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The five best episodes of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar

Thursday 5/27/21

Presently I'm writing my ass off, so I can take a few moments as a break to do this. I figure I could write another 100 books in my life quite easily--bare minimum--if I retain my health and things ever change for me. I know what quite a few of them will be already, or are fast becoming as we speak. And though it's a ways out, after various music books, novels, volumes of short fiction, which is where a lot of my book focus is right now, I do know I'll e writing a book on radio art.

I think radio is the great overlooked repository of art in this country's history. You can find radio art at the level of anything done by anyone you care to name. Beethoven, Dylan, Shakespeare, Picasso, Orson Welles, and so forth. I don't think anyone knows this. That's not an arrogant, "fie, you stupid plebians!" thing--I just think it's a true thing. There are people, for instance, way into radio and radio history, but I never hear them speak about radio as if it approached the level of great art. Ever. Part of that is because people tend to lack the confidence, the background, and the expertise in these matters. Thus, radio is regulated, even at its best, to this idea of great entertainment that makes you use your imagination, and wouldn't that be good for all of us to use some more imagination in our lives?

In my writing career, I've come to write a lot about radio. It was a logical extension for me with everything else I did. Over the years, the decades, I've found examples of radio art that classes should be taught about, books should be written about. Work as potent as anything one can experience in any medium. Which isn't how we talk about radio, right? Even during its "heyday," the feeling was that it had this utilitarian streak. It was that utilitarian streak--here's where you get your news, the ideas of the day, and, later, something to occupy your mind while you drive around in the car--that allowed the ever-cagey Orson Welles to do what he did with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.

Radio, at its best, is like opera. Hold on. Don't get frightened, don't run away. Hear me out. Mozart, for example, regarded opera as the greatest of all art forms, because it blended the most art forms. Does that makes sense? Radio does the same thing, but in what we'd now think of as a far more populist fashion. Thus it can be high art when done at the highest level, and also engrossing mass entertainment. Even now. Even if the show in question is from 1955. What I have found with the best radio--and perhaps this won't surprise anyone who lives a life that includes dipping into the best art--is that it ages remarkably well. It does not really age at all, save to seem to shape itself, in theme and intention, to have greater value to our lives the more time passes. Whereas, the slop we venerate for all of the reasons right now, has the shelf of a carton of milk outside of the refrigerator.

There are all kinds of ways to change and improve another person's life. Ways of various sizes. One way is to introduce them to something they can potentially get into hardcore, which they'll turn to again and again. Another way is to show just how significant that thing in question is. To contextualize it on the one hand, and set it within the historical frame, and to get into the ideas on the other hand, with your own ideas that others won't have but can recognize, understand, and feel, as true and vital. But with radio--if you know where to look and what to seek out--we have this mega-art and entertainment center that is better than a thousand Netflixes, and it's just sitting there. I don't mean better for only some "arty" person like me. I mean for anyone. Captain Average and the most recondite and learned of thinkers.

In a way, radio was social media before there was social media, and the internet before there was the internet, but with value. Not arguments between strangers/morons over nothing of consequence and the trillionth sharing of a cat photo.

I have to go in a moment to work on some pieces, and I'd like to sneak in a run, but let's put up the five best episodes of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. I've been giving a bunch of interviews about this show, going back to autumn of last year. I don't think one can overstate how strong these are. I get that a person is inclined to think of radio shows from the mid-1950s as outdated, antiquated, probably cheesy. I say this with respect and no malice, but you'd be incorrect here. Further, I'd venture that many people would be honestly shocked by the quality of these programs, and their timeliness. I think one might feel as if the universe has played some sort of a joke and perhaps time has lapped itself, given how "now" these works are, how fresh, how they impact you in ways that nothing you're watching on Hulu, Amazon Prime, Netflix, whatever, is.

So, consider this post a tease as I am between things, but do check out these shows. They're all five-part episodes. The way it worked was there had been a bunch of people playing Johnny Dollar over the run of the show. A guy named Bob Bailey took over in 1955, and for thirteen months, they did these five-parters. Each weekday you got a fifteen minute segment, so, in the end, the episodes ran to seventy-five minutes. I daresay that these shows are paradoxically more textured than the lives of most of us. They are more human than most humans. What you'll notice too is how what had happened prior is accounted for in the episodes that would have come after that first Monday one, but without the listener having to sit through what they recognize as re-exposition. It's that subtle, that organically done. A writer, perhaps, would understand how damn hard this is to do. Note how everything fuses in this remarkable totality: the sound design, the sound effects, the acting, the script, the music, the vocal cadences, the tones of inflection.

5. "The Plantagent Matter"--March 5-9, 1956. An episode about duty, which will shake you up pretty good numerous times, beginning especially when Dollar puts the woman in the cab. Note how honest he is about how awkward and nervous he perceived himself to be in the restaurant. Do you see what he's trying to do? He's trying to help someone. Off the clock, as I think of it. That is, not for attention, not for praise. When does this ever happen in life in 2021? When is someone a person of their word? Who would see these matters through like this man does after they take the turn they do that I won't spoil here? Who hasn't experienced something similar to what he experiences at the hospital? There is also--sound effects-wise--the greatest fight in the history of radio.

4. "The Forbes Matter"--December 26-30, 1955. Imagine experiencing this the day after Christmas and then right before the start of the new year? The scene with the medicals techs outside of Forbes' apartment is allowed to play out in all of its human detail. It's one of the dozen or fifteen or so best scenes I've experienced in any form of art. It's what art is for. A story like this, though we may be loath to admit it, is so easy to relate to. We've all been some form of this story's "there," do you know what I mean? And the unfettered kindness of the ending. This is raw, denuded humanity. It's intense as drama. When drama is real, when it is believable, when it does not stint on the realities of life and pain, kindness can never be melodramatic, no more so than that one ray of the sun that tucks itself out from between the clouds on a day when it has stormed since the dawn that didn't seem to come. This is what you're going for as an artist.

3. "The Nick Shurn Matter"--December 19-23, 1955. This is from the week before "The Forbes Matter," amazingly enough. Outside of the 1951 film Scrooge, this may be my favorite Christmas-related work. It's a blend of realism and magic, the latter sourced from the wellspring of human desire; the need to connect. We might term it a form of emotional magical realism. And it's just so well-written. All of the details tell. Like when Dollar has a little something extra for the sidewalk Santa Claus.

2. "The Broderick Matter"--November 14-18, 1955. A story about a woman who ghosts men. But so much more. At one point, Dollar is so ground down emotionally by what he's learning about this person--and, via her, what he's learning about humanity--that he begs off the case and requires a pep talk himself. Notice how Dollar is better at his job than any fictional character has ever been at theirs. He's better at what he does than Sherlock Holmes was at detection. The Christmas Eve gas station scene is some kind of gutting. But ultimately this is a story about how our own fears keep us from the vulnerability, the relationships, the love, and the life that we desire the most. And about those who help us--whether we're eleven, as we see in one case here, or twenty-seven, as we see in another, or whatever age Dollar is; forty-something, probably--along our way.

1. "The Shady Lane Matter--July 9-13, 1956. Not as emotionally intense as "The Broderick Matter" and "The Forbes Matter," but as wise as anything created by Plato or Thoreau. All of the components of radio art come together in this episode. Each listen is a chance to make new discoveries. It's funny how the constable takes the piss out of the skinflint farmer building his rock wall below the frost line. The ruminations on the nature of man are profound. The verbal leitmotifs function as literature. Pay attention to the sonics. When Dollar puts the bullet on the constable's desk. The sounds of nature when they're in the draw. And this is also the only work I am aware of where the New England accents are dead on.


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