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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Two For Tuesday

March 8, 2011

Once I reached college – and easy access to a dozen record stores – Tuesday was indelibly stamped into my music-centric mind as new release day.

Tuesday remained a linchpin of the week for me because of music well into the ’90s and my thirties.

But in high school, new releases would have to wait for a trek into Cincinnati as the lone store in our hometown that carried music stocked a small selection. New titles might take weeks to arrive after release to the civilized world.

Music was the stuff that held together my fairly eclectic cast of friends and, more weeks than not, most of us were anticipating something that we wanted as soon as it hit the racks.

The wait could seem interminable.

If the title was a lesser-known act, it might make for a scavenger hunt involving dozens of visits to a number of record stores over weeks, even months to be in the right store at the right time to find what you desired.

By our senior year, we began to swing the odds in our favor. There would always be a handful of us ditching Tuesday and getting to the record stores as they opened.

It was usually Cincinnati, but, depending on who had procured transportation and, thus, was leading the junket, we might end up in Indianapolis.

If Naptown was the destination, we were usually listening to Q95 as the station’s mix of classic rock and (then) current stuff had something for all of us.

And Tuesdays meant “two for Tuesdays” – all day the station played back-to-back songs by each act. I’m sure it was hardly an uncommon gimmick, but I don’t recall any of the other rock stations we could dial up using it.

Acts with new or relatively new releases were often favored on Q95’s Two for Tuesday with one track being from the recent album and another being a popular song from the artist’s catalog.

So, here are four pairs of songs that I very well might have heard on Q95 during early March in 1986 when, if it was Tuesday, I probably wasn’t in class…

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers with Stevie Nicks – Needles And Pins
from Pack Up The Plantation: Live!

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers – American Girl
from Playback

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers assisted Stevie Nicks on her first solo hit, Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around, and also appeared with the Fleetwood Mac songstress on her follow-up album The Wild Heart.

However, I prefer their partnership on this cover of The Searchers’ hit (co-written by Sonny Bono) which appeared on Petty’s album Pack Up The Plantation: Live!

As for American Girl, I can’t help but hear this Petty classic and not be transported to the hallways of Ridgemont High.

Blue Öyster Cult – Dancin’ In The Ruins
from Club Ninja

Blue Öyster Cult – Godzilla
from Workshop Of The Telescopes

I’ve written before of my affection for the mighty Blue Öyster Cult and Dancin’ In The Ruins was one of the few worthy tracks on the rather dire affair that was Club Ninja.

Club Ninja arrived when we finally had MTV available to us and Blue Öyster Cult was becoming a musical afterthought, but I vividly recall seeing the video for Dancin’ In The Ruins – seemingly inspired by Mad Max – in the wee hours of the night much to my delight.

Sure, Blue Öyster Cult was lumped in with early heavy metal bands like Steppenwolf, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin, but – due to my frame of reference when I discovered music – heavy metal was a genre where its practitioners wore spandex and either sang of non-stop parties or dragons. I suppose Godzilla fulfills the latter requirement and Blue Öyster Cult had the vision to pay homage to the greatest dragon of them all.

Rush – Territories
from Power Windows

Rush – Tom Sawyer
from Moving Pictures

Rush had a small, but ardent following in our high school that consisted mostly of the jocks and the stoners in band – two clans who rarely intermingled but could find common ground in the beloved trio’s music.

Territories was one of several tracks from Power Windows that got played heavily on the rock stations that I listening to. I loved the lyrical reduction of warring nations to a squabble for “better people…better food…and better beer.”

(well played Professor)

There were few concerts for me before I reached college and the opportunity to see Rush was a day-of, last-second opportunity. A ticket, t-shirt, and the chance to see a sold-out arena full of never-would-be musicians airdrum to Tom Sawyer on the Power Windows tour cost me less twenty-five years ago than it did to fill up my car with gas last night.

Jackson Browne – For America
from Lives In The Balance

Jackson Browne – Running On Empty
from The Next Voice You Hear: The Best Of Jackson Browne

By the time I started listening to music in the late ’70s/early ’80s, Jackson Browne’s career was on the decline, though he did have one of his biggest hits during that period with Somebody’s Baby.

Lives In The Balance found the singer/songwriter fully embracing his activist instincts with an album whose lyrics, for the most part, had political overtones. The first single, the bracing For America, was a wake-up call and if the song and its parent album weren’t as well received as his earlier albums, it still sounded great on radio.

Running On Empty had become one of Browne’s signature songs nearly a decade before Lives In The Balance and the full-throttle track was already a rock radio staple when For America was becoming his final Top 40 hit.


Q95

September 7, 2010

As I began my sophomore year of high school in autumn of ’83, I was increasingly exploring the musical terrain beyond Top 40. And, Indianapolis’ Q95, an album rock station which I had begun listening to in the spring, was a frequent destination when listening to the radio.

(though, by Halloween, the modern rock of 97X would become the station du juor – on nights when I could pull in the station’s signal)

But, Q95 was the place for straight-ahead rock for me. WEBN, out of Cincinnati was the most popular rock station at our high school which was likely why I opted for Q95 as it seemed more exotic. As I recall there wasn’t that much of a difference between the two stations.

One difference was that Q95 had The Bob & Tom Show (and this was a dozen years before the show went national). Nothing helped ease the pain of being up early for school like the antics of the duo.

Musically, I still dug Hall & Oates, Duran Duran, and a lot of the other staples of Top 40 at the time, but Q95 was providing me with exposure to the catalogs of classic acts like Pink Floyd, The Who, and Led Zeppelin.

I was also hearing deeper album tracks by acts that were also having pop radio hits like Journey, Billy Squier, and ZZ Top.

The station showed support for local heros like John Cougar/John Cougar Mellencamp and Henry Lee Summer and – as to be expected – heartland rock bands from Styx and REO Speedwagon to lesser-knowns like Shooting Star were staples.

And Q95 was the station where I remember hearing Iron Maiden for the first time.

It was the station where I listened to syndicated radio shows like Rockline and the concert program King Biscuit Flower Hour.

The latter gave me the opportunity to hear live music – to hear the sometimes amazing twists and acquaint myself with the time-honored clichés – at a time when there wasn’t much opportunity for me to attend shows.

Q95 was actually one of my longer radio station relationships. When I left for college, I couldn’t listen to 97X, but Q95 remained well within range.

By the end of the ’80s the station was playing too much Winger when I would rather have heard Concrete Blonde or Cocteau Twins. However, Q95, though holding less allure for me, remained the best option on radio.

(our college station was a cable outlet so, unless you were home, it lacked convenience as well as being prone to offering time slots to student DJs hell-bent on attempting to be as esoteric as possible)

It was finally distance that ended the relationship between me and Q95. I graduated from school and left the Midwest and the station behind.

I haven’t listened to Q95 in almost two decades, but here are four songs I remember hearing on the station as autumn arrived in 1983…

Heart – How Can I Refuse?
from Passionworks

Passionworks was one of Heart’s albums released during the lull between their successful period from the mid- through late-’70s and their even more successful period from the mid- through late ’80s. I’m sure, at the time, I knew little by the sisters Wilson aside from Magic Man and Barracuda.

But I dug How Can I Refuse?, especially the opening line of “Wake me up with laughter.” It was playful and flirtatious power pop that was a bit slicker than the band’s ’70s hits and hinted at the direction Heart would take with 1985’s mega-selling, self-titled comeback album.

The Moody Blues – Sitting At The Wheel
from The Present

The Moody Blues had experienced their own return to the limelight in 1981 with Long Distance Voyager and the hits Gemini Dream and The Voice. The Present wasn’t as successful as its predecessor, but the enthusiastic Sitting At The Wheel – though dated like much of the band’s ’80s output – sounded good to me at the time.

I didn’t own the album, but I was fascinated by its artwork – a variation on Maxfield Parrish’s painting Daybreak. Years later, Paloma exposed me to Parrish’s work and I quickly made the connection.

Robert Plant – In The Mood
from The Principle Of Moments

In the autumn of ’83, I was still becoming acquainted with Led Zeppelin’s extensive catalog and I was completely unfamiliar with Robert Plant’s solo debut from the year before. However, I quickly became quite familiar with his follow-up, The Principle Of Moments, when it was released at summer’s end.

Not only had I seen the video for the album’s first hit, Big Log, on Friday Night Videos, Q95 was playing several songs from the record including the shimmering In The Mood.

Zebra – Tell Me What You Want
from Zebra

During the summer of ’83, several friends were twitterpated over Zebra and their song Who’s Behind The Door? They were hardly alone as the trio’s debut quickly attracted fans (and detractors) for the heavy Zeppelin influence in their sound.

I liked the name and found the song intriguing.

As autumn approached, Q95 had moved on to another track, the driving Tell Me What You Want. With two songs that I thought were pretty stellar, I took the plunge, bought a copy of Zebra (on cassette), and promptly wore it out.