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August 4, 2014

Book Notes - Dan Epstein "Stars and Strikes"

Stars and Strikes

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Dan Epstein truly evokes the "spirit of '76" in his book Stars and Strikes, which chronicles the 1976 Major League baseball season.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A knuckleball ride through the wonderful and wacky year the nation celebrated its 200th birthday—and the national pastime changed forever… A must for everyone who still remembers when the White Sox wore shorts."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Dan Epstein's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76:

For my recently released history of the 1976 baseball season, I chose to title the chapters after hit songs from '76. There were several reasons behind this decision:

One, I absolutely loathe the bland, painfully overused baseball book device of titling chapters "First Inning," "Second Inning," etc., and wanted to try something more colorful. (And anyway, I had more than nine chapters to work with here.)

Two, pop music was just as important to me as baseball in the summer of 1976, and just as magical. I learned to read the Sporting News box scores to the sound of Casey Kasem's American Top 40 countdowns, and my memories of going to my first major league ballgames that summer are indelibly imprinted with the hooks and grooves of particular songs — some of which made it into the chapter titles of my book.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted "Stars and Strikes" to be more than just a baseball book; I wanted it to be a time capsule that would transport the reader back to 1976, immersing him or her in an America that was just as festive, raucous and reverberating with transition as major league baseball was that year. While researching and writing the book, I compiled a playlist of over 250 favorite songs from 1976 to put me in the proper headspace; most were hits, some were obscure, but all of them were deeply evocative of the year. Obviously, I couldn't include that playlist with every copy of "Stars and Strikes," so I opted instead to try for a sort of subliminal playlist — by invoking the titles of well-known 1976 songs for chapter names, I figured I could at least make the songs play in the back of the reader's mind.

"Play That Funky Music" by Wild Cherry

Wild Cherry's lone smash was unquestionably my favorite song in the summer of '76; the line, "lay down the boogie and play that funky music ‘til you die" struck my young mind as both sinister and hilarious — I used to amuse myself by staggering around like Boris Karloff in The Mummy, legs stiff and arms outstretched, while intoning those words with as much sepulchral gravity as my ten-year-old larynx could muster. But fourth grade boogie monsters clearly weren't the only ones digging the tune; "Play That Funky Music" was so all-pervasive during the second half of 1976 (and so deeply redolent of the "let's party" vibe that was sweeping the country during the Bicentennial), it seemed like the perfect theme for the book's introduction.

"More Than a Feeling" by Boston

I've had my rock critic card revoked on more than one occasion for saying so, but I remain steadfast in my belief that Boston's mega-selling debut LP is the most perfect (or at least the most perfectly constructed) rock record ever made. I can totally understand why some folks would be put off by the album's crushed velvet guitar tones and unblemished showroom sheen; but for me, early Boston is like aural Zoloft — I find it absolutely impossible to stay in a bad mood while this record is playing. "More Than a Feeling," the album's opening track and lead single, was climbing the charts in October 1976, which is when the book's prologue takes place, and the song's soaring harmonies sync up nicely in my mind with the image of Chris Chambliss's pennant-winning home run slicing through the Bronx night.

"Let's Do It Again" by The Staple Singers

This slinky Curtis Mayfield-penned and -produced track topped the Billboard soul singles chart in November 1975, and topped the pop chart the following month, making it an ideal song to "play" behind a chapter devoted to the events of Nov-Dec '75. Not only did the song's sensual sentiments place it at the vanguard of the "sex rock" (in the horrified words of Time magazine) then sweeping the airwaves, but the title phrase nicely echoed new White Sox owner Bill Veeck's decision to return to baseball after an absence of over a decade.

"Take It to the Limit" by The Eagles

Like so much of the Eagles' music, "Take It to the Limit" concealed the tension and tumult of the era that spawned it behind a meticulously constructed veneer of ersatz mellowness. The third single off the Eagles' blockbuster One Of These Nights LP, this ballad was all over the radio in January 1976, right as the major league owners were pushing the limits of common sense by actively considering a full-scale spring training lockout of their players.

"Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)" by Parliament

If I could board a time machine back to any concert, I would set the controls to one of the 1976 dates on Parliament-Funkadelic's legendary Earth Tour, preferably in the company of ballplayers Tommy Davis (who was working as a publicity guy for Casablanca, the band's label, before being pulled out of retirement in the summer of '76 by the offensively-challenged California Angels) and Dave "Cobra" Parker (who tried to inspire his listless Pittsburgh Pirates teammates early that season by donning a t-shirt emblazoned with P-Funk lyrics). A standout track from Parliament's Mothership Connection LP, "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker" could apply to the owners' rumored (and extremely ill-advised) plan to cancel the 1976 season in the wake of the February court ruling upholding an arbitrator's decision allowing Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith to become a free agent, as well as to the way that the onset of full-scale free agency would radically re-shape the game's economics.

"Let 'Em In" by Wings

Nothing conjures up the summer of '76 for me quite like the soothing lope — and fake-out fade — of this McCartney hit, his second Number One smash (after the Al Green rip-off "Silly Love Songs") from Wings At the Speed of Sound. That album came out in March of '76, around the time that Commissioner Bowie Kuhn ordered the major league owners to end their player lockout and "let ‘em in" to spring training.

"The Boys Are Back In Town" by Thin Lizzy

Quite possibly my favorite rock band of the 1970s — for the past 25 years or so, I've worn silver hoop earrings in honor/emulation of the late, great Phil Lynott — Thin Lizzy scored their one big US hit with this song in the summer of '76. Jailbreak, the album it's from, hit the shelves in late March of that year, just in time for this two-fisted celebration of booze, babes and brawling to hail the early-April return of baseball to major league ballparks everywhere: "It won't be long til summer comes/Now that the boys are here again."

"More, More, More" by The Andrea True Connection

It doesn't get much more quintessentially "70s" than a disco hit sung by a pornstar — except maybe a disco hit that makes lyrical references to said pornstar's day job ("Get the cameras rollin'/Get the action goin'"). With May 1976 likewise loaded with bat and balls action, I couldn't resist invoking the title of this feel-good floor-filler from that spring.

"Strange Magic" by The Electric Light Orchestra

Like Boston's first album, ELO's 1976 LP A New World Record still has the power to transport me to a blissful place; but since none of its song titles seemed appropriate to this book, I went with "Strange Magic," the dreamy 1976 single from their 1975 album Face the Music. June '76 was the month in which charismatic and quirky Tigers rookie Mark Fidrych became a national sensation, and "The Bird" was dealing in some strange magic, indeed.

"Afternoon Delight" by Starland Vocal Band

I remember attending a fifth grade party where a couple of kids grilled everyone on whether or not they knew what "Afternoon Delight" meant. I honestly had no idea that this sunny and squeaky-clean smash from July '76 was actually an ode to daytime lovin'; at the time, the line about "skyrockets in flight" seemed more to me like a reference to the Bicentennial fireworks that were exploding across the country.

"You Should Be Dancing" by the Bee Gees

Over a year before John Travolta boogied his way across the Saturday Night Fever screen, the Brothers Gibb were already topping the US charts with this immaculate slice of celebratory disco. I felt its sentiments echoed the upbeat mood of the fans of the four division leaders — the Cincinnati Reds, the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals — all of whom came into August with leads of nine games or better.

"Don't Go Breaking My Heart" by Elton John and Kiki Dee

Of course, the Royals and (especially) the Phillies very nearly gave their fans coronaries in September by almost blowing their respective leads in the waning weeks of the season. Elton and Kiki's chart-topper — which seemed to be absolutely everywhere in August and September of '76 — seemed to unintentionally echo the fears of those teams' loyal supporters.

"Still the One" by Orleans

In retrospect, it's hard to imagine that anyone would have bet against the Big Red Machine in the NL playoffs or the World Series; with their loaded lineup, they plowed straight through the Phillies and the Yankees to clinch their second straight World Championship. To paraphrase lite-rockers Orleans — who released this song on 1976's boldly shirtless Waking and Dreaming LP — the Reds were indeed still the one.

"Take the Money and Run" by the Steve Miller Band

Of all the things that happened in and around the 1976 baseball season, nothing has continued to impact the game so drastically as the onset of full-scale free agency. The owners complained that their players were greedy — but when it came time to sign free agents, they suddenly behaved like sailors on shore leave, throwing gobs of cash at anyone with a pulse. Who could blame the players for making like Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue from Steve Miller's first big hit of '76?

"Baby I Love Your Way" by Peter Frampton

You can't talk about the music of 1976 without mentioning Frampton Comes Alive, the blockbuster live album that turned journeyman British rocker Peter Frampton into a full-fledged pop cultural phenomenon. Frampton's sun-baked slow jam provided the perfect title for my book's acknowledgements section, since I am filled with love and appreciation for so many of the folks who helped and encouraged me in its creation.

Dan Epstein and Stars and Strikes links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Bookreporter review
Dallas Morning News review
Kirkus review

Cabinet Beer Baseball Club interview with the author
Chicago Tribune profile of the author
Fox Sports interview with the author
Keith Olbermann interview with the author
MLB Now interview with the author
Ron Kaplan's Baseball Bookshelf interview with the author
Sporting News interview with the author
WGN-Radio interview with the author
WGN-TV interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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