Paul McHugh comments:
I’ll always feel grateful to the poets, musicians, actors, singers, potters, painters and other creative types that made Mendocino a counter-cultural mecca during the period I lived there, 1976-1983. One queen of alternate style in town was Liz Helenchild, a.k.a. “Late-Nite Liz” – her on-air handle. I won’t burn space here recapitulating the story below. I’ll just say, our community radio station KMFB circulated mental and spiritual lifeblood. Liz was a night nurse who helped that happen. I’m posting this story (it originally ran in the Mendocino A-and-E magazine in 1984) not only to celebrate Liz, but a magical era in that area. Also to suggest what FM radio once was, and what it could be again. On my kayak trip down the North Coast in 2005, I found a renegade Wall Street financier trying to recreate the phenomenon of community radio in the Arcata-Eureka-Ferndale region. It can be done! Here’s how.
The Swan Song of Late-Nite Liz
“It felt like your friend was on the air, keeping you informed. There wasn’t any of the formality of the professional radio announcer. She was family.”
“There’s a progression to the music she plays. You arrive somewhere, after you listen to Late-Nite Liz for a while.”
“We’d be wiped out after a hard day of fishing, come in to anchor in some lonesome cove, ice down the fish, then switch on the FM while cooking dinner. And that warm and sexy voice would be right there. Liz always was a real bright spot in the fisherman’s day.”
“I’d tune her in later on, on my way home from the restaurant. Only time I’d ever listen to the radio. I really wish she weren’t leaving. I wish Liz could stay on the air.”
It’s 10 p.m. in the Pygmy Forest. Inside a small concrete building with light spilling from its windows, a pretty woman who looks like a beatnik version of Snow White (sandals, black pants, black turtleneck, purple shawl, big silver ear hoops, and a snow-and-rose face framed by luxuriant black curls) slips on headphones and leans unshyly toward the mike.
“Hah,” she drawls. “This is Late-Nite Liz with nothing much to do but dish it up for you. . . so let me hear what you want to hear. Ah’ll try to stir it in and spin it out, here on tonight’s edition of Wild Hair Radio.”
The Pygmy Forest is one of the few natural coastal areas suitable for erection of a radio broadcast mast. It’s an unusual stretch of low, bonsai cypress and scrub hidden among towering groves of fir, pine and redwood, midway between the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Late-Nite Liz is Liz Helenchild, an unusual infusion of Texas talent, who in six short years became the North Coast’s closest thing to a homegrown media star.
Unfortunately, she’s a star going into apparent eclipse. Which is why I make myself present at the station during two of her final shows. It’s a last chance to see some of her magic in the making, magic of a sort now going increasingly rare.
Disc jockeys were the natural heroes of an entire American generation. They were the ones who knew what was about to happen, way back when rock-n-roll was a single obscure station way down at the end of the AM dial. They led us song by song through a change in consciousness, and did it with music that provided catalysts and then anthems of our times.
There are very few deejays around now who could fulfill that job description, or who could still cop to its sense of mission. Liz is one. In fact, she’s probably a phenomenon even more unusual than that. Somewhat sheltered in Mendocino, like a flower in the wilderness, from vicissitudes sweeping through the broadcast industry, she represents a post-graduate form of a largely vanished breed. Which makes her disenfranchisement from the air that much more the end of an era.
Seconds after Liz makes her pitch for requests, the control panel winks with lights as phone lines fill with incoming calls. She answers each one graciously, as if she had all the time in the world. Then suddenly she’s up and darting along the shelves of the record library, pulling out the selections that will launch themes for the evening of airplay. She cues up these cuts on the station’s big Technics turntables. Then she dashes off to rip teletype sheets out of the AP wire machine, and rapidly edits them into a newscast by ripping out the best bits with a sharp steel trowel. It’s a one-woman act, and she has it timed to the micro-second. Hair flying about her face like a brunette whirlwind, she slides into her seat with no time to spare, and turns up the potentiometer on the next cut just as the last begins to fade. It’s a seamless performance. If you happened to be cruising in your car down Highway One with the radio tuned to KMFB-FM, you might also swear that it was effortless. Not hardly.
“I guess you could describe me as kind of a classical music beatnik in high school,” Liz says, as the turntables spin. “There weren’t too many of us. We were all classed as deviants. For me, it was a combination of the wild hair that I have, and this smart mouth that I have. And another part was a decision I made in the fourth grade, that since I was never going to be one of those fluff-headed popular people, I might as well make an art form out of being different.
“I used to see Janis Joplin around at folk sings and such. That was the great education for me in Texas, by the way, sitting around too much drinking coffee and listening to all the great minds rave. After I heard Joplin sing, I thought, now this is a lady I can identify with.”
Liz acquired a degree (anthropology), took over a night jazz show at a college radio station, worked as a fashion illustrator and lab tech – and then decided it was high time to break out of Texas.
“People there would get locked into roles with each other, and if you ever tried to leave your role, they’d just rear up and squash you back into it. Actually, though, the truth is that I got kicked out of Texas because I don’t drink beer. The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce found out about that, and had me escorted to the border.”
Liz found a new niche for her vocal talents as a dispatcher for Berkeley’s alternative transport system, Taxi Unlimited. Then she was invited to visit Mendocino by a friend, and fell in love at first sight with the town. She quickly moved up and in, attached herself to the Uncommon Good (a popular coffee house of the 70’s), and dove into the local music scene. Poet Bill Bradd, after finding out about her earlier broadcast experience, asked her to run the board at KMFB during a variety show. They concocted her moniker, Late-Nite Liz, just before air time, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Time to go back to the mike.
“We have a lost dawg near road 409,” Liz says, transmitting the bulletin that came in on one of her listener calls. “Apparently, it’s a male dawg in love. He slipped his collar and took off into the lonesome night. He’s a tan hound who answers – or quite probably just now does not answer – to the name of Raffles.”
Five nights a week for the past six years, Liz’s wit and wisdom, cozily wrapped in a soft Texas drawl for their voyage out into the darkness, have been sent through this microphone, up past the flashing red lights of the broadcast tower, and slung across the valleys and ridges of the Coast, flying north to the wildness of Whale Gulch, inland to hills above Willits and Boonville, and south – depending on atmospheric conditions – as far as Point Arena.
Her most devout listeners have been hermetic cabin-dwellers who must get power for their radios from solar panels, or batteries bought on their monthly trips to town. For them, Liz is legendary, an avatar of the airwaves, often their only steady link to the World Outside. For others, closer in and possessing telephones, Liz serves as an amiable switchboard, connecting folks like semi-retired Cat Mother members, Judy Mayhan, and ex-Byrd Gene Parsons to their still-loyal clientele in the region, and also running the tapes of worthy newcomers like Lawrence Bullock and Charles Tyler. Prior to their gigs at local clubs, Liz brings locals and visiting groups on the air for spontaneous interviews and live performances.
It’s all part of what she calls, “creative community radio, including local musicians, topical songs. . . putting some kind of appropriate soundtrack together for the movie we seem to be shooting out here. Community radio is not all that common in the nation right now. But it could be. It should be. It’s a real alternative to all the formula stuff you’re starting to hear.”
The musical realms Liz plunders to assemble her sets are not limited to local music, or historic rock, contemporary sounds, jazz, or blues. . . and a case could be made that she actually doesn’t feel limited by anything. If the station disc and tape libraries don’t happen to meet her needs, well, she’s famed for raiding the record collections of friends. On a given evening, depending on her mood and the general psychic weather, her listeners could be treated to anything from Bessie Smith to Tibetan monastery bells, from tapes of obscure Grateful Dead concerts to the latest Michael Jackson. During a recent lunar eclipse, when she continued for hours past her customary midnight sign-off in order to “drum the light back,” she found herself laying a Keith Jarret piano solo over Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue.
“They meshed wonderfully,” she says.
Such rogue inspirations are all part of what Liz calls the Joys of Segue.
“It’s always amazing how it comes to me what the next pieces of music will be. There is a certain musical logic, and if you’re working a theme, finding the next selection can be pretty straightforward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had something cued up on the turntable, and just a second before it plays, someone calls up and requests it.
“Sometimes I get a more subtle feeling. As if all this electronic gear receives as well as it broadcasts, so as I send out the signal, there’s a subtle undercurrent flowing back in towards me. One time I got a wild hair to play a Tchaikovsky violin concerto in the middle of the show. That seemed plenty strange, but since it was a strong flash, I did it. A month later, I’m over in the hills, and I find a person who’d been practicing that concerto all day, learning to play it. The version I ran was the same she first remembered hearing as a child. She said it was an amazing experience to hear it over the air that night, as she was getting ready to fall asleep.”
Springing from whatever well of inspirational association, Liz’s selected cuts are laid snugly against each other and sent out into the mind of the listener, there to reassemble as a glowing matrix of connections, a slowly spinning gestalt of the most interesting sounds humans have committed to shellac and cellulose.
“Vibeskeeper,” Liz calls her job, playing with language in a way that delights her fans but would probably turn William Safire apopleptic. “I’m the person sitting next to the jukebox with a roll of quarters, rocking the whole bar.”
She relaxes somewhat from the fervor of her crank-up pace, and takes a moment to do a few stretches in front of the control panel. Besides broadcast, dance is a ruling passion; she’s a regular at all sorts of dance classes and performances in the Mendocino area.
Things are going smoothly, but this final night of Wild Hair Radio doesn’t take off and soar into hyperspace until Liz reads a news item about the death of the “Lady In Black,” a fan who brought roses to Valentino’s tomb for 28 years. That prompts a spin of Yoko Ono’s “I’m Your Angel” which segues into “You Got to Go to Sleep Alone,” by Rosalie Sorrels, and so on and on, into a long musical meditation on loss and faithful love. The phone lights wink on like fireflies. As Liz dances over to answer them, I think, what station manager in his right mind would ever dream of letting this woman go?”
The freewheeling format of Liz’s show found its genesis in the days when the station was owned by Steve Ryan, a young tycoon whose control over the station’s format and bottom line were neither quite absolute. His main concerns were that the shows be bright and creative, and the gear kept in good shape for his own jazz shows, broadcast on Sunday afternoons. Consequently, a wide range of talent in quest of a mike found airtime at KMFB. Some of that talent swelled and collapsed from the overdose of opportunity. Liz’s talent just kept blossoming.
But then the station was sold to George Anderson, a radio pro from Los Angeles, whose regard for the bottom line was visceral. He soon found out that his new station was anathema to a conservative portion of the North Coast’s business community, who thought it catered to leftists, artists and hippies. After first trying to change the station’s image by making minor trims, Anderson began lopping off branches. He explored automating, running pre-recorded programs from syndicates. Some members of the community responded by exploring a consumer boycott of the station’s sponsors. By the time the dust had settled, Liz Helenchild was one of the few members of the old-time KMFB cadre who remained. But she was not fated to remain long. She posed a unique problem: How can you format what you cannot pigeonhole?
“I didn’t fire her,” Lindy Peters, the station’s general manager tells me carefully. He professes himself acutely aware of the Liz’s great popularity on the Coast. “And Rodger Layng, the programming director, didn’t fire her. All we said is, this is what is happening, and she wouldn’t do it. We wanted to go for a light sound. Familiar songs, mellow stuff. Liz played a lot of mainstream music, but it was unbalanced by all the experimental things she did.
“Other than that, I have no complaints about Liz. She reads well, has a great voice, knows music, and is very organized. But we wanted to develop a softer, more consistent sound. You know, if the Reverend Sun Myung Moon buys this station, and he pays me to be general manager, then Moonie music is what I’ll put on the air. You have to roll with punches in this business,” Lindy concludes. “You have to go with management.”
But Liz refuses to fit the Big Chill profile. Since Wild Hair Radio’s flights of fancy are increasingly being cropped short by the new management, Liz is gradually permitting herself to be encouraged to leave.
“The real spirit and intent of KMFB as I knew and loved it has been slowly and thoroughly strangled,” she sighs. “The last year-and-a-half has just been the meditation on the rotting corpse. These last few shows I get to do are only the scattering of the final dry bones.
“But, everything changes. This is only the ‘disappearing’ part of the cycle. It’s only my particular attachment that makes me sad. It’s a shame, but I think really good radio is being meatballed and wonderbreaded out of existence. Not just in this town of Mendocino, but in the country at large. Go anywhere, and it’s the same freeway signs and fast-food joints. Turn on the radio, and it’s the same 15 songs. The programming is all by formula. A lot of the owners have apparently gotten so they just see radio as an advertising medium, a money-making machine. They don’t give a damn about the product. There’s not a whole lot of interest left in using radio as a vehicle for important communications.
“So. Do you leave your mad lover, or do you stay for the sake of the children? I guess you stay as long as you can. Then go.”
As I listen to the last hour of her last show, its seamless web of sometimes obscure but always appropriate cuts seems to be Liz at her finest. The expanding musical matrix is a paean to the pangs of separation. The emotions mixed into this audio cocktail are a blend of humor, grief, and a transcendent relief.
Hoyt Axton’s “Bony Fingers” leads into “This Could Be The Last Time” by the Stones. Then comes Pete Seeger’s a capella, “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood,” Vaughan William’s with “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” Geof Morgan’s, “Finally Letting It Go,” next Leonard Cohen’s, “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Little Jewels,” by Gene Parsons.
Up to this point in the story, I’ve written about all of this in the present tense, in order to provide the reader with a sense of radio’s immediacy. But right here, it’s appropriate for us to shift into the past tense.
Another person who listened carefully to Liz’s final show that night was Karin Faulkner, co-founder of the Rain Straight Down poetry collective.
“I sat at home reading,” Faulkner said. “Because I knew I had to read or do something besides just listen, or I would’ve started crying. That show was a historic moment for the area, something important to witness.
“For me, she has always been the connecting force to everything that’s been going on here on the Coast. She is that medium. We don’t have anything else that does what Liz does. I’ve always been in such awe of her integrity. It’s seemed to me that if everything came down to that Great Apocalyptic End, we could keep it together through Liz’s radio show. I can see her at the mike, helping us to make it through. . .
“The next-to-last song she played was something like, ‘Bright morning stars are rising, day is a-breaking in my soul.’ Then she gave this very cool sign-off. I thought it was a recording or something. But then she came on the mike in a very warm voice, thanking everyone for all their help over the years. Then she turned up the volume of the song she’d been playing as background, under her voice. It was, “An Angel Watches Over Me,” by black gospel singers.
“I glanced at my friend, feeling a little bothered because he hadn’t said anything for a long time, and I saw he had tears running down his cheeks. We just looked at each other. When that song was over, that was it. The radio went silent, except for some scratchy static.
“The silence was really profound.”
NB: Liz and KMFB parted ways for more than a decade, 1984 to 1995. The station meandered through owners and operating philosophies. Then Liz was invited back. As of this posting, in December of 2008, she’s on the air with the “B-side Herself” radio show, 8 p.m.-midnight, Tuesdays through Thursdays. If you find yourself up in the Mendocino area, just tune her in. She’s at 92.7 on your FM dial.