The DJ as Impresario by Dan Souder

Stay Fanatic!!! vol. 1 by Henry Rollins
And They All Sang by Studs Terkel

What to do in a world of Sturgeon’s law? Hence the rise of the curator, in addition to giving wealthy people another realm of exclusivity. But the serious DJ grapples with the music. HeShe is an impresario — a ringmaster — and an executor — as in an estate. Besides showcasing, her job is to carry out intention. Because one thing in this world is that the dead continue to control us. The serious DJ, then, presents music as the artist made it. Somewhere in there is the suffering that led to it. His showcraft is a ride of feeling.

Many intentions go into producing music. Expression, making a buck, and presenting, in the faunic sense. It’s not worth scolding corporate radio for shortening songs and speeding them up. As Jacques Chirac said of Brazil, “This is not a serious country.” Of course the independent DJ’s role is not commerce.

Pressing play is not exactly chiseling marble. The art comes in the selection, and what played prior to and what will play after. With the DJ as storyteller it’s crucial not to belie the artist’s intent. Sue Mingus will jab a finger in your face if you play one of her genius husband’s tracks near its Woody Herman cover.

Selection is the province of taste. This is among the rarest commodities of the modern age, so there are many Calvinists behaving as though they already have it. But baby you either got it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you better be able to recognize it. And if you can’t, you better glom onto somebody else’s, someone who can swing a sledge at the drywall inside you, and rip the cling wrap off your brainstem, so you can feel, and understand, the gradients between the chief emotions. With no words for them, we’re lucky that music can describe them. All marketers have is widespread repetition. The serious DJ has explored every gradient. She can conduct a multi-level journey from meditation to anthemic energy on one cross-section of emotion.

This article is not a comparison piece. But it’s helpful to orient the reader with a few pertinent facts. Henry Rollins is a musician, actor, writer, publisher, and disc jockey. Rollins has been a DJ for more than 16 years, currently playing two hours of music one day a week, in Los Angeles.

Stay Fanatic!!! vol. 1 is a tour through his collection of records and memorabilia. He mixes rock legends with genres and bands you’ve never heard of. While music writing is its heart, the book covers a range of topics. There are many passages where Rollins writes philosophically. He displays clear and perceptive thought, and laser-focus in the descriptions of his day-to-day. He lays bare his bugbears and how he conquers his own psyche / manages his mental heath.

The hard-boiled detective writers distilled Hemingway, and the punk writers distilled Chandler et al. Some of Rollins’ early poems were in this vein, concerned with concision and punch. The End Hits of this style is in his photo collection Occupants. His prose opened up in his travel books. Here in SFv1 he’s writing conversationally, wielding dependent clauses.

Music is the raison of his maison. He plumbs his theme from many angles, how music makes life worth living. To paraphrase him, music soothes boredom, and never lets you down, whereas flawed people do. He has the tools to grapple with thought, and employs them well. And the book is funny! In a foreign hotel, Rollins has a Bill Hicks “Housekeeping” moment. He is patient in the face of questions that the Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob should have answered. Once understanding dawns on his assailant, Rollins says,

“I told him I enjoyed our conversation.” Super LOL!

This book would appeal to the collector and those who enjoy learning. We get the minutia of collecting. This reviewer has a lot of music, but is not a collector, but has been a comic book collector, so understands the mania, and after reading it, is now going back through it sampling oeuvres.

There are no critiques. The book succeeds in what it set out to do. It makes one want a full-color exhibition book of the collection.

Studs Terkel was, if not the inventor of the oral history, then the perfecter of it. In books like Working and Hard Times he produced a pillar of 20th century literature. His gift was his ear and his love of fellow man. Before authoring these books, he was a WWII veteran, musician, actor, and a disc jockey. He had been on the air an hour a day every day for 47 years, at the time of the writing of this book, in Chicago.

In shaping a literary form, Studs illuminated the consciousness of a country. He lived in the vein of the American citizenry of the 1820s, who decreed that the White House was the people’s house, and held parties in its front rooms, and got drunk on its fenceless lawn. That is the spirit of “We the People” as practiced by the farmer/landowners.

Studs’ activism got his early television show taken off the air, bowing to advertiser pressure and anti-red mania. To its credit Chicago kept him on the air — on the radio. And They All Sang covers not his radio show itself, but his interviews with the 20th century luminaries he played, as with his other oral histories. He speaks of how, to fill time, he’d sometimes read from classic books. Opera may have been his greatest love. He opens this book with it, giving the first chapters over to its stars. He covers a lot of jazz as well. There’s no Bird, Mingus, or Miles, but there’s a fine chat with jazz’s own perfecter. There are classical subjects as well as blues and folk.

The interviews in ATAS are edited. When the subject is loquacious, Studs gives them reign, as he did with Edith Mason, the soprano known for saloon banter. Where he had to draw them out, the text is broken by his questions and comments. He was among the best at getting his subjects to reveal themselves, but we are left to infer it from the interviewee’s words, rather than reading Studs’ technique directly. The subjects shine. The story arises as he directs it.

Studs talks to AndrĂ©s Segovia, whom he reports as being in “a whimsical mood,” their conversation having “the air of bonhomie.” Segovia was Studs’ greatest guitarist. He relays a touching tale of the luthier Ramirez. Called the Stradivarius of the guitar, Ramirez gave Segovia at 17 a guitar for free. The teenager’s gift was already well known. Great luthiers have a feeling they impart in the wood. How to access it? Give it to Segovia so you can hear your own core.

An elderly man at the time of this interview, he expresses something in common with the early punk rockers.

Studs: You have often said you will never play down to an audience.
Segovia: No, no, no, no. Never. I have too much respect for the guitar. And for the places where I play it.

Studs’ questions as edited barely constitute a single line. But when he conversed with Ravi Shankar in the ’60s (man), he gives full vent to his feelings. Shankar scored the great Ray film Pather Panchali. Studs tells him, “There was one moment that was indelible to me. The little girl dies and the mother screams. We did not hear the voice of the actress. We heard your bowed instrument. Boy, oh boy. It brought to mind Munch’s painting The Scream. It was a grief so profound, it dared not speak its name.” Shankar responds that on viewing the film the first time, its musical theme sprang into his head. He improvised the whole soundtrack around this theme in one four-hour session, late at night, with his band.

Studs wants to range in his subject’s mind. He wants his subjects to shine, but he will interject when something excites him. It keeps the flow. He was in a class by himself, until Svetlana Alexievich came along. Rollins stands more with the New Journalists. He knows he has bias, and tells us so, so he’s free to subject himself.

Studs says of Lil Armstrong, the pianist and Louis’s second wife, “Probably her greatest contribution was acquainting Louis with the nature of urban life. There’s no doubt she helped his career to speed along. His knowledge of behavior both musical and otherwise in the big city came from her.” Disagree. They don’t let you join King Oliver’s band if you ain’t got that swing. And Oliver got her in before her future husband. For Studs to sound parochial is jarring, but in the biographical notes he calls her one of the most influential of the early pianists.

Furthermore, Louis Armstrong’s autobio spends all but its last few chapters on his childhood, navigating the precarious alleys of the Crescent City. There a child laborer learned the hustle. Armstrong knew which gangs the men were in and what the brash women did with them. He knew the volatility of spirits and forswore it for the herb. In this book Studs admits feeling self-conscious and embarrassed talking to Louis. Some people are just too big…

Studs paints the impresario thusly: “When we think of [Alan] Lomax, we think of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, and then you start thinking of all the others who would otherwise have been among the anonymous and forgotten. They owe him their remembrance.”

The DJs of independent radio are ours.

For the late WOXY

— Ed.