The Lives We Led

The house was built in 1939. Although it stands out a little bit from the others on the block thanks to its stucco exterior, flat roof, and distinctive shade of grayish blue paint, it fits the neighborhood. There’s a kitchen, bathroom, dining room, and living room with a fireplace downstairs, and three bedrooms upstairs. It’s the sort of place where a local businessman and his wife—let’s say, for example, that he owns a furniture-and-appliance showroom and she clerks in a department store—would raise their kids and be happy doing so. It’s not perfect; it’s located on a busy street, and the grade school is several blocks away (although the high school is much, much closer). But a young Minnesota family of the 1940s and 50s would not be so bold as to expect perfection.

This is not just any random house, of course. Although it is long since out of the family, 2425 7th Avenue East in Hibbing, Minnesota, was once the home of Abe and Beatty Zimmerman. They bought it in 1948 after moving from Duluth with their two sons, Robert and David.

The ambivalent relationship between Hibbing and its most famous son, the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman, has been well-chronicled over the years. In 1965 he famously said, “I knew I had to get out of there and not come back.” When he returned for his 10-year class reunion in 1969 as one of the most famous people in the world, he and his wife left early after a few of his classmates told him they disapproved of his presence. (He was invited to his 50th reunion in 2009 but didn’t attend.) Today, the local public library has put together a walking tour of Dylan landmarks and has an exhibit of memorabilia, but there’s no historical marker, no statue, no annual Dylan festival, no businesses borrowing his name (although there used to be a bar called Zimmy’s.) If you didn’t already know Bob Dylan was from Hibbing, it wouldn’t be obvious from visiting. —although in recent years a small “Bob Dylan Drive” sign has been posted on the 25th Street side of the former Zimmerman house, and a local group is working to find an appropriate way to honor him. Attitudes have changed in a half-century, but when young Bob Dylan was ready to leave Hibbing, Hibbing was ready to have him gone.

As I parked across the street to snap my picture of Dylan’s childhood home, I couldn’t help thinking about my own. My parents moved into their house in 1959, shortly after they got married. They’re still there, so I can return anytime I want. I can still sleep in my old bedroom, eat in the same kitchen, noodle with the piano I learned on. If you were to ask me where my home is—and if you wanted the truest possible answer—I would tell you that it’s there, on Melvin Road, even though I have had 10 different addresses since I moved away in 1980, and I’ve been at my current one nearly as long as I lived with Mother and Dad. It is the place that most strongly reminds me who I am and what I am supposed to be.

Despite what he said in 1965, Bob Dylan has been back to Hibbing a few times over the years, reportedly going incognito. But whether or not we actually return to the places we remember, we never entirely shake the lives we led there. Hibbing aside, Minnesota is still very much a part of Bob Dylan—he once gave an interview in which he talked about the influence of his home state, and he has owned a farm just west of the Twin Cities for over 40 years. The places that call to each of us—the places that help define who we are and what we value—needn’t be old addresses. Yours might be a school, a workplace, a city you visited, or the site of some formative or life-altering experience. Each of us knows where our places are, on the map and in the heart.



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A few years ago a radio talent coach told me, “You sound like you have a purpose in mind every time you open the microphone,” which is one of the higher compliments I have ever received.

A lot of radio jocks talk because they have 11 seconds over the introduction of a song or because they’re supposed to read a promo before the commercial break, and not because they have something in particular that they want to accomplish. And there is a difference. You hear it up and down the dial: jock cracks the microphone, gives the call letters, and starts talking, but you hear the gears grinding as he gropes for the next thought, unsure of precisely where he’s going, hopeful that he’ll find his way to a logical end-point. Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t, and as a listener, you get the same sick feeling you might get from watching a wobbly high-wire walker. Is he gonna make it? I don’t think he’s gonna make it! 

(This isn’t just a small-market phenomenon. You hear it in the majors, too.)

If you’re gonna speak to people on the radio, it’s absolutely vital to know where you’re going, always, and how to make sure you get there—every time you speak.

When I started working for our company’s country station in 2010, it was programmed by John Sebastian. Before he left it all behind for a career in voice work, John was one of the radio industry’s great program directors, at legendary stations in major markets across the country, the kind of guy emulated by young programmers such as I used to be. Before I joined his station, all I heard from my colleagues in the building was how tough John was on his jocks. He told them to turn off the autopilot, which most radio stations use to play music and commercials even when a live jock is on the air, and pay attention to segues and transitions. He insisted they script every break and rehearse it before they did it on the air. He coached them on how to pronounce the call letters—something most jocks unthinkingly spit out at the start of a break. And he wasn’t shy about coming into the studio and talking to them about what they’d just done, or hadn’t done.

But I wanted to work for him anyway. Among the things I learned was that nobody cares about the craft of being a radio jock quite as much as John, and it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.

(I have since become a big believer in scripting. It does more than just ensure you say the words right; it ensures that you say the right words.)

I surf the radio dial while I travel, and there’s a lot of poor craftsmanship out there. Jocks with no purpose other than to fill time, often with crutches, clichés, or meaningless bits. (Trust me: nobody cares about the weekend box office or whatever the Kardashians are up to.) Breaks that exist to massage egos—of jocks, of stations, of sponsors—without offering anything to the listener. People with beautiful voices who have nothing to say.

(Implicit in the rise of voicetracking was the promise that small-market stations could sound like they had major-market talent. What a lot of them end up with is the same meaningless blather they got from their hometown talent, delivered by better pipes.)

I am conscious of the fact that I, an insignificant part-time jock in a medium-sized city, can do very little to counteract these trends. Except to make sure that I continue to have a purpose in mind every time I turn on the microphone.

Plausibly Related: Even when a station runs jockless, it can still suffer from poor craftsmanship, or a hazy sense of purpose. Traveling in northern Minnesota, I listened to a station that positioned itself as “Adult Standards 930.” Right away there’s a problem: adult standards is a phrase that has a clear meaning to radio people but not to the audience. Then, the very first song I heard was “Those Shoes” by the Eagles, an album cut from The Long Run. Order was seemingly restored after that with songs by Bread, Tom Jones, and other identifiably “adult” acts and “standard” songs, going as far back as the pre-rock 50s with “Cross Over the Bridge” by Patti Page.

But that Eagles song stayed with me. What were they thinking? Also heard in the hour I listened: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Andy Williams. On an afternoon in March.

Craftsmanship. Attention to detail. They matter. People notice.

Living Together, Growing Together

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(Pictured: Marilyn McCoo fronts the Fifth Dimension, 1972.)

The American Top 40 show from March 3, 1973, was a recent weekend repeat. Since I am doing an ongoing series this year about 1973 (basic theme: “just what was it about that year, anyhow?”), here are some notes:

40.  “Soul Song”/Joe Stampley. For a handful of years in the middle of the 1970s, Joe Stampley was a fixture on the country charts. He’d hit #1 on the country chart three times between 1973 and 1976, most famously with “Roll on Big Mama” in 1975. “Soul Song” had gone to #1 in January and would manage to squeak to #37 on the Hot 100. His country twang, which is not all that soulful, made for a big ol’ train wreck with the next song in the countdown.

39.  “Good Morning Heartache”/Diana Ross. A torchy, jazzy number from Lady Sings the Blues, in which Miss Ross gets her Billie Holiday on.

37.  “Living Together, Growing Together”/Fifth Dimension. This marks a historic moment: the final Top 40 week in the career of the Fifth Dimension, a group responsible for a number of straight-up classics over the preceding six years, including “Up Up and Away,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” and “Aquarius,” along with the less-classic-but-still-mighty-good “One Less Bell to Answer” and “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All.” The Burt Bacharach/Hal David song “Living Together, Growing Together” is not a classic; it’s bland inspirational cheese that makes the Johnny Mann Singers sound like James Brown. (See below.)

32.  “Give Me Your Love”/Barbara Mason. It doesn’t happen often, but I occasionally hear a song on these AT40 repeats that I can’t recall hearing before. “Give Me Your Love” is one of them. It would eventually peak at #31, Mason’s biggest hit since “Yes I’m Ready” in 1965. If it wasn’t remixed or re-released in the disco era, it should have been; the ingredients are in the test tube.

27.  “I Got Ants in My Pants (And I Want to Dance)/James Brown. One of the all-time-great Casey introductions: “Here’s a man whose music is as recognizable as Lawrence Welk. A-one, two, three”—after which the JBs come in on the fourth beat and the joint starts jammin’.

25.  “Why Can’t We Live Together”/Timmy Thomas. In 2003, Steve Winwood covered “Why Can’t We Live Together” on his album About Time, and it’s fabulous.

22.  “Break Up to Make Up”/Stylistics. The highest-debuting song on the 40 this week, zooming in from #42 the week before, another ridiculously beautiful Thom Bell production.

16.  “Jambalaya”/Blue Ridge Rangers and 14. “Do It Again”/Steely Dan. In what universe does something as sonically and lyrically obtuse as “Do It Again” belong in the same quarter-hour of radio with a Louisiana hoo-rah sung in John Fogerty’s screechy twang? And it’s not just that they clash with each other. Each record sounds out of place compared to most of what surrounds them (see also #8, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato, and #2, “Dueling Banjos,” by Weissberg and Mandel). I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but still.

15. “Oh Babe What Would You Say”/Hurricane Smith. This show is from the week I turned 13. I had already noticed the interesting ways in which certain girls were becoming curvy and/or bumpy, and the physical processes that happen to 13-year-old boys were beginning to happen to me. But I was not like some of my male classmates, who were obsessed with girls at the grossest and most physical levels, and who talked about it all the time. I probably engaged in those conversations with the guys sometimes, even though I couldn’t really imagine the physical part of love happening to me just then. Like Hurricane Smith, what I wanted for the most part was simply the opportunity to make some pretty girl happy. But I kept that to myself.

10.  “Don’t Expect Me to Be Your Friend”/Lobo and 3. “Last Song”/Edward Bear. Enough with the songs about unrequited love already.

1  “Killing Me Softly With His Song”/Roberta Flack. Casey says that Roberta Flack is the first female artist to hit #1 with back-to-back releases since Connie Francis and Brenda Lee in 1960, which is a pretty good piece of trivia.

During the previous week’s show, Casey and the AT40 staff predicted that “Killing Me Softly” would hold at #1 this week. They make the same prediction this week, and they will be right again. The song will eventually spend six weeks at #1, and it will be over three years—not until Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” at the end of 1976—before another record stays at the top as long.

Part-Time Radio Guy

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“You might not ever get rich / But lemme tell ya it’s better than diggin’ a ditch”

The position of part-time radio jock is not a prestigious one. You work weekend shifts and holidays that are by definition not as important as the weekdays, and you usually do it for very little money.

I got my first part-time radio job when I was 19. Training then was a lot like training now: you watch another, more experienced jock while they explain what they’re doing, and you ask questions. After a few sessions, the roles change: you do the job while the more experienced person watches. After a few sessions of this, you’re left on your own. This kind of training is almost never enough, though. Sooner or later, something will happen that you will have to figure out on the fly. This happened to me on my first job and on my current one. It’s nobody’s fault. A veteran jock figures it out; a green young dipshit figures it out after a little longer.

How part-time jocks are treated depends on the culture of the company. We’re treated very well at the place I work now, but that hasn’t always been my experience. At a different company, when the Christmas party invitation was posted on the bulletin board, it explicitly invited “all staffers working more than 15 hours per week.” (I think it was probably my idea to post an announcement for an alternate Christmas party from which those working more than 15 hours a week were explicitly excluded.) After somebody dumped a cup of coffee into a control board, jocks were forbidden to bring beverages into the studio. I dutifully complied with this regulation until I discovered that my station’s morning guys were exempt from it. I decided that I wasn’t going to be treated any differently than they were, and it wasn’t long before the rule was rescinded.

That’s me, the Rosa Parks of part-time jocks.

When I was a program director and had part-time jocks to hire and train, I tried to remember what it had been like to be in their shoes. I thought about what they needed to know, but also what they would want to know. My goal was that they be well-prepared to handle the inevitable weirdness that goes with the job. My record was hit-and-miss, which is mostly on me as a manager, although in a business where a degree of natural talent is necessary above and beyond the skills training can nurture, the successes and/or failures of these people weren’t entirely on me.

Some of my part-timers aspired to full-time careers in radio; some of them simply thought working in radio would be more fun than clerking in a hardware store or making pizzas. The ones that stick in my memory tend to be the ones who fked up in some spectacular way (the guy we fired after we discovered he was selling station CDs to the local used record store, and whose resume, we later learned, was largely fictitious; the college student/automation-tender who kept all the monitors turned down because the music interfered with the studying he wanted to do), but I had some good ones, too: people I could stick into any shift and get a reasonably decent performance; people I could depend on to understand their jobs on a relatively deep level so they could diagnose and handle the inevitable weirdness on their own; people who were simply fun to be around and always willing to pitch in and do more: Allison, Kurt, Dave, I salute you, wherever you are, all these years later.

I got back into full-time radio for a while a few years ago, but being a part-timer better suits the geezer I have become. What it lacks in prestige (and occasionally in appreciation, and every so rarely in respect, and usually in money, because this is radio we’re talking about) is made up for by the fact that I get to do it because I want to, and not because I have to.

Inner Worlds

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(Pictured: the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with John McLaughlin on guitar, second from left, Billy Cobham on drums and Jan Hammer on keyboards.)

If you are sick and tired of my obsession with 1976, this post isn’t going to help any. In my defense, it comes from a different angle than the usual—it’s the survey from KCR, the college station at San Diego State University, dated March 1, 1976. It’s got a handful of the major hits of the moment: Frampton Comes Alive, A Night at the Opera, Bad Company’s Run With the Pack, David Bowie’s Station to Station, and Desire by Bob Dylan. Here are other interesting entries from a list that’s divided between “daytime” and “nighttime,” although there’s plenty of overlap between ’em:

1. (daytime)/8. (nighttime) How Dare You/10cc. This album comes between The Original Soundtrack (with “I’m Not in Love”) and Deceptive Bends (with “The Things We Do For Love”) without a big single, although “I’m Mandy Fly Me” and “Art for Art’s Sake” made the lower reaches of the Hot 100. The band’s sense of humor undercut any pretensions they had to being a serious prog rock band—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

5. (nighttime) Maxophone/Maxophone. Chances are good that if you are able to name one Italian prog rock band, it’s PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi). Now you can name two. Maxophone was a six-piece band made up of avant-garde classical musicians and rockers. They released their debut album in both Italian and English; the Italian version has been re-released in the CD era. You can listen to the whole dang thing here.

6. (daytime)/9. (nighttime) Paris/Paris. This is how Bob Welch spent his time between leaving Fleetwood Mac and launching his solo career, in a power trio with former Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornish Cornick and Nazz drummer Thom Mooney. Welch made two albums under the Paris name (the second with a different drummer, Hunt Sales, son of Soupy and future collaborator with David Bowie in Tin Machine), but the band would be defunct by the end of ’76.

6. (nighttime)/Inner Worlds/Mahavishnu Orchestra. No self-respecting album-rock radio station of the late 1970s would fail to play a bit of jazz fusion, although notes in its biography of the Mahavishnu Orchestra that the band was considered a rock band in its prime. Inner Worlds was the last album John McLaughlin would make under the Mahavishnu Orchestra name until 1984. Stoners of 1976 would probably have dug “Miles Out,” on which McLaughlin creates various otherworldly noises with his guitar.

7. (nighttime) When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease/Roy Harper. You have heard Roy Harper sing, even if you don’t realize it—that’s him on Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar.” He’s also the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s “Hats Off to Harper,” and he is in general a lot better known and more influential in the UK than over here. When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease (one of the great album titles of the 1970s) was released in the UK, it was known as HQ. The somber, stately title song is here.

15. (nighttime) King Brilliant/Howard Werth and the Moonbeams. During the early 70s, Werth had been in the British band Audience; according to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), the surviving Doors asked him if he’d be interested in replacing Jim Morrison. (Spoiler: he didn’t.) King Brilliant was produced by Elton John’s longtime producer Gus Dudgeon, and it’s not hard to imagine its lead single, “Midnight Flyer,” as an Elton hit.

It seems pretty clear that like many college radio stations then and now, KCR was Very Serious About the Music, and in a way you can only be when you’re of college age.

One Other Thing: Radio geeks are mourning the demise of the Loop, the Chicago album-rock station purchased by a non-commercial group that will put a syndicated Christian format on it, perhaps by the time you read this. The Loop was owned by a group that was in over its head and thereby ripe for the kind of picking it got. But in its heyday, it was a station that mattered to people. There aren’t too many stations like that; in every market in the country, half the stations could go dark and in 48 hours, it would be like they never existed. But the Loop was a tastemaker, as Professor O’Kelly put it. It was a special place to work, as Rick Kaempfer noted. And in Chicago, it will be missed.

(The main part of this post was rebooted from one that first appeared in March 2013.)

I’d Love to Turn You On

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Joe Goodden founded the Beatles Bible, one of the most comprehensive Beatles sites on the Internet. Last year he published Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs, a fascinating exploration of the chemicals the Beatles used and their impact on the band.

The story begins with schoolboys, alcohol, and cigarettes. Ringo says he got drunk for the first time at age 9 and started smoking at 11. Paul remembered that John smelled of beer on the day they met in 1957. All four Beatles smoked cigarettes by the time they were teenagers. The boys discovered benzedrine in 1960 and the stimulant Preludin not long after that, on a trip to Hamburg. Uppers were their drug of choice for the next several years: although John consumed them like popcorn, all four Beatles powered through the early 60s on pep pills, often mixed with alcohol and always with cigarettes.

According to Goodden, the famous story about Bob Dylan being the first to introduce the Beatles to marijuana isn’t true. John told an interviewer that he had first smoked it in 1960, although it’s unclear whether any of his bandmates did. Early in 1962, all four Beatles smoked with some fellow musicians in Liverpool, but George claimed to have been unimpressed, just as John had when talking about his 1960 experience. Whatever weed Dylan scored for them in 1964 was far more impressive than what the boys had had before. Paul and George both spoke of the night as a pivotal one in their lives; within months, “She’s a Woman” contained the Beatles’ first overt drug reference: “turn me on when I get lonely.”

In the spring of 1965, John, Cynthia, George, and Pattie attended a dinner party hosted by their dentist, John Riley. Without telling them in advance, Riley dosed them with LSD, and then he accompanied them on what turned into an extremely bizarre night on the town in London. Lennon was entertained by what George came to call “the dental experience.” George, however, called his first trip “a very concentrated version of the best feeling I’d ever had in my whole life.” He viewed the experience as a key to greater enlightenment. “I took [LSD] lots of times,” he would joke in later years, “but I only needed it once.” Later that year, John, George, and Ringo tripped again, at a party in Los Angeles attended by such luminaries as Peter Fonda and members of the Byrds. John’s Los Angeles experience led him to write “She Said She Said,” which would appear on Revolver in 1966 along with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and “Doctor Robert,” all of which were inspired by various drugs.

Paul remained an LSD holdout for several months, finally taking it for the first time in December 1965, although he would never embrace it as fervently as John and George. Marijuana was his drug of choice, although he sometimes tripped in the seclusion of the house he shared with Jane Asher. He and John didn’t trip together until 1967, after the famous incident during the recording of Sgt. Pepper, in which a tripping Lennon went to the roof of Abbey Road Studios and the other Beatles feared he might try to fly off of it. In later years, John would claim to have been tripping when the Sgt. Pepper cover photo was taken.

(Ringo says he took “everything” in the 60s, although Goodden says cigarettes and scotch were the primary drugs of choice for Ringo and his then-wife, Maureen.)

The Beatles had been introduced to cocaine as early as 1961; in A Hard Day’s Night, John holds a Coke bottle to his nose and takes a sniff. Paul became the first Beatle to use cocaine regularly, in 1966 and 1967, and surprised his bandmates at his eagerness to use it, in contrast with his reticence about LSD. John took up cocaine in 1968 and got into heroin at about the same time. Both he and Yoko were straight-up heroin addicts for much of 1969 (snorting instead of shooting, John claimed) before deciding to kick in August. Getting clean didn’t take, however, until Yoko got pregnant early in 1970.

Goodden’s story of the Beatles and drugs continues after the breakup to the present day. Riding So High contains a lot of stories I’d never heard before and additional detail about stories I thought I knew. Goodden doesn’t glorify the Beatles’ drug use, but he doesn’t judge, either. He leaves that for his readers—and you should become one of them.

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