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.

Vanity in a Tin Can

Lately, I’ve been divulging incidents that occurred when I was young and stupid. Like, when I hurled rotten apples at moving vehicles, or harassed the night watchman at boarding school.

Here’s another slice of my biography that a few might find interesting or unusual. If no one finds it interesting or unusual – which is entirely possible – I give permission for this essay to be burned on the bonfire of my vanities.

***

After college, I worked for a couple years at an AM radio station called WNOP, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you’re an older American, you may remember the 1970s situation comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Although I have no proof, I’m convinced WNOP was the model for WKRP.

Like its television counterpart, WNOP was no ordinary radio station. The walls were curved. There was no bathroom. To reach our “office,” we had to tread across a long wooden pier. Also, we never saw the station owner, we only heard about him. He was like the Easter Bunny.

And every time a barge passed by, we bobbed up, down, and sideways.

Take a soup can, peel off the label, then place it in bathtub water so it rests vertically. That was our place of work. It was a gigantic steel cylinder that floated on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just across from downtown Cincinnati. I’m guessing the location choice was related to airwave reception or something. Let me explain:

WNOP was owned by a wealthy local beer distributor, who loved jazz music. He seemed to run the station more as a hobby than a business. I worked there in 1984-85, when arena rock and new wave music were all over the radio. Therefore, because we played jazz – America’s homegrown music – nobody listened to us. So, we didn’t make enough money to afford a proper radio tower. So, the waters of the Ohio River carried our signal.

I was hired as a broadcasting intern by the station manager, a well-known former rock deejay named Geoff. He was a fat guy with glasses who had an excellent radio presence, and he was really nice. I had no radio experience, but I liked jazz music, and was eager to learn, and I’m guessing that’s why he hired me. Also – because I was an intern – he didn’t have to pay me.

Directly under Geoff was Programming Director Chris. Unlike the owner, Chris treated the station as a business instead of a hobby, and he wanted WNOP to be real successful. And whereas Geoff liked me, I don’t think Chris did. You’ll find out why a little later.

Despite being an AM station at the left end of the dial that played jazz, we had a lot of talent at “The Jazz Ark.” The morning host was Kristi. Kristi was a very attractive and outgoing blonde who (surprise, surprise) did a lot of public relations for the station. The two daytime hosts were Ray and Val. Ray was semi-retired, and a radio veteran. Warm radio voice, knowledgeable, and he personally knew many of the famous jazz musicians that occasionally swung through town.

Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) as “Lester the Nightfly,” from his solo album, “The Nightfly”

Val had a great voice, too. He was about 35 and had worked all over the country. Val was black, but he sounded white. Maybe that’s why, at one time in his career, he was a country-and-western disc jockey. This factoid always fascinated me. But I guess if you’re a good enough jock, you can do any type of music. Val was the epitome of cool, and most of us younger guys tried to model ourselves after him.

The younger crew consisted of me, Glenn, Brendan, John, Rod, Chuka, and a few others I can’t recall. Like me, Glenn also appreciated jazz, but unlike me, he was very smooth in front of a microphone. Brendan was a real affable, slightly conservative guy-next-door. John was a short fellow whose dad owned a chain of shoe stores in town. John idolized Val. If you talked with John for any length of time, eventually he’d bring up Val. And Chuka was from Africa and broadcast news only.

I was closest to Rod “Downtown” Lowndes, who previously worked as a riverboat bartender. We were both into dirty rock ‘n’ roll and blues. We also occasionally “indulged” in things.

I remember my trepidation the first time I stepped in front of the microphone. I had a fear of public speaking that dated to a bad incident in childhood, so I had a legitimate concern about hyperventilating while on the air. But the guy who mentored me that first night seemed to think I’d be ok.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Nobody’s listening anyway.”

That calmed me a little, but I still felt like Barney Fife appearing before the Mayberry Municipal Court. As time went on, it got easier. I discovered that talking with the music at a low volume was very helpful.

Symphony Sid Tolan, the dean of jazz disc jockeys

My best memories of WNOP were the early days. Many deejays adopt catchy on-air pseudonyms or nicknames, and I thought about doing the same, similar to real-life Symphony Sid Tolan, or fictional “Lester the Nightfly.” I asked Geoff if maybe I should become Pete ‘Midnight’ White, or something equally ridiculous.

“No, I think you have a good name already. It’s very German-sounding, which will appeal to all the German listeners in Cincinnati. What do you think, Chris?”

“Sure, keep your name,” mumbled Chris. So I kept my name.

And speaking of vanity, it was also fun to drop, in conversation, that I was a deejay. I got a lot of “Really?!” responses. Also, this was before I met my wife, so mentioning I was a disc jockey was a great icebreaker with women. Their eyes always got a little bigger. Previously, it was a struggle for me to even get a second look from an attractive female. But once they learned that I worked in front of a microphone, they seemed to push their breasts a little closer.

I was very careful not to spill that I was merely an unpaid, untalented intern working the graveyard shift at a cable station that nobody listened to.

(Please check back soon for the conclusion of “Vanity in a Tin Can”)

(Illustration of WNOP by Robert Freeson and “Cincinnati Magazine”)

The Craziest Meal I Never Had

dinner party

Not long ago, I was goofing around on YouTube, and I landed on an interview with a particular musician.  One of the interview questions was: “If you could have dinner with any three people, whom would you invite?”

I think the interviewer was a high school student (probably on assignment for the school paper).  My first reaction was “This is cute, but kinda silly.”  Then I thought about it. “Hmm, that’s actually a pretty good question.  It’s a fun way to identify a person’s root influences, especially if the interview subject decides to elaborate.”  But I was a little shocked at one of the musician’s choices for dinner guest.

His first choice was John Lennon.  OK, I can agree with that one.  Songwriting genius, witty, well-informed, candid, gift of gab.  If Lennon was my guest, I could easily see us (once I stopped trembling) enjoying our marshmallow pie while trading views on Brexit and sarcastic jibes about Sir Paul.

His second choice was someone I know nothing about.  But the third choice had me scratching my head: Miles Davis.

For those unfamiliar, Miles Davis was a legendary jazz trumpeter.  He was a gifted composer and improviser who broke musical barriers and influenced a generation of jazz musicians.  But despite being the king of “cool jazz,” he was reputedly as unpredictable as a white cop with a hemorrhoid.

Why would you invite a ticking time bomb to a dinner party, an occasion that’s supposed to be about relaxation and light repartee?  I can envision the exchange:

“Mr. Davis, I’m a big fan of yours.  In fact, ‘Kind of Blue’ is my all-time favorite album.”

Then the sound of soup being slurped, with a few droplets splattered onto Davis’s oversized sunglasses, followed by a string of raspy, mumbled curse words.

melville

Herman Melville

I mean, come on.  He’s a superb musician, yes, but isn’t this a waste of a dinner choice?  Then, of course, I thought about whom yours truly would invite.  And I have to admit: one of my choices would make Miles Davis look like Martha Stewart.

I wouldn’t hesitate to invite Herman Melville (author of “Moby-Dick” and a bunch of other heavy shit).  He’s my favorite writer.  I’d love to probe Melville’s oceanic mind about the whiteness of the whale and Captain Ahab’s maniacal obsessions.  Maybe I could conveniently work into the conversation Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

I’d also invite Billy the Kid.  Even though he was a cold-blooded killer, the Kid was also a party animal with a great sense of humor.  He loved a good game of faro, and had an eye for the ladies.  And there’s only one authenticated photograph of him, so I’d like to see if he’s as buck-toothed and scatterbrained as he looks in the photo.

billy-the-kid-western-wanted

Billy the Kid

But my third choice might send Herman and the Kid scurrying toward the door long before dessert is served: Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse (aka Tasunke Witko) was a war leader of the Oglala Lakota Sioux.  He was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and helped fertilize the Montana hills with the bodies of Custer and the 7th Cavalry.  He was one of the last Plains Indians to surrender to the U.S. Army, and only did so because his people were starving.  Very spiritual, he experienced visions, and refused to allow his photograph to be taken.  He died in 1877, bayoneted in the back while being led to an army jail on a trumped-up charge.

Crazy Horse, for me, was a person of great integrity.  After all, he died for his people’s survival.  And since no one knows what he looked like, our dinner together would give me the opportunity to stare at him a lot.  Does he look like Rafael Nadal?  Or more like Ed Ames?  I can almost guarantee whom he doesn’t look like: smiling Chief Wahoo, the controversial cartoon mascot for the Cleveland Indians.

But how would our conversation go?  Assuming he understands and speaks English – and Herman and the Kid approve of his presence at the table – it would probably be very stilted.

So while my ever-tolerant wife serves the cocktails… whiskey for the Kid, rum for Herman, cold spring water for Crazy Horse, and Dogfish Head Midas Touch Golden Elixir ale for me… I begin to live out a longtime fantasy:

“Mr. Horse… I mean Mr. Witko… uh, sir… it’s truly an honor to sit with you.”

Silence.

“I don’t have any Indian pipe tobacco, but maybe after dinner we could dip into my humidor.  I think I still have a couple Cohibas from my excursion to Nogales a few years ago.”

More silence, as he gulps his water from a bison-hide flask.

“Ya know, I’ve heard that you have visions.  That’s really cool.  I don’t have any pharmaceuticals on hand, but my son lives in Colorado, and he might be able to parcel post a special package – ha-ha, if you know what I mean – for our next get-together.”

He glares at me, expressionless, without responding.  I feel a drop of perspiration roll from my armpit.

“Sir, I know you don’t like having your picture taken.  But my squaw has this gadget called an I-phone, and if I take your photo and you don’t like it, I can immediately delete it.”

He turns his head and gazes out the window at our autumn blaze maple.

Maple Tree

Autumn blaze maple tree (Acer rubrum)

Desperate for some assistance, I glance toward the Kid.  But his face is bright red, and his shoulders are shaking, as if he’s stifling laughter – and doing a poor job of stifling.

Then I pivot in my chair and glance toward Herman.  But Herman’s sitting erect, stroking his massive beard, and he appears buried in deep thought.

So before Herman has a chance to excuse himself to return to his kerosene lamp and his notes for “Billy Budd,” and before the Kid embarrasses me by doubling up with laughter and accidentally firing his Colt single-action revolver, I decide to divert attention from Crazy Horse.

“Hey, guys,” I carefully and surreptitiously maneuver.  “Whaddaya say we head into the den to check out my baseball card collection?”

But I quickly decide that this, too, is a bad idea.  I never imagined that entertaining my heroes for dinner could be so stressful.

“Honey, could you bring us another round of drinks… please??”

black hills

The Black Hills, South Dakota, where Crazy Horse lived and is (supposedly) buried

Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Appeal of Lawrence Welk

welk show_color

My obsession started innocently enough. It was a quiet Saturday night at home. Lynn and I had nothing planned. No social engagement, no movie, no weekend junket out of town. It was “stay-at-home” night, a frosty January evening with a burning log in the fireplace, a wine cooler for her, and a couple Yuenglings for me (ok, maybe three Yuenglings).

welk

The maestro himself: Lawrence Welk

At 7:10 PM EST we turned on one of our favorite TV stations: PBS. There, on the screen, were three men tap dancing in perfect synchronicity. They wore matching suits – er, costumes: shiny black shoes, tight purple slacks with bells at the bottom, lavender satin shirts with puffy lapels the size of small pillows, and shirtsleeve cuffs almost as large. The best dancer – I later discovered his name was Arthur – was black. The most eye-catching dancer was a tall white guy with stiffly erect posture, perfectly sculpted hair, and a huge, frozen grin straight out of a toothpaste commercial.

I’m not sure if it was me or Lynn who laughed first. I’m sure I laughed the loudest (remember, I was nursing several beers). We ended up watching the entire show, smiling and wisecracking the entire time. Occasionally Lynn would Google one of the cast members to learn about his or her scandalous private life.

__________________________

Anyone over the age of 45 or 50 knows about “The Lawrence Welk Show.” This American television program ran from 1951 to 1982. Its host was a big band conductor who had a distinctive accent. The accent was sort of German-sounding, but it had gotten hijacked somewhere by Russia and North Dakota (!). Welk was famous for his catchphrase “Wunnerful, wunnerful!” and his song introduction of “Ah one, and ah two, and ah…” The music on the show ranged from polka tunes to novelty songs to big band standards. Colorfully costumed skits with low-budget props were liberally sprinkled into the program.

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Sometime during the show’s long run, the music acquired the descriptor “champagne music.” Welk even selected one of his singers as the “Champagne Lady,” one Norma Zimmer, who had a pure, high-range soprano voice. Other notable regulars, which Welk called his “Musical Family,” included tap dancer Arthur (Duncan), who was the first African-American regular on a variety TV show; accordionist Myron Floren; legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain; the four Lennon Sisters, who were as sweet and homey as apple pie; frenetic honky-tonk pianist Jo Ann Castle; and former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess – the guy with the frozen grin.

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

Welk deliberately aimed his show toward a specific (and loyal) audience: white, Midwestern conservative, Christian, and definitely older. So it’s not surprising some of the principal show sponsors included Geritol (a dietary supplement marketed to elderly people), Sominex (a sleep aid), and Polident (a denture cleanser).

But Welk himself could be a harsh taskmaster. He fired his original “Champagne Lady” because he thought she showed too much leg. Pete Fountain quit after he was chastised by Welk for trying to jazz up a Christmas number. Fountain was later quoted as saying “Champagne doesn’t mix with bourbon.”fountain

I guess at this point I should elaborate on the “appeal” of Welk for me. Why do I like the show, which is now in syndication on PBS? Well, there’s the nostalgia aspect. This show was part of my childhood DNA. If my folks weren’t playing bridge or at a dinner party on Saturday night, Welk was usually on – at least for a few minutes. My dad loved good big band jazz (e.g. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie). And even though he referred to Welk’s style of music as “schmaltz” – and my mom still calls it “fruity” – it was probably the closest they could get to their halcyon youth in the 1930s and ’40s… at least on television.

The other reason I like Welk is that, no matter how staid or cheesy the entertainment might be, it has a high “feel good” factor. For an hour, “The Lawrence Welk Show” is a great way to forget the stresses in life. I recently discovered that, of all people, the writer and infamous hermit J.D. Salinger (“Catcher in the Rye”) used to dance along with the Welk program. Maybe he found some joy here to leaven some of the darkness in his life.

You see, Welk’s music and skits are always upbeat. They may be corny, but they’re never sardonic or snide, like so much post-“Saturday Night Live” entertainment today. The performers are always smiling and really seem to be having fun. And the champagne bubbles are always floating. Right along with my beer suds.

geritol2