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.)


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.

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.)


Five for the Record: The Grateful Dead, “Infrared Roses.”

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: 1991 live double album by the Grateful Dead, compiled (almost) entirely from the “Drums” and “Space” free-improvisation portions of Dead shows in 1989 and 1990. Produced by Bob Bralove, the Dead’s keyboard tech and programmer. Did not chart.

And here’s why I like it:

1. “Crowd Sculpture.” The Dead’s relationship with its colorful fanbase was unique in mainstream rock. It makes gracious good sense, then, that this most distinctive of Grateful Dead live albums should begin with two-and-a-half minutes of crowd noise — not arena roar, but rather the conversational buzz one used to hear walking around the parking lot outside a Dead show.

The crowd was an integral part of the live Dead experience, and here they get their own moment. (There are no vocals on any of the songs, so the voices of Deadheads are the only voices you hear; the band members are represented solely by their fingers, strings, sticks and keys.)

The first thing you hear is people trying to score tickets. As I listened to the rest of the album, I periodically found myself wondering whether the miracle-seekers had managed to make it into the show, or whether they’d been shut out. Had producer Bralove, like some sort of fatalistic Russian novelist, introduced us to these characters only to kill them off in the first act?

Perhaps they are there in the parking lot to this day, hoping for admission.

2. Their walls are built of cannonballs. The Dead’s lyrics, written mainly by Robert Hunter, are loaded with references to American cultural icons, from Billy Sunday to Stagger Lee.

Hunter chose the names for the “tunes” constructed on Infrared Roses, and many of them evoke themes or figures from the past as well. Some of the references seem to share a theme of personal or musical disorientation — fitting, for an album full of space jams:

-“Little Nemo in Nightland” is directly reminiscent of Little Nemo in Slumberland, the pioneering comic strip about a small boy’s adventures while dreaming.
-“Magnesium Night Light” suggests Charles Ives’ Calcium Light Night, one of those distinctly Ivesian pieces in which multiple melodies collide and clash.
-“Silver Apples of the Moon” is a reference to William Butler Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” whose title character is bewitched by a trout that turns into a glimmering dream-girl. (It was also the title of an album of electronic music by Morton Subotnick.)
– Regrettably, the cover image of Infrared Roses is not actually an infrared rose — too obvious, I guess — but that seems like something that might be disorienting to look at, as well.

As for what “Post-Modern Highrise Table Top Stomp” means … well, you’re on your own there.

3. Historical significance. This depends a little bit on eye-of-the-beholder, but I’d argue that Infrared Roses is the Dead’s last album of original material.

By 1991, the Dead had already begun ralphing out an endless series of CDs and downloads recapping single concerts (occasionally breaking the monotony with multiple-concert box sets). This pattern of releases continues to this day.

Infrared Roses, in contrast, is not a relive-one-night affair, but a creative attempt to package multiple sessions’ work into a distinctive whole. And while there are no riffs and no lyrics, I’d still classify the music here as original and unique.

Certainly, playing something from the Dead’s first album — say, “Cream Puff War” — next to, say, “Magnesium Night Light” is one way to trace the group’s quarter-century evolution from little ol’ Hashbury jam band to Arena-Filling Life-Changing Sociocultural Institution.

Also on the historical front: Infrared Roses is the only original album of Vince Welnick’s stint as Dead keyboardist (assuming you buy my argument that it’s an original album), and the Bruce Hornsby-Welnick keyboard duet “Silver Apples of the Moon” is the only track the Dead released during Welnick’s tenure on which he plays.

4. The sounds. My arguments in favor of Infrared Roses are not just based on cultural riffs, references and close readings: I like the music too. If you happen to enjoy the free portions of Dead concerts — as I do — the album is a satisfying reproduction of same.

I’m not sure the music on the album is exactly as it went down on stage on any given night: Bralove, for instance, gets credit for drum machine on one song, and he wasn’t an onstage performer.

But the music isn’t heavily processed by someone trying to simulate an acid trip, either. It sounds like the Dead, on good tuned-in nights, doing what only they did.

There’s a bunch of good Jerry Garcia noodling here that reminds me how much he’s missed. The feedback rhino-howl that arises from nowhere to begin “Magnesium Night Light” especially sticks in the mind.

5. The yuxx. Even at their best, the Dead were never able to pull anything off 100 percent correctly. (This, after all, was the band that turned the phrase “just exactly perfect” into a running joke of 45 years’ duration.)

It seems fitting, then, that after 11 tracks of perfectly acceptable space music, the band should wrap up Infrared Roses with a clinker.

Free jams are slippery beasts — some work, some don’t — and the last track, “Apollo at the Ritz,” doesn’t. The members of the band (including special guest Branford Marsalis) never really seem on the same page, and they sound like a Holiday Inn band that spitefully decided to swap instruments on its last night on the gig.

(Required caveat: Deadheads seem to revere anything on which Branford shows up, so your mileage may vary. Of course, we’re talking about a 58-minute album of free improvisation here; your mileage was probably vastly different from mine, right from the start.)

After almost eight minutes of aimless toytown wandering, Bralove ends the track by fading up a huge, improbable, arena-sized cheer. It’s impossible to believe the roaring throats are responding to the music. The crowd doesn’t even really sound like it’s in the same room as the band.

It’s not a triumphant way to go out, I suppose. But even an album of experimental wandering wouldn’t be a Grateful Dead album if it didn’t make you shake your head at least once and sigh, “What the hell?”

Five For The Record: Participation trophies.

I have a low tolerance for cliches, especially when they’re trotted out in an attempt to teach me something about the world I live in.

Tonight, after reading a motivational book for a work assignment, I’ve discovered another phrase I think belongs in the burn-pile of threadbare sentiments:

“Kids today get trophies just for participating in sports, and this makes them weaker of mind, flabby of spirit, and less determined to succeed.”

(Or some bushwah like that; phrase the consequences however you want.)

I think this idea might have a kernel of truth in certain specific situations, but it’s now reached the point where it’s dragged out as a ready-made in lieu of actual thought.

So, in a variant on my usual Five For The Record format — a more typical example can be found here — I take, fed up, to the keyboard to lay out five reasons why participation trophies are not leading our country down the path to hell and people need to find something else to whine about.


1: A question of value. Playing sports through the ’80s and into the early ’90s, I might have been in the first generation of kids to receive the much-maligned “participation trophies.” I remember them well.

There was the little trophy I got in youth soccer in second or third grade, for instance. It was made of plastic, it leaned slightly to one side, and it would not have been out of place in a gumball machine.

And then there were the “finisher” ribbons I occasionally received for high-school cross-country races. They were scraps of cloth that probably came 100 to a five-dollar bag.

My point: These rewards were cheap handouts. They looked it. I recognized it. So do kids today. Do you really think kids allow 10 cents of Chinese plastic to warp their value systems for life and turn them into mediocre adults?

Today’s participation trophies are a little fancier, but they’re still cheap. Or at least, the ones my kids have are.

And I can tell you from the layers of dust on ’em that my kids aren’t making deep, life-shaping personal connections with theirs, any more than I did with mine. (Keeping something on a shelf and taking it to heart are two different things.)

2: Philosophy. “No, no,” I hear people saying irritably. “It’s not the actual item the kids receive that corrupts them. It’s the philosophical idea that they get something for nothing, or praise for being mediocre.”

First of all, they don’t get something for nothing. They put in time and effort — quite a bit of both in some cases.

And second, as I just said, the “something” they get is generally not a whole hell of a lot. (There is probably some crazy hyper-affluent suburb where every Little Leaguer gets a World Series ring, but this is the exception and not the rule.)

As for the idea of kids getting rewarded for being mediocre, this is also an exception, rather than a rule.

Remember: Kids spend nine months a year in school, a setting where they are constantly graded, week after week. Most of them have a strong and well-developed sense of what it’s like to be evaluated, what it’s like to be found wanting, what rewards await success, and what punishments follow failure.

To a kid, getting a prize for being an also-ran on the sports field is not a defining example of how life works. Rather, it’s a welcome vacation from the constant grind of performance evaluation. And who couldn’t use the occasional break from that?

3: Incentives. I accept it as fact, not cliche, that American kids as a whole are overfed and underexercised, and that their health suffers — and will continue to suffer — as a result.

With that in mind, something that pats kids on the back and says, “Hey, coming out and running three times a week was a great thing to do!,” is a worthwhile prize. It’s certainly a more positive end-of-year reward than a pizza and ice cream party.

(Yes, I grant the fact that not every kid who comes out for a team works hard and gets good exercise. Just getting off the couch puts them ahead of millions of other kids.)

Same deal with commitment. Kids need to know that they can’t just ditch what they start if it gets tough. Something that says, “Thanks for showing up every week for three months, being present for your teammates, and sticking it out!” doesn’t send the worst message in the world.

Sure, you don’t really get a prize for sticking it out at work year after year once you’ve grown up. But our treatment of children does not have to be 100 percent geared toward preparing them to be adult wage slaves.

4: Deflated self-worth. Another occasional argument of the anti-trophy folks is that kids will hyperinflate their perception of their own skills because they got a trophy. In other words, they’ll think they’re good when they’re not.

Again, I’m working off a limited sample size here … but based on my experience and that of my kids, I’m convinced that children have a pretty damn acute sense of how good or bad they are, and how good or bad their friends are.

Rare is the kid who genuinely thinks he’s Johan Cruyff because he got a trophy at the end of the season. If there are swelled heads in youth sports, it’s probably the result of ongoing coddling by a parent-coach, not a participation trophy.

5: The parents, not the trophies. Which brings me to the last argument for participation trophies: It’s the coaches and parents that shape a kid’s outlook and chances for future success, not the trophy at the end of the year.

It’s possible for a kid to lose all his games, get a trophy, and still turn out OK — if his parents and coach send the right messages and frame the season, and the kid’s effort, in the right way.

It’s also possible for a kid to lose all his games, get no trophy, and get his psyche stepped on by his coaches and parents in a way that screws him up worse than any little metal ballplayer bolted to a fake granite base could ever do.


Five For The Record: Terry Kath.

News item: Chicago is one of five performers voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I say I do not care about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I genuinely believe that to be true.

Still, the news that Chicago has been chosen to enter the hall puts me in mind to listen to their Seventies albums – and to think about the one member of the original septet who’s not around to mark the group’s acceptance.

Guitarist, singer and songwriter Terry Kath is most often remembered outside the band’s circle of fans for the shocking and unexpected nature of his death. There was much more to him than that, as anyone who knows the band’s first 11 albums can tell you.

Five For The Record is a recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today, then, we give Terry Kath five:

1. The hockey. In the last few years of his life, Kath was often seen onstage sporting the jerseys of hockey teams, including the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues. Kath’s modified Fender Telecaster also carried the Indian-head logo of his hometown Chicago Blackhawks on its upper bout.

I don’t specifically know how deep the guitarist’s attachment to hockey went. (I suppose it’s possible he opted for generously cut hockey jerseys to accommodate his increasing weight.)

Still, as something of a hockey fan, I don’t think you see nearly enough rock stars sporting hockey gear onstage.

And I like to imagine going to a Blackhawks (or maybe an L.A. Kings) game in the Seventies and finding the beefy guitarist at the beer stand between periods. The band members were pretty low-profile when offstage, and it seems like a believable rock n’ roll fantasy.

2. The sparkplug. Kath’s role in the band declined in his final few years, as his vocals and guitar no longer occupied center stage on the band’s hits.

(One nadir: The band’s performance of “Harry Truman” on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve 1975 special found Kath — rendered irrelevant by the song’s old-timey sound — holding cue cards for a crowd singalong.)

That said, his last two albums with Chicago both lead off with Kath songs that showcase the groove and energy he brought to the band.

1976’s Chicago X starts with “Once Or Twice,” a barnburner that reminded anyone listening that the band hadn’t given itself all the way over to ballads just yet:

And 1977’s Chicago XI kicks off with “Mississippi Delta City Blues” — a bit slower, a bit funkier, featuring impassioned vocals and multiple layers of slice-and-dice rhythm guitar:

Terry Kath could make his band break a sweat. No one in the years since has had quite the same ability, to the band’s long-term detriment.

3. The spam. 1971’s Chicago III, decreed to be a double album like its predecessors, found the road-weary group struggling to come up with worthy material.

Kath contributed a five-minute mini-suite called “An Hour In The Shower,” a tribute to a working stiff’s day at home and on the job, featuring some memorable lines sung with his usual gravelly brio:

Now I usually have my breakfast
Which consists of tasty spam
Yeah, I could eat it all day long
But I only love one brand
And I can’t find it way out here
So I have to take a pass
And settle for some hash

Seventies Chicago, with its multi-part suites, hits by Varese and detailed horn arrangements, was a pretty cerebral band. There are not a lot of purely random what-the-hell-was-that? moments in their discography.

So Kath and his ode to inaccessible canned meat stand out as a rare off-the-wall moment. While it’s far from my favorite Chicago tune, I can’t think of it without smiling.

4. The grunge. Kath was also responsible for another bizarre and unique song that stands out in the band’s repertoire.

“Free Form Guitar,” from the Chicago Transit Authority album, consists of almost seven minutes of atonal live-in-the-studio feedback and whammy-bar abuse.

It is — how best to put this? — a bracing listen, and an acquired taste. While I don’t put it on a lot, I do like it, and I suspect Jimi Hendrix — who is often said to have been an admirer of Kath — would have said the same.

Kath was also capable of adding dissonance within the structures of the band’s more formal compositions.

Song For Richard And His Friends,” from the At Carnegie Hall live album, features Kath wrenching howls of feedback over an ominous horn riff. And “A Hit By Varese” kicks off the band’s finest album, Chicago V, with a whammy-bent chord that dissolves into feedback.

5. The memories. Chicago keyboardist and singer Robert Lamm has spoken often of his connection with Kath and his ongoing feelings of loss. A few years ago, he recorded a song, “Out Of The Blue,” in tribute to his former bandmate.

Lamm contributes a heartfelt vocal that helps make up for the song’s slick electronic sheen. And his words describing Kath’s ongoing presence in his life — presented in the video as captions — are touching.

It’s one of the best things I’ve heard from Lamm in a while. If it’s true that you write best about what you love, it’s clear that Terry Kath left a deep impression on those closest to him.

Five For The Record: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Animated prime-time special featuring the characters from the “Peanuts” cartoon strip. First aired Nov. 20, 1973, two days before Thanksgiving, and has been shown annually since. The 10th “Peanuts” prime-time special and the last of the Holy Trinity of “Peanuts” holiday specials (the others being 1966’s It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas).


And here’s why I like it:

1. A quick death. Thanksgiving is lousy with football — from high-school rivalries to embarrassing Detroit Lions losses — so it’s appropriate that this one opens with the Lucy-holds-the-football gag. Offered the chance to kick the football, Charlie Brown responds:

“Hold it. HA! You’ll pull it away and I’ll land flat on my back and kill myself.”

So, thirty-one seconds into the show, the Everyman lead character with whom we are all supposed to identify is already contemplating his own death.

Yes, I know he is speaking metaphorically. But he picks the ugliest, bleakest possible metaphor — he doesn’t say, “I’ll land flat on my back and hit my head.” When you’re as put-upon as Charlie Brown, why not take every situation straight into the crapper from the get-go?

I love “Peanuts.”

2. The theme. Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas is rightfully celebrated, but it’s not his only memorable music.

I’ve long liked the theme song to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The main theme reminds me of a Moebius strip; its return to the home chord makes perfect sense, and yet the path it takes to get there never fails to surprise me. And the gentle, drifting middle section reminds me of leaves falling, or even early snow.

(Guaraldi also gets extra points for some tasty, desolate Fender Rhodes-ing elsewhere in the show, as well as for the clavinet-driven “martial” music that accompanies Snoopy and Woodstock’s pilgrim scene.)

3. With friends like these. We all know how Lucy and Peppermint Patty, ostensibly Charlie Brown’s friends, dump or impose on him at various points in the show.

But it is Linus, the one character reliably on Charlie Brown’s side, who gets him deeper into trouble by suggesting the idea of holding a special dinner just for Peppermint Patty and her self-invited guests.

Better answers might have included: “No, Charlie Brown. Call her back and make yourself heard if you ever want to stop getting stepped on,” or, “Tell you what. I’ll talk to her and get her off your back, and you can owe me a box of Zingers for my trouble.”

But nooooooo, for all his book-learnin’, the middle Van Pelt sibling can’t provide the necessary backbone when his friend needs it.

In that same conversation, Linus also gets off one of the best diss lines in the televised “Peanuts” canon:

Charlie Brown: I can’t cook a Thanksgiving dinner! All I can make is cold cereal and maybe toast.
Linus: (thoughtfully) That’s right, I’ve seen you make toast. You can’t butter it. But maybe we can help you!

4. The (first) supper. There are all kinds of ponderables here:

  • Even in the suspend-your-disbelief world of “Peanuts,” I love that they said: “Cook and serve Thanksgiving dinner? We’ll have the dog do that.”
  • The dog who’s human enough to cook knows what humans eat for Thanksgiving dinner. He cooks himself a nice turkey at the end of the show. But, pressed into service to cater to his master’s guests, he serves toast and junk food. (Charlie Brown and Linus make no effort to redirect him.)
  • What’s in the cherry-topped cups at the table? I don’t believe we see the kitchen crew assemble those, and they tend to get left out when people recall the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving menu. Wiki would have us believe it’s vanilla ice cream, and perhaps it is.
  • We don’t actually see the mystery ice-cream cups arrive at the table; they simply appear while everyone is blinking at each other, trying to come up with a suitable grace to say.
  • Snoopy is awfully quick to cower when Peppermint Patty berates him about his cooking. A more delightfully puckish, yet still totally characteristic, response would be for him to shrug and start eating her unwanted jellybeans.
  • A station wagon that seats six kids comfortably in the wayback is my kind of car. But where’s Lucy?

icecream5. Skies of America. One of the great things about Great Pumpkin is the backgrounds — wild, lurid autumn skies of orange and red and lavender and star-streaked dark gray. Most of the outdoor scenes in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving can’t compare, with the skies the same uniform color of washed-out blue-gray.

At the end, though, Snoopy and Woodstock enjoy their own holiday meal al fresco, under a gorgeous salmon-pink sky gently shot through with clouds. (In a nice if probably unintentional touch, the sky gets gently darker when the turkey is served and stays that color throughout the closing credits.)

For the last two-and-a-half minutes of the show, there is no human speech — just a small-group arrangement of that wonderful theme, while two best friends enjoy a meal in an autumnal wonderland.

With no disrespect meant to Charlie Brown’s grandma, I know which dinner I would have wanted to attend.


Five For The Record: Hot Tuna, “America’s Choice.”

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Fifth album by Jefferson Airplane spinoff band led by guitarist/singer Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, who chose the occasion to morph from a singer-songwriter/ragtime-blues collective to a wall-shaking hard-rock band. Released May 1975. Reached No. 75 on the U.S. album charts. Included “Hit Single No. 1,” but no actual hit singles. Contained obligatory ’70s “play loud for maximum effect” warning. They loved it in Columbus.


And here’s why I like it:

1. Oooh, sudsy. I love the album cover. Love love love it. Right up there with Chicago X in the band-as-brand sweepstakes. Except Chicago was a platinum-selling juggernaut — the Top 40 equivalent of a corporation, and just the sort of band you’d expect to adopt a fancy sell — while Hot Tuna was a scraggly bunch of noncommercial post-hippie freaks.

Seriously, that cover is wicked eye-catching. Plus, by likening the band to laundry detergent (an odd linkage, but whatever), it implies that America’s Choice belongs on the shelf in every home. It’s not just an album — it’s a household necessity. What, you don’t have one yet? You must have … ring around the collar.

2. Plastic blues. I will probably not find the words to describe exactly what I’m thinking … but track three, a throttling of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” attains a plastic-blues nirvana that I find oddly appealing.

For all its distortion, the song carries the soul and passion of a glass of Tang, and feels just as processed. It is polished, professional and perfunctory. These are musicians who can spit out 12-bar variations in their sleep, and for five minutes and twenty-four seconds, they might well be doing just that.

I’m not making much of an argument as to why anyone should like that … then again, there aren’t a lot of arguments for why people should like Tang, either, and it’s still on store shelves.

Maybe it’s the lack of hot-dogging or over-emoting. I’d rather hear Kaukonen’s understated drawl than somebody who sounds like his toenails are being pulled out.

Or maybe it’s a sort of nostalgia. This is State-Of-The-Art 1975 Rock-Blues, flawlessly recorded (and available in quadraphonic, if you care to look!), and listening to it has a certain period charm for those with imagination.

Just as Tang is the pure distilled essence of laboratory-created orange flavouring, “Walkin’ Blues” is the pure distilled essence of famous people in the Ford Administration playing the blues. So make Hot Tuna part of your nutritious breakfast!

3. Tones. Speaking of “Walkin’ Blues,” Kaukonen achieves a tone on his second solo I don’t think I’ve ever heard come from a guitar. As a guitar freak, I’d say that’s worth the price of admission all by itself. (You can hear it here, starting at about 3:05 in. I’m sure it’s some fairly common effect, but it perked up my ears when I heard it.)

If you’re a tone aficionado, the album is full of cranked-up, tube-glowing guitar sounds. Check out the spitting-hornet wah licks about 5 minutes into “Funky #7,” for instance.

4. Firmly committed to their limitations. Hot Tuna would have been much more commercially successful — and a measurably better band — if it had hired a good singer and songwriter and confined Kaukonen’s contributions to guitar. (Marty Balin, who filled both bills, was briefly a member in the group’s earliest days, but it didn’t stick.)

And yet, for most of the Seventies, the band plugged on, apparently content with what it was, rather than pursuing what it could have been.

This could represent anything from stubbornness, to self-centeredness, to the band’s Zenlike peace with its own essential identity.

As long as I don’t have to hear Kaukonen’s pinched, nasal singing every day, I prefer the last of those explanations.

A turtle does not aspire to fly, nor a stone to conduct an orchestra; nor should an assemblage of musicians aspire to become anything more than the sum of its parts, however frustrating or one-dimensional that sum might be.

(Hot Tuna was not completely immune to outside pressures: The producer of the band’s last Seventies studio album, Hoppkorv, press-ganged them into doing Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly covers. Perhaps it was that soul-wounding acquiescence to the market that ultimately pushed Hot Tuna to the sidelines, rather than the group’s limited sales and apparently eternal banishment to the small-theater-and-college-gym circuit.)

5. Speed-skating. This last item has nothing at all to do with what’s on the record … but truly, I am hard put to find five objectively good things to say about America’s Choice, even though I feel kindly toward the album, have had it in semi-regular rotation since I bought it, and will probably break down someday and buy Yellow Fever and Hoppkorv to keep it company.

Anyway, the liner notes of the CD restate a story I’d heard from other sources:

During Tuna’s glory years, Kaukonen and Casady became hooked on speed skating, to the point where they’d knock off from work starting in November, go up to Scandinavia, and spend a couple of months of winter on the ice oval.

(In his book about the Airplane, writer Jeff Tamarkin reported that David Freiberg — the Bay Area multi-instrumentalist drafted into the band during its dying days — took up speed skating himself in an attempt to befriend Kaukonen and Casady and draw them back toward the Airplane. It didn’t work … but that must be the furthest any rock n’ roll musician has ever gone to foster interpersonal harmony.)

Kaukonen apparently picked up the sport from his Swedish wife, while Casady became interested while watching the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. That in and of itself is a vision worth pondering — Casady, as purely Frisco-hippie as any musician ever, sitting in front of his TV with an Anchor Steam and a joint, glued to the short-track action.

I guess that’s one thing you can say about America’s Choice: It’s the best heavy-blues album ever recorded by speed skaters.

Hey, somebody’s record had to be, right?

Five For The Record: Blue Oyster Cult, “Burnin’ For You.”

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: 1981 single by veteran American hard-rock band, taken from the album Fire of Unknown Origin. Managed to become both a minor pop-radio hit and a staple of classic/hard-rock radio programming, at least back in the ’80s and early ’90s, when I still listened to classic/hard-rock radio.

And here’s why I like it:

1. The epic opening. The early to mid-’80s would not treat Seventies rock dinosaurs well. Some would slip off the charts, while others would adopt Eighties trappings in an attempt to stay relevant.

Set against that canvas, the opening of “Burnin’ For You” plays like one last shot of the old grandiose medicine.

Harmonized lead guitar, choral samples (at least, I assume that’s not a real choir) and rolling drum fills create a classic tense-yet-melodic hard-rock intro. Plus, there are no identifiably ’80s production touches, which means it ages well.

2. A private grumble. In the second verse, singer-guitarist Buck Dharma sings about “time everlasting,” followed by a clearly enunciated (perhaps even bitten-off) line: “Time. To. Play. B-Sides.” You can practically feel a nudge in the ribs as he sings it.

I have no idea what his complaint is; but clearly, he’s airing out some sort of private beef. Which I find kinda funny and entertaining.

Plus, he does it in the course of a hit song — so he got his dig in over a million American radios.

Whatever his behind-the-scenes argument was, I hope he won it.

3. Number Two. Speaking of hits, as indeed we were: “Burnin’ For You” reached the Top Forty by the skin of its teeth, placing at No. 40 for several weeks in October 1981.

This officially handed the BOC their ticket out of One-Hit Wonderland, thereby exempting them from all those snarky VH1 countdowns of Biggest One-Hit Wonders.

(The band’s first and biggest Top 40 hit, of course, was 1976’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” also written and sung by Senor Dharma.)

A band as catchy, sardonic and cool as Blue Oyster Cult doesn’t belong in the same discussion as Los Del Rio or the Singing Nun. And thanks to “Burnin’ For You,” it doesn’t have to be.

4. Call-and-response. Every good hit single has one or two instrumental details that catch the ear.

In “Burnin’ For You,” my favorite touch is the wry little guitar bend, low in the mix, that follows the fourth line of each verse (“Ain’t no home for me” in the first verse, “Got no time to slow” in the second.)

A close listen on my computer speakers suggests the bend is not being played by the same guitar that’s playing the crisp, tightly reverberant rhythm chords on beats two and four.

So now I’m imagining Dharma (one of my favorite rock-and-roll noms de guerre, by the way) doing an extra track of guitar overdub just to add those two bends.

It was worth his time.

4 1/2. Another cool production touch, if you wanted me to name one: The way Dharma’s lead guitar swoops in at about 2:49 to start the solo.

5. The epic ending. Well, sure, why not? You gotta get out of a song as stylishly as you got in.

To end “Burnin’ For You,” we get a last taste of that malevolent harmonized guitar lick, followed by the “choir” fading out on an ominous chord.

Not genuinely evil or scary — it’s only rock n’ roll, after all.

But at a time when hit-radio stations were playing Al Jarreau, Juice Newton, Quincy Jones with James Ingram, Dan Fogelberg, Kenny Rogers, Sheena Easton, Ronnie Milsap and Christopher Cross, “Burnin’ For You” might have been the only song in regular play with an edgy or mysterious touch … the only one that made the listener think, “What was that, and where did it come from?”

Rock n’ roll is all about that fire of unknown origin, after all … and we takes it where we finds it.

Five For The Record: Judy Collins, “Cook With Honey.”

The return of an occasional feature in which I pick something I like, and force myself to explain five reasons why.

Today’s subject: Hippie-ish first single from popular folksinger’s album True Dreams and Other Stories. Written by singer Valerie Carter. Minor Top 40 hit (No. 32) in early 1973.

And here’s why I like it:

1. It’s happy and homey. The Great Commune Dream was pretty much shot by ’73, I think, but the Back-To-The-Land Ideal was not.

And this song makes me think of some family — or maybe a group of ’em — up in Vermont somewhere, shearing their own sheep and spinning their own fabric and eating whole-grain muffins and generally living in an idyllic self-sufficient granite-ribbed world where Pontiac Catalinas dare not tread.

That’s not my dream in life, particularly; but it is all charming and cozy and hearth-fired, and a pleasant thing to come across in three-minute doses on pop radio.

2. No, it’s neither happy nor homey. My perception of the song depends on whether White Kurt or Black Kurt is in control when I listen; and my darker interpretations are at least as entertaining as my lighter ones.

The preternatural calmness in Collins’s voice, and the way she keeps switching from “I” to “we” on the chorus, suggests that she’s part of a chorus of center-parted Stepford Hippie farm wives dedicated to organic cooking for the Greater Good. (Whaddya suppose they put in that “sweet wine before dinner”?)

Less absurdly, I also imagine her narrator as a woman who ditched the plasticity of suburbia and family life for some sort of rural communal ideal … only to find out that she still spends eight goddamned hours a day cooking, cleaning and doing laundry.

3. Two great chords, three great minutes. The best songs aren’t always the simplest, but there’s a pretty good correlation there. You don’t need a single chord change to write a classic pop song, if you’re creative enough. (“Everyday People” says hi.)

“Cook With Honey” consists of two chords. No bridge, no modulation up, just two chords, strummed all day. (The Internet says Gmaj7 and D, if you’re scoring at home.)

Easy enough for every first-grade teacher in San Rafael to strum and sing to her kids during gather-’round-the-rug time. And what’s so wrong with that?

Edit: On further listening, it appears that a third chord makes a brief, furtive appearance near the end of the flute solo. But its presence is easily enough omitted or ignored.

4. Is that … a double-entendre? It must be Black Kurt who hears, “Finding favor with your neighbor / Well, it can be so fine” and thinks of Seventies-style wife-swapping. Hubba hubba.

OK, that’s probably a misread on my part. That line’s probably a totally straight-faced paean to going across the way to meet a new neighbor with an apple pie and a smile … just as the entire song’s an ode to generosity, neighborliness and home cooking.

Doesn’t mean I can’t throw it the side-eye, though. Especially when Collins asks, “Tell me, how’s your appetite / For some sweet love?”

5. Hey, a new (old) tune! Seems clear that White Kurt and Black Kurt are fighting for control of this entry. Well, they can both agree on Point Number Five.

I came across “Cook With Honey” some years ago while listening to a satellite radio rebroadcast of a Casey Kasem American Top 40 show. I had no recollection of the song at all. It was a surprise, and (excuse the cliche) a fairly sweet one.

I’m enough of a pop-music junkie to know most of the stuff I encounter on ’70s satellite radio, usually within the first 30 seconds. So, it’s a rare pleasure to come across a buried nugget — a song that is unknown to me and yet not totally obscure.

I haven’t heard the song much at all since then, either. So it still has that refreshing cinnamony air of a fresh muffin … er, I mean, of an out-of-the-ordinary pop surprise.

Five For The Record: The Beacon Street Union, “The Clown Died in Marvin Gardens.”

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Title track of second and final album released by “Bosstown sound” mainstay band. Released August 1968. Failed to chart in any city, state, country or other jurisdiction I know of, though I imagine the hip Boston stations probably gave it a couple spins.

And here’s why I like it:

1. Highbrow allusions for the win. It took me three listens to catch the musical references to Chopin’s Funeral March. For a psychedelic band, that’s pretty subtle: Most of the BSU’s peers would have had a fuzztoned lead guitar play three minutes of variations on it.

2. An arranged marriage. I dunno whether the BSU did their own arrangements, or hired an outsider.

Either way, “The Clown Died…” gets much of its charm from an interesting and relatively light-handed arrangement.

It’s full of musical touches that come and go — the four bass-drum booms as the cortege treads slowly by; a carnival organ that submerges and rises again; a harpsichord; strings; some dark, eerie flute licks; lead singer John Lincoln Wright’s one-word break into harmony on the word “hotel;” and those never-ceasing maracas (or whatever it is that sets the percussion groove.)

3. Mind your ah’s. Lead singer Wright — born in Boston; raised in Sanford, Maine — handles his R’s pretty well for most of the song. They lean a little toward H’s, but acceptably so, in a standard semi-tough lead-singer sort of way.

Then we get to the payoff line of the song, and Wright coughs up some Beacon Street:

The ground dried and hardened
After the clown died in Mahvin Gahdens.

I mean, he doesn’t even try to pretend he’s from anywhere except New England. The Bosstown sound, indeed!

4. High concept. A mashup of circuses and Monopoly as some sort of comment on the human condition? I have no idea what it means but I’ll buy it for a dollar.

The album cover is pretty good, too — five longhairs and a dead clown. I woulda taken a flyer on that if I’d stumbled across it in a record store bin in 1968.

(Unfortunately, they devoted Side Two of the album to throttling “Baby Please Don’t Go,” rather than further exploring their Ringling Brothers Barnum & Boardgame motif.)

5. Turn it up. BSU guitarist Paul Tartachny is not usually ranked with Joe Perry and J. Geils among Boston’s great guitar exports, but he rips off a good solo when he finally gets a chance.

(Any time the lead singer says something about “a lion trainer that’s gone maaaaaaad!” and looks in your direction, you gotta deliver the goods.)

Some of it is the same kind of scrambling modal raga-ish stuff every lead guitarist this side of Nigel Tufnel was serving up in 1968.

But it builds up a good head of steam, especially when Tartachny whips out some stuttering licks that bring to mind Berton Averre on the long version of “My Sharona.” (Listen at the very end and you’ll hear them, over what sounds like a berserk funeral procession.)

Five For The Record: The DeFranco Family, “Heartbeat (It’s A Lovebeat).”

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Earnest, infectious first single by bubblegum pop act made up of five Italian-Canadian siblings, led by 13-year-old Tony. A U.S. Top Ten hit this week 40 years ago.

And here’s why I like it:

1. I’m Roger Grimsby; here now the news. “Heartbeat” is famed among pop geeks for featuring a hyper-dramatic strings-and-harpsichord instrumental introduction. (So dramatic, I’m told, that some radio stations actually adopted it as the lead-in to their top-of-the-hour news breaks.)

It’s a little bizarre, and it has nothing in particular to do with the rest of the song.

But I see it as the spiritual heir of another totally unrelated instrumental intro that leads into a classic pop song. There’s a precedent for that sort of thing, if you look at it the right way.

Plus, the intro to “Heartbeat” connects thematically to a tense, dissonant 10-second swirl of music that links the Big First Chorus to the Catchy Second Verse. A lovebeat may be a good vibration, but it’s also turning Our Narrator heels over head.

For all the giddiness in its chorus, “Heartbeat” acknowledges the unfamiliar and disorienting effects of young love. Not bad for a song most people above 13 probably wrote off as pap back in ’73.

2. Tony the tiger. There’s a point about a minute into the song when sweet-voiced Tony DeFranco digs in and growls: “Can’t hold back any longer.”

That doesn’t make any sense either: It doesn’t really play convincingly as emoting. It’s like listening to the very earliest Stones records and hearing Mick Jagger try to enunciate like Chuck Berry (or Howlin’ Wolf).

Still, it comes and goes in a moment; and it’s endearing enough. I like to think young Tony was so eager to please the producer that he was digging everything he could think of out of his trick bag.

Three more takes, and he might have yodeled.

3. One for the JV team. I’ve seen clips of the Osmonds and Jackson 5ive in their prime. I’ve seen clips of the DeFranco Family, too.

And it’s my semi-studied opinion that the DeFrancos just didn’t have the same skills, magnetism and charm as the bigger names in the booming Seventies market for family-pop.

Check ’em out on Jack Benny’s show. They’re polite, winsome, but they don’t have that steamroller quality. Would Donny or Michael have pulled out the fist-pumping move Tony DeFranco whips out when he hits the chorus?

I see the DeFrancos’ relative shortcomings as charming, though.

The Jax 5ive and Osmonds come across like superstars — well-drilled, thoroughly professional performing units who could rock any stage, and who probably surrendered a fair portion of their childhoods to reach that status.

The DeFrancos, by comparison, come across as lucky hometown kids — the kind who maybe won a regional talent show on the night a Hollywood agent was in the audience, rode their Big Break as far as it would carry them, and then settled down (with the odd bump or bruise) back into normal life.

And, just like it’s cool to watch a No. 14 seed take out some favored opponents in March Madness, there’s something to be said for a bunch of kids from the gray anonymity of Ontario scoring the spotlight.

4. Let there be drums. For the most part, the instrumental backing to “Heartbeat” is standard-issue studio stuff, slick but not noticeable.

I tend to take notice of the drum part when I listen, though. It’s creative and propulsive without sticking out. (Perhaps that whipping motion Tony DeFranco makes is meant, consciously or unconsciously, to evoke the drummer’s shift to the ride cymbal.)

If the interwebs are to be believed, the DeFrancos worked with legendary session drummer Hal Blaine, whose resume boasts 150 Top Ten hits.

Blaine probably doesn’t remember this session, given all the records he cut. His performance here is a pretty good calling card for his talents, though.

5. Bad wordplay. In my days as a newspaper reporter, I delighted in slipping in-jokes and pop-culture references into my copy. Nothing salacious, mind you; just something for a giggle here and there.

(I have since learned that reporter in-jokes are annoying, and that no one anywhere ever bought a newspaper to check out the wise-ass reporter. I didn’t have that perspective then.)

Anyway, I used to write a twice-weekly column about retail development in the Lehigh Valley — new restaurants, store openings, store closings, what have you.

One week, news of two art-gallery openings landed on my desk. I didn’t get many of those, so I decided to lead my column with them, combining them into one item with info on each.

I wrote about one gallery; then segued into the other as follows:

While we’re on the art beat (it’s a lovebeat), Galleria Famiglia has opened at 12 XYZ St. …

I don’t think anyone in the entire Lehigh Valley got it; or if they did, they never told me. But, of all my self-conscious wiseassery, that’s probably the moment I’m least ashamed of.