It’s the kind of news that could induce a bad episode of cognitive dissonance: On March 28, Vin Scelsa—the uber-pioneer of free-form radio, the impish perennial kid with the fedora and the funky eyeglasses—announced his imminent retirement after 47 years as a radio rebel. For his fans, it was a little like learning that Peter Pan had bought a condo in Boca and was taking up shuffleboard.
It’s comforting to learn that Scelsa has no plans to leave New Jersey for Florida or anywhere else. To confirm, we recently arranged a visit with Scelsa at his modest expanded Cape-style house tucked among the trees in the Essex County community of Roseland. The front door opens, and—sweet relief—there he is, in faded black jeans and Birkenstocks, ushering us into a living room whose built-in shelves are packed with books. But it’s the adjoining room that finally sets us at ease.
Studio V (that’s V for “Vin”) is a snug space dominated by an audio console and walls that appear upholstered with albums. Shelf after shelf of vinyl give way to narrower shelves of what must be thousands of CDs, all of them representing a personally curated history of popular music. (Jazz, classical, world music, folk, blues and comedy albums—less frequently used on air—are stored downstairs). It’s the home studio from which Scelsa has broadcast his signature radio show, Idiot’s Delight, for the past four years (and off and on for five years before that). And it’s the room from which he aired his final shows, on April 30 and May 2, for SiriusXM satellite radio and WFUV respectively.
So far, he says, retirement is good—especially “not having to think about how everything that goes on in my life can be used in the show.” What made Scelsa unique was the on-air tapestry he wove from the highs, lows and passing detritus of his life. “I love, more than anything, falling in love with something and then grabbing somebody and saying, ‘Listen to this!’” he explains. Over the years he shared his passion for everything from Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’s 1987 film about eavesdropping angels, to the gritty urban fiction of Richard Price. His on-air guests—including the likes of Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, John Sayles and Joseph Heller—were as diverse as his cultural preoccupations. When he talks about his mentor and radio hero, Bob Fass, whose own show, Radio Unnameable, debuted on New York’s WBAI in 1963, Scelsa might be describing himself. Fass, he says, “would mix all sorts of found elements in his show, as if they were paint, and he was the artist, and the show was his canvas.”
Creating a new canvas twice every week, of course, might exhaust the most ardent of artists. “If I stop right now and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do a radio show at noon?’” Scelsa starts, then launches into an answer: “No. It wouldn’t be. Because it had stopped being fun after a while—it had become more of a chore and an obligation to live up to my standards, which are high.” Recently, he decided he wanted to go out on his own terms, rather than wait for some radio executive to conclude that he was no longer relevant to the latest format. “I can go out the way that I’ve done it all these years,” he says, “which is my own way.” Then, with a vocal wink, he channels fellow Hudson County native Frank Sinatra, crooning, “I did it my way.”
That he managed to keep doing it his way for nearly half a century he attributes, at least in part, to luck. He “fell into” radio, he says. Growing up in Bayonne, he attended Marist High School and was, for a while, an observant Catholic. But after rejecting his adolescent plan to become a Marist brother (he spent 13 months in a novitiate in Esopus, New York), he returned to a world that, he says, “was exploding with the mid-’60s thing of Bob Dylan and the Beatles and folk music.”
Scelsa’s next stop was the now-defunct Upsala College in East Orange, where he worked on the college’s poetry magazine. One day, he left the editorial office to see what was happening upstairs at the radio station, WFMU. “The station become my life,” he says. He and his cohorts “pretty much wrested that station away from the college,” he adds, turning FMU into an independent force in popular music.
Luck continued to play a role in his career. In 1970, a former colleague at FMU was hired as a consultant for ABC radio and recommended Scelsa for a job at what would become WPLJ-FM, one of the tristate area’s first free-form commercial stations. “I’ve always been at the right place at the right time,” he says. “And because of that place and time, I was able to develop a very distinct personality on the air that somehow resonated with enough people that I had an audience”—an audience, he adds, “that was large and influential enough to let radio stations leave me alone.”
It also helped that he married a woman who took over her family’s business, Walter Bauman Jewelers. Freddie Bauman has been more than willing to be her family’s main breadwinner. “My marriage is the reason why I’ve had my career,” he says, “and my wife is the one who gave me the freedom to extend my middle finger to management and allowed me to make my decisions based on the creative needs of my work life rather than the economic.” Throughout his career, as format changes propelled him from PLJ to WNEW to WXRK back to WNEW and finally, to WFUV and SiriusXM, that freedom—plus a well-honed on-air personality that was part salt of the earth and part incisive cultural critic, with just enough wiseass humor to make the whole thing fun—helped him continue to do what he loved.
More than anything, what Scelsa loves is music, and while fans couldn’t always predict what they might hear (his final set for FUV ranged from Dave Van Ronk’s “Sunday Street” to Nina Simone singing “I Shall Be Released” to Lou Reed’s “Good Night Ladies”), they knew it would be interesting. Even an aficionado like Southside Johnny could be taken by surprise. “I found more good music from Vin Scelsa’s show than from any DJ since Jocko Henderson,” says Southside (referring to the pioneering Philadelphia-based rock ’n‘ roll deejay).
Scelsa acknowledges that today’s radio is unlikely to give rise to someone with his unique set of talents. “There’s no place that will allow you to make mistakes and learn timing and how to be entertaining and show your personality on the air, let alone play music in a creative way.” The sound of radio, along with the essence of popular music, has changed immeasurably since the heady days of the late 1960s through the ’70s, when rock ruled the culture and the airwaves, producing larger-than-life talents—like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell—whose influence persisted for decades. “Today,” says Scelsa, “there are so many choices”—from technopop to hardcore hip-hop to cowpunk—“that no one genre dominates the culture.” Artists in the mode of Dylan are still out there, he insists. “I could name a dozen people the world should know about and nobody does. They’re lost in the shuffle.”
Scelsa has mixed feelings about digital technology. It has allowed him to access virtually any recording he could think of, but radio, he says, “now relies so much on what the technology can do that the creative, human element isn’t even secondary or tertiary…it doesn’t matter.” He points out that an algorithm can put together a pretty interesting set of music, but it’s a poor substitute for human creativity. In fact, technology played a role in his decision to retire.
“For the past several years, with the digital explosion and the availability of so much music, I felt there was just no way I could keep up with it,” he says.
Having turned 67 in December, he also started to feel a sense of his generation’s mortality. “I felt like the show was in danger of becoming—and frequently did become—a kind of death watch,” he says. Scelsa admits that when he read about B.B. King’s death two weeks after his own retirement, his first reaction wasn’t sorrow, but relief. If he’d still been doing Idiot’s Delight, he would likely have had to go back and change a show he’d already recorded—because, as he says, “you can’t ignore B.B. King.”
Now Scelsa can grieve privately—not that he plans to spend his days in mourning. In fact, he claims he doesn’t have any firm plans at all. “I’m still in the vegetating state of retirement,” he says. “I’ve let everything go out of my brain, and once it’s empty, I can start to see what’s coming in, and we’ll go from there.” He and his daughter, Kate Scelsa, whose first novel, Fans of the Impossible Life, will be published in September by HarperCollins, are talking about doing some podcasting together. He may write. And perhaps he’ll resume his relationship with T-Shirt and Razoo Kelley, the syntax-challenged correspondents whose letters became a fixture of Scelsa’s show in 1978 and for many years thereafter (and who some listeners suspected were Scelsa’s creations). Interestingly, the pair popped up on the Internet a week and a half before Scelsa retired, writing to him that “old people’s brains need exorcising to let their spirits free.”
Scelsa would undoubtedly agree. “I’m comfortable with what the outside world perceives as doing nothing,” he says, “because I know that you’re never doing nothing as long as your brain is working.”
He seems irked that people ask how he’s going to fill his days in retirement. “I fill my days easily,” he says.
Leslie Garisto Pfaff is a frequent contributor. She thanks Vin Scelsa for introducing her to Tom Waits and the Hothouse Flowers.Click here to leave a comment