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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2002/08/24
by Jesse Jarnow

BRAIN TUBA: Drive With Radio

We were somewhere around Cleveland on the edge of Ohio when the tape deck
started to crap out. I remember saying something like "this has never
happened before, maybe you should drive…" And suddenly Odelay was
gone, replaced by the incessant clicking of a broken machine. For the
duration of the nine hour drive back to New York, Chappy and I were given a
brutal lesson into the state of American radio.
The reality of the situation didn’t quite take immediately. "We’ll just find
some classic rock station," I thought. And, hell, even if we couldn’t find
that, I was reasonably sure we could find some modern rock frequency where I
could be exposed to some of the contemporary pop that I’ve avoided but meant
to, at the very least, check out — Dave Matthews, System of a Down, and the
like. It was, to put it mildly, considerably harder I expected.
At first, Chappy suggested that we check out some country channels. Now, I
love me some old country, but I’m a little iffy on this new shit. Chappy
said that the new stations – minus the ballads, which were potentially
suicide inducing – were something of a reliable bet. They wouldn’t be great,
but they’d be consistent. At least, that’s what he said. I didn’t get to see
his theory in action. We found a few New Country stations, but they
disintegrated into balladry rapidly.
"Like a radio switching stations," is a simile I use a bit too often. It
became flesh here, or something like flesh — something tangible and real
and audible. There was a lot of station changing involved, punctuated by an
occasional song I quite liked. We were lucky enough, at various points, to
catch both "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Once In A Lifetime" on clear, smooth
stations that delivered them powerfully. For those brief moments, everything
was great. The car felt as if it was moving faster, and it probably was.
They ended quickly, though. They are, after all, pop songs.
As we skimmed the station, I realized that the music that was most
interesting to me, the music that was the most experimental and interesting
to be found on the airwaves, could be found in the station identifiers and
advertisements (more the former than the latter). They are almost
avant-garde in their fragmentary, cut-up nature. Taken on their own, their
hyper edits and rapidly fired collages seemed to shoot quickly and
effectively. They all had slightly different tricks — different productions
on the voices (usually involving dub-like echoes), different promises of
different songs.
As soon as the station identifiers and the promises began to unfulfilled, we
started switching again. And, just as I was enjoying the station
identifiers, I began to enjoy what was hinted at in the fragments we heard
as we breezed by them on the dial. I tried to glean as much information as I
could from them, tried to unpack as much emotion as I could from whatever
part of the songs we ended up tuning in on. What could I learn from that
chorus effect? That production? That echo? That beat? How much could I
discern in a half of a second?
When we’re flipping through stations, there’s gotta be something that makes
us decide to keep going or to linger on a station. What could the reasons
be? It could be a song we know. I was able to identify both "Once In A
Lifetime" and "Like A Rolling Stone" instantly. There was something about
their production that jumped out, the snap of the snare. One second of a
song, perhaps, is like a fractal, with every other part of the song embedded
somehow in the regenerative pattern.
If that is the case, then the most obvious thing that one might hear in that
half-second is the beat of the tune. That, after all, is likely to be a
common element throughout the entire piece and, therefore, might be
construed as the heart of the pattern itself, from which we can infer what
the rest of the song might be like. The production on the beat means a lot.
What kind of room does it sound like it’s being played in? What’s the echo?
Is the music being made in a one-room shack? A studio in the jungle? In a
stadium?
As we moved faster and faster through the stations, the fragments began to
blur together like an impressionist painting. I started to visualize larger
pictures, ones that usually resolved in mental images of music I’d rather be
listening to — the music that I’d planned to listen to that day. I heard
old bubblegum pop songs from the 1950s and early 1960s, songs of sappy
teenage love, and suddenly had a realization about the origins of early punk
acts like The Ramones and Talking Heads, who drew direct lines those old
styles. I could hear much of RANA in the cloying "whoa whoa"s of Eddie Money
and the thranked and tanked power chords of AC/DC. Oddly, the only way to
maintain these fantasies was to continue to switch the channels at a rapid
clip.
All of these things – the station identifiers, the song snippets, the
occasional great tune we listened to in its entirety – wove around each
other, forming a symphony of noise. When we arrived in New Jersey, a new
voice introduced itself into the mix. Chappy is a tough-talking indie
rocker. Before the trip, though, I discovered that – in high school – he
used to trade Grateful Dead tapes. I was actually looking forward to
checking out one of the new Dick’s Picks releases, and mining
Chappy’s assuredly post-Deadhead opinion of it.
In New Jersey, we suddenly found ourselves in range of a handful of decent
stations, ones that I’d actually want to listen to. I found the tail end of
a live version of "Comes A Time" on a station that sputtered in and out.
Shortly thereafter, the DJ played the Jerry Garcia Band version of Jerome
Kerns’ "When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" (from the Smoke soundtrack). It
was the longest block of continuous music that we’d yet listened to. Looking
east, we watched a fantastic lightning storm unfold.
I had to drop Chappy off at a gas station in New Jersey (where he would be
picked up by a parent), and continued on towards New York by myself. I got
simultaneously in range of WKCR and WFMU. The former was in the midst of a
beautiful show called Live Constructions, which mixed rich ambiance
with avant-garde tension. On the latter, I found the introduction to Lee
Ranaldo’s wonderful "Karen Revisited" from Sonic Youth’s new Murray
Street. The song wound through its delicate improvisation, which
trickled off and melted into the beginning of, of all things, the Grateful
Dead’s "New Potato Caboose", from Anthem of the Sun. It fooled the
bejeezus out of me (and as a perfect juxtaposition between the old and new
psychedelia). The DJ allowed "New Potato Caboose" to segue into "Born
Cross-Eyed". The lightning storm continued, mostly without rain, and the
music grew longer and longer.
Crossing the Throg’s Neck Bridge onto Long Island, I came in range of WFUV
and caught the tail end of an in-studio performance by Badly Drawn Boy,
which gave way to… the good ol’ Grateful Dead Hour, hosted by David
Gans, which brought me home with a Chinese New Year’s performance from 1986.
It was ’86 Dead and not particularly spectacular in the long run, but damn
if it didn’t hit the exact spot. Like lightning.
Jesse Jarnow has certainly never
DJed on a pirate radio
station.

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