Obscurity Knocks: Episode 1 – Mackenzie Astin

Mackenzie-Astin_Mad-MenSee that gentleman facing off against Jon Hamm? That’s Mackenzie Astin.

Yes, really.

It’s been a long time since the days when Astin was hanging out with Blair, Tootie, Natalie, and Jo at Edna’s Edibles and Over Our Heads on The Facts of Life, as evidenced by his appearance in the above photo, but Mad Men isn’t the only high-profile gig he’s had lately: over the past few years, he’s turned up on Grey’s Anatomy, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Shameless, Bones, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Scorpion, and Castle, among others, and he had a recurring role on Scandal last season that carried over into this season as well.

Mr. Astin was kind enough – some might might say crazy enough – to endure being a guinea pig for this first installment of Obscurity Knocks, but when I explained the premise of the podcast and filled him in on the three virtual cards he’d be able to play during the course of the proceedings, he proved his mettle as an actor by feigning excitement so perfectly that I almost believed him.

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Cut for Space: A few “Facts of Life” anecdotes you haven’t read before

On January 31, 2015, I made my debut on EW.com with “You Take the Good, You Take the Bad: An Oral History of The Facts of Life.”

http://www.ew.com/microsites/longform/facts/img/facts_opener7.jpgIf you follow me on social media, this isn’t what you’d call breaking news, since I actually commemorated the anniversary twice: first I posted the link to the piece on the day that LinkedIn referred to as the anniversary of when I started writing for EW.com (and which I describe more realistically to as the anniversary of when I signed the contract for what remains the only time that I’ve written for EW.com), and then I posted it again on the article’s actual publication date, mostly because that’s really when I’d intended to post it in the first place.

Now that we’ve passed the one-year mark and there’s no fear of anyone suggesting that I’m stealing readership away from the original piece, I believe I’m standing on solid ground in offering up some of the “deleted scenes,” if you will, from the various interviews I did for the oral history.

141441331Sadly, this means that you will not find anything from Mindy Cohn or Kim Fields, since they weren’t of a mind to reminiscence about the days when they played Natalie and Tootie, but you will get some heretofore-unpublished anecdotes from Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett), Lisa Whelchel (Blair Warner), Nancy McKeon (Jo Polniaczek), and a wide variety of other cast members and behind-the-scenes folks who participated in the proceedings, including one gentleman whose reminiscences didn’t make it into the EW.com piece at all

That’s right, Maurice LeMarche: at last, your story can be told!

Lastly, before kicking things off, I just want to dedicate this collection of odds and sods to the late Alex Rocco, who was kind enough to call me up within five minutes of my texting him to ask if he’d be willing to participate in the original piece. I don’t have any additional material from that particular conversation with Rocco – he and I had already talked at some length about his time on the show in earlier chats we’d had over the preceding few years, so we were able to kind of cut to the chase with his contributions – but you will find an anecdote about Rocco from Nancy McKeon, who I never would’ve been able to get on the phone if he hadn’t vouched for me…and if I hadn’t gotten her on the phone, I don’t even know if I would’ve had a piece. R.I.P, Rocco. I can’t thank you enough for helping me to get the ball rolling.

And with that said, let’s roll on, shall we?

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366 for 2016: Day 11 – David Bowie, “Time Will Crawl”

Well, shit: this wasn’t how my Monday was supposed to go.

Not that I had any idea how things were going to play out today, but I certainly didn’t expect that they’d involve me spending the majority of my time eulogizing or mourning David Bowie. In fact, I’ve spent so much time either writing about Bowie or reminiscing about Bowie that I’ve literally done nothing else.

Oh, actually, that’s not true: I wrote a piece for Rhino’s website about the 45th anniversary of Chicago III. But Bowie’s so prominent in everyone’s mind over there at the moment – they’ve got ownership of his Parlophone UK material, which is from Space Oddity all the way up through 1999’s ‘Hours…’ – that it hasn’t even been posted yet as of this writing. Which is fine: of course Bowie should be the priority today.

This is, as far as I know, the last Bowie piece I’ll be writing today, and I’m kind of emotionally spent at this point, so don’t hold it against me if there’s not a lot of substance to it. No, actually, I take that back: it might actually be appropriate for it to turn out that way. After all, I can’t imagine that phrase wasn’t used to describe his Never Let Me Down album at some point.

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Sometimes I feel like I’m the only Bowie fan who’s willing to concede to enjoying Never Let Me Down, but it’s been so maligned over the years that I have a tendency to make self-deprecating jokes about it, saying things like, “I actually really like that album. Well, maybe adding the ‘really‘ is overdoing it, but I do rather enjoy it. The first side of it, anyway.” The truth of the matter, though, is that I love the first side of it, and I don’t really have a problem with anything on side two. (Please forgive me: my first copy was on cassette, so I still think of it in those terms.)

If there was ever a day when I didn’t need to mount a defense for Never Let Me Down, it’s today, but I have one anyway: it was the first Bowie album I ever bought, so it was the first one that I played over and over. I really don’t know what it is about me that I became a fan of so many artists at ostensibly the worst possible time in their career, but it’s a trend that started with me when I got a copy of Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street for Christmas 1984, and it still recurs even now. So that’s one reason why I’m particularly partial to Never Let Me Down, but the other reason is that the only time I ever saw Bowie live was when he was touring behind the album.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a little jaunt called the Glass Spider tour?

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366 for 2016: Day 10 – Peter Buffett featuring Akon, “Anything”

I find Peter Buffett rather fascinating, probably at least partially because I had no idea who he was when I first heard his music. I just spotted a copy of his 2007 album Staring at the Sun in a Wherehouse Music bargain bin (sorry, Peter), I thought the cover looked cool, and the price was sufficiently right for me to say, “What the heck, I’ll give it a shot.”

Staring-At-The-Sun

Let me just tell you, there haven’t been many times when I’ve felt better about investing [PRICE REDACTED FOR POLITENESS’ SAKE] on a completely unheard CD: when I popped it in and listened to the first track, “Reminder,” Buffett’s vocals immediately reminded me of Eric Woolfson, best known for his work with The Alan Parsons Project.

Go on, give it a listen. I’m pretty sure it’s not just me who hears the similarity.

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366 for 2016: Day 9 – The Gravelberrys, “Wonder Where You Are Tonight”

One of the greatest moments in my music-loving life was the day I discovered Not Lame Records. I’m not talking about the label, although lord knows that Bruce Brodeen put out some highly-recommended power pop under that particular banner. No, I’m referring to the mail order company, which was also an endeavor of Mr. Brodeen’s and which helped introduce me to more new music that I can begin to list. Whenever a new Not Lame catalog came out, it was the equivalent of getting the Sears Wish Book: I’d read it from cover to cover, studying all of the entries, circling the artists that seemed most in my wheelhouse and then buying their albums as my income allowed. Given that I was still single and without child at the time I discovered Not Lame, suffice it to say that I bought a fair amount and at a pretty rapid clip.

God, I miss those days. I can just about still remember what it was like to have disposable income…

Anyway, one of the first things I bought from Not Lame was a copy of The Gravelberrys’ Bowl of Globes, mostly because I all but jumped up and down at the realization that it even existed. I’d discovered a song by the band called “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Daydream” on a two-disc compilation of indie Canadian bands that I’d stumbled upon a local record store, and it was love at first listen, but I couldn’t for the life of me find a full-length release by them. (This was when I didn’t have my own computer and only rarely had access to anyone else’s.) When I spotted it in the Not Lame catalog, I ordered it immediately, and I was thrilled to find that it was just as poppy and catchy as my first exposure to the band.

a1311631888_10Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to become virtual acquaintances with the band’s frontman and songwriter, Paul Myers, who – in addition to maintaining a career as a highly accomplished writer – has continued his recording career under various guises as well, both solo and with other folks. For example, The Paul and John, his duo with John Moremen, have a great album called Inner Sunset that’s well worth your time and money. (You can pick up a copy by clicking right here.) But I cannot tell a lie: whenever I see or hear his name, the first thing I think of is The Gravelberrys, and when I think of The Gravelberrys, I think of this song, which kicks off Bowl of Globes. If this is your first time hearing it, it won’t take you long to realize why I loved it immediately. Hopefully it’ll have the same effect on you, too.

To pick up a copy of The Gravelberrys’ Bowl of Globes, click right here!

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366 for 2016: Day 8 – Squeeze, “She Doesn’t Have to Shave”

To my way of thinking, I was relatively late entering into the world of Squeeze fandom, but when I look back at the stats, I guess I was more or less on par with America at large: the first time I became aware enough of the band to actually want to go out and purchase one of their albums was right as they were earning their first top-40 hit in the US. If you’re thinking that I’m referring to “Tempted,” your thought is incorrect: “Tempted” did chart, but only at #49. It wasn’t until “Hourglass” that Chris Difford, Glenn Tilbrook, and rest of the gang achieved that goal, hitting #15 with the single in 1987.

Although Babylon and On, which provided us with “Hourglass,” was my first Squeeze album, I have to admit that I didn’t really dive headlong into their back catalog until they released their next album, Frank.

1280x1280If you don’t remember Frank, it’s okay. Over the years, I’ve gotten the feeling that Frank is the album that separates the casual Squeeze fans from the “oh, my God, I love them so much that I can hardly stand it” Squeeze fans. It’s such an under-the-radar Squeeze album that when I.R.S. released the band’s live album, A Round and a Bout, in 1990, the label identified the albums from whence each concert selection originally came…except for “Dr. Jazz,” making it seem as though it was a heretofore-unavailable composition rather than the next-to-last song on Frank that it actually was.

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366 for 2016: Day 7 – The Bats, “Dancing as the Boat Goes Down”

batsfearofgodPicture it: Norfolk, Virginia, September 30, 1993. The late, great concert venue known as the Boathouse. The headliner: Belly, riding high on the success of the #1 Modern Rock hit, “Feed the Tree.” Preceding them on the bill: a group of young upstarts from the UK who seemed destined to turn into a one-hit wonder, but as it turned out, the hit in question – “Creep” – was only the start of what would turn into a remarkably successful career for Radiohead. How could we have known, though? At the time, there was just as much chance that college kids were only interested in them because of the novelty of Thom Yorke dropping the F-bomb in the unedited version of “Creep.”

What’s often forgotten about this outstanding double bill, however, that it was actually a triple-bill.

The Bats were one of the greatest – and jangliest – New Zealand pop bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and although they’ve taken the occasional hiatus now and again, they’re currently still a going concern. This track, however, is  from their 1991 album, Fear of God, which found an American home on Mammoth Records, and it was my gateway drug into their catalog, so if you like what you hear, trust me when I tell you that you’ll want to dig deeper into it.

To purchase a copy of Fear of God, click right here!

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366 for 2016: Day 6 – The Charlie Daniels Band, “Layla”

1991-CharlieDanielsBand-RenegadeWhen I was a kid, there weren’t many songs cooler than “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” by The Charlie Daniels Band.

Admittedly, one of the reasons it was so cool was because of Daniels’ flagrant use of the phrase “you son of a bitch” in the unedited version, which he sneered in deliciously defiant fashion as the song began heading to its conclusion, but that’s the sort of thing that would impress a nine-year-old boy. Plus, it was effectively a country-rock opera, with its saga of Johnny competing against Satan himself, his very soul in the balance, to determine which of them was the best fiddle player. Why no one turned the song into a two-hour TV movie, I’ll never know. (Don’t laugh: Kenny Rogers managed to turn “The Gambler” into a five-movie franchise.)

Unfortunately, Daniels’ crossover from the country charts to the pop charts was relatively short-lived: after 1982’s “Still in Saigon,” he never hit the Billboard Hot 100 again, and for those of us who weren’t venturing over to country radio, Daniels’ profile effectively shrank to nil.

In 1991, though, Daniels found his way back onto my radar. Not because I’d gone country, but because a promo copy of Renegade, his then-new album, turned up at the record store where I was working at the time. I still have it, but I haven’t listened to it in years because it’s on cassette. I did, however, stumble upon it a few days ago when I was in the midst of straightening and reorganizing my office, and I immediately thought of the track that, when I first heard it, completely blew my mind.

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366 for 2016: Day 5 – Y&T, “Summertime Girls”

This past holiday season, I was a little bummed out that it was the first year in a very long time that I wasn’t able to turn on my television and see David Letterman ask Jay Thomas to tell his famous “Lone Ranger” story and then introduce Darlene Love to sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but I took solace that at least one of my usual traditions remained the same: I was able to visit NewsFromMe.com and read Mark Evanier’s annual posting of his Mel Torme story. If you’ve never read it before, I won’t spoil it for you, but I’ll just say that the story – specifically, the bit about the circumstances under which Mel composed “The Christmas Song” – came to mind again today when I made the decision to write about one of the greatest summer songs of the ’80s on the coldest day we’ve seen in my neck of the woods this winter.

YnTMeet Y&T. Yes, to look at them, they could easily be poster boys for ’80s glam metal, but I’ve always held them on a slightly higher pedestal than their peers, and it’s for two reasons:

  1. They opened for Rush when I saw them on the Grace Under Pressure tour at Hampton Coliseum.
  2. Their song “Summertime Girls” is awesome.

I have to admit, though, that prior to writing this piece, even if you had put a gun to my head, I would’ve been unable to produce the title of another Y&T song. I was a little embarrassed about that, so I’ve since gone through their catalog on Spotify and found a few other gems, like “Forever,” “Don’t Stop Running,” “All American Boy,” and “Contagious.” It’s too late, though: there’s no way I’ll ever find anything that’ll top “Summertime Girls” for me.

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366 for 2016: Day 4 – The Rocket Summer, “She’s My Baby”

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One of the things that occupied my time during the holiday break (such as it was, since I’m a full-time freelance writer) was the all-too-lengthy process of trying to get my office into better shape, and the reason it took so long – and, indeed, is continuing to take so long, since I have yet to fully complete the task – is because I have a lot of stuff, and when I find stuff that I haven’t seen or heard in awhile, I’m very prone to wanting to look at or listen to that stuff. This, as you might imagine, has a tendency to really slow down the straightening-up process. On the other hand, it also tends to result in the rediscovery of some great stuff I’d forgotten about.

In October 2003, I participated in a mix-disc trade, and my contribution to the trade was a disc entitled You Better Like It… It’s Permanent, a title which was intended as a reference to the second song, “Let’s Get Tattoos,” by Carter USM. It’s a pretty great compilation, if I do say so myself, but if you’ve ever obsessed over finding just the right running order for a mix, then you’ll understand that the reason I’m so happy with it is that I put way too much time in to making absolutely positive that it was pretty great.

Actually, I take that back: I apparently put exactly the right amount of time into it, because the disc still holds up 12 years later. It also brings back a lot of memories, but one of the most wonderful comes courtesy of a song by The Rocket Summer.

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