My Most Memorable New Year’s Eve, 30 Years Ago Today

Well, it’s New Year’s Eve, 2015.  We celebrate the 16th anniversary of Y2K tonight and into tomorrow.  Most everyone has a New Year’s Eve that will go down as the one that they’ll never forget…unless they drank too much every New Year’s Eve to remember a New Year’s Eve.  As for me, my most memorable New Year’s Eve was one for which I was in a state of absolute sobriety, because I was working.

It was 30 years ago tonight, in fact, when I was hosting a countdown of “The Hot 98 of 1985” on radio station WSPT-FM in Stevens Point, WI.  Scanning over a list of the year’s hits on Wikipedia, there’s a plethora of songs by Madonna, Wham!, Bruce Springsteen and Phil Collins, among others…truly, one of the last great years of Top 40/Contemporary Hit Radio, which was the format that WSPT aired.

So I had things timed out to start at 5:00 P.M. CST and finish at midnight.  Then, well into the evening, the bell on the Associated Press teletype at the station begins to ring, meaning that an urgent story is being conveyed.  I check the wire, and find that Rick Nelson, member of Ozzie and Harriet’s family, and concurrently a teen idol and solid rock performer, died in a Texas plane crash.  I take the story to the studio and mention it on the air, during the countdown.

One other point (no pun intended) to make about WSPT.  Every Friday, the station aired its “All-Oldies Friday” programming…and if high school sports didn’t get in the way, I hosted an “All-Oldies, All-Request Friday Night” program on the station.  With this in mind, after I mentioned Rick Nelson’s demise, the phone calls start coming in to the studio, basically saying the same thing:  “Why aren’t you playing any Ricky Nelson?  You play oldies, don’t you?  So play Ricky Nelson.  You’ve got to play something as a tribute to him.”  And, to every caller, I had to explain that we were doing a countdown of the top hits of 1985, and it would be a challenge to wedge one in from (possibly literally, in this case) 1958.  But I told these listeners, who were growing increasingly agitated as the night passed without hearing a Rick Nelson song, that I would try to find an opportunity to wedge a Rick Nelson song in.

Eventually, I found an opportunity at around 10 P.M. to honor the wishes of the many callers who asked to hear a Rick Nelson song.  And I was able to provide them with what is, and will always be, my favorite Rick Nelson song.  The tune also seemed rather apropos for the circumstance I was playing it for.  It’s a sparse, sad and haunting tune that I’m afraid was hijacked for a television commercial years later.  But I think (and hope) it satisfied those wanting to hear a Rick Nelson song that night of December 31, 1985…Rick Nelson’s last on earth.

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P.F. Sloan: One Of The Greatest Songwriters You’ve Never Heard Of

It was the mid-1970’s when I’d sit alone in our farmhouse on a Saturday night, while my parents were off at a polka dance hall in the area, that I’d listen to Joe Donovan’s “Saturday Night Revival” oldies program on WHAS Radio in Louisville.  One night, I heard a song that I’d never heard before, and it’d be one that stuck with me for almost 40 years before I’d hear it again.  It’s the song I spotlighted here: “The Sins Of A Family” by P.F. Sloan.  I heard the song, loved the lyrics and the wraparound melody of the song, along with the Dylaneque folk-rock quality of it.  I stored it away in my memory…as well as that name:  P.F. Sloan.

Later on, during my college years, oldies radio was just starting to fire up in Milwaukee, and the primary station playing an all-oldies selection refreshed my memory to a lot of songs I heard and enjoyed as a preschooler and early grade school student of the mid- to late-’60’s.  After hearing and really enjoying a number of these songs on the oldies station, I’d take a bus or a drive to Milwaukee’s Eagles Club to their occasional record collector’s shows and sales.  I’d bring a list of titles to see if I could find those songs I loved.  More often than not, I’d locate them, and purchase them for an agreeable price.  One that I purchased that I loved as a little one and was reconnected with was “A Must To Avoid” by Herman’s Hermits.  I looked at the writing credit on the single:  P.F. Sloan.  Another one, “You Baby” by the Turtles.  Writing credit:  P.F. Sloan.  Could this be the same P.F. Sloan that I heard that Saturday night in the mid-’70’s singing that Dylanesque song on WHAS?  Indeed, it was.

The more I learned about P.F. Sloan, the more I found that he was a talented and versatile songwriter.  Sloan (born Phillip Gary Schlein), along with partner Steve Barri, caught the wave of some of the best surf-rock records of the pre-British Invasion ’60’s, working with Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher on projects for Bruce and Terry (“Summer Means Fun”) and the Rip Chords (“Hey Little Cobra”).   Sloan and Barri also lent a hand on Jan and Dean’s surf-orchestral masterpieces, augmented by the legendary studio group The Wrecking Crew, in which Sloan lent a hand from time to time.  The Sloan-Barri team also broke out on their own as a surf-rock act called the Fantastic Baggys, forging such pop-surf classics as “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin'” and “Anywhere The Girls Are”.

Once the Beatles and other British rock acts penetrated the American pop charts, Sloan and Barri adapted and morphed into California’s emerging folk-rock sound.  Sloan’s songcrafting provided the Turtles with “You Baby” and “Let Me Be”, and he also wrote the song that he’s best known for in 1965, Barry McGuire’s smash hit “Eve Of Destruction”.  While working with McGuire, Sloan  Sloan created and played a guitar introduction as a hook to a new song by John Phillips called “California Dreamin'”.  In fact, the backing track used for Barry McGuire’s version of that song became the same backing track was used for the hit version by Phillips’ group, the Mamas & The Papas.  That connection led to Sloan being a regular in Mamas & Papas recording sessions, and led Sloan to, for the most part, playing the lead guitar tracks on most of the songs he wrote, including the legendary riff for a song that he co-wrote with Steve Barri, Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.”

The next stage of P.F. Sloan’s life came when he and Steve Barri recorded together under the name the Grass Roots.  When the duo scored a hit in 1966 with “Where Were You When I Needed You”, the duo–who never really wanted to form a band to tour–recruited a real band to perform as the Grass Roots.  Sloan and Barri continued to produce the Grass Roots until the band members expressed their desire to write their own material…which led Sloan to choose to leave his partnership with Barri in order to pursue a solo performing career, and, for all intents and purposes, fall into musical oblivion.

P.F. Sloan died on November 15, 2015 after a bout with pancreatic cancer.

I wrote songs for a mighty long time…from the time I was eight years old until around the tend of the 2000’s.  Many of my songwriting influences are obvious, because they’ve influenced a lot of songwriters:  Lennon and McCartney, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Ray Davies and Elvis Costello to name just a few.  One of the more obscure names on that list would be P.F. Sloan.  He had a witty way with a lyric, and knew how to put together a great pop song.  And, two days after his passing, I recall that Saturday night and first discovering what would be my own personal unearthing of one nugget of his songwriting genius.

Another Moment Of Epiphany

Epiphany

When most people see the word “epiphany”, the first thing they think of is Christmastime and the Three Wise Men following the star and giving their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.  That would be the Epiphany with a capital “E”.  The kind of epiphany I talk about here has happened a few times in my life.   The definition of that kind of epiphany is the following:  An experience of sudden and striking realization.  Guess what?  I had an epiphany today on the drive home from work!  And, by all means, it is not my first epiphany.  Allow me to tell you what my the other two epiphanies in my life (at least the ones I remember) were:

  1. When I was working at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, WI back in the summer of 1979, a graduate of high school moving on to my first semester of college, employees on their way to and from their workplace at the resort would punch in and out on their time cards at this little shack behind a fenced-in employee parking lot.  This shack would monthly have two piles of copies of Playboy and Oui magazines to employees to take free of charge.  Being a hormone-driven 18-year-old lad, I gladly accepted the offering.  One of those Playboy magazines had as its Playmate of the Month, Dorothy Stratten.  Yes, the same Dorothy Stratten whose meteoric rise to stardom and consequent and shocking halt to that rise following her grisly death at the hands of a jealous estranged husband, was turned into two major motion pictures.  But back then, in the summer of ’79, Dorothy Stratten was just a centerfold in the magazine.  And she was 18 years old.  I saw her in that centerfold.  She was 18.  I was 18.  The thought entered my mind as if I’d uttered it if I’d had my own bar mitzvah:  Today, I am a man.  Epiphany #1
  2. Fast forward to the early ’90’s.  I am now in my early 30’s.  I’m watching a TV program on the cable channel Nickelodeon called “Clarissa Explains It All”…the vehicle that first launched Melissa Joan Hart into a brief period of television stardom after her portrayal of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”.  I’m watching the show, and I notice this lady on the program.  I’m thinking that this gal is pretty hot.  Then, I watch the opening credits.  The gal that I think is so “hot” plays Clarissa’s mom on the show (I learned today that Clarissa’s mom was played by Elizabeth Hess).  The thought entered my mind.  Today, I am an old man. Epiphany #2.

We move on now to today.  Driving home from work, I hear a conversation between the hosts of a sports talk program on a Chicago radio station and the college football expert that frequents their show weekly.  A reference to an REO Speedwagon song is made by one of the hosts.  The college football expert counters with another.  REO Speedwagon song references are volleyed back and forth.  Then, the college football expert says the following: “My dad used to play REO Speedwagon all the time.”  He could have just said Guy Lombardo or Glenn Miller instead.  I wish he would have.  The thought entered my mind.  Today, I am an ancient relic.  Epiphany #3.

Three-Finger Salute

As of 3:25PM CDT on 10/21/15,  the Chicago Cubs are put in a position to accomplish something that’s only been done once in baseball history:  Namely, coming off a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series to sweep the final four games, win the series, and–in this case–put the Cubs into a World Series for the first time in 70 years.  Even then, the Cubs didn’t win the world’s championship.  It’s pretty well known by now that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908.

So, with the daunting (and virtually impossible) task at hand for the Cubs to win four straight and defeat the New York Mets to earn a spot in the Fall Classic (and it’s moving deeper and deeper into the fall these days thanks to the expansion of the playoffs), I sat and wondered what exactly it would take for the Cubs to finally make it into a World Series within the next few seasons.

By the way, I type this post on “Back To The Future Day”…the day that Michael J. Fox’s and Christopher Lloyd’s characters were transported to in “Back To The Future II”:  October 21, 2015.  In my case, I’m going to transport myself back to 1908 and try to figure out what that world championship Cubs team had that Joe Maddon’s current crop of young Cubs is lacking.

I believe I have the answer.

In the off-season, I suggest to Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer to ask their scouting staff to seek out a pitcher that has only three fingers on his throwing hand.

I say this because, in 1908, Cubs pitcher Mordecai Brown (AKA “Three-Finger” Brown) was considered by perhaps the greatest manager of the first third of baseball’s 20th century, New York Giants manager John McGraw, as one the two best pitchers in the 1900’s National League along with McGraw’s own pitcher, inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Christy Mathewson.  “Three-Finger” Brown had a career record of 239–130 record with  a 2.06 earned run average, the third best ERA in Major League Baseball history among players inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the best in major league history for any pitcher with more than 200 wins.

Mordecai Brown also played at Wrigley Field before the Cubs did.  In 1915, Brown pitched for the Federal League Chicago Whales, who played at Weegham Park on the corner of Clark and Addison Streets on Chicago’s North Side.  The Cubs moved to Weegham Park in 1916 and have stayed there ever since…and “Three-Finger” Brown was on that first Cubs team to play at what is now Wrigley.

So there is my suggestion for the Cubs.  Find another three-fingered pitcher like Mordecai Brown.  Or, perhaps, offer a multi-million dollar bonus to, say, Kyle Hendricks or Jason Hammel to hack off the pointer finger on his pitching hand.

3FingerBrown

Why I’m Watching TV Outside Of Pro Football These Days

TedTV

Over the past couple decades or so, I have really soured on episodic television.  I don’t know whether it’s just that I don’t have the patience to sit through a drama, or whether the level of what’s considered comedy on TV comedies has become 30 minutes wasted in my world, but it’s gotten to the point that, as I mentioned in the title, the only TV I watch these days is professional football.

Something has changed that, however, and that’s streaming video.  If there is one thing about being married for what will  be 13 years next year, it’s that my wife has introduced me to a lot of technological advances that have opened up options in my life.  Being the technological dinosaur that I am, I tend to dismiss and grumble about it at first, implement the new concept introduced by my spouse for a while, and warm up to it.  That’s what’s happened with me and grilled food, dark chocolate, red wine, Facebook, the iPhone, and now Netflix and Hulu, among other things.

The two streaming video services I mentioned, Netflix and Hulu, have been a gateway to viewing television that I really like, and it fits a schedule when me and my wife can sit and watch it.  If not for Netflix or Hulu (or, for that matter iTunes on our Apple TV box), I would have never sat, watched and enjoyed series that I never saw in first run, “3rd Rock From The Sun”.   I would have never seen the complete “Mad Men” series and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I also enjoyed HBO’s “House Of Cards” on Netflix (though, after last season, hoping that it doesn’t return for another because I believe the show has run its course).  Hulu allowed me to view the entire run of “The Sopranos”, and I understand why some people call it a TV pinnacle.  Having these resources to see good TV when we want to see good TV (and sample TV we think might be good, but decide against in the end) is a wonderful blessing for our entertainment appetite.

These days, there are three sitcoms that we’ve been watching that have made me do something that I seldom do when watching sitcoms these days:  in text language, LOL.

  1. “The Muppets”–I was somewhat skeptical when ABC (owned by Disney, owner of the Muppets now) announced that they were bringing back the Muppets for a weekly TV series.  Out of curiosity, I checked out the pilot of the series on Hulu.  After watching the first few episodes, I am a big fan.  The show does a great job of spoofing show business with the late night talk show plot line, though it seems like a number of the many famous Muppets over the 50+ years of the act are awkwardly put in roles on the program to simply have them in the program.  Overlooking that, the writing is sharp and very funny…which is what Jim Henson was after in the first place when he created the Muppets.  He wanted to take puppetry out of the kids’ entertainment realm and move it into entertainment for big people (I was going to say moving puppets from kids’ entertainment to adult entertainment, but the term “adult entertainment” has a whole different meaning these days).  A good example of his trying to reach an older audience with his Muppets and his humor was that weekly bit that what was then still “NBC’s Saturday Night” (now “Saturday Night Live”) tried with the Muppets in this goth world waiting to talk to “The Mighty Phavog”. (You can read more about it here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Land_of_Gorch ).  It failed on camera and behind the scenes, and went away after one “SNL” season.  But this Muppets series on ABC works, and you can tell that the Muppets have succeeded in moving into more adult humor with the ranking in the upper left hand corner of the screen of TV-PG.  Well worth the watch.
  2. “The Jim Gaffigan Show”–After hearing plenty about how good a stand-up comic Jim Gaffigan was, we watched one of his HBO stand-up specials on Netflix.  I swear, I laughed so hard at his act that it hurt to watch it because I was having such difficulty breathing due to all the hard laughing I was doing; the show we were watching was called “Jim Gaffigan: Mr. Universe”, BTW, if you want to laugh a lot and have respiratory problems as well.  We sought out a few other Jim Gaffigan HBO specials, and they were good, too…but no breathing difficulties during them.  Then, later, we found on the Hulu menu “The Jim Gaffigan Show”.  We had to see what it was all about.  Jim Gaffigan has finished his first season of a TV Land sitcom, and the results have been enjoyable viewing.  It’s kind of like “Seinfeld” if Jerry were married with five kids…and being married with five kids has been the backbone of Jim Gaffigan’s stand-up work.  Fewer friends than Jerry, though…which happens with a wife and five kids, I guess, ’cause there’s less time for it.  But the show circulates around what Jim Gaffigan talks about in his stand-up routine:  His family life, his love of food, his fatness (and my fatness, BTW, may have caused my breathing difficulty when watching his HBO special), his pasty complexion and ordinary looks, among other things.  In fact, I would suggest that if you haven’t watched Jim Gaffigan’s HBO specials prior to watching this series, do so.  A few things are mentioned in the program about Jim (e.g., Hot Pockets) that you might need to know to fully understand the “Jim Gaffigan Show” experience.  One thing that does make me uncomfortable about the series, however, as a Catholic, is Jim’s irreverence toward his wife’s Catholic faith.  It’s not bashing in any way, but it does make me a little squirmy.  Outside of that, well worth the watch.
  3. “Miranda”–Last night, my lovely bride and I watched the Melissa McCarthy movie “Spy”.  The reason we “rented” it was because we saw that Miranda Hart was a cast member in the film.  Melissa McCarthy was very good in the film (though she has a very, very filthy mouth in her dialogue, which shocked even me), but this movie was a great vehicle for the stellar British comedienne, Miranda Hart.  Most people in America may know Miranda Hart as playing the nurse known as Chummy on the BBC drama that was rebroadcast on public TV here, “Call The Midwife”.  But Miranda Hart came to prominence in the UK on a sitcom she created, wrote and starred in called “Miranda”.  I use the past tense in describing the series because the BBC cancelled the series in 2014.  After learning more about Miranda Hart’s past work during the “Call The Midwife” airings (which we caught on Netflix, not public TV), we were curious to see the “Miranda” sitcom, but the only place we could locate it was in clips on YouTube.  Recently on Hulu, we found “Miranda” on the menu and began watching it.  It truly is one of the funniest television series I have ever seen.  Miranda Hart (or her character on the series) is best described as tall, awkward, plain looking, and desperate for a match with a man.  She is also very funny.  Miranda Hart also excels at physical comedy, and her takes at the camera as she breaks the fourth wall (addresses the viewing audience) are stunningly fresh and funny.  At first, I called this show “I Love Lucy With A Brain” because the writing is very clever and sharp…like much of the best of British comedy.  After further review, I’ll call “Miranda” a hybrid of “I Love Lucy”, “Seinfeld”, and the innovative comedy of the ’80’s, “The Young Ones”.  Of all three of the shows that I’ve written about, I most highly recommend this one.  Of course, we’re only into season two of what became a five-season show (or five-series programme, as they’d call it in Britain), but we’ve already seen season/series one, and it’s been an absolute hoot.  My wife parallels Miranda Hart with Carol Burnett during her variety show days.  Whatever the case, Miranda Hart has put together one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen.  Yes, well worth the watch.