Our Need For Music   Leave a comment

October 1, 2018

     Listening and hearing are two different things. Hearing is more about perception, as in some driver’s car horn asserting a right of way in traffic, or a dog barking in the distance; the crowd at a football game or a food vendor hawking the best sandwich this side of anywhere. Listening is entirely different. It’s the idea that you give your awareness to the sound, taking notice, turning your head, paying attention; you begin a journey with comprehension and (hopefully) arrive at enjoyment. The difference between hearing and listening is why I ended up working in the music business for so many years.

     Once heard, a great song, a great recording is not forgotten. It isn’t the ear-worm of a bad (and likely annoying) advertising jingle, but rather an emotional connection to something that connects with and within us. Twenty years ago a group of neuroscientists (in Nature Neuroscience, 1999) posited that

“Music has an extraordinary ability to evoke powerful emotions. This ability is particularly intriguing because, unlike most other stimuli that evoke emotion, such as smell, taste or facial expression, music has no obvious intrinsic biological or survival value.”

     All that being said, I don’t need a neuroscientist to tell me when a great record is playing. My brain (and heart) tell me that in seconds, or even fractions of seconds.

     Art is personal. Accept, for the moment, that radio is always playing to an audience of one. Radio programmers are often taught to think and perform that way: talk on the radio as if you’re speaking to just one person. Whether the station has thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of listeners, the audience is always an audience of one: you, me, her, him. Even when two or three of us are trapped together in a car on California’s roads or highways, most of the time if one member of the group says “did you hear that”, the likely response from the other passengers is “huh? Hear what?” That’s why I love radio. It’s personal.

     Some six weeks ago I was returning to the Mendocino Coast from the San Francisco Bay area. As I got somewhere north of Marin County I pushed the button on my car radio for KRSH, The Krush. It’s a predominantly Americana station situated in the middle of one of the most famous wine-regions in the world: Napa and Sonoma counties. (Hence, KRSH crush, as in grapes.) The midday host was about to begin interviewing a recording artist, singer/songwriter, and as she introduced her guest I wasn’t certain I heard the name, but the interview was worth the listen. At some point she told her audience she wanted to play a cut from the new album by Stan, or Steve, or Stu. I wasn’t certain just what his name was, but when the music started I really didn’t care about his name. The track was “Forgiveness” and for the next 3 1/2 minutes I was all about this amazing song with haunting lyrics.

I got voices in my head
Get me up and out of bed
I’ve been busted and I’ve been burned
My heart is beating but you know it hurts
And I can tell you every name
But that will never change anything
I ain’t saying I’ll forget it
Or their wrongs will ever be right
We’re just talking about forgiveness
And how it gives you back your life.

     So simple. Whatever the hurt, forgive, and that forgiveness will give back to you, perhaps even your life. The bridge in the song reminds us (particularly those of us who’ve been married for more than a few years) that

I know it’s never easy
Being torn apart
Forgive to be forgiven,
It will open up your heart.

     As happens to many of us—I assume, because I know it happens to me—I couldn’t get enough of this song, this recording.  Arriving home in Mendocino County I immediately tried to figure out just who was this guy on the radio. StallSome internet surfing, including a look at the KRSH website and, voila!, I had his name: Stoll Vaughan. Like any music lover bordering-on-groupie, a couple of weeks later I had a phone conversation with Stoll.

     First, it’s pronounced “stall”, not “stole”. (Stoll is a family name.) He’s from Kentucky and now calls Los Angeles home. “Forgiveness” is not his first song, and The Conversation is not his first album. As the saying goes, this project was not his first rodeo. Stoll’s Kentucky origin didn’t surprise me, as all those years having traveled to and through Nashville (not to mention the film project I did with the Bluegrass Music Association some 20+ years ago) immersed me in conversations with the sounds of a rural and cosmopolitan mid-south gentleness. He’s had education at Michigan’s Interlochen Boarding High School—one of the single best possible schools for an arts-oriented teenager. The Conversation was recorded back near Stoll’s home turf, using studios in Indiana and Nashville, with help from players like Duane Betts (son of Allman Brothers alum Dickey Betts), and Devon Allman (son of the late Gregg Allman), producer Carl Broemel and others.

     Stoll’s album has more than one cut, by the way. There are 13 tracks offering a listening experience just under an hour. “Bear Witness” “Weatherman”, “Meet You In The Middle” confirm his authenticity as a solid songwriter. And happily, like I experienced in my days in the music industry, it only takes one track to get someone’s attention, and then, like a good deed done to you, you’re duty-bound to pass it on. We no longer have hundreds of Top-40 radio stations, helping break an artist. Today we have to help music along, by passing the knowledge in conversation, in email, and through social media. If you frequent a bar with live music, let the owner know about your discovery.  I’m passing “Forgiveness” on to you so that you can discover Stoll Vaughan for yourself. While you’re at it, take credit for his success too. Stoll won’t mind and neither will I.

     Before I let you go, I wanted to mention one other artist and album worth listening to. KZYX radio’s Audible Feast host Fred Wooley played a track that left me confused. I knew those lyrics. At least I thought I did. But something was “wrong”. The tempo? The singer? The instruments? And suddenly it all came exploding out of some hidden part of my Elise Title CRbrain. The song was “You Never Can Tell”, a classic Chuck Berry hit from the 1950s. You may recall that in the storyline, Monsieur and Madame end up getting married, because “you know you never can tell”. The tempo for this version was brought way back, and my friend Fred told us that the vocalist was Elise Legrow.  Who? I hadn’t heard of her either. Pity. Her new album, Playing Chess has nothing to do with the game of chess, but everything to do with the Chess Brothers, as in Leonard and Phil Chess and Chicago-based Chess Records. Legrow chose a list of songs from the Chess catalog including “Over The Mountain”, “Rescue Me”, “Who Do You Love”, and more.

     Beyond the Playing Chess album (and in particular “You Never Can Tell”) there’s another Legrow track I found; a much older track of hers—2012?—titled “No Good Woman”.

     Remember those neuroscientists I quoted earlier? While I understand their scientific foundation, I have to disagree with one of their conclusions: “. . . music has no obvious intrinsic biological or survival value.” Any rational human being with a pulse knows there is a biological need for music. At the very least, did these geniuses never hear about setting the mood?  And as for survival, the concept of “desert island discs” was created for specific treasured recordings, i.e. music. Those brainiacs may not believe music is necessary for our survival, but I wouldn’t want to get stranded somewhere without my iPod and its 10,000 of my favorite songs.  Besides, if I’m not alone on the island, how will I set the mood?

David Steffen

© 2018 David Steffen
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Exploring Renewal   Leave a comment

September 1, 2018

   I remember my first trip to California. The year was 1972, I flew in from Chicago, as I was about to begin a new career. The fabled terminal at LAX was a fraction of the size it is today. The horseshoe design of the access road was already in place, but the terminals were one level in those days (vs. today’s two and three-story buildings swallowing up departing passengers and spitting out the arrivals.) Over the dozen years I lived in Los Angeles, I occasionally drove south from Los Angeles to San Diego or north to Santa  Barbara. But any other in-state travel was of the “fly-over” variety.

A few years ago (2014) I actually drove to Los Angeles from Mendocino County (mostly on I-5) to attend a memorial service for a dear friend. That Friday night I stayed with friends in the Hollywood hills. Saturday morning we all went to the memorial—in typical L.A. fashion—in numerous separate cars. As quickly as I arrived, Saturday afternoon I found myself back in my car and headed north on I-5. Neither the drive south on Friday or the return on Saturday motivated me to consider the beauty of this state’s “agricultural engine”, that enormous food-producing region covering the central part of the Golden State.

For some reason, as summer 2018 began I felt the urge to make contact. I reached out to one of my friends from that October 2014 visit. Harold Childs has been more than a friend. Hell, we worked together for a couple of decades. The call felt good and after a couple of months of trying to find the perfect moment we finally found a weekend that would work for us both.

Leaving Mendocino County on a Friday morning (again) I headed south, this time down the coast through Jenner, across the Russian River, over to Bodega Bay (where Hitchcock’s The Birds was filmed), past Point Reyes Station, which I once described to someone (as a good thing) as a “coastal town that time sorta forgot”. I continued south through Olema and on to the Golden Gate Bridge. From there I drove past Golden Gate Park to Highway 92 and headed toward Half Moon Bay. Finally I was going to once again be enjoying the ocean views.

    Part of my motivation for this route was the wonderful news that a beautiful stretch of Highway One near Big Sur had been repaired, reopened, and ready for traffic. I should have expected that with the highway reopened, a few thousand of my closest friends would also be headed to Half Moon Bay, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel, and other points south.

     Somewhere just north of Monterey my iPhone’s GPS suggested—I guess most of these devices have learned to make suggestions to we puny humans—that I move over to Highway 101. It would be faster, and as it was now past noon, and I had hundreds of miles to go, I should get a move on.

In short order I found myself speeding down a wide-open 101, glancing left and right to take notice of the vast agricultural land I heretofore had only sped past at night or high above in a Boeing jet. It was sunny and beautiful (albeit  90+ degrees outside) and as I passed Watsonville I thought about the green vegetables and fruit often labeled as having come from this particular part of the state. When I read the highway sign that said “Soledad, 10 miles” I decided I’d had enough of the hot and dry ag-land and would head back to the coast. Once you’re past Soledad, Gonzales, Greenfield or dozens of other towns you realize there is no quick and easy route back to the coast from 101. Never mind. I still had my iPhone and even if this was miles from the coast, the drive might be worth it.

As I turned west from Greenfield, I navigated my way along a series of two-lane blacktop highways with names like Elm Road (no elms to be seen), Arroyo Seco (a dry creek it was), and Carmel Valley Road, which gave me some confidence that my general direction was west. Observing so many hard-working men in the fields, orchards, and vineyards, I was reminded (once again) how lucky I’ve been.

Some twists and turns (and perhaps 2 hours  after leaving 101) I suddenly found myself in the charming town of Carmel Valley. It’s about 15 miles from the coast and the parts of it I saw were just plain lovely. I quickly began reorienting myself from the dry roads, valleys, and hills and focused on this oasis. Clearly the real estate was well out of my league, but I had no interest in moving here anyway; and a stop after so many hours of driving seemed like a very good idea.

I turned right into the parking lot of the Corskscrew Cafe, with a sign telling me that lunch was served until 4:00pm. Glancing at my watch and seeing it was 3:30pm, the decision was easy. A glass of wine, a salad, and at 4:30pm I was back on Pacific Coast Highway. Sightseeing was becoming less and less of a motivation, as I knew I had many miles to go to get to Oxnard before midnight.

PCH became Cabrillo Highway, and I observed names and places that, had I not been so tardy driving this far, I would be stopping to take them all in. I looked up to see (in the distance) the great American cabin in the woods known colloquially as Hearst Castle at San Simeon. I waved to the ghosts and continued south traveling through towns like Harmony, Cayucos, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, and Pismo Beach. By the time I reached the outskirts of Santa Barbara I was tired but feeling like I was actually going to make it to Oxnard.

Arriving at my Air B&B I can only say that it was better than the Alkistis Hotel in Athens but not by much. (The Alkistis was $10 bucks a night in 1976 and way overpriced then). Never mind. I won’t bore you with my whiny accommodations story; perhaps another day.

    Saturday morning my friend Harold picked me up and we started our day at a local coffee spot. We then spent the next ten hours catching up. Some wine, some food, a personally guided private tour of Oxnard—did you know it was founded by Henry Oxnard, or that the Navy not only maintains a base in Oxnard (Port Hueneme, actually) but there is a museum dedicated to the amazing work of the Sea Bees. If you don’t know, it’s the name given to the U.S. Navy’s Construction Battalions). ox photo (1)We had dinner at a local favorite (in Ventura, as I recall), and then another Lyft car to get us back safely. Oxnard is a nice place to live and I can see why Harold likes it. Close enough to greater Los Angeles to stay in touch with friends and family but better air, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

     Sunday Morning we had more coffee, said our good-byes and I was on the road again. I drove straight back to Mendocino County, taking 101 most of the way. When I got home I didn’t need anyone to remind me how much I like living up here. But I will say, reaching out was a great idea. Most importantly I renewed a friendship that I’ve treasured for 40 years. And I was reminded, along the way, what a great state California truly is. There is so much here to explore and discover, and none of us will live long enough to see it all or even half. But while you’re busy making plans, take a turn. Stop in a small town. explore a museum. Gaze at the ocean. And visit with an old friend. It’ll make you feel young again. Really.

Posted September 15, 2018 by Jazzdavid in Food, Media, Technology, Travel, Uncategorized

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. . . and then the tools shape us.   Leave a comment

August 1, 2018

     What’s in an age? It can refer to the length of time you, me, anyone has lived. It can be a particular stage in a life. Ten years ago my daughter was “college age”. When was I college age? I completed my MA as an adult (?) 15 years ago; so what age am I today? History has its own ages. Geologic time refers to the physical makeup and history of our planet. If you’re that curious, geologic time might take you back a billion years. Frankly, thinking about a billion years of history is too much for me (as in “here comes a headache”). Instead I’ve been thinking about technology as it relates to my personal ages.

     It is sometimes difficult for us to recognize that our lifetime’s journey changes our perspective about “ages”. My life during the “post-war” years specifically refers to those decades immediately following World War II. There were plenty of other wars and battles between 1945 and 2018—Afghanistan, the Balkans, Egypt/Israel, Grenada, Iraq, Korea, Kosovo, Kuwait, Syria, Vietnam—but “post war” for me is that twenty years between 1945 and the mid-1960s. Technology (as in television, transistor radios, etc.) was clearly advancing, but most people then could not fathom how the decades to follow would transform life.

     In 1979 I was working for A&M Records, Herb Alpert’s recording label (which he co-owned). That last year of the ‘70s decade was a difficult year for some parts of the music industry. A&M had some remarkable breakthroughs that year including albums by Supertramp and Herb Alpert both selling well enough to earn gold and platinum awards from the RIAA, the music industry’s keeper of the stats. There were others, to be sure, but I remember those two clearly for different reasons. Herb’s renaissance as a recording artist was jumpstarted by his hit single (and the accompanying album). “Rise” was the CoversCombined CRfirst bonafide hit digital recording of the digital age; likewise, Supertramp transformed their career, from the band everyone loved but still hadn’t sold a million of anything. Breakfast in America changed that. And both those records helped A&M Records weather the coming recession, when our government’s decision to raise interest rates and the Iranian government’s decision to restrict oil shipments helped screw up the economy.

     The Sony Walkman portable cassette player signaled another sea change in technology. Also introduced in 1979, the Walkman assured us Walkman 300px-Original_Sony_Walkman_TPS-L2that music was going to be highly portable. No longer tethered to the turntable, you could now throw a dozen cassettes in a bag and listen anywhere, anytime. Miles Copeland, who then managed the band Police, stopped in to our Hollywood offices near Christmas 1979. He was returning from a trip to Japan and was showing us the Sony Walkman he just purchased in Tokyo. We were all impressed with his new ‘toy’. And in short order CDs were also going to revolutionize the record business. No more scratchy vinyl. Now we offered our favorite artists in these indestructible shiny discs. Of course they weren’t indestructible, but we embraced these digital “records”. Cassette tapes and vinyl records seemed doomed. Cassettes are gone, and yet vinyl records are still being manufactured, but in infinitely smaller numbers.

     I remember my 1984 Audi 5000. I liked the car, but I remember it as much for its “history” as my first vehicle equipped with a cell phone, a large unit installed between the bucket seats. In less than a decade the cell phone had shrunk to a size small enough to fit easily into the palm of your hand. I had a Nokia (circa 1996) mobile that was so compact I lost it a year later on a shuttle bus somewhere between the Hertz counter and San Francisco Airport’s United Airlines terminal. In 2001 Steve Jobs delivered the first Apple iPod. Cassettes disappeared, and the days of traveling around with a bag of cassettes came to a merciful end.

     In 2007 Jobs showed the world what a singular vision (along with $150 million in development money) could deliver with the introduction of the first iPhone. Few would DS iphone_original_2007_02-100727597-orig CRdisagree with the premise that the iPhone changed everyone’s thinking. Cell phones were mundane, smart phones were the future. And the iPhone was the technology to which every other smart phone was (and is still) compared to. It wasn’t just about the device. It was also about how you used your smart phone. 

     On a walk near Union Square in San Francisco a few years ago I realized that Bluetooth wireless technology leveled the playing field between the self-absrorbed and the unconcerned. Business people who walked down busy streets talking on their smartphones without holding the phone to their ears blended with random people who simply enjoyed walking down busy streets talking to themselves.

     A half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan was widely quoted for titling a book (and telling the world that) The Medium Is The Message. According to his eldest son, Dr. Eric McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan’s publisher mistakenly titled the book The Medium Is The Massage.  When the author heard about the typo, his response was “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”. Television was the message, not the content. And television was also the massage.

DS 1935721 CR

     Technology is a tool. And McLuhan knew that when he posited “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”Fast forward to 2018 and we don’t have to speculate on what McLuhan might say about the age of the smartphone. In his 1964 book Understanding Media, he wrote, “The medium [is the message because it is the medium] that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Next time you’re walking down a busy street, pay attention. Perhaps you’ll agree that my Union Square observations seem much more rational because in reality, we’re not all talking actually talking on our smartphones.

 

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2018

Jazzed Up and Ready To Go   Leave a comment

July 1, 2018

     I began to learn a little bit about jazz in the late 1960s visiting often with my late friend, jazz DJ Ron Cuzner. He usually broadcast from midnight to 6:00am on WFMR-fm in Milwaukee. Ron clearly knew his stuff and those conversations compelled me to listen outside my comfort zone.

 

     I remember walking, in the summer of 1967, into a record store on Chicago’s near north side. I was on my way to a club called the Earl of Old Town where I was to hear a local folkie perform. Everyone had heard about the recent death of John Coltrane, and as I browsed through the bins I picked up (and bought) a vinyl copy of Coltrane’s legendary 1964 recording , A Love Supreme. It was a touchstone for me in my appreciation of jazz.  I was not yet fully aware of the impact of Coltrane’s death. That would come later.

Jazz Covers CR

 

     Meanwhile, A Love Supreme, recorded by Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet”—McCoy Tyner, piano, Jimmy Garrison, bass, Elvin Jones, drums, and Coltrane, saxophone—was the centerpiece of three vinyl albums I purchased in the late ’60s. In addition to ‘Supreme, I
bought  Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ album Swiss Movement featuring “Compared To What”, and the album  Feeling Blue by Phil Upchurch. Happily I still have all three vinyl LPs.

 

     I met Quincy Jones in 1972 while working for A&M Records. Q, as others referred to him, was in Chicago to promote a new album and I was taking him to various radio stations and press interviews. Quincy was genial, talkative and yet, one sensed he was in a hurry, on a mission, as if there was too much music in his head and he wanted to make certain it all got out of there. I stayed in the music business for 25 years, but from those early introductions to jazz, my affection for the genre never faded.

 

     In 1996 I was hired by Universal Music to turn around a failing jazz label named GRP Records. The label hadn’t always been a business basket case, but in 1996 it was. It took almost two years to turn a profit, but we did. A side benefit for me was meeting and working with the likes of legendary players, like Horace Silver, Dr. John, and George Benson. One of my most memorable moments happened while in The Netherlands for the North Sea Jazz Festival. Meeting for dinner at a restaurant in The Hague (my memory tells me it was called “Roberts”.) More important than “where” was “who”. Seven of us spent the evening socializing, but more importantly I found myself sandwiched between producer Tommy Lipuma (on my left) and Jazz great McCoy Tyner on my right. The dinner was memorable, but I have no memory of the food. I spent my time listening to the stories Tyner told, including some during his time with Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” (he left the group in 1965.) All in all it was a magical evening. In 1998 I left the jazz label, but not jazz.

 

     A few years ago I discovered a jazz station with its own iPhone app. The station goes by the name “TSF Jazz” (www.tsfjazz.com). It’s a French station in most ways: its programming comes from Paris and most of the on-air voices speak only French. But the music they play is steeped in classic American Jazz. So you’ll be listening to a set of 2 or 3 recordings, say Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis, and the announcer will tell you “Que Wass Louis Armstrong avec ‘Saint James Infirmary'”. (Understand, my French is passable only in restaurants, so I offer this translation: “That was Louis Armstrong with ‘St. James Infirmary’”). I highly recommend the station and the app.

 

     Last month I had time to visit our daughter in Marina Bay (next door to Richmond in the East Bay). My second day there I realized I had been listening to KCSM radio in her home and car. She’s become a bit of a fan of this Bay-area jazz station. It’s a rarity these days to find a 24-hour jazz station but happily, San Francisco and surrounding communities seem to support this oasis for jazz lovers, and those simply wishing to escape anything else, even if only for  few hours here and there.

 

     Traveling further north into Mendocino County, the only station offering thoughtful, informed, and highly listenable jazz is KZYX. There are multiple programmers who each, happily, bring a personal (and informed) approach to the music they play. Most of the programs have alternating hosts, as on Sunday nights with Jim Heid, Fred Adler (yes, Gualala’s own), and Dave Barre sharing the two-hour time slot. Monday afternoon veteran writer and jazz lover Jerry Karp and talented musician Jon Solow alternate holding the 2:00pm time slot. Thursday morning Ron Hoffar and Toby Gleason do a similar balance of jazz ‘yin and yang’. Other programmers dabble in jazz, occasionally incorporating the genre into their music programs but the focused effort is found in those 6 hours.

 

     If radio and recordings are not your thing, you’ll be happy to learn that during the past 4-5 years, live jazz has found an increasing fan base in Mendocino County. My neighbor and friend Harrison Goldberg is an amazing musician, usually embracing his favored instrument, the alto sax. By seeing Harrison perform, I’ve also met musicians Chris Doering, Dave Jordan, Tim Mueller, Dorian May, Dorothea May, Charlie Vally, Gabe Yanez, and the fusion ensemble BAKU:  Harrison Goldberg, saxophones and percussion, Chris Doering, 7-string guitar and guitar synthesizer, Tim Mueller, 6-string guitar and guitar synthesizer, David French, upright bass and percussion, and Nancy Feehan, cajon and percussion.

 

     Mendocino has attracted all sorts of creative people. Perhaps there’s some faintly heard siren call luring them all here. Maybe it’s simply serendipity. Whatever the reason, a solid group of musicians and a group of fans have been drawn here. From the Russian River to Point Arena—and beyond, live music and ready listeners have embraced each other.

 

     Music can be heard regularly at the Timber Cove Inn, the Sea Ranch Lodge, Annapolis Winery, Mendoviné, 215 Main, St. Orres, and Arena Theater. It’s no accident that the annual Gualala Arts Whale & Jazz Festival keeps the talent coming as well, as they’ve helped develop a space for more than art and sculpture, but also for terrific music. And if you’re traveling even further north, there’s the Sequoia Room at North Coast Brewing’s Tap Room Restaurant in Fort Bragg. The Sequoia Room is a 60-seat venue, offered as a gift to music lovers from the founders of North Coast Brewing. Most weekends the Sequoia Room features some of the best players traveling the club circuit, and their website boasts a couple of hundred names, all of whom have performed there.

 

     Whether you want to travel a few miles or 60 to hear some great music, why not do it while you’re here? Look through this issue of the Lighthouse Peddler; you’ll find some of the players cited above performing this month, and what better place or time to hear live music than here and now.

 

David Steffen, Published in the July Lighthouse Peddler
©2018 David Steffen

Standing By   Leave a comment

June 1, 2018

Personal beliefs for some, we often see as biases for others; likes and dislikes all become apparent when we reflect on the things that are important to us. Over time we may adjust those beliefs, temper those biases, or embrace something we earlier eschewed. Consider our memories. Growing up, my great aunt Violet was as important to me as my parents. Easily 40-50 years my senior, Aunt Vi was a truly good human being whose affection and wisdom were never missing. I found myself thinking of her this week for a somewhat unexpected reason.

Vi was an unassuming woman who worked as a coatcheck girl at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Her husband Ed was a bus driver for the city’s public transit system.  She wasn’t a musician, and not necessarily fond of pop music, but a genuine expression of support is not unimportant to a 12-year old boy. When I began playing the guitar at 12,  contrary to many adults her age, there was no strange reaction. Rather, it was encouragement.

She was visiting our home in the spring of 1961. I don’t recall the occasion, but it was probably for my sister’s May birthday. Our family was like that in those days, particularly in the first couple of years after my parents divorced. The radio was on and one of the songs played had become so familiar, so well-liked, so universally acclaimed a pop hit, that no one could say a bad word about it. My mother was in the habit of taking us to Sears as she went shopping on a Saturday, and a big treat—at least for me—was going to the record department where she proceeded to buy two or three singles for me. At age 12, records were more important to me than ice cream (although that would change with time.)

Beyond popular music there were many things I should remember about 1961. Harper Lee won a Pulitzer for To Kill A Mockingbird. The Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie won a Tony. West Side Story won an Oscar. It was the year of the disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The Soviets began construction of the Berlin Wall. Mini-skirts were beginning to turn up at couture houses. Kennedy and Khrushchev met in Vienna. Vietnam was becoming a real war. Television was described as a “vast wasteland”. Bobby Fischer won his 4th consecutive U.S. chess championship (at age 17), and Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, but earned an asterisk for his efforts. The New York Giants were beaten (soundly) by the Green Bay Packers, 37-0 in the original ‘ice bowl’.

Popular music in this pre-Beatles age was feeling positive, fun, and evolving. And songwriting was a craft that could, with perspective, be compared to paintings, architecture, dance . . . it was becoming a respectable art and writing pop hits was profitable.

Reading the minds of pre-teens and teenagers was a gift, and two of the greatest songwriters of their age were Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller.  Their amazing collaboration would write “Poison Ivy” (recorded by the Coasters;) “Jailhouse Rock” was recorded by Elvis; “Ruby Baby” by The Drifters (and later covered by Dion). Lieber and Stoller might have retired in 1961, with a string of hits songs, including 11 recorded by Elvis Presley. But they didn’t.

Through their association with The Drifters, Lieber and Stoller met a young man with a distinctive voice. He stood out to most ears as the defining voice of the group, singing the lead vocal on “There Goes My baby” (1959), “Dance With Me” (1959), “This Magic Moment” (1960), “Save The Last Dance For Me” (1960), and six other singles. Benjamin Earl Nelson left the Drifters and almost immediately had a hit single for Atlantic Records: “Spanish Harlem”. As a kid from Milwaukee, I knew nothing about Spanish Harlem (the place,) but that recording—a song written by Jerry Lieber and Phil Spector—fit the New York-flavored imagery of other teenage urban love songs like “Uptown”, and “He’s A Rebel”. Top-40 radio loved these mini (2-2 1/2 minute) romance novels and they loved “Spanish Harlem”. It debuted on Billboard’s chart in December 1960, reached #10, and spent 16 weeks on the charts. By May 1961 his follow-up single was out, destined to reach the top five. Mr. Nelson co-wrote that song with Lieber and Stoller, but by that time the singer had long since adopted a new stage name, and the world fell in love with “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King.

A couple of weeks ago millions around the world watched as a young man from Britain married an attractive young American. While the pageantry, the town, the chapel, the honored guests, the flowers, the carriage ride, the fame, fortune, dresses, hats, suits and tuxedos all vouched for the exclusivity of Harry and Meghan’s day, nothing could surpass the moment. I’m speaking of course of the ‘opening act, the Most Reverend Michael Curry (Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church of the United States, if you must know), who spoke passionately about love. The magazine Bazaar headlined “Reverend Michael Curry Electrified the Royal Wedding With a Moving Sermon”. No question. His sermon was a hit.

But the home run of the day was the choice of “Stand By Me”, performed by Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir. It was nothing less than inspired. Watching pieces of the royal wedding on TV I couldn’t help but think that the happy couple with, perhaps, extra credit to Meghan Markle, could not have done better in their choice of music.

“When the night, has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we’ll see. No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid, just as long as you stand by me.”

As the music ended, I thought back to my youth, singing along with “Stand By Me” on the radio, clumsily playing it on my first guitar, and hearing the whispered encouragement of my Great Aunt Vi. A half-century later, music doesn’t get much better than “Stand By Me”.

NOTE: This column was also published in the June issue of The Lighthouse Peddler, our monthly newspaper on the Mendocino Coast.

 

David Steffen

 

Adrenaline and Then Some   Leave a comment

May 1, 2018

     There’s something to be said for adrenaline. With good reason, it absolutely gets our attention although I can’t honestly say I remember the first time I felt that rush. It might have been when I was two years old, being wheeled into surgery to have my tonsils removed; I can still smell the ether but I have no memory of a rush. Our “adrenaline memory” is very often associated with “the first time” of any number of things. Falling out of a tree. Riding a roller coaster, or water skiing, or a first commercial airline flight. The second, or third time you’ve been on Space Mountain, a thrill may still exist but it’s unlikely adrenaline will be coursing through your system. Whatever your first, latest, or worst memory of the trigger that sent adrenaline charging through your body, we can all relate.

The adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, get us ready almost instantaneously for what’s about to happen. Under stress, we experience increasing rates of blood circulation, breathing, and carbohydrate metabolism. It’s the body’s way of preparing our muscles for exertion or, from a medical and scientific view, the rush helps us cope with the likelihood that we’re about to have the ever-living shit scared out of us. That’s my analysis, anyway. Aside from a recent driving experience—coming around a curve on Iverson Road in Mendocino County and finding a deer in my lane—my adrenaline rushes these days are more likely to be associated with films and, on occasion, television.

I was sitting here thinking about horror and science fiction films that have done more than simply provide me with solid entertainment. That thought-process took me back to Psycho Knifemy childhood, and memories of films that provided me with what I assume today was an adrenaline rush. Take Psycho, for example. If there was an age restriction it must have been 11, since I walked into a theater and saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho on the ‘big screen’ at age 12. The surprises were many, and almost all of them quite “memorable”—the knife, the shower scene, Norman Bates’ mother—all designed to take your breath away; and there was plenty of blood to cover more than the shower floor, even in glorious black and white.

Before Psycho, and in the many years since, there have been other films that pushed the adrenaline through my system. Numerous science fiction films I saw as a child convinced me that Martians and other invaders were Invaders-from-Marscoming to take over planet Earth. Invaders from Mars (1953) had Martians controlling us by implanting a crystal in the necks of we puny little humans. For months the film made me wonder about that field behind our house. Shot in color (and with decent special effects for the day), the aliens’ costumes looked suspiciously like there was a very earthly common zipper up the back. Nevertheless, in the days after seeing the film I found myself (on more than one occasion) checking my father’s neck to see if he’d been implanted with one of the aliens’ controlling crystals. Truth be told, my father had plenty of issues, but a Martian implant was not one of them.

This Island Earth (1955) offered more interplanetary adventure, with human-like aliens sporting large foreheads, and the prospect that the inhabitants of their dying home planet—Metaluna—would be relocating to Milwaukee in the near future. The film TIE 9544962772_73f9343569_b CRoffered a balanced plot line with both creepy and sympathetic characters providing needed tension and relief.

Whereas Invaders from Mars gave us a clue to the intentions of  the Martians, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) made us worry about those living among us who were becoming increasingly nice, passive, and worrisome, offering no obvious clues to our fate. The more pleasant people were, the more likely their bodies had already been snatched.

The last film I’ll mention from the 1950s Sci-fi era was The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). Michael Rennie had it all over Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, but the character that brought chills to this child was Gort, Gort Day-the-Earth-Stood-Still-2-1the 8-10 foot tall robot. You knew when his visor went up some thing or someone was about to be toast. Robert Wise crafted a film that was so good that when I first saw the movie, it was on our small (10-12″) screen television, and still, Gort scared the hell out of me.

There have been plenty of other films that have given me a bit of an adrenaline rush, like The Exorcist (1973). From the early scene of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) at the Middle-Eastern dig site, to the exorcism itself, this Protestant was happy there was a Catholic priest between me and Satan. With Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien we grasped the cold reality that “in space no one can hear you scream”. Whether it was the face-huggers, the emergence of a creature exploding out of Kane’s (Jon Hurt’s) stomach, or the fully developed alien, this film had moments to trip anyone’s anxiety trigger. There was Jaws (1975) letting us know that we were all “going to need a bigger boat”; and more scares, surprises, and terror from Silence of the Lambs (1991), Frankenstein (1931), The Birds (1963), The Thing From Another World (1951), The Omen (1976) and Poltergeist (1982).  Remakes almost never achieve what the original (and usually much lower budget) films achieved since adrenaline, to whatever degree, needs one or more elements of surprise.

In 2004 I was teaching at a college in the Twin Cities and I clearly remember our first Halloween in that house in St. Paul. We not only decorated the house, but the small Spongebob SB61-SQY006-B105 CRgarden near the entrance where trick or treaters would line up to get their goodies. It was a sufficiently pleasant October evening that I decided to spend time sitting on a chair in the middle of the garden, wearing a trench coat and hat with my face covered, appearing to be some phony stuffed “corpse”. My chair was about 15 feet from the walkway. Some time during the evening a dad brought his 5 or 6 year old son trick or treating; even from a distance I could easily see the young boy was sporting a SpongeBob Squarepants t-shirt as they walked up to the house for a treat. When I saw the boy looking toward me I lifted my head slightly, and from across the garden said (in my best creepy voice) “Oh SpongeBob . . . Oh SpongeBob”. The little boy looked around, saw my ghostly-like presence, immediately turned around and ran crying down the path. For a split second I felt bad. Then I saw his father apparently getting a good laugh over the moment. Eventually little SpongeBob came back with his dad to get his candy, but I’d like to believe that, to this day, he remembers that very special Halloween. If only for the adrenaline rush.

Media’s Absentee Landlords   Leave a comment

April 1, 2018

    Most people of a certain age can probably recall their discovery of the first local newspaper carrying their favorite comics. It almost doesn’t matter what those comics were, as there was something for everyone. I never read Prince Valiant. Too cheesy. I did read Blondie but felt it hit a little too close to home. Beetle Bailey. Fun. Peanuts? My ‘peeps’. Li’l Abner? Could have been one or two of my neighbors. Hi and Lois? Too vanilla. I’d follow some or all of these in glorious black and white during the week, and on Sunday, magically, we found that they had all erupted into living color. We were too young to understand that the comics had two reasons for existing. First they were entertaining. Second, they trained children (future subscribers) to get into the habit of reading the daily newspaper.

Growing up in Milwaukee we had two choices. There was the morning Milwaukee Sentinel and the evening Milwaukee Journal. I was one of those “paper boys” who got up early in the morning, picked up my bundles of Sentinels and delivered them to homes along my streets on the south side of Milwaukee. I earned more money than my days of setting pins at the local bowling alley, but after a year or so decided the little bit of income it provided wasn’t worth the effort. Besides, I was part of a 4-piece band which gave me more spending money than the paper so, hey, why not stay with rock ’n roll.

The Milwaukee Sentinel had long been a money-loser for William Randolph Hearst’s empire. Matthew J. Prigge wrote in the March 2016 Shepherd Express “Hearst hung on to the Sentinel, losing money every year, until his death in 1951. Hearst Publishing continued ownership until a strike in 1962 shut the paper down for six weeks. With Hearst Publishing prepared to fold the paper altogether, the Journal Company stepped in at the last moment and—feeling that Milwaukee needed more than one voice in its daily news—offered $3 million for the sheet.” For the next 30 years the papers continued to be published as separate entities, only to be merged into a single paper—the Journal-Sentinel—in 1994. Milwaukee wasn’t the only city to become a one-newspaper town. As the century turned, cities all over the country saw their two-newspaper towns become one newspaper towns, and many smaller cities and towns watched as their local papers shrunk, merged, or closed down altogether. Print media was becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer publishers.

Radio and television suffered a different fate. The Federal Communications Commission has long been the radio and TV regulatory arm of the federal government. For most of the post-war period (beginning in 1953), companies were allowed to own no Puppet CR (1)more than one AM, one FM, and one TV station in any one media market. Furthermore, they were limited to a maximum of seven of each nationwide. Period. The original 7-station limit was to prevent any one company from having undue influence over the American public by dominating the media, locally, regionally, or nationally. During the 1980s this restriction was seen as “heavy handed”. Under the Reagan administration the FCC saw fit to allow companies to own as many as 12 AM, 12 FM, and 12 TV stations. Got the math: companies could now control 36 broadcast outlets nationally. With a straight face and a nod to George Orwell, in 1984 the government told us that fewer companies owning more stations would “encourage media competition”. The FCC concluded that the concentration of media in fewer hands posed “no threat to the diversity of independent viewpoints in the information and entertainment markets.” The new rule included another trigger. In 1990 the FCC would further relax the broadcast ownership by any one company to, well, unlimited. A little more than a decade later alarm bells began going off. According to Deadline Hollywood, by spring 2007, “91% of the total weekday talk radio programming was conservative, and only 9% was progressive. . . .” And those numbers are more than a decade old.

Obviously media consolidation has done nothing for diversity. iHeart Media now owns 845 stations in the United States. Cumulus Media owns 500 stations. Other companies like Entercom, Cox, Clear Channel, and CBS, are approaching another 1000 stations in total. Both iHeart and Cumulus are operating in bankruptcy, and bankruptcy means there will be little interest in balanced programming or local concerns, and more interest in cutting costs. As management focuses on “efficiencies”, many of these corporate-owned radio stations will have little or no staff in the cities and towns they serve, enabling them to save money by doing away with local hosts, local news, and local weather. The “local” newscast you hear in Topeka might be coming from a voice in Chicago. And that’s on top of corporate ownership that caters to the expansion of a conservative audience mind-set. Then there’s Sinclair, the conservative broadcast business which is expanding (perhaps soon to own 200 television stations) and vying with Fox to become a kingmaker in American politics by shaping and supporting conservative opinions in the vast majority of American media markets.

This is not meant to be a sentimental look at ‘the good old days’, or an exercise in hammering large corporations. It is rather a recognition that as technology continues to evolve we need to hold precious those things that we’ve come to appreciate including the importance of local radio stations, newspapers and magazines, with local information, prepared by local people.  The adage to “Think Globally, Act Locally” has never been more appropriate.

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