It’s that time of year again, friends! Time to open your wallets and throw some cash at WFMU to keep the best radio station ever fully operating! This coming Saturday, March 13, join Gaylord Fields and Todd Abramson when they host Yo La Tengo, who show up once a year to play your requests on demand (when you make a pledge of course!) We have known the sharply dressed, smart, funny Gaylord since the mid-1990s, when we met and realized we both had the best (kinda similar) taste in music and we were both copy editors! In recent years he’s been a regular MC at many chickfactor events and we love his radio show on WFMU. We caught up with him to see how he’s been handling COVIDtime and got the scoop. Interview by Gail O’Hara
chickfactor: How are you holding up?
gaylord fields: I’m shocked at how my typical non-Pollyanna brand of optimism has been tested but has withstood the ordeals we’ve been through both with the pandemic and the sociopolitical reckonings of 2020–21, both in the US and throughout the world. If I can survive the worst year I ever lived through, with 2016–19 taking the other four spaces in that ignominious top five, with my head aloft, I can count myself fortunate.
How has your life changed during the COVID time?
Between the forced-upon-me sedentary lifestyle and my recovery from the major back surgery I had last year to correct a crippling spinal disorder that left me bedridden for two months, I underwent a drastic redistribution of my body mass. So now I have a personal trainer who tortures me via Zoom. My brain is slowly learning to accept exercise as not being futile, but it isn’t doing it quickly enough for my liking.
Also, I learned that if you’re going to be stuck in bed for months at a time, it’s best to do it when there is literally nothing going on to get all FOMO about.
Have you been vaxxed?
Yesterday I received my second dose of the Moderna — a.k.a. the Dolly Parton — vaccine. Here on day two, I thought I had escaped any adverse side effects, but an hour ago I was shivering under a duvet, a flannel sheet, and an Irish knit sweater! And now I’m sweating and fanning myself from the heat! I could not be happier.
What music/film/art/books/snacks have gotten you through the pandemic?
My current “wow” group is Sault, a mysterious Afrocentric British R&B collective that released two of my favorite albums of 2020, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise).
The last film I watched was Coming 2 America, which was pleasant enough for revisiting characters I liked in the original, mostly the secondary ones played by Eddie Murphy under pounds of latex. The last film I thoroughly enjoyed was during a socially distant trip to a Pennsylvania drive-in this past summer to view Rock ’n’ Roll High School. Worth the price of admission alone just to see Joey Ramone invent mumblecore. Fun fact: PJ Soles, who starred as high school student Riff Randell, was older than three of the four Ramones.
As for art, I allowed myself a rare museum trip to the Whitney, where I marveled at the video of Alexander Calder at play gleefully manipulating his magical Cirque Calder. There’s also a Calder exhibition opening at MoMA at just the time when I’ll be pronounced 100% vaccinated.
I just started reading Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, because I’m fascinated by an American Black upper class I knew practically nothing about as a product of the Black working class.
You didn’t ask about TV, but I watch a lot of 1960s and ’70s detective shows, such as Naked City and Cannon, respectively, because there is no story arc or even a B-story to be found.
Thanks to the fine people at the employee-owned King Arthur Baking Company, I got into baking doughnuts, until my carb loading while doing the opposite of running a marathon made my blood sugar levels rise — hence the dreaded Zoom personal trainer.
How long have you been at WFMU? How did you get involved?
I did my first program in August of 1992, so my 29th year will be swiftly approaching. I’m trying to reckon if perhaps 30 years is enough, but I have made no concrete decision about my radio future either way. I got my start early in ’92, when I was discovered by the WFMU music director at the time, David Newgarden, whilst I was DJing a show at Maxwell’s at the request of headliners Yo La Tengo. I guess I was making some oddball musical choices, because several WFMU DJs that night recognized me as one of them, just like in the movie Freaks, but to an arguably more positive and definitely less tar-and-feathery outcome.
How important is the marathon to keeping the station going?
The two-week-long WFMU Fundraising Marathon is by far the primary source of the station’s operating budget, as we steadfastly maintain our stance of airing no commercials or underwriting, and accepting no money with strings attached. We’ve seen too many other stations compromise their way to irrelevance once they began answering to anything but their own individual tastes and whims. We refuse to put on such a straitjacket. I think that’s a thing worthy of support.
What are your favorite shows on the station right now? And in the past?
There are way too many favorites for me to list, especially now that we have three Web-only streams as well as the broadcast station proper. Also, I wouldn’t feel comfortable singling out some of those favorite shows and colleagues while slighting others. But to name just one out of many fabulous former programs that I enjoyed in the past, I really miss The Radio Thrift Shop, a country-leaning show hosted by the lovely and talented singer-songwriter and chickfactor 25 performer Laura Cantrell.
Tell us how long Yo La Tengo has been doing their marathon duties? What are some of the most memorable performances/covers of theirs?
I had a thought that the band’s first appearance might have been 1997, but I recently checked with Ira Kaplan, who makes the persuasive case that it was 1996. If I take his word as gospel, that marks this year as the 25th anniversary of this wonderful WFMU tradition. For the past few years, former Maxwell’s impresario Todd Abramson, a.k.a. WFMU DJ Todd-o-phonic Todd, has been hosting them, and me, on his three-hour show instead of the band being forced to curtail their appearance during my inadequate for the task two-hour program. This also makes it a bit of a homecoming, as Todd, Ira, Georgia Hubley, and I shared a Hoboken home during the late ’80s and early ’90s.
In a quarter century, there have been too many renditions to recall, but I swooned mightily a couple of years ago when James lent his golden high tenor to bring forth a gorgeous version of Lois’s “Shy Town.” And they also memorably performed “Outdoor Miner,” by Wire, which is a shade less than three minutes — or less than two if you prefer the LP version — of left-field pop bliss.
How long have you known them? In what capacity?
I knew who Georgia and Ira were from seeing Yo La Tengo perform here and there, and from the copy of Ride the Tiger I picked up at Pier Platters, but we didn’t become actual friends until early 1987, when I was invited by Todd to take over the biggest bedroom in the house the three of them lived in, and they are to this day three of my favorite people ever. Much later, I met James McNew when he completed the trio, and what’s not to love about him?
Can you tell us any stories from the early days of Maxwell’s?
One of the first times I went to Maxwell’s, in the early ’80s, the band A Worrying Thing opened for the group I actually wanted to see, namely the Cyclones. I preferred that first band in their later incarnation when they renamed themselves after an apocryphal tale concerning the 1962 New York Mets and a three-word Spanish phrase. I also once saw rockabilly behemoth Sleepy La Beef go into the kitchen and chug-a-lug a carafe of hot black coffee, then clamber onstage to play his oversized heart out for hours.
Do you have any favorite memories of their Hanukkah shows?
Forgive me for making this first memory about my own participation, but one of my happiest moments on a stage ever was sharing the one at Maxwell’s with Lois to perform an unrehearsed comic deconstruction of “Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus)” as an encore. Performing with her was a dream I never imagined would become real. Also, I must say that any time the Sun Ra Arkestra, featuring the ageless Marshall Allen, are part of the onstage Hanukkah celebration, as they were last in 2019 at the Bowery Ballroom, it’s a transcendental moment. Next would be seeing the late and great Neil Innes perform Rutles songs, backed by a worshipful Yo La Tengo in the roles of Dirk, Stig, and Barry, again at Maxwell’s.
Do you have any beloved memories from chickfactor shows?
Every chickfactor show has been a reunion of sorts of lovely people I have not seen in a long time, sometimes in decades. It thrills me that the chickfactor community is not something people age out of, although many of us started off not quite fully formed when we entered this special world.
As for a personal MC memory, I recall at the Bell House in Brooklyn when I divided the audience as well as the performers into two gangs: One group I dubbed Team Horizontal Stripes, and the other was Team Gingham Checks (my own posse, membership duly marked by the lilac gingham shirt I was sporting). I may have had Lois on my ginghamed side, but we were up against the striped likes of Small Factory’s Phoebe Summersquash. No one was harmed, all were delighted. It was a chickfactor event, after all.
Another was when Sukhdev Sandhu, Tae Won Yu, and I held a meeting of what I cheekily called the “chickfactor men of color” in the Bell House’s automatic photo booth.
Then there was the London chickfactor 25 show at the lovely Lexington in my home away from home, Islington, when Cathy Rogers of Heavenly, Marine Research, and, evidently, Junkyard Wars fame, approached me after one of my typically freewheeling and off-the-cuff announcements and said, “I never have any idea where you’re going with these introductions, and somehow you pull it all together at the end!” I told Cathy that if I’ve learned anything from watching gymnasts, it’s that you can perform any sort of mad gyrations and twists and turns, as long as you stick the landing at the end.
What were your most treasured purchases from Pier Platters or Other Music?
Thanks to recommendations by my longtime dear friend Katie Gentile, who was working her way through grad school as a Pier Platters clerk, I own all the early Bus Stop Label 45s, mostly seemingly recorded by different permutations of Ric Menck and Paul Chastain. I also did all of my Sarah shopping there, whenever one of those precious discs would somehow wend its way from Bristol to Hoboken. I also have many, many cherished releases put out by Flying Nun, such as the three Look Blue Go Purple EPs, as Pier Platters — where I was later a clerk myself — had the most comprehensive New Zealand indie collection on the East Coast, and possibly in all of North America. But the most valuable thing I have from Pier Platters is its distinctive handmade swirly open/closed sign, which Bill the store proprietor let me take home on the store’s final day.
I had such good luck in the cheap 45 bins at Other Music that it mentally allowed me to go extravagant on some of the store’s pricier imports, such as the Tom Zé reissues imported from Brazil.
Do you have a current favorite record store? Online one?
I rarely visited local record stores, even pre-lockdown, as the pickings are slim in New York, and my usual vacation forays into shops have obviously been curtailed. But the last local record store I visited pre-lockdown was the Greenpoint, Brooklyn, outpost of Academy Records. I will correct my lack of local shopping once I’m comfortable to do so again, and look forward to crossing two rivers to get to such Brooklyn shops as Earwax, Rebel Rouser, and Captured Tracks, to name just a few.
Online, I use Discogs to find mostly old and rare 45s, and I still patronize Dusty Groove, especially for my Brazilian musical needs.
Do you listen to any podcasts?
When I actually went into an office pre-lockdown, I used to walk to the train station listening to John McWhorter’s Lexicon Valley language podcast — love his linguistics work; not as big a fan of his politics, but they never intrude. I guess I could consider him the William Safire of the 21st century in that regard. Nowadays, the only podcast I listen to is called Nothing Is Real, and you can guess by the name that it’s Beatles-related. The two Irish hosts go deep into the Fab Four’s careers, both as a group and solo, yet in a way that isn’t old hat or slobberingly hagiographical.
What is a Melody Dad?
My late friend Trevor Jenkins, who was a composer of production music in his native London, referred to me as such with regard to my show’s embrace of melodic components, and it is an honor I wear proudly. I was quite chuffed that someone who wrote melodies as a career thought I had a keen ear for picking out and combining indelible ones for interesting effect. I always listen to my air checks post-show, but I have yet to re-listen to the one I programmed in his memory a couple of years ago. It’s still too soon, too raw.
I know your wife is involved in helping animals. Is there a place folks can donate to help her out?
Kathleen is the director of community cat education for the NYC Feral Cat Initiative, which recently partnered with the longtime animal welfare nonprofit Bideawee. So if you would like to support community cats by donating to help fund programs such as Trap-Neuter-Return and shelter-building seminars, here is the place to do it.
What are you going to do when we are all vaxxed and are given a green light to be free?
Because I’m now set up to work remotely, once it’s absolutely safe to do so, I plan to couch surf in L.A. for a few weeks and get caught up with all my friends on that coast. A side trip to my beloved Palm Springs may also be in the offing.
I’d also like to visit the chickfactor editrix now that she lives in the same time zone as I do.
Any other news about you or WFMU?
WFMU is unparalleled in its diversity of programming, but recently we had a bit of a reckoning about its somewhat less diverse roster of actual programmers. As such, we’ve enacted internal programs to make the station more inviting to BIPOC and other marginalized groups. Within the past year, the on-air staff has become more representative of our community and our nation than ever, but we can’t rest on our laurels, as this is an ongoing struggle.
Also, this past summer I joined the station’s board of directors, and as proud as I am to take on such an important role for a radio station I love and believe in, I never saw myself as boardroom material beforehand. Mind you, WFMU is far from corporate, but this is real grownup stuff nonetheless. I promise to take on this role with the utmost seriousness, whatever that word means relative to WFMU.
Will you MC some shows at chickfactor 30 (gasp!) in 2022?
Try and stop me, Gail! I have a travel budget burning a hole in my Venmo account! Have quirky MCing style, will travel!
Thank you, Gail, for interviewing me, and I hope to see everyone everywhere during chickfactor 30.
Thank you, Gaylord!
Tune in to WFMU on Saturday, March 13 at 3 pm EST to hear Gaylord, Todd and Yo La Tengo!