- Posted June 17, 2014 by
Jersey City, New Jersey
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
Counting with Casey
Counting with Casey
Vincent J. Fitzgerald
On an early June afternoon, I shopped for songs via the instantly gratifying world of iTunes. After selecting from the infinite a la carte menu, I closed the app and opened DailyNews.com, where I read the voice of my childhood, Casey Kasem, was being removed from life-extending machinery. Although he is 82 years-old, the accompanying photo captured his halcyon days, triggering memories of when compiling the soundtrack of my life wasn’t as easy as clicking a green buy button. On Sundays, when Casey counted, I couldn’t afford to buy the songs I loved on vinyl or tape; I had to catch them, and American Top 40 was the pond in which I fished.
In 1982, when I was 13 years old, I spent most weekends with my permissive paternal grandmother, whose Jersey City apartment provided a safe haven from my two pesky little brothers, and parents who enforced weekend bedtimes. I woke at 8:30 a.m. every Sunday, not well rested, and shambled to the kitchen to inhale a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich on Wonder Bread that turned purple as jelly seeped through. With sticky fingers, I took my Sanyo radio/cassette recorder, with a pancake-sized woofer and dime-sized tweeter into my grandmother’s bedroom. I climbed onto her bed wearing my Fruit of the Looms and white t-shirt I’d used as a napkin, and rested my baby boom box on knees band aided to protect scrapes. I popped in a blank 90 minute TDK cassette, and waited for Casey to begin his backwards count. This was before I knew FM was an option, who Scott Muni was, or that WPLJ was the “home of rock and roll.” There was only WNBC and the voice that transcended region, putting the American in American Top 40.
At one minute ‘til the 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time countdown., I closed the bedroom door for privacy, and to spare grandma’s hearing as I sang along in full voice to every song I knew. Then I pushed the play, record, and pause buttons, beginning the patient wait to catch songs. I didn’t know where in the countdown they would fall, so I waited like a boy waiting for a bite on his baited hook, hoping the big one would come along. In 1982, my big one was the flute driven Down Under, from the self-titled debut of Men at Work. There were other songs I wanted too, like Key Largo by Bertie Higgins and Ebony and Ivory by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, but Down Under was my white whale.
American Top 40 was the way I made mix tapes back then, and compared to today’s high speed world of digital purchasing or CD burning, it took weeks to cull together the perfect collection of songs, often having to wait through the songs I didn’t like. The gratification may not have been immediate, but there was the thrill of the hunt, and ultimately, the catch, which took precise timing. If I failed to release the pause button at the right moment, I caught too much of Casey’s intro or missed the beginning of a song. I was a hunter and gatherer of music. Commercials allowed for bathroom breaks, runs to the kitchen for a can of Pepsi Light, and to say hi to Grandma as she buried her face in the Sunday paper, still in pajamas, spectacles draped across the bridge of her nose.
I tried compiling mixes during the week, but far too often found myself disappointed by stopping the dial in the middle or end of a song, which made me feel like it would never be played again. Only Casey guaranteed the chance to make the catch.
During the weekly Long Distance Dedication, Casey dialed down his amped up countdown voice to a poignant, reflective tone sure to connect with listeners on a human level. He told a relatable story about long lost loves or disconnected relatives I ended up rooting for. After telling the story, Casey played an oldie requested by the listener who submitted the dedication request. I caught Sad Eyes by Robert John, a 1979 classic that was a bonus on my mix. After the dedication, it was on with the countdown.
I envisioned the Billboard Singles chart as a mountain on which songs climbed, struggled to reach a peak, and then began an inevitable slide down. I caught Down Under midway through its rise to the top of the mountain, and was fortunate to have it on the same cassette as the band’s first single, Who Can it Be Now, released months before.
After Casey said goodbye at 1:00 p.m., the rest of Sunday felt mundane; just waiting for school the next day. I did leftover homework, or watched TV, and spent much of the day rewinding and playing my songs on a loop. Those tapes were my own commercial free radio station, and I was the program director. After only a few weeks, the tapes wore out, and I had to hunt and gather once again.
As Casey counted down the final days of his life, his children played old broadcasts of his shows for him while he rested in his bed. I wonder if he got excited about hearing certain songs, or his once vigorous voice, like I used to.
He may have been the voice of Shaggy on Scooby Doo and Robin on Superfriends, but to me he was the voice that entered Grandma’s apartment, reminded me to “keep my feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars,” and connected me to music in a way far more personal than satellite radio or iTunes. Now having signed off forever, I miss him and his era. For all those memorable Sundays, I offer him this long distance dedication.