Lots about radio has changed since I got into it. One thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of the morning show. If your station hasn’t got a good one, it rarely matters what you do the rest of the day—you’re never going to be a truly great station without one.
In college, I did mornings a day or two per week for several semesters. Even there, the importance of the shift was magnified—you didn’t get to do mornings until you’d gained experience on other shifts (a rule that was waived for my first time ever on the air, 35 years ago next month, when the guy in charge of the jocks had a final exam and really really needed the morning off). Much of the time, I had a partner. I was a younger version of the doofus I am today; Gary possessed a quick but often obscure wit. The best bit we did involved fake traffic reports. Gary would write absurd scripts about traffic in the rural hamlets of our area (“If you’re going to the Packer game in Dickeyville this Sunday, watch out for backups on the Rewey Bypass”), and I’d stand behind him beating my hands on my chest to make a helicopter sound. After we spent a semester fooling around together, several other morning teams materialized, and I think we both felt like they’d stolen our idea.
(Gary is still on the radio in the morning, a longtime anchor at South Dakota Public Radio. They don’t have a helicopter, either.)
After I started working part-time at KDTH, I would occasionally get called to fill in on the morning show. The show had practically no music, was crowded with different features, and had tons of commercials. Everything had to happen on time, every time. With the regular guy, it all happened instinctively. I struggled through it, partly because I was 21 years old and pretty much an idiot, but I also because received practically no instruction in how to do it, and I couldn’t depend on much help from my colleagues, who had detailed and exacting work of their own to worry about. As a result, I hated mornings passionately. After I spent about 18 months working full-time on the afternoon show, the morning guy was named PD and wanted off the show. The station offered it to me. I knew how difficult it was (and that I was going to be micromanaged once I took it over), so I asked how much additional money there was going to be. After being told there would be none and saying thanks-but-no-thanks, I got fired.
I never wanted to be a full-time morning guy anyhow. (I wanted to be a lumberjack.) When I started out, afternoon drive was considered nearly as important as mornings, plus you didn’t have to get up so damn early. But in mid-80s Illinois, I did mornings for about a year, during which I became an extremely minor local celebrity. The news guy and I did what we felt was good work, albeit uncoached, and probably not half as funny as we thought. In small-town early 90s Iowa, I filled in on the morning show occasionally. Because I had a long commute, my alarm would go off at 3:15 on those mornings. When that gig ended, it would be over a decade before I got the early call again. Toward the end of 93.1 The Lake, I got to fill in a few times when one of the morning guys was on vacation.
Within the last year, I’ve been filling in occasionally on the Magic 98 morning show, which I’m doing again this week. Magic’s legacy includes that of Clyde Coffee, who pulled something like a 70 percent share of the audience doing mornings on the old WISM back in the 70s. Pat O’Neill has done the show with great success since the 80s, so stepping into his place is a certain degree of daunting, but it’s fun. And I don’t have to get up until 4:15, so it’s all good.
I think I can remember watching the Kennedy assassination drama on TV 50 years ago this weekend. I was three. While I’m sure my parents had the TV on all weekend like everybody else in America, I can’t be entirely sure that the image of a coffin on a bier in a funeral procession isn’t from a later time, from watching the now-iconic footage we’re all watching again this weekend.
(Whether I was watching or not, I grew up thinking about the events of November 22, 1963. Within weeks, the Associated Press published The Torch Is Passed, a narrative of the assassination weekend along with all the famous photos. Mom and Dad bought a copy, and I read it over and over as a kid. As I got older, I read a lot of the books postulating various assassination conspiracies, but I no longer have patience for them. That some of the more byzantine conspiracies could survive 50 years without unraveling strains credulity: Oswald did it, but we’ll never know precisely why, and I’m OK with that.)
I am looking at the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Morning Final (newsstand price: seven cents), which landed on doorsteps around Madison at breakfast time on November 22, 1963. The weather forecast on the front page is for mild weather, occasional rain, and possible thundershowers, with a high around 60. The Wisconsin legislature adjourned last night, although the governor was rumored to be considering a special session to address a controversial highway bill. A state representative was embroiled in scandal over a shady stock transaction. U2 pilot Joe Hyde of LaGrange, Georgia, was missing after wreckage of his plane was found in the Gulf of Mexico, presumably having crashed on a reconnaissance flight over Cuba. At the bottom of the front page, a story about the president’s trip to Texas mentions the catcalls he received at some stops, and his wife’s popularity.
Inside the paper, readers learn that Dave Fronek will start at quarterback for the Wisconsin Badgers in their season-ending game against Minnesota tomorrow, and injured quarterback Bart Starr could play for the Packers on Sunday against San Francisco. The high school basketball season is set to begin tonight. There are a couple of display ads urging readers to shop early for Christmas. The back pages of the paper are crowded with ads for movies (a quadruple feature at the Badger Drive In: Juvenile Jungle, Young and Wild, Unwed Mothers, and The Wayward Girl) and restaurants (lobster for $2 at Namio’s and the Tiki but just $1.75 at Nate’s Place). Those staying in tonight can look forward to episodes of Bob Hope Theater, Burke’s Law and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on TV. At 7:00, Madison radio station WISM-FM (at 98.1) will present The Stereo Demonstration Hour.
None of those things happened, with one exception: controversially, the NFL played its games as scheduled on Sunday; the Packers won 28-10 in front of 45,000 fans in Milwaukee. The Badgers were en route to Minnesota when news of the assassination broke; the game would be postponed to the next Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. Basketball games were canceled; stores, theaters, and restaurants closed; TV stations carried assassination coverage, and radio stations either reported the news or played somber music.
At breakfast, Madison had been expecting another ordinary autumn weekend. By shortly after lunchtime, the world was transformed. I quote again the single best thing ever written about the assassination, from essayist Lance Morrow, written for Time magazine on the 20th anniversary: “The real 1960s began on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 . . . . It came to seem that Kennedy’s murder opened some malign trap door in American culture, and the wild bats flapped out.”
(If you’re interested in the music on the radio 50 years ago today, click here.)
This blog’s tagline is “Our Top 40 past . . . in the present.” Many of the nearly 1,700 posts that have appeared here in nine years find us measuring the distance from there, wherever “there” is, to our current moment, here.
I was thinking about that distance earlier this week when I watched a piece of video that’s surfaced recently, apparently the earliest surviving color footage of a major-league baseball game. It’s the last two-plus innings of a game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds on August 19, 1965, a game in which Jim Maloney of the Reds threw a 10-inning no-hitter at Wrigley Field. There’s a lot to love in the video, which runs about an hour. As an old Cubs fan, I was pleased to listen to Jack Brickhouse and Lloyd Pettit again, as I did when I was a boy. The Hamms beer commercials were as delightful as I remember them—and there was only one commercial between each half-inning. The broadcast has no graphics, just a shot of Wrigley’s iconic scoreboard at the end of each half-inning. The play-by-play is incidental to the video, as Brickhouse and Pettit assume the viewer can see what’s going on, and more important, understand it. The two veteran broadcasters share play-by-play inning by inning; when one is working, the other is quiet, and there is no color commentator. The broadcast is almost soothing in its minimalism. It’s as if some guys have simply gotten up a game on a summer afternoon, and since we don’t have anything else to do, we’ll watch it.
Later the same day, I sat down to watch Monday Night Football. I don’t know if it had to do with the 1965 tape I had watched that morning, but I lasted about half-an-hour before I turned the TV off in disgust because it was wearing me out. Monday Night Football is the opposite of minimalist. It has too much of everything—too many graphics, too many commercials, too much opinion, too much presence. You can’t turn it on and leave it on as background, because it keeps elbowing itself into the foreground: did you see that, watch this, look over here, and most insufferable of all, LISTEN TO ME. Talking talking talking always talking, as if ESPN fears more than five seconds of silence will cause the whole show to turn to smoke and blow away. It’s not entertaining, it’s exhausting. And it insults us as viewers, treating us like children or pets who will only pay attention if they wave shiny stuff in our faces.
The great broadcasters of the past, both individual men and the TV partners that employed them, understood that one’s level of insight is not equal to the number of words one speaks, or how insistently one speaks them. The distance between there and here can be measured in noise, or the lack of it.
Plausibly Related: We’ll stay in distance-measuring mode for the next several years now; the Kennedy anniversary on Friday is merely the first in a half-decade of significant baby-boomer anniversaries unrolling in front of us. But what we see as milestones are not always as significant as we think they were. Similarly, they are sometimes significant in ways that are different than we think. Slate published a terrific piece this week suggesting that our perception of the Kennedy assassination and the coming of the Beatles as moments at which history broke in a different direction is a perception that wasn’t shared by people 50 years ago. Even now, both events retain a great deal of continuity with what went before, and in some ways they didn’t change a thing.
Earlier this week we spent an evening watching PBS, back-to-back documentaries on Jimi Hendrix and the Kennedy assassination. Jimi Hendrix: Hear My Train A Comin’ is definitely worth your time. JFK: One PM Central Standard Time is less essential. (After 50 years, there’s not much left to see or say about the events in Dallas, although that particular program included an interview with the guy who pulled the first bulletin off the wire at CBS.) Watching the two back-to-back, it occurred to me that popular history has not served either Jimi or JFK particularly well. Both have been reduced to a handful of symbols.
If your local classic-rock station plays anything other than “Purple Haze,” “Foxy Lady,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” it’s a rare one. Those three songs, plus Jimi lighting his guitar on fire, playing the National Anthem, and dying in London are the popular shorthand for the man’s entire life. Those, and the perception that he was a drug-addled space cadet. Even accounting for the fact that Hear My Train A Comin’ was made with the cooperation and approval of Hendrix’s sister and glosses over his drug and alcohol use and his arrest record, the film makes clear that Jimi Hendrix was a serious artist, intent on pushing his music further and further, in a way that reminds me of John Coltrane. His growth as an artist over two years is pretty impressive; what struck me the other night is how much he improved as a singer—compare “Dolly Dagger” to anything on Are You Experienced?, for an example.
For JFK, it’s “ask not what your country can do for you,” Camelot, “ich bin ein Berliner,” Cuban Missile Crisis, hot wife, Marilyn Monroe, murdered in Dallas. The reality of him is far more subtle. His actions as president were often constrained by the knowledge that he’d just barely won in 1960—he’s said to have carried in his pocket a piece of paper with the number of votes by which he’d prevailed—and by anticipation of a tough reelection fight in 1964. He was slow on civil rights because he did not want to alienate Southerners. He bungled his early foreign policy maneuvers out of inexperience, yet in the most severe crisis of his presidency, he found precisely the right combination of firmness and flexibility to keep the missiles of October from igniting World War III. (And not just during October; it’s a popular misconception that the Cuban Missile Crisis ended neatly on October 28, 1962, but diplomatic maneuvers continued for months afterward, with great concern that the situation might flare again.) We’ll never know how we would have handled the escalating war in Vietnam, whether it would have swallowed him whole like it did LBJ, or if he’d have found a way to finesse it just as he finessed the Russians over Cuba. And then he went to Dallas.
But Kennedy-as-symbol is pretty important, too. Although he didn’t live to see the baby boomers take over the world, he was their avatar. The vast cultural changes that were unleashed in the years following his death were all implicit in his rise. Not only were the 1950s over, so was the dominance of people born in the 19th century, as JFK himself noted in his inaugural address.
It seems to me that we mourn Kennedy’s potential less than we used to. Fifty years of spiraling weirdness will do that. As for the potential of Hendrix, it would take a smarter person, one more versed in Jimi’s work than I am, to tell you what a Hendrix album of 1976, 1989, or 2001 might have sounded like. If he had continued to push the boundaries of his work, it’s possible that he may have ended up where Coltrane did—critically acclaimed, but also in a place where some former fans could not follow. That didn’t happen, however, and so we’re left with Hendrix-as-symbol: a man who took a handful of mid-century musical forms (blues, R&B, rock) and synthesized them into something new, a signal of the vast remix American culture would eventually become.
Your opinions and/or speculations about Jimi and JFK are welcome below.
When they call the roll of famous pop-culture events of the 1960s, there’s one that never makes the list, despite the fact that it’s extremely well-remembered by those who were there.
Just after 5:00 in the afternoon on November 9, 1965, lights dimmed all over New York City and then went out. The cause of the problem was apparently human error, although conspiracy theorists love the idea that there were several UFO sightings in Pennsylvania and New York just as the lights went out. The blackout eventually spread to all of New England and into Canada, as well as affecting upstate New York and New Jersey. About 30 million people were affected, although some parts of the region, including some neighborhoods in the New York City area itself, did not lose power.
The blackout knocked New York’s television stations off the air for the night. It was left to the city’s radio stations to report on the event. Most stations were able to get their transmitters back on the air using backup power within half-an-hour. (Thanks to its backup generator, WCBS was off the air for only about 15 seconds.) Backup electricity was used mostly to power transmitters, however—the stations themselves were lit by candles and flashlights so the work could go on. An enormous full moon also helped light the scene.
The Rolling Stones were in New York that night, one week into their fourth American tour, enjoying some downtime between a two-show day in Newark on the 7th and a show in Raleigh, North Carolina, scheduled for the 10th. During their stay in the city, Brian Jones had spent some time in a recording studio with Bob Dylan and Wilson Pickett. (Jones was the only member of the Stones to hit it off with Dylan, and was allegedly offered a spot in Dylan’s band, which he turned down.) On the night of the 9th, undaunted by the blackout, Jones threw a party in a suite at the Lincoln Square Motor Inn. Dylan is said to have remarked as he arrived, “It’s an invasion from Mars! Let’s turn on. What better time? The little green men have landed.” Also on hand that night were Dylan’s friend and collaborator Bobby Neuwirth and Robbie Robertson of the Band. Before the night was over, the four musicians jammed by candlelight. Fellow Stone Bill Wyman later nicknamed it “the lost jam.”
(Many rock history websites claim that the Stones were appearing on the TV show Shindig! that night, but that’s incorrect. The Shindig! appearance, on tape, had been broadcast three days earlier.)
Normal power was restored to the blacked-out areas by early morning on November 10, but it wouldn’t be the last time the Northeast was blacked out. On July 13 and 14, 1977, New York City was crippled by a localized blackout, resulting in looting and arson across the city. The blackout is critical to the storyline of the Spike Lee film Summer of Sam. (The 1965 blackout also inspired a movie, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, released in 1968 and starrring Doris Day and Robert Morse, now playing Bert Cooper on Mad Men.) On August 14, 2003, the Northeast was hit by yet another blackout. An estimated 55 million people in the United States and Canada were affected. But neither of those later blackouts captured the imagination of Americans quite like the blackout of 1965.
(From my WNEW.com archives.)
(Edit and extra info added below.)
In the middle of the 70s, I nearly wore out a copy of Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, and was forever borrowing my brother’s copy of Brain Salad Surgery. In 1977, when ELP released their first new album in four years, Works Volume 1, I snapped that sucker up but quick.
In a decade full of them, Works was one of the great displays of rock ‘n’ roll hubris. The album first: a sprawling, self-indulgent double-disc set with a black cover bearing only the band’s name and logo and the title, and one side per band member. Keith Emerson provided a straight piano concerto that underwhelmed classical music aficionados as much as it underwhelmed me. Greg Lake provided a half-dozen vocals, some pretty solid, but most nearly swamped by orchestra arrangements. Carl Palmer was all over the place, from a Bach adaptation to a rock number with Joe Walsh on guitar. The fourth side was closest to standard ELP: an overlong “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Pirates,” which is about pirates.
Hubris part 2: the Works tour. When it began in May 1977, the traveling entourage was made up of 130 people, including 75 musicians and singers—and it ran into trouble almost immediately. The union members among the musicians couldn’t be required to travel more than 250 miles per day or play more than three shows a week. The band was paying $150,000 a week in payroll on top of what it cost to travel, and the cost soon became prohibitive. It wasn’t long before orchestra members started getting pink-slipped, a few at a time. I don’t remember how many were in the orchestra by the time the tour hit Madison on June 9. It was the first rock concert I’d ever attended, and I would have been impressed by a half-dozen. As it turned out, the Madison show was one of the last with any orchestra at all. After an orchestra show in the Twin Cities on the 11th, shows in
Des Moines and Terre Haute, Indiana, went on without the orchestra; a gig on the 18th in Evansville, Indiana, was the last orchestra show, apart from a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden in New York about three weeks later, and a late-August show in Montreal that was recorded for the Works Live album and a concert film.
(Morning-after update: In my library, I found a bootleg of the Des Moines show, and the orchestra is on it. My bad.)
If you lived in the Upper Midwest, there was no missing ELP that summer and fall. In June, they’d played both Chicago and Milwaukee (topping all-day outdoor festivals) the weekend before they played Madison, and they played Milwaukee as a trio in August. Thirty-six years ago this week, on November 8, 1977, they returned to the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, and I was there again. Tickets were a dollar more expensive this time—$8.50 instead of $7.50—and they had an opening act, singer/songwriter Shawn Phillips. But ELP themselves played for well over three hours, if I’m recalling correctly, and my friends and I were pretty happy with the experience.
Our generation does not necessarily put away childish things, but I put away Emerson Lake and Palmer when I got to college. It was sometime in the 90s before I dragged out those old albums and listened to them again. What I found was that the stuff I liked the best when I was 17—serious prog-rock like “Tarkus” and “Karn Evil 9″—had not worn well at all. But several shorter songs held up nicely for me—and remarkably, two of them are from Works. “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight” is either utterly ridiculous (“you will become my meteor / divine and universal whore”) or utterly fantastic. Either way, it’s the sort of thing only Greg Lake could pull off, and only with a big whompin’ orchestra behind him. Conversely, I’d like to hear “Closer to Believing” with a simpler arrangement (along the lines of “Watching Over You,” which appears on Works Volume 2, a collection of scraps, albeit very good scraps, released the same week they played Madison the second time), but the song is good enough to survive any attempt to drown it in orchestral pomp. It might be the single best thing ever under the ELP brand, even if Emerson and Palmer aren’t on it. It’s a song I can listen to several times in a row without wanting to hear something else, and there are precious few of those.
When the Works tour reached its end in early 1978, Emerson Lake and Palmer were close to theirs. At the end of the year, they released the contractual obligation album Love Beach, did not tour behind it, and split up—at least until their inevitable reformation in 1992.