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Radio Ragga

By Scott Puckett

Every so often, I tackle a piece of music criticism that's really too weighty for anyone but Paul Williams and a select handful of writers who also experience music as religion more than employment. I suspect it's why I write less about the music and more about the effect it has on me; it is a terribly narcissistic way to approach it, but this is a fanzine and I am a fan, and it may be the case that in my struggle to understand why I respond as I do to music that you may recognize something you have also felt.

Usually when I'm driving to work, I listen to tapes I've made, or old cassettes that I never got rid of after I finished high school. The other day, I was listening to "New Day Rising" on the way to work. Driving up the 15, window down, needle around 80 or so, coffee in my hand and Grant Hart thudding alone in lightspeed 4/4 hardcore time - that fucking tremendous intro pounding in my ears and the anticipation of that slight feedback before all hell breaks loose. Those beats seem like a goddamn eternity, and then Bob Mould's Flying V comes blasting in like a fucking Apache gunship on a strafing run, low and fast, spraying distorted shrapnel everywhere.

But sometimes I don't want to listen to a tape. Sometimes I don't want to hear the same thing I heard yesterday. Most of the time, I lock the dial in at the local bebop jazz station until it fades out of reception. After that, I'm afraid I'm about the worst when it comes to changing stations. I will scan through the stations from home to work and back again. It's a distance of about 20 miles, and unless I hear something that grabs my ear - anything that grabs my ear - I keep moving. The road rushes under my wheels, the coffee steams in the cup holder, my finger pushes buttons, my eyes watch the road. Everything has an assigned function - wheels, hands, coffee, eyes - and it all works properly until my finger pushes a button and my ears perk up.

It can be anything, really. Like most people, what I want to hear depends on my mood, and typically it isn't what's on the radio. As an example, an old pop/soul band called Chairman of the Board did a great song - I think it's called "Give Me Just A Little More Time" - that a radio programmer sees fit to throw into the rotation about every six months. When I stumble across it, I'm still in awe. The band, as far as I know, had one hit, but what a hit! Plaintive, pleading vocals, every last word imbued with regret, sorrow and the desire to make things work out. The bass is a rumbling foundation, and a rocky one - it's clear from the musical underpinnings that the way back is not easy. Yet every time I hear this song, my hand, as if it had a mind of its own, turns the volume knob all the way to the right and keeps spinning it, trying to increase the volume more. My hands and feet start tapping and I try to sing along with the words I know, even though the song is entirely out of my vocal range and I usually wind up engaged in something much closer to yelping. Luckily for my friends, I usually only do this when alone.

Far more frequently, I'll be listening to a radio station as I'm on the road and hear a song that grabs me. It could be new, it could be old - it just makes me dance in my seat and try to figure out the chorus so I can start yelling along. Then the radio station fades out or the DJ never says what song it is. In fact, for years I didn't know who did the aforementioned song; it was only this year that a DJ finally mentioned Chairman of the Board (side note to all DJs: tell people what you fucking play!!!). It's the nature of radio, I guess. I can hear a song in the middle of nowhere that rocks my world, pull over to the side of the road and wait to see if I can find out what it is and after 15 minutes, I still won't even know what radio station I'm listening to. I pull back onto the highway and start driving again with the knowledge that I might have hallucinated the song because I can't prove it ever existed and within 5 minutes, static fills the band where a song once played.

Maybe the song means more to me that way - I hear it once, knowing while I listen that I'll probably never hear it again and so I struggle to remember every note, every chord. Of course I can't - it's part of the game. I know as I listen that I'll try to remember and still forget the song in time, and that those notes and words will be lost to me. Perhaps their transience makes them more significant than they would be if I had that record on my shelf. Perhaps that fleeting contact makes them mean infinitely more to me than they would if I could reach over and turn on my stereo and hear it any time I wanted. Perhaps the combination of luck and unavailability, and the knowledge that it is distinctly temporal, make a simple pop song significant, if only for three minutes and change.

The point is that I just don't want to hear the latest MOR guitar pop one hit wonder. I really don't care about indistinguishable bands that sound the same, look the same and express the same vapid emotions in song and fail to reveal anything real. They're the emotional equivalent of processed food - it may temporarily address a hunger, but it isn't nutritious or filling. They don't move me.

These bands (there's really no point in naming them since they will most likely be forgotten and replaced by some other interchangeable manufactured pop star by the time you read this), treat each lyric as an epiphany, a profound emotional breakthrough which must be communicated to everyone within earshot, whether listeners want to hear it or not. You can put your heart in a blender and watch it spin around into a beautiful oblivion because s/he's so high above you and you can love them always forever, near and far, closer together and even though you don't want to miss a thing it still doesn't mean a fucking thing because it ain't got that swing. It's just another goddamn pop song which is, if anything, more embarrassing than any of the sparkling musical gems contained in Herman and the Hermits' catalog ("Mrs. Brown," indeed).

With that said, I have to confess that some pop gets me. Some of it always has and some of it always will. Luckily, most of it is musically respectable. I really don't mind stopping to listen to a Bruce Springsteen song because even his throwaway songs carry more emotional weight and substance than the most heartfelt efforts of more contemporary and currently popular musicians (witness "Dancing in the Dark," a song he wrote at Jon Landau's request to flesh out the "Born in the U.S.A." album. It's a three-minute castoff of a pop ditty that expresses more world-weariness and confusion than songs that set out to capture exactly those feelings, such as anything by Fastball or Matchbox 20/Twenty).

I don't mind stumbling across The Band, or some Dylan or Byrds songs. Van Morrison always receives a reprieve from the FM band scan. Dire Straits makes me cry, so I let the dial hold when I hear Mark Knopfler's characteristic chording. And every once in a while, I hear something truly astonishing that violates every written and unwritten rule of programming, like a DJ slapping on all 10 minutes of Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" at drive time or playing the live version of The Alarm's "Rescue Me" from the "Electric Folklore" EP or any version of "The Spirit of '76." At times like that, I just pull over and listen, stunned by the music I'm hearing and nearly equally stunned by the medium.

After all, it's not that unusual to hear the full version of Don McLean's "American Pie" - it actually happens fairly often, late at night because it's still a fairly popular song (and, in all fairness, a pretty damn good one). However, it's highly unusual for radio stations to throw on side-long tracks that aren't as popular, or by bands that aren't as well known. As an example, I can't imagine ever hearing Dire Straits' majestic, stately "Telegraph Road" on the radio, despite its shimmering late night alienation blues. On the other hand, I can't get away from "Money for Nothing." Therefore, it's always surprising to hear radio programming consultants, via their DJ proxies, digging deeper into bands and records. It is always rewarding to hear. I may not be able to imagine the unlikely event of hearing the title cut from Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" album (it's too dark, too grim, too unrepentant - too depressing) on the radio, but there have been times when I've been stunned to hear something beyond "Born in the U.S.A." (and other singles off the album of the same name), "Born To Run" and "Hungry Heart." And it always gets me when it happens.

Despite its sorry state these days - all programming consultants, one hit wonders being churned through the meat packaging plant of pop music, stultifying DJs who embody the twin spirits of dullness and stupidity, the incessant march toward homogenized popular musical styles and increasingly more segregated radio formatting - the medium still possesses the capacity to surprise, to astonish, to transcend the limitations imposed upon it. The medium has a mind of its own, and a willful spirit. I can almost believe that radio is sentient, an entity beyond tangibility but not beyond apprehension. I've heard too many Celine Dion CDs start to skip as I scanned the dial not to believe that radio can be as disgusted by insipid pop as the people who listen. I've heard too many good mornings when every song on every station screams for joy and liberation from the prison of the airwaves that confine it.

As I've grown older, I've discovered that many of the people who I consider my closest friends were also DJs, just as I was, many years ago. We all worked in different ways, but we all had the same goal - making radio worth listening to, even if it was only for a few hours. We're all retired now, save for sporadic incursions, border skirmishes that occur when we sneak in and commandeer the airwaves for the nefarious purpose of playing music that makes us feel alive again, music that we want and need to hear, and songs for people who call in and tell us that they need to hear it too. We all approached it like a ministry, like being a DJ had the same potential as being a minister or priest. We all had a couple of broken down turntables, a few CD players and a microphone and for us, we might as well have been giving Mass in the Vatican. At least, that's how I always felt as I tore through 60 years of music, resequencing and recontextualizing it, making sense of it by throwing out all the programming rules and listening to things I had never heard before. And there it was, on the dial. In the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep, I was awake and spinning, practicing my mad scientist craft while the world around me slumbered. I didn't need sleep; I was living my dream.

Radio has always possessed the revolutionary potential to transcend the mundane and offer truly extraordinary sounds to listeners (which is to say something beyond Rage Against The Machine, Limp Bizkit, et. al.); it still does, as long as the mindless and unimaginative excuses for DJs and programmers who populate the airwaves like lemmings for fleeting musical trends stay out of it entirely. When that happens, magic is possible - anything is possible and the entity of radio can begin to exert its will and reveal its spirit to those who actively listen. Every once in a while, I hear it as I'm scanning the frequencies, and the sheer joy it inspires - the toe tapping, finger snapping, head bobbing, sing-along joy - reminds me why I keep my radio set to scan and why I listen as my coffee steams and stations fade in and out while the miles roll by.

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008