Ping pong ping. Drops of water in a tin cup. Pong pong ping. A church organ from hell shatters the calm. Da da da da da-daa da da! It’s late at night; your radio knob’s tuned to the left side of the dial. A baby cries. A chicken clucks. A cat meows. And then the voice rumbles through your speakers like an approaching thunderstorm.
“Once upon a you-know-what . . .” it begins, in a rich, echoing whisper.
Ping pong ping
“. . . old as now it was
“. . . came a crowd of wonder why . . .”
Pong pong ping
“. . . looking for because . . .”
Philosophical meditations. References to Aquinas and angels dancing on the head of a pin. Images of chicken-brain operations, of waking up inside an alarm clock. Cut-and-paste poetry culled from Eliot, Joyce, and Dylan Thomas.
The images are the brainchildren of Ken Nordine, veteran Chicago voice-over and host of Word Jazz, heard at midnight Mondays on WBEZ, 91.5 FM. Nordine, who’s 70, has worked in radio since 1938 and intends to stay there into the 21st century. But then, it seems like he’s been working in that century for years.
Perhaps incongruously, the otherworldly projects of Ken Nordine come into being in a large house on a quiet street corner on the north side of Chicago. Nordine lives and works in a mansion in Edgewater. His keyboards, stacks of audiotape, and racks of sound effects can be found in the studio/playground on the top floor. And in every room there’s something odd–computer-generated drawings, quotes from Kafka on the walls, abstract art, a huge road sign Nordine swiped from the side of a highway.
Nordine is able to live in this luxurious toy store because of the fortune he’s earned as a voice-over. You’ve heard him as the voice of the Chicago Film Festival, of First Chicago bank, of Levi’s, of Magnavox, of Taster’s Choice, to name a few. He’s probably most familiar from those Chicago Blackhawks commercials: “The puck is coming at you at a hundred miles per hour. . . . The guts. The grace. Cold steel on ice.”
Nordine can pick and choose among voice-over projects; he says he likes the assignments that give him some creative input. This work pays the bills. It allows Nordine to disappear into his studio and indulge his peculiar whims.
“You’ll enjoy watching the mischief we cook up in here,” says Nordine as his engineer, Joel Fox, listens to sound effects. Nordine is glancing over a copy of a script and stalking around his studio.
“What should we tell the agency?” Fox asks.
Nordine grunts loudly as he looks at the script in his hand.
This afternoon, Nordine has received a script for a commercial for an amusement park. The ad agency people just want him to read the script as is, and then they’ll see if they want to work with him. He’s not exactly thrilled about it.
“This has all the creative input of a parrot,” he says, waving a copy of the script. He tosses it aside.
“Just send them one of our old tapes,” Nordine says. “If they want to work with us, fine. There’s no point in just doing a half-baked job on this script.”
Joel Fox goes out in the hallway to find a tape to send the ad agency, and Nordine picks up a copy of another script, a script that he wrote. “This is what I want to work on now,” he says, and pencils in a couple of revisions. He sits facing a microphone and clears his throat into it. The needles on the monitors leap into the red.
Nordine grew up in Chicago. His father was an architect who helped design some of the buildings at the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair. He says his mother was quite religious. She made him ad-lib sermons for her.
In the heyday of radio, when Norman Corwin and Orson Welles and Arch Oboler were heard in households across the country, Ken Nordine was a student at the University of Chicago. He started a radio club there and got a job at WBEZ working the mimeo machine. (Back then, WBEZ’s programming was strictly for the public schools.) After graduation, he worked as an announcer at small stations in Bay City, Michigan, and West Palm Beach, Florida, before returning to Chicago.
He worked as an announcer at WBBM and occasionally acted in radio theater. He performed under a variety of pseudonyms. He recalls being Michael Scott on Michael Scott Presents, Ken Conrad on a variety show sponsored by Wieboldt’s, Eric Lander on some other program.
“It got a little schizophrenic,” Nordine remarks.
Around 1960, he showed up on a live late-night show called Faces in the Window on Channel Five. Nordine would be seated in a dimly lit room, reading works by Dostoyevski and Poe. “We’d get the lights so low that there wasn’t enough light to activate the tube, and we would slowly bring it back. We weren’t interested in good picture quality; we were interested in effects,” says Nordine.
While Nordine was becoming a successful Chicago radio personality, he was already working on any number of oddball projects that gratified the quirky side of his personality. He says he’s always been a practical joker. The little boy who recited sermons for his religious mother also once cut a hole in his Baptist minister’s boot so that the boot would fill up with water when the minister entered the baptismal pool.
“I’ve done mischievous things on the air,” Nordine says, recalling the time he got fired from a Bay City show called Heat Wave.
“The idea was I would get two records and play them at the same time,” Nordine says. “If you could tell the two titles, you’d get two tickets to the Bijou theater on the corner. So I’d have this cacophony going out on the air. It was not appreciated . . .
“When I first started out, I had to sign off on a little station in West Palm Beach,” says Nordine, “and after midnight, they’d play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and sign off. Well, I asked the engineer if we could leave the carrier on and I’d put on little sounds like doves cooing: ‘Ooo! Ooo!’ Or knocking on a hollow door and the door screeching open. I figured that somebody would be sitting in a room and they’d hear this. My high school physics teacher once told me that after I signed off, he heard the transmitter cooling off. That was the night I put the doves on.
“This is kind of like an adult kindergarten,” remarks Nordine as he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. He stands, script in hand, and walks into the control room where Joel Fox is poised, ready to roll and tape.
“See if you can find some music that would be really strange,” he tells Fox, who scurries over to a collection of recordings.
Nordine has three sons who all work in aspects of audio or video production. Two of them, Chris and Ken Jr., are sitting in the studio, watching their father’s recording session.
“Hmmm,” the elder Nordine says to Fox. “What can we do here that would be really strange?”
His sons smile at him. “If you want to work with Dad, you have to read his mind,” Chris says. “Sometimes we wish there was a trapdoor in his brain so we could climb in and see what was going on.” Meanwhile, Fox is playing possible musical numbers, trying to read Nordine’s mind.
“Today, what I want to do is to try and have a conversation with a tired, disinterested God,” says Nordine, nodding approval at a particular snatch of music. He straps on a set of headphones and Fox twirls and flips buttons and switches, filling this home studio with the booming, quivering tremolos of Nordine’s voice.
“OK, we’re ready to roll in here,” barks Fox. A free-form jazz piece tinkle-tinks through the speakers and sends the sound meters into the red.
“Hold on one sec,” Fox says as he whirs the tape into rewind.
“That’s an excellent strange groove,” Nordine bellows, “and we’ll go into the end with a little chuk-a chuk-a.”
“All set,” Fox says, and the music starts up again while Nordine consults his script. “This will be about a five-minute Word Jazz piece,” he says.
In Word Jazz, the pieces of Nordine all fit together. His practical joking, his voice-over work, his philosophical studies at the University of Chicago, and his affinity for strange sound effects all contribute to these half-hour, free-form radio shows.
Nordine started Word Jazz more than 25 years ago for WBBM. The original producer was Bruce Swedien, who would move on to greener pastures and do production work for Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, among others. “The premise was quite simple,” says Nordine. “You had a musician who could play all sorts of different instruments. He could play drums, he could play flute, he could play piano, vibes, marimba, all of these funny sounds. Bruce would be in the control room and he would be recording everything on the fly. And I would be in the booth here with books. I had cookbooks, the Merck Manual, anything, old papers, scientific treatises.
“The show would begin and I would say, ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ And out in the studio, he’s playing the flute or the organ and Bruce would have wind sound effects going behind it and I’d say, ‘Well, I was thinking about God the other day.’ And at that time, Bruce would change the atmosphere and so, instead of wind, there’d be chickens clucking. And then I’d react to the changes in the background and I’d talk about Aristotle and whether he ever ate eggs. Then I’d pick out a cookbook and maybe get a strange recipe for eggs Benedict or some strange eggs with truffles out of Escoffier. In those days, I used to drink beer. I’d have a six-pack during the first show and we’d do five shows in five hours, and by the fifth show I was a little looser.”
A couple of times Nordine performed word-jazz shows live at a place called the Offbeat Room near his house. The shows were a success, Nordine says, but he stopped them because the strain of doing live performances along with all of his other work was more than he could handle.
In the early 80s, Nordine was commissioned by National Public Radio to produce 65 Word Jazz shows. Most NPR outlets that carry Word Jazz just rebroadcast these old programs, even though Nordine’s still producing new ones. He’s also released several Word Jazz albums over the years. One of them, Stare With Your Ears, was nominated for a Grammy Award.
These days, the show is not quite as serendipitous as it used to be. Nordine works a great deal with computers and prerecorded music. Even after he’s recorded a Word Jazz monologue, he’ll record additional thoughts over it, questioning what he has just said. He may even record over that, questioning his own questions.
“It’s triple-talk,” Nordine says. “You can take an antagonistic attitude, pooh-poohing what you were saying, or you can almost become obsequious to what you said the first time. Or you can clear your throat, and that too creates a certain tension.
“When I do a show, I don’t know where I’m leading. If you knew where you were leading, sometimes maybe you wouldn’t want to go there.”
Nordine says Word Jazz challenges its audience by re-creating the logic of dreams. “The mind will justify the strangest leaps from one subject to another,” he says. “You can say, ‘Where were we?’ and then you can get on a whole different topic, like the nature of time. How long is a second? How many billion nanoseconds are there in a second? Then, you can talk about what time is.
“I hope the audience will say, ‘That’s how my mind works.’ I think the way I think is the way everybody thinks. We all move from idea to idea and there isn’t necessarily a logical link that you can see.
“I remember watching the space-shuttle landing on television. They had infrared cameras on it. It was black as can be, but the thing came shining through because the camera could see something that the eye doesn’t see. You can have the eye see something it can’t usually see. In Word Jazz, we’re trying to have the ear hear what it doesn’t normally hear.”
“Do we know how long the music lasts?” Nordine asks. Fox shakes his head and makes a move to check. “No,” Nordine says, “don’t worry about it; we should be OK.”
The jazz tune continues its tinkle-tinking as Nordine begins his monologue. Today’s subjects? Man’s need for applause. Is there more sadness than happiness in the world? Does God care? And–What do fish have to say about it?
“It wasn’t a drug,” Nordine bellows. “It was worse. Much worse. I couldn’t get enough. Applause. I couldn’t get enough. The more there was the more I needed. I’d play the fool. I’d even dance and I’m not a dancer. Oh, simple time steps maybe.” Soon, a segue. “God? Are you busy? I hate to interrupt, but there is something I’d like to ask you.” He asks God if there is a scale somewhere that can weigh cries of pain against guffaws of delight.
The jazz piece tinkles along in the background.
“Wait a second,” Nordine snaps. Fox stops the tape. “I think it would work better if you slowed the music down.”
“It’ll be an octave lower, though,” Fox says.
“That’ll be fine. That’ll be better,” Nordine says. “And I want to lay a little applause into the background. What kind of applause do we have? Maybe we can have applause like at a NeilYoung concert. Sneak it into the background so it sounds like it’s almost a dream. Maybe the applause for a symphony. The applause for a symphony is good because there’s more respect in that applause. Do you have that?”
“How long is it?”
They slow the music down, add the applause effects, and Nordine repeats his monologue. Then Nordine talks over his initial speech, commenting either as the conscience of the speaker or as a disinterested God.
Tape: It wasn’t a drug. It was worse. Much worse.
Tape: Applause. I couldn’t get enough.
Tape: The more there was, the more I needed. I’d play the fool . . .
Tape: . . . and I’m not a dancer.
Nordine: Oh, I wouldn’t say that.
Tape: Simple time steps maybe.
This talking over the tape of his own voice continues as Nordine now talks to “God.” He plays the role of the confused man and the role of God yawning away.
Nordine as self: God?
Nordine as God: Yawwwwwwwn.
Nordine as self: Are you busy? I hate to interrupt, but . . .
Nordine as God: Yawwwwwwwn.
Nordine as self: . . . there is something I’d like to ask you.
Nordine as God: Yeah, yeah, what is it?
He rambles from topic to topic; the music follows along. His sons watch intently as he finishes this monologue with another question to God: “Fish have feelings too, don’t they?” The music fades out at the exactly appropriate moment.
“You see how it all comes together?” says Ken Nordine Jr., smiling proudly. “He has the magic.”
Although Ken Nordine seems to be a great success story, there have been a number of failures over the years, some projects that didn’t go far, and others that never got off the ground.
There was the one called “Crumple,” a book of poems written on crumpled-up pieces of paper put in a trash can so that no two people pulling them out would read them in the same order. In Nordine’s garage there is something he calls a “people mover,” a sort of a carnivallike ride that Nordine invented for a film project that never happened. He describes it as a kind of Calder mobile with four seats on it. Two people orbit in one direction and two people orbit in the opposite direction. He wanted to film the reactions of different types of people riding it.
“I’d get four old ladies sitting on it and talking on the people mover, trying to remember their earliest memories,” he says. “Then I’d have four little girls on it and you could film them and play the memories of the old ladies, and it would be as if the little girls were the memories of the old women. It’s just another memento of something that never happened.”
There was Image Jazz, an $80,000 video project that put visual images to Nordine’s monologues. Along with the usual sound effects, you could watch Nordine waking up inside an alarm clock or dressed in top hat and tails climbing a rope ladder into the clouds. Channel 11 wasn’t interested, so now he’s thinking about marketing it to cable.
Nordine was hired to do the voice of the devil for The Exorcist, but that never worked out. On the other hand, he says he may be going to New York in a few months to work on a stage project that would have him playing a role he seems to play rather often: the voice of God. The project, according to Nordine, may involve Allen Ginsberg, Ralph Steadman, Don Was of Was Not Was, and Hal Willner. Willner’s the Saturday Night Live music producer who last year produced a pop record of Disney songs called Stay Awake. Nordine contributed word-jazz segues into a couple of pieces on the album.
“I’ve lived a very insular life,” Nordine remarks. “There are so many things that can be done and very few are realized.”
Even today, Nordine talks about projects he’s working on. There’s a book of his poems with computer-generated visuals that he’s excited about. And he’s thinking of doing a word-jazz movie that would use all the oddball images in his imagination. He talks about a scene in a codpiece shop on Michigan Avenue, a pair of Siamese twins connected by the lips, a tattoo artist whose tattoos move across the skin and are sucked into the nearest orifice. It’s another of Nordine’s whims and he’s not sure it will happen. He doubts that anyone will invest in it. But he has a vision.
“I have a vision of a wallet with nothing but a moth flying out of it,” he laughs.
Nordine enters the control room and takes off his headphones and listens to his voice coming through the speakers. He laughs.
“And then, maybe after that, we’ll put in some drip-drip-drips,” he says. “We talk about fish so then maybe we’ll do something about drops of water with drip-drip-drips. We’ll see.”
“Today?” Joel Fox asks.
“Someday,” he responds, and takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. He takes a seat in the studio next to his sons.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.