In the Basement

“That’s where it’s at,” Etta James once sang in a tune extolling the virtues of taking the party downstairs. There’s no cover, no one checks your ID and you can dance however you want since there’s “no one under you.”

At WXXI, the “it” factor is different than what Etta had in mind. The basement here is full of metal shelves and dusty cardboard boxes of audio tape. There are rows and rows of reel-to-reels: a whole section of City Sounds, another for old RPO broadcasts, dozens of Fascinatin’ Rhythm programs and who knows what else.

Nowadays everything’s stored on computer. It’s all ones and zeros, called up with a few mouse clicks. You can listen instantly, zip to any point and edit with precision, removing the sound of a breath if you want. In the basement though, that same task would feel like an archaeological dig. You’d need picks and trowels and brushes.

I was digging through my own personal accumulation of stuff last weekend. I found love letters and old LPs, drawings and photos...and comic books. I rarely think about them today but when I was a kid, the stories of Daredevil and the X-Men and the Avengers occupied a big part of my imagination. If the recent glut of superhero movies annoys you, I'm the demographic to blame.

Except for the haircut, the boy on the cover of David Hajdu’s new book could be me. “The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America” is archaeology of a sort. It brushes the dust away from a largely forgotten time when comic books were the single most popular form of entertainment, one that alarmed parents well before Elvis. Congress got involved. Laws were passed. Bonfires were lit. Careers were ruined. In the appendix, there’s a long list of artists and writers that were affected by the backlash. Industry legend Jack Kirby fared much better than most. Among other achievements, he went on to help create The Fantastic Four, a group that figures prominently in the first scene of “The Ice Storm.” The 1997 Ang Lee film opens in the wake of the title event, showing a dark and motionless commuter train coming back to life. A passenger named Paul Hood, played by Tobey McGuire, reads his comic book and narrates…

“In issue 141 of The Fantastic Four, published in November 1973, Reed Richards has to use his antimatter weapon on his own son, who Annihilus has turned into a human atom bomb. It was a typical predicament for the Fantastic Four because they weren't like other superheroes; they were more like a family. And the more power they had, the more harm they could do to each other...without even knowing it.”

A few years later, Tobey got firsthand experience with that problem in the role of Spider Man. Peter Parker’s extraordinary powers put the one girl he really loves in terrible danger. So he gives her up. He packs up his feelings and puts them in storage. But, since it’s a movie, you know it’s just a matter of time before he finds the box and rips it open. Of course, there’s nothing so dramatic sealed up downstairs at WXXI, just scripts and rundowns and playlists…and miles and miles of audio tape. You can almost hear the echoes. There are endless hours of voices, breaths drawn out of thin air, magnetized.

There’s a trick I learned. Maybe you know it. Two people stand really close, mouths almost touching. One person exhales, blowing slow and steady, while the other person forms words, as if lip-synching. No one speaks out loud but you can hear the message anyway.