Thursday, November 15, 2007

Best of L.C.D., Free Form Radio’s Greatest Hits

The Best of LCD: The Art and Writing of WFMU-FM 91.1
Edited by Dave the Spazz
Princeton Architectural Press

WFMU holds a privileged place in the hearts of New York vinyl lovers. Even those who are not devotees of WFMU’s surviving free form format (or lack there of), revere the station as the sponsor of the City’s best record show. Even WFMU’s program guides, ironically titled L.C.D., for lowest common denominator, developed a cult following and attracted big name contributors, some of whom are included in the new retrospective Best of L.C.D., edited by WFMU program host Dave the Spazz.

True to its free form roots, L.C.D. collects writings on a wide array of music. Perhaps in recognition of WFMU’s unique place in the current radio continuum, there are also frequent profiles of significant figures in wireless history. For instance, Rob Weisberg writes: “Out of twelve Americans indicted for treason following World War II, all but five were radio broadcasters—a fact all of us at FMU can be proud of.” (p. 36) It turns out Mildred Gillars, a.k.a. “Axis Sally,” had attended Hunter College, and her propaganda boss and ex-lover Max Otto Koischwitz taught at the Manhattan school (something I will now remember whenever the 6 train stops at 68th Street).

Jazz is well represented among L.C.D.’s diverse selection of music profiles and criticism. Although not listed in the table of contents, there is an insightful profile of Joe Maneri by Harvey Pekar that tantalizing describes the reedman’s then-unreleased first session originally recorded for Atlantic Records. Some pieces are surprisingly personal, like avant-garde saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s piece on the father he never knew. The elder Eskelin recorded as Rodd Keith in the “song poem” field, essentially the 1960’s recording industry equivalent of vanity publishing. Despite working with strange material sent in from suckers around the country, Eskelin writes of the respect many shared for his father’s talent:

“I began seeking out people who knew him. The responses were uncannily similar as if these people, many of whom did not know each other, were all speaking from the same script. ‘Your father was a musical genius’ are usually the first words out of their mouths.” (p. 131)

Many of the pieces are very funny too, like the grudge match between Don McLean and his former opening act Andy Breckman. Some of the best lines come from FMU host and expert on all things Jim Flora related (latest book reviewed here), Irwin Chusid, whose “No Justice—No Airplay!” offer a witty response to demands WFMU boycott the Beach Boys for playing Sun City. Happily free form radio would remain just as free of PC restrictions as of corporate play-lists. Most applicable are his cautionary writings on the dangers of reading: “People who read a lot are usually withdrawn, introverted, and behave awkwardly, unaccustomed to dealing with their peers.” (p. 25)

As someone working in publishing, I completely concur. Books are not meant to be read, but purchased and placed strategically around your apartment to impress your friends with your erudition. (I provide these reviews as a public service, so you can bluff your way through if someone asks your opinion.) L.C.D. will be a good book for that purpose. Including many color pages of past issue covers and portraits of musicians and other figures, it will look great on the coffee table. Most importantly, it sends the right message: you support WFMU. For you “listener supported” is not just the title of a disappointing Dave Matthews release, it is a way of life.

While uneven, like free form radio, L.C.D. is often fascinating. Sure some of the cartoons just do not make any sense, and there are certain excesses in both art and prose. Yet the profiles of both the celebrated, like Doc Pomus, as well as obscure figures like Hawaiian exotica stylist Paul Page, will appeal adventurous listeners everywhere