Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Message is the Medium (Apologies to MM)

Sometimes it really is about how you got there, what got you there and when it happened, rather than where you ended up (which was pretty much always a forgone conclusion anyway). The why will have to wait for another day (if it isn’t already self evident)

I startled my parents (and brother and sister) when I was a wee lad (5 or 6?) and performed an impromptu cover of “Joy to the World” (bullfrog baby, bullfrog) on the way back from church (seriously, I thought it was a hymn and I was just spreading the good word) I knew those lyrics inside out (hmmm, might have to dig out some three dog night and see if I still have it down) and my performance was…sincere to say the least. Words might not save you, but melody will always carry you. So began my affair with pop music.

My first grade teacher (Mrs. Hazen) was responsible for that Three Dog Night outburst. She would play pop music for us in class, for which I am eternally grateful. Now some might say she played records just to shut us up for 3 minutes and 10 seconds, but I don’t think it’s about that at all. I think she loved pop music and wanted to share her joy with all of us. I have very distinct memories of hearing Sing (this came back with a vengeance in second grade), Black and White and Clouds at various times during first grade. She even handed us printouts of the lyrics to Clouds and asked us what we thought the lyrics meant. Music Appreciation indeed. A little bit over our heads, but this is where the foundation was laid.

Car radios were the primary medium in those early days. We got on the bus at 7.15 in the morning and had a 45 minute ride to school. Ed, the bus driver, was a pretty cool guy and would play Z-100 for us (even though I’m sure he preferred to listen to the country station). 45 minutes was tons of time to get my music fix in before school. The bus ride was a staple of my musical education. An hour once a day (45 minutes in the morning, 15 at night) 5 days a week, for 10 years (I pretty much drove myself to school all the time by junior and senior years) adds up. Plus all the football games (junior high at least) and track meets (one time we had a broken radio and dietrich earnhart and I sang whatever pop songs we could think of for the entire ride….apologies to all). By the time I was in forth or fifth grade I was begging Ed to switch it up with the stations, and of course, I was always begging him to TURN IT UP, OK THAT’S GREAT! I really loved it when he’d get a new bus with nifty new stereo speakers sprinkled throught. (I always sat below the left side speaker, 2/3s of the way to the back of the bus, and I sang along with every song that I liked, while I read whatever book (and there always was a book, that had caught my fancy)

Plus, once I figured out there was more than Dolly Parton and Conway Twitty, I’d lobby my folks for a pop radio station whenever we’d get in the car. Success rate about 50%, but I think that had more to do with my mom (pop) and my dad (country) than any burgeoning lobbying skills.

It didn’t take long for my parents to realize I had a serious jones for music. I got a cool am clock radio for Christmas when I was 7 or 8. I think that radio was my best friend until I turned 18 (not sure if that’s sad, funny, sweet or true) and I really got a lot of use out of that. I spent a lot of time in my room with that radio, listening to music, baseball and whatever kinds of signals would gap across the ether. At least once or twice a week, Joe would whip a pillow at me and tell me to turn that damn thing down as I lay in bed late and night listening to the radio under the covers. I dropped it once (probably more than once) and it got a crack from the alarm nob below the clockface halfway up the clock. I don’t really name things, but I always thought of that radio as “lightning” because of that (it also had a white casing.

The clock radio was superceded (but I always loved that clock radio) by a ginormous console stereo that Fr. Krubel gave to me when I was 12 or so (well…probably gave to my mom and dad, but they passed it on to me. I shared a room (a small bedroom) with my brother and moving that console into my half next to my bed gave me exactly one foot by eight feet of free space (talk about intensive farming). But I wouldn’t have given that up for anything because you see, not only did it have FM radio (which I was pretty indifferent to at this point) but it had a TURNTABLE! Now sure, the parents had a console downstairs and we could play records (my mom had a lot of herb alpert and a bunch of other records that we wouldn’t be caught dead playing…although I used to play Rose Garden compulsively) and we did play records down there (my sister had a friend whose dad stocked jukeboxes and she would pass on the “retired” 45s to my sister, who would then pass them onto me---although I’d get so frustrated with the scratchy sound that I’d flip the single over and play the b-sides……so now you know where my b sides obsession comes from) But the console was in the living room, so it’s not like I could could just play records any old time I wanted (not that I had any records at this point anyway).

I loved that console. It had a crappy needle cartridge that only played out of one channel (I brian wilsoned my way to college, “discovering” real stereo when I bought a walkman at the end of freshman year), it buzzed like a band saw, and it raised the temperature of our bedroom by about 20 degrees (great in winter when it was frosty upstairs, yet another reason for my brother to throw a pillow at me in summer.) Once I started buying records (thank you K-mart, Columbia house record and tape club and those mind blowing annual pilgrimages to Trucker’s Union in Eau Claire during the Yearbook conference in high school), I couldn’t wait to finish eating, chores and milking so I could get upstairs, fold myself into my little one foot width between bed and console and stick my ear into that left channel speaker (I had to keep it down so my family watching tv downstairs wouldn’t be disturbed.) and listened to music for hours on end (ya, I was an anti social cuss even then). Eventually, I got ambitious (stupid) and started messing around with the wiring in the console and figured out how to flip the channels so I could to the right channel speaker (mono) at the same time. I even messed around with the cartridge enough to sometimes get stereo, but I was so flakey, I could never listen that long. I even figured out how to plug my walkman into that behemoth. Great fun. (I really should have been an engineer). I think at some point, long after I had quit using it (I never went back once I figured out REAL stereo) my mom gutted it and used it to store quilts. No regrets, that baby served me well.

I wasn’t completely tied land locked by radio either. Somewhere in early high school I got a pair of radio headphones. Now I was mobile (much appreciated for the Saturday America’s top 40 countdown) and could listen on the tractor, out in the yard, even when I was out on the roads biking (seriously I am amazed I am still alive for all the times I was out biking on the highway totally oblivious to the traffic around me.) I imagine I was quite the sight with those on. Huge earphones over both ears with a pretty damn big strap across the top (so THAT’s where all my hair went). And of course, I sang along to every song (that I liked) especially on the tractor or when I was out riding bike. (my grandpa came tearing out into a back farm field once when I was cultivating corn because he thought I was shouting for help. That isn’t the only time something like that happened. Just sayin’)

The aforementioned Z-100 (WBIZ) was an ok radio station. It was FM, it was out of Eau Claire (so the signal was fine) and it played some pretty good music. Weirdly though, it didn’t have disc jockeys and was a very strict format. You could pretty much turn on the radio at 7.35 and be sure that you were going to get a song that was new to the charts. Likewise, after that, you’d get kind of an oldie (a year old for sure), then commercial, then weather, then some weird canned promo, then a top ten hit. Looking back, I realized it was probably just a programmed station, but I think I kind of appreciated the predictability of it. Z-100 was radio station of choice in my grade school. In fifth grade, we’d even get to listen to the radio during recess on those rainy/snow/crappy/cold days when no one wanted to go outside.

By the time, I was in junior high, I was a strict Z-100 hater. I’m sure this was in part because my older brother always wanted to listen to that in the barn at night when we were milking and neither one of us could stand to give in to what the other wanted. But it was also because the format hadn’t changed in years and I preferred the other FM option, I-94 (WIAL) that played a little more poppy songs and less of the Kansas, journey, styx stuff Z-100 had gravitated towards (although their playlists overlapped 85% I’m sure). Shortly after I graduated high school, my brother became a big fan of I-94 and listened to it all the time. (I think he secretly hated Z-100, but because I was opposed to it, he had to like it)

Every once and a while we’d compromise on WMEQ (93.4?) out of menomonie, but I was never that much of a fan of that radio station. Although at least they were a local call, so I could call in requests, which was kinda fun. (another time DE and I decided we were going to make a hit of an album track off a Barry Manilow album (even now…btw, album track on a barry manilow album? I can see you shaking your head in dismay now) Needless to say, our careers as promo guys didn’t go very far. But WMEQ was more than happy to play “Somewhere in the Night” for us.

Thing is for the first 10 years of my radio listening career, I didn’t really even care about FM and stereo. I was all about the AM and one particular radio station, WEAQ, AM 790. As much as Mrs. Hazen built me a foundation, WEAQ let me build the house. And a grand and glorious house I built. This was such a great station and I have such fond memories of listening to it. (Interestingly enough, the signal overlapped with WLS out of Chicago and sometimes when I was listening at night, I’d get one or the other and didn’t usually know the difference until I’d suddenly start hearing this different DJ talking about the lake and traffic and stuff) They played the perfect mix of top 40 70s hits (imagine Have a Nice Day crossed with Didn’t It Blow Your Mind). With a few exceptions (“Heaven on the 7th Floor” for one) they pretty much played every top 40 hit from the 70’s, and more than a few that just bubbled under. There were no format divides, no snobbery, no genre distinctions. They played it all, throw it in the bowl, toss it a couple times and play it. Leo Sayer, Eagles, Deep Purple, O’Jays, Sly and the Family Stone, Joni Mitchell, Pilot, my beloved band Babyface (What? They are from Eau Claire????? But I love this song!); it goes on and on into obscurity. I’m smiling as I type this. But it really was a joy.I got goosebumps the first time I heard “Undercover Angel” (omigod, that’s kinda me) on the station and listened every day at the same time just waiting to hear it again (Z-100 conditioned me to that)

I lived on a little farm, 5 miles outside of a little town and I didn’t know anything about anything (might still not). So, WEAQ was more than a radio station to me, it was my link to a world beyond; to something else undefined, to potential, to possibilities. I was exposed to race and politics and history through song. I saw the world through the lens of a 3.05 pop song and even though I knew it was just a song, all I needed was a glimpse of another world to know that it was there. Songs became clues and I’d have to know what something meant (Black and White was my introduction to race…I was dumbfounded by slavery….but secretly sympathized with the plight of the black man, because I had to work on a farm for no wages). I can’t tell you how many times I heard a song on the radio in those early days and I’d be scouring the newspapers and watching tv to figure out what it was all about. (“four dead in OHIO?” what? How can the government let this happen????) Everything was fodder for me “Different Drum”, “Lonely Boy”, even “Put Your Hand in the Hand”; they all expanded my emotional and intellectual palette beyond the abilities of the limited environment in which I was raised. And I believed, ya know? The strength, peace, love and understanding of the (hippie hangover) music of 70’s wasn’t just tripe to me. They weren’t just pop songs, they were messages from a greater philosophy that I heard and integrated into me (kinda like some kid in college who gets high off the existence of existentialism). I subscribed 100%, and created a world view out of it that I still carry with me today.

WEAQ even had their own top 30 list, given out for free at all the local 7-11s in Eau Claire. Oh, that was a treasured article, when I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of those. Just to hold that little card in my hand and read off those song titles and artists. And sometime there’s even be a song/artist that I hadn’t heard and oh my did I have a holy grail to uncover. I’ll admit to being a little chart obsessed about my favorite songs (“How can Tycoon NOT be top ten locally?”) but I never took it too personally. I would dearly love to have just one of those cards in my little hands again. There was powerful magic locked up in those little cards.

While I’m on the subject of wishes, I’d also really like one of my old elementary school notebook back covers, where I’d make up what I thought were all kinds of witty one liners using pop song titles. Just kind curious to see if they were as good as I remember them being. I really ought to dig through the attic at the farm and see if I stashed one somewhere. They were always a big hit with the girls. Yes, big magic in that pop music stuff.

And I can’t forget to mention; WEAQ had casey kasem’s top forty. Talking about the top forty could be an entry in and of itself. Suffice it to say, many are the Saturday afternoons I spent counting down with casey and reaching for the stars with my feet on the ground. Listening in the on the barn radio, curled around my little am radio up in my bedroom, on pickup radios when we were out in the fields (always missing that ONE song I wanted to hear because I had to do something and getting stuck hearing Rex Smith AGAIN), comparing notes with Shelley C Monday morning once we both realized we both listened to the countdown and wrote down the list, just in case we missed something. For as much as I loved the countdown, it was the eventual demise of WEAQ, because it eventually moved to the FM stations (I 94) and just like that, WEAQ ceased to exist as it had (format change). I followed to I 94 (thereby setting up 4 years of barn fights with my older brother) but only reluctantly.

I never really listened to radio quite the same way after that. Sadly, I don’t have a favorite station today. There’s a radio in my car, but I feel like its only on as a last resort. I occasionally listen to the Current, but I usually have to turn it off after a couple songs or when the DJs talk, whichever comes first. For all the glowing eulogies, I never really got into Rev 105, I know, I know…I’m a heathen. In fact, I don’t think I’ve really listened to radio since I went off to college. It seemed like every person I met in college was their own radio station, on all the time and broadcast on every band. Who needed the airwaves, when I could just pop into a dorm room and have a universe of music unfold before me. New bands, new genres, so many ideas, something all the time and now I could see bands LIVE. Twin cities radio just couldn’t compete with that (and we got terrible reception in the dorms anyway). Twin cities radio still can’t compete with that.

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