Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Music in the ruins

Long ago and far away -- when I wasn't yet who I would become but sure that I was what I'd always be -- the soundtrack of my and my friends' lives was a three-track tape.




Two of these things were much like each other on the AM radio dial around Baton Rouge, La. --
WLCS and WIBR. They were the stations of our Top-40 selves. They played the hits; we tuned in; they fought like dogs to attract the bigger share of us.

WFMF was for our hippie selves. Sometimes, you feel like a freak . . . sometimes, you don't.

But it was
WLCS and WIBR which ruled the airwaves. On AM. One ruling from 910, high over downtown Baton Rouge; the other counterattacking at 1300, nestled amid the sugarcane fields of Port Allen, just across the Mississippi River.

It was kind of like the Cold War, only in a sleepy Southern capital and with burgeoning arsenals of records, T-shirts and bumper stickers instead of hydrogen bombs.

"We will bury you!" thundered Joe London and B.Z. "You'll never make it past the Prize Patrol," smirked Chucker and Scotty Drake.

AND THE YOUTH of Red Stick lined up behind their leaders, pledging allegiance to one radio ideology or another -- that of the Big Win 910 or its mortal enemy, Radio 13.

Some non-aligned parties looked on from afar, ganging a bong . . . er,
banging a gong over at 'FMF -- Loose Radio -- but they still had their Top-40 leanings, left and right side of the dial.

Mutually Assured Top-40 Destruction brought a certain stability to teen-age society. Had for decades. We thought it would last forever, and the biggest worry in the world would continue to be that your future children of the groove might someday defect to Them, whichever station was Them to your Us.

WE WERE wrong. Just like we were about being forever young, eternally slim and always having a full head of hair.

Today in Baton Rouge, the only thing to be heard at
AM 91 or Radio 13 is . . . nothing. Maybe some static. Maybe -- after the sun goes down and the tree frogs begin their bayou serenade -- you'll hear a station from far away riding in on the Ionosphere Trail.

High above downtown, somebody else inhabits Suite 2420 of One American Place, if that's still what they call that particular high-rise that once was the home of

Over in the Port Allen canefield, a ways down Lafton Lane, the old WIBR is a ghost studio with a busted satellite dish and dead towers. A vine runs across the peeling paint of a fading sign.

IT REMINDS me of a Walker Percy novel. Specifically, Love in the Ruins, the tale of a time near the end of the world. Well . . . at least our particular one.
At first glance all seems normal hereabouts. But a sharp eye might notice one or two things amiss. For one thing, the inner lanes of the interstate, the ones ordinarily used for passing, are in disrepair. The tar strips are broken. A lichen grows in the oil stain. Young mimosas sprout on the shoulders.

For another thing, there is something wrong with the motel. The roof tiles are broken. The swimming pool is an opaque jade green, a bad color for pools. A large turtle suns himself on the diving board, which is broken and slanted into the water. Two cars are parked in the near lot, a rusty Cadillac and an Impala convertible with vines sprouting through its rotting top.

The cars and the shopping center were burnt out during the Christmas riot five years ago. The motel, though not burned, was abandoned and its room inhabited first by lovers, then by bums, and finally by the native denizens of the swamp, dirt daubers, moccasins, screech owls, and raccoons.

n recent months the vines have begun to sprout in earnest. Possum grape festoons Rexall Drugs yonder in the plaza. Scuppernong all but conceals the A & P supermarket. Poison ivy has captured the speaker posts in the drive-in movie, making a perfect geometrical forest of short cylindrical trees.

Beyond the glass wall of the motel dining room still hangs the Rotary banner:
Is it the truth?
Is it fair to all concerned?
Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

But the banner is rent, top to bottom, like the temple veil.

The vines began to sprout in earnest a couple of months ago. People do not like to talk about it. For some reason they’d much rather talk about the atrocities that have been occurring ever more often: entire fam
ilies murdered in their beds for no good reason. “The work of a madman!” people exclaim.
PRETTY MUCH, that's radio today. Any kind of common culture today . . . ruins. Covered in vines, surrounded by weeds.

How did it get this way?

The work of a madman!

Madmen, actually. Perfectly sensible-looking, upper-crust ladies and gentlemen in board rooms across the land -- cultured folk prone to fits of business-school jargon about reimbursement packages, shareholder value, efficiencies of scale and "right-sizing." All of them bat-s*** crazy. All of them weapons of mass unemployment.

They are veritable neutron bombs that eliminate the heart and soul and local voices of broadcasting while leaving bricks and mortar relatively intact, ruins to be consumed by flora as tempis fugits and young people grow into old ones.

My memories remain young. Sometimes, 30-something years ago seems like 30-something minutes ago.

I drive north on La. 1. I turn left at a red light. I drive down the road, between the sweet fields of south Louisiana, thinking sweet thoughts about lost youth. I hang another left, a
sharp left, into the gravel parking lot.

And step into the ruins of Radio 13.

Of me.

Of us.

I step into silence where once there was music, and I cannot go home anymore.

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