That strange connectedness whereby the fading guitar and the pause between songs on the radio by themselves inform me that we are in the middle of an album side by an artist of whose work I've only heard the popular shit. Convoluted thought for confounded heads. The song was Robin Trower's Bridge of Sighs: "On The Seventh Day." Pretty good, for a change. Not something you hear every day, even here.
A promo masquerading as a PSA, now. David Steinman, author of Diet for a Poisoned Planet, at midnight on KILO 95.9. "Home of heavy music, not heavy metal--" the marketing on billboards all over the city. His tired face on buses, guitars burning in the background.
Less talk and more action. He says it over and over, trying to make himself sound like he believes. If he doesn't then the ratings go to hell and he has to do it again! Less talk and more action! Less talk and more ACshuh! Put a little more unh into it, Tommy! Tommy T. Tone, the name itself so ridiculous only a DJ could love it, T's spitting out little pops into the microphone as he identifies himself, every seven minutes by the clock.
He punches up another classic CD, notes the time display and gets ready to cut over to the network feed for the news. No time to get local news, what with the contests and concerts and giveaways. The bands he played had all been dead ten years, and the music he used to like to listen to at home, when he had had the time, wasn't even coming out on CD. The station's policy on vinyl had gone through changes in the past fifteen years, until finally they just ripped out the twin turntables and put a glittering black plastic monolith in their place. The Black Box could select from 1,500 stacked discs - all guaranteed to be too boring to distract you from work - by artist, title or an 8-letter subject code, or allow the computer to search through a particular category, trying to pattern-match the end of the current song so the segue was perfect every time. When it was working. It was delicate equipment. He hated it. No chance for serendipity, unless one of the damn rainbow platters got nail polish on it again. And how often did he carry nail polish?
The commercials were almost over. Insurance, cars, beer, sex, sex, the Army. It was a proven progression, guaranteed to attract returning attention and focus it where wanted. Research had you pinned.
Well, almost. In practice what they said was 100 percent was closer to 50. Sometimes worse than that. Witness Tommy. He knows where he'd be happy - in the back of a garage, guitar in hand, pounding out raw untreated music like the back of someone's fist up against your head in an alley, slamming you back against the bricks with sheer intensity. Music to melt your speakers down. Music to melt your preconceptions.
He hadn't even touched his guitar in several weeks now; he didn't know how many. It was starting not to matter. The 16-track he'd bought with that first big bonus sat, gathering dust, on two sawhorses in the back room of Tommy's little apartment.
Another block of seven songs, this one pretty cute as these things went, all days of the week represented. "Sunday Bloody Sunday;" "Monday, Monday;" "Ruby Tuesday" - old standards for the geriatric ruling class who'd finally made their own bid for complete control late in the last century. Of course, they'd bided their time too long; the long-planned hippie takeover had turned into a corporate raid, while the radicals had gotten older, and fatter, sleeker and sleepier, waiting for the Right Wing Heaven to go away by itself. Which of course it didn't, and by the time the graying long-hairs had gotten around to taking over they had become their own enemies and things went on pretty much the same, as Byrne said in sign language in a song banned from the airwaves lo these many years, "gradually getting worse."
There was a new fascism in the land, a fascism of both ends of the political spectrum, an unholy alliance that masqueraded as the defenders of the rights of the oppressed and downtrodden (and where has that rhetoric been heard before?) to law and more law, achieved mostly by oppressing and treading down on perceived enemies of the State. For these new Nazis, the enemy was a free tongue, and the defenders of purity on the right and left had joined forces at last, in a bipartisan effort to make the country free of drugs, sex and rock and roll, except of course those forms sanctioned by corporation or government. And they had succeeded admirably. Life was brilliantly clear from the earliest days of programmed schooling. Clear, bright - and deadly. The suicide rate was a carefully-kept secret. The dark inner cities had been quarantined. No news came out, except black-radio broadcasts no one who counted listened to anyway. Freedom was a slogan - trademarked and counterfeited by marketing majors just like the American flag had been a generation before.
Tommy Tone was the freest man in America. At least, that's what he told himself. He came in late, left early, had the women and the booze and whatever the hell he wanted, whenever the hell he wanted it. But last month he had tried to walk in the park a few blocks from his house, and discovered that it had burned. The last few trees were dying from the ultraviolet sun. All his money couldn't buy a breath of oxygen.
Tone gasped into the microphone. "Freedom. What a crock," just before he died. The hiss of dead air filled the studio and a thousand malls, came tumbling out of a hundred thousand car speakers, ten thousand boom boxes, a million Walkmans. All officially approved. All unattended.
He came to himself, feet propped up on the board, dead air screaming in his ears. Trower's album side had ended, promos piling up, play log not filled in, and the phone's inside line blinking its malevolent red eye. The station manager was on the other end, of course, "Get something on the air, you shithead, and see me after your shift. Got a little message for you."
Nothing left to lose now. Tommy got ready to present a little message of his own. He slotted his unlabeled cartridge into the rack, right behind the second beer commercial where it would do the most good, and sat back to let it come up in rotation. The decision was out of his hands now. Everything he'd worked for, in the nineties and later, was riding on how many people were listening to the broadcast.
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
--Benjamin Franklin (as quoted in Charles Oberndorf's Sheltered Lives)
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