Tim Robbins, Issue 51, Editor’s Letter

If you’ve been keeping up with these editor’s letters lately, you’ve been regaled with my adventures as a mountain man with a radio show, and I’m going to jump right back into that story. If you aren’t familiar with the tale, go back to issue 46 and do a little binge read of the Jay Stellar/Pine Mountain 88.5 FM saga.

When I left off, I’d just created the 32-second intro to my Sweetheart of the Radio show in my Santa Monica garage/home studio. Great – only one hour, 59 minutes and 28 seconds of recording left to go! I’d planned on popping into my garage once a week, spinning some records, burning two one-hour CDs and dropping them off to Pine Mountain gas station owner/video store manager/pirate radio outlaw Barry; but after discovering that it took me eight hours to record a 32-second intro, I realized two things: 1) There’s more to doing a radio show than playing your favorite records; and 2) I can be pretty obsessive about any artistic endeavor I undertake. Conclusion? This was going to take some time.

I got up the next morning with exactly zero desire to go into my office and be a photographer. I was so excited to get back to my garage and my underground radio show (though calling it “underground” is giving it too much credit), that the idea of editing images, working on my portfolio, looking at invoices, and prepping my next job had momentarily lost its luster. Then that old familiar voice of disapproval cleared its throat and tapped the microphone in my brain: “Um, Sam? Hello? It’s one thing to spend the night in the garage pretending to be a DJ, but for god’s sake, it’s 9:00 a.m. and you need to attend to the career that actually earns you money. You know, the one that’s going shrivel for lack of attention? It’s bad enough you’re spending three days a week in the mountains growing a beard and talking to birds like some kind of high-altitude Brian Wilson. Put your head down and earn a living, son!”

So I trudged into my office, said hello to my employee Carina, and confronted my computer. For the next hour I tried to focus on pre-production for an NBC job, meticulously trying to make my numbers fit their budget. But my mind kept drifting off to Radioland, where I pondered which song would kick off my first-ever show. It should be something by Hank Williams, I figured, but not something obvious like “Hey Good Lookin’.” His persona seemed to fit the homespun nature of show. Hmmm… I looked up. Carina was at the door of my office with a bemused expression that suggested she’d been standing there for more than a moment watching me daydream. “You have a phone call from the NBC producer.” My shoulders sagged. “Put it through.”

By lunchtime I was too restless to sit in the office any longer. I shut out the voice of reason and wandered into my garage for the lunch hour. I put on the headphones and started combing through my Hank Williams collection. Then it hit me – “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” would be the inaugural track on Sweetheart of the Radio. The lyrics set the tone perfectly:

We’ll take in all the honky-tonks, tonight we’re having fun

We’ll show the folks a brand new dance that never has been done

I don’t care who thinks we’re silly, You’ll be daffy and I’ll be dilly

We’ll order up two bowls of chili, Settin’ the woods on fire

Now I was cooking! The fade-in from my intro to this song got my heart racing, and I couldn’t wait to figure out what came next. I followed with the raucous “To Be Young” from Ryan Adams’ first solo record (new at that time), and then “Mourning Bell” from Radiohead’s Kid A. There – that should confuse them! With those three songs, I felt I was setting the tone for what the show could be: eclectic, with an emphasis on unique songwriters; country-ish but not, and most of all, a show full of songs I absolutely loved, played in an order that took listeners on a journey both visceral and narrative. As a musician, I tried to pick sympathetic keys, so the songs flowed together musically as well. I cranked the volume on “Mourning Bell” and sat back in the chair to revel in my accomplishment. I heard a faint banging. Wait, is that part of the song? It happened again. No, not part of the song. It was Carina, banging on the door of my soundproofed garage. I felt caught in the act, like I was watching TV instead of doing homework.

“Are you coming back into the office today? You have a bunch of messages, and I had no idea where you were.” “Wait, what time is it?” “It’s four o clock.” Carina looked at me like I was a complete idiot.

It had happened again. I lost the time, just like creepy Ed Norton in Primal Fear. But dammit, I was having too much fun. I squelched the voice in my head that was ordering me to return all those calls and told Carina I’d be in the garage for the foreseeable future, asking her to handle whatever she could without me.

I was officially off the rails, and loving it! It was time to speak to the people! I cued up the ending of “Mourning Bell” again, and got ready to unleash the mountain man within, picturing the denizens of Pine Mountain sitting on their decks and wondering at this strange music emanating from their speakers. Where was Bette Midler? Where was Garth Brooks? I spoke over the fade of the song, keeping my voice low and slow, like I imagined a mountain DJ would. “You are listening to Sweetheart of the Radio. My name is Jay Stellar, and I will be your host for the next two hours…”

For the next several hours I was as blissed out as the proverbial kid in a candy store. I feverishly perused my music collection, picking songs and juxtaposing them against others, trying to find meaningful transitions and hidden connections. I played Joe Henry up against Nirvana, followed Daniel Johnson with a chaser of Edith Piaf, and backed The Band into Stephen Malkmus. Every three or four songs I spoke to the listeners, promising that Sweetheart of the Radio was all about the music, and that I would always give them as much information as possible about the aritsts they were hearing. After spinning a Joe Tex song called “The Love You Save May Be Your Own,” I asked listeners what those lyrics meant to them. Now, listening back to Sweetheart of the Radio recordings, I hear someone who really wanted to create a dialog about music that would connect strangers in conversation. That, or someone in a garage who hadn’t eaten in a while, growing increasingly delusional with each passing hour.

By the time I was making the second hour of the show, it was late, and another idea was forming in my head. As I spun records and recorded dialog, my eyes traveled around my home studio. There was the drum set against one wall, and the upright piano and the Wurlitzer on the opposite. The space between was filled with guitars, microphones, cords, amplifiers, and a couch. Why, I could have an artist or a band record live songs for Sweetheart of the Radio! The wheels started turning. It was Tuesday night. I didn’t have to turn in the show until Saturday. Who could I lure to the garage? …to be continued.

– Sam Jones, January 2016