Sunday, July 31, 2011

Stuff I like:
Radio On by Sarah Vowell.

I like Sarah Vowell. I've read a lot of her books and she's always informative and funny, two traits I like in people. This week I read Radio On for the first time. It's her first book, published in 1997, the edited version of a daily journal about listening to the radio in 1995.

While there is plenty of news in 1995 - the first year of the Gingrich speakership, the Oklahoma City bombings, O.J. found not guilty - much of this book is about Sarah's opinions about things. She hates Rush Limbaugh for being anti-education. She has some respect for G. Gordon Liddy for being pro-education, though when he wins an award for protecting the First Amendment when he discussed the "jack-booted thugs" of the federal agencies, she edits back in his comment about "go for the head shot", the part of the sentence the people who gave him the honor decided to edit out. She dislikes NPR news programs for being smug. She deeply detests Garrison Keillor. It's not really ironic that she would make her name on NPR because she is fascinated by Ira Glass and people involved with This American Life, the show where most people will hear her name for the first time.

A lot of the book is about opinions and feelings about music. I don't agree with everything she says, most of the disagreements being a matter of degree. For example, I never much cared for the Grateful Dead while she hates them. When Jerry Garcia dies and is given the rock and roll equivalent of canonization, Sarah writes that Deadheads are like dittoheads who don't bathe.

The opinions that make the most impression on me are her love for Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. I really liked Smells Like Teen Spirit, but I didn't hear a lot of other stuff that made an impression early. The mumbling reminded me of R.E.M., which isn't a bad thing, but I already listened to R.E.M., thanks very much. When it came to the Seattle bands, I bought Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, but not Nirvana.

Cobain's death didn't hit me that hard when it happened, probably because I was the wrong age. I was the right age to be shocked by the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and to a lesser extent by Jim Morrison and Brian Jones. Sarah Vowell is almost exactly fourteen years younger than I am and because I respect her, I've started listening to more Nirvana, buying several songs on iTunes.

Another thing that strikes me about the book are the parallels between 1995 and 2011, especially in politics. Sarah quotes a paragraph from Rush Limbaugh denying global warming. (He may be stupid, but at least he's consistent.) Gingrich gets control of the House in the midterm election of 1994, not unlike the situation today, and he begins his campaign of intransigence, including a brief shutdown of government services at the end of 1995. We lived through that, maybe we will live through this, though it's clear Gingrich had much more sway over the Republican freshmen back then than Boehner has over the Tea Party radicals.

If you like Vowell's other books and haven't read Radio On, I recommend the book. You can see the start of her writing style and the things that influence her. She's already very funny and very opinionated, and she is already a stickler for the facts, a trait that makes her books about history so compelling. I found this oral history of 1995, the story of one woman traveling around the country and listening to the radio, a worthy predecessor to her later works like Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates.

Note: I haven't read her latest work Unfamiliar Fishes yet. Being a cheap bastid, I'm waiting for the paperback.


Anonymous said...

It wasn't her but I recall being at Ithaca College of Music when someone at NPR gave Chuck Magiones's Friends In Love Concert a huge thumbs down. Well . . . so much for NPR. It made millions. I bought it on tape too.

Matty Boy said...

Part of being a human being is hating things that make millions.