The Modern Folk Musician

10. Ballad of the Sandman

1988 Mike Agranoff

Spoken text: Mike Agranoff
Musical Interludes featuring: Mike Agranoff as Arlo Guthrie, Mark Wolkoff as Mick Jagger, The 'Oyle Pharte Opera Company (Bill Bly, Wes Parker, Pat Rolston, and Riki Cohn) as the Ronnettes, and Pete Seeger as himself. (Recording of Pete Seeger used with permission of Smithsonian Folkways)

The character of Paul Sandman was inspired by two very real D.J.'s, one of whom I know, and the other I only heard on the radio. Jonathan Schwartz was on WNEW FM out of New York City when it first started its rock format in the late '60's. He programmed a wide variety of music, from rock to jazz to classical on his show, and was a most interesting person to listen to. He currently programs music in the big band/Frank Sinatra genre (with a generous mix of other eclectic styles) on WNYC, New York City Public Radio. John Weingart currently hosts a folk and folk-related music program entitled, "Music You Can't Hear on the Radio" on Sunday nights on WPRB FM, the Princeton University station. A lot of my feel for the D.J. biz came from talking with Karen Smith, an ex R&R D.J. out of Atlanta. (She later married my friend, Bob Sharen, thereby becoming Karen Sharen, and hence, the "Sharon Smith" character of this story.)

When the broadcast room's a living tomb of cracked acoustic tiles,
And you're left alone with your microphone and your playlist and your dials,
And the hands upon the studio clock pass midnight, creep towards one...
Then it's time to take the air once more; the graveyard shift's begun.

The day shift and the engineers have all left hours ago.
You close the heavy soundproof door and set your board aglow.
Cue the first two records up; settle in your chair,
Uncap and flip the "transmit" switch, and you are on the air.

There's magic in the radio, enchantment in the ether.
A power born of mind and brain, and yet a part of neither.
A power to be reckoned not in kilowatts or joules,
A means to let a single voice touch half a million souls.

But when you work the graveyard shift, from one A.M. to five
You start to doubt that anyone is out there or alive.
The halls are lifeless, phone is dead, and there's nothing quite so lonely
As to call with kilowatts, and in reply, hear silence only.

They usually stick the rookie jocks in the lonely graveyard slot.
But me, I broadcast nights by choice. I like that shift a lot.
'Cause when I get the lonely's, as I do from time to time,
I recall the Sandman's final show of 1969.

1960's radio was awful at its best.
I grew up with Cousin Brucie, and the Wolfman, and the rest.
Between the fast talk and the hype and the acne lotion jingle
And station breaks with sound effects they'd maybe play a single.

But that was all there was back then, and that was all we had.
And nostalgia finds a way to sift the good from all the bad.
So intertwined was radio with fond scenes of my youth
That it's tinted with a rosy glow that overlays the truth.

And summer parties at the beach, and every high school date,
Those midnight drives in my dad's Olds, and studying till late
Are movies in my memory, and behind them I still hear
The Beach Boys, and the Beatles, and the Motown, oh so clear
To the counterpoint of D.J. hype and ads for Rheingold Beer.

But then in '67, FM burst upon the scene.
What once played only Bach and Brahms, was now a rock fan's dream.
Between the sparse commercials, they'd do three songs in a row,
And album cuts, and full-length versions played in stereo.

And gone was all the mile-a-minute brainless D.J. chatter,
And singing station breaks and other aural fecal matter.
Instead these guys with wit and charm told what they had to tell,
And spoke as if they thought that I might have some brains as well.

I came to know them all by voice that summer, and by fall
I'd hung around the station till I got to know them all.
Bill Clancy in the morning slot, Ann Stacy, Charlie West,
But the Sandman, he was different and apart from all the rest.

Paul Sandman did the overnights. He had his special style.
He was older than the others, and had been around awhile.
He'd segue different album cuts in a stream-o4-conscious run,
And do theme sets and live concert tapes; he made listening fun.

And though he must've known my name, he always called me "Kid".
But he let me watch him work, and he'd explain the things he did.
And once or twice he snuck me in the studio late at night,
And let me cue the tapes and records up to my delight,
Till I wandered back home bleary-eyed as it was getting light.

And while the records spun, he sat and talked of days gone by
When radio was younger, so was he... and so was I.
While 'round his lonely Kansas farmhouse, snowdrifts blew and curled,
The radio was a living color window on the world.

He said,

"There was magic in the radio, enchantment in the ether.
A power born of mind and brain, and yet a part of neither.
A way to take you miles and years by means unknown to science,
But it's since become a juke box, nothing more than an appliance.

"I can tell you've got the itch, Kid, that you'd like to be a jock.
Well, give it up, the magic's gone, there's nothing left but schlock.
You deal with all the crazies, and the drugged-out suicide calls,
And the sponsors and the FCC have got you by the throat.

"Programming tells you what to play, and they take no denying.
You read copy advertising crap you'd never think of buying.
The hours are long, the pay is squat, vacations are... but then
The cut would end, he'd face the mike, and weave magic once again.

Sure enough, he read me right. Guess he could recognize
A little of his own obsession shining in my eyes.
And when I left for school that fall, and higher education,
My first step was to make a beeline for the radio station.

Throughout my freshman year I learned the ropes and paid my dues.
I engineered and did commercials, swept, and read the news.
By the time I was a sophomore, I had earned a weekly show.
I was on the graveyard shift, but I was on the radio!

And I learned "Paul Sandman" was a name that every D.J. knew.
The trade rags did his story. Got a piece in "Newsweek", too.
And sometimes playing album sides from our deserted station,
I'd tune in his show on my headphones just for inspiration.

And so it was on New Year's Eve of 1969.
School was out; they'd all gone home. The station was all mine.
And there was I, the rookie jock left holding down the fort,
Well stocked with day-old pizza pie and coffee by the quart.

They had me working triple shift from eight PM to eight
Playing records no one listened to, while partying till late.
And CBS had run lines 'cross the country to Times Square,
And at midnight, we'd switch over to a live broadcast from there
To hear the famous ball come down, and ring in the New Year.

By 'leven ten, it got so dead You just could not believe.
Who the hell is listening to the radio New Year's Eve?
So I cued up "Tommy". That would kill a half an hour or so,
Kicked off my shoes, plugged in my phones, tuned in the Sandman's show.

Something's different. Something's wrong. I knew right off the bat.
He's playing straight top-40. His voice is sounding flat.
There's dead air between his cuts, and his spots all run too long.
Inside of fifteen minutes, I knew something there was wrong.

I let him start a record then dialed up his private line.
He answered with his call letters, and I replied with mine.
"Well, hiya Kid! Hey, tell me, ain't you got a better way
To spend your New Year's Eve than with some busted down D.J?"

"Heck, no! I'm on the air myself. I got lots of time.
I listen to your show because it's better far than mine.
But tell me, Sandman, what's with you? Is everything all right?
It seems to me as if you're somewhat off your stride tonight."

"Everything is not all right," he answered with a frown.
"The Arbitron report came out. Our ratings have gone down.
And Harry Stein in Programming's decided that the way
To get the ratings back on top is dictate what I play.

"So here I sit with list in hand that says at 10:15
I should play the Righteous Brothers, followed by the Cream
And then a public service pot, and then some Moby Grape.
Hell, they don't need a D.J, they could put this stuff on tape!

"It's December 31st. The year is coming to an end.
And with it ends the decade, and an era, too, my friend.
And in twenty-seven minutes, I will switch off to Times Square,
But when I return in '70, tune in if you care
To hear how good the radio could be -- if it would dare!"

He broke off at that moment to cue up another platter.
I said goodbye. The Who were almost finished, for that matter.
And exactly twenty-seven minutes later, more or less,
On cue, I flipped the switch to hook us in with CBS.

And while thousands in New York bade fond farewell to '69,
And Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra played "Auld Lang Syne",
I raised my slice of pizza in salute to the New Year,
And once more to the Sandman at the end of his career.

When the network show was over with, I went back on mike.
I made some inane comments 'bout the future and the like.
Did a station break, cued a record up, and then,
Put my headphones on and tuned the Sandman in again.

"Welcome," he began, "to 1970 radio.
You've noticed, in the past, a certain blandness to this show?
Seems Harry Stein's determined what your music tastes should be.
Well, [BLEEP!] you, Mr. Harry Stein! And [BLEEP!] the FCC!

"I've had my fill of radio. This here's my final hour.
But the door is locked and bolted and I'm on internal power.
I s'pose they'll find a way to get me out eventually,
But until then, you'll see how good the radio can be."

And then the music started. And the magic came on strong.
And how their sequence brought to light a hidden meaning to each song.
And where he got those tapes and records, I will never know,
Old favorites I'd forgotten live recordings from some show.

(sung)
You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.
You can't always get what you want!
Where have all the flowers gone?
Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron!

The Beatles singing German, Dixieland on seventy-eights,
Benny Goodman, Walter Carlos, Bessie Smith, and the Roommates!
This is more than playing records. This is genius! This is art!
This is something all should hear. And, damn! I'll do my part!

I open the equipment carton stowed beneath the board
And rummage through the junk there till I find the proper cord.
Patch "headphone out" to "preamp in", adjust the input power,
And the Sandman's show gets relayed out from our antenna tower!

I reach out for the telephone, dial WBVA.
It's answered there by Sharon Smith, their overnight D.J.
"Hey, Sharon, Paul Sandman's just flipped Harry Stein the bird
And he's putting out the best damned radio you've ever heard!"

There's a brotherhood amongst the radio voices of the night.
They'll stand behind a fellow jock, they se he's in a fight.
Sharon had to listen but a moment, then was gone
To find a patchcord of her own to send the Sandman on.

And then the phones, that long I thought were dead, began to light,
As calls came in from miles around from listeners in the night.
"Whence comes this wondrous music?" they would ask. And I would smile.
"And how come I pick it up on every station of the dial?"

And through the night the signal spread from station on to station,
As the D.J.'s spread the Sandman and his magic 'cross the nation,
Till Sharon called me, laughing, shouting like she was on fire,
Saying, "Listen! Someone's put the Sandman on the Network wire!"

That's right! The lines out to New York were still hooked nationwide!
I flipped the switch to listen in, and laughed until I cried.
The Sandman must have reached some hero New York engineer,
Who put him on the wire for the whole damn world to hear!

There was magic in the air that night, enchantment in the ether.
A power born of craft and pride, yet so much more than either.
And all across the country sat the overnight hard core,
And shared the Sandman's magic, till at twenty after four,
He stopped to say goodbye, as they were breaking down the door.

New Year's Day dawned cold and grey with just a touch of sleet,
And many a jock by nine o'clock found himself on the street.
Me, I came off cheap. A reprimand was all I got.
But New Year's Night, a new voice broadcast from the Sandman's slot.

Since that night the radio's become my occupation.
I'm now a big-shot D.J. at a major FM station.
But when the hours start to drag, and the night is going slow,
I cue up an album side, crank up my headphone stereo,
And tune into the Sandman... now on National Public Radio.

When the broadcast room's a living tomb of cracked accoustic tiles,
And you're left alone with your microphone, and your playlist, and your dials,
Though the airwaves seem a graveyard of lifeless whitened bone,
There's always someone listening, and you're really not alone.