2020 Album Draft- Round 13 Pick 8- Film- Dave A Sound Day Selects- I Am What I Play.
Well, the Professor must’ve found a way to make a DVD player from coconuts and a screen out of bamboo shoots, because we’re now allowed one music-themed movie or film on Hanspostcard’s “desert island.”
Now, logically I probably should go for something with lots of music I’d like to watch and hear regularly like one of U2’s live shows – maybe the Slaine Castle one in Ireland – or a video compilation from The Stranglers or Depeche Mode since I’ve neglected them so far and feel that’s not quite kosher. Maybe that’s what I should do. But…no question about it, I have to take along one which has one of my friends co-starring in it and which drives home one of my major music themes. Or at least, it’s the one I want to share here with you good readers. So the island better have wi-fi, ’cause I’m taking along I Am What I Play.
I Am What I Play is a 2015 documentary by filmmaker Roger King, and it honors not only four individuals, but a disappearing way of life. The radio DJ who was a “personality” instead of a faceless corporate voice, and radio that was fresh. Exciting. Bold. New.
If you’re a regular reader at my own music blog, you’ve probably noticed a recurring theme with me, that radio today isn’t like the radio of my childhood. And it’s not new and improved. I grew up in the ’70s listening to AM hit radio which put together a mish- mash of different sounds and genres, which seemed incongruous…but worked! Spinners, Elton, Diana Ross, Kiss, Tom T. Hall, Firefall, Yvonne Elleman in one set? Why not!? It worked. Nowadays, everything is tightly structured and narrow in range. And the DJs back then were personalities. They had personality, they came into our rooms and cars like friends. WKRP in Cincinnati might have been a little far-fetched, but the basic premise was real… radio was fun, unpredictable and personal. Johnny would have fun and play what he wanted, and then Venus would bring in his own attitude and music to spin the next shift. We liked those people, we got to hear a lot of music so in turn we liked those stations. In life imitating art, a classic WKRP episode involved Johnny Fever trying to stay calm and keep callers calm when a tornado ripped through the city. In 2009, when a tornado hit Toronto and severe storms ravaged the suburbs, my Mom told me it was one of the local DJs we meet in the movie who kept her calm as she listened to the radio… not even a program she typically tuned in. No more when you flip on the FM button. And AM … forget it, unless you want to hear people shouting at each other about politics. I Am What I Play looks back on the golden age of radio by profiling four legendary radio DJs, all of whom have been honored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
There’s the outspoken and argumentative Charles Laquidara, a Boston radio fixture; the Glass Ceiling-busting Meg Griffin from New York; Seattle’s liason to the stars, Pat O’Day and the shaper of Toronto’s sounds for years, David Marsden. A full note of disclosure if necessary, I feel lucky to call Marsden a personal friend of mine, and I’ve interviewed him twice, once for a major Toronto newspaper and once for an upscale regional magazine. I’ve at times helped carry cases of CDs into the studio for him (on his last commercial gig, he said he’d cart along about 6000 songs from his own collection each night to supplement the station’s library) and have once or twice sat in the studio with him while he worked away. He’s one of the nicest people I know, and one of the most passionate about music and radio. To him, it’s a personal, ever- changing thing. So, how cool is that to see him profiled in a movie? I’m sure people in New England feel as strongly about Laquidara, in the Northwest about O’Day and in the Big Apple about Griffin as they all had great careers, knew their listeners and loved music. None of the four loved the commercial radio game, or where it was taking the media of late.
The movie gives about equal time to each of the four, showcasing their careers and the parallels between them. All of them wanted to get into radio when young and loved music, although Laquidara initially wanted to be a graphic artist and knew classical music a bit better than pop. He would throw Bach on alongside the Rolling Stones, he remembers, saying “people thought it was genius, but I really just didn’t know (what I was supposed to be doing)”. All four faced some roadblocks and started at the low end of the totem pole. Marsden had to hitchhike over 200 miles to get to his first job; Griffin’s first job was at a tiny 3000W station in upstate New York run out of a farmhouse. We see history transpire through their careers. O’Day let Jimi Hendrix play at a small concert he was promoting in exchange for Jimi letting the headliner use his amp (which was far better than the club one!) . Later on it was the same DJ who had to arrange for Hendrix’ funeral after bringing his body home to Seattle. Griffin and Marsden both knew John Lennon; he’d sometimes pop in to see Meg in her New York studio; David was at John and Yoko’s bed-in in Montreal. Needless to say, his death impacted both of them significantly. All four had glancing work in TV and video but seemed to reject it as a lifestyle or great option for delivering music to the masses. We learn of the problems and risks of being a popular DJ; Laquidara in particular had drug issues while Marsden had to keep his sexuality hidden for years and once had to escape a station which had been taken over by terrorists. Griffin had to avoid a stalker. These people have stories to tell!
We find through it the common thread of coming to the forefront when being a radio DJ was being a SOMEONE. Having thousands of people standing outside when you’re broadcasting just to get a glimpse of you, or your autograph. Having your name on the posters for concerts alongside the stars playing. At their best, at their wildest and most sincere, the radio personalities rivaled the artists they played when it came to recognition and star power. They made good money and touched people’s lives, and mostly, all four of them played music they were passionate about, as they saw fit. At times they all walked away from jobs that dictated exactly what they did or played. Not surprisingly, none of them are still active on traditional commercial over-the-air radio anymore nor have much positive to say about today’s bland, standardized , faceless radio. More and more radio stations don’t even feature DJs, except for perhaps on a syndicated morning show, and why would they? There’s nothing local or unique about Bob-this or Q-that or The Wolf or Eagle or Wolf-eagle with their tight playlists set by programmers in New York and L.A., spun out by computers. But if you search for it,you can still find interesting, exciting radio and radio people who were personalities.
Though the movie is about people who love music and brought it to us, there isn’t a great deal of actual music in it. But the careful listener will pick up on bits of great radio songs like “Around the Dial” by the Kinks, “The Spirit of Radio” by Rush and “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles during it. Nonetheless, for people who love music, and love interesting people, this is a must-see movie.
I Am What I Play is supposed to be out there on DVD, but I’ve not yet found a copy. however, it is available readily on Amazon as a streaming movie, available for one- time rental or purchase, and may show up elsewhere on the internet if you dig around enough.
It’s a great doc, and a great reminder of the times when even if you were stranded on a desert island, you wouldn’t feel alone…if you had a radio.