It was perfect weather for pirates on Sunday, a gray, shadowless and drizzly evening, as Cap'n Steve Jones barreled into the CBS Radio building in Culver City wearing a grimy sailor's cap.
Portly and formidable, he swept through the lobby like a latter-day Blackbeard, passing logos of the many radio stations housed in the same building — JACK FM, K-EARTH — and headed straight for the KROQ studio.
He sat in his chair and put on his headphones. It was October 17, his first night helming the KROQ galleon live on air, and pillaging conditions looked favorable.
His producer, First Mate Mark Sovel, aka "Mister Shovel," eyed the crow's nest — KROQ's two giant transmitters, known for beaming all manner of pop-metal treachery (Linkin Park, System of a Down) to the station's 2 million listeners. On this night, however, the skies belonged to Cap'n Jonesy, who had in mind something a little different for the landlubbers. A spot of Best Coast, Zola Jesus, 22-20s, new Klaxons or some Sufjan Stevens, perhaps?
Armed with the best of today's skinny-jean indies, Jones leaned back in his chair, arms crossed, watching the seconds count down to 7 p.m. He let out a soft burp — baaarp — and glanced at his co-conspirator. "You ready, Mister Shovel?"
All was going smoothly until Mister Shovel realized the song they just put on might contain a curse word. There's no margin for error — this is KROQ. The lyric, from a Benji Hughes song, sounds a bit like "puking off a fucking dick," he pointed out, off-air. Jonesy assured him it's "puking off a parking deck."
"OK," countered Sovel. "But does the word 'puking' count as swearing?"
The pirates, risen from cousin Davy Jones' locker, were back in business.
Sunday evening's show was the first time in two years Jonesy's Jukebox had been broadcast live on terrestrial radio. Until then, Steve Jones had been the radio DJ Los Angeles loved to mourn.
Jonesy's Jukebox, his freewheeling confection of random music, burps, guitar noodlings and whistling (and some truly stellar guests — Malcolm McLaren, Chrissie Hynde — all personal friends of Jonesy's), had been off the airwaves since January 15, 2009, when Indie 103.1, its home for five years, was pulled off the air by owner Entravision. The economic downturn, then in its nadir, had claimed its highest-profile local casualty yet. Indie was relaunched online, lacking its main draw: Jonesy.
Indie's dramatic and unexpected demise intensified the sense of dread then gripping the city, whose media and music-industry workers were reeling from the layoffs and cutbacks spawned by the recession.
Without warning, the daily escapism provided by Jones, the Sire of Wilshire, was gone. In its place was a looped, doom-laden recording: "This is an important message for the Indie 103.1 radio audience. Indie 103.1 will cease broadcasting over this frequency effective immediately."
It was a psychological tremor that jolted Los Angeles' community of Jones-loving Coachella-goers, ex-punks and literati to its core. If tough-as-bricks former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones hadn't been able to survive the storm, what chance did the rest of us stand?
Jones and Sovel, Indie's music director, cleared their desks, wondering what to do next. Jones rented a car and went on a road trip around America for six weeks. He stayed at Roy Orbison's estate in Nashville. He drove to upstate New York. He stayed in weird old motels and soul-searched and realized that he'd never really spent time by himself before. The solitude helped him realize a few things. Maybe he'd gotten a little too comfortable at Indie. Maybe it was indeed time for a change.
Back home, he ignored multiple invitations to host television talk shows, none of which felt quite right. Even though his natural inclination was to be lazy, the thought of sitting at home and playing computer games didn't hold much appeal anymore, he said. Five years of hosting a daily radio show in the entertainment capital of the globe had changed him. Indie was the first time in his life he had ever shown up for work, every day. In his mid-50s, drifting around America, Steve Jones realized he was a man with purpose — and nowhere to put it.
KROQ, Indie's one-time arch-rival, had been courting Jones for years. Kevin Weatherly, senior vice president of programming at CBS Radio, KROQ's parent company, knew the city was (ahem) jonesing for Jonesy.
At first glance, it was an odd coupling, since Indie had been the anti-KROQ, the champion (at least on the surface) of things noncorporate, a lovably disorganized DIY effort that celebrated all that was nonconformist about Los Angeles. The self-styled "world famous" KROQ, on the other hand, was Indie's Type A big brother, backed by big money, a powerful transmission signal and listener figures that made Indie's wilt in comparison.
But Jones, for all his mispronunciations, belches and charming faux pas, possessed the one thing KROQ hasn't had since the '90s: underground credibility.
Back home, Jonesy tried out Internet radio, taking Jonesy's Jukebox to IAmRogue.com. Unbound by FCC regulations, he was cursing, farting and burping more than ever, but it didn't matter. Nobody was listening.
"Fans would come up to me in the street and say, 'We loved your show, why don't you bring it back?' " he says, slurping up glass noodles at his favorite Korean BBQ joint in Beverly Hills. "I'd say, 'It is back — on the Internet!' And their eyes would glaze over."
Jones realized that even in 2010, there's still nothing quite as powerful, as immediate, as being able to tune your car stereo to your favorite DJ. He sat down with KROQ, a new idea in mind — the return of Jonesy's Jukebox on terrestrial radio — only this time, less Jonesy and more Jukebox. "You've got to evolve, haven't you?" he says.
Last week he drove around in his car for two hours listening to his own pre-recorded show on KROQ. "It was good," he says. "I just gotta loosen up a bit."
Now he's live and behind the mic again, the same old Jonesy that Indie 103.1 fans knew and loved, the no-holds-barred music buccaneer who has trouble pronouncing unusual words — Sufjan Stevens ("Souffle Stevens?") or Fitz and the Tantrums ("Fritz and the Tantrums?"). As for Brian Aubert of the Silversun Pickups — forget it.
Jones says Toyota of Huntington Beach, with which he did some famously hilarious advertising campaigns on Indie 103.1, always prefaced by the line, "So who am I talking to," might be back onboard. (They're still very nice to him, and recently replaced a light in his Prius for free, he says.)
"You're listening to KROQ 106.7," says Jonesy, and the pairing, while unusual, seems to work. Jonesy is notoriously absent-minded when it comes to names and numbers, and he wonders aloud (off-air) what might happen if he said 103.1 by accident. Art, the young assistant who is helping out in the studio, says he hasn't had this much fun in ages. Jonesy plays a song by Best Coast, and Art mentions that lead singer Bethany is a looker, prompting Jonesy to say, "She's a good-lookin' bird? Let's get her in," while giving himself a pretend blow job with the CD cover. Kate Earle's CD cover gets the same "affectionate" treatment.
Little burps punctuate his off-air conversation, and I wonder why he won't share them with his KROQ audience. Because Jonesy's burps are filled with more than digestive gases — they carry nostalgia, memories of a simpler time, back when the economy wasn't something that came up in conversation too often, back when you could tune in to Jonesy's Jukebox every day on Indie 103.1 as you were driving around town not worrying about money, before all your friends lost their jobs and had to move back in with their parents even though they were 35 years old.
I tell him that I miss that feeling and he sighs. "You can't do the same album over and over again, can you?"
It's the same with his show, the way he sees it. He has only two hours per week on air compared with the 10 hours he had on Indie, and he's giving that time over to the artists he feels are deserving of attention. He's even set up a post-office box where musicians can send their CDs for him to listen to.
At least, that was the plan. "I spelled the P.O.-box address wrong on the website," he chuckles. "Oh, well."
Jonesy's Jukebox airs Sundays 7-9 p.m. at 106.7 KROQ-FM. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.