WUSSY: Music, College Radio, and a Network of Weirdos
Adam Strong continues his series of stories about life in the ’90s. In this essay, he reflects on his time in college and being a DJ for the college radio station, WUSC-FM 90.5, aka WUSSY.
You’d received your roommate’s information over the summer, name and phone number, you called him a few times, just to get familiar. He was from New Jersey. He liked fixing cars to bad club music. He smoked, and the two of you would make your room the smokiest room on the floor.
You wallpapered your dorm room walls with pictures from British Music Magazines, rock stars in full face paint like Robert Smith. Siouxsie Sioux was dressed head to toe in black lycra bondage gear playing with a water hose. Another picture had a hairy ass peeked through a circular hole cut into a band’s trailer wall, in front of that arse was a banana and the caption, “Whose arse is it anyway?” In super small white print it said, Pych Terror rock band THERAPY? play a few rounds on the road.
“It’s disturbing as hell to look at,” Chris said. You each had your own ashtray, yours you stole from a pub in Leeds some foggy, well-bottom night you don’t remember, both you and your roommate smoked when you talked, smoked when you didn’t talk, smoked when you were alone, which was most of the time.
Thankfully you had the radio station, WUSC, a station the locals called WUSSY.
You recorded a demo tape and managed to secure a not-bad-for-a-freshman 6:00 – 9:00 a.m. Monday morning slot.
The sign above Studio A said, It’s double U USC, not Dubya U S C.
You cribbed your DJ name, MC Serch, from the white guy from hip hop duo 3rd Bass with black rimmed glasses and big ears. You had great fun with letting the band names reverberate in your chest before they came out pillowed from your lips.
Both you and your roommate smoked when you talked, smoked when you didn’t talk, smoked when you were alone, which was most of the time. … Thankfully you had the radio station, WUSC, a station the locals called WUSSY.
And what bands, what jazz quartets and experimental music veterans you heard pluck notes out of the sky, seal them into a 90- or 120-minute cassette tape slipped into your cheap, don’t-call-it-a-Walkman. Tiny weird unknown bands, young punks, hip hop in its most revered state, brash and experimental jazz, and rock and punk and hip hop and reggae and ska, stoned brits staring at guitar pedals was your favorite genre.
You were in the middle of a torrent of sound, showing you how movements flew and borrowed from one another; John Zorn, My Bloody Valentine, John Cage, John Coltrane, Sebadoh, Miles Davis, Dinosaur Jr., Modern Jazz Quartet, Fugazi, Big Star, Parliament/Funkadelic, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Daniel Johnston, Throwing Muses, Pale Saints, The Velvet Underground, Roky Erickson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gil Scott Heron, and, all the while the music never stopped, you ran for a position on the exec board, you bragged to another DJ about how fucked up you got the night before. His response? “I don’t drink, so that sounds terrible,” he said.
Babes in Toyland, Astrid Gilberto, Bikini Kill, Nina Simone, Flipper, Nick Drake, Buju Banton, Unwound, Jawbox, Some Velvet Sidewalk, Eek-A-Mouse, Julee Cruise, Bleach, Bim Skala Bim, Spiritualized, Swallow, Sugar, Drop Nineteens, Fudge Tunnel, bands and bands and bumper stickers, “Caller number five wins two tickets to see Swervedriver tonight at Rockafella’s.”
You were elected co-promotions director. Which meant ungodly amounts of CDs flooding into your dorm room. You had your picture taken in the yearbook with studio cans on. You were a brand with your wrinkled brow and ironic glasses with big ears.
The two friends you had, Aaron and Tom, lived off campus. Aaron, at 22, he might as well have been 30 with how sophisticated he was, he spoke to you about John Coltrane like it was a religion instead of a jazz icon. He played guitar and was a music major.
Tom had just come back from a year in Germany, he was a bohemian who would rather spend the day hand rolling his own cigarettes, reading Bertolt Brecht, playing chess, bass guitar, and nodding a lot, to any form of manual labor. His dad was a shrink, and he had a twin brother. It was with Tom you’d first do acid, give plasma with, smoke cheap generic cigarettes so you’d have enough for gas to go see Bob Mould in Athens, Georgia, where you met other weirdos, this whole network of weirdos in every southern college town, if you knew where to look.
When you were on campus, you floated between the arcade for Earthquake pinball and Studio B at WUSSY, there was a window into the main control room. You made mixtapes from the vinyl, you had to learn how to play a record not just by clicking start, but by moving the needle and lowering it down into a spinning groove of the vinyl for a nice soft landing. You learned how to fade tracks to match a specific mood, to have one song playing low in the background while you were announcing made your voice sound so much smoother.
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Each show had to play 12 songs from the A rotation, 8 songs from the B rotation, and at least 4 from the C rotation, after that they went back to the CD or vinyl library of thousands of records, carts, and CDs. WUSSY had all the latest records from any independent label, the ones the music director thought we should be pushing. There were labeled bins for the vinyl and racks of CDs for the CDs. You couldn’t play any Top 40 track in the last forty years. They weren’t being snobs, this was a university station, it was supposed to be educational.
Which meant you had to dig deep to find the cool cuts. Attached to each album was a review written up by a DJ. The reviews gave the reader a context, how many albums they had released before, or maybe it was produced by some big shot. There was always a battle of trying to sell out, accused of selling out, having once said they’d never sell out, now signing a huge contract with Geffen. There were carts of semi-famous people saying you are listening to WUSC and one year they got Bill Clinton to say it.
At night, when your roommate went to hang out with his friend for as long as possible, you stared at the 90.5 aqua LED crystal until you couldn’t take the sound of your own voice rattling against your skull anymore and had to speak to someone, so you ran to the last person you should’ve run to.
And Gary would do what Gary did, say things like “of course no one else cares about you the way I do, because only I care about you.”
As for booze, you managed to get either Tom or Aaron to buy you malt liquor, you kept 40ozs in your mini fridge whenever you got the chance. A typical Saturday night was a few 40ozs, the aqua LED crystal glow of your stereo, and three-hour phone conversations with Gary.
Before you got on the phone with Gary you’d be in a decent mood, by the time you got off the phone at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., you were half drunk, and about as sad as you could be, only a few inches less sad than when you tried to kill yourself.
The next morning you’d wake up and head over to WUSSY, no matter what day it was.
At WUSSY there was always a show to prepare for. How much to grab on the spot and how many to have pre-selected, that was the trick, if it was all pre-determined which track you played, it took a lot of spontaneity and joy out of the show …
At WUSSY there was always a show to prepare for. How much to grab on the spot and how many to have pre-selected, that was the trick, if it was all pre-determined which track you played, it took a lot of spontaneity and joy out of the show, plus it left you with nothing to do. Which meant that put you back into what you referred to in your head as the rounds, which meant rotating between the arcade, the earthquake pinball machine, the places you could smoke, the Thomas Cooper Library with, count ’em, five levels of library all underground. You could smoke in the library, and in the office next to the main studio at the radio station.
You lived in Bates House, a nicer dorm but further away from the rest of the campus than most dorms. There was an elevated sidewalk that took you from one part of campus to the other. Over athletic fields and fields where married couples and internationals lived, past buildings with a concrete mesh draped over their cube shaped exterior which gave them their names, the honeycombs.
On the bad days, you stayed in. On the bad days, you couldn’t leave your room. There was this empty space above your heart and chest, a constant realization that you were hardly ever in the company of another person. Except when your roommate Chris saw you and even then it was to go over to Jamie’s dorm. His roommate was a religious fanatic who got sucked into joining a cult. Every few weeks or so you’d see Aaron and Tom but most times you just wandered around campus waiting for a place to get quiet, and during class times it did get quiet outside of buildings after the stragglers straggled into class.
It was quiet in the spaces in between buildings, courtyards and sculptures, and picnic tables, in those moments when it was just you and whatever you were listening to on your don’t-call-it-a-Walkman during classes so you stopped going to some of them. You sat there on the front steps as streams of people turned into trickles turned into quiet, and how that quiet alone was better than the panic-above-your-head feeling you’d get when you did manage to make it to your classes of 200 – 300 students each. It was easy to fall through the cracks, so you reveled in that falling.
You had cigarettes and you had your don’t-call-it-a-Walkman and you had no parties to go to after the first few weeks of school when you realized you wanted nothing to do with frat boys.
This was after Thanksgiving break when you went home to Miami, flew home with your goddamn stereo and bookshelf speakers in your lap, because there was no way you were going to be without high fidelity, not for one minute, let alone four and a half days.