Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Deejay Who Changed My Life

Last night, Arnie Ginsburg passed away. He was 93, and had been in poor health for a while. You probably didn't know Arnie Ginsburg, unless you grew up in Boston, or unless you listened to the "Cruisin'" series-- which re-created some of the shows from the biggest top-40 deejays of the 50s and 60s. (Arnie re-created a show from 1961.) But when I think of the people who have influenced my life the most, Arnie is high up on that list.

To know why Arnie meant so much to me, and why his death saddens me so much, let me take you back to the 1950s. It was a very conservative time: boys were generally expected to either join the military or go to work right after high school, and girls were expected to marry young and stay home with the kids. It was also a very formal culture, with lots of rules:  boys were expected to have short hair, girls were expected to wear makeup, and nobody went to school dressed casually.  Antisemitism was more subtle than during the 1940s, but it was still there. (I was one of only a few Jewish kids in the high school I attended, and the names I was called by other kids would not be acceptable today; but back then, you were told to just tough it out and not whine about it.)

I won't give you Arnie's life story-- it's easily found online-- but suffice it to say he was unique. Most deejays back then were guys with big, deep, booming voices. Arnie had a high-pitched voice-- he even mocked it, calling himself "old aching adenoids" or "old leather lungs." He also became known for using lots of sound effects-- a train whistle (his show was called the "Night Train"), bells, horns... He sounded like he was having so much fun on the radio, and nobody on the air at that time sounded anything like him.  He also kept his name-- which was a big deal back then. Nobody was supposed to have an "ethnic" last name. If your last name was Italian or Greek or European Jewish, you were expected to change it to something neutral, for reasons I never understood. Arnie wouldn't do it. He remained Arnie Ginsburg, ever himself, throughout his career.

Kids growing up today probably don't understand what the top-40 deejays meant to us in the 50s and 60s. They not only entertained us by playing the hits; they seemed to be speaking directly to us, and they seemed to understand what it was like being a teenager. Those teen years were often difficult and awkward, but deejays like Arnie could improve anyone's mood. And despite being beloved by thousands of young people in Boston, he was so unassuming, so unconcerned about whether he had the "right" voice or did his show like one was supposed to. He wasn't afraid to be himself, and that was such an inspiration to me.

In large part, because of him, I decided that I wanted to be on the radio too-- the common excuse for why girls couldn't be deejays was that they didn't have big, deep voices. But Arnie didn't have one either, and he was the most popular deejay in Boston. Eventually, I was able to have that radio career.  And years later, I was able to (finally) meet him and tell him what a role model he was for me. He seemed surprised. He never thought of himself as a role model, I guess. But for a lonely kid growing up in Roslindale, Massachusetts, he was that friendly, upbeat voice on the air, and I loved to listen to him.   

I never knew he was gay. In fact, I never thought about what he did or who he hung around with when he wasn't on the radio. Few deejays ever said anything about their personal lives, and given all the prejudice against gay people back then, I can understand why they kept their private life from becoming a topic of discussion.  But when I read Arnie's obit and found out he had been with his life partner for 44 years, it made me think about how difficult it must have been for him, loving someone but not allowed to mention it in public. I'm glad we live in a different time.  I'm glad he had love in his private life, to equal the love millions of his fans had for him. He was a best friend to so many of us. That's why when I wrote a book about Boston radio, I made sure to put him on the cover-- he exemplified personality radio at its best. 

When the news about Arnie's death was made public on various radio message boards, there was an outpouring of sadness, and many positive memories from a large number of Baby Boomers who grew up listening to him.  I felt something very similar when Neil Peart of Rush died earlier this year: a very important part of my life is gone now, someone who helped me to get to where I am today. I will never forget, and I will always be grateful. Rest in peace, Arnie. And thank you.              

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Spirit of Radio--The Rest of the Story

In late April, a nice guy named David reached out to me on Facebook. He introduced himself as the owner of Fantoons. I was very familiar with his company's work, and was delighted to chat, but I couldn't imagine why he'd be contacting me. Then he told me: Fantoons had been tasked with doing the official video for the Rush song "Spirit of Radio," on the 40th anniversary of Permanent Waves. It was envisioned as a tribute to radio, which had been so important to the guys in Rush when they were growing up; and of course, radio had played an essential role for the band later on, when I introduced "Working Man" to the WMMS audience in Cleveland in the spring of 1974.

But what surprised me was when he said he wanted to include me in the video, in cartoon form. I must admit I've never been in a cartoon before, nor did I ever expect to be. But the story of radio, the story of Rush, and the story of how various American radio personalities fell in love with their music, all told in animation, sounded like a fascinating project. And that is how I came to be in the video, along with some other wonderful folks who were also important to Rush's success. David told me he was worried that I wouldn't like how they drew my character, but I wasn't at all concerned. I figured that the folks at Fantoons were professionals; and however it looked, it was still an amazing opportunity. I mean, how many of us get to be in a music video-- as real people or as cartoons?      

Since the video came out a few days ago, the response has been overwhelming and totally positive-- as I knew it would be. I've said on more than one occasion that Rush fans are like a big, extended family. The members of that family may differ in their politics, or their religious beliefs, or their hobbies, but the one thing that unites them is their love of the music of Rush. Since the band retired, and since the tragic passing of drummer Neil Peart, any new opportunity to discuss all things Rush is especially welcome. Thus, this video could not have come at a better time.  Fans loved the song, they loved the animation, but above all, they loved getting together online to reminisce.

I've probably talked about the video with several hundred fans, thanks to social media; everyone seemed so grateful for that video, and it evoked a lot of memories.  We remembered the times we saw the band live, the times we watched or listened to them being interviewed, the Rush-themed events we attended... And for a little while, in this very chaotic and uncertain time, there was nothing but kindness and friendship.  And yes, there was "the freedom of music."

Sad to say, the great radio stations like the ones the members of Rush grew up with, and the ones where I introduced their music for the first time, are (for the most part) not what they used to be. Many are gone, victims of media consolidation. Many have changed formats and no longer play any music. Some do still play it, but only a very restricted playlist. And a few still keep that spirit alive, still broadcasting radio that is live and local, radio that is a companion for the audience.  I miss being on the air. I miss breaking new artists. But I remain profoundly grateful that the Canadian band whose music I debuted in 1974 became my friends, and that the fans they inspired with their songs are still inspired (and inspiring a new generation of fans). I never expected any of it to happen. And yet, it did. And even now, the spirit of radio, and the love of Rush, live on.