Rich Wilhelm

Archive for September, 2016|Monthly archive page

HooplaThon Day 4: Starship Versus a Nap. Starship Wins!

In 1985, memoir, Music/Memory on September 15, 2016 at 1:06 am
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HooplaThon Day 4 HooplaMeter: The Hoopla is beginning to feel like quicksand.

Back on Day 1 of this adventure, I noted that one of the reasons I was launching this Starship enterprise was to battle back my recent instinct to take an early evening nap, from which I subsequently wake up at midnight and can’t get back to sleep.

Tonight is one of those nights. The sleepy siren songs are calling me, and yet Starship is calling me louder, telling me that you can’t build a city on rock’n’roll–or any other foundation really–if you’re sound asleep before your 14-year-old kid is, and then wide away in the wee small hours. So here I am, freestyling it. That’s right–it’s straight from my brain to the keyboard tonight.

The thing about Starship and “We Built This City” and Knee Deep in the Hoopla, is that there really is so much to say about it all. It’s all about what constitutes bad music, what good versus bad taste is, what the ’80s were like and how bands that started in the ’60s coped with being middle-aged rock stars in the era of Prince, Madonna and Michael.

It’s about synthesizers and power ballads; selling out and buying in; the meaning of “hoopla” then and now; ironic listening. It’s about Marconi and mambas.

So, OK, let’s start with those mambas. You’d think Marconi would be playing a “mambo,” but it sure as hell sounds like Mickey and Grace are singing “mamba.”

Thanks to my dad, I know a thing or two about mambas. I know that there are green mambas and there are black mambas.

And, again, all thanks to Dad, I know that the black mamba is the most poisonous snake on earth. Even more poisonous than the cobra.

This is the kind of information Dad was prepared to offer anytime, anywhere. I think he would most often talk about mambas when we were walking through the reptile house at the Philadelphia Zoo, but I have a feeling that there were random moments throughout my childhood when Dad would discourse on the awesome, overwhelmingly venomous, way-more-deadly-than-the-cobra great black mamba.

So, oddly, when I hear “We Built This City,” I think of Dad. I have no idea what Dad thought of the song but I can almost hear him exclaim, “What the hell is Marconi messing with a mamba for? Doesn’t he know how freakin’ deadly they are?”

I’ve been thinking about Dad this week anyway. I always do when I drive his Jeep, which I’ve been doing this week. The radio/CD play doesn’t work–even when Dad was with us, he claimed the CD player only worked when the temperature was plus or minus two degrees of some number. When it did work, the only CD he listened to in the Jeep was Led Zeppelin Live at the BBC. And maybe the Ry Cooder film music compilation. But definitely not Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

Anyway, I’ll listen to my portable CD player sometimes in the Jeep, but there are times when the silent commute is nice. Contemplative. Except this week, all I can contemplate is Starship. “We Built This City.” Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

I’m working on theories about all this. “Looking for clues,” as the late, great Robert Palmer once noted, though I doubt that Starship was among his concerns.

There is some kind of unifying theory that explains “We Built This City” and Knee Deep in the Hoopla. And one of these nights, during this HooplaThon, I’m going to crack that code. It’s not looking good for me revealing any of my revelations tonight, but soon. It’s all going to happen. Nothing’s going to stop me now. Because I’m layin’ it on the line and it’s not over ’til it’s over. But for tonight, it’s over.

As always, I’d like to thank my sponsor for the HooplaThon, Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

HooplaThon Day Three: “A Curious Study in Failure”

In 1985, music, Music/Memory, Music/Opinion on September 14, 2016 at 2:15 am
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HooplaThon Day 3 HooplaMeter: Check it out, I am officially knee deep in the hoopla.

Sitting in a staff meeting at work this morning, my friend Chris Davis noted that a certain situation was “a curious study in failure.” My hand dropped to the table with more force than I meant it to and I stared at Chris in wonder. Without meaning to, Chris had perfectly described Starship’s  Knee Deep in the Hoopla album, in which I’ve been immersing myself.

Before I get to that phrase, “curious study in failure,” I’d like to suggest that, if you’re tired of me yammering on about Starship, you should check out Chris’ Vault of Thoughts blog. Chris has indeed filled his blog with many intriguing thoughts and ideas, none of which have anything to do with Starship.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla was certainly not a commercial failure. Propelled by “We Built This City” and “Sara,” the album was a big hit and went a long way toward establishing the new Starship brand. Critically though, it was a different story.

At least, I think it was. Retroactively, everyone has been dissing “We Built This City,” and, by extension the album that spawned it, for decades. But I haven’t delved deep enough into the original reviews to determine if critics and the listening public hated it then as much as critics and the listening public seem to hate it now.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I do not remember having a visceral reaction, pro or con, to the first time I heard “We Built This City.” I don’t even explicitly remember the first time I heard the song. It just seems to have shown up one day and I sort of accepted it for what it was and moved with my life.

There is more to say, other Knee Deep threads to eventually tie together as my HooplaThon continues for now. But for now, I’ll just leave you this photo of the original picture sleeve for “We Built This City.” This will prove conclusively that I was a member of Starship, at least until Grace Slick kicked me out:

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The original picture sleeve for “We Built This City.” I was indeed a member of the band, and played a theremin solo on this song. But then, Grace Slick got mad at me when I asked her to remind me what dormouse said. She threw me out of the band and wiped my theremin solo.

Don’t forget: the HooplaThon is sponsored by Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

 

 

HooplaThon Day 2: Starship and the “Art of Listening Ironically”

In 1980s, 1985, music, Music/Memory, pop music on September 13, 2016 at 2:56 am
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HooplaThon HooplaMeter Day 2: Ankle Deep in Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

Program Note: In yesterday’s initial HooplaThon entry, I noted that I’d be listening to Knee Deep in the Hoopla and writing about it for 31 days in a row. Clearly, I was delusional. After a good night’s sleep, I have realized the insanity. I’m now not going to promise any number of entries so you can clear those early October evenings you were reserving to read HooplaThon entries. We’ll just play this all by ear.

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Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released on September 10, 1985. It was the first album by just plain Starship after longtime Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship member Paul Kanter jumped ship and took the Jefferson with him.

Starship took the opportunity of a name change to reevaluate and update their sound for the mid-1980s. With a modern-minded producer named Peter Wolf–very clearly not the J.Geils Band singer–at the producer’s desk, Starship ceded most of the heavy songwriting work to outsiders and relied on Wolf to overlay the resulting songs with a slick synthesized veneer that was clearly meant to appeal to ’80s kids with a yen for technopop. Like me.

Of course, by the time September 1985 rolled around, a lot of us new wavers had passed through our initial synthpop rush and moved onto other things. Things that were a little more organic (R.E.M.) or rocked in a more traditional, if shambolic way (Replacements) or were less concerned with the state of their hair than the guys in A Flock of Seagulls. Though, of course, everyone was concerned with the state of their hair in the 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong though. Even in ’85, I continued to like artists who creatively incorporated electronics into their music. But artists like Eurythmics and Thomas Dolby had a knack for using synthesizers in intriguing ways, as something more than aural window dressing. Knee Deep in the Hoopla, on the other hand, is all about the electronic window dressing. Even when Marconi is playing the mamba, it’s an electronic mamba.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the initial release of Knee Deep in the Hoopla had absolutely no effect on me at all. I do not remember having any reaction at all to the huge breakout hit, “We Built This City” or the equally popular follow-up, “Sara.” What’s weird about this, is that Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released at the perfect time for me, as I was just about to fully submit to the fine art of listening to music ironically. Or, more appropriately, “listening ironically,” because when you’re going ironic, you do everything in quotation marks. Or more, appropriately “do everything.” But you get the point. Actually, you “get the point,” right?

Knee Deep in the Hoopla was released just days after I moved into the second floor of Johnson Hall for my third year of college at Temple University. As record store workers worldwide were stocking copies of Starship’s new album, I was getting to know Rick and Greg, two of my new floor mates, and good friends of mine to this day.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla could have been a huge talking point for the three of us, as we bonded early over music. Once we located each others’ senses of humor, we particularly bonded over the idea of listening to music ironically. That is, picking out a band or album that we might not actually be all that into and TOTALLY EFFIN’ ROCKIN’ OUT to said band or album.

In other words, “totally effin’ rockin’ out” in quotation marks.

We never explicitly said to each other, “Hey, let’s listen to music ironically.” It just happened.

Knee Deep in the Hoopla would have been a perfect “ironic listen” for us. And yet it wasn’t to be, because another band, a band whose name I am not going to reveal in this entry, loomed large, very large, in our ironic listening.

More on ironic rocking as I sink ever deeper into the Hoopla tomorrow night.

This HooplaThon is being sponsored by Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks!

 

 

 

 

 

HooplaThon Day 1: Just the FAQs

In Uncategorized on September 12, 2016 at 12:51 am
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HooplaThon Day 1: Just dipping one set of toes in the Hoopla.

Welcome to the HooplaThon. You probably have questions. I have answers.

For reasons that I will attempt to delineate, I have decided that for the next bunch of days, I am going to attempt to write a journal entry while listening to side 1 of the 1985 Starship album, Knee Deep in the Hoopla. Then, while playing side 2, I will craft the journal entry into a casual essay on this blog.

Why, oh why, do I want to take on this ridiculous task? Glad you asked.

I have my reasons, the first being as a way to confront a statement that I often hear, but don’t really believe: “Life is too short for bad music/bad movies/bad books/bad art/bad sports/etc.” I feel like this Hoopla experiment is a way to test that theory with a daily dose of Knee Deep in the Hoopla, an album that contains the song “We Built This City,” which often tops polls as the worst song ever recorded.

So my thought was, why not spend some time with this musical product (the use of the word “product” is quite deliberate) that is often deemed “bad” and see what results from my nightly listening experience. Will I find that life really is too short for bad music?

But that leads to another question: Is Knee Deep in the Hoopla truly bad music and is “We Built This City” really the worst song ever recorded? Or do the album and song simply have bad reps?

The fact of the matter is I could be listening to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme every night. Maybe that would inspire some glorious damn prose to come flowing out of my mind. But that’s not the point. The point is: where will prolonged exposure to Knee Deep in the Hoopla lead me?

Also a question: what exactly is “hoopla” and can it really be quantified? How does one get knee deep into it and does one in fact know that they are precisely knee deep in it?

Some readers might wonder: is there some kind of political agenda going on here? The answer is a unequivocal, “Well, yeah, now that you mention it, maybe there is.” After all, has any American year been more filled with political hoopla than 2016? Actually, I am thinking about hooey here. Clearly no year in American history has been filled with as much political hooey as this year. But hoopla is happening too, and we’re all knee deep in it at the very least, whether we want to admit it or not.

Trump is the king of hoopla and the king of hooey as well. Contemplating a Trump presidency awhile back, I realized that I’d rather be compelled to listen to “We Built This City” every single morning for the next four years than to wake up knowing the Donald Trump was president. So there’s that.

What else is this about? It could be about anything really, as long as the tangents wind their way back to Knee Deep in the Hoopla. It’s about spurring me to write every night and its about figuring out a way to avoid the early evening naps that end up wrecking my sound sleep hours later. Maybe writing these entries will be a way to “rock myself to sleep,” as Grace Slick sings, with the help of Quiet Riot’s Kevin DuBrow, on Knee Deep in the Hoopla.

So, finally, how will this work? As I stated at the beginning, each evening, I’ll scribble thoughts in my specially designed Knee Deep in the Hoopla notebook, provided to me by my sponsor for this blog series, Rich’s Really Cool Notebooks. Then, while listening to side 2, I’ll type up the journal entry I just wrote, hopefully crafting it into something semi-coherent.

If there is a point or points to this project, perhaps, it or they, will emerge as I compile the entries. To quantify the project, I’ll add a new Hoopla to the official HooplaMeter (see photo above) with each new entry.

So, join me if you’d like. I hear Marconi is about to play the mamba.

 

Sunday Morning, North Broad Street, Part 2: The Divine Lorraine Hotel

In Divine Lorraine Hotel, Uncategorized on September 4, 2016 at 10:28 pm
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The sign atop the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. The only other sign in the city that is arguably as iconic would be the PSFS sign.

Part 2 of 2 of Rich and Chris’ Sunday morning exploration of North Broad Street.

After Chris and I had taken our last photos at the Beury Building, I thought it might be fun to visit the Divine Lorraine Hotel as well. There is a simple way to get from the Beury to the Lorraine: turn left on Broad Street and drive until you see the can’t-miss-it hotel looming above you on your left.

I chose a less-simple way, for one good reason: if I had straight down Broad Street, I would have passed Johnson Hall at Temple University. This is where my older son Jimmy is currently residing and I am quite frankly not certain he would have appreciated a drop-in visit from Chris and me at 8:30 this morning, as he was probably sleeping off the effects of the first day of the Made in America festival, in preparation for today’s second installment of that Jay-Z curated mega-jam concert on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

Therefore, to avoid the temptation to wake Jimmy up–and thus, annoy him–I drove north on Broad to the Roosevelt Boulevard. Turned left and drove to the Ridge Avenue exit. Left onto Ridge, past Laurel Hill Cemetery–where Beury Building namesake Charles Beury is buried–and continuing on Ridge until it intersects with Broad Street, at the exact spot where one can find the Divine Lorraine Hotel.

But that’s not the only reason took the lesser-direct route. There is also this: as someone who has lived around Philadelphia my entire life, I know certain places. In this case, the Beury Building. Temple University. Laurel Hill Cemetery. Divine Lorraine Hotel. But, aside from looking at a map, I don’t really know how these places are spatially related to each other until I start driving around, driving from one place to another along routes I may not have taken before. That kind of connecting the dots is fascinating to me and it reminds me of how fascinated I am by the neural connections each of us can sometimes make from one seemingly unrelated idea to another.

But I digress.

I easily found a spot to park behind the Lorraine and soon Chris and I were busy taking photos of it. Perhaps at this point, some history is in order.

The building that has become known as the Divine Lorraine Hotel was completed in 1894. The ornate Victorian style of the building was actually going out of style at just the time the building was completed. In 1948, the building was purchased by Father Divine, the well-known leader of the Universal Peace Mission Movement. Father Divine soon made the Divine Lorraine the first higher-class hotel in the United States to be fully racially integrated, though guests had to agree to special rules dictated by the tenets of Father Divine’s religion.

Since the movement sold the building about 20 years ago, it has gone through a period of serious deterioration, but is currently being renovated, with a completion date of March 2017. This explains why much of the building is currently covered in scaffolding. With this renovation, the Divine Lorraine appears to have a stronger lease on continued life than the Beury Building does, but only time will tell how either building will fare in the coming decades.

For now though, here is what the Divine Lorraine looked like today, September 4, 2016.

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View from behind. Not only I had never walked around the Divine Lorraine area before, I had really seen the building from this angle, even in a car.

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You GO GiRL!

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UR Divine.

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Just like the Beury Building, Chris had been wanting to see the Divine Lorraine up close for a while.

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Detail, Divine Lorraine Hotel.

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Detail, Divine Lorraine Hotel

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Father Divine established the Divine Lorraine as the first major racially integrated hotel in the United States.

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Chris has been visiting Pennsylvania Historic Markers, such as this one for Father Divine.

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I wasn’t as serious as I appear to be here.

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Current state of front door, Divine Lorraine Hotel.

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South side of the Divine Lorraine Hotel. Most of the rest of the building is currently under scaffolding.

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Finally, here is Chris taking photos of the Divine Lorraine Hotel with his tablet. Soon after I took this photo, we headed back out Ridge Avenue, with a quick stop at Laurel Hill Cemetery, before heading back home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday Morning, North Broad Street, part 1: The Beury Building

In abandoned buildings, architecture, Philadelphia on September 4, 2016 at 8:35 pm
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The National Bank of North Philadelphia, aka the Beury Building, aka the Boner 4ever Building.  Intersection of Broad Street, Erie Avenue and Germantown Avenue Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sunday morning, Sept. 4, 2016

Entry one of two on how Chris and I spent our Sunday morning.

My son Chris woke up early this Sunday morning, looking for something to do. It seemed like a good time to check out the Beury Building.

Taking a closer look at this classic work of architecture, which is on the National Register of Historic Sites–but, which also has an uncertain future–has been on the agenda for nearly a year. We first noticed it driving down North Broad Street on our way to an open house at Temple University last fall. Our older son Jimmy, was very interested in Temple and is now, in fact, a brand new freshman there.

The Beury dominates the intersection of Broad Street, Erie Avenue, and Germantown Avenue, though of course it was the “Boner 4Ever” graffiti that prompted a chortle from Jimmy’s throat. That detail flew directly over Chris, but the building itself did not, as Chris is very interested in architecture, particularly abandoned buildings.

We’ve driven past the Beury a few times since then, each time whetting Chris’ desire to get a closer look at it. Today was finally the day.

Some brief history: the Beury was completed in 1926 and was originally simply known as the National Bank of North Philadelphia. The building became known as the Beury Building because the first president of the bank was Charles E. Beury, who was also the second president of Temple.

Of course, these days the Beury is often thought of as the Boner 4Ever Building, apparently thanks to two intrepid graffiti artists who often work in tandem, and whose tags are “Boner” and “4Ever.” At least that’s what the Internet tells me. “Boner 4Ever” tags are painted on both the north and south walls of the building.

The Beury has been empty for decades, though it is on the National Register of Historic Sites. Idealistic plans for a Beury Building revival do exist, though realistically, such plans face enormous challenges.

The trip to and from the Beury from Phoenixville is relatively straightforward, but there is rarely a time/day during which you can make that journey without hitting some major traffic. Sunday morning, before 8:00 a.m., however, is eminently doable. Chris was amazed at how empty the normally clogged Schuylkill Express was. From the Expressway, we hit Route 1 north–the infamous Roosevelt Boulevard–until we exited onto 611, Broad Street. From there it is just a mile or so to the Beury.

North Broad was quiet this morning, though people were out and about. Some people were going to church; some to work. I noticed two men exiting a “gentlemen’s club” across the street from the Beury. Not sure if they were headed to church, but who am I to say?

I found a very convenient spot to park–a Checkers restaurant right next to the Beury and the small building that sits next to it. Chris and I each took a bunch of photos, though we neglected to take shots of each other  and I forgot to use my random arty shot filter (not the technical term) to add odd effects. No matter though. We got some good photos and maybe someday we can get a few more. I am hopeful that the Beury will continue to stand for us to return sometime.

Now, here are some of my photos.

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An imposing shot of the south wall, though this photo probably doesn’t do the building justice. Here though, we see “Forever,” rather than the “4Ever” on the north side. Also, notice the vegetation growing way up on the top floor.

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The small building in the foreground houses a barbershop. Not open during our early Sunday morning visit, but I wish it had been. I could use a haircut.

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The north side of the Beury, as well as the barbershop. Notice the barber pole graffiti on that building’s wall.

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The north side of the Beury, including a ghost sign and “Boner 4Ever.”

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Ghost sign on the north side of the Beury.

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A more detailed shot of the north side of the Beury.

Once Chris and I got the photos we wanted, we hit the road to visit another notable North Broad Street landmark.

 

 

Patrick F. O'Donnell

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