Didn’t See The Tower For The Steeple

October 31, 2012

One of the finest things about the treehouse lair that Paloma and I share is the number of windows.

The living room has a small, round window that I have always referred to as “the portal.” One clear, full-moon nights, the moonlight pours through in concentrated form, leaving a spotlight on the carpet.

And, behind the couch, is a large, two-sided window that overlooks a well-trafficked neighborhood street. I have often stared out the window, my chin resting on the back of the couch, watching the flow of cars on the street just below and flow of pedestrians on the sidewalks.

It’s like an aquarium.

I particular like the view in the late hours when the traffic has subsided and all is still.

Late one night this past weekend, I was staring out the window and I noticed a handful of dull lights, a half dozen or so, some blinking lazily, some not.

The twinkling reds and whites were from a small communications tower across the street, up a hill, roughly four blocks away.

I was surprised to realize that, though I’ve lived here for some time and stared off in that direction countless times, the tower had never really registered.

I mean, I had obviously seen the tower, but, had I been asked to describe the vista across the street, I would have undoubtedly forgotten to note it.

The tower, spindly and unadorned, is dwarfed (in perspective) by the church across the street. The eye is immediately drawn to the church, especially at night when the illuminated steeple in the foreground rises above the tower – several blocks away – in the background.

The grey metal structure of the tower makes it all but vanish into the crisp night air, its presence given away only by those lights.

As I look across the street tonight, the air is frosty and the landscape glows from the (almost full) moon. There are broken clouds but not enough cover to – in the words of a childhood friend – “curtail the superfluity of the nocturnal luminary.”

I’ve been imagining the tower as broadcasting some radio station and strangers throughout the surrounding neighborhoods and beyond sharing a song and not even knowing it.

It’s not, but there were a lot of late autumn evenings in the early ’80s when music was new to me and nothing sounded better as the wind howled outside than the radio.

Here are four songs from four autumns that I might have heard on whichever station I was favoring at the time…

Vanity 6 – Nasty Girl
from Vanity 6 (1982)

Q102, a Top 40 station out of Cincinnati, had been the preferred station for most of my classmates in junior high and into high school. And, as a high school freshman in 1982, it was the station that was usually my destination, too.

In Billboard magazine, Q012’s playlist from thirty years ago this week is rife with familiar songs like Jackson Browne’s Somebody’s Baby, Laura Branigan’s Gloria, and Glenn Frey’s The One You Love (which is listed as #1).

Slightly more exotic is Vanity 6′ Nasty Girl which the station had just added. The outfit was a trio of women in lingerie and high-heels led by Vanity. Prince had put the act together – originally christening it The Hookers – and wrote and produced their lone album.

Nasty Girl got attention. It sounded like what you might expect a trio of women in lingerie and high-heels, put together by Prince, and originally dubbed The Hookers might sound. It’s a nifty blend of New Wave, rock, and funk with suggestive content that didn’t stop it from being in Q102’s nightly Top Ten for weeks that fall.

Aldo Nova – Monkey On Your Back
from Subject (1983)

An autumn later, I had broken free from the confines of Top 40 stations and spent much of my time listening to Q95, an album rock station in Indianapolis. Part of the station’s appeal was The Bob & Tom Show, which aired in the morning.

(this was twelve years before the show would go national)

One song I totally dug during the autumn of 1983 was Canadian Aldo Nova’s Monkey On Your Back. I had worn out Nova’s debut from a year earlier which had contained his lone US hit with the pop metal confection Fantasy.

Monkey On Your Back was an ominous, lurching rock with gurgling synthesizers and cautionary tale lyrics that seemed edgy to me at fifteen but not so much now.

The song is still a cool trip back in time.

Big Country – Steeltown
from Steeltown (1984)

I had actually discovered modern rock station 97X in October, 1983, months after the soon-to-be revered outlet took to the air. Reception was spotty, though, and rarely could pull it in for more than a few hours a week.

By the fall of 1984, 97X was my station of choice and I believe that its signal had been boosted. My friends and I also had our drivers’ licenses which meant more opportunity to get into Cincinnati and shop for music.

It had been listening to 97X that I had first heard Big Country’s In A Big Country. The song had made the band a sensation, but Steeltown‘s arrival in late 1984 was greeted with a yawn in the States.

It got excellent reviews and deservedly so as, even without a hit, it’s a better album than their debut.

The title track has a thunderous cadence reminiscent of In A Big Country. It’s bone-rattling.

The Waterboys – The Whole Of The Moon
from This Is The Sea (1986)

When autumn came around in 1985, 97X was still my preferred station and I was hearing the music of The Waterboys for the first time.

I had actually first heard the Scottish band before school one morning on an album rock station out of Dayton and it was enough to spur me to purchase a cassette of This Is The Sea.

The song I’d heard was The Whole Of The Moon. It might be rather enigmatic, but there’s something about the glorious song that restores a sense of wonder to my world.

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Hey Hey Hey, It’s Bill Cosby

October 27, 2012

Paloma has wandered into the living room a few weeks weeks ago and noted the show on the television.

The Cosby Show?”

She quickly attributed the interest to Lisa Bonet.

Sure, Ms. Bonet was a fetching beauty, duly noted by myself and most of my buddies when The Cosby Show debuted in 1984.

Two years later, I was in college and it increasingly seemed to me that she was trying too hard to establish her bohemian bona fides.

No, I just dig Bill Cosby. The man is a comforting presence, the macaroni and cheese of childhood celebrities.

My earliest recollections of Bill Cosby was as the host of Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids in the early ’70s. As I recall, it was usually the anchor show, closing out that Saturday morning’s cartoons

(attention was then focused on lunch as the midday television options would be bowling, b-movies or hunting shows)

And Bill Cosby continued to be a presence through the decade and into the early ’80s when I’d hear tracks from his comedy albums on The Dr. Demento Show.

Then The Cosby Show hit and the man and his television family was a cultural phenomenon.

I was sixteen when The Bill Cosby Show debuted and in college when the show was at the height of heights. I was at an age that I was gaining freedom from parental control and there were far more interesting things to do than watch television.

Of course, the show was a pop culture juggernaut with higher Nielsen ratings than God, so if I was in front of a television on Thursday night – at home or a friend or girlfriend’s place – it was undoubtedly tuned to NBC and The Cosby Show.

Though the show might have had cultural and social significance, I was watching because I had grown up with Bill Cosby. He had been an older brother in Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids and had become the patriarch of the Huxtable clan.

Each week, if I tuned in, I knew that I could expect Bill to be wearing zany sweaters, mugging for the camera and dispensing life lessons through amusing anecdotes and tales.

In retrospect, memories of catching The Cosby Show during those years meant that I was likely taking the night off – off from studying, off from going out, off from the hassles of the day – and spending it in an ideal world where things rarely got too heavy and all was resolved in half an hour.

(nearly three decades later, the show still fulfills such a purpose)

Twenty-five years ago, as Halloween was arriving and Thanksgiving break (and mid-term finals) were looming, The Cosby Show was the most-viewed show in the country. I had recently started working at a record store, leaving the show with one fewer viewer most Thursday nights.

Here are four songs I was hearing at the time…

Sinéad O’Connor – Mandinka
from The Lion And The Cobra (1987)

I dug Sinéad O’Connor from the moment she appeared on the tiny black & white television in my dorm room. Sinéad had just released her debut, The Lion And The Cobra, and suddenly this striking girl with a shaved head was wailing like a banshee in the video for the driving rocker Mandinka.

At the time, O’Connor was a critical darling and a cult favorite in the music world. There was no way that we were ever going to hear the Irish lass alongside the likes of Tiffany and Debbie Gibson.

Eurythmics – Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)
from Savage (1987)

Despite going in a more conventional pop/rock direction with 1986′ Revenge set, Eurythmics were losing commercial momentum in America which they would never regain. Savage found the duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart harkening back to a more electronic, synthesized sound that had helped them breakthrough with Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).

Though Savage wouldn’t reclaim a larger audience for the duo, the staff in our record store was fond of the album, especially the fierce I Need A Man and the trippy, pulsating Beethoven (I Love To Listen To).

Swing Out Sister – Breakout
from It’s Better To Travel (1987)

Top 40 music was mostly off my radar by ’87, but one gem from that autumn was the irresistible Breakout by the British trio Swing Out Sister. The sophisticated pop song was breezy, sunny and the perfect anitidote to the chill in the air as winter approached.

(and singer Corinne Drewery, with her jet-black pixie haircut, was rather fetching, too)

Bruce Springsteen – Tougher Than The Rest
from Tunnel Of Love (1987)

That autumn, Bruce Springsteen was issuing his first new album since Born In The USA had arrived three years earlier and established The Boss and band as pop culture titans of the mid-’80s (even for Republicans and the simpleminded for whom knee-jerk jingoism trumped lyrical comprehension).

Though critically lauded, it was impossible for the more pensive and less bombastic Tunnel Of Love to replicate the sales and hullabaloo of its predecessor. Much of the album was focused on the pitfalls of love and the unflinching Tougher Than The Rest is no different, though it addresses those perils with purposeful determination.


Sammy Terry*

October 25, 2012

The other night, the cable offerings were rather uninspiring, but, as it was after dark, I stopped on the remake of The Hills Have Eyes.

The flick wasted little time getting to the carnage, opening with a group of scientists clad in protective gear being torn apart by some savage creature. It was gruesome but hardly shocking.

What has stuck in my head is a scene that came later, after the vacationing family had broken down taking a shortcut through the same remote stretch of desert.

It wasn’t the family dog getting gutted or the patriarch being beaten to a pulp then set aflame. No, it was a scene in which one daughter in the family gave the finger to her sister.

The defiant digit was blurred out.

Pondering the interesting choices in censorship aside, the movie made me miss the horror flicks on which I had grown up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

I’m not referring to the movies of that time but rather the late-night television fare in a world without cable on our local independent station (usually the only one still on air after midnight).

These were mostly B-movies from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s and often in black and white. Sometimes they were surprisingly eerie, rising above their budgetary limitations, but, often, they were laughably shoddy or dated – bobble-headed alien invaders, puppet creatures and hippie vampires.

It was the latter which held the most entertainment value for me and and my buddy Will who lived a few houses down. Not yet old enough for cars, girls, or guns, we’d hang out in his living room on Saturday nights for appointment television.

Saturday night was the night for Nightmare Theater, hosted by the ghoul/zombie Sammy Terry (pictured above), who would add his commentary during commercial breaks or banter with a fake spider named George who “spoke” in squeaks.

We’d howl with amusement at every bad pun Sammy would deliver and yell, “George!” in unison the first time that rubber spider would descend into the scene.

As we reached high school, life was suddenly about cars and girls. There weren’t as many viewings of Sammy, but it was always fun to catch the show on occasion.

Years later, crashing out and watching Nightmare Theater was an incentive to make the trek home from college.

(I hadn’t seen the show for twenty years until discovering a trove of clips here)

Here are four songs for Halloween that Sammy might have enjoyed…

The Ramones – Pet Sematary
from Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: The Anthology (1999)

Not long ago, a client was giving me his last name. “Ramone,” he said. “Like the band. Do you know who I’m talking about?”

He was surprised and duly impressed as I explained that I not only knew his reference, but that Paloma has a framed poster autographed by Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky hanging in our treehouse which she had received from the seminal punk rockers.

The Hooters – All You Zombies
from Nervous Night (1985)

All You Zombies, with its reggae hitch and portentous lyrics, hooked me first time I heard it in late winter/early spring of 1985. Though Nervous Night left me mostly underwhelmed, the Philadelphia band’s debut had several hits over the next year or so.

Their second record came and went pretty quickly (though I thought it had a couple of decent tracks), but main lyricists Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian have certainly received some nice royalty checks over the years for penning Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time.

Oingo Boingo – Dead Man’s Party
from Dead Man’s Party (1985)

Though apparently having quite a following in Hollywood, Oingo Boingo was nothing more than a band with a cool name to me in the early ’80s. The one time I ever heard a song by the band was hearing Dr. Demento play their song Insects on his radio show.

Then Oingo Boingo notched a near hit in 1985 with their title song for Weird Science. I don’t recall hearing Weird Science on the radio, the flick was a cable staple for me and my buddies, so I was well acquainted with the song.

Back To School, with Rodney Dangerfield and Sam Kinison, was a staple for us a year later during our last summer before we headed off for college.

And there was Oingo Boingo performing the übercool Dead Man’s Party at a Halloween party in the movie.

The Shaggs – It’s Halloween
from Philosophy of the World (1969)

The tale of The Shaggs is quite a ripping good yarn, beginning in the hinterlands of New Hampshire in the late ’60s and seeing the Wiggins sisters become cult heroes, lauded by Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain decades later.

Hearing The Shaggs for the first time is a memorable musical experience. At one large record store where I worked, it was tradition to play The Shaggs at some point during the closing shift on Halloween.

(thus exposing hundreds of people to the charms of It’s Halloween and The Shaggs)