Joelle Van Dyne as Madame Psychosis
Joelle Van Dyne in Infinite Jest, a novel by David Foster Wallace.
The unalloyed wonderfulness of a voice coming from out of nowhere, the very air that we breathe, narrating a ‘soundtrack of your life,’ turns the Old Testament stunts of the Almighty into parlor tricks by comparison. If God had been selling the prophets zit cream, running shoes and condoms, what then? Today you are God. Cool.
A disc jockey’s life is a state of permanent disconnect — imagining a real, live, flesh and blood listener while staring ahead and counting the holes in the same Celotex wall tile over and over. The resulting numbers are always the same. Every time. Joelle Van Dyne’s radio station in Infinite Jest was WYYY, a low power student radio station at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An Internet search finds those letters pinned to an easy-listening FM in Syracuse, N.Y. I recalled an interesting anecdote from MIT Radio and e-mailed Tom McLaughlin, news director of WQDY Calais, Maine — a Boston disc jockey in the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll radio, and a friend in Maine. Tom replied:
The original call letters were WTBS as in Technology Broadcasting System... Ted Turner liked the letters so well, he offered $50,000 as a donation if we’d give them up... we were so destitute as a station we did. And became WMBR, for Walker Memorial Basement Radio, where the studios are at 142 Memorial Drive. They later realized they should have asked for $100,000, but oh well! The donation allowed us to buy new broadcast consoles. Go stereo — a new transmitter, it was great; compared to what was there, that served them well, but they needed to grow and Ted sure helped! We didn’t sell the call letters; we decided to apply for the WMBR. It was orchestrated. We give up and get new ones; and the old ones are now available. VOILA! Everyone has new (to them) call signs, and we got sorely needed financial help. Everybody wins!
... just like comic strip characters.” Bruce Glaser was a curator at the Jewish Museum and a volunteer producer of an arts show for the Pacifica Foundation’s WBAI, where I hung my hat between Top-40 gigs. I had played him some Mad Daddy stuff. Bruce was, of course, right. He had not meant the comment as a putdown. He was wondering what was behind the billboards — another Hollywood backlot or flesh and blood. Everything was new in the 60s — the generational curse of self-discovery — High Camp, Andy Warhol and Batman. We lived in Camelot.
And I thought I would never run out of words. One morning the well is empty and it’s time to move along. The cowboy of another day — an anachronism, redundant — has been vetted to a future that looks a lot like now. — Pen Harrington
Deejays are born, not made, despite the assurances of the communications academies. Fast-forward to the Twenty-first Century. A perky news anchor makes eye contact with the camera and smiles. Her eyes are empty; she has forgotten everything. Her head turns three-quarters front and you breathe a sigh: Everything will be all right. The teleprompter. “And now... the Nooz at Newn.” Not a natural talent.
Then there is Joelle Van Dyne (host of “Sixty Minutes More or Less with Madame Psychosis”) as celebrated by David Foster Wallace in his Infinite Jest. Joelle is, despite being a P.G.O.A.T (Prettiest Girl of all Time), flat, a deejay. Her extreme beauty, while dealing out death, retail, has to sprint to keep up with her formidable insights. She, too, dreams to be round. In this sense three-demensional. Her beauty drives men (and women) mad, and she is veiled by choice:
“As an adult, Joelle wears a veil to cover her deformity (though we’re never actually sure she is deformed; Joelle herself states that she wears it because any man who sees her face falls in love with her) and is a member of the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed (U.H.I.D.). Madame Psychosis cannot herself sense the compelling beauty and light she projects over the air, somehow. [We have] visions of interfacing with her and telling her she’d feel a lot better if she listened to her own show, we bet. Madame Psychosis [we] would love to talk to but would be scared to try.”
— Gabe Habash, Publishers Weekly
Stacks of wax and mounds of sound
You hit a switch and a red light goes on. There is a preternatural whistling sound in the headphones — you are breathing. A thrill chases up your spine and you quickly hit the switch again. The red light goes off. You are speechless with terror. You — at this, your first fling at a (most likely) low power local radio station — feel, perhaps rightly, that inside your zit-covered skin there is a pulsing giant yearning to be free. It seemed so easy at home practicing in the mirror. In the headphones there is silence; past the double glass a bored secretary looks up from her desk. Well? You hit the switch again. An adolescent voice, tight with anxiety: “And now...” An audible click, amplified by the audio processing at the transmitter, and an orchestral sting slams against your cochleae — the news music. The sheets of wire service printout are clammy in your fingers. “And now... The banana futures from Tampa.”
We’ve all been there. Like Joelle Van Dyne, Pete Myers had paid his dues.
Died young and by misadventure: an anonymous obituary from any legion of unheralded insurgencies. And forty years after Pete’s death, I resurrected him (with all due respect) as a character, Pete Garland, in the story, The Year They Invented Frozen Lemonade:
There is once a futile passion for a local disc jockey.
In the afternoons of Linda Winkelman’s “young womanhood,” as her mother described her child’s budding pubescence, the years from nine to thirteen, Linda sought solace from the radio, particularly 1010 WINS’ afternoon personality for whom she hoped to become an acceptable offering. Pete Garland was the announcer who came on just before Jack Lacy and her mother’s favorite, Murray the K.
Linda took comfort in the molassesey voice and sophisticated humor of the afternoon disc jockey. The Pete Garland Cat Exchange added a unifying dimension to Linda Winkelman’s young life. Linda tried to work up the courage to call in. She even invented a cat, Conan, whom she could say would be looking for a good home because of her mother’s allergies.
She sent away for a signed picture. New York radio stations nurtured the images of their stars and it had been retuned with a short handwritten note from the announcer’s wife.
In The Return of the Orange Virgin he became Pen Harrington:
Perhaps it was time to go. All the currency of his life was spent — he had clasped the last manly handshake, watched the heart-searing sunset from the only remaining mesa and fired his last and finest shot — the heart was empty and the gun was full. Ahhh, were those not the days: wenches to swive, tossings back of many neat whiskeys to accomplish. But when the gun is empty and the steely gaze of ice blue eyes seeks another dawn, then it’s time to ride on.
Long ago and far away, there was a radio man of surpassing skill, and what small cachet Lemonade might have, it is only a minor postponement of oblivion. Ave atque vale, old friend.
excerpted from the bio by David Hinckley on the now defunct WNEW tribute site:
“On the radio, Peter Myers called himself Mad Daddy, which by all evidence was truth in advertising.
“He spoke in maniacal rhymes over the sound of bubbling cauldron, cackling as he raced to the next rock ‘n’ roll record or perhaps the next ad spot he had taken the liberty of personally rewriting into a Mad Daddy-style rhyme.
“Did you ever see a Martian beard?
The whiskers are purple and curly and weird
And two faces are harder than just one to shave
So the two-headed Martians just naturally race
For the cooler more comfortable shave they get
With push-button lather and blade by Gillette.”
by the time Mad Daddy got to New York, 1959, time was running out for his
kind of radio.
On many stations, the jocks were bigger stars than the artists they played, a stature traceable in large part to black rhythm-and-blues jocks like Jocko Henderson, Hot Rod Hulbert, Dr. Jive and Willie Bryant. Their style was picked up by white jocks right alongside the records they played.
That Pete Myers was a descendant of Jocko was hardly surprising. The San Francisco-born Myers had studied acting at the Royal London Academy of Dramatic Arts, and he knew all about learning from the best. After London, Myers migrated to New York. But he found himself on the second tier, a character actor who worked regularly on TV but never got any indication producers saw leading man potential.
One too many shifts in the toy department at Macy’s sent him back to San Diego where he landed a radio gig. The work was routine. But a new wind was blowing through radio now, as rhythm-and-blues started plowing the ground for rock ‘n’ roll. Ohio became an epicenter of this new sound, and Myers got a gig in Akron, where he played a wild mix of rhythm-and-blues he called “wavy gravy” many years before the term resurfaced in San Francisco.
If you are seeking vagrant Mad Daddy tapes, engineers are a packrat breed. Here are some names you might follow up on. There were five of us — young engineers surprised and awed being involved in something that was approaching “Art.” I was one of the five. We were Rob Hunter, Steve Safion, John Molnar, Carl Infantino and Alex Kaye Gold. I have lost track of my union brothers over the years, but when the radio station said sayonara to playing music, Carl and I split the WINS record library. Yes — they threw it out. Carl and I rendezvoused at Central Park West and Columbus Circle with a borrowed truck on or around the weekend they dropped BMI licensing to [save big money and] go all-news. Steve died on the golf course in his thirties. Carl Infantino, Al Gold and John Molnar (and I, for a short while) stayed with the all news WINS as Group W moved their New York flagship to the 18th and 19th floors at 90 Park Ave.
A Columbus Circle memento — the Mad Daddy theme (play MP3). Our radio station, WINS, occupied all available interior space in a Gothic chapel that William Randolph Hearst had disassembled and trucked over from Normandy, numbers on every stone, to plop on top of the 59th Street subway station. This happened just before the Crash of ’29. Hearst did it for Marion Davies, his main squeeze, who had religious inclinations.
The second floor is where WINS — Crosley, then Westinghouse broadcasting, nowunder the CBS banner and an all news station — held forth in the days of Murray the K (see The Year We Invented Rock N Roll), Alan Freed and Pete Myers. We are facing north (uptown). We were #1 in New York City in the days of pre-Beatles rock and roll. Next year we were #3. Murray the K blamed it on Pete Myers.
The picture was shot from atop an Edwardian mansion, later a Regal Shoe outlet torn down in the early 60s to make room for Huntington Hartford’s Museum of American Art. The trolley tracks were there till the late 50s when they repaved Broadway (to the left). In the salad days of Top-40 radio a Bickford’s cafeteria and Gristede’s supermarket occupied the ground floor. We had an elevator to the 59th Street/Columbus Circle stops. We used to bring Roy Campanella (wheelchair bound) up from the subway to tape “Campy’s Corner,” a weekly show about baseball with anchor Chris Schenkel.
One of the Mad Daddy engineers, Alex Gold, ended up the Chief Engineer at WABC. Al Gold and I last spoke in 1985 when the studio I worked for was trying to rent or borrow satellite uplink time for a Steve Allen Show bicoastal pilot proposal. I know all of these guys — we are of course all now in our 70s — saved the 7½ ips reverb tapes when they produced — freehand and “live-on-the-air,” a perfect Mad Daddy Show. If you’re interested in a search, they’re out there somewhere.
Pete and I connected through the WINS talkback — the intercom from the announce booth to the studio control room — announcers didn’t touch the controls (IBEW contract) and the engineers and producers didn’t talk (AFTRA contract). This was the early 60s and the John Wayne stereotypes merged with the sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll models. In short, we boozed and we pilled. A lot. Even with the difference in our ages (Pete was the older by ten years and drama school trained; I was the East Village dropout, had made a living playing guitar and saying funny things in coffeehouses), there was a bonding as we cracked jokes at the sponsors, the music and life at large.
I served a hitch as production manager at non-commercial radio (WBAI-Pacifica, there was no NPR yet) while Pete went to WNEW (still simulcasting their FM as a static-free throw-away for advertisers). We met again when my union card dragged me to a much bigger and regular paycheck at Metromedia/WNEW. “You’ll be sorry,” Pete shouted up to the control room whilst Max Weiner, the chief engineer, gave me a guided tour. The traffic over the intercom was hilarious. Through a haze of downers and uppers that somehow didn’t prevent us from doing our jobs, we each discovered a kindred spirit. At least while the booze and drugs lasted. Then Pete died.
Pete used to refer to Ernie, a brother. I knew Annie Myers (Mrs. Myers #1) and met Lisa (Mrs. Myers #2) at the studio . It was 1966 and Bob and Ray were leaving the morning show at WHN. Pete and I thought we had a catalysis for humor. We practiced our routines on each other and loved it. Blinded by the glory of our imagined suns, we forgot what we were supposed to be doing and let the ball drop without us. Why have I saved this snippet of the wild and wonderful worlds of Joelle Van Dyne and forgotten radio announcer? Moderate guilt and occasional melancholia.
For those of us who pause to reflect on the responsibility of playing Tinkerbell to Everyman, or at least Harvey the Pooka to Elwood P. Dowd, a successfully performed 4-hour board shift (our ‘Show’) attains the visceral rush of a runner’s high. Or winning on Jeopardy. But is anybody out there? Has no one has noticed the adroit segues, razor-sharp anecdotes, tight talkups to vocal? What we did was art for art’s sake. Make that Art for Art’s sake. I have a pretty good idea of what goes on inside the souls of funnymen and funnywomen. This is the moment of the dry mouth and sweaty palms.
For the new digs, all new stuff — a new experience for for me and the other sirs and brothers of IBEW local 1212. Slide faders (potentiometers) were available in high-end, boutique operations, and usually found only in well-funded, new, construction projects. McCurdy Electronics of Canada supplied WINS, New York City, with the first 19-in, 4-out broadcast boards on the East coast while I was an engineer there in 1964. Remember, this was pre-digital, and the ‘state of the art’ was a console with no audio (low-gain) signals in the board and all operations done by DC (direct current) to control ambient electrical noise.
There is a substantial difference between a ‘fader’ and a ‘potentiometer,’ but board ops like me used the terms interchangeably — referring to their effect, not to what they accomplished electrically. There is a reason buried in the mists of history for these particular numbers of inputs. It has in part to do with the width of the fader modules as opposed to off-the-rack mounting hardware (the celebrated ‘mainframe’) and the fact that no matter how convoluted the design, somehow a human being was going to have to operate the thing.
Not all ‘naturals’ have their heads explode or get sentenced to wander the outer darkness. Newsman Henry Marcotte, Johnny Holliday and the late Charles Scott King’s daughter have been in touch about this blog entry. Johnny was a basketball fiend in the 60s and it was a non-surprise to hear him on ABC sports at the little radio station in the Maine woods where I ended my broadcasting days. Johnny joined WINS, New York, in 1964, and played the last record on WINS before the switch to All News.
that did not make it into the earlier versions of this piece:
1. The Rolling Stones at WINS, setting off cherry bombs as Charles Scott King reads the 6:30 news. They are sprawled across the table in studio C, drinking J&B from the bottle. The promotion man from Parrot (London) Records, Tom Jones his only other pop music client, has never had such undersized, smelly people in his limousine. Ever. Mick Jagger bites Charlie’s wife on the shoulder. Should she get a tetanus shot?
2. And Tex Antoine and Uncle Wethby. Tex Antoine was the weatherman on WABC’s Eyewitness News in the early ’70s. Tex was tall, lean and rangy, quick with a quip or an ironic aside, and Charley King bore more than a passing resemblance to him. This became a dependable source of income as Charley was the stand-in of choice when Tex was out sick or on vacation. Tex made an on-air gaffe and was out of a job. Likewise Charley as far as being Tex’s stand-in. This was in the mid-70s.
3. Pete Myers last day at WHK in Cleveland
Pete was on his way to New York and the big time. Well worth a listen for the TanFastic paint-on suntan lotion and the Pepsi “Sociables” spots.
The drawing of Madame Psychosis, A.K.A. The Prettiest Girl Of All Time (above) comes via DFWForever, an all things David Foster Wallace website.
copyright 2020 Rob Hunter