Monday, February 05, 2007

The Day the Music Died?

Here we go, another cold February, hoping that it won't last too much longer and spring will come. Many remember February 2nd as "The Day the Music Died" because of Don McLean's hit from the 1970's titled "American Pie". On that date, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash at Clear Lake, IA, ending the promising recording careers of those artists.

Just a few days before that remembered another anniversary, where one man's death could be seen as signifying death for music locally and nationally. Ed Sciacky, long time Philly DJ, died that day after collapsing and falling in NYC. Sciacky was a pioneer in the radio industry, and we lost another local legend with his passing.

But the truth is, Philly radio started dying long before Ed Sciacky did. If you've been around long enough, you remember the days of free-form radio, where DJs could bring their own records to play on the air as long as they conformed to the station's format - or not. You could hear a track, or a whole album, of an artist you may never otherwise get a chance to listen to. Free-form FM radio opened doors for artists and listeners alike.

There's only one station locally that plays anything like this now, and that's WXPN out of the University of Pennsylvania. The death knell sounded in the early 80's when radio station WIOQ changed to Q102 and started playing the junk that you hear now. Before that, they were known as a "progressive rock" station and you could hear anyone from Bruce Springsteen to Steeleye Span, from Bob Seger to Renaissance. Now that was eclectic.

Today, just about every station programs with the information they get from focus groups, and program managers stick to a meager list of songs. Play lists are rigid, not free-form. And it doesn't matter what the format, whether classic rock, hip-hop, whatever. The worst thing that ever happened to music on the radio was that the corporate guys took hold of the stations. Forget art, forget what the people want. Money talks, and we get rubbish.

And you may remember...
...Michael Tearson's Gorilla Theater - The program started one night when Mr. Tearson locked himself in the studio at radio station WMMR and wouldn't allow anyone to come in and get him out. It was a stunt that should have gotten him fired. Maybe really a publicity stunt. Tearson is still on the radio today with Saturday Morning Sixties on WMGK.

...For Headphones Only. I believe this was also a Tearson show. All the music was heavy on stereo separation, so you got a treat when you had your phones on.

...Full albums played - A few of the local rock stations played full albums on schedule, so you could tape them rather than run out and buy them. Great for people who were either on a budget, or just cheap. I don't think that the record companies would allow it now, especially since their push a few decades ago that told us that taping was killing music.

...When local stations made the bands who they are - Many local bands thrived because of stations like WMMR and WIOQ promoted them. The Hooters, Beru Review, The Alan Mann Band, and others got noticed because local talent was more important than sticking to a play list. And places like the Khyber Pass and JC Dobbs packed out with fans wanting to hear the locals play.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

King for a Moment

Kids have a strange way of treating their friends. Sometimes when we were young, we didn't always make ourselves friendly, it only seemed we did. Once in a while we'd find ourselves playing tricks on friends that were good for a laugh. They guy getting tricked didn't always appreciate it though. And some had no idea at all what it was all about.

Once in a while we'd play a "game" called "King". Some poor jerk got to be the king, and he thought it was a good thing until the game was over. The object of the game was that you'd set your victim up to be the king, and he'd pick two loyal guards to defend him. The king would sit on the top step of someone's home with his guards standing on either side. Once the players were set, two other guys would approach and verbally abuse the king. Sometimes the abuse was mild, but if the guy wasn't that well liked, it could be somewhat severe. When the unsuspecting king told his guards to seize the offenders, they took off after them, but rang the doorbell while the king sat there. He had no idea that the man or lady of the house would come out screaming at him for ringing the bell.

Most kids would get the idea after just one shot. Some guys weren't that sharp. We had one kid named Johnny who hung out with us when he visited his grandparents every few months. He was always king, and he thought it was a big deal to be the royal. He wanted to be king every time we played on a given day. So any Sunday afternoon he could have seven older people screaming at him when we left him behind, not understanding that we set him up at each door step. It was funny then to hear him ask something quizzically like, "why do you chase after they guys and the old people come out and holler at me?" It's still funny, but also sad. You understand it a little better when you realize the kid grew up his whole life in the suburbs around Lansdale. No street smarts. Sometimes you wonder, would the kids from the 'burbs take a stroll through North Philly's Badlands and ask a gunman why there's not an orange plastic cap at the end of his barrel? "Hey, I wanna play too, but your gun looks too real, especially those bullets." No suburban kid without street experience should be allowed to hang out without suitable orientation to the streets.

My brother now lives in Blackwood, NJ and wonders what kids in his neighborhood do for fun when they're bored. I can't say the things we did when younger were really edifying, but they were fun for us. It would have been more fun for us to play King with Johnny if he got upset with us a few times for it. Had we known that he'd let us set him up so many times, we could have compiled a Christmas Card list for him. "Merry Christmas from the Kid Who Keeps Ringing Your Doorbell." It's enough to get someone 302'd (what the police call someone who is being committed to the psych ward).

...A pin in your doorbell. This was a super-annoying version of "ring & run". The usual mischief was to just be a stupid kid and ring a neighbors door bell and run away. But if you wanted to really get under someone's skin and he had a bell that constantly rang when you held down the button, you could shove a long pin in the button and it would ring incessantly. But you had better had been quick. If you took too long, you'd get snagged before your feet got off the step. Not a good thing when getting caught, especially if you had an old-time dad who would whack you for disrespecting your neighbor.

...Being really nasty and doing things with a cup of urine or with a flaming bag of dog doo. There was a guy on Bancroft St. across from St. Monica's school in the 70's who would come to the door in his briefs and yell at kids for no good reason. We returned the favor on a few occassions. Once we did the fiery poop trick and lit up a bag on his door step. We hid behind the cars and waited for him to answer the door. Instead, a priest from the church came around the corner and decided to be a good citizen. We laughed so hard I'm surprised we didn't get caught.

Another time we pee'd into an old paper cup and tilted it against his door and rang. Again we hid behind the cars. When he answered, his feet got soaked and he came out in his underwear screaming. Best for him that we didn't have 7-11s in the neighborhood yet, and there were no cups as big as the Big Gulp. He would have really had been p.o'd.