The Sounds Of A ’60s Summer

There was the ever-present throb of fans, because no one had air conditioning.  Square fan units that fit into the bottom of a window that you could yell into and have your voice emerge, chopped and distorted, on the other side.  Rotating fans that whirred from side to side, with streamers tied to their wire covers blowing in the breeze.  Standing fans in the corner that sent air circling around the room.  They didn’t make the air any cooler, but they helped the “circulation.”

Screen doors creaking open and slamming shut with a bang as kids came and went and exasperated Moms said:  “In or out?”  Baseball cards attached to bicycle frames with a clothes pin that were strummed by the spokes of the rear wheel and made a bike sound like a motorcycle.  The hum of riding lawnmowers, as the neighborhood Dads cut the grass on their acre-sized lots.  The fat from cheeseburgers sizzling on hot charcoal.

And, as the evening arrived and shadows grew long, boxy Zenith and RCA radio units were turned on.  The sounds of ’60s music floated out the open windows through the screens into the humid summer nights as the adults gathered on patios and kids ran around, waving sparklers or catching lightning bugs or playing flashlight tag.  Martha Reeve and the Vandellas and Dancing in the Street.  Frank Sinatra and Strangers in the Night.  The early Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Four Seasons.  Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark.  And, most of all, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, whose music perfectly captured the ’60s summer mood.  Happy, bopping music, light and upbeat, infused with optimism, as the adults talked quietly and laughed about last night’s Tonight Show or reenacted one of the bits from the latest great Bill Cosby or Bob Newhart comedy album.

When bedtime came, the beat of fans was still there, accompanied by the chirping of crickets and the buzz insects in the sultry air.

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His Way Was “My Way”

NPR has been running a series on “Mom and Dad’s record collection,” where celebrities and average folks talk about a record their parents had that was associated with a particular memory or otherwise had a special meaning.

In the Webner household of my youth, Mom and Dad had an eclectic album collection — including some 78 rpm records — that featured classical pieces, swing, big beat, and the OSU marching band.  They didn’t often listen to music, but when they did, one song stood out ahead of the rest:  Frank Sinatra’s recording of My Way.

My father was by nature a quiet person, but give him a drink or two and My Way would be taken from its place of honor on the record rack and played like it was the national anthem.  If my Uncle Tony were in town, he and Dad were likely to stand up, spread their arms wide, and belt out the song with great gusto.  The lyrics, about a dying man who reflects on his life and the blows he’s taken but is proud that he did things his way, obviously spoke to something deep within them.  To others, the song might seem like a maudlin and over-the-top bit of self-congratulation by a stubborn egotist.

What was it about My Way that has such resonance for a car dealer and a stockbroker?  How many shopkeepers, pharmacists, accountants and other members of the corporate culture of the ’60s and ’70s similarly identified with the character in that song?

I think the attraction of the song was aspirational.  These were men who had their jobs and did their jobs, providing for their families and, in the process, undoubtedly making countless compromises.  They might go out for a drink after work, but for the most part they played their well-defined role in the world.  They identified with the rugged individualist in the song who insisted on doing what he pleased, even if their lives didn’t necessarily permit them to be that person.  When the song was played, it was a chance for them to let that tamped down inner individualist roar, in a way he never could in real life.

A Taste For Steak

Last night I went to dinner with friends and was delighted to find that my host had selected a steakhouse for our meal. On some occasions, after a hard day’s work, only steak will truly satisfy the taste buds.

We went to a restaurant called XO, in Cleveland’s warehouse district.  XO offers only prime cuts of steak, as well as the other food items you come to expect from steakhouses, like seafood, soups, a la carte side dishes that are big enough to share, a good wine list, and the obligatory breast of chicken.  (Does anyone really ever order breast of chicken at a steakhouse?  If so, why?)

The only thing that was unusual about the place was the music selection.  It was distinctly on the new age side, where most steakhouses go for the vintage Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett/big band background music soundtrack.  XO’s dreamy tune choices made me feel like I’d be given a massage and a glass of herbal tea after the meal.

Who really cares about music, though, when you are getting ready to tear into a thick, juicy, well-prepared steak washed down with a fine dry red wine?  We had a seafood platter appetizer, which featured excellent oysters, king crab legs, huge tiger prawns, and a lobster salad.  For my meal I ordered the bone-in ribeye steak, cooked medium rare.  It was succulent, and I gleefully sliced it up and gobbled up every bite. The meal was brought to an appropriate close with some apple cobbler.

When we departed after a very enjoyable evening, I pointed my well-nourished gut in the direction of our destination and left a happy man.

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake