Sunday, July 31, 2022

John Aielli Merges With the Infinite

If you ever lived in Austin, Texas, there's a strong chance you had stumbled across John Aielli's radio program, Eklektikos, on KUT - the public radio station operated out of the University of Texas.  

Aielli was famous for any number of idiosyncratic behaviors, and I swear to god, his show ran for what must have been 6-9 hours every day, Monday through Friday, for decades.  Aielli seemed utterly disconnected from how the world worked both inside and outside his studio, breaking into the middle of songs to make a comment.  Sometimes he'd stop a song and play a part over that he liked, or just take it off if he found it irritating.  He made comments that were so random, he became internet famous when KUT launched @ShitJohnAiellieSays.  

He had a certain turn of phrase that was magical and spontaneous, and always sounded like he thought of it beforehand when there was no way he could.  Just a real way with words.  And so, say it rained for the first time in a while, you might spend your commute listening to Aielli play songs about rain.  Hear him read a passage about rain, and wax rhapsodic about how this would be good for his garden, and all of us, deep in our souls.

Everyone in Austin has some story about the time they first heard Eklektikos - mine was when he played all zither-based Christmas music while I was driving around Austin back in college, and I couldn't believe he was still playing this stuff as I got in and out of my car running errands over the course of an hour or two. I tried to tell like three people about this crazy radio show I'd heard and folks just said "oh, yeah, that's Eklektikos".  Or, folks have a story about the time John Aielli's no-format format broke their brain.  Mine is when Aielli found what had to have been a dozen versions of the showtune Hernando's Hideaway from The Pajama Game and played them back to back.

He brought some friends on when their local band got what passed for traction back then, and then basically shooed them out immediately after playing, making it clear he did not care for their musical stylings.  Something those guys still laugh about.  They had a personal Aielli story!

Maybe 14 years ago Jamie and I went to see the lighting of the tree at the State of Texas capitol and "holiday stroll", which always begins with some joint caroling with your fellow Austinites.  Led by John Aielli, who seemed perplexed the unwashed masses there for some holiday cheer were not ready for actual choral direction.   

But we all listened.  Because you never knew what he would play, what he would say, and how any five minutes of the show in a row would progress.  In short - he was great radio.  He became a bit of a meme, but it's not clear he knew that.  People had bumper stickers that said “If you don't teach your kids about John Aielli, who will?”  He also played amazing stuff I'd never heard and never heard again.  The show earned its name.  He had an astute and astounding ear that he shared with us every day.  You know, mixing it up with dead air.  

Over recent years, he'd reduced his time to a couple of hours at drivetime, and then disappeared altogether.  I'd heard he wasn't well.  

After fifty years on the radio, we all felt like we knew him a bit.  He was part of what made Austin weirder, certainly, and feels like part of the fabric of a town that that's no longer really here.  A product of when Austin was a town and not a city, where you would, in fact, see people from TV or on the radio out and about.  You couldn't do what he did today in Austin if you had your own radio station.  I'll miss that special, perplexing blend he brought to the airwaves.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

No man telling a story about sewing in a new zipper during drive time can be ignored.