Car speakers emit radio waves with a long travel logged history. When we turn up the dial on a finger-worn sound system, our heads bop to a sound bit morphed into electromagnetic energy — a wave particle caught up in the ionosphere, thrust back down again and ricocheted at the speed of light from one aerial antenna to the next. By the time these notes reach our numb ears, they carry more than empty air. Once our carpool starts singing the lyrics, we’ve forgotten even what station transmits each new note. The next best single transports our minds like the long-form radio wave — away from car parts and gasoline, beyond wired batteries and tuning dial. Good music moves us into an upper atmosphere of selective unconsciousness where we feel the melody and forget the process. This Friday, Cornell Cinema moves backward in the open-circuit and recognizes the electric lines behind musical energy. The Glamour and the Squalor overlooks the importance of electromagnetic waves but gives credit to the man behind the radio. The documentary film—first released in June of 2015—screens the life and legacy of Marco Collins, the Seattle disc jockey often called America’s last great DJ. Collins debuted tracks by Death Cab for Cutie, Weezer, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and seemingly every other great American rock group of the last thirty years. At the same time, he etched new grooves for the LGBT community. The Glamour and the Squalor offers a glimpse behind our seemingly person-less radio boxes and a look inside the heart of a history.
Director Marq Evans takes radio listeners back to 1991. From the boom box to the stereo to the Walkman, different hardware plays the same sounds. Evans shows how Marco Collins connects disparate pieces, parts, people and places with his software — an ear for listenability. In a small captured moment with a high-school-age “radio host” Collins reveals, sarcastically yet symbolically, how his work functions. The young girl professes, “I myself am a DJ and program director at a tiny ten Watt station at my high school, what would you recommend for shmucks like me to get into radio and become big-wigs like yourself?” Collins responds laughing and consoling, “You’re not a shmuck and I’m not a big-wig; we’re all just the same…” Despite its sarcasm, this moment epitomizes Collins’ character and career. He works as the connective tissue between music production and music listeners. He bridges the gap between the not-yet-heard and the instant chart-topper. The new sounds Collins exposes form alternate modes of communication. Collins provides listeners of his station — and every other station that follows his lead — with melodic methods of transmuting soundless singularity for flowing cohesion. When Collins first played Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” he was alone in recognizing it as a hit. When the song ended, he played it again. Listeners and competing stations quickly sang and rocked along with him. Collins broke new songs and built new networks of engagement.
The Glamour & The Squalor looks at the way Collins transmits unmapped wavelengths—in his profession and as a person. Collins championed records and he championed bands and he championed the gay community. Along the way, however, Collins struggled to find himself in the mass of atmospheric energy. Evans expertly portrays this issue of mediation in Collins life — the space between self identity and self acceptance like the chasm between music production and platinum success. The film’s medium switches from flashback to cartoon narrative to interview. The viewer bounces along as if from transmitter antenna to receiver antenna — transmitter, receiver, transmitter, receiver. This electric travel log strings across Collins’ career and a similar pattern cuts through his personal life. Evans beautifully recreates the complexities of living under public scrutiny and private distress. His camera angles and his medium pull in opposing directions so that the viewer begins to understand the process behind a finished product. Evans lends equal credit to each accomplishment — Collin’s critical acclaim and personal victories.
Collins’ keen ear has become as fundamental to American rock radio as the formation of the energy wave itself. Collins functions as a critical stop along the electric line — the junction between static and music. He is the fundamental link. The Glamour and the Squalor rewinds the track — in a way impossible to live radio — and restores him to his human form. Automobile fanatics sometimes develop that strange habit of naming a car “Baby” or “Herbie” or “Lucky” or whatnot. The process of shining the wheels, greasing the brakes, washing the windows and scrutinizing the engine makes the devotee put personality back into the car. Collins once worked for a mechanic. He describes it as the “butchiest” job he’s ever had. But, where Collins sees boredom, the car lover looks into parts and recreates a human character. The automobile enthusiast conceives an independent being out of mass produced units. In a similar way, Collins anthropomorphizes the radio industry. The Glamour & The Squalor shows listeners and viewers a radio DJ’s human crux on the radio culture map. I still can’t grasp the electromagnetic spectrum, but I recognize Marco Collins’ crucial, personal contribution.
Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].