My motto's always been when it's right, it's right
Why wait until the middle of a cold dark night

Is it possible to interpret those words any other way than, well, you know?
Apparently. There was a dessert by that name in a D.C. restaurant frequented by songwriter Bill Danoff, and he was just putting the yummy concoction into a song. Well, that explains it.

Thinkin' of you's workin' up my appetite
Looking forward to a little afternoon delight
Rubbin' sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite
And the thought of rubbin' you is getting so exciting

They weren't pitching woo, they were pitching a tent!

I mention the song today because -- you guessed it -- "Afternoon Delight'' was the No. 1 pop song on this day in 1976. Not that there was a lot of competition. Here was the Billboard Top 5:

1. Afternoon Delight, Starland Vocal Band
2. Kiss and Say Goodbye, Manhattans
3. I'll Be Good to You, Brothers Johnson
4. Shop Around, Captain & Tennille
5. More, More, More (Part 1), Andrea True Connection

The Starland Vocal Band would win two Grammy awards, including Best New Artist, beating out Boston, the Brothers Johnson, Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band and Wild Cherry.

Then their sky rocket would disappear from sight. But they sure pulled the sheets over our eyes, didn't they?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

It's gonna be some hootenanny

Pete Seeger will be there. So will Joan Baez. And do you think Arlo Guthrie will be able to resist breaking into "Alice's Restaurant?''

Here's an event that should have been on that summer concert tour list: The Newport Folk Festival turns 50 years old on Aug. 1-2. Wish we could be there.

Seeger, who recently turned 90, and Baez -- who made her professional debut in that first festival in 1959 -- are more than honorary headliners. They're the butter on the bread, and have been since the folk singing loaf came out of the oven. Seeger, who was introduced in '59 as "America's tuning fork'', stole the first show along with Odetta and Earl Scruggs, "the finest 5-string banjo picker in the nation today'' who tore into "Cumberland Gap.''

So many years, so much history. I wonder if they invited Bob Dylan, who made his Newport debut in 1963 and caused such a fuss two years later with his first "electrified'' set.

There is plenty of new blood as well: Neko Case, Tift Merritt, Low Anthem, and the Avett Brothers -- who play at the Cuban Club tonight in Ybor City -- all will be there. So will Billy Bragg, who took those old Woody Guthrie lyrics and transformed them into the superb "Mermaid Avenue.''

Damn. Anybody want to make a late date?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Let it Snow today

I hope you have time to view this clip of Phoebe Snow from an undated CBS Sunday Morning show. If not now, then come back to it later.

Until listening again to "Poetry Man'', Snow's mellow hit single from her 1974 debut album, I had forgotten how melodically seductive that voice could be. It was the voice Rolling Stone called "a natural wonder'' and the NY Times more technically described as "contralto grounded in a bluesy growl and capable of sweeeping over four octaves.''

Whatever. It was the voice of Phoebe Snow, and we had never heard anything like it. Still haven't, which is why that album ought to be in everyone's collection and played on occasions like today, Phoebe's 57th birthday.

I had also forgotten, or never knew, the moving story of her daughter, Valerie Rose, and in saying so admit that I never really knew the story of Phoebe Snow.

So check out the clip. And listen to that sweet album, and the revealing words to "Either Or'':

Sometimes this life
Gets so empty
That I become afraid
Then I remember you're in it
And I think
I might still
Have it made

Appropriately, we're running a 1975 Rolling Stone cover of Snow just two days after giving the same treatment to her good friend, Linda Ronstadt, who figures strongly in this story.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wonder how you're doing, Harry

Harry Chapin concluded an old Rolling Stone interview with this quote: "The major thing I'm afraid of is being 65 and saying, 'Gee, I wish I had done this and that, and that.' I want to face old age knowing I've tried all I wanted to try."

Chapin was not content to be merely a songwriter and balladeer, though there were few who could match his lyric storytelling skills. He dabbled in filmmaking and received an Academy Award nomination. He helped found the World Hunger Fund with hopes of ending global starvation. He was a key lobbyist for other humane causes. About half of the 200 concerts he performed each year were benefits.

Chapin had done this and that, and he had tried all that he wanted to try, to be content with himself and to improve the world through his charitable causes. But, sadly, he never made it to 65. Not even close.

On this day in 1981, on his way to another benefit concert, Chapin died on the Long Island Expressway in a bizarre accident that has never been fully explained. Either he was having a heart attack (the listed cause of death) or he was negotiating traffic with car trouble. With the emergency flashers blinking on his 1975 VW Rabbitt, Chapin swerved from the fast lane to the center lane and was struck from behind by a tractor-trailer truck. He was 38.

Any day is a good day to listen to Harry Chapin, but especially this day. I can't find "Verities and Balderdash'' -- his first gold album, which featured his only No. 1 single, "Cat's in the Cradle'' -- but here's a clip of the song. It includes an introduction by Chapin's wife, Sandy, and their son, Josh, for whom the song was written. It'll give you goosebumps.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Couldn't see the forest for the trees

Happy birthday, Linda Ronstadt. We remember you when you were just a Stone Poney.

Amazing, but even after more than 40 years, 30 albums and 20 Top 10 singles, "Different Drum'' is still one of our favorites. We could be nice and say your first band needed Kenny Edwards' lead guitar licks and Bob Kimmel's rhythm beat as much as your big voice, but we wouldn't be fooling anybody. You were a one-trick Poney.

You were one of the first (but certainly not the last) to tell us we had absolutely no shot. Of course, we didn't believe you for a moment.

You and I travel to the beat of a different drum
Oh can't you tell by the way I run
Every time you make eyes at me

OK, so you were out of our league. But that booming voice and little skirt and gorgeous face, those are not easy things to get over.

You cry and moan and say it will work out
But honey child I've got my doubts
You can't see the forest for the trees

We were only in high school, what did you expect? Every time that song came on the radio, or we pushed quarters into the Wurlitzer to hear it, we held out hope that some day, maybe. But...

Yes, and I ain't saying you ain't pretty
All I'm saying is I'm not ready
For any person place or thing
To try and pull the reins in on me

No one ever called us pretty before. That part of the song always made us a bit uneasy. But Michael Nesmith wrote the lyrics, so you were off the hook. And if we could just go back to that time and place we'd be happy to have you call us anything.

So good-bye I'll be leaving
I see no sense in this crying and grieving
We'll both live a lot longer
If you live without me

Well, you did make it to 63, all because you had a heart like a wheel. After ditching us you went on to a solo career, where you sang folk, rock, pop, rhythm and blues, country -- even opera. And it all sounded good. And you made it on seven Rolling Stone covers (this one is from December 1976) and three of your albums climbed to the top of the charts.

But the only No. 1 single of your incredible career was "You're No Good.'' Now just what was that all about?

I wish I HAD a memory

Twenty five years is a long time. A long damn time. Were you even alive in 1984? Do you remember?

We revisited 1984 in a recent blog to check back on Cyndi Lauper. We're back today -- only for a moment -- to see what the heck happened to Exile. Surely you remember Exile, the band that scored that colossal No. 1 hit "Kiss You All Over'' back in 1978?

Somewhere along the way Exile had a genre-change operation and re-emerged as a hit-making country band, which probably suited their Richmond, Ky., roots. And (once again) I apparently wasn't paying attention, because I was unaware they had piled up an impressive 10 No. 1 Billboard country hits between 1984-87.

One of those Exile country songs made it to the top on this date in good ol' 84: "I Don't Want to Be a Memory.'' That's a terrible song to say you don't remember, but...

(I blame Bruce Springsteen, who went on tour that summer after releasing "Born in the U.S.A.'' -- which did mighty fine itself, spawning seven No. 1 singles -- and I do remember every one of those.)

I'm happy to report that Exile is going to give me -- give all of us -- another chance. The band reunited last fall after 23 years and there's a new EP out there. I promise to pay closer attention this time.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Some Frankie with your Long Island tea

It's the time of year when you can't help but break out some old Sinatra to spice up a late afternoon cocktail on the veranda.

Years ago, when my kids were growing up, we'd make our annual trek to Cape Porpoise, Me., where we learned to artfully dodge the nearby Bush compound in bustling Kennebunkport.

The pace was much slower and quieter at the Fish House, where we lodged for the week in full view of the cape's spectacular beauty. From our perch on the deck you could smell the incoming tide before it arrived, and we would cast spoons into the teeming waters for schooling tinker mackerel.

The CD player would invariably be playing "Summer Wind'' or something else appropriate for the moment. I wonder now what the lobster men thought about that selection.

Like painted kites, those days and nights went flyin' by
The world was new beneath a blue umbrella sky
Then softer than a piper man one day it called to you
I lost you, I lost you to that summer wind

Speaking of flying by, it was 70 years ago today -- 70 years! -- when Frank Sinatra entered the recording studio for the first time to record "Melancholy Mood'' and "Bottom of my Heart'' with the Harry James band. Not surprisingly, the 78 record you see here is one of the most sought after Sinatra collectibles. Brunswick "full-range recording'' No. 8443, with the original dust jacket, can be purchased online for $3,995.

It's much easier -- and a whole lot cheaper -- to put in Frankie's Greatest Hits and start listening while you ice down that drink...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Remembering Paul Hemphill

We lost a great Southern writer Saturday when Paul Hemphill died at age 73. The cause was cancer.

It was one of life's privileges to spend a moment with the author in a smoky hotel hospitality room, very late one night, in Charlotte, N.C. The year was 1996. Hemphill was gathering information for a book about stock car racing, so he had come up from his home in Atlanta for NASCAR's annual preseason media tour.

The beer was flowing and the chatter was boisterous. What better introduction to the world of professional gearheads than to spend a hour or two socializing with the scribes who wrote for a living about the sport? Talk about genuine good ol' boys. Hemphill was one of them himself -- an Alabama native -- only with a bit more polish and less scarlet around the neck.

The stories flowed that night along with the beer, and Hemphill -- a keen observer of human nature and spirit -- took it all in quietly from a couch in the crowded room. I'm not sure how many others were even aware that Hemphill was there, what with all the drinking and crazy stories, like the writer who drove a rental car into a motel pool.

There couldn't have been a bigger fan in the room that night than me. Everybody else was swapping stories about Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip and life on the Winston Cup circuit, and all I wanted to hear about was Paul Hemphill. And there he was on the couch beside me.

My introduction to Hemphill's writing had come a few years earlier on the pages of "King of the Road'', an engaging novel about an uneasy relationship between a long-distance trucker and his son. My dad, like Hemphill's, had made a living as a gear-jammer, and I felt a strong connection to the story.

I would later go back and read Hemphill's first book, "Nashville Sound'', another fascinating subject on the country music scene that he researched and wrote during a Nieman Fellowship in 1969. My library would later include "Long Gone'', a novel about minor league baseball, and "Lovesick Blues,'' a definitive look at the life of Hank Williams (mentioned in a previous post.) "Lovesick Blues'' was a gift from a friend who was thoughtful enough to have it autographed for me by the author. There are a dozen other works by Hemphill yet to track down, including "Leaving Birmingham'', which earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Hemphill was polite, engaging and without pretentions, and -- as you would expect -- a delightful storyteller. Just the sort of person you'd enjoy meeting to shoot the bull about writing and sports and newspapers (we had both worked at the Atlanta Journal, though 12 years apart). Here was a guy who had the best job at the paper -- a column on Page 2 -- and he had the guts to quit at age 33.

Here's an excerpt from Hemphill's "Quitting the Paper'':

I fancied myself a sort of Jimmy Breslin of the South, cranking out daily one-thousand-word human dramas on everything from flophouse drunks to Lester Maddox, sufficiently loved and hated by enough people to have that sense of pop celebrity with which most newspapermen delude themselves. I had the most envied newspaper job in Atlanta, if not the South, and now and then I would see a younger writer in a town like Greensboro or Savannah or Montgomery imitating my style just as I had stolen from Hemingway and Breslin and too many others to talk about. I had been sloppy and inaccurate, from time to time, but I had also written some good stuff. I had hung around all-night eateries and gone to Vietnam and hitchhiked and lain around with hookers and shot pool with Minnesota Fats and sat in cool suburban dens with frustrated housewives. And yet, with the next column due by dawn, I had run out of gas.

It's not difficult to understand how Hemphill could be the hero of every newspaper journalist, past and especially present. It won't be as easy grinding ahead without him, but there are those other books, still unread, to dig into.

I don't know why, but this morning the chorus to an old Don Williams song stopped by for a visit:

I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees
And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me
Hank and Tennessee
I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be
So what do you do with good ol' boys like me

Hemphill surely heard those winds rustling through the majestic Southern pines. And by becoming the writer he was going to be, he leaves a rich and lasting legacy that extends far beyond the reaches of his beloved blue-collar South.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Herb Alpert's other delight

He was a horn player, not a vocalist, but that didn't seem to matter. The timing was right for Herb Alpert when his single "This Guy's In Love With You'' entered the Billboard chart on May 18, 1968.

Everything was clicking. He had charted with 17 instrumental songs, starting with "The Lonely Bull'' in 1962. His 1965 album Whipped Cream & Other Delights had sold more than 6 million copies, and its cover instantly became a yummy classic. He had his own record label, A&M (founded with business partner Jerry Moss), and a hot band, the Tijuana Brass.

One of the world's most popular trumpet players certainly didn't need a vocal arrangement at this stage of his career. But he got one anyway, from a couple of guys named Burt Bacharach and Hal David. And "This Guy's In Love With You'' became one of those magical songs that hit the mainstream and soared to the top.

The song became the first No. 1 single for Alpert, for Bacharach-David and for A&M Records, which would add credibility with its growing stable of artists, including Joe Cocker, Cat Stevens and Procol Harum. Another worthy achievement: The song kept Richard Harris' "MacArthur Park'' from ever reaching the summit.

Here was the Billboard Top 5 on this date in 1968:

1. This Guy's In Love With You, Herb Alpert
2. MacArthur Park, Richard Harris
3. Mrs. Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel
4. Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, Ohio Express
5. The Look of Love, Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66

As for the Whipped Cream album cover, it didn't really ruin anything to learn later that the model, Delores Erickson, was pregnant at the time of the photo shoot. Or that the substance slathered over her body was shaving cream (except for the dollop on her head). Whipped cream, shaving cream, creme brule, who cares when you have a look like that.

Friday, July 10, 2009

We GOT some satisfaction

Here were the top songs played on the Twin Cities' premier rock station KDWB on this week in 1965 (including record label and previous week's listing in the station's Fabulous 40 Survey):

1. (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, Rolling Stones (London) 3
2. Mr. Tambourine Man, The Byrds (Columbia) 1
3. Laurie, Dickie Lee (Hall) 4
4. Wooly Bully, Sam the Sham and Pharaohs (MGM) 2
5. Liar, Liar, Castaways (Soma) 9
6. Cryin' in the Chapel, Elvis Presley (RCA Victor) 6
7. I Can't Help Myself, Four Tops (Motown) 10
8. Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, Patti Page (Columbia) 5
9. You Turn Me On, Ian Whitcomb (Tower) 8
10. Wonderful World, Herman's Hermits (MGM) 7

There was a day when AM radio was a glorious place to spend an afternoon, and that time was definitely 1965. If you were growing up in my region of the Midwest your dial was set to 630 during the day (in the evening, because of signal power, we switched to WLS in Chicago).

But the days belonged to KDWB. It played the best lineup of songs, had the hippest on-air personalities and maintained the strongest signal strength among big city stations beaming to my small hometown some 130 miles southeast of the Cities. Whether you were in your bedroom, bopping around in an older buddy's car or just hanging at the swimming pool, AM radio ruled the day.

And this was a significant week for radio play. "Satisfaction'' not only topped KDWB's "Fabulous 40'' Survey, it became the first Rolling Stones' single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard chart.
If I'm not mistaken, KDWB would not long after declare its Top 630 songs of all time and place "Satisfaction'' at the top.

(Thanks to for the poster of Hal Murray. He had left KDWB by '65 but the image was too crazy not to include here.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Still Dead

It's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
Or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain
Or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
And a short time to be there

The Grateful Dead closed their concert at Soldier Field in Chicago on this date in 1995 with a medley of "Black Muddy River'' and "Box of Rain.''

Then they were gone. Forever.

A month later Jerry Garcia would die of a heart attack at a drug rehab facility in Forest Knolls, Calif., where he had checked himself in for heroin abuse.

A group that formed in the early Sixties as Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions and morphed into the Warlocks would finally settle on a name that captured the spirit and timbre of San Francisco's psychedelic counterculture. And they would play, on and on. They played a fusion of blues, rock, folk and bluegrass, and it's improbable they ever played any song the same way twice because they were sonic innovators and, well, their stoned fans wouldn't have known the difference anyway.

The final Chicago show was No. 2,314 in the band's glorious career. That's a lot of concerts and a lot of Deadheads -- and a lot of joints to pass around.

Yet, as the song goes, it's such a long time to be gone and a short time to be there.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Distant echoes of the Band

Shannon McNally had opened for Son Volt at Jannus Landing in St. Pete, and she stopped playing her acoustic guitar long enough to introduce the final song of her set. She was moved, she said, to hear Rick Danko sing the ballad shortly before he died. Then she dedicated the song to him, while giving proper credit to the man who made it famous, Johnny Cash.

The song was "Long Black Veil'', and McNally gave a stirring rendition. You had to be stone drunk if you didn't get goosebumps or shed a tear. Even then it should have moved you.

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

Listening to Levon Helm's new CD and recalling McNally's comment about Danko bring back memories of the Band and its unique blend of characters and musicians. I've followed Helm's post-Band career and listened to nearly everthing Robbie Robertson has offered as a solo artist. My one regret is that I never paid much attention to Danko, even though it was easy to be drawn to his infectious personality and that beautiful bare-boned tenor voice. His bouncy bass playing was also a treat to watch.

Click here to watch and hear Danko sing "It Makes No Difference'' with Helm on backing vocals from the splendid Martin Scorcese rockumentary "The Last Waltz.'' What a matchless sound. "Stage Fright'' and "The Weight'' are among Danko's other lasting vocal imprints, and those clips are available online as well.

Alas, there's no video of Danko singing "Long Black Veil'' live, which must have been a rare treat. But I did find a clip of him teaching electric bass guitar techniques. Click here, and hang in there until the end to hear him sing a few bars of Little Walter's "Just Your Fool.''

I'm taking up bass guitar today.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Double your pleasure

The release of new Wilco and Son Volt albums on consecutive weeks will spark further inevitable comparisons between former Uncle Tupelo bandmates Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. I've been one to stoke that fire myself in previous blogs, but I'm not going there this time. Not yet, anyway.

Each album deserves a fair listen and review without bringing the other into the equation. So Tweedy's "Wilco (the album)'', released last week, is going into the player first. Farrar's "American Central Dust'', which is out today, will follow in due time.

Followers of the bands are fortunate to have two discs like this, back to back, to help make it through the summer. It's kind of like having two fields of knee-high corn by the Fourth of July. You're not sure how they're going to turn out, but the prospects are very promising indeed.

Now Don't Be Fornicating Everywhere

I need your help today because you are some of the most clever and intelligent people I know. That's not exactly why I need you, but if that will help guarantee your participation then I'm all for it. The reason will be revealed soon enough.

I went to the motor vehicle department yesterday to renew my driver registration and it went all right. Which was a big surprise because the first Monday of the month after a holiday is probably one of the worst days of the year to be walking through that door.

But the 30-minute wait didn't seem that long. It allowed me time to flame out on a Brickbreaker game I had paused overnight on my Blackberry, and to work the crossword, kakuro and sodoku puzzles in the paper. And of course I scanned the classifieds for job ads, but once again there were none.

It turned out my license plate was up for replacement. I could stick with my plate supporting the state's endangered reef program -- a noble cause indeed -- or make a new statement. I opted for a new statement, which is: throw loyalty and support for my son and his new adventure as a seaman recruit in the U.S. Navy.

The thing about specialty plates is they tend to have fewer letters and numbers in them, making them easier to remember. But not easy enough. I mean, who among you could actually recite your license plate number? If you're like me, you check into a motel and on the form where they ask you to fill in your plate number you just make something up, because you're not going to walk back outside into the parking lot and copy that number off your actual plate. You just aren't going to.

Unless you order a vanity plate with a specific message (6STRING), you probably have no more than a vague idea what your plate reads. Which is why it can be helpful to have an acronym, or initialism, to jog your memory. Which is why I could use your help today. Ready?

My new U.S. Navy license plate reads: NDB4E.

And as simple as that seems, I'm never going to remember it unless I can make it mean something.

If this were a sports blog it might be hard to resist Notre Dame Bites 4 Eternity. But it's not, and that's not very nice anyway. Or how about Nobody Defends Brett 4 Ever, which could be taken two very different ways.

Hey, I'm just throwing it out there. Another silly blog, you're saying. We need to get Strumbum a job, you're thinking. Well, yes. Of course. But first will you help me out with this?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Pssst: Jazz, forever and always

It felt like a drug deal going down. We walked behind the stage, away from the throng of jazz fans, and stepped into a makeshift trailer. It was then and there that Billy Novick pulled out a black attache case and produced the goods.

It was a lazy sun-splashed Sunday afternoon and Novick had just finished a rousing performance at the first annual Portsmouth Jazz Festival in Prescott Park beside the Piscataqua River. When a fan asked him if he had any CDs for sale, Novick whispered "Follow me.''

So there we were minutes later, standing in the trailer fumbling for cash as Novick showed us his stash. There were four CDs from which to choose. Not certain which might be the best but knowing it might be difficult to find them elsewhere, we bought one of each. There was "Remembering You'', "Swing So Softly'', "Guy and Billy'' (with Guy Van Duser), and a CD that over the years has become one the favorites in my jazz collection: "This Is Always.''

Novick, a terrific reed player who's a fixture on the New England jazz scene, teamed up with longtime Berklee instructor Herb Pomeroy to produce an amazing collection of eight rich instrumental ballads. Pomeroy lends his mastery on the trumpet and flugelhorn in a perfect meshing with Novick's clarinet and alto sax.

It's not always easy to tell who's playing which instrument, and it doesn't really matter. "This Is Always'' is sublime, seductive and spiritually reviving. It's music that can make a bad day good and a good day memorable. You don't have to be sipping a single malt, but if you happen to have a glass in your hand, well, it will never taste better.

I was surprised to see this little-known gem from 1996 available on CD Baby. You can read a review, check out samples and order it by clicking here.

I'd be surprised if the latest Personal Six String Sanctuary Tout (PSSST) didn't become one of your favorites as well.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

He was just playing Possum

The bottle had let George Jones down, no two ways about it. "The Rolls Royce of Country Music'' had been hiccupping and misfiring badly, even though the hits had kept coming for him. With that voice, it was no wonder.

But you can only abuse yourself so long before it catches up to you. The game was getting old, and Jones wasn't getting any younger. It had been 25 years since he first hit the country charts with "Why Baby Why'' in 1955. He had charted an amazing 108 songs during that time, nine of them ascending to No. 1.

But this was early 1980, and Jones hadn't scored a No. 1 in four years. Good god almighty, Eddie Rabbitt had FOUR chart-toppers during that stretch. Jones was living from song to song and bottle to bottle. His prospects were dimmer than an ABC Liquor Lounge when he entered CBS' Studio B in Nashville to record the song. Especially THAT song.

Jones felt the Bobby Braddock-Curly Putnam offering was too melancholy to go anywhere. He was hungover and ornery, and when he got to the song's talking parts he couldn't get it right without slurring the words. Ol' Possum was hurting, but good.

In other words, it was the perfect storm for a country classic -- which "He Stopped Loving Her Today'' surely became. It entered the Billboard chart on May 3 and less than two months later -- on this very day in 1980 -- it became Jones' 10th No. 1 song. It also would win the CMA Single of the Year and earn Jones a Grammy award. And it would save more than his bacon.

As Jones recounted years later: "A four-decade career was salvaged by a three-minute song.'' Three minutes and 19 seconds of heart-wrenching, tear-jerking bliss that today is widely regarded as the greatest country song of all time. Hear it for yourself.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Born on the Fourth of July

"Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars."

With those words Casey Kasem will sign off today for one final time as host of one of America's most popular radio countdowns. But it won't be American Top 40, which was born on this historic date in 1970. That show is now in the hands of American Idol host Ryan Seacrest.

Kasem, who has retired and unretired about the same number of times as Brett Favre, has been hosting American Top 20 and American Top 10.

And this weekend is his latest swan song. But will this be Casey's final 10 countdown?

10. Miley Cyrus, The Climb
9. Kelly Clarkson, I Do Not Hook Up
8. Pink, Please Don't Leave Me
7. Shinedown, Second Chance
6. Kate Perry, Waking Up In Vegas
5. Beyonce, Halo
4. Pitbull, I Know You Want Me
3. Lady Gaga, LoveGame
2. 30H!3, Don't Trust Me
1. Black Eyed Peas, Boom Boom Pow

That's your Mainstream Top 10 for the week, and American Top 40 and its offshoots certainly have been mainstream through the years. But the music business these days is incredibly fragmented. Billboard also tracks R&B/Hip-Hop, Rap, Country, Latin, Blues, Christian, International, Dance/Electric, Classical/Jazz, International (including Eurochart and Canadian), Soundtracks, Comedy, and who knows what else. Then there's top ringtones, downloads, DVD and VHS sales, video and game rentals and concert grosses.

(It's worth mentioning that Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean'' is this week's top ringtone.)

I think I'd rather remember Casey in his prime, back when the music seemed a better fit for this format and before listeners began twittering Seacrest to play their favorites. Vintage Casey has been possible since satellite stations began replaying his more popular AT40 programs. There's no chance of hearing Miley Cyrus. On the other hand, there is always the possibility that you might run into "Disco Duck.''

But there are scarier things in the world right now.

I take it back

They didn't deliver my paper today, so forget about all that gushing I did in yesterday's blog. Except the part about Holy Mole, which really is the coolest cartoon strip out there. Click on the strip for a larger view of Rick Hotton's artwork.

Friday, July 3, 2009

I read the news today, oh boy

It was back on the doorstep this morning. My old paper, the Bradenton Herald, is still doing business -- contrary to rumors of its demise.

You hear the craziest things in bars. I had been in one yesterday to grab a burger for lunch, and someone who knew my old ties to the paper asked me about the Herald. Specifically, did I know it was going out of business July 31?

Can't be true, I replied. Can it? Why no, of course not.

The Herald, "Manatee County's Newspaper Since 1922'', is struggling like other papers around the country. There have been layoffs (starting with me more than a year ago), a price increase, reduction in volume and size, and other cost cutting measures. Still, there seems to be no catching up with the alarming loss of advertising revenue.

It used to be a real struggle to put out a quality newspaper every day. Now? It must be brutal. But they keep trying, God bless 'em. What do today's stories about the new South Manatee Fire Rescue chief, the holiday "Tow to Go'' campaign (drinkers, read this!) and the local "Vin's People'' column have in common? They were written by the same guy, Vin Mannix. One of the best writers in these parts, Roger Mooney, appears in two sections. And copy editor Tim Wolfrum has a byline on a local protest against government-run health care. You can't say these folks aren't slugging away. I miss being in the trenches with them.

It's true that newspapers are falling by the wayside. This week Gannett, the world's largest newspaper chain, announced it would soon be cutting another 1,400 jobs. Already this year it shuttered the Tucson Citizen.

But people are still reading the paper. At least in Manatee they are. And you know what? It's still the best deal in town. And it's the only reliable source of information about my town. Today I learned the latest about county foreclosures, local flooding, and what's on tap for the Fourth of July weekend. I also learned that the major league Rays and Pirates are teaming up to renovate the 13th Avenue Community Center ballfields, and that Rays skipper Joe Maddon had better start studying up on his American League All-Star candidates.

The Herald offers puzzle solvers SEVEN daily puzzles, including Kakuro -- which you won't find in the Sarasota-based paper. Nor will you find Holy Mole, the best cartoon strip in the universe, in the competing sheet, even though it's drawn by a Sarasota artist. Once you make a decision to buy a local newspaper, the choice is simple here.

Will that still be true after July 31? Of course it will. I'm just gonna have to start staying out of bars where you hear these silly rumors.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Out of the blue and into the black

Celebrity is not soon forgotten. The brighter the star, the bigger the flameout. In other words, we're not nearly done with Michael Jackson. We've only just begun.

Tired of it yet? Me too. Tired of the news programs, tired of the tabloid reports, tired of the tributes, tired of the inane online chatter. Tired, tired, tired. But we're only a week into this story, and it seems we're losing perspective with every sordid detail.

I didn't have much to start out with. Perspective, that is. I was trying to find some, but sifting through this brutal coverage for something of value is like poking around for treasure in a sanitary landfill. You need to be wearing gloves. Well, at least one.

But here's something. It was written back in 2003 -- six years ago -- when Rolling Stone ranked "Thriller'' No. 20 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time:

Jackson was at the peak of his art and adulthood. It is hard now to separate the wonder of Thriller from its commercial stature and Jackson's current nightmare of tabloid celebrity and self-destructive egomania. But there was a time when he was truly the King of Pop. This is it.

"Thriller'' has to be considered one of the greatest commercial successes of all time. The numbers are mind-numbing: 26 million records sold, 37 weeks at No. 1, 8 Grammys and 7 Top 10 singles. But here's another number: 1982. "Thriller'' came out 27 years ago.

I'm not sure when he morphed into the freak show that he became. But Michael Jackson, who was 50, peaked 27 years ago.

If he had been able to launch that big tour, would it have been much like Elvis' comeback, which was really more of a refusal to go away? One obvious difference being that while Elvis became bloated, Michael was withering away.

Neil Young was singing about Elvis and Johnny Rotten on "Hey Hey, My My.'' But he could have been singing about any artist who sold 415,000 albums (58 percent of them digital downloads) in the first week following his death:

Out of the blue and into the black
They give you this but you pay for that
And once you're gone you can never come back
When you're out of the blue and into the black.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Wear a flower in your hair today

The song never rose to No. 1 on the Billboard chart (except in Britain, but what did those blokes know about music), but that didn't make it any less of an anthem for the Hippie Generation.

The Billboard Top 5 looked like this on July 1, 1967 -- just two weeks after the Monterey Pop Festival officially launched the Summer of Love:

1. Windy, Association
2. Groovin', Young Rascals
3. Little Bit O' Soul, Music Explosion
4. San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), Scott McKenzie
5. She'd Rather Be With Me, Turtles

McKenzie's song, written by John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, amounted to a marketing ditty for San Francisco, an ultra-cool city that really didn't need one. If the hippies were going to turn on, tune in and drop out, what better place to hang than the inviting Bay Area.
Here's a glance at the scene back then.

The song's refrain, without saying a lot, somehow got the point across:

All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
There's a whole generation with a new explanation
People in motion ... people in motion

The rest of the world got the message. Thousands flocked to Frisco that summer to partake in flower power, love-ins and peaceful bliss. I would have gone there myself, but it seemed so far away. And I only had my learner's permit.