June 13, 2011

The Way How Things Used to Sound Like

When I turned 13 in September, 1977, my musical tastes and interests were in the process of being shaped by an assortment of DJs on college radio stations and specialty shows on commercial rock stations. The college stations tended to have weak signals, and I wasn't too close to any of them, so putting myself in the way of this influence often took some doing. Windy days, for example, really got in the way of this project. I used to have a little mono, battery-powered radio that I would carry to various locations in the house, and ride the tuning knob to try to catch this or that stretch of this or that DJ on this or that station. You never knew what you were going to get, or if you were going to get anything, and that was definitely part of the appeal. It gave it a sort of mystique (which is quite funny when you think of what things were probably really like in the control booth on the other side of the signal.)

These stations were all right on top of each other on the proverbial left hand of darkness. The barest tremor of an index finger could switch you, with an Outer Limits-y sound effect marking the segue, from Metallic K.O. swimming in and out of focus on KFJC to little bits of "Janie Jones" piercing through a wall of static on KZSU; then, without warning, patches of Kraut Rock obscurities would invade from KUSF. Trying to sort it all out could be annoying, but it was also a big part of what was interesting about doing it. KALX in Berkeley was my preference out of them all, as they seemed to play the most punk rock and I was more likely to encounter things there that I'd never heard before. Fortunately, the ideal spot for picking up KALX, on a good day, was the corner of the top bunk in the room I shared with my brother, like Bobby and Peter without a Greg -- that's why I spent so much time there, ear to speaker, finger to knob, and one reason, of many no doubt, that my parents were so worried about me. (In contrast, the only way I could stand a chance of tuning in KZSU was -- no kidding -- by climbing an oak tree at the "Rec Center" near my intermediate school, which I did regularly after school till my listening post was discovered by some mean guys who quickly realized that the thing to do when you find a guy sitting in a tree with a radio to his ear is to throw rocks at him. I think the song playing at that time was "Sonic Reducer," or, as I remember it: Sonic *ow!* Reducer *oof!* ain't no loser *Jesus!*… So that was goodbye to KZSU, if not to the Dead Boys. I'd have done anything for KZSU, but I wouldn't do that. Things were nicer and less dangerous in KALX land, back home on the bunk bed.)

At that time, KALX was broadcast from the Lawrence Hall of Science, where my school went on regular field trips. I have no idea what we were meant to gain from these trips officially, but for me the main point of interest was that you could see the KALX dj in a glass booth. It was like the radio made flesh. It was there that I caught my first glimpse of the Ramones, who were, obviously, there for an interview. It wasn't like it is now, where every other person you meet looks like that. Back then they were the kind of guys who really stood out in a Hall of Science. And of course, I loved the fact that I was the only person in the school group who knew that this was something to be impressed by. Being a snob is so easy in the eighth grade.

Later on, when I went to college myself and got a show of my own on KALX, I was able to meet some of those people who had influenced me so much, and that was pretty strange. For example, the Amazing Mystery DJ, who inadvertently taught me more about music than any other single person. I know this will sound quite peculiar to anyone who knows either of us, but when my band's first little record came out he put a note in my box that said "you are a good songwriter," which felt like winning an award and which I saved and still have, somewhere. (Incidentally, in what would probably have been called a "synch" by Andromeda Klein: the dorm I lived in was Ehrman Hall, which is where KALX began and was broadcast from in the 60s. Spooky.)

My first taste of punk rock radio, though, and the true root of what was to become the college radio investigations I've just described, came from Dr. Demento, People don't always recall just how much punk rock he used to play in the midst of the other novelty songs his show was most known for. It was there, I'm pretty sure, that I first heard "Cherry Bomb," "Ain't You," "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," "You Drive Me Ape, You Big Gorilla," "Your Love is Like Nuclear Waste," "Warm Leatherette," "Oh Bondage Up Yours," and Devo's pre-Eno Booji Boy "Mongoloid." I believe I first heard the Ramones on his show as well.

In seventh and eight grades, I was, along with a handful of other nerdy misfits, a member of The Monty Python Club, a student group that met in Mr. Broz's classroom at lunchtime. Mostly what we did was record the show by putting a cassette recorder up against the TV speaker, bring the tapes to school, play them, and try to memorize them, in anticipation of a coming world where, it was to be hoped, being able to recite Monty Python sketches would confer some great, unspecified social benefit. (Still waiting. I have faith.) Eventually, a couple of us started bringing in tapes made from the Dr. Demento show as well, and the Monty Python club transmogrified into an unofficial punk rock club (and lost most of its few members.)

Wouldn't it be great, I used to think, if there were a radio station that played Dr. Demento round the clock instead of only once a week? College radio was the closest I could get, so once I discovered it, I jumped right in.

Now, if anyone has bothered to read this far down the page, the punchline and I do have one, is this. What I used to look like at that time:


Posted by Dr. Frank at June 13, 2011 08:51 AM | TrackBack


You are a KALX Hall of Famer.

When I was growing up (1960s), my version of your college radio stories was to listen to FM "Underground" radio. There was one DJ ... I can't remember his name, it might have been during the KMPX/KSAN split during/after the strike, but whoever he was, he didn't last long ... one night he played "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes five times in a row. I don't recall you ever playing the Ronettes on KALX, but you definitely had the ability to play stuff that was simultaneously great and annoying.

(Listening to the Green Eggs and Ham rap in honor of this post.)

Posted by: Steven at June 13, 2011 04:58 PM

I could almost see you wearing that kind of shirt nowadays.

Posted by: Joe B. at June 13, 2011 05:23 PM

For a kid in Avon, Mass., the equivalent was trying to pick up WERS in Boston, and WMBR in Cambridge. Also, we had Dr. Oldie on WBRU from Providence on Sunday nights. Later on there was WFNX in Lynn, Mass. WERS was the best of the best. The Buzzcocks dropped in to be interviewed, all the best local bands played live in the studio, they got the new Brit singles before anybody -- I remember when they played Going Underground by the Jam, and I got on the bus to Boston the next day to get it. Good times, man. I had similar shirts at that time.

Posted by: Lexington Green at June 13, 2011 09:40 PM

Great stuff.

Posted by: COOP at June 14, 2011 01:12 AM

oh my god! THANK YOU!

Posted by: katie at June 14, 2011 02:08 AM

That haircut looks familiar.

Posted by: Justin Bieber at June 14, 2011 05:23 PM

Justin: winnar.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at June 14, 2011 05:28 PM

Hey, it's Tom Henderson!

Posted by: reader at June 14, 2011 06:23 PM

Those glasses look familiar.

Posted by: Richard Crenna from Body Heat at June 17, 2011 01:06 AM

Aha we've got another winnar.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at June 17, 2011 01:09 AM
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