The music never stopped: KZSC rock DJ returns to the airwaves 35 years later

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Paul Gilbert, as he appeared as a UCSC student in the 1970s, broadcasting live on KZSC.
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Here's Paul Gilbert as he appears today. This photo was taken during his celebratory broadcast marking the 35th anniversary of his original rock DJ-ing gig at KZSC radio. 

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future…

As the chorus fades, I adjust my headphones and lean forward, hoping the microphone won’t pick up the sound of my heart pounding like an over-amplified EKG.

“Hello, Santa Cruz!  Are you ready for a blast from the past?” 

Thirty-five years after my first show, I’m back on the air at KZSC, hosting a special celebrating the music of the late Sixties and Seventies.

The idea for this solo reunion comes while driving down the coast from San Francisco on a beautiful Saturday morning.  I tune into 88.1 FM and it hits me. It’s been three and a half decades since I sat at the controls spinning records (after graduation, I’d moved onto a career in television). 

Suddenly, I want to be back in the pilot’s seat one more time, to feel that connection with an invisible audience, all of us moving to the same beat.

With a few calls and e-mails, I connect with the station’s faculty advisor, Michael Bryant.  After hearing my story, he graciously agrees to find an open slot. Turns out we share a fondness for classic (aka album) rock. We’ve both been to many a Grateful Dead show.  Both of us take great pleasure and pride in the fact that the Grateful Dead Archives landed at UCSC, beating out Cal and Stanford. Call us the Grateful Slugs.

I start preparing for the gig. I have over 200 hours of music in my library. Whittling it down to four hours is a monumental task. It’s like having an enormous family, but only being able to afford a small wedding.  Groups like the Beatles and Stones are no-brainers. Choosing between cousins is harder.  The Doors, Stevie Wonder and Pink Floyd get invites. Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles are left at the door.

Arriving at the station, I notice a seismic transformation.  Instead of a cramped studio in an antiseptic, concrete building, I see a spacious, self-contained structure nestled into the redwoods.  Our broadcast signal was a meager 10 watts; you could only get it weather and topography permitting. Today, it’s a screaming 20,000, and also being streamed live over the web. 

The technology has evolved from two turntables and a cassette deck to state-of-the-art digital equipment; the air board looks more Lear Jet than Cessna.  The set-up includes an instant messaging screen, letting listeners communicate with the DJ. In the old days, we had a request line. Today’s fans can provide live color commentary alongside my play-by-play.

Some of the station’s 10,000 albums seem to be the ones I handled over 30 years ago. With their tattered covers and scratched vinyl, they resemble a battalion of battle-scarred veterans, yet they radiate the same vibrant energy that provided the soundtrack to my generation’s coming of age.

At 2 PM, the engineer gives me the “you’re on” sign.  My adrenaline is pumping, but I’m more excited than nervous.  As an experienced writer/producer, I’m well prepared, having timed out the show and drafted some notes in case my short or long-term memory fails.  I’ve even scripted a few ad libs.

After the first two sets, I urge listeners to send in IM’s.  A few locals check in with requests. Then, to my astonishment, someone messages from Cornwall, England, to say how much he’s enjoying the show.  It’s an appealing image: him sitting by his computer 5,000 miles away, eagerly awaiting what’s coming next.  That mystery is part of the magic for the audience and me.  Anticipating his delight, I launch Eric Clapton off into cyberspace.

I’m relaxed and having a great time, and as I work through my playlist, I consider why album rock has such timeless appeal.  Of course, it’s particularly evocative to us Boomers rapidly approaching AARP status. Our memories of certain people, places and moments are embedded in these songs.  Yet along with the incessant rap, hip hop and pop coming from my teenage daughter’s room (all parents are doomed to yell “turn that music down!”), I hear Steely Dan and Earth, Wind & Fire. This gives me renewed hope for an iTuned future, since classic is defined as “serving as a standard for excellence.” 

The last hour of the show features cuts from my all-time favorite live bands, the Allman Brothers, Santana and the Dead, each known for their inspired improvisational jams, no two concerts ever the same. Having been to a number of these shows, I crank up my headphones and feel a familiar rush of kinetic energy, the deep-rooted, subliminal synapses firing again.  Judging by the IM’s rolling in, others share my DNA. We love rock & roll. The music still sets us free.  

Before I know it, the four hours are up.  I’m exhilarated and exhausted. My past has been blasted into the present.  As I wash up afterwards, I look in the mirror and recall those days when my hair flowed past my shoulders and I wasn’t supposed to trust anyone over thirty.  Now, I see a clean-cut, middle-aged man with glasses, two kids and a mortgage. 

Just then, I remember something the perennial hipster, George Carlin, once said.

“I’ve always had long hair.  Only I used to keep it inside my head.“

I smile.   Forever young, once again.