Page Two: Dancing at the Revolution With the Radio On!
Louis Black recalls the joys of driving around and falling in love with pop songs
In these politically dark times, writing about what brings us joy may seem frivolous and self-indulgent. The layering of the federal government's blatantly hypocritical agenda, which almost abusively serves the interests of big business while pretending to cater to the working classes, combined with this state's diversionary championing of restrictive and oppressive social legislation, is more dark ages than modern times. Though this seems to demand only the most serious responses, isn't answering in kind giving in to the mindset of despair, anger, and hate? "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution," insisted Emma Goldman, the great anarchist and political activist.
Got the car, got the AM (Radio on)
Got the AM sound, got the (Radio on)
Got the rockin' modern neon sound (Radio on)
– Jonathan Richman, "Roadrunner"
When I was growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, though access to music was very restricted (radio and record player) this actually resulted in the joy of regularly stumbling upon great new music that was unexpected. The situation made what was listened to far more communal because the very narrow playlists of AM radio meant that most listeners experienced the full range of current songs.
This was really brought home when we attended an in-progress screening of Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids, a concert film by Jonathan Demme, with our friend Fab 5 Freddy. After the screening, as much as I had enjoyed the film, I realized I had not been familiar with even one song in it. Hit songs were no longer as commonly shared as they had been once.
During high school years, lots of time was spent aimlessly driving around, interrupted only by the occasional stop at Wetson's for hamburgers or Carvel for ice cream. Although the travel itself was mundane and repetitive, the music on the radio was anything but, as we first encountered so many extraordinary songs including "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry, "Happy Together" by the Turtles, the Beatles' "Penny Lane," "(We Ain't Got) Nothin' Yet" by the Blues Magoos, the Soul Survivors' "Expressway to Your Heart," Aretha Franklin's "Respect," Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her," and Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," among so many others.
Driving home after spending a spring weekend at a friend's family bungalow in Mt. Freedom, N.J., we were knocked out by our first listen to the Doors' "Light My Fire." A few months later, hitchhiking back to that same bungalow, we waited a long time before a car finally stopped. Only when we got in it did we realize both driver and passenger were quite drunk. Although trying to keep quiet, we both still got excited when the Beatles' new single "Love Is All You Need" came on. This led the passenger to loudly ask his friend, "Hey, haven't you threatened to hurt anyone who liked this song?" The only response was a mutter, but we were still relieved when he soon stopped to let us out.
One summer afternoon, after I had begun college, visiting back in Jersey, my friend Bozie and I were picked up by our pal Henri for a drive. We slid into the front seat beside her as the back was already taken by her girlfriends, two rather sweet heroin users and their dealer. Right after we got in, "The Ballad of John and Yoko" came on the radio. As soon as it finished, we wanted to hear it again so Bozie and I began to search the radio dial, changing stations nonstop. Finally the dealer in the backseat, interrupting stories about her upper-class doctor and lawyer clientele, lashed out at us, insisting we stop. We did.
Finding music was an effort during long drives up and down the East Coast as AM stations' signals were so limited. Even when found, most of what was being played was just garbage. This made songs like Don McLean's "American Pie" and Harry Chapin's "Taxi," though guilty pleasures, so welcome, especially when the longer versions were lucked into, because they filled long stretches.
Late in the fall of 1973 I left the home of friends in South Carolina just after midnight headed toward Sarasota, Fla. The rural backroads I traveled on the way to the main highway were so dark that my VW bug's weak headlights barely lit the way. There were few radio stations in the area so I was turning the radio knob much of the time. Finally I landed on a station, though just before the car crested a hill, the night exploding before me into the blazing light of a huge monstrous glowing sparking power plant far off to the right. Weird already, it all got stranger as the car filled with the sound of a deep sonorous voice carefully enunciating, "You're listening to W-E-A-K Radio, the weak voice of Rainbow Valley ... Where the blue of the night meets [now singing] the gold of the day." The voice continued, "And now for your Saturday morning listening pleasure W-E-A-K presents another weak program Lester Moran, the old Roadhog, and his Cadillac Cowboys." It was obviously a goof of some sort, though only later did I learn this was a recurrent Statler Brothers bit. But the best part was that it ran long, really long.
A couple of years later on a cross-country drive from Vermont through Cleveland to Kansas, we were at first more than surprised to hear Phoebe Snow's "Poetry Man" being played at all. In late 1974, a few months before, I had visited Phoebe, a friend since 7th grade, at home in Teaneck, N.J. After I had excitedly asked how her forthcoming debut album on Shelter Records was going to do, she took me to the bathroom, flushing the toilet as a way of showing how she expected it to perform. Some of this was Phoebe's expectation of the worst and some, I'm sure, because, having alienated certain people at the record company, she did not expect much support.
Yet, instead we heard it not occasionally but again and again on station after station across the country as we traveled. There might have been a lack of promotion, but historically "Poetry Man" proved to be one of the last songs broken by deejays who fell in love with the single, playing it over and over, until it became a hit. As we traveled we got to hear that happen in real time.
See part two in next week’s “Page Two” column.