by Jack Lugo
December 15th 1987.
It was supposed to go off without a hitch. The armored truck was supposed to pull up in front of the drug store across the street at 7:03 am, and I was supposed to make sure to put the needle down on “Walking in the Rain” by the Ronettes. Then, Ronnie and Mikey were supposed to pull up from around the corner and steal the truck just as the guard walked inside the building with the bag. It was supposed to be smooth sailing, and I would get a 20% cut. I needed that money like you’ll never know. From the 2nd floor window of WQPZ, I spent many an early morning watching that same truck pull up in front of the drug store at the same exact time about 15 seconds before we came back from commercial and put on some dumb top 40 hit, but today was different. Today was all about requests, and so we were allowed to break format and play oldies as long as someone had called in to request them. Not all phone calls made it on the air though, and so even though no one had called in to request “Walking in the Rain,” I could just fib and say I got a call from “Roberta Farmer” who just wanted to hear that classic song that reminded her of her late husband – some nonsense like that – no one would know the difference. My program director, despite being a prick, let me have my way with the requests on most of these days. He was too busy tabulating what sequence of songs would get us the most ad revenue and as for these request days, well, they were a nice thing to do for the community but really nothing makes money like pounding the shit out of “Will You Still Love Me?” by Chicago followed by Kenny G’s “Songbird” into the ears of our listeners just before going to commercial when the real brainwashing would begin.
I didn’t get into this fucking business to play Kenny Fucking G and appeal to sponsors, who preferred our music to be “hip but safe” and “none of that hard crap.” Parents groups, news anchors, and fucking politicians have stuck their nose in where it doesn’t belong way too many times. I remember the pre-disco days back in the early 70s when music was alive, when we’d get the new Led Zeppelin album and played it for the first time and the music meant something. It spoke to us, and for a brief moment we could lose ourselves in those loud driving guitars, bass, and drums. We’d feel as immortal as Robert Plant must have felt belting out those songs as if nothing else in the world mattered. That’s why I wanted to do this. That’s why I became a disc jockey. I just wanted to bring that sensation to as many people as I could. Instead, I get paid $150 a week to tell corny jokes and act like I’m excited about some stupid duet between Peter Cetera and Amy Grant. I swear every time I play a Peter Cetera song, a little piece of my soul dies, and what’s worse is that I have to act like I’m into it while I intro the song, “Hey! This is Dan the Man with all your favorite Soft Rock Easy Listening tunes to brighten up your day, and now, here’s that incredible duet from 2 stellar voices. One of them hails from the band, Chicago. The other one grew up in Nashville singing Christian music. Here are the immensely talented voices of Peter Cetera and Amy Grant singing “The next Time I Fall.” I could almost feel the vomit rising up to the roof of my mouth just imagining myself having to intro that song again.
Ever just feel like you wasted the majority of your life caring about something that only ever mattered to you and no one else? Ever wake up one day to realize that your life has been nothing but wasted time working for shit pay just for the sake of paying your rent and paying your bills only to have nothing left in your pocket afterwards? This business I have chosen has done nothing but driven me to drink, gamble, and indulge in just about any vice that would enable me to escape from the hell and misery of my life. That’s why I needed this score to work out even though I never tried anything like this before. If it worked out the way we’d plan, I’d get square with my bookie, and still have enough left over to leave this shit town to start my life over somewhere else. I’d forget about my life in radio, find myself a quaint small town out of state, maybe try my hand at bartending once the money ran out, and perhaps charm my way into the life of a sweet young country girl. We’d save up, get a house in the woods one day, and I’d spend my days off writing songs for her singing about horses, cows, and pecan pie. She would worship me and maybe one day I’d confess my past life to her and she’d understand and maybe even sympathize with me. Then, we’d have a bunch of kids, grow old, and complain about the music our own kids listen to. Yeah, that would be the life wouldn’t it? Just thinking about it makes me regret all the time I squandered becoming a DJ, believing in the passion of the music I love, and wishing that this passion would spread like wild fire instead of petering out in the embers of the Adult Contemporary format. Instead of rocking out to Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and The Who, it’s become about politely bopping our heads to Lionel Richie and Kenny Loggins. The great rebellion was hijacked and morphed into some kind of family friendly one-size-fits-all merry-go-round that just keeps going round and round feeding the public insidious brain candy.
In this business you get to rub shoulders with some pretty shady types. That’s how I met Ronnie and Mikey. We all had the same bookie, and we all had a string of bad luck together. It’s amazing how a bad luck streak starts because at first you don’t think much of a bad loss, but then they just keep mounting. Then, I had to go double or nothing on my Tigers facing the Twins in the Playoffs, and that’s when it all went to shit. I was in a hole so deep I’d never get out of it, and once I couldn’t afford the vig anymore, I was all out of options. Sal could be an understanding guy for the most part, but once you’re in big to him, you either pay up or you end up with broken limbs. Then, when there’s nothing left to break and no amount of threatening could make the money appear, well then it’s . . . curtains I suppose. It’s usually fast and quick. One single bullet in your temple at close range . . . unless you do something to make him want to make you suffer. Then, you’re screwed. This guy, Marvin, a few years back owed Sal 50 grand and decided to leave town and move to fucking Wyoming in the middle of nowhere. He thought he could start over, and no one would ever think to look there. Well, all it takes is for one hint of your whereabouts to get to the wrong people, and then, you won’t even see it coming until it’s too late. Sal hired some sadistic fuck of a hitman to not only track Marvin down but to send a message to anyone who dared ever think about running on him. The guy captured Marvin, brought him to a secluded warehouse, and tortured him with a blowtorch. That’s why I knew I couldn’t just run off. These wise guy types have people everywhere. You think they can’t get to you in Wyoming? Guess what – they can and they’ll make sure you’ll regret ever even thinking about running.
The underground is everywhere there is to be in this world. You can try to live an honest life, but there’s no avoiding it. Ronnie and Mikey were good guys. They were almost ‘normal people’ considering where they came from. Both their fathers used to run numbers and pull off small jobs here and there. It was nothing to brag about, but growing up the way they did, that’s just how people made a little extra pocket money. No one ever thought it was a big deal, and they each worked regular construction jobs while pulling off a few stick-ups occasionally each year – a convenience store here, a gas station there. They’d run in with their ski masks and a pistol, and no shots ever got fired and for the most part, the clerks they were robbing cooperated, and when all was said and done no one ever got hurt. The places were all insured so what did it really matter anyway? It’s like Robin Hood – rob the rich to feed the poor and why not? I became friendly with them as soon as I arrived in town a few years back before the format change, back when things were looser. They’d request Frankie Valli or some Cream, and I’d play the obscure stuff they wanted to hear until eventually we’d end up at the bar every night after my shift.
I had the cozy 4 –midnight shift back then. It was great. I could sleep late all morning, wake up around 3pm, roll-in to work, play whatever tunes I like after 10pm when programing went out the window, and once my shift was over head out to Patti’s Bar out on Montcliff for drinks with my buddies til closing time. They’d give me shit for all the crap I played before 10pm, and we’d have a laugh and bash MTV while slugging Budweisers until it was time to go home and do the same thing over again the next night. Those were the days. Then came the format switch to Adult Contemporary, along with a new program director, and a switch to morning drive 6am-11am where there was no wiggle room at all on the playlist except for Fridays which were designated as Morning Drive Weekend Request Days. I’d answer the phone and 9 times out of 10, I’d get a request for a stupid song that we had already played a dozen times in the last 24 hours. That’s what happens when you let the public decide things. You think they’d want something different, maybe even something a little crazy, but no, these idiot box watching morons just want to hear the same 40 songs over and over again because it’s what comforts them.
No one wants to be challenged to think anymore, and maybe it’s not even about thinking anyway. Maybe it’s just that people prefer to experience the same “safe” emotions that these Easy Listening songs conjure. There’s nothing wrong with a soothing innocent love song I suppose, but what about lust and desire? What about the fury and rage of someone putting all that they are into music that’s meant to inspire people to live their lives as if they mattered? Do you have an unrequited love who you’re just crazy about but never had the guts to say anything to because maybe they’d reject you or maybe they’d think you’re some nut and never want to talk to you again? Well, the difference between the music I love and the music that they force me to play is that the music I love inspires you to make sure you tell that someone how you feel about them. The music they force me to play lulls you to keep daydreaming about that person until maybe one day they come to you and ask you out for dinner and a movie. The music I love inspires you to go out and find love or at least get yourself laid. The music they force me to play only teaches people to suppress and sugarcoat their desires.
For months, I sat looking out the window while the commercials played and watched that armored truck pull up in front of the drug store. The two fat security guards looked like bumbling fools wobbling in and out of the place to drop off whatever change denominations had been ordered probably stopping for some Burger King on their way to their next drop off. The routine was the same every Friday. The first guard (let’s call him Bert) would be behind the wheel and pull up right in front of the drug store’s entrance. Then, the 2nd guard (let’s call him Ernie) would get out of the truck on the other side with the bag that had been designated for this drop off. Ernie would usually take anywhere from 3-5 minutes (usually closer to 3) and get back on the truck and they pull off and get on their way. Well, for the last 2 weeks, it was just Bert by himself. Maybe Ernie got sick or went on vacation. Maybe Ernie fucking won the lottery and they hadn’t decided to give Burt a new partner yet who knows. Well, if Ernie used to move slow, Bert moved even slower. I suppose the reason Ernie would make the drop off was that Ernie was the least fat of the two guards and could get in and out quicker. These last few weeks, I watched Bert huff and puff each time he had to pull up by himself, grab the bag from whatever compartment it was kept in inside the van, and walk his bloated fat ass into the drug store to make the drop off each time leaving the keys inside the ignition with the car running and the driver’s window open. The thought occurred to me that someone could just run up and steal the truck with nearly no effort and come away with a big score.
I ran the idea past Ronnie and Mikey, and they both loved it. Ronnie couldn’t wait to try to pull it off, “It’ll be our biggest score ever. Dan, you’re a fucking genius!”
“Well, don’t count the money just yet. I don’t know if Bert will have a partner next Friday. Maybe Ernie will come back, or maybe someone new will be assigned to him.”
It was Mikey who came up with the plan that would set the heist in motion. He was slightly smarter than Ronnie, but that isn’t saying much, “You got a point there, Dan so this is what’ll happen. You’re going to watch for the truck to pull up from your window at the studio. If Burt is by himself again, then you play a specific song and that’ll be our signal. You play the song, then Ronnie pulls up next to the truck. I get out, take the truck and we both speed away. We’ll meet up by Jasper Hills once the coast is clear later that evening and split up the dough. Since Ronnie and me are taking on most of the risk here, let’s say we give you 20% as a finder’s fee and for giving us the signal to pull off the job.”
I figured 20% would probably be a good haul for me. I wasn’t looking to be wealthy for a lifetime. I just needed enough to get Sal paid off and start my life over somewhere else. I figured it’ll be enough to last me up to a year if I lived frugally and stayed at the most modest accommodations. I’d put some roots down and get to know people and eventually land a bartending gig or some kind of job to give the appearance of being a normal guy who’s just settled in from out of town. Of course I’d have to stick around Detroit for some time afterwards so that no one suspects my leaving had anything to do with the heist, but maybe in 4 or 5 months, I’d put in my 2 weeks and just drive off somewhere and wander around until I found some place I liked or more likely found some woman who liked me enough to make me want to stay.
So, the fateful morning came, and wouldn’t you know Burt was flying solo again. He pulled up at 7:02am and at 7:03am I could see him grabbing the bag with the keys still in the ignition. I rushed over and did a quick spiel about how “Roberta Farmer” requested The Ronettes’ classic “Walking in the Rain” in tribute to the fond memories of her late husband. Why “Walking in the Rain,” you might ask? Well, why not? I always loved Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” and the thunder at the beginning of the track always brought back the memory of my first love whenever I heard it. We were walking in the park one afternoon when we were each 14 years old when out of nowhere, a huge downpour started. My first impulse was to start running to get some cover since we were out in the open and quickly getting drench. Just as I started to run, she grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her kissing me firmly without yielding to the sound of the thunder in the background. If the lightning had struck me in that moment, I would have died a happy man. Maybe I should have died that day.
The sound of thunder came on at the beginning of the song as it always did and then the tambourines, then the background vocals, and for a moment I lost myself in the music until Ronnie Spector’s vocals began and I remember just what was supposed to be happening right outside. I rushed over to the window only to see Bert still sitting in the driver’s seat. He was supposed to be inside the drug store making his drop off, but instead, he was sitting in the driver’s seat bopping his head and singing along to his radio. The damn bastard was singing along to my song, the song I put on as the signal to Ronnie and Mikey to rob the fucking truck. I started yelling, “NOOOO!” at the top of my lungs, but of course no one outside would ever hear me. I rushed back to the turntable, scratched the needle off the record, and got back on the air attempting to sound calm yet clearly out of breath, “ Sorry, Roberta, it would seem as if we’re having some technical difficulties with the record right now. I’ll see if I can dig up another copy for you somewhere, but for now please enjoy, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley.”
I dropped the needle on that shitty record, and rushed back over to my window. I was desperately hoping that the guys heard me interrupt the record and aborted the heist. Somehow I knew, however, that I would have no such luck. Mikey and Bert were engaged in a brawl. He had just pulled Bert out of his seat on the driver’s side and I arrived at my window just in time to see Bert’s bloody face hit the pavement. I could tell Mikey was furious and that he was likely more furious with me than he was with Bert. Ronnie was in his blue Buik alongside the truck with nothing but a stunned look on his face. Just then I could see Mikey reach for something in his belt buckle. It was his pistol. I shouted from my window, “Mikey, don’t do it! Mikey don’t do it!” but just as soon as I finished, I could see the splatter of blood from Burt’s head on the pavement. A devious smile crossed Mikey’s face as he looked up towards me at my window. He pointed the gun at me and fired but missed my window entirely. I ducked and hurried back to my console as I imagined the sound of the truck and the car speeding off. A few minutes later I walked over to my window and saw the scene. Bert’s body lay flat faced down as the EMTs bent over him preparing him for a body bag.
I managed to get through the rest of my shift, but I knew it was only a matter of time before life as I knew it would end. Either Mikey or Ronnie would find me and kill me, or Sal would kill me for failing to come through on the next vig, or Ronnie and Mikey would get picked up and tell the cops I helped them plan it, or somewhere along the line this will catch up with me. I know it. Guys like me don’t get away with this kind of shit, and I was foolish to even think I could try. So, tmrw I drive. I get in my car and drive but not to Wyoming that much I could tell you. I’ll keep going until I run out of money or run out of gas. I’ll lose myself the sounds of the radio and relish in as much music as I can, and if I can’t find a decent station, I’ll put on my cassette tapes, and if I can’t put on my cassette tapes, I’ll play my guitar. I’ll do whatever it takes to escape this cruel reality however I can through music. Maybe, if I feel daring enough I may even call in a request, and maybe the DJ on the other end might feel just a twinge of sympathy for me. I won’t tell them that I’m one of them of course, but maybe they’ll just know it intuitively. I’ll hear the ringing as I hold the phone next to my ear and the radio feed through the slight static on the other end while I wait on hold. The DJ will say the call letters, and ask what I want to hear. I’ll just say, “Play me a love song, please – ‘Walking in the Rain’.”