The Nightbird: Alison Steele
Promoted -- appropriately, perhaps, at 4 am EST. Originally posted 2009-02-17 02:38:08 -0500. -- GH
There are a million reasons to be awake in the middle of the night in New York City. Something magical happens there after dark. The city changes. It looks different. It sounds different. It has different people.
When it's 3am in New York, you can suddenly find yourself in a quiet place with your body tired and your mind awake. That place may be your car, your room or where you work. It could be a food counter or on a sidewalk seeking shelter from a downpour. Or, you could simply be lying in your bed waiting for sleep to come. In those places, there is a feeling unlike any other city in the world. In the dark quiet, you suddenly feel like the city and you are aware of each other and you catch your breath together for a moment of that deep silence.
Alison Steele, The Nightbird was a DJ on FM radio from the 60's - 80's. If you were awake in the middle of the night in New York City during the 70's, then chances were pretty good that you were listening to the Nightbird. Here is an audio sample of her opening the show, one night.
Alison had a radio show from midnight to 6am on WNEW FM. She read poetry, played astral music, talked about people she met and things she saw. She played the long songs from bands like Yes, ELP, Gentle Giant, Genesis, Renaissance, King Crimson, Mott The Hoople, Tangerine Dream, The Who, The Moody Blues and many more.
If it rained sometimes, she would open the show with a treat. My bedroom was in the attic of an old Victorian house. I can remember lying there on summer evenings with the windows open, listening to the rain on the roof, the trees and the street below with the radio playing softly in the room. Suddenly, Alison's voice would come on. She would read her poetry, set the mood and greet us all with that voice. Then, she would play Riders on the Storm by The Doors - and the day would disappear.
Back then, New York was different. In the 70's there was all this experimentation going on and music was traveling in a hundred directions. It was the space between the folk explosion and New Wave as far as rock was concerned. Disco was around, but it hadn't impacted rock yet. FM radio was an important part of the expression. A DJ on an FM radio station in the 70's was allowed to amplify the message from the musicians. There was protest about the war, Watergate, Civil Rights and other social issues still spilling out into the music then. Lots of bands were simply there for the sex and drugs. Some bands were there to explore and ask questions about who we might be. Acid trips, laser light shows, references to mythology, shamanism and completely manufactured fantastical worlds were everywhere in music back then.
At the center of this maelstrom, like the calm eye of the hurricane - was The Nightbird.
Alison gathered the music and reached out into the darkness of summer and winter to us all. Some people were students like me, trying to figure out what we can do to make an impact after the heroes of Civil Rights, War Protest, Equal Rights and those that served our country's call to war. Some people worked at night; a man in a data center filled with glaring fluorescent light, a nurse in an aid station, a pizza stand, a taxi driver, a mother working two jobs, some people sitting on the stoop in front of their house, two strangers making love for the night.
It didn't matter who you were during the daytime, what you did or how you came to be right there at that moment in the middle of the night. When the radio turned on and Alison started talking, we were changed, we were taken and we were going to be gone - all night. Anyone listening to her would know that somewhere in the evening - this evening, something special would happen. It might be a poem or a live interview with a band that had just played a sold out show at Madison Square Garden. Often, it was a conversation that Alison would have with us all as if each of us were the very person she was talking to. We were transformed in the middle of the night, from being millions of disconnected people into a someone no longer alone. Alison was here and she was talking to each and every one of us.
She was no different than the rest of us. She raised a daughter alone, she worked for less money than male DJ's, she paid her bills and when disease took her, she did not have good enough health care. She died a while back from cancer. I have only thought of Alison in passing over the years. So, maybe I am remembering Alison tonight because some of those unresolved battles begun in the 60's & 70's are being fought again.
Can we get equality right, this time?
Can a woman raising a child by herself be paid and have healthcare without having to fight her employers or be reduced to begging?
Can we take our government back from the oil companies and defense contractors?
Can we free the airwaves from corporate censorship and "message" directives?
I hope that we can. I don't know if we can. If we do these things though, maybe one night in my car when I am driving home in the rain I will turn on the radio - and hear a nightbird.
Cross-posted at The National Gadfly