From what I can tell, the term “college radio” is no longer a thing, but it use to be. It was actually so much of a thing that there was an organization called the College Music Journal (CMJ) that held conferences, and put out sampler CDs that were at worst, an inexpensive way to get music, and at best absolutely prescient.
My first exposure to college music was actually in high school. My high school had something called the radio club and they served two critical needs: The morning announcements and (much more importantly), they played music in the Junior/Senior cafeteria every minute of every school day.
Joining the radio club was as easy as showing up, but getting “air time” was a matter of seniority. I joined as a 9th grader, but I didn’t get my first DJ slot until 10th grade. It was third period, once a week.
The goal of being a radio club DJ was simple, play stuff that proved you were cool and edgy, but not so esoteric that people didn’t know what the hell you were up to… a narrow row to hoe I assure you.
As a sophomore, I had an older brother who was both a music fan AND actually in college. He introduced me to R.E.M. long before they went mainstream, but he also dug deep exposing me to cool European instrumental stuff like Tangerine Dream, and Jean-Michel Jarre.
This was the 1980s. We had no Internet. You learned what was cool from other people who were cool… and from newsprint magazines found on the sidewalk near clubs downtown.
Mostly I stuck to what was mostly known, venturing into the outer limits with only one or two songs each week. My stock and trade was The Fixx, The Cure, The Smiths and my all-time-favorite, The Talking Heads. Back then your band name pretty much has to start with the word “The.” There was even a band called “The The.”
Sometimes I’d dip into my progressive rock roots, but never in a predictable way. By this I mean, I’d play Genesis… but the Peter Gabriel years only.
Every school break, my brother would come home from college with new and different music. He would spin up his strange new records, and whenever he left the house, I would sneak into his room and make cassette copies of his collection.
As a junior, I scored one of the coveted lunch period slots where my audience grew from just a small handful of people to, a slightly larger handful of people.
When we all got to school for senior year, we were shocked and dismayed to learn that the radio club “studio” had been taken by eminent domain and turned into an administrative office. Senior year was a dry and desolate time in my music history.
When going on college visits, I always made sure to find the campus radio station. Early on the morning I visited Lehigh University, where I eventually did go to college, I found the station 91.3 WLVR on the car radio and turned it up.
I caught the tail-end of an overnight DJ’s set where he was playing The Boomtown Rats “Up All Night.” It was freaking perfect.
I went to college in August 1987, armed with a large box of cassettes lifted from my brother’s LPs. I remember one moment in particular that confirmed I was doing music right. It was on the very first day, and I was in my tiny dorm room setting up. My roommate had not yet arrived, so I was cranking the “Upstairs At Eric’s” album by Yaz while I worked. A guy poked his head into my room from across the hall and said, in a thick accent “cool music man, keep it coming.” His name was Cristoph and he was from Germany. Props from the European kid was all I needed to confirm my own internal sense of cool.
Not long into freshman year I met a guy named Stuart who would go on to become my college best friend. Our similar taste in music was one of the anchor points of this friendship.
Earlier that year while I was still in high school, my brother began rubbing elbows with college music royalty. A professor he knew at Yale was a prominent historian in African Art and Music, a subject Mr. David Byrne (the lead singer of The Talking Heads) was also very interested in.
David Byrne became a regular fixture at Yale, and not only did my brother meet him, he actually got to “hang out” with him on more than one occasion. Jealous did not even begin to describe my feelings about this.
Fast forward a few years.
In college I ended up double majoring in English and theatre. In the spring of my junior year, the theatre department organized a trip to New York to see a play. This was not standard Broadway fare, nor was it even slightly less popular off-Broadway fare. No this was some heavy esoteric dreck being staged by a tiny, weirdo arts college.
The play was King Lear. Normal enough right? But in this production all the male parts had been changed to female parts, and vice versa. Oh, and it was set in the 1950s, in the American deep south with no changes to the dialogue whatsoever.
We took our seats, the play began… and it was awful. The stage was so dark you could hardly see the actors, who were over-emphasizing cartoonish southern accents. Combine this with the Shakespearian language and you ended up with nothing but dim, unintelligible garble.
The first act was unmercifully long and by the time it ended my bladder was a full as the play was horrific. As the curtain fell I hopped up and did the “crotch clench shuffle” directly to the men’s room. I stood at the urinal achieving long anticipated relief, making sure to follow all the unwritten rules of male public bathroom use. If you’re unfamiliar, here are some of these rules:
- If at all possible, leave a buffer urinal between you and any others
- If it is crowded and you cannot leave the buffer, and even if you can, look straight ahead at the wall and do not make eye contact with any other urinal user
- Never look down at your own, or anyone else’s “package,” especially if there are no dividers between the urinals
- Never, under any circumstances should you speak, directly, indirectly, to yourself or anyone else in the men’s room, even if you know the person
Remember, the prefect men’s room is perfectly silent.
So there I was, doing my business against a crowded wall of divider-less urinals, and out of the corner of my right eye, I saw a form my brain recognized. Turning my head slightly I confirmed my suspicion… peeing right next to me was none other than “Mister Big Suit” himself, David Byrne.
What a paradox! To be so proximate to one of your musical heroes, but at the same time completely constrained by the unbreakable international rules of men’s room etiquette. Son of a…
Before I could even think, he was gone, but I was still going. I finished as quickly as I could and then went to wash my hands. If I did manage to find David Byrne in the crowded lobby, AND if I was able to conjure up the guts to introduce myself, I sure as hell wasn’t going to shake his hand with piss on mine.
Of course I never found him. The lobby was awash with people arguing both the merits and shortcomings of the performance, and before long we were back in our seats to endure another two painful acts.
Was I able to concentrate on the play? Hell no, not even if it was any good, which we’ve already established – it was not. All I could do was subtly look around the room for the form my peripheral vision had so quickly locked onto. At the second intermission I looked around again, no David Byrne, anywhere. As we were walking out, I figured he had thought as little of the performance as I did and left after the first act, something I wish I’d done.
I got back to my apartment at Lehigh late that night to find Stuart sitting on the couch, studying and listening to none other than The Talking Heads. I came in, sat down and said, “Dude, you are not going to believe what happened to me today.”
I recounted the entire story, and when I’d finished, he looked at me stone faced and asked, “Well… did you look?”
I was incredulous, I shot back, “Did I look? Of course I didn’t look. Stuart,
YOU KNOW THE RULES!”
Stuart sat up, slowly closed whatever book he’d been studying and said, “You could have had a great story Steve. It might have been a little gay, but it would have been a great story. Instead, all you have is a sad little tale about a guy who didn’t have the guts to look. I’m going to bed.”
I sat quietly for a moment, stood up, turned out the light and headed into my own bedroom, Stuart was probably right. As I closed my eyes, I realized what I’d experienced was the kind of thing that only happens… once-in-a-lifetime. And, so far it has been true.
Copyright © 2018 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved