Rich Wilhelm

Origin Story: My Fascination with “Clambake”

In Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley movies, Uncategorized on August 10, 2017 at 5:24 am

Every fascination has an origin story. Here’s the story, as best I can remember it, of the beginning of my fascination with the 1967 movie Clambake, starring Elvis Presley, Shelly Fabares, Bill Bixby, and — let’s not forget — Will Hutchens.

It all started with a toothache. It was the fall of 1986. I was living in Temple Towers, an on-campus apartment at Temple University in Philadelphia. It was getting later in my college career and I may have been beginning to lose the plot. I wasn’t adapting well to apartment life, after three years in the dorms. For several weeks during that semester, Temple’s professors were on strike, leading to massive bouts of confusion, ennui, and general disarray on campus. If I was doing anything other than spending copious amounts of time at the school newspaper office and eating from lunch trucks, I sure as hell don’t remember what it was.

In the midst of all this, my wisdom teeth started to hurt, as my gums began to grow over them. At least, I think it was my gums. I probably tried to ignore it at first, but before too long, I found myself taking the Broad Street subway north, to Temple’s dental school. There, future dentists, presumably under the watchful eye of their professors, would do basic dental work for cheap, mostly for Temple students and North Philadelphia kids.

It was quickly determined that my wisdom teeth had to go. And so it was that on two successive Fridays I again headed north on Broad and sat in a cubicle to have the pesky wisdom teeth removed, two at a time.

After the first of those Friday appointments, I found myself in my friend Greg’s dorm room, in some degree of pain. It hurt bad enough that I took Advil for the first time ever. I do not remember if it helped or not, but I do remember that taking my first Advil felt like a momentous occasion.

Despite that fact that I wasn’t feeling great, Greg and I, and I don’t remember who else, decided to go “where the hippies meet,” according to the Orlons — South Street. While South Street was certainly a hot spot for Philadelphia college kids to both drink and eat — I remember a delicious aroma around Fifth and South throughout my college years, though I never specifically pinpointed the restaurant of its origin — for me, the whole point of South Street at that time was to buy weird records.

Weird records were easy to find in the mid-1980s, mostly because, at that time, “weird records” were not yet the irony-laced hot commodity they became in the 1990s. But, I like to consider myself at least a bit of pioneer in the art of appreciating weird records and places like the Philadelphia Record Exchange and Book Trader on, or just off, South Street were gold mines.

I got lucky that toothachey fall Friday night on South Street. Or, at least I got lucky in the sense of finding weird records, since I scored two key Elvis Presley albums, the soundtrack to Clambake and an odd German RCA compilation of Presley film songs, which included both the title track to Clambake, and his other clam-related song, “Do the Clam.”

My reason for wanting these songs was simple: I believed, and continue to believe, that the word “clam” is one of the best words in the English language.

Now,  by the fall of 1986, I had not seen Clambake, or any Elvis movie. Seeing the movies wasn’t really the point anyway. I was all about the records. But, eventually, I did seek out a VHS tape and got hip to the cinematic wonder that is Clambake. It is my favorite cheesy Elvis movie and I have watched it several times over the years. It always makes me smile.

While I typically don’t plan on watching Clambake — as you might imagine, it’s better when Clambake just happens — I do have two viewings on the horizon. Clambake is playing this Sunday, August 13, at the Colonial Theater, right here in Phoenixville. I’ll watch it again on November 22. That will be the 50th anniversary of the release of Clambake, and it also happens to be the day before Thanksgiving. I hope to spend my time between now and then orienting my life to the point where I can settle in on that Wednesday night with a glass of my “best sipping whiskey” and a special 50th anniversary celebration of Clambake.

Here is the plot of Clambake:

The plot of Clambake is that it’s an Elvis Movie.

That’s the plot of Clambake.

I could say more, of course, but I’m no spoiler.

Now, of course, some serious Elvis fans despise the movie years, and that is completely understandable. But, if you turn your brain down to “simmer” for awhile, try to forget that Elvis was bored silly by the time he finally broke free of Hollywood, and accept that the Movie Years were simply an interlude between the raw talent of the Sun/early RCA records and the mature artistry of the post-“Comeback Special” Memphis recordings, then you’ll probably enjoy Clambake just fine.

In case you’re wondering, before too long my teeth felt fine again, the Temple professors went back to work, and South Street continued on its steady path to become just another haven for many faceless franchises that you can find just about anywhere else. I survived my year at Temple Towers and eventually graduated.

Life moved on, as it inevitably does. But Clambake will always be Clambake, and I guess that’s why I will always love it.

 

52 at 52: Week 01

In American history, history, Music/Memory, Uncategorized on June 10, 2017 at 1:44 am

On my 52nd birthday, one week ago today, I contemplated the idea of posting a weekly column here on Dichotomy of the Dog from now until my next birthday. Each column would compile bits and pieces of my handwritten journal that week. Fifty-two columns at 52. Time to begin.

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George Washington slept here. No, really, he did.

D-Day, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania

I spent a few minutes walking around George Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge on Tuesday, which happened to be the 73th anniversary of D-Day. The bravery and perseverance of those who endured the winter encampment at Valley Forge and of those who stormed those beaches in France in 1944 is so self-evident that it almost seems like a cliché to comment on it. But the truth is that it is impossible to imagine just how brave and how persevering the soldiers of Valley Forge and D-Day needed to be.

Think also of Washington and Eisenhower.  Neither man can quite live up to the enormous mythology surrounding them, but these two generals were exactly the men required for the demands of the American Revolution and World War II.

Clearly, we’re living through some weird times right now. It would be easy to give up hope on the promise of the United States. But the stories of Valley Forge and D-Day give me hope that we will find our way through the current darkness and move on from it. But we need to face up to the darkness with a little bit of bravery and perseverance of our own, and do something positive to combat the weirdness.

A Brief TrumpNote

Honestly, I don’t want to fixate on our current president, who is about as far away in terms of character and integrity from Washington and Eisenhower as can be imagined. But, if I’m going to be true to myself in these weekly columns, then comments on Mr. Trump will emerge. But I’ll try to keep them brief. In this case, I read the following in a CNN article on Trump’s reaction to the recent British terrorist attack:

His tweets on the London attacks may delight his supporters, but they raise questions about whether he is besmirching the decorum that is inherent in the Presidency itself.

As far as I can tell, that train, the Presidential Decorum Besmirchment Express, left the station months ago. Around January 20th.

Thoughts on Al Stewart

Earlier in the week, I rolled my uber-geeky 20-sided Mystical Dice of Random Musical Experience and was directed by them to listen to the three albums I own by the ever-so-slightly proggy British folk/pop/rock singer Al Stewart. As anyone familiar with Stewart’s work might imagine, my repeated listening sessions with Past, Present and Future (1974), Year of the Cat (1976), and Time Passages (1978) led to all kinds of deep thoughts and revelations, some of which I’ll share with you now.

  1. The Time Passages album was one of three free albums I received when I used my powers of persuasion to convince this guy named Steve to join the Columbia Record Club roundabout 1979. We used to deliver newspapers together and I cajoled him with the promise of oh-so-many records for just one penny. The other albums were Steely Dan’s Aja and the inevitable Pieces of Eight by Styx. Because “Renegade” rocked.
  2. Even as an adolescent, I aspired to the kind of melancholic wistfulness embodied in the title track of Time Passages. Sure, I was only a 13-year-old kid pining for the days of being an eight-year-old kid, but my melancholic wistfulness would not be denied, and no song from the late ’70s captures melancholic wistfulness better than “Time Passages.” Other than “Disco Duck,” that is.
  3. That extended instrumental passage in Stewart’s big hit, “Year of the Cat”? It’s all about sex. Specifically, the guitar-into-sax solo continues the narrative set up in the lyrics. The guy is feeling like Peter Lorre in a Bogart movie when he meets the girl, who comes from the year of the cat. As the lyrics give way to the instrumental, the guy and girl are ready to spend the night together. Then, as the last sax notes fade, we hear, “Well morning comes and you’re still with her…” Ooh la la.
  4. This makes me wonder how many other sax solos are about sex.
  5. The sax solo in “Time Passages” isn’t about sex though. It’s about wistful melancholy. However, it does occur to me that the last verse of “Time Passages” could be about the “Year of the Cat” couple. But that’s pure speculation on my part.
  6. Al Stewart has a toe-tapper of a tune called “Warren Harding” on Past, Present and Future. I believe I read that the lyrics contrast Harding’s downward spiral while in the White House with the ascent of an immigrant bootlegger. As a guy who is mentally compiling a list of songs about presidents, I appreciate Stewart’s ode to Harding. I also noted with satisfaction that more recent Stewart albums have included songs about Dwight Eisenhower and William McKinley. I am going to track down those songs.
  7. Al Stewart name drops many historical figures. Everyone from Nostradamus to Henry Plantagenet to Buddy Holly to Warren Harding to Thomas More to Peter Lorre. These days I appreciate anyone who is cognizant of history.
  8. Al Stewart’s song “Song on the Radio” is about a guy driving around, listening to the radio and thinking about a lover who is on his mind like the song on the radio. So, if you happened to be driving around thinking of your lover when “Song on the Radio” came on the radio, then it would be your song on the radio. How meta is that?
  9. There is a sax solo in “Song on the Radio,” but I don’t think it’s about anything specific. Sometimes a sax solo is just about being a sax solo.
  10. Al Stewart might be the “proggiest” of the ’70s singer/songwriters, but that might be because of the trippy album covers, particularly the Time Passages cover, designed by the ubiquitous Hipgnosis. Those sax solos are kind of proggy too, in a Supertramp kind of way.

A Visit to the Maurice Stephens House

 

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Maurice Stephens House, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, June 9, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

52: An Introduction

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2017 at 6:07 am

And so it came to pass that 52 began with an empty gas tank. I pulled the Old Jeep out of our driveway and it immediately shut down on me. The warning light essentially told me to check the other warning lights, but I knew what was happening, which was this: the low gas light that had been shining for me the evening before had not been kidding.

In the pantheon of problems that could greet a new trip around the sun, running out of gas wasn’t that big a deal. After all, it happened right in front of our house, within walking distance of a gas station, and a hardware store, which is where I wound up buying a new empty gas can, once I discovered that the gas station did not sell empty gas cans.

An empty gas tank is kind of like a blank slate. I am in favor of starting a birthday with a  blank slate, so my quest to fill the gas tank fit my need for a symbolic birthday morning moment wrapped up in a wacky misadventure story.

Once the tank was filled, my birthday was a pure delight. I drove the Old Jeep to work, where my lovely co-workers greeted me with a Twin Peaks-themed celebration, complete with homemade cherry pie, coffee, a Funko Special Agent Dale Cooper and even a Twin Peaks birthday card. So thanks to Cicely, Maryann, Chris, Dan, and Nate for that!

As it happens, this was one of those occasional years when our organization’s staff appreciation day falls on my birthday, so I spent the better part of the day playing bingo, eating ice cream, watching other people play volleyball, and socializing with my co-workers.

Later, after the workday was over, Donna, the boys and I headed out to the All Star Sports Bar and Restaurant in Gilbertsville, where we ate and listened to my friend Michael play and sing many cool tunes. It was great to have all four of us together to celebrate one of our birthdays and it was wonderful to see Michael and Teri and Marley as well. The perfect end to a cool birthday.

And so it is that I am welcoming 52 with open arms. Why the hell not, right? I could resist, but that just seems silly.

I had a moment of clarity this week in which I realized that I was going to turn 52 and that there are 52 weeks in a year. That has given me the impetus to launch a series of weekly blog entries here, called “52 at 52.” The idea is that I’ll attempt to write some actual pen-to-paper journal entries during the week and, once a week, I’ll collate some of the thoughts contained within those entries into a somewhat coherent column. As the years pass, I seem to return to the idea that having a weekly newspaper column would be a bucket list entry of mine, so I might as well just do it right here, you know what I’m saying? I think you do.

I am not sure what I’ll have to say on a weekly basis, but something will come to me. It usually does. I’ll try to keep TrumpTalk to a minimum, though I won’t make any promises.

Thanks to everyone who made my transition to 52 just swell. Stay tuned.

 

 

Patrick F. O'Donnell

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