The sweet sound of an affliction called nostalgia

“The things you loved when you were young will never be able to make you young again. The reluctant acceptance of this fact is the source of nostalgia, a disorder that afflicts every generation in its own special way.”  — A.O. Scott, New York Times February 27, 2022. 

Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s in South Bend, the radio was my frequent companion. Whether it was Chicago’s WLS on the AM dial playing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for what seemed like at least once an hour, or South Bend’s WRBR on the FM dial playing the latest “album oriented rock,” the music that was on those airwaves established my musical tastes.

 I developed a lifelong love of the music of Elton John, Gerry Rafferty, and the group Chicago. My dad called much of what I listened to “crap” which only further solidified my musical choices. My mom was more sanguine, saving her occasional expressions of distaste for more risqué songs like “Kiss You All Over” by one-hit-wonder Exile.

If you were a South Bend area pop or rock music lover during this era, Sunday was the pinnacle of the week. That’s when Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 aired. Over the course of three (later four) hours, Kasem would count down the top 40 songs in America ranked by Billboard and determined by sales volume and radio play. The suspense was palatable. We take for granted now that information about record sales (whatever that metric is now) is readily available online. In the 1970s, we had to rely on Casey to give us the weekly scoop.

Casey didn’t just play the songs; he sprinkled in tidbits about the artists and Billboard chart history. He gave listeners information that made the artists human and relatable. I listened carefully to all he said, but I also wanted him to move the proceedings along so he could get to the top song.

Sometimes I was excited and pleased, like when Elton would remain on top of the chart, and other times dismayed like when Debby Boone’s ultra-schmaltzy “You Light Up My Life” (voted by Rolling Stone magazine’s as one of the all-time ten worst songs) remained number one for ten weeks.

AT40 also featured occasional “long distance dedications” from listeners who wrote and mailed letters requesting a song be played and dedicated to somebody special. To me, these seemed like fillers and were not relevant. And again, with today’s technology, the long distance dedication seems quaint at best. But it did lead to a leaked audio outtake of Kasem cursing up a storm about having to read a solemn dedication right after playing an uptempo song.

When I grew older and became a music consumer, I abandoned the radio as I began to build my own musical collection, first with LP’s and later with compact discs. My album collection ballooned to more than 300 records. Unfortunately many of them were damaged when my mom’s basement, where they were stored, flooded. I rebuilt my collection with CDs. Then came the iPod, and my collection went digital. Even though AT40 broadcasts continued, I had signed off.

When local radio station Sunny 101.5 went to a weekend All 80’s format years back, they appealed to nostalgic listeners like me by airing “classic” reruns of 1980’s AT40 broadcasts on Sunday mornings. And of course, I was lured back. I cringe at some of the long distance dedications and awful, long-forgotten songs that barely cracked the Top 40. But some “classic” broadcasts are intriguing, as when they introduce an artist’s first hit, now that we  know in the ensuing years that artist became a huge hit maker. 

Casey Kasem was an example of what we now call an influencer. He understood how to create interest in and suspense about pop/rock music. I’m certain that millions of his listeners credit him with a lifetime of the pleasure of finding new artists and discovering new types of music.

 Kasem died in 2014, and his later years were clouded by family disputes and poor health. But I still harken back to my adolescence when I would hear him sign off every AT40 program with his signature phrase, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”

 Ah, nostalgia, you sweet affliction.