The Only Good Song on the Radio

The only time I listen to pop music on the radio these days is when I’m driving. I don’t expect much, just something pleasant enough to keep me going with the traffic over the Burrard Street Bridge—something with a good beat, lyrics that are not too idiotic, and a catchy melody. Usually that’s what I get, but a few weeks ago I realized that radio music had gone dead for me. The only thing that kept me from switching over to a CD was one song. They didn’t play it often enough, and I kept waiting for it—the only good song on the radio.

I clearly remember the exact moment when I first got hooked on radio. A song came on with a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard, a song so insanely good that I had to turn up the volume and lean close to the brown Bakelite box in my grandmother’s kitchen. I knew that it was for kids my age in a way that no song had ever been before—Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline.” That’s so many years ago, and I’m still listening, listening for the Zeitgeist.

When the music on the radio goes dead, there’s something wrong in the world. I remember one of the worst years. Watergate, post-Nixon, Gerald Ford in the White House, the fall of Saigon, and I simply could not listen any longer to the music on the radio. Captain & Tennille, Glen Campbell, Freddy Fender, The Eagles, John Denver, The Bee Gees, The Doobie Brothers— Do I need to go on? Janis Ian, The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John— I was always listening to something, so I slapped Dylan onto my turntable, and early Bowie and vintage Flat and Scruggs, but then, as a Christmas present, a dear friend gave me an album by someone I’d never heard of. I loved the picture on the cover—a young woman in a white shirt, a black jacket slung over her shoulder. Nobody had ever looked quite like that before, so Sally-Ann-cool and stunningly androgynous. Yeah, photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, the great Patti Smith. She brought music back to life.

When I’m driving home, I know that I’m never going to hear a game-changer like “Horses” on commercial radio. All I want is a small ray of hope, and that’s exactly what I was getting from the only good song. Okay, so what was it? The phrase that stuck in my head was “the dark of the moon.” I Googled it, and all that gave me was the soundtrack to Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, and that sure wasn’t it. A day or so later I heard the song again and listened carefully. Ah, I’d heard it wrong. It was “the dark side of the moon.” Back to Google, and that gave me Pink Floyd. I felt like an idiot. What was I doing chasing a song that any media-savvy teenager could identify in ten seconds and I couldn’t?

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Katniss Everdeen

Dear Canadian Broadcasting Corporation,

Since I emigrated to Canada in 1970, I have been listening to CBC Radio. I listen to it in much of my down-time—while I’m cooking, doing the dishes, putting away my socks, or driving my car. I regard CBC Radio as an old reliable friend, and I am writing to you in the spirit of friendship. In recent years Q was one of my favourite shows. The host is gone, but the show continues, and that’s what I want to talk about.
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The Knife’s music video for “A Tooth For An Eye” has some interesting similarities to Grimes’ “Oblivion.” I don’t mean to imply any direct influence. The same social conditions often produce similar lines of thought, and it doesn’t really matter whether Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson, the Swedish siblings who make up The Knife, have seen Grimes’ work or not.

As the video opens, we are in a locker room. The men walking in know each other and exchange greetings as they strip down to their workout gear. This is an athletic group of guys with well-toned bodies; they range in age from their twenties up to one venerable gent who’s fairly long in the tooth. They enter the gym through a door clearly labeled “Herrar”—Men—and find, to our surprise if not to theirs, that a young girl is in charge of their class. Her striped sweatsuit makes it impossible to pinpoint her age, but she could be as young as twelve. She immediately begins directing them in a series of supple movements that would be more appropriate for girls her age than for this collection of mature males. They do their best to follow her.

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Grimes – photo by John Londono


When my younger daughter moved out on her own, she left a copy of her music library on our kitchen computer. For years I hadn’t listened seriously to anything recorded later than the 80s, but I wanted to know what mattered to her and to other kids her age—especially to girls—so I started listening to her music. I found some great artists who were brand new to me—Cat Power, Postal Service, Iron and Wine, Metric, Sufjan Stevens, Tegan and Sara, Portishead. I also found hours of electronica, much of it unlabeled. I dimly sensed a change blowing in the cultural wind, so I wandered onto the net in search of something I knew I wouldn’t be able to identify until I’d found it. I wanted to experience a connection with what was going on right now as intensely as I’d felt when I first heard Bob Dylan in 1963.

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John K. Samson — Sing me a story I haven’t heard yet.

Date: Oct. 30, 2011 lkjlkjljl Photo by Jason Halstead

photo by Jason Halstead

Because I was going to interview John K. Samson, the Artist in Residence at UBC’s Creative Writing Program, I spent several weeks playing his CDs in my car stereo and then finished off my immersion in his music by listening in bed with my eyes shut. Before that I wasn’t very familiar with his work. I knew him, of course, as the lead singer for the Weakerthans, and a tune or two of his had floated by me on CBC Radio 3. Several friends had praised his work, telling me that there was no one anywhere quite like him. The more I listened, the more I realized that I was encountering a powerfully accomplished artist who was, indeed, like no one else. If you give John’s songs your full attention, they wind themselves deep into your psyche in a way that tells you they plan to stick around for a while.

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