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The Lefsetz Letter: Gary Wright

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“My heart is on fire
My soul’s like a wheel that’s turnin’
My love is alive
My love is alive, yeah”
I guess no one twists the radio dial itching to hear their favorite track in the car anymore.
That’s where we listened. Home was for albums, car was for the radio. Occasionally there were events wherein you sat at home listening to FM, simulcasts, live concerts, but the car was for discovery, home was for what you already knew.
Los Angeles was the greatest radio market I’d ever experienced. There were five rock stations. Not that they all played the same music. Not that we loved only one kind of music. When people ask me what albums I’d take to a desert isle, I tell them AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” I’m not exactly sure those are the two, but I want to express the breadth of my desires. That I want headbanging for when I want to squeeze the world out of my mind, and singer-songwriter when I want to feel connected to humanity.
During the summer of ’75 I worked at Hollywood Sporting Goods on Hollywood Boulevard. It no longer exists. That entire paradigm is gone. When I was growing up the first place you wanted to visit was the sporting goods store. Each was unique. There were stores with a cornucopia of items in their inventory, they covered every sport, and then there were mini-chains which usually were nowhere near as good. Today there are only giant chains, and they keep on going out of business. Basically you’ve got Dick’s and the Bass Pro Shops, not that I’ve ever been in either. In Southern California we had Sport Chalet. Originally only in La Canada, their inventory was spectacular, they had every brand. Then it turned into a chain and then it went out of business. Those original individual stores, sans spreadsheets…the owners had their finger on the pulse of the business. Once you brought in the MBAs, once you went public, this touch with the public desire was lost. It’s kind of akin to food. Originally the chains were rare, a novelty. You knew you’d get consistency at McDonald’s, so if you were in the middle of nowhere, you didn’t have to take a risk. Today everybody Yelps, does research, to find the hole in the wall single establishment, where the proprietor creates a culinary delight.
So Hollywood Sporting Goods had bad inventory, unlike Star Sporting Goods, the single shop on Highland I’d worked at the previous fall. The owner would not rehire me because I’d rebuffed his offer of the store. I’d only planned on working until the ski season began, but he thought I was a lifer. And like every industry, sporting goods is a small world. So an old colleague at Star had a girlfriend at Hollywood and I got a job.
It was depressing.
It’s different today. There are two tracks, a career and nowhere. People go to college to prepare for a job, we went to prepare for life. Nothing practical was studied, it was about enriching your brain, giving you perspective, and one of the weirdest things to see is this change, like the heart and soul of humanity has been excised.
However, this left us lost when we graduated. We fumbled. Trying to live life and find ourselves, somewhere along the line we’d learn what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives. Yes, we were not job-hoppers like today’s youngsters. Then again, we did not think the company had our best interests at heart, like our parents. But we did want something fulfilling. Today if it pays well enough, people will do almost anything. Money is its own justification. And if you have money you can live large anywhere, buy yourself in. And you think you’re a prince but…well, people like me are laughing at you, then again there are not many people like me left.
So I was just biding my time until I returned to Utah, to compete on the freestyle circuit. I’d skied with the best, with the world champion in Mammoth in May, I did things that they wouldn’t. But I needed a job for the summer. And the business school graduate who ran the stores…like Hank at Star, he too thought I was a lifer, that this was my career. That was weird. You think I’d start my life as a minimum wage employee at some third rate shop? That’s the thing about life, you have to have inner strength, inner identity, know what you want, what you deserve, because no one is going to stand up for you, you’ve got to stand up for yourself. I know, today’s kids have been told by their parents that they’re great, they get trophies for participation, but my mother constantly told me I was not the one, and if you got a trophy…you still remember it to this day.
I mean the boss, actually a nice guy, gave us sales targets. I mean really? It depended on who walked in the store. And worst case scenario fire me, I didn’t really care. Although I did need a job. I remember the day he asked me whether I could shuffle up my wardrobe, wear different pants, I had two pairs of jeans, although different colors, that I alternated, I said no. I haven’t always been that brave.
And the clientele… There was this guy Skip, who came in every day carrying a baseball and wearing a light blue jacket akin to the one Fonzie wore on “Happy Days” before he donned his leather further into the series’ run. Skip told us about all the movies he was in. This was the kind of character who walked the Boulevard and entered the shop, delusional people. Although one day Bob Haldeman came in for a pair of Tretorns, because he saw an ad in the paper that they were on sale. Of course we didn’t have what he was looking for, the sale was basically bogus, but I did sell him a full-priced pair.
But one of the advantages of working at Hollywood Sporting Goods as opposed to Star was it came with parking, right behind the store, there were spots just for us, out of the way, out of trouble, and they were free.
They don’t have summers like that anymore, where the music is classic and still remembered and played decades later. Let’s see, there was “Captain Fantastic,” which went straight to number one the first week out, the first time that had happened, but there were no singles and we rarely heard it on the radio. And James Taylor’s “Gorilla.” They played it on KNX, the soft rock station, but nowhere else. And “Blood on the Tracks,” which was for the home. And, of course, the Eagles’ “One of These Nights,” which dominated the airwaves all summer long.
But there were two other acts, that did get radio airplay, that I loved, that I turned the dial waiting to hear. “What Do You Want From Life” by the Tubes… The album wasn’t out yet, but the single was, I’d turn the dial just dying to hear it. A masterpiece that has been lost to the sands of time. “White Punks on Dope” has had a bit of impact on the culture, but you rarely hear that anymore either, and no one talks about either of the cuts. But that zing, that sound, like a circus, with Fee Waybill coming on like a carnival barker, and the recitation of what you might win at the end, “a baby’s arm holding an apple”…it was a mini-movie, far superior to the dreck the studios release today.
And then there was “Love Is Alive.”
I knew who Gary Wright was. Everybody did. Oh, there was a dividing line, fans and casual listeners. You’ve got to understand the legion of people who were interested in music. The baby boomers who lived for the show, who still go to the show, who peopled the labels, they just had to get closer, it was their life, it was everything. And they knew everything, like the fact that Gary Wright was in Spooky Tooth, the lone American, and he had worked with George Harrison and put out stiff solo albums.
The albums were on A&M. Before Frampton, before Humble Pie, before Cat Stevens, before A&M’s imprimatur made you pay attention.
It’s not like we didn’t know Spooky Tooth, it’s just that we did not know their material. I saw their albums in the bins, but I never bought one, there was never enough incentive. And the band got no airplay on New York radio, which was what I listened to in Connecticut.
And then Gary Wright put out solo albums? This was nearly unfathomable, guy from stiff group gets to put out his own music? I’d see his 1970 album “Extraction,” with its pencil drawing cover, and think it was almost amateurish, like they didn’t have the money for color. As for the follow-up, 1971’s “Footprint”… It’s like it almost didn’t come out, that one many shops didn’t even stock.
And then Gary Wright disappeared.
Not that he’d ever really arrived in America to begin with.
Gary Wright was gone, for years, another casualty of the initial album rock era. Who cared, good riddance, it’s not like anybody was waiting for new material. But years later he had an album on Warner Brothers, the best in the business? And he played all the instruments himself? They said it was all keyboards, synths, that Wright had done it alone. This was the publicity hook, although the details said otherwise. So we knew the album was coming. However, the hype barely preceded the record, it was on the radio nearly immediately, we heard “Love Is Alive.”
“Dream Weaver” is the classic, it sustains primarily because of its inclusion in “Wayne’s World.” And I’m not saying we never heard it on the radio in the seventies, but first it was “Love Is Alive.”
How to describe that intro. Ethereal, yet with a connection to earth, with the prominent bass and drums. There was a twinkly synth above it all, the mood was set for adventure. But this was not Pink Floyd, this was traditional verse chorus rock, but listening for the first time you did not know, and thereafter you looked forward to Gary…
“Well I think it’s time to get ready
To realize just what I have found”
What an intro, akin to Sly’s “Dance to the Music,” Gary was setting us up.
But it was the chorus that knocked us out, It went down instead of up, it was nearly subtle, but this minor note journey made you feel all soft inside, and then back to the in-your-face major trip.
“There’s something inside that’s making me crazy I’ll try to keep it together”
There was no social media. We’d get a feeling, a crush, and it would burn us up. And if there was actual connection our lives were made, that was more important, more than money.
“There’s a mirror moving inside my mind.
Reflecting the love that you shine on me Hold on now to that feeling Let it flow, let it grow, yeah”
The final line was uttered in a guttural fashion absent from what had become before. Gary felt it, which made us feel it, he was nearly losing control, and that’s what we depended upon from music, to take us to the edge, to illustrate that life was worth living.
So I’d drive the half hour from Brentwood to Hollywood every day, a journey that takes longer now, with the traffic. Awake earlier than I wanted to be, just twisting the dial of my Blaupunkt, sans push-buttons, trying to find “What Do You Want From Life” and “Love Is Alive.”
And during my lunch break I’d sit in my car behind Hollywood Sporting Goods listening to the radio, I distinctly remember hearing “Love Is Alive” and being elated.
I had to buy the album. I needed to hear “Love Is Alive” on demand, I knew it by heart, I loved it.
That intro to “Can’t Find the Judge.”
The nearly soft rock “Made to Love You.”
When I listen to “Let It Out” right now it brings me right back to that summer of ’75, I can see it clearly, in technicolor, the music brings back the images, paints the colors, gives me a feeling that I thought I’d lost, but it turns out I haven’t.
I could continue to testify, I’m stunned how I know the “Dream Weaver” album by heart not having listened to the whole thing in decades. But I listened to it just that much back then. The album had an optimism, a sunniness, from an era when we thought it would all work out.
But it didn’t work out for Gary Wright. There were numerous TV appearances, with a keyboard around his neck, a novelty at the time. He capitalized on his success, he wrung out every note. And then it was done. Two years later Gary put out another album, but the world had changed, synthesizer driven tracks were no longer a novelty, rock was becoming corporate, he never had another hit.
But for that one moment in time, that year of ’75, Gary Wright was as big as anybody on the radio, anybody in rock.
I got word back in ’98 that some big star was going to appear at a gig at a nothing club in Santa Monica. Might have been Jackson Browne, I don’t remember. But the audience was populated with insiders, musicians, because the hoi polloi would never come out on this night to this club, there’d be no reason, the venue was far from packed.
And that star did perform. But what got me was…
Gary Wright was there, someone pointed him out. My heart jumped. Living in L.A. long enough you know not to bother someone, to go up and say you’re a fan. But…
Then Gary got on stage and performed “Love Is Alive.” I’d like to tell you it was as energetic and perfect as the recording, but it was not. Yet this was a pickup band, for this one evening, there had not been serious rehearsal, this was not about getting it right as much as getting out and letting it out and…
The essence was still there. I was connecting my brain to twenty years before. It was still there. Because Gary was still playing the same notes on the synth. It was his voice singing the lyrics. It was “Love Is Alive,” it was Gary Wright!
Gary emailed me a while back, told me he was writing a memoir. I remember the connection, that’s what I live for, more than a big house or a fancy car. This guy made that record that impacted my life, he’s a part of it, whether he knows it or not.
And there was a ton of bread in music in the seventies. But it was anathema to sell out. Bands were not brands. It was only about the music. No one danced. They moved to the music, but there was no choreography. You went to the gig to hear your favorites, to get closer to the sound, you were the only person in the audience, even though there might have been tens of thousands.
So I was doing my final go-round on my phone last night before turning it off and plugging it in, before reading, before trying to relax. And on what used to be known as Twitter, my friend Jeff posted that Gary Wright had died.
It was a dagger to my heart.
He was eighty. I know I’ve said this before, but it drives me crazy. Everybody I know thinks they’re going to live forever, it’s going to be quite a wake-up call when they’re gone.
And these musicians are a bit older than me, but next it’s going to be my friends, the people I know.
And the rock stars of yore are dying on a regular basis now. Even more than one a week sometimes. A whole generation passing.
But that generation lives on in our minds. It just wasn’t music, it was life. Also makes me crazy when people younger than baby boomers say it’s the same as it ever was, that every generation has its own popular music, and it’s just as good.
It’s not. That’s patently untrue. Music was the ’27 Yankees. The Sistine Chapel. Sometimes the ’69 Jets, and sometimes the Mets. Music was peaks, and sometimes valleys, but it was everything, it rode shotgun, it drove the culture, and Gary Wright was right there, part of it, and I’ll never forget.
Then again it won’t be long before I’m forgotten. Everything important to me is already fading. But not for me. It’ll live until I die.

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