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One of WRDO's Weekly Radio Reports. This is from June 10, 1973 (via the Airheads Radio Survey Archive).

One of WRDO’s Weekly Radio Reports. (via the Airheads Radio Survey Archive).

The other day, looking for good fall songs to listen to while I walked, I started with Donald Fagen’s “IGY.” Although the title refers to the International Geophysical Year, a one-world scientific endeavor from the late 1950s, it always reminds me of a brief infatuation I had with a radio station in Maine.

WIGY began broadcasting in 1977. I know that because one song it played incessantly was “Sound and Vision” from David Bowie’s Low album of that year. It also played Manfred Mann’s version of “Blinded by the Light.” The third song on the playlist was Glenn Campbell’s “Southern Nights.” From what I recall, those were the only three songs IGY ever played. It also had a mascot called Wiggy the Wonder Dog, so maybe you can understand why the relationship was doomed.

Let’s backtrack a bit. My first serious radio relationship was with WRDO, in Augusta, Maine. I must have been in 7th grade, so this would have been in 1971 or ’72. WRDO was an AM Top 40 station, but I was young and didn’t know better. WRDO played the hits and that was good enough for me. I had a small transistor radio I listened to at my desk in my bedroom while I did homework. Sometimes I strapped the radio to my bike’s handlebars so I could listen to things like Argent (“Hold Your Head Up”) or Gallery (“Nice to Be with You”) as I rode around the neighborhood.

Every week WRDO printed out a little weekly music report that included a picture of a DJ and a list of the week’ top songs. The kids in school always eagerly awaited the latest WRDO brochure so we could talk about the latest hits, whether it was “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” by Louden Wainwright III, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, or “Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays. (The Internet is truly an amazing thing. You can find one of the weekly reports, from June 10, 1973, right here. I have to say, a lot of those songs still hold up.)

I was also really into WRDO’s contests. They had one where they played a sequence made up of short snippets from popular songs. Listeners had to identify all the songs. The kids in my neighborhood got together and worked on the list, with pretty dismal results. Every snippet tugged at our memories, but few tugged quite hard enough. The words in one sounded like “Olin Jim,” and a kid from down the street insisted that was the name of the song. We all looked at each other.

“I don’t think they would use the song title,” one of us said.

“No! It’s ‘Olin Jim’! I’m positive!”

We all looked at each other again, shrugged, and added “Olin Jim” to our list. The song turned out to be Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” and the words in question were “Holding Jim.”

I have a vague recollection of visiting WRDO’s studios once. They were on the second floor in a building on Water Street, Augusta’s downtown. I don’t remember who was with me, or why we made the trip. Maybe we wanted to get the latest music report before anyone else did. All I can remember is that the office seemed a little shabby. I think I got a glimpse of the studio through big glass windows—blinking lights, equipment consoles, microphones. It was kind of cool and at the same time a little disillusioning. It wasn’t the kind of disillusionment that shatters ideals and turns an innocent child into a cynic (that required years), but it did allow a little air to leak out of my imagination.

This was about the time I got a tape recorder for Christmas, a flat, blocky Panasonic with a little rectangular microphone with a cord you plugged into the side. When I really liked a song, I called WRDO and requested it, then I sat by the radio, microphone poised. I really wanted to tape Harry Nilsson’s “Spaceman,” and after wasting a Sunday waiting for hour after disappointing hour by the radio, I finally got it. Michael down the street, though, did even better. He called another station, WABK in Gardiner, and requested “Spaceman.” He told the DJ he wanted to tape it. When the DJ did play the song, he said, “This is for a kid who wants to tape the song off the radio. You know that’s illegal, don’t you, kid?” Michael captured it on tape and played it back to me with glee. I was jealous.

WRDO, of course, was a mere AM station. Amplitude modulation was fine for kids. As I grew older I discovered the more adult charms of frequency modulation—FM. My first FM station was WBLM—the Blimp—and I fell hard. BLM broadcast out of Lewiston and played the funky mix of stuff that you’d expect from an independent station in the later 1970s. WBLM introduced me to artists like David Bromberg, Joe Jackson, Frank Zappa, Nils Lofgren, the Pretenders, Flash and the Pan, Atlanta Rhythm Section, and others too numerous to list. I vividly remember one Halloween evening when BLM played Al Stewart’s “Nostradamus,” the first time I heard the song. To this day I play “Nostradamus” on Halloween.

The Blimp.

The Blimp.

Like all my radio relationships, it was a tribal thing. It was about belonging. BLM let you feel like you were part of a community of like-minded listeners. The DJs—Jose Diaz and Mark Persky are two I remember—came across as hip and with it. Daryl Martini—a.k.a. the Cosmic Muffin—provided astrology reports and Lou McNally—Altitude Lou—reported the weather. I announced my allegiance by wearing a BLM tee shirt. And after my brief infatuation with IGY, I proved my loyalty to BLM by defacing IGY billboards. A few of us went out under the cover of darkness, climbed up to the big billboards, and spray painted WBLM in big letters across them. I think I hit three—one in Augusta and two in Brunswick/Topsham after I went to college. The Brunswick job almost went south big time when police stopped and questioned the young woman who was serving as our driver while we still up on the billboard behind them, painting away. We jumped down and hit the dirt, waiting breathlessly until the cops drove away, apparently convinced by the driver’s story that she was waiting for her boyfriend.

Well, all good things come to an end, and so did my relationship with BLM. The station got new owners and slowly began to lose its personality. It became less bohemian and more buttoned down. The Blimp had sold out. Now that was truly disillusioning. It felt like a betrayal.

BLM and I drifted apart. The relationship pretty much ended when I went out to school in California. However, at a Frank Zappa concert in Santa Barbara I spotted a guy in the audience wearing a WBLM tee shirt. I ran over to say hello, a big grin on my face. It was like finding an old friend on the far side of the world.

KROQ. Rock of the Eighties.

ROQ of the Eighties.

By then I had started a relationship with KROQ, Los Angeles’ new-wave station. KROQ was pretty tightly play listed—I must have heard Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime” about a million times the one summer I lived in L.A.—but it was the coolest station around. Sometimes they would throw you a nice curve, too. I remember when KROQ played the theme from “The Jetsons” one afternoon when a bunch of us were sitting around the roof of our apartment building and drinking beer. KROQ also provided the nudge that turned me into a Sinatra fan, when it played “Come Fly with Me” when I was sitting on the same roof. In general, though, KROQ played a lot of the “new wave” stuff, like local favorites the Plimsouls, or Sparks, or Split Enz. They played too many synthesizer bands for my taste, but it was still better than KLOS, which claimed to be “too hip” but played the classic rock you could hear anywhere.

Things ended with KROQ when I moved back east after graduation. I tried to pick things up with BLM, but we had both changed too much. I started listening to a new station out of Skowhegan, WTOS. They had a hipper sensibility, kind of a cross between KROQ and the old BLM. They played bands like Squeeze, A Flock of Seagulls, and Haircut 100. I even drove up to the station one day and interviewed on-air personalities Annie Earhart and Kent Thurston for the Maine music paper, Sweet Potato, and my friend Tom later became a DJ there. But I moved down to Boston before my relationship with TOS could really go anywhere. It was probably just as well—TOS would have disappointed me at some point. After my experience with BLM I was still a little fragile.

wfnxWhen my brother had gone to school in Cambridge he returned to Maine with stories about a great station called WBCN. By the time I moved to Boston in 1983, WBCN was already in decline. I listened instead to WFNX, the brand-new radio arm of Boston’s alternative weekly, the Phoenix. It was a good station, more cutting edge than BCN (but not nearly as experimental as some of the college stations I sampled now and then). I was editing a little rock magazine at the time, so I received FNX’s  playlist in the mail every week. I’d go over the list, mark the artists I thought were worth writing about and start making calls to the publicists for the various labels.

Sometimes I’d get them, sometimes I didn’t. One of the top music writers in town wanted to interview Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics. He had interviewed them several years earlier when they were still in an obscure band called the Tourists, and the three of them had apparently hit it off. The publicist at Capitol told me an interview would be no problem. Days passed, then weeks, and the duo got bigger and bigger until they were much too big for my little magazine. The promised interview descended from an in-person to a phoner and finally all we got was a promo copy of the new album.

Same thing with Missing Persons. KROQ had played their first singles, “Words” and “Destination Unknown,” when I was in Los Angeles working for the Hollywood Reporter. The music editor there had even given me her invitation to Missing Persons’ record release party at producer Ken Scott’s house. (Scott wrote about the party in some depth in his book Abbey Road NW8 to Ziggy Stardust WI, but I want to make it clear that I was not the guy who got his genitals stuck in the pool filter.) When the album Spring Session M came out, I called Capitol to request an interview. Singer Dale Bozzio, who hailed from nearby Medford (and had the accent to prove it), even called me at home one evening to promise she would talk to me once the band started doing publicity. This time I didn’t even get a promo copy of the album.

But that was the kind of stuff they played on FNX. From what I’ve heard the station remained consistent until they finally folded up the tents a few years ago. But I had to end things with FNX when I moved down to Washington, D.C., and fell for WHFS.

WHFSAh, HFS! It was love at first listen. HFS was one of the last great independent stations and it turned me on to a lot of music. Once again I felt like part of a big family, with Damien, Weasel, Bob Showacre, “Frank Benlin” and “Max Knobny” of “The Daily Feed,” and a lot of great music. It was the first place where I heard Kirsty MacColl (“He’s on the Beach,” “A New England”), Marti Jones (“The Rhythm of Shallow Breathing”), Zeitgeist (“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”), the Pet Shop Boys (“West End Girls”), the Screaming Blue Messiahs (“Wild Blue Yonder”), and Sinead O’Connor (“Mandinka”). I bought a lot of vinyl at the Tower Records in D.C. because I heard something I liked on HFS. (Admittedly, I haven’t listened to a lot of those records in years. Anyone remember The New Marines? Red Guitars? The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy?)

Sure, enough, though, by the time I left the Washington area in 1996 HFS had broken my heart. Owner Jake Einstein sold the station, most of the DJs moved on, and the station’s personality changed. It became self-consciously hip as it chased after a younger demographic. It was like being thrown over for some jerk who wore his baseball cap backwards and had kind of crappy taste in music. Eventually HFS went away altogether.

XPNBy then I was gone, too. I moved to Central Pennsylvania, where I settled into another long-term relationship. This time it was with WXPN, the public radio station that broadcasts from Philadelphia but also has transmitters in Central PA. We’ve been together for 18 years now. We did hit a rough patch when the station changed transmitters and I could no longer get a strong signal at my house, but now I stream it on my computer and everything’s hunky dory. XPN plays stuff I like and introduces me to a lot of new music. Sure, I might stray occasionally and at work I might stream WNRN (similar, although just a tad edgier), but in general I remain committed to XPN. I think we might grow old together.

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F&L CT2My knees ache. I must be getting old. It didn’t help that I gave my left knee a nice twist when I was mowing the lawn the other day. That’s the problem with letting your kid go to college—he’s not around to mow the lawn anymore.

So, my aching pins have kept me from doing a lot of walking lately (except for a 10-mile hike around the Gettysburg battlefield a couple of weekends ago. Thankfully, my knees were fine for that.) Instead of trudging around the neighborhood listening to music on the iPod, I’ve been sitting on my ass reading books and watching movies. I guess you can call me the Sitter for the time being.

This past weekend I sat and watched four movies plus some baseball playoffs. What movies, you say? Well, thanks for asking. After seeing Richard Linklater’s Boyhood a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I decided we should watch the three Before films he made that chart the relationship between characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy over the course of 18 years. The first film, Before Sunrise, came out in 1995 and shows how the couple met on a train and spent a night wandering around Vienna and talking. The second, Before Sunset, is from 2004. It has them meet again nine years later in Paris and talk. The latest, Before Midnight, was released last year. I think this one takes place in Greece and involves talking. In a way, that 18-year project is even more impressive than Boyhood, which Linklater filmed periodically over 12 years. (“He’s obsessed with time, isn’t he?” my always perceptive wife mused).

I had avoided these films because I have had an intense dislike of Ethan Hawke ever since I saw Reality Bites a long, long time ago. Hawke’s character in that movie is an irritating jerk. I hated the character and hated Ethan Hawke. His life since—writing precious little literary novels, knocking up Uma Thurman—didn’t help him in my eyes. But Boyhood earned him a little of my respect. His character goes from a bohemian young father with a GTO to an insurance salesman in suit and tie who drives a minivan—yet he remains an oasis of decency and stability throughout. I decided to forgive him for Reality Bites.

All that’s a long way to say that I liked the first two Before films. Sure, they are talky and occasionally the incessant chin wagging gets a little pretentious, but the movies beat with a human heart and have a refreshing lack of guns, serial killers, explosions, and Adam Sandler. I look forward to seeing the third.

I also watched Robot & Frank, which was a lot of fun. Frank Langella plays a former cat burglar with growing dementia whose son provides him with a robot helper. Frank decides to use the robot as an assistant for robberies. It’s funny and a little sad and has one plot twist that surprised me. Langella is excellent, making Frank just unpleasant enough to head off potential sentiment at the pass. Plus, at a mere 85 minutes, the movie was easily digestible viewing for a weekend afternoon when I knew I should be doing something productive.

The fourth movie I watched was For No Good Reason, a documentary about Ralph Steadman, best known for illustrating Hunter S. Thompson’s writings. That had been perfect match between writer and artist, with Steadman’s crazed, ink-splattered drawings mirroring Thompson’s jittery and paranoid Gonzo approach to journalism. The movie was pretty good, too—a little frantic, perhaps, with all its myriad techniques (animation and models and split screens and anything else that seems to have occurred to the filmmakers) and it included too many shots of Johnny Depp nodding sagely as he listened to Steadman talk. But it was fascinating to learn a little bit about Steadman’s history and his techniques, and it was a lot of fun to see vintage clips of him with Thompson.

The cover of the book I bought way back in 1980. It's a little worse for wear and tear--in fact, it's no longer attached to the book.

The cover of the book I bought way back in 1980. It’s a little worse for wear and tear–in fact, it’s no longer attached to the book.

There was a time when I—like so many young people who want to be writers—fell under Thompson’s spell. I remember going into the Mr. Paperback in Augusta, Maine, just before I was going to fly out to California to start school there. This would have been the summer of 1980. For some reason I wanted a Thompson book to read on the plane. I think I had become curious when I learned he was the inspiration for the character Duke in Doonesbury. So I went to Mr. Paperback and tried to choose between Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The former was a much thicker book and more likely to last me for the long airplane flight, so I picked that one. It was probably the wrong choice.

Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed Campaign Trail—but Las Vegas really knocked my socks off when I finally read it out in California. It begins, “We were somewhere outside Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” and it takes off from there. It was outrageously funny, wonderfully written, and endlessly quotable.  I loved it. I read everything of Thompson’s I could find and as a result the papers I wrote for my film classes began to assume a kind of sub-Thompsonian style. (I would probably hang my head in shame were I to read them now.)

I even saw Thompson speak once in Washington, D.C. He was late and probably drunk and talked mostly about politics and polls. I asked a question but was disappointed by the reaction. Thompson had just been busted for allegedly groping a woman in his hot tub, which led to a search of his home and a resulting legal crusade to stay out of jail. At the same time a female reporter for the Boston Globe had filed suit against the New England Patriots after reportedly being sexually harassed by members of the team when she was in the locker room after a game. I thought Thompson, as someone with a passion for sports and a man in the middle of his own sexual harassment difficulties, might comment on the parallels but he basically dismissed the question as stupid. I got him to sign a book anyway.

I gradually lost interest and Thompson his talent. It was the price he paid for a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse. He made himself appear indestructible in his books but real life is much less forgiving. I did read both volumes of his letters and pretty much all of his books as they came out, but Thompson’s new stuff couldn’t compare to the old. It felt tired and recycled, a series of riffs that had too many miles on them. It was like hearing a once favorite band play new material that was good only for reminding you how much better the old songs had been. It all came to a tragic end with his suicide in 2005.

Watching the Steadman movie made me think about how I had cast off my Thompson influences and that made me feel a little sad and old. Like Ethan Hawke’s character in Boyhood, I have become somewhat settled and boring, and I have sore knees to boot.

But then I got a flash of realization.

I recently wrote a book about Civil War general George Gordon Meade, in which I mixed past and present, telling the story of Meade’s life but also including accounts of my visits to the battlefields where Meade had fought and other placed connected with the general. (You can buy it here. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

My inspiration for that approach had been Tony Horwitz’s wonderful book Confederates in the Attic. Watching the Steadman movie, though, made me recognize a little Thompson influence as well. His trademark brand of gonzo journalism put the writer/reporter inside the story—and that’s what I had done with my personal “search” for Meade. It wasn’t quite like reporting on a district attorney’s convention in Vegas with a head full of drugs—and I kept things strictly factual throughout my book—but it was something, a little echo of my younger days. So maybe I have Hunter S. Thompson to thank (or blame) a little bit for the end result.

Come to think of it, I probably should have started the book like this: “We were somewhere outside Gettysburg on the edge of the battlefield when the drugs began to take hold . . . .” I could have called it Fear and Loathing in the Civil War. Come to think of it, that would not have been a completely inappropriate title.

Maybe there’s a little gonzo in me yet.