On Monday, Labor Day, KCRW-FM in Santa Monica celebrates thirty years of a truly beloved LA cultural institution.
I mean "Morning Becomes Eclectic," the station's daily 9-noon tastemaking potpourri of music, live performance, interviews and all important events calendar.
The nine-hour live MBE anniversary special features highlights from the three men who've hosted the show: Nic Harcourt, currently at the mic; Chris Douridas, who preceded him ...and my old friend Tom Schnabel, whose inspiration the show was starting in 1977.
I was first a guest on MBE with Tom twenty years ago, out in LA for the first time on book tour. I had no idea at the time how important radio was in LA (all those hours in a car, besides the office). Or how influential KCRW was generally. Or specifically, how important was MBE.
I soon learned that for many Angelinos--to this day--Tom Schnabel is the person who introduced them to the wider geography of music, and even larger culture, that they love. Sounds from Africa, Brazil, Jamaica, Cuba, France, Rumania, Pakistan, India--mixed in with jazz, classical, hip-hop...with indie/arty rockers such Eno and David Byrne. Well, if you live in LA, you know what I'm talking about. You could hear the earth spinning on its turntable, song to quality song through Tom's playlists.
As host of MBE and as KCRW's first music director, Tom was the main groundbreaker for global music on America airwaves.
He also did great (sometimes alarming) on-air interviews during his tenure, ranging from Ravi Shankar to Nina Simone to Leonard Cohen . To the odd author or movie director or two. The highlights are in his book, Stolen Moments. He's written another terrific book about global music, Rhythm Planet: the Great World Music Makers .
I had the pleasure of guest-hosting with Tom a few times. (You want a natural high, segue on air from a James Brown track to a Maria Callas aria.) I'd moved to LA and Tom and I were good friends quickly. I'm proud to say we did some musical exploring together, particularly in what was then new terrain if you weren't Spanish speaking: from Cuban greats Arsenio Rodriguez and Jose Fajardo to salsa's smokin' Cheo Feliciano and Joe Arroyo . I got to appreciate Tom's passion for discovery--how on our way to a restaurant he might swerve over to call a Latin radio station to get the name of a knockout song we'd just heard.
My favorite guest-host session was titled The Music of Co-Dependency: popular songs about romantic love, all exhibiting textbook mental unhealthiness if regarded from the angle of a therapist (e.g., Ray Charles' "I Love You So Much, It's Hurts Me"). Alas, the show won't make it onto Tom's three-hour selection on Labor Day. But I hear I have distinguished company; David Byrne, Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, Tom Waits, and others didn't make it either. Imagine the goodies of those who survived!
I dropped Tom a couple questions as he prepared for Monday's special:
BY: Any MBE show stands out as most special or strangest?
TS: The John Cage special radio event for LA Festival ca 1985, throwing I Ching yarrow stalks in chance operation, 3 piles lp's all genres, all playing simultaneously in creation of new original work--James Brown, trad Egyptian music, Pete Seeger, all at once....
BY: Whoa, eclectic city. So who would you choose to spend an evening with, listening to discs and talking music: Miles Davis or Caetano Veloso?
TS: Miles Davis--we would have hit it off. I reviewed Caetano Veloso's autobiography for the LA Times...tedious, pretentious, galling.
BY: That settles that! So after all these eclectic years, what do you really think about that cult phenom known as "farm opera"?
TS: Long live farm opera!!!!!!
What's farm opera, you say? Aw come on, get global already.
The MBE special airs live from 9am-6pm PST Monday Sept. 3, and then repeats 6pm-3am. Streaming online as well, of course. Tom hosts KCRW's "Café LA" Sundays noon-3pm. (Chris Douridas hosts "New Ground" Saturdays noon-3pm). Tom also advises on programming for the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Hall. I think he's given up lifeguarding at the beach, after years of that too (a lifeguard who attended the Sorbonne, if you please). And I'm back in New York, reminiscing.