Passing the torch

“What do you want to do with your life?”

I’m well past the age when anyone asks me, but I remember how it used to be. When I was in high school, it was the ultimate question.

I had two all-consuming interests. One was journalism. The other was music.

I was too shy, too unsure of myself, to have any big musical dreams. I had a talented friend who wanted to be an artist. Lisa Serniak Atkinson, formerly of Kingston, became well known not only in Albany, but in California, where she later lived. My kids grew up singing the songs they learned from her albums.

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My dream was to be a backup singer. But I later met Machan Taylor, another Ulster County resident, who is a world-class singer and voice teacher.  She has toured with Sting, Pink Floyd, and Government Mule. And then I saw that movie about backup signers, “20 Feet From Stardom.” I couldn’t sing like that.

But I loved music. I had my ear stuck to a radio from the time I was old enough to scrap together enough pennies to buy a Monkees album. I listened to AM radio, the legendary golden days of WABC, and I knew the words to every pop song.

By the time I was going to Miller Junior High, I’d switched to FM.  I caught the bus so early that I was the only one awake in the house. I sat in the dark each morning on the floor in front of the radio. Every day at dawn, WPLJ played Kenny Rankin’s “Silver Morning.” It was pure, transcendent magic.

When I found WPDH in Poughkeepsie in the late Seventies, I found a local home.

And when I moved to Albany, nothing could compare to the Rock and Roll Reverend, Lin Braemer, and the weekly Hump Day Unusual Moment. I cannot describe it to you, but it was the best radio I ever heard.

I’d had to make a choice, finally, regarding that Big Question. And when I couldn’t even get an interview as a secretary at a record label, I decided journalism was the more realistic path. I figured I’d get a job at a newspaper. I got lucky, and got a job in broadcast journalism.

When I was a television reporter, we spent a lot of time in a car, just a photographer and me. The radio was always on. Before long, I got a reputation – I could name any song, any artist, and sing along, word for word. I was challenged many times. I never lost.

But I missed out on the remarkable music scene around Lark Street in Albany in those days. I knew about Blotto, Albany’s legendary band. I knew there were great music venues like the Aerodrome and JB Scott’s, where some of the biggest bands in the world played in their early days. But I was working the late shift and I worked weekends. I didn’t go.

Fast forward a million years, and things have come full circle. I met a musician who used to manage those clubs, Kevin Bartlett. We have made a life together. KB introduced me to the people he knew from the Albany music scene.  When the lovable Sarge Blotto, Greg Haymes, died a couple of years back, I mourned a friend. And when KB put out an album a few years ago, I sang backup.

It’s my daughter who’s the music wizard now, the one who knows the artists, the songs, the words. She’s got a music podcast, she’s been a program director at a radio station. She knows the new stuff, the obscure stuff, the songs I knew, and the songs and artists my mother knew.

I have no idea who most artists are now, what most songs are. But every now and again she sends me a song and tells me to listen. And I do.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.