Sunday, April 26, 2015

Radio Silence

I first started listening to Vin Scelsa’s radio show when I moved to New York, late 1987.  Even then, he was known as the last of the free-form disc jockeys.  Way back when rock radio as we’ve come to know it was born in the late 1960’s, and with FM radio taking off simultaneously, radio DJ’s of that time were often given leeway to “do their thing.”  Provided they had good taste in music, could carry on a dialogue with the audience and knew when to program “In A Gadda Da Vida” when they had to take a piss or get high … they were in.
That changed dramatically in the 1970’s as rock and roll grew into a massive corporation, complete with marketing segmentation that over-took radio programming as it was the only way at the time to hear new music.  I wouldn’t say this “killed” music but it isolated it to certain audiences for certain kinds of music, which I was acutely aware of as a teenager in the late 70’s.  We were conditioned to listen to only rock, classic rock, think Jethro Tull, Bad Company, Pink Floyd, etc.  (I went through a long, long period of hating Jethro Tull because they were so over-played on 70’s rock radio … only to realize way down the road that they were a fantastic band.)
The free-form DJ’s of the 60’s found themselves trying to fit in with the new, harder-line rock formats of the 70’s.  They used to be able to play anything they wanted, talk about whatever they wanted, when rock radio was like open-field running.  I was too young to grasp it, but it must have been beautiful.  I’m sure it was still something to behold in the 70’s if you lived near a major city like New York as name DJ’s were still allowed a certain amount of freedom to program music they loved and wanted their listeners to hear.
Well, that disappeared almost completely by the 1980’s.  I found myself listening to college radio (as I was in college) and loving all those indie bands that felt genuinely underground and very much alive in a time when mainstream rock was growing long in the tooth.  For a lot of those free-form DJ’s, they had a few options.  Lock in with the programming of a major rock station and play along.  Take a large step back and return to college radio, where they’d still be allowed total freedom to do any kind of show they wanted.  Or pray that a major rock station would give them an off-hour time slot to do their thing, what the station would consider a dead zone for listening.
Vin got that last option at K-Rock, one of the few remaining classic-rock stations in the New York area.  They dumped him into the Sunday morning time slot … rock and roll!  Who in the hell is rocking and rolling on Sunday morning?  Nobody.
Which was great, as Vin wouldn’t have to go into some dickhead DJ spiel about the new Def Leppard or what have you, which must have been like eating a shit sandwich for all those older DJ’s from the 60’s and 70’s.  Management must have said, Vin, relatively speaking, nobody’s listening, just do your thing, and provided you don’t have dead air, we’ll get along fine.
I can’t recall exactly how it started with Vin and me.  I do recall my lifestyle at the time.  Mid-to-late 20’s.  Living in the Bronx.  New to New York City.  Loving it, having no idea I had moved there at the height of the crack epidemic, had no idea that glass vials cracking under my feet on the sidewalk every morning was unusual, or the sight and smell of dozens of homeless people camped out in a subway station.  This was “normal” to me as I had no other urban experience to gauge it against.  The city was new to me, and I was usually out and about on Friday and Saturday nights, seeing bands downtown, hitting the bars, coming back hammered on a subway train at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning.
Sunday morning, much like the Kris Kristofferson song, was coming down.  More often than not, I was hungover, or just tired from being out most of the previous night.  What I’d usually do was force myself into a morning run, up around the Jerome Park Reservoir, get the Sunday papers and some orange juice on the way back, and spend the rest of the day recuperating.
Vin’s radio show, Idiots Delight, went a long way towards helping me feel human again.  He had the right-sounding voice for this sort of thing: deep, soothing, empathetic.  He made thousands of listeners feel like an old friend was talking to them, which was no small feat.  A lot of his long-time fans focus in on this aspect of his show, distinctly recalling how he talked millions of listeners through the death of John Lennon in December 1980 when he was on WNEW, the big rock station of that time.
For me, it was the music.  He had great, nearly all-encompassing taste in music, which would have a huge influence on me in terms of keeping my radar up at time in life when most people shut down and resort to the rock bands of their teenage years, forever more.  No.  Maybe I was lucky enough to experience the 80’s indie-music boom to know that was not an option.  Vin reinforced my desire to branch out musically, to take in as much as I could from wherever I could.  Not everything.  I recall Vin playing very little hiphop.  Or celtic.  Or country.  He wasn’t Superman and wasn’t going to play all kinds of music.
Which was fine by me, as I wasn’t going to like or appreciate all kinds of music.  (I find myself slowly making amends with hiphop, but we’re talking baby steps with the more tasteful stuff of the past two or three decades.  Most of it still sounds lame to me.  And I shouldn’t single it out – there’s plenty of music that sounds lame to me, many genres.  I know enough about music to know there are oceans of music out there I will never like, and not to sweat it, as there are still oceans of music out there for me to discover before I get out of here.)
But even knowing this, Vin would splurge every now and then.  I still recall him playing “Can I Kick It” by A Tribe Called Quest because it used the infamous bass line from “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed.  And he’s played tons of folk and alternative country over the years.  Not to mention jazz, all sorts.  Show tunes (which I can’t stand).  Classical.  Experimental.  Rock from just about every genre in every decade.  Soul.  Reggae.  Spoken word.  He spanned genres, far beyond the well laid-out marketing strategies of any number of stations, and much to K-Rock’s credit, given free rein to do so.  They didn’t care.  It was like giving Thomas Edison his own lab, unlimited time and resources, and told, “Have fun, turn the lights off when you leave.”
The first time he got to me was with a relatively unknown New York City band called Just Desserts and their song, “Water Under the Bridge.”  That song rang so true to me, where I was living, in the city, detailing the odd feelings of alienation and urgency that are constants here, and that nagging sense of desperation in the lines, “Why, why, why/must I/go on” repeated.  It was a perfect track from a great album that I’d find weeks later at Bleecker Bob’s (possibly the shittiest independent record store I’ve ever been in).  If you bought it now, you wouldn’t go wrong.  Larry Fessenden from the band has gone on to minor fame as an indie horror film director.  Hell, the last album Just Desserts put out a few years ago is also well worth your time.
Vin was always doing that, turning his listeners on to new artists.  And you knew with Vin, if you listened every week, certain songs would grab him, the same way they grabbed you, and not let go.  That was cool.  Very cool.  Unheard of in rock radio once it became a marketing scheme.  They played songs because they were told to.  Vin played them because he had to … it was just dying to get out.  And he’d have no problem scanning decades and genres in a four-song set.  Or playing the same song twice because it was kicking his ass.  He’d spend 10 minutes talking about why a certain song meant so much to him.
Sometimes you’d say, man, fuck this guy, play another song already.  But more often than not, you would listen, if not rapt, then glad to hear someone expounding on why he loved something the same way you would with a friend over dinner.  I need to stress this because reality is, most DJ’s are automatons.  They do what they’re told.  They have a certain kind of voice/personality that fits the marketing demographic, and there’s a real emptiness to it that makes listening to radio a very dull experience most of the time.  What Vin did over the course of his radio lifetime was make the show his, so much so that his show was unmistakable and so freewheeling that you had to listen.  Or not.  Maybe that’s why I loved his show so much, he reinforced the concept of listening, which was a lost art from even in the 80’s, much less now after a decade or two of mass societal self-absorption.
Eventually, Vin got booted to Sunday night, which pissed me off.  Until I realized, listening to him for hours on Sunday night was an even more relaxing experience, getting me into the right frame of mind to face work the next day.  If anything, I’d stay up too late listening to his show as sometimes he’d quit at 11:00, sometimes he’d go until early morning hours.  Not before or since have I felt at home with any radio show … not that I’ve been looking either.
And a few years after that, K-Rock dumped everybody but Howard Stern, shifted formats, world turning.  Vin went back to WFUV, a college station he had worked at years ago at the start of his career.  Frankly, it was no defeat.  College radio stations near major cities have become a bastion for good radio, if not fully free-form, then close enough: tasteful DJ’s with enough musical savvy to create a good flow and keep listeners’ attention.  His leash became much shorter, putting him into a two-hour time slot, but honestly, it forced him to tighten up and concentrate on the music.
Still, I have to admit, for years, I lost touch with him and his show, hardly listened at all.  I don’t know what happened … I just fell out.  I’m thinking from the mid-2000’s onward, I faded out on him when he went back to WFUV.
But then, something happened: the house fire I’ve written about that had me living on the edge of Queens for almost two years.  Displaced, feeling out of sorts, not sure where my life was going.  That was a real strange but instructional time in my life, where I learned a lot about adapting to new environments and what I needed to live.  Christ, I was living in an empty apartment with a lawn chair and a roll out bed!  (The problem was we were never sure when all of us could move back to the house after the fire.  At first it was two months.  Then four.  Then eight.  After a year, I thought, man, I may never move back there.  By which point I had been living spartanly for so long that I didn’t care.  The call to move back finally came about a year and three months later.)
When I was in that apartment, I had a laptop to play DVD’s on, a Kindle, a small 3G USB Broadband device for an internet connection, and a Radio Shack table-top radio.  It was then that Vin came back into my life.  Every Saturday night, at 8:00.  Nothing had changed, really, it was still Vin doing his thing, playing a mindblowing mix of stuff, making it all work with his warmth and personality, the old friend calling out over the airwaves.  He helped get me through a very strange, troubling time.  You need those kind of connections when your life has been turned upside down.
I’ve been there ever since, rarely missing his show.  I picked up Sirius radio a few months ago, and something tells me I’m going to be dumping it soon as I hardly ever listen to it.  In theory, I should love it.  But I just haven’t found DJ’s on it that have what Vin had, that sense of putting together a weekly show with a beginning, middle and end, the story of his life that week as told in songs and conversation.  Is there anyone else like that on Sirius?  Sure, there’s a lot of great music on there … but I already have a lot of it.  The presentation of most of it is graceless.  I also have TuneIn Radio on my iPhone, for free, and I gather if I did some research I could find DJ’s all over America that tap into Vin’s similar free-form background.  I feel like I’m wasting $15/month on Sirius and am days away from dumping it, especially knowing that Vin is leaving.  (His Saturday show actually appeared earlier in the week on Sirius.)
I saw Vin today at a small club on the lower East Side at a gathering of his dedicated listeners over the years.  He had shown up unexpectedly, most people assumed it was a gathering of his fans commiserate and salute his farewell to radio.  But there he was.  It seemed like he made a point of talking to everybody in the room.  I’m sure he’s getting this treatment everywhere he goes this week as the last show of his nearly 50-year career is on Saturday.  When he came by me, I simply said, “Vin, I’ll miss you” and shook his hand.  That’s it.  And it’s true.  Life will go on without him, as it will without me, or you.  I wish he’d change his mind and do a few more years, but such is life.  Frankly, I wish I could take his place!  But for now, I’ll just get that sense of world turning I got when I stood at the intersection of Bleecker Street and The Bowery earlier in the day and couldn’t believe how sanitized and “rich” it felt now.  Things change, for better and worse.  The world's gone to shit?  I don't know about that.  But it just got a little colder.