Friday Five: Boo!

Happy Halloween!

It’s a testament to my wife that my kids get more excited for putting on their costumes than they do eating candy. It’s a testament to their father that they know Michael Jackson’s Thriller as well as anything by Taylor Swift.

Here’s five more songs they’ll know by the end of the weekend.

5. “Monster Mash” (Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers, 1962)

4. “Dead Man’s Party” (Oingo Boingo, 1985)

3. “People Are Strange” (Echo & the Bunnymen, 1987)

2. “Halloween” (The Misfits, 1981)

1. “Werewolves of London” (Warren Zevon, 1978)

Friday Five: Silly Love Songs

I have few actual memories of 1976. I was only 4, after all. I developed a deep love for the entire decade later in life, though, a mix of the sights and sounds I do remember with my later interests. 1976 is a great representative slice of that.

As I’ve written before:

It was the bicentennial (I love US history); Taxi Driver, Network, and All The President’s Men came out (I love 70s cinema); and “What’s Happening!”, “Laverne & Shirley”, and “Charlie’s Angels” all premiered on TV (all were big for me in syndicated repeats). One of my favorite movies ever–Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993)–takes place on May 28, 1976!

Wing’s “Silly Love Songs” was a hit in 1976. I like the song okay, but Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles life isn’t my favorite stuff. It was a good year for love songs, though.

So here are 5 love songs from 1976:

5. “Sweet Thing” (Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan)
If you want to know why a certain segment of baby boomers is crazy for Chak Khan all you have to do is listen to songs like this, when she was the lead singer of Rufus. She pulls off what only she could do.

4. “Beth” (Kiss)
Kiss is one of thos love-hate things, mostly because in an era of “artistic” album rock they were a commercial juggernaut who didn’t hide their desire to make money. That said, they hit it more than a couple of times. This is one of those times, a snapshot into the life of a rocker.

3. “Isn’t She lovely” (Stevie Wonder)
Stevie Wonder is a genius who was at his most genius in the 70s. This is one of the best songs of all-time, from one of his most amazing albums.

2. “Sara Smile” (Hall & Oates)
Damn but these white boys could sing some soul!

1. “Somebody to Love” (Queen)
So beautiful. The loneliness contrasted with the operatic the energy is amazing as a studio production, but remained amazing in its many live performances, too. It’s my favorite Queen song ever.

Lucky Guy

Today is the start of the 2016-17 academic year!

This year marks the start of my 15th year as a professor and 21 years since I first taught at the college level (as a TA at UC Berkeley). To look at it another way, since I started college in the fall of 1990 and didn’t take any time off between college and grad school and my two tenure-track jobs, this is also the start of my 27th year in higher education.

More than a quarter of a decade!

I’m coming off a year-long sabbatical, where I spent my time researching and writing about the Vietnam War and Mexican Americans. So I haven’t been in the classroom for awhile. Truth be told, I’m excited and a little nervous. But that’s part of the norm for me anyway.

No matter how you cut it, I’m a lucky guy. I get to read and write and teach for a living. I get to spend my time learning more and more about subjects I’m still passionate about. I get to work with young people–smart and eager young people–who help me develop a greater appreciation for the subjects we learn about.

It’s good stuff. I wouldn’t change it for the world, and I remind myself daily how lucky I am to be able to say that about my work.

So happy new (academic) year!

Friday Five: Rick Rubin

Whenever I take a look at the life and career of producer Rick Rubin I’m reminded of how diverse and impressive his catalog of music is. I’m also reminded that I need to start working on my beard length and my casual pants collection.

Here are five of my favorite songs he’s had a hand in making:

5. “Angel of Death” (Slayer, 1986)
4. “Chop Suey!” (System of a Down, 2001)
3. “Under the Bridge” (Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1991)
2. “Walk This Way” (Run-D.M.C., with Aerosmith, 1986)
1. “Hurt” (Johnny Cash, 2002)

Friday Five: Nostalgia (late 80s version)

I’m going to see Guns N’ Roses tonight.  As far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve gone to a show by a band that was big “back in the day”–when that “day” was my teen years.

I’ve been to lots of shows like this for other eras.  I’ve seen Steve Miller at least five times, for example.  I’ve seen the Doobie Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and a whole bunch of other 70s rock bands.  But each time I went to those shows I was in my 20s.  The audience, though, was filled with mostly middle-aged folks reliving their youth.

Well now I am that middle-aged guy reliving his youth.

I could say a lot about GNR, and it would be easy to pick five songs from them for the occasion, but I think the thing on my mind more right now is a general appreciation for my youth. And, so, here you go…

5. “What It Takes” (Aerosmith, 1989)
4. “Still of the Night” (Whitesnake, 1987)
3. “Finish What Ya Started” (Van Halen, 1988)
2. “Fire Woman” (The Cult, 1989)
1. “Patience” (Guns N’ Roses, 1988)

August 16, 1977

It’s the 39th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.

If you’ve ever read this blog you likely know I’m a big Elvis fan. (My very first blog post on the first iteration of this blog–on Blogger–was on the 30th anniversary of his death!) It’s a fandom that stretches back as many years as I can remember, even though I was born in 1972, after the height of the Elvis phenomenon and just 5 years before he died.

That’s probably because I was born into a time when Elvis was still very much a part of the popular culture. His music was everywhere and his movies were regularly on TV. I also came of age at a time when the mainstream culture was popularizing narratives about the 50s. Documentaries about Elvis and about the early years of his stardom were common.

I think that shaped a particular kind of fandom in me. I love the phenomenon of his stardom. I have a great appreciation of his role in popular music but also his role in popular youth culture. I’ve always loved his “story”–the poor, white boy growing up with Black music; the rise to fame; the cultural phenom; the frame and fortune; the marriage and love affairs; the string of corny movies where bits of his brilliance peak out; that brilliance on full display in his ’68 “comeback”; and even the later years as a jump-suited impersonator of the star he once was.

And, of course, there was the shock and spectacle of his death. I remembered where I was when I heard Elvis died, and I was only 5 years old.

Through it all, there’s the music. I think we can often lose sight of his special talent when we get caught up in all the rest of it. Maybe that’s a good way to mark this day.

Here are his two first recordings made on July 18, 1953 at the Memphis Recording Service (later called Sun Studios). As the story goes he recorded them to give to his mom as a gift. He paid $3.98 for a double-sided acetate press of “My Happiness” and “That’s When the Heartaches Begin.”

Let America Be America Again

By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean-
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today-O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home-
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay-
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME-
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose-
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath-
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain-
All, all the stretch of these great green states-
And make America again!

Originally published in Esquire (July 1936).