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Mary Turner

The Lefsetz Letter: Mary Turner

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“Mary Turner, pioneering KMET disc jockey who ruled L.A. rock radio, dies at 76”:

She e-mailed me a few times, very nicely in fact, which can be a rarity amongst those who have been there and done that. And I never met her, but I know her.

Every L.A. rock fan does, those who were listening to the radio during the heyday of classic rock, after all, she was the Burner, Mary Turner. I just read in the above obit that Peter Wolf gave her that moniker, I thought someone else had thought it up, but the story rings true, because Mary Turner had credibility, as one of the few women working in a man’s world, FM rock radio.

Oh, in New York there was Alison Steele, the Nightbird, on WNEW-FM, she started when the station was the city’s answer to KSAN in San Fran, back when WNEW was still a progressive station, but I moved to L.A. in ’74 and I was confronted with an FM dial much deeper than not only the one in New York, but anywhere else I’ve ever been. There were five rock stations, but Mary Turner worked at #1, the Might Met, KMET, 94.7, I don’t think I can ever forget not only the call letters, but the station number.

This was a different era. This was before Reagan legitimized greed. This was back when you could pay all your bills on minimum wage, and you lived for rock and roll, the music was everything.

It wasn’t like today, where you can miss something, find out after the fact a band you’re into played in town. You see the stations fought to be a show’s partner, and when they were they promoted ad infinitum. All you needed was the radio, it was the tribal drum, it told you everything you needed to know.

All the clichés, this is when they were fresh, like Two-fer Tuesdays, and Rocktober. Yes, someone came up with those and it was an innovation, you looked forward to them. Today classic rock is a calcified format, and KMET no longer exists.

You see KMET never got the memo, or if it did, it ignored it. The music was changing. KROQ was playing Soft Cell and the Human League in Top Forty rotation. The sound was new, and different, and it resonated with the listening audience. KMET eventually picked up these tunes, but it was too late.

KROQ still exists, up the dial at 106.7. But KNX, the soft rock station, 93.1, that’s long gone. As is KWST, the Led Zeppelin station, which played harder rock, at 105.9. And the last classic rock station standing is KLOS, 95.5, which was right next to KMET on the dial, but it was for those who weren’t in the know, it took fewer risks, it was not as hip, you turned to the station when KMET was in commercial, but it was not a regular listen.

Like KMET.

Alison Steele was cooler than we could ever be. But Mary Turner was one of us, who graduated to the airwaves. And in an era wherein it was a joke that the deejays didn’t look like their voices, Mary was blonde and beautiful, she was an L.A. icon, talking to us on the radio, spinning our favorite records.

And she did no shtick, she was neither a Top Forty deejay nor part of a Morning Zoo, she respected the music, which she was knowledgeable about, she was into it as much as we were, it was more than a job, it was a calling.

Eventually, Mary graduated to syndication. And then she married the syndicator, Norm Pattiz, who founded Westwood One. Norm was completely different from Mary, a visionary and a hustler. He called me into his office to offer me a show at PodcastOne, but as Irving would say, it was an eat what you kill deal, and that’s not the kind you want to sign. But as Norm was showing me to my seat in his office, the first thing he told me was that Mary was a big fan. He ultimately said he wasn’t sure about me, but Mary believed in me, and that was enough.

Now Mary was not the only legendary deejay in Los Angeles. But she was at the pinnacle. I just saw her obit on my phone and I was shocked, I went numb, that’s how much of a place she had in the firmament, in my heart and mind and those of the rest of the listeners. There she was, on a regular basis, same slot every day, maybe not on weekends, but you could count on her, she was there for you.

Radio wasn’t an appointment, it was a religion. It wasn’t just records and inane patter, KMET took a stand against paraquat, the scourge of youth society back in the day. You see they were spraying it on marijuana in Mexico, before everyone called it cannabis, when it was still dope, and the strong Mendocino strands were just becoming available. It was us versus them. Little did we know so many of us would become them.

Not everybody. You can see the lifers at the show, at the vinyl record stores, with their scraggly hair and their faded rock t-shirts. They never stopped believing, but they were left behind economically. Turned out the music might save your soul, but it won’t put bread on your table.

And then there are those who weren’t there and now wear motorcycle jackets to the shows and buy all the merch. We can see right through those people. It shows. If you leave early. If you don’t know all the songs.

Going to a show was not a celebration, it was akin to your record collection. The acts toured when they had new albums, which you purchased before the show, memorized and then went to hear live, knowing that most of the songs would never be played in concert again.

Radio, records, shows… That was our culture. Movies too, but not TV, except for maybe SNL. Once upon a time Lorne Michaels wasn’t full of himself, the grand pooh-bah, rather he was trying to bring the youth audience back to TV, late at night, when they were available, with a show that was hip in a way that TV had never previously been. It was beyond funny, the show had an attitude, cultural impact. It was the seventies version of “Laugh-In,” but with credibility. You watched and then you talked about it, ad infinitum. Mr. Mainway? John Belushi as the samurai? They were bigger than today’s musicians, because they were authentic in a way no one is today. Because they knew that money was second to cultural impact, and the way you wove yourself into the fabric of society was by being innovative and true to yourself, they were our heroes.

We had many heroes. And the only ones who were rich were the musicians. Because if you were a successful musician in the seventies, you were as rich as anybody in America. And selling out was anathema.

Mary Turner greased the skids. She turned us on to new music, she accompanied us in our cars, we even played the radio at home.

I can’t detail everything she did because the job of a deejay is to be dependable, there at a finger’s touch, to deliver, to keep you dialed-in, not changing the channel.

That’s who Mary Turner was.

How weird is it that Norm died back in December, and now Mary is gone too. Norm died at 79, Mary at 76. Mary’s listeners think they’re forever, but the Big C rarely loses the battle. And it could hit you when you least expect it.

The era is closing, body by body. The heroes of yore are dropping on a regular basis. They’re gone.

But we remember.

I remember Mary Turner.

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