Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Playlist Posts #1: Songs About The Radio

This is the first in a series of posts that include songs that I would put in a themed playlist.  Consider this an "annotated playlist".  Feel free to include your suggestions in the comments!

Not long ago I was teaching my high school course on American popular culture post-WWII.  The class mainly focuses on popular music, with digressions about television, computers and other technological advances.  One day, while talking about radio, it came out that pretty much NONE of the students listen to terrestrial radio anymore.  They either listen to satellite stations or they listen to streaming music websites or they download music to their iPods.   This was shocking to me.  When I was their age, I listened to the radio every day, and even now I stream my favorite radio station (WXPN out of the University of Pennsylvania) on my computer on a daily basis.

The following songs (in no particular order) are songs about the radio that evoke my memories of listening to the radio all day long when I was young.  I definitely owe my encyclopedic knowledge of "classic rock" to my years listening to  WIOQ, WMMR and WYSP (which sadly just transitioned to the dreaded "sports talk" format).  And the two years when I listed to WRTI (which in the 1980's was America's most powerful jazz station, watts wise) gave me a very thorough familiarity with jazz.  While my listening chops are not sharp anymore, there was a time when I could recognize drummers, bassists, horn players and others without identification.  Why?  Obsessive radio listening!

Al Stewart-- Song on the Radio: I've always loved Scottish folk-rocker Al Stewart.  His songs take an unusual interest in history, which appeals to me as a history teacher. In fact, the essay I wrote to get into college compared his song about the Siege of Leningrad (Roads to Moscow) with a photograph from WWII.  Anyway, this song with the catchy refrain "you're on my mind like a song on the radio" has always struck me as very "true" somehow.  I guess today's generation will miss out on the experience of a station (especially a Top 40 station) playing popular songs over and over again.  I mean, they can CHOOSE to repeat songs whenever they want, but the random nature of a "song on the radio" seems subtly different to me.


Marshall Crenshaw-- Radio Girl: This song is the first of a couple that focus on the listener's relationship with the deejay.  Besides having a beautiful, almost Hawaiian melody featuring slide guitar genius Sonny Landreth, the lyrics focus on the singer's imaginary relationship with a woman disc jockey.   As the song says:

Well I don't know what she looks like
I've never seen her face before.
But I hear her on my radio
From 1 AM til 4.
She's playing all my favorite records
She's telling me the latest news
I take her into my bed each night
And she rocks away my blues
'Cause she's my girl,
My radio girl

I had TWO radio girls.  When I was in high school, circa 1986-1988, I had a total crush on WYSP DJ Debbi Calton that only barely eclipsed my affection for Helen Leicht (then of WIOQ, I listen to her now on WXPN).  Debbi had a great love of rock and roll, a voice that thrilled me, and she did the 10 PM to 2 AM shift, so I listened to her as I fell asleep.  Helen hosted the weekend show "Breakfast with the Beatles", which helped school me on the Fab Four.  One of the things that was especially significant about these crushes was that (pre WWW) it was impossible to know what they looked like.  And while both are attractive women, neither looks at all like my mental image.  Oh well....


Dar Williams--Are You Out There: When I attended Hampshire College in the late 80's and early 90's I managed to broaden my horizons by gluing myself to WRSI out of Greenfield, Ma., one of the first "alternative" rock stations.  I would stay up every night until they signed off at 2 AM to make sure that I didn't miss anything.  Two of the disc jockeys I especially liked were Johnny Memphis and Jimmy Olsen.  It turns out that young folk singer (and resident of nearby Northampton) was listening too.  This song has a slightly more ethereal vibe.  The music is more disturbing, and echoes the words that seem to perfectly capture (to me) the feeling that I had as an awkward, isolated teenager who only cared about music.  To quote the song:

Perhaps I am a miscreation

No one knows the truth there is no future here

And you're the DJ speaks to my insomnia

And laughs at all I have to fear

Laughs at all I have to fear

You always play the madmen poets

Vinyl vision grungy bands

You never know who's still awake

You never know who understands and

Are you out there, can you hear this?

Jimmy Olson, Johnny Memphis,

I was out here listening all the time

And though the static walls surround me

You were out there and you found me

I was out here listening all the time

Last night we drank in parking lots

And why do we drink?
I guess we do it cause

And when I turned your station on 

You sounded more familiar than that party was

You were more familiar than that party

It's the first time I stayed up all night

It's getting light I hear the birds

I'm driving home on empty streets

I think I put my shirt on backwards

Are you out there, can you hear this 

Jimmy Olson , Johnny Memphis

I was out here listening all the time

And though the static walls surround me 

You were out there and you found me

I was out here listening all the time

I know that there were lots of times when "I turned your station on just so I'd be understood
", and I hope that kids today can find someone (not just a music database) to trust--preferably in their real life, but if not, a radio host would do.  It did for me.


Rush-- Spirit of Radio: This song by the mighty Canadian power trio Rush (off their 1980 release "Permanent Waves") is another one that seems to synopsize how radio can come to mean so much to listeners.  Besides having an undeniably rocking syncopated rhthym, the lyrics are very perceptive: 

Begin the day with a friendly voice,
A companion unobtrusive
Plays that song that's so elusive
And the magic music makes your morning mood.

Off on your way, hit the open road,
There is magic at your fingers
For the spirit ever lingers,
Undemanding contact in your happy solitude. 

Anyone who has listened to the radio on a long car drive, or had a bad morning made tolerable thanks to hearing your favorite song can relate to this song.

Another noteworthy part of this song is the cautionary aspect of Neil Peart's lyric.  He seems to worry that the commercial aspects of the music business may put radio in danger.  I absolutely love the line:

One likes to believe in the freedom of music,
But glittering prizes and endless compromises
Shatter the illusion of integrity. 

and not just because of the emphatic "Yeah" singer Geddy Lee adds at the end. 


Bruce Springsteen-- Radio Nowhere: The first single off Springsteen's 2009 release "Magic", this song seems to respond to the previous one by Rush.  The singer is driving through the night, and there is nothing worth listening to on the dial.  The song is one of his all-time best rockers, in my opinion which is suitable considering lyrics like:

I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices speaking in tongues

This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?

I was driving through the misty rain
Searchin' for a mystery train
Boppin' through the wild blue
Tryin' to make a connection to you

This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?

I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm


Queen--Radio Gaga: Decades before Bruce's lament, Queen's Roger Taylor wrote this tribute to radio.  Fearing that it would fade away in the face of the superficially more attractive television, Taylor's ode to radio is more focused on radio shows from the pre-tv era, but still resonates with me. 

I'd sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage nights
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio
The performance of this song at Live Aid was breathtaking to me, as over 100,000 people at London's Wembley Stadium, in an ironic tribute to the power of television, not radio, mimiced the behavior of the actors in the song's video by clapping their hands over their heads during the refrain.


R.E.M.--Radio Song: This last song, from Athens, Georgia's 1980's alt-rockers R.E.M came from their 1991 album "Out of Time".  It daringly combined the new genre of rap, featuring the rapper KRS-ONE (whose acronymic name stands for "Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone").  The song is funny, and would seem to criticize people who listen to the radio too much:

Check it out
What are you saying
What are you playing
Who are you obeying
Day out day in?
Baby, baby, baby, baby
That stuff is driving me crazy
DJs communicate to the masses
Sex and violent classes
Now our children grow up prisoners
All their lives radio listeners

Supposedly songwriter Michael Stipe was trying to make fun of people's relationship with radio.  While this song is the most dated sounding of all the ones on this list, I thought it was a humorous way to end this playlist, and to remember not to take things so seriously!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

9/11, 10 Years On

I have nothing meaningful to add to the plethora of efforts to commemorate (or exploit) the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  I was not in the vicinity of New York, Washington or Shanksville, and none of my family or friends were harmed in the attacks.  But like all Americans (and people all over the world) who were aware of the events of the day, I have not been able to forget what happened.  And considering the way that our country has changed since then, I think it is important to look back at that "happening ten years time ago" and, perhaps, see how things could have been different.

In 2001 I was a faculty member at Groton School, about 40 miles west of Boston.   As I walked from my on-campus house toward Chapel that Tuesday morning, I was struck by the absolutely perfect beauty of the sky.  People who know me are aware that when it comes to the scenery surrounding me, I am usually barely sentient.  But the purity of the cloudless blue sky, and the coolness of the air, have stayed with me all these years.  Little did I know that planes leaving Boston's Logan Airport had already been hijacked, and were being diverted through that perfect sky toward their targets.

During the first period of the day I left my office (I was the Academic Technology Manager, which gave me the chance to work with teachers to incorporate technology into their curricula) and went to ask a question of our network administrator.  While we were talking, the head of the math department came into the server room and urged that we turn the tv to CNN.  "A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center", he said.  Since his son is an airline pilot, it makes sense that he was particularly attuned to the topic of plane crashes (his sister had called him to deliver the message).  As we were watching, in shock and dumbfounded surprise, we watched the second plane crash into tower 2.  Obviously this has been reshown on television and in movies countless times since then, but I will never forget my first sighting of it.  Watching the fire from the first plane, we naturally assumed that the crash had been an accident, but the second plane crash made all of us jump to the truth of the matter--the crashes were the result of terrorism.

Groton has a lot of students from New York, and I was never prouder of the school than I was that day.  An emergency school assembly was convened, New York area students were approached by advisors, deans, chaplain and headmaster, and we in the technology department tried to find ways to get messages to families in New York, which was difficult as phone lines were jammed.  In the days that followed, as the world tried to come to terms with what had occurred, I remember having conversations with colleagues, family and students in which we all recognized that things would never be the same.  I remember feeling like I finally knew what my grandparents had felt on December 7, 1941 and what my parents had felt on November 22, 1963; and wishing that I still didn't.

I was on dorm duty the next week, and the girls were diligently studying and completing their homework, when I decided to try to put my thoughts down.  Re-reading it now (it is on my website), I can't help but notice the debt I owed to Bob Cringely, and his extremely prescient writing the previous month that "I wonder whether the end of the Cold War may have accelerated this law enforcement trend as intelligence agencies try to stay in business by re-targeting their efforts on terrorism, the new bogeyman." I also can't help but notice the debt (stylistically, if not in content) owed to my rereading of the political essays of Gore Vidal.  Most importantly, I was encouraged to follow the lead of my friend Sascha Fruedenheim, whose invaluable blog often clarifies difficult ideas for me.

This week I was teaching history at Wyoming Seminary, where I have worked since 2003. And I realized that my 15-year old sophomores were about the same age 10 years ago as I was when Richard Nixon resigned, days before my fourth birthday.  Growing up I always heard about "Watergate", and it was clear that post-Watergate America (my America) was different from what came before, but I never knew how.  In fact, the desire to solve this mystery is one of the reasons I became a historian.  So for anyone who reads this, and especially for younger people, I hope it helps show that there was a "road not taken" in the fall of 2001.  At that time I urged travel on the road not taken, and, sadly, that has made no difference at all.

The following is my original post from 2001. Some of the references are dated (such as reminders about the 2000 Presidential election), and some have since turned out to be wrong (such as the reference to Moammar Gaddafi's daughter).  But I still think the world would be a better place if we could all "work to arrive at peaceful solutions based on laws, empathy and compassion".  America will never forget 9/11.  But here's hoping that the next 10 years will enable our country to move away from a perpetual fear and constant war to a more sustainable existence.

Reflections on the Terrorism of September 11th, 2001

by Ethan M. Lewis

Groton, Massachusetts
September 17, 2001

On this, the birthday of the United States Constitution, I find myself reflecting a great deal on the recent terrorism which so calamitously befell America. While the human tragedy is, obviously, the most poignant aspect of this incident, I have been spending most of my time thinking about the choices that our Nation now faces.

To me, the biggest threat these acts of terrorism pose to the United States lay in the dilemma of choosing an appropriate response. It seems to me that such a response could fall along a wide continuum, but that essentially it boils down to two options: revenge, or redress. America has always prided itself as a nation governed by the rule of law. During the past hundred years or so, this has been honored more in the breach than in fact, but it is a conceit that pleases most Americans to believe. Recent Presidents have responded to acts of terrorism with violent retribution (the attack on Tripoli that killed Gaddafi’s daughter [Reagan], the missile attacks on Afghanistan [Clinton], and let’s not forget Bush pere’s war against Iraq, which has yet to abate after 10 years, and has kept the United States on a permanent war footing, almost invisibly to most of the citizens of what we like to think of as our republic.

Although the Constitution clearly gives to the Congress the sole right to declare war, Congress has equally clearly relinquished this right over the last 50 years. President Truman sent us into Korea (another front in a never ceasing war) on the pretext of supporting the UN (a concept that grows more laughable the longer we go without paying our dues to that noble organization). We fought (and lost) a major war in Vietnam on the basis of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which ultimately led to the War Powers Act (which should be unnecessary, but in the end is just pointless, since it is never observed by President or Congress). We invaded the island of Grenada to kill some Cuban engineers, invaded Panama to illegally arrest its head of state (our former favorite drug dealer), and have maintained the war in Iraq on the strength of a resolution (that barely passed the Senate) authorizing the first President Bush to take any action he deemed necessary in protecting our oil vendors.

On September 11 , Mr. Bush’s son stated that an act of war had been committed against America. Obviously forgetting that only nations can commit acts of war (and ignoring the fact that no nation is claiming responsibility for this attack) Bush promised, and has continued to promise, to fight this war wherever it leads us, for however long it takes, just as soon as they can find someone to smack. Resident Bush (I will omit the "P" until he can Persuade at least a Plurality of the Public that he should be the President) seems eager to respond to this act of extraordinary violence in a similarly violent way.

This predilection for violence is almost surprising, considering that the Resident told us, before the Iowa caucus, that the most influential person in his life was "the Lord, Jesus Christ". Bush professes to devout Christianity, but seems unwilling to turn the other cheek, as the Bible urges us. After Pan Am flight 103 was exploded in Scotland, the countries whose citizens were killed worked assiduously to find the people responsible for planting the bombs, strove to extradite them, and tried them in a Scottish court. This is civilized. This shows the primacy of law in our society. On Tuesday, Bush promised to "hunt down" the "folks responsible" for the attacks. Obviously, the people directly responsible are dead, killed in the airplane crashes. Who is left to find? If there are ringleaders still at large, it seems to me that the right thing for a peace-loving, law abiding country to do is find them, and try them for conspiracy to commit murder (and the lesser charges of hijacking, piracy, etc.). Instead, Bush and the Congress have committed America to a long term course of "war" against person or persons unknown. This weekend, Congress passed a joint resolution granting the Resident the right to take any action he felt appropriate to get some revenge. They also passed a resolution granting $40 billion to address the terrorism. While the Office of Management and Budget needs to spell out what they want the money for before they get it, only half is statutorily required to go to relief and reconstruction. Where will the other $20 billion go?

Probably to the erosion of our civil liberties. Much of the money will go to buy mysterious boxes like the "Carnivore" which the FBI wants to put in the office of every Internet Service Provider to eavesdrop on Internet transmissions; or to other means of harassing people. The so called "intelligence" services will probably also gain more resources to increase surveillance on Americans. It is inevitable that domestic travel will be subject to new restrictions and difficulties as a result of the hijackings, and already people who appear to be of Middle Eastern origin, or who worship Allah instead of Jesus have been subject to persecution and it’s slightly more benign twin, "profiling". At his most Fordian, Mr. Bush has promised to "whip terrorism" now. But how is this to be done? How does a society with open borders, paperless domestic travel, and a free press stop an invisible enemy?

And, the most serious question, though it will not be asked by our unelected leaders (by which I refer to the corporate media, as well as Mr. Bush) is, why do we have enemies? On Tuesday, Mr. Bush said, "freedom was attacked", by the terrorists. Such a rhetorical device does not attempt to deal honestly with the fact that America and its bullying foreign policy is hated by the greater part of the world’s people. America isn’t hated because it is free; it is hated because it is the most prominent rogue state in the world. The "sanctions" we inflict on Iraq have been attributed to the deaths of over one million Iraqi children in the past decade. Mr. Bush has threatened Afghanistan for harboring the Bin Laden terrorists; but America is the largest backer of the State of Israel, whose brutal subjugation of the native population of its territory has been censured by the world. (Many are unaware that the United States’ permanent veto has saved Israel numerous times from serious UN sanctions). Americans claim to honor the rule of law, but Mr. Bush is single-handedly reneging on international treaties, our country hasn’t paid it’s dues (over a billion dollars) to the United Nations, and we have backed out of the international war crimes agreement, because the Pentagon doesn’t want to see its future Lt. Calley’s on trial in the Hague.

What is to be done? I wish that the leaders of America would act in keeping with the values that they claim motivate the country. I wish that instead of abrogating treaties (and using the Supreme Court to steal elections) they would work to add strength to a World Court that could mete out appropriate sanctions to international lawbreakers. I wish that the self-professed Christians who run our country would respond to acts of violence not with more violence, but with love. Most of all, I wish that Americans would see this abhorrent act not as a random act of hate by fanatics, but as a response to aggressive acts undertaken by our country. This can be a hard perspective to take, but I think it is necessary. In 1991, I was in Berlin, Germany staying with friends on the night that the allied bombing of Baghdad started. My hostess was very upset (like many Europeans, she was against the war for oil, and like most Germans, she knew enough history to reject the facile comparison of Hussein to Hitler). I came in for the night, and saw her watching television. When I asked what was happening, she said "You’re bombing Iraq". My initial reaction was to deny any complicity, after all, I was against the war, too. But I realized that as an American, the world held us collectively responsible. 

Americans should try to pay more attention to the deeds that are carried out in their name, and participate in the political process that results in the decisions that so enrage our neighbors. To my way of thinking, nothing justifies violence, but it is important that we begin to see these acts of terrorism as reactions to our foreign policy, not random acts by lunatics who are enraged by "freedom". Most of all, I wish that my fellow citizens would see that violent reactions to violence do not solve problems, but merely beget more violence. Making "war" on terrorism will not make airliners or skyscrapers safer. For everyone's safety, we should work to arrive at peaceful solutions based on laws, empathy and compassion.