Ice Cream and Idiocracy   Leave a comment

Turbulent Times and Irrationality

July 1, 2016

    The Fourth of July is one of those holidays I can’t ignore. Like Christmas, the 4th was always a special day when I was growing up, and to some degree it remains special. I remember the parades—both watching and marching, although the latter was more of a walk along with other kids from my elementary school. But I did appreciate the little ice cream cup we were all given as we arrived in the park, and of course, on more than one Independence Day, my small group of friends would race back to the groups still marching and join them just to receive another ice cream cup. Ah, petty-crime in Milwaukee.

As I began working in the music industry (1970), I had no idea it would become a career. I promoted new records released by the RCA Records label (and others), and my timing couldn’t have been much better. RCA was enjoying a renaissance with Elvis Presley’s return to making hit records, Jose Feliciano had become a star with a remake of the Doors’ “Light My Fire”, the Friends of Distinction were on the charts with “Grazing In The Grass”, Guess Who was about to release American Woman,  and the Jefferson Airplane continued to soar. Even Perry Como was back on the charts with an appropriately titled hit single: “It’s Impossible”.  Of the artists I worked with in those early years, Jose Feliciano remains a favorite. He was talented, pleasant, smart, articulate, and friendly.

His 1968 breakthrough hit cover of the Doors’ classic peaked at #2. As almost always happened following a hit single, opportunities arose for the twenty-three year old Feliciano to parlay his success with “Light My Fire” into something greater. Publicists often consider every opportunity to put their artist in the spotlight . . . any spotlight. And one of those publicity moments was presented to the star. Based on the suggestion of Detroit sportscaster Ernie Harwell, Feliciano was offered the chance to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a baseball game. And not just any game. There were 53,000 fans at Tiger Stadium for game 5 of the 1968 World Series; and millions watching or listening around the world. It was Detroit vs. Saint Louis. For the record, the pitchers were Mickey Lolich of the Tigers, who earned the win—final score was 5-3—and Joe Hoerneas of the Cardinals, who was handed the loss. In almost every respect it was a publicist’s dream. I said “almost”. Feliciano sang the anthem as he sang almost everything, with an honest, genuine, heartfelt soul. And that’s where the trouble began.

Anyone following American politics since 1994 knows what polarization is, and in 1968 those who heard Feliciano sing were polarized. Half of the people loved Feliciano’s performance, and half hated it. To take advantage of the half-public who loved the performance, RCA Records released a 45-RPM single. It may have been the first time in recorded music history that the National Anthem was on the Billboard charts. The downside of this publicity opportunity was the half-public who hated the performance. According to the New York Times, (October 8, 1968), when asked about the moment, the blind, Puerto Rican born American said “America is young now, and I thought maybe the anthem could be revived now. This country has given me so many opportunities. I owe everything I have to this country. I wanted to contribute something to this country, express my gratification for what it has done for me.” Baseball great Tony Kubek liked it: “I think he did one heckuva job”. A Tigers fan had a different take: “It was a disgrace. An Insult.” She said she would be writing her senator.

Two weeks later the RCA Records single arrived at radio stations and in record stores. Radio stations followed the public divide. Many stations played it. However, many others, like Milwaukee’s WOKY did not. That station’s Program Director George Wilson told me a couple of years later that he believed “the performance was inappropriate and unacceptable.”

As a college student and programmer at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s WUWM radio station at the time, everyone would agree that 1968 was a most turbulent time. Consider some of the events of the year: • January: North Korea captured the patrol boat USS Pueblo. • The Tet Offensive was launched. • February: Richard Nixon began his political comeback. • The American  military in Vietnam declared that it had destroyed a town in order to save it. A phrase that cannot be erased from our memories. • Walter Cronkite, anchor of the CBS Evening News, and dubbed “the most trusted man in America”, urged President Johnson to throw in the towel in Vietnam. • March: Senator Eugene McCarthy came within 230 votes of beating a sitting president in the New Hampshire primary. • Senator Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race. • The U.S. Army’s Charlie Company rampaged through the Vietnamese village of My Lai. • Martin Luther King led a march through Memphis. • April: Lyndon Johnson announced his decision to not stand for reelection. Martin Luther King was assassinated. • May: Peace Talks were begun between the U.S. and Vietnam. •  June: Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. • August: The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. • The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, helped along by the Chicago Police, turned into a riot—a disaster for the Democrats, but fascinating viewing on television. • September: Senator Hubert Humphrey received the Democratic nomination for president. There was so much more that fateful year, but time and space is limited.

And what of Jose Feliciano? After the release of “The Star Spangled Banner” and its five weeks on the Billboard chart, Feliciano continued to record and tour. His 1970 Christmas album, Feliz Navidad is considered a classic of the genre. He even returned to Detroit in May 2010 to reprise his 1968 performance in honor of Ernie Harwell, who died that week. No one contacted their senator, governor, or anyone else to complain. I guess forty-two years was a sufficient amount of time for America’s haters of 1968 to get over Feliciano’s original performance, or maybe they just died with a grudge.

The Fourth of July is always worth time to reflect. Whether it’s the memories of ice cream as a child, of a parade, or a unique and memorable performance, or a performer with whom we connected—literally, personally, emotionally, or even viscerally. Politics today is, as some say, not for sissies or wimps. You’ve got to have a belief system that will overcome any idiocy, or worse, an idiocracy.

Joel Stein wrote in May 2016’s Time Magazine, that “[America has] Become an Idiocracy . . . And it only took two-and-a-half centuries. Eight years ago, with the publication of Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, our country had a debate about whether its citizens were becoming less intelligent. This year, we had a debate about how big Donald Trump’s penis is. While we have not resolved the latter, we have answered the former. Former means first, and latter means second.”

From bitching about a wonderful, authentic, performance of the song set to Francis Scott Key’s poem, we have arrived at July 4, 2016. The election isn’t until November 7th. May God have mercy on our souls. And by the way, Thank You Jose. If you get to Mendonoma, I’ll be there. I’ll probably even have some ice cream for you.

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