The record stacks in the dark attic of my college radio station

I just commented at Metafiler, giving a remembrance of my college radio days occasioned by a post about the WHPK Record Library Tumblr.

tumblr_mmwyixsdSD1rjavjvo1_1280The rabid squirrel quote is preceded by handwriting I recognize — a note from then-station manager Rick Wocjik, who has been running the amazing Dusty Groove Americasince 1996. Truly a labor of love, part of Dusty Groove’s initial stock was gathered on an epic road trip across the American South, buying old soul and funk records from the back rooms of little-town general stores and even restaurants, if I remember the story correctly. From personal experience I encourage you not to make friends with vinyl aficionados if they are ever going to ask you to help them move. Those suckers are heavy.

I have no idea what WHPK looks like today, but back in the day the half-broken studio was embedded in a dark attic-like room filled with tall metal bookcases containing thousands of LPs, all filed alphabetically by artist. By the late 80’s, the collection had outgrown the space and as more records were crammed in the bookcases, the covers became increasingly tattered and interchangeably worn white. Since record covers aren’t known for their lexical legibility in the first place, the strip of masking tape on top gave you the band name under which you were supposed to file the record after you were done with it. Occasionally for new indie bands the sleeves were so cryptic we couldn’t distinguish the name of the band from the name of the album and I suspect some of those were misfiled for years until the Internet could settle factual matters like that.

DJs would invariably not refile all their records after their shows, so the narrow aisles were always filled with stacks of records leaning up against the shelves. That made the mad 10 minutes you had to pull records before your show was going to start that much more of an adventure, because invariably the Big Black album you were going to play during your Steve Albini set was sitting in a pile somewhere.

During your show you’d race furiously into the library to find that one track that shared a producer with the track that was playing on the air now but just about to end and would make a great segue, and then next to it you’d see something you’d never heard of but it had great comments written on it and you’d pull it too, and sometimes it was Arvo Pärt and sometimes it was the Durutti Column. It was a great record library and was responsible for my entire musical education, since my parents had about 3 records stored in the cabinet in our Hi-Fi: one polka band, one gospel choir, and one soundtrack to the Jim and Tammy Show, a Christian children’s show starring Jim and Tammy Bakker before their rise and fall with the PTL Club alongside their puppet friends.

The white stickers were put on there for DJs to share their comments on the music. Most of the time they were about the quality and subtlety you’d expect from a 19-year-old college radio DJ. However, the cognoscenti running the station often used them to try to educate the younger DJs about music like Frank Zappa and John Cage and Can, because otherwise they’d just play Black Flag again. Each week they’d put out some featured albums that they wanted us to try, although there were no required playlists — we weren’t some corporate sellouts like those Northwestern poseurs!

One week, an Emmylou Harris album turned up in the recommend albums with a glowing review of her musical genius. A few weeks later the music director was laughing in the office about what a great joke he’d pulled on all the DJs by recommending an obviously shitty record and look they’d all played it and given it great reviews like sheep. Twenty-five years later I still remember this and get angry because, fuck, it was Emmylou Harrisand she is a goddamn genius and while music like Squirrel Bait or Soul Asylum didn’t stay with me over the years, anybody that can listen to something like the harmonies in Sweet Old World and not choke up is somebody I don’t want to be friends with.

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