Monthly Archives: January 2010

That ’70s song, Vol. 4

Once you get this record …

… is there any point in pursuing the albums from which it was drawn?

I can’t think of many other greatest-hits records that have so overshadowed the back catalog.

If you like the Guess Who’s singles — and lots of people did in the early ’70s — this record is the only one you need. It’s the only one I have. That said, I’ve thought about getting some of their earlier LPs to hear what — if anything — I’ve been missing. Please feel free to clue me in.

All these years on, I’m still not sure quite what to make of the Guess Who. Cool band or some inauthentic freakiness? You had lots of hooks and harmonies. You also had a hard edge to their stuff — the intelligent lyrics, the great guitar work and Burton Cummings’ voice turning to sandpaper when he really got into it.

In the last week of January 1970, another Guess Who song was rocketing up the charts. “No Time” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” by Sly and the Family Stone duked it out for No. 1, at least here in the Midwest. A couple of pretty good songs, eh?

“No Time,” the Guess Who, from “American Woman,” 1970. It’s out of print but is available digitally. “No Time,” written by Cummings and guitarist Randy Bachman, was the first single off that record.

Of course, it’s also available on “The Best of the Guess Who,” 1971. (That buy link is to a 2006 re-release with three extra cuts.)

When I pulled out my vinyl copy, which I’ve had for 35-plus years, I found the original picture sleeve and the original shocking-pink-and-midnight-blue poster that came with it.

(This is not my poster. Mine looks sharper. Flickr photo by Bradley Loos.)

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Songs for Andy

Andy is my friend. We are kindred spirits, throwbacks to old-school newsrooms that were full of characters.

Andy’s busy tonight. He’s getting ready to help some people who desperately need help.

Andy is, among a vast circle of friends, a legend. A burly, flat-topped, gregarious, swaggering legend.

Sometime in the next 24 hours, Andy will pass into legend.

Andy was sitting in the newsroom on Monday night, watching the 10 p.m. news. He had what his family calls “a significant brain incident.” Maybe a stroke, maybe an aneurysm. We don’t know.

Andy is 38.

Tomorrow morning, Andy will head to the operating room. He’ll be working with the organ procurement team from Madison, giving some other folks what they so urgently need.

Later on, we’ll say goodbye to Andy. Wherever they have it, there won’t be room enough for all of Andy’s friends.

A former football lineman who stood 6-foot-5, Andy spent his vacations working security at Summerfest in Milwaukee and at Brat Days in Sheboygan, where we both grew up. He covered cops, courts and fires and loved hanging with those folks. He worked at a bar on the side. He organized summer cookouts in the parking lot, Mardi Gras potlucks in the newsroom and countless other adventures. He quietly did countless small, random acts of kindness that no one ever found out about.

About now, Andy probably would demand that I shut the fuck up.

OK, how about a little Buffett, then?

“Growing Older But Not Up,” Jimmy Buffett, from “Coconut Telegraph,” 1980.

“Lovely Cruise,” Jimmy Buffett, from “Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes,” 1977.

It has been a lovely cruise. Peace, my man.

Postscript: Andy Nelesen passed into legend shortly after noon on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010. According to Andy’s family, his death was caused by a burst blood vessel in the pons area of the brain stem.

A second postscript: Since Andy passed on Thursday, we have been treated to some gorgeously sunny days and some beautifully moonlit nights. Those nights have been so bright, the moon casts shadows on the snow. OK, pal, now you’re just showing off.

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That ’70s song, Vol. 3

When I started listening to that new AM-FM radio in January 1970, it was a time when bands often broke regionally first, then nationally. The group behind today’s ’70s song is one of those bands, sort of.

Known first as South 40, the band changed its name after winning a recording session from the National Ballroom Operators Association. When the group left its hometown of Minneapolis and headed to Chicago for that session with Columbia Records, it was known as Crow.

Putting down blues- and R&B-influenced rock, Crow recorded five songs during that session on Jan. 31, 1969. Columbia wasn’t interested, but a scout was there that day, liked what he heard and shopped Crow to a handful of major labels. Crow signed with Amaret Records, which tweaked its sound, mostly by adding horns, then turned out to be too small to effectively promote the band when it broke nationally.

“Evil Woman (Don’t Play Your Games With Me)” was Crow’s biggest hit, thanks in large part to Dave Wagner’s distinctive vocal style. It broke out in Seattle, not the Midwest, but it was enjoying a last few weeks in the Top 40 in late January 1970.

From late 1969 into early 1971, Crow was one of the hottest groups around. But financial and management problems set in, and the group unraveled. Crow played its last gig in Minneapolis on June 26, 1972. There’s an excellent history of the band at Crow’s Web site.

The thing is, I know that ’70s song so well — and so do you, I suspect — and yet I don’t have it.

But I do have an interesting cover. Ike and Tina Turner turned it inside out. Instead of “Evil Woman,” Tina sings it as “Evil Man.” Draw your own conclusions from that.

“Evil Man,” Ike and Tina Turner and the Ikettes, from “Come Together,” 1970. It’s out of print.

“Evil Woman” was on “Crow Music,” the album released in 1969. It’s out of print, as is almost all of the band’s original stuff. That said, Crow offers “Crow Classics: 1969-1972,” a best-of CD, at its Web site.

Crow got back together in 1983 and is still at it. Crow was inducted into the Minnesota Rock and Country Hall of Fame in 2005. On iTunes, there’s a self-titled EP of new Crow music released last year and “Before The Storm,” a 2008 CD with re-recorded versions of Crow’s older tunes.

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A time for honkin’ and healing

It was the last line in today’s news ticker on Uni Watch, a blog run by my friend Paul from Brooklyn and otherwise devoted to “the obsessive study of athletics aesthetics.”

“RIP, Mr. Country,” was all it said. There were almost 200 comments about sports uniforms, but no one mentioned Mr. Country.

But I noticed it. Thanks, Paul.

It was pretty much the same way at work. The news about Mr. Country was on the AP wire early this morning, but the kids who run the entertainment portion of our web site didn’t deem it worthy of posting.

I noticed that, too.

“Mr. Country” was Carl Smith. “The Country Gentleman” was 82 when he died Saturday at his ranch in Franklin, Tennessee.

Peter Cooper, the fine music writer at The Tennessean in Nashville, has a wonderful appreciation of Smith’s life, complete with photos.

Carl Smith was one of country music’s biggest stars during the 1950s, but was just 51 when he retired in 1978 to work on his ranch. His first wife was June Carter. Their daughter is Carlene Carter.

And that is how I came to know Mr. Country.

Carlene Carter has long been one of my favorites. To see and hear her play live last year, and to hear her talk about her family from the stage of that tiny Wisconsin theater, was delightful.

She didn’t sing this one that night, but she could well have.

“Loose Talk,” Carlene Carter with Carl Smith, from “Little Acts of Treason,” Carlene Carter, 1995. It’s out of print but is available digitally.

She’d convinced her dad to come out of retirement and sing with her on this tune. He had a No. 1 hit with it for seven weeks in 1955, the year Carlene was born. It was the last of his five No. 1 hits, but he had six more Top 10 hits by the end of the decade.

“Thanks for letting me sing with you, Daddy,” she said on the liner notes. “When it comes to honkin’, you invented it.”

Carlene Carter has been through much since that 1995 record. She’s recovered from drug addiction. In an eight-month stretch of 2003, she lost her longtime companion Howie Epstein, her mother, her stepfather Johnny Cash and her younger half-sister Rosey Carter. She spoke of all that last year when she played this lovely, elegant tribute to Rosey.

“Stronger,” Carlene Carter, from “Stronger,” 2008.

“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger/I’ll hold on a little longer”

Carter explains in her Yep Roc Records bio:

“It’s the story about how I felt after Rosey died. It actually came because of the combination of all of those losses that year. I knew I had a song in me about it, but I couldn’t quite get there. It was too painful. I was in such grief over everything. That song really helped me to heal a whole lot. … The chorus being about survival is because I could never figure out why I was still here, as hard as I ran.”

Here’s hoping it helps her heal again.

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That ’70s song, Vol. 2

This is the second installment in a continuing series on songs I heard on my Panasonic RF-930 radio, first on AM, then on FM, during the 1970s, a decade that began with me in seventh grade and ended with me graduating from college.

We have a ways to go. For better or worse, we’re going in chronological order. So this year, 2010, is all about 1970. Here’s why.

Though I’ve been a journalist forever, I’ve never kept journals. Music brings back memories, for me, for lots of people. A certain song, a certain place, a certain person, that kind of thing. That’s part of the joy — at least for me — of taking that journey week by week, year by year.

That said …

In the second week of January 1970, the brief, intense stardom of Joe South was just about peaking. It was a time when the Top 40 had room for a variety of styles, among them rock, soul and country. Joe South, an Atlanta native, brought all that to the table.

After releasing four singles in 1969 — most notably “Games People Play” and “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” — South launched one more toward the Top 10 as 1969 turned into 1970. “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” turned out to be South’s biggest hit, but it also was the last time he made the Top 40.

“Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” Joe South, from “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home,” 1970. (The buy link is to a double CD set also featuring “Introspect,” South’s debut LP from 1969.)

“Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” was one of the first 45s we ever had, but I liked the flip side better. It was more upbeat than the hit, which even a 12-year-old — as I was — could tell was a bit of a downer. So enjoy a little bonus.

“Heart’s Desire,” Joe South, from “Games People Play,” 1969. It’s the B side on the “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” 7-inch, Capitol 2592. (The buy link is to a double CD set also featuring the “Joe South” LP from 1971.)

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Farewell to an old neighbor

While Ken was cutting my hair, they were rocking across the street.

That memory came rushing back when I read that Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, is closing.

You may know Smart Studios as the place where Nirvana recorded some of the “Nevermind” demos, where Garbage recorded its albums. Some of the others who recorded there: Smashing Pumpkins, Everclear and Son Volt. Oh, yeah, and two local legends — drummer Clyde Stubblefield and jazz musician Ben Sidran.

It was (and is) as you see it above — just an old red brick building with no sign.

When I moved to Madison in the early ’80s, I lived two blocks away from that building. Smart Studios started nearby in 1984, then moved to the old red brick building in the late ’80s.

All that time, I went to Ken’s Barber Shop across the street.

Ken’s was a two-chair shop. Ken and his wife Shirley cut hair side by side. They were in their late 30s, early 40s then, about 10 years older than me. Buzz cuts, fades, Mohawks, didn’t matter to Ken. Heads were pretty much all the same. Certainly, the money was all the same.

Ken mentioned one day that “they were bangin’ around” in the old red brick building across the street. Whether that meant the sound of construction or the sound of late-’80s indie bands, he didn’t say.

So, yeah, that was Smart Studios, cloaked in anonymity.

I never knew Butch Vig, who co-founded the place with Steve Marker. At the time, Vig was in Spooner, a band he and three pals started in 1975. Spooner’s pop/rock/roots sound was well known and much loved, especially in college towns across the Midwest.

“Burn It All Down,” Spooner, 1986, From “The Mad Scene,” a 1986 compilation of Madison bands. The liner notes say “Compilation of songs by Butch Vig, Smart Studios, Madison, WI.” This tune also was on “The Fugitive Dance,” Spooner’s last album, released in 1990. Both albums are out of print.

(Also on this comp? A virtual who’s who of Madison bands of the time: The Rousers, Actual Sighs, The White Sisters, Tony Brown Band, Swamp Thing, Paul Black and the Flip Kings, EIEIO, Phil Gnarly and the Tough Guys, The Dans, Honor Among Thieves and Ivory Library.)

The rest of the story?

In the late ’80s, Butch Vig spun off Fire Town, a group with a sound similar to that of Spooner, and it also became regionally popular. In the early ’90s, Vig started working more as a producer and less with Spooner. The group disbanded in 1993. A year later, Garbage came together at Smart Studios, with Vig as the drummer. Now he lives in Los Angeles, still producing, still occasionally working with Garbage but also composing soundtracks.

Dave Benton, who played guitar in Spooner, also ran a record store in Madison. I spent a lot of money at MadCity Music Exchange in the ’80s. Dave sold the store a couple of years ago. Now Dave sells at shows, and I’m again buying records from him.

Ken and Shirley got divorced a few years back.

Ken’s Barber Shop has been gone for several years now, too. The bar next door has taken over the space it once occupied.

Photo: From Flickr, by AccidentalOcelot.

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That ’70s song, Vol. 1

The world opened up to me at Christmas 1969, when I received this:

It is an AM-FM radio. A Panasonic RF-930, to be precise. I still have it. It doesn’t get used much anymore — just the occasional Packers game with the TV sound off — but it still works just fine.

I took that radio home — we’d had Christmas at my grandparents’ house — and put it on top of my filing cabinet. (Why does a 12-year-old kid have a four-drawer filing cabinet? For baseball cards and sports magazines, of course.) There it stayed for the entire decade of the ’70s.

When I got that radio, I listened to WOKY, the Mighty 92. It was a Top 40 AM powerhouse out of Milwaukee.

So begins a series on songs I heard on that radio, first on AM, then on FM. during a decade that began with me in seventh grade and ended with me graduating from college. This may take a while.

“Heaven Knows,” the Grass Roots, 1969, from “Their 16 Greatest Hits,” 1971. It’s out of print. It’s one of the cuts on “The Best of the Grass Roots: The Millenium Collection,” a compilation CD.

“Heaven Knows” was on its way out of the Top 40 this week in January 1970, just as I started using that new radio. It was the last of four Grass Roots singles to chart in 1969, following “Lovin’ Things,” “The River Is Wide” and the great “I’d Wait a Million Years.”

I saw the Grass Roots at a county fair last summer. It was the best show I saw all year. They have a few gigs scheduled this year. If they’re near you, go see ‘em. It’s a real blast from the past.

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