Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My life in music, part three

Starting in grade school, my sister and I had two friends that we spent almost all of our free time with, up until they moved to Florida when we were all in high school.  They were a set of identical twin sisters, in whose basement we spent countless hours talking, playing pool and listening to records.  I remember in particular two of those LPs: the huge double album that was the American Graffiti soundtrack, and Tea for the Tillerman, by Cat Stevens. The former featured between-song rants by none other than Wolfman Jack, a shadowy figure to me at that time.  I had no idea that was his actual schtick.  (And I still get chills when I hear "Runaway" by the great Del Shannon.)  The latter had, among other delights, a great track called "But I Might Die Tonight!"   Both those records take me back to a time when my experience with music was much more limited, and therefore more precious.

In high school, I kept up my obsession with Elton John by enshrining every mention of his name that I could find in one of several scrapbooks (I seem to recall having three or four of them by the time I went to college).  Nineteen seventy-five was insane; I still consider it "Elton John year" and  possibly the height of his career (an Oscar for "The Lion King" notwithstanding).  The man was everywhere, on every TV show you could think of, every awards show, and playing in what seemed like every venue. 

I didn't get to see him till the following year, and what a first concert: my dad took me to Madison Square Garden to witness the Louder than Concorde, but Not Quite as Pretty tour.  (For the uninitiated and the just plain too young to know, the Concorde was the plane that made the first commercial supersonic, transatlantic flight.  This trimmed the normal 7-8 hour New-York-to-London route down to three hours.)  Somewhere I might still have the tour program; does anyone sell those anymore?  All I ever see at shows now are shirts, bags, posters, etc, most of them overpriced to boot.

In those years I had two main outlets that serviced my intense musical needs: on Friday nights, it was the Midnight Special; on Saturday nights, Don Kirschner's Rock Concert was the attraction.  For someone who attended few concerts, those shows were a Godsend. 

They couldn't have been more different.  Midnight Special was hosted by the amazing Wolfman Jack, and featured live performances by musicians and stand-up comics.  It was fun, especially when you mixed the Wolfman in with all those crazily-attired Seventies musicians.  He was so excited that he made you excited about what you were going to see.  The audience got to sit on pillows in front of the stage, like they were in the world's biggest rec room.  I'm not even going to try and name all those who were on the Midnight Special, but one performance stands out: the very first music video I'd ever seen, by a little English four-piece called Queen.  "Bohemian Rhapsody" was its name, and I can't speak for anyone else watching, but my mind was properly blown.  I just saw an ad on TV for a DVD set of Midnight Special, so now I know what I want for my next birthday.

Don Kirschner's Rock Concert was a little more mannered.  The show began with Kirschner himself, comically stiff and apparently not accustomed to speaking in front of a camera, introducing the acts for the evening.  Naturally, I had no idea of Kirschner's contribution to the music world and how far back it went until many years later.  Then the viewers would be ushered into an actual concert, in an arena, with that night's musicians, to be mesmerized by a performance they would never see anywhere else.  In fact, I'm not sure that series was ever brought to VHS or DVD.  I remember in particular a great show that featured Loudon Wainwright III, Tom Chapin, and the late Harry Chapin, whose music was so much more than pop radio ever gave him credit for.  Years later I found out that Harry Chapin had been instrumental in lighting the fire for the anti-hunger benefit that became Live Aid, a project that, sadly, only came to fruition after his death. 

Wolfman Jack became an inspiration for me while I was in high school.  He did a late-night show for a year or two on WNBC; that fact, and the transfer of Cousin Brucie (Morrow) to NBC, pretty much cemented my loyalty to that station.  Plus, WABC was almost always in the midst of a huge contest, a plea for ratings if ever there was one.  Damn, just give me someone great to listen to, a live voice, someone whose enthusiasm will cause mine to ignite as well.  I don't care about contests!  Give me the crazy guy who howls like a wolf and keeps me listening until my head droops and my eyes can't stay open.  I still recall the night my sister and I spent at a new friend's house.  Even though I'd seen him on countless Midnight Specials, I heard the Wolfman, really heard him, for what felt like the first time, and all I could think was: who is this guy?  Where did they find him?  And where do I sign up for a job like that?

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