The Disc Doctor Has Left the Building

And this mortal coil.

Watching all of the fuss over Michael Jackson the past few days, marveling over all of the people mourning his death, holding vigil at his star on Hollywood Boulevard, or wherever those things are kept, I couldn’t help but feel angry. Why are these people crying and carrying on over someone they have never met in real life? Okay, fine, you enjoyed his music, but you didn’t know him, so how can you truly mourn him? Are your emotions that cheap?

I can’t help but think that the multitudes of fans we see on video carrying on over Michael Jackson in the streets of cities all around the world are ones that have never lost someone truly close to them – never had someone they dearly loved taken from them – and that they are fools, one and all. With their crocodile tears they mock everyone past and present that has watched someone they truly know and love die.

Michael Riley

But such is life. For the first time in some months, I dreamed of my father, the other night. I guess Michael Jackson’s death is big news even in the realm of the dead; the ghosts are stirring and agitated.

As if to drive all this home, I learned Friday that my friend Michael Riley had died the day before. I feel compelled to memorialize him here in my own words, because that.s really all I can offer at this point, I suppose. It’s ironic, because I haven’t felt much like writing lately, either creatively, or blogging, or professionally. In fact, as of late, blogging just seems silly. But other than knocking back some beer with some mutual friends and reminiscing, I have nothing else to offer him.

I talked with his closest friend earlier today, and she said something that struck me. She was saddened most by the fact that Michael never struck it big as a DJ, in spite of having the chops and the respect of many people in the radio and music business. That is a sad aspect of Michael Riley’s life, and yet I can’t help but contrast his death with that of Michael Jackson. The only tears shed for Michael Riley will be genuine, and while he may never have got the fame and recognition he deserved, my Michael seems to have largely lived life on his own terms, which seems more than we can say for Jackson. Furthermore, while the music of Michael Jackson, whose fans are legion, touched millions (musical pablum that is; sorry, just have to be honest); I’ll wager that Michael Riley touched more people’s lives in a meaningful way, in ways that someone who lived in the rarefied air of pop superstardom never could.

The Mekon

Just ask the Mekons and many other bands from outside the United States who probably wouldn’t have a fan base here in the Midwest if it weren’t for the efforts of the Disc Doctor – bands you’ve probably never heard of, who made music because they love to do it, because it was their calling – not to feed the hungry maw of the undiscerning masses, lining their pockets and those of their sycophants along the way. The Disc Doctor, as he was known when he spun records, was a bit of a legend around Cincinnati, at least in certain musical circles – circles that actually spread well beyond Cincy, actually.

I only got to know Michael in the last few years of his life, long after he had left the airwaves, but my life has been the richer for it. He used to work at the coffee shop where I frequently hang out at, since moving back to my old hometown. I don’t remember how we eventually got to know one another; I imagine one day I was trying to find out what obscure music was playing in Sitwells, and the inevitable answer that anyone would give was “ask Michael.” At some point Michael determined that I was not just another ignorant hipster douche bag hanging out in an indie coffee shop, and he started bringing me music, giving me homemade compilations that span just about every musical genre you could think of. Aside from his friendship, he turned me onto a lot of music I would not otherwise have discovered, and for that, I will always be grateful. And I am just one of many with similar stories.

I can’t claim that we were super close friends, but we were close enough that we would take road trips to see bands. We were close enough that I happily volunteered to help him move when he needed it, because I knew he couldn’t manage it himself. I only asked that he let me come over some time and let me comb the extensive music collection that wasn’t on CD and let me rip whatever my heart desired. I think he got a kick out of the fact that in spite of our age difference I shared many of his musical predilections. As he used to tell me, “I don’t know about these other kids (anyone 10 or more years younger than him was a kid) but you get it. You know what’s good.”

Of course, I never got around to actually doing that. And now it’s too late. As I wrote this, the last song he played as a radio DJ came to an end. It seemed only fitting today, when I confirmed beyond rumor that he had died, that I listen to a copy of his last radio show that he had given me a couple years back. The last song on it is Sun Ra’s Nuclear War. The lyrics are rather spooky, given the circumstances:

If they push that button
You can kiss yo’ ass goodbye

What you gonna do without yo’ ass?

Indeed, Michael Riley, what are we gonna do? Who else could choose songs from the likes of Muddy Waters, The Stones, Dylan, and Hendrix and mix them up with Alpha & Omega, The Mekons, Patti Smith, Carol King and Bette Midler into one radio show and make it work? You will be sorely missed my friend, and like others that are gone from my life, the world becomes a slightly more dreary place without you in it. I’ll try and take comfort in the fact that our paths crossed for a time; I’m a better man for having known you.

You know, Michael hit just about every genre of pop music you could think of during his final show, including punk – that was the Disc Doctor. While many of the choices were pointed commentary on the politics that led to his leaving his radio station, and the fact that he was leaving the air, they are also eerily poignant in the wake of his death. Among those songs is one from country artist Matraca Berg, River of No Return:

All aboard
The ship is waiting
All aboard, you know I’ve finally learned
That I don’t need no farewell party
I’m just gonna watch my bridges burn

Cause I’m going down the river of no return

Well, I let it go
Yeah, I cried myself an ocean
Now I’m gonna, gonna pack up my dreams and sail away
And my destination is none of your concern

Cause I’m going down, down the river of no return
I’m going down, down the river of no return

A misty grey morning covered for me
As I left, I left you there sleeping
All tangled up in your dreams
And this morning I woke up
And I knew I was free
You may shed a teardrop
But, oh baby, it won’t be for me

So all aboard
The ship is waiting
All aboard, yeah, my ship has finally come in
And I don’t need no farewell party
Just gonna watch those bridges burn

Down, down the river
All the way down, down the river of no return

Goodbye, my friend.

7 thoughts on “The Disc Doctor Has Left the Building”

  1. thank you so much for your article. not only was it informative (i live in berlin now and would not have found out otherwise) it also reflected how i felt about him. he was a genuine character. i loved running into him while he was making the slow walk home up ludlow and whitfield, or seeing him at the coffee shops he worked in over the years. great taste and a great sense of humor. hilariously mean and yet very kind when it mattered. he will be sorely missed. it’s funny, when he was getting moved out of his place on whitfield, i offered to help, but he didn’t take me up on it. i thought it was strange at the time. i guess you already had it covered.

    thanks,
    austin brown

  2. Thanks Austin. Yeah, Michael was pretty funny — definitely one of a kind. Sorry you had to find out this way. …

  3. Mike and I met years ago when we were both at WAIF.

    So many memories.

    He was a real friend.

  4. Thank you for writing tribute to Michael. It sounds like you knew him much better than I did. I spent many many afternoons hanging out in Mole’s Records where Michael would say little to anyone while working behind the counter. For the first couple years I thought it was strange how quiet he was. Then I started asking him questions about certain groups and he really opened up. I thought his opinions were blunt, direct and wonderful. It was obvious that music meant the world to him and he wanted to share that, in his own way.

    Didn’t really get to hear him on radio. Now I’m sad that I’ll never get that chance.

  5. See Peter Bronson’s original column at: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20090704/COL05/907040339

    CLIFTON – The music stopped for Michael William Riley on June 25 when he died from a stroke at his home here. He was 60.
    But tributes continue to roll in from a range of friends, including the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
    “I’m burning up two remote phones. It just hasn’t stopped,” said longtime friend Tebbe Farrell of North Avondale.
    Farrell said Mr. Riley’s friends will gather for a tribute concert in Cincinnati in October.
    “He was a joy in every one of his family members’ lives. And what a kind-hearted, sweet man he was,” said his sister Julina T. Riley of the West End.
    Mr. Riley, born in Covington, was described as a music genius and a guru. He was a record-store manager and a WAIF disc jockey whose shows included “The Danceable Solution,” “Roswell Radio” and “Mekon Radio.”
    He worked at Mole’s Records in Clifton for more than 20 years and also managed Buzz Records in Clifton while working at Bogart’s, Farrell said. She estimated that he saw the Rolling Stones at least 35 times, and said he treasured a picture of himself with Stones guitarist Keith Richards.
    Rick Roberts of Oakley is a friend and former owner of Wizards Records in Oakley.
    “I’ve known Michael Riley since 1979,” Roberts said. “Mike’s best attribute was that he didn’t see himself as a music guru. He was just Mike – a man who truly enjoyed life.”
    Farrell said Mr. Riley was often called by friends with music questions.
    “The manager of the Rolling Stones used to call him for research,” she said. Mr. Riley “was a human encyclopedia of music, really well known and loved.”
    In addition to his sister, survivors include his mother, Billie Frances Riley of the West End; a brother, Edward J. Riley of Arlington, Va.; and four other sisters, Kathleen F. Stacy of Stout, Ohio, Estelle M. Riley of Northside, Clare S. Klose of Dalton, Mass., and Carolyn B. Riley of Clifton.
    Services have been held.

    @@@@@@@ Here is my response:

    Michael Riley was seminal in my musical development and his passing moves me. In 1978 I was a Mt. Healthy High School student, exploring Corryville by bus as an oasis of eye-popping culture. I was a part of Tom Knox’s Radio Workshop at WAIF in its original location in the basement of the Alms Hotel, spinning old Soul 45’s overnight and simply delirious whenever I’d catch an early Sunday morning shift on WEBN. Record nuts back then did the “Frank Buck” weekly crawl through the record stores in Clifton – Mole’s, Ozarka Record Exchange, Zoo Records, and the appropriately named Another Record Store in a tiny basement on West Charlton. With a specific order of attack, each store emptied my pockets a little more.

    Mole’s was the place I began to connect-the-dots within my growing knowledge and passion. Fooling with wire antennae to catch the best possible signal for his Danceable Solution program on WAIF, I would, like many others I guess, record those shows on cassettes and hurry down to Mole’s that week to pick up a photocopy of his playlist. Illustrated with Michael’s signature old-timey clippings, his artistic taste, from his setlists to concert show flyers, was perfectly in step with the kitsch-punk-zippy-nifty beat that Corryville strutted to in its heyday. His musical taste, shared through his radio show or record shop hi-fi, lead my path and countless numbers of my peers.

    I’ll always remember Michael’s celestial concert attendance trifecta – as he was at Woodstock, saw the Beatles and yes, there may be a bunch of folks who can punch both those tickets – but he also saw the Sex Pistols on one of their handful of dates in the USA.

    I don’t think today’s youth, trading MP3’s and Sharpie-scribbled blank CD’s can ever expect to feel the connection between a treasured album and where you bought it. The news of Michael’s death had me digging out some of his old radio shows and thumbing through my LP collection. It’s funny how sometimes taking a chance on a used LP later becomes a personal classic or touchstone to a particular time. The Urban Verbs, Magazine and the Times Square soundtrack. The Clash, Tim Curry and Lene Lovich. There they were, those big corner stickers on the front of the album jackets with Michael’s distinctive handwriting. Years later, when I was behind the counter at Wizard’s, I always felt those big price stickers of Mole’s were such a buzz-kill for the magnifying glass of the collector’s market. (Nothing was worse than the awful rubber stamps that Everybody’s marked on the actual LP labels of the used records they sold…) Now those Mole’s stickers make me feel warm, thankful and pensive. I’m glad they are scattered throughout my life.

    I’m not sure who’s fingertips touched more copies of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in the glory years of customers hauling crates upon crates of vinyl to sell or trade on Short Vine. God bless you Michael. Thank you for your influence in my life. May your turntable never stop spinning. I can only imagine your big grin as you tour through heaven meeting American Indian chiefs and legends of the Blues.

    Mr. Bronson, I must ask that you to make a correction to your article, in which you write “Rick Roberts of Oakley is a friend and former owner of Wizards Records in Oakley.”

    Wizards Records was opened in 1984, when my former partner purchased the lease and picked-over carcass of Another Record Store, after one of its founders was killed in a motorcycle accident. Mr. Roberts was the stores original manager and was fired in October of 1985, when I stepped in, and years later (and three locations on Short Vine) I bought in as a half partner. In 1999/2000, I solely took Wizards to Oxford, Ohio for its last year of operation.

    A few years later while I was a full-time Grad student at Xavier, I kept hearing from friends and old customers that they had seen my “new” store in Oakley, but that it was so lousy they were surprised I was behind it. What Rick Roberts had done, is purchase an existing store (I think it might have been one of the Record Exchange franchises) and rename it Wizards Music and Movies, thus appropriating the original Wizards’ goodwill for his own venture. I consulted my lawyers to fight this insult, but as a broke Grad student trying to maintain a mortgage and a son, I didn’t have the heart or the money.

    Please do not associate Mr. Roberts’ venture as “Wizards Music and Movies” with the original Wizards Records.

    I’m surprised you found Mr. Roberts to be a good choice for a tribute to such a good man as Michael Riley. Why didn’t you contact and interview original Mole’s owner Jess Hirbe, anyone at the current Mole’s, Darren Blase of Shake It, the defunct Buzz Coffeeshop, or Sitwells? Or anyone at WAIF-FM or the old Clifton music scene?

    I’m thinking of opening a new department store here in Cincinnati and calling it Swallens. Or maybe an appliance store and calling it Steinbergs. Oh, I’m sorry, would that be too creepy?

    John M. James
    yeahyeah@cinci.rr.com

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone — especially yours, Mr. James. I wish I could have known Michael back in his record store/DJ days. …

  7. hi Jeff! This is way overdue but since i have not been at sitwells in a long time, I recently only learned of Michael Riley’s passing. 🙁 very sad. There is a tribute for him Saturday night – 11/14/2009 at the Clifton Cultural arts center @ 6pm.

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