The River's Badge

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Delight Of A Fluffy Pop Song

Pure pop music is as old as music itself. When I was a kid, what I called rock music wasn't truly rock. It was pop. But I didn't know better. KRAD was our local station and it called itself "rock 'n roll", even though it played everything -- everything -- from Dean Martin to Bobbie Gentry to the Beach Boys to Roger Miller, to every possible incarnation in between. If I heard a song by a new group like the Supremes, I thought, hmm, that's different. I inherently knew that someone like Roy Orbison was rock (at least some of his songs), but I wasn't quite sure why. My brother bought me an album by the Yardbirds and I hated it. That was rock. I considered the Beatles, who magically appeared on the earth in 1964 to be a rock group, but in actuality and hindsight, they really were pop; just a bit more amped-up pop. Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, who were a tiny bit before my time, were more rock than the Beatles.

Pop isn't easy to define, but like obscenity (I guess), you know it when you hear it. A pure pop song should be bouncy. A repeating refrain is a plus. Even if the lyrics are sad, the music should be uplifting. Often it means nothing (which is how I generally prefer my songs, to be frank). Most lyrics that try to be deep are instead insipid. "Deep" songwriters miss the joy of music. I like my music fun; not studious, and especially not angry.

The first pop song I fell in love with, when I was eight years old, was "It's My Party" by Lesley Gore. I was in fact obsessed with it. I used to stand atop our picnic table in the backyard and frug and sing this song a cappella.

By the time I reached the mature age of ten, I liked this:

Time moved on (okay, by one year) and by then music had changed. Now it was visual as well as aural.  Granted, the guys were cute, but leave it to Neil Diamond to write an almost perfect pop song:

It was hard to find a good pop song in the seventies. It was hard to find anything good in the seventies. The seventies was a dreary decade. But every era has at least one thing to offer, and as for pop music, the nineteen seventies offered ABBA.

Conversely, the nineteen eighties were rife with pop. I could get into a whole sociological explanation of why people felt better in the eighties and more open to happiness, but it's really quite evident.

This song is glorious in its pop-ness.  

It's almost as if Lesley Gore had been reincarnated, but more blissful.

Sheena wasn't the only one.

Come on, admit it. You liked this song. You really, really boogied on down to this song. Rick Astley was an eighties god:

If you want to just feel good (and who doesn't?), peruse the nineteen eighties pop catalog. I could include another twenty tracks here, but I won't. Springsteen might bemoan how awful President Reagan was; yet he still recorded "Glory Days", so there you go. Sometimes as hard as one tries to be miserable, circumstances budge their way in.

Even as I began listening to country music again in the nineties, I was drawn (albeit reluctantly) to poppish confections. Hate it if you want, but just try not to dance to it:

I submit that pop music is the salve of mankind. 

It's time someone gave pop music its due.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

April Tompkins' Book Trailers

April wanted me to show off her book trailers, for which I (and only I) can take credit.

I don't actually mind being April's publicist. It's an artistic outlet, and April's a good writer, but a bad, bad techie. I would say that I'd take a percentage of her profits if she had any. But hope springs!

Trust me, the books are good. April is my friend; yet I read her scribblings with a jaundiced eye.

Look over there ~ on the right-hand side of my blog ~ and click on the covers to purchase either or both of her books. April would greatly appreciate it, and if she'll tell you that herself (but make me type it).

My work is done.

Friday, August 3, 2018

I Like Most Styles Of Music, But...

There was a time during the early seventies when the singer-songwriter came into fashion. I'm not sure why. It may have had something to do with the doldrums the country was suffering from -- the  "misery begets misery" thing. "Everything sucks, so we may as well just wallow in it."

We had a string of hapless leaders. Gerald Ford never wanted to be president, but he assumed the office by default and tried to make the best of it. It didn't work. Ford will best be remembered for"WIN" buttons ~ Whip Inflation Now. Because pinning inane badges to our lapels would solve the country's problems.

He will also be remembered, thanks to Chevy Chase, for falling down a lot. He fell down the Air Force One steps. He bumped his head on doorways. He hit a golf ball into the visitors' gallery and bonked a spectator on the head. Gerald Ford carried a  look of perpetual confusion. He did not inspire confidence.

Worse was Jimmy Carter, the eternal scold. Jimmy did not hesitate to tell Americans that the country's problems were OUR fault. If we'd just buck up and live the straight and narrow, everything would be great. Never mind that I was already living the straight and narrow and nothing ever got better. All I got were stern lectures from Jimmy on TV about my "bad attitude". Interest rates were eighteen per cent, but dang, if I just atoned for my sins, HIS life would be so much easier. We all apparently worked for him. What Jimmy really needed was a button ~ "Repent Now".

 (Any man whose campaign button features Mr. Peanut is a guaranteed failure.) 

Amidst these doldrums, came along the singer-songwriter. James Taylor was the most notorious representative. James ascribed to the Jimmy Carter philosophy ~ if we'd just do our freakin' jobs, everything would be fine. "Just call out my name (you idiot) and I'll be there". 


Even at age sixteen I knew that was BS. I called out and nobody was ever "there". Maybe God, but I wasn't entirely sure about Him, either.

James was by far not the only offender. We had to contend with Bread and the precious Jackson Browne, and the even more precious Cat Stevens. Music essentially reeked. Worst of all was Crosby, Stills and Nash, who the pop culture mavens tried to convince us were musical geniuses, when what they really were were three-part harmony singers who needed much, much better songs.


Granted, not all soft rock recordings were bad. 

But you get the picture.

The Eagles are classified as soft rock, but they weren't. They were country-rock. There's a huge difference. 

I would be remiss if I left the impression that soft rock singer-songwriters were the only artists played on Top Forty radio in the early-to-mid seventies. Thank the lord for Elton John. But I will say that early seventies music was for the most part tame. We were supposed to think about the songs and "absorb" them. 

F that. That's not what music is about; that's not what sears our souls.

There will always be a place for soft rock. The eighties gave us Air Supply. The nineties brought forth John Mayer. 

If one is a passive person; if one prefers music that's not too challenging, why not? I don't make judgments; I just tell you what I like and don't like. 

But this retrospective will provide, at the very least, a snapshot of how music was, and why I truly hated it.



Saturday, July 28, 2018

Nashville Finale

Yep, I stuck with it.

I almost didn't. The show went off the rails sometime in the middle of the fourth season, and the storyline became more and more implausible. When ABC cancelled the series in 2016, I assumed it was the end, and the "last" episode tied things together nicely. Then CMT announced it would pick the show up, and I had a decision to make. Did I want to continue? CMT's scheduling is messy and hard to disentangle. I'd watched Hulu for free from time to time; now I bit the bullet and purchased a subscription, expressly to watch this show that confounded, perplexed and sometimes bored me. When one has invested four years of their life in characters that now seem like "real" people, it's not easy to just dump them off a cliff. Plus, I'm not a quitter.

I never believed Connie Britton as a country superstar. For one, she is not a good singer. That's no knock; I'm not a good singer, either, but then again, I don't portray one on TV.  Rayna was never, ever my favorite character. 

I started out hating Juliette Barnes, but it's a tribute to Hayden Panetierre's acting chops that Juliette eventually became sympathetic and, in fact, cherished.

Only diehard fans will remember that Avery was a complete and utter jerk in Season One. The supposed breakout characters were Gunnar and Scarlett. My six-season record is intact of hating Scarlett. It's not the Australian actress's fault. The show runners encumbered her with a preposterous, intelligible accent and a neurosis that was not endearing, but rather, grating.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Deacon (Charles Esten), who was an alcoholic songwriter and a weak would-be singer; and of course, the Stella Sisters. Esten's main claim to fame before Nashville was as a recurring cast member of Drew Carey's improv show. Now he appears on the Opry, because music fans like recognizable faces. When Connie Britton quit the show, Deacon assumed the main character role because Hayden Panetierre was coping with post-partum syndrome and somebody had to be the star.

When Daphne "forgot" that she had a real father and coolly replaced him with Deacon, I began to have my doubts. But I, like Dallas viewers in the seventies, suspended my belief and chilled.

Other characters have come and gone. Will was always gay, but married Aubrey Peeples (not literally), who went on to fall in love with Goldie Hawn's son, who fell to his death off the roof of a skyscraper...which served to advance the Juliette story. I vaguely remember an early episode in which Juliette's mom shot and killed somebody who was a pain in the ass to Juliette, but the sixth season told us that Mom was bad and that's why Juliette joined the Church of Scientology (er, the Church of Coherent Philosophy).

Things keep chugging along in the Nashville universe.

A word about the music, which ostensibly, the entire series was about: No way in any known universe was the music on Nashville "country". That's not a bad thing. Through the years, the show's music directors have included T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller, who know good music, but don't cleave to the current fad of country-which-is-sort-of-rock-really.  The songs featured on Nashville would never be played on Hot Country Radio. Never. I liked the songs. Some were, in fact, awesome. And Hayden, by the way, if you ever want to forego acting and take up a new pursuit, I'll buy your album (and I never buy albums).

Here is my initial review of Nashville from 2012.

Did I cry when it ended? You bet your cowboy boots I did.

Am I sorry I stuck it out? Nope. Through all the BS and fast-forwarding, Nashville had heart. 

It's important to finish what we start. And sometimes the journey is worth it.

Friday, July 27, 2018

There's No Such Thing As "Good Musical Taste"

Those who claim to have good musical taste are, frankly, delusional. Who decides what good musical taste is? Music is exquisitely subjective. That's the beauty of it.

Generally, people who drape the "good taste" sash across their shoulder are either obnoxious snobs or audiophiles more interested in showing off their expensive audio gear than their actual record collection. We've all met them. They either want to "explain" music to us or drag us into their den, drop the needle on an obscure Brian Eno LP and stare into our faces, searching for a rapturous reaction.

My dad loved any music sung in a foreign language. He didn't understand the words, but it didn't matter. He particularly loved Spanish, because it sounded "pretty" (which it does, by the way).

I'm a sucker for falsetto. Essentially any song in which the singer slides into falsetto voice hooks me every time. I have no clue why; it just does.

My husband is actually one person who does have good musical taste, by which I mean, yes, I like a lot of the songs he's introduced me to. My sister is another. But I think they have good musical taste because I agree with their choices. That doesn't mean they and I are right. Because there is no "right".

I don't always agree with my husband's opinions, however, He claims that good music died in the seventies. I love eighties pop. Looovvve eighties pop, Casio keyboards and all. He reveres Bob Dylan. And while I agree that Dylan is a singular American poet, most of his songs are not good.

If you really listen to the lyrics of this song, he's just throwing words together. No, there is no deeper meaning that we peasants just don't "get". And even if, according to Bob, there is some deeper meaning, I don't want my music to be a study program. 

I, on the other hand, like this:

Too, I maintain that music is a reflection of memory. Or memories. The life we were experiencing when a particular song was popular is almost as important as the song itself. My sons hear Beatles songs objectively. I feel Beatles songs in my gut. They were my life. 

Objectively, this is not that great of a song. Subjectively? It was everything:

I can't even try to explain how everything changed in '64, because those who didn't live it will never understand. It's as if there was sort-of music before; then suddenly actual music exploded the planet. 

I guess you had to be there.

The snobs will tell you that "Yesterday" is the greatest Beatles song. No Beatles fan will ever tell you that. The Beatles weren't about ballads. They were about splitting the earth wide open. 

Music, though, is not all conscious memory. I love Glenn Miller, whose band recordings were barely a ping on the radar when my parents became married. 

And I love rockabilly, which was my older sisters' music. 

I love doo-wop. Even I'm not old enough to recall the doo-wop heyday.

In some regard, music must be cellular. Sometimes there is no conscious memory; there is only a "feeling". 

So, Mozart? Okay. I can climb on board. That doesn't mean Mozart lovers have better musical taste than Hall and Oates aficionados. Maybe musical snobs are simply closed-minded.

Me? Well, you can see for yourself. 

That, that, is the glory of music.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Music's Worth

If I'd been a rich little kid, I would have owned the world's greatest collection of 45 RPM singles.

As it was, ninety-nine cents was damn hard to come by. My mom refused to pay me for housework, of which I actually did none, but nevertheless. I had to depend on the generosity of my Uncle Arnold, who would flip me a nickel or dime once in a while when he was helping my dad repair machinery on the farm. It was hard to save these coins, however, because the creamery truck showed up once a week to deliver milk and butter, and those fudgsicles the deliveryman carried in the back were almost impossible to resist.

By age ten I begrudgingly agreed to "help out" around the house in exchange for a weekly salary of twenty-five cents. Thus I whipped some dust around with a rag and possibly dried dishes, although my memory is unreliable on this. (In my defense, I don't recall my older sisters helping out, either. They probably remember it differently, but I am correct on this. Mom never enforced chores; I think because if you want something done right, well, you know...)

Eventually I managed to save up a dollar and promptly traipsed off to Poppler's Music to choose one lone single. My decision was not easy. I really liked The Lovin' Spoonful and The Dave Clark Five, but I almost always came home with a Beatles single. Like this:

There were, of course, other ways to consume music; most often my way was by borrowing my big brother's singles and albums when he was away. I needn't actually purchase music, because my brother had everything; but there is something about owning, holding, admiring one's own personal records. 

Then there were birthdays. I always asked for singles. I knew about albums, of course, but I really wanted the hits. My brother did buy me albums for my birthdays. He bought me The Mamas and Papas and The Yardbirds. Those two albums were the sum total of my LP collection for years to come.

This was a single I asked my best friend for, for my eleventh birthday:

When we moved in late 1966, I got myself a real job (albeit still working for my parents) and my wages increased to seventy-five cents per hour. Since my dad was constantly getting sloshed and embarking on rambling road trips, and since Mom felt an obligation to follow and track him down, I was regularly left in charge of their motel. I was eleven-going-on-twelve, but hey, the money was good!

If Mom forgot to pay me, I dinged open the cash register and withdrew the wages I was due. Dahmer's Music was my new local record store. A couple of records I purchased with my hard-fought money:

I did buy albums, too, once a year, every September, for my brother's birthday. I owed him, after all. I only purchased Beatles albums for him. In my mind, I wanted him to continue his collection. He was married by then and didn't actually care that much.  I bought Sgt. Peppers and asked him later how he liked it. He said, "It's okay", which kind of hurt my feelings. Shoot, I wasn't rich and I'd only tried to pad his repertoire. But people, and life, move on.

Once my new best friend, Alice, introduced me to country music, I dove into it headlong. Dahmer's wasn't flush with country singles (or albums) and our local country station was firmly ensconced in the Top Forty. I did buy albums, but I was limited to the offerings racked in JC Penney's basement. Thus I made some unfortunate purchases. I bought a duet album by Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn that I listened to approximately two times. Penneys was into "old fashioned", which was not my taste, but they hardly cared. Who but a couple of thirteen-year-old geeks was browsing their bins anyway? Their basement was flush with matrons queuing up at the catalog counter to order damask draperies. Country albums were essentially worthless unless one zeroed in on greatest hits compilations, which I definitely did buy, when available.

Soon I took to listening to far-away country stations, WHO in Des Moines (which came in crystal-clearly after midnight) and sometimes WSM in Nashville on a cloudless night and WBAP in Fort Worth. Ralph Emery and Mike Hoyer and Bill Mack understood country music -- real country music -- and I heard wondrous songs that were never once spun on my local station. But I had nowhere to buy them.

The internet was still a woozy science fiction fantasy, and computers? You mean those gargantuan whirring, beeping cyclops they showed on Lost In Space? I had a manual typewriter.

In the wee hours of Saturday nights, when I was able to tune in to WSM, right after the Opry, there was a program broadcast from Ernest Tubb's Record Shop. I figured, well hell, that store surely must have every country record known to man. I found the address in an issue of Country Music Roundup magazine, and found my way to the post office to purchase a money order*.

*the way kids who had no checking account could buy things through the mail.

I wrote long letters to the shop, specifying exactly which singles I wanted -- "not the fifties version, but the current recording by Mel Tillis". I tucked my money order inside and crossed my fingers.

That's how I eventually and joyfully received this:

And this:

Also this:

When music was hard to get, it meant more. 

Today I have tons and tons of songs on my hard drive, plus racks of CD's; not to mention my cache of fifty-year-old albums. And I never listen to any of them. But I would still get an ache in my heart if I could drop the needle on those obscure singles I strived so hard to procure. 

It's a truism that the more hard-fought a victory, the more it matters. When I click my mouse on an Amazon mp3, okay, now I've got it. I've downloaded songs that I've never once listened to. On the other hand, I played "We Can Work It Out" on my monaural record player approximately five hundred and twenty-three times, until the phonograph needle dug trenches in the vinyl. 

There is really no discovery now. No "you've got to hear this". Everybody knows everything and music doesn't matter because it's easy.

I cherish the times when I was forced to seek out music. When it was a victory to secure it. 

Now? Ehh. It doesn't really matter.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

1968 ~ Fifty Years

I've been watching the CNN series, "1968" (trust me; the only thing I watch on CNN), which was co-created by Tom Hanks, who I like a lot, as long as he keeps his politics to himself.

Need I say, fifty years ago??

Every individual's reality is their own. The series is somebody's reminiscences about that year.  Mine naturally differ.

I was thirteen that year. I'd just completed seventh grade with its attendant awkwardness. I was a mess in '68 and I knew it. I just kept hoping that life would get better, or at least I would get better, but all signs pointed to no. In the realm of supreme ineptitude, I excelled. I had zero social skills. I had pimples that I tried to mask with a heavy application of Cover Girl ivory foundation, which resulted in a freakish zombie-like appearance. Nobody advised me on my hair, so I let it do whatever it wanted, and it wanted to cling greasily to my scalp.

I was skinny as hell, but I convinced myself I was fat. I stood sideways in front of my bathroom mirror and detected a "stomach bump". This made me despondent and determined to stop eating all together.

Needless to say, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were not foremost in my mind.

1968 was the year that pop culture left me behind. It's been fifty years and it's still not reconciled itself with me.  And it won't, ever. We who lived in the heartland had differing priorities, different realities. I was just trying to get by, with what is now politely called a "dysfunctional family", so anti-war protests and fire hoses and things were just images on the TV screen. The Viet Nam world only touched me in the sense that my big brother enlisted in the National Guard to thwart his number from being culled from the bingo jar that determined who would potentially die in the stultifying jungle.

Side note:  In May of 1969, my state became infamous for the "Zip To Zap", which was, I guess, the (really) poor man's Woodstock. Zap was a hamlet in western North Dakota, populated by approximately 300 souls. It had two local bars and not much else. Some kids from North Dakota State University apparently scoured the map and pinpointed a town name they could build a slogan around. The AP picked up the story and soon thousands of bored beer-seeking kids from parts unknown began arriving in the hapless town that had initially embraced the off-the-cuff notion as a potential tourism enticement.

When the pair of taverns ran out of beer and the temperature plummeted, things turned ugly. Kids ripped timbers from the skeleton of an abandoned building and blazed a bonfire in the middle of Zap's lone street. Town residents, petrified and no longer civic-minded, shoved bureaus up against doors and cocked their shotguns; peered from behind lace curtains at the vomit-spewing, wantonly urinating revelers.

Before daybreak, the governor called in the National Guard to disperse the loopy mercenaries. Our local paper, that evening, featured a jumbo photo of jeeps heading down the highway, packed with baffled gun-toting military men.

And my brother got to go!

They tell me 1968 was a turbulent year, and I don't dispute that. However, the number one hit on June 1 was this:

So, how turbulent was it...really?

I was ensconced for the week at my brother and sister-in-law's apartment while Big Bro was away at Guard camp, and this song playing on the clock radio lulled me to sleep (and why wouldn't it?):

...when my sister-in-law shook me awake to tell me they were talking about "Kennedy getting shot" on the radio. "I don't know if they're talking about John Kennedy or what," she said. We propped ourselves up on pillows and listened as the announcer described the scene in Los Angeles in the aftermath of yet another Kennedy assassination. My thought in the middle of the night was, you gotta watch out if you're running for anything, because someone will pull out a pistol and kill you. 

I don't remember if I started walking down to the local Catholic church before or after that, but I essentially spent that week in town genuflecting before the out-sized crucifix in the church's sacristy. I understood that the world was essentially insane, but I still thought it was only my world. I was disconnected from the planet at large. Bobby Kennedy's murder was just one more peg in the corkboard of my gloom.

By August, I felt a bit better, until I watched the anarchy of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago unfold on CBS news. I wasn't on anybody's side; but I was (and still am) a fan of order, and I didn't appreciate the messiness. On the one hand, I was not in favor of people getting beaten with clubs; but on the other hand, I thought these people were a bit too melodramatic. Fake outrage was born in 1968, and fifty years later, it's alive and kicking. Theater. I'm a big fan of honesty.

Meanwhile, this song was number one:

I knew, at thirteen, that whomever the Democrats nominated wouldn't matter. They'd already committed suicide.

By fall I was enrolled in eighth grade; still in the turn of the century fat brick building that resembled a prison. 

My US History teacher was the same asshat who'd student-taught Mr. Reisenauer's geography class the year before. We'd all hated him because he was stuffy and joyless and grew miffed when we giggled at the filmstrip unwinding from the projector, coiling onto the floor. I strolled into his classroom the day after Labor Day unwilling to tolerate any supercilious bullshit. I had enough to deal with at home, thanks.

The second week of September, Mr. Hamann assigned us to create presidential campaign signs. Pissed at my dad and not yet realizing it, my fresh brain synopses suddenly firing, I went home and pasted felt letters to a sticky foam board. My finished project read, "This time, vote like your whole world depended on it. Nixon/Agnew." Before I toted my completed product to school, I tacked it up on the garage wall just outside the kitchen door where Dad couldn't miss it. I hovered in the background and watched him alight the two steps to the doorway, stop, scan the words, then shake his head in disappointment. I felt only a tiny tinge of guilt. Mr. Hamann, on the other hand, spying my poster Monday morning, smiled faintly and said, "That's plagiarism, isn't it?" I didn't know what "plagiarism" meant, but I knew I'd met a kindred spirit. From that moment on, Mr. Hamann and I were fast pals.

It was a little thing, but I found an inkling of an identity in eighth grade. My home life didn't get better and it wouldn't get better for the rest of my teen years, but I realized it was okay to be "me" and not a little clone of two people whose demeanor I abhorred.

So I guess 1968 was a rather momentous year after all. Even for me.

However, I still wouldn't do it again.