I wasn’t precisely a nerd in highschool. I was considered even weirder than that. Anyway, nerds, so-called, got and continue to get a bad rap. I liked hangin’ a bit with the nerd group at West Hill High School because they knew stuff. Knowledge is useful, right?
This has nothing to do with the following.
I loved radio. I’d love it still except the people that run it are corporate capitalist-pig morons, and that goes for the CBC, too. Think about it. If you stand back and stop swooning about all the latest gadgets you’ve been bamboozled into thinking you need, and look at the big picture, you’ll know that radio was the best invention of the last century. Better than computers and ipods and cappucino makers. If you were born after about 1960 you won’t have a clue what I’m talking about.
Around the age of 13 or 14 I became interested in shortwave radio. I was also interested in the Allied Radio catalog, a mammoth book filled with thousands of electronic parts you could order by mail. I sent away for the catalog every year and when it came I read it cover to cover, even though the bulk of it was endless listings of resistors, capacitors, vacuum tubes, and the like. There was tons of neat stuff, too, including kits you could put together yourself. I ordered this shortwave radio kit.
Although they suggested you allow about a week to build this thing, I was so eager I built it in a day. Then I spent the week trying to get it to work because of course, in my haste, I made a few mistakes. (There’s a lesson here, but I don’t know what it is.)
My dad thought I was nuts. He’d thought this for a while, long before the radio kit. I was an unusual child, let’s say. Even usual children go a little nuts entering the teen years so you can imagine how strange I became when I hit 13 and later. A lot of tension in the house. I was running away from home on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. No one was happy. Then, I sent off 15.95 of money I’d saved for a radio, of all things. My dad was pissed. “Haven’t we got enough radios in the house?” Big fight. I ran away from home for a few hours.
My mom, bless her heart, must have had a word with him because one day he came into my bedroom and said, “So tell me about your radio. ” It was a nice try. He still thought I was a lunatic but, in the end, I showed him!
Several years earlier my older cousin Jerry became a hero to me for two reasons. One, he was the only member of our family under the age of a hundred who had a beard. Very cool! For 1958, extremely cool and dangerous. Second thing, he became a radio announcer. He left town when I was twelve to work in a small station in Sudbury, followed by several other small town stations across the country, eventually moving to Europe (Wow!!!) when he got a gig broadcasting for the English language department of the Dutch shortwave station, Radio Nederland. It would be many years before I saw him again but at the time he seemed to have gone off for good, into the realms of glamour, foreign intrigue, and show business.
Meanwhile, I was down in the basement with hot solder fumes filling my nostrils, trying to get the damn radio to work. I checked and re-checked each tiny part against the schematic diagram that came with the kit. Unsoldering and resoldering tiny connections. After one such ordeal I thought I’d got everything right and plugged the thing in, turned the knob, and waited for the tubes to start glowing. Then . . . static and crackling. My heart sped up. Till that moment I’d heard nothing but silence. This was a good sign. I eased the tuning knob around . . . more static, whistling noises, strange sounds. Then I could make out what sounded like a human voice. I fine-tuned it and heard,
” . . . . again tomorrow at 1600 hours Greenwich Mean Time. This is Jerry Cowan signing off . . . . “
There’s something to this psychic, unexplained mysteries business after all. I mean, what are the odds? Well anyway, that’s one point for the nerdy kid. The next day Jerry’s dad came over to listen to his long-gone son, as did his sister, my mom, etc. Very exciting.
Eventually shortwave radio turned out to be kind of a bore. News and propaganda from Radio Moscow (I thought I was a communist so tuned in dutifully), the BBC, and so forth. Once in a while a music show would be listenable but mostly it was too distant and noisy. I started listening to ham radio operators but it was all ham radio guys talking to other ham radio guys about ham radio. Police calls were a little more interesting but ultimately boring, too. I found myself enjoying, more than anything, the weird noises between stations. To this day I have no idea what produced these sounds . . . spooky whistling, crazed wailing, shotgun stutters, low-pitched farting, and the like. I could manipulate them somewhat with slight adjustments of the tuning dial and by moving my hand over the aerial. When, sometime later, I got a hold of a tape recorder, I recorded these noises, making endless loops, overdubs, recording backwards and forwards, layering everything on itself and mixing it up with bits of recorded phonecalls to random strangers, AM radio snippets – deejay banter, sermons, soundtracks, my own spontaneous prose – occasionally producing wild but rhythmic concerti and hymns to the ionosphere.
Had I known that one day there’d be an audience (and Canada Council grants) for transcendent masterpieces by visionary composers I’d have kept at it and would surely by now have become a rich, famous, and highly regarded charlatan.
Continuing in the tradition of unexplained mysteries of the Universe, one evening last year, frustrated by my attempts to find something interesting to listen to on the radio, I decided to find some foreign stations on the Internet – a much better system than shortwave radio as the sound quality is better – the downside being the lack of weird noises. (Of course, on the net, you can just Google “weird noises” and listen to your heart’s content.) I started by finding Radio Nederland’s web site. I tuned in to their audio stream just as the announcer began his interview with my friend Ken Pickering, in Amsterdam for the re-opening of the Bimhuis jazz club. Ken’s a major proponent of weird noise.
I can also tune in to John Sinclair’s podcasts from Amsterdam. Maybe I’ll tell you about John Sinclair tomorrow.