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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 2004/08/27
by Jesse Jarnow

Harold Robinson and the Radiocaster

Until the day he died late last summer – broke and ostracized by the town which had given him his greatest renown – Harold Robinson insisted that he had found the instructions for the construction of his famed Radiocaster in nearly finished form on the Internet. "Alls I did was make a few modifications," the 62-year old retired plumber from the unlikely town of Rattleboro, Virginia continued to claim. "I increased the volume wattage slightly, but that was really about it." In all likelihood, Robinson was the victim of a faulty dial-up connection to the then-virginal World Wide Web.
A primitive web search for "radio repair" during the early summer of 1994 landed Robinson on a page full of broken HTML coding. Robinson, who printed the page out for reference (though would rarely let anyone, save one odd grandchild, study it for more than a second or two) wished to fix up his father’s old tube radio, which had languished in the garage for many years. Following the "instructions" of the resultant mish-mash of simple soldering tips and cyber-gibberish, Robinson accidentally turned his father’s radio into a most remarkable musical instrument. The nearly-melted volume pots, overridden by a cross with the energy source, created lush chords that sounded not unlike a harp. Further, the frequency dial became a finely articulated pitch control, which could switch fluidly between two octaves via the FM/AM switch on the machine’s side.
Robinson unveiled his instrument at a church picnic at McKibbin Park in late July, where he astonished fellow parishioners with a rendition of "Amazing Grace" that rose majestically over the Sunday gathering. Already, the basics for the resultant Radiocaster craze were in place: a lazily ethereal melody that managed to sound simultaneously relaxed and entirely holy. If Robinson was surprised by the reception he received at the church gathering, he was more surprised by the callers he received the following afternoon, who begged him to repeat his performance. Over the next weeks, Robinson worked up a small repertoire of material, primarily composed of popular melodies ("Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "When the Saints Go Marching In") and several original compositions. His informal weekend performances on his front porch were attended by an increasingly large group of local fans — many of them teenagers.
Like many Southern towns, Rattleboro had its fair share of old radios tucked away in its garages and woodsheds. Soon, many of the kids – including the 17-year old Judkins Stottlemeyer and 16-year old Charles Morrison – had begun experiments of their own. By the end of the summer, the Rattleboro Weekend Tribune reported that one could hardly walk the town’s pleasant tree-lined streets without crossing paths with at least two wavering signals (which, reporter James Johnson wrote, frequently created "a chord alternately pleasing and irritating"). Johnson estimated that nearly three-dozen residents had taken to building their own versions of what Robinson had dubbed the "Radiocaster." Because Robinson was loathe to share his schematics, the Radiocaster was a surprisingly flexible instrument, and no two sounded alike.
Locals were quick to recognize the Radiocaster’s appeal. The Rattleboro Fellowship – the church of which Robinson was a member in good standing – organized a quartet of worshippers for a recital of several devotionals. Rhonda Amberday, the elementary school music teacher (whose own instrument sounded quite similar to Robinson’s) made a pretty penny teaching children current hits to play on their Radiocaster built by the Rattleboro Hardware Store’s Leroy Girshner. Eager Radiocasters nearly overran the town’s annual Labor Day talent show (which, Johnson duly noted in the Tribune, nearly drove one Ms. Anne Witherspoon batty, as she shrieked and ran from the park during a particularly overzealous rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" by the Jimi Hendrix-obsessed Morrison).
Through all of this, Robinson persevered as the instrument’s greatest player. What made him remarkable was his versatility. Though Robinson claimed he had no previous musical training, a thorough investigative article by Dave Meyers of Spin revealed that Robinson had been an aspiring bebop trumpet player before the duties of domesticity required his young retirement. Schooled or not, Robinson revealed a remarkable capacity to evolve with time. In the year after the Radiocaster’s invention, Robinson’s technique absorbed several major innovations.
The first came when he fanned open the instruments chords into glorious arpeggios by adding a toggle switch to the volume pots. The second came when he added a primitive tape loop to the inside of the machine, allowing him to build an even greater cacophony (and thus the basis for a whole new set of compositions). The third and final change came when Robinson suddenly gained confidence in his own singing voice, a reedy tenor that he used to sing hypnotically modal melodies atop his pieces. Robinson’s skills helped him transform the Radiocaster from simple novelty into a genuine tool of musicianship. By early October, Johnson’s reports indicate that Robinson’s songbook included over four-dozen pieces.
While Robinson was composing at a prodigious rate, a political storm was quietly brewing in Rattleboro. Such is the improbable nature of the Radiocaster’s fate that it should be tied to such an obscure public issue as the right to display a staked hogshead on one’s front lawn. It was an old tradition, owing to the name of Rattleboro High School’s football squadron, The Rattleboro Hogsheads. Each year, since at least the 1950s, several of the team’s boosters would display hogsheads in front of their houses in the weeks preceding the team’s Homecoming game. By the more socially conscious early ’90s rolled around, some had begun to protest the use of the slaughtered animal as a sports mascot.
Proposition 37A – as it came to be known – would decide the fate of the hogsheads once and for all. If it passed, the hogsheads would be illegal. And so did three-term Mayor Jerry Hornby, who believed in the town’s long tradition, come up against insurgent candidate Ted Chester, who thought the tradition to be abominable. As the race heated up, and the homecoming game grew closer, the issue became a spark. Many of Chester’s supporters began displaying hogsheads on their lawns merely as an affirmation of their belief that they should be allowed to display hogsheads on their lawns. They sprouted, like grotesque flowers, all across the sleepy town. The buzzing swarms of flies now grossly undergridded the sound of aspiring Radiocaster virtuosos.
It was Chester who first thought of hiring a Radiocaster player to draw audiences to his public appearances. Judkins Stottlemeyer was more than happy to comply, jettisoning his part-time job installing America Online for the elderly in favor of this more political calling. And it wasn’t long before Stottlemeyer’s best friend, Charles Morrison, joined up with the Hornby campaign. For Chester, Stottlemeyer closed performances with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Morrison continued to refine his version of the "Star Spangled Banner." By Halloween, local satirists were penning numbers for the boys to sing at Chester and Hornby’s rallies. Numbers such as "Let The Hogsheads Run Wild," penned by Rattleboro High English teacher Angela Lomax were responded to with songs such the more ominous "The Hogs Will Run Wild."
Three nights before the election, Robinson happened to be drinking at a local bar with electrician Leroy Girshner. They drunker they got, the more upset they were that the instrument had been co-opted by the candidates. They stumbled the three blocks back to Robinson’s garage, where they got to work. By dawn, they were ready. The autumn sun rose, splashing light on the golden leaves and the still-green lawns, making way for a Sunday morning. Robinson and Girshner, now lubricated with several bottles of Jack Daniels liberated from the Robinson family liquor cabinet, backed Robinson’s pick-up truck out of the garage. As they drove the quiet streets, they fired up Girshner’s contraption, a massive amplifier strapped to the truck’s back and connected to the passengers.
In the shotgun seat, Robinson struck up the debut of his stunning arrangement of "The Ride of the Valkyries." Girshner, driving, announced via a dashboard-mounted microphone that he was running for mayor, and – what’s more – he found the whole issue of hogsheads to be a crock of shit and that football was a stupid sport, anyway. Over the next 30 to 40 minutes, he digressed, speaking of the virtues of Harry Truman, the ground-rule double as metaphor for local politics, the importance of knowing how to navigate at sea with chart of the constellations, and his abiding belief that skim milk was better than whole. All the while, Girshner berated the various residents of Rattleboro as they emerged bleary-eyed from their houses, levying judgment with a swiftly barbed wit he had kept buried under his mild exterior for some 30 years. Most residents turned around, went inside, and then never spoke to Robinson again for the remainder of his life. (Girshner is still alive, and slowly making amends for his morning of debauchery a decade ago.)
Girshner received a small amount of votes in the election. After a protracted legal battle, incumbent Hornby won, and life went on pretty much as it always did in Rattleboro. However, the Radiocaster craze disappeared nearly as suddenly as it had begun. Robinson retired (though could still be hard practicing occasionally). Both Stottlemeyer and Robinson quickly parlayed their experience into jobs in sound design. By their 20th birthdays, both had left Rattleboro for Hollywood, where they received work in advertising due to their exclusive knowledge of the Radiocaster. The two established a successful firm together – The Rattle Boys – though the Radiocaster quickly became just another tool in their palette.
Recordings of the Radiocaster have begun to surface of late. Though they are impossibly hard to find (and only one website streams them in unreliable bursts), the nearly 40 minutes of recordings that do exist of Robinson playing his own creation are well worth the attention — though barely scratch the surface of his repertoire. For years, rumors have circulated that either Robinson or Stottlemeyer (or, perhaps, both) bootlegged several of Robinson’s early performances on hidden cassette recorders. If this is true, no copies have yet surfaced. Original recordings of Robinson and Stottlemeyer’s political recordings exist in fairly high fidelity, though their official release has long been delayed due to the same intricate legal battles that held up the election itself.
The future of the Radiocaster is certainly in doubt. Though the instrument can regularly be heard in a half-dozen national advertising campaigns, neither Robinson nor Stottlemeyer – the two most likely candidates to stage a revival – have expressed interest in either developing the instrument as an artistic tool, nor setting down their previous music for posterity. In Rattleboro, only one devoted practitioner remains: the late Harold Robinson’s now-16 year old granddaughter Sally. She has already adapted several of Bach’s fugues to the instrument, and has begun composing her own material. She hopes to someday record an album.

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