People Really Were Better Looking Then

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Saturday night, April 3. Elton John was playing at the Orpheum theater. I was backstage listening, entranced. We were broadcasting the concert live on WBCN. Al Perry, the Program Manager, had set it up. Elton John’s band had not showed up, and, as he briefly explained, neither had his luggage, but the Steinway grand on stage was in tune, and that was all he needed. He sat down at the piano, on time, and began his performance in a soft, powerful voice. I scarcely felt any emotions at that time. I did not want what feelings resulting from pain, loss and disillusionment I occasionally had. I smoked pot, after all. But Elton John , playing entirely his own material, was able to project, even to me, and, as I hope and believe, to all youth up and down the North and South Shores and to the West for many miles, both sadness and hope.

Al had told me more than a week earlier to order the 15 kc stereo pair from the Orpheum to the studio, but I had of course forgotten to do it until the last minute. I was smoking joints, you see. The day before when Al asked me if the lines were ready I hastily called the Radio Board and was able to convince the technicians there to put the circuits in.

A 15 kHz – I MEAN kc – stereo pair was a beautiful thing, as long as the phase shift could be minimized between the two pairs at the higher frequencies: very low noise, no artifacts. Good analog will always be better than good digital, all other factors being equal, as Steve Colby demonstrated to me long ago. The compact disk brought uniform, very good audio to the masses, and displaced the vinyl record for economic reasons, not because of any inherent superiority in fidelity. Vinyl played on the best equipment has no quantization noise, has less overshoot and degrades before clipping more gracefully than a CD, particularly an early, 16-bit CD. Even better is 1/4 inch tape recorded at 15 inches per second. But play your tapes now, dear readers, because they are not immortal like digital. Mp3’s, avi’s, even these posts all have the potential to be duplicated endlessly, error-free, forever. But your tapes are deteriorating. The oxide is separating from the Mylar. Print-through is steadily increasing. Even if you can find a functioning 1/4 inch machine, when you mount the tape you may find that it crumbles before it can be heard or digitized. Bake it in an oven at 180 degrees F for 12 hours. That will cause the oxide to temporarily re-bond with the backing so that you may be able to play it once – just once, maybe.

Besides being Program Director Al was a disk jockey, but his real love was the live broadcasts he was continually setting up. He had a good relationship with the owners of Intermedia Studios, and we were able to broadcast Canned Heat from there when that very loud and up tempo band was recording a session. I was first exposed to then-state-of-the-art recording technology at Intermedia Studios – 16 track Ampex recorders, a Neve console, real soundproofing, a large studio, decent microphones, etc.

Al would sometimes bring live talent to WBCN for a broadcast. We didn’t have enough room for a band in either of the announcing studios so we had to set up in the front office where the beautiful and efficient Carla Epple worked scheduling the announcers and performing every other kind of support function. We would push the desks out of the way and cram in a band. A recording exists of a Youngbloods session from March, 1971. It is not of particularly high quality, reinforcing my memory of the occasion. Hound Dog Taylor and his band somehow squeezed themselves in. Hound Dog did not want to stop playing. Max pleaded with him during commercials to stop, but he would not, and played on and on from the afternoon into the night. Woo-Woo was not pleased.

I still regret an an incident that occurred after Gary Burton [This couldn’t have been Burton – it was a saxophone recording – somebody help me out here, please. Bill, 2010-08-19] came into the studio one early summer night to broadcast, solo. I set up the best microphone we had and he payed eerily for about half an hour, talked to Charles quietly for a few minutes, and left. The next day I grabbed Al – “Come into the production studio, Al, I want you to listen to something.”  Al was busy and annoyed, but came in to listen. I was proud of the Burton recording I had made the night before and wanted to share it with Al. I hope it still exists somewhere. Unfortunately Al’s reaction was “What’s the matter? Are you trying to show me we need a new microphone?”  It was tough being Program Manager under Woo-Woo, who would not spend a dime.

Now it was summer and I felt a little better than I had when I first started working for WBCN. I was eating better and had gained a pound. One Friday I asked Carla where to go to the beach, and she told me where, but I will not tell you where exactly, dear readers, because the place is as unspoiled today as it was in 1971, and I do not wish to share it with a crowd. She laid out accurate directions, giving the location of some radio towers (clue: a 4-tower directional array) as a landmark, and suggested that I might see her and Al there.

Copyright 1971, 2009 William J. Spurlin

Copyright 1971, 2009 William J. Spurlin

Copyright 1971, 2009 William J. Spurlin

Svetlana Alliluyeva wrote “Do you think it odd that I talk all the time about everybody’s being beautiful or handsome? It was a different age — people really were good-looking then.” I’ve already shared my impressions of Max’s beauty and I was also quite good looking in those days, in an emaciated way. Debbie was beautiful; Tommy, Andy, Charles and John were quite handsome, and you will be able, discerning reader, to see for yourself when I post two photographs of Al and Carla from a summer day in 1971, how well they looked. We did go to the beach that Saturday, as cloudless a day as that corner of New England can be, where the tide retreats quickly leaving behind pools teeming with life, the simple forms of kelp, tiny fishes and hermit crabs. Late in the afternoon when the sun had warmed the pristine waters we swam, close to the shore. Further out it was still too cold. Finally we retreated up the bluff into the shadows, Al and Carla to get into their car and I into mine, to drive back to Boston.

1968, 1969, 1970 and 1971 in my country were violent years of protests, assassinations and bombings. Most of the beauty we had, created and experienced in those days has been destroyed, some at the time, some later, probably forever, perhaps not. On October 14, 1970 there was a bombing in the library of the Henry Kissinger – created Center for International Relations in a building at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge. (later, in 1972, when my drinking and incessant pot smoking landed me in a mental hospital, my room mate suffered from a paranoid delusion that the FBI was spying on him for having perpetrated this very bombing.) When the damage was being assessed the next day (no one was injured; the bombers, allegedly among them Bill Ayres, had set the bomb to go off at midnight) the managers of the Center discovered, behind a bomb-shattered partition, a largely undamaged trove of tens of thousands of priceless nineteenth century photographic prints and glass negatives that had been accidentally walled off, lost and forgotten for about seventy years.

In my later career, when I was working at Harvard as an electronics engineer, I was asked to consult on the Millman F. Parry collection of approximately ten thousand aluminum 78 RPM discs recorded by Dr. Parry in Yugoslavia in the 1930’s, folk songs that Dr. Parry analyzed and used to prove his theory of the folk origin of, among other things, Homeric epic. I set the Collection up with the necessary equipment to transcribe the discs to digital format, but aluminum corrodes, unfortunately, faster than the transcriptions can take place.

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