Friday Five: 1975

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…

The “Last Message” of Malcolm X

On February 14, 1965, Malcolm X spoke at the Ford Auditorium in Detroit, Michigan. It was a keynote address for an awards event sponsored by a group called the Afro-American Broadcasting Company. Sidney Potier, Marian Anderson, Jackie Gleason, Motown Records and a few other business honorees were given awards. So was civil right legend and Detroit resident Rosa Parks.

Malcolm’s speech is often called his “Last Message” because it is the last major public address he ever gave. He was assassinated one week later, on February 21, 1965.

There are so many easy ways to take quotes or excerpts of Malcolm’s speeches and make both powerful and meaningful statements about our past and present. He is highly quotable, yes, but he was also powerfully prescient, sensationalistic, and charismatic. But he was also a human being who, like all of us, changed, learned, grew, and evolved. For those reasons, I prefer listening to his speeches in as full a way as possible. I also find it important to put them into context–into the particular time and place of his own life–in order to understand them.

This “last message” is a different Malcolm, at least measuring against the two-dimensional, anti-MLK image we typically have of him. It is not so much that he is different that the earlier Malcolm, although he is. The most powerful difference, for me, is his wisdom and maturity. Malcolm is speaking as an established leader, as one voice in a larger movement, and as a man committed to an international vision of justice.

In anticipation of a weekend of media coverage of the 50th anniversary of Malcolm’s murder, here’s that address from a week before, a window into the change agent Malcolm had become in 1965. What a loss that his living influence was cut short.

Friday Five: 1974

I turned two years old in 1974, too young to have any actual memories. But it was a big year in terms of the music that would form some of my earliest memories. For that matter, it was a killer year for albums.

Santana’s Lotus, Lou Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance, and Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale all came out. So did Phoebe Snow’s self-titled debut, Tom Wait’s The Heart of Saturday Night, and the critically-acclaimed Pretzel Logic by Steel Dan. ABBA, Queen, Elton John, Billy Preston, and the Grateful Dead all had albums that year, too.

And within each are songs I could have easily picked. Here are 5 of my favorite songs, first released in 1974:

5. “Rock Bottom” (UFO)
My goal here isn’t just to share some of the music that makes up the soundtrack of my life but also draw attention to music that I think is worth listening to and, yet, may not be well-known to a younger generation. I’m not sure how many people who lived through 1974 know about UFO. In a lot of ways, they’re the stereotype of a masculinist, glam, European hard rock (maybe metal) band. This song is proof of that, both lyrically and in its intent. But guitarist Michael Schenker is something more. This is from UFO’s third album and their first with the legendary German guitarist (who is the younger brother of Scorpions’ lead Rudy Schenker). I wouldn’t discover him until later, as the lead of MSG, but my favorites of his would always be with UFO. This live performance (from 1975) isn’t as powerful sounding as the album recording but, damn, it’s UFO live!

4. “Black Water” (Doobie Brothers)
I’ll put it simply–we were a Doobie Brothers household. I don’t know why, other than my dad and mom (and uncles) like their sound. In my mind, all LA Chicanos were, though I know better now to think that’s true. Still, the Doobie Brothers were a big deal in LA for most of the 70s. This song was the most enduring hit from their 1974 release What Were Once Vices Are Now Habit. It remains one of my favorites, even now. My first memories of it are listening to it on a record, thinking about acoustic versus electric guitar and enjoying the stereo melodies. I know its an overplayed song, one that probably annoys some. But there’s something to it. If you can turn off everything else other than the music, there’s something there…

3. “Distant Lover” (Marvin Gaye)
This is a cheat, but it’s my list so what can you do? “Distant Lover” was a song on Gaye’s 1973 album Let’s Get It On. This version, though, was recorded in January 1974 at a concert in Oakland, CA, a place that would be home to me throughout most of my 20s. It’s the best track on a killer live album he released in the summer of 1974. Not only is Marvin vocally captivating, almost oozing sexual prowess through his performance, but the crowd is all over the place under his spell. It’s one of those recordings that feel more like a historical document than a record.

2. “Let It Grow” (Eric Clapton)
It’s a funny thing. Eric Clapton is widely regarded as the greatest (or one of the greatest) guitarists of all time and, yet, he never really has ever put out a solo album that the critics instantly fell in love with. 461 Ocean Boulevard might be the closest he came. It was a huge hit for him–I remember seeing the album regularly in people’s personal collections and in stores well into the 80s–and it features his only chart-topping single, his remake of “I Shot the Sheriff.” It’s this song, though, that I fell in love with. I love the laid back, post heroin Clapton in this album and in this song, a kind of restatement of the summer of love in 1974.

1. “You’re No Good” (Linda Ronstadt)
This one is on the list more out of respect than anything else, but I like it (and the album its from) very much. Out of all the songs I picked this week, I suspect this one is the least well-known to folks who came of age after the 70s and 80s. I also suspect it’s the song those generations would be least likely to encounter. And that would be a loss.

Linda Ronstadt has always carried a lot of respect in my family’s house. She’s part Mexican, and that helps. She also made a big splash in the 80s and 90s playing the music of her people, and that’s not for nothing either. But for all those who lived through the 70s, she is best known as the chart-topping artist with the pop sound that just about dominated the airwaves for the decade.

This was a big hit for her, topping the charts by the following year. It’s a great sample of her voice as well as the pop/rock/country sound she came to be associated with. It’s also a great example of well-produced music that sounds best on vinyl. For Ronstadt, its proof she was more than a pretty face. I can remember riding in our family’s Ford Pinto and hearing this song on an FM station, warm LA breeze coming in through the rolled-down windows…