Sunday, June 15, 2014

The voice - and voiceover - for a generation

There was drama in those countdowns, even with the silly songs that were on them.

If you’re lucky, there are voices who provide the soundtrack of your life and stay with you for a long, long time.
There are baseball announcers like Bob Uecker, who has been calling the games of my beloved Milwaukee Brewers my whole life. There is Terry Gross, whose “Fresh Air” program on National Public Radio debuted about the time I began to pay attention to what National Public Radio was.

Then there are voices like Casey Kasem’s, once seemingly everywhere and these days, thanks to things like satellite radio and YouTube, seemingly immortal.

After Casey Kasem died on Sunday, the ever-snarky Internet was kind. There was genuine fondness from those remembering him, and remembering the faceless role he played in their lives.
And let’s face it, there would be things to chuckle about. “American Top 40,” heard now, is so saccharine your teeth could rot just listening to it, not to mention the songs it featured weren’t exactly the cutting edge of music.

To some extent, that’s the point. Radio once played a role in our lives that is gone now, replaced first by MTV and then all the things technology brought. For better or for worse – and for younger kids, it was a good thing – radio brought people together. Sure, there was a sameness of what was playing, but there was a familiarity to the music around us, a shared sense of songs we loved or didn’t love.

I remember a classmate in junior high school once writing down the names of various songs that were on the radio, and asking us which ones we liked best. (I voted for “Pick Up the Pieces,” by the Average White Band. Hey, I played trumpet and I liked the funky stuff.) Now, I’m wondering if junior high kids – who have the Internet and their parents’ music to add to what they hear on the radio – would even all have heard of any five or so songs a classmate would give them on a list.

Those Top 40 countdowns and the charts that fed them were the grade-school equivalent of water cooler conversations. (I grew up in Wisconsin, that made them bubbler conversations.) We’d listen to the songs on WISM or WTSO (AM, of course) and eagerly await the fliers that would list the weekly Top 40. The fliers were sponsored by the radio stations and would show up at Zwald’s Appliance or Bubby's Ben Franklin store, the places where we would buy our records.
Those countdowns were so important that one of my tentmates got a Top 40 flier sent to her when we were spending two week at a Girl Scout camp called Camp Black Hawk in northern Wisconsin. We were so out of the loop, being out there in the wilderness and all, that we were stunned and excited that “The Night Chicago Died” had shot up the charts so much. I don’t remember who the tentmate was, I just remember our excitement over “The Night Chicago Died” now being No. 1.

To hear Casey Kasem count them down was something else. There was his enthusiasm for a new artist, that this singer might be the pride of Spring Hill, Nova Scotia, or the way he could gracefully dance around the subject of a song such as “Afternoon Delight." There was the complete lack of irony, because he wouldn’t have known what was to come, when he’d introduce a band with “their first song on the charts,” only to have it be their last.
And there were the long-distance dedications. Oh my. As read by Casey Kasem, they conveyed all the drama that could be milked out of the earnest letters from listeners, hoping upon hope that their dad they never met or the child they gave up for adoption would hear the song and magically understand everything there was to understand.

I often listen to the countdowns now, both from the ’70s and ’80s, replayed on satellite radio and the dedications really give me pause for thought. For starters, I wonder about the people writing the letters, if they ever connected with that estranged relative or unrequited love. But also I think of the letter-writer because it conveys what people had then: a faith, a trust that their radio – this medium – was such an important part of their lives.
As the news has come in about Casey Kasem’s death, once again it’s something that is seen through the eyes of baby boomers and once again something that makes me cringe at being considered a baby boomer.

Baby boomers  have a wide range to them, as people born between 1946 and 1964. I’ve always thought that you can’t truly be a baby boomer if you don’t remember JFK getting shot, if you don’t remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, if you loved the Partridge Family and if you didn’t buy bellbottoms with your own money.

And a true baby boomer had all that ’60s music many still consider vastly superior to anything that followed. True baby boomers aren’t Girl Scouts who get giddy over “The Night Chicago Died” hitting No. 1 on the charts in 1974.
Conversely, Generation X is generally considered to follow, from 1965 to 1984. They had grunge and bad TV shows that featured black kids with growth problems being raised by white people.

For those who don’t consider themselves in either generation, perhaps our unnamed sub-generation has Casey Kasem as our icon the way others might have John Lennon or Kurt Cobain. After all, besides being the voice of all our music, Casey Kasem was, like, the voice of Shaggy in “Scooby-Doo.” He was the voice of so many commercials we heard, not to mention a voice on other cartoons from our era: “Hot Wheels,” “Cattanooga Cats,” “Super Friends.” He also made guest appearances on “Charlie’s Angels” and “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries.”
If you remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, you never watched any of those shows. If you thrashed to Nirvana, you probably have never heard of most of them.

But for some of us who have always lived our lives on that bridge between the generations that got the fancy names, maybe it’s Casey Kasem who is our touchstone, our icon.

It’s probably why you’re not hearing too much snark (yet) over the death of Casey Kasem. It was his voice that carried us through our young years until we got to the point where we grew out of it and didn’t listen to him anymore.
But he was there, like the music itself, when it counted, when the quality of the music wasn't as important as its presence. For some, that will always make him No. 1.