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Monthly Archives: July 2016

It’s 10 p.m. in Wichita Falls.

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Some pop-history errands, one comes to regret.

Like the time I thought: “What could a pop song about a rapist nailing his wrist to the wall of his cell possibly sound like?”

This unlikely question grew from a seasonal seed — one that the pop historians in my readership have probably already seen coming.

It was in July of 1969 that a pair of Nebraska-born singers, Denny Zager and Rick Evans, hit paydirt with the single “In The Year 2525” (grandiosely subtitled “Exordium & Terminus.”)

The song, a gloomy, strummy portrait of man’s decline and eventual rebirth over the centuries, has never done much for me.

But it resonated with baby-boomer record buyers in a big way. It zoomed from No. 35 on the Billboard chart to No. 8 to No. 1 over a three-week period, and stayed at No. 1 for six weeks.

An astounding array of classic songs made the Top 10 during those weeks — among them “Spinning Wheel,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “My Cherie Amour,” “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” “Sweet Caroline,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and Three Dog Night’s “One.”

None could bump Zager and Evans’ dystopian single from the top of the chart. It took no less than “Honky Tonk Women,” possibly the finest, rawest, lustiest single in the entire Rolling Stones catalog, to finally dislodge “In The Year 2525” from the No. 1 spot.

Zager and Evans were never able to repeat that success, or anything close to it. Within a few years they were fodder for DJs’ trivia questions and lists of curiosities — perched alongside the Silhouettes and the Singing Nun on the roster of acts who hit No. 1 and then disappeared.

Nowadays, the Internet knows all, and pop fans who wonder what happened to Z&E after their big hit need only do some searching.

What came next is usually summed up in a single sentence, something like this one from the duo’s Wiki entry:

Despite the record’s massive success, follow-up singles such as “Mr. Turnkey” (a song about a rapist who nails his own wrist to the jail wall as punishment for his crime) went largely unnoticed by the public.

Somewhere in the labyrinth of the Internet, there’s probably an interview in which Zager or Evans explains why they chose such a horribly bleak song for their follow-up single.

Maybe they were committed to what they perceived as telling-it-like-it-is realism. Maybe they were concerned about being typecast as stargazers and skywatchers, and felt a first-person lament from a jail cell would be a good contrast to the century-jumping flights of their first hit.

Or maybe they’d already grown sick of being pop stars, and were looking to chase the whole thing away with a song they knew would never land them on “American Bandstand.”

I didn’t care enough to dig into the backstory. But after a while, I got to wondering about the music.

Was there a worthwhile tune there that America had failed to discover? Some nugget of inspiration that maybe had gone overlooked because of the subject matter? Did they make an honest attempt to push boundaries, only to find listeners weren’t willing to go that far? I wondered.

If I could enjoy nine minutes of Mick Jagger mugging and strutting through “Midnight Rambler” from the fall of ’69 — and I have — I couldn’t turn up my nose at “Mr. Turnkey” on any kind of moral principle. So I figured I’d check it out.

God knows I’d never heard this song on the radio, and probably never would.

(I was surprised to find “Mr. Turnkey” on 42 local radio charts in the ARSA database, suggesting that it did find pockets of airplay here and there in the autumn of ’69. It rose as high as No. 10 at the radio station at the State University of New York at Oswego, and No. 5 as part of a two-sided single in Wausau, Wisconsin, though I question which side got most of the spins. Still, 42 charts is pretty paltry, given that “In The Year 2525” appears on more than 650.)

Anyway, the song must be on YouTube, right?

Yup, afraid so:

I’m not sure where to start reviewing this one; but I suspect if I started I wouldn’t stop for a while.

So, suffice it to say I found “Mr. Turnkey” musically bland and forgettable, and lyrically charmless, gauche, heavy-handed, wrong-headed and repetitive (I counted fourteen mentions of the title in 2:21).

Just … no.

For a master class in how to make a criminal interesting, human, and believably regretful through the use of detail and figurative language, listen to “Folsom Prison Blues.” In fact, if you sat through “Mr. Turnkey,” you probably ought to go ahead and do that, a couple of times, just to clear your palate.

So, yeah, I wasn’t missing any hidden treasure, and the program directors who took a pass on “Mr. Turnkey” in 1969 (and those on oldies stations who continue to do so today) were probably doing us all a solid.

If nothing else, the Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce is probably still breathing a sigh of relief that Zager and Evans didn’t put their city permanently on America’s pop-culture map.

The good life in Minnesota.

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News item: Former Minnesota Gov. and U.S. Senator Wendell Anderson is dead at 81.

Wendell Anderson appeared on one of the great Time magazine covers of the Seventies — in my twisted estimation, anyway — and it is for that, not his political achievements, that I recall him.

I am not old enough to remember this cover in real time (no pun intended.) I found it quite by accident while researching a Hope Street post, and it’s stuck in my mind ever since.

(For copyright reasons, I won’t post an image here, but you can click here to see it in a separate window.)

What makes it memorable?

The lurid cherry hue of Anderson’s turtleneck. Doesn’t look like he’s run that thing through the wash more than once, and it certainly doesn’t look like he’s made a habit of wearing it in the great outdoors. (The shirt’s color does match the red of Time’s cover almost perfectly; I can’t imagine he planned that, but it was a fortunate accident.)

The complete absence of any fight, flop, jerk or twitch in Anderson’s fish. Either it’s stuffed, or the governor’s been holding that sumbitch proudly aloft for at least 90 minutes.

The presence of a mysterious Bob Dobbs-ish smoking man in the background. Not only is he enjoying his pipe in close proximity to the boat’s gas tank, but he’s dressed in a way that contradicts the governor (baseball cap instead of bareheaded; short sleeves instead of flannel and turtleneck.)
He raises more questions than he answers; I wasn’t even 100 percent sure at first glance that he and the Gov were captured by the same click of the camera lens at the same time.

Anderson landed on that week’s cover thanks to some sort of economic upturn in his state. But I think the real impetus behind his appearance — or at least his appearance in an outdoor setting — was the perpetuation of an ongoing American myth:
When things are going sideways in New York, D.C. and L.A., as they were in 1973, people there like to imagine there are still places in flyover country where upright Americans are wrestling fish out of pristine lakes and drinking grape Nehi from the bottle on the front porches of general stores.
(Not at the same time.)
I don’t know if that myth still has any purchase today; maybe nowadays we figure meth and the Internet have dragged small-town America into the same cesspool as everywhere else.
But I can imagine a magazine editor in Richard Nixon’s America touting “The Good Life In Minnesota” as a tonic for the times — a cheering, restorative, all-American break between two Watergate covers — while muttering to himself, “Nice to know someone’s leading the good life.”

For all the posey corn inherent in this photo, Anderson’s expression has a certain degree of charm; he seems genuinely happy.
(Of course, if I knew I were being photographed for a Time magazine cover story that was going to boom my state’s success to millions of Watergate-sodden readers, I’d be pretty jazzed too.)

Wendell Anderson, in this summery moment in 1973, might not quite have the whole world on a string; but he has more than just a prop fish.

Of time and the canal.

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Today is the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Bicentennial, and a fair amount of 1976-themed popular culture content has been crossing my path.

(I don’t personally remember the big day; wasn’t quite old enough. But maybe if I have grandkids, I’ll make something up to tell ’em, just because. I’ve got some years to work on these stories.)

Not every lingering image from the Bicentennial involves queens, and presidents, and fireworks, and tall ships on the Hudson River. Some are humbler.

Like this one:

What we have here is a half-hour special produced for Syracuse’s NBC affiliate (then WSYR, now WSTM), offering a ride-along down a stretch of the Erie Canal with one Kay Russell as host.

Ms. Russell appears to be making up the script as she goes along, and she hesitates, mis-speaks and repeats herself at various points. (Did you know Rome, New York, was a strategic city? After watching this, you’ll know — twice.)

Some of the footage from the beginning of the trip shows up again at the end. And the whole thing is set to a backdrop of historical music that isn’t loud enough to establish itself as part of the ambiance. It comes off sounding like Ms. Russell taped her voice-over in the same room as a transistor radio.

That’s why you, my Three Readers, might enjoy watching this.

I enjoyed it for other reasons. It stirred memories — not quite Bicentennial memories in my case, though if I presented them as such to my future grandkids, they would be perfectly believable.

Central New York, in my occasional travels through it, has always seemed full of three-stoplight towns where nothing much ever happens.

Towns like Little Falls and Oriskany and Herkimer don’t have Finger Lakes to draw people in. They don’t have destination colleges. They don’t have whatever critical mass it took to lift places like Syracuse or Utica into citydom.

They’re just there … part of a broad belt of communities that still seem to be searching for their meal tickets in the Revolutionary War, the women’s suffrage movement, or the days of canals.

She doesn’t mention it, but if you follow Ms. Russell’s path down the canal, you’ll notice that all of the sights and destinations she mentions are well over 150 years old (as of 1976; they’re even older now). There’s a whole lot of Revolutionary War, a little early 19th-century, and that’s about it.

There are also several classic moments where Ms. Russell says some town or another — I think Rome — was once “famous” for having the biggest lift-lock in the United States. (Near the end, she rhapsodizes that it was a shame anyone ever built a larger one.)

Claiming a faded distinction of limited public interest is a classic small-town marketing move, at least in the small towns I know, and it made me smile when I spotted it. Do you suppose anyone but the occasional civil engineer ever really cared about America’s largest lift-lock?

Watching the show brought back memories of my seventh-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Brainerd, a flat-topped, no-nonsense sort who might have time-traveled directly from 1965 to teach the students of 1985. (I once heard him complain that students’ behavior had gone downhill since rock n’ roll music became popular.)

He used to say our parents should take us to see Revolutionary War battlefields on vacation, instead of Disneyland. He had slide shows from these battlefields he would show us in class — faded shots with Ford Falcons and men in fedoras.

The soul of Mr. Brainerd lives in this doughty documentary. In fact, I would expect he took this very same trip at least once. He was definitely one to see the value in a historically large lift-lock, and one to be stirred by the sight of a replica packet-boat drawn by two horses.

Lest I seem too snarky, I should say that I don’t dislike these towns; in fact, I kind of relate to them. They seem like places where a person could make his life about as still and silent as he wanted it.

They have lots of old-growth trees and character-filled old houses that can probably be had for a song. And I’m sure the people who live there work hard and don’t get paid enough for what they do, in the manner of blue-collar Americans everywhere.

Still, I can’t contemplate these places for too long without thinking about the come-see-our-history blues … the restored one-room schoolhouses (they all look the same), and the horses that plod back and forth on the same well-worn paths, and the empty sweep of grassy battlefields with solitary granite obelisks, and the feeling that time has stopped as it waits for something to happen.