Filmstrips And Fire Ants

April 25, 2012

I must have been part of the last generation of kids who got to experience a filmstrip during the course of their education. If I were a teacher, I’d be tempted to show one to trip the kids out.

But as a grade school tyke in the ’70s, few things were more welcome than being in class and having the teacher set up the projector. The anticipation would be palpable.

For fifteen or twenty minutes, you had a reprieve from the monotony of the day. Sometimes technical difficulties might result in a delay, taking more time off the clock.

I recall several filmstrips warning of dire consequences involving the migration of fire ants and Africanized honey bees northward and, thusly, toward us.

Sitting in the dark of the class room in 1978, it looked as though the shit was going to hit the fan in the ’80s and the insects would be taking over.

We’d all have to dress like John Travolta in The Boy In The Plastic Bubble to keep from being stung to death.

There might have been some influx into the Midwest of very angry bugs during the decade, but I don’t recall hearing of any issues.

For years, I assumed that the fire ants were just another filmstrip lie from childhood like the existence of the metric system.

“Oh yeah,” I’d sneer. “Where are the fire ants? How many grams is that?”

But Paloma and I made a recent trek to Texas and, yes, I met some fire ants and even got a couple bites which lived up to the hype.

I was actually hoping to bump into Willie Nelson.

I want a gig.

Not as a musician as, I am not. Just a gig as Willie’s assistant…picking up laundry, walking dogs, answering the phone, opening mail, caddying…

It would be the greatest, most Zen gig ever.

But getting stung by some fire ants was fun, too.

Just as the filmstrip foretold.

Thirty-four years ago, I was far more focused on the impacable march of the fire ants than music, but here are four songs that were on Billboard‘s Hot 100 at the time…

Bonnie Tyler – It’s A Heartache
from Super Hits Of The 70s: Have A Nice Day Volume 21 (1993)

I dig Bonnie Tyler’s raspy-voiced emotional breakdown It’s A Heartache which, until Total Eclipse Of The Heart hit five years later, seemed destined to make the Welsh singer a one-hit wonder in the States.

It’s A Heartache also reminds me of the NBA championship series from that spring as it was played over a montage following the final game. I’d wagered five dollars on the plucky underdog Seattle Supersonics and lost my allowance that week to my brother who had chosen the victorious Washington Bullets.

(and, please, can we jettison the Wizards – possibly the lamest nickname in pro sports – and return to Bullets)

Kansas – Dust In The Wind
from The Best Of Kansas (1984)

So, I’m ten-years old and I’m groggily sitting at our kitchen table, having been rousted out of bed at six in the morning for school.

There’s news coming from the radio and, then, a song – a pretty, acoustic song with soothing guitars and lovely harmonies – is playing. And they’re singing about everything crumbling to the ground and only earth and sky lasting.

I’m pondering whether it’s possible to – just once – get through a bowl of Cocoa Pebbles before they liquified into a slushy mush and Kansas is playing the soundtrack.

Paul McCartney & Wings – With A Little Luck
from Wingspan: Hits And History (2001)

Sure, Sir Paul wasn’t going to match the impact of The Beatles no matter what he did, but there is enough wonderful music in the Wings’ catalog that would have made for a fine career had he never been fab.

Though I wasn’t much interested in music at the time beyond what I’d hear secondhand, I loved the breezy With A Little Luck. I couldn’t go to the pool during the summer of ’78 without hearing it playing over the loudspeakers.

Genesis – Follow You Follow Me
from …And Then There Were Three… (1978)

The first Top 40 hit for Genesis in the States, Follow You Follow Me came after the reduction of the band to a trio and its incarnation that would have considerable commercial success in the ensuing decade. I imagine it caused considerable angst for the long-time fans of the progressive act.

I had a college roommate who tried to indoctrinate me into Peter Gabriel-era Genesis as have several friends over the years. As much as I love Gabriel’s solo work, I’ve yet to really take to early Genesis, though.

Follow You Follow Me is a song that I’ve always adored. It’s mysterious, distinctive, and hypnotic.

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Stuck Inside The Volvo Behind The #2 Bus With The Heading To Work Blues Again*

February 9, 2011

I commute.

I do so relunctantly and under silent protest and, on good evenings, I can block out Sting howling the lyrics to Synchronicity II, which plays on a loop in my head during the drive.

“Another working day has ended
Only the rush hour hell to face
Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes
Contestants in a suicidal race”

The morning trek, though, is typically Zen. The only people up when Paloma and I arise are us, the kid that drowsily mans the counter at the convenience store down the block, and a coke-binging, downstairs neighbor who probably never sleeps.

(which is good as she needs to devote plenty of time to searching for her pet ferret which she loses on a weekly basis)

The morning commute involves no travel on the interstate and the bulk of the map – once I get a few miles from home – threads through semi-rural, wooded areas. There are deer, a fox, and an old woman in bright red boots who is always walking her dog in her yard.

At such an hour, there is little traffic.

Usually.

Today, I was mere minutes off schedule, resulting in me inhaling the exhaust of the #2 bus. Not only did this predicament ruin the cigarette I was smoking, it frustrated me to not have open road to cruise as usual, with impunity, as though I was on the autobahn.

A paradoxical thought came to mind…

…I don’t want to go to work, so why am I rushing to get there?

(is that a paradox?)

I set the controls for the heart of the sun (part of the drive, depending on the time of year, is directly into the rising sun on the horizon) and I set to scrolling through the stations on the Sirius satellite radio Paloma got me for Christmas.

I often opt for a ’70s pop station.

The music is from before I was a teenager, before music was of particular interest to me, but I know most of the songs.

Some of the songs I hazily recall from the time that they were hits and the others are ones I’ve come to know over the intervening years.

There’s something about the mellow vibe of a lot of the pop hits from the ’70s that calms the nerves and allows me to ease into the day.

Here are four songs that I’ve heard on that station on recent mornings…

Todd Rundgren – Hello It’s Me
from Have A Nice Decade: The 70s Pop Culture Box

Few artists over the past forty years have made as much wonderful music that has been as ignored by the masses as Todd Rundgren. Personally, I really wouldn’t discover his music until high school through my buddy Bosco who was rabid for Runt (and Utopia).

The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect was the one that I quite liked at the time.

(aside from Bang The Drum All Day which went from amusing to annoying rather quickly)

But years before Bosco’s guidance, I knew the brilliant Hello It’s Me from hearing it on the car radio as a tyke.

Lobo – Me And You And A Dog Named Boo
from Have A Nice Decade: The 70s Pop Culture Box

Though I was a toddler in 1971, I do remember hearing Lobo’s Me And You And A Dog Named Boo on the radio at the time. I imagine the fact that the singer had a dog appealed to me.

(my brother and I had to make do with a hamster and hamsters, if no one has ever told you, don’t fetch).

But I dig the breezy song which I can’t help thinking would have made a most excellent theme song to a Saturday morning kids show.

Kiss – Beth
from Greatest Kiss

Whenever I hear Peter Criss crooning Beth, I can’t help but wonder if the song was the first great musical curveball – a successful hard rock band scoring an unexpected hit with a ballad.

(though, Alice Cooper did have a hit with Only Women Bleed a year earlier)

Kansas – Dust In The Wind
from The Best Of Kansas

So, I’m ten-years old and I’m groggily sitting at our kitchen table, having been rousted out of a warm bed at six in the morning for school.

There’s news coming from the radio and, then, a song – a pretty, acoustic song with soothing guitars and lovely harmonies – is playing. And they’re singing about everything crumbling to the ground and only earth and sky lasting.

I’m pondering whether it’s possible to – just once – get through a bowl of Cocoa Pebbles before they liquified into a slushy mush and Kansas is playing the soundtrack.

*reimagined from a post on February 6, 2009


De Do Do Do, De Da Da Dwayne

November 17, 2010

I didn’t meet Dwayne until I entered high school. Though our hometown was a speck, we had attended different schools until our freshman year. I had been subjected to Catholic school and Dwayne had attended the public school.

And, even though our town was so small and I knew a lot of the kids at the public school, Dwayne lived a good twenty miles outside of town in a two-story farmhouse, nestled in a small, wooded valley with only a few other houses within easy walking distance.

But I knew his name by the time I was in junior high. He was some unstoppable, unbeatable wrestler.

Some of my football teammates also wrestled and all of them spoke with a reverential awe of Dwayne.

Several other friends wrestled once we reached high school and it was through them, as well as having classes together, that I met Dwayne.

We got on well.

(then again, everyone got on well with Dwayne)

He was short but formidable, slightly bowlegged with a mop of dirty blonde hair. His athletic ability was obvious the first time that I watched him do a handstand on his chair in the middle of class.

(usually to the great consternation of Herr Jack in German class)

After gym class, the towel he’d use in the locker room revealed his warped sense of humor. The white towel was inscribed with black letter that noted it to be “property of the Mississinewa State Hospital.”

We knew that to be a psyche hospital in the southern part of the State, though we were more colorful and less politically correct in our description.

“Yeah,” Dwayne replied, confirming the towel’s origin. “The old man swiped a bunch the last time he was in.”

I recall him groggily telling us as to why he was so tired one morning between classes.

“The old man went mental last night,” he yawned. “I decided to sleep in the woods.”

The explanation was presented as though such zaniness was reasonable to expect.

The classes that I had with Dwayne had potential to be entertaining and sometimes memorable. Today, I’m sure that he’d have been dosed with chemistry at the first handstand, but, for the most part, even our teachers were charmed by his antics as they were usually good-natured and resulted in no casualties.

The only thing that I recall him doing that might have been considered grounds for dismissal occurred during our junior year. Thanks to the inability of our school board to properly vet not one but two teachers, the English class that I had fall semester was on our third teacher before Thanksgiving.

This instability led to the inmates taking over the asylum. It wasn’t exactly the prison colony in Alien III, but the class was far more prone to stretches of chaos and disorder than our others.

I sat in the back row with my buddy Bosco and mostly stayed out of the fray. It was forty-five minutes during I mostly just stared into space, sleeping with my eyes open.

One afternoon, as Teacher #3 stood at the blackboard, conjugating something in chalk, Dwayne popped up out of his seat in the front row and there was a sudden explosion of yellow.

Bosco squinted at the board – his eyesight was questionable – and asked me what happened.

“I think Dwayne threw an orange at the board.”

(it was actually an egg)

A half dozen of us were ushered to the principal’s office for interrogation; Bosco and I both pleaded ignorance.

(convincingly, I’m sure)

As we left school that day, we asked how he had beaten the rap.

“I told him that I sit in the front row,” he replied. “I’d have to be crazy to pull a stunt like that.”

He climbed into his beat-up Camaro, and – with the stereo blaring – sped off.

If I had to guess, it was probably 96Rock – an album rock station from Hamilton, Ohio – which Dwayne had blasting that day. Here are four random songs I very much recall hearing on the station during the early ’80s…

Russ Ballard – Voices
from Russ Ballard

Englishman Russ Ballard had ties to The Zombies and Argent and success penning hits like Rainbow’s Since You Been Gone, Santana’s Winning, and America’s You Can Do Magic.

In our part of the world, Ballard got played on several stations with On The Rebound and The Fire Still Burns from his solo albums. And the moody Voices was mammoth, but it seemed to be one of those songs that everyone knew, but no one knew who the singer.

Lita Ford – Gotta Let Go
from Dancin’ On The Edge

In 1984, I certainly knew the music of Joan Jett and I imagine I had heard a song or two by The Runaways, but Gotta Let Go was the first time I’d heard a song by Joan’s former Runaway bandmate, Lita Ford.

I know that I’d seen Ford in Circus magazine and, as I had seen and read about her in Circus magazine, I undoubtedly assumed she was music for numbskulls. And though the oh-so ’80s metal of Gotta Let Go is hardly rocket surgery, it’s got an indeniable charm.

Kansas – Fight Fire With Fire
from Drastic Measures

This wasn’t Dust In The Wind.

When I hear Fight Fire With Fire, I think of seeing the clip for the song on Friday Night Videos in the autumn of ’83. I have always considered it to be the greatest video with swarms of giant mosquitos in it that I’ve ever seen.

Rewatching it, there are not swarms of giant mosquitos. There is one giant mosquito that looks – quite frankly – to be shoddily constructed.

(quite disappointing…)

Prism – Don’t Let Him Know
from Small Change

Prism never really broke through in the States, but I recall several songs by the Canadian band on the radio as a kid. None more so than their lone US Top Forty hit Don’t Let Him Know.

Written by Jim Vallance and a pre-fame Bryan Adams, the stomping rock song is an earworm. During the winter of 1982, Don’t Let Him Know was constantly blaring from the juke box at the bowling alley where my friends and I would hang out.

(it’s as Midwestern rock, circa ’82, as it gets)