Monday, September 9, 2013

Bearing a Gift Beyond Price (Part 4 of Radio Daze)

I had been applying regularly at WXRT, Chicago’s Fine Rock Station (still a radio icon to this day after forty years on the air) and was down to one of the finalists for new openings on two occasions—but it just wasn’t to be. So, with funds so thin from being woefully underpaid so, I decided to take a job as the Marketing Director for a cool music chain in the northern ‘burbs of Chicago, Dog Ear Records.  But WJKL, “The Fox,” broadcasting from the western edge of Chicagoland, did offer me another weekend gig: the graveyard shift of midnight to six AM on Fridays and Saturdays. 

This was a progressive format as well, and many of the jocks who worked there ended up at some of the other top rockers in Chicago.  So, I felt if I kept my foot in the proverbial door that perhaps something might happen at XRT eventually.

No real snafus to speak of during those long, lonely shifts—other than the misfortune of choosing to utilize the “water closet” while playing The Outlaws’ twenty minute epic “Green Grass and High Tides.” It was common practice in those days to void one’s bowels while playing a long cut so as to not feel overly rushed.  As fate would have it, however, the record started to skip on the line “high tides for-ever-er-er.”  It repeated a good fifty times before I could hastily clean my bum, flush, and race back down the hall trying to pull my pants up as I galloped. Careening into the studio I then gently nudged the needle forward to get past the bump and finish out the guitar army anthem.  Without another soul in the building, there was no embarrassment in my unkempt cavorting.

In fact, that was one of the benefits to working the all-nighter—freedom to jump around when I would get groggy, run the stairs, do push-ups—anything to keep the blood and adrenaline coursing (I don’t do caffeine because it gives me migraines).  I would end up having long chats while songs were playing with callers who wanted to talk about music or sports or comedy.  I got to know some of them fairly well.  Many were folks who worked third shift at area warehouses and factories.  Some were cops.  Some were students cramming for exams. A few were just night owls who dug the great variety of music we offered.

I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial
doing anything my radio advised
with every one of those late night stations
playing songs bringing tears to me eyes

(“Radio, Radio” by Elvis Costello from This Year’s Model , 1979)

I had always enjoyed listening to “The Fox” because it was a slightly harder-edged version of WXRT.  There was an abundance of rock you wouldn’t hear elsewhere (they were the first station in Chicago to play Rush for instance), and the jocks were encouraged to push the envelope with creative blends of music and commentary.  The overnight shift was a truly fun place to get my ya-ya’s out.

We had a Music Director there, Frankie, who was really enamored with the punk movement (this was the late 70s).  She was also becoming frustrated with other forms of rock, and hence there was some definite disagreements brewing between her and the rest of the air staff about how much of the “new wave” to be playing.  If she had her druthers, it would’ve been “All Sex Pistols All the Time.”  The rest of us thought it had its place, but certainly didn’t want to see it overrun the format.

On each album that was in the library there was a tracking sheet taped to the cover.  That way we would know the last time/jock who played a particular cut so as not to repeat anything that day, and to be careful not to play anything from that album in the same hour anytime within a week (boy, would that frustrate the heck out of all these tightly-wound programmers and their infinitesimally controlled rotations now).  There was also room on the tracking sheet for us to write comments about the artist, album, etc. that might be of interest to other jocks.

Frankie felt it was her duty on these little editorial sections to trash every album she thought was bad (but somehow still worthy of being on our play list).  She also heaped unadulterated praise on lousy “artists” like The Buzzcocks, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Nina Hagen, Destroy All Monsters, etc.  Some friendly jibes would go back and forth. But, as it turned out, she didn’t appreciate being disagreed with—especially by a weekend overnight jock like me.  It didn’t stop me however—I was part of the team, and my opinion counted too.  I think she just couldn’t stand it that I was a lot funnier in my banter about the musical skill (or lack thereof) demonstrated by The Stranglers, The Vibraters, The Undertones, The Saints, The Slits, The Damned, The Flying Lizards, and The Cramps (what was the deal that seemingly every punk outfit needed that definite article to mark a proper noun?  I remember a post-punk band in the early 80s known as The The, which was pretty funny). 

Most of these acts had little musical training, let alone talent.  They relied on anger, rage, self-mutilation, and copious displays of disrespect for anyone and everything.  Their medium was their message, and it was none-too-pleasant for most people to tolerate, and few that I knew of gained any sense of enjoyment from them.  Bands like Suicide, The Dead Kennedy’s, Gang of Four, Throbbing Gristle, Stiff Little Fingers, Sham 69, and Siouxsie and the Banshees were just downright grating to the ears, and are all rightfully forgotten all these years later for musical contributions any of them made.  They were just pissed (or at least acting that way to get attention). 

Take The Dead Boys, for instance. What a bunch of losers.  Towards the end of each concert, lead singer Stiv Bators would challenge any girl from the crowd to come on stage and give him a blow-job as they “performed.”  Unfortunately, some skanky git would nearly always take him up on it.  This, I would contend, had very little to do with rock‘n’roll, and everything to do with sensationalism and appealing to the most base of instincts.  Frankie heartily argued with me on these topics.

Invisible airwaves
Crackle with life
Bright antennae bristle
With the energy
Emotional feedback
On a timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price ---
Almost free...

(“The Spirit of Radio” by Rush from Permanent Waves, 1980)

One frigid early Sunday AM in December, I was feeling particularly playful.  I had just heard the new Cheech and Chong piece about a slick manager trying to get a punk band signed at a label because of their unique take on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”  By the end of the skit, the poor A&R representative was cowering under his desk.  I thought it as the time of year for a yuletide set, so I dove in:

“The season is upon us where we all enjoy hearing those Christmas classics that warm the cockles of our hearts—whatever those are exactly.  I’ve been humming some of those familiar strains over the past few days, and it made me wonder why we don’t hear more contemporary versions for the young people of this generation to better relate.  So, with that in mind…”

I then played the aforementioned comedy piece, and as it faded with the record executive fretting in a catatonic stupor, I then segued into The Dickies’ incredibly tasteless rendition of “Silent Night.”  After about forty-five seconds of that ear-bleeding wank splash, I then faded over to the beginning of a Monty Python album where Michael Jones starts screaming at the top of his lungs, “Not this record! Not THIS record!  NOT THIS RECORRRRD!” and then there is the sudden horrific screech of a stylus being dragged diagonally across the vinyl for about five seconds.  That unceremonious dismissal of those Richards then segued tightly into Pat Travers’ feisty “Life In London” which lamented the decay of the British music scene—especially the posing of the punk underground--in syncopated rifle-rock mastery.  Upon its climactic power chord ending I cued-up the crunching, frenetic “Let There Be Rock” from AC/DC’s sweaty If You Want Blood You Got It: Live, where Bon Scott and Angus Young shredded their voice and guitar respectively. The same simplicity of the punks, but with so much more actual rhythm, back beat, and ability.

If I do say so myself, the set rocked like a freakin’ big dawg.  Even though it was 2:55 in the morning, the phone lines lit up.  “Now this is rock’n’roll!” was the basic sentiment of most calls.  “I’m sick of hearing that pathetic punk shit!  Keep it up, buddy!”

My shift continued with the renewed vigor of an involved listenership.  I played many of our progressive staples ranging from Tom Waits to Yes, from Graham Parker to Bob Marley, from Crack the Sky to Wishbone Ash, from Queen to B.B. King.  The fun mixes were flowing, and the synergy of vital rock radio was palpable.

As I drove the hour back to my home into the sunrise at the end of my shift, I was reminded once again of how great it was to help people along with their lives by blending music that invigorated and even surprised them.

I slept soundly that morning, but was awakened just after noon by a call from Tom, the Program Director.

They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don't give you any choice
'cause they think that it's treason.
So you had better do as you are told.
You better listen to the radio.

(“Radio, Radio” by Elvis Costello from This Year’s Model, 1979)

Apparently Frankie had been listening to my shift (obviously she had very little in the way of a life), and was incensed that I had dissed her beloved genre.  Tom asked for me to explain my side, and I told him what tunes were in that particular set, what I had said, and the kind of response it got on the phones. He actually chuckled, and thought it was creative and fun.  “But,” he paused, “Frankie is livid and feels you should be dismissed for trashing a core element of our format.”

All this machinery
Making modern music
Can still be open-hearted
Not so coldly charted
Its really just a question
Of your honesty

(“The Spirit of Radio” by Rush from Permanent Waves, 1980)

“Tom,” I reasoned, “do you really think having a little fun at the expense of a savage rendition of a Christmas carol by talentless hacks like The Dickies is worth this kind of rage on her part?” 

“I’m with you, Mark, but I think if I don’t make an example of you, she will feel threatened in her ability to guide the musical integrity of the station.” Tom then proffered,  “Maybe if you were to call her and apologize, she would look at things differently.”

“It appears that maybe she’s wearing the pants there, Tom.  Aren’t you the one in charge?” I responded.  He chuckled nervously.  I continued, “Listen, I’m not about to atone for something which was clearly intended to be funny.  She’s just threatened because someone on the staff demonstrated how flawed so much of the punk trend is in comparison to where many of your listeners are.”

“So, you’re not going say you’re sorry to her?” he queried. 

“I see no reason to.  You hired me for my knowledge of music, and my wit on the air.  You admitted you don’t see anything wrong in what I did…”

“You’re right,” he interrupted. “In fact, it sounds like it was good progressive radio to me.  But, I’m gonna have to let you go in order to keep the peace here.”

You either shut up or get cut out;
they don't wanna hear about it.
It's only inches on the reel-to-reel.
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
tryin' to anaesthetize the way that you feel

(“Radio, Radio” by Elvis Costello from This Year’s Model, 1979)

Tom went on to explain that he hoped he could work with me again somewhere down the road.  We brought it to closure on good terms I suppose, and Tom was always kind to me when we’d see each other as the years went by. 

Isn’t it odd that I got fired for casting comic aspersions on a movement that prided itself on taunting the status quo…that I was released because I ruffled the feathers of someone who wanted to rattle the cage of the boring radio industry?  That frigid evening that I tinkled on the punk movement was the last time I slaved over some hot turntables and a sizzling mic.

One likes to believe
In the freedom of music
But glittering prizes
And endless compromises
Shatter the illusion
Of integrity

(“The Spirit of Radio,” by Rush from Permanent Waves, 1980)

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