Radio Days — Speeding Motorcycle

This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.

During my first foray into college broadcasting, one of my favorite tracks to play on the radio was recorded on the air at a different station.

In 1990, Yo La Tengo released an EP to accompany to boost the single “Here Comes My Baby,” culled from their covers album Fakebook. The last cut on the release was a new version of “Speeding Motorcycle,” a song that appeared on Fakebook and was originally written and recorded by Austin-based singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. While Yo La Tengo was making one of their regular appearances the great New Jersey radio station WFMU-FM, Johnston called in and suggested he and the band perform the song together, right then and in their two separate versions of there. A collaboration of musicians clustered before the microphones of a radio studio and a distant singer, his already warble-prone voice made more unpolished by the distortion of the telephone wire, the recording is magic.

Across his life, Johnston had his struggles, and, as is the case with just about any creator whose works can reasonably be characterized as outsider art, there were reasonable questions to be raised about whether he was being embraced or exploited by the entertainment machine. But my impression of him was forever set by the innocent and evident pleasure he clearly found in just singing his song with a band that clearly liked it. There are no airs, no aspirations, no cunning whatsoever. That truth is demonstrated convincingly by slight clumsiness at the beginning of the song, rapidly overcome by the understanding ministrations of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan. I this is the reason I played the cut so often: because in the shared, impromptu performance sits the pure, clarifying beauty of making music together.


Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.

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