“You’ll be hit by these big waves that’ll sneak up on you.” That was what Fr. Jack Trese told us about grief at my dad’s funeral in 1997. But a week ago I got clobbered by one those waves in the form of a showtune I couldn’t stand–driving south in the middle of Ohio.
These days, my go-to stations on Sirius include “On Broadway,” “The Beatles Channel” and “The Seventies on 7,” especially on Saturdays they reply Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” broadcasts from the same week from 1970-79. I was very excited one weekend brought back my transistor radio tied to by handlebars as I listened to WDRQ delivering my newspapers at 5:30 AM.
In addition to the Saturday Night Fever‘s stranglehold on the airwaves that spring (with Bee Gee younger brother Andy coming up fast) there’s the sampling of cheese of “Thunder Island” and Barry Manilow not being able to smile without me. But my favorite story is with the Kansas hit at #10 that my 5 year-old sister mistakenly sang about poor housekeeping, “Dust in the Window.”
There’s that sense of order that Kasem’s voice somehow still brings to me, making me forget the longest hour of my public education enduring my 7th grade band teacher’s poor classroom management. It was such a train wreck as I sat in my fifth-chair trumpet section waiting for the inevitable breaking point in nearly every class where he would storm out of the room. “Instruments up!” he’d shout with raised baton–only to look up and see all of us holding tubas, flutes and a snare drum high over our heads.
Aside from training me on my own classroom techniques of what not to do (I never ask for instruments up) that year also gave me my first decent income. After I’d go around with my nifty coin-dispenser and try to collect $5.60 for a month of Free Press, I’d have some spending cash for garage sales looking through Mad Magazines and, eventually gravitating toward audio equipment. It was a fine time to still pick up 8-Track combo units–including some that had turntables, cassette decks and even a thermometer!
It was a year or so after I got one of these babies that I learned that the quality increased if the number of options on the appliance decreased. So in ninth grade I’d eventually buy my separate pieces and connect everything with dozens of red and white cables.
But it was a warm spring and a few garage sales had already appeared in the classifieds of the Royal Oak Daily Tribune; my mom had circled a few of the ads in our neighborhood. The other great anecdote involved one of my other sisters, probably when she was five as well, wondering why the same lady kept having sales. “Which lady?” my mom asked. It was the “Miss Elanius” that was being read aloud after “sporting goods, tools, miscellaneous” or “baby clothes, kitchen appliances, miscellaneous.”
I think I spent $20 on one of those big stereo bastardization units and I took it home proudly–with visions of setting up my room into a cool “pad” like Greg Brady had when he transformed the attic.
But to start, I was just excited that there was a cassette deck and I could make my own mix-tapes.
My Uncle Joe was the first person I know to make mix tapes and they would arrive from northern California in the very slick Maxell packaging that seemed to scream quality far beyond Radio Shack’s “Realistic” label for its non-realistic audio.
He had a great assortment of music from the 60’s and 70’s including the Mamas and Papas, Bette Midler and Joan Baez which are still on my phone’s playlist. The fun of not just recording from an LP an album’s songs in-order was a technological breakthrough for me–and a quantum leap for my dad.
When I was in kindergarten, my dad brought home from work his cassette recorder that was intended for his business meetings. But they also became a source of entertainment for our neighborhood as Jim Walsh recreated the “Howdy Doody” show with an assortment of Mel Blank impersonations of guests including Elmer Fudd, Goofy and Clarabelle the Clown. One of our greatest family treasures is the following 1972 recording from our Cincinnati living room with the Pedotto kids from down the street.
Jim Walsh’s Howdy Do-Dee Program
None of us knew the Howdy Doody cast but the neighborhood kids were quickly taught the lyrics to the theme song.
As the seventies rolled along, dad would move his microphone toward the hi-fi system’s speaker and we’d all need to be quiet as he’d record favorite songs–more often than not movie and musical soundtracks. Just yesterday, my mom told me that when he worked holidays at Sears just after I was born he was permitted to pick the music on the appliances–and he inevitably picked Montavani to best display the quality of the gear.
So when I’d set up my new garage sale beauty on faux-wood adjustable wall-shelves and figured out how to record directly from a record to a blank tape I ran and showed my dad. I can still hear his wonder, “And we can be talking in the room and it doesn’t show up on the tape!”
He shot downstairs, grabbed a handful of records and spread them out on my bedspread. The creative wheels turned for Jim all week, and the next Saturday morning we hopped in the car and visited three local libraries to collect additional LPs that he and my mom didn’t have in their collection.
Many of these new scores became favorites of mine which I still play including most of “The Music Man” and “Oklahoma” and some from “Brigadoon,” “South Pacific” and “Camelot.” But the one song that my dad insisted on adding which was almost as painful for me as that band class was “The Impossible Dream” from “The Man of LaMancha.”
Even the record label was contrary to what I wanted to experience as a ninth grader–its irritating mustard-color and the tortured expressions of Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures. The ponderous song of a weird looking knight going on a doomed road trip after a windmill struck me as a waste of time–even for a kid who was still hunting through dumpsters looking for gems to add to his beer can collection.
So somewhere north of Dayton, as Patrice and I were heading to our first Derby weekend, the opening notes began on a song I’d not really heard since my dad’s cassette played in our station wagon on a summer trip up north.
And for the first time in probably 15 years I was so choked up I couldn’t even comment on the weirdness of it all, not until the song had ended and I’d had a big gulp of water. I had been briefly back on the bed next to my dad as he was flipping through the album jackets, smiling and shaking his head at the marvel of technology–and how his long trips on the road for work were about to become much less tedious.