I’m coming late to the party on the news that Casey Kasem is retiring from “American Top 40.” To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure he was still alive, although his profane in-studio rant (BAD LANGUAGE ALERT) will surely live forever. It’s been a long time since I thought much about Casey Kasem. But for a few crucial years, he was the most important entertainer in my life.
This is going to make me sound like an unbelievable geek, so it’s accurate. From the time I was 11 or 12 until I was 15 or 16, I wrote down the Top 40 every week. I’d write down the artist, the song, the label, and off to the side I had a little arrow saying how far up or down the song was since the week before. In my town the Top 40 show was Sunday mornings — when we went to church — and so I’d put my little Sears portable tape recorder next to my Sears stereo and tape an hour (as much as the tape could hold) of the 3-hour show. Sometimes, when the preacher went long or we went out to lunch, I’d miss part of the show. Then I’d beg my mom later in the week to take me down to Norwich Street, where a bookstore that sold porn and cheap paperbacks was also the only place in town that sold Billboard magazine. Then, with the printed Top 40 in hand, I’d fill in the blanks in my little notebooks.
I rooted for some songs and against others — I remember really hating that Diana Ross theme from “Mahogany” for some reason, and of course it sailed right to No. 1. But there were thrills too — I couldn’t believe that something like “Ballroom Blitz” made it all the way into the top 5. Still love that song.
I couldn’t have told you back then why I was obsessed with the Top 40. I’m not all that sure I can tell you now. It had something to do with giving a sense of order to the world — the same reason I used to keep a scorecard for the baseball Game of the Week until I fell asleep in about the fifth inning. (I couldn’t get into regular-season baseball even when only one game a week was on TV.)
It had something to do with the dawning idea that some things in life were cool but also uncool, that you could like them and make fun of them at the same time. Everyone I knew listened to “American Top 40” every week but everyone always made fun of the long-distance dedications — the thing Casey was ranting about up above — because they were so corny. We always had our little parody versions — We all thought the canine kidney transplant went well, but the next morning little Fluffy died in her sleep, and we’ve never been the same since… Casey, in honor of our little Fluffy, could you please play “Highway to Hell?”
But mostly, I think, it had something to do with fitting in. When I was little we listened to nothing but country in our house, and it took me years to get up to speed to what the other kids in school knew by heart. (I still remember hearing two classmates sing the break in “Black Water” and having NO idea what song it was.) This was a problem on many levels — I remember seeing everybody crowd around a kid with Nikes when I had never even heard of Nikes and had just recently found out about Adidas Stan Smiths, which of course by then were totally and completely out of style. When you’re 12, little stuff like that is somehow the most important information in the world, and I never felt like I was in on the conversation. Except for music. At that time — middle school, early high school — if you knew the Top 40 you could get by. And so I think what Casey Kasem gave me every week was comfort. One little part of my life where I wasn’t out of step.
Even back then, it wasn’t true that everybody was listening to the same music — I knew that from my country years. Now, of course, you can scan the iPods of your typical fifth-grade class and find everything from show tunes to Swedish death mental. We have access to more music, more movies, more clothes, more everything. I don’t miss the days when the Top 40 defined music. But I do miss getting out those notebooks every Sunday, drawing my little arrows, wondering what song was coming next, and what Casey would tell me about it. He helped me figure out the world, three minutes at a time.