Heard but never seen

After a flirtation with ’60s oldies for a few weeks, I’m spending time with a stream that plays a lot of ’70s singer-songwriter stuff, along with milder songs from the usual classic rock suspects. They play a lot of Harry Chapin, and I’m finding that some of his songs are really growing on me. Though Chapin himself died in a car accident — perhaps precipitated by a heart attack — when he was only 38, he had an empathy for frustrated middle age that drives some of best songs, like “Taxi” or of course “Cat’s in the Cradle,” or this one:

W*O*L*D link for the e-mail people.

“W*O*L*D” was a modest hit, but the reason it got any traction at all was also the best possible testimonial for it: DJs loved it, and they played it to please themselves. (They could do that then. Today, except in very rare cases, air talent have nothing to do with choosing the music on the radio. That’s an entirely separate job, and may even be handled by a corporate programmer who is never at the station at all.)

The song is simply one side of a phone conversation between a middle-aged DJ and his ex-wife, to tell her he’s back in town, some years after their divorce, and telling her about his career after they broke up. He remembers that his dreams began to take off at their wedding, when he gets a job on an FM station (FM was the minor leagues in the time Harry’s talking about). Then he gets the dream job, and proceeds to make a serious mess of his life:

We were two kids, and I was was into AM rock
But I just had to run around,
It’s been eight years since I left you, babe
Let me tell you ’bout what’s gone down

So what has gone down? I’m not a radio person, never having worked at a station, but I’ve worked around the radio industry and with radio people for quite a while now. And here are the lines that, I guarantee, are what made jocks fall in love with this song:

The drinking I did on my last big gig
Made my voice go low
They said that they liked the younger sound
When they let me go
So I drifted on down to Tulsa, Oklahoma,
To do me a late-night talk show
Now I worked my way back home again,
Via Boise, Idaho
That’s how this business goes

And when Harry sings in the chorus that he’s “feeling all of 45, going on 15,” that’s not an exaggeration on the low end. There was a whole generation of DJs who started out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, in the freewheeling days of AOR and free-form FM, at 14, 15, 16 years old. Some of those guys are still in the industry, some as executives or program directors, and others on the air. If you have one of those old pros in your market, prize that. Radio is a very, very different industry than it was when they started out, and has changed enormously even in the 15 years or so since I began covering it, and there will never be another generation of jocks like those guys, who loved radio so much they dropped out of school and made it their whole lives.

So Harry’s aging DJ, finally back in the same town as his ex and their kids, thinks maybe he can get his life in order:

Sometimes I get this crazy dream
That I just drive off in my car
But you can travel on 10,000 miles
And still stay where you are
I’ve been thinking that I should stop disk jockeying
And start that record store
Maybe I could settle down
If you’d take me back once more
OK, honey, I see
I guess he’s better than me
Sure, old girl, I understand
You don’t have to worry,
I’m such a happy man

This is a song just full of wonderful production details. It’s not just the backup group making like jingle singers, it’s the sweet, Beatle-esque guitar that opens the song, and the way the energy and tension ramp up so swiftly when the staccato strings come in, and the irresistible hook of that first chorus: “I am the morning DJ on W O L D!” Those jingle singers haunt Harry throughout the song, singing along with the call letters and pointing up his mistakes; listen to them when he complains about aging out of his job. There’s even a deep voice in the second chorus playing on the radio custom of “puking” — that’s the highly exaggerated, big-voice, tongue-flapping style people associate with the old Top 40 “Boss Jocks.” (All DJs know what it is, of course, and most of them can do it.) And when the singers start up again after that hopeless declaration “I’m such a happy man,” their “Dubayou, Ohhhhh, Ellll, Deeeee…” is plainly mocking and even a bit sinister.

Harry Chapin had a love of melodrama that didn’t always serve him well — his more ambitious songs sometimes just plain got away from him — but in “W*O*L*D,” his big style fits the story about as perfectly as it possibly could. Love this record.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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