Monday, March 30, 2015

Adios, Companero

""I am incredibly lucky to have spent my entire radio career doing exactly what I've wanted," says Vin. "The kind of programming autonomy I've enjoyed, on both commercial and public radio over all these years, is unique. I am grateful to all the stations I've worked on for the privilege of being allowed to wander through their airwaves wherever my interests have taken me. I am grateful to my listeners for their support and their indulgence as we shared this journey together. It's hard to let go, of course, but I always promised myself and my audience that when the time was right I would stop. How lucky am I that I get to decide even this!" 

I wanted to be Vin Scelsa before I knew I wanted to be Vin Scelsa, and before I learned that it was impossible. One of the many lessons I learned from Vin (and unfortunately had to relearn over the years) - you can only be you.

Vin seemed to know that right from the beginning, and luckily, he was able to break the rock and roll dj mold at a time when the mold was still warm and malleable.

That was in November of 1967, at a small, independent radio station in New Jersey called WFMU. It was one of those stations that were truly free-form - the host of the show basically made it up as they went along. He later wound up at similar free-form station WBAI, and then went on to a series of ground-breaking commercial rock-and roll stations in the New York area, including WABC-FM, WLIR-FM, WNEW-FM (which is where I found him), K-Rock, back to WNEW-FM and finally to alt music station WFUV with his friend, the late Pete Fornatale, another pioneer with a very different take who died suddenly and unexpectedly a few years ago. He has been doing his show, which he renamed Idiot's Delight when back at WNEW-FM, at WFUV for the last 14 years.

After almost 48 years in the business, Vin Scelsa announced *he would be retiring on May 2, 2015 during his weekly two-hour show this past Saturday night. His wiki bio is here.

No bio, however, could define Vin's show, possibly because Vin refused to be defined over the years. When I first was listening to him the first time around on WNEW-FM in the early 1970s, he was doing an overnight show starting at around 1AM or 2AM.

At that time, the overnight slot was even more relaxed than WNEW-FM's regular "progressive" format, simply because fewer people were listening and, unlike the busier day shifts, which were funded by commercials, the overnight had few if any commercials, so the station managers and programmers were less concerned about how the hosts conducted their shows.

This suited Vin perfectly. Over the years, his show has been a mix of music from The Ramones - who included mention of him in one of their songs and who were frequent guests, to discussion on topics like theater (he was an early cheerleader for Hedwig and the Angry Inch when it was originally done Off-Broadway) to books. It was through him that I found one of my favorite contemporary novels, John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany, and a favorite pulp writer, Carl Hiaasen, when he raved about Tourist Season.

Now, when I say he talked about them, I mean, he talked and talked and talked about them. Vin would sometimes play extended sets of music, but when he was on a topic that interested him, he could easily go on about it show after show, and his "raps" would last - well, as long as he wanted them to last.

This drove casual listeners away, but also caused him to attract a large cult following. I remember trying to share my enthusiasm for his show, only to have friends say, 'When is he going to stop talking and go back to the music?'

Still, Vin fascinated me, and many others. His intellectual curiosity knew no bounds, and his openness and candor helped to form a special bond with his listeners. Over the years, he spoke of both his battle with cancer (which he won) as well as his on-going battle with depression. Those of us who listened for years feel like we grew up his daughter Kate, a little girl who is now not only all grown up but a published author of books for young adults. Of course, you could always hear the love in his voice for his devoted wife, Freddie.

When I started working at the radio station at WNYU-FM, there was a time when I thought I would model my show after his, something that was not only a bad idea but impossible. As a young college student, I had infinitely less to say of interest than Vin did, and besides, how to you come up with a model that the creator refuses to follow.

For years, Vin's signature opening was Dorothy's early lines from The Wizard of Oz, leading to "Toto, I think we're not in Kansas anymore," Vin dropped that opening years back. Vin dropped that a number of years back.

More recently, the opening is an imposing voice that would announce:

"Attention listeners. The following program may contain music both familiar and unfamiliar from a wide variety of genres.The following program may contain long musical sets during which not a word is spoken. The following program is not meant to be a representation of any particular theme, music genre or subject matter. It's content is solely a representation of the tastes thoughts concerns and moods of its host. It is, if you will, old-style free form broadcast radio."

Then Vin would set the "ground rules," which he adopted from Rolling Stone's David Fricke.

"Respect the elders. Embrace the new. Encourage the Impractical and Improbable without bias."

He always stuck to those "rules," such as they were.

There were numerous movie and cultural references win Vin, from the title of the show, also the name of a 1939 Clark Gable musical, to Dorothy, who stuck around for the end of the show with "Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home," to his interviews with indie-filmmakers like John Sayles.

As with the saying above, Vin was always discovering young and promoting young artists, while his movie references often came from an era where entertainment and stars were bigger than life.You could still hear in his voice the young boy whose mother listened to soap operas and talk shows and his dad, who listened to WNEW-AM and shows like Milkman's Matinee with Sinatra and Basie.

Respect the elders. Embrace the new.

He made the sequeway between Dinah Washington and an up-and-coming singer-songwriter, or Louie Armstrong into Chris Stamey seem natural, because it was for him.

Although he often talked of his love for going to the movies, he was too young to have gone to movies of Hollywood's Golden Age there, likely learning them, as I did, watching them late at night on local independent TV stations. My friend, and award-winning writer/director Ray De Felitta speaks of this in his informative blog, Movies Til Dawn.

He talked often of his time as kind of a tour manager/keep-him-out-of-trouble guy for legendary Townes Van Zandt, and would always work on original material, such as the "letters" from "T-Shirt and Razoo Kelly."

Whenever a television or radio host we enjoy chooses to call it a day, our first instinct is to ask for more. In the past year, that included David Letterman and Jon Stewart. Think how odd that is. It is like the title of a musical by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts called, I Love You. You're Perfect. Now Change.

We love them for being different, but we don't want them to decide when it is over. Do we really want them to become Johnny Carson, dragging on and on because he didn't know how to end it? Do we want it to be like our favorite TV shows that "jumped the shark?"**

Over the last few years, Vin had cut back his four-hour show to two hours, and began doing more of his shows from "Studio V," a remote studio he set up in his home in New Jersey, although he then went back again to recording two hours live at WFUV's studio, and two hours pre-recorded the week before.  It was clear to anyone who truly appreciated Vin's unique voice that the thrill was going, and he always said that when it was gone, his show would be as well.

He kept his promise.

An archive of some of his recent shows can be found here, and if you go to Youtube, there is more. If you are interested, the only way to have an idea of what a Vin Scelsa show is like is to listen to one.

Of course, there was one defining moment for Vin during his commercial radio days, though it was one that was neither intended nor sought. Vin was on-air when John Lennon was shot, and he got many people through that night.

Understand that this was before the days of social media, where all news is brought to our every device instantaneously. I was at a bar that night, a more than a little tipsy, when someone said to me that John Lennon had been shot.

I didn't pay it much mind. How could it be true? Who would want to shoot John Lennon? I put it out of my mind until I got home, turned on my favorite, Vin, and heard Imagine.

It was like a cold bucket of ice had slapped my face. I knew it must be true. And like many other listeners, it was Vin that took me through that night.

Inspiration is not imitation, and while I failed miserably at the latter in my college radio days, I realized somewhere during the life of this blog that Vin's willingness to stray from the straight and narrow path helped me to feel confident often drifting off-topic in this blog. This time it was not by design, but I know it was somewhere, in the back of my mind.

I will miss his shows, but wish him the best of luck with his long-time send-off.

Adios, companero(s).

*The photo of Vin in that blog was taken by David Vanderheyden, who I worked with in my college radio days at WNYU-FM)

**A phrase coined after Happy Days had run out of ideas and had an episode with Fonzie surfing and jumping over a shark.

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