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Somewhere Down the Crazy River

- PJ Hinton is a contributor for A Blast from the Past. He can be found on the TweetyBox @HttpStatus402.

"Oh this is sure stirring up some ghosts for me" -- Robbie Robertson, "Somewhere Down the Crazy River"

The balanced calendar adopted by many school systems today makes summer vacation go by a lot faster than when I was a kid. Instead of going back to school in mid-to-late August, the bells are ringing as early as late July.

The truncation in time doesn't make the boredom of summertime blues any less unbearable to my two daughters, who are now well into their teen years. And so they insist that they go somewhere out of town, if not out of state.

Being dance students who perform on a competition team, my daughters typically take a one-week trip with their mother to a nationals event someplace pretty far away, usually in mid-to-late June.

For my part, they get to spend most of a week with my girlfriends' family on their annual vacation. The organizers of that trip opted not to take a vacation this year, so my kids were really pressing for at least a trip to Washington, DC or Chicago.

With my older daughter having recently started her new job, and the older daughter hanging with a friend out at a lake a lot, finding a block of time to take a trip was hard to come by. We managed to eke out a few days the last week of July, and we decided to go to Chicago.

A single dad taking his kids on a trip stirred up some memories of my own almost forty years ago. For it was a few days in late 1981 that my dad took my brother and I on a trip to the Windy City. I can't remember exactly how many days we were there, but I have memories of where we went and events that helped me to peg down roughly when.

I remember that it was during a huge festival, called Chicagofest, was going on down at Navy Pier. I also remember some of the music that was getting airplay on the radio at the time. To give me a playlist to listen to on the way up and back, I pulled up the Billboard Hot 100 Chart for the week of August 8, 1981, and with the vast collection that is an Apple Music subscription, I started to create a playlist of all the songs on the chart in descending order. Here it is, in all of its glory.

Despite a vast collection of songs, Apple Music did not have all of the tunes available. Although Bernadette Peters has a long and storied career, none of the albums of hers available to stream contained her version of "Dedicated to the One I Love". I knew of releases by Stars On 45, and there were certainly tracks of theirs online, but what were these "Medley" and "Medley II"? And just for good measure, there was "The Beach Boys Medley" by The Beach Boys themselves just outside the top 40 without a trace.

All in in all, my playlist of 100 was missing 11 songs, and it weighed in at over six hours, not quite enough to make the full round trip from Indy to Chi-town, but enough to last most of the way.

The process of building the playlist was a tedious loop of search-verify-add clicks, with a crash or two of iTunes added for extra pain and suffering. Over the course of compilation, I listened to varying degrees of snippets from each song. What struck me was the mix of artists and genres.

You can see the slow fade Disco casting rays here and there... Evelyn "Champagne" King and Taste of Honey's cover of "Sukiyaki". Mix in some crossovers from urban radio -- Frankie Smith's "Double Dutch Bus"... two classics from Rick James and one from his protege Teena Marie.

We see some Jazz influences with Al Jarreau's "We're in this Love Together" and The Manhattan Transfer covering "Boy from New York City". And then there's "Sweet Baby" from Stanley Clarke and George Duke, which has a bittersweet significance for me because I saw Clarke and Duke perform this live at Opti Park as part of the 2012 Indy Jazz Fest. With Duke passing soon afterwards, I wonder to this day whether that was the last time that they performed this song live.

There are country crossovers, some sporting the Urban Cowboy feel... Ronny Milsap and Mickey Gilley are there, as is Duke Boy John Schneider. Eddie Rabbit"s giant hit "Step by Step" is moving its way up. There's the omnipresent Kenny Rogers both in solo and duet, and The Oak Ridge Boys have a pair, including the doo-woppy "Elvira".

Longtime rockers represent with charts from Journey, Rush, Foreigner and a lesser remembered track by Styx. Joe Walsh is on his way out with the mariachi-flavored "Life of Illusion". Jefferson Starship has a hit, but it's former Airplane/Starship vocalist Marty Balin in the top 10 with "Hearts". Speaking of former group members gone solo, we see Don Felder from The Eagles charting with "Heavy Metal (Takin' a Ride)".

Pablo Cruise and Climax Blues Band are still out there. REO Speedwagon has two hits from the iconic album High Infidelity. The weirdest thing is "Straight from the Heart" from The Allman Brothers Band, which has a yacht rock feel to it.

Lurking in the depths are Lulu, Art Garfunkel and Don McClean, their biggest hits long in the rearview mirror, but it's a reunified The Moody Blues that is capturing the buzz with an updated sound in "Gemini Dream" and a introductory nod to "Nights in White Satin" with "The Voice". Gary Wright refuses to go gently into that good night with "Really Wanna Know You"

Neil Diamond captures a resurgent zeitgeist with "America", which hearkens back to a time when immigration celebrated rather than seen as a threat that must be contained. Gary U.S. Bonds is charting in the lower 50 with two hits, one of which I remember getting airplay. Carlos Santana has two hits, which includes "Winning", which showed radio staying power in Indy, if not on the charts.

The early 80s is an era where popular TV show themes chart as hits themselves. Here we see "Theme From Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)". The themes from Hill Street Blues and Cheers would rule the adult contemporary airwaves in the years to come.

The future of the charts is starting to take shape with Ray Parker Jr. and "Raydio having two entries. We see a forgotten track by The Tubes and another by Icehouse. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers chart by themselves and in collaboration with Stevie Nicks. Billy Squier is starting a run of hits with "The Stroke". And at the top spot, there is Rick Springfield with "Jesse's Girl".

Yet none of these songs stand out in my memory more than number 15 on the chart: "Time" by The Alan Parsons Project, from the album The Turn of a Friendly Card.

The song was being played a lot on the radio, reaching its peak after a four-month run. I heard it on the way up and back. Back in Indy, it was a staple on WENS-FM, which had just undergone a format change to adult contemporary.

Aside from heavy airplay, I'm not sure why "Time" stands out for me. Maybe it's because it sounded so differently from other songs at the time. It certainly didn't fit into the rock as existed at the time. The mood was too melancholy to fit in with the soft rock.

When you peel back the synth fueled orchestration, there's a melody that feels more like a torch song from the 50s or 60s songbook. Put a string-heavy orchestra in its place, and you can picture it being sung by ol' Blue Eyes himself.

Listening to it, I am taken back to the the trip we took with my dad. We rode to Chicago in a pale yellow mid-70s Buick Lesabre handed down to my dad from his parents. The air conditioner didn't work very well, so he had to make do with the vent and rolled down windows.

I remember my dad wanting to stay in a motel out in the suburbs because he said he was afraid of high-rise buildings. I don't even think we had reservations, just getting a place when we got there.

I experienced serious traffic jams for the first time on the Dan Ryan Expressway and wondered how in the world would anyone put up with this. The CTA rapid transit lines in the median seemed really cool. Same for the oasis overpasses that hosted restaurants atop tollways.

I remember trying to navigate as co-pilot the best I could with an out-of-date fold-out city map. We got lost a lot, at one point landing ourselves in a dreaded bus only lane.

We saw most of the major tourist draws of the day: The Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Sears Tower, and Grant Park.

Still, there were some less touristy surprises. We stopped at roadside so I could see and photograph a Goodyear blimp parked at an airfield. We went to Chicagofest at Navy Pier. This was long before the site had been renovated with food and sightseeing attractions. You could walk along the facility and still see where rail lines fed into the pier. I remember getting my first taste of Chicago style pizza and seeing live music. I can't remember who was performing, but there are records of some of the headliners, and do I ever wish I had a time machine to go back and relive it to the full.

In my own soundtrack, "Time" is a foreshadowing of changes that would shake up my life. In less than a month, my mother would move out of the house, relocate to another town, and seek a divorce. I freaked out at the anxiety of having to start over in a different school, and luckily, my dad was OK with my brother and me not moving. In retrospect, the changes shouldn't have been as emotionally overwhelming as they were to me at the time, but my coping skills were limited, and my perspective was much narrower.

The years that would follow would involve more complications... Loss of a grandfather due to smoking related cancer... estrangement from my dad when he decided to remarry a few years later... a whopper case of chicken pox from which I carry scars to this day.

After a decade, my dad's second wife left him, and my parents got back together and dated for about a year, which in a way answered the rhetorical flourish that asks "Who knows when we shall meet again, if ever."

The mess of thoughts above were simmering in my thoughts leading up my trip to Chicago with my daughters. It's natural for parents to compare themselves to how their own parents did. While I didn't succeed at keeping my own marriage afloat, I have worked hard to be more present for my daughters than my own parents were for me.

Although we didn't have as much time to work with for our vacation as my dad did, I did manage to take them to places they wanted to go... Michigan Ave., Navy Pier, the Shedd Aquarium, Millennium Park, and the Art Institute. We also worked in a couple of unexpected gems... the Billy Goat for dinner and an impromptu visit to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago's Money Museum when we found that it would be too much of a wait to go up the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. We stayed at a hotel just off of Michigan Ave. and got to our destinations via walking or public transportation. No need to worry about driving or getting lost! I'd like to think that made the most of the time we had.

On the way home, there was construction-induced heavy traffic on the northwest side of Indianapolis required a reroute through Brownsburg. To keep spirits up, I had Siri start playing songs that got a lot of airplay on Radio Disney (the musical choice of my kids before they discovered the grown-up stations) ten or so years ago... Hannah Montana, Owl City, Jordin Sparks, Selena Gomez and the Scene, Austin Mahone... It amused both of my daughters. I think they were surprised that I would remember some of these songs. And soon we were talking about the memories that they associated with those songs. We may not share the same tastes in music, but you're never too young to start reliving your own blasts from the past.


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