Saturday, April 30, 2005

Not The NY Times Book Review

I never really stopped buying books...I'd just stopped reading them. Video killed the radio star and the internet killed my old reading instinct in much the same way.

Until around the end of 1998 (the time I finally went online and never looked back), I used to kill whole evenings lying on my bed with some music on the stereo, a drink within easy reach, and a paperback or hardcover propped up on my chest. Hell, I'd even read some books more than once, which seems pretty incredible in light of how much time that would consume these days, heh heh.

Happily, it appears that some recent determination on my part to reacquire my old habit has paid off, and I've finally started hacking away at the large pile of books I've accrued over the last 5 years. A couple of things have changes since my old voracious reading days of yore, however. Firstly, my frequency is way down: I don't knock these things back at anywhere near the pace I used to. Secondly (and perhaps more amusingly), my reading venue has changed: 80% of the reading I've been doing has been while sitting on the porcelain throne, the other 20% in my reclining PC chair with some music going in the background on "slow" nights.

Anyway, following are some thoughts on the books I've read since kick-starting the habit a few months ago. You might notice a definite trend in most of these titles, perhaps. I guess I figured I might as well read all of the similar-themed titles at a shot...

FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock Radio (Richard Neer)

FM: The Rise And Fall Of Rock RadioI picked this up a few years ago while shopping around at Borders, but in the end I didn't find an awful lot to reccommend in it (which explains its current residence on the shelf at the local Half Priced Books store). Ultimately, FM came off as far too New York-centric for me to get really engrossed. That said, I did recognize a few of the names dropped in the story, and I'm certainly familiar with all of the changes in formatting ideas and programming practices that became pandemic in American radio over the last two decades. Sadly, though, I just wasn't terribly entertained by Neer's writing style, and he is quite frankly too nice of a guy to throw punches or dish the dirt in a satisfying fashion.

Radio Daze: Stories From The Front In Cleveland's FM Air Wars (Mike Olszweski)

Now this is more what I had in mind: a history of FM radio with names I could attach voices and memories to, not to mention tales of radio subterfuge and promotional dirty tricks that I actually remembered as well as laughed at. Even better yet, the events in Radio Daze center around WMMS (100.7 FM), the station that not only defined the sound of my teenage years, but was also a cultural and marketing force that so dominated the Cleveland radio market from 1975-1985 that it staggers the imagination now to think of a time when one station could mean so much to so many.

Radio Daze: Stories From The Front In Cleveland's FM Air WarsEven though I am only intimately familiar with WMMS from 1983 onward, I was surprised to find the opening chapters of Radio Daze just as fascinating as the familiar era that dominates the last two-thirds of the book. Olszweski does a fine job setting up the introduction of FM rock to Cleveland while introducing the air crew and the original programming incarnation of WMMS. Back then, the most popular WMMS DJ was local legend Billy Bass who was instrumental in the station's rise to free-form prominence, attaining notoriety well outside of the state of Ohio. The Bass era was then followed by the station's meteoric ascent into the stratosphere towards the end of the 1970s following the arrival of the "classic" WMMS lineup, which included such crucial central figures as Kid Leo, John Gorman (several of his hilarious motivational "War Bulletins" to the staff are printed in their entirety), Denny Sanders, Jeff Kinzbach and Ed "Flash" Ferenc.

Eventually, the powerful nostalgia this book evoked in me became tainted with melancholy as Olszweski begins to allude to the storm clouds starting to gather on the horizon by the onset of 1984. To resort to cliche, all good things must come to an end -- and as Radio Daze moves into 1986, it almost becomes an almost funereal reading experience as the old Buzzard slowly but surely begins to come apart at the seams.

Starting with Gorman and Sanders' surprise defection to start up WNCX (which was, for a very short time, the most interesting station on the Cleveland airwaves until the corporate higher-ups pulled the plug and transformed it overnight into all-recurrent classic rock Hell), Radio Daze goes into almost painful detail outlining point-by-point the fall from grace and eventual disintegration of the old WMMS. While the old Buzzard magic was certainly beginning to dissipate by the time WNCX signed on, things went completely to hell a couple of years later in the wake of the Rolling Stone radio poll fiasco and the departure of Kid Leo for Columbia Records (followed by rest of the classic-era air staff over the following years). By the time a syndicated Howard Stern show had nailed the coffin shut on the once-invincible WMMS Morning Zoo once and for all, the old Buzzard that I had grown up with was long gone.

While simply covering WMMS alone would have been more than enough for me to enjoy Radio Daze, Olszweski always pulls back at opportune times to provide a bigger picture of the Cleveland radio market, telling stories about of the rise of John Lanigan and WMJI, the doomed alternative rock upstart WENZ, and the constant wars fought on multi-format turf as different stations lined up to take their shot at WMMS' throne.

Well paced, entertaining, and occasionally eye-opening in it's behind-the-scenes tales, Radio Daze is a fantastic read and very highly recommended to anyone who loved Cleveland radio, particularly The Buzzard, in the "good old days."

(The latter folks might also find this link of interest as well)

Above Hallowed Ground - A Photographic Record Of September 11, 2001 (The Photographers Of The New York City Police Department)

Above Hallowed Ground - A Photographic Record Of September 11, 2001OK, so there wasn't a lot of actual reading to do in this one, but I don't think added text could do a lot to make this book any more remarkable than it is.

God, what an amazing, horrifying collection of photos (taken from police helicopters as well as right smack in the midst of The Pile itself) to gaze at for an hour. The aerial shots in particular are just spellbinding in driving home the sheer scale of the destruction and chaos of that day. There is also a weird, blue-hued beauty to these pictures that is difficult to convey in text - they seem to take your breath away while demanding you to respect the awesome task at hand for the people who showed up to look for survivors, douse the flames, and ultimately clean up the titanic mess left behind.

Inside Out - A Personal History Of Pink Floyd (Nick Mason)

Inside Out - A Personal History Of Pink FloydIf there is one thing guaranteed to get me reading again it's the release of a new Pink Floyd book, and since this particular tome was written by the band's drummer (after a decade of holdups and delays), it was even more of an automatic grab for me than the late Nicholas Schaffner's definitive biography from 1991.

However, while Schaffner had the luxury of being an outsider who didn't have to worry about how someone might react to his take on events, Mason appears to have been forced away from writing a "definitive biography" of the band and into telling "his version" of the story (largely to avoid ruffling feathers or even sparking a lawsuit from his apparently extremely touchy bandmates, past and present). Thus, there isn't an awful lot in here that will really surprise longtime fans (though the occasional enlightening bit of information does show up from time to time). While this might seem a hindrance, Inside Out is made immensely entertaining by Mason's delightfully irreverent writing style: he often had me snickering aloud with his memories of early band gigs outside of London in 1967 and rueful summations of some of the more comedic stumbling points in the band's career in the decades after.

With Mason acting all these years as the band's unofficial historian and archivist, it was surprising that a handful of incorrect bits and misattributed dates (particularly towards the latter years) sneaked through the editorial process all the way to the finished product. Of course, it is the nature of Floyd trainspotters (like me) to read these parts, blink, make an audible sound of confusion or "no, that's not right," and briefly wonder if Mason wrote this particular chapter in a rush or simply didn't bother to do his own fact-checking. But any disappointed drooling-geek episodes are put aside after turning the next page and seeing more of the amazing, incredible, awesome photos that are, on their own, worth the entire price of the book (that being said, I think that at least one, and maybe more of the older pictures have been digitally retouched a la the cover of Simon & Garfunkel's Old Friends box set to remove incriminating cigarettes from a certain band member's hand).

Radio Waves: Life And Revolution On The FM Dial (Jim Ladd)

Radio WavesA kind of West Coast cousin to Neer's FM, written in a much more enjoyably sarcastic style and far more entertaining and incisive to read.

It must also be mentioned that, being the words of Jim Ladd, Radio Waves can also get rather preachy at times and Ladd seems prone to bashing an Important Point into a bloody smear on the pavement (yes yes, Jim, all radio and music since the death of John Lennon is a soulless sham to the Way Things Were and before Sgt Pepper's everything was a big ol' vacuous sock hop...I get it already!). While Radio Waves contains enough humor and insight into the workings of a major FM radio station to make it worthy of a look, be advised that there will be times (especially during the character conversations) where it feels like you're being condescended to by someone who just can't let go of the year 1969.

As was the case with FM, Radio Waves is basically a dramatized autobiography with the corporatization of FM radio serving as the chief antagonist to Ladd's idealistic vision of beating the "tribal drum" of social and political awareness from his glass booth at "Radio KAOS." Unlike Neer's book, however, Ladd is much more comfortable with dealing out tales of excess and betrayal behind the scenes. While nearly all of the major characters in Radio Waves are therefore creatively re-named to protect the guilty and the innocent, I would imagine that anyone who is familiar with the Los Angeles FM scene in the 1970s and 1980s would be able to suss out pretty quickly who is supposed to be who.

NP The Clash London Calling

No comments: