Don’t Touch That Dial

This morning I was a guest on the KZBL “Jamming with Johnny” talking about the Tricentennial CD and my song on it.

I realized that the only other time I’ve been on the radio was about 30 years ago back in Los Angeles, when RJ, Dave and I dropped in at KXLU and talked about our new Faith Assembly demo. It also made me think about the three different times I auditioned for the Columbia School of Broadcasting (in L.A., Boston and Memphis) where they were eager to have me (all three times) but the costs were just prohibitive. Interesting to think how that life might have worked out. One of my father’s favorite one liners was “You know, you’ve got a face for radio.” That and the ability to approximate a flat American accent (think Iowa or Nebraska) and you might have a great career in broadcasting. But life had other plans.

I still think about trying to volunteer DJ from time to time, but my kind of playlist would probably put me on the alternative format in the 2:00-5:00 am slot. Think about it: King Crimson followed by Hank Williams (or Hank Snow or Noel Boggs) followed by Ornette Coleman. You’d have to have your ears wide open to take that set in.

Radio’s always been what music has become over the years: a field of specialization. Like medicine, the general practitioner often takes a back seat (due to decreasing number, perhaps) to the ear, nose and throat man, the urologist. Music, and by extension the media that broadcasts it, has become so compartmentalized into specific narrow genres that allow only minor variations among their content. There’s no cross pollenating, no real meeting of the minds or hands across the table between what should be just different conversations in the same universal language. Yes, there the occasional celebrity, novelty match up duets (usually an attempt to make one or more of the duet partners more current and relevant), but for the most part, behind the scenes, at least the musicians tend to work in their own small corrals. In some ways, of course, that’s become necessary. The big studio systems (except perhaps for Nashville) started dying out in the 70s. There’s not really a Motown, Muscle Shoals, Wrecking Crew or Stax sound or scene anymore. And each genre has become a little more demanding, I think. There are specific grooves, tricks, patterns and tendencies you need to know, and know expertly, to be accepted in a specific sub-sub-genre. As a result, most musicians who make any kind of real money are often forced to specialize, to develop a kind of tunnel vision that excludes any influence from outside that narrow world.

It’s like that phenomenon “not invented here” that prevents one industry from adopting a useful and effective practice from another industry – not because it won’t work or can’t be adapted, but because unless “we” thought of it, it lacks credibility. We’re unique, and special. You can’t possibly know our needs.

Seems like the only place where inter-species mixing happens these days is in bar bands – like the one I’m in, who won’t say no to a request, especially if it’s submitted on a 20 dollar bill. Hell, we’ve even got a cd called “$20 Tips”. It’s almost like I’m living the dream my mother envisioned (a steady regular studio gig playing whatever they threw at me). Of course, it’s my part-time gig, but what did Oscar Wilde say? “A poet is a writer with a day job.”

That’s sad. Because the best music (IMHO) represents an amalgamation of styles and influences that are gathered together in perhaps totally unexpected ways to produce something entirely new. Like jazz, for example. Or hip-hop. Like mbuki-mvuki (a Swahili word that refers to shucking off your clothes and dancing in wild abandon to music playing), which through its transmutation through boogie-woogie became the butterfly we now call rock and roll.

The future of music is NOT about increasing specialization, with only token incorporation of hip, happening trends lifted from other musical traditions. If that continues, I fear that music (and following its lead, the remaining performance and creative arts) will inevitably slouch toward an insular, narrow cultural signficance and even more sadly, an increased sense of parody and caricature.

If music is indeed to remain the universal language, we’ve got to ensure that we as musicians (who are, based on my experience, the largest group of music listeners) keep our blinders off, our ears open and our hearts willing. Because to a large degree, culture is passed from generation to generation by its music. Its songs. Let’s not drop the ball – or at least, try to grab it before it goes completely out of bounds.

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