Monday, March 23, 2009

American Top 40


Until I began to approach the middle school years, I didn't really listen to the radio. I listened to albums (yes, vinyl), on a turntable that was very juvenile in style but got the job done. Mostly I listened to Rodgers and Hammerstein, and to this day I can sing almost all the songs, even the more obscure ones, from their classic Broadway musicals. The radio was on in the car sometimes, but one of my parents set the dial or else I spun aimlessly through the stations, scanning for anything that sounded good despite not really knowing the songs. But, even in the car, the radio took second place to conversation or our own singing. All this changed sometime when I was around eleven, definitely by the time I turned twelve. In fact, I think it might've been some girls at a week-long (two-week?) sleepover camp for the horsey set who turned me on to the "coolness" of radio, the necessity for knowing the most recent hits. They, plus friends at school, were my introduction to pop and to rock. And to the essential of the early 80s: the weekly American Top 40 with Casey Kasem. I ended up with a kind of standard-issue Radio Shack clock-radio, and I started holing up in my room every weekend to listen to forty of the week's chart-topping tunes. From those days, I remember liking songs by The Cars, Pat Benatar, Rick Springfield; then there were those highly emotive songs, that a couple years later made my girlfriends and I laugh and riff most vulgarly—songs like "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "Islands in the Stream," that sort of thing. Secretly, though, we all dreamed of one thing: to be the recipient of some boy's romantic Long Distance Dedication. God, how we loved to listen to those! In L.A., the hot radio station was 102.7 KIIS FM. On my clock-radio, all I could get reliably were AM stations, so I listened to the "Mighty 690," in one of its many incarnations. This was, I am pretty sure, the station of Wolfman Jack, who was extremely popular at that time, but usually on later than I had radio privileges. Still, I knew who he was. But back to Kasem. He was known for flying off the handle on a couple of occasions (you could Google Kasem and U2 and probably come up with some interesting YouTube links), but I just remember his voice, which for me really was the "voice of 80s radio," the radio voice of my youth. I am not going to try to describe his voice—I really wouldn't know how, though I might be able to pull off an impersonation. But I do remember his standard sign-off on the Top 40 show, and when he said this, I always took him seriously. It sounds hokey to me now, despite the fact that I still agree with the sentiment, but back then, I loved it. I'd just listened to the number-one song in the nation, the realization of some musician's dream, and then Kasem would bid me and his entire audience good-bye for the week, advising us all: "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars." It was what radio was all about.

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