"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When Glenn Beck assumed morning-show duties at KZFM in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1983, the zoo model was ascendant. It was the year Scott Shannon moved to New York to found Z100, where Shannon’s “Z Morning Zoo” made the station No. 1 in the market within three months of its birth. Closer to Beck’s new home, John Lander had just launched what would be a long-running and heavily syndicated morning zoo on Houston’s KKBQ.
Like dozens of stations launching generic zoos around the country, Beck’s first morning show was titled simply “The Morning Zoo.” It wasn’t a playbook zoo, as it lacked an ensemble, but it had a zoo spirit. It was fast-paced and featured skits and fake characters voiced by Beck. Beck’s main cartoon character was named Clydie Clyde, a Muppet-voiced alter ego who sounds like the love child of Yoda and Kermit the Frog. Today the descendants of Clyde live on without names. Beck lapses into voices to imitate anyone he doesn’t like, while going boggly-eyed and waving his hands around like he’s slipping on a banana peel. (Clyde was based on the most widely imitated such character at the time, “Mr. Leonard” from Shannon’s New York Zoo team.)
“Beck’s Corpus show was just him, Clydie Clyde and the news reader,” says Tod Tucker, who hosted the slot following Beck’s at KZFM. “He was extremely talented and he knew it. At first we didn’t get along because he was so arrogant, but we became friends. He always talked about going to New York City and making it big. That was his dream.”
He didn’t advertise it, but at 19 Beck was the youngest morning zoo host and program director in the country. “At the time I thought he was in his mid- to late 20s,” says Barry Kaye, former program director at KITE, a rival station. “He was an incredible talent to be working at that level at that age.”
“Glenn was a talented young preppy kid with a bit of an attitude,” remembers Meryl Uranga, a program and music director at KZFM. “I had never smelled clove cigarettes before I met him. Hanging out with Beck was also the first time I ever saw certain drugs. He partied a lot.”
Along with giving Beck the space to develop creatively, Corpus Christi offered a crash course in the business side of radio. As a manager and programmer, Beck was responsible for tailoring KZFM’s appeal to Corpus Christi’s complicated market, a diverse population split between Hispanics, whites, blacks and active military. And there was enormous pressure to get the formula right. At the time, KZFM was engaged in a heated ratings war with its rival, KITE.
In the studio, the early ’80s were the age of the zoo. In the back office, they were the age of federal deregulation. In 1982, the FCC began removing constraints on radio ownership across a range of areas, from public-service content quotas to filing requirements. Among the most consequential changes was the revocation of an “anti-trafficking” rule that barred investors from quick flipping stations for profit. The result was a radio bubble fueled by a newly feverish market for properties. To pick just one example from Beck’s career, his future employer WKCI in Connecticut sold for $6 million in 1983. Three years later it went for $30 million. Between 1982 and 1990, almost half of the country’s stations would change hands at least once.
This new quick-sell culture affected radio pros in numerous ways. As owners came and went, experimenting with staff and formulas, turnover rates increased. The result was a caste of radio gypsies like Beck, who wore signs that declared, “Have mouth, will travel.” Increasingly, DJs did not know where they’d be at the end of the next Arbitron ratings quarter.
The new economics of radio also ushered in a new golden age of ratings wars. As station values and salaries ballooned, so did pressure for top ratings and media attention. Because morning shows were the biggest and most personality-driven piece of Top 40 programming, rival morning teams in the 1980s fought wars with entertaining, and occasionally bloody, ferocity. “Some radio people remember the radio battles of the 1980s for the off-air ugliness in the station parking lot,” says Sean Ross, who tracks the radio industry for Edison Research.
Beck landed in Corpus Christi in the middle of an old-style ratings war. He was hired by KZFM as part of a station-wide blood infusion to replenish a staff that was being picked apart by KITE. The owner of the station and Beck’s new boss was Arnold Malkan, a conservative Republican and attorney known for his hot temper and litigiousness. As Malkan hurled legal threats across town, the two stations’ morning teams did battle on the air and off. As often was the case, this war involved a heavy dose of camp. The military metaphor of a ratings war became literal when KITE’s morning zoo team christened itself the “KITE Killers” and began attending promotional events dressed in Army surplus camo fatigues and berets. “They’d roll up to promotional gigs and jump out of the limo in uniform, waving plastic machine guns,” remembers Barry Kaye, a programmer at the station.
Beck manned the KZFM war room in his civvies, but had a military bent of mind. His hard-nosed mentor and recruiter, Jim Sumpter, instructed Beck and his fellow DJs to fight to win. “Sumpter was one of the most vicious managers I ever competed against,” remembers Chuck Dunaway, a KITE staffer who arrived in Corpus Christi around the same time as Beck. “Our two stations would have bombed each other if we could have done it legally.”
“Jim Sumpter was a master at guerrilla war,” says Tucker, Beck’s fellow DJ at KZFM. “I like to say that God gave Beck his talent, and Sumpter taught him how to use it.” (Sumpter is now a “Birther” and syndicated right-wing talk show host.)
The morning mischief between the rival stations escalated following Beck’s arrival in Corpus. Dunaway recalls early in his tenure showing up to the KITE studio and finding each of the station’s front doors — the only exit in a converted storefront building — glued shut. A demolition crew had to knock the front door down so that the “KITE Killers” could get inside in time to start their show. Then there were other pranks that posed less of a fire hazard. Throughout 1983, Dunaway and his staff were anonymously placed on dozens of mailing lists for magazines and books delivered cash-on-delivery. The soundtrack for it all was a Beck-written “Ghostbusters” spoof that became a local hit during Beck’s morning show, called “KITE-busters.”
“We were the ‘good guys’ and didn’t do any vandalism,” says Dunaway, Beck’s now retired former rival. “In 50 years of broadcasting, I have never been in a market where those kinds of things were done. Who was behind the mischief I cannot identify, but it was during the time Beck was the morning competition.”
In pursuing a career in Top 40, Beck opted out of a college education. At least, the academic part of a college education. In the “Animal House”-inspired world of 1980s morning radio, Beck had found a real-world corollary to fraternity high jinx.
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Beck’s one-man zoo at KZFM held firm against KITE’s “Killers.” He had won his first ratings war. By 1985, he was a polished morning DJ in the zoo mold. He had programming experience and two years’ worth of tapes demonstrating “wacky” morning chops to broadcasters across the nation newly hungry for them.
One station looking to modernize was Louisville, Ky.’s WRKA. In mid-1985, the station tapped Beck — who at 21 now had eight years of radio experience — to headline the station’s morning-drive slot. Despite being No. 1 in morning drive four years running, Beck’s new bosses thought it was only a matter of time before the cultural curve came around to clobber them. The station had reason to worry. At the time of Beck’s arrival, the station’s on-air personalities and playlists were staid bordering on geriatric, as captured in the WRKA slogan, “Between Rock and the Rocking Chair.” Anticipating his future bosses at Clear Channel and CNN, WRKA saw Beck as the bright new thing capable of drawing younger listeners. A $70,000 salary made Beck the largest investment in the station’s makeover. As a signing bonus, Beck received a gold Rolex.
Beck’s first full-scale zoo show was known as “Captain Beck and the A-Team.” For four hours every weekday morning, Beck sat in WRKA’s small, dimly lighted studio across from his producer and sidekick Bob Dries. Dries was Beck’s Ed McMahon and Artie Lange, who cackled like a hen every time Beck cracked wise. “It was Dries’ job to punch buttons to launch sound effects, and laugh like he’d just won the lottery at every single limp Glenn Beck joke,” remembers a former WRKA colleague.
With Dries across the console, Beck directed a rotating ensemble cast and wrote or co-wrote daily gags and skits. Among the show’s regular characters was Beck’s zoo alter ego, Clydie Clyde. But Clyde was just one of Beck’s unseen radio ventriloquist dolls. “He was amazing to watch when he was doing his cast of voices,” remembers Kathi Lincoln, Beck’s former newsreader. “Sometimes he’d prerecord different voices and talk back to the tape, or turn his head side to side while speaking them live on the air. He used to do a funny ‘black guy’ character, really over-the-top.”
“Black guy” impersonations were just one sign of the young Beck’s racial hang-ups. Among the few recordings of “Captain Beck and the A-Team” archived online is a show from February 1986 in which Beck discusses that night’s prime-time television schedule. When the subject turns to Peter Strauss, an actor known for starring in television’s first miniseries, Beck wryly observes, “They say without [Strauss' early work] the miniseries ‘Roots’ would never have happened.” Clydie Clyde then chimes in with an exaggerated and ironic, “Oh, darn.” The throwaway dig at “Roots,” which chronicled the life of a slave family, wins knowing chuckles from Beck’s co-hosts.
Beck’s real broadcasting innovation during his stay in Kentucky came in the realm of vicious personal assaults on fellow radio hosts. A frequent target of Beck’s in Louisville was Liz Curtis, obese host of an afternoon advice show on WHAS, a local AM news-talk station. It was no secret in Louisville that Curtis, whom Beck had never met and with whom he did not compete for ratings, was overweight. And Beck never let anyone forget it. For two years, he used “the big blonde” as fodder for drive-time fat jokes, often employing Godzilla sound effects to simulate Curtis walking across the city or crushing a rocking chair. Days before Curtis’ marriage, Beck penned a skit featuring a stolen menu card for the wedding reception. “The caterer says that instead of throwing rice after the ceremony, they are going to throw hot, buttered popcorn,” explains Beck’s fictional spy.
Despite the constant goading, Curtis never responded. But being ignored only seemed to fuel Beck’s hunger for a response. As his attacks escalated and grew more unhinged, a WHAS colleague of Curtis’ named Terry Meiners decided to intervene. He appeared one morning unannounced at Beck’s small office, which was filled with plaques, letters and news clippings — “a shrine to all that is Glenn Beck,” remembers Meiners. He told Beck to lay off Curtis, suggesting he instead attack a morning DJ like himself, who could return fire. “Beck told me, ‘Sorry, all’s fair in love and war,’” remembers Meiners. “He continued with the fat jokes, which were exceedingly cruel, pointless, and aimed at one of the nicest people in radio. Glenn Beck was over-the-top childish from Day One, a punk who tried to make a name for himself by being disruptive and vengeful.”
Louisville is where Beck began experimenting with another streak that would become more pronounced in later years: militaristic patriotism and calls for the bombing of Muslims.
The birth of Glenn Beck as Radio Super Patriot can be traced to the morning of April 15, 1986. This was the morning after Ronald Reagan ordered U.S. warplanes to bomb Moammar Gadhafi’s Tripoli palace in response to the bombing of a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S. servicemen. Beck sounded stoned during the show — and given his later claim to have smoked pot every day for 15 years, might have been — but even then his politics were anything but tie-dyed. After opening the show with a prayer and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Beck played patriotic music through the morning. The only track receiving multiple plays was a New Wave-ish spoof titled “Qaddafi Sucks.” The song was a huge hit with listeners, dozens of whom called Beck to tell him how inspired they were by his patriotism. Caller after caller applauded him for “standing up for America.” When someone argued that Reagan should have dropped more bombs, Beck agreed. “I personally don’t think we did enough,” he says. “We should’ve went over there [sic] and bombed the hell out of ‘em.”
What’s most notable about this early version of Glenn Beck as Super Patriot is his near listlessness. There are none of the fire-breathing, teary-eyed histrionics that would come to define Beck’s future radio and TV persona. Even while offering up star-spangled red meat, Beck sounds as if he would rather be smacking Liz Curtis around. When a young male caller suggests kidnapping Libyan agents and then torturing them by sliding them down razor blades into waiting pools of alcohol, Beck simply replies, “Thanks for the call. Buh-bye.”
Whether Beck was tired or stoned that day, he was almost certainly depressed. Despite his creative freedom, local star status and high salary, Beck’s mental state was on a slide. By his own telling, he was drinking heavily, snorting coke and entertaining thoughts of suicide. “There was a bridge abutment in Louisville, Kentucky, that had my name on it,” Beck later wrote. “Every day I prayed for the strength to be able to drive my car at 70 mph into that bridge abutment. I’m only alive today because (a) I’m too cowardly to kill myself … and (b) I’m too stupid.”
Beck left Louisville at the end of 1986 a defeated man. His signature mix of Gadhafi songs, fat jokes and racial impersonations had made waves, but failed to produce numbers. With Beck at the helm during morning drive, WRKA slipped to third in the market. He was fired and the station brought its youth experiment to an end. As Beck and his wife packed their bags for Phoenix in early 1987, WRKA switched to an oldies format.
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Beck was hired once again as a strategic youth injection. This time the channel in need of fresh energy was the Phoenix Top 40 powerhouse KOY FM, known as Y95. The station brought in Beck to fill the morning shoes of a middle-aged DJ named Bill Heywood, whose mellow persona and long career made him a Phoenix institution, but one out of step with the times. Heywood may have interviewed everyone from JFK to Sinatra, but he lacked the zany chops needed to keep up with Beck’s old friend from D.C. Bruce Kelly, then hosting the market’s leading morning show on rival station KZZP. As ever, Kelly was a flamboyant master of publicity stunts as well as a top-rated morning jock. Since parting ways with Beck in D.C., he had completed the Boston Marathon on a custom pogo stick and convinced John McCain to dive into a pool of chocolate. To compete with Kelly, Y95 needed someone who could make a lot of noise. Beck was their man.
At first, Kelly was happy to have his old friend in the same town. “My wife and I were excited when Glenn and Claire told us they were moving to Phoenix,” says Kelly. But these warm feelings didn’t last long. Something had changed in Beck. In Phoenix, Beck became known for an outsize and mischievous ego — a reputation that would dog him for the rest of his Top 40 career. This new Beck was symbolized by the cars that stocked the garage of his Phoenix ranch house: a navy blue Cadillac, and that symbol of ’80s excess, a DeLorean.
The station partnered Beck with a 26-year-old Arizona native named Tim Hattrick. More relaxed by nature than Beck, Hattrick expected that the two would share duties on the show as partners. But Beck had other ideas. His first day in the studio, Beck called Hattrick into his office and laid down the law. “I remember Beck sat me down and pulled out a notepad on which he had drawn a planet being orbited by satellites,” says Hattrick. “On the big planet, Glenn wrote ‘Me.’ Then he pointed to the orbiting satellites and wrote names on them, such as ‘Tim,’ ‘News,’ and ‘Clydie Clyde.’ I’ll never forget Beck telling me I was a satellite. He was younger than me but carried himself like he was 35 or 40.”
Dispelling any doubts about the station’s new direction, Y95 also rented a mascot monkey, named Zippy the Chimp. Station managers flew Beck and Hattrick to New York, where they watched Scott Shannon run his zoo at Z100. Back in Phoenix, the Beck-Hattrick show was announced in a local TV ad that marks the 23-year-old Beck’s television debut. In the 30-second spot, Beck appears puffy-faced in a brown leather jacket. Next to him is the slimmer Hattrick in a satin Phoenix Suns warmer. The two young DJs are sitting in the studio stirring each other’s coffee when an announcer’s voice declares: “The new Y95 morning zookeepers — Glenn Beck and Tim Hattrick!”
Beck: “We told our bosses right upfront, ‘We don’t need gimmicks to sell the new Y95.”
Hattrick: “We’ve got a better mix of music, great DJs who don’t yak too much — “
Beck: “Plenty of easy contests for you to win lots of free money — “
Hattrick: “Plus more continuous music, Y95 Airborne traffic report, and special guests!”
Beck: “With all that, who needs gimmicks?”
As Beck delivers this last line, balloons and cash fall from the ceiling, model airplanes zip by, and a loud cuckoo clock goes off, sight unseen. Zippy the Chimp jumps onto the table wearing a yellow “Y Morning Zoo” T-shirt. The ad summarizes in 30 seconds most of what you need to know about the first 15 years of Beck’s radio career.
Beck never grew close to Hattrick, who thought his new partner was talented but full of himself and incapable of thinking of anything but radio and ratings. “Beck lived, ate, drank and breathed radio,” says Hattrick, who still works as a DJ in Phoenix. “It was impossible to talk to him about anything without reference to how to bring it into the show. I never once saw any evidence that he could turn it off. In that sense he was a one-dimensional person. But he was great at being a grandstanding, pompous idiot and shaking the brushes for attention.”
Beck and Hattrick began their show far behind Kelly’s market-leading show on KZZP. As they continued to get clobbered, Beck grew obsessed with getting his name on the leading station. His first attempt to get Kelly to mention him on the air came shortly after his arrival. “I walked out to get the paper one Saturday morning,” remembers Kelly. “When I turned around, I saw that my entire house was covered in Y95 bumper stickers. The windows, the garage doors, the locks — everything. But I refused to mention Beck’s name on the air, which drove him nuts.”
Beck kept trying. When KZZP’s music director held his marriage at a Phoenix church, Beck loaded up Y95′s two Jeeps with boxes of bumper stickers and drove to the ceremony. As the service was coming to a close, Beck and his team ran crouching from car to car, slapping bumper stickers on anything with a fender. The service ended while Beck was running amok, and the KZZP morning team appeared just in time to see Beck jump into his getaway car. “Beck saw me standing in the way of the exit and gunned right for me. I threw a landscaping rock on his windshield and blocked him,” says Kelly. When his old friend demanded he roll down the window, Beck reluctantly obliged. Kelly then unloaded a mouthful of spit in his face.
“Glenn Beck was the king of dirty tricks,” says Guy Zapoleon, KZZP’s program director. “It may seem mild in retrospect, but at the time that wedding prank was nasty and over the line. Beck was always desperate for ratings and attention.”
The animosity between Beck and Kelly continued to deepen. When Beck and Hattrick produced a local version of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” for Halloween — a recurring motif in Beck’s life and career — Kelly told a local reporter that the bit was a stupid rip-off of a syndicated gag. The slight outraged Beck, who got his revenge with what may rank as one of the cruelest bits in the history of morning radio. “A couple days after Kelly’s wife, Terry, had a miscarriage, Beck called her live on the air and says, ‘We hear you had a miscarriage,’ ” remembers Brad Miller, a former Y95 DJ and Clear Channel programmer. “When Terry said, ‘Yes,’ Beck proceeded to joke about how Bruce [Kelly] apparently can’t do anything right — about he can’t even have a baby.”
“It was low class,” says Miller, now president of Open Stream Broadcasting. “There are certain places you just don’t go.”
“Beck turned Y95 into a guerrilla station,” says Kelly. “It was an example of the zoo thing getting out of control. It became just about pissing people off, part of the culture shift that gave us ‘Jackass.’” Among those who were appalled by Beck’s prank call was Beck’s own wife, Claire, who had been friends with Kelly’s wife since the two worked together at WPGC.
Their friendship soured, Beck continued with the stunts, some of which won the competition’s begrudging admiration. The most elaborate and successful of these neatly throws a double-spotlight on both the juvenile nature of morning radio competition and the culture of pop cheese in which Beck marinated for 20 years.
Toward the end of Beck’s time in Phoenix, KZZP sponsored a free Richard Marx concert at the Tempe El Diablo stadium in downtown Phoenix. Marx was at the time riding high on a triple-platinum album, and the show was a monster publicity coup for Beck’s rival. But Beck was in no mood to let KZZP bask in the concert’s glow without a fight. He and Hattrick arrived at the stadium early on the night of the show and gave the sound technician $500 to play a prerecorded Y95 promo moments before KZZP’s Bruce Kelly was scheduled to announce the show. As an audience of nearly 10,000 waited for the show to begin, the KZZP mics were cut and Beck’s voice suddenly boomed out of the stadium’s sound system: “The Y95 Zoo team is proud to present … Richard Marx!” As soon as he heard his name, an oblivious Marx walked onto the stage and began to play. As the KZZP crew stood stunned offstage, scattered Y95 agents popped up and began throwing “Y95 Zoo” T-shirts in every direction to a cheering crowd.
“It was brilliant,” remembers Kelly, who gave Beck his first lessons in the art of publicity. “Totally brilliant. He nailed us.”
In the winter of 1987, downtown Phoenix went without holiday decorations because of budget problems. Y95 was asked by the mayor to lead a fundraising effort to replace them. Beck and Hattrick came up with this idea to “steal” decorations from the City of Scottsdale. In the process, the pair was arrested. “It didn’t quite go as planned, but it resulted in a lot of news coverage and contributed to a successful fundraiser,” says Mike Horne, the station’s general manager.
The stunt was a textbook case of media marketing 101: Attention is good; controversy is better. Outrage is the gift that keeps on giving. By his mid-20s, Beck had become a canny and mature publicity hound. This is seen most clearly in Beck’s first national publicity coup. In September 1988, Beck and Hattrick invited Jessica Hahn onto the show. That month Playboy was featuring a pictorial of the former church secretary, who had become famous when televangelist Jim Bakker admitted to his affair with her.
“That evening, we took Jessica out to dinner,” remembers Mike Horne. “I got up to go to the men’s room and quickly found myself surrounded at the urinal by Glenn and Tim, who began lobbying me to hire Jessica as a permanent fixture of the morning show. They negotiated the deal, which was a rental car, an apartment and $2,000 a month.”
One is reminded of P.T. Barnum’s famous arrangement with his longtime prize midget, Tom Thumb, who received $4 a week plus board. And indeed Beck’s showman instincts were worthy of Barnum: The hiring of Hahn as the zoo team’s “prize-and-weather bunny” became an international story. Johnny Carson and David Letterman joked about it, editorial writers debated it, and as a result Y95 received a much-needed ratings jolt. When People magazine visited the station looking for a quote, Beck described Hahn’s radio debut as “awesome” and explained that she filled the void of a “prize bunny for our zoo.” The trio was short-lived, however. After a few weeks on the job, Hahn asked to be transferred to a nighttime slot.
Toward the end of his time in Phoenix, Beck’s wife, Claire, gave birth to a daughter. As with the rest of his life, Beck had incorporated his wife’s pregnancy into his radio show. He asked listeners to guess when his wife would go into labor and the sex of the child. When Beck came back on the air after the birth, he announced that the delivery had been problematic and that there would be no more games around the subject. The baby girl had suffered from a series of strokes at birth resulting in cerebral palsy. Beck named her Mary, after his mother.
“After the public buildup about the baby, it was all very awkward and sad,” remembers Hattrick. “I thought it was a good lesson in being careful about personal issues on the air.”
Beck would later make his national name by turning that lesson on its head. But not yet. Shortly after the birth of his daughter, Beck resigned from Y95 to accept a job in Houston. Another also-ran Top 40 station needed a buzz-generator. Beck and his young family headed east, back to Texas.
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Beck arrived in Houston early in 1989. After years of moving forward professionally, the oil city would prove to be his Waterloo. Fueled by booze and cocaine, Beck would produce some of the worst radio of his life and tarnish his reputation in what one former colleague calls an “epic meltdown.”
In a reprise of Phoenix, a No. 2 Top 40 station had hired him to compete with the market’s leading station. His new employer, KRBE, aka Power 104, brought him on board at a salary well above that usually paid by its parent company, Susquehanna.
“There was a lot expected of him,” remembers his old program director Gary Wheeler. Beck’s salary, said to be around $300,000, reflected the scale of his task, which was something like the morning radio equivalent of a kamikaze mission. Beck was put up against KKBQ’s “Q-Zoo,” hosted by nationally syndicated zoo superstar John Lander. The mismatch was so great that nobody expected Beck to cut deeply into Lander’s royal ratings. It was enough that he generate buzz while going down in sacrificial flames.
“KRBE brought Beck in to make some noise and to create public awareness through promotions,” says Ed Shane, a Houston-based radio consultant. “They just wanted Beck to be Beck, because John Lander had cornered the zoo market.”
For the first time in four years, Beck was working without a supporting cast. He would succeed or fail on the strength of his own personality and his box of cartoon voices, especially Clydie Clyde. Alone in the studio, he struggled from the start. Defined by regular back-and-forth with Clydie Clyde, the show fell flat with listeners and industry pros. Guy Zapoleon, who as a program director competed with Beck in Phoenix and Houston, remembers marveling at how bad Beck sounded. “It was horrible,” says Zapoleon. “It was just Beck and Clyde talking to each other. No one could believe it was the same guy as in Phoenix.”
Beck doesn’t argue with this assessment. “It was the worst time in my broadcasting career, and I wish people would stop bringing it up,” Beck told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s the most embarrassing thing I ever did on radio. If I could make everybody forget about my time in Houston, it would be good.”
“Glenn took risks and was able to generate talk, but he never took off in ratings,” says Wheeler, Beck’s program director. “The thinking at the time was Glenn was misplaced as a Top 40 morning host. He was not very hip and tended to sway in content toward things that might appeal to an older or non-music listener.”
Among the lame stunts that Beck would like everyone to forget is his “breakfast meat” moment. On his first show, Clydie Clyde asked listeners to compete for cash prizes by mailing a slab of breakfast meat and a raw egg to the studio in standard issue envelopes. As Beck explained at the time to a Houston Chronicle reporter: “See, Wednesday was our first day and before that we had been running around like chickens with our heads cut off around here. And I had mentioned at one point that I wanted to meet the listeners at local malls. But Clyde took it in a completely different direction.”
It wasn’t just Beck who spoke to Clydie Clyde as if he were real. His conversations with the Muppet-voiced creature were so seamless and regular that listeners showed up at promotional events asking to meet the character. “People would arrive and ask, ‘Where’s Clyde?’” remembers Mark Schecterle, KRBE’s marketing director. “We’d always tell them Clyde just left the building, but would be at the next event. Beck was a creative, totally nonpolitical disc jockey back then.”
That judgment depends on how you define “nonpolitical.” It was in Houston, whose adopted son George H.W. Bush was about to become president, that something began stirring in Beck hinting of ambitions that could not be contained on the platform of local FM radio.
In Kentucky, Beck’s idea of supporting the military had been looping the words “Gadhafi Sucks” over a Duran Duran beat. Three years later, just a month into his new solo gig, Beck was playing phone tag with A-list publicists in New York and Los Angeles, laying the groundwork for a military-themed patriotic extravaganza. There was nothing zoo about it. It was an ode to Bob Hope by way of Casey Kasem.
The idea was grand in scope and classical in inspiration. During one week in February of 1989, Beck broadcast his morning show from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier patrolling the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. After receiving clearance from the 6th Fleet, Beck began lining up prerecorded celebrity greetings and scheduled phone-in interviews with a dozen celebrities, which he then wove into the morning show, along with interviews with the Roosevelt’s crew. Beck’s handpicked celebrity guest list presents a family snapshot of 1980s American pop culture. Beck’s broadcasts from sea included voice cameos by musicians Jon Bon Jovi, Eddie Money, LaToya Jackson, Joan Jett and Cheap Trick; actors Martin Landau, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Turner, Brooke Shields, Lesley Ann Warren and Tina Yothers; and icons Bob Hope, Mickey Mouse, Pat Sajak and Ronald Reagan.
Beck’s presentation, which hinted at his 2003 “Rallies for America,” didn’t stop there. He also hand-delivered thousands of homemade cookies and a giant white sneaker signed by thousands of Houstonites at a local mall. As Beck described it to a local reporter, the event was meant as “a gift from the people of Houston to the 6th Fleet to say, ‘thanks for being there.’”
No doubt the crew of the Roosevelt appreciated the free morning entertainment. The same could not be said for Houston’s radio audience. Not even Ronald Reagan and Tina Yothers could generate enough excitement around Beck’s show to justify his enormous salary. “Radio is about numbers, and Beck didn’t produce them,” says Schecterle, Beck’s KRBE colleague. “So they fired him.”
It was not an amicable split. Beck had been working under a multiyear contract and fought hard for the maximum severance. “He spent his last weeks in Houston battling on the payout with the corporate programmer,” says Wheeler. The battle was so drawn out it caught the attention of potential employers in the clubby world of Top 40 radio. According to a veteran morning radio hand, word spread that Beck was hard to work with and prone to wild behavioral swings. In industry terms, he had become “damaged goods.” He was still only 26.
Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.More Alexander Zaitchik.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)