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Monday, September 4, 2017

Home At Last

Once upon a time I was up for a radio job at WTIC-FM in Hartford, Connecticut.  The Program Director thought I was t h i s c l o s e to what he was looking for, but apparently I wasn't there yet. So he had me cut about half a dozen audition tapes for him, tweaking this and changing that about my delivery and pacing.  Finally, he brought me up for an interview.  While we were walking through downtown Hartford on our way to lunch, one of the many questions he asked me was, "Aside from the music you play on the air, what's your favorite music? Who do you listen to at home?"  My answer came in a flash:  Steely Dan.  I had all their vinyl and had made cassette copies of every album for my car. "Hmmm." Then he paused. "That explains a lot."

He didn't hire me.

I'm not sure if Steely Dan cost me that job, but if they did I don't really care.  Because if that guy thought Steely Dan was weird, I didn't want to work for him.

Because Steely Dan was the perfect music to suit my attitude.  They weren't snarly angry, like punk rock.  They were the guys that went to the party and sat in the corner drinking. And when the host came over they said, "Nice party.  By the way, do you know you suck?"  They were snark before it was a thing.

Donald Fagen says Walter Becker had a rough childhood. I know he had a rough adulthood, dealing with drugs and loss.  One of his girlfriends overdosed in his apartment.  A short time later he was hit by a cab. It was this blow-after-blow existence that caused him to walk away from the band and go to Hawaii and grow avocados. Then, some sort of medical procedure, and now his passing. I hope he has his peace now.  But I thank him and Donald for blowing off their steam at life for all those years.  Helped me do the same.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Jack Kirby's 100th Birthday - and my two strikes

Back in high school, the only thing I loved as much as radio were comic books. I had hundreds, mostly Marvels.  Still have most of them, preserved in plastic sleeves in boxes in my basement.

In 1971, at the height of my comic-book mania, I attended the third-ever San Diego Comic Con, which was spread out over the campus of the University of California in San Diego. My dad had quite coincidentally taken our family to a beach in San Diego for a quick vacation; Mark Hebert, a friend who had introduced me to the world of comic books, told me that if I was going to be in San Diego anyway I should check out the comics convention.  My dad drove me to the campus, dropped me off and let me wander among the vendors and exhibits. I ran into Mark there.  I also met Kirk Alyn, who played Superman in the movie serials; he signed an autobiography he was selling and talked to me for the better part of half an hour about the difficult stunts he used to perform in his movies. Then I ran into Ray Bradbury, who talked to a group of us for another half hour or so, mostly asking questions about what we thought the future should be like; he cut the talk short because his ride was leaving.  Ray Bradbury, the man whose imagination took us deep into space on rockets, didn’t drive and wasn’t too fond of flying in airplanes.

But my favorite encounter was running into Jack Kirby and his entourage in one of the exhibitor rooms.  He must have had 50 high school and college-aged kids around him, and my impression was that about half of them worked for him.  He was outgoing and gracious, shaking everybody’s hand and asking everybody’s name. He signed my program guide – to this day, that’s framed and on the wall in my bedroom. Then the questions started coming, and that’s when I got in trouble.

Right around that time, Jack had left Marvel for DC (Superman) comics and introduced the villain Darkseid and another whole world of heroes and bad guys he called the Fourth World. In fact, he signed my program guide on a page that featured his sketch of Darkseid.

Of course, I had no idea of the problems Jack was having at Marvel Comics.  They were over-working and under-paying him, and Stan Lee was getting all the press for the work Jack was doing. I was just an idiot high-schooler who saw the Lee-Kirby credits on most every comic I bought and figured that the two of them sat in a room every day, kicking around ideas and sketches, pounding out those Marvel masterworks. And, as a reader – and therefore, by rights a certified comics critic – I had complained to Mark and my other comic book friends that the last few issues of Fantastic Four that Jack had drawn before leaving Marvel had seemed sloppy in plot, dialogue and artwork. So my question to Jack, asked with the full-on snobbery that comes with being a certified comics critic, was:

“Did you get tired of drawing the Fantastic Four?”

I felt the room grow quiet, and I became the object of Kirby’s stare – and everybody else’s, for that matter. “No,” he snapped at me, “I never got tired of the Fantastic Four.”  And that was that, and the entourage moved on. I felt terrible – my one and only chance to meet Jack Kirby and I seemed to have pissed him off.

Imagine my joy when, a while later, Mark Hebert come to me with an address scratched on a piece of paper.  Jack Kirby lived in Irvine, California, mere minutes from my house!  Mark had called and been invited to visit!  A second chance! I could make good on this visit and have a pleasant conversation with the King of Comics! Mark and I and our good friend John Timpane piled in to Mark’s car and made the pilgrimage to Kirby’s house.

I remember a ranch house, stucco, very southern California, with a little patio area out front. When Jack’s wife Roz opened the door, I remember the entryway being long and narrow, so that you almost walked into a wall when you came in.  On that wall was a huge print of one of Jack’s drawings: one of the most intricate pieces of machinery imaginable. On the other side of the dividing wall was a comfortable living room where we all sat and talked.

Jack asked all the questions. John, Mark, a high school artist friend named Mike Oprian and I had, in our school lunchroom, formed T.H.O.R. Enterprises with the initials of our last names.  To create comic books, naturally.  We told Jack about one of our first ideas, which was a superhero comic book about a janitor who knocks over a shelf of chemicals while cleaning a mad scientist’s workshop; they spill all over him, and he becomes a throbbing being of energy when hit by lightning on his walk home. John and I took Latin in high school and wanted to call him “Novus,” which is Latin for “new man.” Jack corrected us.  “Call him Nova,” he said.  “Everybody knows Nova.”  I explained to him that we used “Novus” because it was, under Latin conjugation, the male version – “Nova” was female.  “Don’t get all hung up on that,” Jack said. “Use Nova. People will remember Nova.”

Now, John Timpane was the least-comic book-savvy of the T.H.O.R. Enterprises group. He readily admitted to having only read a few Metal Men comics when he was seven. But when Jack asked us what other ideas we had, John captured his attention.  John launched into a description of a short story he was working on. I was then and still am fuzzy on the details, but I think it involved something about a man trying to convince his neighbors that God was in his house. Jack liked the idea and chatted with John about it for a few minutes.  Then he turned to me.

I’d been nursing an idea that popped into my head while watching a couple of Star Trek episodes and merging the plots. One episode was about people living in a blissful Eden until outsiders came and brought guns; the other was about people who were under the spell of a nasty computer that they regarded as an idol to be worshiped and obeyed.  What if, I thought, you encountered people who were working like slaves for someone they thought was God, but seemed happy and were reluctant to rise against their master because to them, slavery was their religious duty.  My mistake was summing it up like this: “God runs a concentration camp.”

The idiot high school kid strikes again! “Concentration camp” was exactly the wrong phrase to use. I was thinking “slave labor,” not “eliminate whole races of people.”  Jack, a proud World War Two veteran, fixed that Kirby stare on me a second time.  “Terrible idea. You can’t mix God and concentration camps.” And he dismissed me with a wave of his hand.

The rest of the visit was pleasant.  Roz served us lemonade and Jack took us into the room where his easel was set up. As we walked out to our car, Jack said goodbye to me and added, “Remember: Nova.”

Mike Oprian drew pages and pages of our Novus/Nova comic but it didn’t get any farther than that.  And, on the 100th anniversary of Jack Kirby’s birth, I’m left with this memory: I had not one, but TWO chances to meet and talk with the greatest comic book artist ever.  And I think I pissed him off both times.

Monday, March 27, 2017

John F. Rooney 1925-2017

"Because he was, we are."

That’s what my brother, who’s a psychologist, texted on the morning last week when my father passed away.  I rolled my eyes when I read it. Too flowery, I thought, not at all what Dad was about. (His instructions: “No funeral. Cremate me and put my ashes in a coffee can.” He didn’t like a lot of fuss.) But, now, I’m thinking it works, and I like it.
Because Dad meant the world to his world – his family and friends. The texts and emails and phone calls haven’t stopped since people heard he was ill. Another brother, a paramedic, was the rock that kept him comfortable and medicated during the week he faded away.  But that brother also had the job of fielding all the texts and emails and phone calls, a job he said was ten times more demanding than caring for a dying father.
His passing is upsetting mostly because he seemed unstoppable.  He raised one family – my brothers, my sister and I – then remarried after Mom died and, at age 65, helped out an entirely new family, serving as the sounding board for his wife, her sons and daughter and her granddaughters.  So, no, we’re not putting his ashes in a coffee can.  They’ll be in a nice urn and they’ll make appearances at memorial services held by each of his families.
And, yes, because he was, we are.  He gave his children actual life; but all the members of his extended family became, to some extent, the people they are because they were influenced by his approach to life: sure and steady.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Hap-happiest Time O'The Year!

Believe it or don’t, there was method to the madness of Christmas music on the radio, back before the simple madness of “all Xmas music all the time” began being practiced by a number of radio outlets these days. (Please feel free to imagine a grumpy old man voice while reading this.) Back in the day, when I was programming small and medium-market radio stations, we started the week after Thanksgiving with one Christmas song an hour.  The next week, two an hour.  Week after that, three an hour, with a Christmas song at the top of the hour.  Christmas week was at least four an hour:  top and bottom of the hour, with sweeps into Christmas songs at the quarter hours.  Finally, it was all-Christmas-music for Christmas Eve, starting at 6 pm and going all through Christmas Day.  On Boxing Day (also known as “the day after Christmas” in the U.S.): no Christmas music! The holiday was over!  All done! Back to the normal playlist!

A big problem in radio during pre-computer days (continue reading in the grumpy old man voice, dadgummit!) was that stations had to make sure there were warm bodies playing all this wonderful music over the holidays. And all-Christmas-music-all-the-time was an intentionally boring format, the idea being that people could use the radio as background music for their parties and holiday gatherings.  So there was usually a bit of fighting amongst the staff over who got time off over the holidays -- probably motivated as much or more by the desire to avoid a boring shift as by the desire to be with family and friends during the most wonderful time of the year.

I remember a staff meeting one November evening at WTSN in Dover, New Hampshire. I had just started as night jock Willie B. in September; Mike Kelley had started as midday jock a few months earlier.  Program Director Paul LeBlanc, referring to one of the other jocks, said “B.J. and I worked last Christmas, so I think Mike and Willie should work the Christmas shifts this year.”  Now, I really didn’t mind working Christmas, as I had no family or friends to spend it with, but just to be contrary, I said, “Wait a second!  I worked last Christmas! Not HERE, but I still worked last Christmas! Doesn’t that count?”  “No, Willie, it doesn’t,” Paul immediately replied. “You’re working Christmas night.” Playing non-stop boring Christmas music. Done deal.

Years later, when I was programming a station in Franklin, New Hampshire, I came up with what I thought was a fair holiday schedule: we had six jocks and were on the air from 6 am to midnight, so I divided Christmas Eve and Christmas Day into six shifts of six hours apiece.  A long time on the air, but each jock had to take just one shift over the two days, and with some wrangling everyone managed to get a shift that they liked.

The best holiday coverage I ever lucked into was at a station I programmed in Salem, New Hampshire.  The midday jock was Jewish.  He volunteered to run the board all day Christmas if he could have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana off the next spring.  Done deal.


Friday, October 14, 2016

A Couple of Things...

We took my five-year-old granddaughter to the Halloween store, hoping to nail down a costume for her.  She changes her mind daily, sometimes hourly, about what she'll be for trick-or-treat.  Witch, werewolf, princess, back to witch, then character from her favorite cartoon that's ever-changing.  This night she stopped to look at some fake feather boas, black with shiny purple bats and jack o'lanterns dangling at various intervals. Moving her hands through the hanging boas, she said, approvingly, "Scary, yet fashionable."


Note to Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson:  Aleppo was one of the Marx Brothers.  You're welcome.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Falling Up

I know spring is supposed to be the time of new beginnings, but for me it’s always been fall.  For example, at my first radio job, WQCM in Hagerstown, Maryland, I was hired in September.  (I was, however, fired the next May. “New beginnings” and all that.)

My second radio job started that fall, at WTSN in Dover, New Hampshire.  A much better experience all around, starting with autumn in New England. My daily drive to work was decorated with spectacular fall foliage. WTSN was located along aptly-named Back Road, which was lined with maples, birches and other trees that were such bright shades of red and yellow that I wondered where they plugged the trees in.

Somehow, I managed to not get fired the next spring.  Instead, I met my wife the following fall. WTSN’s midday jock had left for a job in Richmond, Virginia, and I took his shift. I had to train the woman who was taking my place on the 7 to midnight shift. After I showed her how to work the board, I walked into the next room, turned on the speakers and smiled.  She was great from the first break on, with a smooth delivery and a smile in her voice.  A couple of months later, we were getting something to eat at a downtown restaurant when I told her something like, “If you’re not careful, I’ll marry you.”  She wasn’t careful.

We did get married in the spring.  So far, she hasn’t fired me.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Happy Birthday WKRP! (Or, the one time I hated Steely Dan)

Spring of 1978 saw the release of FM, a movie about an L.A. album-rock radio station where the DJs take over after a smarmy sales manager tries to force the station to run commercials for the U.S. Army. Sales vs. jocks: The Neverending Radio Story. Sales men and women were always valued higher than jocks at radio stations, because sales people actually walked in the door with the checks from the clients that kept the place running. Jocks were considered big egos who demanded big money if they got popular, which started the trend towards "more music and less talk" and eventually led to the computer-assisted voice tracking we enjoy today (those stations with the cute names, like Bob and Ben and Fred, that are really just mp3 players programmed by somebody other than you). Truth is, salespeople were always paid better than the jocks, because they collected commissions -- there's an old DJ joke that goes when you look at a radio station's parking lot, the convertibles belong to the sales people; the cars with rust holes in the roofs belong to the DJs.

FM the movie also highlighted the death of the AM band as radio's music delivery system. Traditionally, AM stations had been the Top 40 power houses, playing rock and roll served up by bigger-than-life DJs. But over on the FM band, stations like KMET in L.A. and WNEW in New York moved rock away from hits and into album cuts with laid-back DJs. By the mid-70s it was cool to listen to FM and lame to listen to AM. Eventually even Top 40 moved to FM.

I was working nights at Top 40 WTSN-AM in Dover, New Hampshire, when FM hit the theaters. Our rival, Top 40 WHEB-FM in Portsmouth, began playing the movie's theme song, Steely Dan's FM (No Static At All) once an hour -- their way of saying, "See, everyone thinks FM is better than AM, you lame jerks!" (At least that's the way we took it at WTSN. We were probably right.) Our midday DJ, Mike Kelly, had read in one of the radio trade papers about an AM station in the Midwest that decided to fight back: someone there found out that Steely Dan's Donald Fagen sang "Aja" in the same key as "FM," and spliced the "A" from "Aja" in place of the "F" in "FM," producing a version of the song that went "AM, No Static At All." Kelly spent three days in the production studio with reels of audio tape and razor blade -- because that's how we edited in the days of acetate -- valiantly trying to create his own Frankenstein "AM" version of "FM." But he had to make hundreds of cuts in a three-minute song, and every version came out choppy. He gave up, just as AM radio eventually gave up and became the home of right-wing talk radio.

We were all vindicated in September of 1978, though, when WKRP debuted on TV. Here were a bunch of fun-loving, lovable losers playing rock and roll on a dying AM station with a hot blonde receptionist!  The WKRP DJs never wore headphones on the air, which was wrong, because in real life would have resulted in lots of squealing feedback -- but, other than that, it was exactly true-to-life. Mostly because the sales guy was an asshole.