Zoom-Boomin On Up the Tower of Power
WHK's ritzy New York sister station, WNEW, gave Pete Myers the Big Break. On July 4, 1959, to as much fanfare as any disc jockey-or foreign dignitary-gets there, Mad Daddy arrived in the Big Apple. The importance of this move to Myers himself cannot be overstated; as Arnie Rosenberg says in recalling his old friend,"His dream? He wanted to be the biggest guy in the world."
Events unfolded differently than he had expected, however.
After Mad Daddy's first show in New York, the phones at WNEW rang off the hooks, but Myers' elation upon hearing that the switchboard was jammed soon shattered. What came in was a resounding all-night put-down, something Myers had never encountered, even in his days with WJW. He had come a long way to a dead end; the Big Break was a big mistake. Mad Daddy was a no-go in New York.
Myers' friend Ben Arrigo remembers the station and says," ...on one night and off the next. WNEW's format can't be tampered with. Big Broadway producers, politicians, and corporate executives listen to it. New York's stable upper-middle class. They got home and listened to this craziness? They were appalled."
Myers was chastised as an idiot. Manhattan's fogey upper-crust did not get it. A television shot that had been hinted at was quickly nixed, Mad Daddy forever forbidden by WNEW. So while he had been a legend in Cleveland, in New York, Pete Myers was just another disc jockey. He had named his place and price, there was not much he could do about it.
Four years later, in 1963, he escaped to WINS, New York, a rock station and home to famed deejay Murray the K Kaufmann. Through a weird fluke, he found that Neil McIntyre, his faithful gofer from Cleveland, would be his new boss. Both thinking this divine intervention, they convinced WINS that New York was ready for some genuine madness, and Myers brought Mad Daddy back from the shadows.
Myers portrayed the Mad One intensely, but things had changed. The music was different, for one thing. Except for the new Motown sound and the Phillies sound, rock in 1963 was not the good old wavy gravy he had played four years earlier in Cleveland. The kids, too, seemed strange. Like Oobladi's self-isolated Neverneverland kids, they were alienated from the grown-up world of nuclear doom and murdered heroes. A generation, having lost its Camelot, seemed to be just hanging around waiting for something to happen.
What was happening was doing so across the Atlantic in England. Myers, having lived and studied in London a decade earlier, was one of the first to recognize that an English pop phenomenon could be the biggest act going. When Myers told everyone at WINS that The Beatles would be bigger than Elvis, they thought he was mad. When The Beatles toured the US, Myers was at the airport with the famous WINS welcoming entourage, passing out wigs and sweatshirts. But Myers was a trendmaker, not a follower. It wasn't like Cleveland. He made the sounds and wiggy image of a generation then. In New York he was popular, but one of many.
Playlists and Program Directors
Myers had to leave WINS in 1965, though, when the station changed its format to all news. He returned to the security of the middle-of-the-road WNEW, again trading his Mad Daddy persona for that of the standard, mellow-voiced disc jockey, the quiet Pete Myers. As he lost more control of his professional life, he turned further and further inward. Approaching 40, Myers became increasingly pessimistic about his future.
He still sent taped Mad Daddy shows to stations in cities where he was still idolized, but a new possibility, sort of a Carnaby Street Mad Daddy British TV series, fell through. In a 1967 interview, he admitted he'd do it again given the chance:" ... if it's earthy beat, gut-bucket rhythm and blues, by me it'll be wavy gravy in 1987," but New York wasn't buying his act. Life as a disc jockey without personality in a town of 10 million wasn't much of a payoff for the brilliant Pete Myers.
The radio business was changing dramatically from what it had been in Myers' early days. The financial picture of the business had changed so much that stations no longer trusted disc jockeys to make decisions about what records they played. That task was now the job of the program director. Disc jockeys were being forced to abide by 'playlists' and emphasize major label records to make sure that the immense economic plum of the Neveneverland generation was 'market accessible'. Individuality in radio was dying.
Old Cleveland friends Ernie Anderson and Tim Conway came into town to pitch an album they had made, but Myers could not get it played on his station; he could hardly plug it. Perhaps he felt he had insulted his friends with this lack of professional control. He was friendly, but they sensed that something was missing, Anderson remembers. Arnie Rosenberg, and Neil McIntyre both heard him or saw him in New York and noticed something odd in his voice and manner.
There was the divorce, for one thing. His marriage to Ann, an attractive dancer from Ohio, had ended. But he had soon remarried a beautiful New York model named Lisa and even settled down a bit. The real aggravation in his life seemed to be professional problems.
By the autumn of 1968, program directors were controlling every disc jockey's music and routines, leaving little freedom. The days of 'monogram sounds' like Myers' wavy gravy were over. Professionally impotent, Myers turned further inward. The orientophile became deeply immersed in Zen and Bushido.
A Code of Honor
During the first week in October, line-up changes were afoot at WNEW in New York, changes that would shift the "Pete Myers Show" from its daytime slot of 1 to 4 p.m. to a later time-8 p.m. to midnight. Station officials later said they thought Myers was"enthusiastic" about the change.
On Friday, October 4, 1968,"lovable, laughable Pete Myers," as he had come to be known, arose and dressed for work, putting on his finest clothes. That evening was to be the beginning of his new time slot, and perhaps half-sleeping, his wife, Lisa, noticed how elegant he looked. The 40-year-old trouper had chosen to play his final role that day, a samurai frustrated by all normal channels of honor. A collector of guns, he took his most valuable weapon, a prized shotgun, and calmly strode to the bathroom. The door closed behind him; time sped into fast-forward:"fiver, four, three, two, one ...
Saturday's New York Times carried an obituary that said a note found near his body"indicated that Mr. Myers had been despondent over a plan to shift the time of his radio show."
Sixteen years later, Ernie Anderson said he still thought about Mad Daddy Pete Myers."He was a brilliant, sensitive, lonely man," Anderson said."But I think his brilliance killed him."
And the man who was probably Myers' best friend, Neil McIntyre, recalled his brilliance, too."Well, he was a genius, and many men as intelligent and gifted as he take their own lives, don't they? He was like one of those legendary samurais ... there was no other way out for him but the romantic way out. He was a much more serious student of Japanese culture than anyone thought. It was just one too many changes; there was only one way out."
All right here in the land of the rhyme
We've shot the wad
It's closing time
The wiggy light goes out
Brush your teeth and say your prayers
And cha-cha softly up the stairs
But before you jump in bed for some hot sex
Give a listen to some Mad Daddy airchecks