In the summer of 1999, before I became famous and began wearing leather pants, I was writing copy for a local advertising agency. It is fair to say that my brilliance as an idea man generally went unappreciated. For instance, I came up with a television campaign for the headache remedy BC Powder based on how awful it tastes if dumped directly on the tongue rather than dissolved in water first. After that, my coworkers wouldn’t tell me when they were going to to lunch.
One night, after a long, hard day of being unappreciated at the office, I got the phone call that would change my life. I remember it was late, after 9 o’clock, because our 6-month-old son was asleep. I picked up on the first ring. The man on the other end identified himself as Brian Philips and said he was an executive at a radio company I might have heard of. He said he enjoyed my work – not the advertising stuff, as it turned out. In addition to writing avant-garde commercials for headache powders, in my spare time, I wrote an alleged, quote-unquote humor column called “Mr. Funny Guy” for the now-defunct Dallas weekly The Met. Brian said he had been reading the column since its inception five years earlier. He said he wanted to talk with me about a possible opportunity in radio. To prove he was the real deal, Brian suggested I call the main switchboard for Susquehanna Radio’s local four-station group, which at the time included the Ticket (1310 AM), the Wolf (99.5 FM), KLIF (570 AM), and the Zone (93.3 FM). Because it was after hours, he also gave me his extension and told me to call him right back. I hung up an tried to explain to my wife what was going on. But I didn’t understand what was going on.
I don’t clearly recall what Brian and I discussed when I called him back, but the conversation dragged on long enough that my ear got sweaty from pressing against the receiver. I turned in for an evening with an appointment to meet this Brian Philips and a suspicion that he was crazy.
I would later learn that Brian Philips spelled his name with only one “l” because he had invented the name “Philips” years ago, when he was deejay, prior to becoming one of the most powerful, well-connected men in radio. And I would learn that – as evidenced by his hiring a 29-year-old advertising copywriter with no broadcasting experience to co-host a drive-time morning show in the nation’s sixth-largest market, a programming move so risky and unorthodox that there have been maybe two similar cases nationally in the last 10 years – he was crazy.
I learned quite a lot in my two short, strange years doing morning radio, before I was fired and escorted out of the building. One of the first tidbits I picked up was: Lenny Kravitz does not abide even vaguely anti-Semitic jokes.
What Brian Philips couldn’t tell me until weeks after our first meeting was that he was re-launching the Zone (whose frequency once belonged to the student-run station at St. Mark’s). The name of the new radio station would be Merge, without an article. No matter. To me, it sounded swell. I was suddenly making three times what I had earned as a copywriter, and because I was hired ahead of my partner and before the hush-hush station re-launch, my orders for several weeks were simply to keep a low profile. I stayed home and read three books: Backgammon for Blood; Backgammon for Profit; and Personality Radio, a sort of how-to book for aspiring deejays written by the legendary Dan O’Day. The backgammon books proved a better investment of time.
But the weeks of waiting for my on-air debut as a morning personality apparently took their toll. As the countdown reached 14 days, I drove myself to the Baylor emergency room because I thought I was having a heart attack. A doctor diagnosed me with costochondritis, an inflammation of the cartilage that attaches the ribs to the breastbone. It’s a harmless, though sometimes painful, condition with initial symptoms that do, in fact, resemble a heart attack. The doctor said stress could cause it.
“Have there been any changes in your life recently that might cause you stress?” he asked.
I thought for a minute. “I’ve started playing backgammon with my friends for money,” I said. “Oh, and I start a new job soon.”
The doctor suggested the new job might have triggered the episode. But he didn’t know how seriously I was taking the backgammon losses.
My suffering psychosomatic chest pains over fears of my own inadequacy must have been encouraging to my new co-host. Playing matchmaker, Brian Philips brought Yvonne to town from Atlanta, where she had been working the overnight shift at another Susquehanna station. Thus was “Early Merge With Tim and Yvonne” conceived, my name preceding hers for the obvious prosodic reasons. This did not please her.
Yvonne was a mercurial woman who owned multiple cats, rode a motorcycle, and carried a .38 snub-nose revolver. As a little girl, she was physically unable to cry, so her mother held her down while a doctor punctured her tear ducts with a needle (or so she claimed). She ran away from home as a teenager. She played softball. She had a last name but strove to keep it secret, going so far as to transport all her personal mail from home to work, run it through a shredder, then distribute the scraps to several wastebaskets around the office, lest anyone see her last name on a mailing label. She could listen to a few seconds of any song, tell you its tempo in beats per minute, then rattle off a list of hits from the past 30 years with which it would mix well.
Yvonne had, in fact, been a vinyl-spinning deejay for more than 14 years, so she “ran the board,” in radio parlance, meaning that while we were on the air, she operated the console and controlled the sound and flow of the show. For my part, I tried not to stammer. Or swear. And I inadvertently offended celebrities. I asked Lou Ferrigno if he used a special text telephone for deaf people (he’s hard of hearing, not deaf). I asked Sandra Bernhard which of the women she’d kissed—Madonna, Roseanne, or Janeane Garofalo—had the best embouchure (she has kissed none of them). And then there was Lenny Kravitz.
Our first big-time, rock-star interview went down backstage at the Smirnoff Music Centre (then Starplex) in Lenny’s dressing room. Yvonne and I had been on the air together for about a week, and we were painfully nervous. The joint was candlelit, and the sweet smell of patchouli hung in the air. Lenny was wearing sunglasses, purple leather pants, a matching jacket, and no shirt. We were granted about seven minutes with him, five of which were eaten up when Lenny took a call. At the very least, I figured, we could record a liner.
A liner consists of a celebrity introducing himself and telling everyone the name of the radio show. Dan O’Day’s book did not cover how to write a liner for Lenny Kravitz. But I knew I wanted to personalize it. So, sitting outside his dressing room, I had mused over how odd it was that this afro-sporting hepcat had such a nerdy, Jewish-sounding name.
When our interview ended, I handed Lenny a slip of paper and asked if he would be kind enough to read a liner for us. He took the paper and, without first looking it over, began reading as I rolled tape.
“Hi, this is Lenny Kravitz,” Lenny Kravitz said, in his sultry, scratchy, rock-star mumble. “And you’re listening to ’Early Merge With Tim Bergman and Yvonne Goldstein’”—at which point he hit us with a glare that we could feel from behind his shades and added reproachfully—”Oh, a couple of Jews? All right.”
We were escorted out rather quickly. Yvonne then informed me that Lenny Kravitz is, in fact, Jewish.
But if being reproached by Lenny Kravitz left me emotionally vulnerable, at least I didn’t physically get hurt, like I did the first time I had to get up onstage and introduce a band. If you’ve never had to do this, take my word for it: Any specie of pocket change, if thrown with enough force, can really smart.
Perhaps you are familiar with Vertical Horizon and its smash hits “We Are” and “You’re a God.” I wasn’t. But a couple months into our show, Yvonne and I were charged with introducing the band at the Bronco Bowl. Again, I wanted to do something besides just get up there and yell, “Are you ready to party, Dallas? Then let me hear you make some noise for—Vertical Horizon!” Too cliché. I decided to go outside the box.
My plan was to let Yvonne make a few professionally crafted remarks, then I’d grab the microphone and say, “Gimme a ’V’! Gimme an ’E’!” And so forth, the idea being that “Vertical Horizon” has 15 letters in it. The exercise would grow ludicrous sometime around “Gimme a ’C’!” and we’d all have a good laugh. I had just read Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman. That didn’t help.
They started throwing change sometime around “Gimme a ’T’!” And not in the manner that you’d throw change to a street performer whose act you enjoyed. The audience threw nickels, dimes, and quarters hard and with evil intent.
The house lights were down, and I was standing in a spotlight, which made it impossible to see the audience or the incoming coins until they were about 6 feet in front of me. I abandoned my routine and tried to shield my face as I scooped quarters off the stage.