Monday, June 16, 2014

#753: And now, on with the countdown....

The first time I remember hearing Casey Kasem on American Top 40 was the late summer of 1970. I'd just turned 11 years old, and had just started listening to the radio.
I stumbled over AT40 by accident, while twirling the dial looking for more good new songs to listen to. Everything was new to me then. I'm sure I didn't listen to much of the countdown -- three hours is a LONG time when you're a kid -- but Crabby Appleton's great, driving "Go Back" was in there at Number 39 or so, and I was immediately hooked.
The only other thing I remember is that I thought host Casey Kasem had an almost-too-perfect Top 40-radio-DJ voice.
I listened to the weekly countdown off and on for YEARS -- usually at least long enough to hear what the Top 3 or even just the new Number 1 song was. I hardly ever listened to the whole show -- I didn't have the attention span, and had other things to do. Plus, in the early '70s, I heard AT40 over Seattle's KJR-AM, and it was a long way off, often interrupted by fuzz and static -- and the station always cut power just before 9 p.m., making it even harder to hear the last few songs.
I remember what a surprise it sometimes was to hear what the rest of America was listening to and buying -- songs that often weren't even being played in my radio market. It was also a surprise to note what great songs DIDN'T make the Top 40, even though they got played to death in my town.
I also remember -- after 1972 or so -- what a disappointment the show could sometimes be. Back then, it seemed like ALL the kids my age knew what the big hits were locally -- just ask them. But the rest of America thought the songs that made AT40 (which recapped BILLBOARD's weekly Top 40 hits list) were the best, catchiest, most memorable current songs out there? What was my generation THINKING? Could there BE a whole generation with bad musical taste?
I remember listening to the entire countdown one summer evening in 1974 with my cousin Jim. We wrote down each hit on the way up the list. There were a few nice surprises in there -- like The Eagles' great rocker "James Dean," which I'd never heard before. (By then I was back home in Idaho, hearing AT40 on Boise's then-daring all-automated KBBK-FM.)
But both Jim and I started retching when the countdown concluded, and the list was topped by some worthless throwback piece of trash like Paper Lace's "The Night Chicago Died" or Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods' "Billy, Don't be a Hero."
Everybody knew back then that whatever 13-year-old girls requested from radio stations or bought at their local K-Mart was what ruled Top 40. Maybe that's still the case with our newer, much-more-fragmented radio formats. But some of the Number 1 hits in the '70s and '80s ... well, were those really what young female music fans were listening to? And what did they GET out of those songs?
It sure wasn't Casey's fault -- all he did was introduce the hits. And with his little back-stories and histories of the artists, he always added something to AT40, no matter how boring or predictable the contents of the countdown turned out to be.
I guess I'm saying Casey left a mark on me even if the music he played on his show didn't. I'd stopped listening to AT40 sometime before graduating from high-school. I was solidifying my own weird musical tastes by then.
The last time I remember listening, Casey introduced Queen's then-brand-new-in-America "Bohemian Rhapsody," which had just topped the British charts for two months. When my parents called me to the dinner table, I left the radio on in the living room ... and when Freddie Mercury and his buddies started doing their operatic turns, my parents asked me -- practically in unison -- "What in the hell IS this shit?"
Naturally, I went out and bought the album....
Casey died on Sunday, Father's Day, at age 82, after suffering for the past few years with Parkinson's Disease and dementia. He passed away in a hospital about 20 miles south of where I'm writing this, after his wife and children fought over his medical care for months. Just a few days ago, a local judge ruled that it was OK to withhold food and water from Kasem -- that feeding him somehow would prolong his suffering and make his condition worse.
I don't know how you reach a decision like that, and hopefully I'll never have to make such a decision myself. I don't know enough about the case to comment much -- but the family's arguing through the media was ugly. There's a lot going on there. Casey's wife Jean said she was going to hold "everyone" responsible.
Better probably to remember Casey like he was back in the '70s, when he and his show seemed to sum up for me everything that was current, happening, with-it, NOW.
Just because I didn't always like whatever was "with-it" back then doesn't mean Casey and his show didn't leave a mark on me. It definitely left me with some good memories....

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