October 1971: All Day Music
(Second in a series. For part one, click here.)
I'm looking at a yellowed newspaper clipping of the team picture of the 1971 Northside Browns, undefeated champions of the Grade Football League's sixth-grade division who, minutes before, finished thrashing the South Raiders 13-0 for the title. I'm in the back row, on the left, clashing ridiculously in a striped shirt and striped pants of entirely different patterns, hands on hips, doing my best to look like a grizzled gridiron warrior flush with victory. The moment the photo is taken marks the pinnacle of my sorry athletic career. I wasn't much of a contributor to the championship. The city park and rec department made the schedule and provided officials, but the teams had no coaches, so we scrubs had to depend on the starters to take themselves out of the game to let us play, which they rarely did. But I was there, and I remember the feeling, on those golden September and October afternoons, as deliciously intense. The outcome of those touch-football games mattered to me in a way very few things have mattered since.
There are 14 of us in the photo. Some of the guys I still know: One is a college professor. I run into another at University of Wisconsin hockey games sometimes. One was my mother's boss for a while before she retired. Another runs his family's construction company. Still another is a banker. Some of the guys I've lost: Two of my best friends at that moment are in the picture, but they would be strangers to me now if I saw them on the street. Right in the middle of the picture is a classmate who was already a gifted athlete in sixth grade. Even in a still picture, you can see it--he's bigger and stronger and faster and tougher than the rest of us, the kind of kid whose athleticism makes coaches dream of championships. What we didn't know then was that after dominating performances in junior high, he would play only a couple of years of high school football before washing out. We'd eventually learn he was gay, although I don't know whether one had anything to do with the other.
What I remember most about those games now, more than the intensity and more than my teammates, is the light. We'd stand there on the field with the late afternoon sun in our eyes and the shadows lengthening, and if we looked around, over the baseball diamonds and the swimming pool and the shelter houses, we'd see the trees in Recreation Park crowned with color and glowing in that light. And that's probably the best thing to remember, because it's the easiest thing to recapture. By some odd alchemy involving memory and time, the light has encoded itself into some of the records I was listening to back then. Here are five of them, from the WLS chart dated October 4, 1971:
"Maggie May"-"Reason to Believe"/Rod Stewart. At least once that fall, we must have played at a game on the sandy lot across from Lincoln School instead of the Rec Park field, because the light in "Maggie May" comes at me from that particular angle. There's no way an 11-year-old would have gotten the older woman/younger man relationship, but he could surely have identified with the line "It's late September and I really should be back at school." What I hear in these two tunes now is their incredible artistry: "Maggie May" is Rod's greatest achievement, and his band, which could sometimes sound ragged (albeit in a good way) never played better. And that's not just a piano on the first few seconds of "Reason to Believe"--it's a bell, one that commands your attention for at least four minutes--or perhaps, 35 years.
"I've Found Someone of My Own"/Free Movement. Count the hooks--that quiet and understated opening, the lead singer's smooth, calm vibe throughout, and the way the rest of the singers crash in on the refrain: "She said 'I found somebody new/To take your place'". Not to mention the twist in the lyric--she's trying to tell him she's leaving, but he beats her to it: "I've found someone of my own." A spectacularly underrated pop/soul record.
"Spanish Harlem"/Aretha Franklin. "Respect," "Chain of Fools," "A Natural Woman," you can have 'em all--just leave me this one, which is the single most potent time-travel device on this list. The instrumental break in the middle, in which Aretha on piano toys with the rest of her band, might be the finest single half-minute of her whole recorded career.
"Marianne"/Stephen Stills. Pretty good taste for an 11-year-old, I think--I bought this on a 45, and I still like the way it starts out at top speed and never slows down.
"All Day Music"/War. This is cool from the first second and mighty funky before it's done. (Dig that organ.) "All Day Music" is done at a languid-enough pace that you can imagine the band trying to make an autumn afternoon last as long as possible. When I hear it today, I'm standing on that sideline again, hoping to get into the game. Several lifetimes later, it's OK that I don't have many memories of actually playing--as long as I can see the light.
(Buy "All Day Music" and more grooves from War here.)
Coming next: An oft-told tale of rural adventuring, just after the crack of dawn.