In seventh grade I decided to be popular.
My hair was long and frizzy. I got hit with the tweenage double whammy of braces (complete with hideous rubber bands) and a prescription for glasses that I would refuse to wear in public for two more years.
I knew my quest to be cool would be difficult, if not impossible. But I had an ally: DJ Casey Kasem and his “American Top 40.”
See, the popular kids knew all the hit songs. They could sing along to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” They would stuff quarters into the jukebox in the school cafeteria to hear “Smoke on the Water” for the zillionth time.
Me? I was a late bloomer, still dwelling on songs from Girl Scout camp (“Barges” with hand motions! “Edelweiss” in harmony!!) or grade-school playground ditties like “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells.” Junior highs don’t provide playgrounds.
I looked around and realized I needed to catch up. Fast.
So I turned to my friend Casey Kasem, who I was convinced had some sort of KC connection (he didn’t). For three hours every Sunday morning, his radio show taught a crash course in cool. In that smooth, warm voice, he counted down “the hits from coast to coast,” Billboard’s pop chart from No. 40 to No. 1.
“The hits get bigger and the numbers get smaller,” he’d say in one of his endearing catchphrases.
In those pre-Google days, every third song or so came with trivia about the music or the artist — fun facts that I knew I could use to impress everyone at the parties that I might someday be invited to.
I loved the “long-distance dedications,” where Casey would read some tearjerker letter from a forlorn soul hoping to rekindle a romance with the spark of a favorite ballad. (“The first time ever I saw your face …” Sniff.)
And so I listened and learned. And became obsessed with song lyrics.
There’s something about the 13-year-old brain that soaks up everything and never lets it go. To this day I can still belt out all the words to songs that should never be allowed to escape from a 1970s time capsule: “Run Joey Run” (“Glee” resurrected that one), “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “The Night Chicago Died” (Daddy was a cop! On the east side of Chicago! Back in the USA! Back in the bad old days!).
Here’s how good I got:
In 1974 we were visiting my grandparents in Minneapolis over winter break, and I spent New Year’s with my friend next door, Anne, who wasn’t nearly as nerdy as I was but was willing to play along. Every New Year’s Eve, Casey Kasem had the ultimate countdown, not just the hits of the past week but for the entire year, broadcast at night no less. We celebrated with a strange little song challenge.
We’d start in her room at her house, and Casey would crank up a hit, like Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” (I still have the 45, by the way.)
We’d sing along, get the rhythm of it (“If I could save time in a bottle the first thing that I’d like to do …”) and then race out of her room, still singing (“is to save every day till eternity passes away …”), out her front door (“just to spend them with you …”), down her steps (“If I could make days last forever …”), along the snow-covered sidewalk (“I’d save every day like a treasure and then …”), up my grandparents’ steps (“Again I would spend them with you …”), up the steps to the bedroom I used there (“But there never seems to be enough time …”) and turn on the radio to see how closely we matched up with Casey’s broadcast (“I’ve looked around enough to know that you’re the one I want to go through time with …”).
Phew. We’d listen to Casey’s trivia, maybe eat a slice of bread my grandfather had baked and then, at the first strains of the next song, rush back to her house, singing all the way in the crisp night air: “Stuck inside these four walls, trapped inside forever … Band on the run!”
Cool? Maybe not. But exhilarating. And intoxicating. And oh so fun.
Casey Kasem counted down the hits until 2004, but I stopped listening long before then. In high school, I dispensed with the Top 40 on Super Q (KBEQ, 104.3 FM) and turned my radio dial to the album rock of KY-102 (KYYS). And I dove into the way cooler music of the 1960s: Beatles, Stones, Who.
I also stopped caring whether I fit into the popular crowd. I think I made my own brand of cool.
But last weekend, when Casey Kasem died during his old radio time slot, a Sunday morning, the memories bubbled up anew. I realized I’ve carried with me his best catchphrase, the one he’d say at the close of every broadcast:
“Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
OK, Casey, I will.
To reach Sharon Hoffmann, call 816-234-4457 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can still get your fix of Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40.” From 7 to 10 a.m. Sundays, 94.9-FM, KCMO, airs reruns from the 1970s.