This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.
There are many enormous pleasures to returning with some frequency to my college radio alma mater to take guest-spot turns in the broadcast booth. Among those giddy delights in being able to flip through the battered records that still line the walls. They are the beautiful remnants of the music library that was the lifeblood of our broadcast days back when I was a whippersnapper gabbing into the microphone between undergraduate classes. Heightening the nostalgia, almost all of the records’ battered jackets still have the original review stickers that were placed on them by various music directors and assistant program directors. Often, I can recognize the penmanship, and sometimes those lovingly scrawled words of assessment are in my own wavering hand.
Last year, when I indulged in an on-air revival of the bygone College Countdown program (that inspired a longtime feature around these here digital parts), I had specific cause to root around in those records. Although I already owned — or happily acquired — physical media containing most of the songs I needed for the 1990 CMJ Radio Top Cuts chart that provided the playlist, I needed to supplement a bit with releases I was confident still lingered in the station’s enviable collection. For example, in at #19 on our chart was “She’s On Drugs,” the lead single from the Jazz Butcher album Cult of the Basement. As I slipped it from its spot on the shelf, I couldn’t help notice that the handwriting on the sticker was my own and that the review was wildly enthusiastic. I believe the word BRILLIANT — note the capital letters — was there. As it happened, the Jazz Butcher’s preceding album, the 1989 release Big Planet Scarey Planet, was right there, too. Again, I wrote the review. Again, it was an unqualified rave. I think there was an all-caps word again, likely a synonym of brilliant.
Back then, I don’t think I knew all that much about the band I was championing in firmly pressed ink. I wasn’t aware the group’s music was almost entirely an expression of the singular vision of Pat Fish, and I had only the barest sense of how prolific the output under the Jazz Butcher name (and a couple variants) had been to that point. What I did know was that the music in those grooves sounded fantastic to me. It was inventive, exquisitely crafted, and vividly alive. At the time, I was wide open to discovering new-to-me artists that resided outside the canon, probably more available to the unfamiliar than any time before or sense. The Jazz Butcher weren’t caustic boundary pushers like Sonic Youth or Butthole Surfers, but in a way they exemplified my readiness for adventure. It didn’t matter that the albums weren’t going to register on the year-end polls of major music publications. I could listen to them and be enthralled.
When I again dropped the needle on those Jazz Butcher records and sent their tones shooting through the station’s transmitter — first on the Countdown show, and again many months later as part of another radio shift ringing with nostalgia — I was enthralled all over again. I was fully in sync with my youthful self that felt only the most superlative language would do in communicating to the other station staffers that this album was worth their attention. Discovery is great. Re-discovery can be quite nice, too.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.