Wednesday, July 13, 2005

WOOL Black Sheep Radio

While the news from Brattleboro is grim, with Radio Free Brattleboro still off the air, just a few miles north on Rte 91 in Vermont the community of Bellows Falls has a new licensed LPFM station broadcasting at 100.1. WOOL! check them out at Their website contains in depth info on the organization and happenings at the station. Congratulations, WOOL!

Revenge of the Lawn?

Many years ago I watched a documentary called “Lawns” on PBS and was fascinated by people’s obsession with their yards. Although I had done my share of yardwork in my life, was even part of a groundskeeping crew once in my youth, I never developed this affinity with having the perfect yard. Watching this program, the infinite variety of grasses, care techniques, tools, landscape designs were staggering. Yet everyone they interviewed seemed so rigid about their lawn care routines and practices, it was almost frightening. In fact they showed one home with a ‘natural’ lawn … people who believed nature was intended to be its own creation, to flourish without human intervention. Their neighbors almost unanimously despised this couple, or assume they were lazy or uncaring about the community, simply because their lawn was different. An eyesore, they called it. One neighbor on their block commented “well, it’s a free country” and that’s about as much support as that couple ever got.

In the never-ending battle with lawnmowers and weed whackers, I’m the losing party. Every single time I get my lawn mower repaired, it dies again within minutes. When it is functioning properly, we get a week of rain. The weed whacker was running just fine until it ran out of twine. Upon my arrival back from the hardware store I learned the motor had seized up somehow.

My neighbors on the right, left, and across the street amaze me with their riding mowers. Every man on this street owns a riding lawn mower other than me! How do they afford it? Their shiny green John Deeres look as if they had been just moments ago been driven out of the showroom. And these men are outside mowing practically every single day! Rain, shine, wind, bitter cold, humidity, one-hundred degrees … they tend their lawns as if they are shrines to civilization itself, as if the whole social order would collapse if a single blade of grass were left uncut. Where do these men find all this time to lavish on their lawns when they have businesses, children, lives to pursue? I wonder if they pay as much rapt attention to their kids’ and spouses’ needs.

Around the same time as seeing the Lawns documentary on PBS I watched another documentary on PBS called Sherman’s March. It was filmed by Ross McElwee, who had intended to walk in the footsteps of General Sherman’s armies and document the still-lingering effects of the civil war over a century later. Instead, his girlfriend broke up with him just prior to filming and the project became an odyssey of introspection and documenting his feelings as he traveled. The effect is brilliant. Through McElwee’s cinema verite style we discover his flaws, his idealization of women, his longing for companionship yet reserved, aloof, self-absorbed nature.

One minor point of the film showed a group of men who had some other fixation with lawns – specifically lawn ornaments. In the stealth of night, they would sneak into one another’s yards and steal lawn decorations. These were not just any lawn ornaments, these were giant plastic and plaster large-as-life representations of dinosaurs, elephants, moose, and other wild animals. I guess this was a whole new spin on the ‘steal the garden gnome’ phenomenon.

The pirate spirit inside me was laughing as I watched these men make their strategies and in the cover of darkness wrestle gigantic icons into pickup truck beds and trailers. No doubt it was a fun game, knowing that tomorrow, your buddy just might sneak off with your favorite tyrannosaurus from beside the pool, or your entire mutant flamingo collection, and you might have to triple your vigilance. Now that kind of activity could make me fond of lawns, and their keepers.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Musings from a Saturday Afternoon

Every Saturday afternoon at 2 pm I drive the 20 miles along route 103 then route 114 to Henniker NH from beautiful downtown Warner. The route is thankfully a scenic one with minimal traffic, and on a sun-filled day is a refreshing and engaging opportunity to contemplate what I will do during the broadcasts each week.

Part of me holds a pirate's spirit, and if ever there were an 'almost' pirate station, it is WNEC. Yes it is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, yet the station is hardly ever on the air. In fact, perusing the station log today revealed that WNEC had been off the air since last Saturday at 9 pm when Kristin, WNEC's music director, signed off for the evening.

As my shift progressed, and I was sinking into the sublime groove of jazzy tunes (a kind of different mood for my shows), I realized the right channel indicator was not moving. Checking the radio outside the broadcast booth, the LED display confirmed only one channel was being received. So, if anyone was listening, they would hear the program in monaural at best and through only one speaker at worst. A discussion with Kristin revealed that the station also had this technical glitch this last week. She left a note for the station manager but nothing had been done. I was assured this technical difficulty could continue for weeks or months without intervention. My memory flashed back to a series of months when WNEC was only audible as far as the parking lot.

The phone is usually quiet when I'm on the air. I wonder who, if anyone, is listening. And if someone is listening, are they catching the vibe I'm sending out? Do they feel the intent behind the flow of music, the smattering of media news that I read, the frequent references to 'free' radio?

WNEC is a 150 watt station and my Grundig 800 picks the signal up crisp and clear at home, some 14 miles away (as the crow flies). There is something primal and beautiful about radio signals and hearing stations that are ephemeral ... there ... and then gone. That's what attracts me to pirate radio and shortwave listening. WNEC embodies the "FM" version of that primal attraction. A reminder that not everything is perfectly timed or scheduled in the world, that honest media is fragile, a product of human hands and hearts. Sometimes the silences between transmissions are more powerful than sound itself.


Moondog was a street musician and poet who hung around the 52nd to 54th Street area and around the old Madison square Garden in Manhattan in the 40's and 50's, through to the 70's. He often dressed in Viking regalia considering himself to be Nordic in sensibility. His costume would consist of homemade robe, sandals, a flowing cape, a horned Viking helmet, with a long spear of his own manufacture in his hand. Passers-by called him "the Viking of Sixth Avenue". Reaction to this garb was to hamper his musical development due to him being considered a crank. In later years he was persuaded to abandon it for more conventional dress (by his own admission, this was a good move). He was a mainly self-taught composer who worked with home made instruments and produced eccentric jazz and classical based pieces as well as vocal rounds. Part of the charm of his work is the brevity of much of it.

He was born, Louis Hardin, in Marysville, Kansas on May 26, 1916 but his family moved to Wyoming. He was interested in drums and drum rhythms from an early age. He played drums in Hurley High School in 1929 and in 1949, he played tomtom and flute at a Sun Dance held by the Blackfoot in Idaho. By then he was already blind as he lost his sight in his early teens when a dynamite cap exploded. He studied music and finished high school at the Iowa School for the Blind, and in 1933 studied braille at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis. He composed all his pieces in braille.

In 1942 Hardin got a scholarship to study in Memphis but he mostly taught himself ear training and other musical skills and theory from books in braille. In 1943, he came to New York and met Artur Rodzinski, Leonard Bernstein, and Toscanini. Supposedly he bowed to kiss Toscanini's hand but Toscanini pulled it away saying,' I am not a beautiful woman '. Hardin also began to meet jazz performers such as Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman. This gave his work a jazz feel which together with a certain beat quality in the form of humorous philosophical statements and the use of background sounds gives makes him a true eccentric.
Hardin began to call himself Moondog from 1947 in honor of a dog "who used to howl at the moon more than any dog I knew of".

Despite his status as street musician he intermittently recorded for the CBS, Prestige, Epic, Angel and Mars labels. One of his songs, "All Is Loneliness," (on "More Moondog" for Prestige and "Moondog 2" on CBS) was recorded by Janis Joplin. He also wrote music for radio and television commercials, and his music was used on the soundtracks for Jack Nicholson's "Drive, He Said," and the Coen Brothers "Big Lebowsky". Moondog also worked on an album of "Mother Goose Songs" with Julie Andrews. He was also feted by jazz musicians - Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, 50's beat poets and 60s flower children. His CBS "Moondog" album came about when James William Guercio - producer of Chicago and director of cult film "Electra Glide in Blue" - heard him and decided to record him. Moondog was also interviewed on many television shows, including both "Today" and "The Tonight Show."

In the fifties Moondog sued the disc jockey Alan Freed, the rock and roll king. Freed used the name Moondog as well as one of his records because it had a howling wolf in it. Then, when he came to New York, he had a program called the Moondog Show. Moondog won the case and Freed stopped using the name. There is a rumour that Stravinski intervened by speaking to the judge.

Moondog disappeared from the streets of New York in 1974 because he had been invited to perform in Germany. After his performances in Hamburg, he began to perform on the streets of Europe where he met Mrs. Sommer who transcribed his music and acted as his publisher and business manager. Her father supported Moondog in his later years. He produced at least five albums in Europe, including a "sound saga" titled "The Creation," and regularly performed his compositions with chamber and symphony orchestras in Paris, Stockholm and cities in Germany. Moondog died of heart failure on Wednesday, September 8, 1999 in a hospital in Munster, Germany. He was 83.