“Repect the elders. Embrace the new. Encourage the impractical and improbable, without bias.” These words, originally penned by music journalist David Fricke, were the guiding principles by which Vin Scelsa steered his long-running radio show “Idiot’s Delight”, which ends with Scelsa’s retirement on May 2nd.
Scelsa’s close to 50-year career was the embodiment of “old style, freeform radio” – the format (though by definition, it wasn’t really a “format”) popular on FM rock radio stations in the mid 60’s through to the early 70’s. Freeform gave the DJ the freedom to pretty much play whatever he or she wanted to, whether it be a whole Grateful Dead album, a two minute track by a garage band, or a spoken word poetry piece. The best of the freeform DJ’s talked to the listener between songs in a conversational, laid-back mode and were personalities themselves. By that I mean they had personality, and were the converse of the in-your-face, ego-laden DJ which seems to dominate so much radio.
The spirit of freeform lives on here and there in some college and community radio stations, but most are not quite as “anything goes” as things were in those early days. And, no disrespect intended, few if any of the hosts are as good at what they do as Vin Scelsa.
I was introduced to “Idiot’s Delight” in 1997 through an interview Vin did with Bruce Cockburn. The interview stretched for over two hours and was one of the most interesting, relaxed interviews I’d ever heard with any artist. Cockburn was so comfortable with Scelsa that he played two cover songs – the old classics “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “You Belong to Me” – an uncharacteristically spur of the moment action by the singer/songwriter.
That was one of the beauties of Scelsa’s show – there were often little surprises like that, either from guests or from Scelsa’s own song selections. I was introduced to a spectrum of music I never would have heard otherwise, much of which now ranks among my favorites. I remember how shocked I was when he played Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays’ 20-plus minute epic “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”. I’d previously considered the song sort of a secret pleasure, known only to few. Vin was clued in, though. And he’d play “As Falls Wichita” periodically, not just that one time! In addition to the likelihood that you’d discover something new and worth hearing, you’d probably hear some songs that were old friends as well.
There was always a flow from song to song, a logical progression, dictated by whatever musical or lyrical links were triggered in Scelsa’s mind. His vast musical knowledge, of both old and new material, usually guaranteed it would be an interesting flow. Often his music choices were made on the fly, and not planned out beforehand. It wasn’t unheard of that he’d play the same song twice in a row if he liked it a lot. Then he might relate something that had happened to him the previous week, or talk about current events. Next he might play a piece of classical music that fit perfectly with the latest track from The Decemberists, or Wilco… or just as likely the Ramones or Simon and Garfunkel. On paper it sounds schizophrenic, but it all worked.
Yet another hallmark of “Idiot’s Delight” was Scelsa’s love of books and film and so, in addition to musicians, his guests sometimes included authors and filmmakers. There was always a mutual respect between Scelsa and his interviewees, and many of his guests stated that being on his show was a highlight for them. Norah Jones, for one, had her first radio appearance on “Idiot’s Delight”. Guests trusted him and he took genuine interest in his guests. Unfortunately, though, in recent years he stopped having guests entirely. It was something I missed, but it gave him more time to play music, so there was a positive side.
If I could point to one thing I found especially appealing about Vin Scelsa’s radio show, it was the eclecticism and range of what he played and talked about. I’ve always had a hard time understanding people who only listen to one type of music, read one type of book, one kind of movie. There’s so much more to life, why limit yourself to one genre? As Frank Zappa said, “Unbind your mind / There is no time!”
Vin Scelsa had been on New York City college radio station WFUV since 2001, and at one point his weekly show was four hours long, dropping down to a more manageable two hours a few years ago. As he said in his show a few days ago, there are four ways to leave radio: either you get sick and die; you get fired; your show “descends into idiocy”; or decide for yourself “when the time is right, when it’s time to just move out and move on, hang up the headsets…listen to some silence.”