Highway 61 Revisited

Jay Trachtenberg

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

Jay Trachtenberg is a true child of the Sixties. Not because of his love for the Grateful Dead or his devout worship of the estimated prophet Jerry Garcia. Not because up until recently he folded his tall, lanky frame in and out of a little faded-red VW bug. And not because he's been known to wear tie-dye and sports a long, thin ponytail often hidden down the back of one of his impeccably tasteful, professional attire work shirts. Jay Trachtenberg is a child of the Sixties because he embodies the ideals of a generation that changed the world.

"I graduated from high school June, 1968," explains the longtime local writer, deejay, music scenester. "Between the start of '68 and the time I graduated, that six months period, Martin Luther King was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated -- two months apart, the two biggest leaders in the country on the left. You had riots in the streets, anti-war demonstrations, assassinations, you had Vietnam on your TV set every night on the news. You had all this 'anti-establishment' music -- all this stuff. And here I was this adolescent, 16, 17 years old."

He laughs, a familiar boyish grin matching the mischief in his warm brown eyes.

"It's really hard to imagine now what it was like, but it was nuts! It was nuts."

In a time when this country's biggest political issue is that a president of the United States actually had sexual relations with a woman not his wife, it's indeed hard to imagine a decade that was on the brink of chaos at almost every point. If revolution is defined as social, political, and cultural upheaval, then those adolescents who came of age in the Sixties wearing their Che Guevara T-shirts were in uniform. Never in the nation's history had what was essentially a youth movement affected so much change in modern society. Even Trachtenberg, a good kid, the jock who spent as much time on the basketball court as he did on the beaches of Southern California, was at odds with authority.

"Here we were, the privileged offspring of this generation that had to suffer through the Depression as kids, spend their salad years fighting through [World War II] to protect democracy, and here we were rebelling against [Vietnam], which to them, certainly at the beginning, fighting communism was the same as fighting the Nazis. And they couldn't understand why their kids were against the war."

Born in the Bronx, 1950, Trachtenberg grew up in Los Angeles after his parents, themselves from the Bronx and Brooklyn, moved the family to "the Promised Land" when Jay was a year old. Living first in the city and later moving to the suburbs, the family, which included Jay's younger brother Robert ("he was in the first 3,000-5,000 who died of AIDS in the early Eighties"), lived a typically middle-class existence, supported by the head of the household's window cleaning concern. Little did anyone know that one of the eldest sibling's favorite toys would become the vehicle through which change would ultimately manifest itself.

"My mother says that from the time I was really, really small, I had this little record player and I would just sit there and play records," he says. "The first record I remember getting, my father bought me: Bing Crosby's 'Mississippi Mud.' I liked that."

By the time he was 10, Trachtenberg had discovered rock & roll radio, not first-hand -- his parents listened to what would today be considered lounge music, Frank Sinatra, etc. -- but by cultural osmosis; he could hear the rock & roll out there. In 1965, then, at the ripe young age of 15, Trachtenberg was primed for the song that changed his life. That's all it ever takes -- one song.

"The Beatles were happening and the early Rolling Stones, and I'd heard of him, but I had never heard him: Bob Dylan. And the first time I heard 'Like a Rolling Stone' on the radio, that was it. That was it. It was so different from everything else. You had the snappy, two-minute hits, you had girl groups like the Supremes -- surf music; the Beach Boys were popular in Southern California.

"But in 1965, Highway 61 [Revisited] came out, and the single off of that was 'Like a Rolling Stone.' Here I was, a virgin listening to Top 40 radio, and all of a sudden 'Like a Rolling Stone' came on, and that just did it. I said to myself, 'There's a lot more going on out there than they're letting me in on.'"

Trachtenberg wasn't the only adolescent born in the post-WWII "baby boom" profoundly affected by Dylan. The whole music industry was rocked by the skinny songwriter from Duluth; the Byrds, Turtles, and even Sonny & Cher all had hits with Dylan songs that year. Popular music was exploding, and by the following year, Trachtenberg had experienced his first real concert: a radio promotion headlined by Sonny & Cher with Buffalo Springfield, the Seeds, Turtles, and Love.

"How many people can say they saw the Buffalo Springfield?" he chuckles.

Not many, probably, but Trachtenberg saw them all: Janis Joplin ("at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco"), Jimi Hendrix ("the week before Woodstock"), the Doors ("Morrison was drunk off his ass"), even Led Zeppelin ("somewhere at my mother's house is the bow the guitarist threw out into the audience"). Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, you name 'em, Trachtenberg saw them live.

"That was the whole generational thing," he explains. "Our parents were the straight people listening to Frank Sinatra on their adult contemporary stations, while we were growing our hair long, marching against the war, listening to Cream and Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones. I mean it was a war!"

So, too, was Vietnam, whose draft Trachtenberg "deferred" by enrolling as a pre-med (dental) at the University of California in cozy, coastal Santa Barbara, 1970. Given the times, he found it hard concentrating on math and applied science, so he switched his major to sociology, in which he would earn his bachelor's degree. It was also at UCSB, in 1973, that he began his first radio show.

"There was always this romantic thing about listening to the radio late at night with your earplug and your little Japanese Sputnik transistor. I always had this attachment to the radio. Having friends who were doing stuff on the student station, I just decided I wanted to do a show."

With acts of the day exposing their audiences to authentic American blues, Trachtenberg developed a serious interest in the genre, seeking out many of its progenitors in the live arena: Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and his favorite blues guitarist, B.B. King. In fact, while attending UCSB, Trachtenberg booked blues legends such as Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker ("on successive nights") for the student booking committee. Believe it or not, he even helped book Duke Ellington, at the end of his career, for two performances at the school. Trachtenberg credits the blues, via R&B, for introducing him to jazz; all those tasty R&B saxophone breaks eventually led him to purchase the Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk albums he'd find alongside old blues records in the used bins. And let's not forget the Grateful Dead.

"In 1971, when I saw the Dead for the first time, I stopped listening to all other rock & roll. I just stopped. I was listening to blues, R&B, and the Dead. Right around that time, 1973, I started getting into jazz because the improvisation aspect linked it all together."

After college, still in Santa Barbara supporting himself as a social worker by day and a deejay by night, the breakup of his first marriage made getting out of town look attractive, so he hit the road. Ending up in New York at the height of the city's "Loft" jazz scene in 1976, Trachtenberg found himself taking in yet another peer group of musicians who were defining their burgeoning musical movement: David Murray, Jimmy Lyons, Hamiet Bluiett, and Chico Freeman. When his father fell ill the next year, Trachtenberg returned home to run the family business. In 1978, back in Santa Barbara, he decided it was time to get out of California for good, so he applied to graduate school. The sociology program he most wanted into was at the University of Texas in Austin.

"I had heard about Austin," he recalls. "I'd seen Austin City Limits the first season, and I remember Alvin Crow and Marcia Ball. They were doing stuff the West Coast bands were doing, but it was so much more authentic. I remember running into this woman in Santa Barbara who said Austin was cool, and Kim Wilson, who I knew, was saying Austin was a cool place, too. Plus, what was really influential was Jan Reid's book, The [Improbable] Rise of Redneck Rock.

"When I got here, I had been doing my own version of Twine Time. My second day in town, I went to KUT with a tape of my show and I said, 'I'd like to do a show.' The woman in charge of hiring said, 'Well, we're not doing a show like that now, but if we do, we'll call you.' Six months later, I turn on the radio and there's Bill Bentley doing Twine Time, which was my show. My show. Then Larry [Monroe] ended up doing Blue Monday, so the blues was covered, R&B was covered."

At about this same time, '81-'82, Austin's new urban station, KAZI, went on the air. They were looking for deejays with both experience and knowledge of jazz, and Trachtenberg fit the bill perfectly, hitting the air with a bluesy jazz program called "Jazz Etc." Two years later, in 1984, Larry Monroe persuaded the powers that be at KUT, where Trachtenberg was already doing some sub work, that the mellow-voiced KAZI mainstay was the man for the Friday overnight shift that had just opened up. On the first Friday in February, 1985, on a night it had snowed and Trachtenberg was forced to haul two armfuls of Miles Davis LPs through the snow, "Jazz Etc." went on the air at KUT, midnight-5am. For the next 10 years.

"Ten years and one month, but who's counting," laughs Trachtenberg. "I realize now, radio has really changed in Austin since then. The only non-commercial back then was the classical music station, which probably wasn't even on overnight at that point. Then you had KAZI, which was playing whatever was kinda popular. KGSR wasn't on the air, KOOP/KVRX wasn't on the air. You had a couple of rock stations, and then there was KUT, and I was doing what I hope was a hip show, because there weren't a lot of alternatives Fridays."

It was and there weren't, but after 10 long years Trachtenberg had paid his dues, so when a prime-time slot opened in 1995, Wednesday nights, 8pm-midnight, he leaped at the chance. Three years later, this past July, he also quit his longtime job at Brackenridge Hospital's Child Sexual Abuse Center, a job he had had for nine and a half years. Sexually abused children and the music industry -- not exactly two like vocations. Yet the former career choice goes a long way in explaining Trachtenberg's personality: patient, kind, giving. All traits needed as KUT's new air staff manager, a position Trachtenberg took upon quitting at the hospital.

"This may sound sort of clichéd, but back in the Sixties there was a slogan: 'If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem,'" says Trachtenberg by way of explaining his work with sexually abused children. "So, maybe I took that to heart. And believe me, it's easier working child sexual abuse than at KUT."

He laughs.

"I mean, there will be a problem. Aielli will have a problem, and he'll come to me, and I'll slip up and joke about it. And he'll go, 'What's so funny? This is serious.' And I'll go, 'John, you don't know what serious is. I work in child sexual abuse. This is not serious. This is not serious."

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