THE BACK PAGES

Rockin’ the radio

Bob Dylan, Randy Bachman, Alice Cooper and Little Steven are old rock stars on a new mission to save the airwaves

BRIAN D. JOHNSON December 17 2007
THE BACK PAGES

Rockin’ the radio

Bob Dylan, Randy Bachman, Alice Cooper and Little Steven are old rock stars on a new mission to save the airwaves

BRIAN D. JOHNSON December 17 2007

THE BACK PAGES

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Rockin’ the radio

music

Bob Dylan, Randy Bachman, Alice Cooper and Little Steven are old rock stars on a new mission to save the airwaves

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

If rust could talk, the voice on the radio is what it might sound like. The bone-dry baritone is instantly familiar, a snake-oil twang with an arcane accent and a soupçon of W.C. Fields. It belongs to Bob Dylan, host of Theme Time Radio Hour. And this hour’s theme is spring cleaning. Between quoting The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and playing music by Fats Waller, Memphis Minnie, Elvis Costello and Igor Stravinsky, Bob is offering cleaning tips. “First of all,” he says, “work from the top down, from the inside to the outside, to avoid getting what you’ve just cleaned dirty again.”

Right on. It’s so strange to hear Dylan talk, this living icon who’s notorious for not speaking two words to his audience when he’s onstage. The voice that once warned that the answer is blowin’ in the wind is now beaming down by satellite, dispensing deadpan advice on housekeeping. “The greatest damage done to wood floors is grit,” it intones. “Welcome mats at the door are not only friendly, but helpful.” Cue Stronger than Dirt, an old jingle for Ajax cleanser, followed by a tip about roasting stainless steel sinks with lighter fluid, a snatch of verse from Sylvia Plath, and some vintage blues from Elmore James singing Dust My Broom. Times are indeed a-changin’.

Dylan’s Radio Hour, broadcast on XM Satellite Radio, belongs to a new breed of adventurous, wildly eclectic shows hosted by rock stars turned disc jockeys. Tom Petty has a weekly show on XM. Steven Van Zandt, lead guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, hosts Little Steven’s Underground Garage for Sirius Satellite Radio and FM outlets. Alice Cooper hosts a syndicated show five nights a week. Former Sex Pistol Steve Jones spins discs on Jonesy’s Jukebox, a daily FM slot in Los Angeles. And the Guess Who’s Randy Bachman transforms CBC Radio into

a rock ’n’ roll classroom every Saturday night with Randy’s Vinyl Tap.

Most of these musicians still have thriving careers on stage, and don’t really need the extra money or fame. But radio is the next frontier for aging rock stars. At a time when the commercial bandwidth is so blandly formatted, they’re on a mission to preserve a musical legacy that is slipping into oblivion. They’re also rekindling a romance with traditonal DJ-driven radio, the medium that turned them on to music in the first place.

Bachman, 64, remembers discovering Elvis and Little Richard on the radio in the ’50s when he came home from school each day for lunch. “The mystique of radio has never left me,” he says. “It’s still the portal to the people.” He claims he now gets stopped in the street with shouts of “love your show” more than for being the guy who co-wrote American Woman. “Classic rock used to be like you’re all washed up from the ’70s or ’80s and you’re a hair band playing Vegas,” he says.

“Now it’s a cool genre that’s almost like blues. We were the founding fathers and we’re well-respected.”

The man who pioneered the new rock-star radio is Van Zandt, who’s by no means washed up. Just before flying to Europe for a tour with Springsteen, the former Sopranos star talked to me at length about how a whim turned into a crusade. “About seven years ago,” he said, “it looked to me like rock ’n’ roll was starting to disappear before our very eyes. After it had been the mainstream for 30 years, by the end of the ’90s there didn’t seem to be any format on the radio playing new rock ’n’ roll. If the Rolling Stones came out today, no one would play them.” At the same time, radio’s notion of classic rock was being severely compressed. “The oldies formats dropped the ’50s, and a lot of the ’60s

stuff doesn’t get played,” said Van Zandt. “By eliminating the ’50s and ’60s, you’ve eliminated the renaissance.”

So Little Steven, renaissance rocker, rode to the rescue with a pilot for Underground Garage, which he sent to 350 stations. “Everyone turned it down,” he says. “This was after the first Sopranos season and after the first Springsteen reunion with the E Street Band. I had some celebrity capital. I thought, ‘Oh my God, things have gotten much worse than I thought. This is unacceptable.’ ”

Van Zandt fought to get his show onto some 20 stations. Ratings went through the roof and now, five years later, he reaches over one million listeners in some 200 markets. Restricting his playlist to basic “garage” rock, he plays about one-third new songs, and twothirds vintage material. “They said older people are not going to like new stuff and

‘BOB GREW UP LISTENING TO BIG 50,000-WATT STATIONS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT’

younger people are not going to like old stuff,” he says. “We proved them wrong. I picture my audience as 13-year-olds of all ages.”

Last month, Van Zandt launched an even more ambitious plan—to put rock ’n’ roll on America’s high-school curriculum. With the endorsement of music educators, he’s enlisting the cream of the world’s rock writers to create a 40-chapter history—complete with teachers’ guides, DVDs and CDs— which he predicts will be in 30,000 schools next fall. “It’s the biggest thing I’ll ever do in my life,” he says. And yes, the Boss will be involved.

So after half a century, rock has come full circle. The rebel music that once terrified parents is now another heritage site that needs saving—the rainforest of modern rhythm. “It’s been the most popular and open art form

since it started,” says Van Zandt, who speaks with an erudition that might surprise someone familiar only with Silvio, his brutish character on The Sopranos. “It’s the only art form created half by blacks, half by whites, with a healthy contribution by Hispanics along the way. It’s this amazing common ground.” There’s also a strong educational thrust on both the Bachman and Dylan shows. Bachman is like a cross between camp counsellor and musicologist, hosting his show with guitar in hand, deconstructing riffs and spinning rock ’n’ roll war stories from back in the day. It’s a mom-and-pop act, with his wife, Denise McCann, serving as researcher and on-air cohort. And he makes the CBC his parish in the populist tradition of Peter Gzowski and Stuart McLean. Dylan, meanwhile, is the ghost in the machine who never reveals himself, a silver-tongued carnie ushering us behind the velvet curtain into some ancestral sideshow.

These hosts don’t limit their song lists to the music of their own eras. Like campfire elders, they’re on a mission to educate their audience and trace their roots back through the prehistory of rock ’n’ roll, to those who came before. “Who taught Chuck Berry?” asks Bachman. “Chuck Berry used to listen to Glenn Miller, and the beginning of Johnny B. Goode is a lick from Glenn Miller’s In the Mood. You learn all that and you go, wow, this is unbelievable! It just keeps going deeper and deeper. What good is the show if I can’t teach somebody something?”

Although rock-star DJs worship at the altar of vintage radio, they’re also embracing the promiscuous logic of digital playlists. As they connect the musicological dots, they shuffle songs from far-flung eras and genres. “In iPod culture, an eclectic mix of songs is celebrated, and this creates fertile ground for these new shows,” says Jian Ghomeshi, who once played in Moxy Früvous but now hosts CBC Radio’s Q. “If you think back to those high-school personalities—the rocker and the new-wave guy and the punk kid and the preppy pop boy, those have all melded.” In

the age of the personal playlist, “the hook will be a personality whose tastes we trust.”

Chief XM programmer Lee Abrams, who invented the FM album rock format in the ’70s, spent years recruiting Dylan to radio. “His main concern was creative freedom,” says Abrams. “Bob grew up in Minnesota listening to these big 50,000-watt stations in the middle of the night from hundreds of miles away, and that was very romantic to him. He wants to bring back that spirit of radio, before it was corporatized.

But unlike live ’50s radio, Dylan’s Radio Hour is slickly produced. Each show has a theme—trains, fools, smoking, youth and age, death and taxes. Underground Garage is themed as well (“which is probably where Bobby got it, God bless him,” says Van Zandt).

‘PEOPLE SEND US IDEAS FOR SHOWS: “HERE’S 22 DRIVING SONGS. HERE’S 18 SURF SONGS.” ’

But unlike Little Steven, who writes his own words, Dylan reads from a densely researched script that he tends not to write. Still, it’s a kick to hear him segue from Billie Holiday to the Mighty Sparrow, pausing to roll a lyric around his dusty palate—she stole the stars from heaven and stuck ’em in her eyes. Or to hear him dispense trivia about Wobblies and Pilgrims, soft-shoeing through the syllables as he explains that the blunderbuss was the predecessor to the shotgun.

But the bottom line is the music. And while producers put his show together, Dylan does pick the songs, says Abrams. “Then we scurry around looking for obscure stuff he wants to play. He might play 78s, and then we might have to find a digital copy.” Before signing on

with the CBC, Bachman was pitched to host a show by several commercial FM networks, but was appalled to learn their record libraries didn’t go below the ’70s. The CBC, he says, “had millions of songs going back to the ’30s and ’40s.” But the irony of Bachman’s Vinyl Tap—CBC Radio’s successor to Finkleman’s 45s—is that he plays virtually no vinyl. “I put everything into my computer and burn an MP3 CD,” he says. “I used to worry about the quality—MP3s are not great repros. But everyone listens to crap these days anyway.”

With MP3s, Bachman creates a kind of twoway radio with his fan base. He says, “People send us ideas for shows: ‘Here’s 22 driving songs.’ ‘Here’s 18 surf songs.’ We’ve never heard of these songs so they send us MP3s. A lot of them do complete shows.” One listener, a government researcher, created three shows called Stuck at Number 2, about songs that never topped the charts.

Bachman and Van Zandt say they’ve gained a new respect for DJs. Bachman learned to cut the speed of his delivery in half to suit the CBC. And he takes five days to create a two-hour show. Van Zandt figures he spends 20 hours. Dylan ... who knows? Van Zandt and Dylan, of course, spend far more time onstage than on air. Bachman has a dual career—in concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall he split his

show down the middle, between a Vinyl Tap broadcast and a musical performance.

But they’re all musicians “playing” the radio as an instrument, and reviving the cultish tradition of legendary DJs like Allan Freed, Murray the K and Wolfman Jack. With all of them, what’s inspiring is to hear the fan-boy in the aging rocker. And whether it’s Bob digging up a 1927 ditty called The Reefer Man or Randy unearthing an obscure Beach Boys demo, there’s a thrill in hearing music you’ve never heard before in a world that keeps selling us the same old song. M

ON THE WEB: Brian Johnson reviews Atonement and The Golden Compass at www.macleans.ca/briandjohnson