Jan 22, 2000
This radio review was written for the Listener, when I had a deadline and clearly hadn't been listening to much radio.
The other day I borrowed my sister’s Citroen for a cruise up
the coast. As well as enjoying the luxurious novelty of hydraulic suspension
(speed humps? What speed humps?) the car had a very nice set of speakers.
As I sailed onto State Highway 1, it was an added bonus to
switch on the radio and find one of my favourite records being played, Betty
Wright’s “Clean Up Woman”.
I heard this song often in the early 70s, and the sneaky
guitar lick that bobs and weaves through its verses has since been the basis of
more than one hip-hop hit. But Wright’s original is rarely played these days.
Strange, because its relaxed groove and old-fashioned moralising seem
custom-made for Classic Hits, Solid Gold or easy-listening radio.
Wright was just a teenager when she made the recording, but
she invests her sermon with the type of wisdom, heartache and regret that
changes listeners’ lives.
But what was this? In a programming decision that can only
be described as heroic, the song segued into another favourite of mine. The
melody, with its lopsided geometry, might have been the theme to a surrealistic
cartoon; the piano sounded as though it was being played by a spider on
hallucinogens. It had to be Thelonious Monk.
From ‘Clean Up Woman’ to ‘Mysterioso’ was a daring leap from
the literal to the abstract, yet it worked. Which radio station was I listening
Before I had a chance to check the dial, I was sideswiped by
yet another piece of playlisting straight out of the left lane. A steel guitar
wept and an unearthly voice whined: “I’m a rolling stone, all alone and lost.”
It was Hank Williams and ‘Lost Highway’.
It made sense, but why? I vainly searched for connections
between the buddah of bebop and the hillbilly Shakespeare. Were both tracks
recorded in the same year? The deejay wasn’t giving away any clues. In fact,
the deejay was remaining strangely silent.
About then I realised I had left the motorway and was
heading east. Lost highway, indeed. Pulling over, I checked to see what magical
station I had been listening to, and my dreams of stumbling on the perfect
wavelength were shattered. It was not radio at all but a home-recorded cassette
tape, one I had made for my sister years before.