Much of what we endure in the present softens and comes to a mild glow through the wide lens of nostalgia. It's more rare when something vital and urgent in the far past retains its charge in the present. Joyce Carol Oates says that "blood is memory without language." When a recollection stirs us, language vainly tries to translate. So my dilemma: how do I describe the effects on me of Weasel's "Frantic Friday" sets on WHFS in the 1980s, which have retained their charge in my memory.
|Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert|
Weasel offered me a desperately coveted alternate reality of popular music: Marshall Crenshaw rather than Christopher Cross; Hoodoo Gurus rather than Tears For Fears; the Spongetones rather than Mr. Mister. (He was a great and obvious influence on my own concurrent poor-man radio show at the weakly-transmitted WMUC at the University of Maryland. I had a show for more than three years, nabbing a great Friday afternoon slot of my own by the end, proudly and stubbornly playing pop and retro rock & roll while many of my colleagues spun Skinny Puppy and early Sub Pop, much more adventurous and interesting than me; I wore my narrow-minded badge a bit too proudly in retrospect.) Weasel wasn't afraid to play a current hit—say, Doctor And The Medics' version of "Spirit In The Sky," or the Bangles or R.E.M after they hit mainstream success—but the track needed to cram as many hooks into its grooves as possible. I distinctly remember his crush on the L.A. roots band Green On Red; he'd often play, back to back, two tracks from their 1983 debut Gravity Talks, the title track and "Five Easy Pieces." The problem was that the tacks were separated by another song, so Weasel would just lift the needle to go from track one to three—with the subsequent dead air. Sometimes songs would skip, and the transmitter volume would be yanked down to remedy it, or if a song inadvertently bled into another in an inelegant segue. Such was the ramshackle professionalism by which WHFS worked
It's hard to describe the excitement of listening to the evolving Frantic Friday sets, Weasel's last of the week. Friday was here and Weasel provided your soundtrack. Characteristic of 'HFS looseness, the Frantic Friday set wasn't ironclad; Weasel might start it at around 4:45, or earlier, and end it close to 5, or later when the next DJ, the beloved "Bob Here," would begin his shift. It felt like whatever Weasel was in the mood to play, he played; your Friday afternoon had an unpredictability to it, so get your drink on and decide where you and your friends are gonna hang tonight. Back Alley Cafe? Cagney's? Your car?
I asked Weasel about the history of the Frantic Fridays sets. "There is no real history," he told me. "Like everything else it simply evolved. In the late 70's when I switched from being an overnight jock to afternoons Friday's just seemed right for that type of party music. And 5:00pm on Friday was the mythical liberation from office drudgery and the beginning of the free at last weekend. And of course the music of Joe 'King' Carrasco, Dave Edmunds, the Beastie Boys, NRBQ, and others were coming out at about the same time period. Like most other sets, I did it one Friday on a whim and got great response, did it again the next Friday and then started to vary it a bit." He adds, in understatement: "Then it became a tradition."
There were a few regular songs in the tradition. The classic set went like this:
Wild Weekend (Rockin' Rebels)
Weekend (Eddie Cochran)
Here Comes The Weekend (Dave Edmunds)
Party Weekend (Joe "King" Carrasco)
A song he'd sometimes slot in to this set was "Thank God It's Friday," a locally-pressed single by the D.C.-area band Harbison, Bond & Goddard:
Thank God It's Friday (Harbison, Bond & Goddard)
"Party Weekend," always the set closer, became the song most associated with Frantic Friday and, I'd argue, with Weasel himself. It was actually my least favorite song of the set, because it signalled the end and because it was a bit overrated to my ears, and sounded too much of the processed era for me, production-wise, especially a later re-recorded version. (I do remember Carrasco saying in an interview once that all he aspired to in his career was to write a song as good as "96 Tears." He didn't manage that, but hats off for such a noble goal.) I first heard the evocative drunken fun of "Wild Weekend" via Weasel (he later replaced this with NRBQ's lesser version, complete with lyrics, from 1989). The fact the standard songs in the set were a decades-old by the mid 1980s didn't matter to the program directors at the station. What mattered were the songs themselves, not units moved or place in the Billboard charts.
In my favorite sets, Weasel rocked a little harder. Maybe he was in an amped-up mood, felt the weekend coming in his marrow, whatever. These were the sets I'd mentally will Weasel to play, the ones I'd groove to cruising down Rockville Pike in Maryland or 16th Street in the District, the night's reckless fun ahead of me, the songs that have settled permanently in my DNA:
Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight (The Rezillos)
She Makes Me Rock Too Much (Switchblade)
Rock You Up (The Romantics)
Sometimes after the Switchblade song he'd drop in Skafish's intense "Wild Night Tonight":
Or this great New Wave kinda-hit from the Flirts:
We Just Wanna Dance (The Flirts)
I don't think it's simply time, circumstance, and nostalgia that have woven these songs together so urgently for me; I defy you to play those tunes in any order and not feel stirred. Switchblade was a local rockabilly band, which was cool. Yeah, "Rock You Up" is corny. But I couldn't (I can't) resist it: the groove, the harmonica, the hooks, the corn, the attitude, the rock & roll of it all. Listening now still gets my heart going. Also indelible are the feelings and memories associated with listening to Skafish's "Wild Night Tonight" on the radio; though the band hailed from Chicago, I will always associate the driving, anthemic song with mid-1980s Washington D.C. culture in all of it cocaine-fueled, Marion Barry-mania, 9:30 Club-rocking, suburb-into-the-city-journeying, 14th Street-hookers hooking, Redskins-winning, "Disco" Dan-graffiti-emblazoned, beer-drenched glory. Raw, exciting, fun times. The Flirts' tune may as well be for me an aural scratch-n-sniff for Reagan-era club decadence. (The good kind of decadence.) Weasel understood the appeal of clubs and bars and also knew that the anticipation of getting there is half the fun. By 1986, Weasel was kicking off many of his Frantic Friday sets with:
Fight For Your Right To Party (Beastie Boys)
And the fun went on. Other songs that he'd drop into the Frantic Friday sets: the Flirts' "Jukebox (Don't Put Another Dime)"; local legends the Slickee Boys' "When I Go To The Beach" and "Life Of The Party"; Dave Edmunds' "Almost Saturday Night"; the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Psycho Therapy"; the Fleshtones' "American Beat '84"; Grand Funk's "We're An American Band." I'm neglecting many songs, some that came before or after my time living in the area, others that memory's wiped for some reason or other.
"Fight For Your Right To Party" represents Late Weasel to me: in 1988 I left suburban D.C., headed to southeast Ohio and what felt, at the time, as a cultural vacuum. I missed Weasel a lot, and would always try to tune in when I was home visiting. By the mid 1990s I was tuning in less and less as 'HFS became more and more adherent to a corporate notions of Alternative Music, at least to my visitor's ears. Weasel finally jumped ship in 2003, and after freelancing and consulting in radio and the Internet, landed a weekly Saturday afternoon gig at WTMD in Towson, Maryland. I'll be tuning in, and won't be surprised if Weasel channels rock & roll and the power and lure of The Weekend as lovingly as he always has, finding the right language for my stirred-up blood.
UPDATE: More recently, Weasel's been on the air with Robbie White on the "Forbidden Alliance" radio show on WOWD-lp FM, in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Here's a terrific photo of Weasel behind the boards taken by Washington Post columnist and lifer rock and roll fan John Kelly:
Top photo of Weasel via WTMD Blog For Music People.