My Life as a Listener

"If music be the food of love, give me excess of it that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and so die." - Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

My musical skills are modest and somewhat limited. I played trumpet in band. In our family, all four of us kids did band things, but my sisters were better at it than my brother and I. Roger played trumpet and that has a lot to do with why I did. First of all, I wanted to do anything my brother did but naturally, having a hand-me-down trumpet to play made it easier for my parents to get me started in band.

My older sister, Kathy, started out on alto sax then switched to the bassoon in high school. She even took private lessons on bassoon. Of course, no one marches with a bassoon so during marching band season, she played the sousaphone. My brother always wanted to come back to an EHS football game on a windy fall night and watch my 95 lb sister being blown down the field when the wind hit that gigantic bell. That never actually happened. Apparently we had an unusually non-blustery autumn that year.

My younger sister, Janet, played the flute. I think the thought of lugging a sousaphone around so terrified her that when it came her turn to pick a band instrument, she fled to the opposite end of the instrument weight spectrum. She also took private lessons but eventually gave up band. I stopped playing in band my senior year for a variety of reasons, but the main one was that I was struggling to balance my time between debate, academics, and band. Band was the easiest sacrifice since it happened to be what I was worst at.

In college, I took up the guitar. Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. I fooled around with the guitar. I learned a few chords and since I could read music and understand a bit of chord theory, I could sorta play. In my youth, I sang in choir at church quite a bit. I could carry a tune and though my voice isn't that spectacular, like I said I can read music so I did okay. Later in life, I actually performed in musical theater and demonstrated that I wasn't totally incompetent at singing and dancing.

Emphasis on "totally".

During my college years, I became a radio DJ. The job has changed a lot over the years. Let me paint a picture of becoming a DJ in 1976. First you had to get a license and by that, I mean a Third Class Radiotelephone Operator's License from the FCC.

This is what the permit used to look like - mine had MY name on it, not Robert Ketchum.

Getting this license required completing a test on elements 1, 2, and 9 of the Radiotelephone Operator's Code. Elements one and two were rules and regulations. Element nine was basic physics including calculations of wavelength and frequency and Ohm's Law.

During my four years of college, the FCC removed element nine from the 3rd Phone license. Someone decided a DJ had no need to know the physics and that was true enough. Eventually, they eliminated the 3rd Phone license entirely. By the time I ended my professional radio career, all a DJ needed was a wallet-sized card you got by filling out a form - no test whatsoever. It was the same form a pilot filled out to get permission to operate the radios in an airplane.

Another thing you may not know about DJs - a high percentage of your time in a booth is dead time in which you have nothing to do. Yet, you cannot really do anything significant to pass the time. Let me explain : If I play a series of 10 four-minute songs, punctuated by 3 commercial breaks consisting of a pair of 30-second commercials, I would still be spending roughly 30-33 minutes sitting on my butt doing absolutely nothing. The problem is this - that empty time came in three-minute pieces during which I had to keep one eye on the second hand of the clock (or digital display in some cases). What this means is a DJ can't bring in a novel to read to help pass the time. In fact, you can't read anything that takes longer than two or three minutes to read. Consequently, DJs spend a lot of time reading the three things they can find in every single radio control room: an almanac, Chase's Calendar of Events, and liner notes.

Of the three, liner notes are by far the most interesting.

Back in the vinyl days, the art of cuing records was a vital job skill. In college, our heavy-duty turntables needed a full quarter of a rotation to get to full speed. At 96X, the FM rock station I worked at in Ottawa, we had some nice direct-drive turntables that hit full speed much faster. Anyway, one of the results of reading endless collections of liner notes and the almanac for entertainment is that I got disturbingly good at Trivial Pursuit. In fact, one midnight shift at NATCOM back in the 80s, I dethroned our work crew's reigning Trivial Pursuit champion by winning a game on the very first turn. I just kept getting every question right.

We never played Trivial Pursuit on the midnight shift again for the 15 months I worked there.

So while I am not a musician, I am very knowledgeable ABOUT music. Or about rock and roll, specifically. I have Facebook friends who are serious music geeks. I get their jokes. Being a DJ in a rock station as well as a country station, you can't just play stuff you like. You have to follow a format and in some cases, play a lot of music you DON'T like and have never listened to before. Interestingly, in time you actually develop an appreciation for stuff that you didn't like at first.

My music collection, over 30 gigs of MP3s, is ridiculously eclectic. I have a lot of classic rock, a lot of more contemporary stuff, a lot of classical, and a range of Celtic music including some of the world's best rock-and-roll bagpipe bands. Yeah, you don't want to ride with me when I'm in the mood for Wolfstone or Enter the Haggis, unless you dig the pipes.

OK, if you clicked those links and need to scrub your ears, I recommend Jack Johnson. He's like a gentle soak in baby shampoo for your auditory canals.

Growing up, I shared a room with my older brother and the sound system in our room was … unique. We had this blonde-shaded wooden cabinet that probably weighed a couple of hundred pounds. The upper left quarter of it was a drawer that held the turntable. In his teen years, my brother acquired a Garrard stereo turntable that occupied that drawer for many years.

The upper right quadrant was a radio with every band imaginable. We could get AM, FM, UHF, VHF, we had aircraft bands, police bands, the radio telescope in Arecibo in Puerto Rico, and if a submarine had sailed up the Walnut River, I think we could have tuned in their encoded ELF transmissions. That baby had EVERYTHING! Of course, since it was not connected to an antenna, we ended up with 27 bands of static.

The lower right quadrant of the entertainment system was a cabinet with record racks. It had racks for LPs and also 45 rpm records. I can even remember some thick, brittle old-school 78 rpm discs in there from my mom's high school years. My brother didn't have that many LPs. I can remember the Kingston Trio, the Ventures, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. He also had an LP of marches by John Phillip Sousa. I got real familiar with Kingston Trio and Johnny Mathis.

My brother's 45 collection was much more impressive. He had a lot of early Beatles , some Roy Orbison, and some Motown including Supremes and the Four Tops. But the bulk of the collection was the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. I also got familiar with some of the one-off records he had like the J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers cover of 'Last Kiss' and Lou Christie's 'Lightnin' Strikes'. Every night at bedtime, he loaded up the changer on the record player with a dozen 45s which we listened to before falling asleep. In some cases, I am pretty sure I was actually asleep as they played which resulted in them being subliminally programmed into my brain.

More on that in a bit.

The lower left corner of the entertainment system was the danger zone. In that portion of the cabinet was a speaker the size of Towanda. That baby was HUGE! At least 18" of thundering monophonic power! Yeah, you heard me - MONOPHONIC! The turntable was wired for stereo. The rest of the cabinet, a vacuum tube driven monstrosity, was not. Both channels got amplified, pre-amplified, transformed, pre-heated, super-heated and whatever else that dusty circuitry could do, and then blasted out of a cone bigger than a manhole cover. The magnet on that sucker was so big, when we turned it on ships in the Gulf of Mexico began having compass malfunctions!

Perhaps I exaggerate. But it was big. Trust me on this.

The wall behind that speaker was shared with our family bathroom and that wall of the bathroom held our family medicine cabinet. The medicine cabinet held my dad's prescription allergy pills. If my brother turned the volume up on something like The McCoy's 'Hang On, Sloopy', it would turn my dad's allergy pills into dust.

Years later, when I was working at the FM station in Chanute, Kansas, we had an afternoon oldies show. One day, I introduced 'Lightnin' Strikes' as a number one hit from 1966. The music director came into the studio and admonished me for making up dates. To prove his point, he made me read the record label which specifically called out that the record had been recorded in 1965. We had the following conversation:

Me: But it wasn't number one until 1966.

Him: How do you know that?

Me: I was alive in 1966.

Him: How old were you then?

Me: Umm, eight.

Him: And how many times did you listen to that record at eight years old?

Me: I dunno …. two, maybe three -

Him: Two or three times???

Me: Actually,I was gonna say two or three hundred. But on second thought, that may be a bit low.

And here, I do NOT exaggerate. Ask my brother.

After my brother moved out, my older sister took over influencing my musical tastes. She was into a mellower grade of music, overall. She had a lot of albums by Simon & Garfunkel and The Tijuana Brass. Being young and impressionable, I was mellowing out enough that the first record album I actually owned was The Carpenters ' 'Close to You'. Then one of my sister's boyfriends introduced me to the music of Chicago.

I know what you're thinking - Chicago IS mellow, but this was the early 70s when Chicago was a rock band that had some horns. That lineup with Terry Kath on guitar and Peter Cetera on bass was a real rock band. Since I played trumpet, I was naturally interested in them but the more I listened, the more I realize that I actually liked rock and roll. Chicago was the first concert I attended. Before I graduated, I would see Styx and Bachman Turner Overdrive and my favorite concert from those days - Bob Seger and the Siler Bullet Band. Seger live is amazing!

Before long, my record collection grew to include a lot of prog rock like Yes and ELP as well as the Eagles and Poco. Before I got out of high school, I had picked up some Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin. And at that point, I had come to realize my musical tastes were diverse and they were my own. The radio years made them even more diverse. I had opportunities to see performers I might not otherwise have seen like the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Pat Matheny - two shows I caught at the Lawrence Opera House.

If I was comfortable braving the crowds and traffic of downtown Austin, I could see many more artists. There are festivals here in the city that offer some amazing music viewing opportunities, if you can handle 98 degree heat with 80 percent humidity. A few years ago, Neil Young & Crazy Horse played at the ACL Festival here and if there was a 'bucket list' performance for me to see, that was it! But within minutes of the lineup being announced, the tickets had sold out online and I wasn't able to get mine.

However, my employer at the time was Dell and they streamed the ACL Fest live online that year. In addition, because of my job I had access to projectors. So I spent a couple of hours one Saturday night in September projecting Neil and the boys on my wall, roughly eight feet across, with the audio blasting through my home theater system. In air conditioned comfort on my living room couch.

And it was wonderful! Watching Young, Molina, Sampedro and Talbot jamming to 'Down By The River' with Neil working Ol' Black while a bunch of oblivious Austin hipsters wondered how long these old men were going to play that one song …

I loved it.

Being in the audience, being jostled by bodies, smelling the pot smoke - it doesn't have the thrill for me it once had. One show I attended here in Austin was Ryan Adams' band Whiskeytown at Liberty Lunch. I was standing up the whole time surrounded by people, many taller than I am. It wasn't fun, even though the band was great - Adam's acid-country style mixed with Caitlin Cary's incomparable fiddle playing was just awesome. But the atmosphere nearly killed it.

These days, with access to live shows on high-definition TV from the comfort of my home - well, it makes the prospect of going to a show less necessary. I get ready access to the Austin City Limits lineup and I can tell you, I have seen some GREAT live shows on the big screen watching ACL. Within the last year, I can recall Jack White, Rodrigo y Gabriela, and Lyle Lovett. They refer to Austin as the Live Music Capital of the World. If you are into live music, this is the place to live and it does beat other capitals.

For instance, in the Air Capital of the World, Wichita, I'm pretty sure you won't get a free airplane. On the other hand, over in Cassoday, Kansas - the Prairie Chicken Capital of the World, they MIGHT give you your own prairie chicken. Or you might have to go bag it for yourself.

I will stick to music and when it comes to music, I will stick to what I do best - listening.