“Another creature there/somewhere there/ behind the pane/another living soul/
one other living soul” – Samuel Beckett, Rockaby
There are plenty of histories of music and musicians but there is no history of listening and not a single biography of a great listener exists. Would this make boring reading? Not necessarily. Anyway, the world is already full of tedious books.
According to the Italian Futurist Marinetti, the radio was ‘the elimination of the concept or the illusion of an audience which has always had, even for books, a deforming and damaging influence’. By 1934 Marconi’s taps on the high seas had become the bodiless voice of the racist Chicago prelate Father Coughlin, who recognized the similarity between the radio hour and the call of naval distress. And the audience, which the Italian Futurists so despised? Each one of them was now a target of communication. It must have seemed like a new kind of séance when radio promised not only collective waves of voices but also that each listener would become a receiver – as in a ‘cold spot’ or cool medium. Earlier in the 19th Century, visions of voices on air took place behind Bedlam walls. The startling plans of these mass communication towers were laid out in inscrutable schematics, workable unworkable plans attributed to secret machines or the Prince of the Air. The first radio broadcast proper was music followed by a Bible passage. Ships picked up the violin strains of Silent Night on Christmas Eve 1906.
You should mistrust any augur of technology. You should mistrust Silicon Valley. You should have first mistrusted Radio City in all its glitter, its ziggurats that resemble the vévé of the accursed Sect Rouge.
Recording makes the living buzz stone. A sound no longer comes to us just once, with only an echo at best as evidence of having been. The phonograph and its black disks, the copper coil turning its Norns ever back to the start yet one degree higher, the business of canned music and the ethnographers who imitate spies, all this is material of the repeat illusion and the facts in the death of the virginity of sounds. All recordings are illicit. Every tape betrays the undiscovered life of people and things, like the caution tape at the scene of a crime.
The system of the stereo brought the jungle of wires and pulleys into your home. Whole rooms were set aside just for the purpose of housing and administering communication. Each man his own station and receiver; each man his own lifeboat in a sea of broadcasts. Radio waves, the promises of mermaids, a sea of tranquility which is really an ocean of chatter. Radio, linkage of warships: “Have I done the world good, or have I added a menace?” - Marconi.
Radio early attracted the master criminal. Fu Manchu got 15 minutes a week throughout the 1930s and a last gasp during the WW2 Yellow Scare (he was Chinese, not Japanese, but no matter). The Shadow read the hearts of men by coaxial. Radio City Music Hall was developed between 1929 and 1940 by that octopod center of ancienne conspiration, John D. Rockefeller. It got its name because one of its first tenants was the Radio Corporation of America, RCA. The RCA logo is now property of the Fu Manchu-like Sony.
The ghosts of the war appeared first on the airwaves, even before druid Arthur Machen put his Angels at Mons. The Great War saw an upsurge in transatlantic cables, new remote commands corresponding to the remote artillery which made this inferno so different from the local expressions of bloodshed past. In 1917, the US Government took charge of the radio patents and manufacture held by the first major communications corporations. After the war, the Army built the towers and transmitters for large holdings like General Electric. Admiral Bullard sat on RCA’s board of directors: radio was now a property of the generals and the military PSYOPs theorists. United Fruit, notorious for its banana massacres and generals with dark glasses, joined with Westinghouse and several others to form the National Broadcasting Corp., NBC, in 1926. Three years later, RCA bought the old Victor Talking Machine Company (Nipper the Dog with his head in the horn). The home player went electric in 1930.
In Kenya, tribal singers mimicked the great Jimmie Rodgers, Chimirocha, when they heard a 78 of the Singing Brakeman from missionary Hugh Tracey in 1950. “Standin’ on the corner, I didn’t mean no harm—Along come a po-lice, he took me by the arm”, as Rodgers sang in his classic ‘Blue Yodel No. 1”. Secret police have always controlled the airwaves.
The Kipsigi of Kenya have an incredibly ornate and beautiful music, especially rich in polyphony. Their highly sophisticated choral arrangements are occasionally accompanied by a 5-stringed lyre-like stringed instrument called the kidugandet which adds handcraft to humanity’s first instrument. Although the Kipsigi rightfully consider Westerners to be crude savages, they admired Rodgers’ voice and proclaimed him, in a profound poetic image, to be half centaur. The great Howlin’ Wolf, honored lwa of American music, agreed. His howl grew from his friend Jimmie Rodger’s yodel (‘My main man’, he called him; according to the Wolf, they sang together when the Wolf was a child).
According to the old rabbinical literature, there is a heavenly scribe named Metatron. When he met this entity, the Gnostic heresiarch Elisha Ben reportedly cried: "There are indeed two powers in Heaven!" Only a Recording Angel could provoke such blasphemy. Metatron has an infernal opposite, the demon Adramelech, who is also responsible for the Devil’s wardrobe according to De Plancy’s Infernal Dictionary, published in 1818. That same year, Samuel Morse was born. So the birth of Morse Code coincides with an influential phone book of Hell.
The revelation of Joseph Smith could be considered the first radio broadcast in America. The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi was transmitted through a primitive stone headset called the Urim and Thummim to the ears of Prophet Smith. Although it was said to be translated from stele in ‘Reform Egyptian’ via these ‘seer stones’, Mormonism showed its modern card in this igneous crystal set.
The American desert is an orphanage for alternating currents. Signals just hang around in the red air waiting to be extracted. Our music has always been about loitering, an activity with no meaning and usually illegal (or suspect because it has no definition). Loitering and malingering are also crimes attributed to revenants and squatters, any spirit who seizes real estate with no prior claim. Reveniens means to return in Latin (that language of ghosts, academics and court briefs), running the loop over and over like the famous Burmese train. Trains and spirits forged an unholy alliance early on: steam, specters, the station (a medium point) and the single track where two distinct circuits run (ours and the hereafter). There are so many songs – not the least Jimmie Rodgers’— about railroads: Two Trains Running, John Henry, 2:18 Blues, New Orleans Streamline and on and on. The vinyl long-player recalls the speed and legend of the rail: you play tracks on an LP and you track in the recording studio.
The famous instrumental pop song ‘Telstar’ was named after the NASA communications satellite launched earlier in 1962. Telstar enabled the first live transatlantic television signal and its namesake made a legend of producer Joe Meek. He was subsequently accused of plagiarism by film composer Jean Ledrut, who claimed that ‘Telstar’ was actually "La Marche d'Austerlitz" from the costume epic Austerlitz (1965). The case was resolved in Meek’s favor in 1967 due to discrepant release dates, but two weeks earlier he had committed suicide. Beethoven’s Fifth had also glorified Napoleon’s victory at the battle of Austerlitz. Military and music have an ancient bond like those other battlefield irregulars, the crow and the wolf. Armies bring music to lands they invade. The invaded take the instruments and melodies (For example, Caribbean calypso and steel bands were born from the jive-ass trills and brass thumps of the imperialist’s music corps). Songs from conquered and conqueror mix and seduce each other because music has always been a woman. Music is dear to the ragged girl who follows camp; the music industry is always called a whore. Martial music becomes a parody in the hands of slaves, making a joke in sound of the masters’ garish epaulets and his absurd tin hats. Native and black music is said to swing, perhaps because it is the impression of the hanged.
The murder on the Orient Express was committed by everyone, who were also its audience. Blame the spirits, blame the system, loathe the listener. You hear much music on the train. The bleed from headphones, people singing and tapping, solitaries who wutang und sprechgesang quite alone. You know that even if no one is broadcasting, we are receiving. You turn on your own radio and go on down the line, looking out the window in midwinter.
Last ghosts, we love lasts, clips, bits and snatches… rock her off… rock her off….
Martin Billheimer is a writer and musician from Chicago. Martin's writing can be seen over at CounterPunch. His band, the incredible Bad Luck Jonathan, can be purchased over at CdBaby.