Saturday, July 4, 2009

Stations of the Cross

By Jason Heller

Punk and radio always used to be at each other’s throats. Or rather, punk gnawed at the ankles of radio with puppy-force ferocity while radio marched on, pretty much unphased. Joey Ramone crooned “We Want the Airwaves,” and—like everything else the Ramones sang about wanting—it sounded like a joke. But it wasn’t. And they never really got those airwaves, at least not on the scale they’d wished for. (Though to their credit, I suspect most of them wound up sedated, sniffing glue, good boys, someone’s boyfriend, being well, living, not walking around with you, and having something to do at some point in their careers). Stiff Little Fingers’ “You Can’t Say Crap on the Radio”—for reasons as obvious as the song title itself—never shattered any chains of censorship or oppression. And the Clash lashed out against corporate media in “Capital Radio,” and again later in the aptly named “Radio Clash”—by which time they’d already had a top-40 American hit. And weren’t even really punk anymore.

Ironically enough, that Clash hit, “Train in Vain,” might have been the first remotely punk song I ever heard, even if it did sound more like a Stax tune. And I heard it, of course, on the radio. But to this day I wonder: What kind of frame of reference would I have had if I hadn’t grown up, hand on the dial, enthusiastically scanning stations for a chance to hear punk traitors like Billy Idol and the Go-Go’s and pretenders like Joan Jett and, um, the Pretenders? I mean, if “My Sharona” hadn’t been stamped on my forebrain since third grade, would “Going Underground” have resonated so deeply? I never used to think so, but the fact stands: the Jam is just a way, way better version of the Knack. Hardcore, of course, is another matter entirely—but 7 Seconds did do that kick-ass rendition of “99 Red Balloons,” and even Minor Threat covered the Monkees.

It might sound like I’m building up to a defense of punk rock on the radio in the 21st century. And in part, I guess, I am. After all, there will be those precious few kids listening to shit like Sum 41 who will wind up discovering, through these gateway punks, music much more subterranean and substantive. But I really don’t care. I barely listen to the radio at all anymore. And when I do, there are only two stations I can stomach: AM 1430 and 92.5 FM. KEZW and KDJM. “Your station for memories” and “Jammin’ oldies.” In other words, the easy listening station and the classic soul station, music for old folks and black folks, respectively. As a whippersnapper honky, I am plainly neither. And yet, these stations—this music—gets me. And I get it. On one hand, you’ve got Sammy Davis Jr., the Carpenters, Peter, Paul and Mary and Sergio Mendes. On the other, you’ve got the Gap Band, Donna Summer, Al Green and Al B Sure. Punks, as Aaron Cometbus once observed, have a lot in common with both old people and Jews. Similarly, 1430 and 92.5 appeal to me not just as a person, but as someone who loves punk. It’s way less commercial. It’s bound tightly in nostalgia. And it all sounds the same to the outside listener. And, like punk, cheesy ‘50s pop and slick ‘80s R&B have way more depth and sophistication than most people realize. Just listen to Eater or Bing Crosby or Cameo. Listen close. You’ll see.

But it’s more than just the music that attracts me to these radio stations. For one, the commercials don’t scream at you. In fact, there are way fewer commercials period, maybe because advertisers assume that their young/middle-class/white target market is tuning in to the anemic “modern rock” on KTCL, the smug, limp junk on KBCO, or the same Dire Straits song over and over again on the Fox. Even the DJs are better. On 1430 and 92.5, there’s nothing remotely resembling a shock jock. The on-air personalities are warm, friendly, almost soothing—and they know their shit about the music they play, rather than being picked out of a graduating class of broadcasting students drilled more in speech and marketing than any true passion for music.

But both of my favorite stations have something else in common, something that unites their seemingly disparate listening constituencies in a profound and fundamental way. I woke up this Sunday morning to the sounds of neighborhood kids yelling, lawnmowers humming—and Jesus. You see, I’d left the radio on KEZW as I fell asleep last night. And on this day of the lord, they decided to transmit the most wretched choir music, just like the crap you hear in big churches, with Jehovah’s holy light streaming in through the stained glass, conveniently looking past the groping of alter boys in the confessionals.

Pissed, I quickly spun the dial over to 92.5, hoping to clean that horrible taste out of my mouth with some Chic or Chaka Khan. But no. Instead, they were playing gospel music. And not good old gospel like Mahalia Jackson, but that slick, parody-of-itself gospel that makes the Blues Brothers sound like the Funk Brothers. As the praise reached a brain-frying crescendo, I slammed my hand down on the radio and returned my room to relative silence.

I was shattered. My two favorite radio stations—the ones that I’ve long ago reconciled and then proudly attached some essential part of my musical identity to—have more in common than just me.

It made me wish like fuck that I had some Crass handy.

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