Suicide Hill

December 15, 2010

Like a good portion of the States, our region was smacked with the first snowstorm of the season.

The cover of white that we awoke to this morning, though, had largely disappeared by the time I faced the evening’s rush hour hell. Nothing makes the trip as potentially as treacherous as when a wintery mix is added to the commute.

Yeah, the cast of Ice Road Truckers might brave the elements, but they don’t do it with thousands of other vehicles driven by oh-so attentive folks who – aside from a couple days a year – have little experience with such conditions.

I exited the interstate and headed home along a frontage road, From the road, I could see several kids were making use of the conditions and gravity, hurtling down a good-sized hill on various crafts.

Though it’s fortunate for me that we get little snow and it’s rarely on the ground for more than a few days, it’s the children who suffer. The snow on that hill already had wide swaths that was revealed the grass.

Those kids were sledding on borrowed time.

Growing up in the Midwest, me and my friends could usually expect ample oppotunities to hit the slopes each winter.

Several of us lived along a country road that bisected a subdivision and farmland. As soon as there was snow, we would jump the fence across the road and drag our sleds up a small hill.

If there was enough snow, we would eventually create rudimentry bobsled runs, piling the snow and creating a half pipe. If the weather held, over the course of a week or so, the run would pack – smooth and slick – and become more delightfully lethal.

As we grew older, we would head for Suicide Hill with most of the other kids in our hometown. From the top, we’d stare down at the state road in the distance. The busy road posed no danger as it was unreachable, separated from us by a drop into a small creek.

To get to the bottom, you navigated a path that took you between the 11th and 18th holes on a golf course. And, if you managed to make the run cleanly – avoiding trees and such – you still had to contend with that water hazard.

We lived for the rare spectacle of someone plunging into the drink.

As Christmas approached in 1980, my friends and I were halfway through our middle year of junior high. It was beginning to dawn on us that it might be better to be inside on winter days – somewhere where there might be music and girls – then outside risking hypothermia.

But, in December of ’80, Suicide Hill was still a siren’s song to which we had to respond. Music was still mostly incidental to me, but, over the next six months or so, I’d be hooked.

Here are four songs that were on the chart in Billboard thirty years ago…

Bruce Springsteen – Hungry Heart
from The River

Hungry Heart most likely served as my introduction to The Boss. The River was his current release in late 1980 and, though I was just discovering radio, I was familiar with this song as well as Cadillac Ranch, Fade Away, and the title track.

It would take more time for my young ears to embrace the stark brilliance of the follow-up Nebraska , but I was on board for the long haul.

Blondie – The Tide Is High
from Autoamerican

Blondie was one band that had caught my attention in 1980. Songs like Heart Of Glass and Call Me were such mammoth hits that you would have had to have made an effort to not hear them at the time even if, like me, the radio was nothing more than an occasional companion.

(lead singer Debbie Harry also gave the band a visual component that did not go unnoticed)

I vividly remember hearing the breezy, island groove of The Tide Is High blasting from the radio when someone’s older sister gave us a ride home after one of those afternoons spent sledding. It was a wonderful antidote to the winter weather then and it still is.

The Korgis – Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime
from Dumb Waiters

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the lone US hit by The Korgis on the radio. I certainly don’t recall hearing it thirty years ago when it was a hit.

The first time I do know I heard Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime was when The Dream Academy covered the song in the late ’80s. And, I also heard Beck perform a version of it on the soundtrack to the movie Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind before I heard the original.

There really was no need for the song to be covered, though. The Korgis’ version is lovely – wispy and fragile – and flawless.

ABBA – The Winner Takes It All
from Super Trooper

ABBA and T. Rex occupy a similar niche in my music world. I could probably distill both to a dozen songs (most of which I never tire of), but I own way more of both acts’ work than I truly need.

That said, The Winner Takes It All is a shimmering tower of melancholy and Agnetha really belts it to the back row.

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The Blizzard Of ’78

June 14, 2010

Wikipedia is one site that, if I’m not careful, can suck me in for lengthy periods.

Sure, you have to scrutinize the information, but it’s a good place to start or if you merely want a quick answer.

That’s where things go awry for me.

The other night, I had a question about the movie Hoosiers and, somehow – and I couldn’t quite recreate the steps – I ended up twenty minutes later at the site’s entry for “Great Blizzard Of 1978.”

I remember that storm and, with daily high temperatures that have climbed into the 90s after weeks in the high 80s, the thought of it is refreshing.

(a friend left a message yammering about temperatures in the 100s for July – I’m hoping it’s merely his incoherent ramblings and not actually based on forecasts…)

That blizzard hit the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes during the last week of January, 1978.

Chicago got sixty inches of snow.

Lansing, Michigan – where Magic Johnson would have been in the middle of his freshman season at Michigan State – got nearly twenty.

Indianapolis had sixteen inches and Cincinnati almost doubled that amount.

We were situated between the latter two cities and I seem to recall we got about eighteen or so inches of snow over those three days. Temperatures on Wednesday, January 25th had climbed into the low 40s – comfortable for that time of year.

In the early hours before I woke for school the next morning, the snow began to fall. I awoke to half a foot of snow blanketing the ground with schools already being announced as closed.

Our school system was not prone to shutting things down for incidental snow of even a few inches and the trigger to do so was usually not pulled quickly.

It continued to snow through the day and, that evening, the local radio station announced that school would also be cancelled the following day. Our town was small and one of our teachers, a good friend of my mom, had broken the news with a phone call an hour or so earlier.

It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

(I was ten – the bar was low)

As the next day was Friday, I was smack dab in the middle of an unexpected four-day weekend that had fallen from the heavens. I’m sure I celebrated by staying up late enough to watch Hawaii Five-O and sleeping in the next morning.

The snow began to taper off by the end of that weekend, but, we managed to snag a few more days off the following week. Having already accumulated a few days prior to the blizzard, there was ugly talk that the snow days would have to be made up.

Suddenly, I feared that summer break would be delayed ’til June.

When we returned to school, there was a mammoth pile of snow that had been cleared from the playground. It sat there in a corner like some iceberg that had drifted in from the Arctic, standing as high as the rims of the nearby basketball goal.

Fortunately, we were required to make up no missed days and summer break arrived on time in late May… just as that iceberg finally disappeared.

The radio was on each morning as we ate breakfast that winter, tuned in to our town’s radio station, WRBI, which, at that time, was touted as a rock station, but which, as I recall, was more soft rock.

From the Billboard charts for the week of the blizzard, there are a number of songs I remember hearing as we awaited word if we could go back to bed or had to trudge off to school. Here are four of them…

Linda Ronstadt – Blue Bayou
from The Very Best Of Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt had a fairly impressive run of hits in the ’70s including the wistful Blue Bayou, but, I hear her name and I think of a classmate. It was about a year or so after the blizzard and Ronstadt had most recently released her Living In The USA album.

(the one a cover shot of her on roller skates and wearing an inconceivably short pair of satin shorts)

Our teacher asked us to name something of interest to twelve-year old boys.

The classmate raised his hand and replied, “Linda Ronstadt.”

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

In 1978, about the only thing I knew about Paul Simon is that I had seen him as a guest on some television show and I thought that he looked like an older, distant cousin of mine.

I quite liked the smooth 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.

David Gates – The Goodbye Girl
from Super Hits Of The 70s: Have A Nice Day Volume 21

I didn’t see the movie The Goodbye Girl, though I did recognize Richard Dreyfuss in the television commercials as Roy Neary from Close Encounters Of A Third Kind.

Mostly, I remember seeing Quinn Cummings, a child actress who was my age, on some afternoon talk show – Mike Douglas or Dinah Shore – promoting the movie and being quite smitten.

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.


Snow Globe

January 30, 2010

There’s probably as much snow on the ground tonight as I’ve seen in nearly twenty years. On the eave, it’s still undisturbed, but in the streets below, it’s already been churned into a sloshy mess.

The usual flow of traffic is non-existent, though, and the snow is still falling in the glow of the streetlights, so the landscape might be pristine again come morning.

One news channel is referring to it as “The Snowpocalypse.”

I think we have about three inches of snow.

It’s more like a snow globe.

(of course, since I started writing this twenty-four hours or so ago, we’ve gotten an additional four or five inches of snow – still far short of a “snowpocalypse”)

Snowfalls of this much and sometimes much more were far more frequent for me as a kid in the Midwest. I’ve told tale of the danger, but all things considered, the snow was usually welcome.

There was something quite zen in sprawling out on the bed and staring at the ceiling, listening to music as a heavy snow fell outside. It was a perfect way to waste a Saturday afternoon as a kid. I could stare up and out the window, watching large flakes falling against the sky.

Stare long enough and – with the lack of visual perspective – they would seem to be drifting upward.

I seem to recall a lot of snow on the ground in the first few months of 1984. I was still listening to Top 40 stations, but I had also discovered album rock radio and 97X was providing my first glimpse of the future and an exposure to modern rock.

Here is a quartet of songs I remember from the early weeks of the year Orwell had warned us about…

Van Halen – Jump
from 1984

Jump caused quite a bit of confusion when it hit the airwaves. At school, we asked each other if we’d heard the song in hushed tones as though someone had died. No one had, but the prominent use of synthesizer, especially when coupled with the brief, instrumental title track preceding it, vexed many of my friends.

The sheer exuberance of the song and the fact that it really wasn’t that startling of a departure from the band’s signature sound helped it gain quick acceptance from most fans and earned Van Halen new ones. Jump and 1984 both proved to be mammoth successes.

And a mere twelve months later, there would be no Van Halen as we had always known them.

Eurythmics – Here Comes The Rain Again
from Touch

With the release of Be Yourself Tonight in the spring of 1985, Eurythmics went in the opposite direction that Van Halen had with 1984, adding guitar and a more rock-oriented sound to their dreamy synth-pop.

But, Touch arrived in January, 1984 and was still firmly entrenched in the hypnotic, synthesizer-based groove of Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This), the album that had broken the duo in the US the prior summer.

Touch received an earlier release in the UK and had already had several hits before being issued in the US, so I’m sure that I likely heard the lovely, melancholic Here Comes The Rain Again as an import on 97X prior to its becoming a major radio hit.

Icicle Works – Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly)
from Icicle Works

Tribal drumming and chiming guitars made Icicle Works’ lone US hit a memorable one-hit wonder that still sounds stellar a quarter century later. The song had been a UK hit the year before (titled Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)) and, like Here Comes The Rain Again , I’m sure I heard the frenetic track as an import on 97X months before it became a hit in the States.

Tony Carey – A Fine, Fine Day
from Some Tough City

Paloma had no idea who Tony Carey was when I played A Fine, Fine Day for her. Though the song did make the Top 40, it apparently didn’t get much/any airplay where she grew up.

It was quite the opposite for me. Carey got a lot of play on radio with I Won’t Be Home Tonight and, under the moniker of Planet P Project, Why Me? during 1983. Both of those songs had a sci-fi bent to them.

A Fine, Fine Day is the tale of an aging mobster (or so it would seem) and, in those snowy, early months of 1984, it seemed as though I couldn’t go very long without hearing it on one of several stations while surfing the dial. Later that year, Carey would return to the sci-fi fare with Planet P Project’s album Pink World and one final radio hit, What I See, before vanishing from the scene.