Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Radio Days

I knew what “Saturday Night Fever” was about, and it wasn’t disco, and it wasn’t dancing. It was about getting to Manhattan.

If you grow up in the boroughs of NYC, or just over the bridge in Jersey, you fall into one of two categories – you go “into the city” on weekends, but you wouldn’t want to live with those crazy people, or the idea of staying where you are is killing you and you have to get out of the burbs and live in Manhattan. I was the latter.

So, I turned down a full scholarship to Fordham in the Bronx where I grew up to take a half-scholarship for only one year to go to New York University. The coolest teacher I had in senior year of HS was this priest who taught psychology and had gone to NYU. I wasn’t going to become a priest, but the rest sounded great. I was going to be a psychiatrist or a psychologist – I’d figure it out later.

I always loved to write, and my first week at NYU I went to the 9th floor of the student center to join the newspaper – sounded cool. Only, they weren’t in. They happened to share the same floor with the radio station, and this guy walked up to me and asked if I wanted to join the radio station. It was cooler than the newspaper, anyway, and I’d have more to do – and right away. I told him I didn’t really have the voice for radio, I just wanted to write.

“No problem. You could write the news.” It was 1976, and Woodward and Bernstein were still big heroes. I thought this could be cool. When could I start?

He looked at his watch. “We have a 4 o’clock newscast. Can you start now?”

The salesmen was the station GM, Richard Roth, who is now the UN correspondent for CNN. Richard influenced me over the years in more ways than one – he was a big horse player, and used to have high-stakes “marble races” at his apartment. It was something he had constructed with nails and rubber bands when he was a kid, and it had fans over the years who would bet as much as $10 or $20 a race on a “marble”. More on that later.

So, the vision I had for my future was reshaped forever. See, I thought that being a psychiatrist was all about Freud and Jung and cool stuff about the mind. They never told me about med school and statistics. By my third stats class, I was lost.

Radio, on the other hand, was cool. I worked on the news, but soon got into music, too. I did recorded features – my first one was on Genesis with Peter Gabriel, I think. I’d say they were sophomoric, but I was only a freshman, so they weren’t that good.

Soon, I got the hang of it – and it was addictive. Like many people at the radio station, I was spending more time at the station, and less in class. I got an afternoon music slot, and then became the program director. It was great, but if I wasn’t going to flunk out, I needed a new major. I looked through the course guide, and there it was, like a big neon light with a come-hither finger saying “C’mon in.” Dramatic Literature.

Let me get this straight: all I have to do is read plays and write reports on them? I could do that in my sleep. Anything below a 95 in English in HS was a bad grade for me. I loved it and I was good at it – and no statistics! I was in.

The short story is that the Drama Lit got me into plays, and that got me into film, but first a little about the radio days. They were crazy times, but this is just a quick summary.

It was the beginning of the punk movement, and if I wasn’t at CBGBs, I was at the Mudd Club or the Bottom Line (a more traditional club”. I soon produced our weekly live series, “From the Bottom Line” (original title, huh?”)

I got in good with the record company people, and because I was receptive to new music, I got in everywhere.

My first on-air interview was James Cotton, one of Muddy Waters harp players who had struck out on his own. I asked him a long, convoluted question about the evolution from blues to rock to disco. The entire rest of my interview was going to be based on his answer to this socially-important and powerful question.

I lost him halfway through the question, and he said, “Times change. People change.” The rest of the interview didn’t go too well.

I interviewed David Byrne before their first album, when they only had “Love Goes to Building on Fire” as a single out. He hated being referred to as punk, and the term “new wave” wasn’t out there yet. He talked about how McDonalds represented the proletariat. He talked about art. Tina and Chris sat on the floor during the interview like disciples listening to Jim Jones.

While interviewing The Runaways Cherry Currie started flirting with my engineer and wouldn’t answer my questions, and Joan Jett kept blowing bubbles,

I once set up Lyle Mays (keyboard player with Pat Metheny) with one of our interns, and had to run back and forth between the two because he was too shy to ask her out.

All this almost led me to a paying job working as Northeast Promotions Director at A&M Records. Remember the Paul Schaeffer character in “Spinal Tap” who screws up the in-store. He tries to convince the band its not their fault, and offers them to kick him to make themselves feel better? Well, the job was much better than that, but just as crazy.

The scene in Spinal Tap when the manager has the cricket bat – that’s real. The guy was a manager for the A&M group Squeeze. The lead singer locked himself in my office right before a lunchtime meet with all the big NYC radio guys. I was dying. Well, then manager yells into the room “you coming out, or am I coming in?” Expletives were exchanged, at which time the manager proceeded to try to break the door down with said bat. Thankfully, the door opened before it was complete cinders.

I was convinced I would be in the record business. I was dating a girl named Sheila, a childhood model whose mother was a neurotic former model herself and her father was a co-founder of a major record company.

Things changed when Sheila and I broke up. I started dating a girl who worked publicity for Columbia Records – it was all very incestuous. Our dates were known as “Plus Ones” because, when they would leave tickets, it would be “JB +1” in order to leave open the possibility of bringing anyone at the last minute.

Cathy, (the publicity girl) and I would often have to see each other after we each attended different gigs to support our groups. One night, we had the rare night when we both had no gig to go to, and we had what I hoped would be a “normal” date with no shop talk. I made a point of this to her, and after about three words of “how are you” she goes into some new act they signed. The rest of the date was a blur – I just knew I was bored with the whole business, but didn’t know what I was going to do.

It was not long after that I found myself in theater.

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