“Retro Rule”



Bob Seger’s “Back in ’72” provides an excellent summary of the entire year. Basically it seemed sleepy, uneventful, tedious and boring. Something had happened. Absolutely nothing. Nothing was “new”. All of a sudden, there was no more “all of a sudden”. Even FM, which went all the way back to ’33, was finally just catching up.

When I had graduated from High School in 1959, the first four or five years of the “Rock Era” had already come and gone. Even Elvis had lost excitement. Five short years later, the Beatles had burst upon the scene. In another five years, we had “Woodstock”. Everything “big” had always somehow been replaced with something bigger and better. Finer. Faster. Hotter. Heavier.

We were convinced the continual escalation of innovation and improvement would never end. To question this wasn’t remotely considered. Of course there would be “another Elvis” or “another Beatles” or “another Woodstock”. To suspect otherwise was inconceivable.

Less than a dozen years had separated Elvis’s first recording on obscure Sun Records and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” on global monolith Capitol/EMI. Just imagine! What a roll we were on!!   Most of us thought of ’72 as a temporary lull. With occasional moments of passing surprise and rising expectation, emerging with brevity at intervals becoming all the more infrequent, the “lull” is now more than two decades old.

There has been synthesis.  Recording technology has vastly improved with digital compact discs replacing analogue vinyl and hundreds of dials replacing ten, but the music is essentially unchanged at every level. “Rap” is nothing more than George Clinton at a Square Dance. “Grunge” is cement-flavored heavy-metal. “New Country” is good old Rock ‘n Roll wearing cowboy boots and a great big hat. “New Age” is elevator music with an attitude. “New Rock” is Frank Zappa without an attitude. Retrograde rules.

Lee Abrams has been one of America’s foremost and most successful rock programmers through the years. He is currently (2009) Chief Innovation Officer at the Tribune Company, reporting directly to a young CEO named Randy Michaels, whom you will meet shortly.

One very late night in 1984 after many adult beverages had been consumed, Lee discussed with me his growing suspicion that 1972 marked the end of musical ascension. While there had been no absolute decline, we’d all been floating under a mathematical ceiling ever since. Lee theorized that all the important notes and chords had been uncovered by 1972.  There just weren’t anymore. Everything could be re-worked and re-examined and re-discovered and re-lived and re-invented and re-issued and re-established, but true “adventure” had stopped without warning or notice.

Lee was the first to eloquently articulate the discovery of no more discovery. Only a retrospective review of a full dozen years brought the reality into focus. He was correct in his hypothesis and remains so to this day.

“Back in ’72”, we saw nothing more than a blurry blip on our Rock ‘n Roll radar.

“Play Misty For Me” with Clint Eastwood became a major motion picture and made every disc-jockey at WTAC more sensitive to phone conversations with listeners. The film dealt with a “hit-line-honey” (as we used to call them) who develops an obsessive attraction to a D-J. Pete Flanders even took down his “Shrine of the Unknown Virgin” from a prominent position on one of our studio shelves.

The “Shrine” was an  expensively-framed wedding picture of an unknown female listener who had stripped naked and run around our WTAC parking lot in the loneliest hours of a bright, moonlit night. She had started banging on the studio window and Pete peered out. She pranced seductively hither and fro, offering a number of enticing and exceedingly personal poses, revealing her most tender and private parts in prolonged exhibition. She then ran to her car and took-off. She left the photo behind. Pete’s general recollection was that she had a “pretty face”, “cute tits”, “nice butt” and “fast wheels”. She later had called him and had explained that, although she had left a wedding picture, she was still a virgin. She and her husband weren’t getting along. Oh.

Such happenings were not that uncommon around WTAC.

Erotic and psychotic could present an unhappy blend. “Play Misty” pulled the boys back a few notches.

Yes, we were all boys, just like Mr. Chips’ students as they said “Goodbye” at the end of that movie. The only female announcer in Flint radio was Betty Clark who did a “recipe show” on WFDF. Sometimes I would raise my voice and imitate Betty Clark on WTAC.

“Peas. That’s green peas. One-half can. Boiled, not broiled. Steamed, not creamed. Exhumed, then consumed.”

I could be a riot.

Then Charlie Speights hired a NON-MALE in Sales. We were shocked.

Charlie was single after many years of marriage to Nancy. There was idle speculation that his radical selection of a female salesman/person was prompted by other than professional considerations. Actually, this speculation was partially erroneous and the lady proved herself to be an excellent addition to the staff.

Nancy Speights had sought the divorce after receiving a phone-call from another woman who provided a graphic accounting of Charlie’s wants and needs and how they had been completely satisfied. At Charlie’s house. In Charlie and Nancy’s bedroom. When Nancy had been out-of-town. The caller even knew where the laundry chute was and how cute Charlie had been making coffee in that little, white, ceramic pot Nancy’s mother had given them both for Christmas. What a neat guy!

Charlie never spoke to the caller again until many years had passed and for awhile was barely able to speak with Nancy either. Charlie agreed to the divorce, but only providing that Nancy would continue singing with his group. All you had to do was look around. Wives where everywhere, but not talented singers. The kids were pretty much grown up and life had its priorities. Agreement was reached and the illusion of mutual freedom gained.

Charlie had been the first General Manager in Flint to hire a female Account Executive, which was a new,  gender-neutral job classification assigned to the position.

I became the first White Program Director to hire a Black News Director.

Jessie Scott was a Flint native who graduated near the top of his class at Flint Central and had spent several years in Vietnam. He had locally worked at WAAM and had been Program Director of WLOU in Louisville, Kentucky.
Joe Franks had been News Director of WTAC for years, but was forced to retire in his late fifties with a bad heart. We advertised the opening in the trade journals and Jessie applied. During our first “formal interview” one Friday afternoon, Jessie came on like Sir Winston Churchill.

His mastery of the English language was profound and his pronunciation and articulation were absolutely perfect. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley;  all rolled-into one and dipped in rich, brown chocolate. I was impressed, but nervous. Who was this guy? I suggested another “informal” get-together later that night with Pete Flanders, whom Jessie had known at WAAM.

Pete and I met Jessie back at the station and headed-out in Pete’s van, which also had doubled as our “WTAC Hospitality Wagon” at Sherwood Forest “Wild Wednesdays”. Pete would park the van in its own roped-off, well-guarded area adjacent to both performance stages. Our “Concert Associates” provided security. Musicians would enjoy “hospitality” just prior to performance. They would come in the back-door of the van and emerge fifteen or twenty minutes later, proceeding directly onto a stage. This accomodation was provided as an advanced gesture of appreciation for outstanding performance. The musicians were always deeply grateful and unfailingly rewarded us with maximum effort.

We decided to just drive-around for a few minutes. I fired up a fairly well-rolled Jamaican doobie and gave it a heavy hit, passing it along to Flanders. He sucked-in and extended the joint in Jessie’s general direction. Jessie hesitated. About two seconds. He accepted the offering  from Flanders and seemed to inhale about a half-hour.

We brought Jessie to two or three of our favorite bars and then he directed us to three or four of his.

Sir Winston Churchill had been amazingly transformed to Flip Wilson, Red Foxx and Richard Prior, all rolled-into one and dipped in Chivas Regal Scotch. It had become the evening’s liquid of choice for the three of us. I didn’t have to work the next morning and Flander’s wasn’t due on-the-air ’til the next afternoon. Shit, we could stay up all night. We did.

Jessie told us about being in ‘Nam. Not in the goddamn jungle. Fuck that. He had thought carefully and applied himself well. Jessie had worked in “Disbursements”, an assignment which had presented definite distinction and certain unique opportunities.

“Even Generals kissed my fine, black ass”, proudly reported our new WTAC News Director, who had been hired effective immediately sometime after Midnight upon telling me that he did have a rare 45 RPM copy of “Have You Ever Had The Blues” by Lloyd Price which he would bring into work.

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