Radio used to be a tiny room.
At least that’s where it started for me.
When I remember radio, it was first hearing it in small, enclosed spaces: riding shotgun in Grandpa Maupin’s station wagon; he, smoking Pall Malls while we both chomped on Juicy Fruit gum, listening to a baseball game on our way back from wherever we’d been—me, mesmerized by the red tail lights ahead and the game announcer’s commentary, there in the space of that car, enveloped in radio, stars twinkling above us on the highway.
Or that little bedroom on Casco Point, sometime between 1971 and 1975, with my bedside Panasonic flip clock radio with hi-fi AM radio (and simulated wood cabinet), where I tuned into WCCO and the CBS Radio Mystery Theater with E.G. Marshall, or WDGY, or rock music on KDWB nightly.
I’d phone DJs such as the True Don Bleu or Rob Sherwood, or even John Sebastian (no connection to The Lovin’ Spoonful one) whose home phone number I’d somehow scammed (photo at right)—you know, so I could make requests late at night.
So what song would I request?
Well, while pop music was stagnating in one sector, it was blossoming in another. The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together,” Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “He Don’t Love You,” Helen Reddy’s “Delta Dawn,” Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood,” or The Carpenters’ “Yesterday Once More,” were being edged out by real ear-popping new stuff: Queen’s “Killer Queen,” Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz,” The Eagles’ “One of These Nights,” Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue,” and … David Bowie’s “Fame.”
That was the summer of 1975.
What a summer it was—the transition from junior high to our first year of high school.
And those songs on the radio. They still haunt me.
Fast-forward ten years and, oh, six months later. The dead of winter.
I’d landed a fulltime job as a proofreader at a direct-mail marketing corporation near Hopkins, Minn.
And I’d left hopes for an undergraduate degree back in Iowa City. It was tough returning to the ’rents farmhouse in Minnetrista.
All I really wanted was an apartment of my own closer to the cities.
Cramped in an upstairs bedroom, I made resolutions for 1986. On Sunday, Dec. 29, 1985, the journal reports:
“I’ve really disliked being home this past year, I really feel like I’m thirteen, not twenty-six. I’m tired of the folks, really. And this rabbit-hutch of a room I sleep in—that’s about it: sleep in. I hate writing or reading in here. The room, for some reason, is psychologically [unconducive] to work attitudes. I’m hoping if I get a nice 1 BR apartment I can transform the living room into a work area and when I’m tired of working and want to go to bed, I can shut a door to it all. So I have a good idea of what I’m looking for in a place.”
That same weekend old high school friend Theron Hollingsworth visited me at the farmhouse. He’d first called from the Westonka public library, so I put on a pot of coffee and we chatted in the kitchen. We listened to “my ’70s tape and [talked] about Christmas, working, writing… He had the radio show to do that night [so he] left around 1 or 2 (the folks had gone out for the day).”
Theron had returned to Minnesota in March 1984 from a 6-month gig as news director at an FM station out of Gillette, Wyo. He’d been missing his girlfriend (and soon-to-be fiancée) Michelle, and had ruled out “High Plains Radio” as a long-term career choice. Sometime in 1985 he landed a DJ gig at WLKX-FM 96 in Forest Lake, Minn., after cold calling them about a job.
During the fall and winter of ’85, I’d wriggle out of my tiny bedroom and flop into the upstairs living room sofa to make song requests while he spun records in Forest Lake.
At last. I had a disc jockey friend again, on the inside, on the call-in line.
We couldn’t get enough. I couldn’t get enough. The new songs on the radio played like an endless loop in our heads.
During the summer of 1975, I was learning about Elton John’s deeper album tracks from fellow Winnie-the-Pooh actor-friend Baibi Vegners. She was a dark-eyed brunette who seemed worldly-wise for all of her 15 years.
We’d spin Bowie and Elton John records in her bedroom at her Mom’s house in Mound, Minn., a stone’s throw from Surfside Park and Lake Minnetonka’s Cooks Bay. Baibi’s mom taught piano lessons and was always delighted to hear me play when I stopped over.
Baibi and I fast became music buddies.
When new friend Jeff Taylor (pictured top left in 1975), who’d played the Narrator in Winnie-the-Pooh, found out about my friendship with Baibi, he wanted to get to know her, too—romantically, he said.
He felt shy and wondered if I could arrange a get-together between the three of us … like, how about on his family’s 1974 tri-hull with a 50 hp Johnson outboard, for a spin out on the lake?
Before cracking open a fresh new National 43-571 journal for 1986, I’d already begun the new year in the old journal.
On Sunday, Jan. 5, the Family Project ate lunch at a buffet in Minnetonka. On the way, we stopped to look at a one-bedroom apartment in Excelsior I’d called about. My dad, brother, and I went inside to check it out, with Mom apparently waiting in the car. The journal tells the story:
“It was a real shack. …paint was peeling off the walls. A hole in the wall, patched in lumps. Convection heat! Dad and Brian were practically planted in the kitchen, stone-faced to the landlord, George, while I politely, blindly, scouted out the ‘bedroom’ and ‘bath.’ Rust, flakes of shit, flakes of rust, impenetrable windows…I thanked George for the opportunity to look, but ‘it was too small (among other politely unspoken things).’ We went and had lunch, with little else to say about the place.”
It was mid-January 1986, and my itch to move out was only getting itchier.
And music was inspiring a lot of the stories I wanted to write. I admitted that in a Jan. 14 entry:
“I hear Springsteen’s latest stuff and I have to smile. Yeap. ‘Glory Days.’ ‘My Hometown.’ It’s there. It’s like a window clear back to the ’seventies. I don’t know what’s exactly so good about it, but I smile.”
On Sunday, Jan. 26, I’d called Theron at WLKX from the Walker Art Center after attending a screening of Miloš Forman’s Taking Off, with Forman in attendance.
Then I probably quickly shuffled back to my rabbit-hutch bedroom on the farm.
Baibi, Jeff, and I are still friends.
In fact, we talked recently about David Bowie’s death. And our boat outing that summer of 1975.
Jeff couldn’t remember how the day went, and I wasn’t much help as I didn’t keep a journal in 1975. I conjectured that, since he lived in Spring Park, and I then lived on Casco Point, he probably picked me up in his boat first, then we motored over to pick up Baibi in Mound.
Baibi recalled via email that she’d “introduced many of [her] friends to the music of David Bowie in junior high.” We’d just graduated that spring and were off to the big high school in the fall.
We knew everything was about to change.
Like Baibi, I’d first heard Bowie on the radio when “Space Oddity” was re-released in the U.S. in November 1972. Record upon record followed, such as “Changes,” “Suffragette City,” and the Diamond Dogs LP in 1974.
Baibi convinced her father to take her to the Oct. 5, 1974, St. Paul Civic Center concert. She related the story in detail:
“When Bowie finally came out, he was dressed in a pair of baggy pants and a button-down shirt. … I bummed out when I realized he was not going to change into his makeup or do anything weird for this show.”
Baibi’s dad must’ve been a cooler parent than my own.
“About mid-concert,” she writes, “I noticed a joint being passed down the row, making its way toward my dad. I remember being horrified and thinking we were going to have to get up and leave and I’d never be allowed to attend another rock concert again. But when offered a hit, my dad smiled and politely declined. That was that.”
While I loved “Space Oddity,” “Changes,” and “Young Americans,” you’d find me scratching my head more than hungrily slapping down allowance money for Bowie LPs. Listening to “Fame” on Baibi’s turntable I had to ask her, “What in hell is he singing here? ‘Booger for you, sugar for me, gotta get a ration gone’?”
If you were really gonna mishear lyrics, Bowie was your go-to guy.
But maybe Baibi summed him up best: “David Bowie had a style that won’t be forgotten.”
Then, sometime in February 1986, one of the copywriters at the office pulled me aside.
She knew I wanted to move out of my parents’ place, and said she had an apartment in Hopkins she was leaving. Did I want to check it out?
It happened on Friday, Feb. 7, as reported in the journal four days later:
“April 1st I take possession of a studio apartment at Knollwood Towers West, #615. …Friday after work the folks met me at [the office] and we drove over and looked at the apartment. I signed the application and now my next chore will be rounding up furniture. I’m happy that I was able to land a place that’s all my own. I plan to use it as a base headquarters for all my projects. The folks seem to be happy, too. Dad’s helping me plan it out. I talked to Hollingsworth on Sunday night about it.”
Yeah, I can almost imagine our conversation, probably on the upstairs phone outside that teeny, tiny bedroom at the farm, with Theron working the wavelengths out in Forest Lake: “Hey! Mr. DJ! Got myself a new crib today! Can you play a little tune to celebrate?
“…And say… do you have any idea what Bowie’s ‘China Girl’ is really about?”