street theatre

There was a golden age of radio, and then there was the real golden age.

Although history reports earlier incidents of what was variously called freeform radio, underground FM, etc., Tom Donahue of California is generally regarded as the pioneer of the 1968 manifestation that soon reared it’s golden-locked head in Vancouver on CKLG-FM. Altogether these glory days lasted less than a decade.

Bob Ness played a wide range of always interesting music, poetry between the tracks. I heard his show many times, late weekday afternoons, I believe. A few years later he was doing a Sunday afternoon jazz show. Around that time I rented a room to Shelly, my buxom colleague at the Georgia Straight. She was a friend of Bob’s and when Bob visited one day he noticed my buxom record collection. He asked if he could borrow a few records to play on his show. Normally reluctant to lend records, I couldn’t refuse to share my treasures with the world at large via Bob’s show. So this guy I didn’t know walked out of my place that day lugging over a hundred albums in his heaving, outstretched arms, as me and my dog stared dumbly at his departing ass.

Shelly moved out and Bob and I became pals. Seems like we hung out daily – or nightly – travelling in that small English car, later the blue van, in the West End listening to Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, to concerts at Commodore or Garden Auditorium, (there were always plenty of comps) Taj Mahal, Dr John with the gris gris girls, phoning Ness who in his Shaugnessy digs reading a book would continue reading aloud picking up the phone, and coming up with his own names for everyone – I was Mr. Paradise. JB Shayne was Raoul. Craig McCaw was Slide. And we all used these names, sometimes not knowing each other by anything else. And what was the attraction of his audio self, drifting over houses, apartments, and flats of single women by their radios? Play Misty for me. Meetings and affairs and nights on the town.

He bought a portable Uher tape deck. Bob never got less than the best of anything if he could possibly help it. Back then it was really something to have a battery operated machine the size of a large book that could record broadcast quality audio. I’d messed around with tape recorders all my life and possibly had more fun with the thing than he did. I was born to be a radio documentarian and recording artist and it was only my determination to become a nobody that prevented fame and infamy for me.

We’d meet up, for example, at a favourite diner on Main Street, I’d have the veal cutlets, and then get in the van. I’d man the Uher, narrating everything, throwing in random thoughts, social commentary, weather reports, extemporaneous speculations, memories, dreams, and reflections. It was pure fun and poetry but here’s the wild thing about it. He’d broadcast these on his weekday morning show, Street Theatre. The show was wide open, free to accommodate anything he imagined – recordings of Pygmies of the Ituri rainforest, Ornette Coleman, rock and roll of the highest order, interviews, live in-studio guests (Philip K Dick, for example, which I wrote about here) and our audio documentary of the night before. The odd thing was that no matter how often this happened it never occurred to me that these would be broadcast, probably because I never heard them. They were on too early for me. I’d be out later in the day and people would say, for example, “wow, that was crazy last night with that chick in the back seat and the handball guys in the alley.” This always surprised me.

That was a memorable one. I had no idea what was up or where we were going. We were driving in the West End and I’m doing the play-by-play.

“We seem to be turning left now onto . . . wait a minute . . . yes, it’s Burnaby Street. We’re stopping . . . parking. It looks like we’re entering 1750 Burnaby . . . .”

Etc., describing the ride up in the elevator, the woman who got on with us, getting off, knocking on a door. As it turned out we were visiting the apartment of Anne Faulkner, whom neither of us knew and I had never heard of. She’d called him on air or something and as he sometimes did, he got an address.

“We’re visiting the home of William Faulkner’s grand-neice.”

I developed an immediate desire for her, which I described on tape as we sat around her living room making conversation. At one point some transvestite arrived and hung around nervously high for a while and left. Then we all left and got in Bob’s van, Anne and I getting in the back as Bob drove.

“We’re heading east down what looks like an alley . . . I seem to be having my ear nibbled . . . wait a minute, there are two men playing handball. It’s the World Alley-Handball Tournament. ”

I shoved the mike out the window as Bob interviewed these spontaneous street athletes, neither missing a beat as they described, in that breathless Olympic fashion, the competition, the excitement, the thrill of the game. I went back to having my ears chewed as we drove off, winding up in the CKLG studios with JB Shayne on the air, integrating the proceedings into his program.

to be continued . . .

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