Truth is the glue.

A brief break from Art for Art’s Sake to bring you an important announcement:

The speeches of Gerald Ford set to a backdrop of theremin is something you can now enjoy in your rec room, pup tent, Quonset hut, or wherever people gather and the beer is cold.


Unlike some of my earlier Bandcamp releases, We Have Succeeded In Nothing Anywhere has no deep origin story.

I found audio recordings of the speeches of Gerald Ford online. I found an electronc theremin simulator online. And at some point, my mind put the two together.

The speeches of Gerald Ford … accompanied by theremin. Yeah, the time has come.

It’s probably better in concept than execution. But, having executed it, I decided to loose it on the world anyway and let you, the listener, be the judge.

(Edit: I should probably mention that no social or political comment is intended here, nor do I have anything against Gerald Ford. His speeches just happen to be publicly available, in decent fidelity, begging to be set against vaguely psychedelic aural backgrounds.)

Like everything else I do, We Have Succeeded In Nothing Anywhere (it’s a phrase Jerry uses at one point; see if you can find it) is available as a free Bandcamp download. You need pay nothing for its myriad pleasures. In a world stacked against the common man, that’s a remarkable thing, Bunky.

As with previous releases, I will react with doglike gratitude (though no swag) to anyone sending me a photo of a WHSINA track playing in their iTunes, on their computer screen, on their phone, etc. I know, my comments are turned off, but anyone who reads this knows where to find me anyway.

Be of good cheer.

Fingers grow back.

My latest recording is available at Bandcamp as of a few minutes ago. This time around I had help, from dozens of shaggy-haired, bell-bottomed, short-skirted teenagers who had no idea what I was doing.


The new one is called Things We Burned. It was created by extensively editing the music from a locally released 1970 album featuring various student performing ensembles from Penfield, N.Y., High School.

You’ve probably seen this kind of record in the crates. Maybe you even own one. The local high school concert band or marching band cuts some songs in a studio on the cheap, presses up some records, and sells ’em to parents and grandparents. Some end up sitting in a box years later in the bandroom storage area. That’s how this one landed in my hands.

The record — being bare-bones, as these things often seem to be — doesn’t have any performer credits beyond the names of the ensembles, so I can’t thank Johnny and Jane from the Class of ’71 for their groundbreaking work on tympani or flute. If you’re out there, and you read this, thanks. You played great. Knocked ’em dead.

The record also doesn’t have any copyright claim anywhere on its label or jacket. So far as I can tell, that places it in the public domain, and thus fair game for my kind of vandalistic re-creation.

What’s it sound like? As chaotic as all the other stuff I do, only this time there’s a concert band playing. Maybe that’s more palatable; maybe it isn’t.

It’s out there, anyway — and it’s name-your-own-price, which means free. So take two, tell your friends, and cover your ears.

Are you ready for the night train?

Dear music writers of America:

I hope you haven’t submitted your Album Of The Year ballots yet … because, as 2015 approaches its twilight, the voice of the diddley bow is once again heard in the land.


Yup. Proud to announce the arrival of Night Train To Sideways as a name-your-own-price download on Bandcamp.

It’s the fifth Kurt Blumenau recording (I hesitate to call them “albums”), and the second to feature the unaccompanied growl of the diddley bow.

Why do I do this? Mainly because I like the noises I make, and think somebody somewhere else might like ’em too.

So, I raise a one-stringed (though not one-fingered) toast to somebody somewhere else.

PS: Screeds-and-links for my previous recordings are here, here, here and here.

PPS: Anyone sending me a screenshot of a Night Train To Sideways track playing in their iTunes, phone or other digital music outlet wins lunch and a beer if we’re ever in the same place at the same time, as well as my undying gratitude.

The best-laid plans.

The last time I wrote about an old local radio airplay chart, I found the story of a band that was huge on most continents but small potatoes in the U.S. … except for a couple of weeks in the Lehigh Valley, when they got Top Five airplay.

I’m looking at another of these old radio charts. And this time, the story is an album — one of those earnest high-concept Seventies jobbies — that stiffed in most other parts of the U.S., but was unaccountably popular here in the Valley.

Set the controls for the week ending Aug. 26, 1973, and the radio for Allentown’s old Top Forty station WAEB 790 AM.

Summer’s nearly over. What are the kids reporting for fall sports practice at Northampton and Nazareth and Becahi buzzing over?

Well, the list of top singles is a typical ’73 mix of the sublime (“Here I Am (Come And Take Me),” “Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne,” “Live and Let Die”) and the ridiculous (“The Morning After,” “Uneasy Rider,” “Gypsy Rose”).

But what interests us is the LP chart. That’s an uneven mix too — you’ll see the kids in the Lehigh Valley getting off on Leon Live and Sing It Again, Rod alongside the more lasting likes of 1967-1970 and Countdown to Ecstasy.

And then, near the bottom, you’ll see the Osmonds’ The Plan.

The Plan, released in June of that year, is an openly religious album — an attempt by the group to express aspects of its Mormon faith in a pop setting.

If you skip to about 1:30 into this promotional video, you’ll see one of the guitar-toting Osmond bros explain it in a po-faced voice-over: “Recently, we released a new album … a concept album … based on our philosophies about life. Where did I come from? Why am I here? And where am I going? In other words — the plan.”

Anybody who knows their Seventies pop culture knows where the Osmond family of Ogden, Utah, formed its “philosophies about life” — philosophies that guided the group members’ offstage lives and, on this album, spilled over into their music.

Like other musicians of faith — including fellow ’73 hitmakers George Harrison and Al Green — the Osmonds found ways to package their spiritual concerns in ways that would be palatable to a mass audience.

Two of the album’s songs cracked the lower reaches of the U.S. Top Forty and one hit No. 4 on the Adult Contemporary chart, testament to the professional talent of family songwriters Merrill and Wayne Osmond.

That said, online reviews of the album suggest that most listeners found The Plan too openly religious to embrace. (Some reviewers also criticize the album for skipping too wildly between musical genres.)

If you watch the promotional video above, skip to about 4:05 in, and you’ll see the brothers tackle a foreboding, heavy tune called “The Last Days,” which segues abruptly into a bouncy, encouraging tune called “One Way Ticket To Anywhere.” (This is just for the purposes of the promo video; the songs do not abut on the LP.)

For my taste, the whole thing seems a little too theatrical, a little too well-scrubbed, like the soundtrack to the spring musical at a religious high school.

This being the Osmonds, the whole thing is performed with the utmost professionalism, and it’s kinda catchy here and there … but ultimately, it just doesn’t hit a nerve for me.

Audiences in other countries loved it: According to Wiki, The Plan hit No. 6 in the U.K., and its singles went Top Five there.

But American album buyers only sent The Plan to No. 58 on the charts — a letdown compared to predecessor LPs Crazy Horses (No. 14, 1972) and Phase III (No. 10, 1971.) By the standards of religious albums, The Plan was a strong success; by the standards of mainstream pop, it was a misfire.

(It’s true that bands appealing to the teenybop market tend to have short, torrid runs of popularity … and maybe the Osmonds’ time would have been up in 1973 even if they’d released a fully secular album. As it was, they chose to take a chance; commercially, it did not pay off.)

Which brings us back to WAEB in the Lehigh Valley, where listeners highly rated The Plan, even though the region is not particularly a stronghold of the Mormon faith.

In the invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts, only five charts mention The Plan — one apiece from Buffalo, N.Y.; Oklahoma City; Provo, Utah (a Number Three hit there, not surprisingly); Windsor, Ontario, Canada; and Allentown.

That doesn’t mean The Plan wasn’t popular anywhere else. Some Top Forty stations’ airplay charts focused heavily on singles, paying little or no attention to LPs. And the ARSA database is not comprehensive, so there could be additional local charts with The Plan that haven’t yet been scanned in.

Still, the available evidence suggests that the Lehigh Valley embraced this record in a way that didn’t happen just about anywhere else.

The WAEB chart came out a good two months after the album did. So the placement of The Plan must have been based on genuine popularity, rather than being a pre-emptive strike on the station’s part. (i.e., “the kids love the Osmonds, and this new album will probably be hot, so we’ll put it on our Top Ten.”)

The only explanation I can think of for The Plan‘s strong local sales is that eternal shifter of units: Tour dates.

The Osmonds played the Great Allentown Fair — a major annual event, held around Labor Day — in 1973. They’d played the fair the year before, according to the local paper, and would be back yet again in 1975 and 1978. Presumably the anticipation of their upcoming gig drove the local kids out to their local record stores to pick up The Plan.

The Osmonds gigged in lots of other places where The Plan didn’t chart, so that doesn’t seem like an ironclad reason.

But at this distance, trying to peer back into the haze of a distant late summer, that’s as much as I can come up with.

500 posts, 51 years.

This is, you’ll be thrilled to know, Post No. 500 in the history of Neck Pickup. To celebrate, I’m both going to give the Five Readers what they want, and go a little out of my comfort zone.

The readership stats and the comments tell me people like it when I write about old radio countdowns — either Casey Kasem American Top 40 jawns, or local radio-station play charts. So I’ll do a little more of that.

But, just for fun, I’m gonna leave my Seventies comfort zone and go all the way back to Beatlemania.

I grew up hearing plenty of Sixties tunes on Saturday-night all-request oldies hours, and some of them still rattle around my transom from time to time. (“Don’t ya know that she’s juuuuuust myyyyy style / Ev’rything about her driiiiiives meeeeeee wild.”)

Left to my own devices, though, I will write about a 15-year period roughly bounded by Sgt. Pepper’s and Business As Usual. Just seems to be where I’m most at home, I guess.

We’re headed somewhere different thanks to Allentown’s old WHOL-AM 1600 (“Top Of The Dial – The Top Popper Sounds!”), and its local airplay report for the week ending Aug. 14, 1964.

Will there be Beatles? Of course. But what else will there be?

Let’s find out:

-Pretty nice mix of stuff in the Top 10.

I often tend to reduce ’64, in my mental periscope, to near-toxic doses of Beatles; a bunch of other Limeys with guitars serving as supporting cast; and the occasional shot of Motown. But WHOL’s biggest hits are a little more well-rounded than that.

We’ve got two Motown and soul classics (“Where Did Our Love Go” and “Under the Boardwalk”) … some smooveness from Dean Martin … Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doing the Jersey falsetto thang about as well as they ever did it … some handclapping garage rock from the Premiers (hilariously covered, years later, by Neil Young and Crazy Horse) … some acceptably humorous pop-country from Roger Miller … some one-hit-wonder soul from Patty and the Emblems (not the “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl” later performed by Mink DeVille and Boz Scaggs, but a pretty good tune nonetheless) … and, oh yeah, those guys from Liverpool at No. 3 with a song that still owns any room it plays in.

I don’t love all these songs, necessarily, but somebody listening to the radio in Bethlehem or Kutztown would have heard a pretty good range of stuff.

-Just to get the Fab Four mentions out of the way, they notch four songs on WHOL’s 50-song countdown.

I’m counting “And I Love Her/If I Fell” as one song, as listed at No. 12, even though it’s two — and both are gorgeous. I suppose I should count George Martin’s “Ringo’s Theme,” at No. 27, as a Beatles song as well, since the Fifth Beatle wouldn’t have been getting U.S. airplay if not for the Other Four.

At 36, meanwhile, is “Ain’t She Sweet,” a tune recorded by the Beatles in 1961 Hamburg during a session backing Tony Sheridan, and rushed out to make some money off Beatlemania. Could the teens of ’64 tell the difference between the “real” Beatles and the cash-in Beatles, or did they just slurp it all up indiscriminately?

(I would be hard put to point any generational fingers: It was people my age who sent the clearly cobbled-together G’n’R Lies, one full side of which was studio recordings posing as live, to the U.S. Top Five.)

-The Rolling Stones appear to be just surfacing on the Lehigh Valley’s radar screen, with “Tell Me” (No. 38, up two notches) and “It’s All Over Now” (No. 49, first week) apparently both on their ways up.

On a chart littered with British acts, I wonder how many listeners spotted the Stones as up-and-comers with potential, and how many figured they were just another bunch of here-and-gone long-hairs.

(I have always found “Tell Me” to be, as the British say, wet; but the germ of the Stones’ swaggering genius is present in “It’s All Over Now.”)

-A couple of future American Pop Geniuses were having mediocre weeks in August of ’64.

The once-popular American surfing sound was reduced to a two-song beachhead at Nos. 14 and 15. One song was classic, and one gimmicky. You don’t need me to tell you which was which, right?

(Whoops: Just noticed the Rip-Chords’ “Wah-Wahini” at No. 50. I guess that counts as a third surf song. I don’t think it troubled listeners all that much, though.)

The Beach Boys would be back about two weeks after this countdown with a new single, “When I Grow Up To Be A Man,” a departure from the cocksure teenage strut of “I Get Around.” It resonated well enough with the kids, hitting the Top 10, but intimated that things other than sea and surf were now occupying Brian Wilson’s head.

And, at No. 42 and heading south, you’ll see boy genius Stevie Wonder with “Hey Harmonica Man,” one of a string of commercially and artistically underwhelming singles released after the success of “Fingertips.”

Not until November 1965 would Stevie break out of his teenage rut with another solid hit, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” — never a favorite of mine, but lots of other people dug it.

-Another American genius putting in his time shows up at No. 47.

As a mid-Nineties college graduate, I find that Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” has a permanent stink of 1994 about it, just as strongly as any college-radio hit of that year — thanks to its placement in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, a movie you pretty much were required to see if you were in college when it came out.

(Indeed, I am not sure if the aroma that bothers me comes from 1994 or from Quentin Tarantino, who always seemed just a little too eager to tell anyone who would listen about how wide-ranging his record collection was and how much fun it was to match just the right obscure pop song to a scene in which someone gets decapitated by a broadsword.)

I can live without the director, I can live without the movie, and I can live without the song.

Made sense at the time, I guess.

(As a further insult to Chuck, the Dion cover of “Johnny B. Goode” listed as hitbound at the bottom of the WHOL chart topped out nationally at only No. 71.)

-There’s a weird burst of Jamaica down in the 30s and 40s, with the Ska Kings’ “Jamaica Ska,” Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” and Tracey Dey’s “Ska-Doo-De-Yah.” (The latter record, YouTube tells me, was a production and co-write by Bob Crewe of Four Seasons fame. Not exactly straight outta Trench Town, that one.)

I get the sense that the record industry, or some portion of it, had decided that Jamaican ska was the Next Big Thing and was putting some promotion behind it.

(Remember how the “Bosstown Sound” of 1968 tried to ride the wave of the organic San Francisco Sound of ’67? I wonder if the record companies counterprogrammed ska as an attempt to identify the next Beatle-ish trend. It didn’t take.)

-The listing for the “WHOL Pic LP” is American Tour by the Dave Clark Five.

That might sound like a live elpee of the band onstage in Worcester or San Bernardino or someplace, but it ain’t. According to Wiki, American Tour is a studio album. In Canada, where truth in advertising laws were apparently no more stringent, it was released as On Stage With the Dave Clark Five.

A year later, when radio newsman Ed Rudy released an LP of Dave Clark Five interviews, he titled it The New U.S. Tour with Ed RudyWonder if any inattentive kids bought that one, thinking it was the live album they’d hoped to hear with American Tour but hadn’t gotten? (My man Jim Bartlett tells more of the Ed Rudy story here.)

-Finally, I note the tease at the bottom to see all your favorite WHOL personalities at the Great Allentown Fair. That’s an annual end-of-summer tradition with carnival rides, farm animals and such, and indeed this year’s fair will be along in just a few weeks.

According to multiple sources, Andy Williams performed at the Great Allentown Fair in 1964, and brought with him a clean-cut group from his TV show that would, a few unpredictable years down the road, trigger a smaller version of Beatlemania.

At the time, they were called the Osmond Brothers.

The heart of summer.

Still not back to live-blogging American Top 40 countdowns. But, I’ll write about a local chart when I can find one.

And — courtesy the ARSA database of local radio airplay charts — here’s one carved from the heart of the summer of ’78. The week ending July 31, 1978, to be specific, for Allentown’s old hit-radio station, WKAP-AM 1320.

It’s a pretty epic week, as it turns out — some of the defining hits of the year, and some good stories to tell for them what are interested in such things.

Here goes, then:

– At Nos. 1 and 2, the pure products of 1978 go crazy. The theme song from the Movie of the Summer goes head-to-head with the Musical Style of the Year, represented by its principal diva singing one of her most irresistible songs. Truly, this battle must have made Mothra vs. Godzilla look like two Pop Warner teams on a muddy field.

In the end, wily old Frankie Valli would emerge successful, defending the craggy mountaintop that is Number One in Allentown with a terrible swift sword. I do not know who won the battle the following week; it might well have been his temporarily vanquished super-rival.

As you can see, the last week in July was a pretty damn good one for “Grease.” The movie placed three songs in the WKAP Top 10 and a fourth at No. 16. Three of those songs were moving up on the charts that week, and the theme tune would probably have moved up too if there were anywhere to go from Number One.

(Ironically, the week ending July 30 was the only week between mid-June and mid-October when John and Livvie’s high school musical wasn’t Number One at the U.S. box office. “National Lampoon’s Animal House” took the honors that week.)

– At No. 3, we get a whole lot less epic in a hurry.

The Jefferson Starship had struck mellow gold with Marty Balin’s “Miracles” in ’75, then struck silver with Balin’s similarly lovey-dovey “With Your Love” in ’76.

Like Bill Buckner trying to take third on Reggie Jax in Game Five of the ’74 Series, the Starship thought they could go for three with the Balin-sung “Runaway.

Unlike Buckner, the Starship got a hit out of their gamble, landing at No. 12 nationally. “Runaway” is the sort of flaccid, repetitive, hollow song that gives mellow gold a bad name, though.

They would have better off taking a gutsy chance and getting shot down for it, the way Buckner did.

(Both Buckner and the Starship would go on to much greater indignities in the mid-’80s.)

No. 4, meanwhile, is laid-back California the way laid-back California was meant to be done, and good summer-twilight highway music.

– No. 5 brings us an oddity, and a bit of a high-water mark.

Vocal group Boney M, the product of future Milli Vanilli producer Frank Farian, was phenomenally popular in Europe in the late ’70s. On the list of top-selling singles of all time in the U.K., Boney M is the only performer with two songs in the Top 10.

They never approached those heights in the U.S. “Rivers of Babylon,” with a No. 30 peak, was the group’s highest-placing (maybe even only) U.S. Top Forty single. The people of the Lehigh Valley loved it, though, sending it to No. 5 on the WKAP chart against some stiff competition.

This chart is Boney M’s highest placing on any American chart in the ARSA database.

So, whatever magic the people in England and Germany perceived was apparently audible only in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton on this side of the pond … and never more so than it was in the last week of July, 1978.

– No. 10, with its nostalgic, even elegiac quality (“Now that we’ve come to the end of our rainbow”), would have made an interesting back-to-back play with No. 6 or No. 16, with their headlong teenagers-madly-in-love vibe.

– At Nos. 12 through 14, we get a solid three-fer blast of meat-and-potatoes Rock from Springsteen, Seger and the Stones.

By comparison, the Stones were No. 3 on the national Top 40 that same week; Seger was No. 7; and Springsteen’s “Prove It All Night” was completely absent.

– You can’t exactly compare Casey Kasem’s national countdown with WKAP’s chart because the Allentown chart has only 25 records, not 40.

Still, a bunch of the songs on the national Top 40 this week were totally absent from WKAP’s chart.

Nationwide hits not making the grade in the Lehigh Valley included Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” (No. 2 nationally); Heatwave’s “The Groove Line” (No. 9); Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” (No. 14); ABBA’s “Take A Chance On Me” (No. 17); Steely Dan’s “FM” (No. 22); Jackson Browne’s “The Load-Out/Stay” (No. 23); Steve Martin’s “King Tut” (No. 24); Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends” (No. 30) and “Macho Man” by the Village People (No. 40).

Some pretty good records in that pile; I hope at least some of them were on the air here.

– Besides “Prove It All Night,” tunes on the WKAP chart that were not on the national Forty included Dave Mason’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow;” Earth Wind & Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” and Exile’s “Kiss You All Over.”

– Down on the nether end of the WKAP chart, we have what I consider to be two of the late ’70s’ classier one-hit wonders at No. 22 and No. 25.

No. 22 starts with a dreadful cardboardy-sounding drum machine and unexpectedly blossoms into a lovely, melodic mellow-gold excursion with a ten-foot-tall chorus.

No. 25 has rather stronger raw materials to work with — think Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham — but doesn’t waste them.

– The deejays bringing us all these tunes on WKAP included the immortal Smokin’ Doug on the 6 p.m.-to-midnight shift.

For some reason that strikes me as just about the goofiest name I’ve ever heard a DJ adopt. To me, it just doesn’t ring.

The Interwebs tell me that Smokin’ Doug (Hanley was his last name, at least on-air) later ended up at WEEX across the Valley in Easton. No idea where he went after that.

Perhaps he is selling ads or siding or something, and still remembering how nice “Fool If You Think It’s Over” sounded coming out of the studio monitors.

The last polka.

4921919060_d599233fc4_zJolly Joe Timmer is with Freddie now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shonen Knife at the new Levitt Pavilion stage in Bethlehem.
Shonen Knife at the Levitt Pavilion stage in Bethlehem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve got tickets to the IronPigs.

My kids and Jolly Joe Timmer, 2007.
My kids and Jolly Joe Timmer, 2007.

Material girl.

I keep going past the corner of Eighth and Chew streets in Allentown every morning. And I keep seeing the ever-changing parade of Latino music performers featured there, showcased on posters on the wall of a neighborhood grocery.

(I wrote about this earlier this year in a post that you might want to go read, just ’cause it’s better than this one.)

I’d mentioned in the first post that the artists featured on the concert posters always seem to be male.

Well, a bold trailblazer has broken the pattern:


She’s called La Materialista, which seems curious, as she does not have a whole lot of material covering her ista.

I said in my prior post that I like to imagine the individual performers’ styles just from looking at their pictures, and the same goes for La Materialista.

Do you think she sings about nothing but gold-digging, or does she slip a few heartfelt ballads into the party-and-bling rotation?

Is she unashamedly all about the good times, or does she have a well-hidden (by what I’m not sure) heart of gold?

And what about Chimbala? Is he an equal partner onstage — portraying the sugar daddy, perhaps — or does he just stand in the back and work the turntables? (He gets top billing without having to burst out of his clothes, so he must do something fantastic.)

Are they someday going to end up in a relationship reminiscent of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?,” with Chimbala insisting he made La Materialista a star, and La Materialista insisting she would have made it without him?

If I wanted to go to Allentown’s Maingate nightclub on Oct. 3, I suppose I could find out most of this stuff for real.

But it is more fun to fill in the blanks myself.

Because even a poster that leaves little to the imagination can get my creative juices flowing.


From the Valley: “The 4 Walls,” The 4 Walls.

Another in an occasional series of reviews of recent releases by Lehigh Valley performers.

I haven’t written many From the Valley posts lately. In part, that’s because I just haven’t crossed paths with much new music that floated my boat.

There’s loads of lo-fi punky folk, and grindcore and metalcore, and experimental noise. It’s not all bad, but I’ve been feeling lately like I’ve heard it before and didn’t have much new to say.

It took The 4 Walls to break me out of the four walls of writer’s block, with a swaggering five-song EP released online earlier this month.

The 4 Walls — they’re three guys from Bethlehem — play simple, chunky, rootsy punk with a bite.

Not punk as in hard, loud, fast blow-you-over stuff, but punk as in blues-tinged post-Stooges crunch that makes up in attitude what it lacks in speed.

Guitarist, pianist and vocalist John Sears has a voice that lands somewhere between Iggy Pop and Billy Idol, particularly on the low end. It’s pretty much the perfect instrument to deliver lyrics like, “Sex and drugs and rock and roll / I’ll be a dead man before it takes its toll.”

(I’m still trying to figure out if “Eat Me Alive”‘s lyrical couplet “If I had a dime for every time I ran out of gas / I’d have money for gas” is simple no-sweat tossed-off genius, or just stoopid. You could ask that question of a lot of great punk lyrics.)

The 4 Walls sing about the usual subjects — predatory women, paying dues, that kind of thing — over familiar grungy riffs. There’s also an instrumental, “Time Bomb,” that sounds like it’s still waiting for some words.

It appears that the band did the recording itself, and it sounds quite good for a self-production — nice and crisp.

I note that the band has shows in New York City and Philadelphia coming up, which suggests that it’s a little more serious than your average Lehigh Valley knockabouts.

And finally, I see that the band quotes Bon Scott on its Facebook page, which maybe also gives you some idea where its loyalties lie in terms of no-frills prowly rock n’ roll.

I could stand a little more variation in some of their songs, but by and large, The 4 Walls provide a nice rock n’ roll jolt. I suggest bolting down a couple cups of coffee (maybe a cigarette, too, if your tastes run that way) and checking them out. They make it just a little harder to go back to the basement folk-punk and grindcore.

The 4 Walls’ self-titled EP is available as a $5 download here.

From the Valley: Curtis Chris Roman, “Letter A-Frame.”

The return of an intermittent series of posts reviewing recent releases by Lehigh Valley musicians.

Used to be, if you liked a song and wanted to hear how it had progressed through the writing process, you had one of two choices:

1. Collect bootlegs of uncertain provenance and sound quality.

2. Wait 30 years and hope the artist puts his rough drafts out on some sort of career-spanning vault-tape collection.

The online music era makes life much easier in this regard. It’s easy (and, in my experience, fairly common) for a performer to toss out a couple different takes on a song that catches their fancy.

Letter A-Frame, a recent online release by Bethlehem-area singer-songwriter Curtis Chris Roman, finds Roman exploring three variants of a single song metaphorically dealing with storms, stress and security, huddling beneath a roof made of “grace and tar.” (An OK metaphor, that, for the combination of the divine and earthy that gets us through the days and nights.)

They’re not massively different. But they’re different enough to be worth hearing and considering. And, they’re a glimpse inside the creative process, which is interesting.

According to Roman’s bio, he recently resumed recording after a six- or seven-year musical layoff. His strengths are a gravel-edged voice, some quietly effective guitar chops, and the old folk/country way of turning a few basic chords into a working song.

Personally, I think the stuff that stays truest to its folk/country roots is the best stuff on Letter A-Frame.

“Over To You” — which began as country-folk, Roman says, and ended as some kind of rootsy electro — is kinda burdened by what sounds like a stiff machine-generated backbeat. A little more wind blowing through it would probably do it good.

While I like “First Comes/Catasauqua Girl,” I find the echoey voice in the background to be distracting; to my ears, it doesn’t fit in. Were it up to me (caveat: No one has ever asked me to produce their record), I might have mixed it out front with the lead vocal, for a sort of duet.

And while the Dinosaur Jr.-inspired instrumental and the ditty about Evil Santa have their place, I find the more traditional songwriting to be the material that stays with me the most.

On a certain level, this is nitpicking. Letter A-Frame is Roman’s first collection of songs, and it’s only natural that a first album try a couple of different approaches.

What really counts is that he’s got a guitar back in his hands; the creative juices are flowing again; and if both grace and tar hold out, we’ll hear more from him.

“Letter A-Frame” is currently available as a name-your-own price download here, though Roman indicates on his Facebook page it will only be free for a limited time.