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.

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“I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head”

March 15, 2012

Yes, though I might recently have questioned Morgan Freeman’s aquarium-related advice, I find the words of his iconic character Red from The Shawshank Redemption appropriate this morning.

In less than three hours, the true opening round of the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament – as opposed to the cash grab “first four” – tips off.

For the first time in many years, I have arranged to be home to bask in ten hours or so of college hoops, the entire venture goosed by having upgraded to HD television.

I’ve noted in years past that the time period during which I was in college coincided with the rise of ESPN and the availability of all of the tournament’s games. The lax schedule of a college student allowed me to take advantage of the situation and my attendance of a university that was a hoops power in a basketball-mad state made doing so justifiable.

So, early this morning I took care of getting one of our animals to the vet and – aside from retrieving her later this afternoon – my agenda is juggling four channels’ worth of basketball with the added bonus of my alma mater’s return to prominence and two nearby universities also participating, one of them being a highly-touted upset pick.

I’m as giddy as Red headed to Zihuatanejo, so giddy that I’m considering having pizza for breakfast.

Twenty-five years ago, I was a college freshman and likely having pizza for breakfast as my school was beginning a run that would end up with them winning the championship three weeks later.

Here are four songs from cassettes that would have been in my Walkman at the time…

Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over
from Crowded House (1987)

Led by Neil Finn and including fellow ex-Split Enz member Paul Hester, Crowded House garnered more attention with their first single than Split Enz ever had in the States. It was certainly deserved as the wistful and haunting Don’t Dream It’s Over is as classy as pop music gets.

Of course, I can no longer hear the song without thinking of its evocative use in the mini-series of Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic book The Stand. The song gave added poignancy as it played over scenes of a barren, empty world, lingering on a shot of a teddy bear bobbing in the surf on a beach.

Paul Simon – The Boy In The Bubble
from Graceland (1986)

Though Graceland had been released at the beginning of the school year, it took months for mainstream attention to catch up to the critical kudos the album received upon its release. I was well exposed to the album from its arrival by a music major on my dorm floor who quickly embraced Paul Simon’s collaboration with some of South Africa’s most respected musicians.

The song that stood out to me – aside from the rustic postcard that was the title track – was the loping The Boy In The Bubble and its surreal juxtaposition of imagery.

‘Til Tuesday – Coming Up Close
from Welcome Home (1986)

Like most guys watching MTV in 1985, my friends and I were left slack-jawed and smitten with Aimee Mann in ‘Til Tuesday’s video for Voices Carry.

Image aside, ‘Til Tuesday made three very good records, shedding members over the course of those albums. By the time the band reached its end after Everything’s Different Now, Aimee Mann had guided their sound from chilly New Wave to a more organic, guitar-jangling alternative rock.

That sound had been hinted at on the group’s second album, especially on the stellar – and surprisingly twangy – Coming Up Close.

U2 – Where The Streets Have No Name
from The Joshua Tree (1987)

Released the week before the tournament began in 1987, The Joshua Tree was the first album I ever bought on CD on the day of release. I had already been a rabid fan since discovering War through a high school friend as, in the Midwest, the band was still a little-known, cult act.

That changed quickly with the release of the first single, With Or Without You, and I still vividly recall putting the CD into the player for the first time, hearing the bracing, windswept opening of Where The Streets Have No Name, the album’s opening track and realizing that my favorite band was now going to be a mainstream juggernaut.


Scared Straight

July 24, 2010

In the late ’70s, there was a documentary called Scared Straight in which young delinquents/aspiring felons visited hardcore criminals doing time in Rahway State Prison. The theory was that being exposed to the harsh realities of prison life might alter the kids’ behavior.

The film caused a stir, won some awards, and used to pop up on PBS, which is where I think I saw a portion of it one night when there was nothing on the other four or five channels available.

Channel-surfing the other night, I stumbled across another movie that more profoundly altered the course of my life through its harrowing subject matter.

In December of 1987, I was mid-way through my sophmore year of college and I had snagged a coveted gig at a record store as Christmas help. I wouldn’t become jaded on working the holidays in retail until the following Christmas, so the only downside was being stuck in a town where half the population was students.

Aside from most of my friends heading home as soon as finishing their last final of the semester, I was still living in a dorm which would be closed.

Fortunately, my girlfriend’s brother, a cousin, and several other of their friends had a house off campus where I could crash for a week or so before I got to head home for Christmas break. I spent two nights trying to sleep on the brother’s unheated water bed before relocating to the couch downstairs.

Most days I worked and, most days, it was a closing shift. I’d trudge home in the snow and encamp on the couch, flicking through the cable channels ’til all hours. Two of the housemates were also hanging out until days before Christmas. One was there because he worked at a pizza place which meant we had food.

One afternoon, all three of us happened to be home and decided to head out to a movie.

Those two were a couple years older and would both earn business degrees the following summer. I was intending to enter business school with no intention of entering the business world.

We settled into the seats at the multiplex to catch a weekday matinee of Wall Street which had just been released, arriving less than two months after Black Monday had rocked the stock market.

I suspect it wasn’t director Oliver Stone’s intention, but the housemates didn’t view the character of Gordon Gekko as a villain. As portrayed by Michael Douglas, Gekko’s sophistication and swagger played well with them.

I wanted nothing to do with the stressed out beings scampering about the screen.

I felt no need to own a jet.

Instead, the idea of working in a record store as a career seemed much more zen and to my liking.

I finished school and during those years studying business, it was obvious the influence that Wall Street had had. Gordon Gecko was the patron saint of most of my classmates.

When I graduated, I received the expected queries as to what I intended to do. I gave everyone the same answer.

“I’m going to be a shepherd.”

I didn’t become a shepherd, but I did spend several years post-college working in record stores. Heeding the warning of Wall Street, I avoided the corporate world for longer than most and, when I did become enmeshed in it, I found myself surrounded by the children of Gekko (sans the style and savoir faire).

But, during that Christmas break of ’87, that was all in the future. In that present, there was mostly music. Here are four songs that I remember from that time…

Eurythmics – I Need A Man
from Savage

I’ve always considered the Eurythmics – despite their success – to be one of the underappreciated acts of the ’80s. The masses all aquiver over Lady Ga Ga should be forced to watch the videos of Annie Lennox to observe a performer that was truly groundbreaking.

By the time Savage arrived, the duo’s career was on the decline in the States, but I loved it just the same. The first time we played the album in the store where I worked – after Annie had tore through the aggressive I Need A Man – one of my friends seemed truly frightened.

“You do not want to mess with that chick,” he sagely noted.

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

Top 40 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)

The Screaming Blue Messiahs – I Wanna Be A Flintstone
from Bikini Red

My buddy Streuss was enamored with The Screaming Blue Messiahs at the time and, whenever I was hanging in his dorm room, it seemed that he was playing Bikini Red.

As a long-time fan of The ‘stones, I immediately dug the manic, rockabilly-tinged I Wanna Be A Flintstone. It was a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly could relate.

Bourgeois Tagg – I Don’t Mind At All
from Yoyo

The lovely I Don’t Mind At All is a timeless pop song. Produced by the legendary Todd Rundgren, the melancholic ballad was every bit as engaging as Swing Out Sister’s Breakout that winter, but, unlike that song, suited the season perfectly.

Rundgren had produced the XTC classic Skylarking a year earlier and I Don’t Mind At All would have fit that album seamlessly.