Friday Five: 1979

The last year of the decade of the seventies has a lot of warm memories for me. I ended first grade and started second grade. We saw “Rocky II” in the drive-in and “The Muppet Movie” as a field trip during YWCA camp. The “Dukes of Hazzard” and “Fact of Life” both premiered. Both were favorites of mind for a long, long time.

I have a kid’s memory of lots of grown-up stuff, too. The so-called “Iran hostage crisis” began in November of that year. Aside from the images of blind-folded people on the news, the beginning of yellow ribbons on trees also stands out in my mind. I can remember thinking Tony Orlando wrote his song for this event, but also thinking how weird it was to write such a happy sounding song for something so sad. I also remember the release of “Apocalypse Now.” Growing up in a family and community that had a close connection to the Vietnam War, whenever the topic came up in film it was a thing.

Here are 5 songs from that year that are stuck in my memory and, I think, worth your time:

5. “Crusin'” (Smokey Robinson)
Motown legend Smokey Robinson is responsible for so much of the music that I love. As a performer, writer, and producer, he’s one of the forces behind what we call the “Motown sound.” I can’t say how musical culture viewed him by the late 70s. He was probably not quite yet solidified as a legend (I think that distinction, for music, sort of relied on baby boomers being a bit older) but he might have also seemed a bit like a “has been” to some. This song, released in summer of 1979, is really just about as fine as it gets. It’s his last masterpiece and makes a challenging cover song for lots of folks today, testament to what he did so well.

4. “We Are Family” (Sister Sledge)
Sister Sledge–a group of four sisters from Philadelphia who turned into a trio by the late 70s (there actual last name was Sledge)–might seem like a “one-hit wonder” for this 1979 hit. But the group has pretty much made a living from music for the better part of four decades, so that’s probably not a fair shake. This story of this song, however, is bigger than them. It’s really the product of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers, the masterminds behind Chic. It’s a classic sound of that era and one of those songs that has a staying power than not many can claim. I remember it kind of being everywhere, just one of those songs that yu link with a time and place. At some point I also remember the tune serving as the theme song for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

3. “Chuck E.’s in Love” (Rickie Lee Jones)
Here’s what I knew about this song when I was a kid–I kept hearing it again and again, and I liked it a lot. I can remember being in the car and hearing the intro. The play between the drum beat and the bass is really distinctive, almost like their playing with and against each other at the same time. I remember watching Rickie Lee Jones on TV, too, wearing the same beret she wore in this video. Later in life I would discover Tom Waits and learn that the two were an item at the time of this song. The song is such a collection of late 70s/early 80s sounds.

2. “Rock Lobster” (The B-52’s)
I wasn’t old enough in 1979 to know where to put this song. In my young adulthood, I learned that the song was first released in 1978 and became an underground hit before being re-recorded for the band’s 1979 album. I have a very specific memory of the song but don’t really know which version it relates to. As a six-year-old in 1978, though, I figure there’s no conceivable way to think it would have been the version described as “an underground hit.” I lived a very “above the ground” cultural existence. And so here it is, one of my 1979 musical keepsakes.

My memory of the song is of a summer day at a local water park when this song started playing over the loud speaker. I went to the bathroom and had to walk through an army of teenagers surrounding the space right in front of the facilities. They were dancing and smoking. There was something scary about the song to me, accentuated by the fact that they seemed to be in a trance. In my mind, the images of the memory of that moment are so 70s. I can still see their movements, their haircuts, the swimsuits. I can still feel a little bit of the fear when I hear this song, too.

1. “Bad Girls” (Donna Summer)
We had this album in 1979. I know it well, mostly in order and nearly in its entirety. Of course, if you own a vinyl record of Donna Summer’s chances are it’s this double album, her biggest seller. My sister was a bigger fan of this than me, but that was enough to make me a pretty big fan of it. This song remains one of my favorites of all of Summer’s work, probably second only to her hit from later this year, “On the Radio.” But I ave memories of being forced to dance with my sister to “Bad Girls.” Actually, more often than not, she would just do her own dance routines and need me as her audience. I was happy to oblige. The sound and theme are pure 70s disco, but it’s not as relentless as most disco of this year. Part of Summer’s musical appeal, really, is the way R&B standard sounds, rhythms, and vocals really serve as the foundation. That comes through here.

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Friday Five: 1978

I remember a few things really vividly from 1978. I remember going to the movies in East L.A. to see Grease for the second time. I remember going to what was then called Mann’s Chinese Theater to see Superman for the first time. I remember watching “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Incredible Hulk” on TV. I remember first grade, and I remember playing at the house of the family who took care of us after school.

There’s a lot of good music that came out in 1978 that I would grow to appreciate much later. I don’t have any memories of Elvis Costello and the Attractions album This Year’s Model, for example, but I’ve really grown to love it in my adulthood. The same is true for The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls and Who Are You by The Who. Steve Miller’s second greatest hits album–an album that would be a big part of my college years–came out that year, too.

And then there’s all the music that came out in 1978 that I do remember from that time. “Macho Man” from the Village People, “Le Freak” by Chic, and nearly every song on the soundtrack to Grease are songs that can take me back to those times, or the fragmentary memories of those times that I’ve recycled in my minds millions of times since then.

Here’s 5 songs from 1978 that respect both my nostalgic tendencies while also being worthy of a listen.

5. “Summer Nights” (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John)
Grease was the big hit of 1978, so big that me and my sister saw it more than once. I remember buying the video in the early 90s and watching it for the first time as an adult. I was shocked at how much of the plot revolved around sex. Mostly, I was shocked that I had been allowed to see it when I was so young. I know most of the plot went right over my the head but I totally understood that Rizzo thought she was pregnant. This song–a favorite sing-a-long for me and my sister–is a great example of the innuendo as well as the quality of the songs that help make John Travolta into an even bigger star just one year after Saturday Night Fever.

4. “Copacabana” (Barry Manilow)
Barry Manilow was big stuff in 1978, too. His album–Even Now–was a small hit factory for him, going triple platinum and spawning four radio hits. I’m not going to make the argument that it’s a great album but I can say the album was one of the favorites of my sister and me. I have flashes of memories of some kind of dance routine she would make us do in dress up to this song. Hey, even small kids weren’t immune from the disco era. The song’s main appeal for me, I think, was the story that Manilow tells through it. I’m not sure it has survived the ages like other disco hits but the kitsch of it alone makes it worth a listen.

3. “September” (Earth, Wind & Fire)
Earth, Wind & Fire are one of the pillars of the disco era, an embodiment of the parts of the genre that were more than commercial pop. Maurice White was the real deal in his day, and the music he and his brother and the whole army of band members made survives the decades on its artistry, skill, and groove. The group was also one of the favorites of my parents. I have so many memories of listening to their albums during my youth. This song is without a doubt my favorite of theirs. It’s also one the best disco songs ever recorded. It’s such a remarkably simple song, but it sounds like happiness to me. There are only a few songs of this genre that I can listen to forever, without ever getting tired of them. This is at the top of that list.

2. “Hot Blooded” (Foreigner)
I find this song–the first single from Foreigner’s Double Vision–to be one of the funniest songs in rock history. It’s crass. It’s simple-minded and blunt. It’s also surprising how sexually problematic the song is. If you just read the lyrics you’d probably be offended, if not in 1978 then certainly now. I mean, it’s kind of aggressive in an almost borderline illegal, all the way inappropriate way. All that said, it’s not on this week’s list to highlight either of those qualities. No, I can honestly say that “Hot Blooded” is one of my favorite rock songs–ever. The driving guitar and Lou Gramm’s vocals are a mighty combo. His range is on display in full force here. Try singing this one during your next karaoke night and you’ll feel the skill involved in making this overly-produced piece of lyrical stupidity. Despite itself, the song rocks.

1. “Beast of Burden” (The Rolling Stones)
I don’t remember “Beast of Burden” as a late 70s song. I can’t remember when I first heard it at all. I think it says something about the quality of the song that it feels like it’s an earlier Stones song to me. In general, I find it difficult to make a top 5 list of my favorite Rolling Stones’ songs. It’s a rotating list of about a dozen songs because I like so much of their music and because they are the greatest rock and roll band of all time. This song makes it in there more often than not. Knowing what I know now about when it came out, I can also say its my favorite post-Sticky Fingers song.

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Chicano Vietnam Veterans

My work on Chicano/Latino communities and the Vietnam War was featured in a front page story in last Sunday’s Inland Valley Bulletin. The story also ran in other small papers throughout the LA area, since the IVB paper is part of a group of local papers covering most of the Southland. You can read the full story here.

dad

There are a few errors and inaccuracies in it. For example, I never refer to the process of oral histories as “giving a voice” to anybody. In most situations, we are all people who have a voice and who have the ability to “speak it” in a literal and symbolic way. The work of the oral historian is to seek it out, to record it, and to preserve it in an intentional act that is done in relationship to the narrator. But when we see ourselves as “giving voice” to subjects who didn’t have one to begin with, we start to recreate a lot of the problematic power imbalances that created that misperception in the first place.

In any case, these are small discrepancies for me considering the context. I mean, it’s a newspaper, not an academic journal article. I will say that going from a seemingly casual conversation about my work with a reporter to a feature story on it is a good lesson in how to be better prepared to speak to reporters in the future.

Overall, I was honored that my work gave the newspaper an reason to highlight the experiences of tens of thousands of veterans and their families. I’m also glad that more people who are the subject of my work now know about it.

One of the nice results was that the various papers also spotlighted some of the veterans I’ve interviewed. In some, the stories of my dad and uncle were spotlighted. You can read that article here. And in other papers the story of Louis Ramirez was featured in a thoughtful write-up. You can read that one here.

This history means a lot to me. A big part of that is the fact that it means a lot to thousands more.

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Friday Five: 1977

This is the year.

The movie Star Wars was released on May 25, 1977. I don’t remember that day or much of anything related to the event of the release. Since I was 5, that’s not surprising. I don’t even remember watching the movie for the first time. But I do remember that my entire cultural life afterwards was related to the Star Wars universe in some way, shape, or form. It was what I played. It was the toys I bought, the drawings I made, the imagination I indulged in. Star Wars was everything.

On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died. I do remember that day. It rained in southern California. I remember being with my mom in the parking lot of Zody’s when we heard the news on the radio. Elvis has always been another little obsession of mine. The music, the movies, the entire popular culture that grew around him in life and continued to thrive in his death, it all was a measurable part of the things I love.

Let’s take a lot at 1977 musically. These are 5 songs from that year that meant something to me in the years after.

5. “Nickel and Dime” (Journey)
Journey will always be a band best known for the music they released beginning in 1978, when lead singer Steve Perry came aboard. I certainly never heard of them until 1981, when the Perry-fronted band released Escape. (More on that album in a month.) But Journey is really the band of guitarist Neal Schon, who played with Santana before leaving to form his own band. They released three albums before Perry, each reflective of their “prog rock” origins that owe much to Schon’s guitar and Bay Area rock culture. This is one of my favorites from their 1977 album Next, a song I obsessed over in the late 1990s.

4. “Celebrate Me Home”(Kenny Loggins)
I can’t explain why I seem to know Kenny Loggins so well. He’s just one of those musical acts who was well-placed in the media during my upbringing. He was a fixture on the radio stations we listened to in the car, too. This track from his 1977 debut solo album (he had already been a part of the successful duo “Loggins and Messina”) is one of those lingering songs for me. I also remember him singing this on TV, probably during the holiday seasons. It’s a good song, one that spotlights his talents well. There’s also a little bit of the sound that would dominate 80s pop emerging in the track, a credit to his influence.

3. “Three Little Birds” (Bob Marley)
I don’t remember knowing of the existence of Bob Marley before his untimely death in 1981. I do remember hearing his music in high school, and becoming somewhat obsessed with his music and life in the early 90s while in college. College has turned Marley into music for drinking or getting high, but he is so much better than the individual tracks that make up the typical playlist. In the 90s, I started to listen to Bob Marley an album at a time, from the beginning forward. I grew in my appreciation for his talent and also for his visionary message. This song, from his 1977 album Exodus, is a deceptively simple song. In context, you get a sense of how much it thrives on the amazing talents of everyone involved with what is arguably his best studio album.

2. “Come Sail Away” (Styx)
Styx is one of those things that I sometimes feel like I have to defend. In my older age, I’ve stopped feeling that as much. Groups like them or like Foreigner were really good at what they did. Maybe it wasn’t the most important music ever made, but it was good. It fulfilled the expectations of the pop rock genre and did it in big, bold, funny, and sometimes (often) melodramatic ways. What works is that they take themselves seriously, as well they should. That genuine caring for their sound and their fans translated onto vinyl. This song is one of their biggest hits from one of their biggest albums. It is a great example of all they did well, and all they did to excess. It is 70s mightiness!

1. “Dreams” (Fleetwood Mac)
I really love Fleetwood Mac. Even though I wasn’t old enough to be a part of their meteoric rise in the 70s, their music still has a very close relationship to me and my musical identity. But it’s a very “academic” kind of thing, too. They’re not a personal thing for me in the same way the are/were for those who loved them and lived through those times. I understand what they meant, and as I got into their music it started to become a very personal thing for me as a fan, maybe even as a historian.

All this is related to why I picked this song. For me, this is not their best song. It’s not even my favorite song. I do love it. But, more importantly, it is a musical sound that transports me back to the feeling of those times more than any other. That’s saying something, because there hasn’t been a time that this song hasn’t been a fixture of FM radio since its release. That my feeling of it is “70s” and not “80s” must mean something.

“Dreams” is the only song from Fleetwood Mac to make it to #1 on the pop charts. It’s from the album Rumors, which was not only their biggest album but also one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. The really rich recording warmth of a vinyl sound, the drums, and Stevie Nicks voice make it all happen.

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My Day in LA

I finished my fourth marathon last Sunday, clocking in my worst time ever at 7:16:25. That’s about an hour slower than I had hoped for and than I had trained for.

To give you a perspective on my time, Daniel Kiprop Limo–the man from Kenya who won the race–finished in 2:10:36. He could have run 3 of his marathons in the time it took me to run mine!

To give you another perspective, that medal Mr. Limo is wearing in the above photo? I have one just like it.

The big story of this year’s marathon was the heat. It was projected to hit into the low 90s which is dangerous weather for running. Vast stretches of the course are pretty sun-exposed, too, which was cause for concern. I prepared for the heat by taking a lesson from folks who work out in the sun on a regular basis.

The hat paid off. I never felt overwhelmed by heat, even in the stretch between 17 and 20 where I kind of fear the course. The hat not only blocked out the sun and let in the air, it also worked well when I put handfuls of ice in it. Just like my own personal air conditioner. The course also cooled off noticeably after mile 23, with the ocean providing a little breeze, too.

My downfall this year was a massive blister on my right foot that limited my 1 minute run, 1 minute walk pace around mile 14. From about 16 onward I just walked it, unable to take the pain of a running step.

I’ve never had a problem with blisters. They’re either the product of bad feet, bad gear, or bad prep. Since I haven’t had them before, and I knew my gear already, it was probably my own doing. I likely didn’t tie my shoes tight enough (I always fear going too tight!) and that little bit of room meant a foot sliding ever so slightly, which caused the blister.

I’ll spare you the photo but the thing covered about half of the top half of my foot, right where you put pressure on a running step. Today my ankles and back are sore from my compensating for it, 10 miles of walking while trying not to walk on it. Tough stuff. But also the stuff that makes this whole thing so rewarding.

Here is the start line just before us regular people started the race.

They said more than 26000 signed up. Only 21958 finished. From what I hear there were maybe a few thousand who started but didn’t make it to the finish. Maybe a thousand or two thought twice after hearing the weather reports and just decided not to show up.

My wife worked a support tent at mile 20. I couldn’t do this without her support in numerous ways and at numerous levels. It sure made it easier to see her there.

After the race, we went to my folks’ house where I showered and ate. My mom made green chile enchiladas, rice, and beans–a perfect post-race meal.

They made a good next day breakfast and lunch, too!

All in all, I can’t say I’m disappointed in my performance. The struggle is a predictable thing in a marathon, the question is what you’re going to do to get through it. The same can be said about a whole lot more things, too.


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2015 LA Marathon

Tomorrow morning I’ll be running the 2015 LA Marathon. It’ll be my fourth marathon overall, and my third LA.

I’m not a very athletic person, either now or in any stage of my youth. As a result, my first marathon was much more a mental exercise than a physical one. I mean, the physical part took lots of training and was hard at nearly every level, but it was nothing compared to getting my head around the fact that this was something I could do. Once I got through that first one, each one since has been easier–even when they’ve been terrible in terms of the physical challenge.

I haven’t run a marathon since 2011, but this year’s training has been real smooth. Unfortunately, it’s projected to be about 90 degrees tomorrow so that training isn’t going to spare me much of a struggle. What will get me through the exhaustion and the pain, and through the feeling that you just want to give up, is a set of things that makes me do this in the first place:

  • My kids. I will think of them a lot tomorrow.
  • My wife. I can’t do this without her support. Everything good and meaningful in my life comes through her support.
  • The understanding that I do this because I can. I have a choice where others do not, both to train to do this and to feel the pain of doing it. Tomorrow I will think of all the people in my family who had to suffer the physical pain of something in their life when they had no choice. I am here because of that sacrifice.

And so, it will hurt and I will wish I didn’t sign-up to do this. But it’s going to feel great, too. 



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Friday Five: 1976

I have lots of memories of things related to 1976 but I’m fairly sure the memories are not from that year. After all I was only 4. So the odds that I remember seeing a commercial for the movie “Rocky” is probably inaccurate. More likely it was a commercial from a re-release of the film sometime later.

That said, it’s was a sweet year for the things I’ve come to love since. 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!

It’s a big year for the music I love, too. One of my all-time favorite songs came out in 1976. And, as disco continued to sneak into the charts, songs related to my future obsession with hard rock had a monumental year.

Here’s five worth listening to from 1976:

5. “Sir Duke” (Stevie Wonder)
From about 1969 to 1980, Stevie Wonder’s productivity and creativity set a new standard in popular music. His best work is probably a subset of those years, for me, 1970 to 1976. Beginning with the release of Signed, Sealed & Delivered album and ending with the release of Songs in the Key of Life he is just about untouchable. “Sir Duke” was one of the singles released from that last album. It remains one of my favorite Stevie songs–a list whose length rivals the full catalogs of other performers. I have memories of listening to this album in the 80s. For that matter, I have memeories of listening to it last week.

 

4. “Crazy on You” (Heart)
I have a deep and abiding love for 70s rock in all its diversity. Heart has a special place in that for me. The sound of their debut album fits with a collection of works that feel like they’re more stripped down and raw than some of the other stuff of the decade. In a way, Heart feels closer to what I love in Black Sabbath than what I love in early Journey or Led Zeppelin. They’re the real deal, without all the production tricks. Nothing says that more than their debut album Dreamboat Annie and the single that made them stars, “Crazy on You.” I still get chills from Nancy Wilson’s guitar and Ann’s voice. They’re style and power. Here’s a live performance from 1977 that I’ve grown fond of watching…

 

3. “The Boys Are Back in Town” (Thin Lizzy)
I’m a fan of Thin Lizzy and especially Phil Lynott, their lead singer. As you can probably tell, I like to analyze most things–hell, it’s what I do for a living. Musically speaking, I’ve thought about Thin Lizzy a lot. I acknowledge there’s little special about them on the surface. Each of their parts–lyrics, guitar, bass, or voice–are individually good but maybe not great. But the combination of what they were and what they sounded like… I often think about what it must have been like to see them live in some smokey dank basement club in Ireland in the 70s. This song has become a radio standard. There’s an un-self-conscious simplicity to it, maybe even kind of dumbness. But I do love it so.

For a little change, and for a better taste of how you can mock the song and still show deep love, here is Reggie Watts performing it when Conan O’Brien returned to New York for a week of shows.

 

2. “T.N.T. (AC/DC)
Again with the masculinist, stripped down, hard rock. AC/DC wasn’t pretending to be anything other than a testosterone-filled, abrasive rock army. Their first US-release, 1976’s High Voltage, is a fantastic sample of what they were before lead singer Bon Scott and the boys became the mega stars they would become. There is a hard to beat guitar in almost every song. There is humor and overt sexuality. There is rock. Bon Scott has a way of both terrifying and charming you. Sometimes he even makes you feel a little icky. There is an overt masculinity to their music that is so front and center and yet so seemingly unintentional it can’t be anything other than problematic. They present themselves like a bunch of drunk boys who want to beat you up with music. This live performance of the song captures it all, I think. Just check out the audience.

 

1. “Takin’ it to the Streets” (Doobie Brothers)
Phase two of the Doobie Brothers career–the post Tom Johnston, Michael McDonald, pre-Tom Johnston coming back years–is a mixed bag for me. There are a lot of tracks on their albums that are just so-so, but the ones that hit for me are some of my favorite songs ever, songs I can turn to almost anytime. McDonald’s voice and piano are always appealing to me, but I’m just not a big fan of most of his music. “Minute By Minute,” “What a Fool Believes,” and this song are three of the great exceptions. They’re three of my favorite Doobie Brother’s songs, with “Streets” in my eternal playlist. I’ve seen the Doobie Brothers in concert three times (all in the 1990s and early 2000s) and Michael McDonald once. Hearing him play this song made that as good a show as any of the other three. Here’s the album cut of the song, though there are multiple live versions online that I like. (The song grows with McDonald over the years as his voice matures and his bands evolve.)

In a pairing of two things I loved, The Doobie Brothers guest starred on a two-part episode of “What’s Happening!” where Rerun was paid to make an illegal recording of their concert. You can watch part one here and watch part two here. Sorry for the annoying banner.

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