Friday, April 27, 2012

Losing Jerry Lee Lewis

Today's New York Times reports the death of Pete Fornatale, "a disc jockey who helped usher in a musical alternative to Top 40 AM radio in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, presenting progressive rock and long album tracks that AM stations wouldn’t touch and helping to give WNEW a major presence on the still-young FM dial." (The copy editor must have passed away somewhere in the middle of that breathless passage but you get the drift.)

 Pete Fornatale

It was the third para in the article that caught my eye: "FM radio had been around for a while but did not come of age until the 1960s, when, amid the whirlwind of a growing counterculture, the federal government mandated that FM stations carry different programming from that of their sister AM bands. Enterprising D.J.’s grasped the chance to play longer, fresher, rarer music and give voice to the roiling political and social issues of the day."

I'd never heard of Pete Fornatale, one such "enterprising D.J.,"  and never listened to WNEW which, prior to its own death, billed itself as "the outlet for the music of Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Mel Torme and America's greatest songwriters." I do, however, remember the advent of FM radio as a cultural phenomenon - I was a young teenager when the old man ("Pere Montaigne") bought an FM receiver, a diode-tube assembly kit which hooked into the speakers on the spindly four-legged 1958-ish "stereo" on which he played Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff on boxed sets of red vinyl 45 rpms, the succeeding symphonic movements interrupted by the untimely 'pause . . . click' as the next record dropped onto the turntable. The FM receiver, on the other hand, relayed signals from any number of burgeoning classical music stations - random, unheard symphonies, concerti, quartetti, fugati, musica camera, and sounds I'd never heard, like a pipe organ or a choral symphony. Music without 'pauseclick', music beyond the musical ken of mon pere.

 Mon Pere operating the stereo

For starters, the phrase "enterprising D.J.'s" seems quaint when one thinks of some poor sod physically sitting in a live radio studio at a control panel, actually deciding what music is worth playing, actually "spinning" records or putting a CD into a tray, waiting for it to finish, then talking about the music, and so on. But what struck me most is the mention of the federal government mandating anything at all, let alone by the clearly unconstitutional takeover of the airwaves, ruling "that FM stations carry different programming from that of their sister AM bands."

Alan "Moondog" Freed, "father of rockandroll"

Some Founding Father must have been spinning, out of thought, out of mind, unobserved and unlamented in his lonely, unfenced, unweeded grave. In this age of bipartisan cameraderie, the FF's graves have been mended, weeded, fenced and are now jealously guarded by a growing cottage industry of amateur constitutional scholars. I can't imagine the federal government mandating a parking fine, let alone effecting any significant cultural change. Emancipation, the interstate system, the Great Society, Medicare, the War on Poverty, all come to mind as through a glass, darkly. But these days, as Strother Martin explained it so forcefully in Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is failure to communicate."

If the BLM, the agency entrusted to manage public lands, is the pimp for BOG (Big Oil & Gas), then the FCC is the pimp for ClearChannel, Fox/NewsoftheWorld, TimeDisneyWarner, Viacom, NBC You can just feel the cultural change dripping from those "media outlets." I know you can still find Beethoven on the radio dial, somewhere. And most of the stations that still play that sort of thing are funded in part by a dwindling cache of federal subsidies. And I know that's not the sort of thing that most people want to listen to. But in 1958, most people thought they never wanted to hear anything but Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee never died. And now look at him.

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