Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Listening to the Radio Late at Night

I’m sure there are people whose memories are better than mine; I just haven’t met many. On the other hand, I’m sure that some of my self-perception of having a good memory is illusory. One does not remember what one forgets, after all. Still, I have many clear and verifiable memories of events, personal encounters, books read, TV shows watched etc. that has impressed enough people for me to grasp that most people don’t have this sort of access to their past.

Most people do remember where they were, what they were doing, etc. at times of great import, like 9/11, the Kennedy Assassination (assuming you were actually alive then), the Fall of Saigon, and so forth. One feature of my own situation may simply be that I have a lot of marker events in my childhood, so my memories got organized at the same time I was acquiring them. Maybe, self-centered dweeb that I am, I consider my own life events to be as important to me as the world shaking events that others remember.

One type of such event is moving, changing houses, which changes the entire “atmosphere” of a memory. That can sometime deceive, as when you go back for a visit to the old place, to see old friends, but usually the surroundings, the frame of the memory is a pretty good test.

In the spring of 1954, my family moved from a house we rented on McRory Creek Road to 2935 Ironwood Drive in Donelson, which was a move of only a few miles, but it felt huge. In at least one way it was huge; McRory Creek Rd. was semi-rural, while Donelson was definitely sub-urban. At least the Post Office thought as much; the McRory Creek residence was a rural route; the Donelson house had an actual address.

Mapquest tells me that McRory Creek Road has been swallowed by Nashville Intl. Airport. At that time it was Berry Field Air Base, where my dad worked as a radio operator. The house in Donelson, on the other hand, was still there the last time I was there only a few years ago.

So I have a set of memories that are bounded in time by the move. Any memory I have of McRory Creek Rd. happened before I turned 4. I remember my 3rd birthday party; that’s probably close to the limit of my memory. I’ve heard people who claim that they have memories from before they were 3, but, according to developmental psychology, such claims are dubious, though I’ll allow that great trauma might linger in memory longer than other forgotten images of childhood.

“I have a friend whose father every week took him to the toolshed to sandpaper his ass. He’s been trying for 30 years to repress those memories, without success.” – Merle Kessler.

On clear memory I have from the McRory Creek house was of our old radio, one of those huge, jukebox looking affairs, late at night bringing forth music. At least the memory feels late at night, dark, no one else around, calm, private. My best guess is that the radio got left on somehow and I got up in the middle of the night. I had an early bedtime when I was a child.

The song I remember is “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams, a song that seems like it should be angry, or scornful, certainly the lyrics have that in them, but the delivery conveys more about the hurt and loneliness that the anger is trying unsuccessfully to mask.

I remember both “Chicken Road” by Tennessee Ernie Ford, and “The Wayward Wind,” by Gogi Grant (and later by Patsy Cline, but the Grant original is the one I remember), from the Donelson House. The "Wayward Wind" is from 1956; I may not have even heard the Ford song on the radio, since my dad had the record. But it felt like a late night song.

So did “Heartbreak Hotel” which made me an instant Elvis fan at the ripe age of 6. That one is tagged as heard first in Illinois, so that would have been from a trip to my grandparents in early summer of 1956, a couple of months after the release of the record. I slept upstairs, where no one could hear the radio if you played it real low, late into the night.

There’s a feel about late night music radio that you don’t get any other place. McLuhan famously divided media into “hot” and “cool,” with “hot” meaning (more or less, and McLuhan was nothing if not slippery and ambiguous) “high definition” and “cool” meaning “low definition,” both indicating how much participation the medium required. He did, however, classify television as “cool” (as compared to movies, perhaps), but maybe that was a mistake.

In any case, radio gives you a sense of “not from around here.” Television puts everything in your living room, radio shifts your sense of presence to the Great Beyond. Late night radio music is as much a signpost to the World Out There as the train whistle or the truck horn as it moves past your small town headed to who-knows-where. Wherever it’s heading, there are adventures to be had, love, fame, success, whatever it is that you want, and you can’t get where you are.

A lot of songs lack that quality of longing, but there are so many that have it. Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” pulled me from sleep one night, as did “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. The Beatles had a slew of them, from “Strawberry Fields” and “I am the Walrus” to “Eleanor Rigby.” The Rolling Stones came through first with “2000 Light Years from Home” and “Paint it Black” then topped themselves with “Gimme Shelter.” I’m not going to try to make a catalog of Motown late night songs, because Ray Charles alone would run to excess. Even uptempo song can be late night radio songs, like “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas.

The choice spots at WRPI, the ones that had the most prestige were late night, the signoff slots. You didn’t have to follow the format, and the show was open-ended, with a scheduled signoff time that you could go as far past as you liked. Sometimes the DJ would go until 3 or 4 in the morning on weekends, and many is the time I’d listen to radio in bed, thinking I’d turn it off as soon as something came on that I didn’t like, and I’d wind up listening until the signal went dead. Firesign Theater’s “Echo Poem,” “Legend Days are Over,” by Beaver and Krause, “To is a Preposition, Come is a Verb” by Lenny Bruce, you just don’t turn it off when you’re listening to those.

I’ve frequently put The Cowboy Junkies, The Trinity Sessions on the iPod rotation. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is another late night Hank Williams song of loss and despair. But there is an affirmation to it, as there is in so many of them, an acknowledgment that there are things worth having and living for. Something worth having is worth grieving over at its loss, late at night in the dark, with the music whispered in your ear by a sweet voice from the Great Beyond.


Radtera Radman said...

Fantastically written! WOW. You captured feelings in words I didnt think other people felt about late night radio. Thank you!

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