Just traveled to California and drove up and down Laurel Canyon and thought not only about Joni Mitchell, who has been such a source of controversy here, mostly backstage, but my love of music very generally and where it began.
In 1972, my mother moved us (parents were divorced) to the Mojave Desert — Yucca Valley, CA. Geologically and geographically different from Laurel Canyon, yet sharing that same artsy vibe (only the poor artists live in the desert).
The people we hung with, the new friends and relatives, aunts and uncles I hardly knew, were mostly listening to that Canyon music — Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon, Todd Rundgren, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Seals and Crofts and, of course, some non-California acts like the Rolling Stones. (I especially remember the hours I spent staring at Goats Head Soup’s cover and how horrified I was of the image of that soup where, now, what’s truly horrifying about that album is how it marked the beginning of the end of the greatest Rock and Roll Band in the world.)
At gatherings, the adults provided the soundtrack. But back home, in my room, lying on my waterbed, the radio was the only free form of entertainment I had. The scoops of ice cream cost $.05 cents at Thrifty’s and I think the occasional drive-in was $5 per car. I was before and am again now a TV junkie. But I never even saw a TV at any adult’s house. Not only was it looked down upon, but there was no reception in the high desert. Yet I still stubbornly spent many hours the first few weeks, maybe even few months, trying to get some signal from the black and white set I badgered my mother into bringing west. Alas, there were only faint ghosts of images, and only at night — nothing remotely watchable or even listenable. (Yes, I would have given anything to even LISTEN to TV.) So all that was left for me was my transistor radio — this model, I swear.
Only the Hits station came in. I can’t say if that period was particularly good for music — that would be like asking the starving man to rate the hamburger you just gave him. But 1972’s top 100.it sure seemed good to me.
I loved “American Pie,” it was the first time I really noticed dramatic changes in sound within one song. And it was the first song where I really paid attention to the lyrics. “Brand New Key” by Melanie was inescapable. I didn’t like it then or now. But another kitschy song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was pure childhood delight for me. I loved “Alone Again (Naturally),” oblivious to how sad it was. My love of soul music was forged here: “I Gotcha” by Joe Tex was most popular but I preferred Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, “I’ll Take You There,” “Backstabbers,” “Oh Girl”…. I heard them all so many times that I may as well have owned the records (which nine year olds don’t buy even if they could afford to, which I couldn’t).
“Rocket Man” by Elton John sounded different from everything else, yet was so catchy and was the first time I heard one of those great Elton choruses that I grew to love so much. While I really liked more iconic, Rock Remnants-certified rockers like “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies, “Go All the Way” by the Raspberries and “Bang a Gong” by T-Rex, I had ample room in my juvenile musical palate for Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken,” too. That was the first time I really noticed how beautiful a piano could sound. I could hardly afford to hate much when hating required me to turn off the radio and thus my only connection to the outside world. I looked for things I liked in everything I heard and if I really hated something, like Melanie, I had to tolerate it anyway and give it every chance to change my mind (as some songs did — like “Hocus Pocus” by Focus — learned to love the guitar riffs, still hated the yodeling.)
1973’s top 100 gave me “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, which seemed so grown up and off limits, but man, did I love it on those lonely desert nights while trying not too hard to go to sleep. But I also loved polar opposite songs like “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter (Hocus Pocus without the yodeling!) and “Little Willy” by Sweet, which may as well have been The Archies to my ear. It was pure kid music, barely less silly than “The Monster Mash,” another 1973 hit. And about monsters! “Will It Go Round in Circles” by Billy Preston was a pleasure for me every time, as was “Superstition,” “Stuck in the Middle with You,” “Live and Let Die,” “Daniel,” “Superfly,” “Love Train,” “That Lady” and the also-so-grown-up “Wildflower” by Skylark. “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” seemed like it was written just for nine-year-old boys and how could it be that this song inspired Freddie Mercury of all people? Music is such a wonderful chemistry experiment, a fact that comes into sharp relief when you can do nothing else but immerse yourself in it for two, long formative years.
Sweet. I’m older, my pop radio daze were in the mid to late 60s. I remember camping out in the back yard with my friends, each of us with a 9v transistor radio under the pillow, listening to WABC and the latest hits. There was lots of crap, but we didn’t know it, and there were also these songs that were written by Laura Nyro and Jimmy Webb and Lee Hazlewood, plus Motown and the Beatles and the Stones and even the Monkees (Boyce and Hart), art and artistry cloaked in spangly clothes, rumbling beneath pillows simultaneously, us jabbering about our likes and dislikes, this bit of trivia we heard from Rawn Londey or Cousin Brucie or that being regurgitated and debated. Bobby Grecco, Jimmy Acierno, Tommy Bielfeld, moi, remnants then.
1) You didn’t list “Brandy.” Admittedly, I’m still a sucker for that one. The singer’s voice is so unique.
2) That radio was a Toot-A-Loop and I (or maybe my brother) had one too. Was hoping I could find the TV commercial on youtube, because I can hear it in my head, but it’s not there.
3) Too bad Kyuss hadn’t hit the desert yet.
I got my driver’s license in March of 1972. When my parents would let me borrow the car, I’d put a couple dollars worth of gas in the tank, pick up a few friends and just drive around town listening to AM radio (usually WABC in NY). We spent so much time doing this that still today, I can pick out which of the songs on the 1972 list that were on the charts those first few months of 1972.
It’s funny you say that. “The Looking Glass” played my sister-in-law’s wedding in 1988 in Sussex County, NJ. I did always like that song and still do. I listen to the 1970s station all the time but really only get excited when a 1972 or 73 songs comes on, which isn’t nearly as often as I would like.
I was hooked from about age 8 on, more so because I was not allowed to listen to the radio. “A waste of time at best,” my parents said. I agree that there were no real distinctions then – cool/uncool, black/white, heavy/light, etc. To me there was no real difference between “1-2-3 Red Light” and Blue Cheer’s “Summertime Blues,” which now seems absurd but was true. I remember being surprised that “Flowers on the Wall” was considered country music.
I liked “Brandy” too.
I think I have noted before that the first song that nailed me on the radio was The Elegants “Little Star,” a hit in 1958, so I was around five or six.
Of course that was a perfect song for a five-year old (a pop version of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star”) but it was Peggy Sue that really killed me. And the Gypsy Woman.
I did grow up in a family where music was treasured, but not the “goddam be bop music” my parents referred to. They wanted us to love Mahler and Beethoven (I do, actually, but it was not as accessible then) and Dave Brubeck (that worked, too, then and now).
But, my brother and I too were inexorably linked to our transistors. I would put mine under my pillow at night to fall asleep before I got a clock radio and before the old Admiral record player found its way to my room.
However, the 70’s were way different for me.
That was the hey day of of alternative FM rock in the bay area, and I gloried in it.
But, this is not only a really great piece Mike, but…
I am totally in love with a radio station that is rooted in Truckee (up by Tahoe) and my next piece was going to be about it.
So, you got there first, and I hope it is ok to dovetail.
Radio rules. Even for baseball, still.
Oh don’t get me wrong Lawr, my parents loved jazz, it was rocknroll they despised and at first tried to forbid. Fat chance. The first rocknroll song that made an impression on me, and I remember that feeling to this day, was The Twist. My electric baptism.
At night you could hear faraway stations on the radio, usually fading in and out. Exotic locales like Pittsburgh.
I like radio better for baseball too, if only because there is less time for the announcers to comment rather than report.
Looking forward to reading it Lawr. I wish I could remember the name of the station I listened to those years but it’s funny what you forget.