Seven Songs in Seven Days: Answering the challenge
“Forty-five Years” by Stan Rogers
There are a few things I’ve missed in this seven-day exercise. No Bob Dylan songs, for one, which isn’t right. No Little Feat, REM, Fred Eaglesmith, or Flight of the Conchords. Ah well. It’s almost Valentine’s Day. So I couldn’t resist adding this one for the person I most enjoy listening to music with.
A Boston bar singer lead me to Stan Rogers. He played “Barrett’s Privateers” at the Purple Shamrock, and I walked up and asked him about it during a break. A few months and several record store visits later – music research was so much more fun before the internet – I had an album that included this gem, as lovely a love song as you’ll find.
Our musical tastes don’t line up precisely. She’s a bit more Carole King and Indigo Girls, and has a lot more patience for the new pop songs. But there’s enough of a sweet spot in the middle that many’s the Saturday night we’ve wound up at the basement turntable, pouring wine and taking turns playing songs for each other.
If I had a righteous beard and a booming Canadian baritone, along with the ability to play the guitar, I might try to write a love song like this. For now, though, I’ll send out this long-distance dedication – she’s in California for work this week – to the prettiest, smartest Hoosier gal around. We’ve known each other for 24 years; been married for 20. Here’s hoping we’re still catching the occasional live show and spinning records in 2061.
If there are any journalism students out there, this is what’s known as burying the lede: I love you, Mary Carpenter!
Day Six of #7songsin7day (with apologies for missing the weekend): “All Down the Line” by the Rolling Stones
It was September of 1997, and my Chicago Sun-Times assignment for the day was to walk down to the Double Door in Wicker Park and write about the band playing there that night. I didn’t cover music, though I’m a fan and had seen many shows at the Double Door. It was a decent sized rock venue for solid local acts, and up-and-comers on tour. I was what’s known in the business as a GA – general assignment. I mostly covered big crime stories, but was comfortable writing just about anything.
The Rolling Stones showing up to play at the Double Door qualified as “anything.”
“Am I going to be able to get in?” I asked.
I wound up hanging out on the sidewalk, talking to people as they showed up. Tickets were $7, and supposedly went on sale to the general public. Everyone I talked to had some connection to the music business, though. I think the place held about 500 people.
Once everyone was let in, myself and a photographer planted ourselves on the Milwaukee Avenue side, which was the stage door. I kept looking down the street for limos, but it was ultimately two white vans that pulled up. Several big dudes climbed out and calmly made a path on the sidewalk. Then Mick Jagger stepped out of one van, along with either Charlie Watts or Bill Wyman. They walked directly in front of me and in the door, as Keith and Ronnie Wood, along with either Bill or Charlie, got out of the second. They didn’t move with the same efficiency as Mick, but were in the door quickly.
I was left to stand on the sidewalk, notebook dutifully in hand, listening to the first muffled strains of Little Queenie through the door before I headed to my car to call in my story.
A few days later I saw them at Soldier Field, not expecting much from a bunch of old geezers.. The internet tells me they did NOT play “All Down the Line” at that show. But I very specifically remember them playing it, either as their first or second song. I remember because I love the song, and hearing it made me think: “Hmm. This might be good.”
(Epilogue: I may not have had the clout to get in the Double Door. But my Sun-Times colleague, Roger Ebert, did.)
Day Five: “The Crane” (live) by Trip Shakespeare
This strange and quirky quartet from Minneapolis built a following one bar show at a time in the late 80s and early 90s. Stephanie Zimmermann gets credit for discovering them, leading to a small but loyal group of Daily Herald fans. My ritual every Thursday was to walk down to the Burwood Tap after work and scan the Reader for signs of their next show. Then the word would go out, and we’d wait to see what new songs they might have.
They didn’t sound like anyone else – a combination of flowery lyrics, syrupy harmonies, funky hooks, and Elaine Harris’ rolling, stand-up drumming. The songs often had strange Midwestern themes, including one written from the perspective of a northern pike. I chose “The Crane” mostly because of this great video I found. It’s a bit slick. Clearly made for TV. Their “real” live shows were more raw, in a good way.
I met my wife Mary during this Trip Shakespeare phase, and loved that she jumped right in. I’m smiling as I think of early dates, standing in a packed bar, my arms wrapped around her as she stood in front of me and we sang along to the songs we knew. Maybe that’s part of the Trip Shakespeare appeal for me. At a lot of these shows I was, literally, falling in love.
(Epilogue: Trip Shakespeare split up, with Dan Wilson and John Munson forming Semisonic, for which Dan wrote the smash hit “Closing Time,” a sneaky tribute to the moments just before childbirth. Dan is now a Grammy-winning, highly sought-after songwriter. “Someone Like You” by Adele. That’s Dan.)
Day Four: “Chemical Warfare” by the Dead Kennedys
It was the Spring of 1981, just after final exams of my freshman year in college. My roommate Brian and I went to a party off campus. BC is pretty preppy, but there was a solid punk scene that was well-represented at The Heights, the school newspaper. They pretty much ran the features section, and I was a boring – and very preppy – news guy. This was a Heights party.
A band was playing in the basement – BC classmate Dave Smalley’s DYS – and Brian and I went down to check it out. We stopped toward the bottom of the stairs. The noise was overwhelming – loud electric guitars being played as fast as humanly possible, obliterating a singer who was screaming at the top of his lungs. But it was the crowd we were looking at. A few dozen spike-haired, leather-clad, boot-wearing punks were violently hurling themselves into each other. Slam dancing.
Neither Brian nor I had ever seen anything like this, and we looked at each other. (We talked about this a few months ago and both specifically remember sharing this look.) Then we dove into the crowd. All the stress of finals – really, all stress period – came out on that dance floor. Our jeans and polo shirts may not have fit in, but we quickly learned the etiquette of slam dancing. We all smashed into each other, yet somehow agreed we weren’t trying to hurt each other. You hit people with your arms, shoulders, backs and legs, not your feet or fists. If someone fell down, everyone nearby immediately picked them up, throwing them back into the scrum.
When we finished, drenched in sweat, both of us felt transformed. The stress was gone, of course. But I’m not sure that properly explains how good we felt. Both of us were straight, play-by-the-rules kids. Most of what we did was layered in self-consciousness. This was reckless abandon. We felt elated.
I see from Wikipedia that DYS is now considered a seminal Boston punk band, and Dave Smalley is a newspaper editor. Huh. For this installment I chose “Chemical Warfare” by the DKs just because it was one of the many songs we would “dance” to after this night. I could have just as easily been “I Fought the Law” by the Clash, or any early Husker Du.
Day Three: “Roxanne” by the Police
I didn’t go to the big parties in high school, but I wasn’t social outcast either. I was one of those invisible kids in the middle, trying to figure out where I fit. I had several close friends who were a year older than me, which laid the groundwork for a behaviorally troublesome junior year. But I survived it. By senior year I felt reasonably cool for the first time in my life. I had a girlfriend, and a car, and a job. My grades were back on track. I felt like things were looking up.
The music I was listening to was still heavy seventies – Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Jethro Tull, David Bowie. Then came the Police.
It was an outdoor patio at a fancy house in Westport, where a small group of drama friends had gathered for a cast party. (I was in a few plays, very much in the background and singing as quietly as possible. My girlfriend was typically one of the stars.) We were sitting around the keg outside, and the first jangly chords of “Roxanne” came on the boom box.
“Have you guys heard this song?” someone – pretty sure it was Diana Pils – said. “Turn it up!”
I had no idea what “ska” was. And I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that Stewart Copeland’s drumming wasn’t like anything I’d heard before. I just knew the song was cool, fresh and different, and it lead me straight to the Ramones, the Cars, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, the Clash … all the music I’d listen to for the next ten years.
Rock was sagging under it’s own weight by 1979. New wave music was lean and edgy. Listening to the Police, while so many of my classmates were still hooked on Marshall Tucker and Molly Hatchet, made me feel cool.
Day Two: “Meeting Across the River” by Bruce Springsteen
I was just starting 8th grade when Bruce made the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week. I probably wouldn’t have noticed, but I was lucky enough to have a great teacher named Pete Cararbe, who did. And he made us listen to this song and then write about it.
I wish I knew what I came up with for that paper. Did I realize that it’s a beautifully simple song about love, and the hope for redemption? Probably not. But I do remember that Bruce’s were the first lyrics me and my friends actually talked about, especially after “Darkness on the Edge of Town” came out a few years later, and “Born to Run,” with it’s pre-darkness optimism, made more sense. Before this song, and the 8th grade writing assignment, I only really paid attention to lyrics either to sing along with the chorus, or because the meaning hit me over the head. Mr. Cararbe taught me to listen a little more closely.
Most teenagers are shy, awkward creatures who doubt themselves and spend a fair amount of time imagining a future where they are somehow cool. I know I was, and did. I don’t know what I wrote in that paper. But I do remember listening to this last line a lot.
“And when I walk through that door I’m just gonna throw that money on the bed / and she’ll say this time I wasn’t just talkin’ / then I’m gonna go out walking”
Bruce has had his ups and downs, and can drift into bombast. But this is a simple, beautiful song, like the oft-overlooked next to last line on the album’s over-the-top anthem.
“Someday, girl, I don’t know when / we’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go / and we’ll walk in the sun”
Day One: “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company
It’s easy to make this number one, because it’s the first song I ever bought, not long after I made the first big “with my own money” purchase of my life – a transistor radio, which lived on the window sill of my bedroom. This was still the Golden Age of Top 40 radio, so I was listening to WNBC-AM and WABC-AM in New York, and to slick DJs like Cousin Bruce Morrow, Murray the K, and Wolfman Jack. The song rotation would have included everything from the Beatles to the Creedence to the Temptations to the Beach Boys to the Carpenters to the 1910 Fruitgum Company.
The internet tells me that “Simon Says” spent nine weeks on the chart in 1968, when I was 6 years old. I started loving music on the radio at an early age. But I wasn’t that young when I bought this 45. I’d say my purchase was in the early 1970s.
It’s not an especially great song. I probably liked it because of the catchy hook, and because it was about the kids’ game. What stands out, as I look back, is that it was such a physical experience. I would have bought it while my mom was shopping for other things at the Factory Store, a sort of mall-like place in an old hat factory. The record store was near the front. I would have walked in to a place that was filled with records, posters, incense kits, and magazines – Creem, Rolling Stone, High Times – not to mention other people, mostly older kids with long hair. If possible, I would sneak a guilty, Catholic-school-boy peak at the latest Ohio Players album cover, then find the record I wanted to buy. I had to pull money from the pocket of my toughskins, then hand that money to a person who would count out change.
Once home I would head to our turntable, located on the lower shelf of the book case in the den. It had a long spindle, rather than the short stubby ones most turntables have now, and I had to place an adapter on it for the wide-holed 45. Then I listened to it over and over again, laying on the floor. If there were other new songs I wanted to listen to, I had to play the radio and wait.
Compare that to today, when I was listening to “Simon Says” and reading everything there is to know about it within 15 seconds of deciding to write this.
This is certainly not a “things were better back in the good old days” essay. But I wonder what it means that I had to wait for things when I was a kid, and had to physically go places and interact with other people before I could do something as simple as listen to a song.