Friday, March 27, 2009

Sylvia, Sylvia, You Bastard, I'm Through

When I was in high school, I loved Sylvia Plath. All high school students love Sylvia Plath. All that angst, the self-hatred, the Holocaust obsession, the June Cleaver suicide - what's not to like? I memorized "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" and all the rest in hopes of impressing girls with my deepy deepness.

In my last year of college at UVa, I took a poetry writing class from Hank Lazer, and we had some of the class sessions at his house. It was the usual small, eclectic college professor bungalow - think Donald Sutherland in Animal House. At one point, as we all sipped some cheap boxed wine - ah, the pre-Reagan college days - Hank mentioned that he had a series of rare, obscure LPs of famous poets reading their works. He started pulling them out of the orange crate - Frost, Lowell, Schwartz, the execrable Gary Snyder. And - oh my God - Sylvia Plath!

We all leapt up. Plath! Put it on, man! We were absolutely psyched to hear the favorite poet of our generation - not quite boomers, not quite Gen X, more like the Gilligan Generation - read her works in her own voice. We waited for the pain, the anger, the suicidal shadows ---

Hank dropped the needle on "Daddy."

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe . . .

We all stared at each other in shock. I'm not sure what we expected Sylvia Plath to sound like. I assume we all expected that neutral, sincere interior voice that we all hear in our head when we read, a voice reflecting our own experiences, our deep English-major earnestness.

But Sylvia Plath doesn't sound like us. She sounds like - well, she sounds like Martin Short doing Katherine Hepburn. An elitist, Northeastern rich girl's voice, Margaret Dumont behind the perfume counter, the uppity voice that orders some liveried fellow to bring the car around, the kind of trust-fund girl that, while she may loathe him, regularly calls Daddy to get her out of a jam. Plath was only 30 when she died, but you'd never know it listening to her - there is a matronly and snooty edge to her voice that absolutely puts your teeth on edge. Plath's voice was so out of whack with her poetry and her photos and the way we all pictured her that after five seconds of "Daddy," we all broke into deep, crying, holding-our-sides laughter. We never did here the rest of the poem.

And that recording killed Sylvia Plath for me. I have not been able to read her work since.

Over the last 35 years, I've told lots of people about the record, and no one believed me. Despite decades of prowling record stores, I was never able to find that recording again. But last week, I started looking around on the net because her son, Nicholas Hughes, the one-year-old in the next room when she killed herself, himself committed suicide. (He'd been a professor of oceanography at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks - not the place you'd expect Sylvia Plath's son to end up, but we all have our paths to trod.) And, lo and behold, I found the recordings on YouTube. Click here to hear it, but don't do it if you like Plath. You'll never be able to read her again.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Ben's Chili Bowl, Washington DC

I had a few hours to kill after dropping my daughter off at a Blues Alley concert last month, so I decided to hop over to Ben's for a chili halfsmoke. I'd only been there once before, and loved the atmosphere, the history and, of course, the food.

I got my food and went to sit down. I wasn't in my seat more than 10 seconds when an elderly fellow in a leather jacket hurried over to the table.

"You know where you're sittin', boy?"

I looked at the little chrome and vinyl chair and the wonderful Formica table.

"No. Where?"

"That's where Barack sat."

"Really? Right here?

"Yessir." He pointed to the chair on the other side of the table. "And Fenty sat right there."

Before I was done, two other people, including a little kid who couldn't have been more than 10, breathlessly informed of the same fact. It made my halfsmoke a little more perfect to realize that just a month earlier, Barack Obama's butt was in the same place as mine.

Makes me wonder about the other famous patrons. Did Ella sit here? The Duke? Dr. King?

I think I need another half smoke.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Birth of Progressive Radio, and My Small Part In It

Back in 1967, I was 10 years old, and my family and I lived in Pacifica, just south of SF on the coast. My dad was a bit of a stereophile, and one day he announced that he had found this incredible new station that was playing cool music. On a Saturday evening, he pulled out the big unwieldy reel-to-reel tape recorder, put the microphone in front of the speaker, told us all to shut up, and recorded two hours of KMPX.
What a great collection of stuff! Imagine a radio station today playing the following songs:
  • "Buy You A Chevrolet" by the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (vocals by Goeff and Maria Muldaur)
  • "Let's Go Get Stoned" by Ray Charles
  • "National Hotel" by Ian and Sylvia
  • "Day Tripper" by Sergio Mendez and Brazil 66
  • The great "
    Green Rocky Road
    " by the doomed Tim Hardin
  • "Candy Colored Dragon" by Jameson
  • "Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum (along with a discussion of where the organ bit came from) and the lesser known B-side, "Lime Street Blues."
  • "There is Something On Your Mind" by The James Cotton Blues Band
  • and a long, weird song about a guy using a pepperoni for a pool cue
along with traffic reports ("be sure to turn on your lights -- the freeway is a fright") and discussion of the previous night's Ravi Shankar concert.
That damn tape was my dad's "party tape" for years. I thought we had lost it long ago, but I recently found the first hour, cleaned it up and made an MP3 of it. You can download it from:

Listening to it, I got a little obsessed with it. It really is a piece of history, recorded at the very moment when radio, and most of society, was poised to head off in many weird directions. So, lacking any other hobbies, I decided to research it.
First, some history. In the early 60s, the top-40 powerhouse in SF was KYA, 1260AM, with the legendary Johnny “The Teen Queen’s Dream” Holliday, Russ “The Moose” Syracuse, and Emperor Gene Nelson. One of my fondest memories of my youth was spending the night in my tent in the backyard, with my little transistor tuned to KYA at my side, and hearing, for the first time, "Eleanor Rigby," Paperback Writer," and "Paint It Black," one right after the other, in an orgy of brilliance. My brain hasn't been the same since.

The top DJ at KYA, however, was “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue. As the 60s progressed, however, Tom found that the songs he and his friends listened to were not the same songs he was being asked to play on KYA. So in late 1966, Tom got out the SF Yellow Pages and started calling radio stations until he found one that was interested in playing some different music.
The station he found was KMPX 106.9 FM, which at the time did mostly Italian and Portuguese language programs for the large immigrant fishing population in San Francisco. (People nowadays don’t think of SF as a blue-collar kind of town, but remember that Joe DiMaggio was a fisherman’s son from SF). The station was struggling, as were all FM stations at the time – most people didn’t have an FM receiver, despite the fact that the format had been around since the 1940s. (My family were the first on the block to have an FM receiver in 1966, and I didn’t have one in my car until 1978.) In fact, KMPX was so struggling that the phone had been disconnected, but Tom managed to negotiate a deal whereby the owner let him have the slot to play whatever music caught his fancy. Tom went on the air on April 1967.
This concept later became known as “underground radio” or “rock radio” or “FM rock,” and to give credit where credit is due, Tom was not the first weird DJ at KMPX – a few months earlier, a Detroit DJ named Larry Miller started his own free-form show from to on KMPX. Between the two of them, they reinvented radio. Within a year, KMPX was “the stereo voice of San Francisco,” and the voice of a weird new generation.
My first question to research was the date of the recording. The DJ gives a few clues:
  • He mentions that the foreign language shows were being phased out. According to some articles I ran across on the web, all the foreign shows were eliminated by August, so the tape must fall between then and the format's premiere in April.
  • He tells everybody to be careful when driving, because it's "that weekend."
  • There was a Ravi Shankar concert at the SF Auditorium the night before.
  • He occasionally gives the current time.
I figured the traffic reference must refer to the Memorial Day weekend (remember those damn Memorial Day traffic body counts?), and I browsed around at some vintage concert poster sites until I found the Shankar concert. The tape was made between and on Saturday, May 27, 1967.
And in the course of my research, I found this photo: the KMPX staff, circa 1967.
Look closely at this picture. (People tend to forget that major components of the SF style in ’67 were Western outfits and big friggin’ guns.) First that’s Howard Hesseman – yes, the Howard Hesseman, who 11 years later became immortal as “Dr. Johnny Fever” on WKRP in Cincinnati, the coolest TV sitcom ever made, standing at upper left next to his wife. Next to Mrs. Hesseman is
Dusty Street
, who is still in the biz and now serves as a DJ for Classic Vinyl, live from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for SiriusXM. Three over from Dusty is Carl Gottlieb, DJ name “Egg,” who later went on to take Peter Benchley’s shitty shark novel and turn it into Jaws. (He wrote the script, and played the newspaper editor in the film.) Larry Miller is the odd little fellow in the Prince Valiant haircut in the right rear, next to some arch blond salesman who happened to wander into the lobby when the picture was taken.
Seated in the middle is Tom Donahue, in his new counterculture beard, with his child bride Raechel in the derby on his lap. Tom, alas, died in 1975, but Raechel has been in radio ever since, and until recently held Dusty Street's current job at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Tom also innovated in hiring mostly women to serve as the radio technicians and engineers, and a lot of them stayed in the business also.
I could go on about each of the people in this picture, because just by being at KMPX in 1967, they all became radio legends. (And I’d *love* to know who that psychotic looking blonde next to Rachael is.)
But back to the tape. What to say about the music? In addition to the above songs, the hour also included a bluesy version of "The Twelfth of Never" by Lou Rawls, an unknown piece by jazzman Jonah Jones, a Guaraldi-like version of "A Hard Day's Night," "Uskudar" by Herbie Mann, "Another Girl" by the Beatles, "Egyptian Garden" by Kaleidoscope, and (an especially cool find) "Miserlou" by the Devil's Anvil, a kick-ass proto-punk band supposedly from the Middle East (but actually from Brooklyn). Counting the first bar of "River Deep Mountain High" by Tina Turner that ends the tape, that's 19 songs in 57 minutes, an astounding amount of music. Of course, there are no commercials , despite the fact the KMPX was definitely a commercial station. Still don't know what the story is there.
The only thing that still bugs me about the tape is the name of the DJ. I think that was my dad's favorite part of the tape, actually, because he thought the guy sounded like Pat Paulsen. I distinctly remember that in the now-lost second hour of the tape, he said his name was Vince Something-or-other, but I can't find any record of a Vince at KMPX. I sent a scoped copy of the file to Raechel Donahue, Dusty Street, Larry Miller (who is now a faculty member at the Art Institute International in Boston) and the Bay Area Radio Museum, and no one recognized who the laid back Saturday afternoon DJ’s voice. I also sent the file to the master of cool, Gene Sculatti, but I haven’t heard back from him yet.
I’ll keep researching. Enjoy the file.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Still Not TOS

I’ve finally started watching “Star Trek: Enterprise,” and it’s not as bad as everyone said it was. Scott Bakula is always cool, and Jolene Blalock is hot in a Vulcan kind of way. There aren’t any lovable characters in it, though, and the dialog is the usual Berman and Braga crap. But I like the small, primitive nature of the ship, and it looks like an expensive production – those Xindi outfits with the Slinky wires all over them must have cost a fortune. And my favorite character, strangely enough, is the Andoran Commander Shran, kind of a cerulean Frank Borman. Cool guy - wouldn't mind having a drink with him sometime. My only gripe right now is that I sat through the entire third season – the whole season-long Xindi arc with the attack on Earth, the warring Xindi factions, the transdimensional beings, the anomalies, the whole damn thing – and the final episode didn’t record because my dogs chose that moment to chew through the FiOS cable. So the first episode of season four comes on, and all of a sudden the ship is orbiting Earth in the year 1944 while alien Nazis sit in the White House and we’re stuck in some kind of temporal war. What the hell did I miss? And don’t these folks ever get shore leave on some nice quiet planet? (And don’t even get me started on what a lazy crutch time travel is in “Star Trek.”)

Public Education in the 60s

Growing up in the Cold War had its advantages. I got to miss the whole last month of kindergarten because my Naval Reserve dad got called up for the Berlin crisis and we moved to Newport, Rhode Island to be near him. When I lived in Pacifica, California, on the coast south of San Francisco, we had four different school drills that we had to perform all the time: 1) the nuclear attack drill, where we all had to scrunch under our desk (which were somehow nuclear-bomb-proof, apparently); 2) fire drills which covered not only fires in the school, but what to do if the giant brush-covered hill in back of the school went up in flames; 3) earthquake drills, where all 35 of us would try to cram into a doorway (the strongest part in a building, we were told); and 4) the tidal wave drill. The last was our favorite – it consisted of running madly up into the hills, and about half of us just kept going until we got home. The school administration finally got smart and only scheduled the tidal wave drills for 3 PM on Fridays, the bastards. Between all those drills, and the time we spent twice a year running up the hill to watch the Enterprise head off to battle the godless Commies, we got precious little schoolwork done. Thank God for that.

Those Damn Foreigners

I have a small benign lump in the first joint of my right middle finger. When I was 5 or so, I misunderstood what the doctor said when my mom asked him about it – I thought he said it was “foreign matter.” So of course I thought it was Russian. I spent years waiting for the lump to rise up in a proletariat manner and smite me.