I can’t say for certain when my earliest memories are from, but I’m sure they are from no later than 1975.
It was a big year for my (nuclear) family. In ’75 we were a family of 4, my folks and my older sister, and we were living in a rental in Montebello, part of the sphere of LA’s Eastside. I remember that place, the broken TV, the area where the cat ate, the room I shared with my sister, which also housed the locker-style closets where my dad kept his clothes. We bought our first house that year, out in La Puente, which is about 12 miles or so east of East LA.
My folks chose to move eastward because they couldn’t afford a home in the East LA area, but our life still mostly revolved around LA. My folks both worked there, my grandparents lived there, and so did most of my uncles, aunts, and cousins. Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of our time there. But my family’s move to the San Gabriel Valley wasn’t a rare event. Tens of thousands of Chicano and Chicana baby boomers were doing the same, transforming these smaller suburban cities and towns into an extension of Chicana/o LA.
It was a great year in music, too. Fleetwood Mac released their (second) self-titled album, their first with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. It remains one of my favorite full albums of any band, and the song “Rhiannon” is untouchable. “Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain & Tennille topped the charts. As musical and TV celebrities who worked as a duo, they’d be influential for me and my sister, who liked (to force me) to perform as Donny & Marie, Captain & Tennille, or any other boy/girl pairing. Elvis entered recorded and released his last studio album, Today, on May 7th. Queen released Night at the Opera and the single “Bohemian Rhapsody” toward the end of the year.
These 5 songs are all from that most auspicious of years, although most are songs that would mean something more to me as the years passed.
5. “Lowrider” (War)
This is as close to a “Chicano anthem” as it gets. A southern California band (they’re largely from the South Bay area of Long Beach) that blended the multiethnic flavor of working-class communities, War was a slow, rhythmic, funky, rock, jazz, blues, Latin hybrid. “Lowrider” is quintessentially LA and Chicano, maybe even East LA and Chicano. And carries that load without much more than a fantastic beat and rhythm, and without a Chicano in the band! From the album Why Can’t We Be Friends…
4. “Sara Smile” (Hall & Oates)
Wikipedia tells me this song wasn’t released as a single until 1976, so its a cheat (maybe) for this year. But it was part of the famed duo’s 1975 album, Daryl Hall & John Oates, and is the song that put the pair on the musical trajectory that made them “famed” to begin with. I love–LOVE–this song for so many reasons, the guitar intro, the strings on the melody, the harmonies, and that falsetto voice from Darryl Hall. Overall, I have a lot of respect for them as a group. Whether or not you cared for them, for somebody of my generation they were one of the heaviest influences on the sound of late-70s into early-80s pop music.
3. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (Paul Simon)
The historian in me can appreciate the historic significance of Paul Simon to the lives of millions of white Americans coming of age in the 60s. The music fan in me gets it, too. I’m a fan of most of the work of Simon and Garfunkel. I can also appreciate that this makes him a special cultural figure for a whole bunch of folks hitting their thirties in the 70s, and coming to terms with life as adults in post-industrial America. All that is to say I “get” the place of his solo, post-divorce 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years. None of this has anything to do with me, though. It has a lot to do with how I remember learning about him. I remember watching SNL re-runs of his performances in those early years, I remember watching the video of his famous Central Park concerts, and I can remember hearing this song so many times in the decade I became aware. Something about the drum intro and guitar work still takes me back. I found it a fascinating song at some point, probably around the time I was 7 or 8, and I still do now.
2. “Love Rollercoaster” (Ohio Players)
Including this song is kind of a different sort of cheat for me. It’s the only song I really “love” from the album Honey, although I have to admit, I don’t remember it at all being associated with this album. I do remember the songs “Honey” and “Let’s Do It” and even “Ain’t Giving Up No Ground,” all from side A. The horns from “Let’s Do It” actually bring back the smell of vinyl and record cleaner to my mind. But that’s all irrelevant to why this album is really etched in my memory like no other. The album cover of Honey features a seemingly naked women pouring honey in her mouth. When you opened it up, she was completely naked with honey all over her body. Needless to say, I used to look at that album much more often than I used to listen to it. That said, it’s an excellent groove, the stand-out track on the album.
1. “Better Off Without a Wife” (Tom Waits)
I remember the first time I ever heard–I mean really heard–Tom Waits. It was the night before my 21st birthday, and I was coming down after a fun night/morning in my friend’s dorm room and he put on Nighthawks at the Diner, Waits’ 1975 live album. I knew the later Tom Waits, especially his 1992 album Bone Machine, which is still my favorite. But I don’t think I had ever heard his early stuff. I was immediately sucked in. His humor and his performance of this wasted beatnik kind of character that he kind of played then, it was surprising, and fascinating, and so entertaining. I’ve always been a sucker for live stuff, recordings that capture a moment or event are even better. The crowd here is very much a part of what I love the most. This song remains one of my favorites just because of the way Waits talks story leading into it. It’s still a funny performance, especially if one buys into the character he’s playing. It seems kind of grown-up, too, in a 20-30 year-old kind of post 1960s way. I’m not sure I have the words to say what it does for me, even though the song itself is, admittedly, kind of stupid. You can see the master in the making, though…