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.


The Road (There And Back)

November 27, 2011

As a kid, the family usually made at least one trek annually to visit relatives in Western Pennsylvania.

To mitigate the need to navigate traffic, we would often set off on these trips in the wee hours of the night, getting the first couple hours in before the sunrise.

It was thrilling to be up in the middle of the night, at an hour whose existence was wholly unknown to me at the time.

As my younger brother and our mother would be asleep in the backseat, I was accorded shotgun, road atlas perched in my lap and serving as navigator for our father.

I assumed the responsibility of the task with deadly seriousness and a certain belief that any failure on my part might result in us being lost forever, though little navigation was truly needed and the position was essentially honorary.

Thirtysome years later, it’s simply good to that Paloma and I have made our Thanksgiving trek with no difficulties and are safely back in the treehouse with the animals.

Here are four road songs (out of the numerous ones residing on the harddrive)…

John Fogerty – The Old Man Down The Road
from Centerfield (1985)

I was a junior in high school when John Fogerty released his first new music since before I had even begun the educational process. I was hardly enamored with Centerfield or the handful of tracks that were getting airplay, but the album and Fogerty’s comeback was inescapable (especially as my buddy Beej loved the record).

For me, it was a bit too twangy for my tastes at the time, though now I have a much greater appreciation and affection for the ex-Creedence singer’s bayou brew. And, Paloma and I came across a fellow in a roadside McDonald’s that certainly would have been well cast as the titular character.

Talking Heads – Road To Nowhere
from Little Creatures (1985)

As John Fogerty was making a comeback in 1985, art-rockers Talking Heads were making a belated arrival, notching the most commercially successful album of their almost-decade long career with Little Creatures. Sure, the quartet had a major radio hit two years earlier with the übercool Burning Down The House and, though nothing on Little Creatures matched that success, the album had several songs that got a lot of airplay.

One of those songs was the skittish march Road To Nowhere which I heard a lot on 97X that spring and was accompanied by an expectedly eye-catching video that MTV played incessantly.

Steve Earle – Six Days On The Road
from Essential Steve Earle (1993)

Paloma and I didn’t spend six days on the road – two was more than enough for us – so we didn’t quite reach the level of weariness that the protagonist felt in the song that was a major hit for country singer Dave Dudley in 1963.

Nearly a quarter century later, Steve Earle contributed his version of the song to John Hughes’ movie Planes, Trains And Automobiles, a flick that has become a holiday perennial.

Eddie Vedder with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – The Long Road
from Dead Man Walking soundtrack (1996)

Traveling through the Midwest, Paloma and I heard a similar rotation of artists and songs on the (mostly) classic rock stations we’d pull up on the radio. And, there amongst ’70s warhorses like Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Skynyrd was – over and over again – Pearl Jam.

(much to Paloma’s chagrin)

Personally, it reminded me of how much of Pearl Jam’s catalog I have enjoyed over the years. The band certainly has had its detractors (aside from Paloma), but there’s always been something about the grunge icons that has struck me as geniune.

And, over the years, lead singer Eddie Vedder has, like several other members of the band, stepped out on his own as he did in 1996 when he collaborated with the late Pakastani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for the lovely, mournful The Long Road for the soundtrack to the movie Dead Man Walking.


The End Of Time As We Knew It

November 9, 2011

So, the clocks have been turned back, an act that still is an odd thing to me as I grew up in one of the few swaths of the US that didn’t acknowledge such antics.

(Paloma is like a ninja somehow resetting all of the numerous timepieces in the treehouse so swiftly, so deftly that I never see her do it, but the feat is accomplished by the time I awake)

As the citizens of my hometown were ignoring the changing of the times in autumn, 1984, my friends and I had all reached our sixteenth birthdays and, thus, all had our drivers licenses for the first time.

The end of Daylight Savings Time did not go completely unnoticed. Most of the radio and television stations we received were broadcast out of Southwestern Ohio. The clocks moving back in Cincinnati meant having to stay up later to watch the end of Monday Night Football and hear Dandy Don Meredith croon.

The upside was that we gained an hour to troll the record stores and malls on treks into the city.

During the summer months, by the time one of us procured transportation, it was usually after someone’s parents or older sibling had returned home from work.

(my buddy Beej often loaned himself his brother’s Datsun B210 which we had nicknamed, for reasons unexplained, The Invisible Jet)

We often had to make tactical decisions regarding which record stores to hit in a limited timeframe and the last scheduled stop hinged upon closing times.

Invariably, we would underestimate the time spent elsewhere and these junkets often ended with us hurriedly searching through the aisles of Peaches as clerks eager to close for the night were turning down the lights.

There was no rush like taking a roa trip and returning with new music. Though I was branching out at the time and listening to more alternative rock, I was still tentative when it came to actually parting with the little cash I had. So, I was still tethered to buying more mainstream stuff.

Here are four songs from purchases that autumn…

Julian Lennon – Valotte
from Valotte (1984)

For folks who grew up with The Beatles, it must have been a bit trippy to hear the voice of John Lennon’s son when Valotte arrived and became a big hit. The title track was all over radio that fall and the sparse, lovely song simply sounded like autumn.

Tommy Shaw – Girls With Guns
from Girls With Guns (1984)

If you grew up in the Midwest in the late ’70s/early ’80s, there was probably a great likelihood that you owned something by Styx, be it The Grand Illusion, Pieces Of Eight, or Paradise Theater. It seemed half the kids in our high school had a well-worn t-shirt commemorating one Styx tour or another.

For me, Styx was my first concert experience and, though I quickly soured on the band with Kilroy Was Here, the punchy title track to guitarist Tommy Shaw’s first solo album caught my ear at the time and was enough to lure me in.

Toto – Stranger In Town
from Isolation (1984)

I’d worn out the cassette of Toto’s mega-selling Toto IV that I’d purchased from the Columbia Record & Tape Club. The band was hardly reinventing fire, but to a kid just discovering pop music, it was a thoroughly engaging collection of pop/rock that clicked with me even beyond the hits like Rosanna and Africa.

Isolation arrived a good two years after Toto IV. It was a lengthy gap between records for the time. Toto had changed and so had I, but I totally dug the mysterious vibe of Stranger In Town, which – based on how quickly the album vanished – must have put me in the minority.

Big Country – Steeltown
from Steeltown (1984)

Though just a year after becoming a sensation in the US with In A Big Country, Steeltown 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.