Sunday, July 24, 2011

Music Memories + Carpe Diem

Some of you might know that while I like good music, I was never a real connoisseur like many of my peers were. I grew up listening to local AM stations like 1450 WPAR, whose studios were next to the Smoot Theater. You could get the WPAR weekly “Top 40” list at the studio or places like the Record Department in the basement of Dils Department Store in downtown Parkersburg. This sort of practice was fairly common for most radio stations in the '60s and into the '70s. However, I was always too cheap to spend much money buying records (my personal vice was model cars and rockets). Plus, it was easier and cheaper to just listen to the radio (or my sister's record). When I had some money to spend on magazines, I preferred buying Popular Science or Hot Rod rather than Tiger Beat or Rolling Stone.

Speaking of local radio, it wasn't until high school that the first pop music FM radio station came to town (the earliest FM stations in our area were classical music). WXIL opened a studio inside Grand Central Mall during the mid-70s with a window where you could look in on the deejays at work. I remember that a guy named “Uncle Dougger” was one of their popular deejays. They also hired a girl from my high school class (Marsa Myers) who could be heard on the air from time to time. Just about everybody's car—including the 1970 VW Beetle we had—sported a WXIL Sunspot sticker in the window, in hopes of winning one of their contests. However, at that time, most cars (or at least the older cars most high schoolers had—if we even had a car) only had an AM radio. If you were lucky, you might have an add-on FM radio attached under the dash (and none of them were digital).

The Charleston Civic Center was the closest destination for concerts by big name artists as I came of age. Some Parkersburg High School students would make the trip down there to see concerts, but I never went. I remember my cousin Brent Jarvis went to see his favorite band KISS perform. My only concert prior to college was when Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons played at the Parkersburg High School Fieldhouse shortly after graduation in 1976 (a 95WXIL promotion, as I recall). However, a concert in a high school gym was not that memorable and hardly counts as a big-time concert.

I arrived at the University of Charleston in the fall of 1976, and figured that I might join the “cool kids” by finally going to concerts at the Charleston venues. For example, many of the UC students were much more into music than I was, and had already been to many concerts. There were lots of New Jersey kids who talked about seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band before they made it big (some of them said they saw Bruce at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park). I was impressed!

The very first chance I got during the fall of my freshman year was when one of my personal favorites, Harry Chapin, came to play at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium. I really wanted to go see him perform! However, there were three strikes against me: I didn't have a car, I didn't really know anybody well yet (especially as to whether any girls would enjoy hearing the story-song ballads of a singer/songwriter like Harry), and I didn't have much money. I decided to take the easy way out and not try to attend. I figured surely I would get another chance sometime in the future—I’d just catch him the next time he came through.

As it turns out, I didn't attend a big concert until near the end of my college career. In part as a reaction to disco (especially since I was not a talented dancer like Mike Gibbs or John Oplinger, to name a few), I took a shine to southern rock/outlaw country music. I used to crank stuff like the Marshall Tucker Band, the Charlie Daniels Band, and Willie & Waylon. When Rob Corrie asked me if I wanted to go to the new Huntington Civic Arena as a double date with his girlfriend Nadine and her roommate Skeeter (Melinda was her real name, but everyone knew her by this nickname), I jumped on the opportunity. We had a great time traveling to Huntington in Nadine's 1977 Datsun 200SX and saw Willie and Family put on a great show in the new and largest venue in the area at that time.

While at WVU, I only attended one concert—I went with Sylvia Parker to see Chicago play at the Coliseum for my only big-time concert experience there. I probably should have went to see other acts who played there, such as Duran Duran, the Go-Go's, and the Grateful Dead (especially since so many people think I look like Jerry Garcia). However, I just was never able to justify the high ticket cost with the transitory nature of a concert. With most acts, I might have liked a couple of their songs, but I was not an expert on their entire repertoire.

I did learn a heckuva lot about good music while in Morgantown, thanks to the tutelage of the Doctor of Rock, Steve Goff. I met Steve in grad school, and his apartment in Westover became a major source of my music education. He had thousands and thousands of albums on shelves all over the apartment, and loved playing deejay for his visitors. When I began teaching political science classes for WVU-P and wanted to include music connected to politics with my classes, he made a great mix tape for me. I think some of my students came to class just to hear the songs each night.

Since my college days, I've had the opportunity to see a lot of interesting live performances, including more than a dozen Mountain Stage shows (with acts ranging from Regina Spektor to John Hartford and Nickel Creek to Nancy Griffith). During my parenting phase, I saw Riders in the Sky as well as Ray Stevens at the Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling. A few years back, I enjoyed listening to Felix Cavaliere and the Rascals at the Italian Festival in Clarksburg with Anna (as well as Steve Goff and his wife). Anna and I also ventured to the Pittsburgh Post Pavilion with a couple of her friends to hear Rusted Root, the Clarks, and Donnie Iris. Of course, the best outdoor musical experience for us has been the recreations of the Woodstock concert by the incredibly talented folks at Shadowbox in Columbus. Their house band (known as Bill Who?) is phenomenal! However, none of these qualify as prototypical big time music extravaganzas.

The biggest real concert for me was two years ago, when Anna and I traveled to Dayton, Ohio, for a weekend visit. We got to hear not one—but three of my favorite performers at a single concert. First up was Willie Nelson (30 years older than the first time I saw him—and I thought he was old then!), followed by John (don't call him Cougar) Mellencamp, and capped off with the legendary Bob Dylan. It was under the stars on a blanket in the minor league ballpark of the Dayton Dragons, and it was a wonderful night!

The good news is that I got to see Dylan while he is still performing. I didn't want to miss the opportunity to see him, because I had missed the chance to ever see some of my other favorites. It wasn't but a few years after I skipped seeing Harry Chapin perform in Charleston that he was killed in an automobile accident on Long Island, never to be heard again. Now that the great Clarence Clemmons has left us, I'll never get to have a true Springsteen and the E Street Band experience (because Clarence's sax—not to mention his cool personality—was so crucial to that sound!).

There is a quaint saying to discourage procrastination: “Don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today!” It serves as a reminder to me of the lesson I learned my freshman year at the University of Charleston with Harry Chapin. I hope everyone keeps it in mind and makes the most of every opportunity afforded to them in life. I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams proclaims "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."

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