Jacking Off in Grandpa's Hat: A Story of Flint, Michigan

Apr 27, 2017

I recently watched a documentary made by Jim Baade, an old radio buddy of mine, and felt the need to write. Maybe because I came down with a fricking cold the day before writing this and my voiceovers were for crap. But also because something about Local DJ: The Story of Flint Rock 'n Roll is tugging at me. It’s the story of Peter C. Cavanaugh, a former boss of Jim’s and mine, and the important role Flint and Detroit, Michigan, played in shaping rock and roll itself.

The Story of Flint Rock ’n Roll

Pete's always been a larger-than-life character. Although I didn’t get to know him as well as many of my friends who’d arrived at WWCK before me—due to his assuming Vice President duties at the company's Toledo property shortly before I arrived, he landed back in Flint some years later, and we had the chance to meet up many times.

Peter C. Cavanaugh

In 2001 we exchanged several emails about his book, Local DJ, A Rock ’n Roll History. He thought I might enjoy reading the chapters as he wrote them. He was right. I knew Pete had a storied life, but in the abundance of these magnificent, rollicking accounts of his time in radio and in promoting concerts, I was in awe. And now the documentary is bringing it all back.

I was hired at WWCK in 1987 in the Afternoon Drive time slot: 2pm-6pm. It’s true I’d already worked at 8 stations prior to this, but it’s also true I was only 21. Unlike most of my friends, I’d never gone to college or broadcasting school. So I considered myself incredibly lucky to keep getting these radio gigs, and to nab the afternoon shift at such a prestigious station so young. And even though I was coming from their primary nemesis, WIOG in Saginaw, everyone was really welcoming to me.

Jonathan, 21 on WWCK

I would never have a better radio station experience. I’d worked at little stations, I’d worked at bigger stations, stations with a ‘corporate' atmosphere and one that was a trailer in a cornfield. But at WWCK there was a staff that was both talented, excited about doing cool, interesting things and willing to pitch in, brainstorm and work together. You could try like hell to create an atmosphere like this at a station and never succeed. I now see that the environment was an extension of Peter C’s spirit. One of boundless energy, a blazing love for the rock ’n roll that really grabbed people and a 'go big or go home' attitude. There were tons of stories about Pete and the earlier days, but the fact is it’s been 30 years, I was usually not there—and someone else can tell them better.

One of these days I’ll finally write about my having been born into the 3rd generation of an apocalyptic religious cult, and the experience of waking up. But what cracks me up tonight is realizing that I was still actually in that cult while working at WWCK. Yep: Kingdom Hall meetings three times per week, house-to-house preaching on Saturdays, spreading 'the good news of the kingdom by Jesus Christ,' and somehow still spinning Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin albums 6 days a week. Don’t quite know how, but it seems presenting myself as a pleasant and committed servant of Jehovah proved to dismiss any substantive concern over my possible concurrent service to Satan.

The Truth?

I also find an interesting contrast between that religion and the type of people I encountered in Flint. You see the congregants repeatedly refer to their organization as 'The Truth.' While I’ve no interest in using this space to debate such a thing, I’ll only share that, as my years within ticked by, it became harder and harder to confidently justify such a title. On the other hand I lived in Flint 18 years—by far longer than any other place—and I found typical Flintoids to possess a pretty uncommon brand of honesty. It was a blue-collar town, where people who put on airs were laughed at. Since most had fairly humble family backgrounds, they accepted it and saw no profit in acting like something they weren’t—knowing someone would almost certainly call them out. Not that a Flintoid wouldn’t lie in a given situation to save his skin. That would only be practical. It's more that his reputation among locals would be damaged if he was a bullshitter, but would improve the more plainspoken and grittily genuine he was.

I like Flint people for that.

I emailed Pete the other night, asking for his first memories of Flint, arriving as he did 23 years before me:

'It's hard describing how energized the town was in 1964 -- full tilt boogie at ramming speed. 'Highest paid factory worker' signals it all with the bulk of post-World War Two GM employees enjoying first generation wealth and social elevation at an unanticipated, almost unfathomable level. The high was historic. Thus -- the rapid descent from 'first' to 'worst' initiated in the late '70's was proportionately profound. What was once a prototype for Ronald Reagan's 'Shining City on a Hill' has now become a sad little town.’

Peter C. Today

And there you go. I wanted to write a sweet article, reminiscing about the Vehicle City. But if I’m going to be true to the aforementioned spirit, I can’t pretend Flint hasn’t been going through wildly difficult times since about the time I got there. Then again I’ll submit that it’s those tough times that made it what it is. That created the candor, formed the fortitude, spawned the spine.

So this looking back on it 'tugs at me' because the people in Flint feel a lot like family. When I lost mine (apart from my daughter) by leaving the family religion, I’ve occasionally found myself searching for a kind of surrogate clan. Candidates include those I grew up with in northeastern Michigan, those I traveled with for seven years in a weekend seminar gig, my Arizona cigar-puffing cronies, my anarchistic philosophical mind mates—but also prominently—those with whom I stumbled through a radio career, who saw me at my absolute best and worst, helped me launch a career in voiceovers and who wouldn’t hesitate to tell me what they really think: that’s Flintoids.

Cheers to the Flintoids

So although I haven’t had a pizza at the White Horse, a burger at The Torch or a pitcher at Churchill’s in years, tonight I'm sipping a wild mezcal in my central Mexican town and toasting my pals from Flint. People like Jimmy, whose brother once jacked off in their grandpa’s hat. And he was okay sharing this. Jeff, who was the quintessential rock radio voice, planted pumpkins and made pies. Kelly, who used to short sheet his grandma’s bed as a prank. Chad, who goes by Fido, kicks ass on the drums and is a world-class conversationalist. Andy, who has jaw-dropping artistic talent and actually stole a damn house right out from under me. Pete, who once shipped a masturbating chimpanzee to a friend. Cindy, who had Mastiffs so big she could ride them. And Matt, who played death metal guitar and had a pet pig named Hymie Horkheimer. A couple dozen others too.

I hope you have people like this in your life. If not, or if any of this sounds good—and certainly if you have any connection to Flint, do yourself a favor and watch Local DJ: The Story of Flint Rock 'n Roll. Next chance I get, I’m watching it again.