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Is this thing on? Hair Man.

Freaky Frequencies

Six days a week, mad-scientist WRPI volunteer DJ Harmando is there to take you through

By Josh Potter

When the record comes to an end, Hair Man scrambles. He dashes to the corner, snatches up his acoustic guitar and lands back in his seat at the operating console in time to punch the microphone on. There’s a sticker covering the red “On Air” light, so when the radio DJ starts his monologue, the light reads “On Drugs.” Any listener just tuning in would have guessed as much.

“Yeah, yeah, man. I don’t want to hear about it, man. I’m just not in the mood,” he rambles over an improvised guitar part. “You’re listening to nifty 91-fitty, WRPI, Troy. The Upstate Underground . . . that sounds terrible.”

He stops abruptly to shift the capo up the neck, then resumes his ponderous finger-picking. “Ah, well, I was just talking to a gentleman on the phone about a car part. Big shout-out to Steve—and all the automotive people who keep us on the road. I don’t like that position; let’s change that position.” He shifts up again. “Hey, so, you know, if you’ve got a friend that doesn’t know what they’re doing—they have no idea, well. ‘Hair Man, just get the public service announcement out of the way,’ ” he says in a high, pleading voice, then in a low stentorian, “ ‘Hair Man, you better tell ’em, well, it’s their choice but—.’ ” Then back to his original voice: “Oh, I remember now. If you’ve got a friend that’s getting into a car and they’ve been drinking, they’ve been smoking, or whatever they’re imbibing, tell ’em it’s no time to be playing with cars, trucks or automobiles. Actually it’s no time to be doing anything at all, ha ha ha. Public service brought to you by . . .” And with a flick of his wrist, he cues up Sun Ra’s Live at Montreux on the turntable.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he laughs, putting the guitar down. “When I say that, I really mean that. I’m amazed they even let me do this.”

The 63-year-old smiles out from a stringy white beard and mane of hair held back by a bandana and befitting his pseudonym “Harmando” (pronounced Hair Man Doo). It’s the name his friends, listeners and the cadre of WRPI student DJs know him by, so he’s reluctant to spoil the enigma. And it’s just as well; Harmando isn’t some kind of calculated alter ego, a zany character assumed while the microphone’s on and later discarded. Barefoot, with long Nike shorts and a Grateful Dead hoodie on, Hair Man does what he does because he clearly loves what he does. Broadcasting six days a week, the volunteer DJ virtually lives in the basement of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Darrin Communications Center, among the endless stacks of vinyl. Tune in anytime when a student isn’t manning the board, and you’re likely to hear the Hair Man holding court, improvising public service announcements about drunk driving and forest-fire prevention, and spinning the widest, weirdest range of music you’re likely to hear on the radio.

“I don’t plan anything,” Hair Man says. With the music playing, he bolts out of the booth, dashes down the studio’s poster- and sticker-spangled hallway, and into the vinyl library to dig. “I play a lot of basketball and I don’t see this as that different from basketball because you have to kind of make it up on the fly.”

Thumbing through album covers, he tries to explain the way the music library is organized, the orientation of the sheathes indicating how recently something has been played, but finally just breaks into laughter. “I love this system. I hope nobody ever straightens it up.” When RPI built the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, WRPI was invited to move into the
multimillion-dollar facility, an offer they ultimately declined because there wouldn’t be space for the station’s extensive vinyl collection. For now, the station continues to operate on a student-run basis from the communications center basement, where it’s been since the ’70s, broadcasting from an analog transmitter in East Greenbush.

“This isn’t bullshit,” Hair Man says, suddenly serious. “I talk about this on the air, and it still happens. When I first started doing this on my own, albums would literally fall off the shelf. I know it sounds insane, but I believe in magic. An album would fall on me, and I’d say, ‘Maybe I should take a look at this.’ I’d put it on and the phone would start ringing off the hook. I think I needed much more help from whatever it was—the universe—when I first started out.”

A similarly serendipitous moment comes when Hair Man gambles on an album called Electronic Music From the Outside In by Priscilla McLean, a musique concrète tutorial so inspiring that he stops mid-sentence to hop on the faders and live-edit bits of an early-’90s hip-hop beat into the track of tennis balls striking piano strings.

“I don’t have a clue what I’m doing,” he says, lying politely.

Hair Man has been experimenting with radio since he was 7 years old and his brother brought home a half-watt AM transmitter. Growing up in New Jersey, he’d stay up late at night listening to Cousin Brucie play rock & roll on WABC, and spend his days broadcasting to the neighborhood from a wire antenna attached to a tree. “I never try to emulate Cousin Brucie,” he says. “People call me up and tell me about crazy DJs, but I end up doing the same thing I was doing as a kid in the basement, just making it up. I don’t copy anybody, but I copy everybody.”

Hair Man first got involved with WRPI in the mid-’80s, after receiving a graduate degree in humanities from Harvard. He started playing water polo on an RPI club team while working locally for the Department of Child and Family Services. Any club run through the RPI Student Activities Department is open to the community, including WRPI, and it was only a matter of time before he got involved with the station. When he retired in 2004, he got involved with the show HomoRadio and eventually got his own Sunday slot.

“Then I kind of got addicted to it,” he admits. “That summer there was a lot of gray space on the schedule and I said, this sucks, and started coming in.” Now he’s a fixture. Hair Man records every one of his shows on CD and listens back to almost all of them. “Everyday I come in, I’m learning,” he says, confessing that the student DJs and callers are constantly turning him on to new music and helping him make the show better. He has countless analogies to describe his intuitive, free-form style: It’s like “making a painting” or “driving down the road, avoiding traffic.” He even considers his radio show to be an extension of his spiritual practice of Reiki. “This may sound weird,” he says, “but, in a small way, it’s an attempt to promote health, happiness and well-being.”

When someone calls in to inquire about the McLean record and request he play more, Harmando is glad to oblige. “Big love,” he tells the caller, and turns to cue up another track.


ROUGH MIX

Rough Mix

OUT OF THE WOODS This was hinted at in last week’s Rough Mix, and now we have the official word: Sean Rowe has signed to might-as-well-be-a-major label ANTI- Records. The California-based label has set Feb. 22 as the release date for the reissue of Rowe’s 2009 Collar City Records disc Magic. This is huge news for the Capital Region troubadour: He’s joining a talent roster that already includes Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Joe Henry, Mavis Staples, Billy Bragg, the Frames. . . . I could go on. Rowe will be touring through most of 2011 in support of Magic, which unfortunately means there won’t be any new music from him for a little while—but in light of such an announcement, we can cut the guy a little slack.

GO GET IT Somebody out there knows how we handle deadlines. Wednesday morning brought a matter-of-fact e-mail from local musician and promoter Andrew Sullivan, announcing a new band and album from Brent Gorton, followed by the phrase “free download.” And we’re passing the savings on to you, dear reader: Go to brentgorton.com/
betterpills.html to grab I Hope You Feel Better in Heaven, the debut EP from Better Pills. Gorton is joined in the new project by Dead Friend members Sullivan and Phil Pascuzzo, with the singer dropping his native guitar in favor of a cranky-sounding synthesizer, giving the six minimalist indie-rock tunes an extra layer of good-creepy. And, again, it’s free.

GOSPEL GUMBO Producer and musician Jack Maeby left Albany 25 years ago to pursue his career in New York City and, now, Los Angeles. But he’s returning to the Capital Region this weekend to celebrate the release of Spirituals, the new record by his latest band, Little Faith. The project seeks to connect the African-American spirituals of the 1800s with 20th-century “Americana” sounds like bluegrass and New Orleans R&B. A host of excellent musicians played on the album, but Maeby’s top-flight organ playing is at the center of it all. Over the years Maeby has played alongside and/or produced everyone from Carly Simon to the late, great Solomon Burke; he’ll lead Little Faith into the Bayou Cafe in Albany on Saturday. More info at jackmaeby.com.

NOT FORGOTTEN Country-blues and folk musician Tom Winslow passed away in late October of complications from a stroke, it was reported last week. Winslow moved to upstate New York in the early ’60s and became a member of Pete Seeger’s band, as well as the crew of Seeger’s boat, the Clearwater. (He recorded the song “Hey Looka Yonder (It’s the Clearwater)” for his 1969 solo debut album.) In recent years he could be seen performing regularly at the Troy Farmers Market in addition to his yearly engagements at Caffe Lena. His voice and presence will be missed.

BLAH BLAH Ralph Renna has been one busy man as of late. He just unveiled a major concert series under his Capital Underground Live banner, and now he’s announced a new album from his band, Black John Wayne. Serenade of the Black and Blues, recorded at Albany’s North Sea Studios with producer Brett Portzer, is due in early 2011. It’s the first full-length featuring 13 songs from this group of Troycore vets, and that recognizable sound is present—but, says Renna, they’re “not afraid to break the mold they all helped shape in the 1990s.” Hear for yourself when the band play Northern Lights on Nov. 27.

—John Brodeur

Let us know about local-music news and happenings for inclusion in Rough Mix: E-mail tips and information to tigerpop1@yahoo.com or metroland@metroland.net.



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