Another guest piece from Bruce Brady.
Finally, at a few minutes before midnight, we were ready to get on the road. Idling along the side road by Kevin’s place in Laytonville, the bus – an old Gillig once owned by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Garberville, but now passing to Kevin – had been gutted except for the seat right by the front door; that was where I spent most of my time on the way to New Orleans, Golden Meadow, actually. Kevin, who’d organized the trip, had staked-out a cot he’d rigged right behind that would always be ready when the driver needed sleep; Coco had a space right across what used to be the aisle, right in front of the load; Ray had made a cozy place on top of the two-by-fours and the boxes of nails and the pier-blocks, alongside the windows in back; Dave was the first driver, who’d get us to LA.
Near midnight as it was, the time seemed somehow ceremonial. The five of us out there in the dust beside the road spoke our awkward goodbyes to the three or four wives and girlfriends there to see us off. All of them, I think, were there either with Kevin or with Ray. One of the women was burning sage, a blessing. We joined hands and asked that our journey be favored. We all made eye-contact. Those of us going to Golden Meadow climbed into the bus and got as comfortable as we could, and the bus finally pulled out onto the road, shifting heavily. Our contribution to relief following Katrina, we were on our way to build a radio station.
Exactly forty-five years before, conceivably even to the hour, Jim and Bob munched their hamburgers and slurped their shakes and tried to keep the fries off the floor of my dad’s ’57 Plymouth as we drove around more-or-less aimlessly on a hot summer night in the Sacramento suburbs. Brother Bill was on KXOA and boundful rebellion saturated the air like adolescent musk. With no forethought whatsoever, so far as I can recall, we soon pulled into KXOA’s gravel lot. I knew right where it was because it was close by and I passed it whenever I’d drive my mother to work; she was the head telephone operator at the El Dorado Hotel, at the end of the access road past the station. It seemed sort of mysterious, and it seemed somehow very cool out there beside the freeway. Its tower loomed impressively high, right behind the low slung, cinder block building. It was spooky, I remember, the way its red light blinked so slowly and so silently, way, way up there at the top and yet so close, somehow.
Probably six or eight years before that, all foggy and distant, lie a pair of dim memories that, together, mark the farthest nether-end of my experience of radio. A couple of times in every summer of my childhood, my dad would have three or four of my mom’s eight brothers over in the afternoon to listen to the Portland Beavers on the radio, which he’d already moved out onto the front patio and connected by extension cord to the nearest inside plug. The Portland Beavers games were partly sponsored, I remember, by Lucky Lager beer, which also sponsored my other distant radio memory, which will be along in a minute. My dad and my uncles and, in time, gangly and awkward, eight-year-old me, took turns stuffing the ever-running garden hose down fresh mole holes; then everybody sat back, the men drank their beers as the game went on, talking about guy-stuff, I guess; anybody who saw one of the unfortunate rodents stick up its head to breathe took a shot at it, sometimes two crack crack from the .22 rifle each rested on his lap. Distances were usually forty feet or more and nobody was much of a shot, so most of the ugly little diggers with the odd feet lived to chew another day. The neighbors never seemed to mind.
Every Saturday night, my other memory happened; after dark but before Lucky Lager Dance Time came on, I’d often unscrew the radio from its plastic box and slide it out. I was absolutely sure that, if you stared hard and close enough, you could watch the twirling dancers, down there in the glowing tops of the tubes. The minuscule dancers were always in formal dress and, exactly in time with the music, spun around and around and around.
Improbable magic like that is the very stuff of radio; in a way that movies or television can almost never touch, radio can engage our imagination, and that magic has lasted all my life. Forty years later, my distant friend Berk phoned one rainy Tuesday night to ask if I would like to share a music show with he and another distant friend, Michael, on KMUD, a community radio station which had just begun broadcasting from Garberville, twenty miles up the highway. Middle-age found me teaching high school, first in Leggett and then in Laytonville, and I lived beside the Eel River, so the show we agreed to do became The Wild River Radio Show. When I left the rotation one show short of eighteen years later in order to move to Eugene, I was the only one of the original three of us still alive. When this sort of thing happens to us, we call it life.
Back in the early seventies, shortly after I first started teaching, I remember stapling the sleeve from an A & M record of Joan Baez’s onto the bulletin board by the door: white-on-black, it was eye-catching and bold (and appropriate for an lp record). ‘Listen to your world,’ it directed everyone who looked at it, which was pretty much everyone who came into the room. Music wasn’t my life, to be sure, but it was the soundtrack.
Back when I was a young man, Simon & Garfunkle were on FM with the Byrds. The first time I ever saw Bob Dylan was when he stood awkwardly beside the fireplace in the Student Union at U.C. Davis just before Kennedy was shot in Dallas, and we faced two radios across the room from each other so we could hear stereo. Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger were with us through the sixties, and were with us on through the end of Viet Nam. One of my cousins – almost exactly the same age as me — put a gun into the back of his mouth in a sleazy Seattle bathroom a few months before because they wouldn’t let him go back for the third time. The Band, The Eagles, Janis. As our lives unfolded, so did the music. Jimi, the Stones, maybe Clapton or Leadbelly, or a blind black guy from some vague place in the south. We got mortgages and Master Card payments, and we got Willie and Waylon and Merle, and we got high and then we even got grandkids and divorce and the whole yeasty and sometimes messy lot of it. This was how and what we lived, and in this really weird way, radio at least made the long story of our lives easy to dance to, and most of those of us left still like the music.
I have a theory (one of thousands) that every person who’s into music at any level – composer, performer, accompanist, dancer, listener — and encompassing absolutely every sort of music – is a closet DJ. All of us love to play music for others: “You’ve got to listen to this . . . .” To slide in there at the mic and the hundreds of lights and sliders and buttons and know that you’re about to go out all over the world – to Baghdad and Mumbai, to Covelo — is, for the sensitive, one of the great and good feelings, right up there with orgasms, glorious bowel movements, and long-awaited sneezes. I imagine that being on-air somehow serves to bolster our egos against the great silence out there, to insist – against all evidence – on our special importance, not least to give long evolution some sort of presentable beat. But the real truth is probably a good deal simpler than that
Making great radio is like the third out at home after a dazzling line-throw from deep center to the crouching catcher as if the two of them were alone on the earth with just the larcenous runner; it is, I suppose (because I have never done so) like bagging a duck out there on the marsh at dawn, like hearing “Yes” when you really want to hear “Yes”. Playing music for other people on an operating radio station is sort of like that. I once rode for maybe eight-thousand miles beside the guy who was responsible for getting the site ready for a few years of Kate Wolf Folk Festivals and Earthdances. Seeing the satisfaction of good work done well glowing in every atom of his body was like playing music on the radio; I’ve seen the look on the face of a chef sending painstaking food to a table. Great sex, as I recall. That’s very much more than what it is like: that’s what it is. Verily.
I remember late one night at a hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Amid much other fun, I turned on the radio and got some smoky-voiced woman on WWOZ letting all within the sound of her voice know that “We’re only here ‘cause you turn us on.” At least fifty per-cent of her audience is biologically programmed to respond positively to that particular message, clearly the plan. What followed was an hour or two of New Orleans funk and blues and zydeco and rock-and-roll and talk which ambled back-and-forth between the local French patois and the kind of English we can understand out here on the left edge. Underwriting announcements from blues clubs and shrimp spices, as I recall. News of who was playing where.
A few years ago, a friend loaned me a couple of books on the history of FM radio. Somewhere in one of them, the author defined ‘great radio.’ He said that a great radio station sounds like the place that it comes from; it seems impossible to improve on this definition.
And then, of course, there’s the constant fact that, as the person behind the voice coming out of the speakers, you are expected to know everything. Twice I was on the air when an earthquake or one of its aftershocks struck the North Coast, and everyone, it seemed, believed that I somehow knew more than they did about what had just happened. As folks came in to help however they could, and as the hours and the calls went by, things gradually clarified. Looking through the tiny office windows at a couple of women I didn’t know as they fielded phone calls, I remember thinking that this, somehow, was exactly how that thing called ‘community radio’ was supposed to function, that ‘community’ looked just like us.
Days have passed since the last was written, a couple of weeks. Egypt has happened throughout that time, and as I write, unmeasured thousands are singing Kumbaya with locked arms and in a hitherto-unknown (to me) square in Cairo, watched all the while by Army tanks, oddly smiling guys in camo, and uncountable lethal weapons. Taken together, its moving and its frightening aspects are precisely balanced. But the truly odd thing here (for me) is that radio has not at all been the main way I’ve followed it. Radio is one important part of the knowing – I listen to Pacifica and NPR and PRI and BBC – but most of what I witness comes from either internet sources or television receivable by internet, which is most of it if you live in a place with broadband. And then there is the print internet, and all of the newspapers and magazines and blogs from the old man looking down at the street from his sixth-floor apartment in some town you’ve never heard of just outside Alexandria.
In the end, and regardless of whatever the self-proclaimed experts and the talking heads will find to say about it, the world will have its way with us. And some of us – perhaps not most, but a significant number – will be convinced that we will need to know and a part of that needing to know will be to hear a version of what’s happening from someone we maybe even saw at the grocery last week, someone on that broke and funky, but somehow endearing, community radio station, someone now twirling in fast, tiny circles down there, inside the wires.