Vanity in a Tin Can (Part 2)

(This is the conclusion of my two-part article about my experience as a jazz disc jockey)

Before long, manager Geoff hired me as a full-time, paid deejay. He was very encouraging:

“The whole trick is to put a smile into your voice.”

“Try to hit those peaks and valleys, like an easygoing rollercoaster.”

“Man, you sounded hot  yesterday! Have you thought of this as a career? It doesn’t pay much, but you can make a living.”

I began taping my shows, hoping for that one perfect show (I came close, but never got it). Downtown Lowndes and I occasionally exchanged notes. One night, very late, we pretended we were two pompous Top 40 deejays:

“Hey, OK! Got the hot wax and the best tracks, my man Downtown!”

“Hey, OK, Pedro! What’s comin’ up here? Michael Jackson? Noooo, sorry… Chuck Mangione! Hey, OK!”

We figured nobody was listening, anyway, so we might as well stretch out.

Once in a while, I did get phone calls for requests. There was a college guy who always requested Charlie Parker, and nobody else. There was a teenage girl who didn’t care about music but only wanted to talk to the male deejays. She was referred to variously as “Miss Lonelyhearts” or “Jailbait.”

The most frequent caller was this drunk who hated any song unless it was an old, Big Band standard. Everything else was a “buncha crap.” (If he hated it so much, why did he keep calling? I think he was upset because the music had changed so much since “his day,” including the type of jazz being played.)

Alto saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker

One night, while gazing out the porthole at the city lights, I tried to reason with him:

“You should give it a chance. I know this is newer music, but it’s good jazz. It’s Branford Marsalis, brother of Wynton!”

“It’s a buncha crap!”

I gave up.

Because WNOP was a small, tight-knit affair, we sometimes got together outside of work. Brendan, Downtown and I visited local clubs to hear different bands. Eventually, Downtown got his own weekend blues show and became Rod “Blueshound” Lowndes, and his became the station’s most popular show. Whereas at one time he’d complain about not getting any phone calls, soon he was complaining that he couldn’t cue the records “with all these damn calls!”

At one company luncheon, he and I got into a friendly argument about African-American origins of blues music. Similar to “buncha crap,” I was a bit of a purist, so I preferred the primitive, country blues, while Downtown liked contemporary, electrified, urban blues. We went back and forth before someone finally looked at Val, our resident “hip black cat,” and asked for his input. Val’s perfectly timed response was “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”

The pinnacle of my time at WNOP was when I got my own avant-garde jazz show. It was still late at night, but it was my show, and I could play practically anything I wanted. I remember Glenn pulling me aside before my first show. He was musically knowledgeable, and he suggested I didn’t have to always play the really “black” stuff, meaning challenging and spiritually probing free jazz artists like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. It was a good tip, but I was already primed for a mix of dark and light, combining those artists with a little progressive rock, fusion, and ECM label.

Unfortunately, “The Vanguard Express” didn’t last long. Our Arbitron ratings dipped, and my show was one of the first casualties. The day after it happened, I received a personal phone call from Robert Fripp, legendary leader of King Crimson, who agreed to be interviewed for the show. I had to tell him.

“What?! You’ve been sacked!” Fripp said, as I struggled to recover from a hangover. I explained it wasn’t me that got fired, but the show, and he sympathized. So… no interview. Nevertheless, it was a thrill to get a morning wake-up call from one of my music heroes, even if I had cotton-mouth and crimson eyeballs at the time.

One night I showed up for work and noticed that the album sleeves in the library had colored tape on the spines. Red, yellow, blue, green, and brown. I soon learned that, in keeping with WNOP’s “jazz plus” format, this indicated varieties of jazz. Brown meant traditional jazz. Green was pop or rock with jazz elements (e.g. Joni Mitchell or Steely Dan). Red, yellow, and blue also had meanings of some kind.

Hereafter, all jocks were required to play a certain quota of each color per shift. Of course, the color brown, for traditional jazz, received minimal airplay. I worried about what “buncha crap” would say.

This is about the time I started losing interest in being a deejay. As with everything in life that’s free and untainted, people have to muck it up with manipulations.

It wasn’t long before programming director Chris was dropping by with comments like “Pete, you didn’t play much Red or Yellow last night. We’re trying to get the Arbitron ratings up, you know.”

Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon

I told him I’d try to do better. But I really didn’t try too hard.

Instead, I went in the opposite direction. I’d cue up Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray’s “The Hunt,” which is a live, 18-minute saxophone apocalypse from 1947, then go out on the poop-deck to smoke a cigarette and watch the city lights shimmer on the water.

Things went from bad to worse. Like a lot of single guys who didn’t have girlfriends, I had a little dog to keep me company. One night during a long shift, I brought him to the station with me. He just lay there asleep on the floor, but one of the newer deejays saw him, then went and told the teacher.

“Pete, this is a place of business, and you really shouldn’t bring your dog here.”

“Sorry, Chris, but this is like a home away from home for me. The Jazz Ark is like an extension of my apartment.”

“Well, that’s very flattering, but we don’t allow animals in this ark.”

Not long after, I gave my notice. Chris was right, of course. The station wasn’t a playpen or home away from home. It was an office. And when I realized that fact, the fun disappeared.

WNOP’s jazz format lasted till the millennium, when The Jazz Ark became a Catholic Radio ark. I don’t know if Chris and Geoff’s Arbitron ratings ever spiked like they’d hoped. I saw Chris at a Pentangle concert, around 1992. During our time at the station, I didn’t think he had much taste in music. But maybe I pegged him wrong. Pentangle’s a damn good band.

The only other person I saw was my pal, Downtown. Appropriately, I saw him downtown, about eight years ago, after some function. It was about 1 a.m. He was serving drinks in a seedy bar and taking jukebox requests for the night owls. Same extroverted manner. I recognized him, but I don’t think he recognized me.

I debated whether or not I should reveal myself, but he looked a bit down on his luck, and I didn’t want to embarrass him. For all I knew, he owned a string of successful bars and restaurants downtown. But I didn’t want to take the chance.

So I just requested an old blues song.

Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

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There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

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Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

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Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

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