A Hole In The Middle Of Summer

July 17, 2010

Last summer, I noted that I’d watched Major League Baseball’s All-Star game for the first time in years.

This summer, I mostly ignored the game again.

I watched a bit of the home run derby competition (and what I watched was uneventful). I spent most of the time trying to figure out if David Ortiz had actually gotten busted for performance-enhancing drugs, if he had been investigated for such hijinks, or if there had merely been rumors.

(that grew wearying and I lost interest in the contest)

I actually tuned in for the game in time to witness some well-meaning, but disturbingly-executed pre-game ceremony honoring good-deed doers. It gave me flashbacks of Up With People performing at the Super Bowl in the ’70s.

I watched the player introductions, recognizing no more than one of every three names, and began channel-surfing before the first inning had ended.

From the mid-’70s on, into the first years of the ’80s, the All-Star game was must-see television for me, an event that was anticipated for weeks. With only a couple national games each week, it was the chance to see players that you mostly had read about or saw brief highlights of on This Week In Baseball.

(that show was also appointment viewing each Saturday afternoon)

But somewhere along the trip, baseball became less a source of fascination to me. There are a lot of reasons, but it occurred to me that I might well be collateral damage from the 1981 players strike.

The plugged got pulled on the season in mid-June. Cleveland’s Len Barker had pitched the first perfect game in thirteen years and Fernando Valenzuela had been a sensation pitching for the Dodgers.

There was no baseball for two months, essentially the entire summer.

And plotting the timeline, it was the summer of ’81 during which music was taking on an increasing importance in my world. The time that might have been devoted to reading boxscores in the sports pages or watching a game was spent listening to the radio and becoming acquainted with the hit songs of the day.

In August, as the beginning of a new school year was bearing down on us, the strike ended and the baseball season resumed with the All-Star game. I’m sure I watched and I would continue to watch, but things had changed.

Baseball was never quite as important to me and it only became less so by the time I headed off to college a half decade later. By the time another strike wiped out the World Series in ’94, the sport was on life support for me.

Even if baseball hadn’t abandoned me that summer, I imagine that music would have still eclipsed my interest in the sport. I was thirteen and music was part of the required trappings of being that age.

Here are four of the songs that were filling the space that baseball had left during this week in 1981…

Rick Springfield – Jessie’s Girl
from Working Class Dog

In 1981, I was unaware that actors weren’t supposed to sing (and, usually, with good reason). Of course, I doubt that I was aware that Rick Springfield was a soap opera star aside from a DJ mentioning it in passing.

But Springfield was a musician before finding success on television and there was no denying that Jessie’s Girl was insanely catchy (as were most of his hits during the decade). Though there would be friends in my future who had girlfriends that I thought were fetching, none of them drove me into a state like Jessie’s girl drove poor Rick.

Marty Balin – Hearts
from Balin

Would I have know of Jefferson Airplane and/or Starship when Marty Balin scored a solo hit Hearts? Perhaps I knew the band’s more recent hits like Jane or Find Your Way Back, but I doubt I knew classics like White Rabbit, Somebody To Love, and Miracles.

I certainly had no idea of Balin’s connection to the legendary band unless, again, that information was passed on to me by the DJs playing the song or, perhaps, Casey Kasem, whom I had discovered earlier that summer.

Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight
from Face Value

Despite the dozens of hits that Phil Collins has had both with and wthout Genesis, I’d have to think that In The Air Tonight, his first solo hit, is the one for which he will be remembered. Not only are there the various urban legends about the song, but the cavernous drum sound would become Collins’ signature.

Add in the song’s use in the movie Risky Business and the television show Miami Vice as that program was becoming a phenomenon – as well as numerous commercials in the ensuing thirty years – and you have one of the more iconic hits of the early ’80s.

Greg Kihn Band – The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)
from Rockihnroll

The Greg Kihn Band had a handful of hit songs including the mammoth Jeopardy in 1983, but the power-pop act wasn’t really able to break out beyond fringe status.

However, they got a lot of radio airplay in my corner of the midwest with songs like Happy Man, Reunited, and Lucky. As my friends and I became more interested in music, several of them were especially devoted to the San Francisco band, snagging each new release as soon as it was issued.

Though Jeopardy might have been the bigger hit, that song has nothing on the lean, wiry and concise The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em). In under three minutes, Kihn had me hooked with the song’s singalong chrous and his stuttered vocal at the end of each verse.


The Colonel

March 17, 2010

Growing up in a basketball-mad state and half an hour away from the school that inspired the movie Hoosiers, this time of year meant the culmination of the hoops season with the state-wide tournament.

In fact, Sports Illustrated devoted a feature story to my high school’s team during the last open tournament in ’97. That team had been ranked third in the state and, with the tournament being divvied into classes the following season (a highly contentious and unfortunate decision), the team from my hometown had become the darlings of fans statewide who hoped for one more run from a small school at the state title.

Fifteen years earlier, I was in junior high and the high school team replaced a beloved coach that had won a couple sectional titles. The new coach was greeted with the same open arms and small-town hospitality that Gene Hackman found in Hickory. But, he won and soon all was right with the world.

My freshman year, the team was loaded, led by a small forward who could have played Division I ball, opted for a smaller, Division III school and was an honorable mention All-American.

(dude was also a state-champion high jumper)

We lost two games all season.

Two.

Both games were to team from a school five times our size who had made several, recent trips to the Final Four. The first time was on their court, by a point, during the regular season.

The second time was on their court, by a point, with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line.

The team which beat us went on to win the state title.

It was a fun trip to experience up close and it locked in the once-suspect coach as entenched. Two years later, I had the coach for a teacher – geometry class.

My buddy Bosco quickly dubbed him The Colonel – “Bobby Knight’s called The General, so…”

I’m not sure if it was an homage or a dig

(with Bosco, it was sometimes hard to tell)

Despite the drowsy hour – it was first period – we looked forward to The Colonel’s class. Bosco would often side-track the preceedings by bringing up the idea of dating The Colonel’s oldest daughter, a freshman.

Bosco was far more Spiccoli than scoundrel, so The Colonel played along and the two would good-naturedly banter. The Colonel often countered our antics by immortalizing us on his exams as stick figures with identifying characteristics (my stick figure had long hair, Bosco’s sported checkerboard Vans, another friend had oversized glasses, etc.).

The Colonel, like many of our teachers, was often subjected to having his house pelted with eggs on the weekends by disgruntled students. I’d see Bosco in school on Monday morning. He lived across the street from The Colonel and he’d tell of coming home in the early morning hours to find him in his yard.

“He was in his robe, hosing egg off his siding. He shook his fist at me.”

“Really?”

“No. He’s The Colonel, man. He waved.”

The Colonel was a good teacher. He seemed to enjoy it and, more so than most of our teachers, he seemed to remember that, though we were almost adult-sized, we were still kids.

I think he still was, too.

Here are some of the songs I remember during that run by The Colonel’s team in March of ’83…

Def Leppard – Photograph
from Pyromania

There are few acts that seemed to explode overnight to the degree that the Leps did with Pyromania. I’m thinking that I might have heard Bringin’ On The Heartache from their previous album, but, if I did, it wasn’t a song that got more than a smattering of airplay.

But Photograph launched like a rocket. It was as though I heard it for the first time and – twenty minutes later – the song (and Union Jack t-shirts and shorts) were everywhere. It was just one of those songs that seemed so obvious that it would be mammoth and it still sounds stellar.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Change Of Heart
from Long After Dark

I was non-plussed by You Got Lucky (though the video was pretty cool at the time), but there was something rough and tumble about Change Of Heart that I found far more appealing. I’d argue that the song is one of Petty’s most underrated hits.

Saga – Wind Him Up
from Worlds Apart

I know that they’ve released a lot of albums during their career, but the Canadian band Saga didn’t have much success here in the US. No doubt best known for On The Loose, I much preferred the follow-up, Wind Him Up.

And, it was always fun for us to mimic lead singer Michael Sadler saying, “No luck today.”

Frida – I Know There’s Something Going On
from Something’s Going On

I’m sure that, initially, I had no idea that the voice on I Know There’s Something Going On belonged to one of the women from ABBA. And, I doubt at the time that I recognized the drumming on the song to be Phil Collins (although I’d soon become familiar with the cavernous sound that was his trademark).

Instead, I loved the thunderous sound and omnious vibe of the song. And, in retrospect, it’s odd to think of Frida’s lone hit getting played on the rock stations playing Petty, Saga, and Def Leppard that would have never touched ABBA.

As Bosco would have no doubt said, it was a one-eighty.