Drew Lee

In the radio industry I grew up in – especially the one I came of age in, in my later twenties, at places like KDWB – competition in radio was a constant, ugly thing. Especially in big-market music radio, getting ratings was mortal combat, a bloodsport where morality and ethics (and, often as not, sobrieity) got chucked before the first break of the morning weather. Pirates looked at major market radio executives and thought “arrrrr, cut off the cutthrrroat stuff, matey”.

Some of that faded after the 2008 recession, when most of the money left music radio. And talk radio has usually been, if not genteel, at least a little more civilized.

Among talk radio people in the Twin Cities, the comity was almost unsettling. While AM1290 and AM1130 competed for the same audience, the wrenching animus just wasn’t there.

For years, now, the personalities at the various stations [1] – Bob Davis, Sue Jeffers, Ben Kruse, Jon Justice and Walter Hudson from the 1130, all us NARN guys from the 1280 (and Jack Tomczak, who’s been at both), and even to a lesser extent the likes of Blois Olson and Jason DeRusha from ‘CCO – have gotten along very amiably, socially. It’s disconcertingly far from the cage match I grew up in.

And so it’s with more than collegial wishes and sympathies that I note that Andrew “Drew” Lee, long-time morning guy at the 1130, has passed away:

I won’t say I knew Drew well – but we met many times. He sat in on bass with my band a few years ago, and at various points made overtures about trying to get all of us local talk show hosts together under the 1130 banner (for which I thanked him, but genuinely like working for Salem, and they’ve treated us all way too well for any of us to walk away lightly – which Lee, as a radio lifer, understood).

He was a big-hearted guy, a devoted family man, and the kind of radio road warrior you just don’t find anymore. .

Prayers and condolences to his real and radio families.

[1] Heck, even the MPR folks let their sense of monastic above-it-all-ness drop for a couple years, there. Management put an end to that nonsense a few years back, unfortunately. It’s been their loss.

Mom

For those of you who know my family; my mother passed away over the weekend after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

Mom was Janice Brooks.

Mom, probably 20-30 years ago. As much a fun contrarian with hats as with anything.

Before that, Janice Berg.

And before that, Janice Hall.

Like me, Mom was the oldest of three kids. I never knew much about her childhood – that’s a conversation I need to have with my aunt and uncle, sooner than later.. I wasn’t the only one to get the impression she got a little restless being a young mother of three in a small town in North Dakota. She had been an art major, loved painting, craved travel, and probably had had many other plans before she wound up as Mom.

She was born in Devils Lake North Dakota, grew up in Bismarck, lived in Jamestown throughout my childhood and young adulthood , spent several years in Ankara, Turkey, and then most of the past 25 years in Minot.

Mom is front and center, between my aunt Jerri and uncle Roger. My grandma Pat and grandpa Don are in the back. This was probably about 1950 or so.

Kids – at least, the ones who are lucky enough to have two functional parents – grow up as little melting pots of different combinations of their parents traits. Things I got from my dad should be fairly obvious; dad was a speech teacher, I speak a lot.

From my mom?

It’s funny. I just got off the phone with one of my mom’s old friends, someone I’ve known since I was, well, old enough to remember humans outside my family.. One of her memories of mom is her running into groups of people and getting into long, involved discussions with them, just for the fun of it.. When I was in college, she ran for the North Dakota State House of Representatives, as a Democrat – in one of the most Republican places in the world. She didn’t win – but I think she enjoyed the battle just fine.

Where did I get my contrarian streak from, you ask?

And to the extent that I don’t sweat the small stuff in life, to the extent of sometimes very studiously ignoring the small things?.

That’s mom as well.

But I do know that, along with my dad, she gave me one of the great gifts a child could ever have; a completely unremarkable childhood, where the three of us – my little sister and brother and I – pretty much just got to be kids, without having to deal with a whole lot of a crap that parents inflict on their offspring if they are not lucky. Tolstoy wrote “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is different in their own way.” I used to complain that I had a “Beaver Cleaver“ childhood, especially when I was an angsty teenager; now I realize it was one of the greatest things a parent can give a child.

Years later, after my parents split up (10 days after my own wedding), she remarried, spent several years living in Turkey and indulging her latent travel bug, and finally moved to Minot when her second husband (who like my father was conveniently named Bruce), retired from the NSA.

(Side note: My extended family has two Bruces, two Jans, and a total of four Nicks – more than any non-Greek family in the world).

They built their dream house, which was like a little Turkish cultural center on the edge of town. One of my favorite enduring memories of both of them; meeting them on a visit to the Twin Cities, in the little Turkish restaurant down the street from our house; waiting with my kids, for them to come in, and watching the staff’s jaws drop as a couple of middle-aged Anglos would respond in fluent Turkish.

And while she sometimes may have bristled at the limitations of being mom, she loved being grandma. Some of my kids greatest memories, I suspect, involved trips to grandmas house, up over the creek on the southeast side of Minot. Watching those visits certainly stuck with me.

I’m not sure if it was a “pre-social media” thing, but she loved entertaining. She groused about it, of course, but she loved having people over; crowds of teachers, the book club she and her friends ran from probably 1970 to sometime in the mid-90s or early 2002s, and – during the epic Minot flood of 1997, when the city was flooded 15 feet deep, she and her house on the hill hosted probably a dozen people, on mattresses all over the place. It was her ultimate house party.

The picture below? She is sitting with her brother and sister and their spouses, at my fathers place in Jamestown, in September 2017. It was a mini “family reunion“ my brother and sister and I put together.

It was a wonderful couple of days, that brought together all of the branches of our (fairly small) family for the first time in decades. In retrospect, it was also bittersweet; it was the first time most of us noticed Mom‘s memory was misfiring a little too often, and too alarmingly, to be normal.

Her second husband passed away two years ago last month, right as the lockdown started. This left Mom alone in a memory care in Minot, for several miserable months during the lockdown. We have no idea how much damage being stuck, alone (despite the best efforts of an overstretched staff) was for her before the charnel house that was Minnesota’s long term care system settled down enough to move her here, but the ball of rage still burns.

But among the many things I’m thankful for are that we were, eventually, able to get her moved to the Twin Cities, to be back around family, my brother and I, after several difficult months.

Memory problems proceeded to dementia, which eventually turned officially into Alzheimer’s. And yet after 4 1/2 years, things resolved so quickly over this past week or so that I am still very much in shock.

Still, my mother was lucky; she never got to the stage of Alzheimer’s where the disease ate the part of her brain that contained her personality. She remembered me and my brother, and even as her mental loop dropped from 5 minutes to 3 to two down to simple responses to questions, she still remembered who we, her family, and the people around her were, up till the very end. For that, again, I am thankful.

So quit reading, and go hug your parents. Or your kids. Either, or both.

“I’m Not A Liberal, So I’m Not An Expert At Stuff I Know Nothing About”

Converting to conservatism started simply enough – intellectually.

Personally? It was still a tough pill to swallow, growing up in what passed for a “liberal” home in rural North Dakota in the eighties. Conservatism made sense. Conservatives, as people, made sense – to the extent that stereotypes always do. . Conservatives looked and acted – in the stereotypes that drove much of my 20-ish year old mental model – with Jerry Falwell’s seeming smug sanctimony, with Pat Buchanan’s aggressive know-it-all-ism, the cloying certainty of some of the Young Republican crowd I’d met, with all the usual stereotypes that the media culture, then as now, made the official narrative.

The stereotypes, applied to the people I knew or knew of, made sense.

Me being one of those people did not.

Not until I found P.J. O’Rourke.

Reading the essays that led to his 1987 book Republican Party Reptile, in Rolling Stone and Car and Driver and the usual dog’s breakfast of magazines that paid the freelance journalist and humorist’s bills, O’Rourke told the tale of the “pants-down conservative” – the person who played their music too loud, liked a cocktail or two, had a liberarian outlook on day to day – with a caveat:

There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty the duty to take the consequences”

The list of keeper quotes itself serves as a great guide to life, politics, and political life.

O’Rourke passed away earlier this week:

I never got to meet O’Rourke in person; I was always a day late and a dollar short. David Harsanyi was luckier.

After 30 years, A Parliament of Whores remains the single best satire/fact book about American government I’m aware of. Give War a Chance, some of the finest conflict journalism ever. As Harsanyi noted, many libertarian conservatives have aspired to O’Rourke’s style (Mitch bashfully raises his hand); none have ever come close to matching it. He’s been described as an HL Mencken – but without the misanthropy or unearned arrogance.

And if Mitch Berg ever become Secretary of State, the Foggy Bottom mission statement will be rewritten as follows:

“I was having dinner…in London…when eventually he got, as the Europeans always do, to the part about “Your country’s never been invaded.” And so I said, “Let me tell you who those bad guys are. They’re us. WE BE BAD. We’re the baddest-assed sons of bitches that ever jogged in Reeboks. We’re three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck and descended from a stock market crash on our mother’s side. You take your Germany, France, and Spain, roll them all together and it wouldn’t give us room to park our cars. We’re the big boys, Jack, the original, giant, economy-sized, new and improved butt kickers of all time. When we snort coke in Houston, people lose their hats in Cap d’Antibes. And we’ve got an American Express card credit limit higher than your piss-ant metric numbers go. You say our country’s never been invaded? You’re right, little buddy. Because I’d like to see the needle-dicked foreigners who’d have the guts to try. We drink napalm to get our hearts started in the morning. A rape and a mugging is our way of saying ‘Cheerio.’ Hell can’t hold our sock-hops.

We walk taller, talk louder, spit further, fuck longer and buy more things than you know the names of. I’d rather be a junkie in a New York City jail than king, queen, and jack of all Europeans. We eat little countries like this for breakfast and shit them out before lunch.”

RIP, P.J. O’Rourke.

UPDATE: Mr D. had about the same idea, at about the same time.

P. J. O’Rourke, RIP

P. J. O’Rourke died yesterday at the age of 74. He was one of the best conservative pundits of the last 50 years and certainly the funniest. He also had a keen eye. In his 1990 classic Parliament of Whores, he provided a spot-on synopsis of the people you meet at a protest rally. Tell me if these descriptions from 30+ years ago still don’t ring true:

World Council of Churches sensible-shoe types who have self-righteousness the way some people have bad breath

Angry black poverty pests making a life and a living off the misfortunes of others

Even angrier feminists doing their best to feminize poverty before the blacks use it all up

Earnest neophyte Marxists, eyes glazed from dialectical epiphanies and hands grubby from littering the Mall with ill-Xeroxed tracts

College bohos dressed in black to show how gloomy the world is when you’re a nineteen-year-old rich kid

Young would-be hippies dressed exactly like old hippies used to dress (remarkable how behind the times the avant-garde has gotten)

And some of those old hippies themselves, faded jeans straining beneath increasing paunches, hair still tied into a ponytail in the back but gone forever from the top

His powers of observation set him apart from other writers, especially those who tried their hand at satire. He understood his targets better than the targets understood themselves.

As O’Rourke grew older, he softened the sharp edges and some of his thinking got a bit pear-shaped. He drew the ire of conservatives everywhere when he endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016. I was not a fan of Donald Trump either, but O’Rourke’s powers of observation betrayed him that time:

Dorothy and Toto’s house fell on Hillary. I endorse her.

Munchkins endorse her.

Donald Trump is a flying monkey.

Except what the flying monkeys have to say, “oreoreoreo,” makes more sense than Trump’s policy statements.

Not that Hillary makes much sense either.

Hillary is wrong about everything. She is to politics and statecraft what Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition were to Galileo. She thinks the sun revolves around herself.

But Trump Earth™ is flat. We’ll sail over the edge. Here be monsters.

O’Rourke was wrong about that. Hillary is more of a monster in real life than anything O’Rourke could imagine over the edge. We’ll leave that aside. Where O’Rourke made his mark, and where his legacy will reside, is in being a proto-Mencken for our age. And let’s say it — his bon mots were pretty bon:

There are probably more fact-finding tours of Nicaragua right now than there are facts— the country has shortages of practically everything.

Or this:

The second item in the liberal creed, after self-righteousness, is unaccountability. Liberals have invented whole college majors— psychology, sociology, women’s studies— to prove that nothing is anybody’s fault. No one is fond of taking responsibility for his actions, but consider how much you’d have to hate free will to come up with a political platform that advocates killing unborn babies but not convicted murderers. A callous pragmatist might favor abortion and capital punishment. A devout Christian would sanction neither. But it takes years of therapy to arrive at the liberal view.

Or this:

Even the bad things are better than they used to be. Bad music, for instance, has gotten much briefer. Wagner’s Ring Cycle takes four days to perform while “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies lasts little more than three minutes.

But above all, this:

The American political system is like a gigantic Mexican Christmas fiesta. Each political party is a huge piñata — a papier-mâché donkey, for example. The donkey is filled with full employment, low interest rates, affordable housing, comprehensive medical benefits, a balanced budget and other goodies. The American voter is blindfolded and given a stick. The voter then swings the stick wildly in every direction, trying to hit a political candidate on the head and knock some sense into the silly bastard.

We all need our sticks and few wielded a more elegant brickbat than the Irish kid from Toledo. RIP,

Go Home, Facebook. You’re Drunk

First things first; condolences to the family, and the entire nation, really, on the death of Colin Powell.

Now, let’s talk social media.This was how the “Drudge Report“ posting appeared;

Forget for a moment the “fully vaxxed“ bit; there’s plenty of inadequate reporters jumping up and down yelling “see! See!, Who need to be reminded that Powell was 84, had blood cancer, and was pretty much a poster case for Covid comorbidities.

No, I’m just wondering if that was the best, most tactful place for Facebook to throw its little “fact check“ blurb?

Point Of Light

My high school and college classmate Pennie Werth died from Covid a couple weeks ago.

Pennie and me go way back – elementary school, anyway. In high school, we did the various high school plays together. And she played piano in the first band I ever got onstage with. It was in tenth grade, for a talent show, and Brenda Bassett, Troy and Dave Claude, Pennie and me played “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac, to a panel of judges who had last cared about popular music during the swing era, so we did not win, but it was unforgettable and enough fun to get me hooked on playing in bands – a monkey still on my back today.

She went on to be a special ed teacher, and a great one. She lived in the Houston area for many years, but she called me during the later years of the Pawlenty administration to ask about the then-governor’s “Super Teacher” program, which was going to pay high-achieving teachers six-digit salaries to do what they did well. It would have been great – she’d have been nearer her family – but I warned her, correctly, the MFT would have nothing to do with “merit pay”.

Even as a teenager, she had a sharp wit and a huge heart. And she kept it throughout her life.

I wasn’t the only one that noticed. This AP story came out around the time George HW Bush died, three years back (emphasis added):

Mourners had been lining up since 9 a.m. to attend the viewing. Among the first was Pennie Werth-Bobian, 56, a retired elementary school teacher from the Houston suburbs who first met Bush in the 1990s.

A friend cutting the former president’s hair at the Houstonian Hotel alerted Werth-Bobian, who stopped by and struck up a conversation. Bush asked that she return every month or so when he got his hair trimmed.

The second time they met, Werth-Bobian asked what she should call him, thinking “Mr. President” sounded too formal.

“‘Call me George,’” she recalled him saying.

She did.

“That’s what he liked about me: that I talked to him like I talked to my dad,” she said.

They often shared family stories. Many of his tales involved George W. Bush, who she inferred was his favorite. Once, she said, Bush talked about Robin, his 3-year-old daughter he lost to leukemia in 1953, and his eyes welled with tears.

Werth-Bobian was newly married when they met, and asked Bush for advice.

“He said he and Barbara were best friends,” she recalled.

I’m still young enough to see this sort of thing as terribly unusual.  

The Big Beat

Charlie Watts, one of the most estimable drummers and reluctant superstars in rock and roll history, dead at age 80:

A jazz aficionado at heart, Watts helped them become, with The Beatles, one of the bands who took rock ‘n’ roll to the masses in the 60s with classics like (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Get Off My Cloud and Sympathy for the Devil.

Other tributes came from The Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock, who said he “kept the beat to the soundtrack of our lives”, while Nile Rodgers wrote: “Thanks for all the great music.”

To me, Watts was always the prototype for the likes of Max Weinberg – the guy who keeps the insanity of a kinetic stage show firmly anchored.  Even during my years of ambivalence about the Stones (I was a Who and Kinks guy), Watts mastery of his craft stood out.  

Several crafts, really:

Jagger and Richards could only envy his indifference to stardom and relative contentment in his private life, when he was as happy tending to the horses on his estate in rural Devon, England, as he ever was on stage at a sold-out stadium.

Watts did on occasion have an impact beyond drumming. He worked with Jagger on the ever more spectacular stage designs for the group’s tours. He also provided illustrations for the back cover of the acclaimed 1967 album “Between the Buttons” and inadvertently gave the record its title. When he asked Stones manager Andrew Oldham what the album would be called, Oldham responded “Between the buttons,” meaning undecided. Watts thought that “Between the Buttons” was the actual name and included it in his artwork.

To the world, he was a rock star. But Watts often said that the actual experience was draining and unpleasant, and even frightening. “Girls chasing you down the street, screaming…horrible!… I hated it,” he told The Guardian newspaper in an interview. In another interview, he described the drumming life as a “cross between being an athlete and a total nervous wreck.”

And it occurs to me that as that entire generation of rock stars – McCartney, Starr, Jagger, Richard, Ian Hunter, Ron Wood, and on and on – slide into their eighties, the carnage is going to get pretty intense, one of these days.

Memorial Day

The image I’ve posted is an American cemetery in France, near Verdun. These graves are for soldiers killed in World War I. There are nearly 15,000 graves at the site. Over 53,000 Americans died in combat in World War I and 116,000 Americans in total died as a result of the war. My grandfather fought in World War I and was able to survive the carnage and come home. He was one of the lucky ones. And because he was lucky, so am I.

My grandfather died in 1959, before I was born. I never did get a chance to know him, or to thank him for his service. He did get 40 more years, time enough to marry and raise a family that included my father. I don’t doubt that each of these crosses represents a man who would have loved to have 40 more years to live, to do the things my grandfather was able to do.

We remember those who gave their all on this day precisely because of the enormity of the sacrifice they made. Every one of these crosses represents a human life that was cut short, a dream unrealized. We owe these individuals our gratitude in ways that we cannot adequately express.

The 2020 Bad News Just Keeps Coming

I wasn’t even aware of this last December – but longtime saxophone player in Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, Alto Reed (born Thomas Cartmell) passed away last December 30. He was 72.

His most famous song with Seger was one of his first – the iconic sax part from 1972’s “Turn the Page”:

But for my money, I’ll go with this reworking of what had been Muscle Shoals guitar player Allan Carr’s ephemeral guitar part on “Mainstreet” – probably my favorite Seger song:

Talent, Being Paid Back With Interest To God

Word’s out that Rush Limbaugh has died of lung cancer. He was 70.

I never met Rush, but I certainly ran into a key part of his legacy, up front. I was 25, and had gotten riffed from my first talk radio gig, at KSTP-AM. I was down – but not out. I had what Don Vogel called the talk radio virus – once you start doing it, it’s so very, very hard to withdraw.

And so I went out on the talk radio job market. And I had some interest – stations in Raleigh, Cleveland, Orlando, New Bedford, the Bay Area, Fall River, Baton Rouge, suburban Chicago, and even New York City had some interest.

Then came Limbaugh.

And over the course of about a year, nearly every small-to-mid-sized talk station in the country that used to hire obstreporous 25 year olds to host graveyard, evening and afternoon talk shows…stopped. Why pay some kid 22-28K, when you could have Limbaugh for the price of eight ad slots an hour, AND record and repeat him in the evening, and maybe on graveyard as well?

So the market for what I wanted to do more than anything in the world pretty much disappeared.

Which isn’t to say that the talk radio market disappeared. From 1988 into the nineties, talk radio, mostly conservative talk, surged. The format went from something like 200 stations in the US in the mid-eighties to at one point close to 1000 on Limbaugh’s network alone, as ailing AM stations from coast to coast switched from country or oldies or polka to talk and started reeling in the profits. There was money in conservative talk! Today, while the shift from broadcast to digital has cut receipts all across the industry, conservative talk, along with some niches like sports, Spanish and of course Public radio are the only ones that have any financial upside at all.

It came as a shock to the media establishment – but even some of the people involved (or claiming to have been involved) in his success didn’t understand what made Rush blow up. In 1991, I interviewed for the program director job at KSTP. I got to the final round – me and one other guy. And one of the interviewers was a consultant, one of hundreds who claimed to have had some role in Rush’s ascendance. He asked me why I thought Rush had caught on so big. “He provided a voice to a lot of people who’d never had one in the media”, I responded. “No”, he said in that “you didn’t get the job” kind of tone, “it’s because he’s irreverant. Nobody cares about politics”. I didn’t get the gig – although the consultant later admitted he was completely wrong. I’ll take a partial win every time.

Because politics – especially giving voice to a vast, silent majority – was the first golden age of conservative talk, culminating with Rush playing a pivotal role in the 1994 Republican Revolution.

I spent those years listening to Rush from the outside, slowly putting that dream from my twenties in mothballs – but listening, carefully, to what made Rush, Rush.

It’s a cliche to say that Limbaugh invented conservative talk. He didn’t – Bob Grant, Joe Pyne and Morton Downey Junior were doing it as far back as the ’70s. But Limbaugh defined its new generation – brash, irreverant, fun, but combining keen knowledge with an unmatched ear for tone and nuance. Rush was a keen-eared entertainer – the entertainment always came with a dose of paleocon wisdom that stuck to your ribs. It’s a cliche to say he had many imitators but no equal – but it’s the truth.

I spent 12 years “in the cold”, in radio terms – I didn’t set foot in a studio during Rush’s glory days. But I listened. And to the extent I learned anything listening to Rush, banked away against the day I could get on the radio again (something I’d completely given up on by about 1995), it was this: have fun. To paraphrase Andrew Breitbart, political motivation is downstream of enjoying yourself – and people who enjoy what they’re doing, as they do great things they believe in, are unbeatable.

Of course, Limbaugh was a two-edged sword. He ushered in a business model that has centralized the money, and the talent – or, often, “talent”, in talk radio. After thirty years of Rush, Beck, Levin, Hannity, Dennis Prager, Laura Ingraham and other talk superstars eating up all the airtime, talk radio’s grapefruit-league and triple-A benches are sparse to none. The only “young” talkers who’ve been working their way up the system have been the ones that mined veins of material that the bigs didn’t cover (Phil Hendrie, TD Mischke), built local niches around the fringe of Rush’s empire (Bob Davis, Justice and Drew), stretched the format (a zillion Christian talkers) to…

…well, King, Brad and Me, who do it for the pure love of the game and a little extra change.

So I owe Rush a lot – for pushing me against my will to develop a different, broader, deeper, better life than I was aiming for as a 25 year old radio (I use this term advisedly and in its literal context) addict, and showing us all how it’s done.

Talent on loan from God, indeed.

The Old School

Two bands I’ve never much cared for are Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. Part of it was punky contrarianism; they were both very popular when I was in high school. Naturally, I had to zag away from the zigging crowd.

And yet if I had to pick three guitarists whose style mine most resembles, they’d be David Gilmour and Jerry Garcia (along with Mike Campbell).

I’d never have called myself a huge fan. And yet here I am – someone who wound up learning the guitar from their examples.

We’ll come back to that.

———-

Talk radio and cable TV legend Larry King died over the weekend. He was 87.

“For 63 years and across the platforms of radio, television and digital media, Larry’s many thousands of interviews, awards, and global acclaim stand as a testament to his unique and lasting talent as a broadcaster,” read the statement [from his production company]

“Larry always viewed his interview subjects as the true stars of his programs, and himself as merely an unbiased conduit between the guest and audience,” it continued. “Whether he was interviewing a U.S. president, foreign leader, celebrity, scandal-ridden personage, or an everyman, Larry liked to ask short, direct, and uncomplicated questions. He believed concise questions usually provided the best answers, and he was not wrong in that belief.”

King predated “talk radio” as we have known it since the repeal of the “Fairness Doctrine” by a solid decade and change. He was one of a generation of talkers – Joe Pyne, Tom Leykis, Morton Downey Jr., Bob Grant, and for that matter Don Vogel and Geoff Charles – who definitely had political views, but had to wrap them in enough information and entertainment to not get their stations, and eventually affiliates, licenses challenged with the FCC.

———-

We didn’t have a lot of talk radio in North Dakota when I was growing up.

There was the occasional “talk show”, of course. The boss at my first station did a half-hour interview with some local figure or another, every afternoon during the station’s evening news block. WDAY in Fargo had a morning talk show – “Live Line”, or some such innocuity – that was more or less the same, on weekday mornings. Mostly, they were done to fulfill a station’s “Public Service” requirement – the vague rule that they had to do something to “serve the public” with their federal broadcast license.

I was coming back from a Who concert in Minneapolis in 1982, ridingi shotgun through the night back to Fargo with a friend and fellow Who fan and much better night driver than I, when I first heard Larry King, and a whole different way of doing radio – talking about whatever grabbed the host’s fancy and making it…

…well, “interesting”, yes – but more importantly, injecting his personality into the subject. It was a conversation, more or less – but it was Larry King’s conversation.

I wasn’t bowled over.

Three years later – almost to the day, in fact – I moved to Minneapolis. And via an improbable series of events, I encountered modern talk radio, accidentally getting a job at KSTP-AM when “talk radio” still called itself “News/Talk” in an attempt to try to mix journalistic legitimacy with the chatter.

The station carried King – but I had other things going on in the evening. I didn’t listen much.

Along the way, as I was doing the ongoing pitch for my own talk show, I read one of King’s columns in USA Today. And it had some advice for would-be interviewers that’s stuck with me for the past 34 years.

Never prep for interviews.

It sounds lazy – and I’d be lying if I haven’t used it to rationalize a little endemic laziness. And it’s not right for every interview; if you’re talking with someone about a particularly fraught issue – something where defamation charges could be on the line, for example – then getting the key facts, and your approach to presenting them, straight is very much in order.

But for most interviews? Knowing nothing about the subject or the content, King said, forced you to approach the subject in exactly the same depth as most of your audience has to – from the absolute ground level up.

Of course, the craft comes from moving from that elementary level to one where you can have a meaningful, interesting conversation, quickly enough to make for good radio.

It didn’t always work – over 63 years, what does? But the example he provided – starting an interview small and working up to something you could (often as not) sink your teeth into – was pretty earthshaking for someone who aspired to try to do the same.

So, utterly counterintuitively, while I would never have called myself a huge Larry King fan, he (along with Don Vogel) probably influenced me more than anyone else in the business.

RIP Sid Hartman

Sometimes it seems like everyone in the Twin Cties has a Sid Hartman story.

I had one – 34 years ago. And I can’t believe I never wrote about it in my “Twenty Years Ago Today” series.

I was working as a stringer – an ad-hoc freelance reporter – for WGN in Chicago. My job was to send reports on the game back to WGN – actually, to the show that Dana Carvey, Mike Meyers, John Goodman and Chris Farley lampooned a few years later, in the immortal “Da Bearss” bit – at halftime and at the end of the game.

This game happened to be Tommy Kramer’s best throwing game ever – five touchdowns against Forrest Gregg’s hapless ’86 Packers.

After the game, I walked down into the locker room and was interviewing Kramer, when I saw a mike creep up in front of the quarterback’s face. It was Sid. And he was bogarting the answer to my question.

And I felt a little flattered.

There are other, better Sid stories. This one may be my favorite

A Farewell To King

Neal Peart, drummer for prog-rock and high school sci-fi-nerd-rock mainstays Rush, died of brain cancer last week. He was 67.

He’s iconic for his technical prowess on the skins, of course – and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

And along with those immense technical chops came a taste for really, really big drum kits.

How big?

Big enough to serve as a cultural punchline for people from a certain generation – in this case, one of the kids in Freaks and Geeks, perhaps the only retrospective sit-com my generation is ever going to get. It sure got this right:

Over the years, when looking for drummers in bands, when I hear from people claiming to be influenced by Peart’s style, I can feel the back-ache setting in from a long, kit-heavy load-in and load-out even on the phone.

But for me, the most important thing about Peart – who replaced John Rutsey, who died even longer before his time – had little to do with drum technique.

My favorite drummers have tended to be either the human metronomes (Charlie Watts, Max Weinberg) or power-driving madmen (Keith Moon, Johnny Badanjak, Kenny Aronoff). Technical virtuosi like Peart, and Stuart Copeland of the Police, interested me less for their drum chops than for their place in the chemistry of theit various bands. Copeland took the edge off of some of Sting’s interminal pretension and self-importance…

…and in a genre where bloated pretense was the coin of the realm (Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, King Krimson), Peart was part of an ensemble that simultaneously wrote some great prog-rock (admittedly a genre I care very little about) and had a rollicking sense of humor on the subject, about the genre, and about themselves:

RIP Neal Peart

Living In Stereo

Ric Ocasek, founder and driving force behind seventies new-wave/pop earth-movers the Cars, died yesterday. He was…

…75? Yep. Apparently he spent the better part of 45 years lying about his age. He was well apparently a member of the Class of 1963, and halfway through his thirties and a veteran of years and years of playing in bars in Cleveland, Columbus, Ann Arbor and finally Boston by the time The Cars, their incandescent first album, landed in 1978.

It’d apparently been a rollercoaster year for Ocasek – inducted into the Rock and Roll Halll of Fame in 2018, in the middle of being separated from his wife of nearly 30 years, onetime supermodel Paulina Porizhkova – a marriage that was the subject of myriad “Beauty and the Beast” jokes when the 45 year old Ocasek and the then-23 year old Porizhkova married in ’89.

Oh, well. We’ll always have the good times.

In Passing

I read the news the other day about the escalating violence along the Indo-Pakistani border, and out of curiosity, went over to Facebook to check in on some friends. Specifically, a former co-worker whose husband was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force.

Bit of a good news/bad news situation. Nobody’s been shot down…

…but my former colleague’s husband, a pilot in “Surya Kiran”, the Indian equivalent to the Thunderbirds, was killed during a rehearsal for an exhibition last week.

I met WIng Commander Gandhi a few times, when he was visiting his wife – I was struck by the irony that in the US, it’s usually the military spouse that spends their time overseas; among Indians, it’s the spouse who works in technology that does the globetrotting while the military spouse stays in India and watches the borders).   I was struck – as were many others – by his passion for flying jet fighters, shared with everyone I’ve ever known who took up that vocation (including longtime friend and occasional commenter “Fingers”, who’s so passionate about it he did it in both the Navy and the Air Force).

I’m not so young that I don’t expect people I know, even obliquely, to die unexpectedly.  I’m not so old that it doesn’t shock me a little, still.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin passed away yesterday.  She was 78.

This Detroit Free Press obit is uncommonly excellent.

The first real exposure to Franklin I ever got, growing up in the middle of country-western country, was working at my first radio job.  Where I heard “Respect” for the first time – and felt a chill that the human voice could do…that.

My favorite is still “I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Loved You).

But perhaps my ultimate testimonial?  When my oldest was born, “Aretha” was on the short list of names.

A Bad Week For Writers

Tom Wolfe, author of a shelf full of seminal American journalism and literature, dead at 88.

And later yesterday, word circulated on social media (although I’ve found no confirmation yet in the dead-tree media) that Nick Coleman, longtime columnist (as with all columnists in the Twin Cities, it seems) for both the Strib and the PiPress, had suffered a massive stroke and passed away.

More on that when more details are available.

Billy Graham

He may have been the greatest evangelist in history, claiming to have preached to over 200 million in person over the years.  Billy Graham passed away yesterday at age 99.

Like Charlton Heston, he broke a lot of Big Left’s narratives:

In the 1960s, he ardently opposed segregation, refusing to speak to segregated audiences.

“The ground at the foot of the cross is level,” he once said, “and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”

He was incredibly influential:

Graham also was noted for consulting and praying with every U.S. president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, who in April 2010 visited Graham at his mountaintop cabin in North Carolina. He also met with President Harry Truman in what was initially a contentious meeting after Graham spoke to the press, but the two men later viewed the episode as a humorous incident.

Modern times tangent;  I’ll be staying away from Twitter today.  I can imagine the left’s comments about Graham will be down to their usual standard.

A Terrible Year In Music Gets Worse

Pat DiNizio of the Smitherens is dead at 66.

“The who?”

Siddown, kid.

The Smithereens, from Carteret, NJ, need no introduction to anyone who was listening to the radio in the mid-eighties.  Crisp, taut melodic power-pop with just enough garage to make it fun and just enough polish to make it memorable,

And against the stereotype backdrop of eighties music – glossy stylied synth-pop, slick hair metal, and of course the golden age of the Big Arena Rock Anthem, it was defiantly retro, not as a stylistic statement, but for the sheer love of the sound.

“Blood and Roses” was first:

“Only a Memory” was probably my favorite:

“A Girl Like You” was, if memory serves, their biggest hit:

But I’ve learned the hard way; never ask if it could get worse.

News That Eluded Me

I ‘m shocked and a little depressed to see that Caleb Palmiter died over the summer.

“Caleb who?”

Caleb Palmiter has been in a “who’s who” of seminal Twin Cities bands-that-made-it-regionally-big-but-never-broke-out; a founder of the Jayhawks, Bash & Pop, as well as stints in the Mighty Mofos and the Magnolias.

I remember him best for  a couple of bands well before that; The Law and A Single Love, both of which heavily featured his quirky, claw-hammer finger-style guitar style that was too articulate to be Doc Watson but was simpler and less ornate than the obvious comparisons, Richard Thompson and Mark Knopfler.  Whatever you want to call it – I’d catch every gig I could, entranced by his mesmerising guitar style.

Here’s a sample:  he was always this good:

He died of heart failure, says the Strib.  Decades of booze and drugs.  Same old same old.

And now I feel a lot older.