Saturday, February 15, 2020

My Story in Four Photographs

Friday was my birthday, and I'm pleased to say that hundreds of folks reached out to me on social media. Most were Rush fans, but some were folks who have heard me on the radio or read some of the books and articles I've written; and a few were colleagues and close friends. It still amazes me that so many people want to send me birthday wishes, and believe me, I appreciate it because it wasn't always that way.

Valentine's Day is an interesting day to have a birthday: when I was in high school, I didn't have many friends and it would always depress me that other kids got Valentines, while I seldom did (except from members of my family). I remember that I had a crush on a guy who lived up the street from me, but he barely knew I was alive.  And it seemed that everyone went to the prom except me. I knew I wanted a career in broadcasting, but I was told that wasn't "normal" for girls.  It wasn't an easy time for me, and if you look for photographs from back then, you'll find very few: convinced that I was not attractive (the other kids said I was ugly), I refused to let people take my picture. Years later, I still cringe when I look at my high school yearbook photo, but in a way, I'm glad it survived, since it's a reminder of a very different era.

It was in 1968 when I finally got to be on the radio, at my college station, after nearly four years of trying to persuade station management to give me a chance.  The school newspaper found my on-air debut a noteworthy event-- I had become the first female deejay in the history of the station, and a photographer took a picture of me in the studio to accompany the story. You may have seen the photo online-- there I am, with long hair, surrounded by turntables (we played only vinyl back then) and I'm holding a record. It was actually one of the happiest times of my life: at last, I was doing what I loved. 

I had no way of predicting that it would take nearly five years before I got my chance to be on a professional station (women announcers were still rare, and not always welcome, even in the early 1970s). It has been well-reported how I was hired by WMMS in Cleveland, after the station's program director heard me on the air at a small station in Cambridge, MA, where I had a part-time show playing folk and folk-rock.  I had never lived away from home, but I left Boston (and a full-time teaching job) in the autumn of 1973 to follow my heart and pursue a radio career.

And it was at WMMS, probably in the summer of 1974, that the other photo of me was taken: the one where I'm holding a copy of the newly-released US pressing of the first Rush album. I'm standing with Neil, Geddy, and Alex, along with Matt the Cat (one of the WMMS deejays), John Gorman (the program director), and Don George (the promotion representative of Mercury Records). I had no way of knowing that my life was about to change, thanks to my role in launching Rush's career. And for obvious reasons, this photo is one of my favorites.

There are many photographs of me that were taken since then-- of course I love my wedding photos, and I've also been photographed with a number of famous people over the years. But the one other photo that has a special meaning was taken in May 2011, when I got my PhD at the age of 64. Few people believed I could do it, plus I had a bunch of health problems; but I kept going and finally got it done. Sometimes, I still can't believe I did it. But it's a real photo, and no, it wasn't photoshopped!

If you had asked me back in high school what I'd be doing when I was 73, I doubt I could have thought that far ahead. But I do know the fact that I'm still here, still alive, still blogging, still working, and still trying to make a difference, is in large part due to my love of music and my love of radio and an unlikely friendship with three rock musicians from Toronto. To everyone who reached out on my birthday, thank you. I never imagined five decades ago that I'd get to do some of the stuff I've done or meet some of the folks I've met. And the best part is there's still time to do more. And that's what I hope to be doing in the year ahead.  

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Where Do We Go From Here?

This is my fifth anniversary as a blogger; I tend to post on a bi-weekly basis, and my readership varies-- typically, it's about 100-150 readers (now and then, as many as 300), but any number is okay with me. I know I'm not a celebrity, and I've never expected millions of page views. In fact, I'm grateful there are some folks who find my posts worth reading.

But the past several weeks were anything but typical, as any Rush fan knows; and nearly 13,000 folks kindly stopped by to read my previous blog post-- a tribute to drummer par excellence Neil Peart, who died way too young, after a courageous three year battle with cancer. 

Since Neil died, I still find myself feeling somewhat disoriented at times; I mean, I know he's gone, but it still just doesn't feel right.  Many fans have reached out to me online and we all shared our emotions and our recollections.  I also spoke to Neil's dad, and his sister, and his closest friend, and I sent along my condolences to Alex, Geddy, and their families.  I wrote a newspaper article about his career, and I was invited to talk about him on several podcasts and radio interviews. Fans told me they appreciated what I said, but to be honest, I kept wishing I didn't have to do it. I kept wishing Neil were still here.

If you're anything like me, perhaps you find some comfort in the day to day routine.  The new semester has begun at the university where I work; I'm teaching three courses and I advise the school newspaper. And I continue to research and write free-lance articles about media history.  (I like to keep busy, especially in difficult times.)  Meanwhile, I'm about to have another birthday on Valentine's Day; God willing, I'll be 73. 

Sometimes, something will happen in politics and I remember a conversation I had with Neil: he used to get really annoyed at politicians who only cared about money and power, or who acted in ways he considered heartless. I couldn't agree more. He also wasn't a fan of the endless arguments some people keep having on social media. But speaking of Twitter and Facebook, I think he'd be proud of the Rush fan base-- just as during his life, Rush had fans from all over the world who came from just about every political point of view, after he died, fans united around the sense of loss they felt, and debates about political issues seemed far less important than honoring someone whose music had changed so many lives.

And here we are, still trying to make sense of what happened, still trying to cope with something that seems so unfair.  As for me, I am making donations to some of my favorite charities in his name (check out if you haven't already). And while it's difficult to get used to his not being with us, the friendships he helped to create and the love he inspired from the fans lives on.  At times like these, I am so grateful to be part of the extended Rush family, and to join with them in celebrating Neil's life.  

Sunday, January 12, 2020

This Wasn't Supposed to Happen: Some Thoughts About the Death of Neil Peart

The first time I met Neil Peart, it was mid-1974. I was working at WMMS in Cleveland, where I had helped to launch the band's career in the US by getting "Working Man" on the air. I had first been sent the Canadian import version of their album by a record promoter friend of mine named Bob Roper, and that song resonated with the WMMS audience immediately.  John Rutsey was the drummer at that time, but he had health problems, and the other members (and their management) realized they needed to make a change. Neil was chosen because he was not only an excellent drummer but a talented lyricist. The next time Rush came to Cleveland, Neil was with them.

Back then, I was still sort of the "big sister" to the band; I helped them to get signed to a US record label, I called other stations to encourage them to play "Working Man" too (it was one of our most requested songs), and when they first performed in Cleveland, I was there to cheer them on. Naturally, because Neil was the "new guy," he wanted to meet me-- not because I was in any way influential, but because I already had established a relationship with Alex and Geddy, and he wanted to know more about me. So, I invited him to visit me and he did.  He came to my apartment and we talked for several hours. As it turned out, we had a love of literature in common-- in fact, I lent him my copy of Shakespeare's "King Lear," which had special meaning for both of us. 

We kept in touch sporadically. In April 1975, he sent me a postcard (which I still have) to let me know he was alive and well, touring was going great, and the band's new album was "pretty well written and will be recorded in July." Neil was always a very private person, and I did not expect that we would keep in touch with any regularity. In fact, as time passed, we only saw each other now and then, usually when I want backstage at a Rush concert. And because he never liked doing the endless "meet and greet" events where band-members shook hands with fans, I ended up seeing Geddy and Alex much more than I did Neil. But whenever I saw them, I always made sure they sent Neil my love.

Whether I saw him in person or not, Neil remained a presence in my life-- through his amazing lyrics, and through the privilege of watching him play. He was such a gifted drummer, and widely admired by his fellow musicians in other bands.  And I kept up with his life-- the tragic loss of his wife and daughter, his time away from the band, his eventual return... And then, one night in September 2010, when I had come to see the band perform in Boston, out of nowhere, he asked to see me. We hugged, like two old friends, and then we chatted about politics, about philosophy, about family, and yes, about "King Lear"-- he still had the copy of the play he had borrowed from me, and as I posted to social media at the time, I was very moved to find he still had it, and it still meant something to him.

And as he and I were saying goodbye, we were standing out in the hall and he remarked upon the lesson he took from "King Lear"-- that it's not enough to say you love someone; you have to show it. And he remarked upon second chances-- that he hadn't been there enough for his daughter Selena (he loved her, but by his own admission, he was on the road a lot); but he absolutely was going to be there for his daughter Olivia. It was a promise he kept.

I was not surprised when Neil decided to retire. I knew he had tendonitis. I knew he was in more pain than he let on. And while fans were, of course, disappointed, being a "retired drummer" gave him the chance to spend more time with his wife and daughter.  I kept in contact with him through his closest friend Craig, and I was so glad to hear he was content and enjoying his life.

And then it changed. A private person till the end, Neil shared with very few people that he had cancer. Even many reporters who had covered Rush over the years had no idea. When we all found out he had died, it was such a shock that few of us knew what to say. I am still finding it difficult to put into words what I feel about this tragic loss, but let me try:

Neil Peart was an honorable, ethical human being. Despite being one of the music industry's greatest drummers, he was never arrogant. He treated drumming, and song-writing, as art forms, and he elevated both. He loved being a musician, and his lyrics resonated with so many fans.  Neil was also a charitable person-- but when he gave (which he often did), he never wanted to call attention to himself.  He lived his life his way, never afraid to be himself, encouraging others to be themselves too. He left a large body of incredible music, that will live on. And he left years of wonderful memories that his millions of fans will never forget.  To think of a world without Neil in it breaks my heart. But I consider myself fortunate to have known him. May he rest in peace.


Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Good Times, Bad Times, You Know I've Had My Share

So, here we are at the end of the decade, and if I had to describe it, words like "surprising" and "shocking," as well as "gratifying," and at times "disappointing," come to mind. It was a decade that was often unpredictable, and sometimes unforgettable.  As 2019 ended, and the new decade was about to begin, many media sources were doing retrospectives on the decade's big news stories (and there were plenty of those); I don't want to bore anyone with ten years of my personal memories, but I do want to look back on a few events that affected my life during these past ten years.

To say the least, it was a decade of ups and downs. Let me begin with some positive events:  one of my favorite  memories involved Rush.  I was invited to give a talk as the band got their much-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in June 2010. Thousands of fans were there, and I got to meet a lot of them-- some still keep in touch with me.  There were also several wonderful gatherings of Rush fans, and I was included in a documentary about the band-- "Beyond the Lighted Stage," as well as in a video by film-maker Ray Boucher.  It reminded me once again how much these three guys from Toronto changed so many lives (including mine).

My other favorite Rush memory, as you might expect, is when the band finally got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2013. I got called by several Canadian TV stations (and a couple in the US) to comment about it, and I was there, in Los Angeles, to see it happen. It was quite amusing when Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, who by many accounts had never been a fan and did his part to keep the guys out of the Rock Hall for years, began announcing the evening's inductees, and just as he was about to say Rush's name, the audience (which had many, many loyal fans in it) began to boo him. They booed him for several minutes, till he basically had to admit that Rush did deserve to be inducted. (When HBO broadcast the taped highlights of the event, I'm sure that part got edited out!)

Not all of my memories of the decade involved Rush, of course. In May 2011, at the age of 64, I received my PhD. I had gone back to school at age 55, and although it took nine years, going part-time and driving 100 miles up and back to the University of Massachusetts, I was able to make it happen, proving it's never too late to follow a dream. (My other dream is to own a radio station, but thus far, I haven't been able to make that one happen... yet.)

Throughout the decade, I had a number of articles and essays published, and several books:  a 2011 history of Boston radio, and a 2014 second edition of my book "Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting."  In June 2017, I had the privilege of giving a talk at a baseball history symposium at Cooperstown NY's Baseball Hall of Fame; I spoke about five unique women who wrote about baseball, as far back as 1907. (My talk was later selected to be in an anthology of the best presentations from the symposium.)  I also was invited to be a guest speaker at a number of colleges, civic organizations, ham radio clubs, and public libraries.  I always enjoy bringing my rare memorabilia and talking about how people lived in the "good old days." And my ongoing efforts to collect and preserve the history of broadcasting won me the 9th annual Collectors Prize from Historic New England in 2018.

But there were some difficult times too. In late 2014, I found out I had cancer. Fortunately, I was able to go to one of the best hospitals, and my doctors were outstanding. Although it was a scary time in my life, today, thank God, I am five years cancer-free. But a dear friend of mine was not so fortunate. Earlier that year, Jerry Brenner lost his battle with cancer. Many of you may not know his name: he was a record promoter for many years, and a very influential figure in the music business. But more than that, he was a mentor to many of us in radio, including me; I had known him since I was in college, and he always believed in me.  I miss him to this day.

In 2015, I began blogging. And while it hasn't made me famous (or rich), it has allowed me to express my opinions on a wide range of subjects.  I appreciate those of you who have read my postings.  My most-read entry was from September 2017, about another event that was memorable in this decade: the end of Rush's performing days. This post focused on why Neil Peart had decided to retire, after an impressive career that made millions of fans happy all over the world.

I could easily get into a discussion about the politics of the past decade, or some of the famous people who left us too soon, or how I wish that as a society, we could be kinder to each other. (I still can't get used to people calling each other rude names on social media.)  I could talk about the changing technology-- I remember that back in 2010, most people were just beginning to use smartphones; today, few of us go anywhere without them.  As this new decade begins, who can predict what other changes lie ahead?  All I can say is I'm glad to be alive to see 2020 begin; and I'm ready for whatever comes next.  Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

It Goes to Show You Never Can Tell

If I'm still here on Tuesday the 17th (and I sincerely hope I am), it will officially be five years since I had my cancer surgery. I am told that's significant, because if it hasn't returned by then, it probably isn't going to.  That will be a tremendous relief. As many of you know, when you have had cancer, you always worry about if (or when) it might recur.  By nature, I'm generally not a worrier, but I have to admit I've spent a lot of time worrying during the past five years, even though I'm well aware that worrying isn't very helpful.

But in addition to worrying, I decided the best way to cope was to keep busy. So, in early 2015, I began blogging. I also took a few online courses (yes, I already have my degree, but I've always enjoyed learning something new). I wrote some media history articles for academic journals. I spoke at several conventions and conferences (including going to Cooperstown to give a talk at a baseball history symposium held at the Hall of Fame).  And no matter how I felt--and some days, I didn't feel so great, believe me-- I kept showing up for work, and I kept trying my best to be an interesting professor. Mainly, I tried to follow the advice I often give to my students: it's okay to worry, but don't let it stop you.  So, some days, I worried. But I didn't let it stop me.  

As I've mentioned in other blog posts, evidence suggests I shouldn't be here. Nearly every one of my female relatives on my mother's side died of cancer (including my maternal grandmother, who had the same kind of cancer I did-- but she only lived to be 44, while I'm 72, by the grace of God). I try to keep things in perspective, and keep an attitude of gratitude. I had wonderful doctors. I got great medical treatment. Having good health insurance was a plus too. In other words, as scary as things were sometimes, it really could have been a lot worse.

In the past five years, I've lost a few friends to cancer.  However, there were others who made often-remarkable recoveries. I'm not very good at predicting the future, so in my own case, I've just tried to take things a day at a time, while hoping that everything would turn out well. I've thanked many of you before, but I want to do it again: there are many people who reached out to me during this journey, to encourage me and to let me know I was in their prayers.  To those of you fighting your own battle with cancer (or with some other illness), I hope you too have a positive outcome. And if I've learned anything from my own situation, it's that so much of what we all get upset or angry or frustrated about on a day to day basis isn't worth the time we spend on it. In the greater scheme of things, what matters most is being alive. I'm grateful I'm still here to write those words.  

Saturday, November 30, 2019

What We Leave Behind

I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood-- Dorchester, MA, back when it was predominantly Jewish. There was also another ethnic neighborhood in Dorchester too, and it was mostly Irish. In the Jewish part, there were a number of synagogues, Kosher butchers, and Kosher delicatessens. In the Irish part, there were a number of churches, stores that sold ethnic foods popular with the Irish clientele, and some taverns. There was no rule that Jews couldn't go to the Irish part of town, nor was there one that forbade the Irish residents from visiting their Jewish friends. But as I recall, the folks from each neighborhood didn't do that; they hung around mainly with "their own."

These days, Dorchester still has ethnic enclaves-- there are always new groups of immigrants: there's a Vietnamese area, a Haitian area, and the next generation of Irish residents, among others. The Jews, for the most part, moved to the suburbs-- some moved to Jewish neighborhoods in Brookline or Newton (if they could afford it); others, who were working class, left for whatever neighborhoods had affordable rents. My family bought a house in Roslindale, another neighborhood of Boston, when I was eight. As I recall, nearly everyone there was Catholic, with a few folks who were Greek Orthodox. Suddenly, I went from living among many Jewish families to being the only Jew in town. It was quite a culture shock and it took some time to adjust.

Years later, out of curiosity, I went back to visit the area where I spent the first eight years of my life, and I found that not much remained of the old Jewish neighborhood-- the house I lived in burned down a few years ago, and nobody rebuilt it. The buildings that once housed synagogues are now home to churches. The former Kosher butchers and delis now have entirely different names and entirely different customers. None of this surprised me: I'm well aware that times change, neighborhoods change, and demographics change. Today, it's almost like the Jews were never there.

What brought all this to mind was an article I was reading in the Boston Globe about the gradual demise of Boston's Chinatown. Working class Chinese people are being forced out by rising rents; buildings are being bought up by developers who are putting in expensive apartments ($6,000 a month for some); quaint local Chinese restaurants are being replaced by much fancier (and pricier) ones that are aimed at tourists and upper-class foodies. As the article points out, this long-time ethnic neighborhood will soon become Chinatown in name only, as the local Chinese population will no longer be able to afford to live there.

There are many Chinese people who already left. Like other upwardly-mobile immigrants in previous generations, they wanted to live in the suburbs, to have better schools for their kids to attend. But there are others who can't afford to leave, or whose English skills are weak.  They worry about where they will go when Chinatown is no more. It's a dilemma that people in many cities are facing. Working class ethnic neighborhoods are gradually being bought up, and residents are facing an uncertain future. I frequently hear about how our economy is booming, but there remain large segments of the population who are barely getting by, and outrageous rents are a large part of the problem.  

I admit I'm of two minds about ethnic neighborhoods-- on the one hand, there's a certain security and comfort in seeing folks who are familiar, who share the same culture and customs; it's also nice to hear one's ancestral language (the folk songs especially). On the other hand, at some point, it's important to get out into the wider world and be exposed to different cultures and customs; and speaking good English is essential for success in most occupations. Yet there's still a part of me that misses the old neighborhood. But beyond the nostalgia, I recognize that people do move on, and it's probably a good thing. However, I still wish there were a way to preserve the best of what used to be there, rather than just bulldozing it, or turning it into condos for rich people.  There's a lot we can learn from the folks who came before us. For that reason, it saddens me each time a neighborhood's history gets erased...often in the name of "progress."       

Friday, November 15, 2019

Reporting the News in a Post-Truth World

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward is coming to Boston in a couple of days to do several speaking engagements, and I'll have a chance to meet him. You may remember his name-- he and his then-colleague Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal, back in 1972; and their investigative reporting eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon.

I can't predict what he'll talk about, but I'm sure the current state of journalism will be one of the topics.  Things are certainly different from when he was reporting about politics in the early 1970s. It was the era before the internet; there wasn't even any cable news yet. Most of us got our information from newspapers and magazines, and by watching the evening newscasts on NBC, ABC, or CBS.

Like today, Americans were very polarized. But the Fairness Doctrine was still around, and commentary was not usually a part of any newscasts; nor were one-sided attacks allowed.  There were some radio talk shows that expressed views from one side or the other, but both sides had to be given a chance to be heard. And on TV, popular programs like the Tonight Show tried to avoid partisanship entirely, and focus on making the audience laugh-- whatever their political views.

President Nixon distrusted and disliked the press, and so did Vice President Spiro Agnew. Both were harsh critics of the media of their day, and both accused reporters of bias (like many presidents, before and since, Mr. Nixon believed the press was against him; and Mr. Agnew claimed the press was out of step with the views of most Americans, a claim other politicians have also made).

Meanwhile, hardworking investigative journalists kept trying to do their jobs, in print or on radio or on TV. And Bob Woodward was part of that group of reporters whose goal was to find the truth and let the public know.  I doubt he imagined back in 1972 that one day, the Fairness Doctrine would be gone, leading to many Republicans watching (and trusting) only one channel, and reading only publications that reinforced their views; and the same would be true for many Democrats, such that both groups were living in entirely different realities when it came to politics.

These days, it seems many people prefer commentary to news; they say they want "unbiased news," but surveys show many of them really want reporting that favors their particular candidate or supports their particular side.  In fact, the highest-rated folks on cable news are the commentators, many of whom distort or exaggerate the facts to serve a partisan goal.

I wonder if Woodward and Bernstein (or someone like them) could bring down a corrupt president today. I fear that large numbers of people would simply ignore their reporting, tune out their stories, and seek out media outlets that said their work was "fake news." I believe we need good reporting now more than ever. Yet it really seems that many people don't care about facts; they'd much rather have partisan opinions. I'll be interested in how Mr. Woodward sees it. I'll let you know what he says.