Betty Burke

AM signals from a parallel present

Got the power of the AM

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When I was sixteen, my friend Margaret Ann and I decided to take a wild road trip down Highway 2 to Belleville, Ontario. We had friends living there, but didn’t know their phone number or address. Somewhere around the Quinte Mall we stopped at a sandwich shop to exchange worried looks and twiddle our thumbs. The green haired fellow behind the counter started up a conversation with us, brainstorming ways we might find our friends. His name was Ian, and it turned out we knew some of the same musicians (Shotmaker of course, the best band in Eastern Ontario in those days). Ian welcomed us to stay in the sandwich shop as long as we liked.

Our mood had already lifted when the door opened, and in walked three of Ian’s friends- a girl in a powder blue polyester suit, and two guys, her henchmen, if you will. The girl’s name was Michelle Kasprzak. She had a fat cigar, and a tweed cap, and was clearly the ringleader of Belleville’s motley youth posse. We exchanged mailing addresses, and when I got back to Cornwall, I sent Michelle a package- or did she send the first? We were penpals for two years.

Michelle was obsessed with Glenn Gould at that time. She sent me a mixtape, and a photo of the magical scarf-and-glove man, in one of her decorated envelopes. I sent Michelle zines, and mixtapes too, it was 1997 afterall.

The limited number of highways in Canada means that most people travel either East or West, so it’s no shocker that I’ve had several unplanned run-ins with Michelle over the years. Now she is living in Europe, and I haven’t seen her since the morning after a show at which the Arcade Fire opened for The Hidden Cameras– which should give you a sense of how long it’s been!

Michelle’s career as an artist has taken off over the years, and another member of her Belleville posse, Daniel Cockburn has found success as a filmmaker, recently winning the prestigious Chalmers Award. Growing up in Belleville is probably a lot like growing up in Cornwall, and maybe just a little bit like being young in Espanola or Weyburn too. Teenage artists and art appreciators have the internet to connect with now, but in the past, we met by chance along the East-West highway.

Echoes of other places were always traveling to us though, through the night, on the other side of the dial. No gloom of night can stay the power of the AM radio, for which the signal is only stronger in more isolated places. As Jonathan Richman sings in Roadrunner, “Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on…got the power of the AM…rock & roll late at night…”

Michelle Kasprzak’s beloved Glenn Gould also praises the power of AM radio; in the 1974 essay “The Search for Petula Clark,” Gould describes a stretch of Highway 17 on the North Shore of Lake Superior where the AM radio reception is especially clear, bringing Petula to his ears from thousands of miles away. In the documentary No Direction Home, Bob Dylan speaks to the power of the AM signals that reached his ears at night, in his boyhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota, where the furthest headwaters of Superior trickle down towards Duluth. Drifting over hills and prairie, the songs of Hank Williams and Elvis were carried from stations in Memphis and New Orleans, to the children of remote towns and outposts who spent their solitary hours of darkness by the radio.

Distance and isolation amplify the power of music, radio resonating loudly in the hearts of the lonely, transforming anonymous lovesongs into transcendental breakers, slicing through the everyday to that other realm where parallel worlds ring together in a single chord.

Imagine yourself driving West on Highway 17, alone in the dark, with Lake Superior to the left, and ragged rocks to the right. You hear an oldies station, but do not recognize a single song. The announcer makes reference to the biggest artists of the 50s and 60s, and the names of the dead are spoken of in present tense: Otis Redding and Buddy Holly, two old men in America.

The news isn’t all good, however. Slight variations in the government, wrong turns in a war, floods where the well is dry, all of it adds up to a warning of what could be, what will be, and the temporary and delicate state of what already is. In that other world, there is no Highway 17, because the North Shore is just a sprinkling of mining pits. In that other world, Lake Superior is dry, because something had to be drained to keep the wheels turning. That other world is close enough to touch you through that break in time, the AM station so faint it can only be picked up on remote roads, when you’re all alone. And through the news from that other world, our own world is reflected- the systems and powers we behold and obey as permanent fixtures are only as strong as the belief that they’re endless. And the song of the distant station tests that belief, shaking its foundations with the vocalization of a lonely announcer, who faithfully waits for better days, and spins old 45s to comfort the world in the meantime.

Though we’re far apart, and we may live in isolation, we can pick up these signals and hum along to the songs that shake the foundation of the everyday, to let in the light of another, better future.

Yours,
Maggie

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