Serendipity From the Sky

I put the satellite radio back in my car a few weeks ago. My presets were right where I left ’em, although the channels are different since I dropped my subscription at the end of 2008. When Sirius and XM merged, duplicated channels were taken off the service. Most of the channels I listened to regularly as a Sirius subscriber have been replaced by XM channels.

After the merger, the Sirius deep-cuts classic rock channel, called the Vault, was replaced by the XM Deep Tracks channel—which is vastly superior. The Vault provided plenty of depth, but without breadth. More than once I would exasperatedly tune away as the channel played yet another tune by the Who, David Bowie, or the Doors, who often seemed to be the only artists on the channel. Deep Tracks, meanwhile, goes all over the place—in the last few days I’ve heard people like McKendree Spring, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and lots of others whose names I know but whose music I do not. The selection is deep and wide, but not self-consciously obscure—it doesn’t shy away from onetime hit singles that have been forgotten, or the ignored tracks from famous albums. (It served up some of the most amazing Christmas music I’ve heard on the radio, ever.) Deep Tracks also features Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour and Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure show, and the entrancing on-air work of Earle Bailey, a 40-year veteran of album-rock radio who’s also the channel’s PD.

Last Friday was Richie Havens’ 70th birthday, and Deep Tracks treated listeners to a birthday salute featuring several songs, some better known than others. First up was “Handsome Johnny,” from his 1967 debut album Mixed Bag. It’s a powerful anti-war song famously performed at Woodstock.

The Deep Tracks set also featured “Nobody Left to Crown,” from the 1977 album Mirage, a song I’d never heard, which includes the following bit of wordplay:

Home, home on the range
Where the fear and the antidotes play
Where seldom is heard an encouraging word
And our leaders do nothing all day

The set closed with Havens’ version of “Here Comes the Sun”—which I bought on a 45 in the spring of 1971 before I knew the Beatles’ version. It’s a beautiful performance; the radio version cut the introduction down to four seconds, but the 45 I bought starts with at least a minute of Havens’ percussive guitar before he begins to sing. Make me say so, and I’ll tell you I prefer Havens’ version to the one on Abbey Road. Here’s a live TV performance from 1971:

The Havens birthday set, which also featured several interview clips, is an example of the sort of serendipity that keeps Sirius/XM Deep Tracks listeners hooked. To a degree unparalleled by any station I’ve ever heard, you simply have no idea what’s coming next—and you want to stick around to find out.

4 responses

  1. I also let my satellite radio subscription fall away after the end of 2008, but my situation was the other way around: I was an XM customer. A few weeks ago, I rented a car for a trip and listened to Sirius and have considered going with it again.

    Some differences over the past couple of years…Casey Kasem’s AT40 show played on the 80s station then, but has been dropped in favor of the original MTV VJ’s doing a similar countdown. I’d rather hear Kasem. Over on the 70s channel, they seemed to have tightened up their playlist — something that bothers me because I like saying, “Hey I haven’t heard that song in a long time!” — and the DJs seem to have vanished.

    XM used to have a channel called Chrome (channel 83) that was a disco channel that extended into the dance music of the 1980s. On long trips down lonely highways, there’s nothing like letting the full 20+ minute version of Santa Esmeralda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” or the extended version of Giorgio Moroder’s “The Chase” (From Midnight Express) help you forget the fact that you’re watching trees and fields go by for 20 miles.

    Still, I was in Best Buy just yesterday looking at the satellite radio accessories anyway…

    I’m still mulling it over.

  2. Forgot to mention in my last post…Chrome is no longer there, and there really isn’t a “dance” channel that has adequately replaced it.

  3. XM was a godsend until the day the *request* to merge with Sirius was filed. That was the day the suits ordered the playlist slashing (so much for serendipity from above) and the service has never been the same. The long-timers on the xmfan boards still gripe about how comparatively shallow Deep Tracks has been post-merger.

    In its heyday, XM was destination listening, save for ’70s on 7, which always disappointed. “IT” – XM’s fantabulous playback of every top 40 hit from 1940 through 1999 and beyond – was their true legacy, proving what radio could pull off if it dared to be different. Its likes won’t ever be heard again on Sirius-FM. Lee Abrams may be a certifiable nutcase, but he nailed it with the original XM programming philosophy.

    I do miss Little Steven’s Underground Garage and the ’60s on 6’s Phlash Phelps, but the snoozefest known as Cousin Brucie, added music fees, higher rates and “Brown Eyed Girl” three times a day made me bail in 2009. And I see Mel wants more leeway to jack up the rates yet again…

  4. The way that you describe XM Deep Tracks … now THAT’S the way radio should be, and I’m wondering if XM could be in my future. Again, given your description, I’d be bored to tears hearing the same Beatles, Stones, Bowie, Who over and over – even while they played ‘deep’ tracks. But it’s the addition of the Alex Harvey Band, Tom Robinson, ARS, Ramones (remember them being played on the radio?), Bootsy, Cornelius Bros., Neil Diamond, Rascals, Ten Years After … the variety without the constant verbal sticky note that crams the genre, or specific style, of music into constant rotation.

    As for Sir Richie Havens, he is near and dear to my heart despite being nowhere close to what I grew up with. I knew an ex 60’s-era reformed hippy that turned me on to Richie – specifically the Stonehenge album and to this day it remains nestles within my all-time top 40. Tracks such as the opening “Open Your Eyes” and”It Could Be The First Day” are stunning right alongside his covers of “I Started A Joke” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”. Will not be able to say enough about my love for Richie Havens music and I fully appreciate the videos that you poted.

    Cheers!

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