The Incredible Shrinking Town

November 28, 2010

As the love of my life and my partner in crime, Paloma got to to spend twelve hours in the car journeying to my hometown for Thanksgiving.

(as always, she was a trooper, possessing a grace that the wife of a head of state on a junket to a foreign land would be hard pressed to match)

The foreign land in this case being a small town in Indiana and, yes, growing up there in the ‘80s was indeed like being in a John Cougar song.

(he’ll always be John Cougar to me – actually, he’ll always be Johnny Hoosier, the moniker which my buddy Bosco affixed to the budding local hero as he reached critical commercial mass in 1982 with the album American Fool)

This is the third time that we have made the trip. The first time – two years ago – I was greeted by the news of the terrorist strikes in India the moment that i switched on the television in our hotel room.

(I suspect that most guys – upon entering a hotel room – drop the bags, flop onto the bed, and instinctually channel surf)

These three trips in as many years is a reversal from the prior decade and a half when circumstances, lack of funds, and/or lack of transportation meant that the holiday trek was hardly an annual pilgrimage.

The first time Paloma accompanied me, I noticed that things weren’t exactly where I’d left them.

Things, obviously, continue to be less as they once were, but this time I was more struck by the realization that the town is now shrinking.

It’s strange because the town now actually spreads out much farther than it did thirty years ago. There are industrial and manufacturing buildings where there had once been farmland, broken only by isolated farm houses along the narrow, country roads.

Many of those roads are now better paved as there must be far more traffic than the occasional car, pick-up or tractor that posed obstacles when my friends and I would spend summer days biking out to these areas.

(the first two were much more of a threat – especially as drivers sped on the oft empty roads – than a slow-moving tractor)

We had never ventured so far without supervision.

It was no more than five or six miles from our homes, but it seemed to be a fantastic journey.

In the years since, I’ve been ten thousand plus miles from home. The two miles or so from school in the center of town to my buddy Beej’s house on the edge of town now barely registers.

Paloma and I spent the drive home surfing the radio dial and it was virtually wall to wall Christmas music – something JB over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ addressed several days ago.

I’m with him that it’s a bit early in the season for such a single-minded aural onslaught, so, instead, here are four “road” songs from the large number available in the files…

Dire Straits – Telegraph Road
from Love Over Gold

It seems that Dire Straits was never cool (at least from what I’ve read), but a high school friend turned me onto the band several years before Brothers In Arms when they were being mostly ignored in the States.

I took to them and, despite its fourteen-minute length, the epic Telegraph Road was a favorite not only for the reflective lyrics but for the ferocity of Mark Knopfler’s guitar work at the song’s crescendo.

Catatonia – Road Rage
from International Velvet

The Welsh alternapop band Catatonia was reaching stardom with songs like I Am The Mob and The X-Files-inspired Mulder And Scully the first time I visited the UK in early ’98.

One of the friends I was with bought a cassette of International Velvet which we played relentlessly as we drove through England, Scotland, and Wales. Road Rage, though endearing and infectious, was, fortunately, not a case of life imitating art during that two-week trek.

Catatonia made little more than a ripple in the States, released a couple more albums, and split up. Lead singer Cerys Matthews has continued her career as a solo act.

Lindsey Buckingham – Holiday Road
from Words & Music: A Retrospective

I can’t hear Holiday Road and not want to cruise through a desert in the American Southwest in a station wagon with a dead aunt strapped to the roof on the way to a theme park thousands of miles from home.

Roger Miller – King Of The Road
from Love & A .45 soundtrack

If asked, there’s nothing I could tell you about Roger Miller. I’m not sure if I know other hits of his like Dang Me and England Swings.

I do know the genial King Of The Road, though. It makes me think of attending school in Southeast Asia in the late ’80s. The lone pop station played the song regularly, so I’d hear it almost daily lodged between then-current hits by acts like Skid Row, Roxette, and Richard Marx.

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Nothing Like The Threat Of Armageddon To Stoke An Appetite*

November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving, like the once annual airing of The Wizard Of Oz used to be, is an event.

Yeah, some people make it out to be dysfunction junction (and for them, maybe it is), but getting to watch football all day on a day which usually would be spent slogging through work is a brilliant concept.

And, of course, it is a chance to feast.

It’s like being king for a day.

Bring me gravy! I shall gnaw on this turkey leg in a slovenly fashion as these superhumans on the television perform amazing feats for my amusement!

OK. It’s not necessarily that dramatic and, as the Lions always play on Thanksgiving Day, the feats are not always amazing in a good way.

(though I cannot imagine how empty a Thanksgiving without the Lions playing the early game would be – it would be like a Halloween without a visit from The Great Pumpkin)

One Thanksgiving was spent living in London, eating some take-out pizza in an ice-cold flat.

And, in a cruel twist, my favorite team was making a rare Thanksgiving Day appearance. They would lose, in overtime after a bizarre coin toss snafu to begin the extra period.

It was a game that would have been maddening to have watched and it was maddening to miss.

Thanksgiving hasn’t been brilliant every year, but that year – no food, no football, no heat – is really the lone one I recall as being truly miserable.

As a kid, our parents dragged us off to mass. I mean, you have the day off school and can sleep in and lounge on the couch; the last thing you want to be doing at an early hour is trudging off to church.

When I was fifteen, the priest decided to use his sermon to rattle off a laundry list of accidental nuclear exchanges between the US and USSR that had been narrowly avoided.

(this was 1983 and two months earlier there had been all of the hullaballoo surrounding the television movie The Day After)

I kept having images of an extra crispy bird and excessively dry stuffing.

It was a bit of a bummer.

It was also a year when my favorite team had a Thanksgiving game. Detroit bottled them 45-3.

I had forgotten (or blocked it out) and had to research who played that season.

But, global tensions and football smackdowns aside, I have no doubt that the food was good.

That autumn, I was still listening to a lot of Top 40 stations, but Q95, an album rock station out of Indianapolis, had caught my attention as well and 97X was exposing me on a semi-regular basis to modern rock for the first time. Some of the songs on the radio that Thanksgiving…

Survivor – Caught In The Game
from Caught In The Game

Eighteen months or so after Survivor unleashed Eye Of The Tiger, the band returned with the follow-up to that album. There was hoopla with one of the stations promising “the premiere of new music from Survivor.”

And then I heard the title track. It was no Eye Of The Tiger.

Caught In The Game obviously had no chance to duplicate the monster success of Eye Of The Tiger and the song is rather generic. Of course, when it popped up on shuffle not long ago, it made me smile and prompted a second listen, so, there is something that I dig about it.

Human League – Mirror Man
from Greatest Hits

I actually don’t know if any of the stations I listened to at the time played Human League’s follow-up to (Keep Feeling) Fascination. 97X might have, but really I only recall hearing it on American Top 40 and it wasn’t there long.

Too bad as I thought Mirror Man was very cool, much prefering the song to the better known Human League hits Fascination and Human. The background vocals of Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall gave the song warmth and the song has oft been described as “Motown inspired.”

Culture Club – Church Of The Poison Mind
from Colour By Numbers

Though I wouldn’t have trumpeted it at the time, I quite liked Culture Club’s first two singles – Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? and Time (Clock Of The Heart) – and, now, I’d call both of them brilliant pop songs.

(there was no excuse for I’ll Tumble 4 Ya, though)

I thought that Church Of The Poison Mind was well done, too, but some of the production dates it in a way that keeps it from having the timeless vibe of those first two songs.

Blue Öyster Cult – Shooting Shark
from The Revölution By Night

I heard Shooting Shark sporadically and could never catch its name or even knew who sang it, but it mesmerized me. It was mysterious and trippy.

I eventually discovered that it was Blue Öyster Cult.

I knew a couple of songs by BÖC but a lot about the band’s lore as a friend had been an unwavering champion of the group since third grade.

He disavowed The Revölution By Night upon its release, but I made it the first album I ever owned by Blue Öyster Cult. It might not have been their best album – I’d opt for Fire Of Unknown Origin – but I still am mesmerized by the mysterious, trippy Shooting Shark.

*reposted – with some alterations – from Thanksgiving ’09


Change In The Weather

November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving was the finest of holidays – feasting, football, feasting, and leftovers for midnight feastings.

The calculus of the holiday changed dramatically after leaving for college.

There was still the feasting and football, but it was now a complex puzzle of equations to balance feast, football and familial obligations with the chance to hang out with your high school friends (who were also battling the same logistical issues).

Coordinating getting together was a series of fits and starts. Half a day or more could be blown trying to track down who was in town as we were moving targets.

By by second year of school, I was working in a record store, so the week at home I had the previous Thanksgiving had been whittled down to two, maybe three days.

It made the break a bit of a disjointed, exhausting affair that caused me to miss the comfort of the couch in my apartment back at school.

By Thanksgiving of 1990, I was logging the final few credits needed to graduate before year’s end. Several of my high school friends had already done so earlier that spring and summer, scattering us all to an even greater degree and leaving reunions that holiday with more of us missing in action.

So few of us were going to be around for Thanksgiving – most opting to make a pilgrimage weeks later for Christmas instead – that I didn’t even negotiate for an extra day or two from work.

Instead, the night before Thanksgiving, I actually trekked to Indianapolis with my buddy Streuss to attend a Warren Zevon show.

Oddly enough, the opening act was a guitarist from Louisville whose band, Hopscotch Army, was one of the most popular draws when they’d hit our college town every few weeks or so.

But, as I was used to seeing him clad in camoflage cargo pants and combat boots, a long rat-tail braid sprouting from his shaved pate as his band covered songs by Concrete Blonde, The Smiths, and The Cure, I wasn’t prepared for this solo turn.

Nattily attired in a sports jacket and clean shirt, the combat boots replaced by more formal footware, his style was more in the vein of New Age noodlings.

Even the rat-tail was gone.

Zevon was fantastic, but everything seemed a bit off kilter from even the previous Thanksgiving.

Walking through the still neighborhood following the show, even the weather was off. It was nearly midnight and it was unseasonably mild for late November with the temperature in the low 60s, a light rain falling.

The next morning, I headed home for Thanksgiving while Streuss, who had also gone to high school with me, but whose parents had moved while we were in college, opted to spend the break at school to work on a paper.

I spent the day with the family, did some feasting, watched some football, and returned to school the next morning to work a Friday afternoon shift at the record store.

That night, with my adopted town eerily deserted and campus empty, I stretched out on the couch in my apartment – my roommate still out of town – with my dog beside me.

The two of us munched on leftovers I had brought from home and watched basketball on ESPN.

Thanksgiving was still a fine holiday – the finest, really – and remains so, but that year it seemed to be over before it had even begun.

The transition from the Thanksgivings I had known as a kid had begun.

Here are four songs from albums that we were playing a lot at the record store that Thanksgiving…

Prefab Sprout – Looking For Atlantis
from Jordan: The Comeback

The first time I heard the name Prefab Sprout, it was from my buddy Streuss who briefly had interest in finding a copy of their well-reviewed ’85 album Steve McQueen. I thought the band name incredibly stupid and the album title – retitled Two Wheels Good here in the States – equally so.

I had no interest in even giving them a listen.

Five years later, I got my comeuppance the first time I heard the band with the shimmering Looking For Atlantis and the brilliant, Thomas Dolby-produced Jordan: The Comeback.

It was irresistible.

And, one of the first things I remember of Paloma is, several years later, watching her wander the aisles of the record store where we worked, singing along to Prefab Sprout’s The King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Fuckin’ Up
from Ragged Glory

Neil Young was in – even for him – a musically idiocentric way during the early ’80s when I first started listening to music, so I didn’t hear much of his music. I became far more familiar with him when he returned to mainstream prominence with This Note’s For You in ’88 and Freedom a year later.

I had particularly loved the latter and one of my roommates and I would play Ragged Glory every shift that we worked together. We played it for months and I think we had exactly one customer that heard the chorus to the gloriously grungy Fuckin’ Up and objected.

The Posies – Suddenly Mary
from Dear 23

The Posies’ debut had more than a few moments of power pop brilliance, but Suddenly Mary was the song that lodged into brain and burrowed deep after hearing it the first time.

It’s hypnotic – chiming guitars, angelic harmonies, and a wickedly dark tale told within the sunshine of its grooves…

The Sisters of Mercy – More
from Vision Thing

We had a sizeable goth community at school that used to hang out at an immense arcade at one entrance to the campus. Some of the kids pulled it off far better than others.

I felt the same way about the music popular with the goth scene, though a lot of those acts had a profound influence on the sound and style of the time.

There were a handful of songs by The Sisters Of Mercy that I thought were pretty stellar and More is most definitely one of them.

Jim Steinman co-wrote and co-produced the song and, thus, it’s suitably epic – Rock You Like A Hurricane-guitars, gospel-styled backing vocals, and the growl of lead singer Andrew Eldritch.