May 2007 Issue
For northeast Ohio teen-ager in the '70s, FM radio station WMMS was the epitome of cool.
Ah, these were the days.
Flashback: Fourth-row seats in Cleveland's fabled Agora nightclub on a sweaty night in 1978, going crazy as Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band tore up the house with a historic concert - all to celebrate the 10th anniversary of one of the Boss' favorite radio stations: WMMS.
Flashback: Grabbing the phone to call my buddy, Med, to ask if he'd just heard a new song on the radio. "Did you hear that? Who was that? That was great!" How could you be sure it was great? Simple: They were spinning it on WMMS.
Flashback: Plastering my bedroom door with WMMS bumper stickers that boomed "Home of the Buzzard," and featured the leering, bug-eyed vulture who graced, or defaced, billboards, car windows and T-shirts all over the Cleveland metropolitan area.
Flashback: Making sure I was near a radio every Friday at 6 p.m. so that I wouldn't miss a second of Murray Saul's salacious, anarchic, stuttering kickoff to the weekend, in which he instructed his thousands of twitching, hedonistic listeners along the shores of Lake Erie that they "gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta get DOWN, dammit!"
Flashback: Getting some much-needed cool-points instruction as a fat, pimply high-school freshman from my older sister's handsome, popular jock boyfriend. Realizing that I was hopelessly, and possibly eternally, stuck in a swamp of social ineptitude, he led me to a radio and patiently turned the dial to the magic number: 100.7 FM.
"This," he said, giving me a pitying look, "is what you want to listen to."
He may have been wrong about some other things, but he was right about WMMS. If you grew up in or around Cleveland in the 1970s and early '80s, you knew that 'MMS was not just the main rock station in town - it was the unchallenged definer of all things hip, smart and inside. It ruled the airwaves for nearly two decades and helped put Cleveland on the map as a place where music mattered.
It's been a long time since I lived within WMMS' 34,000-watt signal, but I recently thought back to those days of devoted fandom when a letter arrived from my mom, who still lives in Oberlin, where I grew up. "Thought you'd get a kick out of this," she wrote on the clipping from The Plain Dealer, a story by Michael Heaton about the good old days of the station.
The peg was the death, on December 27, 2006, of Len "Boom" Goldberg, whose leathery voice had been one of those that made the distinctive WMMS sound. His passing, Heaton wrote, "set off a wave of nostalgia among baby boom listeners who remembered when the Buzzard ruled Cleveland radio. During the 1970s, WMMS ... was the rock 'n' roll pride of Cleveland. And the people who worked there assumed a kind of civic royalty. Goldberg, 74, was the first of the group to die."
Actually, "civic royalty," while true, only partly conveys the nearly mystical hold the DJs at WMMS had on their listeners. Their voices, moods and tastes modulated the rhythms of daily life for thousands of young people who spent as much time with them as possible. "I could tell time by hearing the DJ's voice," Dayton blogger David Esrati, who grew up with the station, recalls in a recent appreciation piece. "My day progressed by the passing of time with an ever-present friend. By being a WMMS listener, I was part of something bigger than me."
For Esrati, me, my friends and thousands of other teenagers and young adults, mornings started out with Jeff and Flash - the wisecracking, rapid-fire team of Jeff Kinzbach and Ed "Flash" Ferenc. Mid-day was spent with Matt the Cat - smooth, soft-voiced Matthew Lapczynski, who sounded like a calm best friend. Drive time belonged to Kid Leo - the smartest guy in the room, a deep-voiced wiseman who seemed to know every person, song and fact in the entire pantheon of rock music. His real name was Lawrence J. Travagliante, but if you had a great rock-DJ job, wouldn't you call yourself something like Kid Leo?
Denny Sanders was cheerful in the evenings, and the sultry Betty Korvan would always be there to put you to bed. If, say, you were up late-late-late - just say - the guy on the car radio as you tried to pull the family car as silently as possible into the driveway (darn noisy gravel!) was the gruff Bill "BLF Bash" Freeman, who made his mark on our youthful sensibilities by playing the music that nobody else would ever try to get away with during the day.
Not that anything sounded too weird on WMMS. It's probably pointless, and a bit unfair, to try to explain to anybody who wasn't there at the time just what it was that made the station special - but suffice to say that it played a rare, eclectic mix of rock that defied classification or genre in a way that's nonexistent in commercial radio nowadays.
To be fair, there were other stations around Ohio that did their best to keep their listeners in good music. Columbus had the reliable QFM96; Cincy had WEBN, with its snarky frog mascot; Dayton had the late, lamented WVUD, which mixed it up quite nicely. My friends and I knew where to tune in as we traveled around the state to go to school or hit the road to see a show, and we'd occasionally catch ourselves in music-geek arguments about the fine points of Ohio rock radio: Whether QFM96 played too much metal, for instance (answer: yes), or whether WEBN's agitated-seeming frog could compare to the preturnaturally laid-back Buzzard (answer: oh, come on). For some reason, I associate these discussions with hazy memories of night-time interstates, empty Little Kings bottles and tinnitus - and looking back, I'm guessing that my ears aren't the only ones ringing in middle age.
Ah, middle age. For this is, after all, a nostalgic rumination on how good things just can't last, and how we change as we get further and further from the events of our youth. I had such thoughts as I read over the PD story my mom mailed to Dayton, where I live now. It had an old black-and-white photo from 1978 of all those great 'MMS disc jockeys, and told where they are now and what they're doing.
Most of them aren't in radio anymore - a notable exception being Kid Leo, who is a program director in New York for Sirius Satellite Radio. Nowadays, most of them are working regular jobs like real estate, advertising or consulting. Just like the rest of us, in other words.
But the newspaper photo told of that other era - so long ago, it seems, and incredibly far away. In it, the DJs are all still young and restless - wearing their WMMS 10th anniversary T-shirts just like the one I had, smiling broadly for the camera and seeming to have the time of their lives. While everybody in town knew what Kid Leo looked like, I was seeing some of their faces for the first time. The one missing, alas, was Murray Saul - the one who was really the most important of the lot. The one who exhorted us each Friday night to enjoy the two free days that lay ahead. The one who granted us permission to do nothing more strenuous than enjoy ourselves until Monday morning. The one told us, right before they spun the same song, Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run," that we "gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta, GOT-TA, GOTTTT-TAAAAA, gottagottagottagottttttttaaaaaagottagotta ... got-TA ... get DOWN, dammit!!!"
Does it lose something in translation? Of course. Like nearly any other perfect thing that flickers briefly and goes out, in order to get it, you had to be there.
Ron Rollins is an editor at the Dayton Daily News.