The only time I drive anymore is when I'm back in Minnesota visiting family. I love driving, but don't miss it too much. When I moved to New York, my car got towed on my first night in the big city - unpaid parking tickets from a previous visit - and the only time I ever drove was to move it directly across the street every two or three days. I don't have to worry about car payments or paying for gas.
But there are times when we desperately miss having a vehicle, usually when we just want to escape the city for a few hours but don't feel like being sardined into a train. We can't just hop in a car and take a cruise through the countryside.
There's another thing I miss about driving: oldies radio shows. Today I heard an ad for Dick Bartley's Sunday Night Countdown on WCBS here in New York. Dick Bartley. Mike Harvey's American Gold. Flashback with Bill St. James. Ron Foster.
Those four hosts - along with the queen of contemporary and tragic requests, Delilah - provided hundreds of hours of entertainment during countless miles on the road. And even today, when I think of each one, vivid memories come, well, flashing back. Not of particular songs or shows, but of life moments.
Dick Bartley and Mike Harvey had similar shows and voices, occasionally making it hard to distinguish them. But when I hear their voices today I'm instantly taken back to my parents's car when I was a kid. Every two or three weeks we'd visit my grandparents, my mother's mom and my father's dad, who lived about 15 minutes apart. We'd often spend most of the day at grandma's house and then make the drive to my grandpa's farm. My dad would always have the radio on oldies and Bartley or Harvey's show was always on syndication. The car filled with "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" by The Shirelles, "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las ("Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!") and other classic songs of the era, many involving fatal car crashes.
I liked the music and still do, but the songs also acted as a spark to my dad's memory. Hearing a particular song - say, "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" - could inexplicably bring about a story centered around a kegger in 1964 he attended with a bunch of friends. He'd turn it up as scenes of hot cars and beer cups filled his head, saying only, "Good tune," as my mom would glance over with a bemused look.
If I turned on Dick Bartley's show tonight and heard a song from that era, it wouldn't just take me back to my childhood: it'd take me back to my dad's youth.
Flashback with Bill St. James was the show of my college years. If I'd visit my parents on a weekend, it was a two-and-a-half, three-hour drive back to school on Sunday nights. Flashback focuses on a particular year and St. James fills the show with music, news and trivia from that era. Whenever I hear Bill St. James's distinctive voice today, I'm back in my red Chevy Beretta, and often with my friend Mike, who was also from Janesville and also attended St. John's. Mike rode back with me and we filled the three hours with talk about sports, Nintendo, bad professors, pickup basketball and the trouble with girls.
Flashback provided the soundtrack to these discussions. It was also on these drives that we became obsessed with the long version of Crimson and Clover, the short version of American Pie, and the lyrics of Sloop John B - Mike analyzed the words "The poor cook he caught the fits. And threw away all my grits. And then he took and he ate up all of my corn" with the intensity of a born-again Christian reading the Book of Revelations.
The timing of our trip usually had us pulling into campus as Flashback was finishing. I haven't heard an entire Flashback show since 1997, but whenever I hear snippets of it today, I'm instantly back in a crumbling, overworked Beretta, listening to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and arguing with Mike about the effectiveness of Brad Radke.
Ron Foster is another syndicated host, and another host I haven't heard in probably 10 years. But at my first newspaper job in southwestern Minnesota, it was often his voice on Good Time Rock n Roll I'd listen to as a I drove to a basketball game, or an interview with a giggling gymnast, or a seven-hour track and field meet. Foster's nickname was Captain Trivia, which as famous Captains go, isn't quite up there with Captain America but is ahead of Captain Jack Sparrow. His show, and shtick, were more entertaining than you'd think. It was presented as being sort of wacky, but behind the canned giggling in the background and planned stuttering, Foster actually had a fairly entertaining take on current events, which he'd deliver while playing 40-year-old songs.
And then there's Delilah, the woman whose line "Love someone tonight" often sounds more like a command than friendly advice. Unlike the others, Delilah doesn't deal in oldies. There's no trivia questions about events and music from 1966. There's nothing wacky, aside perhaps from something an employee's cat did on Memorial Day. Delilah is queen of the heartbreaking dedication. The caller doesn't necessarily know what he needs to hear at this tragic moment in his life, but he knows Delilah will have the answer. She has a vast library at her disposal, ready on a moment's notice when someone needs a song that sums up their existence. Whether it's a wife waiting for her husband to return from war, a prodigal son who hasn't spoken with his parents in 15 years, or a prisoner pining for a glimpse of the sky and a pretty girl, Delilah will have just the song for the moment.
A former co-worker of mine - a male in the sports department, for what it's worth - received Delilah's loyal listener newsletter and occsasionally forwarded it to me with items that, like her show, were often eminently mockable. What song would she come up next for the divorced 19-year-old mother-of-three who's working five jobs and just fell in love with one of her bosses, a 30-year-old father of six?
But the mocking ended, temporarily anyway, during a summer's drive in 2003. I was driving back to Fargo from New York with Louise. We weren't married and our dating had mostly been long-distance, minus long-distance dedications. We didn't call into Delilah. But somewhere outside of Chicago, we got into a minor argument and sat for several miles in silence. She probably wondered why she'd ever gotten in the car in New York.
And then, as I scanned the radio, the caring, smooth, soothing voice of Delilah - which could be used to put Death Row inmates at ease in the moments before their execution - came on. She dedicated "You're the Inspiration" by Chicago, the type of sappy song I'm sure I often ridiculed with friends growing up. But Delilah sees through such mockery, such disdain. She's oblivious to it. She fights through it and still finds that song that somehow sums up your life, or the song whose lyrics say everything you can't.
Like it not, you will love someone, damn it. And as "You're the Inspiration finished", I looked over at Louise, we smiled, laughed, and made up. The fight was over. The rest of the drive was event-free. Six years later, we're married and living in New York.
Delilah doesn't deserve credit for that. But she did provide a soundtrack to some memories. Just like Bartley, Harvey, St. James and Captain Trivia himself.