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Journey Out to the Fire Tower and Run With the Devil

Back in those storied days of the late seventies, we had an ancient fire tower out in the county, which was the ultimate destination on all those nights of strip-cruising and bowling-alley-sitting. The fire tower really belonged to the county kids, though, and you can imagine their anger and disdain when the feather haired, smart ass suburbanites with their shiny smart ass Camaros and dolled-up smart ass girls (me) rolled up and took over the prime spot for the keg and bonfire. Many a fight resulted, and a lot of other nefarious (we thought) activities took place there too, causing some of the smart asses, both male and female (not me), to burst into tears of shame and remorse at the Smart Ass Youth Rallies sponsored by our Smart Ass Suburbanite Church, which we all attended. These outbursts naturally attracted the attention of the smug, smart ass suburbanite parents, who tried to get the fire tower torn down or locked up. Never happened, though, thank Eddie, cuz it was also the scene of some of the most memorable events and fun times of our smart assed, long lamented youth.

My fire tower career started in ninth grade. You may recall that as a ninth grade band nerd, I first served as a (inappropriate slang)-blocker for the majorette, riding silently in the back seat of the cool senior’s Camaro, upholding my sworn duty of preventing the dude from driving that long road through the piney woods. By January, I had gotten my braces off and was no longer a (inappropriate slang)-blocker, but had been promoted to shotgun. I required no blocker of any kind. I could take care of myself,  thank you very much, and the fire tower, steeped as it was in mystery, drama, and excitement, called to me like a siren.

Only the most foolhardy and risk-seeking actually climbed the rickety tower once we got out there. Mainly, it was just the most testosterone-maddened boys, a couple of the um….best girl-softball-players, and me. The steps were rotting, and the bravest of the dudes went first, testing each step for the rest of us. Sometimes we would have to skip over a step, which being only 5’3″, was absolutely terrifying and stupid of me and I could have fallen to my death at any minute. I have wondered many times what caused me to do such a crazy, risky thing, and I can only come up with one answer – I wanted to impress the boys. That’s right – I risked my life for male attention. Let’s let that sink in for a minute.

******

And after I came to this conclusion, I realized something even worse – those boys didn’t give a damn if I could climb the tower or not. So the bottom line is that I risked my life for nothing. Nice.

*******

Two things happened at the very same time that I started fire towering – in January, 1978, Journey’s Infinity came out, and in February….wait for it…..wait for it….you know it…..Van Halen, Van Halen dropped like an A-bomb on the suburbs. We had a lot of fantastic music then, as you know, and as I’ve talked about ad infinitum, but it’s these two albums that take me back to the tower, and that I imagine playing in the background as I make that dangerous climb over and over in my mind. We were ready to run with the devil, all of us fire towerers, and this song was our fuel.

And of course, this is what you listened to once you ditched your blocker…

Fire tower

Sittin’ up there, so smug, feathers still perfect. What a smart ass. 😉

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A Summer of Pilgrimage, Part II: The Old Home Place

I’ve talked a lot about my Cajun granny and the swamp, and about my seventeen cousins and our lives up in Jackson, but I’ve been hiding something from you. Something about the Scotch-Irish side of my family – my mother’s side. I know you are shocked and disappointed in me, but you will understand when I say one simple word…

Plantation.

In the years following the war, and you know which one I’m talking about, they tried to keep it going as one large enterprise. I know this sounds like a page out of the “Gone With the Wind” playbook, but go right ahead and picture women, old men, and children in tattered clothes trying to maintain a decaying house, a few livestock, and a garden. So a generation or two later when there were enough men, they divided up the land, gave each male member of the vast, extended family a chunk, and I mean a big chunk, because the original plantation covered a good portion of the county, and the family began breaking apart to run their own farms.

They used the lumber from the “out buildings” to build their own small farm houses. The big old plantation house was still standing when my mother was a child in the thirties, but after the war, and this time I mean WWII, they finally tore it down because it was too old and enormous and run-down and they couldn’t afford the repairs. They say there are pictures of it somewhere, but I’ve never seen them. The cousins and I used to hike back up into the woods for miles, all across Great Uncle Royce’s land, then Great Uncle Herbert’s land, etc., and go play around at the patch of rubble and dirt that everyone called “the old home place”. Then we would go to the creepy old family cemetery and hide behind the gravestones and scare each other.

My mother was the baby of her large family – she’s eighty now, and is the only one left of seven brothers and sisters. Some of the cousins are gone too. We don’t go “down home” that much anymore, now that almost everyone is gone. But for her eightieth birthday this summer, I took her down. Someone else, not even family, owns her Daddy’s little used-plantation-lumber farm house now, so we couldn’t go inside, and you can’t get down to the old home place or the family cemetery without a four wheeler, so all we got to do was drive by places – the farm house, her school, the church, and the general vicinity of the old home place.

Here’s a picture of the farm house where my mother grew up and where I played as a child. House is on the left; smoke house is on the right. There were also fields, gardens, pastures, a hen house, a well, an outhouse, a barn with a hayloft, etc. To the right behind the smoke house, one mule pasture away, is a clear, rocky creek that I used to swim in as a kid.

Farm

If you want to get a pretty clear image of what Mississippi looked like in the old days, you gotta watch “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, because they did a remarkable job of recreating the atmosphere. The clothes, the accents, the music, the food, the extreme, slightly ominous religiosity, the bizarre and deeply entrenched racism, the overall weirdness, and the look of the land itself – all of it is absolutely spot-on. Here’s a fine example…

I might have played this song before, but I’m playing it again because it was my Paw Paw’s favorite song. When the crops would fail, he would take the train out of McComb-city, as he called it, to New Orleans, about an hour away, to work on the docks and live in a Creole boarding house, sending money home each week. He loved trains…

My cousins and I used to spend weeks on the farm in the summer, helping to pick and shell peas and butter beans, canning vegetables and making jam and so on. The little Baptist church would have a week-long revival every summer, with a lot of singing and eating. We sang in “parts” – the men taking one part, the women the other. I would get mad at my cousins when they wouldn’t sing their parts right. I took it seriously, you see, and sang my part with all my might. Here’s one of the songs we sang over and over, “I’ll Have a New Body”, performed here by the great Hank Williams. The cousins and I would practice singing our parts while we were hiking to the old home place…

Mama is the little one.

Mama is the little one.

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Spotlight on the Rock and Roll Supermom: Marissa Bergen

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I’m extremely fortunate to have a few loyal friends and supporters of my little blog, especially considering that I have no particular background or expertise in music, about which I am ostensibly writing. All I really have is a burning passion for music and a strange desire to spill my guts to the world, no matter how painfully humiliating that may be. But the same can’t be said for the queen of all my blog buddies, rocker chick extraordinaire, Marissa Bergen. I mean, she obviously has the burning passion thing and the spill her guts thing too, but she also actually has some experience in the music biz that doesn’t involve playing the flute in band and taking piano lessons from the beehived Mrs. Sullivan. But enough cheap, sneaky plugs for my blog, let’s talk to Marvelous Marissa…

1. Tell us the story of how you started your band, Sisters Grimm – did you and your sister take music lessons, what motivated you, did your parents help and support you, etc.

Whenever someone asks me a question about what motivated me in music, I often recall a quote made by, I believe Nancy Wilson (although it could have been Ann) who said something like “All the girls wanted to marry the Beatles, we wanted to be the Beatles.”

My father was in the music industry and had a lot of successful accomplishments as a musician and producer. He actually had a brief stint with Wings. I guess growing up with that influence helped put my sister and I in a rock n’ roll direction, but my father began pulling away from our family when we were very young, until he eventually had no connection at all. So it was up to my poor mother to carry our guitars around and deal with our off key singing. She also gave us all of her vintage Beatles albums when we were in preschool and, yes, she was very supportive.

2. What were some of the best gigs you played and best experiences you had with the band?

Since we took our music career from New York to Los Angeles, I could list many music clubs in both cities that are awesome to play, but nothing compares to going on tour to a city where you don’t know anyone, and you’re being asked to sign CDs, T-shirts, various body parts… Probably the best of these experiences was in Savannah, GA. I remember when we got there someone had written ‘Sisters Grimm rocks’ on one of the paper towel dispensers in the bathroom. How awesome is that?

3. Tell us the story of how you moved to California – did you have a plan in place, did you have any connections in the music business, etc.

At the time we moved, Giuliani had just come into office and he had a huge campaign to clean up New York which meant closing many of the local rock clubs. A lot of New York musicians saw ‘an end’ coming and Los Angeles was a logical move, so we knew plenty of other musicians who also migrated from New York and it wasn’t hard to make connections. We didn’t really have a hard and fast plan as to where exactly we would live, work or gig, but we had people to stay with while we were looking for an apartment and the rest came together rather quickly.

4. How and why did you start blogging and writing poetry? Also, were you always into writing, or was this an interest that developed later?

Yes, I have always written. Obviously, the most notable outlet for my poetry was my songwriting, which was very ‘lyrics’ oriented. When I became a mom and we decided not to do the band anymore, I didn’t write for years. My husband was the one who suggested I start a blog and I guess I’m lucky that all those ideas and words were still there waiting for me.

5. You are a very prolific writer, maintaining a steady output of high quality work, sustained over a long period of time. Very impressive! How do you accomplish this?

I guess that is how my work appears to you and other readers, which I suppose is an intended effect. When I think of myself, I think I am like a miser who is creating ‘gems’ (or not) which I dole out very slowly and very stingily. I write every day, but if I published every day, it would probably be a bunch of crap. Also, I try to do the Word Press Weekly Challenges and Yeah Write Challenges every week. The writing prompts help.

6. You also cover a wide range of topics in your poetry, from family life, to the rocker chick life, to the unexpectedly profound and poignant. You draw deeply from the creative well, so to speak. How do you come up with such diverse and creative material?

Just my latent schizophrenic tendencies coming out I guess! But seriously, I’m just hard on myself that way. I think about what I want to write about, but I will abandon a topic if it is too similar to one I wrote about in the past. If I write a poem that is sad, I will try to make the next few poems funny ones to offset that. Most of my writing comes from real life experience.

7. It’s great to see that you are involved in your kids’ musical development through the School of Rock. Can you tell us more about this program and your involvement with it?

Yes, all part of a dastardly plan to have my children vicariously live out my rock n’ roll dreams! No, actually since my husband and I were both involved in the music industry, we were of a similar mind to get our children playing music as well. Currently our son attends the School of Rock, one of the many rock schools that seem to be getting more and more prevalent. The school includes lessons and performance. Along with my not so gentle prodding, he’s turning into a little rock star!

My daughter just did her first term of rock summer camp and it seems she has now been vaccinated by the victrola needle and is hooked on rock n’ roll! What have I done?!

Actually I should mention here that there is a nonprofit organization called the Rock School Scholarship Fund which helps lower and middle class families with the funding of rock school tuition. My husband and I have been very active with this organization for years and it has helped us become even more involved in the rock school community and it’s wonderful teachers and parents. You can learn more about the organization here: http://rockschoolfund.org/.

Thank you, Marissa!

One of the many things I admire about Marissa is her raw, cut-the-crap honesty. I like to see that, especially from a woman, because it’s kinda rare. And it’s powerful.  Reading Marissa’s poetry inspires me, because this kind of uncompromising artistic integrity is something that I want to accomplish in my own writing. In this little interview clip, you will see the stunningly beautiful Sisters Grimm – Marissa and her sister Victoria – talking about being in a girl band. And grrl power. 😉

Be sure to visit Marissa’s blog, “Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth” (great title, Marissa)!

And one more thing – why do we need girl bands and grrl power, as young Marissa called it? I think a great man said it best…

Support Girl Bands!

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The G-L-O-R-I-A Contest.

A couple days ago, I read a post about Van Morrison’s beautiful rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “Don’t Look Back” on Thom Hickey’s “The Immortal Jukebox” blog, and I’ve been listening to it pretty much non-stop ever since. But late last night, in the midst of a morass of Morrisony, Hookery blues here in the purple room, with the heavily framed Beatles picture hanging precariously above my head, which is probably gonna be the ever-s0-apropos cause of my long-expected rock and roll demise, something inside me belligerently revolted against too much bluesiness with six little letters…G…L…O…R…I…A.

A garage band standard due to the fact that it’s easy to play and easy to sing and ad-lib and can be stretched out indefinitely, it was written by Mr. Morrison in 1964. It was just a toss off, a B side, and it’s turned out to be one of Van’s most enduring songs, covered by a long, long list of well known bands. But this is not just because it’s easy to play. It’s also dramatic as hell and can be as sexy and bizarre as the singer has the nerve to make it. I guess I probably listened to the majority of “Gloria” covers on YouTube in the wee hours last night, and I now feel qualified to act as a “Gloria” judge. So ya ready? Let’s have a contest. She comes around here, just around midnight…

The prize for most uniquely mellow “Gloria” goes to the Dead. Got of bunch of Glorias in this clip too, lol…

Most bad ass version goes to the master. Just fantastic…

The Doors get the prize for dirtiest version, natch. My favorite part is the way Jim does the feigned interest in conversation with Gloria when she comes up to his room. That kills me every time, lol. This is not the uncensored, dirty version, though. I chickened out. The Spinster Cousins would listen to it and then tell my mother I have a dirty blog, which may have already happened, actually. But you can find it easily on YouTube. Heh heh.

The prize for overall weirdest version goes, of course, to Patti Smith. The song as done by a woman takes on a whole different vibe and underlying girl-power meaning…

And while we’re at it, let’s do my favorite Patti song. Maybe this could be Gloria’s story. Yes, I think it could be. We seldom get to hear the story from Gloria’s viewpoint. So…C’mon, now, try and understand, the way I feel under your command…

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Sweet Accustomed Ways: Yes in Nashville

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Yes at the Ryman auditorium in Nashville was my second concert for the summer, the first being Jack White at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans. You may recall that my Jack White concert experience was not so great, and this is why:

  • We were informed by one of Jack’s henchmen upon arriving that we were at a rock concert, and as such, were expected to stay out of our seats and on our feet throughout the show.
  • We were then informed by this same Jack-like sycophant that we were not allowed to take pictures or videos and it was implied that those who tried to do so were crass and ill-mannered.
  • Being crass and ill-mannered, I then got yelled at by a cell phone-Nazi in official looking black polyester pants to put away my phone.
  • A lot of the audience members were obviously Jack-imitators whose primary motive was to look, act, and sound just like him, down to his mannerisms and vocal affectations.
  • I was nearly blinded by a floodlight on stage that was aimed directly at the audience, not that it mattered anyway, because I couldn’t see the stage as I stood there in my little pocket of extra-tall Jack-imitators for hours, listening to distorted, overly-loud music.
  • There was an overall vibe of coldness and negativity and rigid conformity, along the lines of Tommy’s Holiday Camp or the concert scene from The Wall, and it was apparent that the whole thing was as much, if not more, about fashion and fad as it was about music, which is unfortunate because Jack is a talented musician, in spite of everything.

So now that you have all that concert misery firmly in your mind’s eye, imagine the direct opposite of each point.  Friendly, helpful venue staff and an ancient elevator operator that tells you jokes on the way up. A non-pretentious looking audience of mainly middle-aged people, mostly wearing jeans and tees, and all sitting down comfortably. And using their cell phones to take the occasional video or pic. No big deal.  All sharing happily in the joy of sublimely beautiful, perfectly clear music, performed by a band that looks as relaxed, friendly, and non-pretentious as the crowd.

To put it succinctly, as I sat in the concert, experiencing all this, the thought popped in my mind, “these are my people, and this is my music”.  I’m sure I’ve conveyed my love for the music of Yes in my previous concert review and in my post about the Roundabout Fiasco of 1979, so I won’t belabor the point. However, I do need to compare this concert to the Yes concert I saw in Jackson last year.

The Nashville concert reinforced to me how very special the one in Jackson was. Not that this one wasn’t great, because it was, but the show in Jackson was extra special. The band had been delayed for two hours due to weather and had chartered a plane and flown through bad weather to get to us. Jackson waited; hardly anyone left.  I’m sure the band was tired and stressed, and I don’t think they expected the incredibly enthusiastic reception that they got from the audience. Perhaps they weren’t aware that Jackson, po-dunk town that it is, had one of the ass-kickinest album rock stations in the nation (WZZQ) during the 1970s; thus, we were all heavily exposed to Yes during their heyday and love them vehemently still, although they hadn’t played here all these years, what with us being po-dunk and all. So when Yes got extended, passionate, emotional ovations after each and every song they played, and I’m talking the best ovations I’ve ever heard in my life, you could see the surprise and gratitude in their faces. All of them were smiling ear to ear, including the normally stoic Steve Howe. Chris Squire, one of the nicest guys in rock, who lives and breathes Yes, was so emotional you could see the mist in his eyes. But he was not alone – half the audience was in tears.  An amazing concert and a profound experience for all who were there – band and audience alike.

So the Jackson concert gets an A+ and the Nashville concert gets an A-. They played Close to the Edge in reverse order, which kinda messed me up a little. They played two songs from their new album Heaven and Earth, and they were just okay. And they just didn’t seem quite as tight as they were in Jackson, but I think that’s because they were giving it all they got at that show, since we were definitely giving them all we had that night.

I feel so lucky that they are still touring and I got to see them again. They still speak to me in those old, sweet accustomed ways…

And uh…this is for you know who and his concert henchmen, because we’re not gonna take it. We know how it’s supposed to be. This was recorded at Woodstock. Where people sat, stood, rolled in the mud, or whatever they wanted to do…

And by the way, we’re still free…

Okay, one more, I can’t resist. So glad to be a part of the Yes generation. And The Who. It’s my generation, baby…

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Krystals, Cigs, and WFAT

I mentioned in an earlier post or maybe in the comments that I spent some time around a radio station in my youth, so now the onus is upon me to explain myself. First of all, to be clear, I did nothing of any value whatsoever while at the radio station. Well, that’s not strictly true. I fulfilled a number of functions, none of which had anything to do with radio broadcasting. My main job was to run out for Krystal burgers (for those of you in White Castle territory, Krystals are the southern equivalent thereof) and cigarettes. And to smuggle in beer in my purse.  Impressed? Of course you are.  Everything to do with radio in those days was glamorous. But this wasn’t a cool radio station – it wasn’t even close to being cool. The cool radio station in town was WZZQ.

wzzq

WZZQ was one of the first of its kind in the country – a free-format, anything-goes, bad ass album rock radio station, and it was where I learned about music. It was the station I listened to on my little Panasonic transistor. It was the station of “Nantucket Sleighride” and “Mississippi Queen”.  If you are interested in radio history, this is a fascinating story, because all this took place in ultra-conservative Jackson, MS. You can read about WZZQ here and here.

But like I said, this wasn’t WZZQ. It was more of a fly by night operation that took place in an old house on the edge of town. Since everyone there was scarfing down fast food, guzzling beer, and smoking like a fiend, let’s just call it WFAT. Or we could go with WYUK. WBIG. WCIG. WSUD. You get the picture. Anyway, I met this guy at W.C. Don’s (Remember? Home of big-arm-dancing and where my friend hit on Michael Stipe?), and he told me he was a deejay at WFAT and could get me an internship (um…unpaid) for the summer. WOW! I was so excited! I wasn’t too impressed with the easy listnin’ music they played, but what the heck, it was RADIO!

So I showed up, all eager, ready to learn the ropes and picturing myself as one of those ultra-cool female deejays with the deep, sultry voices. Not that I have a deep, sultry voice, but I thought maybe I could develop one. Imagine the let down when I was instructed to take the order for the first round of Krystals. And the Benson and Hedges. And the Budweiser and so forth. And when that was done, there was nothing else for me to do, except try to avoid the other female that worked there, because she seemed to hate me with a burning passion.  I guess there was only room for one female deejay per radio station, and she was there before me, so I was an interloper and a potential threat to her radio stardom. Anyway, I’m sure she rejoiced greatly when the summer ended and I was relieved of my duties to return to college. I know I did.

A deejay story by the great Harry Chapin…

And not only did we have a kick-ass radio station, but the founder of MTV, Robert Pittman, was born in Jackson and grew up down the road in Brookhaven, Mississippi. That’s between Jackson and Granny’s swamp. Here’s the first song played on MTV, and a fitting one it was, too.

 Questions? Comments? Please Share!

And a shout out to Vis – thanks for reading! But the answer is no – I’m not in the study board biz anymore. lololol…

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Hysterical, Screaming Girl Fans: An Analysis

Since I got a Facebook account, which is called “Annie Rich”, and by the way, please be my friend if you are on Facebook because my low number of friends is embarrassing, I’ve taken my YouTubing to an even higher plane, because I follow all these 60s and 70s pages or whatever they are and I click on almost every music link they send out. Which is a lot.

I was watching a clip of  The Beatles’ version of “You Really Got Me”, which prompted me to watch the original Smokey Robinson version. I realized with a sinking feeling that Smokey’s version was much better. I say “sinking feeling” because I am a Beatles fan and don’t like to diss them in any way, but I speak only the truth, and the truth is that they sucked all the soul and sexiness out of the song.  You’ll see what I mean if you watch this…it just doesn’t get any smoother than Smokey Robinson. Unless it is Sam Cooke, then sometimes it does. I love the lyrics in this song – what a perfect anthem for obsession! You treat me badly; I love you madly. Oh, the humanity…

You may have noted that this clip has a lot of hysterical girl-screaming in the background, as do a lot of live performances from the early years of rock and roll.  Somewhat understandable what with Smooth Smokey and his thinly veiled “tight hold” references, but still. The crying. The sweating, flushed faces. The high-pitched, panicky screaming. The peeing in the pants. The fainting. I mean, what was up with all that, right?

Here’s a good example from an Elvis concert in 1957. This one hits close to home because these are Mississippi girls – the concert was just up the road in Elvis’s home town of Tupelo.

Now for some Beatlemania…

You may ask, “So Marie, why did girls act like that? And why don’t they do this anymore?’ And I could give an answer to these questions, and would gladly do so, but it would take us into the deep, murky waters of psychology and sociology. I’m sure this must have been studied and analyzed by someone, somewhere, but the things that showed up in my Google search didn’t really answer the question to my satisfaction, so what the hell. Let’s go there.

I could just be lazy and shy, say “sexual repression”, link another song and be done, but it’s much more complex than that and deserves a closer look.  There were a number of causal factors that led to the girl-fan-hysteria that was so widespread during the era – the main one probably being an increasing awareness and awakening of female sexuality on the heels of  1953’s The Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which alerted the world to the fact that women are in fact, sexual beings. It was a real shocker, apparently, and the report was roundly criticized and condemned, but you better believe the news leaked out. It was academic trickle down to the common man. And woman. But at the same time, if you recall, there were extremely strict social parameters of sexual behavior for women – to be labelled a slut was the kiss of death. Thus, we had a powder keg situation – an increasing awareness and understanding of female sexuality combined with music that spurred it on, but tightly controlled by strict social mores and expectations and religious beliefs. Girls, if they wanted to be good and nice and not get a bad rep, had to push all those feelings down deep, which of course meant that they came out in unusual, unexpected ways – like having a weird melt down at a concert where songs with vaguely sexual lyrics were being performed by cute boys, for example.

Over time, the powder keg was slowly defused. The birth control pill. More access to education and careers. 1971’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, which continued to increase knowledge and understanding of female sexuality. Societal attitudes toward women and the rules regarding their behavior started to change, ever so slowly, but steadily. By the time I started going to rock concerts in the late 70s, there was no more hysteria among the girls – those days were over. Of course, there was plenty of drooling over Paul Rodgers and so forth, but it was a more normal level of idolatry. Not hysteria. Nobody fainted, for example.

There are other explanations, naturally, such as the effect of music on the brain and the nervous system, group dynamics, female emotional tendencies, etc. But if that’s all it was, why doesn’t this happen today? No, those elements, while I’m sure they were contributing factors, are incomplete as explanations. It was a phenomenon specific to the times in which it occurred and it’s not likely to happen again, which is a good thing. I would hate to go to a concert ruined by a bunch of out 0f control, pitifully repressed females.  Oh, that high-pitched screeching! Terrible.  But I’m still proud to be a woman. From 1962, with change blowin’ in the wind…tell ’em about it, Peggy…

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