Your Guide to Popular Culture

22 February, 2015 at 1:02 pm (benjamin, webjunk)

One of these days I’ll actually get around to writing up the complete version of a long-standing musing about the top five writers and documents that most influenced my prosody and thought processes (current version, in chronological order: Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Sherlock Holmes, the Columbia Records version of Marshall MacLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, Philip K. Dick’s Valis, and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, but that leaves out both Woody Allen and Peter S. Beagle, so that’s no good already…), but perhaps not, because it is a strangely arbitrary idea to limit oneself to a handful of prominent influences, when we are constantly being yo-yo’ed and nudged by the thoughts and gravity of others. Still, it was interesting to stumble across a Vlogbrothers video of John Green reminding himself and his brother Hank of the fast-paced, breathless rants of Ian Shoales, and then engaging in his own musings on how much the Vlogbrothers house style exists in part because of the rat-a-tat delivery and charm of Shoales’ weekly column.

Merle Kessler as Ian Shoales: NPR Promotional HeadshotGreen may have been surprised to dredge Shoales out of the mists of memory, but I think of him quite often. I was introduced to him by a vintage mentor of mine who thought that his acerbic commentary and relentless observation and prodding of popular culture would mirror my own. He had a cassette he’d compiled himself from having taped Shoales’ segments on the radio, collecting them piecemeal over time. I can imagine him with his hands hovering over the controls of a silvered plastic radio, staring back at him with it’s one large, round, corrugated speaker, as he jabbed at the pause and record buttons in order to do that magical thing of capturing the ephemeral. Tape gave you power over the intangible essence of music, it gave you the freedom to replay it whenever you wanted, as well as the ability to share it with others. Radio was crazy. And television was the same way. You had to bend to its whims, and you only were permitted to watch that particular movie at 7pm on a select Friday night or perhaps on a lazy Sunday at 2. If you missed an episode of Saturday Night Live, you had to listen to everyone else talk about it on Monday in order to hear what had happened, and, man, would they talk about it. Constantly. And sure, the song that you liked was in high rotation and would almost certainly play again at the top of the hour, but the waiting and the ads and the Creedence that you had to suffer through in order to hear it again was extraordinarily frustrating.

Kids today, man, with their YouTube bootlegs and their wireless downloads and their gigs upon gigs of digital memory… I roll my eyes at how much time they spend searching for the right song on a computer, and how much of their lives they waste jumping from impulse to impulse as they compulsively playlist their daily scroll of emotions by making sure their angst and boredom and frustration has the right soundtrack at every given moment. But I strike this attitude in part because they will never understand the sheer frustrating idleness of living in a world where you had to be patient enough for media to happen on its own timetable, and the wastrel spending of time in the interim is the crucible that shaped my generational character.

On the other hand, that adolescent digital immediacy is what drove me to find Green’s memorialization of Shoales in the first place. iTunes Shuffle had scrounged up a recording of Leonard Cohen performing at the 92nd Street Y, and the representative introducing him had enough of a Shoalesian twang that I suddenly needed to hear him again, and the small collection of MP3s from 2006 that I’d accumulated (using one of the various media search engines that still existed back then, before they were hunted to extinction) seemed trite and very much of their time. Commentary on Britney Spears’ relationship with Kevin Federline? Talking about the merits and demerits of Big Love? I was very much struck by how little import these things had any more, and how odd it was that anyone spent any time on them them. His two minutes on them seemed reducibly trivial, and in blank contrast to my memory of the contents of that old audiocassette, which was marvelously both of and transcendent beyond its time — in fact, just a week before, I’d paraphrased Shoales’ comment in conversation that “bumper stickers were the prose form of the ’80s“. A brief scour of the internet revealed very little of Shoales himself or his work that I hadn’t already discovered nine years ago. Instead, what it primarily uncovered, in addition to the John Green remembrance, was a couple of other examples of people trying to find online remnants of or access to Shoales’ current existence (a catalogue to which this will obviously be added).

The second link was from 2009, but included a notation at the end that, at the time, Shoales was still being broadcast on NPR affiliates, but that to hear him one would need to tune in at approximately 5:35am PST on either Saturdays or Sundays. Which, to a current young person or just about any reasonable person, would seem like an awful lot of effort in order to be exposed to slightly less than two minutes of breathless bile.

What a little more searching revealed was that these clippets were also found on another NPR station as the closing tag for their weekly literature interview show, The Agony Column. And this show was available as a podcast, which meant that some very elementary snips in Quicktime provided me with a wealth of twelve new Ian Shoales columns for my listening pleasure. Back in the day, each column was introduced with a jangly slap of a highly-synthesized jingle and a much, much too cheery man setting the scene for us with the following header:

Music. Life. Style. Lifestyle! Music. All come alive with Ian Shoales, your guide to popular culture. And now: here’s Ian!

This had gone away, with Shoales now simply and dismissively introducing himself with a succinct, “This is Ian Shoales.” Four growled syllables waved away quickly to get to the heart of whatever matter was on hand just now, whether it be the speculative sexuality of President Nixon, Sweden’s copyright-based faith initiative, Siri or NASA. In one way this was a blessing, as the twang of the traditional intro was dated perhaps the second it was composed, but it was also a mild disappointment as I would therefore perhaps never be granted insight into the mystery of why how “Life” and “Style” were different than “Lifestyle”, and why music was so important to Ian or his producers that it needed to be referenced twice.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have been included in the podcast since 2012, so this morning my alarm went off at 8:24, and I stumbled to the computer and hit the streaming link on KQED’s website, and listened to a couple minutes of reminiscences by four graduating college seniors, and an amusing dig at the screenplay to Jennifer Lopez’s new thriller The Boy Next Door. And then, wonder upon wonders, exactly at 5:35am Pacific, the voice: “This is Ian Shoales.” I’ve already forgotten what it was about, but there it was: appointment radio, delivered to me with clockwork precision by a clockwork voice. And now I have the perfect combination of old and new: keepsake MP3s of past columns to share and e-mail to my old mentor, and new ephemeral missives to listen to, laugh at, and let fade into the mists as I wake up on weekend mornings. How marvelous that still, even now: here’s Ian!


Related Links Ephemera RealPlayer links, apparently inoperative.
Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre: Merle Kessler’s blog, quiet since 2011.
43 Folders by Merlin Mann: Seemingly defunct now, but the source of one of the better Shoales epistles I downloaded in 2006.
Download: I Gotta Go and “The Ballad of Ronald McDonald”

1 Comment

  1. Merle Kessler said,

    Thanks for the nice words. I think. Remember, however, that eternity itself is just a bunch of ephemera all strung together. Yer pal, Ian.

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