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The lights dimmed, the crowd in the oversized basketball arena began to murmur, and as a single spotlight illuminated the stage a roar went up from the audience. A single figure, sitting on a four-legged stool, with a guitar across his lap, and a bottle and glass next to his right foot on the stage appeared.
The crowd calmed back to a murmur. It wasn’t the performer they expected.
As the arena went quiet, the man spoke. “Harry couldn’t make it tonight, I hope you’re not disappointed, I’m Gordon Lightfoot.”
Disappointed? Not by the huge round of applause, whistles, and cheers that erupted.
Lightfoot surprised us by replacing his friend Harry Chapin who had the flu and couldn’t perform that night. No one complained as the legendary Canadian balladist sang for the next two-and-a-half hours.
He took a break every four or five songs to tell a short story, fill the glass from the bottle and take a drink. We couldn’t tell what he was drinking, but we all believed it was some brank of Canadian whisky.
It was one of the best concerts I ever had the privilege of attending.
Lightfoot passed away on Monday, at 84 years of age. I wore out his album “Gord’s Gold” on my primitive turntable.
His passing brought thoughts of how music and athletics often merge, not just in the venues they share, but in how a soundtrack can augment an athletic event.
We’ve all enjoyed basketball tournaments with the stadium announcer playing fast-paced songs during timeouts, quarter breaks, halftime, and during warmup. We’ve all suffered through the noise that accompanies some of these lulls in the action when the kids get to play whatever obnoxious soundtrack that they play at home to annoy their parents as well. Occasionally the “music” is so full of profanity that an administrator has to shut it off, but most of the time the playlist has to be approved by the coach or admin in charge before it makes it into the sound system.
Music has another role in athletics as well when athletes listen to it before a competition.
Modern athletes mimic the professionals they watch on television and “psyche up” in silence, listening to their individual music on headphones that sometimes cost more than previous generations paid for their first car.
It’s a testament to this narcissistic age when everything is about “you” and not the team. Why listen to the same songs as your teammates when the game is only about you? It’s a pervasive problem and just another indicator of the bitter fruits of the self-esteem movement that began a generation ago.
Previous generations didn’t have the option of wallowing in self-esteem, parents, teachers, and especially coaches were much more hands-on in those days, and even the slightest hint of superiority on your part didn’t end well.
The music reflected that in the locker room in those days. Even if you wanted to listen to your own music, the only option was a single earplug played off a tape deck, usually a heavy 8-track player that took six or more D-cell (remember those?) batteries. That wasn’t a very effective way to hear your favorite rock band before you took the field.
Instead, someone put their meager player on max and we listened to “Up Around the Bend,” or “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Jump ahead almost a decade, and the boys at Lusk had their favorites as well. They’d moved to cassette tapes from our antiquated 8-tracks, but they were unified in their music. Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” was popular with the football, basketball, and track teams, but it paled to “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen.
In 1981, Lingle Ft. Laramie was the odds-on favorite to win the Class B football state title. We played them in week four at Gibson Field in Lusk. The final score was 14-8 in the Tigers’ favor. We both finished the regular season 7-1, but in those days, you had to win your conference to make the playoffs. Another song came to mind for the Doggers as they systematically ran up the score on everyone else they played but couldn’t go anywhere as the season drew to a close. “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go,” by Meatloaf was popular with the boys when we talked about Lingle that year.
Lingle hammered a hapless Medicine Bow team earlier in the day and was just leaving the Virginian Hotel as we pulled through town after a 29-2 win over Hanna Elk Mountain. Our driver slowed to about five miles an hour and the bus windows all slid open as the kids cranked up “Another Bites the Dust” on the bus sound system. Coaches and players both enjoyed the middle fingers flying from the Lingle players as we slowly drove by. It was a memorable moment for the Tigers.
Another blip in time had the Shoshoni Wranglers playing “Here I Go Again,” before games by Whitesnake. I’m not sure if the boys liked the song that much, but they loved the video of the late Tawny Kitaen in a white dress on a fast-moving sports car. Any guy with a pulse from 15 to 85 liked that one.
Perhaps the best basketball team in the last 50 years in Shoshoni came in the 1989-90 season, but we missed the state tournament by a single point in overtime.
Shane, Willard, Dak, Blaine, TJ, and John were the seniors on that squad, and they were huge Van Halen fans. “Jump” was the warmup song before every game.
We went 14-6 on the season in a conference that was unbelievably balanced in talent, tenacity, and competitiveness. Aside from Wind River who was down that season, every other team was a contender. We played four overtime games that year and lost just the one to the Chiefs at Byron by a point.
“Jump” takes me back to those distant days every time I hear it, but so does Phil Collins singing, “In the Air Tonight.”
The boys often played that first, probably just to hear the iconic drumbeat.
Football occasionally had good soundtracks as well, but none could compete with the mix of 60s Rock and 65-73 Motown that my late friend Nancy Jones played at Leroy Sinner Field in Pavillion. Nancy had an ear for music, and a tremendous talent as a musician herself. Her Cougar football soundtrack was legendary.
Stadium, locker room, court, field, or track, all benefit from a little music.