Sunday, January 07, 2007

Shine A Light On Me

I love infomercials, especially infomercials about music collections. I love the old music pop star, accompanied by the attractive younger woman who looks up to him with admiration for who he’s been, giving the TV audience a sense that maybe who they were during that era is also worth admiration. I love the tables artfully arranged with the CD collection and a few simple props to set the mood: candles, a smiley-face candle, a magic 8-ball, a mini jukebox. I love the phrase, “You could spend hours of time and hundreds of dollars trying to get all these songs together in one place.” I love the clips of the original artists performing, with their fancy suits and crazy facial hair.

I think I have always had a penchant for these things, but I came to really appreciate them when I spent the summer on the couch after my husband left me, grieving, letting my newly developing muscles burn fat after my daily workouts and begging the puppy not to shit on the floor again. I didn’t have cable and I do have some standards, so after I eliminated courtroom shows, soap operas and Oprah, sometimes all that was left for me was infomercials. Ron Popeil and I became good friends. A few months ago, I was traveling on business and arrived at my hotel room jittery with the stress that comes with airports and shuttles. I flipped through the TV and laughed at myself when my muscles let go with an almost audible sigh when I hit on the mellow sounds of Time Life Music.

I especially love 70’s music infomercials. They are so goofy-looking. Overalls, mutton chops, and mumus betray the era vividly. However, what is even more telling are their actual facial features. It’s like all standards of classic beauty were thrown out the window after the summer of love. And you can’t blame it on a world that was still new to mass media because the artists of the 50s and 60s are mostly good-looking. No close-set eyes, horse faces, wide cheekbones or noses that look like they were folded out of paper. And all that hair! The worst you get in the 50s and 60s was people who looked 40-years-old when they were 25. Only once have I ever been in a place that had such a high concentration of ugly people as the pop music scene of the 70s did. Ween can really pull in the uglies. And these are not Bennetton ad exotic people. Some of them have incisors like shoulder blades! David Bowie is just the beginning. Do you remember what Billy Joel looked like before he grew into his looks with those big fish eyes? No one made fun of Stevie Tyler’s frog mouth until he kept singing into the 80s and 90s and left every other gaper in his dust to run neck and neck with Rolling Stones.

I love it. I am morbid with fascination for the aesthetics of the 70s. I will sit and watch an entire infomercial from start to finish if it is for 70s music. (However, I also really like the one hosted by Peabo Bryson for soul love songs.) So, when I saw the commercial for Guthy-Renkers’s Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special, I nearly went running around the block with joy. Then, a peace came over me that I haven’t known since junior high church camp at sunset and I sat very still.

Luckily, after I sat still for a little while, I told my younger brother that if he or any of the other boys were trying to figure out what I wanted for Christmas, they could get me The Midnight Special. I finally broke down and decided that I actually wanted what my shows were hawking because The Midnight Special was DVDs. I’d have more than just the clips to gawk at the weird aesthetics of the 70s. I would have extended time to imagine what it would have been like to live in a time when my long, straight hair was the height of fashion and capes were almost de riguer.

So, I’m watching my first DVD of the 9-DVD set and I could not be happier. For those of you who don’t know, the special edition companion booklet explains that The Midnight Special was a show that ran weekly from 1972 to 1981 in the time slot after Johnny Carson that previously had been dead air. A few years ago, I remember watching an episode of it that was hosted by Tom Jones. As far as I could tell, he then invited whoever he wanted to come and play, either with him or alone. The special edition companion booklet points out that The Midnight Special is unique because not only were the performances live and not lip-synched but also because it high-lighted rock and R&B acts and not just pop acts. So, all I remember about the Tom Jones episode was being fascinated by how narrow his hips were and that he sang this crazy song whose lyrics were, “Third-rate romance, low-rent rondevoux.” It wasn’t until later that I learned that was a country standard and that my parents liked it. Gross. But I loved the idea. Alas, I didn’t hear about it again until the infomercial for this set came out and this set is cut up into individual songs and performances, rather than entire shows.

Still, I’m currently watching Marc Bolan of T-Rex whip his guitar with a leather bull whip and trade off soul screams with the two black ladies and their terrifying tambourines. Oh, oh! Now Loggins and Messina are singing “Your Mama Don’t Dance and Your Daddy Don’t Rock and Roll.”

The other part that’s cool about these performances is that they are live and so not the same old versions that I’m used to from the radio. It’s like these are actual songs instead of icons. I was nearly brought to tears a little while ago by John Denver’s version of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” that he sang in a duet with Mama Cass. I’ve gotten so used to the standard version as background noise that I’ve never really listened to the words or realized that it was about a soldier going to war. Of course it doesn’t help that my first introduction to the tune was a parody sung at a youth group retreat: “I’ve heaving on a jet plane.” Vomit. It’s always funny. But as John Denver sang it, my heart got caught up for just a moment. It was so simple and gorgeous. This also increased my respect for John Denver. My prior experience with him is the John Denver and the Muppet Christmas, which I love, but which creates an image of him as a somewhat corny, 70s version of the polished pop singer without any real soul or individuality. But I would go see this John Denver in a club somewhere. He could really perform the story behind the song, in a way that must be very difficult to do in a studio since that nuance almost never comes through on anyone’s studio albums.

Think of all the crafts I can do with this on in the background. Can you imagine the hats this will inspire?

Thanks, David. This might just be the best present ever.


Al said...


If its the same show I watched when I was a kid, you will see Blondie performing Heart of Glass. The song and performance is great, but what made an impression on me was the dancing woman in the audience wearing a plastic see-through mini?-skirt. She and her boyfriend/dance partner had a particular move that looked like they were having sex standing up. A perfect audience member for Blondie. Absolutely riveting for teenage boys.

Not there? Then it was probably on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert.


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