Category Archives: 1990s

Of Concerts Past: Janet Jackson at the Philadelphia Spectrum, 8/19/1990

Janet Jackson is slated to play the Wells Fargo barn in South Philly next week. The concert isn’t sold out, which is surprising to me, and the fact that good seats are still to be had almost make me reconsider the decision Diane and I made long before it was announced – the key word there is “almost.” The decision: Aside from Bruce and Neil, big barn shows are in our rear-view mirror. Why? They’re among the worst bangs for one’s live-music buck there is – tickets cost more, sight-lines are generally poor, the sound is often subpar, parking is expensive, booze-fueled idiocy flows freely, and traffic…don’t get me started on traffic. Also, in this instance, it’s a worknight.

Yes, I’m re-acquainting myself with the arguments against.

The argument in favor: As the ticket stub shows, we saw Janet in 1990 on the Rhythm Nation tour, the third of three dates she played over four days at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the hallowed hall built in 1966-67 to house the Philadelphia Flyers. It was her first headlining tour, I should mention. It was also a damn good show.

In some respects, it was her State of the Nation address:

The Rhythm Nation 1814 album, released in late 1989, was a socially aware set accented by such top-notch songs as “Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Black Cat” and “Come Back to Me.” It was pop, it was rock, it was dance, it was new-jack swing. (The between-song spoken bits were also annoying. But that’s a post for another day.)

Now, I’m basically a folk ’n’ roller. Singer-songwriters and old-school rockers – as evidenced by this blog, that’s who I tend to listen to and see in concert. But I have a wide range of additional likes, from traditional country to soul/R&B to jazzy pop, and have enjoyed each in a live setting. Janet’s is the only concert I’ve attended that featured music video-like production numbers, however. She had dancers, choreographed numbers and, I’m sure, on-stage marks she had to meet. And, yet, it was no more calculating than most big-scale rock shows. Instead of the obligatory guitar solos, there were those and the obligatory dance breaks.

The night began with her Control-era hits, then moved into the Rhythm Nation songs. I’d love to give a play-by-play of the evening in total, but – similar to the Tom Petty & Heartbreakers show we saw at the Spectrum six months earlier – only jagged memories of the night remain. I remember that, after a string of dance-heavy opening songs from Control, she slowed things down with that album’s sweet “Let’s Wait a While”…

Although my hunch then (and now) is that she relied on pre-recorded vocal tracks for the high-octane dance numbers, as I can’t imagine anyone singing while doing those moves, it was obvious that she sang live for the slowed-down songs and the more rock-oriented “Black Cat,” which was another of the night’s highlights.

The closing “Rhythm Nation” was also cool. Janet was decked out in her military-like garb, and she and her troupe of dancers stamped their feet to the beat of universal solidarity. “With music by our side/to break the color lines/Let’s work together/to improve our way of life/join voices in protest/to social injustice…”

Say what you will about Janet and her music in the years since (and I have mixed feelings about some of it), and about her now-infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, but when Diane and I left the Spectrum that long-ago August night in 1990, we only had good things to say about what we’d witnessed and heard.

The set (via Wikipedia):

  1. Control
  2. Nasty
  3. What Have You Done for Me Lately?
  4. Let’s Wait a While
  5. When I Think of You
  6. The Pleasure Principle
  7. T.V. (Interlude)
  8. State of the World
  9. Race (Interlude)
  10. The Knowledge
  11. Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun) [instrumental interlude]
  12. Black Cat
  13. Come Back to Me
  14. Alright
  15. Escapade
  16. Miss You Much
  17. Pledge (interlude)
  18. Rhythm Nation

And of that Super Bowl mishap? In some ways, I think, the over-the-top backlash that followed was fueled by the very forces she called out in “Rhythm Nation,” which she performed just moments earlier in the short set.

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Of Concerts Past: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in Philadelphia, 2/6/90

February in the Philadelphia region can be a cruel, cruel month. It’s usually cold and often snowy, with icicles dangling from gutters and tree limbs like daggers aimed at spring. Such was not the case in 1990, however. We were in the midst of a mild, mild winter – the mean temperature for December 1989 was 41; January’s was 56; and February’s was 60.

That’s not to say the days and nights were sans inclement weather – it rained 10 days and flurried on two. This specific day, Tuesday the 6th, the temps aligned with the overall warming trend: We experienced a high of 59 and a low of 30. But it was an even hotter night in South Philly, where Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers played the Spectrum.

At the time, I managed the CD departments at two locations for a regional video-store chain, one of which had a Ticketmaster machine – which was how two floor tickets for this concert fell into my lap. Just as the store’s doors opened at 10am sharp, the person manning the machine pushed a button, and my tickets printed and were put to the side as a stream of fans flowed to the counter to purchase theirs.

At least, that’s how it usually worked; but time, distance and memory being what they are, I don’t recall this specific transaction.

Why I bought the tickets: I’d been a fan of Petty’s since 1979 and “Refugee”…

…and bought many – though not all – of his albums in the years that followed. He was dependable – even his worst LPs were better than most. And, too, he seemed like a good guy. Not only did he fight to keep record prices low (famously threatening to title the album that became Hard Promises “Eight Ninety Eight” if his label upped its retail price to $9.98), but in the late ‘80s he showed up on one of my favorite TV shows, It’s the Garry Shandling Show, as a friendly neighbor.

Anyway, by 1990, he was riding high from the unexpected blockbuster success of Full Moon Fever, his first solo album, which had been released the previous April. But, for me and my tastes, I preferred and played his previous album with the Heartbreakers, 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), more often. It was looser and less polished, and had hooks galore. His under-appreciated 1985 album Pack Up the Plantation was another (double) platter I often played, in those days. It wasn’t just a run-through of his greatest hits, but a smart set with some way-cool covers. Here’s one of my favorites from it:

To the show itself: My memory is decidedly cloudy – I didn’t even remember that Lenny Kravitz, who we’d seen three months earlier at the Chestnut Cabaret, opened until Diane reminded me of it a week or two ago. What I do recall: Our view of the stage was stellar; the early portion of the set spotlighted Full Moon Fever, which was followed by Stan Lynch’s “Down the Road a Piece” and Benmont Tench’s “Ben’s Boogie” (an extended bathroom break/beer run); and the totally unexpected (by me, at least) cover of Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air.”

It was a a magical moment, that song.

I also recall the show’s final quarter, when Petty and the Heartbreakers cranked up some of their biggest, best and hardest-hitting numbers: “You Got Lucky,” “Rebels,” “I Need to Know,” “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”

The encores were good, too: “The Waiting” and “American Girl.”

All in all, it was a solid concert with stellar moments – not great, but good. The emphasis on Full Moon Fever, while understandable, would have been fine if the show ran longer than an hour and a half, or if the extended bathroom break/beer run had been replaced with a few more of Petty’s past classics.

In the years that followed, I often contemplated seeing Petty and the Heartbreakers again. That I didn’t is easily, now, one of my greatest regrets. He had a knack for creating cool and concise tunes that were packed with hooks, and for writing lyrics that said something.

Here’s an entire concert – same setlist – from five days earlier, in Providence, R.I.

The set-list:

  1. Love Is a Long Road
  2. A Mind With a Heart of Its Own
  3. Breakdown
  4. I Won’t Back Down
  5. Free Fallin’
  6. Down the Road a Piece (Stan Lynch)
  7. Ben’s Boogie
  8. Don’t Come Around Here No More
  9. A Face in the Crowd
  10. Listen to Her Heart
  11. Something in the Air
  12. Alright for Now
  13. Yer So Bad
  14. You Got Lucky
  15. Rebels
  16. I Need to Know
  17. Refugee
  18. Runnin’ Down a Dream
  19. The Waiting **
  20. American Girl **

(** = encore)

I Heart TV: My So-Called Life

As long as I’m taking a gauzy walk down memory lane, here’s the first draft of another I Heart TV essay – my favorite of the contributions I made to the book. My So-Called Life was, is and will always be one of my all-time favorites, so being able to celebrate it in print…and mention Wonderfalls, Freaks & Geeks and Juliana Hatfield in the process?!…was something I truly cherished.

***********

“When someone dies young, it’s like they stay that way forever,” muses 15-year-old Angela Chase in the memorable “Halloween” installment of My So-Called Life, which found her entranced by a student said to have died in 1963. In a weird way, the same thing applies to TV series, like My So-Called Life, Wonderfalls or Freaks & Geeks, that were axed before their time. We’re left with a handful of episodes and the promise of what could have been if only…if only.

The drama, which debuted in August 1994 and lasted a scant 19 episodes, told the story of Angela, her family and friends; and while it’s probably best remembered these days for introducing the mercurial acting talents of the Emmy-nominated Claire Danes to the world, it featured an equally capable supporting cast. Bess Armstrong ably portrayed Patty, Angela’s homecoming-queen mom who struggles with the conundrums many working mothers face; and Tom Irwin was simply terrific as quixotic dad Graham. Likewise, Angela’s friends became real-life acquaintances—her troubled pal Rayanne (A.J. Langer), gentle Ricky (Wilson Cruz), heavy-lidded crush Jordan (Jared Leto), ex-best friend Sharon (Devon Odessa) and geeky neighbor “Brain”—er, Brian (Devon Gummersall). Even little sister Danielle (Lisa Wilhoit) comes across as a believable kid whose bratty behavior we understand: she wants to be in the epicenter of the universe—where Angela lives. (Small wonder that for Halloween she dresses up as her older sis’.)

In many ways, due to the use of voice-over narration, the episodes play in part like diary entries woven into the fabric of ongoing stories. Unlike a diary, however, each episode expands the viewpoint to reveal the perspectives of other characters; and also tells their stories independently of Angela. The most notable plotlines are Angela’s infatuation with Jordan, whose inability to articulate anything of substance proves as frustrating to him as it is for us (and leads to a wondrous season-ender in which he turns to “Brain” for help); troubled Rayanne, who reminds Patty—and us—of kids we knew; Ricky’s descent into homeless hell and rebound to stability; and the slow growth of Graham’s restaurant ambitions, to say nothing of his possible dogging around. In the pilot, we discover that he almost stepped out on his wife; and in the finale, he again veers close with feisty restaurant partner Hallie Lowenthal (Lisa Waltz).

 Of course, there’s also Brian’s quiet yearning for Angela. It’s only when he becomes Cyrano de Bergerac to Jordan’s Christian de Neuvillette in the last episode, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” and she learns the truth, that she begins to see him in a new light. It doesn’t stop her from leaving with the hunk, mind you, but the quizzical look she gives Brian says it all. If there had been a second, third or fourth season, that would have been explored. One hopes.

What lifted MSCL above a well-acted suds fest, however, was the superlative writing. Stewarded by creator/co-executive producer Winnie Holzman, who earned an Emmy nomination for the pilot’s script, the show explored topics not generally associated with “teen” dramas of the 1990s, including body image, Ricky’s homosexuality and the world of metaphysics. In the Halloween episode, Angela interacted with a ghost; and in “Other People’s Mothers,” which finds Rayanne spinning out of control, there’s an introduction to tarot that, in the installment’s final moments, sounds suspiciously like real life: “The cards are read in sequence. Each card leads to the next. We move from terror and loss to unexpected good fortune, and out of darkness, hope is born.”

As good as they are, however, it’s the Christmas episode (“So-Called Angels”) that sends shivers up my spine no matter how often I view—or think about—it. Alternative rock-pop genius Juliana Hatfield guest stars as a seemingly homeless girl who appears to Angela and, on Christmas Eve, to Patty; and guides both to Ricky, who’s been living on the streets since being banished from his home. In the final scene, we see Juliana turn away from the camera; and, with the flap of a wing, ascend—like the guardian angel her character is—towards heaven. Of course, to single out a specific episode for praise is akin to recommending just one Juliana Hatfield album—it can’t be done, as each has something special to offer and deserves to be heard.

It matters not, really, whether one believes in ghosts, the tarot, angels or dreams. What matters is that the characters are so believable that we, the viewers, embrace them much as we do the people in our daily lives, quirks and all. Angela, Brian and the rest are no different than many a teenager, forever thinking they’re seeing the full picture when, in truth, they’re viewing slivers. As the season progresses, however, they gradually begin to grasp the complexities of life. In “The Substitute,” for example, Angela’s inspirational English teacher (Roger Rees) turns out to be a deadbeat dad on the lam from the law; yet he still motivates her to hold onto her ideals, and risk suspension in order to distribute the school’s banned literary magazine. Likewise, Patty and Graham—though more clued in about life—are far from perfect, with each confronting the same challenges many adults face at one time or another.

In the end, though, watching My So-Called Life is indeed like viewing photos of someone who passed too soon. We lose ourselves in the snapshots and episodes, laughing at every mention of Tino (the show’s own Godot) while, at the same time, wishing for a different conclusion. And when Angela slides into the passenger seat of Jordan’s car in the finale’s final moments, her eyes glued on Brian…sadness seeps in. In a flash, everything that could and would have been is no more—except in our hearts, where Angela and friends live on.