All the leaves on the trees are falling

This is the third in a series of four entries that examine some of the great songs of the pop music culture celebrating the four seasons.  At this time of the autumnal equinox, we take a look at songs of autumn.

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Of the four seasons, I think autumn elicits the widest range of emotions.  Many people I know proudly claim fall as their favorite.  The air gets slightly cooler and crisper, the trees turn into dazzling displays of color, festive sports events (games and tailgate parties) are everywhere, Halloween is looming, and thoughts invariably turn to serene reflection.

The-road-through-the-autumn-forestAnd yet, many folks are overcome with sadness as another summer passes, with the knowledge that Old Man Winter isn’t far off.  Very understandable;  the days grow shorter, animals prepare for winter’s hibernation, our bones get chilled more easily.

As is so often the case, music has an uncanny way of crystallizing our thoughts, capturing the mood of the moment.  As autumn takes hold, I’d like to take a look at a handful of pretty great songs that explore the many feelings of this multifaceted season.

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“Leaves are falling all around, time I was on my way, thanks to you, I’m much obliged, such a pleasant stay, but now it’s time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way…”

Even a hard blues rock band like Led Zeppelin had something poignant to say about fall. In “Ramble On” (1969),  from the band’s iconic “Led Zeppelin II” LP, vocalist Robert Plant came up with perfect lyrics to complement the music Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones put together for this track about moving on before the weather turns bitter.

“Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance with the stars up above in your eyes, a fantabulous night to make romance ‘neath the cover of October skies, and all the leaves on the trees are falling to the sound of the breezes that blow…”

Van Morrison has written several songs that explore autumn and its moods — his “Autumn Song” from 1973 is nearly 11 minutes long — but his best, I think, is “Moondance” (1970), with its jazzy piano, bass, flute and sax behind a gorgeous vocal delivery.

In my search for songs about autumn, I found the pickings remarkably slim, at least in the rock music genre.  In the ’40s and ’50s, many torch songs about the sadness of autumn were written, and several gems have emerged in more recent years that are worth celebrating.  So I’ve chosen to feature some of them here, even if they don’t strictly adhere to my blog’s usual 1960s-1970s-1980s focus.  I’m bargaining that you won’t mind…

Here’s my list of songs of autumn, with a Spotify playlist at the end for listening along.

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51FxT0FRwVL._SY355_“Autumn Leaves,” Nat King Cole, 1956, and Eric Clapton, 2010 

This timelessly lovely melody was written by Joseph Kosma in 1945, with French lyrics.  Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics in 1947, and since then, it has been recorded by dozens of pop vocalists and jazz instrumentalists, including Jo Stafford and Frank Sinatra, Roger Williams and Cannonball Adderley,  Gene Pitney, The Everly Brothers, Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones and Willie Nelson.  More recent renditions include those by Rickie Lee Jones (1995), Eva Cassidy (1996), Paula Cole (1997) and Bob Dylan (2015).  I’ve selected Nat King Cole’s classic treatment from 1955 and Eric Clapton’s 2010 rendition as the ones you should check out (although pretty much all are worthy of your attention 72547650 — the song is THAT good).   Humorous footnote:  There’s a 1956 film, originally titled “The Way We Are,” that actually was changed to “Autumn Leaves” just to capitalize on the Cole version, high on the charts at the time, that was played over the opening credits!  It’s a quintessentially melancholy song about lost love and how autumn can bring back painful memories:  “The falling leaves drift by my window, the autumn leaves of red and gold… Since you went away, the days grow long, and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song, but I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall…”

Harvest_-_neil_young“Harvest Moon,” Neil Young, 1992

Ol’ Neil isn’t generally much for sentimental songs, but this one, from his 20-years-later sequel to his #1 album “Harvest,” is an exception.  What a marvelous, delicate love song, perfect for a cool autumn evening:   “There’s a full moon rising, let’s go dancing in the light, we know where the music’s playing, let’s go out and feel, the night, because I’m still in loved with you, I want to see you dance again, because I’m still in love with you, on this harvest moon…”

R-969718-1272902137.jpeg“September,” Earth, Wind & Fire, 1978

As Earth Wind & Fire were working on recording this infectious track, band member Allee Willis remembers asking songwriter/bandleader Maurice White, “We ARE going to change ‘ba-de-ya’ to real words, right?’  Maurice gave me one of my greatest lessons in songwriting:  ‘Never let the lyrics get in the way of the groove.'”  The song went to #3 in the fall of 1978:  “Ba-de-ya, say, do you remember, ba-de-ya, dancing in September, ba-de-ya, never was a cloudy day…”

jeff-waynes-musical-version-of-the-war-of-the-worlds-4f80e55d0c13b“Forever Autumn,” Justin Hayward, 1978

Incredibly, this melody was first written as a jingle for a Legos commercial in 1969.  Jeff Wayne and Gary Osbourne then added lyrics and released it as a single in 1972, which was a hit in Japan but nowhere else.  Wayne tried again in 1978 as he was compiling the soundtrack for his “Musical Version of War of the Worlds,” and his dream was to have “the voice that sang ‘Nights in White Satin’ sing it.”  His wish was granted when Justin Hayward stepped up, and the result was a #5 hit in the UK (although only #47 in the US).  “Through autumn’s golden gown, we used to kick our way, you always loved this time of year, those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now, ’cause you’re not here…”

R-473160-1396361401-6704.jpeg“November Rain,” Guns ‘n Roses, 1991

For many rock fans, this song tops Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven’ as the best example of a song that merges thoughtful melody, meaningful lyrics, delicate beginning and blistering hard rock finale.  Ax’l Rose, Slash & company were never my cup of tea, but man oh man, this track is absolutely seismic.  Turn it up!  “Never mind the darkness, we can still find a way, ’cause nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain…”

48de0b2e58ea216687e6034ef78c538b--best-music-album-cover“Indian Summer,” Poco, 1977 

One of the criminally unheralded bands of the country rock genre was Poco, among the pioneers of the merger between country and rock in 1969.  With the likes of Richie Furay, Jim Messina, Randy Meisner, Rusty Young, Timothy B. Schmidt and Paul Cotton in their ranks, they flirted with but really never reached the stardom they deserved (although “Heart of the Night” and “Crazy Love” did well in 1979).  Do yourself a favor and delve deep into Poco’s repertoire and you’ll find jewels like “Indian Summer” from 1977:  “Indian summer is on its way, cool at night and hot all day, ain’t no black clouds filled with rain, Santa Ana wind blew them all to Maine…”

the-kinks-autumn-almanac-pye-3“Autumn Almanac,” The Kinks, 1967

Speaking of unheralded bands, The Kinks may be the #1 most ignored supergroup.  Unquestionably influential, delightfully quirky, capable of foppish English pop and hard-ass grunge rock, Ray Davies and his cohorts have an enormous treasure of great material you should take the time to peruse.  One lost gem is “Autumn Almanac,” a 1967 single that describes autumn rather nicely:  “When the dawn begins to crack, it’s all part of my autumn almanac, breeze blows leaves of a musty-colored yellow, so I sweep them in may sack, yes yes yes, it’s my autumn almanac…  Tea and toasted buttered currant buns can’t compensate for lack of sun, because the summer’s all gone, la-la-la, oh my poor rheumatic back, yes yes yes, it’s my autumn almanac…”  

61FG2HSNXWL“Leaves That Are Green,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1966

In the early days, Paul Simon’s lyrics were steeped in angst and sadness, painted in isolation (“I Am a Rock”), homesickness (“Homeward Bound”) and quietude (“The Sound of Silence”).   And yet, his songs offer achingly beautiful melodies, shimmering harmonies and an undefinable sense of hopefulness.  Witness “Leaves That Are Green,” which reminds us of how all those gorgeous leaves turn brown and die, but the words are sung to a lilting beat and optimistic bounce.  That takes a rare talent, as we have seen in Simon’s 50+ years of songwriting.  “And the leaves that are green turn to brown, and they wither with the wind, and they crumble in your hand…”

death_cab_for_cutie_-_plans“Summer Skin,” Death Cab For Cutie, 2005

I LOVE this band.  Such wonderful music, engaging sentiments, clever arrangements.  Much good music, but look at 2003’s “Transatlanticism,” and especially “Plans,” their 2005 commercial breakthrough, which includes “Summer Skin”:   “Then Labor Day came and went, and we shed what was left of our summer skin… And we peeled the freckles from our shoulders… ‘Cause the season’s change was a conduit, and we left our love in our summer skin…”

JethroTull-albums-heavyhorses“Heavy Horses,” Jethro Tull, 1978 

In 1976, Scotland-born Ian Anderson, after eight years of cranking out some of the best blues-oriented progressive rock we’ve ever seen, bought himself a salmon-farming operation in his homeland, and spent nearly half of his time settled into a more pastoral, agrarian lifestyle.  Jethro Tull remained a major player for a while yet, beginning with the delightful “Songs From the Wood” LP, which reflected his interest in the more organic side of life.  Even better is the title track to his 1978 album “Heavy Horses,” a minor masterpiece that succinctly describes the mighty work of the Clydesdales and other massive farm horses who have traditionally done the heavy lifting during the toil of harvest time each autumn:  “Iron-clad feather feet pounding the dust, an October’s day towards evening… Bring me a wheel of oaken wood, a rein of polished leather, a heavy horse and a tumbling sky, brewing heavy weather…”

51RydFIEfCL“September Grass,” James Taylor, 2002

One of the best songwriters of the late 20th Century seemed to be running out of gas when he released “October Road” in 2002, a resounding dud which had maybe two or three decent songs instead of the usual eight or nine.  One of the standout tracks turned out to be John Shelton’s “September Grass,” the only non-original on the LP.  Wonderful lyric, pretty melody, altogether perfect for this mix:  “Well, the sun’s not so hot in the sky today, and you know I can see summertime slipping on away, a few more geese are gone, a few more leaves turning red, but the grass is as soft as a feather in a feather bed, won’t you lie down here right now in this September grass?…”

6d562d24f4afb945e763df4e84948fd1“The Chill of an Early Fall,” George Strait, 1991

Country songwriters Green Daniel and Gretchen Peters teamed up to write this heartbreaker about a person whose lover has cheated in the past, and a former lover has suddenly come around again to upset the balance.  Why does this always happen in autumn?  “Here it’s comes again, that same old chilly wind will blow like a cold winter squall, and I’ll begin to feel the chill of an early fall, and I’ll be drinking again, and thinking whenever he calls, there’s a storm coming on…”

61vH8pA2AkL._SX355_“Indian Summer,” Joe Walsh, 1978

You wouldn’t expect a hotel-room-wrecking rock star like Joe Walsh to come up with a comforting soft-rock piece like this one, but sure enough, you can find it on his classic “But Seriously Folks” album next to “Life’s Been Good”:  “I was taken by surprise by the thunder, sat and stared out at the rain, taken back, I was younger in a vacant lot day, and then fall brought an Indian summer, and plenty of places to play…”

220px-TomWaits-TheBlackRider“November,” Tom Waits, 1993

Waits is a surly, cantankerous sort who isn’t prone to explaining the meaning behind his lyrics.  “I believe what Dylan said:  ‘If you have to explain ’em, they weren’t very good in the first place.'”  Like Dylan, Waits writes lyrics that nurture and grow, taking on new meaning the more often you hear them.  Check out “November,” a tremendous track from his 1993 LP, “The Black Rider”:   “November has tied me to an old dead tree, get word to April to rescue me, November’s cold chain, made of wet boots and rain, and shiny black ravens on chimney smoke lanes, November seems off, you’re my firing squad, November…”

es-divide-final-artwork-lo-resAutumn Leaves,” Ed Sheeran, 2017

Pity the folks who chose not to buy the deluxe version of Sheeran’s new “Divide” CD, which includes his very fine track “Autumn Leaves.”  It bears no relation to the time-honored classic mentioned at the beginning of this piece (but I’ll bet it inspired it):  “Do you ever wonder if the stars shine out for you, float down like autumn leaves, and hush now, close your eyes before the sleep, and you’re miles away, and yesterday you were here with me…”

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Honorable mention:

The Autumn Stone,” The Small Faces, 1969;  “September Morn,” Neil Diamond, 1979;  “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” The White Stripes, 2002;  “Autumn Song,” Van Morrison, 1973; “September Song,” Frank Sinatra;  “Girl From the North Country,” Bob Dylan, 1963;  “Autumn in New York,” Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, 1957;  “October,” U2, 1981;  “The Witch’s Promise,” Jethro Tull, 1972;  “Blue Autumn,” Bobby Goldsboro, 1968;  “Indian Summer,” Audience, 1972.

 

 

 

 

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And I feel like a number

I’ve written quite a few blog entries that explore various lyrical themes in rock music:  Songs about breaking up, songs of gratitude, songs about states, songs about summer, songs about healing and renewal, songs about cars and driving…

This time, let’s look at the numbers.  That is, songs with numbers in the title.

gettyimages_178895760There are probably several thousand songs that include a number in the title, from “One” by Three Dog Night to “Wait a Million Years” by The Grass Roots, and most of the numbers in between.  To help pare down the list of candidates I’d be exploring, I decided to limit the list to songs that use numerals, rather than the word for a number.  Granted, that means great songs like “I’m Eighteen” by Alice Cooper, “Three Roses” by America, “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian and “Ten Years Gone” by Led Zeppelin were out of the running.  Maybe they’ll show up in another list on another blog entry…

Numerals are used in song titles in a variety of ways:  as flight numbers, as auto models, as times of day, as phone numbers, as dollar amounts, as years, as highway route numbers.

As is customary at “Hack’s Back Pages,” I’m focusing on songs from the 1955-1990 period, just because that’s the era I know best.  And, as always, there’s a Spotify playlist at the end so you can listen along as you read!

And here we go with a dozen songs worth checking out:

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2721f973e88b9745f7de808a3f349171“867-5309/Jenny,” Tommy Tutone, 1981

Woe to those folks in area codes all over the country who happened to have this phone number in early 1982.  Songwriter Alex Call came up with this power-pop ear worm, which centers on a teenaged boy who finds a girl’s name and phone number on a wall and is hoping to work up the nerve to call her.  It was implied not only that the wall was a men’s bathroom wall but that Jenny was eager to please, which led thousands of teens, and adult drunks, to call and leave dirty messages.  A one-hit wonder group called Tommy Tutone took the song to #4 in March 1982, and the number remains perhaps the most ingrained phone number in pop music history (along with The Marvalettes’ 1962 hit “Beechwood 4-5789”).  Apparently, 867-5309, which Call says “came to me out of thin air,” is still an available phone number in some parts of the country, but discontinued in others.

crosby-stills-nash-and-young-teach-your-children-atlantic-ab“4 + 20,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1970

This foursome of talented songwriters was never able to stay together for long because they each had too many songs they wanted to record and not enough room on group albums, and their egos were pretty huge, so they often went off on numerous solo and duo projects instead.  In late 1969, as they were assembling the legendary “Deja Vu” LP, CSN&Y divvied up the available slots between the four.  Stephen Stills was eager to contribute “4 + 20,” a solemn look at his life at the tender age of 24.  (Coincidentally, Neil Young’s “Old Man” also reflected on his life at that age — “24 and there’s so much more…”). This rather bleak Stills track really should’ve been held back for a solo LP because it features him all alone on vocals and guitar, instead of the trademark 3- and 4-part harmonies that were the group’s signature sound.

e192c153d627d07e92249657f027bf92--elo-album-covers“10538 Overture,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1972

Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan had been the prime players in the British rock band The Move in the late ’60s, and in 1971, they started a new project that would feature orchestral instruments in a rock setting.  In particular, they used “sawing” cello riffs in place of guitar parts on tracks like “10538 Overture,” an early single from the group’s debut LP.  “The critics called it ‘baroque and roll,’ which is actually pretty accurate,” said Lynne, who soon became the leader of the band known as Electric Light Orchestra.  This track is about an escaped prisoner, and Lynne chose to give him a number (10538) instead of a name, just like in prison.  The song reached #9 in England but stiffed in the US, where their success didn’t begin until 1974’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head.”

sweetbabyjames“Suite for 20G,” James Taylor, 1970

As Taylor and producer Peter Asher were putting the finishing touches on the classic “Sweet Baby James” album in early 1970, the guys in charge at Warner Brothers told them they were still one song shy of the number required.  To light a fire under the reluctant artist, the record company told him, “Write one more song and record it, and you’ll be all done, and we’ll give you a $20,000 advance.”  So James holed up in his hotel room and cranked out a song specifically to meet that demand, and he called it, slyly, “Suite for 20G.”  (I always thought 20G was a hotel room or apartment number…)  He turned three song fragments into a suite that closes the album in festive fashion.

toto-99-1980-3“99,” Toto, 1979

Composer David Paich, keyboard player for the LA band Toto, said this song was inspired by George Lucas’s early science-fiction film “THX-1138,” about life in a 25th Century totalitarian state where numbers replace names and love is forbidden.  It was only a minor hit, peaking at #26 in 1980, but the track became something of a pop culture favorite among TV fans who saw the lyrics as a loving tribute to the sexy Agent 99 on the ’60s TV show “Get Smart”!

waitstomclosingtom_enl.png“Ol’ ’55,” Tom Waits, 1973

It’s a damn shame that a huge swath of the rock/pop music audience is pretty much unfamiliar with Waits, perhaps the most interesting of many under-the-radar songwriting artists of the ’70s/’80s and beyond.  His gruff vocals and loose jazz-folk arrangements may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but boy, some of his songs are magnificent.  Witness “Ol’ ’55,” which was the leadoff track on his excellent 1973 debut LP, “Closing Time.”  It paints a poignant picture of a man driving all night in his old 1955 vehicle, and pulling into town at sunrise, feeling like good fortune might be coming his way.  He has said he never much cared for The Eagles’ version (from their 1974 LP, “On the Border”) because it was “too sweet, too antiseptic.”  Other covers worth hearing include those by Sarah McLachlan, Ian Matthews and Richie Havens.

1581522“19th Nervous Breakdown,” The Rolling Stones, 1966

Once The Stones became a sensation with the release of their #1 smash hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in the summer of 1965, the band was sent out on a relentless five-month tour of the US and other countries, their first foray outside England.  Mick Jagger recalls saying wearily to the band after one show, “I don’t know about you blokes, but I’m about to have my nineteenth nervous breakdown.”  They immediately seized on the phrase as a great song title, and wrote a tune around it that lambasted spoiled teenagers who receive many riches but are still unhappy.  “Most of the songs of that time, other than maybe what Bob Dylan was writing, were simple love songs,” said Jagger years later.  “So a song like this one was considered jarring, even shocking, to a lot of people.  Who writes pop songs about nervous breakdowns?”

chicago-25_or_6_to_4_s_1“25 or 6 to 4,” Chicago, 1970

Upon its release, I recall wondering just what this strange title was supposed to mean.  I decided it meant “25 minutes before 4:00, or 6 minutes before 4:00.”  Turns out I was pretty close.  Many years later, composer Robert Lamm, Chicago’s keyboardist/vocalist, said the song describes a time he was in the Hollywood Hills struggling to write a song in the wee hours of the morning.  “The lyrics are pretty clear — ‘Waiting for the break of day, searching for something to say.’  I looked at the clock and saw that it was 3:35 am, or maybe 3:34 am.  So when the line came out, it was 25, or 26, minutes ’til 4 o’clock.”  Regardless, it was one of Chicago’s biggest hits, merging a powerful horn section, Terry Kath’s fiery guitar solo and Peter Cetera’s vocals into one strong song that was performed at virtually every concert they’ve ever done.

cover_47491729112011_r“Farenheit 451,” Todd Rundgren and Utopia, 1981

When Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, Rundgren and other progressive- minded people feared there would be a conservative backlash against the social issues of the day. He was right, and Utopia’s 1981 LP “Swing to the Right” included songs that reflected Rundgren’s thoughts on that political turn.  One of them was “Fahrenheit 451,” a crystal-clear reference to the 1953 Ray Bradbury book about a dystopian society where all books are burned.  The title refers to the temperature at which book paper catches fire.

James_Gang_-_James_Gang_Rides_Again“Funk #49,” The James Gang, 1970

Joe Walsh explains how he and his early Cleveland-based group came up with their songs:  “We used to play covers like The Yardbirds’ ‘Lost Woman’ and Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Bluebird.’  Then we’d go off into a four- or five-minute jam in the middle.  We took those jams and wrote words to them, and those were really the bulk of the first and second James Gang albums.”  So why is the eventual single called “Funk #49”?  “Well, we had a funky little jam on the first album we called ‘Funk 48.’  I don’t know why.  Then we said, ‘Hey, this is that other funk jam we have.’  And it seemed like we were counting the number of times we’d ever played it. We figured it was right around 50.  Our producer Bill Szymczyk said ‘It couldn’t have been 50.’  We said, ‘Okay, well, 49 then!’  We continued the sequence.”  The group also wrote a track called “Funk 50” but never released it…until 2012, more than 40 years later, when Walsh revived it for his “Analog Man” album.  It completes a nice trilogy for any Walsh/James Gang playlist you might want to create.

nebraska_alb“Johnny 99,” Bruce Springsteen, 1982

Following the release in 1980 of his double LP “The River” — which included his first Top Ten hit, “Hungry Heart” — Springsteen surprised and/or disappointed his growing fan base, pulling way back from the exuberance of The E Street Band to release “Nebraska,” a collection of stripped-down tunes of despair recorded alone at home in 1982 on a 4-track cassette machine.  Many critics hailed it as a brilliant departure that gave him gravitas to balance the party guy who led a vivacious live band.  One of the tracks he has often performed live in the years since then is “Johnny 99,” which tells the tale of a desperate, drunk, unemployed man who shot a night motel clerk and was ultimately sentenced to 99 years in prison.  Springsteen has said he was honored and thrilled that country music legend Johnny Cash recorded it as the title song of a 1983 LP.

220px-LetItBe“One After 909,” The Beatles, 1970

It’s a pretty bittersweet truth that, as The Beatles were breaking up, they were able to show signs of closure in their recordings.  The “Abbey Road” LP famously concludes with “The End” and its philosophical line, “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  Similarly, on the band’s final LP release, “Let It Be,” they included a rousing live recording, from the Apple Records rooftop “concert,” of “One After 909,” a song John Lennon and Paul McCartney had written more than a decade earlier, not long after they first met as teenagers.  Said Lennon in 1980:  “That was something I wrote when I was about 17.  I lived at 9 Newcastle Road, and I was born on October 9.  The number nine seemed to follow me around all my life.”  McCartney added, “That one has great memories for me of us trying to write a train song.  The lyrics are simple — she didn’t make the 9:09 train, she took the next one.”

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Honorable mention:

“3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,” Jefferson Airplane, 1967;   “Highway 61 Revisited,” Bob Dylan, 1965;  “Love Potion No. 9,” The Searchers, 1964;  “5:15,” The Who, 1973;  “409,” The Beach Boys, 1963;  “30 Days in the Hole,” Humble Pie, 1972;  “96 Tears,” ? and The Mysterians, 1966;  “Driver 8,” R.E.M., 1985;  “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Paul Simon, 1975;  “9 to 5,” Dolly Parton, 1980;  “’39,” Queen, 1975;  “1-2-3,” Len Barry, 1965;  “Revolution 9,” The Beatles, 1968;  “Hymn 43,” Jethro Tull, 1971;  “Miami 2017,” Billy Joel, 1976;  “Route 66,” Nat King Cole, 1956;  “Flight 602,” Chicago, 1971