Heaven is having two of the best singer-songwriters in the whole wide world play a concert in your living room.
That’s Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker of the band Wussy. (Chuck used to front a band called Ass Ponys… as he readily admits, he’s 0-2 in band names.)
Wussy has released several albums to much critical acclaim (see below) and limited commercial success.
“Wussy have been the best band in America since they released the first of their five superb albums in 2005.”
Robert Christgau (“the dean of American rock critics”) in 2012
Chuck and Lisa (and the other band members) still have day jobs. It nearly breaks my music-loving heart to know that such talented artists are toiling in semi-obscurity. Then again, if they were international superstars, they wouldn’t be playing my living room. I still have goosebumps from hearing their songs, and am still on Cloud Nine from the house show.
Chuck and Lisa couldn’t be nicer human beings… they create amazing art… they get to play their songs for people who absolutely adore them. Who needs American Top 40 anyway?
Doug Balogh recently celebrated his 80th birthday. Doug’s name may not mean much to you, but Doug meant the world to a bunch of youngsters who worked at the radio station he and his wife Linda owned and operated for more than two decades in Oxford, Ohio.
97X was a tiny station in a small college town. It had a weak signal, and it played weird music. Not exactly the recipe for runaway success. In fact, it barely registered on the quarterly list of radio ratings for Cincinnati and Dayton stations. But if you define success by the joy that station brought to both the station staff and the small-but-mighty group of dedicated listeners, then Doug’s ratings are off the charts — on the good side.
Doug gave countless young adults – many of them still in college or recently graduated – a chance to work in radio. For that reason alone, he deserves a ton of credit. But he not only gave them opportunity, but also a ton of freedom to do what they thought was best. To play the music they wanted. To be total goofballs on the air. To learn on the job. To grow up under his tutelage.
I’m probably the poster child for Doug Balogh’s Radio Refuge. I worked in radio for a few years after I graduated college, doing behind the scenes work at a company that ran an AM oldies station and an FM country station. I discovered 97X because they played bands you couldn’t hear anywhere else (Replacements, Connells, They Might Be Giants… I could go on and on). I wound up weaseling my way into some weekend air shifts there. I probably spent more in gas money than I made in hourly wages, but I didn’t care, because I had a freedom I couldn’t find elsewhere in the formatted-to-death world of corporate radio, and a connection to the listeners that made it feel like we were all one big (or not so big) happy family.
But then I had my “lost years”… I wound up leaving the radio biz and was living with my brother in Bakersfield, California and working as a travel agent. I knew I was deluding myself but I was in a bit of a rut. When I finally worked up the courage to try to get back in the radio game, the first call I made was to Doug. He had no business putting out the welcome mat for some travel agent in Bakersfield who did a few weekend shifts at the station three years prior. But somehow, some way, Doug brought me back into the fold. Because he saw something in me that I myself often struggled to see. Doug was an ace salesman, but his greatest skill was talent scout. He had a preternatural gift for sensing the right “fit” in the people who came looking for a job there.
I worked overnights for a year, mornings for a year and afternoons for six months before leaving for a larger station in Cincinnati. 97X was where I found myself… it was the radio reboot I desperately needed. It was a second chance at my first love. It was all that and more, thanks to Doug and Linda.
That was 30 years ago. I’ve said many times since that 97X was the least amount of money I’ve ever made… and the most fun I’ve ever had. The latter is much more valuable, and more precious, by far.
Prior to Doug’s big BD, his son Marty and daughter Kristy asked me to reach out to a bunch of 97X alums and get a birthday greeting from them. Several responded, and I edited the clips together for an audio surprise (seemed like a fitting format for a radio guy) that Marty and Kristy shared with Doug during the birthday celebration. I won’t share the total clip here, but you’ll hear snippets from three folks who worked on the morning show (in order: Julie Maxwell, John “JJ” Jesser and Steve Baker)
“Mentor. Coach…. wonderful place”
“Best years of my life”
Some folks may think that Doug and Linda ran a tiny radio station for 20 years. But I know better – they created a magical place that still exists in our minds and hearts.
Adrian Belew is widely regarded as one of the best and most innovative guitarists in rock music. He recorded and toured with Frank Zappa, then the Talking Heads, then David Bowie. He led the prog rock band King Crimson for decades.. and he’s had an acclaimed solo career.
When he was in his teens and 20s, Adrian spent several years playing in cover bands, first in Cincinnati and later in Nashville. Years… not months. He easily could’ve given up. He certainly thought about it. But instead he stuck with it. He played the cover band gigs to make a living, but he used the rest of his time to focus on getting better at playing and songwriting.
When no one else believes in you, you have to believe in yourself.
The story of how Adrian became part of Frank Zappa’s band is the stuff of legend. How many other guitarists have been discovered because of a chauffeur? But if he hadn’t been playing that cover band gig, it never would’ve happened.
Success doesn’t happen overnight. It happens because you put in the work. One gig at a time.
I like weird music. Well, “weird” to most people. Certainly the bands I love are well outside the mainstream. I’m good with that.
Because my tastes tend toward the obscure, most of the live concerts I attend have a small-but-mighty crowd. (I’ve been to gigs where the people on stage outnumbered the audience.)
Believe it or not, there are other folks who share my musical tastes. You start noticing the same faces at shows. And for a long stretch in the late 90s and early 2000s, it seemed like every show I went to — especially singer-songwriters shows– I’d see the same older dude with a ponytail. The Venn diagram of our musical tastes overlapped significantly.
So I finally introduced myself to him, and every show after that, we’d compare notes on new albums we liked and upcoming shows on our radar. His name was Bob Gregory (I called him “Hippie Bob”), and he taught photography at Sycamore High School in suburban Cincinnati for decades before retiring to a life of going to sparsely-attended shows and being bothered by some music nerd (c’est moi!). He was a sweet dude, soft-spoken, funny, and kind.
The last time I saw Hippie Bob at a concert, several years ago, he was having some health issues and wasn’t able to attend as many shows as he’d like to.
I’m now at the age where I follow the Carl Reiner morning ritual:
“Every morning before having breakfast, I pick up my newspaper, get the obituary section, and see if I’m listed. If I’m not, I’ll have my breakfast.”.
Last Sunday I read that Hippie Bob had passed away earlier this month at the age of 82.
We weren’t exactly buddies. Just kindred spirits. But I always enjoyed catching up with Hippie Bob. The world could use more people like him, not fewer. R.I.P. my music friend.
When I was six, I wanted to be an astronaut. I mean, what boy didn’t during the height of the space race?
By the time I was 10, the dream had changed from outer space to airwaves: I wanted to be on the radio. Playing music. Cracking jokes. Writing theater-of-the-mind skits. Doing goofy character voices.
It’s why I majored in Communications (with a concentration in Radio/TV) in college. It’s why I took an entry level job scheduling the commercials at a crappy AM station (R.I.P. “all oldies, all the time, 1230 AM WDJO”) – because it was a “foot in the door.”
It’s why I worked weekend overnight shifts at a country station, where my assigned on-air name was “Cincinnati Redd” and I played music I didn’t really like in the wee small hours – because it was a chance to get some experience.
It’s why I made the hour-long drive from Cincinnati to Oxford, Ohio on the weekends, to play music I did like for an even smaller audience. It’s why I came back to that station a few years later, and worked the overnight shift, making less than minimum wage – because I was chasing the dream.
It’s why I left an on-air gig at the station in Oxford to be an errand boy at a group of stations in Cincinnati… because it too was a “foot in the door.” I wound up working for a radio legend, Gary Burbank, on a 50,000-watt clear channel station, on a show that was syndicated to dozens of other stations around the country . Cracking jokes. Writing theater-of-the-mind skits. Doing goofy character voices. The dream came true. But it happened 10 years too late.
This 60-second snippet from a great podcast called The Memory Palace sums up why the dream died:
When the corporations took over the mom and pop stations, they sucked all the fun out of it. And they killed a lot of dreams.
I still miss radio – but really I miss the idea of radio… radio as it was once, not radio as it is. Sure, there are podcasts, and there’s Spotify. It’s not the same. Never will be. Radio was ethereal… and that made it magical.
Please listen to the entire The Memory Palace episode from 2017. It’s a brilliant tribute to a lost station, and a loss of innocence. There are clear parallels to 97X, the station where I worked in Oxford, Ohio… which was bought out by a corporation and now is a Spanish language station.
The entire series is well-worth a listen – you’ll find all of The Memory Palace episodes here. Host Nate DiMeo has a gift for audio storytelling, and for uncovering hidden gems from history.
“The Memory Palace podcast is among the most potent pieces of audio being produced today; the show’s short tales are so emotionally concentrated that, upon listening, they bloom in the space between one’s ears, like a single drop of dye propagating through an entire glass of water. Nate DiMeo, the show’s sole creative force, often seems to be operating on a level wholly separate from that of other podcasts”
I’m allergic to Excel spreadsheets. I’m a right brain, “outside the box” thinker, and Excel is nothing but boxes – row after row, column after column, constricting my weirdly-wired brain.
The Excel spreadsheet below is the exception to the rule. Instead of breaking out in hives, I break out in a big smile when I see it. Probably because it has nothing to do with “Objectives and Key Results” and “long-range planning”… and everything to do with fun and frivolity:
This is the list of the monthly happy hours — a.k.a. “Hoppy Hours” — that my Xavier University buddies and I have been organizing for nigh on two years now. I’ve posted about these gatherings before. The host picks a local brewery as the venue – and picks up the tab that month. Not everyone can make each month’s gathering, but the turnout is typically 6-10 guys.
The monthly meet-up has been an unmitigated success. A chance to connect, chew the fat and sip some suds. Laughter is always on the menu. (It’s also worth noting that nearly all of the venues are locally owned and operated establishments… so we’re stimulating the local economy. )
(BrewDog is a chain… but it’s also a B Corp)
The host names on the list may not mean much to you, but they mean the world to me. We’ve all made enough circles around the sun to realize that friendship is totally worth a fat bar tab once or twice a year. Cheers to my fellow Xavier Musketeers!