Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert

Don Kirshner, rock promoter, producer, and host of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, passed away this week.  He was 76.

Time Magazine once called him “The Man with the Golden Ear,” and the many bands that he helped included the Police, Billy Joel, Tony Orlando, Neil Diamond, Carol King, Prince, Ozzy Osbourne, The Eagles, and The Monkees.  But I remember him as host of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.

Rock Concert was on ABC every other week late at night beginning in 1973 and ran through 1981, starting well before I had access to cable and before MTV.  For much of that time, along with NBC’s Midnight Special during most of the same years, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert was one of the few places to see many great bands on television.  Kirshner gave national TV exposure to bands like The Ramones and Bruce Springsteen before most people had heard of them. As someone who was still a kid listening to AM radio, I found my first exposure to many bands I later would grow to love on Don Kirshner’s show.

When Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert would come on, past my normal bedtime, through my sleepy eyes I saw this balding middle aged man with a monotone voice introducing various bands.  He seemed so different from the bands he introduced that one wondered what he was doing on the show.  I cannot help thinking of Kirshner without remembering Paul Shafer imitating him on Saturday Night Live.  But, like John Hammond (discoverer of Dylan, Aretha Franklin and many others) and Ahmat Ertegan (founder and president of Atlantic Records), Kirshner was one of those people who were important to rock and roll who looked like he should be working in an accounting office. I doubt they would put someone as modest in demeanor and appearance as Kirshner on television today, but it is a tribute to his importance that he hosted and had the show named after him even then.

We rightfully focus on the art and the artists, and we cheer when bands like Wilco find a way to avoid getting handcuffed by record company suits. But it is worth thanking the many people who make it possible for us to enjoy the music. Don Kirshner was one of the few behind-the-scenes people we got to see because of his television show. Still, today most of the clips on YouTube from his show are edited to just show the music without Kirshner’s introduction. I understand, because the music is what is important. But it is worth taking a second to acknowledge the passing of someone who helped bring us such fun and great music who is now introducing many of the same bands in heaven. Thanks Mr. Kirshner.

Image via YouTube. Do you remember Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert? Leave a comment.

Do You Miss CD Stores?

I recently drove to the only remaining CD store within reasonable driving distance of where I live. It is an FYE chain CD and video store. The selection was never great, and most items were overpriced. But it was the last remaining CD store for me after the Tower Records stores closed down a few years ago.

I would go to the FYE store occasionally to browse.  And over the years there were a few CDs I wanted to get on the first day out, so I would take the drive to this store.

Today, when I stopped at the store, it was adorned by a large “Going Out of Business” sign. I was so heartbroken I could not even take advantage of the 50% off sale.

It is odd to despair about the demise of a commercial enterprise.  I am sad even though the cause of the demise, the Internet, has played an important role in helping me discover new music that I might never have found on my own in the record stores. But I cannot help feeling the loss from the closing of the CD/Record stores.

Today, I purchased Two Men with the Blues by Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis. I still remember the first three CDs I bought when the format was new. They were Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.

Before that, I remember as a child saving my money to buy 45 rpm records at a small-town GC Murphy five-and-dime store to play on my portable record player. In college, I haunted the record stores on Coventry Road in Cleveland, discovering European recordings and bootleg LPs. As I moved around as an adult, there were always record and CD stores that were often open late at night where one could find new discoveries, old friends, or comfort from sadness, heartbreak, or loneliness.

In the late 1990s, I remember the thrill of discovering I could make my own CDs from selected songs off my other CDs. And then of course came the iPod and other music players, and everything changed.

I have a 160GB iPod that lets me carry around my entire music collection.  In my youth, I dreamed of being able to do that when I used to take long drives to visit my family in college and later. Instead, during those drives I would have to select the tapes or CDs that would fit in a case to take with me.

One loss from the iPod and computerized music, besides sound quality, is that I rarely listen to a single album repeatedly any more. There’s too much convenience to go to the next album, the next song, or shuffle play.

There are so many CDs where I listened to them repeatedly before falling in love with them.  So I wonder how much music I have lost as the CDs got buried in my digital collection.

For example, last month I read about a CD that sounded good.  I downloaded it from Amazon, put it on my iPod, and then forgot the name of the band and album. So, this potential new discovery sits buried somewhere on my iPod, waiting to be found again when I hear one of the songs on shuffle play. Perhaps I’ll never hear the album in its entirety once. That would never have happened in the old days of physical CDs.

One remaining remnant of the past is that my car stereo does not connect directly to my iPod.  So I do listen to CDs in my car.

But this summer, due to decreasing space in my small New York apartment, I moved my CDs to vinyl sleeves and little suitcases where they no longer sit out where I can grab them easily. My home stereo CD player died a few years ago and I have not replaced it, instead opting to play my iPod through the stereo.

So today’s purchase will be played in my car and through my iPod.  But the CD will probably never be played on a CD player in my home.

My last CD store purchase ever?

So what is my point? Things change and there are good and bad things about the new world order. It is also okay to be glad one had the chance to spend those days and nights in the record stores, and to be sad those days are gone.

I wonder if today’s generation knows what they are missing. At least we still have the music. And book stores. For now.

Do you miss CD/Record stores? Leave a comment.

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    Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday to MLK

    On January 15 in 1929, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia.  Today we celebrate that birth.

    A generation has grown up with the third Monday in January being Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  Thus, it may be difficult for some to understand why there was a debate about whether or not to have a day of celebration for the great man.

    The Work for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day

    A campaign for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day started not long after King’s assassination in 1968.  But the day did not become a federal holiday until 1983 when Pres. Ronald Reagan signed it into law.   Even then, some were opposed to the holiday.  Pres. Reagan initially was opposed to it, citing cost concerns.

    But the matter did not end in 1983, and it took time for some states to get on board to make it a state holiday. In the early 1990s, Arizona received much criticism for its failure to have an official paid holiday after Gov. Evan Mechan rescinded an order from the previous governor, Bruce Babbit, who had made the day a holiday.

    Eventually, Arizona recognized the day through a popular referendum (after an earlier one lost in 1990). New Hampshire was the last state to have a day named after MLK, adopting it in 1999 (the state had adopted the day as “Civil Rights Day” in 1991).  South Carolina was the last state to adopt the holiday as a paid holiday for state employees, and that occurred in 2000.

    Time marches on. Just as kids today may not understand how MLK Day was even an issue in the 1980s and 1990s, it is hard for me, born in the 1960s, to comprehend the violent discrimination that went on in the 1950s and 1960s. And I’m sure most of the kids who were alive in 1911 did not understand how people kept a race of people in slavery just fifty years earlier.

    Humans can be pretty stupid, but fortunately, a lot of times we start to figure things out, even if it takes a long time. And we still have a lot to figure out when it comes to discrimination against others.

    Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday”

    One person who does have great perception of human beings is Stevie Wonder. In 1980, when people were debating whether MLK Day should be a federal holiday, Stevie Wonder recorded a song asking why something so logical was taking so long.  He released “Happy Birthday” in 1981.

    In “Happy Birthday,” Wonder reminded people why Martin Luther King Jr. deserved a special holiday.

    The time is overdue,
    For people like me and you,
    Who know the way to truth,
    Is love and unity to all God’s children.

    It should be a great event,
    And the whole day should be spent,
    In full remembrance
    Of those who lived and died for the oneness of all people.

    So let us all begin
    We know that love can win
    Let it out don’t hold it in
    Sing it loud as you can,
    Happy birthday to you.

    So, crank it up and take some time to celebrate the birth of a great human being. Sing it loud as you can. Happy Birthday to You! And thanks.

    Bonus MLK Songs: See a discussion of 15 songs inspired by MLK.

    I’ll Die With a Buzzer in My Hand!

    Tonight on Jeopardy, one of the three contestants will be an IBM computer taking on two former champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. It is a battle of human against machine.

    The classic human-versus-machine song is “John Henry.” Historians debate about who was the person who inspired the folk tale. But most seem to agree that somewhere at some point, there was a real person or persons who inspired the legend.

    There are various versions of the song about the folk hero. In most versions of the story, John Henry is a railroad worker who, to save the jobs of his co-workers, claims he can beat the railroad company’s new steam-powered hammer. The tale and the song represent modern human beings’ attempts to maintain dignity in the face of rising corporate and technological powers. Although the various song versions differ, the lyrics from the song made famous by Pete Seeger include:

    John Henry told his captain,
    “A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
    But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
    I’d die with a hammer in my hand. Lord, Lord.
    I’d dies with a hammer in my hand.”

    There are many great versions of the song by people such as Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash. Here are two of the better quality videos of the song being performed. Here’s a blues version with some great guitar playing by Mississippi Fred McDowell.

    Here’s another version by Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Session Band that is a little less raw and a little more like a celebration of John Henry’s sacrifice.

    John Henry beat the machine, but in the end he died. Tonight, we doubt there will be any deaths, but can Jennings and Rutter beat the machine? Please answer in the form of a question.

    Post-Match Update: The computer won. But this match was just a warm up for a one-million dollar rematch that will be broadcast February 16, so there may still be hope for the humans.

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    Will Gov. Quinn Sign the Death Penalty Bill?

    Yesterday, the Illinois Legislature passed a bill to abolish the death penalty in that state. In order for the bill to become law, the governor must sign it. The bill now sits on Governor Pat Quinn’s desk, and he has said that he does not yet know what he will do.

    Illinois has been a leader in the death penalty debate in recent years, so it will be interesting to see if the governor has the courage to accept the role in abolishing the death penalty. After several Illinois death row inmates were found to be innocent in the 1990s, then-Gov. George Ryan ordered a commission to review the criminal justice system and he ultimately commuted the sentences of everyone on Illinois’s death row. The results from the commission, and studies by other states inspired by Illinois, in effect, found that there are so many flaws in the criminal justice system, that we can never be sure that we will not execute an innocent person.

    Fifteen states and the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty, and there has been a strong worldwide trend for decades to get rid of the death penalty. Yet, when we hear about a violent crime, like the recent tragic shootings in Arizona, our first reaction is to reach for the lethal injection needle. That quest for revenge is normal and human, but it is also normal and human to act out of rational thought instead of anger. And rational thought and experience tell us that the death penalty is more expensive than life in prison, ineffective, racist, inaccurate, and discriminates against the poor.

    Steve Earle touches on several of these themes in his excellent song, “Billy Austin.” The stark tale is narrated by a death row inmate who is part Native American. He does not claim to be innocent, and he describes committing a murder during a filling station robbery. The song then addresses the trial, referencing the poor representation often given to those charged with capital crimes. Earle seems to be telling us that the death penalty is not given based on the worst crimes, it is given based on what happens in a courtroom.

    But my trial was over quickly
    And then the long hard wait began
    Court appointed lawyer
    Couldn’t look me in the eye
    He just stood up and closed his briefcase
    When they sentenced me to die

    The narrator then describes the wait on death row, touching on the racism in the system.

    I ain’t about to tell you
    That I don’t deserve to die
    But there’s twenty-seven men here
    Mostly black, brown and poor
    Most of em are guilty
    Who are you to say for sure?

    And the song ends with another question.

    Could you take that long walk with me
    Knowing hell is waitin’ there
    Could you pull that switch yourself sir
    With a sure and steady hand
    Could you still tell yourself
    That you’re better than I am.

    And those are the questions that face Gov. Quinn. If he does not sign the bill, he will be the one pulling the switch on everyone executed in Illinois from this day forward. And that is a heavy responsibility to bear. Because the death penalty ultimately is not about the person being killed, it is about who we are.

    Bonus Governors’ Dilemmas in Other States: In the past week, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen granted clemency to men on death row. Meanwhile, also in the last week, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter granted a posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, who was executed in 1936, because evidence now shows Arridy was innocent.

    Bonus Discussion of Another Steve Earle Song on the Death PenaltyJustice Stevens and Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One.”

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