“Certain songs,” Craig Finn sang on The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, “they get scratched into our souls.” That’s the basis of “Certain Songs:” a look at the songs that have done just that. These aren’t necessarily our favorite songs or the songs that we think are the best, but rather songs that — every single time we hear them — instantly transport us back to a place and time in which that song is forever intertwined. This is one of the reasons we so hate the RIAA’s attempted stranglehold on the dissemination of music: you never know where that next certain song is going to come from.
Sometimes the things that totally change your life happen so randomly as to be almost impossible.
Probably usually, actually, which is why you can never think too much about them. In any event, the first great thing to happen to me as an “adult,” was getting involved with KFSR, the Fresno State radio station.
And it happened because Tim made friends with a guy while we were both a Fresno City College.
At the time, Tim and I had only been out of high school for a few months, and we were going to City — or at least I was — because there was really no plan for adulthood besides drinking as much beer and buying as many records and seeing as many concerts as was humanly possible before actual responsibilities started creeping in.
The guy’s name was Tom Hall, and at some point in early 1981, he basically said to Tim and I, “hey, there’s a radio station at Fresno State that’s going on the air really soon, you guys have good taste in music, you should be DJs there.” Why Tom was recruiting for Fresno State’s radio station while he was at Fresno City is now lost to the mists of time.
Why he thought that I was a good choice now even seems weirder. After all, Tom Hall — a sardonic lover of both Bruce Springsteen and Sid Vicious, perpetually in shades and with a thirst for beer that exceeded my own — was one of the first hipster cool people I’d ever met, and I was the exact opposite: a unchecked bundle of nervous energy that never seemed to know where he was going.
At the time though, I didn’t question it, because I’d always wanted to be a DJ. Maybe not the loftiest of goals, to be sure, but, what the hell, achieving any goal is always good, no?
Nevertheless, it still wasn’t so much a plan as it was something fun to try while I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.
In any event, Tom helped Tim & I solve the small problem of not being actual Fresno State students by having us sign up for an extension class, and suddenly, I was a DJ at KFSR, spinning records for an unseen audience that numbered in the, well, 0s, actually.
Here’s the thing about KFSR in 1981: it wasn’t so much on the air. I seem to recall it was on something called “carrier current” and/or on a closed circuit hardwire to the dorms and the Student Union. Which, actually, was a load of shit: the only place — besides the studio, of course — where you could hear KFSR for sure was the KFSR Office, down the hall.
Which was always closed by the time each week I actually did a shift. So I was literally broadcasting to absolutely nobody. While that might seem discouraging to you, it turned out to be a good thing.
Why? For a couple of reasons. First off, it meant that I could learn the craft of being a DJ in private: the process of cueing records, talking over intros, playing drops, making segues, back announcing, making observations, telling stories, jokes, etc.
By the time that KFSR went on the air on October 30, 1982, the only thing I was nervous about was the performance — the mechanics of being a radio DJ were old hat. This was important, and one of the reasons that I was able to engage an audience from the start. It was also one of the reasons I got a lot of airshifts: the powers that be didn’t have to worry. I was never “polished” on the air — I’m too scattered — but I always sounded like I knew what I was talking about.
That’s because I’d been immersed in the station’s music for well over a year and half. Which was the other good thing about broadcasting to nobody: I could learn all about “alternative” music by actually listening to it instead of just reading about it. By this time, Fresno’s commercial rock station, KKDJ, which started out free-form and promising, had succumbed to the consultants, tightened their playlists and rebranded as
“Kiss-Ass “Kick-Ass Rock ‘n Roll!!”
It was the first time I was surrounded with a whole bunch of cool music that I could listen to prior to paying for it. So I got to learn about a whole bunch of artists, and dig deep into a whole bunch of albums, kicking back and listening to the songs at volumes hardly allowed at home.
Which is where “Into You Like A Train” comes in.
Out of all of the music that came out in 1981 / early 1982, that’s the song that instantly transports me back to the old KFSR studio. (Though I also have a pretty good memory of always playing the original 45 of X’s “White Girl,” too.) Looking back, those years seem to be a bit of a fallow period, musically: the original punk rush had come and gone, and the great American underground (partially catalyzed by stations like KFSR) lay in the future.
So there were only a few absolute stone cold classic records from that period, and the one that sounded the best in the KFSR studio was the second Psychedelic Furs album, Talk Talk Talk. That’s the album where they balanced the two-guitar drone that dominated their debut with the pop ambition that eventually irrevelantized them.
Like X’s Wild Gift, which also came out in 1981, it was the rare sophomore record that made good the all of the promise shown in a lionized debut, and positioned them for future domination. If you’ve never heard it, or resisted them because of the silly name, stop reading this right now and buy it.
Talk Talk Talk still holds up today, and “Into You Like A Train” was a roaring fucksong that faded in from eternity with a fuzzy haze of pounding drums and Duncan Kilborn’s squealing sax to start the second side of the record. The music was deep and wide and huge, and with Richard Butler’s perfectly melodic raspy vocals on top, sounded absolutely amazing at the KFSR studio.
Which, of course, was just a pair of standard-issue speakers — nothing special — but I think that I was also already imagining what it would be like to play that song for an actual audience of listeners.
Which almost never happened — it took longer than anticipated to to actually get KFSR on the air. So long, in fact, that Tom Hall was actually gone by the time that it did; Tim was finally a full-fledged student at Fresno State, and I had nearly decided to go to college out of town.
It had become obvious to me in early 1982 that KFSR was never, ever going to go on the air, and I figured that, at 19, I had to start doing something/anything, and since things were weird at home — what with my parents getting a divorce and everything — the best thing to do was to flee Fresno entirely.
But just after I made that decision, I happened to run into KFSR’s Station Manager & Music Director at the Fresno Fashion Fair mall, and they assured me that it was absolutely going to be on the air that year. They’d gotten the money, so it was just a matter of time.
It was a relief: I wasn’t really ready (or mature enough) to leave Fresno, and by that time, I’d figured out that I was going to actually be pretty good on the radio, so I stuck around, and started actually planning something for my life: to become a Radio-Television undergraduate at Fresno State University.
Oh, and be a DJ on an actual radio station playing actual songs for actual people.
Songs like “Into You Like a Train.”