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Shine a Light On Me: 40 Years of The Midnight Special

Shine a Light On Me: 40 Years of The Midnight Special

Recently, I was swallowed under a wave of memories while channel surfing. Thanks to some infomercial hustlers who were selling a DVD collection, I was spending the first moments of a new Saturday watching scenes from The Midnight Special for the first time in more than 30 years.

My eyes were fixed to the screen, which was now 52 inches wide and not bound by Curtis Mathis' carved wood. It didn't matter. I was eight years old again, watching Wolfman Jack howl and introduce music's biggest acts.

Pop-music-history stuff: The Midnight Special was a television program on NBC. In the 1970s and '80s, it aired after Johnny Carson's Friday-night episodes of The Tonight Show.. Its producer, Burt Sugarman, created a show that featured many of the era's biggest or most promising music and comedy acts. The show debuted 40 years ago this year.

Its heart beat more than 400 times over nine years. Radio personality Robert Weston Smith -- better known by his on-air name, Wolfman Jack -- was its frequent, but not lone host. Singer Helen Reddy of "I Am Woman" fame also hosted several episodes. Most often, musicians of the day like Olivia Newton-John or Mac Davis, guest-hosted.

The show was such a success by the end of its first season it had spawned a rival, Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, down the dial at ABC.

 

Are you the sort of person given to self-examination? I'm not. Although I can clearly recall events from my past, I rarely consider how they made me who I now am. But watching the late-night clips of Fleetwood Mac and AC/DC, I was given to some introspection that made me realize how formative The Midnight Special -- a television show, of all things -- was for me.

For one, I see now that it gave me an early appreciation for live music. There was no lip-syncing on the show, which had been the norm for pre-MTV music programming. The bands played their songs and they sounded better sometimes, and sometimes not quite as good, as they did on record.

I wasn't thinking about it then, but with hindsight I see that was exciting for me in some way. By the time I got to my first live concert, the show had been cancelled; but, I already had what I needed from it. I could decide for myself, based on what I heard all those early Saturday mornings, whether the band was bringing it or just phoning it in.

Today, there are entire TV networks devoted to live-music programming. As I'm typing this at two in the afternoon, there's a Bon Jovi concert on VH1 Classic and Great White is headlining something called the M3 Rock Festival on AXS TV. When The Midnight Special began, there were three major networks and about seven channels to choose from. Live music wasn't high on the programming list.

All these years later, I also understand the show further honed my taste for diverse music styles. If you were going to watch guest host Leon Russell play his hit "Tight Rope," you might have to wait until The Gap Band played a few songs. And you might actually like those songs, too.

Reading through the show's episode guides on the Internet is like reading a roll call for rock and R&B's classic acts -- everyone from ABBA to KC and the Sunshine Band to Sly & the Family Stone had their names in red neon behind them on The Midnight Special stage.

The show wouldn't sign off until 1:30 a.m. locally, right before Channel 2 played the national anthem and then allowed snow to run on its valuable airwaves for four or five hours. I'd watch 'til the bitter end and sleep fast so I could pour a big bowl of Franken Berry just in time for Scooby Doo mere hours later.

I know -- what the hell was I doing awake at 2 a.m.? I was a pre-teen, after all. Thinking back, I remember being awake a lot of those nights waiting on my dad to get home from the bars and pool halls he frequented at the end of his long work weeks. He was a good man with a stronger-than-horseradish work ethic who devoted 30-plus years to the same company; but he played hard, too, particularly in those younger days.

 

When I was eight or nine or ten, I'd stay awake Fridays, wondering when or if he'd get home safely. My mother, too exhausted from her own work day and too angry to care, would go to bed. But, I'd keep vigil, watching old horror flicks after the 10 p.m. news until it was time for The Midnight Special.

Then, for 90 minutes, or until he returned home, whichever came first, I didn't worry about my dad so much. I didn't realize it back then, but it was probably the first time music ever truly brought me a sense of security and comfort.

My dad ultimately slowed down a lot, and when he passed away some years ago, I was listening to Flogging Molly's "The Likes of You Again," when I realized I'd always miss him, but he'd never really be too far from me. As it did all those years ago on The Midnight Special, music brought me a sense of security and comfort.

It seems pretty ridiculous, giving a television program so much credit. When you finally get to that place in your life where you can go all Freud on yourself, you want to see only your parents' or family's or mentors' examples as critical to your psyche's development. You don't want to look back and see a TV show as a building block to your superego.

Maybe that's why I don't self-analyze so much. I might have to come to terms more often with this sort of disappointing realization about myself. I'm as influenced by the entertainment culture of my times as I am by literature, academia or any people in my life.

You can YouTube search the show and get more hits than you could watch in one sitting and that's what I'm doing now. I'm okay with it, too, I'm embracing it. Bill Withers is at the piano, singing "Lean on Me." I once leaned on The Midnight Special and it shined its ever-loving light on me.



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