Hey Siri, what’s the “Weather Report?”

On my way to work this morning, I asked Siri “what’s the weather report?” and instead of telling me “cloudy and 35 degrees” I got “Birdland” by the jazz-fusion group Weather Report.

I was not disappointed.

This is one of my favorite tracks of all time. As much as Steely Dan defined the sound of the late 70s and early 80s for me, Weather Report – and specifically “Birdland” – was right in that mix. There’s so much going on in the studio recording; it’s jazzy and funky and boppy one after the other. The chord runs are amazing.

I found this 1978 video recording of a Weather Report concert in Germany at the Stadthalle Offenbach and learned for the first time that the high-pitched notes at the beginning of the piece, which I always assumed was an electric guitar was bassist Jaco Pastorius plucking his electric bass close to the pickups while fingering it like… well, like an electric guitar. Pastorius also provides the high-pitched vocals, which I also never realized. Both he and drummer Alex Acuña go shirtless as well, which is pretty unusual for a jazz performance.

This live performance has more of a swing feel to it than the studio recording, but it’s still very cool:

Pastorius was quite a character. As he was recording his first solo album, he attended a Weather Report concert and afterwards introduced himself to the band with “I’m John Francis Pastorius the Third, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” When the bass spot opened up when Alphonso Johnson left, he became Weather Report’s second bass player just in time to record “Birdland,” which was written by keyboardist Joe Zawinul. Unfortunately, a combination of drug and alcohol abuse and the discovery that Pastorius was bipolar led to a series of bizarre events that ultimately resulted in his death in a bar fight in 1987 at the age of only 35.

MTV hits the big 4-0

Where were you 40 years ago? Were you anxiously awaiting the launch – at midnight on August 1, 1981 – of Music Television, better known as MTV?

Were you born? If you did exist on Earth back then, were you old enough to remember this august (pun intended) moment in American cultural history?

I am old enough to remember the start of the MTV phenomenon, though I did not witness the launch personally. The availability of cable television wasn’t widespread in 1981, especially in urban areas. So in Pontiac, Michigan, where I grew up, our TV choices were still limited to over-the-air broadcasts from stations mostly in Detroit:

9CBETCBCWindsor, Ontario

Here’s how the Detroit Free Press noted the upcoming launch of MTV two days before it started:

Detroit Free Press, Thursday, July 29, 1981, page 12B

An interesting note about cable TV availability: I was listening to the original MTV video jocks (Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, and Alan Hunter – the fifth original VJ, J.J. Jackson, died in 2004) chat about MTV’s start on SiriusXM’s “80s on 8” yesterday, and they recalled that they had to travel to Fort Lee, New Jersey during the evening on July 31, where they went to a restaurant that had cable since it wasn’t yet available in Manhattan. They’d been taping their segments that would appear between the videos, but really weren’t sure what MTV was going to look like until the channel started at 12:01 a.m.

My first exposure to MTV was about a month later when I went off to Central Michigan University for my freshman year. As noted in Bettelou Peterson’s Free Press item above, Mt. Pleasant was one of the Michigan cities that had cable and was going to have MTV on their lineup. So when I got to my dorm (the late, great Tate Hall), some of my new dorm mates were aware of the channel already. The dorm had only one cable connection, located in the basement hangout room, where it was attached to a then-quite-large 24” diagonal color television.

I spent a bit of time down there watching, but frankly, I was more into radio and didn’t see the attraction of watching music instead of just listening to it. But some of our classmates spent way too much time down there, and it was apparent that the concept definitely had appeal.

During “Welcome Week,” in fact, the university’s Program Board, which organized music and other cultural events on campus, held a “video watch” event in the Kiva space in Moore Hall. Music videos were projected onto a screen. About 100 people showed up and a good time was had by all.

By the time my radio career got started in 1982, first at campus station WCHP and then at WCFX-FM in Clare, MTV was already affecting how music was being marketed and consumed by fans. MTV’s popularity profoundly influenced what it took to be a successful popular music artist. While it never hurt to be physically attractive before, visual image became even more important in an era when your song absolutely had to have a video to have any chance of getting played, not just on MTV but on the radio as well.

Change is often gradual, and it’s hard to point out exactly when our culture started moving in a different direction. But August 1, 1981, was a pivotal moment in American society when the rocket took off and MTV started burrowing into our collective consciousness.

Musique Dimanche: Sara Dufour

As I continue to work on my French so when I finally get to go back to Québec (peut-être cet été? on verra) I can eavesdrop on conversations more effectively, I’ve been listening to a lot of Québecois country and pop music. I wrote about Pépé Proulx, who performs solo as “Pépé et sa guitare” on Twitch, back in October. Another Montréal band that’s taken to streaming during the pandemic is Raffi, who perform on Twitch with the username “livedanslgarage” (Raffi Live dans l’Garage). I recommend both; there’s some English spoken, especially in some of the songs they cover, but it’s mostly French, and Québecois French at that, which tends to be spoken pretty fast and has a vernacular all it’s own.

One artist I learned about from Pépé’s stream (because he’s covered a couple of her songs and also because she visited his home in December for a lengthy performance and interview video as part of his “Tout l’Monde Veut Jouer Avec Pépé” series) is Sara Dufour. Sara isn’t streaming but her music is available on Apple Music and other services and she has some videos of her songs on YouTube.

Sara’s songs are earthy, funny, and occasionally surprisingly touching. She writes about the things she loves, including snowmobiles – see the videos below for “Chez nous c’est Ski Doo” (featuring vintage Ski-Doo advertising films) and “Chic-Chocs” (shot in the Chic-Choc mountains on the Gaspé Peninsula in eastern Québec and featuring Ski-Doo sleds, naturally).

I’m not a snowmobiler – never been on one, actually – but after watching Sara’s videos for these two songs I’m ready to go.

Here are a few of her YouTube videos. Even if you speak no French, I think you’ll get a smile out of watching them. Enjoy.

Music Saturday: Tommy Oddsen

I haven’t done a Music Saturday post for awhile. Some other things came up, can’t imagine what they were but they seemed to demand my attention. Anyway, this week’s artist is Tommy Oddsen.

Tommy Oddsen is my musical alter ego. The name came about in 2019 when I was going to play a gig with one of my best friends with whom I share a Norwegian heritage, and whose name is Evenson. “Even” is a Danish/Norwegian first name (akin to “Evan” in English) and, interestingly, so is “Odd.” So Norwegian families had – and a quick check of Facebook profiles seems to confirm still may have – sons named Even and Odd, and their children would have been “Evensen” and “Oddsen” in the bygone patronymic method of last names.

Rather than bill ourselves as “Evenson and Kephart,” I had the idea of adopting “Oddsen” as my stage name so we’d be “Evenson|Oddsen”. It was supposed to be a tiny joke for a few performances, but this year, as I had lots of time on my hands to actually practice playing guitar and singing for my own enjoyment, I started to think of myself as “Tommy Oddsen.”

So now that I’m finally playing live on Twitch, I’m using that name. In case you’re confused trying to find my channel.

Right now, I’m only playing one evening per week, Thursdays at 6 p.m. Eastern time. I’m on for about two hours, playing almost entirely covers from the 1960s through the 1990s, mostly folk, singer/songwriter tunes, some old country songs, and the very small number of original songs I’ve written. (Hopefully, there will be more of those to share shortly.)

Stop by and listen at https://www.twitch.tv/TommyOddsen.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said; 
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Stanza 6 of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

This is one of my favorite Christmas hymns. The lyric is from a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863 during the American Civil War. When he wrote it, he was still mourning the loss of his beloved wife Fanny Appleton, who died in 1861 after her dress caught fire and she was seriously burned. For some time after that, Longfellow was unable to write poetry and instead worked as a translator.

As the war wore on, Longfellow’s son Charles decided to join the Union Army but only told his father through a letter he left for him.

I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.

From a letter from Charles Appleton Longfellow to his father, dated March 14, 1863

Charles was severely wounded at the Battle of Mine Run in Virginia in late November, 1863, and while he did recover, the concern over his son’s health weighed heavily on Longfellow. A few weeks later on Christmas Day, he heard church bells ringing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived, and the words to the poem that was originally titled “Christmas Bells” came to him, with the repeated phrase at the end of each stanza borrowed from the King James Bible’s phrasing of the angel’s words in Luke 2:14.

The poem contains seven stanzas, though only the first, second, sixth, and seventh are commonly sung, and some variations and additions to Longfellow’s words also exist in some versions. The most familiar music for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written by Johnny Marks in 1956, and his composition was recorded by Bing Crosby the same year; it was a big Christmas hit and has remained popular for over sixty years.

“Christmas, 1863” by Thomas Nast

Longfellow’s anger and frustration come through strongly throughout the poem, which contains specific references to the war in some of the verses that aren’t usually sung. But it’s the sixth stanza, the one I included above, that has always affected me the most. “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” Over a century and half after the horrors of our own civil war, those words are still true. I feel Longfellow’s despair and understand his hopelessness, even though I haven’t shared his personal tragedies and loss.

He finishes his poem on a hopeful note, though:

The pealed the bells more loud and deep
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

I like to think that, on balance, wrong does fail and right does prevail. (In an odd aside, this verse always reminds me of the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” where before a duel between Captain Kirk and former Starfleet officer Tracey, Dr. McCoy says to Mr. Spock: “I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”)

I also like to hope that we might eventually establish peace on earth and witness good-will among all people. I’m 57 years old and I’m still waiting, and over the past year I feel like we’re farther from that goal than ever.

Nevertheless, it is my wish for anyone who reads this tonight, tomorrow, or anytime in the future. Longfellow’s wish ought to be our collective mission statement. I wish you “Peace on Earth and goodwill to all.”