A few months ago, I put up a post here called “Why Time Begins in September,” in which I briefly explained how I was first seduced by radio and the music on it. But that is not the whole story. The next chapter, just as important, happened three months later. In 1995, I wrote a memoir about it.
It is Christmas Eve, 1970. I have just recently discovered rock and roll, as dispensed by Chicago’s WLS, the 50-thousand-watt flamethrower upon which many midwestern kids were weaned in those days before the wide usage of FM, in towns too small to have a rocker of their own. The number one song in America is Smokey Robinson’s epic “Tears of A Clown,” to be displaced in a couple of days by George Harrison’s epic “My Sweet Lord” (there are giants in the earth in these days).
Elsewhere in that week’s top ten are “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family and “Knock Three Times” by Dawn. Later this evening I will receive both of those records from my parents for Christmas, along with Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie,” a threesome guaranteed to shape a ten year old’s taste in a particular way—certainly in a different way than Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” “Let’s Work Together” by Canned Heat, and Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”—also on the chart that same week—might have done.
I am utterly captivated by what I hear on the radio. I listen constantly, not just to the music but to the personalities who play it on the air. . . . In short, what is signified by that dial becomes my own personal universe, and the best toy I’ve ever discovered. I cannot discount the stirrings of a child’s typical desire to assert his independence from his parents, either. What makes my radio universe even better is precisely that it is not what my parents listen to. They’re fond of polkas and country music and our clunky hometown station. Rock and roll is my own music, in my own medium, a medium exciting, and so different from theirs.
So it’s Christmas Eve, a day of interminable waiting. . . . I turn on my radio, but what I hear is different: Smokey and George Harrison and the Partridge Family are gone. The on-air personalities are gone. I hear instead a voice, which says: “It’s three o’clock. . . Christmas Eve afternoon.” The voice goes on to describe the typical goings-on of families assembling, dinners on the stove—in short, the very thing going on at the other end of the hallway from my bedroom. The voice talks about the spirit of Christmas, family, home, and concludes by saying, “and it is in this spirit that WLS presents our Holiday Festival of Music.” He (it was always a male voice in those days) speaks those final words in a way that sounds as if they must be capitalized.
The words are followed by music—Christmas music, but like no Christmas music I’ve ever heard before. Not the Christmas music of my parents’ universe—the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—but Christmas music from my universe. There’s an exuberant “Frosty the Snowman” sung by girls and a bright song in a strange language, featuring an odd repeated phrase that sounds to my 10-year-old self like “police tommyrot.” There’s a song I’ve never heard before, one that grabs my attention with a jolt, a distinctive voice singing “so this is Christmas/and what have you done?” There’s another, quieter song, about kids who know that Santa is on his way with lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh. I particularly like that one, because it sounds like truth to me—I have started to doubt the existence of St. Nick, but I am not willing to bet against him on Christmas Eve. There are hymns I recognize from church and many, many other songs that are utterly new to me. Interspersed among it all is the voice, with Christmas wishes and holiday greetings. . . .
“Frosty the Snowman” was the one by the Ronettes; the song in the strange language was “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano. The one that jolted me is John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas,” which didn’t come out until 1971, so I couldn’t have heard it on that particular night, but I’m not sure it matters, really.
Later than evening, after the cows were milked, dinner was eaten, church attended, gifts opened, cookies sampled, torn wrapping paper picked up, and grandparents sent on their way back home, it was time to go to bed, and to begin the wait for Christmas morning. But before Santa arrived, I got something else that would end up being far more important than any gift he could have brought.
If there is a single moment that sealed my love affair with the radio, and made me choose it as the career I wanted, it may be the period of a few minutes shortly before 11:00 on Christmas Eve, 1970. My brother and I share a bedroom, across the hall from my parents’ room. The walls are yellow, the ceiling brown, with a bright overhead light fixture right in the middle. My bed is on the north wall (left-hand side as you come into the room), my brother’s on the south. Between the beds, up against the east wall, is a low toy chest. On top of it is my radio, a green plastic single band Westinghouse. [Editor’s Note: with tubes, even.]
As my brother and I lie in our beds waiting for our parents to turn out the overhead light—so we can begin the interminable night, with fitful sleeping, in anticipation of the loot the morning would bring—the radio plays that incredible Christmas music: “And every mother’s child is gonna spy/to see if reindeer really know how to fly.” The voice comes on with more holiday wishes, and I am overwhelmed with what I can only describe as a kind of one-ness with the radio. At that moment, I begin to want to be the voice, although I couldn’t have precisely articulated the thought at the time. As magical as it was to be a listener, at that moment something inside of me began to believe that to be on the other end of the transmission would be more magical still.
I don’t remember if I fell asleep that night with the radio on, but it doesn’t matter. In a way, I fell asleep with the radio inside of me. Such is the legacy of that Christmas Eve, 25 years ago.
It’s been eight years now since I was on the other end of the transmission on Christmas Eve, and every year I miss it a little. I guess it’s not surprising, given that you never forget your first love.
This blog will be on hiatus until after Christmas. I hope your celebration is merry, and that wherever you are, there’s at least one good radio station to listen to.