Category Archives: College Radio

Today’s Top 5: January-February 1989 (via Arete)

IMG_5111“Arete is the Aristotelian word which translates into ‘virtue,’ ‘goodness,’ or ‘excellence’ in any field. For Aristotle, Arete had many associations: intellectual, social, as well as defining a person’s moral nature. A more contemporary definition of Arete is the aggregate of qualities that comprise good character. In the context of this magazine, it means a forum for thought and reflection.” So reads the editor’s note inside this, the fourth issue of the short-lived Arete: Forum for Thought.

It was a bimonthly West Coast-based magazine that never made it East – or, if it did, it never made it to the magazine racks of the suburban Philly bookstores I frequented. I discovered it, I think, in mid-1988 via Writer’s Digest magazine, which mentioned its need of articles and reviews. I submitted some album reviews; the editor(s) bought a few (at $25 a pop) and printed one in the second issue – my take on Brian Wilson’s 1988 eponymous album. I submitted more; they bought a few and printed one in this, the January/February 1989 issue – my thoughts on Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road. I submitted more; they bought a few and…I don’t know. Free copies stopped arriving in my mailbox, so I have no idea what, if anything, they printed.

Anyway, by the time this issue reached me, I was leading a work life led by many a former English major: retail. The year before, I signed on with West Coast Video, which was attempting to expand into the CD market, and managed the CD department at a store in Philly’s Andorra shopping center, across the street from the apartment complex where my grandparents once lived. It was a thankless job in just about every respect, but I did well enough in it that, in early ’89, the division head expanded my responsibilities to include the Bala Cynwyd store.

It was in Bala, one Saturday afternoon in late February, that a cute brunette walked in, slammed her purse on the counter and said – no, demanded, “Where the hell are the Nanci Griffith CDs I ordered?” I’m exaggerating, of course, but that was how Diane and I met. She was impressed that I not only knew who Nanci Griffith was, but was familiar with her music. (I discovered her during my Folk Show days via a Folkways compilation – this one, in fact.) I, in turn, was pleased that she liked the Flying Burrito Brothers, whose new best-of I recommended to her.

So, today’s Top 5: January/February 1989 – as in, things I was listening to at the time.

nanci_one_fair1) Nanci Griffith – “More Than a Whisper.” Nanci, for those unfamiliar with her, is a Texas-bred singer-songwriter who learned her craft in large part – as so many of her generation did – from Townes Van Zandt. The live One Fair Summer Evening, released in late 1988, is a wonderful summary of the first phase of her career; and this song, originally released on her 1986 Last of the True Believers album, was (and remains) one of my favorites by her.

IMG_51162) Steve Earle – “Copperhead Road.” I’ve always liked good setups. I tried to create one with this review, though – reading it now – it didn’t quite succeed: “On his previous two albums, Steve Earle sounded cocky, occasionally substituting attitude for substance. He came across as a country-punk revel, a good ol’ boy who admitted he was an angry young man at heart. The songs themselves were rough-edged wonders, though a few were cliche-ridden creations that seemed like last-minute studio stitch-togethers. On his last album especially, it appeared Earle was traveling down Hank Williams Jr. Boulevard, that stretch of highway where talent’s just as likely to get chucked out the window as an empty beer bottle.” Next paragraph: “But on Copperhead Road, Earle proves himself capable of creating first-rate country-cum-rock. Simply put, it’s one of the best albums of the past year.”

(Despite it not working the way I’d hoped, I was proud of the Hank Jr. reference, as I was a once-huge fan – and still am of his late ’70s/early ’80s output – but that’s a post for another day.)

3) R.E.M. – “Orange Crush.” There, in the review next to mine, is Holly Gleason’s perceptive take on Green, R.E.M.’s major-label debut: “No doubt, cries of ‘sell out’ have already begun from those begrudging the band’s ever-growing audience.” I remember those cries well; and, in fact, they’re still there, in some corners of the Internet. Green may not have been R.E.M.’s finest work, but it was damn good.

4) Indigo Girls – “Secure Yourself.” I was, for a time, a huge Indigo Girls fan, and saw them not once, but three times this year – opening for Neil Young in June and twice in August, when they headlined at the TLA on back-to-back nights. The last two were good, if somewhat short, shows – very distinct voices that blended well together, and their occasional lyrical preciousness was disarmed by their sense of humor and smart choices of cover songs. One highlight: Amy played part of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Another: they sang an Elton John song – “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters,” I believe, but I could be confusing it with another Elton song. But then…I don’t know. It’s kind of what I wrote about Pat Benatar in the last Top 5; I moved on.

5) Ciccone Youth – “Into the Groovey.” Another band I liked for a time: Sonic Youth. They released a few albums that I enjoyed leading up to this twisted side-project, a tribute (or something) to Madonna and the music of the ‘80s.

Sandy Denny – Listen, Listen

Sandy_DennySome days I contemplate weighing in on politics or the news of the day and whipping up a metaphoric hornet’s nest of debate on these pages. But when it comes time to put words to paper I find myself, instead, contemplating matters that mean more to me than the latest, greatest outrage.

Like music. And fandom. At the end of the day, at least as I’ve lived it, being a fan is about faith, second chances and redemption, about buying the next album regardless of whether I liked the last. It’s sticking with Neil Young after Landing on Water and Bruce Springsteen through the Human TouchLucky Town debacle. It’s about loving a sound that drowns our sorrow and fuels our joy, and that lifts us into orbit for mere minutes at a time. It’s about moments such as the piano version of Juliana Hatfield’s “I Got No Idols,” when she murmurs a meaning so deep and primal into the verses that we can’t help but to hit repeat again and again.

In fact, that’s the song and performance that turned me from a casual fan into a hardcore Hatfield fanatic. And even if you don’t hear what I hear in it? Odds are, if you’re a music fan, you can still relate to my experience.

Such may or may not be the case with my latest obsession, Sandy Denny (1947-78) – a 27-year gap fell between my initial inclination to investigate her music and now, when I find myself hitting replay on certain songs and albums. I first heard her in the fall of 1985, not long after signing on as a deejay for the Folk Show on WPSU, Penn State’s (at the time) student-run radio station. I won’t recount again how or why I wound up spinning folkie laments (interested parties will find that story here), but it’s safe to say that at the start I was ignorant about the form and most of its practitioners. I yanked LPs at random from the folk section of the station’s music library, took suggestions from fellow folk deejays (a few of whom were similarly out of their depths) at our monthly meetings and read, when possible, about the genre. Of course, there were also the listeners. Callers never shied away from sharing their opinions and/or requesting their favorites.

It was through one of those avenues that I stumbled across Fairport Convention, an influential British folk-rock group whose members included, for a time, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson. Thompson I was slightly familiar with – earlier that year, on the strength of a Rolling Stone review, I bought his Across the Crowded Room album. I thoroughly enjoyed his stiletto-sharp guitar solos and barbed lyrics. But Denny? She was new to me.

As I discovered, however, her dusky alto possessed a clarion, comforting quality, and the songs she wrote and sang were often majestic. The lyrics to the prescient “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” for instance, lilted like a centuries-old poem atop a melody that would have been at home in any age.

“Listen, Listen,” a track from her 1972 solo album Sandy, was equally poetic.

I wish I could say that my piqued interest led me to pursue all things Denny, but the everyday vagaries of college life generally require that tough choices and sacrifices be made, and such it was for me. (Back then, of course, to investigate an artist’s canon meant spending time and money; now, more often than not, it’s simply a matter of time – a precious commodity, to be sure, but one that’s easier to budget.) So while I always found room for Fairport and Denny in my Folk Show sets, following up was pushed to some indefinite time in the future.

The far, far future, as it turned out. During my conversation with Susanna Hoffs last year about her Someday album, I asked if her Under the Cover sets with Matthew Sweet influenced the collection, which possesses a distinct ‘60s vibe.

It was the end of a long day of interviews for her, she was tired and rambling. She cited – from Volume I – their version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” commenting that they’d chosen the Fairport Convention version as their model and not Sandy’s own, before launching into similar mini-analyses of several of the other selections. And in that instant the memory of queuing up that song on a decades-old, worn copy of Fairport’s Unhalfbricking LP for the first time in 1985 flashed through my mind.

I still don’t have Unhalfbricking – it’s on my list of things to get. But I have picked up the excellent two-CD compilation No More Sad Refrains, the 1972 Sandy album and what turned out to be Denny’s last, Rendezvous from 1977, as well as a live set from her final tour. (She died of a brain hemorrhage in 1978.) “Wow” is about all I can say. Her vocals on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” are exactly as I remembered, but the lyrics have deepened in meaning – growing old(er) has assured of that, I suppose. To think that she was 19 or 20 when she composed it? It blows my mind.

At some point in the distant future, when we’re dust and our children’s children’s children roam the virtual aisles of their virtual stores, the political battles of the present will be long forgotten and our political leaders mere paragraphs (if that) in history textbooks. Select singers, poets, playwrights and authors, however, will still capture and fuel the public’s imagination, such as Shakespeare, Coleridge and Whitman. Many of my favorites will undoubtedly be swept aside; Sandy Denny, however, will not.