This weekend I had to do some boring Saturday chores -- hardware store, oil change, that sort of thing -- so I made sure I left the house right at noon, as I often do. That's because that's when the weekly re-broadcast of the original Casey Kasem American Top 40 starts on satellite radio. This had nothing to with reports that the iconic radio broadcaster was laying near death in a Washington state hospital; rather, this has been my routine since I started listening to satellite radio and learned a decade ago that they re-play his old shows. This week was a particular treasure as the show was from this week of June in 1972 -- arguably the best era of the roughly 18 years that Kasem broadcast American Top 40.
Driving around, I listened to classics ("Old Man," by Neil Young, or "Betcha By Golly Wow," by Philadelphia's own Stylistics,) to great songs that have been practically forgotten ("Immigration Man," by David Crosby and Graham Nash), and to minor hits worth another listen ("Automatically Sunshine," the last quasi-hit for the Diana Ross-less Supremes). I also stayed with one "song" that was completely unlistenable ("Troglodyte," by the Jimmy Castor Bunch...what were you thinking, America?) and even stuck it out for Wayne Newton (!!!) and "Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast."
The last couple of songs would have prompted automatic button pushing -- had they been on any contemporary "oldies" station. But because it was Casey Kasem, I felt compelled to listen to every second of it -- the good, the forgotten, and the ugly. Why? Some of it, I guess, is that that quest to hold onto the echoes of one's youth, bouncing off a distant satellite somewhere over America in outer space.
But there was also just something about Casey, who died Sunday at the age of 82 after a long illness. His show arrived right at the moment when it seemed like America was coming apart, culturally, spiritually, and politically -- and promised us, in a tone that was relentlessly upbeat yet somehow never smarmy, that we actually could be one nation under a groove, that for three or four hours we could share a common bond on stations from Key West to Anchorage, that there was one American narrative and it somehow included both the Supremes and Wayne Newton.
Like so many American evangelists, Detroit-native Kasem was the child of immigrants, from Lebanese parents. He served in the U.S. Army in Korea, became a disc jockey for Armed Forces Radio and then rode the roller coaster of local AM Top 40 radio when he came home in the 1950s and 1960s. It was the golden age of rock 'n roll, but radio was still a local affair -- obscure novelty songs might break out from a station in Pittsburgh or Tampa and become a No. 1 national hit, while some artists who were big, say, in Seattle might be unknown here in Philadelphia.
American Top 40 with Casey Kasem as its host was born on the Fourth of July, literally -- July 4, 1970. It was amazing timing, to say the least -- less than two months after the bloodshed at Kent State (the No. 30 song, played by Kasem that week, was "Ohio" by Crosby Still Nash & Young), six months after Altamont, and with the Beatles breaking up and their final No. 1 recording, "The Long and Winding Road," also on the chart at No. 8 that week.
The center was not holding.
But Kasem was the right man for that strange time. He took the chaos that was American pop music and turned it into something that no one had ever thought it could be: A story, that had heroes with remarkable backstories that he could now reveal to the audience, that had winners moving up and losers moving down every week, counting down to an operatic denouement at the No.1 position every week. Rock, pop, soul and country became a kind of Greek-style mythology in his accessible, baritone re-telling.
As the show's popularity grew, one of its most popular features became the "Long Distance Dedication" from a person in one city to someone somewhere else (often, but not always, a separated or lost lover). It was also a grand metaphor for the 1970s -- a shattered nation desperate to reconnect, and here was this nice man Casey Kasem using the technology of the late 20th Century to bring people back together. Something else happened in that first year that American Top 40 was on the air -- Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison all died from drug overdoses, an event that resonated in Kasem's famous sign-off -- "Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars." It would have sounded trite coming from anyone else, but from Casey, it worked. I'm sure there's a few folks in Huntsville or Duluth or some of the hundreds of towns that aired American Top 40 that are alive today because they took his advice.
But there was a huge irony in the amazing success of American Top 40 -- while it celebrated the notion of a national mass culture, it was still powerless to prevent that mass culture from shattering into a million pieces. It was an evolutionary midpoint, as Casey and the show's syndicator Westwood One used better technology and the advanced capitalism of modern marketing to take what could only be done locally -- a guy playing records and beaming a signal from a large tower -- and make it into a weekly national event. But soon, the economics of syndication clobbered local radio -- when I worked in Alabama in the early 1980s and drove around the state, most rural stations played these canned lobotomized formats taped somewhere else, an empty echo across the red clay soil of the Deep South..
But as FM stations proliferated and then finally the Internet with Spotify and Pandora and (yes) satellite radio, and of course iTunes provided a home for every musical niche (and non-musical) niche imaginable, and no one could any longer see the purpose of a shared "Top 40 radio." Why would anyone on the planet listen to Wayne Newton if he didn't have to? In 2014, there's a good chance that die-hard fans of Kendrick Lamar, the Parquet Courts or Lucero have never even heard the other two. Something is gained in the libertarianism of 21st Century pop culture, perhaps, but something has been lost, a sense of community and shared feelings and emotions that many of us feel difficult to even express in words.
So when American Top 40 ended its run in 1988 (Kasem continued variations of "Countdown"-style shows for another two decades, even on TV!), it wasn't really with a sense of "mission accomplished." It was more like he'd been putting his fingers of the leaky dikes of U.S. mass culture for almost 20 years, but there was nothing more he could do to hold off the flood.
There are -- and there will be -- other cheerful voices coming out of the speaker, other "personalities" on the radio or the Internet or inevitably on some future device that only exists today in the mind of some freshman at MIT, who will know how to tell a good story and hold our interest, at least for a couple of minutes. But there won't be that one voice that will bring so many different people together for three hours, in such as unique time as the heyday of Casey Kasem. This is why so many people are mourning his loss today. There will never be another one like him.
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