Author Archive: jb

Who Are You and What Are You Doing?

George Carlin once described the stand-up comedian’s job as thinking up goofy shit, telling people what it is, and then going off to think up some more. I have modified that joke to describe what I do on the radio. I can’t speak to what it’s like to have a regular partner or a show with a cast; thinking up stuff is still the essence of the gig, but it’s a collaborative effort and a conversation. (Neither do I know anything about doing talk radio.) So when it’s just you in a studio, with a microphone and unseen thousands (hundreds? dozens?) out there in the beyond, the weight of the responsibility is great.

What makes you think you’re interesting enough to spend three or four hours each day knitting together a bunch of songs on the radio?

Many people aren’t interesting enough. They may have nice voices (although not necessarily), but they never really say anything that engages you. They’re just there, playing the songs, reading the promos, taking up space. People like this can have long careers, but they aren’t getting into anybody’s Hall of Fame.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who are endlessly engaging. They’re the chosen few of the chosen few, the Hall of Famers, people who don’t sound like anybody else, the people aspiring jocks aspire to be.

In the middle are the talented craftsmen (men and women). They’re technically skilled (although technical radio skills matter less in a world of digital automation than they did in the days of turntables and tape cartridges); they know their audience well, and they are committed to bringing something to that audience every day that only they can bring—a particular interest, bit, or story, or a unique take on whatever people are talking about on any given day. Craftsmen, while they may not be among the unique talents of the age, sound like real people communicating one-to-one instead of disembodied voices yammering about nothing to nobody in particular.

I learned early on that I wasn’t talented enough to be a Hall of Famer, so being a solid craftsman and real person became my goal.

When I arrived at KDTH in 1979, there was a big sign in the studio at eye level reading “smile.” It was the first piece of professional advice I ever ignored. If your goal is to be a real person on the radio, you can’t do it if you’re always smiling. Not everything you say should be delivered with a smile. I was on the air the day Michael Jackson died, and the day the Boston Marathon was bombed, and I’ve done countless severe weather broadcasts. At those moments, speaking with a smile on my face would have been unconscionable. Some days you don’t just feel like smiling: your kid is sick or your car is in the shop or your boss got in your face just before the show. And that’s OK. If you can’t smile, don’t worry about it. Try not to be grim, though. Strive for geniality: be as pleasant as you can under the circumstances, but don’t fake something you don’t feel, or that isn’t appropriate.

One day, I hadn’t had enough sleep when I came to work. I was not especially willing or ready to do a show that day, but I didn’t have a choice. After about an hour, one of my colleagues came into the studio and said, “You sound crabby today—but you’re funny.” I got away with being less than 100 percent by the fact that on other days I’d been at 100 percent—that I’d established myself as a real person—and on this particular day I was going to be genially sardonic.

Sometimes real people have bad days, and that’s OK.

If you want to be either a craftsman or a Hall of Famer, as distinct from one of those jocks who’s just there, ask yourself this: “What am I doing on the air every day that nobody else can do?” The number of jocks, young and old, who can’t answer that, or who can answer it only in vague terms, is a scandal. Pro tip: “Just being myself” is not the answer. Lots of jocks, young and old, think it is, but it’s only the first and most obvious part of the answer. If you know exactly who you are, and you know the specific things you bring to the show every day, you’ll be way ahead of those who don’t.

Good Vibrations From 1971

(Pictured: one incarnation of the Beach Boys. L to R: Bruce Johnston, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, and Mike Love, circa 1971.)

In July 1971, the Beach Boys, Ike and Tina Turner, and several new young stars headlined a two-night stand in New York City’s Central Park, part of a regular concert series sponsored for many summers by Schaefer Brewing Company. Both nights were filmed and then edited into a concert special called Good Vibrations From Central Park. (The TV crew shot from different vantage points each night, so when the producers put the show together, it looked like they had twice the camera coverage.) An hour of concert highlights was broadcast on ABC 45 years ago tonight, on August 19, 1971.

The TV show opened with the Beach Boys doing “Good Vibrations,” although I am pretty sure that at Central Park itself, Boz Scaggs went on first. Good Vibrations From Central Park was the first national TV appearance for Boz and his band, doing their lone hit to date, “We Were Always Sweethearts.” It had reached #61 on the Hot 100 in May, and was the opening track on Moments, Boz’s second album. Boz may have played other songs that night, but only one got on TV, befitting an opening act.

Kate Taylor went on next. James Taylor’s sister, who billed herself as “Sister Kate,” had released her debut album in January, featuring many of the same musicians who appeared on Carole King’s Tapestry, including King herself. Her song choices were impeccable: two by King from Tapestry (“Where You Lead” and “Home Again”), two from Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection (“Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” and “Country Comfort”), plus her brother James’ “You Can Close Your Eyes,” and “Handbags and Gladrags,” which was made famous by Rod Stewart. Any of those would have been better than the performance the producers opted to show, the R&B song “Barefootin'” which was not on Taylor’s album. Although she was enthusiastic as hell, she yelled more than she sang, and I wonder if she was having trouble with the stage monitors.

Next on the bill was Carly Simon, also making her first national TV appearance. Carly turned 26 in the summer of 1971, and she was already a showbiz veteran, having recorded two albums with her sister Lucy as the Simon Sisters, in 1964 and 1969. She came onstage in Central Park with the confidence of someone who knows she’s a star already and is going to be a bigger one, and she’s smokin’ hot besides. The broadcast featured “Anticipation,” which wouldn’t be a hit for six months, and “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” which was on the radio at the time. (If you watch the video, you’ll easily spot a couple of famous spectators at the show.)

Ike and Tina Turner took the stage next, although they followed the Beach Boys on the concert broadcast. They were shown doing “Good Lovin’,” their recent hit “Proud Mary,” and a version of “Higher and Higher.” Then it was time for the headliners. The Beach Boys’ part of the program opened with “Heroes and Villains.”  Next, either because it was on the set list or the producers edited the show that way, came a decent-but-ultimately pointless version of Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” sung by Mike Love. They had jammed on the song with the Grateful Dead earlier in the year, but it’s doubtful that people would have turned on a Beach Boys TV show at the height of summer to hear it. In fact, if you tuned in for the sun-splashed classics from the 60s, you didn’t hear many, just “Good Vibrations” and “I Get Around.”

Good Vibrations in Central Park was one of the forerunners of the concert shows that proliferated on TV within the next couple of years, including Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and The Midnight Special. It has never had a DVD release, as far as I can tell.

A Door Opens

I am reading John Irving’s latest novel Avenue of Mysteries this week. At one point, two of the characters disagree over the meaning of a line from Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

“Well, of course the future begins in childhood—where else would it begin?” Juan Diego asked the Iowan. “But I think it’s bullshit to say there is one moment when the door to the future opens. Why can’t there be many moments? And is Greene saying there’s only one door? He says the door, like there’s only one.”

I am on Team Juan Diego in this, although I’d offer the following twist: if you believe the passage of time should equal the growth of wisdom, all the time we have lived through on the way to this day is a kind of childhood, leading to the adult we can claim to be on this day. And if that’s true, that “childhood” can have many moments and doors.

One of my doors opened in the summer of 1986, and the future came in. In that summer I made a decision, and I have been living with the consequences of it ever since. It may have been inevitable, but whether it was or it wasn’t, my future was affected by it, from that summer to this one.

During the first eight years of my career, from 1978 to 1986, radio was it for me. There was simply nothing else, no Plan B. I wanted to be on the air (and later, to be a program director) more than I would ever want anything else, ever. I clocked my time at the station every day, but I when I wasn’t there, I thought about it constantly. After I became a program director in 1984, I listened all the time. I was on 24-hour call for emergencies, and that was exactly what I had always wanted to be.

By 1986, in addition to being the PD, I was doing mornings, which seemed like necessary career evolution. I didn’t have a plan for my career beyond that, however. I didn’t have the goal of being in Market A by the age of 28 and larger Market B by the age of 31 or anything like that. I naively assumed that in the fullness of time, my talent would take me up the market ladder. And although I didn’t know it, that lack of a plan was building a door for me.

But the decision that made the door open involved something else. Some morning DJs are in bed every night by 7:30, but I didn’t want to live like that. So I went to bed at 9:30 or so, got up at 4:15, and started napping for an hour in the afternoon, sometime around 3:00. That way, I could be functional and pleasant when The Mrs. got home from work, and we could have our evenings together. But I had trained my staff to call me if they had questions or problems, any time of the day or night, and several times in those first months of 1986, my nap was annihilated by the telephone. So in the summer, I started taking the phone off the hook. My desire to live a halfway-normal home life had become more important to me than dealing with radio emergencies.

We don’t always see the doors as they open, and it can take us a while before we understand the future that’s been let in. Only much later did I realize how important that phone-off-the-hook decision was, because it marked the end of my youthful obsession with radio.

There’s nothing wrong with that. We age, we change. You can’t stay 26 years old forever. But once I lost that youthful obsession, my career was never the same. I would spend seven more years working full-time in radio stations, but the drive I needed to propel me toward new opportunities diminished. I settled for jobs I could get instead of going after the ones I should have had. And eventually, disappointed by the course my career had taken, I decided I didn’t want to do radio anymore—something that would have completely flummoxed the guy with no Plan B.

In the years since, I have been a writer, mostly, also a teacher, and a radio guy as a sideline. That future was let in through a door I didn’t know I was opening, 30 years ago this summer.

Jazz From Hell

(Pictured: In 1985, Frank Zappa and Dee Snider review documents from a Senate hearing on explicit lyrics. They don’t seem impressed.)

Once upon a time, I aspired to write one of these Links and Notes posts each month. That hasn’t happened, of course, but here’s one. In this post are links to worthwhile stories I have mentioned on Twitter in the relatively recent past.

I have tipped you before to stuff by Michele Catalano. Recently, she found herself listening to the first Boston album, which prompted her to tweet, “‘More Than a Feeling’ is the sound that comes out of your heart if you squeeze it tight enough.” She followed with an essay called “A Requiem for the 70s,” in which Boston soundtracks a defining moment of her life. If you enjoy the memoir-style essays I type up for this blog, you must read hers. Another of Michele’s essays that’s worth your time is one about sharing music with her children, in the past and right up to this summer.

My Favorite Decade live-blogged MTV’s first hour, which was rebroadcast to launch MTV Classic, the former VH1 Classic, earlier this month. MTV Classic seems like an excellent idea, except it’s going to be aimed at people who watched MTV in the 90s and 00s, which means it will focus on the entertainment programs that marked the channel’s transition from music source to lifestyle brand, about which I could not care less. Also from Mark: an annotated mix tape of hits from the summer of 1985.

That summer, I was program director of a Top 40 station, about the time the Parents’ Music Resource Council went on the warpath against explicit lyrics. The records that most offended the PMRC didn’t fit our format and weren’t getting on our air (and in fact, precious few radio stations played them in regular rotation), but I paid close attention to the issue because I considered it my job to be attuned to what some members of my audience may have been thinking. I confess I was not especially bothered when the PMRC succeeded in getting “Explicit Lyrics” stickers placed on albums—at least not until Frank Zappa’s all-instrumental Jazz From Hell got one, at which point the entire movement jumped the shark. Open Culture explained how it happened.

The year 2016 has seen so many significant losses that many obituaries fall through the cracks. Few people noticed the passing of Lewie Steinberg, original bassist with Booker T. and the MGs, who died last month at age 82. Also Gary S. Paxton, a fascinating figure who produced the Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop” and “Monster Mash” and wrote over 2,000 songs. He eventually became a gospel star, but that career was sidetracked after he reportedly fell into a relationship with evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. His life story is worthy of a movie, except nobody would believe it.

The writing of “Heartbreak Hotel” was inspired by the suicide of an anonymous man who left behind a note saying, “I walk a lonely street.” After 60 years, the man’s identity has finally been determined, and Rolling Stone got it right with the subtitle “the story is stranger than anyone could have imagined.” A Rolling Stone article I liked less was a Cameron Crowe piece from 1976 about Linda Ronstadt, a condescending profile that paints Linda as if she were an artistically precocious teenager who barely understands the world. Back then, the unconscious paternalism of Crowe’s article was so ingrained in the culture that few noticed it, although it screams at us now.

The Guardian has a series called Frozen in Time, which features photographs of the famous, some candid and some not, and the stories behind them. A recent installment discussed a 1975 photo of Elton John taken during the frantic period in which he was recording Rock of the Westies in Colorado. The article is worth a click, as are all of the links within the article.

Seymour Stein was co-founder of Sire Records, the label that signed a number of significant new-wave acts in the 70s and launched Madonna’s career in the 80s. But when he was a high-school student, he worked at Billboard, and he was present at the creation of the Hot 100 in the summer of 1958.

Follow me on Twitter for more of this stuff. Or not. Up to you.

Rockin’ and Rollin’

(Pictured: Paul, Ringo, John, and George want you to read this post.)

You are an executive at EMI Records in early 1976. You have seen the resurgence of interest in the Beach Boys thanks to the Endless Summer and Spirit of America compilations during the previous two years; you notice the general mood of nostalgia, at least in America, thanks to the TV success of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley; you recognize that Paul McCartney is at the peak of his solo stardom. So a new Beatles compilation seems like a good idea to you, perhaps one focused on rock ‘n’ roll covers from their earliest days. Rock ‘n’ Roll Music will feature “Twist and Shout,” “Kansas City,” “Money,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” and “Roll Over Beethoven” among others. You will plaster the jacket with images that are more 50s than 60s, even though the Beatles themselves will be critical of the cover. So you won’t do anything to counter the urban legend that the album was released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of John and Paul’s first meeting . . . except that happened in 1957, not 1956.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Music is, then, mostly a celebration of the Beatles before the drugs took hold, although it doesn’t ignore that part of their career. The result is that the album ends by straying from the happy rockin’ vibe to darker places: “Helter Skelter,” with its Manson Family connections, “Taxman,” with its bitter indictment of Britain’s Inland Revenue, and “Revolution,” in which the lyrics say “no-no” but there’s “yes-yes” in the music, are a little too serious given what’s come before, but they’re well-cushioned by “Birthday,” “Get Back,” and “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Whatever its flaws (and when the music is this good, any flaws are minor), Rock ‘n’ Roll Music was a smash, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 in mid-July, kept out of the top spot by Wings at the Speed of Sound.

“Got to Get You Into My Life” was the single from Rock n’ Roll Music, backed with “Helter Skelter.” It first appeared on a survey at ARSA dated May 28, 1976. It hit the Hot 100 on June 12 at #54, and reached the Top 10 on July 3. It would hit #1 at WLS in Chicago on July 10 and spend three weeks at the top; it would reach its Hot 100 peak at #7 on July 24 and remain there for the weeks of July 31 and August 7, 1976.

In the spring of 1966, Brian Epstein had traveled to Memphis to investigate the possibility of the Beatles recording at Stax, which was at a creative peak. Revolver might have been made there, but when word of the possibility leaked out, it quickly became an impossibility. “Got to Get You Into My Life” is as close as we ever got. After trying the song with fuzztone guitar, Paul rounded up three trumpeters and two tenor saxophone players. Microphones were placed in the bells of the horns and recorded so that they’d hit hard without distortion. The horns were overdubbed at one point to reinforce them still further, and the result is a sound that positively jumped off the radio and remains unlike anything else in the Beatles’ catalog.

According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), “Helter Skelter” was originally scheduled to be the A-side. It’s doubtful that it would have had the same impact that “Got to Get You Into My Life” did, in a summer when many things old seemed new again. Especially considering how that nostalgic vibe was reinforced by another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” the Beach Boys’ recording of the same Chuck Berry song that gave the Beatles’ compilation its name. During the three weeks that “Got to Get You Into My Life” sat at #7 in Billboard, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” moved from #9 to #8 to #6, meaning that 40 years ago this week, the Beach Boys and the Beatles were back-to-back in the Top 10, together there for the first time since 1966.

As someone who came of radio-listening age just after the heyday of both groups, it was my only taste of how that heyday must have sounded in real time.

So the 50th anniversary of Revolver is the 40th anniversary of the return of the Beatles to the top of the charts, and the return to the radio of one of Revolver‘s tracks. Even though it was born 10 summers before, “Got to Get You Into My Life” ended up one of the most memorable songs of summer 1976.

An Audience of One

(Pictured: eye candy, from an episode of Charlie’s Angels broadcast on 12/8/76.)

When I found my 1976 daybook in 2009, I hoped it would be the Rosetta Stone that unlocked the mysteries of 1976, including the Big Why: why a part of me continues to live in that year despite all the other years that have passed since then. The fact that it was no such thing was a great disappointment to me.

The daybook, 40 years on, feels like a piece of performance art for an audience of one. Back then, I fancied myself a master of trivia and a student of the arcane, and so I kept a daybook full of the sort of arcana that would impress someone like myself. I couldn’t repress entirely the more useful impulses I had, which accounts for the news headlines and family milestones, but I buried them under the trappings of the character I was trying to be. As a result, the far-older me, who would like to see his former self clearly, is mighty frustrated with his former self.

But I’ve got to forgive him, too, because there’s a lot in him that’s admirable, and some in him that I wish I still had. I used to say that I admired his confidence, but I don’t think you could rightly call what he had confidence. Rather, it was a willingness to accept who and what he was. He didn’t shop around for a personality like some 16-year-olds do. He wasn’t entirely satisfied with who he was—he hated being paralyzed in the presence of girls, and he wished he were a better athlete—but he knew there wasn’t much to be done about it, so he tried to proudly embrace his geekitude. He didn’t doubt that he had found his calling in life—radio—and he pursued it as best he could. His obsessions ran deep, but his interests were broad; he tried reading Milton and Proust, and he watched the news every night because he felt it was important to know what the world was about.

None of this is in the daybook. Traces of it are there amidst the fog, but I can barely see them. So I’m left to guess about 1976, like I’ve always done before. And here’s what I think I think:

When I got my driver’s license in the spring, I achieved freedom of mobility. Once you get that, you’ve crossed a bright line into fuller participation (and greater responsibility) in the wider world. But at the same time, I had yet to cut the cord that bound me to the childhood security that was the only life I could remember. So although I was out in the world more fully than before, that independence was measured in baby steps, and it came with a safety net. Also, what I remember of the ed psych I took tells me that adolescents often see themselves as players on a stage, and they believe the whole world is watching. They tend to dramatize themselves and their actions, and I was more self-dramatizing than most—everything seemed important because it was happening to me. And at the end of the year, I experienced the thrill of being chosen by a member of the opposite sex. Your family has to love you, or so you believe. But when another person chooses you? Mindblowing. So: I experienced 1976 as if the world were a giant stage I’d just stepped onto, with new roles to play. The audience was familiar—often it was only that perpetual audience of one—but the role-playing was exciting nevertheless.

As for the music of 1976, I can’t judge it apart from the experiences of the year. It’s not especially vivid because it’s empirically better than the music of any other year. It’s vivid because it’s the music I lived with 1976, and that makes all the difference.

I knew all of this before I found the daybook again. But absence of written evidence regarding the deeper meaning of 1976 might be evidence of something else. As my friend whiteray has said, “Some years are just magical.” So maybe I’ve been looking for something that’s not there—and doesn’t need to be.

(Rebooted from a series of 2009 posts.)

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