RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: July 2015

The last polka.

Posted on

4921919060_d599233fc4_zJolly Joe Timmer is with Freddie now.

The Lehigh Valley’s most successful polkapreneur died yesterday at 85. And in a perverse and deeply personal way almost totally unrelated to his artistic contributions, I miss him.

By the time I moved to this area in 2002, Jolly Joe had carved out a mini-empire in the world of Lehigh Valley entertainment. Depending which hat he had on at any given time, he was:

– The host of a weekly 90-minute local cable TV show, The Jolly Joe Timmer Show, on which he showed polka videos and chatted with random guests.

– The operator of Jolly Joe’s Polka Grove, a small party hall for rent in the sticks north of Bethlehem. His wife, Jolly Dottie, worked the concession stand. Like any good local businessman, Jolly Joe knew how to make his properties work for each other: Many of the polka videos aired on JJT’s show were filmed at the Grove, and each episode featured a commercial urging viewers to “call today for shindig dates and rates!”

grove– The promoter of polka concerts at venues other than the Grove — most notably at the Westgate Mall, a moribund shopping center at the edge of the city of Bethlehem. The busiest that mall ever got was during the polka concerts, which says quite a bit.

Damned if it hasn't been exactly eight years since I took this picture, to the day.

Damned if it hasn’t been exactly eight years since I took this picture, to the day.

– The owner of Sunny WGPA, an AM radio station broadcasting a mix of national talk radio and, you guessed it, polka. Ads for WGPA are visible behind Jolly Joe in the TV screenshot at the top of this post.

– The owner of a small store on the Southside of Bethlehem selling polka records — including some by his own band.

(Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that hat. Jolly Joe was also the drummer for a polka band bearing his name, which, I think, continued to gig on its name recognition even after he’d stopped playing.)

There had been nothing like The Jolly Joe Timmer Show on the cable stations I knew in Massachusetts. As an auslander trying to make my way in a new home, I became a regular weekly watcher, along with my young children.

Of course, the low-budget cheese factor was part of the appeal. Even in an obituary, I would be lying not to admit that.

When he wasn’t showing polka videos, Jolly Joe would take live callers and chat at length, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a guy talking to his monitor made for lousy TV.

On other occasions, he would invite packs of Cub Scouts into the studio and insist on speaking to every single camera-shy one; I’m here to say that five minutes of JJT interviewing Scouts was the longest half-hour of television I’ve ever watched.

At the same time, I recognized that Jolly Joe was part of the Lehigh Valley’s DNA. He was a lifelong Bethlehem resident, a local celebrity, a star entertainer and a successful businessman. He was popular here for a reason. So I watched and watched, hoping that strands of the local identity would begin to rub off.

Local polka band the Mel-O-Dee Aces playing a Jolly Joe polka hoedown at the Westgate Mall, 2007.

Local polka band the Mel-O-Dee Aces playing a Jolly Joe polka hoedown at the Westgate Mall, 2007.

The Lehigh Valley, as it turned out, was changing underneath both of us — and for a while, Jolly Joe was probably more keenly aware of it than I was.

For one thing, the polka crowd was aging into senescence. You never saw people under 60 on the dance floor in Jolly Joe’s locally filmed polka videos; they simply weren’t there.

What you did see in nearly every video, and I’ll long remember this, were pairs of seventy-something women dancing together — presumably because their husbands had predeceased them. Pathos is the furthest thing from the soul of polka, but it was easy to feel a little sad at the sight of that.

At the same time, a growing number of people from New York and New Jersey were moving into the Valley, willing to trade an hour-plus commute for an affordable suburban home. They made the region younger, richer and more populated, and they voted with their dollars to make it more sophisticated in terms of chain shopping, restaurants and entertainment.

(There were some of us who moved in from other places, too. But the 212s tended to get the attention, which was fine with us.)

The Valley’s entertainment scene began to sprout attractions and destinations that would have seemed unthinkable when I moved here. (Indeed, I’ve taken a special kind of pleasure from watching provincial long-timers pooh-pooh each idea, only to have them take root, blossom and succeed.)

We got a shiny new ballpark in Allentown and an extremely successful Triple-A minor-league team to play in it, plus a handful of open-air concerts there. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs regularly rank at or near the top of minor-league attendance.

We got a similarly shiny hockey rink and AHL team in downtown Allentown — finally replacing Lehigh University’s small Stabler Arena as a viable big-name concert destination.

We got an arts complex, including several marvelous music stages, in the former Bethlehem Steel mill by the Lehigh River in Bethlehem.

Shonen Knife at the new Levitt Pavilion stage in Bethlehem.

Shonen Knife at the Levitt Pavilion stage in Bethlehem.

It takes more than just country and classic rock to fill all those stages, and it feels like the region’s taste is expanding in turn.

Snoop Dogg, O.A.R. and the Flaming Lips are among the headliners at this year’s Musikfest, the annual Bethlehem music festival where Jolly Joe Timmer used to rock the polka tent each year. Not to be outdone, the Great Allentown Fair — whose headliners typically run to country, classic rock, and the Disney soubrette of the season — has booked Deadmau5 as a headliner this year. Modest Mouse has played the new stages at the old steel plant two years running, and sold out at least one of the shows, if not both.

(The Valley’s Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants are pretty well gone, so you’d be hard put to get a plate of schnitz und knepp after the shows. But you can get good Thai, Ethiopian, or handmade Chinese dumplings.)

It was worth watching Jolly Joe to get to know his Valley, because you can better appreciate where you are if you know where you came from. I will never qualify as a long-timer here, but I’ve picked up enough roots to be able to fake it.

My kids, in contrast, have the Lehigh Valley pedigree I lack. One was born here, while the other one moved here before he was old enough to form conscious memories of his birthplace in Massachusetts.

They will never really know Jolly Joe’s Valley, having grown up in a place with shiny ballparks and hockey arenas and Apple Stores.

But they still remember — and I think they long will — the show they used to insist on watching every Thursday when they were little … the show with the smiling old man, and the same four ads every week, and the polka videos that used to set them to exaggerated projectile-pogoing around the living room.

See, I was only partially watching Jolly Joe to be part of the Lehigh Valley. I was also watching to be part of my kids’ lives. My kids dug it, and we could share it, and talk and joke about it every week, and even go on one memorable occasion to one of JJT’s multi-band polka festivals at the godforsaken Westgate Mall.

One of those kids will be a high school sophomore in a month’s time. The other will start middle school. The smiling old man we used to watch is gone. And the Westgate Mall … well, nowadays, it’s probably a real nice place to get some thinking done.

So I’ll wallow in the past for a couple more hours. It was a provincial place, that Valley, and I never felt entirely comfortable there; but there were good memories to be had.

By tomorrow night, I’ll have snapped out of it and come back to today’s Valley.

I’ve got tickets to the IronPigs.

My kids and Jolly Joe Timmer, 2007.

My kids and Jolly Joe Timmer, 2007.


Any dream at all.

Posted on

I spent the past few days listening to one of the lesser-known songs in the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter catalog … only to be frustratingly reminded, in the end, why it’s lesser-known.

Mission In The Rain” is another in the long series of Garcia-Hunter weepers — if you know the Dead’s repertoire, think “Black Peter,” “Wharf Rat” and “Stella Blue” for comparison.

For the most part, the song is the inner monologue of an also-ran loser as he picks his way through San Francisco’s Mission District on a rainy night. Indeed, if you could hear the drunk from “Wharf Rat” talking to himself, it might sound kinda like this.

Although the Dead were Bay Area icons, this is one of the only Garcia-Hunter songs — maybe the only one — to be explicitly set in San Francisco, which lends the words a certain personal weight and resonance coming from Garcia’s mouth.

(Hunter has said the lyric is autobiographical. Garcia, in a separate interview, said the lyric felt autobiographical to him, even though he hadn’t written it.)

Garcia recorded the song, with the Dead backing him, for his 1976 solo album Reflections. The Dead played the song at five concerts, all in the summer of ’76, before letting it slip out of their repertoire.

Garcia kept “Mission” in his solo repertoire until his death, performing it at 250 Jerry Garcia Band concerts over 20 years. Still, because Reflections was not a big seller and the Dead dropped the song quickly, the tune’s familiarity is probably pretty well limited to Garciaphiles.

(Just to close one of my favorite loops, “Mission” does not appear in the ARSA database of local radio playlists, suggesting it never rose to local-favorite status on any of America’s radio stations.)

Briefly captivated by “Mission”‘s downbeat feel, and fancying it the Great Lost Grateful Dead Ballad, I burned myself a CD last week with seven different versions of the song — six from Jerry Band gigs between January and September 1976, and one from a Dead show at the Boston Music Hall on June 12 of that year.

After several solid days of listening, I think I’m sated.

The lyric, sadly, takes a couple of Hunter’s best, saddest couplets and mates them with lines of unsatisfying first-draft rawness. Take, for instance:

All the things I planned to do
I only did halfway

followed by

Tomorrow will be Sunday
born of rainy Saturday

I am reminded of the old Firesign Theatre line about primitive man “harnessing the secret of the calendar.”

I also find the positive uptick in the final verse out of place. How can there be “satisfaction in the San Francisco rain” when it represents the washing away of ten years of dreams?

And what’s the comfort in the Mission “always (looking) the same” when stasis and stagnation seem to be at the heart of Our Narrator’s problem?

(The standard disclaimer applies: Hunter is a rock n’ roll legend; I am a guy writing in his basement in Allentown, Pennsylvania.)

Although I think I’ve explored all the depths this song has to offer, I do find myself returning to the Grateful Dead version on my mix CD.

Before they got old and tired, the Dead could kick a slow shuffle along pretty nicely, and their version has a snap the Jerry Band versions don’t have.

Judge for yourself.

A new-type thang.

Posted on

I’ve written before about The Quietus, the British music and pop-culture site that turns out high-quality commentary at a rate bloggers like me can only envy.

I’m pretty sure I haven’t written the full story of how I got turned on to Parliament-Funkadelic as a teen — possibly the last good pop-culture story in my trick bag that hasn’t been told yet.

Anyway, Ned Raggett, writing for The Quietus, has pried some of it out with an excellent 40th-anniversary essay on Funkadelic’s Let’s Take It To The Stage album.

Raggett’s piece is well worth a read, relating as it does the pot-smoked Seventies wanderings of George Clinton’s funk mob to America’s eternally tangled racial politics. (Indeed: Go check it out. If you never make it back to this post you won’t have missed much.)

At one point in the essay, Raggett admits that he was too young to have heard Let’s Take It… when it came out, and that his eyes were not opened to P-Funk until later:

I only first heard of Clinton himself a couple of years later, seeing the famous photo of him riding the dolphins, wondering what the heck was up, as much of a, “Oh… this is music?” moment as knowing that Kiss were out there, in all their make-up.

When I hit that graf, it transported me to a high school library in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y., circa 1987. (“Vanilla suburbs,” yes … the phrase is perhaps cliche at this point, but true enough in this case.)

I read about what I liked; and I liked rock n’ roll; so I burned a lot of free periods reading a rock encyclopedia put out by someone or other. You know the deal — each band got a discography, usually a picture, and a brief career summary.

Anyway, I got to the P section … and there was this picture of a sharp-dressed black guy looking like some sort of cowboy-pimp, diamond ring glinting, hoisting a boom box to his ear while riding a pair of dolphins. 

And just to make things weirder, the accompanying discography of his bands (he had enough juice for two, apparently, and they both put out releases at the same time) featured titles like Cosmic Slop and Motor Booty Affair and Hardcore Jollies and Standing On The Verge of Getting It On.

With the exception of Zappa and the Mothers, who’d blown open a corner of my brain at an even earlier age, it was just about the weirdest thing I’d ever seen in my life. It definitely stood out a mile in a book filled with pictures of white guys posed against backstage walls. And I decided I had to check it out.

How I did is another story, and I’ll get back to those details at some other point. Suffice it for now to say that I found my way onto the P-Funk bus, and that it was a significant influence on my high school years that occasionally still resonates today.

Raggett’s essay, involved as it is in larger arguments, doesn’t touch too deeply on most of the album’s songs. There’s a lot of good stuff on Let’s Take It To The Stage, but the song that sums up the whole trip for me is the title track.

I’d heard call-and-response vocals before, soul from the old school, like maybe when my dad would play Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles records. But this was something unruly, anarchic, totally different.

There was a lead voice — not really a singer — reciting twisted nursery rhymes and throwing shade at other funk bands. He sounded thoroughly stroked out on some drug I didn’t even know existed, and also very pleased with himself.

Then there was another not-really-singing voice, farther away from the mic, aggressively shouting imprecations and insults (“Slick and the Family Prick! Let’s take it higher!”)

Sometimes the stoned guy closer to the mic would echo the shouter. Sometimes it went the other way ’round. And sometimes Stoned Guy would straight-up step on Shouting Guy in mid-sentence, as if they were just making it up as they went.

(Even the cats on my dad’s classic jazz albums, the improvisers like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, weren’t entirely making it up as they went. There were regular cycles of chords underneath, and they’d wrap up their solo at the end of the chord sequence and make way for the next soloist. There was nothing so predictable about this self-proclaimed Funk Mob. Maybe they’d all surfed to the recording session on dolphins.)

And that doesn’t even mention the choir of background singers singing … something, I’m still not totally sure what. Whatever it was, it didn’t echo either Stoned Guy or Shouting Guy, much of the time. It was its own thang. Still another thang.

(The celebrated musicians of the P-Funk stable are not heard in their full improvisatory glory here, except for some classically wonderful synth squiggles on the bridge. I suppose somebody on this song needed to stay in the bag. Their structure sets the backdrop against which the vocalists can fly free, anyway.)

As I got to know Funkadelic more deeply, I would come across tracks that I wished they’d put a little more effort into — songs that seemed like stoned sketches, perhaps relevant to the people in the studio at the time, but lacking some polish that would help them carry further.

“Let’s Take It To The Stage” is not one of those songs. Polish or other arrangement would only detract from its swaggering, loopy perfection. It defines its own logic, sets out its own law and pitches its tent. It might just be the perfect introduction to the P-Funk realm — one of the best places to step through the funhouse mirror and get initiated into a whole new world.

In that sense, the song captures the feel of that moment when you take the reins, and put your feet on the dolphins’ backs, and lose your breath in a gasp as you find yourself skimming across the water for the first time.

Hope springs eternal.

Posted on

For those of you who dug my other blog, Hope Street, there’s a big announcement there today.

(OK, I’m gonna go ahead and spoil it: I’ll be writing some new posts over there. Still, feel free to check out the latest post anyway. As well as those to follow.)

Among my souvenirs.

Posted on

In almost 35 years of watching live baseball, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever come home from a ballpark with, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

2102_1119The New York-Penn League, like Charles Ives, is one of those American institutions I endorse wholeheartedly and without reservation.

It’s a short-season Class A baseball league, the second-lowest rung on the U.S. professional baseball scale, with a scattered history going back to the 1890s (more consistently, to the 1920s and ’30s.)

Over the decades, it’s brought big-league-affiliated professional baseball to the kinds of glamour-free third- and fourth-class New York State towns that I like to bum around in when I’m off The Man’s time. Places like Elmira and Oneonta and Little Falls, and Geneva and Newark and Utica, and Batavia and Jamestown and Wellsville and Olean and Corning.

(Also Pittsfield, Mass., and Welland and St. Catharines, Ontario, and Norwich, Conn., and Burlington, Vt., and now even Morgantown, W. Va. The New York-Penn League is New York and Pennsylvania in name only, but has never changed its name to try to curry favor with its outlying territories. This is part of what makes it great.)

The New York-Penn League is a charming caucus of historic brick downtowns, and 4,000-seat ballparks surrounded by residential neighborhoods, and old commercial buildings with fading Indian heads painted on the sides, and free parking, and quiet rivers like the Chemung and the Mohawk, and Genesee or Saranac on tap at the park, and farm stands with jaw-dropping fresh produce dotting the countryside from town to town.

I’ll stop short of calling it idyllic — you’ll see a fair number of weed-rimmed old houses and down-at-the-heels commercial areas in a tour of the league’s footprint. But, as small-town America goes, you could do a whole lot worse.

The New York-Penn League also offers a nice middle ground between the college baseball I love to watch, and the major league and Triple-A ball I attend from time to time.

College ball is wicked intimate. All the seats are up close. The players come out of the dugout between games to talk to their parents and eat sandwiches their mom brought. You might find yourself tossing a foul ball back to a player, or even taking a leak next to one between games in the public bathroom. I’ve learned not to startle and look up when I hear the click-click-click of spikes on the concrete floor.

But, unless you’re watching a powerhouse team, the chances are pretty slim any of the players will go pro — and the play can be sloppy enough to remind you you’re watching nine future engineers out in the field. It sometimes fails to fulfill the side of me that enjoys professionalism.

Major-league and Triple-A ball, by contrast, is bright and shiny and professional. But the major leagues cost an arm and a leg to watch in person, while Triple-A teams rub me raw with their incessant between-pitch and between-inning attempts at entertainment. And, when you watch a guy earning $1 million a year miss a cut-off man or pop a bunt attempt foul, you question whether they’re working as hard to earn your money as you did.

Class A, then, is right in the money spot between the extremes. It’s intimate, maybe a little dowdy around the edges. If autographs are your thing, the players are abundantly available, whether sitting at a stand on the concourse …

102_0388… or approached from a front-row seat:

102_0412The play can be sloppy from time to time. But the players work hard; they aren’t jaded yet, and they’re still burning to climb the ladder.

And the affiliation with the major leagues lends a dose of professionalism. The teams of the New York-Penn League are all linked to a major-league squad, and everyone on the field has at least some margin of potential, or else they wouldn’t have a pro contract. Despite the high washout rate, there’s a decent chance that at least a couple guys on the field are good enough to make The Show.

The first two New York-Penn teams I saw — the 1992 Welland Pirates and Geneva Cubs — boasted 10 future big-leaguers between them. The 2009 Batavia Muckdogs and Jamestown Jammers had 12, including current Cardinals Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter.

I’m sure I’ll go back in five or six years and look up the Staten Island Yankees and Auburn Doubledays teams I saw play earlier this week, to see how many of them attained the dream.

The Yankees seemed most ready for prime time: They won 7-3, and looked for all the world in their Yankees-facsimile road grays like they were ready to help in the Bronx if needed. Only their youthful faces and a few details on their uniforms gave them away as minor-leaguers.

102_0576I think it was Staten Island outfielder Jhalan Jackson, a seventh-round draft pick known for his power, who was at bat early in the game as I walked back from the beer stand with a Genesee Scotch Ale. I’d considered some food as well, but the line was long, so I made a fateful decision to go back to the game.

I was minding my own and evaluating my first sip when I heard the tell-tale thonk of horsehide landing on concrete. I took about four steps to my right and there it was — a freshly fouled-off New York-Penn League baseball, sitting on the green grass between the party pavilion and the bathrooms.

The kids who inevitably chase foul balls were just getting out of their seats; there was no one with a better claim.

So I snapped it up. A tiny piece of the storied history of the New York-Penn League, the coolest professional baseball league in America, was going home in my pocket.

There is a place in hell reserved for adults who beat little kids out of foul balls in direct combat, and I am aware of this … but there was no one near this one, honest. It was just short of hand-delivered.

(One girl came up to me about 30 seconds after I picked it up and asked, “Did you just pick up that foul ball?” I thought about what a decent adult would do, and then lied: “Yeah, I’ll probably bring it home to my kids.” She smiled and said, “Great job!” and ran off. A few innings later I saw her on the field with her sister, grinning ear to ear, taking part in a between-innings promotional contest. So it worked out in the end; she got something special out of her day at the park too, and she probably hasn’t given a second thought to that foul ball.)

I spent part of my weekend going through handed-down belongings of my grandparents. Perhaps this ball will end up going down the same path.

Fifty or sixty years from now, my descendants will find it in a box, marvel at its yellowed patina, wonder if it has any worth, make a mental resolution to call a sports memorabilia dealer sometime and put it back in the box.

They can do what they want with it when that time comes. For now it is in my hands, solid and hefty. And I’d reject any dealer’s offer for it.

The morning noise.

Posted on

A brief break from writing about 40-year-old records, then, to tell you what else is in my ears these days.

I do most of my music listening during the trip to and from work, and the music I play in my car plays an important role in my life. In the morning, it keeps me from fixating on all the stuff waiting undone at work. And in the afternoon it helps wash it all away, unless I am too frustrated or furious to find any escape.

Here’s what’s on my passenger seat right now …

The Sunday League: At my last newspaper job, I worked with a guy who covered Pennsylvania state government in Harrisburg. He was (and is) smart, canny, well-spoken, irreverent, a snappy dresser, an Anglophile, and not cowed by the poses and absurdities of the Keystone State’s elected representatives.

If that weren’t enough to have on his CV, he’s also a veteran power-pop musician who’s put out a couple of professional-quality releases. (He plays ska sometimes too; you knew there had to be a chink in his armor someplace.)

Anyway, on this EP, he enlists several like-minded central Pennsylvania musicians, cranks up his Rickenbacker and pours out the hooks, singing along in a distinctive McGuinnish/Pettyish voice.

I haven’t had this one long, but results from the early precincts say it’s a winner.

Moncton Isn’t So Bad: Jumping wildly from the shores of the Susquehanna River to the Canadian Maritimes, we come across this compilation of local New Brunswick musicians. The songs range wildly from minimalist acoustic to raging punk, and from bedroom lo-fi “productions” to thumping professional mixes.

Unfortunately, it really isn’t all that good. I really wish I could say I liked it, and that it was a jewel waiting to be discovered (like this Moncton band I stumbled across — and stumbled is the right word — a while ago). But, no.

Truth be told, I’ll probably chuck the home-burned CD after another spin or two. But who knows? Maybe some night, as I drive home from the nine-to-five, something here will reach out and speak to me.

The Jean Jackets, Jean Jacques; also, Bay Kee, The Man With Red Eyes, and Grey Visions, The Grey Tape: An old college buddy of mine plays in a band over in New Jersey. A while ago, I was reading about them on some Jersey indie-rock website when I read about the Jean Jackets, four youngsters from Old Tappan who play in a band when they’re not off at college.

I downloaded their first album, Jean Jacques, and for about two weeks I hated it.

The chiming indie-pop music didn’t grab me; I didn’t like their lyrics, those I could understand; and most of all, I hated their predilection for wordless scat-sung vocal hooks. (I think every song on this record has a la-la-la section in it somewhere, and some have more than one. It gets to feeling gimmicky.)

Slowly they grew on me. The songs of Christine Spilka, who shares singing and guitar duties with Jackson Phinney, won me over first. Then Spilka and Phinney’s otherworldly duet on the record’s one cover version, Elliot Smith’s “Angel In The Snow,” grabbed me. Then Phinney’s songs started seeming catchier, less obnoxious, more relatable.

And just last night, I had to drive 70 minutes to Wilkes-Barre and back again, and Jean Jacques was the only music I listened to, the entire time, through the whole record and back to the start again.

Goddamned if I know how, but they’ve won me over. So much so that I’ve gone and downloaded the first EP by Bay Kee (Spilka’s solo project) and an album of material by Grey Visions (Phinney’s nom de guerre.)

The Bay Kee record is enjoyable, stylistically in line with Spilka’s contributions to the full band. I’ve only just started The Grey Tape, but the first song holds together pretty solidly, given the downplayed description Phinney gives the material. (If I understand him right, he characterizes several of his Grey Visions releases as demos-and-experiments-that-are-just-finished-enough-to-share-with-other-people.)

Mint 400 Records Presents 1967: Remember my college buddy from a few grafs ago? His band is one of 11 artists appearing on this Jersey indie-rock compilation, featuring 14 covers of songs originally released in 1967 — everything from “I’ll Be Your Mirror” to “Let’s Spend The Night Together.”

I’m still getting to know this comp. Most of the covers I’ve heard don’t take me anywhere the originals didn’t … and a few covers don’t take me anywhere at all, which is worse. But I haven’t spun it enough times to really make up my mind, so there’s still potential here.

(The cuts all seem to be professionally recorded, which puts 1967 head and shoulders above Moncton Isn’t So Bad. I’m not against rank homemade amateurism — hell, I engage in it regularly — but when it rubs shoulders with studio mixes, everything suffers.)

The pick hit for me so far is a version of “To Love Somebody” by a band called Fairmont, which owes its success in part to its humid, compressed, crunchy vibe, and in part to the fact that it’s “To Love Somebody.”

And one more bonus from the time I spend on the computer nights:

Tom Moulton: The Sandpiper, Fire Island, New York, USA 1974Ostensibly this is a mix of dance tunes assembled by disco super-mixer Tom Moulton for a gay hangout on Fire Island way back when. If it isn’t, it should have been, because it has the Seventies pop-soul hooks-and-groove thang going on in spades.

This is not downloadable as far as I know, and Soundcloud stuff doesn’t hang around forever, so I’ll enjoy this until it disappears. If you appreciate the work of Moulton, Gamble and Huff, Barry White and other such luminaries, I suggest you do the same.

Now, if only I could play it in the car…

A real celebration.

Posted on

Longtime readers know of my deep fondess for the music of Chicago, in particular the band’s ’70s output. My dad played Chicago albums a lot around the house when I was small, and as a result, they are familiar and comfortable to me, the way Campbell’s chicken noodle soup or a Snoopy doll might be to other Seventies kids.

This being a Saturday and the Fourth of July, it seems an appropriate time to gather some thoughts on “Saturday In The Park,” which in my estimation is the definitive Seventies Chicago tune if you had to pick one. (This reflects my preference for Robert Lamm’s singing and songwriting above that of the other guys in the band.)

I’m sure I’ve tossed out some of these observations in other posts in other years; and I don’t guarantee any of them are worth anything, individually or together. But, here you go. Enjoy your Fourth, and any other Saturdays in the park you might come across.

– “Saturday In The Park,” despite being one of the great all-time pop songs to mention the Fourth of July, wasn’t actually a Fourth of July hit. The invaluable ARSA radio-play database shows the song beginning to pop up on local radio charts in late July 1972, and it would not reach its Top 40 chart peak until well after Labor Day.

Ironically, it could have been a Fourth of July hit. According to Wiki, the songs on the Chicago V album were recorded in late September of 1971, but were held in the can until the following summer to allow the band’s Live at Carnegie Hall album to run the charts.

Perhaps patriotic Fourth of July airplay would have helped “Saturday In The Park” get all the way to Number One, instead of stalling at Number Four. And maybe if it had, the Chicago sound would not have been so firmly defined by Peter Cetera — who succeeded in giving the band its first Number One single four years later, with “If You Leave Me Now.”

(Or maybe not. Number One for the week including July 4, 1972, was Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” not a song to be easily elbowed aside.)

– I’ve described this song in the past as a Norman Rockwell painting rendered by hippies, and I still find that charming.

Chicago, keep in mind, had dedicated an album just two years earlier to “the men and women of the revolution.” And on their previous studio album, released a year before “Saturday In The Park,” they’d appeared on a poster dramatizing the deaths of American combat soldiers throughout history.

“Saturday In The Park,” in contrast, finds them connecting with the eternal sunshine in the American bloodstream — flags and celebration, and people pouring into shared public areas just to experience a special day, and people free to tell stories their own way, and even people speaking different languages. (Lamm’s delightfully garbled line of mock-Italian deserves a blog post all to itself, but I’ll leave it be for now.)

There would be political and social comment on Chicago V — witness the superb “Dialogue (Parts I & II),” the follow-up single to “Saturday In The Park.”

But the album’s lead single seems to me to serve as a vote of confidence in the American spirit. It’s an anthem for the shared thread within us that comes together, without being maudlin or jingoistic, to recognize that we’ve got a good idea going; our forefathers came up with something special; and our great democratic experiment is worth continued support.

Some might see that as selling out or giving up. If I’d been a hippie in 1972 I might have felt that way.

From my perspective, I see it as a realistic vision … a realization that the republic had weathered any number of storms, and it would weather Vietnam and other Seventies downers as well, and that a core of something worth celebrating lingered under all the generational hassles.

– Speaking of political comment, it’s telling in retrospect to listen to the second side of Chicago V. The side opens with “While The City Sleeps,” a paranoid, vaguely heavy rocker about unseen forces (The Man?) plotting “new ways to kill us” and “tell us dirty lies.”

Then it moves into “Saturday In The Park,” as sturdy and charming as a deep-rooted oak on a New England town green.

Then it moves to “State of the Union,” a Lamm-written, Cetera-sung rocker whose fictional narrator gets arrested for his profane, public calls to tear the system down.

And then it moves to “Goodbye,” a song about failed interpersonal relationships set atop the background of a busy rock star (“the last three whole years have flashed by.”)

Seen in retrospect, it’s almost like you can watch Chicago’s young-revolutionary side doing battle with its mature L.A.-rock-star side for control of the band’s direction.

(Side II does not end with a clear victory for either faction. Rather, it ends with Terry Kath’s “Alma Mater,” a song that calls on the band members to hold it together now that they’re stars. A fitting close to a schizophrenic, if highly enjoyable, piece of work. Fans would have to wait for future albums to find out for sure which side won.)

– Kath, speaking of, is almost totally absent from this single. You have to listen closely to hear his guitar chanks on beats 2 and 4, and his voice is not noticeably present in the harmonies.

“Saturday In The Park” marks something of a turning point for Chicago’s self-taught guitarist, singer, songwriter and rock n’ roll force.

Of the band’s 11 singles released prior to “Saturday,” four featured partial or full lead vocals by Kath. Two were Top Ten hits — among the band’s best-known songs at the time — while a third dented the Top 20. (All chart info in this graf and the following is taken from this Wiki page.)

Of the 14 singles released by the band after “Saturday” and before Kath’s death in January 1978, he took full or partial lead on only four. Two of those singles missed the Top 40 entirely. A third, while a major hit, featured a Kath vocal appearance so subdued as to be virtually unrecognizable (“Wishing You Were Here”), and overshadowed in any event by the presence of several Beach Boys on support vocals.

Only “Dialogue,” the immediate follow-up single to “Saturday,” would find major chart success with Kath’s gravelly voice front and center.

It feels too dramatic to suggest that Kath’s downward spiral started here — that the evolution of Chicago starting around this time would lead up to the day when the guitarist would put a gun to his head, even in jest, and pull the trigger.

Still, Kath’s transformation from prominent lead voice to something more approaching a sideman seems to have begun around this time.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Cetera had the hot hand vocally, while Lamm, Cetera and James Pankow were shining as songwriters. But for those who enjoyed the early Chicago, it does mark a shift in the sound and dynamics of the group.

– The uplifting vocal chorus of “Listen, children, all is not lost / All is not lost / Oh, no, no” apparently fires up Lamm so much that he breaks into a momentary flourish of bluesy boogie-woogie piano.

(It’s audible at about 2:45 of the above clip … though, really, anyone still reading this has heard the song 15,000 times and knows exactly what I’m talking about.)

I love that because it supports the lyrical theme of doing your own thing. A bronze man still can tell stories his own way; and slow-motion riders can fly the colors of the day; and a brainy, somewhat disaffected young rock star can burst out with a clumsy bit of boogie, even if no one would normally confuse him with Johnnie Johnson.

(It could also be seen as a quick moment of Lamm putting his own stamp on his song. Most of “Saturday In The Park” is a vocal and/or instrumental duet between Lamm and Cetera — check out the latter’s McCartneyish bass link that starts the section about the slow-motion riders. But for one second in an otherwise smooth pop ensemble performance, Lamm pounds a little louder and throws in a little blues flavor. Why not?)

– Check out the way drummer Danny Seraphine turns the beat around in the last 10 seconds or so of the song, under Cetera’s vocal vamping … and how Cetera’s chronically underrated bass playing bounces imperturbably off it before meeting again at the finish. They didn’t just put the music on cruise control to the end.

– And dig the closing piano chord, which rings from sea to shining sea with an engaging sort of solidity. Chicago’s “A Day In The Life,” only with ennui replaced by optimism? Yeah, you could probably make an argument in that direction.

– In my limited 40-year-old suburban-dad knowledge, there are not that many killer hip-hop songs that sample Chicago. Robert Lamm and company just don’t bespeak bad-ass groove to producers, I guess.

But any discussion of “Saturday In The Park” ought to include De La Soul’s audacious “A Roller Skating Jam Named ‘Saturdays’,” which includes a ghostly sample of Lamm and the Chicago horn section alongside several clips from the theme from “Grease.”

I’ve always loved the song — it’s like somebody took a bunch of Seventies signifiers, threw them into a blender and set a funky beat underneath.