Distant signals from the future

radioI was in ear­ly high school when I got my first alarm clock radio. My par­ents were a bit old­er when I was born, so the LPs in the back of our hall clos­et were a generation-and-a-half out-of date: I remem­ber most­ly musi­cal sound­tracks like South Pacif­ic and West Side Sto­ry. My old­er broth­er had brought the Bea­t­les into our house but he had moved away for col­lege and adult­hood years before and the only trace of his musi­cal influ­ence was a Simon & Gar­funkel great­est hits 8-track tape my mom had bought for a pen­ny from the Time-Life record club.

In my bed­room late at night in the ear­ly 80s, I explored the sounds inside my new radio. I would bury myself under­neath my Star Trek sheets, pull the radio inside, and lis­ten with vol­ume bare­ly per­cep­ti­ble. Three was no real rea­son for the secre­cy. I’m sure my par­ents wouldn’t have par­tic­u­lar­ly cared. But I was a pri­vate kid. I didn’t want to let on that I was curi­ous about the adult world. Pop radio and MASH reruns were my secret.

I had had a short­wave radio in mid­dle school and brought the thrill of long-distance dis­cov­ery to my radio explo­rations. Geog­ra­phy and sound had more mys­tery in those days before the inter­net. On a cold, clear night, I could tune in AM pow­er­hous­es half a con­ti­nent away.

One par­tic­u­lar­ly cold night, one of these dis­tant sig­nals played a song I had nev­er heard or even imag­ined. It was half-drowned out by sta­t­ic. The sig­nal drift­ed in and out in waves but I lis­tened mes­mer­ized. To a intro­vert­ed kid in a sleep Philly sub­urb, this song was a key to a yearned-for future. I was instant­ly cer­tain that that no one around me had ever heard this song. If only I could make out some words, maybe I could spend the next year scan­ning the dis­tant radio bands to hear it again. As I got old­er, I could go into the city to scour bins in the seed­i­est of indie record stores. This song no one knew would be a touch­stones to a new adult­hood I was con­struct­ing in the secret of my bed­room.

As the fade came, I bare­ly caught the DJ’s words through the sta­t­ic. “Hotel Cal­i­for­nia.” I vowed to myself that some­day, some­how, I would find this song and hear it again.

RIP Glenn Frey.