King Kong, Hippie Empowerment And The Towers*

September 11, 2012

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Happening across the movie King Kong on cable the other night, something occurred to me – it might have been the most influential movie of my childhood.

I’d seen the original version watching it on the late, late show when I slept over at a friend’s house in second grade. Not long after, the hype began for the remake.

It was nothing compared to the hullabaloo for some movies now – no cable, no internet – but it seemed to begin a year before and the scope and duration was something I’d never seen at the ripe old age of eight.

I vividly recall a poster in our small-town theater of Kong, astride the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center with a Santa Claus hat perched on his noggin’.

The tagline read “Guess who’s coming for Christmas?”

I knew that it would be months after the national release before it would arrive in our town. That poster should have shown him wearing a leprechaun’s hat and clutching a bottle of Guinness.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to learn a lesson in patience. My dad was kind enough to drive me and several friends into the city to see the movie during our Christmas break.

I did learn a lot of other things. I learned that oil company board rooms were populated by the ruthless, the kind of men who might twirl their moustaches as a train headed down tracks to which a distressed damsel was detained.

Of course, Charles Grodin as a petroleum executive had far more panache than the corporate officers I know. They burp up banalities like “sweet spot,” “drill down,” and “bring to bear.”

Grodin uttered things like “If that island doesn’t produce huge, I’ll be wiping windshields,” “Sweet Jesus! Dear Rockefeller!” and “It’s some nutty religion – a priest gets dressed up like an ape and gets laid.”

(you don’t get such rich fare in a business meeting)

The lush island scenery and the underlying message of the movie certainly made me receptive to an environmental consciousness in a way that a Native American crying over litter in a television commercial couldn’t.

As much as Christopher Cross, viewing King Kong likely fueled in me the desire to travel. I haven’t been to Indonesia – from where Grodin and company began their voyage – but I have been to Borneo and, in Malaysia, some friends and I scaled hundreds of steps, monkeys roaming about us, to reach some cave.

Jessica Lange was fetching enough as Dwan, but blondes have never held me as entranced as they apparently do most males of the species.

(although I have been known to be drawn to vacuous girls with unusual names and a flair for the dramatic, so she must have made some impression)

King Kong was also the first movie I think I ever saw with Jeff Bridges whom I’d argue might be the most underrated actor of his generation.

Not only was Bridges the dashing man of action in the flick, he was a hippie.

(of course, at eight, any guy with long hair was a hippie to me)

It was Bridges, as a long-haired paleontologist from Princeton, who taught me that a guy with long hair could grow up to be a paleontologist from Princeton, able to tangle with large apes and woo Jessica Lange.

Years later, in my twenties and en route to London, I first visited New York City and saw the Twin Towers.

I’ve seen some things in my time.

I’ve been to Bangkok.

There are few things that have left me as jaw-droopingly stupefied as standing in front of those buildings. For me, it inspired the same sense of wonder as seeing King Kong in the theater as a kid.

It was during the first few days of 1977 that I saw King Kong. I hadn’t discovered music, yet, but there was a lot of music on Billboard’s chart in early January of that year that would someday be quite familiar to me…

Elton John – Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word
from Blue Moves (1976)

I can’t claim to have intimate knowledge of Elton John’s entire catalog as it does encompass four decades. I do know his extensive string of hits and I own a number of the classic albums, though, and I’d have to choose the wistful Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word as my favorite of his ballads.

Boston – More Than A Feeling
from Boston (1976)

For some reason, even though it was apparently a hit in the winter months, I think of More Than A Feeling as a summer song. Although I’m not rabid about the song, it does conjure up a good vibe for me and I’ve never quite understood the venom reserved for Boston.

Also, I find it amusing that Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit echoes the song.

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – Blinded By The Light
from The Roaring Silence (1976)

When I saw Blinded By The Light on the chart, I realized something – this song was likely my first exposure to Bruce Springsteen’s music.

10cc – The Things We Do For Love
from Deceptive Bends (1976)

Since Paloma and I started collecting vinyl a little over a year ago, we’ve snagged several 10cc albums and they’ve been a revelation of musicianship, craftsmanship and quirkiness.

The Things We Do For Love is a breezy and flawless pop song.

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“I Don’t Want To Make Money, Folks…I Just Love To Sell Guns”*

March 1, 2012

Recently, Paloma and I caught a late-night showing of a movie called Equinox, a sci-fi flick from the early ’70s which has a cult following due to the fact that it began as a student film by Dennis Muren

(Muren would earn acclaim for his special effects work on numerous films, including the Star Wars series)

Equinox was a familiar feature from my childhood as it seemed to be shown every other week on WTTV’s Science Fiction Theater. Seeing it again also brought back vivid memories of a personal bogeyman spawned by consumerism run rampant…

…Don, erstwhile proprietor and namesake of Don’s Guns.

Don was a regional phenomenon, his advertising reach relegated to central Indiana where his lone storefront/armory was located. His budget allotment for marketing apparently only great enough to purchase face-time in the wee hours on an independent television station, but his leering mug made quite an impression as I have learned from fellow Hoosiers, few of whom seemed to have escaped seeing Don hawking his wares.

His commercials were like an ambush. One minute, I’d be sitting there, a nine-year old in pajamas, huddled under a blanket, watching Channel 4 only to have Don practically burst from the screen and into the living room. If Equinox or Night Of The Lepus wasn’t frightening enough, there was Don.

Don epitomized snake-oil salesman, approaching a level of smarm that would be the envy of any elected official and doing it so effortlessly.

Perhaps it was his resemblance to an extremely dodgy Kenny Rogers.

Possibly, it was the sheer, unadulterated glee with which he made his pitch.

Most likely it was the manner in which he closed every commercial – Don gazing maniacally from the screen, toothy grin flashing as he delivered his mantra, “I don’t want to make money, folks. I just love to sell guns.”

(this clip is of more recent vintage)

And then he’d be gone.

DeForest Kelly would return – battling the bunnies in Night Of The Lepus – but somehow it lacked the punch to follow-up the spectacle of Don.

And where is Don now?

Googling him, my computer screen was filled with results, most of which sullied my fond memories of Don as many alluded to numerous alleged improprieties involving his business. One item feted him as “the nation’s sixth-worst dealer” based on the number of firearms sold that were used in criminal activity.

And all the daffy bastard wanted to do was sell guns.

Thirty-five years ago, I was a third-grader and far more interested in late-night horror flicks than music. And I was certainly already well acquainted with Don and steeling myself for him popping up onscreen.

(I’m not sure if Don listened to music or not)

Here are four songs that were on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 this week in 1977…

ABBA – Dancing Queen
from Thank You For The Music (1994)

I stumbled upon an unopened copy of ABBA’s four-disc box set for six dollars and couldn’t pass it up. Not that I really need that much ABBA.

(few people do other than a buddy who was fanatical about the band long before revisionism and a hit Broadway show made such adoration socially acceptable)

I enjoy the hits from the bell-bottomed, sequined Swedes more dispassionately, but I’d have to offer up S.O.S., The Winner Takes It All, and Dancing Queen as transcendent.

Eagles – New Kid In Town
from Eagles Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1982)

My relationship with the Eagles is complicated, but even with little interest in music in 1977, I was familiar with the group. The radio station in our small town was light rock with a bit of pop-leaning country thrown in and the wistful New Kid In Town was a perfect fit.

10cc- The Things We Do For Love
from Super Hits Of The ’70s: Have A Nice Day, Volume 19 (1993)

I know little more of 10cc’s catalog other than a handful or so of songs, but those I do know have impressed me with their musicianship, craftsmanship and quirkiness.

The Things We Do For Love is a breezy and flawless pop song.

Steve Miller Band – Fly Like An Eagle
from Greatest Hits 1974–78 (1978)

I seem to recall hearing Fly Like An Eagle constantly blaring from radios at the pool during the summer of ’77. It struck me as a bit strange and unsettling.

The song still has a trippy vibe though it’s no longer strange and/or unsettling, but I’d have to think the stoners of 1977 were digging the song’s groove.


Saturday Night Fever

October 22, 2011

The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever was the first vinyl album I remember owning, a Christmas gift in 1977.

I had little interest in music at the time, but I imagine that lots of folks received that album, that Christmas season, from people who knew them well enough to feel compelled to give a gift, yet not well enough to not what the recipient might truly want.

I received my copy from from an aunt.

(she wasn’t some cool, hip, younger aunt, but, rather, an older widow who swore like a sailor, drove a beat-up Oldsmobile like a lunatic accompanied by a German Shepherd named Odd, and lived in a crumbling, urban neighborhood prone to gang violence)

Of course, even with meager interest in music, I was aware of the first hit from the soundtrack – The Bee Gees’ How Deep Is Your Love – which was the Number One song in the US on Christmas Day.

The movie had been released in November and I do recall the stir it had caused. My best friend Will had a sister in high school at the time who was obsessed with the movie. The poster from the movie adorned her bedroom wall – Farrah Fawcett’s famous poster hung in the room Will shared with his brother.

(I suppose that if future archealogists unearthed such a tableau, it wouldn’t be a bad pop culture snapshot of the times)

I was ten and hadn’t seen the movie.

Not that I had much interest in it, nor would I have been able to get past the box office at our town’s small movie theater. Everyone knew everyone, making underage admittance to an R-rated movie a no-go.

I would somehow avoid seeing Saturday Night Fever for two decades.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I also never thought to myself, damn, I’ve received a blessing from the Dalai Lama, but I really should sit down and watch Saturday Night Fever.

One of friends at a record store where I worked had told us during one our usual post-shift drinking sessions of his aunt, who worked on the lighting for the dancefloor in the movie and even appeared in a number of scenes.

During that same time, I traveled through the UK with one of those barroom buddies. In Stratford-upon-Avon, we returned to our accommodations following an evening of toasting Shakespeare.

It was one of the nicer places we had stayed, a small bungalow-type dwelling with a living room and kitchen.

My buddy crashed, but I sprawled out in the living room, working my way through bags of crisps and channel-surfing.

The screen was suddenly filled with Tony Manero, dressed like a dandy and strutting down some grimy Brooklyn street, making a clumsy attempt to pick up some chick and eating pizza.

All as Stayin’ Alive played over the opening credits.

So, I hunkered down, tore into more crisps, and watched.

And, sure enough, there riding shotgun in the DJ booth was our friend from back in the States, dressed in drag and wearing glasses.

Thirty-four years ago, Saturday Night Fever had yet to be be released to theaters and How Deep Is Your Love had been on the charts for a mere five weeks. Within six months, the movie was a smash, the soundtrack was a juggernaut, and thirty or forty Bee Gees songs or ones penned by the Gibbs were on the radio.

About the only music I was hearing then was from our town’s radio station which would be playing in our kitchen as I ate breakfast before school. It was still a Top 40 station at the time, leaning toward light rock.

Here are four songs from Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 from this week in 1977 that I recall hearing those groggy mornings…

Carly Simon – Nobody Does It Better
from Clouds In My Coffee (1995)

I once asked a friend’s girlfriend if people ever noted her resemblence to Carly Simon.

She was unfamiliar with the singer, but a couple of days later, the buddy called and informed me that the girlfriend had looked up Carly on the internet; she was none too pleased with my comparison.

But, wasn’t Carly simply one of the sexiest women of the ’70s? I mean, I was ten when Nobody Does It Better, the theme song from the James Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Me, was a hit and I’d figured that out.

Foreigner – Cold As Ice
from Foreigner (1977)

Foreigner’s debut album makes me think of Lynn, the older brother of one of our friends from the neighborhood, who resembled a young Axl Rose and drove a black Trans-Am, tearing through the neighborhood with Foreigner blaring from the eight-track player.

Though the group received little love from critics, Foreigner put out some great songs, peaking with the mega-selling Foreigner 4 in ’81.

The dramatic Cold As Ice has all of the things – a nifty balance between guitar and keyboards, soaring vocals, and immediately memorable choruses – that made Foreigner a high school staple.

Paul Simon – Slip Slidin’ Away
from Negotiations And Love Songs 1971-1986 (1988)

In 1977, about the only thing I knew about Paul Simon is that I had seen him on television and I thought that he looked like an older, distant cousin of mine.

I quite liked the laid-back and resigned Slip Slidin’ Away when it would come on the radio, but it would be several more years before I began to learn of Simon’s place in pop music culture and his classic work with Art Garfunkel.

Steve Miller Band – Swingtown
from Greatest Hits (1978)

Even before I was really into music, I knew a lot of Steve Miller songs from his hits in ‘70s. Fly Like An Eagle, Jet Airliner, and Take The Money And Run were always playing over the public pool’s sound system.

Personally, I much preferred Swingtown which was a staple on the jukebox in the bowling alley during the winter of ’77 where my friends and I would spend Saturday afternoons.