Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Amazing Days   Leave a comment

May 1, 2019

To paraphrase Billy Shears, “it was (almost)forty years ago today.” A band came to the Agora Theater near Cleveland in 1979, and with the luck of the draw, I happened to be there.

 

     Four years after that performance my friend Gil called me up and invited me to lunch. I was a marketing person and he was president of A&M Records (and my boss) so I immediately knew three things: Lunch would be delicious, Gil would be paying, and I would learn something. From my earliest days in the music business and having been taught a few things by a master of promotion, Augie Blume, I was always interested in learning from anyone I worked with or worked for. And that day in 1983 was one of those “holy shit” moments. In a very good way.

 

     The pace of change in recording technology was poised to accelerate in the 1980s, exciting and confounding us all at the same time. But tech didn’t matter that day. We were already accustomed to hearing what a record sounded like in the car. After all, as radio remained the primary driver of new music in the ‘80s, and commuter traffic was just beginning to feel unbearable, generations of music lovers had been trained to listen in the car. The A&M studios even had a car—actually about two-thirds of a 1960s convertible—set up inside the studio building for musicians and producers to listen to their new music while sitting in a car. (The car radio was tied directly to the adjacent studio so you could record, go out to the lobby, sit in the car and listen.)

 

     Gil drove us to the restaurant in West Hollywood but the conversation would come later. The good news, as it turns out, was that he couldn’t wait to put a tape in his cassette player. He turned to me and said, with a proverbial ‘shit eating grin’ on his face, “I’d like your opinion of this”.

 

     From the opening rimshot through the first 16 seconds (about 6-8 bars) the style suggested Gil could have been playing a song from 1962, constructed with a simple four-chord progression. But the quality of the production, the precision of the players and the voice singing the opening line confirmed that this was no 2-track golden oldie. 18 seconds into the tape the voice of Sting confirmed I was listening to a new track by Police. “It was Synchr“Every Breath You Take”, the first track I heard from the forthcoming “Synchronicity” album. Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers, and Sting would not again achieve this level of success as a group. At that moment the trajectory of their recordings had hit their zenith. We all expected future recordings from the trio but this was their real parting shot. And it was a shot heard round the world.

 

     As the playback finished Gil asked, “what do you think?”  My answer was to ask him to play it again. And he did. His next question was simply “Well?”. My thoughts went something like this. The song was musically simple, lyrically dark, and absolutely Police. It’s simplicity made it instantly familiar. As we walked into the restaurant (and having heard only one track) I couldn’t figure out if the single was simply an entree to a spectacular album, or if Police had run out of true creativity. But I knew “Every Breath You Take” was a hit. Gil smiled, agreed, and we proceeded to have lunch. On the way back I asked him about the rest of the album. He only said “Don’t worry. It’s all there.” A few days later I received my own advance cassette of the complete album. The collection of songs reinforced my opinion that this band was hitting on all cylinders.

 

     To their credit, the “Synchroncity” album was not a collection of songs in the vein of “Every Breath You Take”. They covered the Police spectrum. “Synchronicity I” (side 1, cut 1) could have been a track from an early album. It was simultaneously raw and slick. Yet “Synchronicity II” was clearly the band mixing their patented power-playing and power-vocalizing with lyrics that were not part of every day songwriting. In this case the lyrics lamented the worst parts of a white-collar or factory worker’s daily grind, i.e. regularly receiving “a humiliating kick in the crotch”. Or when the lyrics draw a comparison (through recurring passages) of being something (or someone) who ‘crawls from the slime at the bottom of a dark Scottish lach’. More imagery emerged with “crossing picket lines”, and seeing the “factory belching filth” into the air. By the end of the song the employee returns home to his cottage at the shore of the Scottish lake with a realization that it is he who rises from the slime.

 

     Consider next who is actually in control in the song “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. Sting makes references to fringe ideas and characters to make his point. No generic demon will suffice, so he calls on a name from Faust, “Mephistopheles ”. Similarly he evokes the names of sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis from Greek Mythology. The names provide perfect rhythm and mystery and can be interpreted as Sting digging deep into lyricism or trying to prove he’s an intellectual. While it can be read either way, I’d lean to the former.

 

     The tracks “Tea In The Sahara” and “Murder By Numbers” were strong signals as to where Sting’s songwriting was heading, signals borne out with the release of his first solo album “Dream Of The Blue Turtles” in 1985.

 

     The band released a total of five albums: “Outlandos d’Amour (1979); “Reggatta de Blanc” (1980); Zenyatta Mondatta (1981); “Ghost in the Machine” (1982),  and “Synchronicity” (1983). (Yes, I’m ignoring “Brimstone & Treacle”.) They didn’t say it in 1983 but it became apparent that Police, as a band, was history. A gigantic tour delighted fans around the world. There was a moment in September ’83, standing and watching the concert at Hollywood Park in Inglewood (Los Angeles) that I finally had a feel for what it might have been like to see The Beatles at Shea in 1965. Amplification and adoring fans. But it was an event.

 

     For the next year the venues filled with masses of fans, ticket prices helped maximize everyone’s profit (not a bad thing), and we (A&M Records) continued to sell hundreds of thousands, and then millions of albums (the last I heard the “Synchronicity” album sold 8 million in North America). And then, inevitably, the band’s dissolution began. It was one wildly successful artist I was involved with from first album to last. What each of them did later is important, and each found measures of critical and financial success. Forty years after the release of “Outlandos d’Amour”,  there have been many memories. But those “Synchronicity” days were truly amazing days.

 

David Steffen

© 2019 David Steffen

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Passing The Baton   Leave a comment

January 1, 2019

The start of a new year is always a demarcation line. It’s the most obvious moment—aside from our birthdays—where each of us knows another year has passed. Carl Reiner was quoted as saying “Each morning when I wake up I check the obituaries. If I don’t see my name I already feel better.” Yes we’re all a little older, but that’s how things work.

I looked at the list of all the “notables” who’ve passed and wonder how each of these famous—or infamous—people have affected, touched, or otherwise changed my life. It’s always surprising to me that I can find a personal connection to many of them. So here are my thoughts on those we lost in 2018.

What did you think about when you heard the name—nothing else, just the name—Stephen Hiillenburg? It didn’t mean anything to me. It turns out he was important to me for the simple(?) fact that he created the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. My daughter Caitie and I—Caitie was about 10 years old at the time—were driving to Indiana (from Connecticut) to visit family. After a long day on the interstates we were entertaining ourselves by watching TV in our motel room, and that was the moment SpongeBob came into our lives. We laughed for a couple of hours and both became huge fans of the underwater hero. Thanks Stephen.

Robin Leach died last year. In some ways he too was a character worth remembering. In the end, almost all of the overstuffed, vacuous, self-important wealthy people he interviewed became laughable, at least to me.

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     On the musical side we lost some greats, both household names and lesser-knowns. Before getting into the music business I had heard South African musician Hugh Masekela’s hit single “Grazing in the Grass”. Little more than a year later I was promoting the Friends of Distinction, an RCA act who did a vocal cover of Masekela’s hit, creating a hit of their own. Years later I met Hugh when he recorded an album with my former boss Herb Alpert. Small world indeed.

Another music icon I had the pleasure of meeting was Charles Neville. I was in New Orleans and at Tipitina’s for a performance by the Neville Brothers. It was 1988 or ’89 and that band of brothers were amazing.

Lorraine Gordon died. She kept the flame of New York’s Village Vanguard alive after the death of her husband Max. I made many stops at the club to see some of the greatest live music acts in a somewhat intimate setting.

Joe Jackson, father of, yes, those Jacksons died in June. I recall meeting Joe in the late 1980s as A&M Records had increasingly amazing success with Janet Jackson. In business meetings or casual settings Joe had the ability to smile and scare the hell out of you simultaneously. Clearly a dysfunctional family at times, but they changed the music business.

Aretha Franklin died. I could only smile when I saw the photographs and video of the line of pink Cadillacs lining up to pay tribute at her funeral in Detroit.

Bluesman Otis Rush, founding member of Jefferson Airplane Marty Balin, jazz great Sonny Fortune all died. As did Morgana King, and Nancy Wilson. I first heard Wilson’s 1964 recording of “How Glad I Am” while in high school. It’s a great record a half-century later.

And ABC’s Keith Jackson died. His voice was one of the most comfortable ways of listening to a sporting event. I noticed the passing of disc jockey Dan Ingram. He was one of those Top-40 radio voices that transcended the music. Ingram was, like Casey Kasem, Larry Lujack, the Real Don Steele, and others who came to us as if from the ether. Cousin Brucie is still with us (on Sirius XM) thank goodness.

     Hollywood gave up some significant names in 2018. Penny Marshall became a successful film director but I will always remember her as Laverne DeFazio on television’s “Laverne & Shirley”. Lyricist Norman Gimbel died. He wrote the lyrics to the “Happy Days” TV show theme music. It’s more likely he’d like us to remember another set of lyrics he wrote: “The Girl from Ipanema”.

 

     Burt Reynolds died. His epitaph should read something like “He did it his way”. Clint Walker died. A classic ‘bigger than life’ actor in many westerns, I remember him a little more for two small things he did. First, he starred in a made-for-TV movie titled “Yuma”. A small screen film but he helped make it memorable. The other thing was his Christmas recording of “Silver Bells”.

Clint dollarkgrhqng0e1fwr7.jpg Yes, Clint Walker sang, and I had the single on my jukebox to prove it. Margot Kidder died. I attended a John Anderson for President fundraiser in Los Angeles in 1980, and ran into a friend who was dating Margot. In typical fashion I didn’t realize who she was.
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Jim Taylor died. He was one of the most formidable running backs in the NFL during the Lombardi years with the Green Bay Packers.

Stan Lee. He single-handedly changed the comic book industry. Carl Kasell died. He spent years at NPR doing the news with absolute professionalism. Then, semi-retired, he became the perfect comedic companion to Peter Sagal on radio’s news quiz “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. And Tom Wolfe died. He wrote “The Right Stuff”. That’s all I need to know.

Stephen Hawking died. He outlived and outlasted many others not so severely afflicted as he. And as Penny said to Leonard on “Big Bang Theory”, “He’s that really smart guy, right?” Right!.

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     My Friend Russ Solomon died. He only created Tower Records. I wrote a column a few years ago decrying the fact that Russ was not in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He reinvented music retailing. And others followed.

There were, obviously, many more famous and near-famous deaths in 2018. To those I met, worked with, never met, and worshipped from afar, you touched my life and so many others. Let’s all raise a glass to them.

David Steffen

©2019 David Steffen

Photos from top to bottom: Nancy Wilson; Clint Walker; Jim Taylor; Russ Solomon.

A Rally Sparks A Memory   Leave a comment

March 1, 2019

  I remember the Tuesday morning. As usual, I drove from my home in West Redding, Connecticut, to the Metro-North Commuter train station in Westport. It was my first day of classes as I started grad school at the New School in lower Manhattan. (I transferred to NYU the next semester, but that’s not really germane to this column.)  My Tuesday classes began at 11:00am, so my plan was to catch the 8:50 train to Grand Central Station, catch a subway to Union Square, and then walk to the campus. I parked the car at the Westport Station about 10 minutes early, and sat waiting for my train. As I sat in the car I heard a report about a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. It was 8:46am. Bad, obviously. But some of us remember reading about another crash.

 

     On July 28, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell Bomber got lost in the fog over Manhattan and crashed into the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors. Fourteen people died, including 11 in the Empirestate540building and 3 on the plane. Significant damage, as one can imagine, was done to the building but the structural integrity was not compromised and tourists can still ride elevators to the 102nd floor observation deck. Sitting in my car on September 11, 2001, I could convince myself that just like the 1945 crash, the World Trade Center would survive this disaster.
     My train came into Westport and the conversation went through the car. The question we heard as the train left Westport was “Did you hear?” or “What do you think?”. At the next stop in Norwalk, Connecticut, more Manhattan-bound travelers got on the train, and the conversations continued. Somewhere past Norwalk we got the report that another plane had hit one of the towers. It was 9:03am. At the next stop, Stamford, Connecticut, almost everyone—me included—got off the train, crossed over to the other side to head back on the next train.
     When I arrived in Westport I got in my car and headed straight to Waterbury where our daughter Caitie was in school. She was 13 and I decided it would be good for her (and for us) to call it a day.  Classes at the university were all canceled for the week.

     The following week I, once again, caught the 8:50am train for New York, went to classes, and more or less, resumed some normality. What wasn’t normal were the impromptu memorials in Union Square.

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Almost everywhere in this very public place there were candles and flowers on the ground, flowers and notes stuck between fenceposts; pictures taped to walls, fences, and lampposts. Union Square had become a church and home to hundreds if not thousands of very personal memorials. As I passed through the candles and alongside the tears, the magnitude of the prior-week’s horror drove even deeper into all of us.

     A couple of months later I ventured to ground zero. By that time a makeshift wooden walkway had been created to enable all of us to quietly walk past and look up into the now empty sky, look down into the hole, or share a glance, touch, hug, smile with the others in the quiet, non-denominational congregation.
     Almost 18 years later I was listening to an interview with comedian-turned talk show host-turned-advocate Jon Stewart. I’ve always liked Stewart, and view him as a rationale, credible voice. And I still do. He left comedy at home. Here was Stewart adding his potent voice to a rally in New York City. Who can, for a moment, rationalize just why there has not been continuous funding for all of the needs of all of the first responders who walked into hell on Tuesday, September 11, 2001? We’ve all gone on with our lives, but every year 9/11 is a potent number for many of us but perhaps it’s been completely ignored by others.
     As reported by many news outlets on February 25, 2019 “More than 17 years after the 9/11 attacks, first responders and their advocates were back at Capitol Hill urging Congress to ensure that a victims’ compensation fund does not run out of money.” Stop there for a moment. Congress had the energy to write a tax cut into law benefitting mostly the wealthy, but they couldn’t find time to secure funding for these “veterans” of that awful day. The website nj.com covered the day, the crisis, and the reality very well. On February 25,
“Members of the New York delegation, joined by first responders, survivors and family members, lamented an announcement by the Justice Department that the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund is running low on money and future payments may be cut by up to 70 percent.”

Comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 responders, called the Feb. 15 announcement by the fund’s special master “unconscionable” and said Congress has a moral obligation to step in . . . .  “This is nonsense. This is theater. You know it and I know it,” Stewart said. “If the American people in their busy lives had any sense that these shenanigans were going on, they would be outraged.”

He and other speakers urged Congress to act quickly to restore the fund and ensure it has enough money to pay benefits for the next 70 years — or as long as victims need it. Obviously we have a problem in Washington D.C. Sometimes it seems as if much of “flyover” country in America may be against money for a city like New York. Or maybe it’s just that it’s 17+ years since the attacks.

     On a personal level, what I didn’t mention earlier is the unique odor that hung over lower Manhattan in the weeks and months after the attacks. I’ve smelled any number of things during my decade in New York, but that odor, at least for me, was unique. It was memorable in the worst possible way. There were human beings helping on that Tuesday morning 17 years ago, more human beings helping and working to reclaim ground zero for years afterwards. In my opinion, if we can debate the need for a wall on our southern border, we can at least bring a debate about victim and first responder’s compensation to the forefront as well. Healthcare in America is a for-profit business. Unfortunately. If we had healthcare for all, perhaps there would be no need for a rally this week. But we did.
     At the very least let’s take care of these people. Take a moment. Let your representatives in Washington know that it is time to act. Act now.  While some of them are still alive.
David Steffen
©2019 David Steffen

. . . 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.

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     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 actually talking on our smartphones.

 

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2018

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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