Friday, May 11, 2012

#557: On the dark side of the moon....

KWOR Radio sat just back from the banks of the Bighorn River, a ranch-style house with a few years on it and a transmitter tower out back, blasting five watts of pure power into the Wyoming wilderness.
KWOR was basically an Oldies station, running a couple hours of local news and talk and Rush Limbaugh in the mornings, then a syndicated, satellite-supplied 24-hour Oldies format the rest of the time. On Friday nights they broadcast local high-school sports events, football and basketball games.
On Saturday nights, the only local live DJ came in from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. to play his own twisted favorites on The Dark Side of the Moon....
Tom had begged Don the station-owner/manager for the chance to go on the air with his own big box of oldies. It's not that KWOR's usual programming was lacking, it's just that Tom thought it was ... a little boring. It was the same old stuff over and over and OVER.
Tom figured it was only fair -- Don and his skeleton crew of employees had stolen enough of Tom's work off of the front page of the local newspaper for their morning newscasts. At least they usually gave credit for where they got the information, but....
Tom had literally begged for the spot. He'd even offered to do the work for free.
"Please let me do this," he'd said. "I've gotta got out of newspapers before my brains dribble out of my ears...."
Don had laughed and then thought it over. Tom DID at least have a sort-of "radio voice," a trait he'd picked up by mimicking radio DJ's from about age 12 onwards. It was like Tom had missed his calling in life.
Finally Don gave in, asking only that Tom provide a tentative playlist up-front, and that he not play anything TOO WEIRD, too drug-oriented, or too laced with obscenities. After all, their listeners were fairly conservative folks in the sheltered confines of North-Central Wyoming.
And besides, it was the middle of Winter. Don didn't want anybody to be TOO shocked....
Tom had been at it for a month. He'd had a pretty good time. What he didn't realize up front was that his audience was mostly teens, and farm families who had to get up early in the morning. So his listening audience probably numbered about 5.
Tom didn't care. He had a blast anyway. He didn't care if nobody could hear him in the neighboring towns, Ten Sleep and Thermopolis, both 30 miles down the road in different directions. It didn't matter -- he got a charge out of being in charge and playing what he wanted.
Sometimes his musical choices got kind of dark -- after all, he was in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Winter. So then he'd have to play something upbeat and life-affirming to counteract his program's drift. He'd sit in the studio with the long version of Diana Ross's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" cranked up LOUD and tears running down his face. Music hit him pretty hard sometimes. On a previous weekend he'd played Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On?" and gotten chills. He got goosebumps all over both arms. And he didn't know why.
Nothing that weird on this Saturday night shift. As The Turtles' offbeat non-hit "Grim Reaper of Love" came to a sudden close, Tom told his single-digit audience: "We're winding stuff down here on the dark side of the moon. If there's something you'd like to hear or something I can play to make your dreams sweeter, call me toll-free at 1-800-788-4679...."
Then into Dion's chilling B-side, "Daddy Rollin' (In Your Arms)." Thirty seconds in, the phone rang.
The phone hardly ever rang. He'd heard from maybe half a dozen listeners in the month he'd been doing the show. There were some weird folks out there, too. Either that or they were all drunk. Who could blame 'em? He picked up the phone on the fourth ring.
"KWOR. You say 'em, we play 'em."
"You think you could play 'Seasons in the Sun'?" a woman asked.
"Ehhhh," Tom said. "I dunno, sounds a little too normal for me...."
There was a long pause. "You're a real asshole, you know that?" the woman said.
Do I know you? Tom wondered.
"Okay, tell 'ya what," he said. "I'm not gonna play 'Seasons in the Sun' because everybody's heard that one a million times. What I WILL do is play something else by Terry Jacks that I'll bet you haven't heard since you were a little girl, OK?"
"Look, trust me. It's gonna be good. You'll thank me in the morning."
"Mmmm, ... all right. God forbid you should ever have to play anything NORMAL...."
Tom hung up, quickly downed some cold bad coffee, and followed up Dion with The Beatles' classic B-side "I'm Down." Though he hated to miss McCartney's date telling him to keep his hands to himself, he stumbled out into the hall and into the haphazard record library. Things were ALMOST alphabetical in there, and he didn't have to thrash around too long before he found what he was looking for -- a classic almost-hit on the light-blue-and-white London label, from 1971: "Where Evil Grows" by the Poppy Family -- Terry and Susan Jacks in disguise.
After McCartney's hysteria, "Where Evil Grows" came on low-key and contained, with just a hint of a threat:

I liked the way you smiled at me...
I felt the heat that enveloped me...
And what I saw I like to see....

Tom drifted. Outside it was approximately 24 degrees, not even that cold for Wyoming in February. A couple weeks from now would be the annual Bighorn Basin Sauger Derby -- local fishermen out ice-fishing on the river. If they were lucky, the temperatures would stay "warm." Forty below zero in February wasn't uncommon for North-Central Wyoming's Bighorn Basin.
Tom looked out the window into the pitch-dark. A car passed on Highway 20 in front of the station, and Tom saw that it was snowing again -- more of that light sandy snow that'd blow off into Nebraska after a couple of days. There was already 18 inches of it outside, and driving through it was like bombing through sand when it started to pile up. Nothing to worry about on his short drive home.
The Poppy Family finished off with a sneaky guitar solo and Tom faded into the bubbly underwater sounds of The Chantays' "Pipeline," his usual low-key closer. The news would kick-in automatically at the top of the hour. After that the Oldies satellite feed would take over until Don came in Monday morning.
Tom was tired, as usual at the end of his shift. Drained. Barely thinking at all. He had no idea what new old sounds he'd haul in for next Saturday night's show. But he'd think of something....

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