Jimmy Buffett

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Oh, how the Rust Belt children dreamed! They dreamed so hard they looked around at one another and swore that all of them had transformed into bright colorful birds. Parrots, if you will. The open-air aviary where they gathered was called Blossom Music Center and the magical beach bum who made it all possible was named Jimmy Buffet, who sang about exotica like margaritas and one-night stands and volcanoes and sharks. Land-locked Midwesterners couldn’t get enough of it. You’ve heard of destination weddings, well, this was destination music. With just a bottle of Two Fingers tequila, a few hand-rolled joints of Panama Red and a cassette tape entitled Songs You Know By Heart, any pasty Ohioan could leave behind the sunless days, 47% unemployment rate and soul-crushing hopelessness of the ol’ homestead for a blessed short while.

I was hardly a fan, but the guy was so huge where I came from that I had always assumed he was a star of a magnitude similar to Bruce Springsteen or Elton John. Or at least Phil Collins. Imagine my surprise when I went off to college and started meeting Buffett fans from other parts of the country who regarded him not as some de facto musical giant, but a cultish, eccentric singer/songwriter along the lines of Van Dyke Parks or Tim Buckley! The Billboard charts bear this out–he’s had only ONE Top Ten hit (need I mention it by name?) in almost half a century of recording and only reached the very outer fringes of the Top 40 with a handful of other songs. A small handful.

No matter, though, his fans are legion and they love him and he gives them what they want. He’s started a burgeoning food and drink empire, has his own dedicated channel on SiriusXM satellite radio, and even owns his very own satellite (named, appropriately, Fruitcake) which allows him to listen to his beloved Miami Heat and New Orleans Saints games no matter what remote body of water he’s floating around on. Heck, he even writes high-brow literary fiction under the pen name “Donna Tartt.” Not too bad for the grandson of a sailor!

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8-Track Tapes

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

From our technologically-advanced perch here in 2014, 8-track tapes appear to us as a monstrous “bad memory”—a ridiculous object worthy of nothing more these days than being dragged out for a good laugh at some 70s retro party hosted and attended by yuppies of a certain age unabashedly smug about their ability to carry around their entire collection of Hootie and the Blowfish songs on a media player no bigger than the head of a pin. And while it is true the 8-track tape is more of a 70s phenomenon than an 80s one, the fact is this red-headed stepchild of music media managed to avoid extermination until 1988, primarily due to its continued production and sale via the Columbia House Record & Tape Club. Certainly you remember that highly selective, not-so-secret society based in Terre Haute, Indiana? For just a single penny new members would receive 13 cassettes or LPs or CDs or, yes, 8-track tapes, but these members would then be beholden to the club for the rest of their lives or at least until they bought a certain number more of musical recordings at the club’s regular price of $8.98 plus $14.95 “shipping and handling.”

Although pretty indefensible as a medium for high-fidelity musical playback, there was something solid and permanent-feeling about 8-track tapes. They were fairly big and bulky. The clunk between tracks resonated about the listening room with the significance of a Mercedes-Benz S Class door slamming shut. Plus, listeners had the added bonus of having all the songs rearranged from the order the artist originally intended. Even better, who didn’t enjoy hearing a few moments of dead silence IN THE MIDDLE of a cherished song followed by that familiar ker-chunk, and then the abrupt continuation of the song. Best of all, a lucky few with money enough to install a Sparkomatic or Kraco 8-track tape player in their car could take their tapes on the road for some truly mobile jammin’! Although if you left them on the dashboard for too long the label would fade into illegibility and the plastic case warp like a slice of melted Provolone.

DAK Catalog

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Unleashing a torrent of words like the Old Testament Yahweh sending down the rain required to float the famous Ark, Drew Allan Kaplan was as prolific a wordsmith as they come. He also possessed a rare genius for uncovering, and then putting up for sale, only the choicest detritus of the Pacific Rim manufacturing juggernaut. If there was some purportedly space-age, poorly-engineered, “bells and whistles” junk to be found out there, his adoring public slept easily at night knowing Drew would soon have some full color pictures and hyperbolic written descriptions of it before long. Sent, through the U.S. Mail, directly to their home.

His products were real marvels for an incipient computer age. DAK readers could buy 700 slider graphic equalizers that sliced and diced music into hair-thin strands of sound, ultra-low frequency sub-woofers the size of a kitchen table, telephone spying devices that allowed users to snoop on just not their daughter’s conversations but their next door neighbor’s daughter as well, flimsy Olivetti daisy wheel printers that had been assembled by workers not good enough to make the cut at the notoriously shoddy factory at FIAT, home doorbell boosters that allowed musically-minded families to choose their doorbell ring from over 15,000 public-domain songs, or desktop pollution zappers that claimed to be able to gather and convert dust mites into glittering nuggets of pyrite. And that was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

It went on for page after page after page and while it was a great read, most people had the wisdom to enjoy it for what it was and keep their checkbooks safely in the top desk drawer. However, there were also of plenty gullible misfits, impulsive pinheads and pound-foolish rubes who couldn’t control themselves and smashed their piggy banks to smithereens every time a new catalog thumped onto their welcome mat. These benighted souls are still out there today, desperately clicking away on banner ads proclaiming “85 YEAR OLD YOGA INSTRUCTOR’S ANTI-AGING SECRETS” and “HOT MILFS IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD NEED SEX TONIGHT” whenever and wherever they pop up.

Teddy Ruxpin

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There was a brief time when the toy company Worlds of Wonder seemed like a truly magical place, a Willie Wonka-inspired (just check out those initials) toy factory that produced state of the art playthings that looked for all the world like minor miracles. Teddy Ruxpin “changed everything,” as they say. Finally, children could have a teddy bear that talked to them instead of just laying around in a heap most of the time. You could easily imagine Worlds of Wonder producing new and better toys year after year until by 2000 every child with the means would have their very own life-sized C3PO to boss around. It kind of didn’t work out that way (the company folded in 1990) but at least we had Teddy!

Or did we? In the light of day, Teddy was a boon companion, a joy to play with, a best friend. But there was a side to this bear that wasn’t so pleasant–when the batteries got low the toy exhibited a tendency to turn itself on at any time and emit terrible noises the Worlds of Wonder engineers had fashioned by recording the death throes of poisoned crows. The children, an entire generation of sweet innocents, didn’t know that the toy’s designers had meant it to be a “fun” way of telling them it was time to replace the batteries. All they knew was that they would wake up in the middle of the dark night to see their beloved Teddy’s eyes furiously snapping open and shut like castanets while his mouth emitted cacophonous shrieks. They would scream, wet the bed, faint and basically be scarred for life.

A supposedly new and improved version called Furby was released about ten years later, but anyone who has ever heard even one syllable of the Furbish tongue knows that these hairy plastic vermin were no “improvement,” but an even more insidious agent of devilment targeting our little ones.

It is no wonder the Millennials are are every bit as maladjusted as Generation X.

Duck Head

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Picture a 30 year-old low-tech equivalent of what the iPhone is today. Something that every person has or at least seems to have. Well, every single Southern male in the 80s had at least one pair of these pants and most had plenty more than that. There were four basic colors at first—khaki, navy, olive and a really cool gray, but they would later expand their range considerably including a Masters green that could be spotted from a distance of about 5 miles. They made shorts, too, and back then inseams were pretty short, all the better to let just a sliver of your boxers hang out of the bottom hem, a kind of tasteful obverse to today’s “urban” fashion of flashing your underwear above the waistband, although today’s irrepressible kids tend to show a bit more than a half-inch sliver, it must be said.

Quality control was far from the best—side seams had a way of starting where they belonged at the waistband only to twist around like a vine of ivy as they worked their way down to end up somewhere near the shoelace knot, but what did you expect for $24.99? Heck they might have even been $19.99, I simply can’t remember. The cotton twill was great, though–it would eventually get real nice and soft and the navy pants would fade into a truly unique shade of purple. Most importantly, the yellow square with the mallard’s head on it was as charismatic as a slapped-on exterior label ever got–the ugly black rectangle that is still used by Banana Republic is positively laughable in comparison.

In the 90s, general preppiness declined as people inexplicably started to consider nylon track bottoms and oversized below-the-knee basketball shorts acceptable staples of casual wear, and that coupled with a series of disastrous management decisions signaled the end. It was like someone had taken dead aim at this poor duck with a 20 gauge Remmy and the company plunged into the reeds. I think the brand has been bought out and attempted to be revived a couple times now, but it may be the world isn’t quite ready yet.

Cannonball Run I and II

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What could be more fun than to watch dozens of B and C-list movie stars cavorting on a cross-country death ride to meet up in Las Vegas to worship at the feet of their master, The Walkin’ Dude—Mr. Randall Flagg? Er, wait a minute I think I’m getting this movie mixed up with a BOOK by Stephen King called The Stand.

Let’s start again.

It was a late 70s Saturday night broadcast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that pretty much hooked me on madcap cross-country ensemble comedies, but unfortunately for me, Hollywood never really produced too many of them.  Enter Hal Needham and Brock Yates. They had a dream of doing a movie loosely based on a real coast to coast race known as the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Trophy Dash and they were lucky enough to have a good pal in Hollywood to help them along, and not just any good pal, but the #1 box office attraction in the land. His name was Burt Reynolds and he got the thing green-lighted with probably about as much effort as it took him to undo Loni Anderson’s bra every night. The movie did so well that three years later they produced a sequel, titled, logically enough, Cannonball Run II.

Herewith in ascending order of magnitude is a brief look at some of the stars who were involved in either one or both of these uproarious films:

Jimmy the Greek—Way, way before the nasty cesspool of Steubenville, Ohio made a name for itself around the world by institutionally covering up a heinous sexual assault, it much more quietly went about the business of producing upstanding citizens like this guy and Dean Martin. I think I like the old Steubenville better.

Jackie Chan—Speaking of Ohio, in the hopelessly xenophobic General Motors-centric Ohio town I grew up in people actually threw sodas at the screen whenever this guy appeared. Because they thought he was Japanese.

Jack Elam—A superlative character actor, but this character was a disturbing one to watch. I hope for the sake of his immediate family he didn’t “take this role home with him” as some actors claim to do.

Burt Convy—Nowhere near as cool as the movie of the same name, which starred Kris Kristofferson as “The Rubber Duck”

Terry Bradshaw—The guy called every offensive play (for both teams!) in four Super Bowls and never lost a one.

Mel Tillis—I always found it odd that a man could be so richly rewarded for mocking people (albeit including himself) with speech impediments, but people weren’t so uptight about things back then.

Adrienne Barbeau—Maggie from Escape from New York. The damsel in distress from Swamp Thing. How anyone with a pulse could not want to eat her up like a super-sized hot fudge sundae has always been one of life’s great mysteries.

Telly Savalas—He brought a gravity to his role as Hymie Kaplan that no one else could have delivered. Jesse Jackson later mentioned by name how impressed he was with this character and got torched for it.

Dom DeLuise—The beloved Falstaff of many a Burt Reynolds and Mel Brooks movie. If he ever managed to do or say one thing that made me laugh I certainly can’t remember it. But it seems like he was a kind soul.

Peter Fonda—“Crazy Larry” will always be an A-lister in my book.

Dean Martin—Vindicated in the 21st century as quite possibly the coolest cat who ever lived, but in 1981 he was considered to be little more than a drunken buffoon stuck fast in an era that had long been passed by. I can only imagine the fun Dean and Jimmy the Greek had on set reminiscing about their childhood days running errands all across southeast Ohio for their mentor “Dom the Guppy.”

Roger Moore—People always say he was the “worst” James Bond but I thought he did just fine. He used to ski in Gstaad with William F. Buckley and David Niven! What did the people constantly tearing him down ever do? Bumper ski down some potholed street by grabbing onto the back of some rusted-out Pontiac Bonneville? I thought so.

Shirley MacLaine—I think this is about the time people stopped taking her seriously and she just took the ball and ran with it.

Burt Reynolds—Although these movies did well, the sun was setting on Burt’s career around this time and gallivanting around like an idiot with a bunch of other idiots didn’t help things much.

Frank Sinatra—And Frank, oh yes, Frank. Mr. Sinatra lived so passionately for the champagne and “classy broads”—it’s a shame his last ever movie role was a spectacle that was roughly the equivalent of having a shaken-up can of warm Blatz dumped over his head while in the act of having unprotected sex with a $5 chickenhead hooker. On a public street. Nice knowing ya, pallie!