On the completion of my Master’s degree at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was struggling to find a job. This was against the backdrop of a massive recession that the US was reeling under, around late 1970. I had rented a small room in a house owned by one Mrs. Huckabe in Houston. I would call up dozens of companies in the morning hours using the telephone instrument extension that the landlady had thoughtfully allowed me to use. Later in the day, I went around the industrial areas in my scrap-worthy 1961 Impala, from one company to another, listening to popular numbers on FM radio.
Although I was steeped in Indian music, some of the pop songs had grown on me and they gave me some solace as I went on my job hunt. The Carpenters was my favourite. The girl, Karen Carpenter, had a mesmerizing voice. Their most popular album was “Close To You’ – also my favourite song in that album. But buying the album was out of the question – I had no money to spare.
This radio station that I always had on in the car, KNUZ, used to announce a particular word every hour and would call some random people in the Houston area. If the person called by KNUZ knew the word of the hour, he or she would win US $ 1000 for being a faithful listener of the radio station. The word always registered in my mind, but what were the chances they would call ME, I thought as I drove around.
Finally, there I was on the last day of the year., down to my last dollar, despondent and weary. A tiny transistor radio that I had zealously saved from extinction, and a spool-to-spool tape recorder (which went on to record much of my favourite music including that of my Guru) that I had managed to buy on installments, were my lifelines. New Year’s eve, and I was in my room, wondering what 1971 would bring. KNUZ radio was on. The word for the hour was ‘honesty’. I kept the radio on, listening to the ‘American Top 40’ by a DJ called Casey Kasem. I like to think of it as the ‘Binaca Geetmala’ of the US.
As the countdown to the top five songs approached, around 11.45 pm, I had a brainwave. In the midst of the recession, my chances of getting a job soon were non-existent, I thought. I might never be able to afford to buy an album of my own. Here was an opportunity to record “Close To You” that I was sure would be No.1 or 2 on the radio show. I figured that this song would be aired just before midnight. And so I positioned my tiny transistor radio close to the microphone, set the tape recorder on standby to record and hoped to God the landlady’s grandchild – a precocious boy called Doug, who was at the house for the Christmas holidays – would stay away and not disturb me.
As midnight approached my heart was racing. This is it Raj, this is your opportunity to record the song you love most and that will stay with you in your tape recorder forever.
Everything ready, the transistor, the tape recorder – just waiting for the song to start. And sure enough, there it was, the penultimate song on the Top 40 – ‘Close To You’ by the Carpenters. I pressed ‘Record’. And held my breath.
Not for long. Halfway through the song, the telephone rang. “Not now, please stop”, I pleaded to the world and the gods in general.
But wait a minute, what if this was a call from KNUZ? Could it be? Why did I think of it? Why would they call me after all those months of weeks of silence, and why on earth would I get lucky anyway?
Perhaps it’s friends of the Huckabes, I told myself and turned my attention back to the radio and the tape that was faithfully recording the song. At the back of my mind, I hoped the phone would continue ringing so that I could find out who it was when the song ended.
Then suddenly it stopped ringing. The sound would now probably become part of the background music of ‘Close To You’ but that was alright. At least I had the song. Thank you God. The song ended, I hastily pressed ‘Stop’ and started dismantling the mini studio equipment.
There was a knock on my door, one, two, three, and then I heard the voice of Mrs. Huckabe’s daughter. “Raj, can I come in?” She came right in, unable to contain her excitement.
“Do you know some one from a radio station KNUZ called and asked if I knew the word for that hour?”
I froze. “ What did you tell him?”
“I just giggled and told him I had no idea what he was talking about and he promptly hung up.”
Oh my God, I thought, what a situation, what an injustice, and why me? Why? Why?
I sank into my chair and told her that I knew the word. In my anxiety of recording my favourite song, I had missed the opportunity to make a cool $ 1000. And here I was down to my last dollar. Why?
What a way to welcome the New Year. The $ 1000 would have been handy to survive the hard times that were to follow.
But, dear reader, music has a way of compensating for some of your worst tribulations, filling the gaps in your soul, keeping you going until you find the energy, the courage, to pick up your weary self, and learn to live again. There have been so many such instances in my own life, and I can’t not be grateful.
In this case too, after the KNUZ ‘honesty’ fiasco, my luck turned and I got a job the very next month. More about that and how music continued to follow me – all in the next few posts.
I have reneged on my promise to write more about my Guru and my meeting with him – but that is coming up soon in the next blog, I promise. Until then, I wish you joy, luck, courage, and of course plenty of music – hope it always stays “close to you”.