“Radio Ga Ga”

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Happy Veterans Day!  If I have any followers who’ve served, thank you.

Yesterday’s post has inspired me to try for a theme week.  Let’s see if I can manage it.

Most of the songs about radio lament losing whatever was magic about it to corporate greed.  Or something like that.  And it’s true.  I ranted about this a bit yesterday.  My generation was probably the last that saw radio as special in any way.  I’m not sure that teenagers today even listen to radios.  They’ve got iPods and Pandora and Songza, and all the rest.  They can stream video or play games on their phones.  They don’t need radios.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the ability to have thousands of songs that I love at my fingertips.  I love the ease of creating playlists, and being able to hear what I want wherever I want.  The technology is brilliant.  But with all the good, something is lost.  Something kind of mysterious and magical.  You know that there’s a person on the other side of that illuminated dial.  You know that if you dial the number the DJ announces, someone will pick up and answer.  That’s what makes call-in talk shows on the radio so popular, I think.  Someone is listening.  And nothing beats that wonderful moment when that stranger on the other end of the dial plays a song you didn’t expect.  Something old that you’d almost forgotten.  Or something new that makes you a fan.  Or just the right song for the right moment.  It’s a connection with the world.  Someone was listening, and they played you a song that made your day just a little bit better.

“Radio, someone still loves you.”

 

Radio Musings

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For the majority of my life, I’ve slept with the radio on.  The radio is always on in almost every car I’ve ever been in.  When I don’t want the TV on, I can turn on the radio and hear . . . something.  Anything.

When I was a teenager, it was94.7  KMET, The Mighty Met.  That was where I first heard Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm,” late one night when I couldn’t sleep.  That’s where I listened to Breakfast with the Beatles on Sunday mornings, and Dr. Demento on Sunday nights.  It wasn’t the first radio station I loved; it certainly wasn’t the last, but KMET will always be the one I loved the best.

The Wikipedia page has the ending wrong.  I remember what happened.  I listened to the Met before school, like I did every morning.  I left, and went home in the afternoon.  While watching the local news, it was announced that KMET had been unceremoniously yanked off the air after the morning show, probably around 10AM.  The DJs were all called in and handed severance packages.  The last song played on The Mighty Met?  “It’s Only Rock & Roll” by the Rolling Stones.

I was heartbroken.  For a couple of weeks after they pulled the plug, the station played inoffensive Pop/Rock on a repeating loop, periodically interspersed with the disturbing sound of a heartbeat.  There might have been a voiceover saying that something was coming soon.  Then the single crappiest radio station ever took over 94.7.  The Wave.  At its inception, The Wave played nothing but Smooth Jazz and had no DJs (a pretty revolutionary thing to do in 1987).  The lack of DJs was deemed a failure after a while, and the play list loosened up to include lots of vapid soft Pop.

There’s been a number of great and not-so-great radio stations that have passed through my life since then.  These days, there’s The Sound 100.3, and it’s filling in just a little bit of the hole that KMET left behind.  They’re actively patterning themselves after the Met.  They even had a “Mighty Met Weekend” recently, inviting back as many of the old DJs they could find to celebrate a time when radio stations had personalities and identities.    They play a pretty standard AOR playlist, but they seem to let the DJs pick some deep tracks and oddities as much as possible.  They play whole album sides and concert recordings on a regular basis.  There’s even a show where they invite ordinary folks to come in and DJ an hour of their own. All of that harkens back to what radio used to be like, and is unheard of on almost any other radio station today.  Every station sounds the same anymore, playing the same two dozen classics and hits that the corporate masters have pre-approved.  (Right now, 100.3 is playing “Clampdown” by the Clash.  I’d like to see anyone else do that these days.  No, really.  I’d like that a lot.)  If I wasn’t listening to The Sound, I’d have it on one of my local “listener supported” stations (NPR is totally awesome).  We had SiriusXM in my dad’s car for a while, and that was great, too.  Great music, great variety, and great choices.  But you have to pay for it, and there’s a little part of my soul that thinks that’s treason.

They’re playing something called “Montego Bay” by a guy named Bobby Bloom now.  It’s pretty cool–a little reggae, a little soul, a bass line that sounds like The Talking Heads’ version of “Take Me to the River.”  I probably ought to know who this singer is, but there are some gaps in my musical education.

What’s your favorite radio station?  Or did you give up on commercial radio?  Chime in with your call letters, or any goofy radio stories you’d like to share.

Repost: “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim”

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We ordered Chinese food the other night, and the fortune in my fortune cookie said “Never spit against the wind.”  Which made me laugh, because the first thing I thought of was this song.

I don’t really know how well Jim Croce is remembered; my barometer for his level of fame is sort of broken.  Croce is one of those artists that has always been a favorite in my family, so I grew up knowing who he was and listening to his music.  The second single I ever owned was “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”  Croce had a music hall sensibility.  His songs often told stories, sometimes sounding like something from the 1940s.  But then he could turn around and pen the template for the quintessential 70s love song (“Time In a Bottle”).  He wore a lot of musical hats for someone who died at 30.

“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” is one of his story songs, full of the same kind of unsavory characters that made “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” such a success about a year later.  The plot is that a “pool shootin’ son of a gun”  named Big Jim Walker has cheated an Alabama man named Willie McCoy, “Last week he took all my money, and it may sound funny, but I come to get my money back.”  Everyone warns him that Big Jim is not someone to tangle with.  “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind.  You don’t pull the mask of that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with Jim.”  When Jim arrives, he is beaten, stabbed, and shot by Willie, who importantly goes by Slim.  Because at the end of the song, “you don’t mess around with Slim.”

These days, a tune with this subject matter and level of violence would be a rap song (and probably be more graphic and explicit).  It would probably raise the ire of some conservative parents group who would claim that children would be psychologically damaged if they heard this song.  The album would surely be labelled with a warning sticker.  It certainly wouldn’t get played on the radio.  In 1972, this made the Top Ten of the mainstream singles chart.  Times have indeed changed.

Looking back, there’s a lot of songs I knew all the words to when I was still in single digits that media watchdogs would be shocked about.  I mean, I remember sitting in the back of my aunt’s 1969 Duster (on top of the lowered back seat, no child safety restraints of any sort) singing “The Gambler” at the top of my lungs.  I had “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” memorized when I was four.  Of course, I had precious little comprehension of any of these lyrics.  “Afternoon Delight”?  That was just a fun song about fireworks as far as I was concerned.  I thought the razor kept in Leroy’s shoe was like the plastic kind my daddy shaved with.  I’m sure I asked the occasional uncomfortable question about the things I heard, but for the most part I was kind of oblivious.

I think most kids are kind of oblivious to things like that.  If they don’t understand it, they ask questions or they automatically translate it into something they understand.  Which makes me even more annoyed at the level of censorship I hear on broadcast radio these days.  A few years ago, around the time of the famous Wardrobe Malfunction, everyone became deathly afraid of the FCC and groups like Focus on the Family.  Radio especially began self-censoring to avoid even the slightest hint of something that might be offensive.  Suddenly, songs began getting cuss words stripped out.  Other songs, such as “Walk on the Wild Side,” which used to be relegated to the early morning hours got banned altogether.  (Funny story: Long before any of this, I heard “Walk on the Wild Side” on K-Earth 101, and to keep their wholesome image intact, they edited out the verse about Candy.  Never mind the transvestite, the overdosing junkie, or the male prostitute.  Just get rid of the girl performing oral sex.)  It’s one of the reasons I’m really starting to like satellite radio.  I can hear Roger Daltry ask “Who the fuck are you?”  I can hear about all the degeneracy of Lou Reed’s New York nightlife.  And I can hear about how Big Jim Walker got murdered by some guy named Slim.  And I don’t have to worry about anyone imposing their morality on me.

And once again, a song has taken me somewhere I didn’t expect to go.  And that’s just another reason why I love music so much.

“Come a Long Way”

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Fifteen or so years ago, L.A. had a radio station I liked.  Well, that’s an understatement.  My radio dial never, ever left 101.9, KSCA.  I’d heard about them when they were new, so I checked it out.  They played John Hiatt.  They played The Band (I heard “Chest Fever” once; I was stunned).  They played Elvis Costello, for crying out loud!  No one plays Elvis Costello (which is completely inexplicable to me).  I felt like I had found a home on the FM dial for the first time since KMET died (RIP).  I tried to listen from 7 to 11 PM, because that’s when Mama Mia was on.  Mia (I can’t remember her last name, sorry) was the DJ that shift, and she was called Mama Mia because she would often bring her baby daughter to the studio with her.  If you listened carefully, you could sometimes hear the baby playing while Mia did her patter.  Dr. Demento moved there for a while.  It was without a doubt the most awesome radio station ever.

And then it went off the air.  Everyone knew it was coming; the format change was announced a few weeks beforehand. (101.9 became, and still is, a Mexican station.)  On their last night on the air, they got as many of the staff and DJs as they could on the air to say thanks to all their loyal listeners.  The GM even compared them to WKRP in Cincinnati, that’s how much like a family they seemed.  Then they played their last song.

Michelle Shocked’s loving tribute to L.A. was the best song they could have chosen.  Nothing else I’ve heard has ever captured the diversity, the beauty, the sheer weirdness of Los Angeles and its surrounding communities.  And that’s the kind of thing KSCA always tried to capture.  They were a radio station in a town that has multiple personalities, and they tried to reflect that sort of cultural schizophrenia.  They played what was (and still is) called “Adult Alternative” music.  I don’t know what that means, I just know a significant portion of the artists and musicians I listen to fall under that format.  KSCA represented what might have been the last gasp of original programming and freedom in commercial broadcast radio.  There’s still a little glimmer occasionally, like 100.3 The Sound right now, but a free radio station that decides what to play without a corporate master list is pretty much a memory in SoCal.

So this song, a song about freedom and joy and a place that really doesn’t exist anywhere else, was the perfect way to say goodbye.*

 

 

 

*After the song ended, there was a really long pause, during which I wiped my tears away, I suddenly heard a very familiar guitar chord.

Now that’s the way to end something.

“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”

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I don’t really know how well Jim Croce is remembered; my barometer for his level of fame is sort of broken.  Croce is one of those artists that has always been a favorite in my family, so I grew up knowing who he was and listening to his music.  The second single I ever owned was “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”  Croce had a music hall sensibility.  His songs often told stories, sometimes sounding like something from the 1940s.  But then he could turn around and pen the template for the quintessential 70s love song (“Time In a Bottle”).  He wore a lot of musical hats for someone who died at 30.

“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” is one of his story songs, full of the same kind of unsavory characters that made “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” such a success about a year later.  The plot is that a “pool shootin’ son of a gun”  named Big Jim Walker has cheated an Alabama man named Willie McCoy, “Last week he took all my money, and it may sound funny, but I come to get my money back.”  Everyone warns him that Big Jim is not someone to tangle with.  “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind.  You don’t pull the mask of that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with Jim.”  When Jim arrives, he is beaten, stabbed, and shot by Willie, who importantly goes by Slim.  Because at the end of the song, “you don’t mess around with Slim.”

These days, a tune with this subject matter and level of violence would be a rap song (and probably be more graphic and explicit).  It would probably raise the ire of some conservative parents group who would claim that children would be psychologically damaged if they heard this song.  The album would surely be labelled with a warning sticker.  It certainly wouldn’t get played on the radio.  In 1972, this made the Top Ten of the mainstream singles chart.  Times have indeed changed.

Looking back, there’s a lot of songs I knew all the words to when I was still in single digits that media watchdogs would be shocked about.  I mean, I remember sitting in the back of my aunt’s 1969 Duster (on top of the lowered back seat, no child safety restraints of any sort) singing “The Gambler” at the top of my lungs.  I had “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” memorized when I was four.  Of course, I had precious little comprehension of any of these lyrics.  “Afternoon Delight”?  That was just a fun song about fireworks as far as I was concerned.  I thought the razor kept in Leroy’s shoe was like the plastic kind my daddy shaved with.  I’m sure I asked the occasional uncomfortable question about the things I heard, but for the most part I was kind of oblivious.

I think most kids are kind of oblivious to things like that.  If they don’t understand it, they ask questions or they automatically translate it into something they understand.  Which makes me even more annoyed at the level of censorship I hear on broadcast radio these days.  A few years ago, around the time of the famous Wardrobe Malfunction, everyone became deathly afraid of the FCC and groups like Focus on the Family.  Radio especially began self-censoring to avoid even the slightest hint of something that might be offensive.  Suddenly, songs began getting cuss words stripped out.  Other songs, such as “Walk on the Wild Side,” which used to be relegated to the early morning hours got banned altogether.  (Funny story: Long before any of this, I heard “Walk on the Wild Side” on K-Earth 101, and to keep their wholesome image intact, they edited out the verse about Candy.  Never mind the transvestite, the overdosing junkie, or the male prostitute.  Just get rid of the girl performing oral sex.)  It’s one of the reasons I’m really starting to like satellite radio.  I can hear Roger Daltry ask “Who the fuck are you?”  I can hear about all the degeneracy of Lou Reed’s New York nightlife.  And I can hear about how Big Jim Walker got murdered by some guy named Slim.  And I don’t have to worry about anyone imposing their morality on me.

And once again, a song has taken me somewhere I didn’t expect to go.  And that’s just another reason why I love music so much.