Friday, April 11, 2008
Thank You, Donnie G.
Don Geronimo, half of the Washington afternoon-drive radio comedy team of Don and Mike, retired today after 23 years with Mike O'Meara, and over 40 years in radio. His last show this afternoon was a somber affair, in which he revealed that doing the show after the violent and untimely death of his wife Freda Sorce a couple of years ago was simply too full of painful reminders. He hasn't been psychically right since then, and I wish him all the best in his healing.
Don could be a spoiled child on the air. He could be painfully cruel to idiotic callers. He could bore the listener with his petulance at the station's management. But when that show was hitting on all cylinders, when it was really working, it was unquestionably the funniest thing on the radio. I don't listen to something daily for 17 years without being convinced of its quality.
Other shock-jocks who try to be funny just get the formula wrong, wrong, wrong. They are aggrieved. They are sarcastic. They seek victims. The Don and Mike Show first repelled me when I heard an early incarnation of it in the late Eighties, at WAVA. They too were cruel and sarcastic and aggrieved.
When they moved to WJFK in the late 80s, something truly clicked. The show became utterly compelling listening. The personalities of the hosts and their coterie of side-men gelled. They learned the subtleties of sarcasm, what attracted and what repelled the listener. The show became, rather than a series of preplanned "bits," simply a four-hour-long conversation among three or four people in the studio and unscreened callers, reacting to events of the day. The show they put on on Sept. 11, 2001, will go into the record books as one of the most cathartic and healthy things ever broadcast on radio. If for nothing else, I'll be eternally grateful to them for talking me down off the windowsill that day.
Don began his radio career, he revealed today, at the age of 11, as a volunteer for Armed Forces Radio. He is roughly my age, and I know what I was doing at 11. It wasn't radio. He came to the radio comedy business late, after a long career as a wandering record-spinner. His contempt for what radio has become -- a marketing-driven sarcasm of its former self -- was daily palpable. In his chest there beats a rock-n-roll heart. He is a patriot.
He got his first job as a radio deejay at the age of 16, after lying about his age. He became an astonishingly adept board-operator -- a skill he put to great comedic use on the Don and Mike Show, assembling and playing sound-clips that ran into each other surrealistically. One of their best late bits was a huge assembly of quotes from John Wayne movies, which they would use as a kind of Magic Eight-Ball, asking the Wayne Oracle questions and playing the clips at random. Very funny, very Dada.
But Geronimo's talking about his experience as an itinerant deejay provided, for me, the finest and highest moments of the show. He would adopt an exaggerated deejay voice to "talk in" records (the Don and Mike Show didn't actually play records, this was all for comedy's sake). You "talk in" a record by doing deejay patter over its opening strains. The best deejay knows how to time his patter to end the instant the vocal begins; absolutely no one in the world is better at this than Don Geronimo. Don is very proud of the fact that he once "talked in" "Stairway to Heaven"; the opening recorder-and-guitar passage is about two minutes long. You never talk in "Stairway to Heaven." It's a Deejay Law.
Don's funniest radio story? I think it was the time that he described losing a job in some podunk town for getting the phrasing just wrong in his patter: "It's a beautiful Saturday, highs in the nineties, so wear something flimsy, gals... Traffic and weather together on the eights here on KRCG, and now, everybody Come On Eileen!"
He did it on purpose, of course. I told you, a rock-and-roll heart.
I had to listen to today's farewell show in my car, as that's where I've heard the huge majority of the show over the last 17 years. In his last segment, he spun a couple of records, just for old times' sake. The first he dedicated to his family: Jimmy Buffett's "Come Monday." I was picking up a pizza for the fam, and I listened to that segment sitting in the pizzeria's parking lot. The second song, which, of course, he talked in perfectly, was dedicated to the fans. The Beatles' "In My Life."
I'm afraid I blubbed a bit.
Don, I'm going to miss the shit out of you, you imperfect, petulant, childish bastard. God Speed, Radio God!
I highly recommend popping over to hear some Don Geronimo air-checks from the late 70s and early 80s. And ask yourself as you're listening to them, What have they done to my radio?