Let 'The Midnight Special' Shine Its Light on Me

Staying up late to watch the musical variety show, you never knew what surprise would come next

"The Midnight Special" didn't exactly save my life, but it did give me another place to escape when our world contracted to a tumbledown house surrounded by miles of sorghum fields.

We had just moved to South Texas from Andrews Air Force Base because my father had retired from the military and wanted us closer to family. I was 13 years old and less than thrilled with this turn of events.

It must have been part of why, in the summer of 1978, I isolated myself late on Friday nights (which was a hard job in a large family). After everyone had gone to bed, I would pull the crappy 10-inch Zenith from the kitchen to the living room. There, I put the set on the fake fireplace and, as Johnny Carson interviewed the banjo-wielding George Segal, I fiddled with the rabbit ears, working to pull an image from television snow.

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It helped to open the back door. The night was blue, and long grass tossed in a warm wind. If it worked, the whistles of a Burbank studio audience came from faraway and the groovy superscript of "The Midnight Special" loomed into view. The night swallowed everything, except that small black box of a stage. And once again I wondered who the mysteriously named Big Shot Burt Sugarman was.

The guest hosts were always a middle of the road grab bag. You might see Mac Davis or Eddie Money's eyes move as they read from cue cards. Not that it mattered. The musical performances carried more of a charge. I wanted to see what radio stars looked like, and how faithful they sounded to the 45s I had bought at the base exchange.

I distinctly remember Hall & Oates knocking "Rich Girl" out of the park with an opening electric keyboard solo. But poor Yvonne Elliman struggled to belt out "If I Can't Have You" while the saxophone player farted all over her ballad.

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As time went on, I woke my younger sister Yvonne to join me. She would startle from bed blinking.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"Do you want to see Wolfman Jack?"

"The Wolf who?"

We lay side by side on pulled couch cushions. Yvonne pointed to the screen after each song: "Stinks," she would say. Or, "Does not stink."

Patti Smith was our mutual epiphany. The piano tinkled an opening and dissolved into spotlit brightness. Out of the halo her face appeared, beaky under a priestly brim. Eyes closed, her mouth formed a sealed ring around every word she sang:

Take me now, Baby, here as I am,

Pull me close, try to understand.

Desire is hunger, is the fire I breathe.

Love is a banquet on which we feed

The drums kicked in and I sat up. "Who is that?" Yvonne asked.

"It's Patti Smith, " I said. I had never seen anyone like her. Spreading her skinny arms, her hair fell in Muppet curtains to either side as she folded ringed hands back together in prayer. I wanted to step through the television and marry her.

"Is she a man or a woman?"

"Shh." Please be a woman, I prayed.

Every great once in a while, "The Midnight Special" surprised you. At its best, the show exposed fissures in '70s middle-of-the-road rock. For every two or three Starland Vocal Bands, the Cars might suddenly clear pop vaudeville from the stage with "Just What I Needed." At 13, it was worth staying up late to play that musical lottery.

In a way, music was beside the point. My gut fascination was with the distance that had entered our lives. Those endless fields. That hypnotic pull of all that Texas sky. Like any revelation being broadcast from miles away, "The Midnight Special" lulled you into parallel meditation: being isolated by so much flat earth while being pulled close to performers with winged hair who stood on a stage that floated in the middle of night.

I still want to marry Patti Smith.