Song Of The Day 2/15/2017: Elvis Costello & the Attractions – “High Fidelity”
The Final 43
More SchoolsI had to switch schools when we moved to Orangevale, and wound up going to two different ones in fifth and sixth grade. The first was Thomas W. Coleman on Central Avenue. Again, no idea who Coleman was. I actually started there the tail end of fourth grade and stayed through about the first month or so of sixth. This was when my grades started to head just the least bit south. Math and science started to slip away from my grasp.
In sixth grade I switched to Kingswood Elementary in Citrus Heights. This was for vacation planning purposes. Kingswood was a year-round school. Kids were put in one of four tracks, labeled A through D. Every track got a couple of vacations during the year at different times than the other three. I was in Track C, who were all scheduled for vacation in May.
That was when my dad was scheduled to lead a two-week seminar at the University of Houston. So I spent half of May in Houston, Texas. It was the furthest east I’d ever been up to that point. We were in complementary accommodations on the campus that were really, really nice. We were close to the student union, which had a bowling alley on the bottom floor. That was where I learned to bowl. I went down there at least six or seven times during the trip. I have since gotten a lot worse at bowling.
Nothing much happened at either elementary school worth noting, except for a brief run in sixth grade when I went on a hot streak in kickball. The guys in Brooklyn didn’t mind kickball because nobody got a prize and there was no coach for us to have as a false idol.
Camp YardFor some reason I was really into alternate sleeping arrangements during my first few summers on Cerromar Circle.
That just meant I slept on the backyard lawn for a week or so each July. My kids have done the same thing in Tumwater. They sleep in an actual camping tent. I didn’t have a tent, but my family had this gigantic white blanket. I draped it over a series of chairs arranged on the lawn, got a sleeping bag and camped out.
It wasn’t totally roughing it, though, because I brought a black-and-white TV into the tent, using a long extension cord to plug it into an outlet that was outside. I had started watching late-night TV: Johnny Carson, Tom Snyder and eventually David Letterman. KTXL-40 had reruns of Saturday Night Live as well, the ones with the original Not Ready For Prime Time Players. I was way too young to watch them when they were on the first time.
There was really no point to any of this.
Here’s something I bet people will be surprised that I did: I roller-skated every Sunday night for a couple of years. Sunrise Rollerland offered a discount for my church people those nights. I don’t think this was an official thing, though. It wasn’t something the staff at Rollerland got in touch with the leaders of my church to work out. It might have been nothing more formal than a secret password, to be honest. I think we jobbed Rollerland out of a bunch of cash. But they made it back on concessions, so they never complained.
Let's Go Get Happy!!There was a great radio station in Sacramento called KZAP. They were king in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. KZAP straddled the line between freeform radio (a la KSAN in San Francisco) and the burgeoning album-oriented rock radio format. They were adventurous on KZAP. Not to the point where they’d play, you know, the Ramones or the Sex Pistols, but they played Steve Forbert once or twice. And they played the Clash when they finally had a hit in the US with “Train in Vain.” I loved KZAP. Of course they didn’t make it out of the ‘80s, but some enterprising folks have made an interesting replica of KZAP online.
Punk rock was also happening at the time. Not where we were, but somewhere else. At least it was informing the aesthetics of bands that were popular, like the Pretenders and the Police. But none of the British punks that were tearing up the Empire had much of a presence in Orangevale at the time. My mom thought punk was disgusting, although she came to this conclusion only through seeing Gilda Radner’s punk parody character Candy Slice on Saturday Night Live. (How she came to watch Saturday Night Live that night I have no idea.)
So punk was verboten, and to be honest I don’t think I would have understood it at that age. I had too much baggage with ELO. I read about punk furtively in Rolling Stone in case they sent some representatives over. But I was terrified of the whole genre, thanks of course to the guys in Brooklyn’s vivid disinformation.
When American journalists were trying to suss out what punk actually was, they cast a wide net. There were obvious punks like the Pistols, the Anti-Nowhere League and the Dead Kennedys. But there were some artists who US writers lumped in with punk because they coat-tailed on the attitude, not necessarily the music style. Many of them put out at least one thing on Stiff Records in the UK, like Graham Parker and Wreckless Eric. Some of them were from New York and rashly thrown in the punk basket without anyone really thinking about it, like Talking Heads.
Elvis Costello was often referred to as a punk artist, and at least on his first two albums he certainly acted like it. So I feared him as a child and never considered letting him intrude in my bubble of Supertramp.
It was KZAP who broke that barrier down. They’d played at least a little of Costello by that point, though I didn’t know the songs. They mainly stuck to the popular tracks from his first three albums, songs like “Alison,” “Pump It Up” and “Peace, Love & Understanding.” Or at least that’s what I’m theorizing; if they played his songs while I was listening I didn’t catch the identification.
I was listening to KZAP one afternoon when the DJ announced he was about to play the new Elvis Costello single. I thought, well, that’s strange that KZAP would play A PUNK ARTIST in the middle of the afternoon. What about the children?
But the song they played shocked me. It was straight-up pop music, with an organ and really toned-down guitars. I liked it a lot.
It was Elvis’ cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down,” as appears on his fourth album Get Happy!! It was released as the lead track of a four-song single first, along with “Girls Talk,” “King Horse” and “Secondary Modern.”
Reviews of Get Happy!! made several references to its being modeled after a ‘60s R&B album. (Critics almost uniformly theorized it was his penance for the infamous Columbus, Ohio incident in which he drunkenly referred to Ray Charles with a bad name in the presence of Bonnie Bramlett.) They remarked on the album’s insane 20-song lineup.
So one day—I don’t know what the pretense was, it may have simply been to do this—my dad drove me over to Tower Records on Sunrise Boulevard. I bought the cassette of Get Happy!! I kind of wished I’d bought the vinyl, because it had a sticker on it that read “20 Songs! 20!!!” This is the only trip to a record store I remember ever taking with either of my parents. It was like a specific ritual we had to run.
I played Get Happy!! a whole lot that summer. It took another couple of years for me to get headlong into Elvis. Imperial Bedroom had to come out first, and then the almost unfairly pop-sounding Punch the Clock. But once I knew that he didn’t really have any genre limitations, that’s when I became a fan.
And that’s kind of the reason he remains one of my two favorite musicians of all time. He had great songs, but more than anything else, he may be the best fan popular music ever had. He didn’t really consider a song’s style at the outset; he found its construction and its feeling.
That’s kind of how I explain to others why I never really belonged in a musical clique in high school, or listened only to certain genres (or never listened to others). I fell in love with the notes first. After I heard the notes, they could do whatever they wanted with their effects pedals.