“I’ve seen you fire up the gas in the engine valves
I’ve seen your hand turn saintly on the radio dial
I’ve seen the airwaves pull your eyes towards heaven
Outside Topeka in the phone lines, her good teeth smile was winding down”
“This kiss, unfinished, lips to receiver in the parking lot,
a pucker shot through a fiber optic wire
to an answering machine
toward switchboards and stations transmitting
in blips to satellites…”
I think I’m finally ready to write about this song. “True Dreams of Wichita” is, in some ways, the beginning of my love affair with songs about radios. In the summer of 1999, the summer after I graduated from high school, I fell in love. In April of that year, I had slipped a note saying “will you go to prom with me?” into a copy of Soul Coughing’s then recently released El Oso that I was lending to a friend; she said yes; we didn’t begin to date until a week after graduation. At the end of the summer, I left the midwest for the east coast, and we spent a year falling in love over the phone before she eventually decided to join me out east. Freshman year of college, “True Dreams of Wichita” seemed the perfect embodiment of everything I missed about the midwest.
During that year, we discovered Soul Coughing, a Brooklyn based “deep slacker jazz” outfit, as frontman Mike Doughty once described them, best known for singles “Super Bon Bon” and “Circles.” We worked our way backwards from the drum and bass influenced El Oso to the more eclectic Irresistible Bliss to the almost “Vaudvillian”‘ (again, Doughty’s word) jazz of Soul Coughing’s debut, Ruby Vroom, before eventually hunting down the other odds and ends scattered through Soul Coughing’s catalogue, songs like “Unmarked Helicopters” from the X-files soundtrack. We claimed Soul Coughing as our own. They were the first band I really “got,” the first band I felt I knew better than anyone else I knew.
I remember, at a prospective students weekend for the college I eventually attended, telling a girl who’s wedding I attended this past weekend that I wished I could walk around with someone playing the upright bass behind me to punctuate my sentences. Man, I was a pretentious fuck back then. But something about the phrasing of Soul Coughing’s laid back grooves and Mike Doughty’s precise over-enunciation made me feel powerful.
“True Dreams of Wichita” was different, though. There was a folky sweetness to it that anticipated Mike Doughty’s solo work on Skittish. The combination of nostalgia for an imagined, idyllic midwest, with the powerful imagery of radio waves carrying dreams through the night sky endowed music with a transformative power. Radio brought things together, made Wichita a part of Brooklyn and Brooklyn a part of Wichita, made possible an intimate shared experience between people worlds apart. In Mike Doughty’s prose poem, “From a Gas Station Outside Providence,” this intimacy is literalized as a kiss transmitted over the phone wires. For Doughty, the transmission is always incomplete, interrupted: the signal gets lost in the satellite; the kiss is “a tinny phantom of the smooch like a smack on an aluminum can.” But the static is intoxicating. Radio waves signify, in Doughty’s work, the limits of what can be shared between two people, that which bridges but also defines the gap between subjectivities.
The degree to which I’ve internalized this metaphor explains, to an extent, the fact that I will forever associate music with intimacy, both in terms of close friendship and romance. I rarely feel closer to someone than when I discover that we both love the same song. I’ve kept up conversations with people I’ve only met once based on little more than a shared appreciation for girl groups, or trip hop, or Wolf Parade. That’s why Songs About Radios is a labor of love, and why I deeply appreciate your readership. I almost titled or subtitled the site something involving “airwaves pull your eyes towards heaven,” but couldn’t make it sound right. Still, if you hear something here that pulls your eyes in that or any other direction, I hope you’ll tell me about it.