Friday, October 8, 2010

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts- The KGNU Dead Special

It kind of just crept up on me. I know I have been doing this for a long time, but when I got the poster for our bi-annual Dead special and realized it was 15 years since Jerry died, and that I had been doing the special for at least 10 years before that, it made me realize, to borrow a phrase, what a long strange trip it’s been! My first exposure to the KGNU Grateful Dead special was as a listener in the late 1970’s. I remember in the spring of 1981 DJ Carey Wolfson played the New Years Eve show I had been at the previous December. This was obviously way before the age of immediate downloads and complete accessibility to everything all the time. I remember what a thrill it was to relive the show, and how special it felt that it was my local public radio station playing it. There was a nice, circular, community feeling to it. A few years later I was blown away when then music director Paul Metters asked me if I wanted to work with a younger guy named Carter York to produce the Dead special. He knew I was a big collector, and we had done some radio together, so he trusted my ability to speak fluently on the radio. What a thrill those first couple of specials were for me! The Dead were at the peak of their popularity and the audience reaction was immense to what we were playing. People called in constantly, the studio was filled with happy Deadheads and we made a lot of money for the station. I kept doing it-twice a year for a few years with Carter, until he split to work at a radio station in Austin. He was a great guy and I hope to run into him again someday. Mike Massa then stepped in, bringing years of radio experience and a similar obsessive knowledge to my own. About a year or so later we were joined by our poster-designing friend Chris O’Riley, and that line-up has lasted the ensuing 15 years.

Aside from the well- known pleasures of playing music for an appreciative audience, the special has come to mean much more to me in recent years. The special we did two months after Jerry’s death remains the most emotional night of radio I have ever experienced. The feelings in the Dead community were so raw and freaked-out that it is hard to remember now how that felt. A lot of people listened that time, and we received a record number of pledges. I remember seeking out the most emotional performances I could find - long, slow versions of “Peggy-O,” “Comes A Time,” “Morning Dew,” “Stella Blue” and “So Many Roads.” The phrase from “Terrapin” kept running through my head; “soon you will not hear his voice,” over and over, as powerful versions of his greatest songs poured forth from the speakers, through the wires and out to a mourning community. It was a brilliant illustration of what radio (especially public radio) can and should be-a reflection and amplification of the community’s feelings and a provider of the emotional balm it needs. We live in such fractured times, so removed from any shared sense of well-being, that the ability for a media outlet to really be part of the emotional life of a community truly is a rare gift. And that gift has kept on giving.

It gives to me in a number of ways. I love the programming on KGNU. I love how it has remained a bastion of progressive thought and music, even in times when such an attitude has felt out of step with the prevailing political climate. I love that it is so casual and non-corporate in the station, and I love what doing this special twice a year for all these years has done to me as a collector. In a very real way, my collecting life revolves around this special. Every new addition to my collection gets listened to with an ear toward the special. What will people want to hear? What will surprise Mike Massa? Will I have a version of “ The Other One” that will make Chris O’Riley smile? This year, I can guarantee there will be some selections from the magnificent Furthur shows at Red Rocks, and there will be another bunch of those heart-filling Jerry ballads to mark the 15th anniversary of his passing. Join us on October 16th from 7pm until 1 am at 1390 am, or 88.5 or 93.7 fm or You can pledge your support to the rare and wonderful gift of public radio, or you can just listen… and remember.

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