On my existential born to run, born to lose errands up and down the Oregon Coast last summer and fall, I stopped listening to my mix tapes and CDs. I’d heard them all before and I needed something new to survive.
I turned to radio and radio delivered.
I wrote the little essay you are about to read as a tribute while alternately listening to FM rock stations in Coos Bay, Gold Beach and Brookings. I wrote it while holed up in a RV Park in a rusted and porous 1977 Winnebago rig I christened “Hey Joe” because its previous owner was named Joe. He had recently died of internal rot and left his coffeemaker (and cane) behind in the rig and I drank cheap coffee brewed from a dead man’s coffeemaker while every now and then, a classic from Jimi Hendrix came on, including one time, “Hey Joe.”
Now that’s rock and roll and like it.
In 2002, well before iPods, satellite radio and streaming services, Tom Petty released a scathing rock song titled “The Last DJ.” It hit number 22 on the Billboard hot singles chart and then disappeared. Part of the chorus went:
And there goes the last DJ who plays what he wants to plays / and says what he wants to say / hey, hey hey
The song predicted the impending extinction of the independent rock radio DJ, a frequently notorious and influential player in American popular culture for nearly half a century.
I am happy to report the extinction hasn’t yet arrived at the Oregon Coast and one of the sublime joys of cruising Highway 101 is tuning into local stations and listening to hometown DJs broadcasting the rock music they want you to hear—and not a corporate suit lounging in LA or New York! It’s almost never current. Sometimes it’s not even rock and roll. Who cares!
In Astoria, Tillamook, Florence, Reedsport, Coos Bay, Gold Beach, Brookings and other stations I undoubtedly missed, the last DJs are playing what they want to play and saying what they want to say. So tune in! Search the dial as you roll on down the highway. It’s fun, utterly spontaneous, educational, and at times, vertiginous.
These DJs are true men and women of rock. They care about Rush’s new album. They care about Neil Peart’s drum kits. They wax passionately about an upcoming Rick Springfield or Joan Jett concert at one of the tribal casinos. They will hook a listener up with free tickets and backstage passes to Cheap Trick gigs at county fairs. They will argue that the Moody Blues belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and not Madonna. They believe Toto’s first three albums were vastly overlooked. They will play tracks from those albums that should have been hits. Because these DJs know early Toto!
They will play deep cuts from Sniff and the Tears. They will know the name of the lead singer of Sniff and the Tears and have interviewed him by phone or in person when Sniff and the Tears were gigging boat or hunting shows.
These DJs know rock. They know the lineups of Oregon Jam I and II. They were most likely rocking there as teenagers or young adults. They still have the concert t-shirts and wear them to church or bed. They’re probably broadcasting from tiny, slapdash studios, feeling the rock. It might be raining. This being Oregon, they’re probably stoned from the pot they bought legally across the street. When they start talking about rain and they’re stoned, a listener has just entered the Oregon Coast Rock Zone and you will never leave. Why would you want to…for Coldplay?
During the breaks, they’re reporting local news or plugging events like a goat show, muscle car rally, reading to dogs at the library, a Viking festival, a mushroom tour, a Halloween dance at the grange, a canned food drive.
Then it’s back to the music and sets with juxtapositions that create instant surrealism in a listener. A streaming service could never produce this dizzying effect.
Alan Parsons Project
The Richie Family
The Mills Brothers
A DJ might even play “This is Radio Clash” before the station broadcasts the Gold Beach High School football game in mono. If there is another DJ playing that raucous anthem in America, Friday night under the lights, I’d like to know.
There isn’t. This is the Oregon Coast!
One Saturday afternoon drive from Gold Beach to Brookings, I tuned into 95.3 FM, easily my favorite coastal station, and listened to Ed play a set of great rock songs that I had never heard in my life and I’ve been listening to rock for 35 years! I heard “Warm San Francisco Nights by The Animals” ; a b-side hit from the Beach Boys I can’t identify; “Still, You Turn Me On,” by Emerson Lake and Palmer; “Everything’s Coming Our Way” by Santana; and a deep unknown track by The Pretenders, a band I worship and saw in concert in 1984.
Who is Ed? He is a man of rock. He is high on rock. He is no algorithm. He is a real DJ playing what he wants to play. He is wearing an April Wine or White Snake concert t-shirt while doing so.