Repost: “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”

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This one is from way, way back on the jukebox’s playlist.  At a recent First Friday event, one of the musicians rekindled my childhood-nostalgia fueled love affair with Jim Croce’s music by playing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” which naturally led back to this classic.  (Her name is Mary Bee, btw, and you can find her on Facebook.)  I left in all the stuff about satellite radio even though we don’t have Sirius in the car anymore.  

I don’t really know how well Jim Croce is remembered; my barometer for his level of fame is sort of broken.  Croce is one of those artists that has always been a favorite in my family, so I grew up knowing who he was and listening to his music.  The second single I ever owned was “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”  Croce had a music hall sensibility.  His songs often told stories, sometimes sounding like something from the 1940s.  But then he could turn around and pen the template for the quintessential 70s love song (“Time In a Bottle”).  He wore a lot of musical hats for someone who died at 30.

“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” is one of his story songs, full of the same kind of unsavory characters that made “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” such a success about a year later.  The plot is that a “pool shootin’ son of a gun”  named Big Jim Walker has cheated an Alabama man named Willie McCoy, “Last week he took all my money, and it may sound funny, but I come to get my money back.”  Everyone warns him that Big Jim is not someone to tangle with.  “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind.  You don’t pull the mask of that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with Jim.”  When Jim arrives, he is beaten, stabbed, and shot by Willie, who importantly goes by Slim.  Because at the end of the song, “you don’t mess around with Slim.”

These days, a tune with this subject matter and level of violence would be a rap song (and probably be more graphic and explicit).  It would probably raise the ire of some conservative parents group who would claim that children would be psychologically damaged if they heard this song.  The album would surely be labelled with a warning sticker.  It certainly wouldn’t get played on the radio.  In 1972, this made the Top Ten of the mainstream singles chart.  Times have indeed changed.

Looking back, there’s a lot of songs I knew all the words to when I was still in single digits that media watchdogs would be shocked about.  I mean, I remember sitting in the back of my aunt’s 1969 Duster (on top of the lowered back seat, no child safety restraints of any sort) singing “The Gambler” at the top of my lungs.  I had “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” memorized when I was four.  Of course, I had precious little comprehension of any of these lyrics.  “Afternoon Delight”?  That was just a fun song about fireworks as far as I was concerned.  I thought the razor kept in Leroy’s shoe was like the plastic kind my daddy shaved with.  I’m sure I asked the occasional uncomfortable question about the things I heard, but for the most part I was kind of oblivious.

I think most kids are kind of oblivious to things like that.  If they don’t understand it, they ask questions or they automatically translate it into something they understand.  Which makes me even more annoyed at the level of censorship I hear on broadcast radio these days.  A few years ago, around the time of the famous Wardrobe Malfunction, everyone became deathly afraid of the FCC and groups like Focus on the Family.  Radio especially began self-censoring to avoid even the slightest hint of something that might be offensive.  Suddenly, songs began getting cuss words stripped out.  Other songs, such as “Walk on the Wild Side,” which used to be relegated to the early morning hours got banned altogether.  (Funny story: Long before any of this, I heard “Walk on the Wild Side” on K-Earth 101, and to keep their wholesome image intact, they edited out the verse about Candy.  Never mind the transvestite, the overdosing junkie, or the male prostitute.  Just get rid of the girl performing oral sex.)  It’s one of the reasons I’m really starting to like satellite radio.  I can hear Roger Daltry ask “Who the fuck are you?”  I can hear about all the degeneracy of Lou Reed’s New York nightlife.  And I can hear about how Big Jim Walker got murdered by some guy named Slim.  And I don’t have to worry about anyone imposing their morality on me.

And once again, a song has taken me somewhere I didn’t expect to go.  And that’s just another reason why I love music so much.

 

“Shelter from the Storm”

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I was watching St. Vincent last night (which I recommend you do, too), and after wiping away a few tears at the end, I watched Bill Murray sing along to “Shelter from the Storm” as the closing credits played.  It was the perfect ending.

It also made me think about what a gentle, generous, wistful song this is.  I remember hearing it on the late, great KMET very late one night when I couldn’t sleep.  There’s a darkness to this song, but that’s a hallmark of a great number of Bob Dylan’s best songs, and it seems right that I first heard it in the darkness.

What makes Dylan great is how he takes those dark feelings and gives them different shades and tones.  The darkness of “Shelter from the Storm” is completely different from the darkness of, say, “Idiot Wind” from the same album.  Like I said, it’s gentle and generous and wistful.  A love that is gone but left the singer so profoundly changed that forgetting it isn’t even an option.  It made him a better man.  And a worse man.  It’s complicated, full of shadows and ghosts.  The perfect late night song.

I usually like to post a live clip or something with some kind of visual interest.  But this song doesn’t need anything but your ears and your heart.  Enjoy it.

Freaky Friday: Don’t Panic

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I shop at ThinkGeek on occasion (big shocker), and I get emails from them advertising sales and other assorted geekery.  Today email mentioned something rather dear to my geeky little heart.  36 years ago tomorrow, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy premiered on BBC radio.

You might be a bit curious about why I’d mark this particular anniversary.  I mean, it’s not exactly music, is it?  Maybe not, but as it was a radio program, I’m being rather liberal with my definitions today.  The other peculiarity that might strike you is that Hitchhiker is best known as a book.  Didn’t that come first?

No.  Douglas Adams originally conceived the story as a radio series.  After it’s success, it became a novel.  And then there was a sequel.  And another sequel.  Eventually, the Hitchhiker’s trilogy became the best five book trilogy ever published.  (Think about it.  I’ll wait.)

The novel was used as the basis for the later adaptations for television and film.  I will freely admit that I’ve never seen any of these.  I don’t have to; the pictures in my head from reading (and listening, although I’m most familiar with the books) are good enough.  It’s really just one of the funniest things ever created.  I’ve only linked to the first episode, but YouTube seems to have the complete series posted.  Good thing, too, since I think it’s out of production now.

So grab your towel, and enjoy the ride.

“Radio Radio”

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I know this is usually Freaky Friday, but I didn’t feel like messing with my theme.  Maybe I’ll freak out tomorrow for a special Saturday edition.  Maybe not.  We’ll see how it goes.

The real programmers of all radio stations everywhere are the advertisers and/or corporations that run them.  They get to decide who gets into heavy rotation, and who gets tossed in the circular file.  Record companies have colluded in this for years, although it’s officially illegal to influence radio programming, at least in this country.  (Google “payola scandal” if you’re interested.)  It’s mercenary, arbitrary, and craven.

That’s why Elvis Costello wrote this song.

Simply put, Elvis Costello usually didn’t get put on the radio.  A lot of artists like Costello were getting shut out, musical acts who sang about politics and social issues, who wanted their listeners to think.  They didn’t want to play the usual games that got you played on the radio, and they didn’t want to sing mindless Pop just to have a hit.  It was making him angry, so he sang about it.  “You either shut up or get cut out, they don’t wanna hear about it.  It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel.  And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools, tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel.”  Real thought is not acceptable on the radio.  Real creativity, unless it takes over the rest of the world, is forbidden.  Just play the same thing everyone else is playing, and it will all be fine.

It’s kind of funny that this song is more famous for television than it is for radio.  In 1977, Costello was asked to play on Saturday Night Live, because the Sex Pistols had backed out.  His record company, wanting to capitalize on the one album that was available in the U.S., asked him to play something from My Aim is True.  Initially, he agreed.  But just a few bars into “Less Than Zero,”  Costello yelled at the Attractions to stop, apologized to the audience, and played “Radio Radio” instead.  It kind of pissed a few people off.  (Which is really funny, because “Less Than Zero” is no less inflammatory.)  The stunt got Costello banned from SNL for a number of years, although they eventually lifted it.

Enjoy the song.  Call your local radio station, and ask them to play “Radio Radio.”  Ask them to play any song by Elvis Costello.  See what happens.

 

“Video Killed the Radio Star”

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I did a quick search, and found that I hadn’t posted this song yet.  Considering my age, I find that kind of unbelievable.  I remember mentioning it once or twice, but this is the song that helped usher in the end of radio as an important medium.

On August 1st, 1981, MTV blasted into existence, and music videos became the way to sell songs.  Oh, the effect wasn’t immediate.  Radio still held a pretty favored place among advertisers and executives.  It was cheaper than television, and just about everybody had one.  If you wanted to get people’s attention fast, a radio commercial or appearance was still a good option.  Radio itself had been the first blow to older media forms like newspapers when it took root in the 1920s.  Every technological advance has eaten away at audiences for old formats of news and entertainment.  Some, like the laserdisc and 8-track, disappear altogether as soon as they’re replaced with something better.  Other forms hang on.  Newspapers aren’t dead yet; neither is radio.  But both have lost a great deal of the cultural cache they once held.

It’s hard for me to comprehend the influence radio had on the world in the first half of the 20th century.  I was a child of the 70s and 80s.  Television was ubiquitous, if a lot simpler, by the time I was born.  MTV was made for me, and I loved it.  It never really replaced radio for me, though.  I think because there was always more variety on radio.  There was still a lot of original programming for radio back then.  John Sebastian had a folk/blues program that aired once a week.  There was the King Biscuit Flour Hour, which aired concerts.  Talk radio was mostly localized, so you heard news and people from the area you lived in.  And of course, playlists were looser, and DJs actually had personalities.  It was . . . fun.

That’s the one thing I miss about radio.  Fun.  I’ve still got one more radio song for tomorrow, but that’s what all this reminiscing about radio boils down to.  Radio used to be fun, and it isn’t anymore.  And that makes me kind of sad.

 

“The Last DJ”

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Jim Ladd represents everything I love about the way radio used to be.  He is his own programmer, playing “freeform radio,” which is just a cool way to say he picks all the songs he plays.  He’s DJ’d at some of the best radio stations in SoCal, and made appearances in numerous other projects.

Of course, he also irritates the living hell out of me.  He rambles on and on incessantly, often interrupting the instrumental breaks in songs to spout off some psuedo-hippie, new age style blather about auras and vibrations.  He plays way too much Doors music, especially “Riders on the Storm.”  And he has an odd fondness for Bob Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts.”  (That’s a strange, peevish story song from Blood on the Tracks that has never quite fit with the rest of that album.)  Ladd thinks far too much of himself, and his role in Rock History.

Of course, he was the inspiration for this song.  The whole album, really.

I might find him irritating, especially when I just want to hear music and not some dude blathering on about nothing special and dropping names.  But he’s never said anything that isn’t true, at least not as far as I can tell.  And he managed to piss off the management at his last local station, 95.5 KLOS, so much that they fired him.  That’s sad, because there was a time when guys like Jim Ladd were a little bit like Rock stars, when they were celebrities in their own right.  In an ironic twist on his radio purism, he’s taken a job with Sirius.  He still does the same thing, but now he does it on satellite radio.  If you want to hear Ladd now, you have to “pay for what you used to get for free.”

“You Can’t Say Crap on the Radio”

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I think the title is self-explanatory.

Unless it’s a conservative talk show, you really can’t say anything even remotely inflammatory on the radio.  Not anymore.  The FCC has rules about that, you know.

It got kind of silly for a while.  Right after the wardrobe malfunction (I still want to know how Justin Timberlake escaped the excoriation Janet Jackson got for that . . . oh, right; he’s a white man and she’s a black woman . . . forgot that for a second), everything that aired on commercial radio was scrubbed so clean it squeaked.  “Walk on the Wild Side”?  Forget it.  Tom Petty couldn’t “roll another joint” anymore.  The Who couldn’t ask “Who the fuck are you?”  Steve Miller couldn’t lament about the “funky shit goin’ down in the city.”  And Van Morrison suddenly had to stop “making love in the green grass” with his brown-eyed girl.

Editing that one line out of “Brown-Eyed Girl” was the only one that really perplexed me.  I mean, I get why songs about prostitution and drag queens might be a little offensive to some people (stupid people who don’t know a great song when they hear one, but still).  I understand you don’t want your five-year-old suddenly asking you what a joint was in the middle of the grocery store.  And, yeah, “fuck” and “shit” are not nice words (but they are useful).  I’m sure there were countless Rap songs that were suddenly either verboten, or just one bleep after another.  I could probably come up with a dozen more examples of questionable songs that got edited, and I might even be able to give you decent justifications for editing them.  But Van Morrison?

What was offensive about that song?  How could singing about being in love with someone–nice, decent, heterosexual love, probably in the missionary position–be considered the least little bit bad?  Okay, maybe they weren’t married.  But you could always lie to the kids and say they were, if you were really hardcore about “protecting” your kids from life.  It was just stupid.

Here’s the thing.  FCC rules clearly state that you can’t say certain things during certain broadcast hours, something that I think amounts to normal business hours plus prime time television.  And they make exceptions for “excited utterances” and context.  That’s the key word.  Context.  If you were listening to Dr. Ruth Westheimer, as I did for a while when I was a teenager, it was A-OK to talk about penises and clitoral stimulation.  It was a sex advice show, fer cryin’ out loud.  But don’t you dare play King Missile’s “Detachable Penis” at 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.  Even if it is funny.

The rules have relaxed somewhat over the years.  The FCC no longer gets wound up about words like “menstruation,” and flushing toilets are no longer considered either obscene or shocking (or funny, in case any sitcom writers out there still think they are).  But you still can’t say some things on the radio.

Although I think “crap” is acceptable now.  Which is good, since that’s what most stations play.