Thursday, August 27, 2009

Australia Is Not Done Surprising Me

As I mentioned before, Australian music had a lot to do with my interest in going to the country. I can trace much of this interest back to my favorite radio station ever, The River, WRSI 93.9, in Northampton, MA.

I accepted this station into my life in my late teens, when I was ready to graduate from top-40 radio to something more grown-up. The literate, melodic pop they were playing, heavy on singer-songwriters, filled a Tracy Chapman-sized hole in my heart that I hadn’t even realized was there.

Really only two quirks have ever kept this station from being the best radio station in the whole world. One is the fact that back in the day, the DJs didn’t always treat the vinyl as carefully as they might have. They also had a tendency to wander away from their posts, leading to a general belief in the Pioneer Valley that ’RSI, as we called the station, stood for “Records Skip Incessantly.”

The other quirk, which has continued into the compact disc era, is that their DJs have always been sparing about providing artist information after playing a song. This has led to all kinds of confusion on my part. For months after I started hearing them, I thought the Indigo Girls’s early songs were performed by Lucinda Williams, and I only got to know one of my favorite Australian groups, The Waifs, because I called the station and demanded they tell me who had performed that great song about the waitress.

With the advent of the Internet, this lack of attribution isn’t such a huge problem anymore either, but some songs are stubbornly hard to track down. I’m thinking of one song in particular, dating from the late 1980s. I knew that a man sang it, and I remembered that the song opened with an intriguing set of rhetorical questions, each unanswerable in its own way. Years after I’d last heard it, I tried Googling the opening lines, but so little came up that I began to worry I’d invented the whole thing.

This worry persisted until after I got home from Australia. A few weeks after my return, I finally got around to listening to one of the CDs I’d bought, a two-disc collection of Paul Kelly’s greatest hits. This purchase had been a little bit of a gamble. WRSI used to play a few of Paul Kelly’s songs, and I’d always liked them, but I worried that he couldn’t possibly have two hours’ worth of strong material.

I shouldn’t have worried. The album is great. The first disc is so good that each song left me wondering how the next one could top it. So I was completely unprepared for the excellent song “Sweet Guy” to segue into the opening lines of "Careless":

How many cats in New York City?
How many angels on a pin?
How many notes on a saxophone?
How many tears in a bottle of gin?

I know travel can be educational, but who knew that a visit to a Sydney music shop could clear up a 20-year-old mystery?


Monte said...

'RSI hears you and thanks you. I now have to go an keep a record from skipping. And strangely, I played Paul Kelly this morning.


Nicole said...

Wow, I can't believe I'm on the WRSI radar. Thanks for writing--and thanks for playing such good music. I first heard so many of my favorite artists on WRSI when I was growing up in Northampton, and still occasionally discover good stuff when I'm able to listen online. (And I'm sure Australia thanks you for promoting its native son this morning!)

Andy Cahn said...

Paul Kelly plays at the Iron Horse Friday 5/24.

Nicole said...

What a great venue! I wish I could make it, but I live in California now. I did see Paul Kelly a few months ago in a San Francisco club that's about the same size as the Iron Horse--fantastic show.