I got into my car yesterday morning to head to the beach. I’m rarely in the car nowadays. I have spent most of the past nearly eight months self-isolating at home so mileage has been low. But if I am in the car on a Saturday morning it’s fun to listen to an old episode of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on Sirius XM’s 70s On 7 channel, and yesterday morning’s was a ripper. It featured the countdown from this weekend in 1973. Oh yes.
In 1973 I was in sixth grade in Sydney. I was already avidly, ravenously taking in all genres of music, as top 40 radio was so diverse. My favourite song was Tony Orlando & Dawn’s “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” and I still adore it and will never make apologies for that. It’s a story that resonates through the ages, it’s a perfect pop song and it’s my musical version of the film Notting Hill – I can never, ever switch it off if I hear it on the radio.
I loved Vicki Lawrence singing “He Did With Me”, oh god I loved that song. It taught me that the toast could burn while you made love instead. It really was the precursor to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.” A much less aggressive take on the story, but the same idea – I was better than her and I don’t like that you’re with her now. Vicki is actually singing to the new woman, saying, don’t get too attached because he’ll do to you what he did to me, he’ll love you and leave you. It could be what Dolly Parton might have said to Jolene if that wench had taken Dolly’s man. “He Did With Me” really was Vicki Lawrence’s finest singing moment, and was a huge hit in Australia, even if the preposterous “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” was a bigger hit for her in the US.
In 1973 I also loved Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Wings’ “My Love” and Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl”, which was so schmaltzy, who wouldn’t love it? “Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world? And if you did, was she crying? Crying…” That a grey-haired man could have a huge chart hit with a song so gorgeous that an 11-year old would croon along, that was the mark of a great song.
In that vein, I really, really loved Bobby Goldsboro’s “Summer The First Time”. So when I got in the car yesterday and that song played, being number 25 on the chart on the last weekend of October in 1973, I suddenly started crying. Because it’s such a gorgeous ode to the past, the song being from my past, and the song being about a past before 1973 – “Ten years have gone by, since I looked in her eye, but the memory lingers…”
The past, as I’ve made clear all over this blog, is something I cling to and am loyal to and at times like these long for more than ever.
“She was thirty one and I was seventeen, I knew nothing about love, she knew everything…”
Seriously, that line is everything.
“We sat on the sand and the boy took her hand, but I saw the sun rise as a man.”
It’s impossible not to get teary listening to that.
I actually had my own “Summer The First Time” experience back in 1993 with a gorgeous sweet boy who was actually 19. I was 31 and it was his first time. But that’s not what this story is about.
I wrote months ago, earlier on in this hideous pandemic, that I’d use this time to do lots of writing, and catch up on the twenty or so concert reviews I haven’t posted from the past three years, and I haven’t done any of that. I’ve kept creatively busy working on a new book, but not actually writing yet. Just interviewing relentlessly, Zooming and connecting, and hearing amazing stories, and researching and planning. And dealing with the stress of being stuck in Los Angeles at a horrific time that will forever be recorded as one of the darkest periods in American history. With the election upon us and unremitting stress over what will happen. And nights colder, days shorter, clocks turned back, electric blanket turned on. Me in the kitchen making soups and roasting vegetables. Seasonal mood disorder is here.
But LA has a way of bringing a little bit of summer back at the end of October and even into November. Yesterday was a perfect beach day, and Bobby Goldsboro was singing about losing his virginity one summer… It was overwhelming, so I cried.
Chicago came on soon after to cheer me up, my all-time favourite Jimmy Pankow song, “Just You ‘N’ Me”, which I loved back then, a few years before I could place it in the context of their sixth album and all their great earlier work, as it was only the beginning of my Chicago love. And Ringo Starr’s “Photograph”, a song both jaunty and mournfully lamenting. The original film clip is so irreverent, so totally Ringo, it’s worth seeing, linked to below. I remember so well dancing in my bedroom to that song, a bedroom upstairs in a house we were renting while our new family home was being built. I’d spent my first eleven years in a one-level house, pleading for an upstairs, and now my sister and I had bedrooms in the upstairs of our temporary house, with a big cupboard in the hallway that we played cubby house in. “Photograph” reminded me of that.
And vocal perfection on Art Garfunkel’s magical recording of Jimmy Webb’s “All I Know”, a song that I got to know much better when Webb recorded his own version of it on the immaculate album Ten Easy Pieces more than 20 years after Garfunkel had a huge hit with it. And Paul Simon with “Love Me Like A Rock”. And Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”, a song so pertinent right now, today.
“Tie A Yellow Ribbon” had been and gone by October 1973, but the top ten was full of fascinating musical remembrances. The joyful DeFranco Family with their somewhat average vocals on the irresistibly upbeat “Heartbeat, It’s a Love Beat”, and 14-year old Marie Osmond singing “I thought that you would be a perfect lover” in “Paper Roses”, and Cher belting out her posit on racial tensions in “Half Breed”. All the while Marvin Gaye was riding the charts with “Let’s Get It On” and my favourite Rolling Stones song, “Angie”, was at number two, a song I loved so much in 1973 and forever more that nothing else the Stones did before or after could possibly please me.
All of that – or most of that, if you insist on subtracting the DeFranco Family and Marie Osmond – was and is seriously classy pop music and I thank every lucky star that I was a kid growing up listening to those songs, those songwriters and recording artists.
I wasn’t even across the Eagles yet; they had that year released the Desperado album, whose title track would become my favourite song of all time. That band, and the entire world of California rock, along with a glorious potpourri of British rock, especially Queen just getting their first album out in 1973, were all waiting for me to embrace them. Elton John and David Bowie were already very much front and centre. Bowie’s cover of “Sorrow” was huge on the Australian charts, so much so that my first artist album, which I got around that time, was Pinups. And Australian music was all over radio so Sherbet’s “Cassandra” was the start of a big love affair for me, which I’ve already written about in these web pages. But Sherbet wasn’t being played on Kasey Casem’s American Top 40, obviously. So sometimes when I listen to these old episodes I hear songs I never knew in my own childhood. They are usually songs I didn’t need to know. There were so many already filling up my world. Just glancing at my Australian Top 40 Research book, known simply as The Book, one of the most essential tomes in my music book library, I’m singing in my mind to 10CC’s “Rubber Bullets” and Maureen McGovern’s “Morning After” and Shirley Bassey’s “Never, Never, Never” and even Sister Janet Mead’s “The Lord’s Prayer”.
How can anything the kids of today are subjected to compare to all of that?
Sitting on my Tommy Bahama beach chair yesterday in Malibu with Bluetooth earbuds in, listening to AT40 and gazing out at the gorgeous, sparkling ocean, wondering if life can ever be as easy and simple as it was for an 11-year old girl in her bedroom listening to her AM transistor radio just a few summery months before starting high school, it was lovely and it was profoundly sad. It actually made me think about another song from that era, which would be released at the end of 1973 and would end up being one of the biggest songs of 1974, Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun”.
“Seasons In The Sun” is one of the most wistful pop songs of all time, really. My mother was a huge fan of Rod McKuen, had his books of poetry and his songbooks, and so it’s not really surprising that he wrote the English lyrics for Jacques Brel’s song about dying, and that I connected with it when I was that young. But 1974 is a whole other story, maybe to be written about another time, and if I do write about that year I will also have to refer to that magnificent ode to the mentally ill, “Angie Baby”, written by Alan O’Day, because sometimes I feel like that girl, living my life in the songs I heard on the rock and roll radio. That song contains one of my favourite lines ever: “It’s so nice to be insane, no one asks you to explain.” I’m a little touched, I know… Vale the great Helen Reddy.
Bringing myself back to the present is hard, and the week ahead feels intense and rife with anxiety. I don’t feel like I am really a part of anything and I feel very stuck. I can’t even listen to the radio in my bedroom; I finally made the decision a couple of weeks ago to go cold turkey on setting the alarm to wake to NPR’s Morning Edition, as I was literally waking in fright every day. So now I wake to birds chirping and simulated sunlight on one of those wake up light clocks that I had stored in a cupboard for years. But even then, after the chirping birds and pan flute bring me to consciousness, I remember how scary the world is and how much I would rather be back in Australia right now, and have my parents alive and looking after me. Being eleven years old in Sydney was, as Harry Chapin would say in another song from that era, a better place to be.
Those early seventies songs were short stories and they left deep imprints in my psyche, my heart and my soul because, as clichéd as it is to say, they were a window into a wider world, especially for a girl in Sydney attending a religious primary school where there were only six students in my grade. I have almost every chart song from that decade in my music collection, so I can listen to them any time, but there is something especially fabulous about being taken back so specifically to a moment in time. So if all goes to hell this week, I might just have to take a long drive next Saturday morning and enjoy the songs from whichever weekend in whichever year that Casey Kasem takes me back to. As long as it’s in the seventies, it’s where I will gladly go.
Meanwhile, here’s hoping for higher ground.
Some links to take you back to 1973: