Even though I agree with most of the sentiments expressed in Justin Farrar’s open letter to classic rock radio, there’s a part of me that can’t be supportive. One reason is his suggestion that The Hold Steady be part of the new classic rock playlist. I love them, but I don’t want any radio station to play “Sequestered In Memphis”, or, more likely, “Stevie Nixed”, 17 times a week, and turn them into the next band for the next generation to hate. The same goes for The Drive-By Truckers. And I don’t want to hear the Black Keys on the radio at all.
But what really caught my attention was the opening sentence of his letter: “In the past week, your station has played ‘Layla’ 17 times.” Anybody who has spent time listening to classic rock stations knows exactly what he’s talking about, but that sentence had a special resonance for me, because it was repeatedly hearing “Layla” on the radio that first made me take pop music seriously.
In the summer of 1975 I had just graduated from high school and was getting ready to attend junior college in the fall. By getting ready I mean hanging out, watching a lot of movies and TV, reading, and occasionally listening to the radio. I had spent most of my high school days listening to nothing but the Beatles, Elton John, and whatever was on top forty radio. I’m not sure I ever listened to FM radio, except to catch Dr. Demento’s program.
That summer, though, I was looking to broaden my horizons. This consisted mostly of going to every movie that came to town (not hard since there were only three theaters), reading The New Yorker (which was a revelation to me, but that’s a subject for another post), and searching the radio for new music to listen to.
At the time, there were only two FM rock stations whose signal I could pick up with any consistency, both in Seattle: KISW and KZOK. Both had been free-form stations earlier in the decade, but were now making the transition to AOR (album-oriented rock, which, by hanging around for three decades and never changing its playlists, eventually became classic rock). There wasn’t much difference between them–both played roughly the same stuff: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, late Beatles and Stones, Hendrix, Clapton, CSNY, Yes, Jethro Tull, The Moody Blues, Robin Trower, etc. Sometimes they’d expand their horizons by playing some fusion (Weather Report) or pseudo-fusion (John Klemmer), but for the most part the playist was already rigid, and becoming more so with every passing season.
I have no idea why I ultimately chose KZOK over KISW; there may have been more of some song that I particularly liked, or less of some song I particularly hated, but whatever the case, by August KZOK was pretty much the only radio station I listened to (so much for broadening my horizons).
Sometime that month, in the late afternoon (I no longer remember the exact day, but I remember everything else about the moment perfectly), I was laying on my bed, reading The New Yorker, with the white plastic, combination RCA AM-FM radio/5-inch screen B&W TV my father had bought for himself and I had usurped next to my head, tuned to KZOK. They were playing “Layla”. Again. It was probably the third or fourth time I had heard it that week (and who knows how many times before), but this time, something about it seemed different. Maybe it was because I was slightly distracted by what I was reading; listening, but not really concentrating in any conscious way. Maybe my receptivity had been primed by the crystalline prose of the William Shawn-edited New Yorker. Maybe it was a matter of atmosphere–a lazy summer afternoon, sunlight filtering through my bedroom curtains, the house to myself, my mind relaxed and easy and open.
Whatever the case, at that moment the record struck me in a way it never had before. I stopped reading and listened more closely. As I listened an idea formed in my head, an idea that even today strikes me as both incredibly naive and utterly profound, one that I have been going back to and trying to sort out, generally without success, ever since. “This”, I said to myself, “is a ‘good’ record.”
There’s a reason I put quotes around “good”, though I don’t think I did at the time. It’s because I quickly realized that the quality of the song, its “goodness”, had nothing whatever to do with anything outside of the song itself. Nothing to do with it’s popularity or it’s standing as a classic, nothing to do with whether I enjoyed it or not, or with whatever personal tastes I possessed at the time or have developed since. It had nothing to do with Clapton himself, either, with whatever he thought about the record or anything he had tried to create or express when he made the record. The record’s “goodness” was purely objective, totally outside anything anyone might do in response to it, or say about it, or feel when they were listening to it. It personified an objective quality of “good” which until that moment I hadn’t even realized existed. And it still does.
It’s the quality I still chase, and still find every now and again, though it seems to get harder as I get older (or is it just a symptom of the much-discussed “information overload”?). It’s the reason this blog exists, I guess, for better or worse.
Oddly enough, it was another two years before I picked up a copy of Layla the album, and years more after that before I came to understand it. Maybe I felt I didn’t need to. Or maybe other things, like Born To Run (which came out the next month), or punk, got in the way. Either way, I find it hard to worry about radio stations playing “Layla” 17 times in a week. Not as long as there’s a chance that somebody else will hear it the way I did.