Saturday, January 5, 2019

REO Speedwagon, "157 Riverside Avenue"

I recently had the good fortune to hang out with two of my friends from graduate school. Like the middle-aged men that we are, we talked about the old times, and how much we miss them. I was broke in grad school, often stressed, and prone to depression, but those were the best days of my life up to that point. It was the only time in my stint in the academy where I was able to "live the life of the mind." The quest for knowledge consumed a plurality of my waking hours. That said, I spent plenty of time with my friends, from playing backyard bocce ball to going to concerts to just drinking and laughing until the wee hours.

We did all of this in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, one of the great overlooked places to be in this country. It was cheap, easy to get around, but always full of events and culture. It is a place that gave birth to and nurtured writers, scientists, and thinkers. It also gave us REO Speedwagon.

While I lived there I chuckled a bit when one of the streets in downtown Champaign was renamed REO Speedwagon Way. After all, weren't they sort of the standard bearers of a kind of forgotten, lowest common denominator arena rock? A couple of my friends in Chambana who had grown up in downstate Illinois managed to persuade me otherwise. Before REO was an arena rock behemoth in the early 1980s, they were a hard working hard driving hard rocking band that didn't have any hits but did have a devoted following in the midwest. It wasn't until their eighth album in 1978 (the tragically named You Can Tune A Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish) that they even had a long player in the top 40. It's kind of amazing that Epic, their label, hadn't dropped them by that point.

Perhaps they heard something that others hadn't. My friends certainly had, and with their help I heard it, too. I can't help thinking it's some kind of metaphor. People tell me I'm not supposed to like going to graduate school, listening to REO Speedwagon, and living in the corn belt, but I ended up loving all of those things. I guess I was extremely lucky to be around like-minded people for so many years. It's certainly a blessing to see them again.

That's a roundabout way of introducing my song for this week, "157 Riverside Avenue." It's off of REO's first album, but has been a staple of their live shows even after there were hits for the audience to expect. For that reason I chose the live version from their 1977 double-live You Get What You Play For. (They really have a thing for tragically named albums) It makes the most sense, since pre-fame REO played show after show after show searching for that big break while building a loyal audience.

The double-live album was obligatory for rock bands in the 1970s, and one even catapulted Peter Frampton to fame after a similarly long time in the woodshed as REO. The sound is pure early 70s boogie rock but by 1977 the once shaggy band had made itself a fine-tuned arena-rocking machine. The boogie bounce is still there but the solos are blistering, courtesy of the incomparable Gary Richrath, perhaps the most underrated rock guitarist of the classic rock era. Kevin Cronon still throws in a silly bit of banter and scat singing in the middle, but it sounds pretty tight.

Not only does this music remind me of my spiritual home of Champaign-Urbana circa 2000-2006, I try to take some hope from it. As far as my writing goes, I'm still striving and trying after many years to get a hit. I've managed to hone my skills, and even build up a (small) audience. I guess I can hope that something bigger and better is still possible.

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