Wednesday, March 11, 2009
This story has proved harder to write than I imagined. As if there were an emerging and fading voice in my head I couldn't quite tune into, and am still searching for amid the static: an appropriate enough problem for a piece I first conceived of with the somewhat saccharine phrase, 'the magic of radio'.
It's taken me a while to realize what I am really trying to tune into is my youth. That what I am connecting with is not technology, but longing - and with it a feeling of timelessness that is both premonition and memory at once, as if the boy beheld the man and the man is keeping the boy in sight through some long and mutual telescope of sound.
If I'm honest I'd go even further and tell you radio is our most spiritual 'medium'. That there's something about radio's emanating nature, its radio-active aura, which unites it with our sense of another world, and certainly another time. Something caught up in its delivery to us, floating from place to place.
I guess it's hard, though, to tune into my feelings for radio as a line into the divine when all you are hearing is a loud-mouthed DJ laughing like a drain, followed by an old Billy Joel song and an advertisement about premature orgasms during the morning traffic report (that's an ad that takes place during those reports, by the way, not an issue of over-excitement with traffic flow - though as Billy Joel once put it, you just may be the lunatic we're looking for).
Maybe in the end I'm confusing nostalgia with spirituality, a common enough affliction today when the only church most people have is their past. Maybe I'm just another twentieth century cave man who can't put his thumbs to a Black Berry, still enraptured by radio's formerly central place as a hearth in the home - and, more importantly, in the car.
Maybe all I am talking about in the end is the way radio connects so immediately with an unconscious moment when the right song or conversation comes along. Not magic, but chance: or 'synchronicity'.
Whatever those wavelengths, radio is most certainly about voices. And while there are many radio-inspired inspired films from Oliver Stone's shock jock tale, Talk Radio (1988), to Woody Allen's recreation of the days of the 1940s serials in Radio Days (1987), and Christopher Petit's post-punk, existential English road story, Radio On (1979), I'd argue the most evocative and true depiction (if that's not a contradiction in terms) is Jean Cocteau's Orpheé (1950), a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.
In Cocteau's version, Orpheus is a French poet with writer's block. He witnesses the death of a young poet in a road accident and becomes enmeshed in a surreal set of circumstances. They culminate in a dark-haired aristocrat revealing herself to be Death, before she pulls the dead poet through a mirror into the afterlife. Orpheus faints, then awakes in the middle of nowhere, unsure of what he has experienced and what he has dreamt. Returning home he ignores his pregnant wife and becomes obsessed with messages crackling from a radio inside a car parked in his garage. The messages - elusive and sometimes nonsensical - seem to be coming from the dead poet. Re-inspired, Orpheus jots them down, publishing them as his own. After all, he argues, "Who can say what poetry is and what isn't?"
You see something of this same energy in bio-pics like Walk the Line where the young Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) has his ear to what was then called the wireless, being seduced by similarly far-off sounds. As if the aural poetry of country music and gospel is leading him away from the flood-plagued cotton farm of his Arkansas childhood and on into a crucial place at Sun Studios and the birth of rock 'n' roll, and even further into his own mythical realm as 'The Man in Black'.
Martin Scorcese's documentary No Direction Home begins with a similar reflection on the young Bob Dylan, detailing the way "50,000 watt stations coming out through the atmosphere" would deliver the sounds of Hank Snow, Johnny Ray and Muddy Waters to a boy in the icy boondocks of Hibbing, Minnesota. Dylan also talks about finding an old 78 slab of vinyl on a record player at the house his family moved into, a discovery that had "mystical overtones" for him as a child. This moment and the influence of radio are conflated in Dylan's memories as a siren-call: "I had ambitions to set out to find like an odyssey," he says, "[to] set out to find this home that I'd left a while back and couldn't remember exactly where it was, but I was on my way there and encountering what I encountered along the way... the sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else, like I wasn't even born to the right parents maybe."
With those feelings in mind, its hardly surprising so many iconic figures have begun migrating back to the radio to work as DJs, putting together their own programs and playing the music they love: notably Bob Dylan with the 'Theme Time Radio Hour' on XM Satellite Radio and Lou Reed with his 'New York Shuffle' on Sirius Satellite Network. Figures as varied as Alice Cooper, Steve Earle, Joan Jett, Tom Petty, Steven Van Zandt and a host of others have joined them, reveling in the satellite radio broadcast revolution in the USA.
Hearing about these artists playing at being DJ seems to re-affirm radio as the ultimate machine for poetic experience and transformation to this very day. As if radio's gifts of song alongside any-time, any-place can still catch us unawares and transport us.
Which is how I came to write this story, I guess. The radio on in my car, Van Morrison's 'Astral Weeks' on the airwaves, the decades peeling away in my mind till I find myself at age 21 again, behind the wheel of my very first car, swinging through the curves of the old Pacific Highway near Swansea, this very same song streaming ecstatically along with the promise of the road as the singer calls to me through my radio: "To be born again, in another world... in another time, in another place, and another face."
- Mark Mordue
* This essay first appeared at ABC Unleashed.com on 18th December, 2008, 12.30pm.