I sometimes dream about a world in which you could turn on the radio and hear a song that surprised you in some way; that changed or heightened your state of mind. It is probably about as likely to be fulfilled as any other utopian fantasy.
I have always loved songs about radio: the one by the Velvet Underground in which the protagonist remembers how her life was saved at the age of five by rock and roll when she turns on a New York station; the one in which Joni Mitchell confesses: “You turn me on, I’m a radio”; and the one in which Van Morrison tells us again and again to turn it up.
I can remember two or three times early on in my life that the radio spoke to me with some urgency. Once, when I was about five, I heard the Beatles’ Michelle at a time when I liked a girl by that name. Maybe that was where all of this started.
Once, when I was about ten, I was visiting family with my parents. I felt bored and disconnected in the hopeless way only a child can know, and so someone suggested I listen to the radio for a bit. What I remember is my surprise on first hearing Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, a song about aimless, displaced grown-ups on the margins of a world that has forgotten them. It is not a song I often think about nowadays: Tom Waits, Mary Gautier or Lucinda Williams can evoke the loneliness and fortitude of the homeless far more memorably. But I hadn’t heard of any of them, so McTell was a revelation.
Then, when I was about seventeen and wondering if I could manage to sustain being in love, I turned on the radio one very early morning and heard Paul Simon’s Something so Right, a song in which the protagonist admits that there is a wall around him “that you can’t even see”, and wants somebody else to take it down for him. That one could have been written for me back then.
But most of the time my experience on turning on the radio is very different – so much so that I almost never do any more. Van Morrison must have had better radio than we do at this time, and particularly in this place. With music content determined by market research and demographics rather than enthusiasm, radio has passed out of the hands of those who care about it most, and each station caters solely for the perceived needs of its constituency.
Until recently there was an exception on the local scene: Richard Haslop’s Roots to Fruits show on SAFM. There was a logic to each of Haslop’s shows that defied easy classification. Old-time blues, free jazz, experimental guitar wash, reggae and soul – all these were featured and connected in ways that were both surprising and reassuring – reassuring because they made one feel for an hour as if the world, at least in musical terms, was a coherent place in which there were real, vital connections between different strands of tradition. While you listened, it was as if the history of popular music was a vast conversation to which you could eavesdrop or even contribute. Such a sense of connectedness can only come from a real connection between the presenter and the music that is chosen.
I’ve just finished listening to a beautiful live version of Richard Thompson’s The Ghost of You Walks on YouTube, and I can understand why my friends spend so much time finding music on the Internet. Still, I can’t help feeling that it would have had more resonance surrounded by other ghost songs from across the globe, not to mention through better speakers, and I still dream about a time when radio will dare to think outside the box and surprise us again.