Category Archives: Memories

On Elvis, Tentative Steps, Ampersands & Wings

Venus_Mars

On August 16, 1977, a little more than a month after my 12th birthday, I survived the SooperDooperLooper at Hershey Park. Most of my memories of the day itself long ago faded to black, but what I do recall: the ride home. My father was at the wheel, my mother beside him in the front passenger seat and my older brother beside me in the back. It was there, somewhere on the Pennsylvania turnpike, that we learned of Elvis Presley’s death via my father’s favorite radio station, Philadelphia’s WWDB, 96.5 FM. It was all-talk and, to my young ears, always all-boring. This night, however, the host played Elvis songs and took calls from listeners, many of whom were quite upset.

Mind you, up until that point, for me Elvis was just a name occasionally tossed out on one of my favorite TV shows, Happy Days. I had no clue as to who he was or what he represented – but learned fast. A week later, I scrawled in my rarely used desk diary, “I might order an Elvis Presley record. He was the king of rock ’n roll!” (Then – as now – I had a knack for stating the obvious.) As it turned out, however, while shopping for school supplies not long thereafter, my mom saved me a few bucks and bought me Elvis’ Golden Records.

Other records followed. I picked up a few cut-rate/Pickwick compilations of Elvis’ movie music over the next few months for no other reason than they were priced right. And I enjoyed both halves of the Donny & Marie ampersand enough to sell some of my treasured comic books, which I’d painstakingly collected over the preceding few years, in order to afford The Osmonds’ Greatest Hits. Marie’s rendition of “Paper Roses” was sublime, I thought.

I also bought the soundtrack to The Spy Who Loved Me based on the theme song and because of my ignorance. I didn’t know the difference between LPs and singles.

That Christmas, though it may have been the Christmas before, my brother and I both received Radio Shack/Realistic compact stereos – a turntable and radio in one. An inexpensive model, to be sure, but far from cheap. There was always something magical about lowering the needle to the vinyl.

Tentative steps – that best describes those initial forays into popular music. I’ve written about it before – here and here – and will undoubtedly do so again, but, really, all one needs to know for now is this: I had no clue as to what I was doing. I listened to Mike St. Johns’ “Saturday Night Oldies” show on WPEN-AM. Bought a few Jan & Dean singles. And spent most of my time focused on schoolwork, football, pro wrestling and comic books.

A TV commercial, of all things, upended that order of things. Paul McCartney and Wings released London Town on March 31st of 1978, and Capitol Records put together a spot advertising it – possibly this one:

The snippet of “With a Little Luck” therein took hold of my 12-year-old brain and before long I had the 45, then the album, then another Wings LP, and then another, and then someone – my father or mother, more than likely – told me about his previous band. You know, the Beatles. As I remember it, I listened to nothing but McCartney, Wings and the Beatles for the next few years. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Soon I was enjoying Grease, Olivia Newton-John, WIFI-92 and such 45s as Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

Venus and Mars was one of the “another” Wings LPs mentioned above, bought over the summer with cash I received for my 13th birthday, if my memory is correct. I loved it from the get-go. The one-two punch of “Venus and Mars” and “Rock Show” set the stage for what followed on the LP, which was laid out somewhat like a concert. The songs included such catchy bon mots as the comic-book romp “Magneto and Titanium Man,” guitar-heavy “Letting Go,” bluesy “Call Me Back Again” and poppy “Listen to What the Man Said.”

Earlier this month, I received the deluxe edition of the remastered Venus and Mars – part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection series. In addition to the original album, it comes with a CD of bonus material (including “Junior’s Farm” and “My Carnival”); a DVD of assorted video clips and live footage; a coffee table-sized book that delves deep into the recording of the album; and downloads of the high-resolution audio (96kHz/24 bit). Sonically speaking, there’s no comparison to the original 1987 CD release. That sounded distant and flat; this sounds like you’re in the control room.

What strikes me now: It’s not as good as my 13-year-old self thought (small surprise there), yet remains thoroughly enjoyable. I still love the songs I mentioned above, plus a few (“Love in Song,” “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People”) that I used to find boring, and sing along with most of them while driving in my car. For me, they’re high-octane nostalgia fodder, conjuring the days of bell-bottom jeans, loud shirts, long hair and little worries beyond the weather.

Nanu Nanu, Mork

At a certain juncture in our lives, generally beginning with this thing called “middle age,” we look back on our formative years with a mixture of sadness and gladness. The sadness comes from remembering those who are no longer with us, be they parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings or friends, even family pets. The gladness comes, in part, from the same.

Life was simpler then, we tell ourselves. We smile and laugh at our and our friends’ silliness and naiveté, at the foolish things we said and did. But the memories of carefree days and nights are, often, the result of rose-colored glasses. No one’s childhood is without drama. Some have more, some have less and, sad to say, some simply have too much.

As I remember it, I had little worries in February 1978. I was 12 1/2. Tuesday nights meant Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Three’s Company, and then bed. And on that last Tuesday of the month, the 28th, I laughed myself silly: On Happy Days, a funny-looking guy from outer space had arrived to take Richie Cunningham to his home planet, Ork.

That guy, of course, was Robin Williams.

He was the topic du jour at school the next day – not that we knew his real name. We just called him Mork. And that fall, like most everyone else I knew, I tuned into the newly minted Mork & Mindy sitcom, which aired on Thursdays.

As the years passed, I saw some – though far from all – of his films; and I attended his concert at Penn State’s Rec Hall in October 1986. (You can read the Daily Collegian’s review of it here, if you wish, but my review is this: I laughed so hard that I missed half the jokes.) I think it’s safe to say that he was at his best on stage – any stage. His visits with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, for instance, are legendary. His humor could be silly, pointed and profane, often all at once, and rarely possessed malice.

We, all of us, are products of many things – our families, primarily, but also a variety of outside influences: teachers, friends and, yes, the icons of our youths. Their work and words, their looks and mannerisms, become ingrained in our DNA. Such is the case with Robin Williams. Nanu-nanu, Mork. You’ll be missed.

Of Concerts Past: Emmylou Harris in Philadelphia, 1985

So I stuck my hand into a pile of ticket stubs and came up with this:

IMG_3136

Nowadays, country music is all the rage amongst the younger set thanks to Taylor Swift and the countless hunky hat acts, plus whoever else is considered hot. In the early and mid 1980s, however, the first wave of the MTV generation – especially here in the northeast – saw and heard country as little more than an extension of The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee-Haw. I.e., corny. We were more about big hair, thin ties, synth pop and…

Well, “we” wasn’t me. I followed the same fashion sense then that I do now: jeans, T-shirt and, often, untucked flannel shirt. Don’t get me wrong – I liked (and still like) my share of the era’s pop acts. It doesn’t get any better than the Go-Go’s and Bangles, for instance. But I digress…only to digress again:

Somewhere in there, and I can’t remember exactly when beyond a vague “sometime in 1981 or ‘82,” my appreciation of the Byrds launched via their Greatest Hits LP, a solid 11-song set originally released in early 1967. That led me to investigate their other albums, including one that, at the time, was long out of print – the country-flavored Sweetheart of the Rodeo with Gram Parsons. That, in turn, led to the Flying Burrito Brothers and then Parsons’ two solo albums, GP and Return of the Grievous Angel, both of which featured – and, yes, this is the end of this roundabout intro – Emmylou Harris.

According to my desk calendar, I purchased her brand-new Ballad of Sally Rose LP on February 17th, 1985 (and liked it so much that, in a few weeks, I also bought it on cassette). Perhaps not her best work, but a work that interested me nonetheless due to its connection with Gram, who inspired it. This leadoff song, especially, drew me in –

The next song, “Rhythm Guitar,” became another favorite…

As did “Woman Walk the Line”:

By month’s end (March 29th, to be precise) I was at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia – the first time I saw her, and my first time inside that hallowed hall. She started with a set of her older tunes, took a break and then returned for a second set that featured the Sally Rose album from start to finish. In between the two sets, she said, she received flowers with a note requesting a specific song that she and the Hot Band hadn’t rehearsed. She thought “Heart to Heart” might fit the bill instead:

In any event, I wrote in my desk calendar that it was a “great show” – the second-best concert I’d seen to that point in time. I wish I remembered more.