RSS Feed

That old-time religion.

Today I went to church.

img_3067

Yup, good old lazy irreverent stranger-fearing brotherhood-dodging bourbon-swilling me went voluntarily to a church service — to be specific, the Lehigh Valley Quakers’ weekly meeting.

I believe this to be the first time in my forty-three years that I have attended a religious service of my own accord.

Why? I’ve thought for a while that the Quakers are closer to being right than any other faith.

I like the way they think — the notion that God speaks to and through every person … the idea that a house of worship should be simple and utilitarian, not gilded and fancy … and their commitment to social action, which I could stand to have more of in my life.

With all that, it still took me years to actually check out a service, but finally I did it. (I was charmed, during the post-service introductions, to meet a couple who had been exactly where I was until a month ago, when they decided to get off the stick and check out a service already.)

I’d like to go back, at least for a while, in part because the Quaker form of worship takes some time to get used to. I’m used to looking someplace every five seconds for stimulus … and the old-school “unprogrammed” Quaker service calls for an hour of concentrating silence. It seems safe to admit that my centering-down skills need some development.

I’m also still working through all the typical issues that come with the clash of social liberalism and religion. For instance, if I don’t believe homosexuality is wrong or sinful, why would I want to endorse any creed based on the Bible, which does?

(I’m sure everyone else figured out stuff like this at age 20 … but I’m late to the discussion and catching up.)

But, all those determinations are in the future and are yet to be discovered, accepted or rejected.

For today, I went to church, me.

An observation in two parts.

1. Walter “Junie” Morrison is dead.

# # # # #

2. So there was this guy, see, named Junie Morrison, who was either the coolest or the second-coolest Morrison of mainstream 20th-century popular music, depending on your tolerance for Wordsworth and Coleridge name-drops; and he sang and played mainly keyboards but maybe some other stuff as well (we’ll get back to that) … and he was so titanically, outstandingly funky that he managed to be a member of both the Ohio Players and Parliafunkadelicment, the two absolutely baddest, wildest and most wonderful funk bands of the American Seventies, which is to say at any time or place ever on Earth — and indeed, in the early days they shared a record label, and can you conceive of what the Westbound Records company Christmas party must have been like back then? — plus he cut some solo LPs that probably more people ought to have bought instead of buying, say, Styx records (but is that not so often the destiny of genius?) … but the real cream of the whole story in my humble opinion comes closer to the beginning than the end of Junie’s funky journey, specifically in anno domini 1973, when Junie wrote n’ waxed a two-minute-twenty-three-second slice of pure drooling turned-out lust (lingering rumor claims he played everything but the saxophone) (and you tell me – does it sound like he’s freestyling the words as he goes, or can you really imagine that he did something so square as to write them down on a piece of paper?) that swung so hard the Players made it the title track of their final album with Morrison on board and also managed to take it to No. 31 on the national hit parade, which presumably means the black R’n’B stations across our fine land must have been playing the piss out of it, because the honky stations probably weren’t finding much of a place to let po’ Junie get all het up in between having to spin all that Charlie Rich and Jim Croce and Seals & Crofts (and oh by the way, if you click only one link in this post, make it the one just north of here that says “black R’n’B stations,” and then turn that playlist over in your head, admiring its every line like the facets of a shining emerald, a Detroit emerald, to coin a phrase) … or maybe the Players cracked the Forty b/c friendly mellifluous ol’ Casey Kasem magically found a way to tap into and chart-track the most popular tunes Americans were spinning on the hi-fi while they got it on on the shag rug, or the waterbed, or the use-your-own-imagination-you-filthy-prevert … but whatever the explanation be, “Ecstasy” has always been and will always remain gorgeous and dialed-in and sweaty and delirious, while also being more than a little bit sanctified at the same time (listen to him preach, and tell me that piano doesn’t take you to church too), and thus represents that magic merging of Saturday night and Sunday morning that popular musicians have been shooting for since the first left hand found the first boogie-woogie rhythm … and if none of these words move you in the slightest, go a little further south and hit “play” (ignoring whatever corporate ad may precede the magic music) and get to the 0:38 point and listen to that falsetto note – that note – and tell me if it doesn’t hit the monkey nerve, the nerve that surpasseth conscious understanding, and maybe wonder to yourself why the pop-cultural presence and familiarity of this song isn’t about 100,000 times greater than it is (while also being thankful for that, ’cause who would want to hear po’ het-up Junie playing backdrop to a dog-food commercial, or a coitus interruptus scene in a bro-comedy movie?), and be thankful that a funk genius heard that sound in his head and got it down on vinyl for us all to enjoy forever, which is fortunate, because we will never quite hear it the same way live ever again, because, as I mentioned 665 words ago, Walter “Junie” Morrison is dead.

Love, true or otherwise.

This being Valentine’s Day, I think I’m going to write about a girl we’ll call Liz, because that’s not her name.

Liz was a year younger than me in high school. And in my sophomore year, through forces I have never understood, she fell wildly in crush-love with me.

(The tracks of time blend together somewhat, and this might have been junior year, but I lean toward sophomore. Makes no difference at this point.)

Liz didn’t actually tell me how she felt: The one time I deigned to say hi and ask how things were going, she turned red and fled the room.

Instead, I got the lowdown from one or two of Liz’s friends, in whom she had confided her feelings.

They were good supportive people, Liz’s friends. When she joined a couple of activities in which I was involved — like orchestra and winter track — they joined alongside her. To the best of my knowledge, none of them had played a note or run a competitive step before that, but they were there for their friend.

When Liz got up the nerve to walk to my house after school one day and ring the doorbell, they went with her then, too. (I had jazz band that afternoon, and was not home; my mom caught me up on it later.)

This went on for a couple of months until the fever broke. I don’t know what happened

scan0009.jpg

The unattainable dreamy guy, from around that time.

— maybe she saw me scratching my arse or something — but at some point, she woke up one morning and I was not the most fantastic unattainable dreamy guy in the world any more. And life went on.

Liz and I did not know each other when she fell for me, nor did we have friends in common. Our circles did not overlap.

Based on that, I’ve guessed that she was drawn to some image of me that she’d created, or that I projected from afar, rather than the feeble broth that constituted my actual “personality” at age 15 or 16.

(I fit into a couple different pigeonholes back then. I made honor roll every quarter so I was a smart kid. I played in a garage band and had long hair and swore sometimes so I was a “bad boy,” or maybe looked like one from a distance. And I did a couple of sports — some passably enough to reach varsity as a sophomore — so maybe I looked like a jock from some angles too.)

It seems clear to me now that I should have made more of an effort to reach out and talk to Liz, down to earth, person to person, just as friends.

Even a few minutes of direct exposure to me would doubtless have convinced her that I was really a shaggy, callow asshole with bad breath. The weight of her crush would have lifted in an instant.

But I never did that; I remained at a distance. And she was left to pine and labor in romantic discomfort for weeks, if not months, until it ran its course.

I still think of Liz from time to time, though we haven’t crossed paths since we were college-age, 20-odd years ago.

(The last time I saw her, she was working summer checkout at a grocery store. Thinking it would be nice to say hi, I went through her lane, not noticing it was 10 items or less. The idea that I did something awkward to get her attention must have been deliciously ironic; I got the sense she enjoyed it.)

Valentine’s Day, I suppose, is a day when we’re supposed to hope everybody magically falls in love.

But I can’t help being realistic, and thinking about the tangles of romantic attachment a little differently. Instead, I hope somebody somewhere on Valentine’s Day gets the liberating chance to see a crush for who he or she really is.

I hope some modern-day equivalent of me goes up to the modern-day equivalent of Liz and just talks with her for a couple minutes, at the end of which she is a little disappointed but a great deal more relieved, and freed perhaps of some built-up romantic  illusions.

There are unhappier endings.

Everything old is new again, Chap. 38,772.

Snow has been hard to come by in my neck of the woods for most of this winter. But a few flurries the other day brought this picture to social media:

records.jpg

Setting aside for a moment the fact that the photo doesn’t show a school letting out early, I had to love this picture just for the retro factor.

This could have been taken in 1982. Just look at the albums lined up in the front window to lure shoppers — Endless Summer, The Stranger and Get The Knack in the top row; Foreigner’s 4 one level down; and Kansas’ Point of Know Return on the bottom row, poking out from behind Mr. Plow’s knees.

Somehow, looking at this picture reminded me of the Nineties and the Oughts, and that long period when everyone thought the CD would permanently kill the LP.

You don’t see any CDs in this picture.

Maybe 10 years from now, when the snow sends the kids home early in Wilkes-Barre, they’ll be advertising cassettes in the front window.

# # # # #

And now, a great, ferocious, recently rediscovered song about failure and regret, from a band I saw in Sydney 24 years ago this spring.

Like vinyl in Wilkes-Barre, they’re still playing, and they’re probably still good.

Mundane Moments: The winners take it all.

This post is adapted from an idea posted on my Instagram feed, where nobody noticed it. I thought it deserved to be grossly overinflated and posted here for a second chance at obscurity.

# # # # #

The Mundane Moments series of posts is an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

The setting is a quiet wooden cabin in the Nordic summer countryside, comfortable but spartan. It has been chosen principally for its obscurity, as its occupants have no interest in being observed.

On wooden seats around the big central room sit two greyed, bespectacled men and two women of similar age. The cut of their clothes suggests good fortune, while the tone of their conversation suggests both familiarity and caution.

They are discussing the resumption of a long-halted and extremely successful business relationship in the realm of recorded music.

The men, Benny and Bjorn, are the sellers. They pace, gesture with their hands, consult notes, and bring out the occasional chart or bit of data in support of their proposal — a potential reunion album.

The women, Frida and Agnetha, are the skeptics. They raise questions, point out concerns, glance at each other with ruffled brows, and make points that can’t always be easily countered by the occasional chart or bit of data.

We join them in progress. Some worries have been soothed, while some are newly rising.

“A comeback at this age worries me. We are so old. We are grandparents,” Agnetha says, and all four flinch gently in the way people sometimes do when reminded of advancing age.

“Will we seem out of touch?” Frida adds. “Will the kids have any interest at all? Why would they want to listen to people our age? We might fall flat.”

“We have the songs, as strong as ever. Benny and I have been seeing to that over the past eight months,” Bjorn replies, his voice solid with certainty. “We have cultural momentum also: The most popular pop producer and songwriter in the world is a Swede like ourselves.

“But most of all, we have a lasting popularity all over the world that very few performers have ever attained. Our songs are played at clubs and weddings every night, while the work of many of our contemporaries goes by the wayside. Our music appears on Broadway, and people flock to Broadway. Our music appears in movies, and people flock to the theater.

“There is no need to be modest among ourselves about what we have built. We split apart before we could make bad music, so our legacy has never been tarnished. Our group is to pop music what Moet et Chandon is to champagne, or what Rolls-Royce is to motor vehicles. We are the gold standard. We were then. We still are.”

Frida nods; but something in the mention of gold has stirred an objection in her.

“We do not need the money, and at this point in my life, I do not need anyone to think I do,” she says. “Why should I open myself to that public speculation?”

“That,” Benny replies firmly, “is where The Foundation comes in.” He takes out two thick folders and passes them to the women, giving them a few minutes to read before he resumes.

“We’ll let the public know that we won’t take a penny. One hundred percent of the profits from this music will go to a special foundation, which will distribute it to help solve the most pressing needs of our country. Fields will stay green forever, and hungry children will sit down to full tables. We can make the future bright for decades to come.”

“It is ingenious,” Bjorn adds. “We give the record buyer great music and the satisfaction of donating to the public good. And the money goes straight to the foundation; it doesn’t trouble us at all. Who can resist?”

Agnetha’s brow has been knit throughout the meeting, and finally, she speaks her mind.

“Being in a group again … what about all the things that came between us before? Not just the couples, but all four of us. I cannot forget them.”

Silence holds the room. Benny looks at Bjorn, whose expression indicates the point is Benny’s to carry. He picks his words carefully.

“My friend. My colleague,” he starts. “None of us will ever forget the difficult days. That would be impossible. But that is not what we are suggesting. What we are suggesting is to focus on the magic.

“The four of us together have something many have tried to copy but no one has ever captured. Millions of vocal groups have come and gone. Some have sold many records. None have ever had our magic, our signature, our charisma.”

A handheld mirror sits on a side table. Benny picks it up, holding it to the faces of each person in turn, and finally to his own.

“Someday soon one of us will be gone,” he murmurs, “and then? No magic. No group. Forever. On the day that happens — and I hope it is well into the future — the other three will wish we had stepped through that door again while we had the chance. While we had the magic.”

“We are not trying to recapture our youth,” Bjorn adds, finding his tongue. “There will be no form-fitting jumpsuits. No glamor photo shoots. No tours that pull us away from our homes for weeks on end. No appearances in music videos — that is what actors and actresses are for.

“What we are recapturing, we won’t even need to try for. It is the magic.

“The magic of us.

Silence reigns. At last Frida rises and says the only words necessary — perhaps the only words possible.

“Very well,” she says, and exhales deeply. “We are a group once more.”

The four men and women meet in a circle, hands interlocked. A sense of quiet power, of something being unleashed, fills the cabin. Signatures on a contract will be just a formality later on; this is the true moment of reconnection.

Then they break the grip and step slowly outside, one by one, where a gentle wind is tousling the trees, and where a hired photographer has been patiently waiting to capture the moment.

The biggest comeback in popular music history begins with the click of a lens.

not.jpg

(The actual provenance of this photo is unknown except that my grandpa almost certainly took it, my grandma’s definitely in it, and it dates to roughly 1974. The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.)

A song for San Antone.

Another of the many things that makes the ARSA database of local radio airplay charts so cool: You never know what one of those charts might have meant to an artist who appeared on it.

I’ve been devoting some commute time in the past week or so to Texas Rock for Country Rollers, the 1976 album by the late, great, unquenchable Texas roots-music journeyman Doug Sahm.

I don’t like the record as much as most of Sahm’s biographers and fans seem to. There’s a certain lack of quality control, a stoned slapdash nature about the songs and the performances, that gets in the way of the cosmic-shitkicker good time the record was probably meant to be.

(If you want to get your Sahm on, I recommend Mercury Records’ The Best of Doug Sahm & the Sir Douglas Quintet 1968-1975. In Tex-Mex combo-plate fashion, it includes a few good bites of everything Sahm did well, from Western swing to T-Bone Walker to cheesy Farfisa-driven two-steps.)

But anyhow: Texas Rock For Country Rollers includes a medley of “Sometime/Cryin’ Inside,” two early-’60s hits by singer Gene Thomas.

Sahm, who never missed an opportunity to tell anybody where he was from, interrupts the medley to whip out a narrative with a little bit of chart-geek in its soul.

The story goes back 15 years, but the way he says “forever and ever and ever,” you can tell he’s still impressed:

“Yeah, I remember those times, back in those nightclubs in 1961 in San Antone … and ol’ Gene Thomas had a song that was Number One for ever, and ever, and ever. Goes like this.”

The airplay charts in San Antonio in 1961 would have been of more than casual interest to Sahm: As a roughly 20-year-old local musician, he was busy trying to get onto them. He made it a couple of times, under a couple of names.

(One of my favorite Sahm anecdotes involves him going to a high school dance in San Antonio as a teenager and hearing his own record get played, which must be among the coolest things ever to happen to any teenage rock n’ roller.)

What’s the ARSA database say about all this?

Well, San Antone’s KONO 860 shows Gene Thomas at Number One for the week of Aug. 4, 1961.  But the survey unfortunately doesn’t say how long the record had been there. (Note who checks in at No. 33.)

Gene Thomas also turns up at Number Two on San Antonio’s KTSA for the week of Aug. 10; Number One for a solid three weeks in July and August at Houston’s KILT; Number Two at still a third San Antonio station, KMAC, on Aug. 18; and Number One at Dallas’s KBOX a couple weeks after that.

A precise confirmation of Sahm’s narrative? Not quite, but it comes close enough. The charts certainly establish that “Sometime” must have been inescapable in Texas back in the summer of ’61. (I get the sense that precise fidelity to facts was never the point with Doug Sahm anyway.)

Instead, the story paints a charming picture of the artist as a young man — working his own musical schemes, cooling his heels in nightclubs, keeping an ear cocked toward the jukebox (and the radio), and probably thinking to himself, “Man, someday I’m gonna have a hit that big, and I’m gonna be on the radio in San Antone for ever, and ever, and ever.

And the best thing about the story?

He did.

Did Juno?

I wonder what Peter Frampton, Toni Tennille and John Travolta did with their Juno Awards.

The Junos, as you probably know, are basically Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys. They’re bestowed each year by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to encourage and recognize the successes of Canadian artists in a variety of genres.

Since the awards began in 1970, most Canadian-born performers who have found a commercial foothold in America have taken home a Juno at some point or another. The list of past recipients ranges from Glenn Gould to Loverboy, from Oscar Peterson to Shania Twain, and from Bruce Cockburn to Bob & Doug McKenzie.

What I didn’t know, until today, is that the Junos have also handed out awards honoring the best-selling “international” single and album of the year — (this bit edited for clarity) which is to say, the top-selling single and album in Canada not recorded by a Canadian artist.

For a brief time, the Junos honored the “best international artist,” too. (Not sure if the artist award was based on sales, or was a value judgment.)

So, while the vast majority of Junos have been awarded to sons and daughters of the true north strong and free, a handful have been given to people whose only connection with Canada was touring there.

When I first read about that, it seemed like an odd bit of scope creep, giving these definitively Canadian awards to non-Canadians. The whole point of the Junos, after all, is to recognize the contributions of Canadians.

But I suppose these “international” awards don’t hurt anybody. They don’t change the scope and intent of the Junos as a whole. They don’t take awards away from Canadians. And they make for a good trivia tidbit.

If I had a Juno Award — the old ones look like metronomes, while the new ones look like human figures — I’d do with it what Bob Dylan does with his Oscar: I’d take it on tour with me and put it onstage in a different place each night.

Dylan can’t do that with a Juno Award because he’s never won one. But the following furriners have. (The list is not complete.)

-Frampton for Frampton Comes Alive!, international album of the year, 1977

-Australia’s finest, Men at Work, for Business As Usual, international album of the year, 1983

-Various artists, for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, international album of the year, 1989 (I hope Eric Carmen got a Juno, though I have a sneaking suspicion he didn’t)

-Milli Vanilli, for Girl You Know It’s True, international album of the year, 1990 (like their Grammy, this one was later taken away)

– The Captain and Tennille, for “Love Will Keep Us Together,” international single of the year, 1976

-Leo Sayer, for “When I Need You,” international single of the year, 1978 (beating out Elvis Presley’s “My Way;” I’m sure a posthumous Juno would have looked nice in the awards room at Graceland)

-Travolta, with Olivia Newton-John, for “You’re The One That I Want,” international single of the year, 1979 (can’t get much more international than an Aussie and a ‘Murican singing together, can you?)

-Supertramp, for Breakfast in America, international album of the year, 1980 (can’t get much more international than a band of Brits singing about America, can you?)

-Pink Floyd, for The Wall and “Another Brick In The Wall,” international album and single, 1981  (Nick Mason has two international Junos, so stand him a round next time you see him, huh?)

-The Rolling Stones, International Entertainers of the Year, 1991 (putting them ahead of their British Invasion rivals, the Beatles, who never won one as a group, though Lennon and McCartney have won one each — Lennon’s posthumously — as solo performers)

-Fittingly for an award given to foreigners: Foreigner, for “I Want To Know What Love Is,” international single of the year, 1985