Tucson Salvage: Song of David: Anything That’s Rock ’n’ Roll

click to enlarge David LaRussa. - JIM BLACKWOOD
Jim Blackwood
David LaRussa.

I pull up to his house, rounding the gravel half-moon drive, and David LaRussa is sitting cross-legged on the back flap of his gray Toyota pickup, all Buddha-like in carport shade. It is how I remember the guy from years ago, only now his natural Sicilian 'fro is smoothed back into a tidy salt and pepper ponytail, with matching wisps of a beard. He wears one of his custom hand-art t-shirts, handsome in spray-painted violet and blue. His voice still soothes, radio-ready, like he snacks on feathers, if slightly deeper with age.

I was a teen in a band when I met LaRussa, he a DJ at rock radio station KWFM, spinning unheard-of artists no one else would in primetime slots, including my own band. One night at a party he said to me, like some caring uncle, "You can't just listen to The Clash and The Dolls, especially if you're in a band. You've got to go back decades and discover the greats; your record collection should run deep." LaRussa on the radio led to personal head-exploding discoveries in disparate genres at local used record shops. I've watched him from afar over the years too, some peaks, some lows, but usually making high aural art of endorsing the unsung through radio.

LaRussa laughs, "In my time at KWFM I never played Foreigner, Boston or Journey." No mean feat considering we're yakking commercial radio.

LaRussa talks days long before the internet, long before TikTok and YouTube killed the radio star, when a battle for musical art, fought against new commercial-radio committees, was one worth fighting, even if losing was a foregone conclusion. Why he left corporate radio behind years ago.

A dusty '78 Toyota Celica sits crapped-out next to the pickup. LaRussa is a sentimental fool for his onetime rolling companion. He knows it's worthless but he can't part with it, thinks maybe he can get it running again.

A minute later, he says, "What a year," and hops off the pickup and goes inside for a smoke, a habit he's been revisiting of late. At least the monsoons are all biblical lately, tearing limbs from trees, ripping off rooftops, raging water through dry riverbeds swallowing cars and fences and who the hell knows what. That counts for something and he agrees, sliding back onto the pickup flap, cigarette lit, eyeing a rare-to-be-leafy-green ocotillo in the blazing Sonoran sun.

***

LaRussa had checked off boxes for a DJ with a bright future: relentless work ethic, hyper knowledge of myriad music genres, an intuition and passion doubling as good taste, a golden, trusting voice. But LaRussa wasn't a careerist, nor a self-promoter or a workplace politician, and forget any inflated sense of self. Anyway, the last four "qualities" are the very traits that elevate people to success in our culture, and he always saw through the transparencies of the mythologies of success and failure. "I just trusted the fates," he says.

Inside the stuffy main vinyl room of his house, thousands of albums wall-to-wall, LaRussa is on his knees, fingering inside a vintage cabinet crammed with autographed records of all those he'd interviewed on-air, reliving hilarious moments unfettered by dewy or regretful longings, or fanboy stalker-talk, more like a collector whose life is so intertwined in the pieces of his collection it becomes far more than individual dollops of who he is. It is also what he has to show for a thankless and unpretentious decades-long career promoting the work of others, in all musical genres—from African beat, jazz, reggae, to funk, R&B and anything that's rock 'n' roll.

Indeed, each signed record is an on-air interview story, and there are hundreds. Fine-boned English singer John Foxx of Ultravox helping him lug a giant reel-to-reel machine down stairs from the Buffalo, New York radio station to his car so he could record the band's show that night, which he did, and later played pieces of on-air. Notorious grouch John Cale uttering monosyllabic nothings during an unusable interview. The members of Devo appearing at the radio station in full deconstructionist regalia, yellow jumpsuits and Jell-O-mold hats, and leader Mark Mothersbaugh mocking the image on the debut album cover with a pen, which LaRussa lifts out and displays. His biggest fuck-up? In Tucson, a local promoter literally shoving cocaine up LaRussa's nose while on-air interviewing L.A. punk band The Alley Cats. He only shakes his head at the ignominy of that one.

click to enlarge LaRussa in his vinyl room. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
LaRussa in his vinyl room.

Too, sadnesses rise from his radio memories: Best pal, sidekick, and loved Tucson radio DJ Bob Cooke, murdered by a listener, Play Misty for Me-style in 1982. Tanya Robinson would hear Cooke's voice in her head, with the radio off, as far away as Virginia. The killing haunted LaRussa (and the many who knew Cooke) for years. It led him to change his on-air name to David Close.

Another bud, worldwide-adored guitarist Rainer Ptacek, whose catalog he oversees and archives with Rainer's widow Patti Keating, died from a brain tumor in 1997.

He befriended Rainer in '83, booked him into a local club, which became a residency, and there ZZ Top man Billy Gibbons showed up and became a Rainer fan and sometime collaborator. That's LaRussa's photo of Rainer with his dobro on the cover of the 1992 album Worried Spirits, shot at dusk in the Tucson Mountains.

***

His collection, more than 12,000 albums organized in various rooms of his house, as well as his hand art ("nothing conceptual, I'm just into hands") and his striking photography, a hidden-in-plain-sight show of whole universes inside street scenes, is a self-reflection. (A lovely coffee-table collection of his photography called Rust had an entire press run of one copy—his own). As Greg McNamee, a renowned Tucson author and raconteur who's known LaRussa since the early 1980s, says, "He knows more about rock and its roots than nearly anyone on the planet, but also classical music, world music, jazz, anything with a tone and a measure. His knowledge extends to film, art, photography, books, gardening, cooking ... There's not a conversation I've had with him over all these years that I haven't learned or been turned on to something wonderful."

click to enlarge David LaRussa at home with his art: "I'm just into hands." - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
David LaRussa at home with his art: "I'm just into hands."

A contemporary Dharma bum in a ranch-y, four-bedroom house enveloped in a calming, one-and-a-half acres of mesquite, ocotillo, saguaro, including warrens of wild rabbits, quail, dove and other desert critters. It's a house well-organized into the molds of his world, and one is quickly absorbed inside of it. Some kind of stereo in nearly every room, native depictions and art by friends, leftover artifacts from his parents, including a guest room, just how they left it. They'd retired here, he moved in to care for them, paid off their house mortgage, before they died in 2013, one month apart from each other.

There is an enviable sweetness to his solitary life, his volunteering at a local library, makeshift art studio on the back patio, the Post-it notes arranged in neat rows on a board next to his oven, each one in his barely legible scrawl. He's psyched to discover Roberto Bolaño, about whom he talks at length. And after a year-and-a-half COVID break, LaRussa is back on live radio, if only one hour a week.

***

LaRussa remembers childhood summers in Tonawanda, a western New York town sandwiched between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. He and buddies navigating the railroad tracks and roaming lush, then-undeveloped woods, the hidden ponds filled of polliwogs and groaning frogs, and old loner "the Goat Man" who lived in a shack out there, who gave LaRussa his first cigarette. Fish too, once rescuing several from a pond slated for development, and splashing them into someone's swimming pool, only to see them die a chlorine death and his heart break.

His parents let him roam yet all the usual parental hedges against failure were there, for which he is grateful.

(One time he dropped acid on his way home from high school. His parents knew something was up at the dinner table. "The next day my giant Tolkien poster was taken down in my bedroom.")

Mom was one of the first female business grads from University of Buffalo, where his parents met. Dad, a Sicilian who served in the U.S. Air Corps in WWII, was a brilliant guy, a Mad Men-esque ad exec, especially with electronics, built the family stereo, short-wave radios, and taught young LaRussa to build his own radio at 6. He got better, and by 10 would lay out under backyard stars tuning into booming AM-radio stations from the Midwest and the Eastern seaboard, Cleveland, Memphis, Toronto, Boston, New York City.

"That's the thing," he says, "you're young, listening to the radio and you get goosebumps, it was those goosebumps that led to a career." For his 10th Christmas, '62, his parents gifted him a Remco Caravelle, a toy broadcasting station. "You could broadcast inside your house, my parents could tune in and listen on AM, I was doing comedy, commercials, weather, music." Radio was in his DNA.

For fifth grade show-and-tell, kid LaRussa spun "I Want to Hold Your Hand." "My first DJ gig."

Mom filled the house with folk music, Peter, Paul & Mary and "women with rough voices, also The Mamas & the Papas and she dug the Beatles." Chubby Checker's "The Twist," was his first 45. There were the babysitting Brockway twins, who'd bring over Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson.

In high school he'd get together with pals, including future Maynard Ferguson sax-man Mike Migliore, bassist Billy Sheehan, horseplay education on the literacy of organized noise. He'd spin records over the high-school announcement system for kids during lunchtime, created a radio station at Kenmore East Senior High complete with a kid staff.

In conversation, he places events in historical contexts, from album release dates to intricacies of the Vietnam War, which he lucked out of in the number's game. Had he been drafted, would've bailed to neighboring Canada, with his war-vet father's approval.

At State University of New York at Geneseo, LaRussa, an art and English major, landed a paid gig as DJ and supervisor. He homed intimacies of live radio arts, like humming a song's last note to match the next song's key, for smooth transitions, creating playlists that, as taught by one of his former teachers, one John Davlin, fell into a "continuum," beyond the theoretical song sequencing, "like building a stained-glass window," and LaRussa learned to mix genres in insightful, challenging and entertaining ways, "from a rock thing to reggae to an African chant."

College done, LaRussa assisted a drunken pro photographer in Rochester for a year. "It was obvious the world of commercial photography was not for me."

A series of know-someone flukes got him a DJ gig at "underground" progressive FM WCMF-FM. He learned much, and sites DJ Suzanne King has early influence, her weekly punk and power-pop show "Surf's Up." But a coke-head ran the joint and a mutiny ensued to dump him. "My friends took over and the station went downhill." LaRussa left after a year.

Enter major-market Buffalo. "I had my aircheck," he says, "and got the job at WBUF, which was a big deal. I thought the station was progressive." After much struggle, in January '79, he debuted his weekly radio show "Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll," and there was soon talk of taking it national. He was likely the first guy to play certain bands on American radio beyond local ones, including Gang of Four.

click to enlarge Print ad for "Anything That's Rock'n'Roll, Buffalo, N.Y., circa '79. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Print ad for "Anything That's Rock'n'Roll, Buffalo, N.Y., circa '79.

LaRussa saw the FM death-knell coming, the tightening playlists, the suits suddenly strolling station hallways. WBUF soon sold for fat money, "destroying everything it stood for. I was done with them and they were done with me."

He followed a radio pal out to Tucson to visit, fell in love with the desert and heard KWFM, a station very similar in its mission to WBUF before it soured. He called DJ Bob Bish on air, went down, smoked a joint with him and hit it off. He returned home, and moved back, with no job. He knew KWFM would hire him, and they did. His first night in Tucson he wandered down by himself to Pearl's Hurricane Bar to catch the opening night ground-zero for Tucson punk rock and new wave, the unpolished musicians he'd soon be playing on the radio.

***

KWFM was Tucson's first FM rock station, on-air in 1970. It still adhered to the free-form halcyon days of stoner-run, anti-corporate, let's-play-all-of-side-one-of-Fragile-for-the-hell-of-it FM radio when LaRussa landed there in '79. KWFM was more art project than commercial radio and by '79, it shockingly had the biggest radio market share in Tucson, a year later named a Top 10 best radio station in the country by Rolling Stone. By then such FM stations, and the work of music-loving hippies who ran them, became cash-cows to corporations. Soon Sandusky Industries bought it; tighter formats, radio consultants, and a gradual impersonal approach signifying the burgeoning and boring album-oriented rock (AOR) format.

"We wanted to keep the format as loose as possible," says Jim Brady on the phone. Brady started at KWFM in 1971 and ended up the station's music director, under whom LaRussa worked. "They had instituted a card format, 2,500 songs to play from, and for us that was like going to prison. I mean, before that, we could play anything."

"The thing about KW," Brady says, "it didn't matter if people had hits, we'd go eight songs deep into an album. The core was built around rock, but we played prog, art-rock, country-rock, jazz-rock, all of it. There was a sense of fun. Look," he laughs, "we were a bunch of hippies working for minimum wage."

"I was making a $1,000 a month, fulltime," LaRussa says. "For Tucson that was great."

Brady: "We did it for love of music. It was really about turning people on to things they would never otherwise hear."

LaRussa covered regular shifts and news time, but the real cherry was his mostly four-hour Tuesday night "Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll" show he'd brought with him from WBUF. The show soared, he turned listeners on to rare imports, gems of obscure sides, an ear-bending gamut from The Clash, Bethnel and Eddie and The Hot Rods to Funkadelic, Buzzcocks and Bad Brains, and always local bands on cassette, deserving of attention, or not. Hard to imagine now, but in those days there was absolutely nowhere else to hear this stuff. Too, LaRussa bestowed upon listeners a knowledge of music you couldn't read anywhere.

"LaRussa was special," Brady continues, "a real champion of new music, much more progressive than I was. He did his research, he knew his stuff because he was passionate. He expanded musical knowledge of a lot of people, I say that as fact. There was no one like him. A lot of those he championed became mainstream, Elvis Costello and so on."

click to enlarge Newspaper print ad pimping KWFM crew circa '80-81. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
Newspaper print ad pimping KWFM crew circa '80-81.

Brady got canned in 1980, "a big coup at the station. "And," he laughs, "Dave was on the other side! We made up later, the whole thing seems almost quaint now.

"But," Brady continues, "things were starting to change, playing the hits, going for a bigger audience. To me, FM rock radio was over."

"They killed my 'Anything' show in 1981," LaRussa says. "They tried it once before but listener blowback forced them to keep it on." He saw the station go the way of WBUF, and was soon gone from KW.

By then LaRussa was married and had a baby son to think about.

****

Unmoored in radio, LaRussa returned to western New York to oversee his father's new business, a dry-cleaning plant. ("OJ Simpson was a regular customer, he would pull up in his Maserati.") His wife felt isolated, he was inhaling too many chemicals, and so at the behest of Bob Cooke and a few friends, he returned to Tucson, only to discover upon arrival Cooke had been murdered.

"I took that as an omen," he says.

He spun records at a local club for cash, thanks to Cooke who got him hired there before he returned. He went to work part-time on KLPX, launched a show "1800 Seconds," sandwiched inside his pal Jonathan L's new alternative show "Virgin Vinyl," which launched in 1982. He'd spend much time interviewing Tucson bands, Phantom Limbs, Green on Red, Rainer, Al Perry, Giant Sandworms, Ned Sutton, Naked Prey, Yard Trauma and so on.

"I lasted maybe a year at KLPX. It was just a gig part-time on weekends and I wasn't passionate about it, except for the '1800 Seconds' show."

The Giant Sandworms (pre-Giant Sand) asked LaRussa to manage them, which he did because he loved them, knew they had a chance, despite zero experience in band management. By that point he was professionally flailing, reeling from a crushing separation from his wife (soon divorced) and couch surfing. He lost his club DJ gig (the club soon burned down), and the Giant Sandworms gig ("it's just not working out, Dave") at the same time. "There were some lean times."

What is there for a gifted radioman who'd rather starve than sellout? Record retail. LaRussa worked at Wherehouse Records in Tucson and later, California. He became a buyer for the new compact disc departments being set up at Federated chains. He was lucky enough to procure some Wherehouse Records stock, which he sold at a peak in record retail, giving him enough to put down on a house in Tucson, which turned out to be a life saver.

In Tucson he met a storied, borderline sleazy "frequency flipper" Ted Tucker, who remembered LaRussa from KWFM. That led to a job at a rising Tucker-owned station KTTZ, fulltime 6 a.m. to noon six days a week, as David Close. Using the turntable he brought in, he played stuff he wanted to play. Didn't last, Tucker sold the station like a house-flipper out from under the staff, who were fired, the format changed to New Age. "I told myself I would never do commercial radio again. I didn't."

A low point was working at a phonebank, calling people for donations. Working alongside this writer making yo-yo's for minimum wage. He wouldn't go back to radio if he was told what to play. He had various renters in his guest house, which miraculously covered the mortgage.

For financial and emotional motives, he "wanted to get back on the air." He did in jazz, at KUAT-AM, operated out of the University of Arizona. "I attempted my very first jazz show. I was terrified." Makes sense, jazz freaks know their ouvre, but musical intuition solved itself, and jazz suited his calm. A new world spread before him.

That led to KUAT's KUAZ-FM, which hit FM airwaves in '92, weekday morning jazz, which lasted until the station switched formats in '03. He stayed on contented, another decade, as local host for NPR's "Morning Edition," doing traffic and weather and community info throughout. Sold his house for a big profit too.

***

LaRussa's current radio gig is a painfully short one-hour Friday morning show on KXCI-FM, Southern Arizona's powerful community radio, called "Random Axis," the last hour of "Your Morning Brew" with host Jim Blackwood. A recent show featured the theme keyword "never," and the thoughtful playlist runs in vintage LaRussa, first half draws you in with hooks, sways effortlessly from pop into country and blues, twangs match in key-pleasing transitions. DJ breaks as sonic resets. The hour flies by, fun, all-killer no-filler, that aural stained-glass window. Spoon, Blondie, The Move, Sparks, Hank Williams, White Stripes, Muddy Waters, Grateful Dead, etc.

Each song contains a certain linkable beauty, upholding a non-disposable nature of music. Dude could've pulled down six-figures creating Apple Music playlists.

click to enlarge LaRussa unearths an old fan letter. - BRIAN SMITH
Brian Smith
LaRussa unearths an old fan letter.

In his house, I observe a now-retired guy who navigates the world through a still-resonant force of art, who helped countless en route, who's grateful for his son Colin, married now and with whom he is close.

He produces a folder, various news clippings, and a stack of fan letters he received over the years, hard-copy proof his theory worked. He says, looking straight into a wall of records, "If I could love this music and turn someone on to it, that was enough for me." A few seconds pass, he adds, "In Rainer's case it's about keeping his legacy alive."

I asked him to essentially be a tourist in his own life and it's a lot for a single afternoon, weighing private strengths and weaknesses. He appears almost stunned and needs to decompress.

It's not depression, more "circular thinking," he says. "I know it won't last. I look forward to my artwork, to my photography, putting together the radio show. I like the world I live in."

Shrugs his shoulders, eyes wide through specs, says, as if to tally his existence: "It really is just trusting the fates."


Tune in to "Random Axis" with David LaRussa and Jim Blackwood at 9 a.m. Friday mornings on KXCI, 91.3 FM; KXCI.Org.

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