I don’t really remember listening to the radio when I was really little. It just wasn’t a big deal to my parents. I guess I have some memories of the standards that played on their clock radio when they woke up to WNEW-AM in the mornings. It wasn’t until the summer of 1969, when I was picked up in the mornings to go to day camp, that I remember listening to the top-40 station, WABC, and for the first time really being captivated by rock music. I think my life-long obsession with music and radio truly began during the summers of 1972 and 1973 when I worked as a DJ at the radio station at Timber Lake Camp, WTLC (which appears no longer to exist). Somehow, my 11 and 12-year old self understood the mystery and power of broadcasting, even on a tiny, closed circuit station in a sleep away camp in Phoenicia, New York. I learned that radio was best for allowing imagination to fly. You didn’t know who the DJ was, you didn’t know what the studio looked like, and you could envision anything you wanted about the songs. Also, it was fun to play music that you liked (although we had very few records at camp), and talk about them.
My musical tastes moved from pop hits on tinny AM stations to the more interesting FM dial not too long after, and again, there was a progression from the more commercial outlets, like WPLJ to the then free-form “progressive” WNEW-FM. I remember during high school spinning the dial on the stereo in my room, looking for good music, on all of the rock stations in the New York area, and even discovering the wild world of college radio stations at, what the Replacements later referred to as the “Left of the Dial.”
By the time I went to college, I was hooked on music, and I’m pretty sure that my father still has nightmares about helping me carry box after box of heavy vinyl records up the four flights to my freshman year room. I considered joining the college station, WPRB, but held off until second semester, when I had gotten my feet wet academically, and my first extracurricular activity, the marching band, wound down a bit after football season. Working at WPRB was a transformative event in my life, much of which I’ve discussed in other pieces here and elsewhere. It exposed me to all sorts of music, it gave me a peer group of similarly minded people with strong opinions about music and the willingness to argue about it, it gave me ability to think on my feet, speak publicly and educate others. It exposed me to the music business, gave me the chance to interview musicians and humorists and allowed me to introduce acts from the stage. It gave me some experience with running a business, dealing with both managers and volunteer workers and taught me something about leadership. And it conditioned my brain to think of musical themes.
Each of these things has, in some way, affected my subsequent life—school, work, relationships, raising children, volunteer work and music blogging. So, yeah, radio has been important to me. Even with the options of CDs, iTunes, streaming services and satellite radio, I still listen to radio regularly (both in the car, and streaming on my computer), mostly to WFUV-FM, whose DJs clearly have a similar love of the medium (and more so, I guess, because they have been willing to take the risks inherent in making radio a career). But outside of WFUV, I find most radio around here unlistenable for long periods, either because of dullness of their playlists, or their commercials, or their lack of intelligent DJs, which is, ironically, the result of the success of the medium in making money.
Van Morrison has clearly been deeply affected by radio, although in his case, it has influenced the creation of his music. I’ve often joked that every Van Morrison song mentions radio, and while that is a bit of hyperbole, other than “Wavelength,” which I feature above, there are, at least, “Caravan,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Domino,” “In The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Call Me Up In Dreamland,” “Take Me Back,” “On Hyndford Street,” “T.B. Sheets,” “Real, Real Gone” and “The New Symphony Sid."
There is an argument to be made that I should have written about “Caravan,” which I think is a consensus pick as a better song, in general, and a better song about radio, but I decided to go with “Wavelength,” in part because of its title. But the song is cleverly about radio in two different ways. Morrison starts the song off by making it clear that, at least initially, he is talking about “wavelength” metaphorically as the connection between a couple—
This is a song about your wavelength
And my wavelength, baby
You turn me on
When you get me on your wavelength
But later, the song segues into a reminiscence listening to music on the Voice of America, particularly Ray Charles, and then Van throws in a little reference to hearing his own “Brown Eyed Girl.”
The version in the video above (I recently got a “take down notice” for posting “Come On Eileen,” and I am concerned that posting a downloadable version of another mainstream hit like “Wavelength” might lead to another) is the original, featuring the distinctive synthesizer part (played by Peter Bardens, best known, I guess, as a member of Camel), which is reminiscent of radio waves. Here’s a live version, from a 1980 performance in Montreux that downplays the synths for horns and a bit more soul.
The power of radio has stayed with me since I was a child, which has been great for me, and clearly has influenced Van Morrison to create his brilliant body of work, which is even better for the world.
Wednesday, April 30, 2014