Friday, October 07, 2016

Control Rooms and Womb Rooms

In 1978 I became a disc jockey at WEVL. 2 years after the radio station's founding in a ramshackle 2 story house on Court (the only of WEVL's 5 locations that's been demolished), 2 of my high school friends and I hiked down from my parents' house near Overton Square and walked up to the radio station. No phone calls. No appointments. Cold. We walked up the porch and knocked on the door. We wanted to be part of this place.

We had seen a cover story in the Sunday Commercial Appeal's Mid-South section about this volunteer radio station with a funny name, WEVL, and funny slogan, Radio Free Midtown. The cover photo of the story was a shot of the beautiful house, an unusual 2 storied porch house, with a pack of smiling people clinging to it, upstairs and down. They looked like weirdos. We wanted to be a part of those people.

We knocked on the door and someone let us in. I don't remember who it was who let us in but they were welcoming. They welcomed us to a house full of used furniture, dirty carpet, scary plumbing, weird smells, shitloads of vinyl, and a control room. Exactly as we imagined.

Within a couple of months, we had a show on WEVL. It was a Saturday morning show since we were still in high school. We played it eclectic as shit. WEVL had 10 watts of power and probably even fewer listeners so we played and did what we wanted and very rarely did anyone yell at us. Often my friend Joe the writer would create or produce radio plays ("Tarzan Goes to Memphis", "Ubu Roi") and my friend Phil the techy would record them. And I helped. In between, we played an almost random soundtrack of stuff as we found it in WEVL's record collection. If nothing else, we filled empty airtime and didn't break FCC rules.

Early on we realized we could stay out all night long by taking a late night "shift" at WEVL on a Friday or Saturday night. We would tell our parents, truthfully, that we were going to do a radio show and they could tune in and listen to us. But we knew they wouldn't listen so we also used the shows as a time to drink. During our late night Halloween show in 1978, we read Edgar Allen Poe stories while Stravinsky's Firebird played in the background, all the while taking vodka shots. At some point in the proceedings, Joe the Writer went nuts in the control room and we had to wrestle with him for a bit before he finally passed out on a grody, soon to be grodier, living room couch.

As we had hoped, WEVL was a place of weirdos -- pot-smoking granddads, paranoid banjo players, grumpy activists, wisecracking technicians, sexy hippies, brain-damaged engineers, remade Rastafarians, faux FBI agents, tripping high school misfits. It was fun. It was freedom. We could do what we wanted, within our ability to imagine it and make it happen.

In early 1979, WEVL made the first of many moves. Since its founding, the station had been sharing the Court Street house with its founder, Dennis Batson. WEVL had the bottom floor; Dennis had the top floor. However, sometime early in their still short life, the board of WEVL had a falling out with Batson and he unamicably left the station. But not the house. By the time we showed up, Batson was already out of the station but still upstairs. I don't know whether it was this unusual living arrangement or the horrible physical state of the house that caused the move, but we did, to the Exchange Building in downtown Memphis.

The Exchange Building was a step up figuratively, and 16 floors worth of steps up literally, for WEVL. Although it was a little rundown when the station moved in, the Exchange Building was sturdy and had good bathrooms. The station's quarters were more spacious. And way up in the sky. The control room was in the northwest corner of the building and had beautiful views of the Mississippi and downtown. Those without fear could even stand on the wide ledge outside the control room window. It had a small ornamental railing giving those without fear even less. No one fell off.

Our fun continued in the new digs. Where we were limited to the 2 or 3 rooms of the house on Court, the half-empty Exchange Building was a place of exploration and adventure in between shifts and records. Where we had only the living room to dump drunks on Court Street, we now had half a building. Someone got too crazy, we'd put them on a dolly and take them up to an empty floor and leave them there.

One of my favorite incidental experiences during that time was a conceptual art exhibit put on 2 floors above WEVL in the spring or fall of 1979. The whole floor had been turned into an experiential art gallery for a month. I particularly remember the Womb Room, a dark warm space that you would walk into through a narrow passageway. The show blew my mind. When the show finished, that empty-again space was like a fairgrounds after the fair decamped.  It had been a perfect extension of the creative possibility that WEVL had welcomed us into.

But my all-time favorite experience was the day we took a holiday shift during the spring of 1979. Maybe Good Friday. Since it was spring, and WEVL may or may not have had air conditioning, the windows were open.

As we played records, we started hearing music coming up from Court Square. It was raucous. We decided to check it out. We put on a long record and went reconnoitering downstairs to see what the disturbance was. We walked up to the Main Street Mall stage at the intersection of Court and saw the band. There were 3 people playing -- 2 guitarists and a drummer -- and 2 or 3 girls dancing, and no one else. No audience. The Mall was empty except for them and us. The music was cool. Raw and fun. And the fact that no one was there to hear them didn't stop them.

We hurried back to the control room to beat the end of the record. On the way up we came up with a plan. Maybe, maybe, maybe we could run a cable down the building and put them on our show. Live. There was only one thing to do -- ask Brian!

WEVL's program director, Brian Costello, was a tall, long-haired, Frank Zappa/Groucho Marx hybrid look-alike, with a dry, inpenetrable, random, hilarious wit. I don't remember his ever getting mad at us, but he always gave the impression that he was just enduring us. But on this day when we came to him with our idea, he said, "okay, let's do it." With his technical guidance, we began hooking cable to cable to cable to microphone, until we thought we had enough to reach the stage. And then a couple of us went downstairs while the other one of us got out on the 16th floor ledge and began lowering the cable. When the cable end got to the ground, we started pulling the it towards the stage while the ledge guy kept feeding cable. When we got up to the stage, we asked the band if we could put them on the air. They said sure and continued playing. We secured the mic, now fixed to a giant arc of cables descending 16 floors and diagonally across Court Square. Brian manned the control room and the feed at this point, so we decided to enjoy the show and our handiwork in person.

I had no idea who these musicians were, but they were showmen. The fact that no one was there to see the show didn't phase them. Between songs the lead singer introduced his band to the absent crowd as the unapproachable Panther Burns. His name was Tav Falco. He introduced the other guitarist as Axl Chitlin. The drummer he introduced as the Baron of Love, Ross Johnson. And the dancers were no random members of the public but the Burnettes, the dancing sidekicks of the Panther Burns.

My mind was blown. I still had no idea who they WERE but now I knew their names, their weird names. They were playing wild, beautiful music with a showman's flair, with pretty people dancing, and no one was watching or listening except for us and our 10 watts worth of listeners. It was so cool. I have no idea how long the show lasted after we showed up, but whether it was 5 minutes or 2 hours, that show was eternal.

This Panther Burns show became one more passage into an alternate Memphis, like our welcome into the WEVL house and our trip up into the Womb Room. My friends and I hiked out of the banal, suburbanizing Memphis we grew up in, and walked into a future Memphis. A Memphis of creativity, of imagination, of personality, of new spirit and old bones, all executed with a DIY flair.

That we were crossing over into a new world was a lot of wisdom for a teenager, which is why I didn't have that wisdom. But I did have an intuition of that wisdom. I wish I could have had more than that because it would have helped as I struggled with what the hell I was going to do with my life in the years after. It took me a long time to figure out I always had these great models in front of me, of what I wanted from life and from Memphis.

But even if you were to follow such brilliant models, you have to keep them going.  Sustaining fun and creativity and dreams is very hard, for cities, for individuals, for institutions. I've seen good friends, some of whom I met at WEVL, die trying to keep the fun and dreams going. They never made it out of the Womb Room. Luckily, WEVL not only made it out, it has thrived. I don't know much about WEVL's history after I left for college in 1980, but I do know they were able to tame the Wild-West-as-Reenacted-at-Spahn-Ranch culture, to survive and flourish, while keeping some of that essence.

I wasn't there at WEVL's birth, but I was lucky enough to be there, for at least a short time, during its toddlerdom. We can be thankful that mad toddler is all grown up now and respectable. But I think at least part of WEVL's enduring greatness is the soul is still the same.

Happy 40th Birthday, WEVL!

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