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My New Heaven

Would satellite radio be the expressway to L.A.'s secret heart, or the last exit?

December 17, 2006|Alan Rifkin | Alan Rifkin is the author of "Signal Hill: Stories" and a student in the MFA creative writing program at Cal State Long Beach.

JENNY WREN'S WOODED HAUNTS: It's January on the 710, maybe my first week with satellite radio, when I have an experience much more yesterday than today. A new song by Paul McCartney (Channel 75/Hear Music/"Jenny Wren") wins me over with its oddness. The swervy, just-so phrasing; the melody that offends your expectations, just slightly, the way certain special children do, so you never forget them; the rueful reeds that dip in and out of minor key. The playful shock of originality that once guaranteed a Beatles hit by shrugging off the whole definition of a "hit"--don't start me crying. All this in eerie, static-free, CD-quality closeness. The first surprise about satellite radio is the return of surprise.

With enough time, of course, I might eventually have found the same song on KLOS. (But not as easily as "Rock You Like a Hurricane.") And the billionaire Beatle may not be the darkest horse to champion on satellite radio. But he can still be symbolic of something. Because even if you don't know "Jenny Wren," you likely remember decoding "Yesterday" the first time you heard it, tracing its floating staircase, the winding Braille of its melody, too baroque a composition for a Beatles fan to dream in 1966, until suddenly it wasn't.

In the spell of such time travel, in fact, you could go further: You could sense, once again, the hidden L.A. that the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" period seemed to carry word of--that Motherland past the next range of hills, with stone walks and cabarets and canyon parties where lovers went off to sleep in the bath. There is a secret Thomas Guide tract--a missing page--to every unfamiliar song, just as there is a missing soundtrack to every secret place. And that's why, when listening to a strange new song on satellite radio--stuck in traffic, heading no place but work--I begin to feel that I could love the city again, or at least that I'm nearing the secret parts worth loving.

The reeds drowse, the melody resolves, and what I do next I might also have done in 1966: I look around at the other cars creeping along. I try to spot other shoulders swaying in time (at more than 170 channels, a quintessential long shot).

Failing that, I settle for basking. The only living boy in L.A.

HOW HAVING A NEW FAVORITE SONG CHANGES EVERYTHING: I start calling myself a "boy," to begin with.

It's worth remembering how rarely a Christmas gift winds up succeeding, even a gift you ask for, a gift you say you want. Because think of all the hope that's tied up in the idea of getting what you want, assuming you still dare to hope that a gift will make you happy; then the gift has to equal the size of hope. A gift as personal and intangible as music, my wife would usually leave me to buy for myself. But the satellite radio idea must have struck her as just practical enough: part gadget and part provision, balm for my long commute to the teaching job I took largely to please her.

With the gift barely unwrapped, I'd already entered the family-annihilating zone of children with new toys; Christmas had functionally ended. I weighed the nifty receiver in my hand and allowed myself a boy's excitement about having a thing you're entitled to spend time figuring out on your own, and I wondered: Would this work like the music system at Starbucks, where the baristas nudge a switch in the back room and hop lanes from Ray Charles to Hank Williams to Coldplay, each micro-groove a daydream in progress? Would it be like wearing some excellent blindfold and spinning a wayback dial, or did you type in unthinkable search terms (Basque-Yiddish-instrumental), like on the Internet, and get your wish?

Sadly, there were DJs. Maybe they weren't as intrusive as their commercial radio cousins, but the gods of XM must have flinched at the prospect of a no-host universe, so here they were again, weighing in with song information already displayed in the digital readout. Sometimes these voice-ins effected a bogus live rapport--beamed in, for all I knew, from Moscow or the moon or last Sunday. In this respect, Starbucks had the better system.

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