Voice in the Wilderness


Recently I was chosen to serve as a musical consultant to th radio industry.

Actually, it wasn't the entire industry; it was a woman named Marcy, who called me up at random one morning.

"I'm not selling anything," Marcy said.

Of course when callers say this, they usually mean that they are selling something, so I was about to say "No, thank you" in a polite voice, then bang the receiver down, when Marcy said she was doing a survey for the radio industry about what songs should be played on the air.

That got my attention, because radio music is an issue I care deeply about. I do a lot of singing in the car. You should hear Aretha Franklin and me perform our version of "I Say a Little Prayer for You," especially when our voices swoop way up high for the ending part that goes, "My darling believe me, for me there is nooo Wahhh-aannn but you, . . . " My technique is to grip the steering wheel with both hands and lift myself halfway out of the seat so that I can give full vocal expression to the emotion that Aretha and I are feeling. It's a mixture of joyous hope and bittersweet longing and the horror of realizing that the driver of the cement truck 3 feet away is staring at me, at which point I pretend that I am having a coughing seizure while Aretha finishes the song on her own.

I think they should play that song more often on the radio, along with "Brown-Eyed Girl," "Sweet Home Alabama" and, of course, the Isley Brothers' version of "Twist and Shout," which, if you turn it up loud enough, can propel you out of the car to dance with toll-booth attendants.

On the other hand, it would not trouble me if the radio totally ceased playing ballad-style songs by Neil Diamond. I realize that many of you are huge Neil Diamond fans, so let me stress that in matters of musical taste, everybody is entitled to an opinion, and yours is wrong. Consider the song "I Am, I Said," wherein Neil, with great emotion, sings:

"I am, I said

To no one there

And no one heard at all

Not even the chair."

What kind of line is that? Is Neil telling us he's surprised that the chair didn't hear him?

I also believe that we should use whatever means are necessary -- and I do not exclude tactical nuclear weapons -- to prevent radio stations from ever playing "Honey," "My Way," "I Write the Songs," "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," and "Watchin' Scotty Grow."

The way the survey worked was, Marcy played two-second snippets from about two dozen songs; after each snippet I was supposed to say whether I liked the song or not. She'd play, for example, "Don't Worry, Baby" by the Beach Boys and I'd shout "Yes! Play the whole thing!" and she'd say, "OK, that's a 'like.' " Or she'd play "Don't You Care" by the Buckinghams, and I'd make a noise like a person barfing, and Marcy would say, "OK, that's a 'don't like.' "

The problem was that I wasn't allowed to suggest songs. I could only react to the generally mediocre candidates that were presented. It was just like the presidential elections. This is too bad, because there are a lot of good songs that never get played. My wife and I are constantly remarking on this. I'll say, "Do you remember a song called 'Boys'?" And Beth, instantly, will respond, "Bop shoo-bop, boppa boppa shoo-bop." Then both of us say, "They never play that!"

I tried suggesting a couple of songs to Marcy. After she played the "Don't Worry, Baby" snippet, I said, "You know there's a great Beach Boys song that never gets played called 'Custom Machine.' The chorus goes:

"Step on the gas, she goes Waa-aaa-aahh

I'll let you look

But don't touch my custom machine!"

I did a good version of this, but Marcy just played her next snippet, which was "I Go to Pieces" by a group that I believe is called Two British Weenies. I don't care for that song, and I told Marcy as much, but I still keep hearing it on the radio. Whereas I have yet to hear "Custom Machine." It makes me wonder if the radio industry really cares what I think, or if I'm just a lonely voice crying out, and nobody hears me at all. Not even the chair.

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