Growing up in Chicago and her suburbs in the 1960s/70s provided for a very media-rich upbringing, although I was unaware at the time just how muscular it was. When we weren’t out exploring alleyways, finding mud holes to disrupt, or playing motorcycle gang wars on our banana-seated bicycles, I could be found lying on the living room floor with either one of two daily newspapers splayed out in front of me like some kind of map to the world, with local radio playing in the background. TV was likely on simultaneously, and I can still absorb and identify up to five stimuli at the same time.
As a somewhat normal American boy, I’d naturally begin with the comics, presented as a double-truck layout on most days. The Sunday Comics were multiple pages thick. Prince Valiant was my favorite. I’d soon venture over into the sports section, entertainment, business and even politics. How many ten-year olds made reading Jack Anderson’s column a regular part of their day?
Wherever I went, you can be sure I’d be fiddling to get better reception with my AM/FM transistor radio, seasonally tuned to Cubs games featuring Baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Brickhouse. There also seemed to be a great many live concerts broadcast on the radio back then, though I’m sure that wasn’t germane to Chicago. Don Kirshner even brought the weekly rock concert to that piece of talking furniture that dominated the American living room by the early 1970s.
But it was local Chicago television studios that brought Bozo the Clown to the nation, as well as The Ray Rayner Show and Kukla, Fran and Ollie. It was also local Chicago television and radio that brought Studs Terkel to the nation, and in fact brought the nation to Studs Terkel.
Earning a law degree before deciding he’d make a better actor than barrister, Terkel took a job as a hotel concierge and starting acting in a theatre group. Though most may remember him as a radio personality or from his best-known book, Working, Terkel started his career on the stage, and then moved to television as that medium began to take hold. Publishing his first book in 1956, Giants of Jazz, Terkel starred in the 1940s-‘50s in Studs’ Place, an early sort of Cheers that used an old diner as the backdrop to showcase various celebrity appearances. Busy guy…
This all evolved into The Studs Terkel Program, an hour-long radio interview with all nature of contemporary figures from composers, politicians, artists, actors, musicians and sports figures. Running for more than 45 years, the weekly show often offered an interesting contrast between Terkel’s working class, hardscrabble delivery and that of his guest. Such is the case with his 1979 interview of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.
Expressing some concerns about his ability to hold up his end of a conversation about rock & roll, Terkel invited his friend, Rolling Stone associate editor Abe Peck to sit in on the program. The interview begins with a discussion of “race records”, or Rhythm & Blues, and the music industry’s effort to introduce the form to a broader audience by having white singers like Pat Boone record songs like “Tutti-Frutti”.
Of particular note is when, at around 32:00 minutes into the interview, Terkel asks “the hard question.” Drawing a parallel between the rock music of the late-60s and the violence that was occurring around the nation at that time, manifested in scenes like Altamont and Chicago’s own 1968 Democrat Convention, Terkel wanted to know what the connection between rock music and violence was, and how and why The Grateful Dead successfully avoided becoming associated with that violence.
“We’ve never been part of politics with a capital ‘P’,” said Garcia, “and I’ll tell you why.” He goes on to describe a scene from the “Human Be-In”, which took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January of 1967. Describing a fairly happy, calm scene, Garcia then observed how the political speakers of the day, Jerry Rubin in particular, were “exhorting the crowd, and all of a sudden, the images that came into my mind were Hitler and every angry voice I’d ever heard.” Garcia noted that in terms of his position as a performer, “That’s one of the things I would like to avoid, that angry voice.”
It occurs to me today, listening to that description of Rubin at the Be-In, that those angry voices inspired the likes of Obama’s friend and neighbor Bill Ayers and many who went on to assume careers as the Professional Left. That same sort of angry voice has found its way into the halls of power and influence in Washington, D.C., and is echoed in so many campaign speeches on the march to the White House today. Jerry would not be surprised, I imagine.
Perhaps most interesting is that a laid-back guy like Garcia actually gets a word in edgewise between Studs Terkel and Abe Peck… Enjoy!