Rich Wilhelm

Posts Tagged ‘music’

Cassingles Going Steady (52 at 52, #14)

In cassingles, cassette singles, Really Cool Notebooks, Uncategorized on September 10, 2017 at 1:26 pm

 

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Cassingles!

 

Many years ago, cassette singles — aka, “cassingles” — played an oddly important role in my life.

Maybe you remember cassingles. Or, maybe you don’t, as you really need to be of a certain age to have experienced the wonder of the cassingle. If not, an article in the New York Times, published 30 years ago this week, will get you up to speed.

Essentially, the cassingle was the record industry’s attempt to find an alternative to the 45 r.p.m. single at a time — the late 1980s/early ’90s — when the death of vinyl as a means for music delivery seemed imminent. The Walkman had made cassette versions of long-playing records quite popular, and compact discs were rapidly claiming an ever-bigger market share. The future of the single was in the balance and it was decided that the cassingle was preferred over the possibility of the CD single, which was apparently more expensive to produce than the cassette single.

While the 1987 Times story details how cassette singles were becoming increasingly popular, it also notes that IRS records had released a one-off cassette single for “Vacation” by the Go-Go’s way back in 1982. In fact, according to the story, IRS invented the word “cassingle,” as if giving us R.E.M. wasn’t enough.

As it happens, the rise of the cassingle aligned perfectly with my late college/post graduation job at a chain music store, Record Bar, in Granite Run Mall near Media, Pennsylvania. Don’t look for that mall anymore. It’s gone now, but many memories, including those involving cassingles, remain.

I don’t remember ever having a managerial position at Record Bar, but I was good at the job. So good, in fact, that I found out just this week that co-workers called me “the human Phonolog,” for my apparent ability to know something about every song/artist/album/cassingle that customers requested. I do not remember the nickname, but, even today, I would take that as a compliment.

Eventually, my Record Bar responsibilities included ordering a weekly shipment of singles. At first, this order was primarily vinyl singles, but as time passed, I found myself increasing the cassingle numbers to meet consumer demand for the latest Bon Jovi, Milli Vanilli, and Paula Abdul songs in the handy cassingle format. Once the singles arrived, I’d display them in a way that would hopefully attract hungry pop music fans to purchase them.

I had a more-than-passing interest in the cassingle phenomena, because I wasn’t just ordering singles for Record Bar. The week I graduated college, in May 1988, I went to Record Bar and bought every single that was in the Top 40 of Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart. The plan was that each week, I’d pick up the newly-added single to the chart.

Unfortunately, I launched this endeavor during what is perhaps the cheesiest period ever in popular music. If you don’t believe me, take a peek at that very first Top 40 chart I bought. (Actually, as I scan that chart, I’m realizing that it is not quite as cheesy as it would get over the next few years.) But my own personal taste in pop music did not figure in this project; it was all about building an archive of the hit music from the era.

I was undeterred. Collecting the Top 40 suited the cultural archivist in me.

I collected the complete Top 40 for a little more than a year before the inevitable happened. A song that was not released in the vinyl format hit the chart. The first of these might have been De La Soul’s “Me, Myself, and I,” or it may have been Sweet Sensation’s “Hooked On You.” In either case, I was aggravated that my attempt to own every record in the Top 40 was being thwarted.

Here’s the thing: while I had no problem ordering the cassingles for others to buy at Record Bar, I was just enough of a music snob to know that I would certainly never buy a cassingle. Quite simply, I was appalled at the utter disposability of cassingles. There was nothing even remotely archival about cassingles: the damned things were essentially designed to be played in car tape decks until precisely the moment when the purchaser got sick of the song, at which point he or she would toss the cassette, with or without its protective cardboard sleeve, into the back seat of the car, where it would languish until, well, until forever, I guess.

No way I was ever going to buy a cassingle.

I handled this problem in my collection by creating seven-inch by seven-inch “certificates of shame” that noted that such-and-such a song hit the Top 40 but was never released on 45.

Thankfully, my life moved on and I got over the idea of collecting the Top 40. Within a few years, I would imagine none of the charting songs were issued on vinyl, but I was done with my Top 40 mission by then. Cassette singles continued to thrive for several years in the 1990s, but iTunes put the final nail in the cassingle coffin.

Strangely, cassette singles again play a minor but important role in my life. Several years ago, I started Really Cool Notebooks, an Etsy site on which I began to sell notebooks made from the front and back covers of castoff record albums. Several months into this side gig of mine, I was down at my Mom’s house, where she and my sister Lisa were having a garage sale. Lisa was attempting to sell her fine collection of cassingles, but wasn’t getting any bites. Suddenly Lisa and I looked at the cassette singles, looked at each other, and exclaimed “Mini notebooks!”

This epiphany did indeed lead me to expand my business to include tiny notebooks made from cassingle sleeves, and, before long, to making notebooks out of VHS tapes. Since I started with Lisa’s cassingles, I began to donate the proceeds from the mini-notebooks to Savage Walkers, our family’s Relay for Life team, and generally speaking, I’ve continued to do this.

While I sell the mini notebooks in a special subsection of my Etsy site, the best place for me to show them and sell them is when I’m vending at a craft show. For whatever reason, people often become giddy as they sort through the mini-notebooks, especially when they encounter a notebook made from the sleeve of a cassette single they once owned, and tossed into the back seat of their car, back when cassingles ruled the world.

To sum up: if making people smile by reminding them of the cassingle is part of my purpose in life, I’m good with that.

For more on cassingles, check out this article in The Onion. And here’s what cassingle sleeves look like when they become the covers for mini notebooks:

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Cassingle sleeves, transformed into tiny notebooks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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16 Posts from 2016

In Uncategorized on December 29, 2016 at 7:03 am

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A late December evening, 2016. I add a little stronger peppermint to my peppermint mocha, listen to the most recent works of Wilco, Bob Dylan, and the late great Leonard Cohen, and contemplate my year by strolling through the last 12 months worth of entries in this blog.

Earlier today, the editor of the magazine for which I write (ASTM International’s Standardization News), created a list of the Top 16 stories in this year’s issues. This has given me the idea to do the same with my 2016 blog entries.

As it happens, I sat down at my laptop nearly 40 times this year to say something via Dichotomy of the Dog, so I had to stop and consider which 16 entries might be my favorites, the ones that sum up the year. But the 16 that I link to below–in Casey Kasem countdown format–tie my 2016 together about as well as anything else could.

There is a fair amount of introspection going on in many of these entries and I’ll be the first to note that I am not, of course, the first to note these sentiments. But getting all this down in writing seemed to take on extra importance for me this year, and I’m glad I did it.

If you happened to read some of these entries as I posted them this year, thank you! I truly appreciate your time!

Finally, a warning: a few of these entries are silly. But now more than ever, maybe we need silly.

16. Knee Deep in Knee Deep in the Hoopla. The first entry in a ridiculous and abandoned series of entries written while listening to Starship’s infamous Knee Deep in the Hoopla album. Just because I abandoned this idea does not mean I won’t return to it someday.

15.There Is No Way In Hell I Will Ever Vote for Donald Trump. My political statement of the year. I stand by it, and always will.

14. MonkDay 002. My first blast of post-election weirdness.  More weirdness lies ahead, I’m sure.

13. raspberry strawberry lemon and lime what do I care (Happy Birthday Bob Dylan)  Just a quick few lines, dashed off on Bob Dylan’s birthday. I was happy to be writing about a living musician for a change.

12. Too Much Thyme on My Hands. Originally written years ago, this resonated enough with me this year that I wanted to revive it.

11. I Dream of Hall and Oates. I may have offended John Oates.

10. Sunday Morning Beury/Sunday Morning Lorraine. Chris and I visit cool old buildings, take photos.

9. Shiny Happy People Revisited. Or, “Why I’ll Never Hate ‘Shiny, Happy People’ the Way Some Hardcore Fans Hate ‘Shiny, Happy People.'”

8. Row.And.Stop. Memories of my ninth grade typing class, one of the most useful classes I ever took.

7. Bono at WaWa. Self-explanatory.

6. Laurel Hill Tales #002: Augustus Goodyear Heaton. Some thoughts on one of my favorite “permanent residents” at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Author of “The Amorous Numismatist.” If you like this entry, try William Duane, an early American journalist whose story is relevant to our current sorry state of affairs.

5. Oh What A Week That Was. The week Jimmy graduated high school and Chris was promoted from middle school to high school. A big week.

4. The Somewhat Better. Trying to figure things out and learning to live with a life that might not be the “best” it can be, but is better than it was.

3. Kids Take You Places. In which Chris and I visit abandoned spots and I think about other places he and Jimmy have taken me.

2. The Moments. A song by my friend Cliff and the removal of an ancient tree remind me to “hang on to the moment.”

1. Dear Eighteen-Year-Old at the David Bowie Concert. Of all the celebrity deaths this year, Bowie’s hit me hardest. Though Bowie was so much more than a “celebrity,” of course. Writing this just after Bowie’s January death paved the way for everything else worthwhile that I wrote this year. Also, devastating to think that I needed to write this way about both Prince and Merle Haggard this year as well. Don’t let anyone convince you that the death of an admired artist of any sort won’t have an effect on you.

MonkDay 001

In MonkDays, Thelonious Monk on November 15, 2016 at 12:34 am
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MonkDay 001, 11/14/16

I am a fan of the brilliant jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. There is something about his music that gets deep into my soul, as great music will do. Oddly though, Monk’s work burrows deep into my brain as well. It’s hard to explain, but I can practically feel the neurons firing up when I listen to Monk.

I often listen to Monk albums on Mondays, or as I like to call them, MonkDays. Again, I don’t quite understand the logic or science behind this, if there is any, but Monk’s languid ballads and twisty-turny upbeat numbers are the perfect soundtrack for me to reset my brain for the week ahead.

After all the tumult of last week–and I will not be naming names and events here–a solid blast of Thelonious seemed to be exactly what I needed to move forward. In fact, I’m thinking that a weekly Monday evening “MonkDay” blog entry might be just what I need, for at least the next four years. But again, I don’t necessarily plan to get all political here. Philosophical, yeah. Political, probably not. At least not directly.

One unusual result of the Event from Last Week, is that many people seem to be doing some soul-searching. I’m thinking my MonkDays will be a vehicle for my soul searching. You’re welcome to join me if you like.

On that note, I will close for now, but not before noting the Thelonious albums I listened to today:

Genius of Modern Music Vol 1, Blue Note, 1956

Genius of Modern Music Vol 2, Blue Note, 1956

Monk’s Dream, Columbia, 1963

And, finally, here’s “Epistrophy,” from Genius of Modern Music Vol 1:

 

 

 

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.

 

Going Down to Alphabet Street: A Few Princely Thoughts

In 1980s, concerts, music, Music/Memory, Prince on April 24, 2016 at 12:42 pm

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My 18-year-old son, Jimmy, is an ’80’s skeptic. He simply doesn’t believe that the 1980s could have possibly been as great as many of us who lived through it say it was. In short, Jim doesn’t feel that the ’80s were “all that.”

I encourage this kind of thinking, probably because I remember what it was like, in the ’80s, to hear boomers endlessly crow about how the ’60s were so much better than the ’80s. Plus, it’s nice to have warm fuzzy memories of one’s youth, but nostalgia-mongering can close you down to whatever could be going on in your life right now.

So, when Jim disses the decade of Phil Collins, Alf and Hands Across America, I give him a pass to do so. But I will be adamant about one thing:

From a musical/cultural/wow-he’s-just-mindblowing standpoint, Prince was the greatest thing to come out of the ’80s. Or pretty much any decade you care to mention.

It’s hard for me to remember when I was first aware of Prince, though I’m thinking it was during the chart run of his breakthrough album, 1999 — though during the years 1980-1988, practically every album Prince made qualified as some kind of breakthrough. I do remember walking down Market Street in Center City Philadelphia, as a senior in high school. It was one of my first solo trips into the city and I heard Prince’s “Delirious”– has a song every so thoroughly lived up to the promise of its title? — spilling out of one of the downtown record stores I’d come to frequent in college. Hearing it at that moment wasn’t necessarily a huge moment in my life, but it’s also a moment that I never forgot, because it felt like walking by that store at that moment, hearing that song, was the absolute coolest thing I could be doing that day. And it was.

Of course, Purple Rain exploded all over the place in 1984. As far as I can remember, I’ve only ever seen the complete movie once, but it was a memorable experience  — at a drive-in just over the border in Delaware, with three or four friends. Purple Rain was shown that night along with Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact. A double feature for the ages.

I was very fortunate to be sitting in the mega-nosebleed seats at Philadelphia’s Spectrum on a Friday night when Prince and the Revolution, with opening act Sheila E, brought the Purple Rain tour to town. I am pretty certain that I was about as far away from the man and his band as I could possibly be but the concert was electrifying, as I noted in the November 29, 1984 edition of the Temple University News:

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Here’s what I wrote about the Purple Rain album in the review:

The Purple Rain album, which defies simple classifications like “rock” and “soul,” will probably become one of the most influential albums of the last 20 years.

20? Try 40. 60. Oh, hell college-age Rich, just call Purple Rain one of the most influential albums ever. It’ll sound like a huge overstatement, but you’ll be proven right.

What is truly amazing is that I saw Prince again in 1988, touring behind his infamous, and unreleased, Black Album, as well as the officially released Lovesexy album. The Purple Rain hype had long passed, but the ’88 concert was even better than the ’84 show, with Prince in full command of his immense musical powers that night. From a purely musical standpoint, it was probably the best concert I’ve ever seen.

I’ve tried to keep up with Prince’s musical journey but since the mid-’90s, the man has made it easy, releasing floods of new music and daring you to follow along with him. The albums weren’t always great but the genius would show up when you’d least expect it, if you were patient. A well-informed box set covering the best of Prince’s post-1995 work would be a really good thing. But then, with hundreds of hours of music locked away in the vaults of Prince’s Paisley Park, we all need to accept the fact that there’s always going to be Prince music that we will never hear.

A final note. I saw a meme floating around Facebook the other day. It read “151,600 people die each day and no one bats an eye. Prince dies and everyone freakin’ loses their minds.”

I think this is a flawed meme. First of all,  I’m fairly certain that the friends and family of many of those 151,600 people were certainly affected by the passing of their loved one. Second, I’m not sure everyone was freakin’ losing their minds, though maybe some fans were going a little crazy, trying to get through this thing called Prince’s death. Finally, the text of the meme was accompanied by a photo of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger’s tragic passing was certainly greeted with much public mourning as well, so I’m not sure if that photo choice was meant to be ironic or not.

As it happens, of the 151,600 people who died on April 21, 2016, the one whose name I knew was Prince. If marking Prince’s passing and acknowledging how his work touched me means I’m freakin’ losing my mind, so be it.

 

The Best Song I Heard in 2014

In Music/Memory, Music/Opinion on December 31, 2014 at 10:21 pm

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The best song I heard in 2014 was “(Sitting on the) Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. “Dock of the Bay” is the best song I have heard every year since the first time I spun my hand-me-down 45 r.p.m. Volt single of the song on my toy record player, way back around 1970.

The best new song I heard in 2014? There is only one clear winner in that category.

“Dashboard” by Cliff Hillis.

Shown just below is the video for “Dashboard,” directed by the great Rob Waters of W Films. Watch the video and then keep it in your mind as you read what I have to say about the song. And, yes, my wife Donna and I are among the cast in the video.

There are several reasons for my love of “Dashboard,” the primary of which is this: “Dashboard” is an exquisitely crafted song, poppy but with moody undercurrents. Cliff co-wrote “Dashboard” with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Scot Sax, who I also happen to know. But, again, I’d enjoy Scot’s music even if I didn’t know him. Having listened to both Cliff and Scot’s songs over the last few years, I feel qualified to say that “Dashboard” is an immensely satisfying collaboration between the two songwriters. It’s a Hillis song, for sure, but then there are lyrical and musical moments that remind me a bit of Scot’s work. I just get a sense that there was some serious creative activity going on between Cliff and Scot on “Dashboard” and it shows.

Next, I think “Dashboard” is a beautifully played song thanks to Cliff (guitar, piano, ebow bass, vocals) and his Forward Thinkers bandmates Greg Maragos (bass, piano, keys) and Pat Berkery (drums). Opening with insistent guitar strumming and the lyrics, “Put your feet up on the dashboard, I don’t mind…” the song/story gradually unfolds, telling the story of two people driving somewhere, beginning a journey. It could just be a vacation, but the piano coda that closes the song seems to indicate, without words, that the journey on which these two people are embarking is going to be a transformative experience.

So there you have it: a well-written, well-played, well-sung song that I have been fortunate enough to see Cliff perform, with varying degrees of accompaniment, several times this year. All of this is more than enough for me to confer “Best New Song I Heard in 2014” on Cliff Hillis’ “Dashboard.”

Those are the clear, logical, linear reasons why I love “Dashboard.” But there’s more.

As 2014 progressed, each time I listened to “Dashboard” I felt like the song was nagging at me a little bit, as if it was daring me to a recall a “Dashboard” moment that existed in my own life. Finally, as I was driving through Valley Forge National Historical Park one autumn afternoon, it hit me. My “Dashboard” moment.

When you listen to “Dashboard,” it’s easy to imagine that what transpires is happening between just two people. Probably, though not necessarily, two romantically involved people. Driving on the open road, with no one else in the car. That’s not exactly how my “Dashboard” moment went down, but it was a “Dashboard” moment just the same.

It was August 2005. We were about 36 hours away from a family vacation to Maine. Late on a Thursday evening, the sudden and unpleasant appearance of water in our basement threatened that vacation, which was desperately needed by everyone in our family.

After a frantic Thursday-night-into-Friday-morning and an equally crazy day at work, I arrived home to the constant whirring of several dehumidifiers going about their business downstairs. Despite this, we determined that the vacation was a viable thing that needed to happen and late on that Friday night we got the hell out of Phoenixville. Driving up the ramp to the Pennsylvania Turnpike seemed like a sweet escape from our soggy, noisy house.

Once we hit New Jersey, it rained the entire ride up the NJ Turnpike, as we made the occasional stop at NJ Turnpike rest stop–the stops named for Woodrow Wilson and Joyce Kilmer!–in a futile search for decent coffee. We had told our older son Jimmy that we’d see the Empire State Building as we drove through New York but he and our younger son, Chris, were long asleep by the time we approached Manhattan. It was just as well that they were sleeping–in the rainy weather, there wasn’t much of a view.

For reasons that I don’t entirely remember, I decided that the George Washington Bridge, rather than the Tappan Zee, would be our gateway to New England. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge on this planet, with traffic patterns that may or may not have been altered by politicians in recent years.

The GW was certainly busy that Friday night–which had by this point turned to very early Saturday morning–in 2005. The approach to the tolls was jammed and we were stuck in the thick of it. Eventually, we got through and made our way onto the busiest bridge in the world.

That’s when it happened. My “Dashboard” event, eight years before Cliff and Scot wrote the song that would retroactively bring the moment back to me.

Crossing the GW that night, ever so slowly, could have been an unbearably miserable experience. Having either kid be awake during that hour would have been tortuous for every one of us, but Jimmy and Chris snoozed happily during the entire crossing. Finally heading out of New Jersey, Donna and I probably relaxed a little bit, knowing that the vacation that almost didn’t happen was now going to happen. We listened to music quietly and maybe we talked (“We can talk but if not then that’s just fine”-Hillis/Sax).

No one put their feet up on the dashboard. But I’ve never forgotten that quiet time that Donna and I spent together stuck on the busiest bridge in the world with the hope that the boys stayed asleep. Which they did.

It was our “Dashboard” moment and when it plays now as a movie in my mind, the final scene pulls back from Donna and me, quietly smiling at each other, and the sleeping boys in our car to reveal the hundreds of slowly moving cars surrounding us on the George Washington Bridge, as that insistent piano coda plays over the fade to black.

Visit Cliff’s website. Go on, now!

I Partied With The Fixx

In concerts, Music/Memory on November 26, 2013 at 5:01 pm

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The original version of the following expose into the rock’n’roll lifestyle as seen in action during a post-concert meet’n’greet by The Fixx appeared in my college newspaper, Temple News, in the autumn of 1987, just after the events in question occurred. Then I added a bit of grown-up perspective to make it the 27th entry on my blog on Sept. 29, 2000. I used to get the occasional email from someone doing a search on “Pulsations,” the name of the nightclub where the Fixx played that night, but that hasn’t happened for awhile.

Just a few years ago, I further updated it for the previous incarnation of my Dichotomy of the Dog blog. And now, thanks to a recent conversation with my good friend Tom Kvech (a former Pulsations employee) at our 30th high school reunion, I again turn my attention to the night that I partied with the Fixx, with further minor updates.

I do not have any further grown-up perspective to add at this point.

On October 2, 1987 I partied with the Fixx.

It happened at a nightclub called Pulsations in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. At this point, you need to know two things:

1. The Fixx was a “new wave” pop band that hit it big in the early 1980s with hit songs like “Red Skies,” “Deeper and Deeper,” and “Saved By Zero.” The Fixx was sort of the missing link between the Police and Duran Duran. Their vaguely philosophical lyrics (a couple of their other songs were called, “Are We Ourselves?” and “Less Cities, More Moving People”) were brainier than Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon singing about “Girls on Film,” but not quite as pointy-headed (or as catchy) as Sting wailing about Jungian psychology in the Police’s “Synchronicity.” By 1987, the Fixx’s biggest charting hit, “One Thing Leads to Another,” was already four years behind them.

2. Pulsations began life as a Longhorn Steakhouse. In the early ‘80s, it was reborn as a glitzy discotheque several years after disco had been declared dead. The night Pulsations opened, a lighting fixture suspended from the ceiling fell on a patron’s head, killing her (I wish I was joking about that, but unfortunately, it’s true). This tragedy seemed to foretell the future of the ill-fated Pulsations. It was reinvented a few years later as a new wave nightclub, not long after new wave bit the dust. Pulsations was always a few years behind the times.

And now, on with my story…

I was the entertainment editor at the Temple News when the postcard arrived at the office. “Pulsations Cordially Invites You to Join The Fixx for a Post-Concert Party.” The concert and subsequent party was scheduled for October 2, 1987. The dress code, according to the postcard: “Dare To Be Different!”

Now, as the entertainment editor, I could have passed this little gem of an invitation on to anyone else on the newspaper staff, but I decided this was an assignment I had to take on myself. The invitation was for me and a guest, and it seems to me now that I could have waved an invitation to party with the Fixx in front of practically any woman in school and gotten an instant “yes!” out of them. In fact, with an opportunity to actually meet the Fixx, I probably could have gotten lucky, or at least luckier than I had been up to that point in my life. As the Fixx themselves said, “One thing leads to another…”

Curiously, though, I journeyed to Pulsations alone on October 2, 1987. History does not record why I didn’t try to make a date out of it.

The concert itself was fairly nondescript, or as I said in my review, “The Fixx just aren’t much fun live.” We ran a photo of the band with the review. Being smart-allecky college journalists, the caption we put under the photo read, “Party! At Pulsations! With Rich Wilhelm! We’re there dude.” I don’t think the caption was my idea, but even today I laugh when I look at it.

In a way, though, the concert itself didn’t matter. The whole point of the evening was to party with the Fixx after the show. Soon after the last note was played I flashed my special invitation in front of what I’m sure was a burly security guard (actually, I don’t remember) and found myself in a darkened private room, eating ham and cheese sandwiches on very small rolls and hanging out with record industry folks and fellow press people, all of us anxiously awaiting the arrival of the guys in the band. It was just like a new wave This Is Spinal Tap, except this time it was real.

The room had fluorescent lighting that highlighted the paintings of stained glass windows on the walls. These paintings looked just like the kind of windows you’d see in church except that they featured cartoon characters like Yosemite Sam and Pink Panther, rather than pictures of saints or scenes from the life of Christ.

A balcony off this exclusive room provided a great view of the various lighting fixtures and the spaceship that were suspended from the ceiling above the main dance floor. All the unfortunate partiers who weren’t allowed to hang out with the Fixx were getting down and getting funky (in that uptight 1980s way, of course) to the sounds of a popular disc jockey who was broadcasting his radio show live from the Pulsations dance floor.

Of course, the very private and wonderful post-concert party I was attending didn’t kick into high gear until the band arrived. The guys in the Fixx didn’t actually look too much like rock stars. In fact, after the band members had dispersed throughout the room, the only two I recognized were vocalist Cy Curnin and guitarist Jamie West-Oram.

It was all very exciting though. Cameras flashed and public relations people introduced themselves to the band members. “Hi. The name’s Joe. MCA Records. Right, we met in Chattanooga.”

Meanwhile, I had run into a guy named Peter, who was the managing editor of the newspaper on another one of Temple’s campuses. Eventually, Pete and I decided to try to ask Cy Curnin a few questions. As Pete began to interview Cy, who appeared to have a bit of a cold, I heard a woman next to me say to her friend, “I will talk to him, as soon as I get these two guys away from him.” By the way she said “guys,” I knew that if she had still been in high school she would have substituted the word “fags.”

The moment this groupie wannabe saw an opening, she interrupted Pete and said, “Cy, have you seen the Tower Records here?” I didn’t really ponder this question at the time, but with the wisdom that comes from many additional years of life, I now think that was a completely lame opening line with which to get Cy’s attention. In any event, Curnin spent the rest of the night politely nodding to everything Ms. Groupie said, and probably wishing he could just get back to his hotel room or tour bus and blow his nose.

Anyway, after being banished from Cy, I wandered over to Jamie West-Oram. Not knowing what else to say, I blurted out that I enjoyed his work on Tina Turner’s Private Dancer and Break Every Rule albums. He just nodded and said, “Yeah, well, it pays the milkman.” Then West-Oram autographed my special invitation, as I stood there wondering whether I should have mentioned how much I love the Fixx rather than his session work with Tina Turner. Oh, well. There I go, offending another famous rock guitarist.

The party broke up soon after that, but Jamie West-Oram’s words haunted me forever. OK, so they didn’t haunt me forever but I did think about them for about a week. “Yeah, well, it pays the milkman.” It made me realize that rocking and rolling isn’t always as glamorous Bon Jovi made it out to be. For guys like the Fixx, rock’n’roll was just a job. It was a good job, but sometimes it sucked as much as anyone else’s.

And here we are, 26 years later.

Believe it or not, the Fixx still exist. They still have a legion of hardcore fans who call themselves fixxtures. The Fixx’s latest album, Beautiful Friction, was released in 2012. Hopefully it is helping to pay Jamie West-Oram’s milkman, since Tina Turner has retired.

I visited Pulsations one more time, to review a concert by another new wave pop band, Human League (headline: “Humans Pulsate at Suburban Nightclub.”) Right before it closed forever in the mid-1990s, Pulsations’ owners were trying to turn it into a “gentlemen’s club,” but the Glen Mills community wouldn’t allow it. Eventually, the place simply shut down and is now gone. An assisted living facility now exists on the site of the legendary Pulsations.

And me? I’m just sitting here, daydreaming about the night I partied with the Fixx.

Shady Dog Record Store Day

In Music/Memory on April 21, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Earlier this week, I had been writing notes on my lifelong history with record stores, to celebrate yesterday’s Record Store Day. I didn’t finish that bit of musical/cultural memoir in time, but I’ll finish it up soon.

In the meantime, I did want to note that I spent a few hours at Shady Dog Records in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, yesterday and that was a great store to spend the sixth annual Record Store Day. The joint was hopping with record lovers and this is what was happening:

A father and a very young son (I’m thinking not even seven years old) were talking about the Clash, the Pogues and Pink Floyd.

Two teenage boys called their parents on a cell phone to find out if Mom and/or Dad wanted the boys to pick anything up for them.

A twentysomething guy holding a vinyl copy of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and saying, “It would be cool to have some Dylan on vinyl.” I recommended that he buy that copy of Nashville Skyline and I’m pretty certain he did.

Another guy in his 20s, buying his first Miles Davis LP. I’m not sure which one it was, though it was not Kind of Blue. “And next time, you can pick up Kind of Blue,” the clerk advised.

Several dads and/or moms with young kids browsing the record and CD racks.

A customer and one of the owners having a conversation in which they were poetically comparing watching a major league baseball pitcher in action to watching jazz pianist Bill Evans play.

In addition to all of this, I picked up a few CDs and some very cheap albums. I could tell you about these CDs and records, in great detail, but in a big way, the specifics of my purchase isn’t the point.

I am not here to bash the Internet, music downloading, social media or anything else. Modern life has all kinds of advantages, many of which I appreciate every day. But the reason Record Store Day is special is not the “exclusive” releases that are gobbled up by fans as soon as the stores open. And, while ostensibly, Record Store Day is helping the stores make a few bucks (and I genuinely hope that RSD was indeed good to Shady Dog’s bottom line), it’s not just about money.

A place like Shady Dog Records gives people who really love music a place to meet (in person!) and share that enthusiasm with their friends and family, as well as with people they’ve just met. That is what Record Store Day is about and, by that yardstick, Record Store Day 2013 at Shady Dog Records was a roaring success.

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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