Driving through the buttery heart of Wisconsin in my rented Chevy Cobalt, dubbed “The Storm Trooper” by our neighbor Rachel (it’s as white and mildly menacing as the Star Wars jerks), I find myself jabbing at the scan button looking for music to keep me awake on this miserable, rainy drive. One can only listen to NPR for a limited amount of time. How much more analysis of the Pennsylvania primary can you digest, anyway? So I turn, as usual, to the vast wasteland of AM radio, in search of the oldies.
And somehow I score. I don’t recall the call numbers or name of the station, except that its nickname is something regarding the heartland. Skipping past right-wing radio (“Hitler read Darwin”), religious radio (a shouted “Jesus!” is enough), sports talk (always a DJ named Mad Dog), until finally I hear the nutty song “In the Year 2525″. That’s enough to get me to listen, and then there’s a great string of music: Joan Baez, the Talking Heads, and “Funky Broadway”, a Wilson Pickett song that I’ve never heard, but which is awesome–especially when you’re being hypnotized by the swish-swish of the wiper blades, luring you to a violent death in an auto accident at 8 am.
AM radio is such a mystery. For starters, the music sounds as if its being broadcast through tubes from some World War II era submarine rusting at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Lightning that I can’t see crackles during the music, and the station is one of those creepy ones that hasn’t any DJ–this is all broadcast from some satellite from somewhere in the world: Texas, Maine, Saskatchewan, Siberia. No one’s in a studio to tell us what the songs are, what the weather’s like, or make silly jokes. Radio broadcast from outer space.
Get this, though: one of the ads on the station was for a wedding reception. That’s right. Some guy with a middle initial–Eugene P. Arbogast, say (I can’t recall the name) and his blushing bride to be, say, Lily Turnipseed (again, I can’t remember but it was a name from sticksville) proudly announce their wedding reception on such-and-such a date at such-and-such a venue. There’ll be grilled chicken, dancing, etc. Accoding to the advertisement, anyone listening is welcome. If it had been the right time, I would have taken that exit and had myself a time. Seriously. Jesus, if that’s not the opening of a novel or movie, I don’t know what is. The comic possibilities stagger the mind.
But I’m still freaking out about the Wilson Pickett song. Last year, driving through Michigan, I was struck by the song “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” by the Cowsills. “Funky Broadway” is having the same effect. I quickly looked it up online and check out these lyrics:
Every town I go in
There’s a street, uh, huh
Name of the street, uh, huh
Funky funky Broadway
Down on Broadway, huh
There’s a nightclub, now, now
Name of the nightclub, now baby
Funky Funky Broadway
Down on Broadway
There’s a crowd, now, huh
Name of the crowd, baby
Down on Broadway, yeah
There’s a dancestep, huh
Name of the dance,
Funky Funky Broadway, hey! huh
Wiggle your legs now, baby
Shake your head, ooh, huh
Do the shing-a-ling now baby, now
Shake, shake, shake now
You don’t know, huh, baby, now
You don’t know, now woman, owww!
Doin’ the funky Broadway, hey!
Lord have mercy
Oh, you got me feelin’ alright
Dirty filthy Broadway
Don’t I like the Broadway, huh
That Broadway, lookit here…
That’s all true–every town, from Mt. Pleasant, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois to New York City has its Broadway. As I drove I wondered if Eau Claire and Menominee had a Broadway, and if it had some seedy bar or tavern or movie theater. You know, if it doesn’t, if it’s simply a row of homes and maybe a convenience store, that’s almost worse. It’s not hard to think of those poor souls wishing they could break free of their little towns, as I and many others have done before and after, and the insult of living on a street named after NYC’s Great White Way.
Mt. Pleasant’s had the Broadway Theater, where I saw E.T. and Tootsie so many times, both films making this kid wish desperately he were somewhere else, doing something exciting. Both featured friendly aliens in the form of a little wrinkled spaceman or actors walking the streets of Gotham.
What does this have to do with the book tour? Nothing except that I’m driving and listless and wishing I had better coffee than the swill I picked up at this diner in rural Wisconsin. There, a statue of a chicken, wearing a chef’s hat and a kerchief, stood solemnly watching the trucks sizzle by on the rainy highway. I got my coffee, didn’t drink it, drove for a few hours listening to the oldies and ended up here, at a Starbuck’s in the fourth circle of hell, known to most travelers as the Wisconsin Dells. Tonight, it’s Chicago and hanging out with good friend Lesley Pearl and husband Lee; tomorrow, a reading at Barbara’s Bookstore at the University of Illinois, Chicago. There’ll be beer and Cracker Jacks provided by my pal Jonathan Eig.
Frankly, I’m nervous, and have recorded my damned speech about six times over the last few days. Pray I don’t ramble. Like I’m doing here.