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Ghost in the machine.

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Sometimes a push in the right direction can come from the most unexpected sources.

Longtime readers might remember Chris Stufflestreet, the music and baseball-card blogger whose death I wrote about in September 2012. (Has it really been a year and a half?)

Earlier today, I was gassing with a friend on Twitter about Pat Corrales, the former major-league player and manager.

The discussion led me to 1973 Topps Photography — the blog Chris left unfinished — to look up his entry about Corrales’s epic ’73 Topps card.

And, whaddya know, there was an unexpected new blog post there, dated Jan. 1, 2014.

Obviously, Chris had banked it more than a year in advance, anticipating a steady stream of ’73 Topps cards to come throughout 2012 and 2013.

In the post, Chris talked about his plans for the new year — this year — and for the blog:

2014 will be the final year of this blog (assuming nothing bad happens to me which forces me to take an extended break). I still have quite a ways to go with the set, however, so so keep coming back to see what I’ve got planned.

Oh, and by the way…once the cards run out, I’ll have some more stuff to show. I’ll also have a surprise ready as a way of saying “Thanks” for your readership. You’ll have to see what that is, but I promise you’ll like it.

I found Chris’s words both saddening — it sounds like he knew he might be getting sick — and inspirational. Mostly the latter.

They tell me I should stop twisting myself around in knots and just write. Forget about being authoritative or definitive, or trying to add to the Great Cosmic Discourse … just get the words out of my fingers, because I might not be able to do it next week, or next year.

If what I write is really good, lots of people will find it. If it’s not, they won’t. Either way, that’s not supposed to be what I do this for.

I just have to more tightly define what I think, and then get it on the screen; and anyone who enjoys it is welcome to drop by. If I can do that, I’ll be back on track, and hopefully also producing stuff somebody, somewhere, finds interesting.

Thanks for the lesson, Chris.


What next?

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So, yeah, I’m a little … blocked.

I increasingly feel futile writing about the music I know best, because I’ve become more cognizant of the thousands of people doing the same thing.

I think that, within a few more years’ time, there will exist a MOJO magazine spread or a fancy e-book dedicated to literally every album released between 1967 and 1982, complete with behind-the-scenes pix and reminiscences from the studio engineers.

I have neither the resources nor the inclination to sift through all that material. But not reading it makes anything I have to say on the subject seem futile, since I don’t know All The Facts, and my own observations or additions feel paltry.

I tend to revel in my distance from the performer. I like to write stuff that asks questions like, “I wonder why they sequenced the album that way?”

I don’t need to have somebody leave me a comment saying, “Page 112 of the August ’11 MOJO says they sequenced the album by taping the song titles to the backs of turtles and having them race across the studio parking lot.” That destroys the mystique.

That conundrum would suggest I focus more on my local music reviews. Damn near nobody writes those around here, it seems.

Those are starting to feel formulaic, maybe because a lot of local musicians seem to hew to a handful of sounds and styles. There are only so many ways to describe hardcore metal or a guy in his bedroom with an acoustic guitar singing a song about Cocoa Puffs.

That leaves diddley bow videos … but I don’t think the first-take, so-bad-it’s-good vibe I put into them really comes through on the other side of the screen.

So, I’m gonna have to find something to put in this space. (Or not, I guess.)

But on this particular Friday night, I don’t know what it is.

Paper cuts.

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One of the big rivalries around here is Lehigh University vs. Lafayette College. It’s more than just an annual football game — Leh-Laf (or Laf-Leh, depending on your loyalties) spills over into other areas of student life.

Both schools have searchable editions of their student papers online — The Brown and White for Lehigh, The Lafayette for Lafayette. Both date back to the 19th century.

College papers, while laughably bad sometimes, are also barometers of American youth culture. You’ll read about issues and cultural events there that you won’t find in professional daily papers.

So here’s a new twist on the Lehigh-Lafayette rivalry:

I took 10 terms from the past half-century of American college life and youth culture, and searched the archives for their first mentions in both papers.

I was trying to determine which campus has been hipper over the long term.

As I saw it, if one school’s paper was consistently the first to mention youth culture or alternative topics, its campus was probably in the lead, culturally speaking.

So who’s cooler? The Mountain Hawks or the Leopards? Let’s see what the papers say:

Pizza: The definitive college food was first mentioned in both papers in 1949, thanks to advertisements from local restaurants. Colonial Pizza and Spaghetti House, which advertised in The Lafayette, helpfully subtitled its ad “Pizza (Tomato Pie).”

But which was the first to mention it in staff-written copy? After exhaustive research, I conclude that honor goes to The Lafayette, which mentioned in its Dec. 9, 1955, issue that a student injured in a car accident was “dying for pizza” instead of hospital food.

Marijuana: How do you think college kids get so hungry for pizza? (Well, OK, there are multiple ways; but pot is one.)

Lehigh’s Brown and White was the first of the two papers to refer to marijuana, in its Sept. 26, 1939, issue. An anonymously written opinion-page column opined: “You will have most trouble with sophomores, the faculty and sophomores. Together they will contrive to make your life so inexpressibly happy that you will sooner or later come to know the joy of arsenic, the charm of marijuana.”

The Lafayette didn’t get pot into print until April 16, 1948, again in an opinion page column — this time about the music of jazz saxophonist Illinois Jacquet.

(It occurs to me now that I might have gotten different results if I’d used the archaic spelling “marihuana.” Not gonna take time to do it again, though.)

Velvet Underground: One of the most influential bands of all time, the Velvets’ sound has echoed in college/underground/alternative rock for decades.

The Lafayette did itself proud, running a staff-written review of The Velvet Underground and Nico in its April 21, 1967, issue. It’s kind of a lousy review — quoting the whip-verse in “Venus in Furs” and calling it “pure poetry” — but it was still far ahead of a lot of other people and publications in noticing the band.

The Brown and White has mentioned the Velvets five times in its history, the first as a passing mention in a Jan. 16, 1973, review of Lou Reed’s Transformer. (“Have a few drinks and enjoy it.”)

Doonesbury: Before Garry Trudeau’s comic strip became as entrenched and familiar as Peanuts, it was the first strip of its generation that commented satirically on current events and sympathetically depicted long-haired young adults.

The strip entered syndication in 1970, but it took eight years to get mentioned in the local college papers. The Brown and White was first, putting a front-page tease into the Sept. 26, 1978, issue to announce it had picked up the strip.

The strip was first mentioned in The Lafayette on Feb. 8, 1980, in an article announcing Trudeau as that spring’s commencement speaker.

Quaalude: A friend of mine who attended the University of Massachusetts in the latter half of the 1970s once nostalgically told me, Those were the days of ludes, ludes, ludes.” So I’ve chosen the depressant to represent all of ’70s and ’80s campus drug culture.

Whaddya know: The first reference to Quaaludes in either paper is, once again, on the front page of the Sept. 26, 1978, Brown and White. A story mentions that former Presidential adviser Peter Bourne, coming to speak on campus, faced charges for writing a false prescription for the drug.

The Lafayette has mentioned Quaaludes three times, all between April and December 1993.

Punk rock: College kids were probably the first group of Americans to warm to punk rock. And they’re still listening to it today, in different guises (pop-punk, anybody?)

The race to get punk rock into print was a close one. It was won by The Brown and White with scarcely three weeks to spare.

Lehigh’s paper ran a review of a local punk concert on Oct. 4, 1977, while The Lafayette mentioned the term in a disparaging review of a Stranglers album on Oct. 21.

Condom: College kids hook up; everyone knows that. Condoms can also be a controversial topic on college campuses, when the student health dispensary either provides or refuses to provide them.

So which was the first paper to call a French letter by its real name in print?

Well, The Brown and White ran an advertisement for mail-order birth control as early as Feb. 5, 1971. Almost exactly two years later, the first reference to a condom in staff-written copy appeared, in a story claiming that “Many Women Remain Ignorant of Information on Birth Control.”

Lafayette women apparently remained ignorant for another 15 years: The first reference to a condom in The Lafayette appeared in the issue of April 17, 1987.

Michael Stipe: Few bands were as synonymous with college radio in the ’80s and early ’90s as R.E.M., and frontman Michael Stipe was the most visible member of the band.

I thought a search for R.E.M. might be difficult and time-consuming — for instance, what if the writer spelled it REM? — so I decided to search for the singer instead. Certainly, any reference to Michael Stipe would have to occur in the context of intelligent staff-written copy.

As with the Velvet Underground, The Lafayette was in the vanguard, mentioning Stipe in an October 1985 review of Fables of the Reconstruction. The Brown and White wouldn’t mention the singer until October 1994, in a review of Monster.

Kurt Cobain: When I was in college in the first half of the ’90s, no band was bigger on the college scene than Nirvana. Everyone knew Nevermind song for song. If you didn’t own it, your roommate did.

I found it rather surprising that neither paper mentioned Cobain until after he killed himself. The Lafayette mentioned him in passing in a nonsensical column in its April 15, 1994, issue, while a letter to the editor in The Brown and White of April 22 included his name.

I’d call that a draw, and not an especially impressive one.

Fuck: No, this isn’t a uniquely youth-oriented term. But college kids tend toward salty informality, especially after a couple beers. And God knows they like to test limits. So I figured I’d search for one of the seven dirty words and see where it showed up first.

(We won’t count a mention of “Fuck ’32″ in a track meet summary in The Brown and White from April 1929. Presumably that was actually the guy’s last name, or a misprint of same.)

Once again The Brown and White led the way, running a police blotter item in November 1982 in which a luckless Sig Ep said someone threatened to “fuck up his car.”

Nine years later, The Lafayette dropped its first F-bomb, in a May 3, 1991, column by Frank Puskas.

The final verdict? Over the years, The Brown and White seems a touch more cutting-edge than The Lafayette — though the Easton paper seems to have an advantage where music is concerned.

My head’s all full of stuffin’.

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I’m wrestling with a writing challenge that doesn’t fit into the confines of this blog — or at least it doesn’t yet — and that demands more of my little brain than I’m used to giving.

While I get that straightened out, I might slack off a bit (more) on my rehashes of 40-year-old records other people have commented on infinitely better than I have.

In the meantime, I haven’t inflicted any one-string performance art on you recently.

So, enjoy:

No, that other Kurt.

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I didn’t see my roommate on the morning of April 9, 1994.

I was in Sydney then, a junior in college, doing a semester abroad. It was a Saturday.

One of two things had happened:

1) I’d gotten up long before he had and gone out to run errands without his noticing; or,

2) he’d been out all night with an Australian girl he was unsuccessfully trying to sleep with, and I’d left the house before he got home in the morning. This situation is more probable, but I don’t remember for sure.

Either way, my roomie walked into the kitchen and one of our housemates said, “Kurt’s dead. He killed himself.”

- awkward pause -

“What?” my roomie said, aghast. “But we were just drinking beers with him the other day! He seemed perfectly happy.”

- another awkward pause -

“Oh! No. Kurt Cobain killed himself. In Seattle.”

And thus it was that a young American abroad learned that one of his officially anointed generational spokesmen was dead … and also that he wouldn’t be getting a gift 4.0 for the semester.

I’ve just seen a face.

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I shouldn’t really blog about things that reveal me to be an inattentive, out-of-touch numbnuts.

But, in the interest of full disclosure, here goes …

I had an all-day off-site meeting today.

To gird myself for long hours of sitting in the same room, I forswore my chosen commute music (Frank Sinatra) in favor of the bracing sounds of the Stooges’ Fun House.

The album is hardly unfamiliar to me. I’ve owned it since high school — more than half my life — and listened to it numerous times. Were I to be stranded on one of those mythical desert islands that entraps pop geeks, Fun House would have a pretty good shot at being one of my 10 companions.

Now, I never really understood what was going on on the cover of Fun House.

It looked kinda like Iggy was hook-sliding into a fiery Hell, watched — or maybe ignored — by the sort of little girl who would get cast in dog-food commercials.

The orientation of the cover is a little weird, with the band name and title written sideways. But that’s the way the booklet was inserted into the box, and that’s the way I always looked at it. (That’s the way it appears on Wikipedia, too.)

The cover of Fun House as I have always seen it. (Click to enlarge.)

The cover of Fun House as I have always seen it. (Click to enlarge.)

I was driving to my off-site today, and stuck in slow traffic on Route 378, when I looked down at my passenger seat. I happened to see the cover of Fun House rotated in a different, unfamiliar direction.

And — slap my ass and call me Sally — there’s a face there.

(I can’t say for sure that it’s Iggy’s, though it has the pained, stoic look of a man who has just jabbed himself with knitting needles to arouse a howling mob at the Grande Ballroom.)

Yeah ... it's a little hard to miss, now, isn't it?

Yeah … it’s a little hard to miss, now, innit?

In 20-plus years of owning Fun House, I have never until today perceived the large face in the background. (Of course, now that I’ve seen it, I can’t not see it.)

I have no idea how I was so ignorant of that.

In fact, it occurs to me now that I bought the CD in the age of the cardboard longbox (remember those?), and I displayed the cardboard longbox in my high school locker. So I was looking at that cover, or some variant of it, several times a day every single day.

And I never saw the face then either.

One would think that I would, at some point since 1990, have turned the album cover 90 degrees so the band name and title appeared in a conventional orientation. Nope.

(I have a mixed history with this sort of thing. I’m pretty sure I found the skull-cloud on the cover of Wake of the Flood by myself, but I didn’t know about American Reality until the Interwebs.)

If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to spend the rest of the night with my hundreds of CDs and vinyl albums, gradually rotating each one 360 degrees to see if I’ve been missing anything.

Well, OK, I’m not going to go quite that far.

I do draw a valuable lesson, though: In a world where new music is constantly being made, don’t forswear your old favorites. They might still have something new to show you.

Would you lie down, do nothin’, give in or go berserk?

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Research challenge for someone with more time, smarts and resources than me:

Chart the performance of Wings’ “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” in regions of America with significant Irish-American populations, as compared to those without.

It was this week in 1972 that Paul McCartney’s quickly recorded response to the Bloody Sunday shootings reached its U.S. chart peak, at Number 21.

Not a great placement for a solo Beatle, perhaps, but a pretty good showing for a topical protest song not directly involving American affairs.

By comparison, Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” topped out at only Number 33 the year before, while “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” reached Number 37. (One imagines William Calley had more supporters in early-’70s America than the IRA did.)

McCartney’s song, to no one’s great surprise, was banned by the BBC.

Here in the States, squeamish programming directors had the option of playing the single’s B-side, an instrumental version of the song.

And apparently, some did. The invaluable ARSA database of local radio-play charts says the instrumental version of “Give Ireland Back” charted at stations in Rochester, N.Y., and Flint, Mich.

Unfortunately, the ARSA database isn’t complete. It doesn’t have every local radio chart, just the ones people have collected and scanned in. So I can’t rely on it to compare the single’s performance in South Boston to its performance in, say, El Paso.

ARSA does give us a couple of interesting figments regarding the song’s regional chart arcs, though:

- WPOP and WDRC, rival stations in Hartford, Conn., had the song in their hitbound rotations as soon as it was released. Listeners kept it in both stations’ Top 40 for almost two months, with a peak at Number 8 on WDRC and Number 9 on WPOP.

- Only two surveys from heavily Irish Boston exist in the ARSA database. WMEX reported the single leaping from No. 20 to No. 13 the week ending March 16, but then had it slipping back to No. 15 the following week.

- The song reached the Top Ten at stations in in Akron; Cleveland; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Willimantic, Conn.; Boise, Idaho; and Melbourne, Australia.

- The only known instance of “Give Ireland Back” hitting Number One in a local chart was in Wilmington, Del., of all places, where WAMS listed the song at the top for at least two weeks.

- As late as May 3, KDON in Salinas, Calif., was moving the song into its Top Ten. (I always find it interesting to read about late-breaking outliers. Were there stations that waited to make sure the song didn’t cause riots before adding it to their playlists?)

- The equally wonderful, which collects all things related to New York City’s old WABC, indicates the song was absent from the station’s hit charts throughout that spring.

The charts do not indicate whether the song was actively banned by WABC — as other songs that year were — or whether it simply didn’t get significant airplay there.

All these years later, “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” remains a rare example of McCartney commenting on current events.

And while its politics may be a little muddled (only Macca would write a pro-Irish protest song with the words “Great Britain, you are tremendous”), the song is still an effective, biting counterweight to some of the catchy-but-vacant pap McCartney would later put out.



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