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Soaring oil prices. Climbing inflation and interest rates. A national humiliation in the Middle East. Is it possible that lazy newspapermen have been recycling headlines from the 1970s? And if the decade of our national malaise really is returning, why in the name of Mouth and McNeil is the long-running Radio K specialty show Cosmic Slop: Forgotten Pop of the '70s going off the air?
Though the nation may need them more than ever, DJs Joel Stitzel and Chuck Tomlinson have fulfilled a 12-year tour of duty on 770 AM--two longer than the '70s officially lasted. Their final show will air Sunday, December 26. "It wasn't that things were bad or I was bored," Tomlinson explains from his partner's Powderhorn apartment. "I've been saying, 'Whatever itch there was has been scratched.'"
Many tunes surely have been mangy. Over the years, Slop's playlist has included Eurovision song-contest winners, forgotten mainstream songwriters with strange back catalogs, and vintage Midwestern AOR tracks--"our secret weapon: the meat rock," chortles Tomlinson. A choice funk rarity such as "Nobody" by Larry Williams and Johnny Guitar Watson could lead into game-show host Wink Martindale's turgid religious recitation "Deck of Cards." At times, the regular Cosmic Slop listener couldn't help wondering whether the men playing some of the shaggiest records in American history hadn't been infected by the lunacy of those tunes.
Stitzel, who has tidy black hair and horn-rimmed glasses, admits to working out some issues on the air--but the deranged music had little to do with it. Describing himself as "extremely shy," Stitzel originally found freedom in doing his talking from an isolated booth. But he finds now that "the pathology that drove my radio career in the first place has kind of tapered off. It's enjoyable, but it's not necessary."
The pair stress that it was their own choice to pack up the 45s and return to civilian life. Both have demanding day jobs at the U of M. Stitzel, who is 38, is a senior business analyst with the university's admissions department while Tomlinson, 37, assists the vice chair of the chemistry department. The chemistry department's gain, however, is the loss of an idiosyncratic cast of callers with encyclopedic musical knowledge and handles as colorful as the K-Tel compilations the two collect.
It wasn't just locals who got Slop, thanks to the webcasts. Reclusive folk singer Vashti Bunyan, residing at that time in Ireland, struck up an e-mail conversation with Stitzel after combing the internet for bootleg copies of her ultra-rare "Another Diamond Day." The writer of Smokey and the Bandit II's "Let's Do Something Cheap and Superficial" thanked the pair for playing the song--and keeping a stream of pennies dripping into his daughter's college fund.
Not everyone could manage to feel nostalgia for the cheap and the superficial. Tomlinson says: "People who are a good 5 to 15 years older than us listen to a couple of dudes waxing philosophic and nostalgic about the '70s. They're like, "I really love my Zeppelin records but, dude, you guys are getting so worked up about the Blue Swede and that fucking Leif Garrett song!"
Countless words of praise were doubtless bestowed on Mr. Garrett--and a thousand other topics even further afield. Attractive--or annoying, depending on your perspective--were Chuck and Joel's tag-team verbal riffs on topics from U of M parking (a frequent beef), movies, politics, the Stitzel clan's choices in brunch establishments, and, of course, mountains of minutiae related to '70s music. "We've made jokes that some people tune in to hear the music and then they turn down the talk breaks. And some people do just the opposite," Tomlinson says.
There was a sit-comminess (for lack of a better word) to all the gab on Cosmic Slop--a dynamic only enhanced by the fact that Chuck is not only Joel's air partner, but his neighbor and landlord as well.
"I'm Mr. Roper; I'm the one with sewage on his hands occasionally," Chuck says from Joel's living room.
"Nah, you're more a Mr. Furley," Joel counters. "He's always wearing leisure suits and stuff like that. He's definitely a Furley."
"It's the scarf that I really haven't taken to yet," Chuck says.
"Or Fred Mertz."
"Maybe I'm more Mertz," Chuck agrees, and then launches into an impression of Schneider from One Day at a Time. "Great sitcom landlords--now that's a book that needs to be written."
Though Stitzel and Tomlinson never published a monograph, it's long been apparent that beyond the giddy esoterica and the quick wisecracks, the pair was providing an aural chronicle of a disturbed decade.
"The music we play is too much of a time or too intense to be played again on the Kool 108s of the world," says Stitzel. Songs like Terry Nelson and "C" Company's militaristic "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley" and even Bloodrock's overheated flatliner epic "DOA" are eye-opening dispatches of a time when strong, uncensored emotions still managed to leak into an escapist Top 40.
And these emotions haven't dated. On a muted show days after 9/11, the pair aired Tom Clay's "What the World Needs Now Is Love/Abraham, Martin and John." The piece is a singular--and singularly 1970s--audio protest, interspersing chilling audio footage of the Kennedy assassinations and Martin Luther King speeches with field interviews of children talking about prejudice and bigotry. Stitzel admits it's ham-handed, but that day it drew back-to-back phone calls that illustrated why Slop will be missed.