As I’ve mentioned before, my maternal grandmother, Grandma Neal, had an elephantine memory when it came to songs and poetry. It was not uncommon for her to interject some appropriate snippet of verse into a conversation to make a point.

On Mother’s Day, Grandma Neal enjoyed reciting the lyrics to the song M-O-T-H-E-R. Released in 1915, M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means The World To Me) was a sentimental tribute that was the work of Theodore Morse, who wrote the music, and Howard Johnson, who penned the lyrics. Grandma Neal knew the song by heart. She liked the spelling chorus part the best and recited it with special emphasis. The lyrics are as follows:

I’ve been around the world, you bet,
But never went to school,
Hard knocks are all I seem to get,
Perhaps I’ve been a fool;
But still, some educated folks, supposed to be so swell,
Would fail, if they were called upon a simple word to spell.
Now if you’d like to put me to a test,
There’s one dear name that I can spell the best:

“M” is for the million things she gave me,
“O” means only that she’s growing old,
“T” is for the tears she shed to save me,
“H” is for her heart of purest gold;
“E” is for her eyes, with lovelight shining,
“R” means right, and right she’ll always be,
Put them all together, they spell “MOTHER,”
A word that means the world to me.

When I was but a baby, long before I learned to walk,
While lying in my cradle, I would try my best to talk;
It wasn’t long, before I spoke, and all the neighbors heard,
My folks were very proud of me for “Mother” was the word.
Although I’ll never lay a claim to fame,
I’m satisfied that I can spell this name:

“M” is for the mercy she possesses,
“O” means that I owe her all I own,
“T” is for her tender sweet caresses,
“H” is for her hands that made a home;
“E” means ev’rything she’s done to help me,
“R” means real and regular, you see,
Put them all together, they spell “MOTHER,”
A word that means the world to me.

Happy Mother’s Day to Grandma Neal, Grandma Webner, my mother, my lovely wife, my sisters, and all the mothers out there, old and new!

Testing The Power Of Classical Music

One of the residential buildings across the street from us in downtown Columbus has a sound system that plays classical music in the area right outside the entrance, all day long. When you walk past, you inevitably hear a snippet of a classical favorite. We suspect, however, that the building does its broadcasting not because the residents are devoted classical music lovers, but because the music tends to keep the street people who might otherwise camp out there moving along to another location.

This potential power of classical music is being tested on a bigger scale in Los Angeles. The L.A. Metro system is dealing with homeless people camping out in stations, drug overdose deaths on buses and trains, and a spike in serious crimes. One subway station in the L.A. Metro system is trying to address those problems through a pilot program in which floodlights and a classical music playlist featuring Beethoven, Mozart, and Vivaldi (pictured above) feature prominently, in hopes of influencing drug users, would-be criminals, and homeless people to leave the station and go somewhere else. An L.A. Metro spokesperson said the music is being used “to restore safety at the transit station” and “as means to support an atmosphere appropriate for spending short periods of time for transit customers who wait an average of 5 to 10 minutes for the next train to arrive.”

L.A. Metro says the classical music technique has produced an “improvement in public safety,” with a “75 percent reduction in calls for emergency service, an over 50 percent reduction in vandalism, graffiti and cleanups, and a nearly 20 percent drop in crime.” Critics of the program say, however, that the the music is being played at dangerously loud levels, weaponizing the music so that it is akin to a torture device. Others say that the music makes the station feel like a set from a dystopian movie. And still others say that the L.A. Metro station approach isn’t getting at the root cause of the homelessness problem that has plagued the Los Angeles area.

Obviously, playing classical music, or any music, at volumes that might do damage isn’t appropriate–but if sound levels are properly regulated, the music and floodlights approach seems like a reasonable effort to discourage criminals and non-riders from hanging out in transit stations. To be sure, the L.A. Metro test program doesn’t address the “root causes” of homelessness, but that criticism isn’t a fair one in my view. L.A. Metro’s charter isn’t to solve the broad societal problem of why Los Angeles has so many unhoused people or why people use dangerous drugs. Instead, its purpose is to provide safe, reliable, clean public transit options for riders. Crime, drug use on buses and trains, and homeless encampments in metro stations clearly interfere with those goals–and if playing some Vivaldi at reasonable volumes helps to address those issues, that seems like a good idea.

Ludwig’s Locks

Ludwig van Beethoven was a musical genius who was almost as well known during his lifetime for his health problems as for his titanic, soaring symphonies and his beautiful piano works. Beethoven famously suffered from progressive hearing problems that eventually produced functional deafness–requiring him to produce his later compositions in his head, without actually hearing the music he was creating–but his health problems went beyond hearing loss. Beethoven experienced chronic gastric issues for years, and when he died in 1827, after having been bed-ridden for months, he was afflicted by jaundice, liver disease, swollen limbs, and breathing problems. His health problems were so great that Beethoven wrote out a testament asking that his conditions be studied and shared after his death.

Two hundred years later, scientists have heeded those wishes and tried to figure out what was wrong with Beethoven. They took an interesting approach–identifying locks of the composer’s hair that had been cut from his head in the seven years before his death and preserved ever since, and then using DNA analysis. The team started with eight samples that purported to be Beethoven’s hair, and found that two of the hair clippings weren’t his and another was too damaged to use. One of the five remaining samples had been initially provided by Beethoven himself to a pianist friend, and analysis showed that all of the hair in the samples came from the same European male of Germanic ancestry.

The DNA analysis did not reveal the causes of Beethoven’s deafness or his gut issues, but did indicate that he was suffering from hepatitis B and had genetic risk factors for liver disease that may have been exacerbated by the composer’s alcohol consumption habits–which a close friend wrote included drinking at least a liter of wine with lunch every day. The genetic analysis also determined that one of Beethoven’s ancestors was the product of an extramarital affair.

I’ve ceased to be amazed by the wonders of modern DNA analysis and what it is capable of achieving. To me, the most surprising aspect of this story is that five legitimate clippings of hair from Beethoven’s head survived for two centuries. It make you wonder how many people were given locks of Beethoven’s hair in the first place. Ludwig van’s barber must have been a very popular guy.

The Vinyl Rebound

We got rid of our vinyl records decades ago. They were a pain to maintain, and little kids and turntables, toner arms with delicate needles, and easily scratched vinyl records are not a good combination. When CDs were introduced, I figured vinyl would inevitably go the way of the dodo.

But I was wrong–vinyl has made a comeback. Last year, for the first time since the 1980s, the sale of vinyl record units outpaced the sale of CDs. Of course, both physical forms are far behind streaming services in the delivery of music–but still, vinyl obviously has its fans.

Interestingly, no one knows exactly why vinyl is hot (or at least lukewarm) again. Some diehards insist that the sound produced by vinyl is superior to streaming services and CDs–richer, fuller, more robust, more nuanced. Others believe vinyl fans like the album as a kind of art piece, and clearly some classic covers, like that of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, look a lot better on a full-sized album sleeve than on a shrimpy CD box. Others believe that album lovers like the tactile sensation of playing an album and its related elements, like carefully removing it from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable, keeping it clean to avoid those annoying skips, and deftly replacing it when the playing is done.

And here’s proof that the album renaissance has some legs: manufacturers like Sony and Victrola have started to produce new turntables again. Obviously, they think there is a market there, and one that is probably here to stay.

50 Years On The Dark Side

Yesterday the music world celebrated a momentous milestone. On March 1, 1973, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was released in the United States, and the world of high school and college students would never be the same again.

I can’t remember where or when I first heard Dark Side of the Moon, but I know that I bought it in high school because I remember listening to it in my room at the back of the top floor of my parents’ split-level house. The fact that I bought the album distinguished me from absolutely no one, because in those days everyone seemed to have it, and play it. Along with Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Songs in the Key of Life, it was an album that you could count on being in pretty much everyone’s collection during the ’70s. If you had a college roommate and compared your respective album holdings when you moved in, Dark Side of the Moon was the inevitable, predictable duplicate.

None of this is surprising. Dark Side of the Moon has sold 50 million copies, and remained on the Billboard 200 album chart for almost 1000 consecutive weeks, from 1973 until 1990. That’s awesome, generation-spanning appeal–and of course people are still buying it.

What makes this now 50-year-old album so great? From the initial heartbeat, crazy laughter, and machine sounds that make up the intro to the first song, Speak to Me/Breathe, the album sets a mood that sucks the viewer into the Dark Side world. The songs are great, of course, and anyone can sing along with them, but the lyrics and the mood they and the music created combined to make you quiet down and think.

You could put the album on at a lively party with lots of free form conversation, and before you knew it, everyone at the party would be sitting quietly, listening to the record. And when you hit the point of Us and Them, with its great lyrics like “Forward he cried, from the rear, and the front ranks died,” and “with, without, and who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about,” every substance-addled student in the room was thinking: “Whoa!” Still later, the same quiet group of listeners would hear the running feet, and the clocks, and then be jolted back into reality by the alarm clocks and gongs. Listening to Dark Side was the quintessential communal experience.

That remains the case, even as new generations of music lovers are introduced to this legendary album and become mesmerized by its entrancing effect. Over the past 50 years, we’ve all visited the Dark Side of the Moon.

Tom Verlaine

It seems like every week of 2023 brings news of the passing of some rock music icon. This week we learned of the death of Tom Verlaine. Verlaine was the guitarist and motivating force of the ’70s band Television, which produced one of the greatest rock albums in history: the urgent, brooding, melodic, magnificent Marquee Moon.

I first learned of the album from the pages of Rolling Stone. In those days, I regularly read that magazine because it seemed important to try to stay abreast of what was going on in the music world and learn about new albums that I might want to add to my collection. I had never heard of Television or Tom Verlaine, but the Rolling Stone review of Marquee Moon was a positive one, and I had some money in my pocket–this was in pre-credit card days–so I went down to one of the OSU campus record stores and promptly bought it, took it back to my apartment, and put it on the turntable.

About an hour later, singularly struck by what I had just heard, I listened to the album all over again. The lyrics were weird and funny, and made every song worth a very careful listen (a personal favorite that still makes me laugh to this day, from the song Friction: “If I ever catch .(pause) that ventriloquist, I’ll squeeze his head right into my fist”) and the music was fantastic. The songs frequently built to a crescendo, like you were listening to a guitar-heavy, rock version of a Rossini overturn or Ravel’s Bolero. From that day forward, it was a favorite. When I got home from classes and was trying to decide what to listen to, I turned to Marquee Moon again and again.

It’s hard to describe Television’s music on Marquee Moon. Some of the obituaries for Tom Verlaine say it was an “art punk” band like Blondie or the Talking Heads, but I always thought Television’s music was unique, and not so easily captured. The rough-edge vocals definitely had a punkish sound, to be sure, but the band’s musical abilities were far above what you would expect from a punk band. Tom Verlaine’s guitar playing had a lot to do with that. It was ever-changing in sound, but always beautiful, with a beat, and soaring, and sinuous. The epic song Marquee Moon, stretching to more than 10 minutes in length, most of which is devoted to Verlaine’s guitar leading an extended instrumental interlude in which the whole band is totally tight and focused, is one of those mood-altering songs where you just say an inner “Wow!” when it is finally, regrettably over.

This morning I decided to to remember Tom Verlaine by listening to Marquee Moon again, and it is as if I am 20 and listening to the album before heading to a 9 a.m. class. To quote a lyric from the Television song Guiding Light: “I woke up . . . and it’s yesterday.” Thank you, Tom Verlaine and your Television bandmates, for creating something that can have that kind of lasting impact.

Saddled With A “Song Name”

In the spring of 1972, a one-hit wonder group called the Looking Glass released their one and only hit–a song called Brandy. Brandy told the story of Brandy, a “fine girl” who worked as a barmaid in a busy harbor town. She pined for a sailor who wasn’t able to marry her because “my life, my lover, my lady, is the sea.” Brandy became a huge hit for the group, rising to number one on the Billboard Top 100 and remaining in the top five on the American Top 40 countdown for weeks.

And, thanks to the Looking Glass, if I meet or hear of a woman named Brandy, my mind immediately thinks of that song and the lyrics that followed the mention of Brandy’s name: “you’re a fine girl.” It happened again last week, when I received an email from someone named Brandy. More than 50 years after Brandy ruled the charts, that song remains hard-wired into my brain synapses and provokes a reflexive reaction.

I suspect I am not alone in having this reaction–at least among people of a certain age–and it made me wonder what it would be like to have a “song name” like Brandy. Brandy was a perfectly good, unremarkable name until the Looking Glass decided to pull it out of the name bank and give it musical immortality. How did the Brandys of the world who were alive at the time feel when they first heard that song, and had the chilling realization that their lives were changed forever? And how often, since then, have the Brandys of the world had to endure guys who think they are clever crooning “you’re a fine girl” after hearing their name?

That would be true not only of Brandy, but of any name that became a key part of a popular song–names like Mandy, or Aubrey, or Cecelia, or or Michelle (ma belle), or Donna (Donna, the Prima Donna), or countless others. I would hope that parents who choose one of these names realize that they are consigning their daughters to a lifetime of being associated with the song that bears their name and idle comments about its lyrics.

Having a “song name” seems to be largely a female fate. In fact, I can only think, offhand, of two guy “song names”: Rocky Raccoon and Mack the Knife. I’m glad I wasn’t saddled with one of them.

Jeff Beck

I was very saddened to learn that Jeff Beck died suddenly earlier this week, apparently after contracting bacterial meningitis. He was only 78, which means he was a still a veritable spring chicken in comparison to other rock stars who are still performing and recording into their 80s. His death is a huge loss for the music world and for those of us who loved and endlessly listened to his albums and his music over the decades.

Jeff Beck first came to prominence as a guitarist with the Yardbirds–the legendary rock guitarist incubator band that also was the launching group for Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. He went on to form the Jeff Beck Group, which featured Rod Stewart as a vocalist, and produced some great music–but he first really hit my musical radar screen in the mid-70s, with the classic album Blow by Blow, the cover of which is pictured above. Released in 1975, just as I was finishing high school, Blow by Blow was a kind of jazz/fusion instrumental album (except for Beck’s use of the voice box, a device he pioneered, so you could kind of hear his voice in his recording of the Beatles’ song She’s A Woman). I loved every song on the album–especially Freeway Jam and Constipated Duck–and played the crap out of the record as I moved on to college.

Blow by Blow was followed by Wired and Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live, and I bought both of those albums and loved them, too, with Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and Blue Wind being particular favorites. All of those Jeff Beck albums were standard selections on the music playlist at my college apartments. As I listened to those albums, over and over, I came to particularly appreciate how he could get an awesome variety of different sounds out of his guitar, and his ability to move seamlessly from jazz to blues to move your feet tunes. His talents were obvious and immense, but you also had to give a nod of appreciation to his creativity and his willingness to experiment, rather than just playing the same kind of music for the rest of his career. That flair for experimentation continued with Beck’s later albums. He was a kind of restless, adventurous musical spirit who couldn’t sit still and had to try new things. His space-rock/psychedelic song Space for the Papa, on his 1999 album Who Else?, is a good example of how Beck’s taste for musical exploration continued.

It’s tough when someone who had an impact on your musical tastes, and whose talents have been a part your life and given you countless hours of listening pleasure, dies too young. I suspect that, before he was stricken, Jeff Beck was thinking about new musical vistas to explore and new risks to take, and now we unfortunately won’t get the chance to hear what he would have produced. I hope his family is comforted in this time of devastating loss by the certain knowledge that his many fans won’t ever forget Jeff Beck. His legacy lives on in his catalog of creative genius and the still-fresh and wonderful music that people like me will listen to and enjoy for years to come.

You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch

We’re at the point in the holiday season where many of us have begun to experience Christmas music soundtrack overload, and we feel like we might go into a saccharine sentiment coma if we hear It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year even one more time. That’s why You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch has become such an essential part of the holiday season. You can be sitting in a restaurant, hearing a standard mix of songs like Up On The Housetop and Frosty the Snowman, and then suddenly detect the strains of You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch cutting directly through the sugar content, and you find yourself using your best super-deep voice to sing about bad bananas with greasy black peels.

Written as a key part of the TV broadcast of How The Grinch Stole Christmas that was first broadcast in 1966, the music for You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch was composed by Albert Hague, and the song was memorably sung for the TV show by Thurl Ravenscroft, the same actor who voiced Tony the Tiger and his “they’re great!” catchphrase. But it is the lyrics to the song–penned by Dr. Seuss himself–that are a hilarious revelation and a wonderful antidote to the unrelenting spun sugar sweetness of most holiday soundtracks. Here they are, in all their glory:

You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch
You really are a heel
You’re as cuddly as a cactus, you’re as charming as an eel, Mr. Grinch
You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel!

You’re a monster, Mr. Grinch
Your heart’s an empty hole
Your brain is full of spiders, you’ve got garlic in your soul, Mr. Grinch
I wouldn’t touch you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole!

You’re a vile one, Mr. Grinch
You have termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile, Mr. Grinch
Given a choice between the two of you I’d take the seasick crocodile!

You’re a foul one, Mr. Grinch
You’re a nasty-wasty skunk
Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk, Mr. Grinch
The three words that best describe you are as follows, and I quote
“Stink, stank, stunk!”

You’re a rotter, Mr. Grinch
You’re the king of sinful sots
Your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy purple spots, Mr. Grinch
Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful
Assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled up in tangled up knots!

You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch
With a nauseous super “naus”!
You’re a crooked dirty jockey and you drive a crooked hoss, Mr. Grinch
You’re a three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce!

You have to give Dr. Seuss credit for coming up with lyrics like “your heart’s a dead tomato splotched with moldy purple spots.” He understood that the Christmas spirit is best demonstrated with some negative contrast, before the central character is redeemed. It’s the same approach that makes Dickens’ A Christmas Carol such a classic.

And maybe I’m wrong–but doesn’t it seem that You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch becomes more popular every year?

An End To Nightmares

Could technology bring about an end to recurrent nightmares? Scientists think they may have found a way to redirect the sleeping brain away from those disturbing bad dreams that cause the frightened sleeper to awake with a start, with their heart hammering.

The development came during a study of people, estimated to be as many as four percent of all adults, who experience nightmares at the “clinically significant” level. Nightmare issues are deemed “clinically significant” when they occur more than once per week and cause other symptoms, like general anxiety and daytime fatigue.

The study divided 36 participants into two groups. One group received imagery rehearsal therapy (“IRT”), an existing form of treatment where they were instructed to recount their bad dreams, develop alternative, happier endings to the dreams, and then rehearse those happy endings during the hours when they were awake.

The other participants received IRT treatment, with a twist: as they envisioned more positive scenarios for their nightmares, a major piano chord was played every ten seconds, in an attempt to have the happier endings associated with the sound. The participants then went to bed wearing headbands that were capable of detecting when the sleeper had entered the rapid eye movement (“REM”) phase, when dreaming occurs, and playing the major chord associated with positive outcomes. The sound evidently helped to generate the positive outcomes, because while both groups saw a decrease in nightmares, the results were significantly better for the headband-wearing group, both immediately during the treatment and for months thereafter.

My dreams are mostly a confused rehash of things that happened during the day, as if my unconscious brain is trying to sort diverse experiences and inputs into a narrative–and since the experiences and sensations aren’t logically connected, the dream ends up making no sense. Fortunately, I don’t have recurrent nightmares, other than the “I’ve got an exam and I didn’t prepare” dream that I still get occasionally, decades after my schooling ended. I can imagine, however, that people who do experience nightmares at the clinically significant level will welcome a therapy that works. Wearing a headband and listening to piano chords would be a small price to pay to avoid waking up in terror. And the results also provide interesting insight into the power of music and its impact on the unconscious brain.

ABBA Torture

The United Nations-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine recently concluded that Russia has committed numerous war crimes in its invasion of Ukraine. The Commission found evidence that Russian forces have engaged in summary executions, torture, and deliberate targeting of civilian areas for bombings and attacks.

Some of the Russian torture methods break new grounds of depravity and inhumanity. For example, a British fighter captured by Russian forces has reported that he was forced to listen to the Mamma Mia soundtrack of ABBA songs 24 hours a day, while also being beaten, stabbed, and given electric shocks. The British prisoner was later released as part of an effort to free international prisoners captured by the Russians, and he says, quite understandably, that he never wants to hear an ABBA song again.

An unprovoked invasion of a neighboring sovereign nation, bombing civilian areas, summary executions, and torture tell us that the Russians will have to answer for a host of horrific war crimes when their invasion of Ukraine has come to an end. But forcing a soldier to listen to ABBA music 24 hours a day reflects a special kind of cruelty that makes you wonder whether Russia should ever again be welcomed into the family of civilized nations.

The Monkees, Redacted

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been in the news a lot lately. Many on the right think the FBI has recently become politicized–but the reality is that the agency has been involved in investigations of political matters for decades, ever since it was asked to look into loosely defined “subversives” back in the 1930s. Back in the J. Edgar Hoover days the FBI collected information on Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and . . . the Monkees.

What a second–the Monkees? The zany, made-for-TV rock band that had a brief but memorable TV show, produced a series of number 1 albums, were a sensation among teenagers, and incidentally recorded some great rock music that still stands up? The FBI investigated those guys?

It did. According to the FBI’s “Vault” webpage–which, if you’re interested, allows you to search for FBI records on line–the agency has two records about the rock band: “a 1967 Los Angeles Field Office memorandum on anti-Vietnam war activities and a second document redacted entirely.” The 1967 field office memorandum was released to the public about ten years ago, and is very heavily redacted. (You can see the original report, in its redacted form, here.) The unredacted portion reports on a concert the Monkees gave in which photographs were broadcast on a screen behind the band that a redacted informant considered to be “left-wing intervention of a political nature”–which in reality reflected what was actually going on at the time, like racial rioting and protests against the war in Vietnam.

Now Mickey Dolenz, the last surviving member of the Monkees, is suing to try to get the FBI to release the full records about the band. The lawsuit seeks “any records the FBI created and/or possesses on the Monkees as well as its individual members.”

In the grand scheme of what is going on in the world, trying to determine what information the FBI collected about the Monkees is a small thing, but it also raises a big point about transparency and getting a fuller accounting of the FBI’s activities over the years. It’s hard to believe that the document from the Monkees’ FBI file that was released in 2011 merited the heavy redaction it received; what kinds of information could it possibly contain that would reasonably need to be kept secret, decades later? Now that another ten years have passed, there is even less cause for continuing secrecy. I’m hoping the lawsuit is successful and we get to see what the FBI considered so important and secretive. Perhaps the lawsuit, and the reaction to any documents that are released as a result of it, will cause a reassessment of the agency’s actions and, particularly, its continuing, overly aggressive redaction of documents that the public actually has a right to see.

Road Radio

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the radio for an extended period. This weekend’s air travel mishap, and the resulting need to drive from Bangor, Maine to Columbus, Ohio, changed all that. I got a substantial diet of radio offerings as I rolled through Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.

Some things about radio have changed, dramatically, and some have stayed the same. If you’re looking for NPR or classical music, for example, you’re going to want to look around the low end of the FM dial, just as you always have. (Good luck finding classical music, though; I tried, again and again, and regrettably there doesn’t seem to be much of it on the airwaves these days.) Sermons and church music tend to be clustered there, too. If you’re looking for sports or aggressive political talk, on the other hand, you’ll want to switch over to AM. (I stuck to FM until I got to Ohio, when I decided to risk brief exposure to political screeds in search of some coverage of the Buckeyes, Browns, and Guardians.)

Popular radio–that is, everything you’d find above 92 on the FM dial–seems to have gone through a consolidation phase, in two ways. First, in different states you’ll find that five or six formerly independent radio stations based in different cities and towns have jointed together and become one station playing the same content that you can listen to at various channel settings as you drive along. These consolidated stations tend to have generic names like “The River.”

And that phenomenon has produced the second form of consolidation: there’s a lot less content variety on the radio than there used to be. Classical music and jazz aren’t the only victims. A local station in the past might play “Polka Varieties” featuring Frankie Yankovic, or crop reports. You’re not going to get that any longer. Flipping through the radio dial on my journey produced a lot of soulless modern country stations and mushed together “classic rock” options that might play songs from the ’60s to the ’90s. And the “classic rock” stations seem to have the same playlists, too. I heard Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust no less than four times during my drive. and got heavy doses of Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, and Heart, too. Surprisingly, to me at least, I didn’t hear a single Beatles tune until I got to Ohio and tuned in a Youngstown station that was playing Let It Be.

And here’s another thing: there don’t seem to be actual, live DJs anymore–at least, not on Friday night and Saturday. I didn’t hear what seemed to be a live voice on any station until I turned to a sports station in Ohio. Most of the stations seemed to be going with totally recorded playlists. If you’re aspiring to be a radio DJ these days, good luck.

I’ll be driving back to Maine next weekend, as part of the continuing fallout from modern air travel hassles. Already I’m bracing myself for more airings of Living On A Prayer and I Want You To Want Me. It’s not the greatest music in the world, but it beats the political craziness. And that’s about the best you can say about the state of road radio these days.

Reconsidering Boarding Music

Recently I boarded a plane flight. As I put my carry-on into the overhead bin and settled into my seat, I focused on the music that was playing during the boarding process and found myself wondering who made the music selection . . . and why.

The music–if you can call it that–was a kind of tinkly, tuneless, ethereal background noise. It was the sort of allegedly “soothing” and “relaxing” (but in reality, kind of annoying) music that you would associate with yoga or a massage, rather than boarding a plane. As music goes, it was worse than the kind of generic offerings you hear on an elevator ride.

Why would you choose this kind of music to facilitate the boarding process? Are airlines worried that passengers these days need to be calmed down as they are grabbing their seats? I would think that the opposite is true, and it would be better for all concerned if we jettisoned the dreamy music and went instead with some sounds calculated to encourage boarders to move with a greater sense of urgency and get their butts in their seats.

I’d like to see some experiments done on this. Which music produces the speediest, most efficient boarding process: the tinkly random crap they were broadcasting on my flight, or, say, some selections from the early Beatles, starting with Twist and Shout? Playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos might incentivize passengers to move with the clock-like precision conveyed by baroque music. Or if you really want to get people moving, how about the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive and K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight? And, just to make it interesting, why not test Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water or Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, just to see how some heavy metal affects passenger movement?

It’s well past time to get a bit more scientific about airplane boarding music, and to make some selections specifically geared toward the ultimate goal: an on-time departure. Dreamy massage music just doesn’t cut it.

Do You Recall What Was Revealed?

In January 1972, as I approached my 15th birthday, Don McLean’s American Pie stood at number 1 on the Billboard charts. A long song, even by the extended play standards that prevailed on FM radio at the time, American Pie was the kind of song that you talked about with your friends at school. We all wanted to know what, exactly, the song meant.

Because, if you are not familiar with the song, you need to understand that American Pie was written in a kind of cryptic code, Even by the standards of the time, in the wake of the late Beatles efforts when many songs were dense and mysterious and opaque (like, for example, Procol Harem’s Whiter Shade of Pale), American Pie set new standards in the enigmatic category. The tune was great, and the refrain–“bye, bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry, and good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing this’ll be the day that I die”–was killer, but you desperately wanted the key to unlock the true meaning of the lyrics. I remember listening to a program on WCOL-FM, the cool FM station in Columbus at the time) that tried to deconstruct the song. McLean himself didn’t give us much help.

Now, 50 years later, Don McLean is apparently going to share the truth about the meaning of American Pie, in a new documentary called The Day The Music Died. As the accepted views at the time taught, “the day the music died” was the day Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a tragic plane crash , , , but the rest of the prevailing wisdom evidently was misguided. According to the linked story in The Guardian, a lot of what people pontificated about (including the know-it-alls on the WCOL program way back when) may turn out to be wrong. Elvis Presley wasn’t “the King,” and Bob Dylan wasn’t “the Jester,” and Janis Joplin wasn’t the girl who sang the blues. Were the Beatles “the marching band that refused to yield”? And what did “fire is the devil’s only friend” mean? I guess we’ll have to watch the documentary find out.

It’s interesting to think that, 50 years later, the lyrics for American Pie remain tantalizing. That says something about the staying power of the song, doesn’t it?