Nine Volt Heart

retro-vintage-radio

Plastic silver nine volt heart
You click it on and let the music start
Nine Volt Heart,”Dave Alvin

The hot, dusty plains around Odessa, Texas, were never meant for human life. Actually, they were never meant for much life at all. There’s scarcely enough water to keep the scorpions and cactus alive, no game larger than a jackrabbit. Historians say that tribes of Native Americans used to pass through there; most agree they passed through very quickly indeed. As did most everyone else until the discovery of Black Gold at the bottom of that hellhole, and then the rush was on. My father was one of those who followed the money to Odessa, and there he settled to raise his family. He was a wonderful man who did his best to keep us entertained, but it was an uphill struggle in a town with no hills. And for a scrawny little kid with too much imagination, things were just brown and bleak for as far as I could see. That is,until I discovered magic in the air around me.

I believe my first encounter with that magic was in my parents’ car, the oddly glowing radio dial built right into the dash, surrounded by buttons and knobs. And if you turned the knobs in just the right way music would come out, or sometimes people talking. I was probably 4 or 5 at the time and totally fascinated. The local AM station was KOSA, and the station wasn’t far from our house. My father had pointed the building out to me, a plain little box with a red and white antennae jutting far into the West Texas sky. Having no concept of recorded music, I imagined that there must be a big stage in there somewhere and all of these performers were constantly shuffling back and forth off of it. And the DJ was probably like the ringmaster from the little circus that had passed through town, an officious guy in a funny suit who decided when it was time for elephants and when it was time for clowns. I remember hoping that my father would take me in there someday to see the spectacle. Surely the circus would pale in comparison.

I encountered the next version of that magic a couple of years later, after I had started school and was subject to the awesome knowledge of older kids—fourth-graders most likely. That’s when I saw my first transistor radio, which had the same magical properties as that first radio but without the car wrapped around it. This one was about the size of a paperback book, with its own little antenna to split the sky with. By then I knew what records were, and this had taken some of the magic out of things, but just how the darned thing worked was still a mystery to me. So I was totally amazed when an older kid spun the little dial and a whole different station came out of the speaker. And it was like the heavens had opened above me. Two radio stations? I had been going on the assumption that there was just the one! The fact that there were two brought a sort of epiphany on me. If there were two stations out there then how many more? And that’s when it started, my lifelong quest of twistin’ the dials, hoping to find just one more station that I hadn’t heard before.

Which wasn’t all that hard at first. As far as local geography went, there was nothing taller than a fireplug for  hundreds of miles, and for radio signals “line of sight” is golden. And there’s this wondrous thing called “skip,” where signals actually bounce off the upper atmosphere and come back down who knows where, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles. Talk about magic. . . . By the time I was in the sixth grade my father had given me a five (five!) band radio to play around with, and I just about twisted the knobs off that beauty. We lived some ten miles out of Odessa proper so reception was great, but I added to its range by attaching a copper wire to the radio’s antennae and stringing it around  my ceiling. That’s when I started picking up what might as well have been other worlds. There was a mega-station out of Chicago called WLS that played early rock-n-roll, and WWL, a truck-driving station out of New Orleans that played lots of Hank Williams with dedications from lonely housewifes to their trucker husbands out on the road.

I listened to KOMA out of Oklahoma City, where there was an apparently insane DJ called Charlie Tuna who came on after midnight. Some nights I got KLIF from Dallas and the Rod Roddy Show, a late-night talk show that may have preceded Larry King. And every now and then I’d run across one of the infamous Border Radio stations blasting in from Mexico, the domain of the infamous  Wolfman Jack. I never actually caught his show, but I remember the absolutely bizarre commercials they ran, hawking stuff that ranged from glow in the dark Jesuses to patent medicines to livestock. And for a kid sitting up late thru the West Texas night it was like the whole world was talking to me through that little copper wire circling my ceiling.

And these were just the ones that I had found on the AM band. I still had four other bands to go! Three of those were a disappointment, though; the shortwave bands were a bore so soon I was back listening to Charlie Tuna up in OK City. Until one night, pretty much on a whim, I got to poking around on the FM dial .This would have been late ’60s, early ’70s, and FM radio was being transformed, changed by rock music, and the new “free form” style of programming. Somehow, some way the one little FM station in Odessa had hired two early aficionados of free form, David Conway and Jerry Galloway, and now there was a whole new world on the FM dial. Listening to them I first heard the Grateful Dead, Spirit, Kris Kristofferson, the James Gang, and Mason Proffit. And my perception of radio shifted again, away from the wild personalities of Charlie Tuna, Rod Roddy, and the long-distance truckers. Instead I became more aware of the music that was being played rather than the goofy sound effects and self-promotions that filled the AM dial. After that FM became the first choice for my radio time, as it also shifted for others across the country.

Or it did until my father moved us to another oil field, this one far up on the frozen plains of northern Wyoming. No FM signals there at all, and during daylight hours I could only pick up the one AM station in our little town with its polkas and livestock prices. But after the sun went down things changed on the AM dial: The “skip” that had brought all those far-off channels to Odessa now brought them to Wyoming. And most powerful of all was an old friend, KOMA, blasting in from Oklahoma City. KOMA was a lifeline to teens all across the Midwest, high schoolers in a thousand little towns. It brought news from the larger music world, new bands, new albums, new movies. And it brought the tour schedules for the cover bands that traveled constantly across the plains, bringing live music to towns too small to be noticed by the name acts. Free-form FM may have been the big thing in the cities, but in places like Salina, Kansas, Grand Junction, Colorado, and Gillette, Wyoming, KOMA was the only game in town. And they played it very well indeed.

So the AM dial was again front and center in my radio world. I felt I had come full circle. I was back to nights of listening to far-off signals, back to my earliest dreams. And it made me think again of that little box of a station that I had first listened to as a child.

Before we left Odessa I had finally visited that station, now updated to be KOZA. It was when I was a young teenager and first stretching my wings. This was made easier by having an older friend who had his drivers license, plus an old pickup to bomb around in. Naturally we used to sneak into town late at night, cruise for girls, and look for ways to seem cool. One night after midnight I suggested dropping by the radio station to see if we could get in. I had spoken with the late-night DJ there on the phone a few times making requests, thought it at least worth a try. So we pulled into the deserted parking lot, went around back, and knocked on the door. To my surprise the DJ came and let us in, told us that as long as we kept quiet when the red light was on we could hang out for a while.

This was my first realization that being a DJ might not be all that glamorous. He seemed lonely and maybe spooked from being the only person in the darkened building. We sat around for an hour or so watching him cue up 45s and juggle the “carts” for the commercial spots, then we headed back towards home. I think my buddy was bored by the whole thing, but for me it was finally getting to see that ringmaster from my younger days. And I got to watch him decide when it was time for the elephants, when it was time for the clowns. And while there was no enormous stage with an endless stream of performers, I did finally get to see just where the radio magic came from. It came from lonely late night DJs working in darkened buildings, just trying to get ahead. It came from Charlie Tuna and Rod Roddy, and from wistful housewifes sending out their long-distance dedications. And it came from over-imaginative kids with wires dangling from their ceilings, twisting the knobs deep into the West Texas night.

But now I’m afraid that the magic’s been drained out of the airwaves. It’s been drained by Clear Channel homogenization, it’s been drained by the Internet. And it was drained by a technology that doesn’t require antennae far up in the West Texas sky. A five-band radio from your father is no match for a broadband DSL line from AT&T. And I doubt that there’s a first-grader in Odessa today being amazed by their first transistor radio. And just what would amaze a first-grader today? What would they think was magic? The world changes; it always has and it always will. But as the magic is drained from the world, what are we replacing it with? I can only hope that the answers are as obvious—and as wondrous—to kids today as that first radio was to me.

 —Rev Jim

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