For a while in the mid-1970s, my most reliable companion was a round yellow Panasonic Toot-a-Loop “bracelet” radio. Shaped like a lopsided donut, it twisted open on the fat side to reveal its AM tuning dial. While I sometimes put the plastic loop around my wrist, I was more likely to carry it like a small purse, holding onto the skinniest part and swinging it in my hand. The radio’s importance to me was so evident that my second grade teachers (Ms. Farlow and Ms. Min) let me to listen to it in class sometimes, especially in the mornings. I think I told myself that I alone enjoyed this privilege because I was so good at my schoolwork (and maybe that is what my teachers told me, too). The more likely reason, however, was that I was often crying when I arrived at school, and nothing calmed me down like the radio. My tears were the product of the newly fraught morning departures from home, where the mood had become unstable and anguished since my father had moved out. My parents were “separated.”
Tuning into Boston’s 68 RKO rescued me with the comforting constancy of Top 40 hits like Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died,” Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” Grand Funk Railroad’s “The Loco-Motion,” the Carpenters’ cover of “Please, Mr. Postman,” Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” Barry Manilow’s “Mandy,” the Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again,” Ohio Players’ “Fire,” Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry Bout a Thing.”
To be sure, songs such as these had their own aesthetic force; there was something to feel and fit to my own fantasies in each of them. But I think the radio’s most significant emotional effect was achieved by the invisible atmosphere created by the ongoing top-40 flow. This “radio-activity” (as Kraftwerk called it in their eponymous 1975 song) was just there, “in the air for you and me.” Once I was tuned in to it, I could be confident that even though I did not know precisely what the next song was going to be, I knew the music would keep coming. Reliably, if intermittently, favorites (like “The Night Chicago Died,” one of my first 45 purchases) would come on, and even when Barry Manilow (whom I did not like) was playing, I knew there would be another song coming soon. It was somehow cheering to dislike things from time to time, too.
In creating this dependable ambient environment of minor aesthetic peaks and valleys, the radio accepted and guided my feelings, without itself being affected by them. Its thereness gave me a solid ground from which I could be interested and absorbed in something like my morning schoolwork. In this, it functioned as a substitute “holding environment,” D.W. Winnicott’s term for that space of parental care and support, which makes it possible to pay attention, to like, to affect and to be affected by the world.
Plugged into my round yellow Toot-a-Loop radio in my second grade classroom, I had “the power of the AM,” as Jonathan Richman put it in “Roadrunner,” his celebration of the pleasures of driving “with the radio on.” Richman’s song, like “Radio-activity,” is one of several from the Seventies suggesting that world-creating and even life-saving experiences with the radio were pretty common. In Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll” (1970), Van Morrison’s “Caravan” (1970), Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” (1972) or Donna Summer’s “On the Radio” (1979) we hear how the radio makes and saves love, brings the far near, and makes the near dearer. By the end of the seventies, the tone had shifted. In songs like Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio” (1978), Steely Dan’s “FM” (1978), The Ramones’ “Rock and Roll Radio” (1980) and Joy Division’s “Transmission” (1980), the earlier utopian feelings are replaced by variously nostalgic (Ramones), splenetic (Costello) and depressive (Joy Division) attachments to the lost power of the AM, now replaced by FM’s increasingly aggressive commodification of “Rock” and segmentation of the radio audience. Taken together, these songs form a mini genre of songs-about-the-radio (to which LL Cool J adds a formidable entry in 1985 with his “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”); they tell a compelling story about the radio’s changing aesthetic and economic function at this particular historical juncture.
In thinking about my own radio-activity, Richman’s description of radio-listening as an experience that helps him “feel in touch with the modern world” has been most helpful. Based on the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” “Roadrunner” is a pulsing two-chord jam that creates an atmosphere in which Richman can riff on the joys of listening to the radio while driving. It was composed in 1970, and first recorded in 1972, in a version produced by John Cale (whom Richman had met in the sixties as a deeply devoted Velvet Underground fan), but was not released until The Modern Lovers (1977). In 1975, Richman recorded and released a stripped-down version (no throbbing Jerry Harrison keyboards), which became a bit of a hit in the UK. Its easy off-the-cuffness was admired by The Sex Pistols, who performed a memorable cover in 1976 (which can be found on The Rock n Roll Swindle, and which is brilliantly interpreted by Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces). Another longer version (“Thrice”) and various live recordings indicate the variable, improvisatory nature of the lyrics and the phrasing. But the key idea and sincere feeling animating Richman’s performance of the song remains consistent; he is eager to share the radio’s well-nigh magical capacity to produce an expansive feeling of love and connectedness. He wants us to know that he is “in love with the radio on.”
Not only does the radio, like a lover, makes Richman feel “less lonely late at night,” it also creates a sense of being in love: “with Massachusetts /And the neon when it’s cold outside / And the highway when it’s late at night” (“Twice”). As if to prove to himself the principle that everything – even especially the most mundane experience – is better with the radio on, Richman “walked past the Stop ‘n’ Shop /Then I drove past the Stop ‘n’ Shop /I like that much better than walking by the Stop ‘n’ Shop /Cause I had the radio on” (“Once”). The feeling travels with the car and the radio to whatever neighborhood of Boston (“I felt in love with Mattapan and Roslindale /Cause I had the radio on”) or suburb (“Can’t you feel it out in Needham now?”) he happens to be in (“Once”). Otherwise overlooked and even disliked elements of the modern world, including factory signs, industrial parks, suburban trees, power lines, or the Brutalist architecture at Umass Amherst (“You’ve just got fields of snow and all of a sudden there’s these modern buildings / right in the middle of nothing” (“Thrice”)) seem newly surprising, strange and wondrous by way of the radio’s being on while he sees them. Richman is thus “in love with the radio on” because when the radio is on, he is “in love” like an earnest Futurist poet with the modern world as such. But he is also “in love with the radio on” in the sense that he loves the radio’s being-on. For Richman, “with the radio on” is its own distinct mode of being in the world.
The powers this mode brings with it are intensified by driving. Perhaps this is because the two experiences both involve (what Martin Heidegger) called a “de-distancing,” the bringing close of the far. In a car, this getting-closer-ness entails distinct perceptual cues. Along with the visual experience (so powerful that artist Tony Smith thought the experience of driving on the highway would make art obsolete), acceleration (“faster miles an hour”) creates a pressure on the torso and a twinge in the gut. The radio, on the other hand, satisfies (what Heidegger calls) “our essential tendency toward nearness” without any corresponding perceptual feedback. We don’t feel the distance that the radio waves are traveling before they reach our radio; we don’t even know exactly where they are coming from. Radio-activity is there for me and you, and as Allen Weiss suggests in Phantasmic Radio, it resides in an uncertain space between here and there, dead and alive, a space filled with a kind of open-ended collective potential. So, by driving with the radio on, the visual experience and proprioceptive feedback of driving lets you know your body is moving, giving us something like an “objective correlative” for the de-distancing activity of the radio. At the same time, the radio’s open-ended and uncanny sense of connection expands and extends and makes more magical the car’s movement through the world. By combining the experiences of each, driving with the radio on allows the two to analogically “represent” and amplify each other.
Heidegger worried (in Being and Time) that the radio’s attractive conquering of distance had as its obverse an erasure of what is right next to us; it involved both “expanding and destroying the everyday surrounding world.” It is a familiar point, one often made about “the media” in general; who after all, has not ignored one’s companions and surroundings in order to send a text or read something on one’s mobile phone? But, at least in the Seventies songs about the radio, the everyday surrounding world is not being destroyed. In fact, the near becomes more valued to the precise extent that it is brought into uncanny proximity to the far.
This seems to be what the Ramones are singing about when they wonder if we remember “lying in bed/ with the covers pulled up over your head / radio playing so no one can see ee ee (ee ee ee).” Drawing up the covers dramatizes just how near the far can come and just how intimately the possession of the radio’s de-distancing powers can be felt. It also intensifies the polarity between the private (no one can see) under-the-covers space and the collective, common (in the air for you and me) quality of the radio as such. “On a thousand islands in the sea, I see a thousand people just like me,” New Order has it. Like an island, or that space under the covers, the car too is an enclosed space separating us from the rest of the world. Yet, like the radio, it also connects us by way of the highways that Richman is in love with, conveying us to other places and other people. In different ways, the experiences of pulling up the covers or driving on the highway make the radio’s strange activity newly palpable, excitingly feel-able. And as Richman puts it, “I feel the feeling and its feeling all right now” (“Once”).
The way that this feeling of the feeling increases one’s sense of joyous power to affect and be affected (what Spinoza might have called one’s “force of existing”), is especially evident at the end of “Roadrunner.” There (in “Twice”), in response to Richman’s excited “Now you sing Modern Lovers!” his band responds: “Radio On!” Like the radio itself, the back up singers create a rhythmic background for Richman to perform the pleasures of the power that the radio gives him. In a self-reflexive, feeling-the-feeling song-about-this-song moment, the environmental “Radio On!” allows Richman to enter a state of ecstatic connectedness, which takes the form of his singing about what he has “got.“ He starts with the most basic.
I got the AM
Got the car, got the AM.
Listen to how Richman’s voice goes up on “AM,” as if its power directly animates his voice. This power, embodied in the Modern Lovers’ rhythmic shouts, propels everything that follows.
Got the AM sound, got the
Got the rockin’ modern neon sound.
The car makes the radio’s modern sound synaesthetically “neon” — visible and colored and dynamized by the neon signs (like the famous, constantly transforming CITGO sign in Boston’s Kenmore Square) that I too remember being so happy to see as a little kid. Like neon, the radio’s energy seems to negate and transform the cold and the dark that surrounds it: “I feel uh I feel alone in the cold and neon (Radio On!) I feel alive I feel a love I feel alive” (“Once”).
Richman then gets “geographical” (as he put it once): he’s got the “car from Massachusetts” and the “power of Massachusetts when its late at night.” On Route 128 (a constant in all the song’s versions), the semicircular belt separating the inner from the outer suburbs of Boston, Richman traces the radial reach of the AM signal: even as the car and the radio brings the distant closer, they also define a locality. Once in touch with this locality, the feeling expands: “I got the modern sounds of modern Massachusetts I’ve got the (Radio On!) I’ve got the world, got the turnpike.” Richman stutters “I got the, I’ve got the, got the” as if caught for a moment in a feeling without an object, but then he is rescued by the choral “Radio On!” which reminds him again that he’s “got the POWer of the AM.” Within his animated joy, I hear an echo of the loneliness kept at bay by the radio and the group of back up singers who perform its power. Indeed, like the radio-as-holding-environment, the Modern Lovers are constant and predictable in their rhythm, which allows Richman to veer off track, to float and explore his own not fully predictable feelings without fear of losing his way.
If I wasn’t yet up to Richman-like ecstatic veerings in second grade, the radio’s enviro-somatic caring did allow me to have feelings other than the sorrow that folded me in on myself as I left home in the mornings. Later in my childhood, around 5th or 6th grade, like many kids, the radio enabled other transformations. Like “Little Jenny” (whom Lou Reed admitted was “really me”) in the Velvet Underground’s “Rock & Roll,” the radio gave me a glimpse of some other place out there, not “like it was where I come from” and the knowledge there were other people possibly like me in that place. Who were these thousand other “people just like me” and could I meet them? (This was when I started going to concerts, usually with one of my parents: Bob Marley, The Cars, The Police, Bruce Springsteen.)
But when I was seven, the radio didn’t take me out of the world I lived in so much as it created the conditions for me to be connected to the world that was right there. Like Jenny “dancin to that fine fine music” I felt like “it was alright” when the radio was on. Plugged into my Toot-a-Loop, it was like I had the Velvets singing “alright, alright, alright” behind and around me, as they do for Reed at the end of “Rock & Roll.” For a little while anyway, it was “all right” even in the sense of something like “correct”: I was able to be in a world that somehow corresponded with my feelings, instead of negating or disorienting them, as the world around my parents’ separation often did. With the radio on, I could feel the feeling, and it was feeling alright.
—Jonathan Flatley’s favorite color is yellow.
I first heard Jonathan Richman in 1984. Me and some of my sisters were being home schooled for a year (I was too weird and depressed for junior high) We would try to astral travel to meet him. A harmless obsession? It definitely helped make life livable. Really great to be reminded of those things that get us through.