To begin with an enormous understatement, it should be obvious by now that I harbor deep nostalgia for those songs that provided the soundtrack to my years in college radio, especially those that accompanied my time as an undergraduate student in central Wisconsin. There’s an added subset to consider: I reserve a special affection for the music that carried me through the bittersweet stretch of time in 1990 that I lovingly refer to a My Summer in Exile. It was the one summer during my years of higher education that I went back home to live instead of staying in my college town, spinning records at the station and eking out whatever meager existence I could muster with lowly part-time jobs at local businesses. Adding to the misery, my status at the radio station when I returned was uncertain, making me especially anxious about and homesick for the broadcasting outlet that I now considered my truest home.
The local radio where I was living had one bastion that would occasionally play the likes of R.E.M. and the Smithereens, but their daring was mostly reserved for playing deep cuts from crusty, rootsy rockers. The community-run non-commercial station was too haphazard when it came to the music I was craving to depend upon, and reaching out long distance to snap up some streaming audio from my actual station of choice was, of course, unheard of. I had to make due with the albums I could scrape together the nickels to buy–also unavailable in my dismal hometown: a record store–and a media avenue that would today be almost entirely useless as a lifeline to the alternative music scene: MTV.
Thankfully, it was a surprisingly good summer to watch MTV for a dose of what college radio was playing. For one thing, the cable still relied mostly on music videos (and I do realize that “I remember when Music Television played music!” is the modern equivalent of “I used to walk five miles every day to school! Uphill!”). For another, they seemed uncommonly interested in embracing off-the-beaten-path fare that summer, gifting generous airplay to new music from Sonic Youth, Bob Mould and a lovely new band called the Sundays. Plus, there was the second single from Sinéad O’Connor’s breakthrough album to consider, and Depeche Mode had an unlikely Top 10 hit that I swear was the most-played video of that summer. Yes, I became far better acquainted than I would have liked with the rotten pop slop that decisively dominated Top 40 radio, but the channel was more of a lifeline, especially since I was still in the habit of standing ready at the VCR pause button to record favored music videos the way that kids a few years earlier made mix tapes off of the radio. So there were songs that I snapped up early in the summer, probably off of 120 Minutes, that I played over and over again. They may have only gotten a sliver of airplay on actual college radio, but there were the decisive songs of summer to me.
One of those tracks was the lead single from Kerosene Man, the solo debut from Steve Wynn of the college radio stalwarts the Dream Syndicate. “Carolyn” is brisk, sharp and catchy as hell. It was full of clever lyrics that I loved, and its message of pleading with an adored friend to abandon the jerk who’s got her ensnared in a bad relationship spoke directly to the cynical romantic in me. Most of all, though, I think the song had a special pull on me because it clearly represented the secret world of college radio, where the lead singer and chief songwriter of the Dream Syndicate was a major figure. It wasn’t as good as being back in that air chair, which felt so far away that summer, but it was the best substitute I could find.
(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Kerosene Man is physically out of print, and I couldn’t find “Carolyn” on any compilations or anything like that. Here’s what I’m saying: I don’t think you can but this from a real record store made out of building materials and staffed by a human being. It’s posted with that understanding and belief. If anyone with a legitimate claim on the song wants it removed, I will absolutely acquiesce to the request.)