Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Farewell, Casey Kasem

I used to listen to American Top 40 on Sunday afternoons. I mean, actively listen, tracking with rapt attention which songs wound up where in the countdown. Since people were still wearing bear skins and using stone knives, we lacked the internet to provide us such sacred information. I had to rely on Casey Kasem. I was really passionate about American Top 40, from the glee of my favorite record moving up the countdown to my ire when “that song I hate” made #1.

The best way to describe the appeal of Casey Kasem’s voice was it was suffused with warmth and humanity. Casey did not employ the basso profundo “voice of God” that a lot of DJs used. He did not use silly voices and he did not shout or scream at his listeners. Instead, he talked to his listeners and not as an homogenous group but as individuals. He told stories about the artists on the countdown.  Casey’s voice was comforting but he was never boring. His voice conveyed that he was happy to be there and share music and stories with you.

One of the features of American Top 40 was “The Long Distance Dedication”. Casey would read a letter from a listener who wanted or even needed a message in song to go out to someone important but far away. This was Casey Kasem at his most sincere best. Someone had laid their heart out in a letter and Casey had an important trust to deliver those feelings across the airwaves. 

I suppose the appropriate thing would be to cite an example of one particularly heartfelt story that touched me deeply. But that’s not in my nature. Sorry. Instead I want to share a rather…awkward Long Distance Dedication that Casey once delivered.

The letter was from the parents of a little girl who were happy that she was still alive and grateful to the hospital staff who saved her life. As best as I can recall, the family was travelling when their daughter began having trouble breathing. She was rushed to the hospital where things were touch and go for a while.  Eventually, however, the skill and dedication of the trained medical professionals were able to help the young girl breathe again and saved her life. So the parents wanted to send a Long Distance Dedication to these brave and resourceful people: “Every Breathe You Take” by The Police.

Yeah, the Police song about the stalker.

While Casey Kasem the radio DJ may not have been a silly voice guy, the man did use different voices in his work in animation, most notably as Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo cartoon series. I can do a somewhat passable Shaggy impression; granted I have to say “zoinks” about every 3rd word to stay in character. But I was impressed that the warm and sincere voice of American Top 40 was also the voice of the leading pothead of Saturday morning TV.  Casey also voiced Robin the Boy Wonder for Super Friends. Cool! 

The saddest part of Casey’s last days was the drama that was churned up between Casey’s wife Jean and his children by his previous marriage. Casey was by all accounts in very poor, declining health. He had quietly exited the stage, curtailing public appearances and voice work bit by bit until he was just gone. He wanted to live out what was left of his life in peace and dignity, away from the eyes of the public. Instead, his dying days were spent in the middle of media circus of family dysfunction gone horribly, horribly wrong. It is a cautionary note about how sadly our fates, our destinies are out of our hands, particularly as we grow older and more dependent on others. When I heard of Casey Kasem’s passing, I was sad but even more so relieved. I believe that in the end, Casey was suffering very badly and now that suffering is at an end.

On those Sunday afternoons as I hung out by the radio listening to Casey’s voice count down the hits and share his stories, that time together would not end until the last notes of that week’s #1 song had faded and Casey made his closing remarks. He ended with a statement every week that was at once practical and inspiring. “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Better advice I cannot imagine being given. It was a message of keep your head together and do what’s right but don’t forego your dreams and aspirations. Get things done and then look to what you can do next.
Thank you, Casey, for keeping me company on those Sunday afternoons so many years ago. Thank you for helping so many listeners to keep their feet on the ground but reminding us to be more, to keep reaching for the stars.  

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