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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.

 

American killjoy.

I was pleased to introduce a friend today to one of Twitter’s most useful tools — the mute-word function.

It’s pretty much what it sounds like. You type in a word, phrase or hashtag, and Twitter will block that word, phrase, or hashtag from your feed and make sure you don’t get notifications related to any tweet that contains it. You can set the block to last for a certain amount of time, or clang down the iron door forever.

In my experience, it does a very good job making stuff you don’t like disappear. So good, in fact, that I’ve accumulated a long list of muted words and phrases. Some are related to chronic irritants. Others are memory-joggers, reminding me of brief periods of time when people were just abusing the hell out of a word or phrase whose popularity has since receded.

I’m not going to reprint the full list here … but I thought it would say something about me if I lifted the veil partway and showed you some examples of stuff that, goddammit, I just flat-out do not want to hear about any more.

(Recognizing that not all my readers spend their lives online, I will add brief explanations where they seem useful.)

“Baby Yoda” — There was a period when the Star Wars fans on my feed — and they are legion on Twitter — were running at the mouth over the cuteness of this character from the SW spinoff “The Mandalorian” (I think that’s what it’s called.) I got sick of it. Yoda and #babyyoda are also on the block list.

“Star Wars” and #starwars— yeah, the whole franchise. There are lots of blockbuster-movie geeks on Twitter, but George Lucas’s baby really doesn’t mean anything special to me, and I’d prefer to avoid the endless chatter each time a new trailer is released or a new plot twist is hinted at.

“Real Housewives” — must I explain?

Chonky — also chonk. This cutesy variant on “chunky” caught on as a descriptor for fat housepets. It went from cute to trite quickly. (I don’t care much more about housepets than I do about Star Wars.)

“Kanye West” — also Kanye. I forget which of his peccadilloes landed him on the shit list but there he is. Oddly, while I have no great use for his wife either, “Kardashian” has never made it onto the mute list.

Hamilfilm — I respect “Hamilton” as a bold and successful piece of popular entertainment but I completely fail to see it as the life-affirming marvel of joy that some people seem to think it is. I believe I proactively put this on the block list before the film came out, just so I wouldn’t have to hear the knee-jerk liberals on my feed flutter anew about its brilliance. (Did I really just say that, and when did I turn so sour?)

“Tom Brady” — Living in New England isn’t all lobsters and ‘Gansett, and one of the pitfalls is the region’s fascination with its NFL team and its (now-former) star quarterback. Regular readers know the NFL is dead to me, which makes me even less interested in Tom Brady. I believe his name reached the mute list during a period when Brady was deciding whether to stay in New England or go elsewhere, and Twitter was full of uninformed speculation.

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Art for art’s sake!

Bingo — I’ve mentioned before that there’s a particular social media trope that really gets on my nerves: “I didn’t have (dramatic summary of current news event) on my pandemic bingo card.” Let’s just say I filled in five squares in a row, and my reward is I don’t have to hear this any more.

Oscar, Oscars, Emmy, Emmys, Grammy, Grammys, goldenglobes — Hmmm. Somehow the Tonys have stayed on my good side…

Festivus — The joke got old. Somehow my sense is that this is more successful in sneaking onto my feed than a lot of the other terms listed here — I don’t feel like it’s being blocked that effectively. I guess I’ll have to air my grievance.

Feels — Like “chonky,” this cutesy abbreviation of “feelings” slipped into the language as part of the whole annoying adults-intentionally-writing-like-children thing. (“Baby Yoda gives me all the feels.”) I sit alone in my stone tower, sipping brandy, free from the slangy pop-culture outbursts of the crowd, listening to Morris Albert croon: “Feelings …. nothing more than fee-lings….”

“RT if” — Short for “retweet if,” this phrase is the core of a million irksome attempts to build community (“RT if you ever sucked on orange wedges at halftime of a youth soccer game.”) I’ll RT somebody else’s tweet if it meets my standards for humor, creativity, nostalgia, or (occasionally) visceral impact, but I’ll pretty much never retweet anything that specifically asks to be retweeted.

Thread — A thread is when somebody has a long string of thoughts on a topic (a lot of feels, one might say) and builds a string of linked tweets on the subject. I loathe threads because THAT’S WHAT BLOGS ARE FOR. Expressing a lengthy or complex chain of thoughts and emotions 280 characters at a time is just stupid, when you could go somewhere else and enumerate them at full length and just post a link to that. Twitter exists for dumb quick hot takes, not for airing out your soul.

Joker — Fans of the Batman films seem to think the Joker is a particularly iconic character (you know, I should really mute the word “iconic” one of these days) and love to discuss him and his portrayers, which is not a subject that holds any interest for me. As an old friend on Twitter has said in the past: “I’m a giant fan of all things Batman, but let’s stop pretending that playing the Joker is like playing King Lear or something.”

Stan — This term for obsessive pop-culture superfans has somehow become both a noun and a verb. Overheated pop culture obsession doesn’t draw me in — I tend to think such people should diversify their interests — so I am not interested in either scholarly study of stan culture, or tweets where people declare themselves stans of a person, place, or thing. I’m probably missing all kinds of wonderful content related to Stan Getz, Stan Mikita, Stan Musial, and Stan Kenton, but that’s just another weight that has to be carried.

(I have thought about blocking Karen, the interwebs’ new favorite slang term for affluent, racist, entitled white women, but a woman named Karen has a great Lehigh Valley history account whose content I enjoy. So I grit my teeth and deal with the bursts of self-righteous people dunking on people they’ve never met, just so I can see photos of trolleys rolling through Catasauqua.)

Everybody had a hard year.

Things ain’t what they used to be, Chapters 53,559 through 53,561:

Some of you who have been around here a while might remember my writeup of the “Toby Schwartz game” from 2014, in which a Lafayette College baseball player won a tight game against North Carolina Central University with a walk-off home run.

This blog post included a paragraph or two of hand-wringing over the fact that I’d never heard of North Carolina Central — almost certainly because it’s a historically Black university. (It remains legitimately embarrassing that there are schools I know almost nothing about, just because I don’t know anyone who went there, they’ve never hosted a big-name national champion sports team, and they’re predominantly Black.)

Anyhow, North Carolina Central recently announced that it will discontinue baseball as a varsity sport at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

Which sucks. I can’t fault the school, because realities are realities, but I never like to see a baseball program disappear.

(Well, I can fault the school for one thing — the use of the phrase “it was determined that” in its formal announcement. I used to work at a place where the phrases “it was determined that” or “it was decided that” were consciously used by certain people and departments as a way to squirm out of public accountability. In their hands, “it was determined that” was code for “you don’t need to know who made this decision. Move along.” I’ve never trusted the phrase since.)

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Also on the baseball front: I’ve already ranted on Twitter and Instagram about Major League Baseball’s decision to abandon the names of their existing minor leagues for the 2021 season, but I’ll do it here too.

A refresher for those who haven’t heard: MLB has taken over control of the minor leagues in a way it never had before, and is making a variety of changes. One of them, announced last week, is the rearrangement of remaining minor-league teams into new groupings and divisions.

Names like the International League, Pacific Coast League, and Eastern League — names with a century-plus of history — have been chucked out like yesterday’s potato peelings, replaced by bland classifications like “Triple-A East, Northeast Division.” Speculation is that these bland names are only placeholders, to be replaced by sponsored brand names for the 2022 season; so before long we might be rooting for the Bubba’s Hot Wings Triple-A Division or somesuch.

I won’t belabor the frustration I feel at the wanton trashing of names with such rich heritage. You can guess what I think. And anyway, what I think won’t affect MLB in the slightest.

It does drive home some new realities to me, though.

For a while I have disliked MLB but perceived the minors as a more amenable alternative — frustrating in their own way, with their nonstop pandering to people with short attention spans who value free bobbleheads above crisp 6-4-3 double plays, but more amenable all the same.

But now MLB has killed my favorite minor league (the New York-Penn League) and eliminated the familiar branding and layout of my second-favorite (the International League, the league both I and my kids grew up watching.)

The minors have always been a slower, rootsier, friendlier alternative to MLB — but now that they are in MLB’s direct control, that seems to be ending. It is now impossible to support the minors without knowing you are directly supporting the broken, money-hungry, tone-deaf MLB.

I’m not real sure what I’m gonna do about that. I’ve loved college ball for years, but it ends early, and then how do I get my baseball fix all summer? I guess I’ll have to switch my allegiance to the summer leagues for college players — though MLB is consolidating its control of those, too.

Ten years from now I may be watching random kids play tee-ball on the Fourth of July and weeping inside.

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San Francisco’s venerable Anchor Brewing is another sentimental favorite of mine, from its distinctive product to its cluttered, curio-shop labels.

Last month, Anchor unveiled its first significant packaging redesign in decades, moving to a simpler, more streamlined look. This was roundly and profanely denounced by beerheads on social media, even beyond the usual contempt that greets redesigns. (Not me; I’ve learned to hold my tongue on these things.)

After a day or two of abuse, Anchor rather touchingly took to social media to explain the hard truth: Novelty has become more powerful in the beer business than heritage; all those people who love the old design so much aren’t actually buying the beer; and if that continues, the brewery will close.

I am guilty of enjoying the existence of this goofy bohemian brand but not actually supporting it with my dollars on a regular basis. (Among other things, I am trying to keep Samuel Adams a going concern, closer to home; my allegiance to them outstrips my allegiance to Anchor, though I’d keep ’em both around if it were up to me.)

So I guess I should start doing more to support Anchor … even though it’s become less goofy and bohemian and weird and individual and San Franciscan, and now looks like it’s jostling for fratboy dollars? I mean, the beer’s the same (presumably) … but … that packaging. So bland. Do I want that in my hand? It was so much cooler when it looked like people were brewing the stuff for the fun of it.

There is, I suppose, no winning in any direction.

I’d go back there tomorrow, but for the work I’ve taken on.

It’s part of the Kurt Blumenau mythology, a factoid that anyone close enough to me to be reading this has probably heard multiple times. I’m not sure why I keep repeating it … I think I hope I will someday figure out why it mattered at the time and why I still remember it now. Anyhow:

Thirty years ago at this time, I was heading into the backstretch of my senior year of high school, juggling pretty good grades, a garage band, a girlfriend, and a mediocre winter track career.

And every night as I sat down to dispatch my senior-year homework, I put on Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and listened to it straight through while I worked. Literally every single night over the course of the year, or very, very close to it. I had plenty of other records, and I’m sure I gave those some spins as well. But only Court and Spark was as much a part of the routine as pens and notebooks.

I have often wondered why the wanderings of a wealthy, footloose, romantic professional woman in Seventies L.A. should be so engrossing to a teenage boy in the Great Lakes suburbs of the early Nineties. It might have been the music more than the words. Joni had the balance of complex and catchy pretty well nailed by that point, and I remember thinking of the arrangements at the time as “wide-screen,” in particular the lengthy orchestral interlude that swells up in the middle of “Down to You.”

Anyway, I thought it might make for value-added interwebs content to revisit Court and Spark and rank its 11 songs from worst to best, as we blogger-types sometimes do with albums we like. It would have been interesting to compare this if I’d made the same list 30 years ago; I never did, but I suspect my rankings have not seismically altered over the decades.

11. “People’s Parties.” Of all Joni’s adventures, this seemed the least relatable or compelling: Our heroine fumbles around at parties to the accompaniment of a big baggy open-tuned guitar. The featured guest is a beautiful woman who sees no difference between laughing and crying, and that about says it all.

10. “Trouble Child.” This mysterioso ode to an institutionalized young person would have scored a lot higher with me in 1991, just on musical mood alone. Now I’m more likely to cock an eyebrow at lines like the Jon Anderson-ish “Dragon shining with all values known” and the closing rhyme of “knock you”/”clock you.” And I never come out the other end of this song entirely sure what its narrator wants me to think about the title character.

(Obligatory disclaimer applies: The most successful song I’ve ever written was about the Presidential Physical Fitness Exams, so any criticisms I have regarding song construction should probably be taken with a grain of salt.)

9. “Twisted.” OK, this bit of secondhand vocalese would have been last on my list in 1991. I don’t usually like vocal jazz, and the campier or more self-consciously clever it gets, the worse it is. But, y’know, since I started putting on my grown-up pants I’ve come to sorta like this. It has gained in my estimation as its predecessor “Trouble Child” has declined. Joni has the voice to pull it off, and it’s pleasant to hear her enjoying herself.

8. “Raised on Robbery.” I was gonna put “Just Like This Train” in this slot but swapped it with this one at the last second. This is Joni’s big rock n’ roll move, with fellow Canuck Robbie Robertson lending support on guitar, and a Maple Leafs name-drop for a little extra north-of-the-border colo(u)r. It’s well enough done — some of the lines are funny, and extra points for the way the lyrics shift perspective after the first four lines — but I never really turned to Court and Spark for rock n’ roll. I don’t want the songs to pump past quickly (see #7.)

7. “Just Like This Train.” A slow and lazy reverie, sung from the point of view of a ramblin’ dame on a train journey with a bottle of German wine who lets slip that she’s found love — or has she? Honestly, I think I like this song because the languidness that pervades it makes it seem twice as long, and I would stay for several hours in the Court and Spark soundscape if allowed.

6. “Car on a Hill.”I’ve been sitting up waiting for my sugar to show / I’ve been listening to the sirens and the radio” is a great evocative opening, redolent of hot dark spooky summer nights in idyllic and high-priced Western canyons. The song doesn’t evolve that much further from there, but Joni lets you see enough to make you wonder whether the narrator should be as attached to her man as she seems to be. I also go for the wordless, ominous, screeching bridge, though your mileage may vary. “He makes friends easy / He’s not like me…

5. “Help Me.” You know this one — one of the album’s two hits. Catchy and concise; takes off in the bridge; and packs one of the album’s defining lines (“You love your loving, but not like you love your freedom“) … maybe should have placed higher. Maybe it’s just a bit of fatigue at this point.

4. “Court and Spark.” The album opener and scene-setter, with JM tinkling the joanna. The door swings open, the math book does too, love comes to Joni’s door with a sleepin’ roll, and off we go. This song is just the right length at 2:46; it would have dragged at any greater duration. “You could complete me / I’d complete you” is pretty much the whole burrito, refined down to one flawless mouthful of beans and rice. Calling Los Angeles “city of the FAL-LEN AN-GELS” is a howling cliche — maybe less so in 1974, but only slightly less so. Still Joni sings it like it stings her, with a turbulent and bruised-sounding instrumental passage in its wake, and it sneaks by.

3. “Down to You.” A rueful deep-dive into the way love fades, aimed at a “constant stranger” who is both kind and cold — a reminder of how we hand our hearts to other people and then find out what we’re in for. (I don’t entirely understand the sidetrack into the singles bar; is that the narrator’s amour who’s sneaking around, or is she recalling her own previous — or even current — misadventures?)

I could bathe in the previously mentioned instrumental break; this is where the musical glory of Court and Spark is most let off the leash to frolic. If Wiki is to be trusted, Joni and Tom “Triple Scale” Scott shared a 1975 Grammy Award for this song, in the category of Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s). 1991 Kurt says they deserved it, and the repeated plays 2021 Kurt is giving it suggest that not every molecule in him has changed since he wore long hair.

2. “Same Situation.” The last chord of “People’s Parties” (remember that? if you forgot it, that’s OK too) fades into this, Joni’s keenest and most acidic dissection of relationship tangles on C&S. The image of being “tethered to a ringing telephone / in a roomful of mirrors” has stuck with me over the years, well out of proportion to its actual application to any situation in my own life.

Another of the lyrics here – “Like the church, like a cop, like a mother / You want me to be truthful / Sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon, though / And I need your approval” — also turned my head around when I was younger. It was a passkey that opened up a room in which I considered the unthought and implicit demands I made, or would make, in romantic relationships. A sort of heads-up: People play mind games and make unrealistic demands. Check yourself: Which ones are you guilty of? 

(I’m not saying that couplet actually made me a better person; but it took self-satisfied teenage Kurt and made him think, and anything that could do that must have had something going for it. And anyway, a lyric Joni delivers late in the song, over a subtle swell of strings – “Send me somebody / who’s strong, and somewhat sincere” — suggested that one didn’t have to be perfect to make a connection.)

1. “Free Man in Paris.” The other big hit, entering in a gale of puffy flutes, and (AFAIK) introducing the phrase “star-maker machinery” to popular culture.

I’ve been in the full-time working world for 25 years now, and this anthem of one-of-these-days-I’m-gonna-check-out has played in the back of my head for most of that time. This is sort of the thinking white-collar person’s equivalent of “Take This Job and Shove It” or “Nine to Five” … not a complete shucking of one’s duties, but a sigh and a long gaze out the office window, and a look forward to a delicious day when it all disappears (with an empowering undercurrent of I’m-only-here-because-I-choose-to-be.)

I don’t know where 1991 Kurt, who only worked menial jobs in the summers, would have placed this, but Adult Kurt has lifted it, rather unconsciously, to the level of a statement of purpose.

I do my best, and I do good business … and “if I had my way, I’d just walk through those doors and” — and here Joni’s voice leaps brilliantly into the clouds — “wan-DERRRRRRR down the Champs-Elysees.” (How many American Top 40 hits mention the Champs-Elysees? Hell, how many mention Paris?)

 

Fleurette.

Came across this on Twitter and started watching and it took me completely out of 2021 for 43 minutes (granted, I have less reason to want to flee than a lot of people, but still) so I’ll repost it here for as long as the video works.

Not much else to say about it, and nothing to add to it; either you enjoy it or you don’t.

Winners.

Twitter is great as a news aggregator, a tracker of friends, and a delivery vehicle for occasional snowdrops of vintage awesomeness.

I am still savoring the latest delivery of the latter — a pop-culture footnote that conveniently happens to be celebrating a 50-year anniversary right about now, though that’s not why I find it so engaging.

(Background info in the next couple grafs, and indeed throughout the blog post, is largely taken from KeyMan Collectibles’ website, as well as a blog called The Topps Archives that doesn’t seem to actually be affiliated with Topps, with a lesser assist to the Trading Card Database. I have no personal experience with or knowledge of the topic, and indeed, as far as I really know, the whole thing could be an elaborate practical joke. If so, more fool me.)

In 1971, Topps ran a contest inviting kids to enter for the chance to get their photo on a baseball card — of which, at that point, Topps was essentially America’s monopoly producer.

(The Topps Archives blog suggests that the contest may have been conducted in a limited geographic area, perhaps as a pilot or practice run. Several of the cards show kids in Pirates apparel, suggesting that western Pennsylvania might have been the test ground — although the Pirates were also the reigning World Series champions at that point, and Pirates gear may have been more common than usual.)

Twenty-five winners — or so people think; more on this in a moment — were chosen. They submitted their own photos, as well as basic personal info for the back, shorn of any geographic identifiers. In the spring of 1972, they received 1,000 copies of their card, as well as 24 packs of 1972 cards, each pack with their Winner card inserted amongst the big-leaguers.

(A thousand cards is kind of a metric sh!tload. That would cover everyone in your family, and everyone at your elementary school, and everyone at the other elementary schools in town, and everyone you met if you went on to college, and and and. I’m guessing 1,000 was the minimum quantity Topps could print on a cost-effective basis, because … I dunno, you give me a better theory. It pretty clearly wasn’t a number they arrived at with any consideration for the recipient.)

We haven’t even reached the coolest part yet. The winners’ cards were apparently also short-printed and inserted into packs of ’72 Topps cards sold to the general public. So a certain population of collectors, in between their Rob Gardner and their Tom Kelley, found a Brucette Rumenyak.

Since the cards were printed on a limited basis, this probably wouldn’t have happened enough times to cheese people off … not like, say, buying three packs and pulling three checklists. For the kids of ’72, it would have been something rare, something uncommon, something distinctive — “Hey, Brian found this weird card last night! Check it out.”

(Yes, some of those kid collectors in Nixonland would have made a retching noise and promptly stuck this bizarre non-ballplayer card between their bicycle spokes. But others would surely have sensed that here was an oddball, a rara avis worth saving.)

Getting back to Brucette Rumenyak for a second, at least five of the winners were girls, which seems to me to speak well for the randomness and distribution of the contest. Two of them were sisters, which I guess argues against the randomness and distribution of the contest. But still, it’s good that girls had a healthy presence in this whole affair.

I say “at least five of the winners” because … well, here’s still another aspect of the awesomeness of this little nugget:

While there were reportedly 25 winners, only 19 of the cards are known to circulate. The extensive research on The Topps Archives blog suggests that Topps only ever printed 19 of the cards, and raises the possibility that Topps didn’t even bother to choose 25 winners, or didn’t get enough response to do so.

As an added wrinkle, I have read posts on online forums that suggest that the Winners cards fetch high prices — I recall four figures — but that they tend to show up in groups. Whoever finds one seems to find four, or five, or 10. I have no idea what forces are at work there.

(The posts on The Topps Archives make for delightful reading because they characterize the contest as rare, bizarre and mysterious. This is a blog that’s been covering Topps and card-related subjects since 2008. The author, presumably, has seen it all. But the Topps Winners set is still a subject on which information leaks out, bit by bit, over the course of years, complete with blurry, amateurish scans. If the Topps Winners cards make the Topps expert scratch his head, I make no excuses for my own fascination.)

If I were to script a movie about the winners of this contest, I would have one of them burn all 1,000 of their cards on a bonfire as a rite of passage on their 18th birthday, inadvertently helping to turn their few surviving cards into one of the biggest prizes in 20th-century baseball-card history. Truth is stranger than fiction? Maybe, maybe not.

So: This whole Topps Winners set would be fascinating, just as a concept. But the Interwebs let us see all the cards. And for me, that only makes it more interesting.

As Toppcat, the blogger at The Topps Archives, points out, some of the photos are not in baseball settings — somewhat confusing, given that the cards were packed alongside and inside the nation’s flagship baseball-card set.

One Philip T. Edgerly sits astride his bike, out in the yard, in the sort of picture parents in ’72 tended to take if you had a new bike, a new outfit, or a new job to ride to. Allen Csuk Jr. and Ricky Nobile might have submitted their school pictures.

(I find Nobile’s portrait especially affecting, for some reason; I half expect him to open his mouth and start telling me about his new Schwinn, or his paper route, or how much he dislikes his social studies teacher. I am not sure I have ever gotten that impression from a traditional baseball card. Not many, certainly.)

There is Tim J. Harlan, a bright-eyed and cheerful-looking lad, who admits on his card that his Little League position is “right field.”

Maybe something changed between 1971 and my Little League career in the early ’80s … but I can tell you from life experience that right field in Little League is not a skill position.

If this was also true in 1971, then Tim J. Harlan deserves extensive pop-cultural celebration, perhaps even a national holiday. A Little League right fielder raised to the pedestal of a genuine Topps baseball card? That’s a victory for all the butter-fingered slow-swingers in the crowd, folks. The kid’s an all-American patron saint, with a smile to match. Topps Winners, indeed!

There is Vernon Grover, whose card has a curious distinction. He has clearly not been photographed in front of a formal background in a studio, like Csuk or Nobile, and yet the background of his photo is yellowed out. It makes me suspect that what we are seeing is a crop of a team photo, which is mildly interesting in a couple of different ways.

(For one thing, it would have required a Topps design employee to put in at least a little bit of time and effort on a card that, I’m guessing, Topps didn’t really want to invest lots of time or effort into. I guess Topps was committed enough to the Winners set not to simply toss out Grover’s card for being too much work. For another thing, perhaps there are teammates of Grover’s who still try to cadge free drinks out of the fact that they were almost on an honest-to-goodness Topps card once.)

And then there’s Christine Ulicny.  She looks, perhaps, to be wearing a Sunday go-to-church outfit … but with a Pirates cap and a baseball glove. Maybe her parents grokked that a Topps contest should have some kind of baseball content, and kitted her out on the quick. She doesn’t really look like she’s minding right field, anyway.

I have found reference online to people who have Googled the Winners’ names; who have seen their Facebook pages; who have suggested that Topps do some sort of follow-up issue to commemorate the Winners and find out where they are now.

I have done none of the above and don’t plan to. The Winners don’t deserve online hounding, and in any event, it is of no import to me where they are now (just as it is of no real import to me where Rob Gardner and Tom Kelley are now).

Let them stay fading, ’70s-tinged mysteries. Let them stay young.

Let them stay Winners.

Pizza on wheels.

On Sunday night I was making pizza and listening to John Coltrane’s Ascension, which I hadn’t put on in a while, and McCoy Tyner’s piano solo on Side One of the album just absolutely fascinated me. It operated with a logic and language I could just barely begin to grasp, and it resonated with both novelty and clarity, and it sounded fresher than anything I’d heard in a long while, and it sure helped the crushed tomatoes meet the dough.

I’m sorta reluctant to listen again because I doubt it will captivate me as much the second time.

There’s always the chance, though, and I suspect I will put it on again the next time I can actually clear my mind enough to focus on it (which might not be for, oh, a week-and-a-half or so).

In the meantime, the Internet Archive has posted the vinyl rip of the soundtrack to the 1958 movie Summer Love, featuring Jimmy Daley and the Ding-A-Lings doing the 30-trying-to-sound-16 thing, and honking blues-based novelties aplenty. Contempt for the audience!

Yes, this is the year.

The city of Boston’s low-power radio station played our music again last night … and based on the song selected, I’d say the automated playlist machine has a sense of humor.

presidentials

The very last song of Inauguration Day.

Of course the song has nothing to do with inaugurations or elections; it’s about the Presidential Physical Fitness Exams (a.k.a. “the Presidentials”) that everybody had to do in gym class twice a year when I was a kid. I’m not aware that my kids had to do it. Neither of them have ever brought home a results card, and one of them, at least, is dutiful enough that he would have done so if he had received one.

The lyrics, recorded sometime pre-pandemic in the late months of 2019, are already dated. We might actually now have a President who can do a pull-up — though that would be the least of the many advantages he has over the last guy.

It’s the start, the start of the century.

Perhaps somewhere, in the sulfurous depths where the souls of the wicked dead are gathered, a snarling demon has begun the thousand-year task of whacking Phil Spector’s hindquarters to the rhythm of a consistent, endless beat:

“Boom, boom-boom, thwack. Boom, boom-boom, thwack.”

I was never a huge Spector fan (hmmm, did the preceding sentences tip you off?) I thought Brian Wilson did the orchestrated sound better, to the extent I wanted to hear orchestrated pop records.

The songs that made Spector’s legend sounded to me like shrill New York City teenage girls pledging unseemly, almost canine levels of devotion to some offscreen guy. Girl groups and me, we’ve never gotten along.

I also believe, with no other evidence than my own bile, that Spector’s use of the baion (the above-mentioned drum rhythm) handed pop-geek musicians and producers an easy tool that will be used and abused until the end of time. Starting a song with the boom, boom-boom, thwack didn’t mean you had no ideas of your own; it meant you had, like, deep roots and classic influences and stuff.

By the time The Knack did it, it was well past done:

Spector was also a murderer, an abuser, and an early adept at the producer’s art of claiming dubious co-songwriting credits. Just thought that should be in here somewhere, as well.

Maybe you had to be there at the time, and if you were alive in the summer of ’63 to hear one of the WMCA Good Guys spinning “Be My Baby” through a small Japanese speaker, you got to perceive some mystic magic that later-born humans could never recapture. That may legitimately be the case, given the raves people assign to that record.

I dunno. For my two cents, the only real plus points on Spector’s resume are “My Sweet Lord” (just try not to sing it or hear it now that I’ve mentioned it — though I give George Harrison most of the credit) and “Do You Remember Rock n’ Roll Radio?,” which sounds like you’re simultaneously being steamrolled by a marching band, a merry-go-round, and the Ramones, and makes it sound like the most fun thing you can do on a hot summer night.

# # # # #

What else?

No new SABR Games Project stories posted lately (I would guess more will be along this week) but my “biography” of Rochester’s now-gone Silver Stadium recently got posted. Biography articles are a lot more work than Games Project stories, so it’s good to have the process finished.

I have a second ballpark bio in the review process. That one took more work: It’s about a stadium I’d never heard of until I did a little Googling, and I decided to put in for it to challenge myself. (When I learned that I’ve driven over the former site of this ballpark dozens of times and never known it, I decided I was the guy to bring it to life.)

I think that piece oughta come out pretty solidly, and I’ll post that link here when the time comes.

Work is work. Running is short and heavy and slow. Walking has been good and long lately, at least, and that’s been a plus. Today I spent close to two hours on a new-to-me rail trail in the small towns of Blackstone and Millville, down on the Rhode Island line. It’s a great trail, and it will be astonishing in the autumn, so if I’m not doing time next to Phil Spector in October, I’m planning on a return visit.

Recent listens include XTC’s Go 2 album (why did it take me so long to discover those guys?), The Jam’s In The City album — barking, ringing, earnest UK punk; still vinegary after all these years — and Damn, I Hate This Paperwork!, an irreverent and greatly entertaining plunderphonics album by a Connecticut artist called State Police. Recommended, esp. as it’s free.

I got another stack of 10-cent baseball cards. Lots of stuff that excites me in small ways but nothing that would interest anybody else, so I’ll spare you.

The wind on Saturday and Sunday didn’t rise to the level where I had to work, so I actually enjoyed a three-day weekend. I appreciate that, and am grateful.

A new week starts tomorrow.