Transmissions in a nervous night

imagesMy sound is odd and scratchy. My frequency is fragile. Distant and lonely. Faraway and forlorn. It starts out strong and gets tinny as it travels. Like shouting in a well. A disappearance of sound. Transmissions in a nervous night. I wonder if I’m even ever heard at all.
I’m sitting in an empty bathtub at 2 a.m. trying to broadcast my blues through unseen wires, a shout out home to the South where crickets and bullfrogs rule the night. Things are different here. A jackhammer is booming just outside my window as workmen hammer endlessly at a sewer line. To block the sound I’ve put as many doors between me and the pounding as possible and donned a pair of wireless headphones.

I’m transmitting in a southern direction and simultaneously receiving the sounds of the Penguin from back South through the magic of the Internet. The Penguin is a sublime alternative radio station in Wilmington, N.C. that broadcasts John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, Broken Bells and exquisite coolness in general.

index“It’s too late to change your mind. You let loss be your guide,” the Broken Bells are chanting to me. I think they are talking to me, but I always think everything is talking to me. A bum crossing the Brooklyn Bridge ranting to everyone is talking specifically to me during his rant. A song on a radio heard in an empty bathtub at 2 a.m. is talking to me. Everything is talking to me. Maybe I am listening too hard for signs and should accept that only when people are actually talking to me is anyone talking to me.

Kim is the regular radio host at the Penguin. She is an alternative host with an alternative voice that perfectly fits an alternative radio station. When you hear her voice, you think wait, who let that person on the radio?

Hold on a second. “There’s a fat man in the bathtub with the blues. I hear him moan,” Little Feat is telling me. This is so not fair. I’ve lost weight. I’m down to 171 pounds. Close to my proper body mass index. Shut up, Little Feat! Who are you to judge me?


Kim the DJ has blonde hair, and used to be a substance abuse counselor before she became an alternative radio voice. I met her at the Mellow Mushroom back in Wilmington where one day everyone at my table ate pizza and won tickets to concerts by playing a unique form of Bingo using alternative bands instead of numbers. Kim gave me a kiss at a Todd Snider concert once. It wasn’t like that. I had just ordered the very last chicken sandwich the concession stand had to sell. I took the sandwich, happy to have it. Kim was just behind me in line jonesing hard for a chicken sandwich. She pouted loudly. I gave her half of my sandwich. See, that’s how it was. A spontaneous expression of gratitude and nothing more.


Todd Snider is a strange and scruffy Oregon product who was almost very successful before he took a hard and tragic fall from a lot of unnecessary self medication. He is now making a decent living being semi-successful from what I can tell. He writes witty and wonderful songs, and there is nothing like him in the world. When he emerges on stage, he is barefoot and blue jeaned, wearing a little porkpie hat, and he looks as if he has spent the night in an underpass drinking cheap wine from a paper bag. I blink a bit. Is this all that’s left of Todd Snider? But it turns out there is plenty left of Todd Snider.


At the end of the night, he throws his guitar pick into the crowd. There is a brief tussle among us in the front row. I don’t know why I want it so feverishly. But I end up with it. He touched it, so some of his magic must be left on it. I keep it in my wallet where it bestows no special musical abilities upon me as I had hoped it might. I guess my point here is this: If you are going to be kissed by a blonde alternative radio DJ, there is no better place to be kissed than at a Todd Snider concert.

indexBack in my bathtub, Trombone Shorty pipes up with “Backatown.” This is an ecstatic piece of crazy cool music. It reminds me of my trombone days back in junior high band, sad days spent trying to coax music out of an ungainly stork of an instrument I loathed. Once I was trying to give my trombone a bath, which you are supposed to do on some regular basis. I left it there overnight. “Are you trying to drown your trombone?” my mom asked after seeing it gleaming underwater. “No. It’s useless,” I said. “My trombone hates me too much to die.”

My point is that I’m going to keep calling home in the dark of night from the North and keep an ear out for signs and signals from the South.

“We’re sailing in a strange boat. Heading for a strange shore,” sing the Waterboys. Yep. Perfect music for sitting in an empty bathtub in a chilly climate with a pounding hammer going way past midnight.

Transmissions in a nervous night

6 thoughts on “Transmissions in a nervous night

  1. Richard Cress says:

    How long did you stay in the bathtub? I know it is the city that never sleeps, but really, c’mon, jackhammering is not a nighttime activity. Nor is empty bathtub sitting.

    We are on the same musical wavelength. You name-checked a handful of artists right from my playlist. John Hiatt? slow turnin’, baby, from the inside out. Broken Bells? without warning she gave up the ghost inside. Todd Snider? silence, music’s original alternative – roots grunge.

    Twenty-five years ago I went to the 5 year class of ’83 reunion. It was nice, but really not enough time for much change; and sometimes things never really do, “You haven’t changed a bit.” Music is one thing that is constantly fresh, if you let it be. I love my classics, but simply walk into a record store and will get lost in the new. At that reunion, I saw Todd (who had not yet become Seven) and we immediately bonded again over what music was out there beyond the beyond. In elementary school he and I used to listen to Spike Jones on 8-track at his house. Talk about retro. At the reunion Todd said he had been playing drums in a band. “What are you listening to?” may have come out of both our mouths simultaneously, but more amazing so did the answer: “Camper van Beethoven”. Who did the what now? We couldn’t believe that five years on we both had coalesced around the same odd mash-up of musical styles and weirditude. But then again, we’d laid the foundation with Spike Jones.

    1. Noise from the jackhammering woke up both of us at exactly 2 a.m. We sat there a while in the dark until we realized it wasn’t going to stop. Robyn had just purchased some amazing new headphones that are supposed to block out all sound. They were supposed to be for both of us, but I reached over and handed them to her in a gesture of true love. I took a less powerful version of those headphones and walked around the house looking for a place to perch. I looked out the window and saw the source of the noise was sewer repair work on a major thoroughfare that runs right in front of our apartment building. They had closed down traffic to make the repairs. I guess they figured no other hour of the day would allow such a necessary street to be shut down. Robyn said the jackhammering lasted three hours. They say it’s a good idea to sit in your bathtub during a hurricane. This was an emergency of a different sort, but it helped to put another set of doors between me and the sound.

      My friend Anthony Williams was into music before I was, even though he was a year younger. I would go over to his house where he was always playing a new Kiss album. I found it weird and hard to love, especially The Elders album. He had a Styx album “Paradise Theatre” that I loved. Every song was great. I later bought the Kilroy album in a flurry of excitement and wondered later (like most of the band members) where it all went wrong. I didn’t find out about the true bliss of alternative radio until I moved to Chapel Hill after college and listened to the Cure and Camper van Beethoven although I had rubbed up against the Violent Femmes with “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Blister in the Sun” and Floyd Cole and the Commotion with “Lost Weekend” earlier in college. I always thought the artist-formerly-known-as-Todd had great musical taste, and I’m sure he still does. Good to know you were with him being early pioneers of musical taste when I was listening to Kiss and trying to figure my life out.

      1. Richard Cress says:

        Yes, the joys and pains of city living. It would be more painful for more people if they close the streets at rush hour. I hope you at least had a seat cushion.

        Todd does swim in great musical waters, and he’s instructed his progeny. If you’ve not checked out his sons’ band Northbrook Garage, they are a teen-band with some real cred around Chicago music scenes. They’d been performing a cover of a Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings song at their own shows, and eventually Todd got them to a Sharon Jones concert. They were asked on stage to jam with the band for a song. Now that’s just cool.

  2. writewood says:

    Richard, I remember that CVB conversation like it was yesterday. I believe you instantly quoted a line from “Change Your Mind” about rubbing two coins together in your pocket. And thanks for the props for Northbrook Garage. The kids have disbanded, but you can still see their stuff on the YouTube machine. The ginger lead guitarist is my son, as is (on some songs) the brunette percussionist.

    Kevin, I also spent some time in Chapel Hill (Pittsboro, specifically) in ’87-’88, playing drums in a band called Other Bright Colors. We did the triangle circuit (Cat’s Cradle, Under The Street, a few UNC frat parties) as well as a few weekend jaunts up and down the coast. Got to open for the Meat Puppets once.

    Spike Jones. Never really thought about it, but you’re right: That definitely set me on the path where I would eventually meet CVB, The Butthole Surfers, and a mess of other musical oddballs.

    1. The Dead Milkmen. You can’t surf with your butthole and not have a dead milkman delivery. Mojo Nixon. This dude played a song from a band called the Talking Heads once for me back in high school, and I thought that’s the most bizarre song I’ve ever heard. Later, they got crazy successful. It’s hard on a strange band to get crazy successful. No wonder they eventually broke up. My favorite line from a strange band: “If you don’t got Mojo Nixon, then your store could use some fixin'” in the song “Punk Rock Girl.” Go weird or go home, I say.
      I think it’s great that you played in bands, Seven. Greater even still that you passed on the weird rock gene to a son. Very cool!

    2. Richard Cress says:

      That’s right. “change your mind / you can change your mind / I’ll be glad to let you / even if you walk away” and “Turquoise Jewelry” — “take off that jumpsuit / you look like Grace Slick!”
      David Lowery has a very particular way of articulating lyrics… “Take Off Your Tur – koise Joo – Laaa – Ree” Good times. good times.

      Sorry to hear the kids disbanded. Will they be telling all and backstabbing each other on “Behind The Music” anytime soon?

      Whose Spike Jones was that, your mom’s? It was just hilarious! “Beetlebomb” More hilarious that we listened to it on 8-track tape.

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