God, isn’t it beautiful? The year is 1967. Welcome to my town—a virtual sonic prison, with but one solitary radio station that plays anything resembling modern music.
Transistor radios are the aesthetic weapon of choice here in this jerkwater, deep-South hellhole. Downtown you got the JC Penney’s, which features a sad-sack selection of country-and-western horse farts, and other than that, there’s no such thing as a bona fide record store hereabouts. But there is a “pop music” radio station here in town. Weak signal with a terrible playlist, but it’s the one and only conduit to the larger world. As such, social deviates the likes of myself pass our days crushing tiny metal boxes against our skulls, madly torqueing this way and that—courting copasetic kinships with fiendishly fickle, unseen “airwaves”—bending for hours on end . . . just . . . waiting . . . for . . . one . . . good . . . song.
In waiting, young restless minds get to idling, do they not? And oh, my, how idle minds are prone to devilish drifting—is that not what the preacher tells us? Press the box to your skull, do you feel your thoughts spinning pretty circles of damnation down this or that sonic stream of other-music—upwellings of hack psychedelia drift past, mingling with undertows of cookie-cutter Motown, cesspools of last-gasp doo-wop, gimmick pop, schlock puppy-love pabulum, hell, even calypso. Cesspools? Yes, friend, cesspools are a part of the natural order, particularly when there is but one portal through which all shit must pass.
Listen up: in 1967 you and I, we both know what we want to hear, but in order to get at what we desire, we must learn to abide the presence of shit, of in-betweens, of contraries to our so-called “taste in music.” For my part, in abiding, my idle mind unwittingly succumbs, imbibing the worrisome beverage of unwanted influences, which slowly, insidiously embed themselves in the shadowy tissues of my psyche, lodging there like some inorganic carcinogen. There, free of conscious supervision, they silently fester and mutate. Frightened? Don’t be. It’s 1967, before most of you poor bastards of freedom are born.
So let’s shoot ahead to the early 1970s. You born yet? Likely not.
Rumors are circulating around town, but I disbelieve in such a thing . . . at least until I behold it with my own two strangulated ears: a stone-cold revelation called formatted FM radio being broadcast from 50 miles to the east in the booming metropolis of Mobile, Alabama.
I tune in. Song one: a good song. Song two: my favorite song. Song three: a previous favorite. I keep listening—hell, this station is playing one and only one style of music: the teenage hippy stuff. And you know what, friend? There’s others like me out there listening, because damn if the station doesn’t catch on.
Day or night, now, whenever I twist the knob and tune in, buddy, there it is—my music! I’m free to partake of my songs whenever I so choose. No patience required. Before too long a trippy record store opens up on the outskirts of my town. I go there and purchase a Led Zeppelin record the first week. No more “Ballad of the Green Beret” on my turntable. No more idle dreaming about my song. I can hear what I want, whenever I want. Has heaven descended? No, quite the contrary. What happens to my soul as I find myself dreaming about my song less and less? What would you say if I told you freedom is the true enemy of dreams?
Flash ahead ten or so years. My brain’s been twisted into a middle-class pretzel by the insidious machine known as Popular Culture. I’ve taken a job on one of those hellish three-day, four-night vacation cruise ships that roundtrip endlessly between Miami and Jamaica. It’s after hours, and I’m giving my best shot at seducing a coy little Norwegian snack bar cashier. She perks up sexy nice when I arrive at her door with guitar in hand, but when I sit down and sing her an autobiographic, semi-schizophrenic, seven-minute-long ballad I wrote called “Don’t Fall Prey to Odds and Ends,” her mood changes. She listens in polite bewilderment, then coldly reports: “You sing like a broken shortwave radio.” “You should sing happy songs,” she adds matter-of-factly. Her favorite band turns out to be Mr. Mister. I have no social filters and thus feel compelled to report to her that Mr. Mister cobble their fine songs out of dried-up cat shit. I’m unceremoniously expelled from her quarters shortly thereafter. But her words about the shortwave radio stay with me.
Years pass. Turns out nobody likes my broken shortwave radio songs, so I quit writing them. I quit listening to the radio, too. I disappear into the wondrous silence of middle age. A decade later I start writing songs again. Just to pass the time. As therapy. I don’t give a dried-up cat shit if anybody likes them or not.
Now it’s 1997. Believe it or not, through a series of truly bizarre circumstances I’m a card-carrying professional musician. I’m listening to the radio again. If a song I wrote is played on the radio, I actually make money, so from time to time I listen, hoping to hear myself making money. It’s slightly surreal to hear my own voice and words traveling over the same airwaves I was so familiar with as a teenager.
But what a mind fuck the radio has become. The airwaves are packed tighter than a third-world streetcar. Now there’s a formatted radio station for each and every demographic in the kaleidoscope of human experience. Rich kids listen to rich-kid radio. Depressed white males listen to depressed-white-male radio. Kittens with one ear listen to kitten-with-one-ear radio.
Secondary discovery: there’s a new mutant breed of vacant-eyed, supermodels—both girls and boys—who can simultaneously sing like Aretha Franklin while they dance like a fully wired, crack-head whore. That’s hard to do all at once. Upon closer examination I discover they are soulless automata programmed by corporate demagogues.
Third discovery: I notice smart kids of late have caught on to the phenomenon of rampant soullessness and have adopted a pose called fashionable cynicism. Fans and record company A&R types regularly mistake said cynicism for a brand-new kind of soul. They place aspects of their mistaken impression in songs and make millions of dollars in the process. Their music is basically a catchy little cynical smirk. Am I wrong? Is there a section in modern-day record stores called Cynical Smirk? If not, there damn well should be.
My record label calls this morning. I’m writing songs for a new album. They tell me, “Don’t worry about trying to write a single. There’s no such thing as an indie single any more.” I ask why, and they explain, “Clear Channel bought up every radio station in America. The play list is forty songs You’re not on the play list.”
It turns out if you can’t sing like one of those Aretha Franklin automatons while you dance like a fully wired, crack-head whore, you won’t get any airplay.
I clap my hands and shout, “Thank God! At last!” My label boss is stumped, so I elucidate, “Don’t you see? It’s just like the old days! One narrow conduit through which all shit must pass. Pretty soon them poor bastards of freedom will be able to dream again!”
In short, young brothers and sisters, look around you at those who are so free that they need nothing. What the hell do you think they dream about? Nothing.
I wish you a prison, so that your dreams may live.