God is in the transistor

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Somewhere in the basement of a home on the outskirts of Birmingham there’s a cassette tape filled with half-songs. This wasn’t intentional. It’s just that nobody wants to miss that shimmering acoustic passage at the beginning of “Crazy on You,” and if you lose twenty seconds off “Immigrant Song” you’re down to just two minutes. No matter how fast you were, it was impossible to record a song perfectly off the radio.

That was a ritual of my teenage years: kneeling before a boombox while Rock 99 or Kicks 106 rolled through Bad Company and Lynyrd Skynyrd or Lita with Ozzy, trying to snag my favorite songs out of the air. Twenty-five years ago in Alabama we still worshipped the radio, although it was an aging god on its knees, a Prometheus who’d delivered fire forty years before and had nothing left to offer.

Even then our bedrooms were given completely over to music television, Headbangers Ball on Saturday nights and Night Flight on USA. My grandparents had gotten cable before my family (the first videos I ever saw starring Michael Jackson and Billy Joel in the living room of a retired coal miner), but we’d finally caught up, and in study hall we talked about the new songs we’d seen the night before, not ones we’d just only heard.

But you couldn’t get MTV in a car, and cars were our life. We drove battered Chevrolets from the sixties and seventies, white Mustangs with no headrests, carried Craftsman tools by the boxful in our trunks and tucked behind bucket seats. The floorboards of my ’69 Camaro were rusted straight through enough that you could see the asphalt flash by if you pulled the carpet back, but the radio worked just fine.

We listened to classic rock, and we studied every solo and chorus like sacred texts. We chanted the lyrics to “Blinded by the Light” before we ever knew who Bruce Springsteen was, let alone that he wrote it. We held hands to the same songs our parents had on the nights we were born. We bought new cassettes by Aerosmith and Heart with their hair teased all up and listened to them alongside the vinyl albums we dug out of our uncles’ closets. We went to concerts starring Steve Miller Band and Bad Company and Ted Nugent and didn’t know that was weird, that they were long past their prime, because it was the most vital, most current music we knew. Their songs were still played constantly on the radio, even more than MTV played “Paradise City” or “Something to Believe In.”

There was no way in the world to own all of that music. The idea never even broached our minds, never seemed possible no matter how many version of your names you signed up for Columbia House under, twelve cassettes for a penny. Everyone knew that “More Than a Feeling” would come on the radio at any minute, just so long as you kept listening, so there was no reason to actually buy any records by Boston.

The call-in hours on the radio were our favorites. If you really needed to hear something you could mash the buttons as fast as possible on a Conair phone or even spin the dial at your grandparents’ house, hoping that you’d get through. It was nearly always busy, nearly every time we called. We’d applaud when someone we knew got through on the line and requested something deep in the catalog (like anything by Pink Floyd other than “Money”), when we had a friend banned from calling I-95 for contantly requesting “One” by Metallica.

The radio was our form of communion, and we took it constantly, on the way to and from school, back and forth to the drug stores and grocery stores where we wore blue aprons and carried dull boxcutters, to ear-piercing booths in mall kiosks and apprenticeships in the garage down the street. Sometimes it was too much fuss to fight over what tape to play at a party or in the car, so we’d just turn it to a channel, let the ether decide.

Sometimes the radio was even how we told each other how we felt. One time a girl I had a crush on called me on the telephone. She had long brown hair and teased-up bangs and knew I loved Led Zeppelin, that I’d tried to learn the order of every song on every album in chronological order. A note of hurried anxiety in her voice, she called and said they were playing Zeppelin on the radio, to turn it on right now. I ran across the room and flipped the dial. It wasn’t them, but Journey doing their best Page impersonation with “Wheel In The Sky.

But who sang the song didn’t matter; what mattered was that she’d heard it and thought of me. A quarter century later I walk around with the feeling of that phone call shining in my stomach like a brass plaque mounted on a block of granite in a park, a tribute to people and times so long past nobody even remembers what it was really for in the first place.

Yet remembering that phone call and those four minute bursts of static and beauty is important, for the same reason we build marble memorials and carve our names into granite and lay wreaths on tombs. It’s important because all those shared moments are what really build our lives. It’s all those holy uncatchable moments, sitting in front of boomboxes, mashing numbers on the phone to break through on the request line, unfolding liner notes to try to learn the lyrics, chanting choruses like a rosary. It’s not the songs, it’s the connections built because of the songs. And radio was that connection.

No one remembers the last time we called into one of the radio stations. No one remembers the last time we called somebody to tell them their favorite song was echoing out to a million people. But somewhere in a basement in Birmingham there’s a tape of half-songs, and at the very end there’s a voice—a squeaky teenager’s voice, probably sounds a lot like the one you had, could be a girl, might be boy—saying, softly, almost like a prayer, “Can you play that ballad by Cheap Trick?”

And if you wait just a second—just like we did back in 1991—chords start to shimmer out, and “The Flame” will start to play. I got every second of it, the beginning all the way to the last, and the DJ didn’t even talk over the end.

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