Thursday, January 20, 2011

Obituary (Trish Keenan)

Trish Keenan, vocalist for the band Broadcast
(an obituary of sorts)
written by Tom Wilmeth
Wednesday, 19 January 2011

I do something each week about which I rarely speak. It is almost a ritual, except that rituals often fall into the realm of empty actions. Instead, my weekly exercises perform an ongoing and important function that I am convinced keeps me happy and stable. This weekly exercise culminates each December in a flurry of activity that becomes obsession itself – followed by a return to the norm of a relatively brief weekend activity.

Since the late 1970s I have recorded the Top 40 pop charts on tape each weekend and then listened back to the programs during the course of the following week – in my car, in my office, while doing dishes. Although I do fast forward over the commercials, I listen to every song on the countdown all the way through. I went through a very brief period of jumping over songs that I didn’t want to hear or skipping songs that were on the way down the chart. However, I soon found that I was jumping over most of the songs. As such, I listen to it all. And I do mean listen – if I leave the room or if the phone rings, I first shut off the tape. What is odd is that it is now rare that I even want to skip over a song – not that they are all good (God knows) but because I am invested in hearing the countdown. And I greatly enjoy the process (or I wouldn’t do it).

What began with a weekly walk-through of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 would later branch out after I left the Midwest. Living in Texas, I started also taping the weekly American Country Countdown with Bob Kingsley. Like Casey’s chart, this too is a 4-hour weekly program. Each is a little over three hours of listening if you jump the commercials, the Long Distance Dedications and other non-chart extras.

Moving to Wisconsin in 1991, other programs became part of the weekly diet – Nick Spitzer’s American Routes chief among them. Little Steven’s Underground Garage was even more essential to my week. But even with this additional 4-hours of audio things were manageable, and I still made plenty of time for listening to my own record collection and other songs I actually felt like hearing. I was not and am not a slave to the charts. Or so I believe.

Things took an unexpected turn when my lovely wife Ellie gave me an XM Radio subscription four Christmases ago. Although it began slowly enough, I soon found myself taping other weekly countdown shows, including A Rack of Blues, Slim Shady’s Hip Hop Countdown, Liquid Metal’s Devil’s Dozen, Verge’s Alt Nation Countdown, the Octane Countdown, and (the most recent addition) the XMU Download 15. The length of these countdowns ranges from barely 30 minutes (Hip Hop and Devil’s Dozen) to an hour or more (Rack of Blues). What is remarkable is how very little overlap exists in these charts! Even American Top 40 rarely duplicates any of the Octane, Alt Nation or XMU charts.

I love them all, to varying degrees, depending on the week and upon my mood. But what I have repeatedly noticed is that I must experience these charts by myself. They are not the same songs if I am not alone. If anyone is with me – be it wife or son or daughter – all extremely well versed in music – I find that can’t enjoy most of the countdown. For some reason I feel that I am responsible for what the chart holds. I think it is my job to justify and explain and entertain the person with me. As such, I don’t enjoy the music. So I simply don’t try to share the experience; I listen to the charts alone.

Why do I listen to these music charts? As I say above – I still enjoy the experience, and when I no longer find pleasure in these new songs, I will stop taping. How does this relate to anything? Over Christmas, making the 7-hour drive to Wisconsin back from my parents’ home in Des Moines, son Dylan and I were (as usual) playing with the car’s XM Radio. Dylan came across the countdown mentioned above – the XMU Download 15, a chart based upon how many times a song had been accessed or downloaded on the web during the previous week. I was unaware of this countdown, but was struck by many of the songs. None hit me as hard as a selection called “Carolina.” In fact, after returning home, I taped a re-run of this countdown and then went to Milwaukee’s Exclusive Company record store to find it.

The fact that I didn’t just download it says worlds about me, I know. But I’m glad I didn’t, for the song came from a brief EP called Broken Dreams Club. It is by the San Francisco group Girls; as far as I can tell there is nary a girl in the band. The entire CD is good. In fact, I was so struck that I wrote a review of it the following morning. [This review appears as a discrete blog entry.] I have played that CD more in the past month than anything else. All of the songs are fine. I gave it a very positive review, but my opinion of it keeps going up!

I admit that the above example is unusual. It is rare that a song hits me that hard, but I would have been completely unaware of “Carolina” or of Girls had I not listened to that countdown. Would I have lived without it? Sure, but my life is better for knowing about it.

This week, the XMU Download 15 chart started on a somber note. The announcer began by saying that the singer from the first selection had just died unexpectedly after a two-week bout with pneumonia. Rough stuff. And at age 42! The singer’s name was Trish Keenan – it rang absolutely no bells with me. The tune started and I was again knocked-out, much as I had been by “Carolina.” I was impressed not because she was no longer with us, but because of an unmistakable and beautiful voice. I was angry that I had never heard of Trish Keenan before, and that it took her death to make me aware of her. I did some research and discovered that Keenan had been singing with her band Broadcast since the mid-1990s. How had I missed this?

Most of the little I have read so far about Broadcast and Trish Keenan indicate that labels and radio did not know what to do with them – they fit no ready-made nitch. And as we survey the landscape, we see so many others who were musically talented but fit no single pre-existing genre – Charlie Rich (more talented than Elvis, said Sam Phillips) , the Louvin Brothers (too country for the gospel crowd; too gospel for the country audience), Doug Sahm, Todd Rundgren, and many others – from Prince to Bobby Darin.

These are the type of talented artists who have and will continue to slip through existing radio charts – no matter how many exist and no matter what the format. I mentioned at the start of this piece an obsession which hits me each December. This is the annual taping of the year-end charts. This year I recorded over 75 hours of year-end countdowns, from pop to hard rock to techno to Latin. I have listened to all of these charts at least once. At no point did I hear anything by the group Broadcast. I would have remembered.

Why do I tape the countdowns? I am searching for Trish Keenan.


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