sightless lemon jefferson, sir!

Another letter I received in 1995 was from a DJ in Latvia.  His letter, which was very compelling, read as follows:

I am a freelance DJ at Latvian Radio.  During many years of Communist rule freelance Djs provided Western music for Latvian radio.  Our Radio didn’t receive any promotional recordings from Western companies.  We couldn’t also buy any records due to lack of hard currency.  Freelancers could privately contact friendly Western musicians and generous record company executives to obtain new releases.  One had to be devoted to music to undertake that because all people receiving records regularly from West were on KGB file.  A KGB officer worked at the Customs and checked all incoming records for black-listed ones (Black Sabbath and some other bands).  In fact confiscations were rare because KGB guys wanted to take the records home and copy for their own use.  We who received records regularly had our own “intelligence” girls at Customs who told us that we had received a parcel but it had been “borrowed”.  In fact the KGB guys usually had good turntables.  It took them some time to switch to CD players but the it was already too late and the system went to shambles.

The staff DJs didn’t want to lose their jobs and never made contacts with foreigners.  The freelancers were less controlled by Party because they were not in staff and were not afraid of being fired for “mistakes.”  They were tolerated because the music they supplied was more attractive than the Russian stuff.  Radio had to play something interesting to attract people to the local stations.  Programs with Western music were scheduled so as to compete with the BBC and Voice of America broadcasts to Latvia.  Such youth-oriented programs were started in 1957 already, but “rock” was a four letter word until 1987 when I started a “For Those About To Rock” show – the first in the USSR.  For six monts we even made a Russian version of it and sent it to Moscow radio for airing on all-USSR program.  It was the peak of Glasnost for Russians but soon they had to revert for some time to the Bulgarian “rock.”  Latvian Radio at that time didn’t air any “Soviet” pop at all, just Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian and Western music, while in the famous Perestroika year of 1988 in the Middle Asian republic of Uzbekistan the Djs still had to write an “explanation of necessity” for airing a single ABBA (!) song.

Recently we have started to receive demos from some companies but the input of new music is very unsatisfactory.  We have some 6 or 7 independent stations (all commercial except the Christian) who air the expected trash.  Funny enough the only station which airs some non-commercial indie/underground music is the State radio!  I have a weekly hour-long program where I introduce music unknown to our listeners.  I use a very wide choice of material with one common feature – it is not mainstream and it is not commercial.  Latvia has adopted the Copyright law and signed agreement with some countries on exchange of royalties.  So there is no pirating on State radio!  We have a very concise weekly program guide where all the performers featured on my show are listed.  I send a reference copy of the Guide instead of play-lists.  I never play any music without some friendly (usually) words about the performer (unlike the general music programs a go-go).

Recently I received two of your tunes in a cassette from my DJ friend in Los Angeles.  I enjoyed them and I believe that my listeners also should like your music.  I should be very thankful if you could send me your recording CD format is preferable because we have installed a CD player in the studio but have to copy all other formats to a 7 i.p.s. tape and play it from another floor where the tape machines are located.  We have no distance-start for them and have to send a buzz to the operator downstairs which sometimes results in amusing failures.  Our studios are still not equipped for a DJ work and direct airing of music (although we have DAT recorders, mini-disc recorders and even a recordable CD machine!).  Under the Russian rule only the news were broadcast direct and live, all other programs were taped and double checked before airing!  I still remember a case when one of my shows was rejected because of the word BLIND (in Latvian) as my “editor” insisted the right word must be SIGHTLESS.  Sightless Lemon Jefferson, Sir!

It is very important to receive some bio material with the recording.  We don’t have any good Western music mags on sale yet (only Rolling Stone and Musician plus lots of pop-pulp) and our Radio is important source of informa-tion about the non-commercial music in the West.  Some people send me a mag or two but in most cases the information there is not sufficient to keep me informed about all what’s going on.

Please tell your friends about my show.  I can use almost any kind of music, because I supply the recordings to three of the independent stations and produce some shows for the two other national programs as well.

A very interesting window into what was going on in other countries, desperate for Western music of any kind.

Most of the time when I got letters like this, I couldn’t oblige with freebies.  There were still economics in the equation, and there was no way for me to get my records into Latvia for people to buy.  At first, I’d send off a 7″, or even a cassette sampler, but eventually I got enough of these types of letters that I couldn’t possibly respond to each one.

If there were only a vehicle that would give me the opportunity to quickly and inexpensively get my music around the world.  That would be a great invention.  Instead, I had to box them up and send them via air mail, fill out all sorts of paperwork and declare a value, and then hope that the package would reach its intended recipient.

The most compelling of the letters came from someone named Dejan, in Yugoslavia (it was 1995, remember).  Dejan wrote me once, asking for freebies and telling much the same story as the previous letter.  State oppression, broadcasting underground music to punk-starved kids, etc.  I didn’t respond, and soon received another letter:

Dear Al and all nice people overthere, Dejan here writing.  Remember me, I send you letter but I didn’t get answer back, so I decide to write back to you.

As you see on TV news situation over here isn’t so nice but we will survive.  We continue with radio broadcast in this terrible conditions.

If you have some promo music by Dromedary label please send to me so I can play to my listeners on underground station.  Also send some kind info (zine) about you your groups tours etc.

Thank you very much!

Remember this: because this terrible war situation here only way I can receive your mail is by air-mail, thanks.

Please write soon as you can  (your support mean a big help for us overhere).

Receive regards from this part of the Globe.

I sent Dejan a letter back, asking him how he heard about us, and included some music.  I got this response:

Dear Al.

Miracle still happens.  Me and colleges on radio are very happy that you are interesting in support our mission of new music over here.

I travel 300 KM to our capitol town to find the American libery and there I find magazine SPIN in which I find your address.  I think it will be nice make a contact with you and it will be good for our listeners to hear your label products.  So that’s the story how I find you.  Me and my listeners will enjoy your music 100%.  Be sure.  Every thing about new music come to me and my listeners is really great happening.  But that happen time to time and it isn’t nice.  It’s all about this terrible time, what we all live here and this miserable moments that happen to our heads overhere.

As you know many bad things happen here and our youths have only R ‘N’ R to believe it.  That’s the main reason why me and couple my friends open this progressive station.  We want music to live here, yes.

Here isn’t any cool records as you know we can’t work with foreign countries and in this moment the only way (it will be our duty) to promote is to keep your music from our radio station and give to other human people here.  It’s so bad that I must say that only way to send me yours (CDs, LPs, fanzines, etc) is by air-mail marked package (other ways by ground will be return to you because of the war situation).  It’s expensive way but the only (can’t l0st) way.

Thank you in advance.

Give my regards to everyone in Dromedary especially to nice man AL who care about us overhere (other side of planet) and our listeners.

Help support our mission if you can.

Dejan and I corresponded back and forth a few times and then lost touch.  I never really knew if he had an actual radio station or if he was just glomming free records off me, but in his case, I didn’t care.  I figured even if I was sending him free shit and he was the only one who ever got to hear it, his situation was still much worse than mine.

Maybe I would have felt differently if I’d still lived in Lodi, I don’t know.

~ by Al on October 4, 2009.

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