Having developed a rabid following for his groundbreaking decade-long show on WFMU—often imitated but never equaled thereafter—the Hound is on the loose again, airing his new show on Sunday afternoons via his website. Fran Fried, another ‘free-form’ deejay, has tuned him in on her frequency for PKM.
One Saturday afternoon in November of 1985, James Marshall walked into the studio of WFMU (91.1 FM), on the campus of Upsala College in East Orange, N.J., a now-defunct Lutheran school through whose doors walked the likes of Don Kirshner and Allen Klein, and the legendary New York DJ Vin Scelsa, who hosted the station’s first freeform FM show back in ’67. (FMU, which became an independent entity in 1995 when the school went bankrupt, is now located in Jersey City.)
Armed with a plethora of 45s and some LPs from his prodigious collection, Marshall sat himself at the console. He cued up a scratchy recording of snarling hounds, then laid into “Esquerita and the Voola” by Esquerita, with his fingers-through-the-keyboard piano pounding and unearthly high-note wailing, and the non-hits and quasi-hits kept coming in a mad rush: “A-Bomb Bop” by the Del-Royals, “Git to Gettin’” by Big Walter & the Thunderbirds, “I’m in Love Again” and “Ooh! My Soul” by Little Richard, then wrapping with “Ooh! My Soul” by Ritchie Valens.
And so it would go for the rest of this three-hour tour, as well as much of what he played the next 11, 12 years – adrenaline bursts of high-energy, high-volume frenzy, big stars to never-weres, with trash-culture references thrown in, from B-movies to old commercials to bad records that weren’t intended to be bad, punctuated by low-key, funny, smartass commentary from the host.
Clearly, this was a “What the hell was that?” show. With a lineup of singles predominantly from the ’50s and ’60s, many of them too obscure to have ever been remembered long enough to have been forgotten, spanning the then-narrow gaps between raucous rock&roll, R&B and blues, as well as hillbilly country, it was an oldies show like none before. And the wilder, the better.
And despite being on a college station, this show was certainly not new wave, “alternative” or whatever people were calling the left-of-the-dial sounds. As avant-garde composer/saxophonist John Zorn told Eric Asimov in a 1991 New York Times feature on Marshall, “It’s sick, twisted, horrible noise. Those are four of my highest compliments.”
Right about here, you can insert the baritone of the narrator’s voice: “And radio would never be the same.”
The Hound, as his friends and fans know him, developed a (pun not intended, really!) rabid following and put WFMU on the national radar. He also opened the gates to hundreds of similarly inspired, raucous, funny, oddball shows on college and other nonprofit stations around the country. (Think of DJs such as longtime FMU mainstay “Dave the Spazz” Abramson and his “Music to Spazz By,” and “Reverend Dan” Buhler’s “Music for Nimrods” on KXLU in Los Angeles. And by “inspired,” in the cases of these two, that doesn’t mean “copycat.”)
So now, more than two decades after being banned from FMU for life in 1997 (for telling listeners not to donate to the station during a lull in a pledge period) – and following a brief test-of-waters run from 2017 into early 2018 on a now-defunct online station called Little Walter Radio – Marshall is returning to radio regularly.
Chances are by the time you read this, he’ll have begun his new show, airing Sunday afternoons on his own website, www.thehoundnyc.com. (It debuts on Sunday, January 6, 2019, from 3-5 p.m. Eastern Time.)
(Meanwhile, his archive of FMU shows from 1985-95 is at www.thehound.net.)
When we talked at November’s end, he said he would be doing a soft beginning, hosting live shows here and there just for practice, and that he didn’t have a definitive starting date. Now he does.
“I’ve gotta teach myself how to, you know, engineer the show while I’m doing it,” he said from his home in Chelsea, the Manhattan neighborhood where he lives with his wife, the poet Gillian McCain. (Yes, for disclosure’s sake, Please Kill Me’s Gillian McCain.) “I just built a little studio in my house. So I thought, rather than make all the mistakes in front of an audience, which is kinda how I did it [chuckle] every other time, I would just practice – go on the air at weird times and just practice.”
But, much like the now-gentrified Lower East Side where Marshall once lived and thrived, he comes back to a radio and music landscape that has radically changed. Is there still room for a Hound out there in a much more crowded universe?
Oddly enough, he said, “In this world, I don’t think I have anything to say.” But let him explain.
“Well, I do, but I don’t. I know, it’s not … I just don’t want to do a radio show where people have to hear the word ‘Trump.’ I want it to be someplace to go where they can get away from that and just pretend like this is what people play on the radio, and these great old records are out there … even though lots of it has been reissued … when I was started doing this, nobody did anything like what I was doing.”
Marshall added, “Nowadays, of course, there’s a million people doing it – you know, really blatant imitations of what I was doing. But there’s something wrong with it, nobody has it exactly right. I know I could do it better than anybody else.”
“It was a real event,” said guitarist/producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel; he was Marshall’s partner in one of the Lower East Side’s legendary rock & roll bars, the Lakeside Lounge (1996-2012), they lived in the same apartment building for a spell in the East Village in the mid-’80s, and did a regular “State of the Vibe” report for the Hound’s program.
So why was this show so popular to start with?
“Well, I think his honesty, and the fact that he didn’t try to be anybody other than himself, there’s a lot of that going around, where people gotta put on a personality, and he surely doesn’t need any more personality,” said Miriam Linna, co-founder of Norton Records with her late husband, Billy Miller, and a friend of Marshall since they were musical pen pals in the mid-’70s. Marshall plans to air re-broadcasts of “Crashing the Party,” the weekly doo-wop show she co-hosts with Marc Miller on www.luxuriamusic.com.
He also is now broadcasting “Aerial View,” a program by another former WFMU mainstay, Chris T.; the show was FMU’s first regularly scheduled talk show when it was launched in 1989, and returns to radio after two years as a podcast-only program. The live call-in show will air at 6 p.m. Eastern Time Sundays.
“He was always outspoken and funny as hell, and [had] great taste in music, and kind of went for the wild stuff. So it wasn’t a huge surprise that he became very popular very quickly. It was refreshing because there wasn’t anybody playing that kind of music – basically, our kind of music. And he certainly was the one. And there was nobody else at – certainly not at FMU, and, not at any other station, really, anywhere in the country who was playing that kind of music.”
“The show had a lot of teeth, you know,” Ambel added. “It was definitely gonna piss some people off, excite other people, and he would get really good guests, and, you know, [there was] sort of a cast of characters that came out there with the show. It was always entertaining. Before the stuff was all archived online, people would trade tapes of various Hound shows, and, you know, it’s a real experience to listen to the show. I look forward to him being able to do it again.”
“He’s reclaiming his rightful throne,” Linna said with a laugh. “You know? He’s reclaiming it and it just makes me say ‘hooray!’ There’s many people playing great music on stations all around the world, but they don’t hold a candle, just because of the way that Jim presents the stuff. But it’s always so offhanded and hilarious. And heartfelt. I mean, he doesn’t play anything that he doesn’t love.”
Marshall lost count long ago of how many records he owns and won’t even begin to try to figure it out. But as he was in the ’80s, he’s still guided by the same feelings about the radio that inspired him growing up in Florida. (He has written and talked in the past of how he wanted to get away from his family the first chance he could, and moved to New York on his 18th birthday, in 1977.)
“I had such a miserable childhood. Nothing good really happened until I was 18, except for that the music at the time was of a much higher caliber,” he said. “Radio was at its peak around 1966, in a way. The top 40 radio … I mean, there was just – you could just go from station to station and hear great shit. I used to sleep with the radio at night [and] hear the old – this guy, Butterball, he was this blues DJ out of Miami. He’d play, you know, Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed, and he’d play the big hits, Wilson Pickett, and whatever was, you know, big in the R&B charts that week, and shit like that was just … It was so perfect, you know, for growing up.”
And that means that this music hasn’t calcified. He might be a huge record collector, but not in a traditional sense. The records still live and breathe, even though many of the performers don’t. That’s a mentality that informs his shows.
“People who are into this music, they tend to be record collectors, and they’re playing for other record collectors, and I’m not really into that,” Marshall said. “You know, it’s fun that I have the records, and most of the stuff that I play is, like, original 45s and 78s, but it’s put together in a way so it’s not just impressing people like ‘I have to listen to this rare record.’ It’s just this is great shit from all over the scope of that time period … you know, it’s just about the music. I hate to sound pretentious, [chuckles], but…”
One thing Marshall resists is labeling – the narrowcasting and marketing of music into rigid marketing labels and sub-labels and sub-genres. He doesn’t “totally ghettoize every little strata, like people only like a certain type of rockabilly, or a certain type of doo-wop, or this or that. You know, just throw it all this shit together, like the blues and doo-wop, rockabilly, hillbilly, weird gospel stuff that – all kinds of bizarre instrumentals, and all these, you know, there’s a golden era of the independent record labels, and 45 rpm records and 78s, all these small labels are putting out all this bizarre shit. And some of them became huge and, like, Chuck Berry or whatever, Elvis, but there’s tons of these guys who …
“My favorite thing in the world are these records of a guy who heard Little Richard or Elvis and said, ‘I can do that,’ but he didn’t have the hope. You know, he actually couldn’t. He wasn’t as good-looking or as talented or as … whatever that those guys had, but he put his heart and soul into this one record. And some of these guys were completely insane. And then some of them are geniuses. You hear a record – ‘Hot Lips Baby’ by Herbie Duncan. I mean, he’s putting every inch of his soul into this, and [chuckles] this record had no hope of ever getting played on the radio. Ever.”
The changes to the landscape and the show primarily stem from technology. The suddenness of news. The mechanics of how the shows are delivered. Digital files, and the availability of seemingly about every recording in the universe via file sharing, streaming and YouTube.
The new show is online, not on a terrestrial station, and there are online stations all over the place, in addition to traditional stations streaming their programming on the Web. Plus, the virtual world has made everyone’s audience the global village, not just a few miles around northern Jersey and New York, as was the case three decades ago. Plus, some of the staples of Hound 1.0, such as weird bits of news from here and there, are old already by the time he’ll do a show, because of the immediacy of information now.
“The whole Internet thing has made it a whole different thing, because, one, you’re going out to people in different time zones,” Marshall said. “You know, when we were on FMU, we were going through the airwaves, and it was a time when communication and music wasn’t so immediate, so we were doing news stories and stuff, and that was a weekly show. You know, things that caught our eye and we’d talk about. But this show, I don’t think, is gonna have much talking at all. It’s just gonna be just the old records, and – that works just fine with me, because listening back, you know, it’s hard to re-listen to talking.” [laughs]
Plus, he’s looking at radio, and his music, and what he does from the perspective of a 59-year-old, not the mid-twentysomething he was when he walked into WFMU. Back then, there wasn’t immediacy, but there was urgency – the adrenaline of youth, the wanting of everyone to dig what he was digging. And besides, quite a few of the guests who appeared on his show in the day – Hasil Adkins, Hank Ballard, Arthur Alexander, Ronnie Dawson, Cordell Jackson, Sonny Burgess, Billy Miller – are gone now.
When asked if he felt any urgency this time around, Marshall said, “No, because anybody I would want to impress is dead. [chuckle] So there’s no sense of urgency at all. I honestly, don’t [chuckle] care that much about the younger generation. Like the last generation were too dumb for jazz. Now they’ve bred a generation too dumb for rock & roll.
“What do you say about that? I mean, it’s just the millennials, they’ve got nothing going for ’em. When I was younger, I had more of an evangelical quest to spread this music around, but nowadays, I’m almost, on some kind of level, I’d rather just keep it to myself. I don’t want it to become some fashion trend or get eaten up by some weird media moment where it becomes hip. So that’s why I kinda like being off to the side, where I won’t get noticed by those knuckleheads.”
It seems almost a snobbery in a way – a sense that he doesn’t want the wrong people to be listening to the cool stuff. Yes and no.
“It’s not even this right people or wrong people; it’s just … it’s hard to explain,” he said. “How do I explain this? It’s not that I’m not wanting people to like good music; it’s just the whole system of media overkill descends upon things and destroys them.
“It’s something that I would love to happen. You want the people to find it. But I don’t think I’m gonna win over dubstep jocks to this music. I wouldn’t want to.”
So, with technology and changed tastes, will the Hound still resound with audiences? Will Marshall’s show still be appointment radio when everything can now be heard on-demand at a later time? Ambel thinks so.
“You know, his show back in the day, it was just really wild, crazy music, and wild, crazy talk, and, you know, it just was so different because it wasn’t radio where the thrust is just promoting the latest releases,” he said. “Before the Internet, people had to do a lot of work to find obscure records. And his show is so entertaining, people would sit around in real time, you know, on Saturday afternoon, and people would get together and sit there and, and listen to the show.”
As far as the increased accessibility of the music goes, “I don’t really think of that as being as being an impediment to him doing a great show,” Ambel added, “Plus, you know, the Hound doesn’t give a fuck about anything! And so, if you don’t listen to that show, it’s your loss, you know?”
And besides, “I kinda think that the Hound has come to the point [chuckle] where he’s just gotta do this again.”
The Hound’s First All-New Live Broadcast Sunday Jan 6, 3-5 PM EST (NYC Time).
Podcast info to come.
Archived show: www.thehoundnyc.com