Soon after we decamped from Amherst and academia to Boston and a Phillips Street apartment on the back of Beacon Hill in June 1968, Bobby Kennedy was assasinated. That year had been on a bad trajectory from the start, with Martin Luther King's assasination and street protests against the intensifying Vietnam War. All the good intentions and vibrations of the early 1960s had begun to wash away, replaced with a general uneasiness. It was not uncommon to hear the word "revolution" in casual conversations at work and elsewhere. Not that anyone we knew had a plan for revolution, but rather that it felt like something was going to blow, something big and scary. As John Lennon would say "Don't you know that you can count me out...in".
We were all trying to maintain order in our lives - getting up in the morning, getting dressed, going to work, and generally getting on with life, trying to establish some semblance of normalcy. It was even possible then to keep negative information somewhat at bay from our everyday lives, or at least to compartmentalize it. There was no constant parade of information and distraction from the Internet, no instant communication. Drugs were cheap and available, and the amazing new music that was coming more and more frequently numbed us all in mostly pleasant ways. We looked for something to grab hold of, to steady us, to help us ride out the storm, and maybe figure out where that storm was coming from.
One of the things that many of us grabbed on to was the new phenomenon (to us) of FM Radio. And, in Boston, WBCN-FM. This was back when WBCN was referred to as "Underground Radio" and young disc jockeys who sounded like us couldn't wait to play the new album by Quicksilver, or Moby Grape, or some other group that sounded and felt just right for that moment. These DJs played what they liked, without regard to the length of the album cut, or any need for commercial breaks. There were no corporate playlists yet. We looked forward to what new album Mississippi would play for us that night.
From this small-scale, subversive radio station would emerge the WBCN of the 1970s and 1980s that most people remember, which was mainstream, but which very much retained its subversive origins with DJs like Charles Laquidara.
Last week, I attended a screening of "I Am What I Play" and had a chance to hear Charles reflect on the sorry state of corporate FM Radio these days. Charles is featured in this very fine documentary about four pioneers of DJ-curated FM radio. I recommend that you see it if you have the opportunity. It acknowledges that times change, and that people have to change with them. Music will always be important to each new generation, and the ways in which they discover and consume it will always remain in flux.
I also discovered that there is a neat, well-written book, "Radio Free Boston" by Carter Alan, which traces end-to-end the fascinating history of WBCN, from its very first show, which opened with Cream's "I Feel Free", to its last, which closed with "Video Killed The Radio Star".