(Pictured: Shelley Fabares and Elvis Presley on the set of Clambake, 1967.)
The children of the 1970s knew who Elvis Presley was, and we heard a handful of his songs on the radio as current hits before he died in 1977. But his movies didn’t register as strongly, at least not with me. You had to stay up pretty late if you wanted to see them on TV, but that was fine. Seeing them was not a high priority; there wasn’t anything among them I felt I absolutely had to see, not the way I wanted to see all of the classic monster movies of the 30s. Over the last month, however, I’ve had my own Elvis film festival. On the flip, read what I thought about what I saw.
(Pictured: British newspapers headline the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997.)
I have written previously about being on the air the afternoon Michael Jackson died, and about reading the bulletins on the morning of the Challenger explosion. Twenty years ago tonight, I was on the air at the classic-rock station when Princess Diana died. (It was early in the morning of August 31, 1997, in Europe, but the evening of August 30 in the States, and the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend.)
We did not do breaking news on that station, of course. Our conventionally wacky morning show had newscasts, but it was the barest of headline services. A hard news item that could break through at any other time of the day had to be very, very big.
I was doing the all-request show that night. If our studios were connected to the Internet, it was an extremely new development, and I can’t say for sure whether I got the first bulletin that way. Although the company still had a news department, I wasn’t in the habit of looking at the wires. I suppose somebody from one of the other stations in the building could have come in and told me. Maybe a listener called up and told me. By some method, I tracked down a bulletin, although I didn’t read the first one, which was about the princess and a car accident. But later in the evening, when it became clear that it was a serious accident, I decided to go on with it. An hour later, the bulletins I was seeing made it clear that Diana had died in the accident, so sometime after 11:00 I delivered the news.
There was no consultation with the program director before I did it. I made the decision entirely on my own hook, as a veteran jock smart enough to recognize that this was the kind of news story even we shouldn’t ignore. That’s not intended to make me sound like a hero. It’s more an illustration of the fact that if you smack a mule in the head with a two-by-four, you can get his attention.
That show was one of the last ones I did at that station, as we were getting ready to move from the Quad Cities to Iowa City. It may have been the next-to-last week, which would mean my final show was September 6, 1997. Somewhere, I still have a tape of that last show (and I think I saved the tape of the Diana show, too). I talked about it being my last show, and I am sure I played some songs because I wanted to hear them. My ego was/is such that I undoubtedly played every phone call I got from people saying the show wouldn’t be the same without me.
Long before that night, I had chosen the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” as my last record. The last request I played was for “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys, which seemed cosmically appropriate. I gave a little speech at my last break, thanking the audience and thanking the program director for putting up with me. Then it was into the Beatles and I was done, except for a back-of-the-studio, off-mike response to the overnight guy during his first break, when he told the audience how much the station would miss me.
I didn’t think of my exit from the Quad Cities as the end of my radio career, although I had no plans to return to radio anytime soon. And I didn’t. Over the next several years, I would do a few sports broadcasts, but I wouldn’t do a music show again for nearly nine years.
(Pictured: Henry Ford’s original factory building, preserved at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, the site of many a Midwestern family vacation.)
I have written a lot about the summer of 1971 at this blog, and I’ve been listening to it again via the American Top 40 show dated August 7, 1971. Much of that week’s music is pretty great: a treasure chest of soul performances (Aretha, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, Jean Knight), singer/songwriter pop (James Taylor, Carole King), and radio-ready records (“Don’t Pull Your Love,” “Sooner or Later,” “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again”) that jumped out of the box and have stayed there nearly half-a-century now.
The summer of 1971 was the first one I ever lived through with the radio on. Because I was not yet old enough to be press-ganged into farm work (that would be the next summer), I could devote 100 percent of my attention to various kid adventures, playing baseball, learning the saxophone, and listening to WLS. After absorbing the station religiously for only a few months, I knew that I wanted to do that. I didn’t know how, I only knew what, and it would be over 20 years before I would think about doing anything else.
One of that summer’s adventures was a family vacation. It’s a wonder that we were able to take them at all: Dad was a dairy farmer, and dairy farming means you milk cows twice a day, seven days a week. Before we could go, Dad would have to find somebody to help Grandpa with the milking, as he was past 70 and it was more than he could manage by himself. In those days, people who knew how to milk cows generally had cows of their own, but Dad found a young guy he could trust, and he milked for us more than once in the early 70s.
We kids would eagerly count down the days before we left, and the night before, we’d be so charged up that we couldn’t sleep. We’d get up too early the next morning and help pack the car. The logistics involved in getting several days’ worth of clothing and provisions for a family of five into the trunk of a 1965 Mercury Comet could be tricky. Provisions included a big metal ice chest with sandwiches and drinks, because we liked to stop at roadside picnic tables for lunch. Mother also packed a treat box that she opened during the ride. She took special care to pack surprises, so we discovered types of candy we never knew before, and travel games too. We counted license plates and gas stations and played “I’m thinking of something,” which was one of Mother’s simple games, in which she would describe an object and we had to guess what it was. It occurs to me now that her training as a schoolteacher came out strongly on these trips—the way she kept us entertained but sneaked learning by us at the same time, and refereed the inevitable kid squabbles.
And on the subject of learning: we did not go on trips to hang out at the beach or be lazy; we went to see stuff, and we covered lots of miles doing it. During those late 60s and early 70s summers, we visited the Mark Twain sites in Hannibal, Missouri, Abe Lincoln’s boyhood home in New Salem, Illinois, and the Wisconsin Dells. We went up to the Iron Range in Minnesota and toured the harbor at Duluth. We went to the Black Hills of South Dakota and Mackinac Island in Michigan. And in August 1971—and it must have been August because the songs tell me so—we packed the car and went to Detroit. We toured the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, and I remember one other thing: at some point on the trip, I picked up a radio survey (for I was collecting them by then) from WKNR, the fabled Keener 13. Because I insisted we find the station on the car radio, I heard the same songs on our trip that I had been hearing on WLS at home.
Forty-six summers later, I have been listening to those songs again, and they have been telling me the story not only of that specific vacation, but of all the vacations we took together, and the gift our parents gave us through them, a gift of places and experiences but also the gift of family itself. We were lucky to have what we did, and the songs won’t let me forget.
It’s a pleasant July evening, only a year or two ago. I have just finished a little speech I had to give when a man walks up to me. “Jim?”
I clap on the smile a radio guy claps on when he’s doing an appearance and somebody wants to meet him. “Hi!”
The man extends his hand to shake mine. A moment passes. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
I had met Tim when he started attending my school in fifth grade. I don’t remember when I first met Alan. I may have known Randy since kindergarten. We played football, basketball, and softball at recess and we often sat together in the cafeteria, and although each of us moved within a larger circle of friends, the four of us had a bond.
Alan lived in a small subdivision on the edge of town where the houses backed up to farmland. One night in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, we decided to go camping in the woods behind Alan’s house. We rounded up a couple of pup tents, sleeping bags, flashlights, and a stash of 12-year-old-kid food—plus a radio, provided by me. And late on a Friday afternoon, we carried our load into the woods.
We had trouble finding a good spot for a campsite, or at least that’s what we told ourselves. It’s just as likely that we found the woods, which were pretty thick, to be a bit less than hospitable. So we set up our tents in a cleared hay field just beyond the trees. We wanted very badly to build a fire, but Alan’s parents had told him that was out of the question. Fortunately, it was the height of hot summertime, so staying warm that night wasn’t going to be a problem. (Alan’s parents knew that warmth is not the main reason 12-year-old boys are interested in fire anyway.)
After we set up our campsite, we went exploring. I expect that we also brought a ball and gloves, or maybe a football to toss. As evening turned into night and it got too dark to risk one of us failing to catch the ball, we started talking: about sports, about school, about our friends, and eventually, about girls we liked. This was a big step for guys our age. Each of us knew that the others were interested in girls in the general sense, but singling out specific ones was risky. If you didn’t trust your friends to keep your secret, it was likely to get onto the grapevine, and then everyone would know.
We didn’t fall asleep until very, very, very late that night. I remember hearing the overnight jock on WLS, a guy I had never heard before. Because the radio was on the whole time, some songs we heard that night will remind me of it forever after: “Lean on Me” and “How Do You Do,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Where Is the Love.”
I woke up early on Saturday morning and crawled out of the tent to take a leak, wondering if the guys in the other tent were awake yet. It couldn’t have been much past 6AM before everybody was up, and we decided pretty quickly that we’d had enough camping. We folded up the tents, packed our stuff, and went back to Alan’s house to get some breakfast.
And the years passed.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
He introduces himself, tells me about his job, about his family, grown children and a grandbaby on the way. The conversation lasts only a minute or two. As we part, I picture pup tents in a field and 12-year-olds telling secrets. I hear a radio that stayed on all night. And I think about how long ago it was, but how close it still seems.
(Whenever we can’t find another picture that seems appropriate, we’re gonna post one of Linda Ronstadt.)
This blog began on July 11, 2004. That makes today its 13th anniversary. As is customary, here’s a list of some favorite posts since last July 11. (Find other anniversary greatest-hits posts here.)
—Every one of us, whether we work in radio or not, was once a starry-eyed beginner on our first day. Later, some of us become victims of job burnout. And some of us get fired. Those who are still working in radio need to to answer the following question: “What am I doing on the air every day that nobody else can do?” And every small-town radio station needs to ask itself, “Why are we doing the same stuff today we did in 1974?”
—A couple of posts about former Los Angeles radio jock Humble Harve Miller (here and here) continue to get lots of hits from people searching for information about the scandalous events that derailed his career and sent him to prison. A post about hosting an all-request radio show became the most commented-on post in months. Also popular amongst the readership were two posts answering radio questions (here and here). If you have a question, send it in.
—The summer of 2016 marked the 40th anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, “a celebration of the Beatles before the drugs took hold.” Three years before the release of that album, the Beatles stormed the charts in their first official compilations. And six years before that, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, an album that required Top 40 stations to make some decisions, because it had no single.
—I reviewed a biography of Tiny Tim that tried too hard to turn its subject into someone more important than he was, and a Steely Dan reference book that tested the patience of a super-fan. Joel Selvin’s book about Altamont was a million times better than either one.
—Several posts ranked the tracks on certain famous albums, including Boston, Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, and Hotel California. A tweet of mine about whether anyone had ever made three albums in a row as good as Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street got a lot of response.
—This blog has a TV category, and we’re not afraid to use it. I wrote about the music of M*A*S*H and some impressions of the last half-dozen seasons of the show after watching them for the first time in many years. Other posts discussed Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, watching 38 K-Tel record album commercials in a row, and an obscure animated series of the 60s with some good music.
—A post about The Partridge Family that originally appeared at Popdose is one of my favorite posts I ever wrote for anybody.
—American Top 40 shows provide a lot of the ideas for this blog. I wrote about the show’s tradition of July 4 weekend specials, and the 1974 show that helped me put the “idiot” into “idiot savant.” Another show inspired a post about a family tableau that’s almost certainly a lie, and another discussed the single biggest whopper Casey Kasem ever told.
—The long-running feature One Day in Your Life became its own blog in January of this year. The last ODIYL post to appear here looked back to December 23, 1966. Also during the Christmas season, we paid tribute to one of “one of the most popular human beings of the 20th century.”
—I wrote about rediscovering a compilation CD I made and then forgot about, about Watergate songs, and about the songs that woke up the astronauts. I imagined a 1972 kitchen-table scene in New Haven, Connecticut, and a Louisiana Sunday in December 1941. And I wondered how, or whether, the children of this era will listen to their music 40 or 50 years from now.
—If I had asked her the question I couldn’t bring myself to ask her, she would probably have said yes.
The future of this blog is that it will continue to hump onward pretty much like it does now. To each of you amongst the readership, my many thanks.
Last summer, I wrote about a series of cassettes I made called the Magnum Opus, which went out to the curb because I had no real need to keep them anymore. I am still holding on to dozens of cassettes containing various songs I dubbed from radio station copies and other sources (even though I don’t have anything to play them on). What follows is excerpted and edited from an ancient journal entry inspired by one of them. It repeats some stuff I have noodled about previously at this blog, although it occurs to me I probably noodled about it in this journal entry first.
On these tapes, I have historically made little attempt to organize by artist or genre. Weird juxtapositions are part of the fun. I was listening in the car this morning when CCR’s scarifying “Born on the Bayou” was followed immediately by the lush “Mr. Lucky” by Henry Mancini, an orchestrated instrumental punctuated with big slabs of overripe organ.
“Mr. Lucky” gave way to “Summer Samba” by Walter Wanderley. Unlike “Mr. Lucky,” “Summer Samba” comes with associations, not specific events as much as the color and angle of the light, the feeling of a time when Saturdays lasted forever, and when the best way to spend them was playing in the barn or the machine shed. When we were unmistakably children, safe in the bosom of the family, perhaps vaguely aware of Vietnam and civil rights, but untouched by their implications. “Summer Samba” was followed by “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross. It was popular about the time I was born, so the images it inspires are made from something other than experience. I listen hard to imagine a time when such a gentle thing could have been on the radio, and I wonder what it said to people who took it to heart.
All of these songs seem like artifacts from an innocent world, which is both a distortion and absolutely true. A distortion, because we were never as innocent as we like to think, and absolutely true, because nothing like them would ever make it big in our cynical age.
More instrumentals followed, and I was distracted by the car wash, but the hangover of this little trip back in time is with me now, an hour or so later. And I wonder what the hell it all means, this involuntary coming-unstuck-in-time. Is it a symptom of age? Evidence of the fact that my life today is neither what I expected nor what I wanted it to be? Or is it for the same reason I have always time-traveled—because the past seems happily manageable while the present seems chaotic and the future looks dark and menacing?
Maybe manageable isn’t the right word. Maybe malleable is better. What we love about the past may be that it’s happily malleable. We can make of it what we like. What we remember is not what really was. If we were granted our wish to go back to whatever season we would like to relive, we would certainly be shocked at how foreign it seems. And so we travel in time at our peril, especially if we expect to learn lessons we can use in the present. (Would that the conservatives who want to turn back the clock to 1958 or 1948 or 1888 understood this.)
But I find comfort in such travel, however unfaithful to reality it may be.
It was Kurt Vonnegut who wrote about being “unstuck in time,” in Slaughterhouse-Five. He explained that residents of the planet Tralfamadore are able to live in all of their moments at once. When they look up into the night sky, they don’t see points of light, they see streaks of spaghetti. They see everywhere a star has ever been and everywhere it will ever go. When a Tralfamadorian dies, his fellows do not mourn. They recognize that at one particular point, yes, he’s dead, but there are many other points at which he’s alive and well.
Although I lack the Tralfamadorian ability to see every moment at once, I do what I can. Sometimes I remember my parents as younger, my grandparents as living, old friends as not lost. I hold my girlfriend’s hand in the 70s. Forty people sing along with “Born to Run” in my college apartment. Ann walks up the aisle to me in 1983. We laugh ourselves silly at a wedding in the 90s. Sometimes I just look at the color and the angle of the light.