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Five for the Record: George Harrison, “This Song.”

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A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: First single from ex-Beatle George’s Thirty-Three & 1/3 album. Released November 1976. Reached No. 25 on the U.S. Top 40.

And here’s why I like it:

1. Ol’ Brown Eyes is back. “This Song” features what has to be one of the strongest, most assured, and most enjoyable vocal performances of any George Harrison solo record. Among other travails, Harrison had recently come through a “Dark Hoarse” period in which laryngitis audibly affected his singing. Here he sounds delighted to have his pipes back, and it’s a pleasure to listen to him sing, especially when he slips into falsetto at the end of key lines (“don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright, so…)

Extra points to George for writing the “square/rare/bear” rhyme into the last verse, so we get to hear Hari’s peculiar Scouse pronunciation of that particular phoneme — hard to capture in words, but almost something like “squahr.” You can take the boy out of Liverpool …

2. While my guitar gently … shuts up? Harrison’s doleful, multitracked slide guitar was always a feature of his solo work, and deservedly so. The lead lines from “My Sweet Lord” and “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” are classic examples of the kind of hooky, memorable guitar statements George did so well.

Here, though, he gives it a rest. Outside of the first 15 seconds, when a quietly chugging rhythm guitar can be heard, you’d be hard-put to spot any guitar at all for most of the song. Harrison’s trademark slide playing, as best I can tell, is absent. There’s a brief (and totally unnecessary) guitar solo at the very end of the album version; I think it’s cut out of the single edit, and that’s no loss.

To build a song around something other than your core instrument, and leave your familiar solo instrumental voice out of it, is a step outside the lines. George Harrison, superstar guitarist, made the right choice here.

3. The Man can’t get him down. When rock stars sing about legal entanglements or business matters, they run a good chance of coming off as pissy. George had already been down that path a few times by the time “This Song” came out. 1973’s “Sue Me Sue You Blues,” inspired by the lengthy legal wranglings surrounding the Beatles’ breakup, has a tired bitterness that overwhelms its snaky funk. And 1967’s “Only a Northern Song” — George’s droning, acrid musical complaint about the dispensation of his song publishing — must surely rank among the least substantial and most disposable of the Beatles’ officially released music.

But, on “This Song,” George gives vent to the legal frustrations from his “My Sweet Lord” infringement trial in a winning way. The tune is irresistibly bouncy, and rather than grumble, George sounds like he’s smiling his way through adversity, drawing power from the absurdity of the case. It works. More people oughta try it.

4. Recursion! “This Song” is a song entirely about itself. It exists to defend its own existence. There is no other content or message.  Ceci c’est un song, Rene Magritte might have described it.

George wasn’t the first songwriter to ply self-referential waters and call attention to his song-as-song. He wasn’t even the first ex-Beatle: Earlier that same year, his old friend Paul McCartney had a mammoth hit with a love song about love songs.

In still earlier examples, Elton John’s “Your Song” comes to mind. So does Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song.” (And, once again, “Only a Northern Song.”)

But in those cases, the song carries an additional message to the listener, or to one specific listener anyway. “This Song” doesn’t say anything about love, or hate, or anything else. 

It ends with the words “there’s no point to this song;” and if I didn’t like so much of the rest of it I would probably bash George for self-referential laziness. But in this context it fits. There isn’t a point to “This Song.” It’s pure shiny pop surface, and a neat trick for the Quiet Beatle to pull off.

5. Not ready for prime time. “This Song” gets an extra coolness point or two for its association with the early Saturday Night Live. George was the first of the ex-Beatles to associate with the show: On the November 20, 1976, episode, he taped two duets with host Paul Simon and contributed promo videos for “This Song” and “Crackerbox Palace.” (He also provided a hilarious conclusion to Lorne Michaels’ Beatles-reunion gag, describing his one-quarter share of Michaels’ proferred $3,000 as “pret-ty chint-zy.”)

A live performance of the song might have been cool. In its absence, we get a relic with its own distinctive worth — a video clip in which George exercises his sense of humor.

Like a lot of things from the early Saturday Night Live (still known as NBC’s Saturday Night at that point), the clip has a hit-or-miss quality. The shots in which George doesn’t appear are mostly stupid — heavy with mugging, drag, and gratuitous cheesecake.

(Harrison is often linked to Monty Python: He financed Life of Brian, and Python’s Eric Idle provides the screechy female voices on “This Song.” But this clip reminds us that his sense of humor was also shaped by years of exposure to the broad-side-of-a-barn British comedy that preceded Python.)

On the other hand, the shots in which George appears are pretty good. My favorites are George earnestly working the jury, Bible in hand, and George strumming his guitar while handcuffed to a police officer. This last is perhaps a pretty good summary of how it felt for him to try to create new music after the unexpected legal backhand of the “My Sweet Lord” trial.

 

Five For The Record: The Jam, In The City.

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A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: 1977 debut album by British Mod-punk band. A Top 20 album in the U.K.; title track scraped into the U.K. Top 40 at Number 40; album and song did not chart in the States.

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And here’s why I like it:

1. It still has that new-song smell. As an adult, I periodically run into music that would have lit up my life when I was younger. (I’ve stopped just short of retroactively inserting the first couple Cheap Trick albums into my high school memories. They so richly belong there.)

The positive side of discovering music later in life, though, is that you don’t get as sick of it.

For instance, I had my fill long ago of “My Generation,” the Who’s chesty youth anthem and title track; I don’t ever have to hear it again. But “In the City,” the Jam’s chesty youth anthem and title track, didn’t become part of my life until much later. (Well after my chesty youth, in fact.)

So I still like hearing it, sometimes again and again … even if Paul Weller’s invocations of “the young idea” make me think of North Korea’s Juche Idea, and even if the last line sounds to my aging ears to be something like “And every town worker needs a sale, Jack!”

(I could Google it. Couldn’t do that during my chesty youth. But knowing the real words would be no fun.)

2. Heart of gold. Every scrappy young pop/punk band’s first record needs to have a reflective, melodic number on it somewhere, and if it stakes out a deeply personal message, so much the better.

In the City‘s big heartfelt ten-dollar singalong, “Away From the Numbers,” bundles up In the City’s theme of determined youthful independence in a great big chorus, accompanied eventually by some background oooh-oooh-ooohs. (They’re one of the few nods to fancy production on this bare-bones album.)

The ending chant of “Reality’s so hard” is a nice counterpoint to Weller’s braggadocio throughout most of the rest of the album. As best I can understand, it is one of the few points at which his hard-nosed narrator concedes that being a rock and an island is maybe not so easy, no matter how determined he is.

3. Non-stop. Revisiting that point about bare-bones production: I don’t believe there are any other instruments on In the City besides Weller’s barking Rickenbacker guitar, Bruce Foxton’s Rick bass and Rick Buckler’s drums. No tasteful Hammond, no haunted Rhodes, no horns, no strings, no guiro. This does get old from time to time, as you can imagine.

“Non-Stop Dancing” draws a fair amount of its charm from this minimalist approach, staying fresh even as some of the other songs start to blur. What it is, essentially, is a three-man band looking at each other and saying, “We love Motown and soul but we don’t have the tools to copy it. How can we get that vibe with three instruments?”

It’s not a cover of anything. It’s not a we’ll-play-the-horn-lines-on-overdubbed-guitar copy job. It’s just a song that combines punk directness with soul spirit and energy, in a way that feels unforced.

4. It mattered, really. “Sounds From the Street,” another love song to London, has a great, defensive line that speaks volumes about the 18-year-old who wrote and sang it. Weller sings, “I know I come from Woking / And you say I’m a fraud / But my heart is in the city where it belongs.”

I love that he saw the need to write that into a song and record it — that it was that important to him that he both publicly acknowledge and renounce his suburban roots.

Given Weller’s recurring theme of independence, and his outspoken and sometimes profane dismissals of his critics (check, for instance, this verse of “The Modern World,” released later in 1977), this sticks out. It’s like he’s actually — gasp — trying to win someone over.

I wonder who? 

(“Sounds from the Street” has another great pair of lines that I won’t go too deeply into, but will call out briefly: “The USA’s got the sea / yeah, but the British kids have got the streets.” It wouldn’t be a Britpunk album without a slam at the Rebel Colonies, I guess. I wonder what the hell 18-year-old Paul Weller thought he knew about the U.S.A.?)

5. Slow down. Only intermittently does In the City hint at the kind of headfirst powerhouse the Jam were capable of being onstage.

One of those moments is the band’s cover of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down.” This choice of tunes served the dual purpose of nodding to the band’s Sixties pop predecessors (you might have heard another Limey band’s version) while simultaneously declaring the Jam’s intention to blow them off the stage.

(There’s also an unintentionally funny version of the “Batman” theme, but we won’t go into that here.)

For however long it lasts before it’s disappeared, here’s a clip of the young Jam around the time of In the City, working up a sweat onstage.

Five For The Record: The Colorblind James Experience, “Considering a Move to Memphis.”

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: 1987 college-rock semi-novelty semi-hit by Rochester, New York-based band.

And here’s why I like it:

1. Rochester! My attachment to my hometown fades a little more with each passing year, but I’ll still fly the flag sometimes. And one of the things that delights me about this song is that it took a Goof Troop club band from the Home Districts and gave them a genuine touring-abroad rock n’ roll career path for a couple of years. I’m not sure it’s a rags-to-riches story — it might be more like rags-to-nicer-rags. But still, better them than some brain-dead heavy-metal band.

2. Pirozhkis! I have never associated Memphis with a sizable Eastern European population. So the line in which the narrator assumes he will find pirozhkis to eat seems to sum up his starry-eyed optimism more concisely than any other … as if his mental Memphis has poly-ethnic restaurants on every corner with menus as long as his backbone. (The line, for reference: “Some days I’ll order chicken, some days I’ll order fish / Some days I’ll have pirozhkis, that’s a Polish dish.”)

Doing some Googling, I learn that:
1) Pirozhki are Russian and Ukrainian, not Polish. Whoops. Also, pirozhki is the plural of pirozhok;pirozhkis,” strictly speaking, isn’t a thing, although maybe in the cross-linguistic muddle it gets used anyway.
2) Memphis does have an active Polish-American Society, and even has a Memphis in Poland festival that brings local musicians to Eastern Europe to perform. Go know! Maybe you can eat pierogies in Memphis, if not necessarily pirozhkis. I learned something from this silly song … more than I’ve ever learned from, say, “Stairway to Heaven.”

3. The visitor. For most of the song, the narrator appears to be daydreaming about some idealized vision of Memphis. But at one point, he drops a line that suggests he’s actually been there: “Memphis isn’t all that big, at least that’s how I found it / Why, it only took an hour and a half to walk completely around it.”

To me, that makes the whole notion even funnier and more delicious. He’s been there, walked from one end of the other (either because he longs to see it all up close, or he can’t afford a car), and he still thinks of the place as some sort of dream destination.

(Of course, it is probably a fool’s errand to close-read a lyric with lines like “The people in the restaurants will all use forks and knives / They won’t take decongestants, though, for fear of getting hives” — my least favorite part of the song, for what that’s worth. Still, I’ll think deeply about it if I feel like it.)

4. The riff. The song is ferociously loyal to its one and only riff; they only stop it to chant. I admire the purity of that level of songwriting. It makes James Brown and his token four-bar bridges look like Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. To paraphrase the McKenzie Brothers: Chord changes are for sucks. Heck, chords are for sucks!

5. The statement of purpose. Other than the recurring chant — “I’m considering, I’m considering” — the lyrics that come to my mind most frequently are the very last lines. I think of them as a wonderful statement of purpose, gift-wrapped in a layer of silliness: “When I arrive in Memphis, I’ll put a sign out on the door / ‘It’s OK to disturb me. That’s what I came here for.’ “

Isn’t that perfect? He’s going there ’cause he wants to shake things up. (And he seems confident everything will settle down in its right place afterward, like a snow globe.)

I envy that kind of spirit.

 

Five For The Record: 1982 Fleer.

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Set of 660 Major League Baseball cards, issued in 1982, recognizable for its lozenge-shaped front identifier box. Fleer and Donruss broke Topps’ 25-year monopoly on MLB card sets in 1981; this was Fleer’s second year of competition.

A couple of weeks ago (not gonna go look it up), I mentioned I’d gone on a binge on a website that sells common baseball cards for a dime apiece. This is almost certainly more than what they’re worth, or will ever be worth. But no matter — it is at once a tycoon’s pleasure and a spendthrift’s joy to go buy a pile of 100 cards and be out $10 (plus modest shipping).

A couple packs of 1982 Fleer made their way into my hands when they were fresh on the shelf, back in the day. And when I saw a pile of cards from that set listed on the site, I had to add a bunch of them to my cart.

I’ve always liked the lozenge design, and I’m charmed by the low-rent nature of the set. A lot of the pictures are just on the wrong side of fuzzy, or oddly cropped, or only passably well-lit, or capture the subject in an unappealing pose. But I’ve warmed to that.

It’s more approachable than big professional Topps — it looks at some points almost like a minor-league set, with the attendant warmth.

Or, to put it another way, it looks like a moderately gifted amateur snuck onto the field during batting practice and got their shots with a Kodak Instamatic before the security guys noticed. (Some of the players look as if they’re bemused and humoring the guy with the Instamatic. Some of them look like they have questions about the whole setup. And some of them are gently pointing out, “Hey, buddy, looks like you ran out of flash cubes.”)

Anyway, here are five of my favorites from the 1982 Fleer set. There may be others that are better-quality, or worth more, or depicting more famous players, but other people can write about those. (If you’ve been here for more than five days, you know I reserve the right to be illogical.)

1. Larry Bradford. I bought some of the cards in my latest haul because, even though I was a baseball-madbradford kid when these came out, I had absolutely no memory of a couple of these players.

Larry Bradford was one of the mystery brigade. He pitched in 104 games with lousy Atlanta teams in four seasons between 1977 and 1981, with more than half of his appearances coming in a single year, 1980. By the time this card was issued, he was out of the major leagues — missing Atlanta’s first postseason appearance since 1969 by a single year.

No matter. Larry is just about the most jovial dude imaginable in his 1982 Fleer card photo. He is in full support of Fleer’s underdog attempt to topple the big guys. Or he’s just finished eating a really great chicken parm sub. Or maybe he has an Instamatic of his own on the shelf at home, and he’s plain thrilled to see somebody else using one to take professional photographs.

Anyway, this is a good photo of a genuinely warm facial expression, well-cropped. It’s the kind of common card that little kids sometimes favor over the superstars.

Grown-ups, too.

2. Jackson Todd. Not to be confused with Jackson Browne, or with Todd Jackson who had the locker four down from yours in high school. Like Larry Bradford, Jackson Todd also pitched parts of four seasons in the toddmajor leagues on mediocre teams to no great avail (lifetime record 10-16, with an ERA of 4.40).

In another parallel to Larry Bradford, Todd’s career was also over by the time this card fell out of packs. The 1981 season with Toronto was his last — even though it was the only one of his four seasons in which his ERA nudged below 4.

None of that matters. Somebody posted a picture of his card on Twitter a month or two back and I fell in love with it. In between the classic Blue Jays uni, the border, and the sky, this is a symphony in blue. So fresh, so clean.

(On some 1982 Fleer cards, the border doesn’t match the team colors. The Kansas City Royals have garish yellow lozenges, for instance, despite their white-and-blue uniforms. But the Blue Jays have aqua and it works so well.)

A number of other Jays cards also consist of portraits against the sky, but none of them work quite so wonderfully, as the sky is lighter. Hard to explain but you’d know it if you saw them.

3. Glenn Hoffman. The young man on this card has played two seasons with the Boston Red Sox, and while hoffmanhis batting average cratered in the second season, the bulk of his career is still ahead of him.

He will go on to play nine seasons in The Show, after which he will become the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers for half a season, and a coach with the Dodgers and Padres for 22 more. (Indeed, as per Retrosheet, he was the Padres’ third-base coach as recently as this past mini-season, and maybe he will be again next year.)

Like Larry Bradford, he will also narrowly miss a postseason appearance: In 1986, when the Red Sox make the World Series, he will play in only 12 games and be left off the playoff roster.

Here, though, he is alert and hopping. He’s not just baseball-ready, in the way they teach Little Leaguers to be, leaning forward and down as the pitch is fired. He appears to be literally hovering, two inches or so off the dirt, so focused on the action as to be raised to a monklike state of levitation, pure ballplayer.

In the real world it probably takes him a couple minutes to get out of bed in the morning. But in the Grand Continuum of Baseball Time, the Eternal Spring, he is still there, young, athletic and in the moment, slipping the surly bonds.

4. Mike Torrez. Mike Torrez, in the past, was a name without honor around these parts. He’s the guy who torrezsurrendered the famous home run to slap-hitting Bucky Dent that sent the Red Sox down to defeat in the one-game playoff to decide the American League East in 1978.

(Now that the Red Sox have won four World Series titles since 2004, my sense is all those old 20th-century grudges have kinda been thrown out on the scrap pile. Which is where they belong, really. You’d kinda have to be a complete killjoy to still be grumbling about Mike Torrez.)

Unlike everyone else in this blog post, Mike Torrez was actually pretty good. He pitched parts of 18 seasons in the major leagues, winning 20 games in his only year with Baltimore (1975) and winning a World Series ring with the Yankees two years later. He won 175 more games in the bigs than Jackson Todd, and 179 more than Larry Bradford.

And just as he was a better player than the others, he has a conventionally better card than the others. This pic doesn’t do it justice, but the photo on my Torrez card is very sharp, crisper than it shows up here. The action photo is well-taken, at a good point in the windup, and the kelly-green backdrop could be nowhere else but Fenway Park. (The yellow line in the background is an in-play ground rule at the edge of the triangle in deep center field. If memory serves, balls hitting the wall to the left of the line are in play, while balls hitting to the right are home runs.)

While I celebrate the amateurishness of Fleer ’82, this card in its physical, hold-in-the-hand form is a card that any manufacturer anytime would be proud to claim. In photography and design, it owes no apologies to anybody. It’s kinda nice to see the guys with the Instamatics pull that off every once in a while just to show that they can. (Even the losers, etc.)

5. John Harris. Another member of the zero-memories brigade. I had no recollection at all that this guy harrisexisted, and based on that, I bought his card without even seeing it. Aren’t blind dates wonderful?

Like Messrs. Bradford and Todd above, John Harris’s big-league career was already over when this ink met this cardboard. He played parts of three seasons with California between 1979 and 1981, hitting .258 in 56 games. (Retrosheet says he was a 29th-round draft pick, which means he must have either been pretty good or worked awfully hard to get as far as he did.)

Also like Larry Bradford and Glenn Hoffman, Harris missed a playoff team by a year — in his case, the 1982 Angels who won the AL West but fell to the Milwaukee Brewers in the playoffs.

There’s really nothing that special about the card. The lozenge isn’t color-coded to the Angels’ team colors, and a batting-practice shot is only half a step above a stare-blankly-at-the-camera posed photo. The only noteworthy aspect of the photo is the odd collision of lines at Harris’s waistband, for which I do not have a ready explanation.

No, John Harris slips into this Five For The Record for fully subliminal reasons. See, I got two of him in my shipment. When I was eagerly flinging ’82 Fleer into my cyber-cart, I must have clicked on him twice, because I now own two John Harrises. He has gone from a stranger to my new best friend, overnight.

I have long been charmed by Brian Eno’s maxim, “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” So, based on that, I conclude that I must really, really love this John Harris card. Somewhere deep inside, I apparently wanted two of them.

Perhaps someday I will understand.

Five For The Record: Steely Dan, “My Old School.”

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: First of two singles from Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy album. Released as a single in October 1973. Reached No. 61 on the charts. I haven’t heard it in a while but a random mention on Twitter got me chewing on it.

And here’s what I like about it:

1. Tumblin’. I’ve been around the world, and I’ve been in the Washington Zoo, and I can tell you that the coolest instrumental detail anywhere on a Steely Dan album is the horn line that follows the lyric “California tumbles into the sea.”

Just imagine, for a moment, Becker and Fagen sounding that phrase out on a piano and committing it to musical notation. (Or, imagine for a moment Becker and Fagen confronting a group of first-call Hollywood studio cats, giving them a starting note and an ending note, and saying, “I dunno. Just kinda tumble in between.”)

2. The old college try. Something about the college experience feels central to Steely Dan — the combination of knowledge and callowness; the expectation of being bound for larger things without feeling particularly driven or heroic about it; the absorption and reproduction of trivial facts related to your temporary new home (like knowing the time of year when the oleanders will be in bloom up in Annandale); and the feeling of being bored and mischievous within the bounds of a larger institution.

The flashy Sixties drunks like John Blutarsky might have gotten off to “Do You Love Me,” but their nephews in the Seventies who shared a joint before going to class and kept one eyebrow permanently cocked in a state of ironic detachment played Steely Dan.

(I am trying to remember whether other Dan tunes, especially from the ’70s, mention college. The only one that springs quickly to mind is “Reelin’ In The Years”: “The weekend at the college didn’t turn out like you planned.” Having a college campus as a social destination seems to fit nicely with the classic Steely Dan aesthetic. And yes, I listened to Steely Dan throughout college in the first half of the 1990s, or at least I did when my roommates were out. Why do you ask?)

3. William and Mary won’t do. So many of the classic name-drops in Dan songs — the Boston Rag, the Western World — are fictional, or so their creators would have us believe. But in “My Old School,” one of America’s oldest colleges (and a very good one) makes a random appearance, only to vanish again.

I haven’t read every single interview or work of research regarding Steely Dan, so I may be in the dark, but as far as I know the insertion of W&M has no special meaning. It fits the syllable count and that’s about it. (Kinda like the inclusion of Muswellbrook in “Black Friday”: It rhymed, it fit the meter, and it was a long way from Los Angeles.)

Based on what I know about collegiate rumor mills, I bet there were 10 different explanations of this song floating around the William & Mary campus back in the day. (“They went to school here!” “They played a gig here!” “They got busted here!”)

I find that kind of thing delicious, and I hope that at least a small handful of freshmen at W&M who looted their dads’ vinyl collections are hopped up about it to this day.

(Becker and Fagen later let slip in interviews that their mention of the University of Alabama in “Deacon Blues” was singularly ill-spirited and condescending. I’m not aware that any such dynamic was at work here.)

4. The mood. It’s an old songwriter’s trick to put sour words to upbeat music (or, less commonly, vice versa.) Becker and Fagen do so with great effect here. Is the narrator bitter about his experiences, or glad to wash his hands of this place where he went through scenes of great annoyance?

(How old do you think the narrator is? What do you think he looks like? What do you think he does all day? I’d love to read 10 different listeners’ take on those questions.)

5. Big in Hawaii. The “My Old School” single appears on a scant 33 charts on the invaluable ARSA database of local airplay charts.

This week (ed. note: as I write this post) in 1973, the song was No. 15 and heading north on the weekly chart of KPOI in Honolulu, Hawaii, flanked by such Seventies hit-radio warhorses as “Show and Tell” and “Mind Games.” The song went on to reach No. 3 at KPOI for the weeks of January 12 and 19, 1974, a feat it achieved in no other market on record.

Now, what the hell do you suppose made people in Honolulu — but nowhere else — think, “Man, I’d really love to hear that snappy Steely Dan ditty again”?

Just another mystery of Seventies radio, I guess.

 

Five For The Record: 1973 Topps.

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

(FWIW: The only card from the set that I personally own is the one pictured. To avoid infringing on someone else’s rights, I have not posted images here, but each link will open up the relevant image in a new tab. Thanks to The Trading Card Database for doing the Lord’s work.)

Topps’ annual set of baseball cards from my birth year is frequently dissed as one of the company’s worst — as if baseball cards had been bitten by the samIMG_8661e bug that made America’s clothing, cars and interior design ugly and/or flawed around the same time.

The base design, shown at right, was pleasant and uncluttered by Seventies standards, and some people find the little silhouette icons of ballplayers quite charming. (I’m neutral, myself.)

But the ’73 set is notorious for lots and lots of examples of poorly chosen art. They fall into different categories:

  • Unattractive close-ups. Reggie Jackson, caught in mid-throw, looks like Fred Sanford.
  • Jumbled shots from too far away. ’73 Topps is notorious for featuring multi-player shots, taken from a distance, that aren’t tightly focused on the featured player. Examples include Tito Fuentes, Dave Nelson, Boots Day, Tommie Agee, the famous Luis Alvarado used-car-lot card, and the “Joe Rudi” card that features three players who aren’t Joe Rudi.
  • Airbrushing stupidity. Topps’ laughably bad ’70s airbrush work could fill a book, and maybe even has. It is by no means limited to the ’73 set, but its presence doesn’t do ’73 any favors. A few of many examples include John Ellis and Rich McKinney. (There’s also the George Scott card, which appears on close examination to be cut and pasted onto a different background. Why?)
  • Poor attention to detail. Topps’ airbrush crew gave Bill North an appropriate Oakland A’s cap, but didn’t bother cleaning up his Chicago Cubs jersey. Same deal with Gary Gentry, who seems peeved about having to wear an Atlanta Braves cap with his pinstriped Mets jersey, and Don Money, who is much more cheerful about wearing a Brewers cap and a striped Phillies jersey in a ballpark that is visibly Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
  • Curious cropping. Wouldn’t this shot of Gene Michael have looked better as a vertical? And couldn’t the photo of Willie Montanez have been better presented? And Glenn Beckert … wouldn’t this Glenn Beckert shot have been wonderful if it were just a little more centered? And … and … Frank Duffy? (moans)
  • Miscellaneous badness. Fred Norman’s card is like a black hole of failure. It captures one of the consistently worst teams of the decade, wearing the worst uniform of the decade, playing in an empty stadium. Plus it doesn’t give you any great idea of what Fred Norman looks like.

But enough grousing. This is Five For The Record, where I present five things I like about something.

And so, here we have five cards where the much-maligned 1973 Topps set got it right:

1. Paul Casanova. The ’73 set is light on action shots, and lighter still on decent action shots. This one isn’t amazing but it’s at least a real live game-action photo, well-framed. And that deep blue-and-white Atlanta Braves uniform looks particularly sweet against the kelly-green background of a ballpark.

Flip over to the back, and Casanova’s biographical note offers a curious tidbit: “Paul once played for the Indianapolis Clowns.”

I’d like to think at least a couple curious kids in 1973 thought, “That’s a weird name. The Indianapolis Clowns? What’s the story there?” … and then they did a little research and got schooled about the existence of the Negro Leagues.

(My secondhand understanding is that Topps has never been tremendous about mentioning or acknowledging the Negro Leagues. This seven-word biographical nugget isn’t any great shakes, but at least it’s a start; they could easily have opted for crap like “Hit 19 HRs at Geneva in 1964.”)

2. Young Catfish Hunter. One of Topps’ better ideas in 1973 (I don’t know if they ever did it again) was to pry loose childhood photos from six or eight star players and do a run of “Boyhood Photos of the Stars” cards. They’re all charming — gaptoothed Bobby Murcer, young Jim Palmer in an inner tube — but I’ll pick North Carolina farmboy Jim Hunter above the rest. I wonder how many main-set Topps cards have ever featured dogs?

3. Jim Wynn. The Toy Cannon had a dog of a year in ’71 — he got stabbed in an offseason domestic dispute and hit just .204 – but he bounced back to .273 with 24 homers in ’72. This pic captures Wynn relaxed and once again ready to make pitchers cry. He looks like he’s warming up, swinging around a bat with a donut on it, wondering aloud if he’s going to hit three homers today, or go easy and just hit two homers and a double.

Extra points for the biographical nugget: “Jim likes jazz music!” That’s a pretty broad category. Wonder if he dug Sidney Bechet, Bitches Brew, or something in between?

4. Jack McKeon and staffManager cards are another departure from the norm that I always enjoy, even if the pics can get a little boring (since there’s not much “action” you can show a manager doing, after all).

What makes this card work for me is the expression on McKeon’s face. It’s hard to describe … but McKeon has the smart-but-worried expression you’d see on one of those definitively ’70s movie actors playing a wiseguy in a position of limited authority. He looks like somebody a director would call if he couldn’t get Elliott Gould or Walter Matthau. He looks like the trash is piled up, the cab drivers are on strike, somebody just hijacked a subway train, and he’s not getting paid enough.

Cards that show people who never played in the big leagues are also a minor fascination of mine, and you get one here courtesy of Royals third-base coach Harry Dunlop, who coached 21 years in The Show but never made it there as a player. (Edit: McKeon didn’t play in the big leagues either, so I guess this card has two guys who never made it. I bet these manager-and-coach cards are the only places you ever see that happen.)

5. Tom Matchick. By the time kids picked this card out of their packs in the spring of 1973, utility infielder Matchick’s big-league career was already over. He’d scraped into three games with Earl Weaver’s Orioles in September and October of ’72; he continued to play AAA ball through 1976 but never got another callup.

The glory of this card is cumulative.

Start by looking at the back, at the long list of places Matchick has played: Brunswick, Lakeland, Winnipeg, Knoxville, Elmira, and so forth.

Notice, also, the biographical nugget that tells you that Matchick used to be a clothing salesman. Imagine him in the off-season, home from Elmira or Winnipeg, standing in the sort of downtown storefront downtowns don’t have nowadays, guiding somebody toward a rack of garish, overbroad ties.

Then flip the card over and look at Matchick’s posture and facial expression. He looks more than what youth coaches call “baseball-ready.” He looks ready as hell — a study in hawklike determination. Hit him anything, from as close range as you want to get, and he will field it.

This is the poise and determination of a utility player, a man who knows he has to shine any time he plays if he wants to stay in The Show. And, over and above that, this is the poise and determination of a man for whom every ground ball could mean a ticket back to selling shirts in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

Five for the Record: “Wonderful Christmastime,” Paul McCartney.

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Those of you who have sat through years of my hot air probably already know my shortlist of preferred Christmas songs: Slade’s rumbustious shout-along “Merry Xmas Everybody,” Elvis’s smoky after-hours version of “Merry Christmas Baby,” and the entirety of Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

(Honorable mentions go to the Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping,” which, while not my favorite song ever, is perky and spiky and spirited and different; Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again,” which is slyly funny and has a nice Sixties-derived bounce; and Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which is gorgeous but not really a Christmas song no matter how much it gets co-opted into one.)

And then there’s Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” which I initially liked as a joke for its sonic cheesiness, but have since come to genuinely enjoy as one of the best holiday songs going.

Why do I think that? Let me count five ways:

1. Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy. I suppose this is a matter of personal interpretation, but it sure sounds to me like McCartney enjoyed writing and recording “Wonderful Christmastime.” He played all the instruments, and one imagines him banging it out in an inspired afternoon or two in the studio.

A Twitter mini-conversation with the oft-cited Jim Bartlett got me thinking: How many Christmas records actually sound like the performer is having a good time?

Many holiday recordings, and in particular the spate from the past 25 years or so, tend to sound to me as if the performer has had 12 Christmas songs thrust upon them in a bald-faced attempt to break into regular December rotation. They never sound particularly spirited; they sound like they’re checking boxes. If St. Patrick’s Day Radio becomes a big thing in five years, they’ll go through the exact same process, only they’ll hire a bodhran player.

Macca, on the other hand, sounds entirely as if he woke up in a jolly mood and saw fit to translate that mood onto tape.

2. Silly Christmas songs. “Silly Love Songs” takes the simplest, most down-to-earth attitude toward love songs (what’s wrong with them?) and runs with it in tuneful and superbly sunny fashion. “Wonderful Christmastime” does more or less the same thing for Christmas — a little less tuneful, sure, but still catchy.

Unlike Paul’s old mate Lennon, there’s no heavy thinking about wars being over and man being inhuman to man. The narrator and his listeners are fortunate to be in a place where the moon is out and the spirit’s up, and they’re enjoying their blessings by simply having a wonderful Christmastime. Sometimes things don’t need to be any more complicated than that.

(Why am I not surprised to learn that McCartney’s production company held — and perhaps still holds — its own December holiday luncheon?)

3. The choir of children. McCartney is not long on specifics in his holiday song, perhaps because he recognizes that different people in different places will celebrate in different ways.

There are no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, no turkey or mistletoe. His brushstrokes are much broader for the most part — a moon, a party, a raised glass. (He doesn’t even specify what’s in the glass.)

The one specific holiday trapping he mentions is a children’s choir, which has practiced all year for the big moment.

I think the children’s choir is a wonderful, charming image. I like the thematic idea that Paul McCartney, who has music coursing through his veins, would specifically make sure to include music in his portrait of a warm and ideal Christmas.

And, as a person who thinks children’s choruses in pop music are invariably cloying, I give Macca huge props for avoiding the obvious and not actually putting a real choir of children on his recording.

(Both “Wonderful Christmastime” and “Another Brick In The Wall” were released as singles in November 1979, which means U.K. radio audiences got to hear two entirely different choirs of children singing their songs, perhaps even in the same block of airplay.)

4. The sonics. How many Christmas songs sound like “Wonderful Christmastime”?

Sure, it’s got that late-’70s/early-’80s synth cheesiness going on; it sounds distinctly of its time.

But, amid an ever-expanding realm of Christmas music, it cuts through. It doesn’t sound like those smooth ’40s and ’50s Christmas songs with crooners and full orchestras, or like a hushed piano-and-vocal ballad, or like your average famous rock band bashing it out with guitars and drums. When you hear the first five seconds, you know instantly what’s playing.

There’s an art to memorable pop production — to making a record stand out. And whether McCartney did it intentionally or accidentally (i.e., just by bashing around on a new keyboard), he certainly pulled it off here.

5. Nobody does it better. There’s a famous financial figure that circulates, courtesy of Forbes magazine, that you’ve probably seen online:

Paul McCartney allegedly stands to receive upwards of $400,000 in royalties on “Wonderful Christmastime” every year, by dint of the song’s huge seasonal popularity and his status as its songwriter, sole musical performer, producer and rights-holder.

I have no idea how accurate this is — I tend to be a bit suspicious, me.

But if it’s anywhere close to true, it’s just additional proof that Paul McCartney was pretty much the king of 20th-century popular music, and there seems little else to do but tip one’s scally-cap to him.

Dude sat down at his keyboard with a headful of happy … overdubbed some sleigh bells and some goofy vocals … and he could live comfortably for the rest of his life just off the income from that single light-hearted song.

(Never mind what he also makes from – oh, let’s pick a few — “Penny Lane” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Silly Love Songs” and “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday” and “Mull of Kintyre” and “Ebony and Ivory” and, and, and.)

It’s Paul’s world. We all just live in it. The good news is, Christmases here are really warm and festive. Have you heard?

Five for the Record: Neil Young.

A somewhat different twist on my intermittent series of Five for the Record posts.

The other day, my younger son happened to mention that he was memorizing the words to a certain ’80s pop hit of curious staying power.

Everyone in one of his high school classes was required to memorize the words to a song, and for whatever reason, he’d chosen that one.

“Hmmm,” I said, in full pop-geek dad mode. “There’s a Neil Young song where the entire lyrics are: ‘Ain’t got no T-bone / Got mashed potato / Ain’t got no T-bone.’ You could have picked that one to memorize and been done with it.”

“Who’s Neil Young?” he said.

# # # # #

This comment raises any number of avenues to trek down. I will focus on one that doesn’t indict my parenting skills. It’s a thought exercise:

Let’s say you had five songs with which to introduce someone to the sprawling, unpredictable five-decade career of Neil Young, painting as complete a picture of his themes, style and appeal as possible. Which ones do you choose?

Given the attention spans of today’s youth, five songs is kinda stretching it. I should really limit myself to three, or even just one.

Instead, I’ll hide behind my existing Five for the Record framework, and see if I can’t find five songs that sum up Neil’s career (in all senses of the word “career”).

# # # # #

1. “The Loner.” A (self?) portrait of a sullen, lovelorn outsider, this tune from Neil’s very first solo album checks off a bunch of boxes he would return to for decades. The version from the Live Rust album howls, but for my purposes, I’ll go with the manicured studio original.

2. “Like a Hurricane (Unplugged).” The unplugged all-by-himself stuff is a big part of Neil’s trip, so I’ve gotta put some on this list even though I personally prefer him electric.

I choose the pump-organ version of “Like a Hurricane” for two reasons. One, I love the song; it may be the best description of a complicated romance that this complicated romantic has ever come up with.

Two, Neil’s perversity is part of his infuriating charm, and choosing to play one of his best-known songs on a wheezy old parlor organ is nothing if not perverse. (Wanna hear it electric? Sure, you can have a link.)

3. “Ambulance Blues.” Neil at his longest, weirdest, most haunting and, occasionally, funniest (“Old Mother Goose / She’s on the skids / The shoe ain’t happy / Neither are the kids.”) The master of cloaking the deeply personal in the wildly obscure has never been in finer form.

4. “Sedan Delivery.” There had to be a shot of Crazy Horse on here someplace, and this is it, narrowly nosing out “Cortez the Killer” for inclusion in the Big Five.

(Someone on Twitter who I don’t know suggested I play the kid the entire Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album, saying that if not a single riff or lyric caught his fancy, it wasn’t time yet. That’s an excellent suggestion, actually.)

I’ve probably owned Rust Never Sleeps for 30 years and I still have no idea what this is “about,” if it can truly be said to be about any one thing in particular. But that, to me, is part of what makes Neil Young great.

I enjoy that feeling of what? that swells with each verse of one of his epics, until I get to a verse like “I’m making another delivery / Of chemicals and sacred roots / I’ll hold what you have to give me / But I’ll use what I have to use” and suddenly it feels like I’ve stepped too far into some dark adventure and waves of mania are crashing over my head.

5. “Harvest.” None of his weird Eighties stuff? Nope, not representative enough for a Top Five list, though there were some good songs scattered through those records.

No Nineties or beyond? Again, some solid songs there, but I find myself drawn to his earlier work, which I think lays out a lot of the themes and ideas he’s pursued since.

(I had a sore temptation to make Neil’s 35-minute noise trip “Arc” Song Number Five as a monument to his perversity. Couldn’t quite do it.)

I couldn’t ignore the fact that this list really needed a jolt of the banjo/folkie side of Neil. I thought about the more obscure “For the Turnstiles” but decided to go with the better-known title track to Harvest.

It has the requisite dark side (“As the days fly past, will we lose our grasp?”) but also represents Neil’s ability to write winsome, reasonably catchy straight-ahead folk-pop.

5-plus. “Don’t Be Denied.” I hate, hate, hate, hate lists that cheat — lists that promise five items and give six (not to mention lists that promise ten and give eight.) I’m a stickler for truth in advertising, I guess, and if you’re gonna break the borders you set for yourself, you shoulda set them farther out to begin with.

But, boy, the titular three-word chorus sums up Neil’s sideways flight through the music business (and life) as well as anything he’s ever written. So does the payoff verse, in which the lad who refused to be denied gets what he wants — and hates it.

And, boy, the trudge-tempo live version from the recently released Tuscaloosa album sure brings it to life. (I think I might need this record.)

And, boy, a transplanted kid in a new town and a new high school might maybe relate to parts of it, even if he’d never say as much.

Here you go, kid. A half-dozen quintessential Neil Young songs. Don’t be denied.

Five for the Record: Dr. John.

Posted on

News item: New Orleans singer-songwriter Dr. John, born Malcolm Rebennack, is dead at 77.

Another piece of my kids’ childhood is gone.

A weird way to remember Dr. John, I suppose, but that’s how it works around here.

When our first son came along, my wife and I were adamant that we wouldn’t give in and listen to crappy kids’ music. We knew that bland singalongs and squeaky voices and little-kid gimmickry would drive us mad if we heard it again and again.

No, we were gonna feed our son’s ears the same music we liked. Go straight to quality. Now for the good stuff, later for the garbage, as John Lee Hooker used to say.

We discovered, sadly, that it is in kids’ nature to demand what they like over and over again, no matter what that thing is.

So instead of getting sick of Barney and the Wiggles played ten times through, we got sick of Bruce Springsteen’s greatest hits and Dr. John’s best-of Mos’ Scocious and a couple of Los Lobos albums played ten times through.

Enough time has passed since then that I can stand to hear Dr. John again. And so, in the tradition of my long-simmering Five for the Record feature, I offer five of my favorite Dr. John tunes to send the man off.

(OK, one other point to address before I get to that. I’ve gotten a dim sense over the years that some musicians in New Orleans resented Dr. John for the same reason that some people resented Elvis Presley. Musicians of color created the musical culture; a white guy made money from it. I can understand those complaints, but I think it goes both ways. I suspect Dr. John — who was good about giving credit to his inspirations — sold plenty of New Orleans records for others, serving as a sort of gateway drug for the likes of Professor Longhair. If you disagree, feel free to flame me in the comments.)

Let’s get ready to rhumba:

1. “Mama Roux.” What’s cooler than David Bowie yelling, “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am”? Maybe, just maybe, Dr. John’s stroked-out “Wham, bam / Scraaam, Sam.” He sounds like he’s chasing a little kid away from the back door of a cathouse. Perhaps he is at that.

Anyway, this is about as low-key funky as music comes, like they scraped it off the bottom of the river at midnight. Extra points for the use of New Orleans nonsense patois in the “oola malla tralla walla” verse. I get the sense that you either know what that means, or you don’t.

2. “Junko Partner.” I originally bought the Mos’ Scocious collection for my dad. It ended up back with me because, as I recall, many of the songs were a little too poppy or rocky or mainstream. It didn’t go heavy enough on that courtly, sidewinding N’Awlins funk that my dad (and many others) find so irresistible.

This old New Orleans heroin song is one of those on Mos’ Scocious that makes it abundantly and unmistakably clear where the singer came from. Features a great greasy sax solo (what exactly is Dr. John doing on piano behind the first chorus?) As the man says: “Give me heav-vunnnnn / Before I die.”

3. “Sahara.”A funky, offbeat instrumental released under Rebennack’s own name, before he adopted the Dr. John persona. Sometimes the best tunes are the simplest and this is one example.

If I were a relief pitcher, this would be my coming-in-from-the-bullpen music.

Seriously: When I hear it I imagine Fenway on a stinking humid Friday night in July, with thousands of beer-loose people dancing in the bleachers, while yours truly jogs implacably in to lay his knuckleball on some hapless Orioles or Tigers with the unknowable, potent force of a John the Conqueroo.

(If you’re gonna be Walter Mitty, do the hell out of it, says I.)

4. “Mardi Gras Day.” The only time I ever went to New Orleans was about three months after Hurricane Katrina. I remember houses with those bright orange quadrant logos spray-painted on them (the ones that signified whether the house had been searched, and whether bodies had been found there), and little stores in the French Quarter with their entire inventories piled on the sidewalk, water-trashed.

It would have been nice to know the New Orleans that comes to life in this song, which is so loose that “loose” seems an insufficient descriptor.

The tempo gets faster and slower, mostly slower. Dr. John croaks his entrance at 3:30 like a parched partygoer. And there’s what sounds like the entire Ninth Ward shit-talking each other in the background.

If this was the final version they put on the record, I would love to hear what they sounded like when they were warming up.

5. “Wash, Mama, Wash.” I guess I oughta put one song on this list that isn’t a slice of High Delta Weirdness. There’s a conventional song at the heart of this, overlain with some offbeat New Orleans funk and a little soul. “After you rub it a while, you dub it in the tub,” our hero proclaims with great good humor, after warning his heroine away from playing the numbers.

This was, apparently, a Top 15 hit in Louisville, Kentucky, in July 1970, riding the charts alongside “Ball of Confusion,” “The Love You Save,” “The Wonder of You” and “Make It With You.” A most agreeable city, Louisville, and not without musical discernment.

Five for the Record: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: The third in the lengthy series of Peanuts TV specials, and one of the Big Three that still get shown every year. (I wrote about another one of the Big Three a few years ago, so why not this one too?) Originally aired Oct. 27, 1966.

And here’s why I like it:

1. The silence. In the writeup linked above, I gave mad points to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving for the way it uses silence at the end. (Or, to be perfectly accurate, the way it goes without speech. Vince Guaraldi’s music is happening all the while, of course.)

Likewise, we get almost two musical minutes into Great Pumpkin before anybody says anything. And it works fine. You just, y’know, watch the damn TV, and everything you need to know explains itself — including the relationship between Linus and Lucy.

If they made this special tomorrow, I bet those two minutes would be crammed down into 30 seconds, and I bet those 30 seconds would be full of  unnecessary explanatory dialogue. (“Gee, Lucy, it’s almost Halloween! What a beautiful day!” “Quiet, Linus! We’re going to find the world’s best pumpkin.”)

2. The fussbudget’s redemption. The scene in which Lucy gets up at 4 a.m., leads her brother back indoors, and tucks him in is among the most heartwarming in the Peanuts universe — rivaling even Linus’s “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown” speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

In fact, it’s maybe even more touching because it comes from someone who’s usually grumpy and fussy. (She’s visibly angry about having to do this errand, but she goes out in the cold and does it anyway. Probably not for the first time.)

While my memory of Peanuts strips is not what it used to be, I can’t remember ever seeing this event happen in one of the newspaper strips. Its presence in the show defeats the perception, which can sometimes settle on a veteran Peanuts fan, that the TV specials are just stitched-together animations of the strips. (If anyone knows of a strip in which Lucy guides a groggy Linus in from the pumpkin patch, let me know; I’d love to (re-)read it.)

The sight of Linus in his sparsely decorated little boy’s room is affecting too. The surroundings suggest to us that either the Van Pelt family doesn’t have enough money to buy stuff, or that Linus is a monastic old soul who, unlike most little kids, hasn’t packed his room full of posters, banners, stuffed toys, books, baseball cards, beanbags, goldfish bowls, dirty laundry, etc.

(The sparseness of Linus’s room might not have been intended to be a telling detail. Maybe the graphic artists drew it that way just to make life simpler for themselves. I choose to read into it.)

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3. Drawing on Charlie Brown’s head. This is not my favorite moment, I guess. But it represents Peak Peanuts Cruelty, which is quite a statement for a franchise built in part on kids’ inhumanity to kids. Not getting a valentine, or having people invite themselves to your house for turkey on Thanksgiving, is one thing; getting your body violated in humiliating fashion is kind of another thing entirely.

(The scene also raises a canonical wrinkle, since — as per Charles Schulz — Charlie Brown was not originally intended to be bald, but towheaded blond. I guess Schulz waved the scene through, so who am I to argue?)

4. The kids make their own costumes. I assume this was true to reality in 1966 — or, since the creative genius behind the show was a 40-something man, it may have been more based in Schulz’s childhood as the son of a barber in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Either way, there are no plastic-garbed Beatles or James Bonds or astronauts in the group (and no Green Berets either) … just witches and ghosts in (largely) home-cooked costumes. I have no idea how accurate that still was in 1966, but I find that to be an appealingly retro touch.

As a child of the late ’70s and early ’80s, I remember my own costumes being roughly evenly split between homemade getups — a water pistol and a jacket and I was James Bond — and those flammable, cheaply made boxed thingies everyone associates with that time period.

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1978. I’m the phantom; he’s the spaceman.

5. An ending that breaks the mold. A Charlie Brown Christmas ends happily. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving ends happily. Lesser-known Peanuts specials from the same time period, like He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown and You’re In Love, Charlie Brown, end on high notes too.

But this special ends with Charlie Brown pissing off Linus, and Linus stopping just short of going upside Charlie Brown’s head as he argues for the continued existence of the Great Pumpkin.

This is good because:
(a) it shows that these specials weren’t completely formulaic, or at least not yet;
(b) Schulz and company didn’t force a happy ending as a sop to Dolly Madison Zingers and your local Coca-Cola bottlers, who probably would have liked one;
(c) it gives us a view into Linus’s psyche — the aspiring martyr, battered but unbent — and he’s an interesting enough character that he deserves that look.

(Walk, believer, walk; your work ain’t never done.)

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