I am incredibly thrilled to accept The Baseball Reliquary's invitation to deliver the Keynote Address for their 20th annual Shrine of the Eternals Induction Day, which will be held Sunday, July 22nd at the Pasadena Central Library. This year's inductees include legendary White Sox organist Nancy Faust and White Sox/Dodgers/Yankees/Angels pitcher Tommy John, both of whom will be in attendance.
The Baseball Reliquary is a nonprofit, educational organization dedicated to fostering an appreciation of American art and culture through the context of baseball history — so it should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has read my baseball books that I've a big fan of the organization and its mission for a long time. (I mean, their collections include Dock Ellis's infamous CURLERS, people!)
Previous inductees to the Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals include such personal heroes as Dock Ellis, Dick Allen, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Luis Tiant and Jim "Mudcat" Grant, so it will be a huge honor for me to speak at this year's induction ceremonies, especially since Nancy Faust, Tommy John and fellow 2018 inductee Rusty Staub all played such formative roles in my early baseball fandom.
The induction (which is free and open to all) will be held almost three years to the day since Katie and I moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, and I can think of no better excuse to return to Southern California for a few days. If you love baseball and live in SoCal, please mark your calendars for this fantastic event!
Simon & Garfunkel's brilliant Bookends LP turns 50 today.
I've long thought of this album as the Jewish Sgt. Pepper's; so on the occasion of the album's Golden Anniversary, I took the opportunity to reflect upon its Jewish Pepper-iness for the Jewish Daily Forward. You can read it here. (Though as my friend and former Jupiter Affect bandmate Michael Quercio has pointed out, I neglected to mention the contributions of co-producer Roy Halee; it was an oversight on my part, and not meant in any way to minimize his role in what is probably my all-time favorite S&G album.)
A few other recent pieces by yours truly that you might enjoy:
A Rolling Stone essay on Burt Reynolds' amazing performance in the new film The Last Movie Star, and why we should take a new look at his underrated filmography.
An October conversation with Wayne Coyne of the FLaming Lips about his band's forthcoming Record Store Day music and beer collaboration with Dogfish Head Craft Brewing.
A look back on the making of Meshuggah's landmark ObZen LP for Revolver.
A look back on the making of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon for Rolling Stone.
Oh right — though it's still cold, damp and dreary in much of the US right now, baseball season has started. And if you happen to be in Chicago on April 17, come on out to the American Writers Museum (located at 180 N. Michigan Ave, just up the street from Millennium Park), and see me and my fellow scribes Josh Wilker, Joe Bonomo and Ricky Cobb read from our baseball writings and those of the baseball authors who inspired us. It should be a lot of fun — and you can get your tickets here.
Happy April, everybody!
So sad to hear about the passing of Rusty Staub. I know he was much beloved by Mets and Expos fans, but for me he'll always be an All-Star outfielder on the 1976 Detroit Tigers, the first MLB team I ever fell in love with. He was also, by all accounts, a warm and lovely person, which ultimately counts way more than his considerable accomplishments on the field. Rest in Funky Peace, Le Grand Orange.
In honor of Eddie Money's funky birthday, here's a sweet Robert Landau shot of Eddie's Life For The Taking ("Hey, take my life, please!") billboard on the Sunset Strip in early 1979. My sister and I moved to L.A. right around the time this photo would have been taken, and I vividly remember driving past that Cher billboard in our mom's Toyota Corolla, as we took the long way home from Tower Records just so we could check out all the Strip advertising...
Twenty years later, I would interview the Money Man himself for BAM magazine. Even though it was a phoner, it remains one of my favorite interviews I've ever done. You can read the whole thing here: https://lavieenrobe.typepad.com/files/money-1.pdf
When I moved with my mom and sister to Chicago from Los Angeles at the tail end of 1979, I knew little about the Windy City beyond which sports teams called it home. But there were two things that I was certain would happen once I set foot in Chicago: 1) I would become a White Sox fan, and 2) WLUP (a.k.a. "The Loop") would be "my" radio station.
These two things were, of course, inextricably linked via the infamous "Disco Demolition" promotion at Comiskey Park during the summer of 1979, wherein WLUP DJ Steve Dahl blew up a mountain of disco records in the outfield between the halves of a double header, and hundreds of wasted rock fans swarmed the field to celebrate. The controversial event put Dahl and the radio station on the national map, and put them squarely on my radar, as well — even though I was seven hundred miles away (spending part of my summer vacation with my grandparents in Tuscaloosa, Alabama) at the time.
I loved disco music, but I also had to admit that the market had become completely over-saturated with songs for and/or about dancing, the majority of them several notches in quality below what I considered to be the "good stuff" (Chic, Bee Gees, Sylvester, Donna Summer); and having already become completely cynical about the way the American public dutifully gobbled up any trend that People magazine or 20/20 told them was hip and happening, I found it refreshing to observe what appeared to be a consumer rebellion against the "product" foisted upon them by the record business. (That said "rebellion" had a racist and possibly homophobic undercurrent to it was entirely lost on me at the time.) And as a 13 year-old boy with an adolescent male's intrinsic attraction to all things rowdy and radical, I watched the TV news footage of the Disco Demolition riot and desperately wished that I could have been there to witness all the fuck-shit-upping in person.
My musical tastes were also shifting and changing, with the intense rapidity that only seems to occur when you're in your teens. Brilliant power pop singles like Bram Tchaikovsky's "Girl of My Dreams," Sniff N' the Tears' "Driver's Seat" and Blondie's "Dreaming" were pulling me away from disco as the summer of 1979 turned to fall; and at the same time, the hard rock sounds of KMET-FM were increasingly distracting me from the Top 40 stations on Southern California's AM dial. As if my obsession with Strat-O-Matic Baseball wasn't sufficiently nerdy enough, I'd started playing Dungeons & Dragons with a couple of school pals, and the stuff KMET typically played — Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Queen, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd — had a heavier, more mysterious vibe that offered a better soundtrack for orc-slaying than anything on KHJ-AM or Ten-Q.
KMET also broadcast The Dr. Demento Show every Sunday night, and the good Doctor regularly played "Do You Think I'm Disco" and "Ayatollah," two novelty tunes (based on Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" and the Knack's "My Sharona," respectively) recorded by Steve Dahl with his backing band Teenage Radiation. So by the time we were ready to leave L.A. that December, my ears had basically become completely primed for what WLUP had to offer — namely, Dahl (and his co-host Garry Meier) hilariously pushing the bounds of comedic taste in the morning, and heavy AOR action the rest of the day. While my nascent White Sox fandom would never really flourish, despite my great affection for Bill Veeck (that uninspiring 1980 Sox squad was a long way down the road from the glory of the 1977 South Side Hitmen, and Comiskey Park turned out to be a pain in the ass to get to from our apartment on the Near North Side), The Loop was there for me from the first time I turned on my clock radio in my new bedroom. And it was everything I wanted it to be.
And much more, really. Within the first week of regular listening, the station turned me on to AC/DC, UFO, Thin Lizzy, Rush, ZZ Top, April Wine, Angel City (a.k.a. The Angels), Montrose and Rainbow, to name several bands whose existence I'd been (at best) only dimly aware of before moving to Chicago. WLUP dug deeper into aforementioned Led Zep, Tull, Queen, Purple and Floyd catalogs than KMET ever did, while also serving up proggier stuff like Yes, ELP and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and more straight-up rock fare like the Who, Heart, Aerosmith, Foghat, Bad Company, Humble Pie, Robin Trower, Joe Walsh, Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen, much of which was pretty new to me, as well. And not just these artists' hits, but deep cuts as well — especially if you tuned in later on in the evening.
After decades of ossified "classic rock" programming, where "Free Bird" is inevitably followed by "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Stairway to Heaven," it's kind of hard to convey just how exciting and eye-opening this all seemed at the time; I felt like I'd gotten a free ticket to a far cooler world than the one I actually inhabited, and every week I seemed to hear something else that opened up new dimensions in my musical universe. Come the spring of 1980, The Loop would be the station that hipped me to Def Leppard's first album, On Through the Night, as well as Van Halen's Women and Children First, Pete Townshend's Empty Glass, and Judas Priest's British Steel, all of which I still love to this day. And while the station pushed "local boys" Styx, REO Speedwagon and Survivor way too hard for my taste, they made up for it with endless spins of Cheap Trick deep cuts — I swear I must have heard them play every single song off Heaven Tonight and Dream Police at one time or another in the spring of 1980...
Cheap Trick really were the consummate Loop band, circa 1980, in that they embodied a musical world in which hard-driving, arena-ready guitar rock could happily co-exist with sharp, crunchy, catchy-as-all-hell power pop. Because along with all the bong-rattling sounds mentioned above, WLUP program director Sky Daniels kept the New Wave-friendly likes of Tom Petty, Blondie, Pretenders, Pat Benatar, the Romantics, the B-52s, Flying Lizards, the Clash, the Ramones, Todd Rundgren (and Utopia), Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Joe Jackson, and even the syntho-futurist sounds of Gary Numan's "Cars" in regular rotation. Off Broadway, a brilliant power pop band out of nearby Oak Park, had a massive local hit at the time with the song "Stay In Time," but The Loop also gave regular spins to three other killer tracks — "Full Moon Turn My Head Around and Around," "Bully Bully" and "Bad Indication" — from On, the band's debut album.
My ears were wide-open to all of this, but even at the time I sensed it was an unusual mixture. I have a vivid memory from that spring of walking down Michigan Avenue on a Saturday morning, on my way to the animation class I was taking at the Art Institute, and seeing three scary-looking, denim-clad stoner dudes in their late teens walking towards me, one of them carrying a giant boom box. As they got closer, I noticed that the radio was completely covered with Loop stickers, and that it was blasting "Back of My Hand" by British band the Jags — which was being played on WLUP at that moment. These were exactly the kind of guys who, back in L.A., would have called me "Devo" for wearing short hair and a skinny tie, and threatened to kick my ass unless I could name at least four songs off of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. But on this morning, we just gave each other a friendly grunt of "The Loop!" over the sprightly tune of a track that was essentially Costello-lite; after all, if The Loop was playing it, it had to be cool, right?
That was the kind of cultural impact The Loop had in those days, at least among rock listeners in Chicago; I would estimate that at around 75 percent of the things I talked about at school with my friends that spring were based on what we'd heard on The Loop. (Most of the other 25 percent had to do with either embattled Mayor Jane Byrne and convicted serial killer John Wayne Gacy, both of whom were also subjects of Teenage Radiation parodies.) We would sometimes even go to Steve & Garry's early-morning "Breakfast Club" broadcasts from the Carnegie Theater (which was only a few blocks away from Ogden, where I attended the second half of eighth grade), or hang out after school around the elevator banks of the John Hancock Building, where WLUP's studio and offices were located, in hopes of catching Steve Dahl on his way home — and despite his stature as the premiere radio bad boy of the day, he was incredibly pleasant to us the few times we actually met him. When we went to Chicagofest '80 that August at Navy Pier, the Loop booth was probably the most popular attraction outside of the live music stages; it was completely swarmed by long-haired guys and gals wearing faded plaid flannel shirts over black t-shirts that read, "The Loop FM 98 — Where Chicago Rocks". It was like a tribe, one which I felt stoked and proud to belong to.
So it's kind of amazing, in retrospect, to look back and realize that I was pretty much "done" with The Loop by fall of 1981. Part of it had to do with WLUP's unexpected firing of Steve & Garry that February, which made mornings a lot less fun and cast a pall over the station as a whole; but a bigger part of it had to do with the changes that were happening in the rock landscape, as well as in my own head. When I first started listening to the station, the perfect rock dreamworld that WLUP presented and represented seemed magically infinite, like it was going to keep expanding (and rocking!) forever; in reality, it was on the verge of running out of gas. By the end of 1980, John Lennon was dead, Led Zeppelin was done, Queen had gone funky, Pink Floyd was on post-Wall hiatus, and UFO, Thin Lizzy and most of the other Loop mainstays were reaching the point of diminished artistic returns. The brief, Knack-fueled industry vogue for "skinny tie" bands had also cratered, which meant that most of the New Wave-associated acts that once dotted the playlist were now persona non grata. WLUP filled the void with the platinum-selling likes of REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity, Styx's Paradise Theater, Phil Collins' Face Value, the Who's Face Dances, Journey's Escape and Foreigner's 4, all of which were grisly enough on their own but profoundly depressing when taken in toto. I instinctively knew I was going to need something angrier and more interesting to help me survive the Reagan years, so I eventually gravitated down the dial to WXRT, which at least played the likes of the Clash, Costello, Parker, Ramones, etc., even if you had to sit through shitloads of Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell to get to them...
Nevertheless, I have to admit that I felt some sadness when I heard the news that WLUP was bought out by a Christian broadcasting group and will, for the first time since its inception in 1977, cease to play rock music. I can't say that I've even listened to the station in 25 years, and I certainly spent much of the decade before that actively avoiding (and even mocking) it. But that first year-and-a-half of Loop listening completely changed my life — it made me care about music on a much deeper level than I ever had before, and made me want to play (and write about) it — and the news of WLUP's demise reminds me of how lucky and grateful I am that I got to experience the station during its early peak, at a time in my life where I was completely receptive to what it was layin' down. It's like hearing about the death of a ballplayer whom I passionately rooted for as a kid, or of a former best friend whom I hadn't heard from in 35 years; my current life won't be impacted at all by WLUP's absence, and yet respect must still be paid for the difference that it made. Thanks for rocking me, WLUP.
It was only a four-block walk down Walton Place from our new apartment to our new school, but those four blocks gave me a near-kaleidoscopic primer on daily Chicago life circa early 1980.
That ten-minute amble from Lake Shore Drive to Ogden Elementary — the school where I would conclude eighth grade and my sister would finish out sixth — took us from the luxury apartment buildings of the city’s “Gold Coast” to the neon- (and bodily fluids-) encrusted adult playground of the Rush Street district. It took us past where the Drake and the Knickerbocker, two of Chicago’s poshest old hotels, cast disapproving glances at each other from across Walton; past the massive limestone edifice of the Playboy Building, which seemed to simultaneously absorb and disgorge a constant stream of well-groomed older men in expensive trench coats; past swinging singles in velour jogging suits, and wasted winos passed out in doorways; past upscale restaurants, greasy-spoon diners, fortune-telling parlors, glittery discos and the area’s last-remaining strip clubs and adult bookstores, all of them laying in the infernal shade of the giant, criss-crossed black pylon known as the John Hancock Building.
The third block of our walk, the one between Michigan Avenue and Rush Street, was my favorite. It took the longest to traverse, but I was always fascinated by how rapidly it transformed — decayed, really — as we walked west towards Rush, where the adult hotspots like Faces disco and the Cabaret were clustered. Holding down the northwest end of the block was a two-story glass-and-steel rectangle that housed a liquor store, a Hamburger Hamlet, and the Universal Recording Corporation; the latter was a studio where, according to my new stepfather, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters and many other legendary artists had recorded.
At a time when the process of making records was still a total magical mystery to me, it was thrilling just to be able to walk past the front door of a genuine, big-time recording studio, even if I never actually witnessed anyone (famous or otherwise) leaving or entering it. A branch of the Downtown Records retail chain sat directly across the street, its long glass windows filled with promotional displays for the latest hits, and I imagined albums being cut at Universal during the night and appearing freshly pressed, sleeved and shrink-wrapped in the Downtown bins the following morning.
Far less alluring was Bughouse Square, the small, dreary park that sat just beyond our school, across from the ancient Newbury Library. Though its official title was Washington Square Park, the place had earned its seedy-sounding nickname in the early years of the century, when it served as a gathering place for radical speakers and their receptive (and sometimes abusive) audiences. It was now primarily known as a gay cruising ground, one lent additional notoriety by rumors that John Wayne Gacy had picked up some of his unfortunate victims there. Though my schoolmates and I could (and did) crack gruesome Gacy jokes all day long, we gave Bughouse Square a wide birth; the killer clown was now in prison, about to stand trial for killing 33 young men and boys, but the residue of his evil still seemed to hang over the place like a foul fog.
One grey and chilly morning in mid-February, I stood by myself on Ogden’s playground, waiting for the bell to ring and usher us inside for the first day of school since the unscheduled break we’d received courtesy of the Chicago Teachers Union’s ten-day walkout. As my schoolmates milled about the blacktop, I found myself gazing out at Bughouse Square, and nervously wondering whether the large, low shapes I could see scurrying about the nearest corner of the park were squirrels, stray cats or some of Chicago’s legendary “super rats”. My queasy reverie was interrupted by a hoarse shout coming from my right.
“Blood on the streets! Blood on the rocks! Blood in the gutter!”
It was Joe, a little, red-faced, straw-haired Irish kid from my grade. Wrapped in an inappropriately lightweight blue nylon jacket, his gloveless hands jammed into the front pockets of his faded, greasy blue jeans, Joe was attempting to ward off the damp February cold by jumping up and down and hollering the chorus of AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It).”
Standing next to Joe was Justin, a strapping, dark-haired Jewish kid who lived in one of the nicer buildings near me on Walton, and whose camel’s hair overcoat obviated any need for chill-deflecting calisthenics. Justin chucked indulgently as his diminutive pal bounced around and screamed, his chuckles turning to outright guffaws whenever Joe free-formed some lyrics of his own. “A BLOW JOB in the streets!” Joe screeched. “A BLOW JOB in the streets!” Never underestimate the ability of an adolescent boy to ratchet up the gross-out factor at a moment’s notice…
As with Thin Lizzy, Rush and UFO, AC/DC was a band whose existence I’d only been dimly aware of before moving to Chicago from Los Angeles at the end of 1979. The first time I’d ever even heard of AC/DC had been in December 1978, shortly after my sister and I had moved to L.A. from Ann Arbor; my mom had driven us to the Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, where she’d parked her beat-up red Toyota Corolla under a large, painted rendering of the cover for the band’s then-new live album, If You Want Blood. My mom seemed disgusted by the album cover’s bloody artwork, which showed guitarist Angus Young being stabbed by the neck of his own Gibson SG, and which of course I thought was pretty cool. I did wonder, though, about the band’s risqué-sounding name, which I recognized from my surreptitious readings of Playboy and Penthouse as slang for “bisexual”. Hmmm…
Maybe their name had kept AC/DC from getting much airplay in the places I’d lived and visited during the late 1970s, or maybe I just hadn’t been listening to the right radio stations. When I moved to Chicago during the last week of 1979, I quickly discovered that local FM rock powerhouses WLUP (a.k.a. “The Loop”) and WMET were playing the living shit out of ‘em — and not just their newest songs, but also cuts that spanned the Australian hard rock band’s entire back catalog. “Let There Be Rock,” “T.N.T.,” “Problem Child,” “High Voltage,” “Sin City” and “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” all seemed to be in regular rotation, and they all sounded brash, ballsy and incredibly intoxicating to my young and receptive ears. But none of them hit me quite like the songs from their latest album, Highway to Hell.
Sure, it’s easy for me to say in retrospect that Highway to Hell was slicker, cleaner, more polished and more “radio friendly” than AC/DC’s previous records, but such distinctions meant absolutely nothing to me at the time. And even if they had, I’m not sure my ears could have adequately parsed the difference via the quarter-sized monophonic speaker of my Panasonic RC 6030 clock radio. The songs’ punchy hooks were unmissable, however, as was the swaggering attitude and cheeky sense of humor that radiated from the gravelly larynx of Bon Scott as he rode bareback to the finish line upon Malcolm and Angus Young’s raging and roiling riffs.
With his schoolboy costume and manic guitar solos, Angus was undoubtedly AC/DC’s star attraction, but it was all about Bon for me. I could practically hear the randy gleam in his eye as the band burned through “Shot Down in Flames,” a song in which he struck out repeatedly in his attempts to get laid, yet still had the wherewithal to cackle self-mockingly at his rotten luck. I could visualize his lupine leer on “Touch Too Much,” in which he lustily described a woman as having “the body of Venus… WITH ARMS!” And though I’d yet to listen to much actual punk rock up to that point, I’d read plenty about it in newspapers and magazines — and Bon’s lyrics and vocals on “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” struck me as exactly what I imagined punk to sound like: furious, confrontational, and steeped to the bone in festering working-class resentment of the rich and powerful. “It’s animaaaaal, living in a human zoo,” he growled with the bug-eyed intensity of a man about to hurl a brick through the nearest bank window. “It’s animaaaaal, the shit that they toss to you.” (Nearly four decades later, this line rings truer than ever.)
But for me, the ultimate AC/DC anthem — and the one that almost instantaneously enshrined them as my new favorite band — was Highway to Hell’s title track. The song’s opening guitar riff was like a parent’s angry knock on the door of a bedroom filled with teenagers and bong smoke: it froze you in your tracks, leaving you no choice but to wait in rapt silence for whatever was about to happen next. The insistent thwomp-thwack of Phil Rudd’s drums kicked in, swinging from side to side like the unruly caboose of a hard-chugging freight train. And then, with a croak like a copper door opening to let some fresh air into an ancient mausoleum, Bon Scott stepped up to the microphone...
I honestly couldn’t understand much of what he was gargling about in the song’s opening verse. The only words I definitely caught on first (or even tenth) listen were “It ain’t easy,” “One way ride,” “Leave me be,” “Party time” and “My friends are gonna be there too” — the “there” in question being Hell, which was where Bon was gleefully, unrepentantly heading. While he offered no explicit invitation to join him, his assertion that his pals would be coming along for the ride certainly made it seem like an intriguing option to consider.
Though I considered myself to be fairly sophisticated for a thirteen-year-old, analyzing metaphors was not my strong suit. I still tended to take song lyrics at face value — even after being mercilessly teased at a friend’s birthday party a few years earlier for being the only one in attendance who didn’t know that “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band wasn’t really about skyrockets in flight. (To underline the point, several kids at the table formed thumb-and-finger loops with their left hands, and meaningfully slid their right index fingers in and out of them.)
So when Bon Scott sang of being on the “Highway to Hell,” it didn’t even begin to occur to me that he was actually talking about being out on the road with his bandmates, doing endless strings of sweat-soaked one-nighters that entailed walking a constant line between euphoria and exhaustion. Instead, I vividly pictured him essaying a skin-tight denim strut down a brimstone-paved ramp that led to the fiery depths of Hades, where Beelzebub himself awaited his arrival, pitchfork raised in ebullient welcome. Bon returned the greeting with a hearty “Hey, Satan!”, before bidding a final farewell to his own (undoubtedly appalled) mother. “Hey, Mama,” he cried. “Look at me — I’m on the way to the Promised Land!”
Let me be absolutely clear about something right here: I adored my mom, rarely clashed with her about anything outside of my grades or my semi-regular bursts of adolescent stubbornness, and never had any wish whatsoever to cause her pain. And yet, that “Hey, Mama” line was the moment that really sealed the deal for me. Because not only was this guy enthusiastically joining the teeming ranks of the damned, but he was also giving his mother a raised-middle-finger salute on his way down. And that had to be the most straight-up radical shit I’d ever heard in my life.
Driving it home even further for me was the song’s climax, which occurred four gang-choruses after the guitar solo: the band slammed on the brakes, Angus viciously scraped his pick across the strings of his guitar, and Bon yowled as if that pick-scrape was actually the sound of his skin being ripped clean off him in one fell swoop by Satan’s henchmen, leaving only a throbbing, man-shaped mass of bloody muscle and raw nerve-endings. I pictured the bug-eyed remains of Bon Scott screaming along to the chorus as the song faded out, his gruesome form kept upright only by the sheer force of his defiant will. “Hey, Mama, look at me,” indeed.
I’d spent most of the teachers’ strike sequestered in my bedroom on the 9th floor of our glass-and-steel Mies Van der Rohe apartment building, reading Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans and a collection of Shakespeare’s tragedies — my mom suggested these would be an entertaining and illuminating way to fill my temporary educational void — listening religiously to WLUP on my clock radio, and daydreaming as I watched thick layers of ice form, melt and form again on the inside of my un-insulated bedroom windows. On the slightly warmer days, I would venture out on my own and walk over to Downtown Records, where I scanned AC/DC’s album covers for any stray bits of information I could absorb about the band, and mentally calculated just how many weeks of allowance I’d need to save up in order to purchase my very own copy of Highway to Hell.
It wasn’t a lonely time, per se, since I’ve never really been one to mind a bit of solitude. But the unexpected break from school, coming less than a month after my sister and I had enrolled at Ogden, underlined the fact that I hadn’t made any real friends there yet. I’d gotten on well enough with my new classmates, but it wasn’t like anyone was calling me up to see if I wanted to go to a movie, play Space Invaders at Rubus Game Room or hang out at the Water Tower Place mall, and I didn’t exactly feel comfortable calling anyone to extend a similar invitation.
So, that morning of our first day back, when I heard Joe shouting out that AC/DC song and saw Justin laughing along with him, it seemed like a good time to let them know that I was a big AC/DC fan, too. When the school bell rang, I lined up behind them and said something about how we were back “on the highway to hell.” It was corny, to be sure, but the guys laughed and it seemed to break the ice. The next day before school started, we fell into an easy conversation on the playground, name-checking our favorite AC/DC songs and sharing whatever limited info we possessed about the band. There was more music talk during our lunch break — expanding to include opinions on other hard rock luminaries like Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent and Aerosmith.
We picked up the rock talk again the following morning, and again the morning after that — this time, joined by a few other eighth-grade dudes and a couple of the hipper seventh-graders. A kid named Bruce wowed us all with the story of how his older brother had taken him to see AC/DC a few months earlier at the Aragon Ballroom; he recounted a wild and raucous show with Pat Travers and Molly Hatchet opening, hard-partying fans puking all over themselves, and fragrant billows of pot smoke hanging above the audiece while Angus duck-walked crazily across the stage and Bon led the revelry like a shirtless pirate king. The whole thing sounded way more intense than any concert experience I’d ever had, and I couldn’t wait to join the festivities the next time the good ship AC/DC sailed into town.
Just about a week after our playground music confabs began, my radio alarm went off just as the last part of a breaking news bulletin was coming in over WLUP — the announcer was saying something about Bon Scott dying in London at the age of 33, his lifeless body discovered in someone else’s car after a night on the town. My clock radio, which had alerted me to the sheer awesomeness of AC/DC’s music, now delivered the awful news of Bon’s sudden demise.
In my still-groggy state, I actually thought there was a chance that I might have dreamt the whole thing. The concept of musicians dying before their time wasn’t new to me — I still remembered how sad my Aunt Geri had been on the day that Elvis Presley died, and I couldn’t hear Lynyrd Skynyrd without immediately thinking of their tragic plane crash. But it seemed impossible (not to mention ridiculously unfair) that the lead singer of my new favorite band would suddenly make his final exit not even two months after I’d become a fan of his music.
When I got to school that morning, the glum looks on the faces of my friends confirmed that it hadn’t been a dream at all. “I heard he drank himself to death,” murmured Jimmy, one of the seventh graders, as we huddled together on the chilly playground. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, or what (or even how much) you’d have to drink in order to off yourself like that, but we all nodded in agreement, thinking about how Highway to Hell would be Bon’s epitaph, and his last recorded words to the world would be “Shazbot, Nanu Nanu” — an imitation of Robin Williams’ famous catchphrase from Mork & Mindy, hidden at the end of the album-closing “Night Prowler”.
We stood there in silence until the bell rang, and didn’t have a whole lot more to say to each other for the rest of the day.
You can't talk about major league baseball in the 1970s without talking about Oscar Gamble. Well, maybe you can, but it's impossible for me to conceive of baseball's funkiest decade without him — which is why, back in 2009, when plans for the publication of Big Hair and Plastic Grass were finally underway, I insisted that the St. Martin's Press art department include his image on the book's cover. And which is part of why my heart is so heavy today after learning about his passing at the far-too-young age of 68.
Oscar Gamble was not a superstar. He finished in the MVP voting only once (in 1977, when his 31 home runs for the White Sox earned him exactly one vote), never made an All-Star team, never led the league in any batting or fielding category, never won a World Series ring. He was often benched against left-handed starters, and only once in the course of his 17-year MLB career (1974, his best season with the Indians) did ever he log more than 500 plate appearances. Though he had a better arm than he was generally given credit for — he threw out 10 runners from the outfield in 1976, and another 12 in 1978 — Oscar's range and glove were a tad below average, and thus he spent over a third of his 1584 career MLB games as a designated hitter.
It's true that a player of his particular caliber (he walked more than he struck out, had a lifetime OBP of .356 and a lifetime OPS+ of 127) would likely be more prized today than he was in an era where Triple Crown stats were the be-all/end-all. And yet, Oscar Gamble epitomizes 1970s baseball to me. There was, of course, that gloriously funky Afro of his — arguably the greatest in the history of the game, and which in its peak state could have accommodated three caps simultaneously — and his even funkier batting stance, where he crouched so low at the plate that his elbows practically touched his knees. Both of those things were beautifully emblematic of baseball in the 70s, an era in which ballplayers finally began to feel free to express themselves on a major league diamond. But while he generally looked like the coolest cat at the disco (and he actually owned one — Oscar Gamble's Players Club in Montgomery, Alabama), Oscar always came to play; and despite his less-than-imposing size (5'11, 165 lbs in his prime), he could easily launch a pitch into the stratosphere whenever that left-handed swing uncoiled. Though never a showboat on the level of, say, Mickey Rivers or Reggie Jackson (to name two of his teammates during his Yankees stints), he was nonetheless tremendously entertaining to watch, in part because he seemed to be enjoying himself so damn much out there.
But beyond all that, Oscar Gamble was an intrinsic part of my own 70s baseball experience — he truly was a cornerstone of my love for the game and its history, and ultimately one of the main inspirations behind my baseball writing. His legendary 1976 "Traded" card was in one of the first wax packs I ever opened, which meant that I knew of him before I knew of Mark Fidrych, Dock Ellis, Bill Lee, Luis Tiant, Dick Allen, Lenny Randle, or any of my other favorite players from the era. Oscar was a starting outfielder for the 1976 Yankees, who played against the Tigers in the very first MLB game I ever attended, and whom I studied at great length during their run through the first post-season I ever paid actual attention to. (Oscar's immortal quote, "They don't think it be like it is, but it do," was in reference to the insanity and dysfunction of the Yankees clubhouse under George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.)
Oscar enjoyed his finest season as rent-a-player for the 1977 White Sox "South Side Hitmen," who nearly slugged their way to the AL West title, and whom I became obsessed with despite observing from a distance. He was a free-agent bust with the 1978 Padres, who my paternal grandparents took me to see that year when I visited them in San Diego; and the following year, he was traded back to the Yankees while I was visiting the same grandparents at their new digs on Long Island. I rooted for him even when he was playing against teams I rooted for — because, c'mon, how could you root against Oscar Gamble? "He was a sweet, decent man without a single ounce of malice in his heart," Reggie Jackson told the NY Daily News today, "one who came through the door every day with a smile on his face." And even from the stands, or on TV, I could totally pick up on that.
Oscar's 'fro attained its greatest shape and circumference during his 1973-75 stint with the Indians, a period during which he could have easily been mistaken off-field for a member of the Chi-Lites or Rasputin's Stash. I didn't learn until many years after the fact that the Yankees had made him cut it when he was traded to the Bronx from Cleveland, or that said haircut forced him to pass on a possible Afro-Sheen endorsement deal with Johnson Products. I talk about his haircut at length in Stars and Strikes, and also got into it a bit in this "Bicentennial Baseball Minute" video I did a few years back in conjunction with the book.
I've long loved that story, because — even if the world was deprived of what could have been a seriously dy-no-mite Afro-Sheen commercial — it underlined how much of a team player Oscar Gamble really was. Though the Yankees were uptight and old-fashioned about grooming, and he would have been well within his rights to cop an attitude about their edict, he saw the bigger picture. After all, he'd spent the bulk of his career playing for lousy teams in Philadelphia and Cleveland, and he was not about to let a little (or a lot of) hair get in the way of him being part of a contender.
There is a sadder side to that story, though, one which I didn't fully grasp until a year or two ago, when I turned up an interview with Oscar Gamble while digging through some newspaper archives from 1977. In a Chicago Sun-Times article with the headline "Oscar Gamble Sheds Bad Boy Image," Ron Rapoport writes about how Gamble — by all accounts a chatty, affable guy and a dependable teammate — was widely viewed as a "troublemaker" by baseball GMs, simply for having the temerity to groom himself like the proud, handsome black man he was... and that a lot of reporters were flat-out afraid to talk to him because they perceived him to be some kind of black militant in double-knits.
"After I got a haircut [in 1976]," Gamble told Rapoport, "a lot of writers came over and said, 'We didn't talk to you because we thought you were violent.' They just came up and admitted it. That's what the hair meant to them. I just wore it that way because it looked good on me and I looked good in it. It's funny in a way — people always judge people the way they think you should be. You never know what people are thinking. I've always been a nice friendly guy, easy to talk to."
This, in a nutshell, is the side of sports that I've always hated — the side that not only encourages conformity, but also casts character-assassinating aspersions upon those who refuse to knuckle under accordingly, and punishes those who stand up for what they believe. And 40 years later, things haven't gotten a whole lot better on that score — just ask Colin Kaepernick, a gentleman whose own 'fro and ironclad sense of self surely caused Oscar to flash a knowing grin or two. Then again, that's why so many baseball players of the 70s continue to inspire me to this day; they were true to themselves, even when the game's old guard — the owners, skippers, General Managers, journalists and even veteran players — did their best to tamp them down...
It always hurts when one of the favorite players from your childhood dies, especially one who thoroughly embodied the fun, excitement freedom you felt whenever you ran out onto your local diamond as a kid. But Oscar's passing hits me extra hard today, because I'd love to commiserate about it with someone else who's no longer with us — James Saft, a brilliant Reuters columnist and one of my oldest and dearest friends, who passed away in October. One of the first things Jim and I bonded over in high school was our shared Alabama connection; my maternal grandparents lived in Tuscaloosa, and his aunt lived in Greensboro, and we each spent many formative summers in the state, which may as well have been Mars as far as our private-school classmates on the north side of Chicago were concerned. As such, we both shared a particular affection for Bama ballplayers; and Oscar Gamble, who was scouted by the legendary Buck O'Neil while attending Montgomery's George Washington Carver High School, was one of our favorite members of that fraternity. Jim spent the last years of his life in Huntsville with his wife, daughters and dogs, and I would always ask him to keep an eye out for Oscar Gamble's Players Club memorabilia at the thrift shops in Montgomery, whenever he was there. (None ever turned up, but a man can dream, right?) When the rumor of Oscar's passing first hit Twitter this morning while I was still waking up, my first instinct was to drop Jim an email, asking him if he'd heard anything... and then I remembered that I couldn't do that anymore.
And so, unfortunately, it goes; in the words of Hank Williams, another great son of Alabama, I'll never get out of this world alive. But I'm not in the mood to play any Hank right now — I'd rather spin some Delfonics, whose sweet Philly soul strains doubtless caught Oscar's ear early in his playing career, and whose gorgeous "Delfonics Theme" both fills me with the same sense of joy and wonder that I experienced while watching Oscar Gamble in action, and echoes the sadness that I feel now that he's gone. Rest in funky peace, Oscar. And thanks for everything.
Sometime in the spring of 1990, I came home to the house I shared with two of my band mates to find a USPS package delivery notice waiting for me in our mailbox. I probably groaned audibly, because I knew that retrieving the package would mean getting up earlier than usual the next day, because our local post office was about a mile north of our pad, and the record store I worked at was several miles to the south.
The next morning, after dragging myself off my futon and trudging over to the p.o., I grabbed a southbound #36 to work. After finding a seat, I took a closer look at the package, which was actually a flat envelope about the size of a magazine, and had my Uncle John's return address on it. John is an immensely talented artist, so I though maybe he'd sent me one of his works for my walls. I gingerly opened the envelope to take a peek at what was inside, and my mind was promptly blown by the autographed sheet music that you see above. Apparently, John's son (my cousin) and Neil Diamond's son went to the same school in L.A.; knowing that my band Lava Sutra were all big Neil fans, and that we had been covering "Shilo" as part of our live sets — and actually recorded it as a "hidden track" for our demo cassette — John purchased the sheet music and took it with him to a school event, just in case Neil would be there. When he ran into Neil that night, he showed him the sheet music; "I remember that song," Neil laughed, before very graciously signing it for me. It's one of the greatest gifts I've ever received, and has hung prominently in every house and apartment I've lived in since.
I've never had the opportunity to meet or interview Neil Diamond, which is a shame; the music world is filled with douchebags of all stripes, but I've never heard anything bad about Neil from anyone who's ever crossed paths with him. He's always come across like a true gentleman — maybe one with a slightly heightened sense of self-importance, or a goofy sense of humor that doesn't always translate well, but a gentleman nonetheless. Which is why, my fandom aside, it made me really sad to hear that he's retiring from the road after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In light of that news, I wrote a few things about his history as a performer for the Forward, which you can read here.
And in honor of Neil's 77th birthday today, I went back and dug up a few other things I've written about him over the years. In 2015, after witnessing the greatest Neil Diamond concert I've ever seen (and sadly, will ever see), I wrote this piece for the Forward; and a year earlier, I reviewed his most recent studio album — the unexpectedly excellent Melody Road — for the same outlet. And though it's no longer available on Rolling Stone's site, I made a list of ten great Neil Diamond tracks for them back in 2005, which has since been re-posted here.
Obviously, Neil's music means a lot to me, so it's been gratifying to be able to express that in these pieces. It's also been encouraging to see how younger generations of listeners have come around to him in the past 25 years. When I first saw him in concert, at the Rosemont Horizon in 1992, my friends and I (then in our mid/late 20s) were the youngest people in the place; but when my wife and I went to see him at the Greek Theatre in 2015, probably half the crowd was younger than me by a decade or two. Over the course of fifty years, Neil Diamond went from being a Solitary Man to a legendary one; and if he got cheated out of a victory lap by this disease, hopefully he can at least take comfort in reflecting on a half-century of celebratory performances, and knowing that so many of his heartfelt songs have stood the test of time.
So Happy Birthday, Neil. Long may you rock, in whatever manner you choose to do so from here on out. You got to me, and then some.
Though I do have some nice memories from it, 2017 was an undeniable shit-show for me in all manner of ways (and quite possibly for you, too). But rather than crawling under my desk and assuming a fetal position, I am fully resolved to make this coming year a better one on every level — and the fact that my first gig of the year involved writing something on Bruce Springsteen's first album bodes pretty well for that, I'd like to think.
Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. was released 45 years ago today, and I've counted it among my five favorite Springsteen albums since the days when there were ONLY five Springsteen albums. It's fair to say that it's his loosest and looniest record, as well as (for better or worse) his most verbose, and spinning it again (and again) while doing research for this Rolling Stone piece was kind of like having an evening out with an old friend who I'd lost touch with for awhile — lotsa laughs, lotsa good memories, lotsa stories that don't always get finished. True, "Mary, Queen of Arkansas" is a song I never need to hear more than once a decade (and "The Angel" isn't a whole lot better, though I love the melody on the bridge), but the rest of the record still totally delivers the scraggily poetic goods for me.
Anyway, a very Happy New Year to whomever's reading this, and may your 2018 be filled with love, joy, good health and great music.