Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Michael Muirhead, Boulder's Hypnotic Radio Voice of the Early '70s

By Peter Rodman 

Somewhere in everyone's memory is a person so charismatic, so inscrutable, and so cool, you'd have trouble explaining why you even knew them in the first place.  
I've only known a handful of full-on rogue characters in my life.  They are fugitives from convention, answerable to no one, and able up 'n leave any setting, no matter how comfy or for how long they've been there, and completely reinvent themselves someplace else entirely, never lookin' back.  I guess that’s how true 'outlaws' usually define themselves, but like most people...it seems foreign to me.  
Still, there's always that person, somewhere in your past.  
One such person, for me at least, was Michael Muirhead.
Photograph Copyright 1975 & 2015 by Peter Rodman. 
All Rights Reserved.
But let me stop right there.  
All that 'rogue' talk doesn't even begin to explain how he ushered me into radio--eased me in, really...either purposely or accidentally...and I'm still not sure which. 
When I first met Michael, he was THE coolest DJ in Boulder, on the remarkably Pacifica-like ‘underground’ FM  radio station, KRNW.  They were known for being uniquely 'Boulder,' at a time when all the downtown shops were local, and there was no 'Pearl Street mall.'  (Even a new Earth Shoes outlet was looked upon as some kind of corporate sell-out.)
At that time, the town was unselfconsciously setting the pace for counter-cultural living, and America-at-large was only just beginning to notice.  Against that backdrop--and the crisp blue skies and wafting pine-sap, mixed with the occasional stench of patchouly oil and 'b.o.'-- KRNW held court, roughly 18 hours a day.
But the prime time for radio, in that late-sleepin', alternative lifestyle town, was Michael Muirhead's shift. 

Every afternoon from 2 to 6, he’d assemble 40 minute sets ranging from Les McCann to Bad Company to Foghat and back, fairly challenging the listener to even hear him when he spoke, as though somebody just woke him up and he had better things to do, anyway.  My very first in-person 'radio lesson' was this:  
Dead air works, for the best on-air talents.  
I saw it for myself, and that counter-intuitive adage still holds true, to this day.
Which leads me to Lesson #2:  Bosses don't know anything about broadcasting.  Break their rules--and let your listeners in on it--and you will forge a stronger bond than any programmer can break.  That too, still holds true.
I could swear nobody else in America played Little Feat more than Michael, but that may well be because they had a ten minute track he loved ("Cold, Cold Cold/Tripe Face Boogie"), and at a station where nobody else is even there but the DJ, long cuts can be a very helpful thing.
(Especially if you have to pee.)

And now, for a personal detour...
I was a skinny, hyper New York guy, fresh out of years in retail and wholesale records, and full of as much knowledge as a fella could glean, from liner notes and headphones. 
On my first day in town--June 1,1972--I'd landed a job managing ‘Budget Tapes & Records’ “on the Hill.”  Unbeknownst to me, it was the sole company-owned 'flagship' store for 163 outlets in the west.
Right around the corner was a unique venue named ‘Tulagi’ that booked national club acts, six nights a week. 
I quickly realized that every single show dovetailed perfectly with my musical tastes, and got to see Doc Watson, Mance Lipscomb, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Walsh’s Barnstorm, and too many more classic acts to mention there, up close.
The booking genius behind Tulagi was a mercurial guy named Chuck Morris, who made his mark booking a remarkable string of national acts there between 1970 and 1972.  

Under Morris, Tulagi lured college kids in search of a ‘3.2%’ beer high to $5 shows, wherein the likes of  Earl Scruggs, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Bonnie Raitt held court.  Word quickly spread about this venue, one of only six or seven in the nation serving up the Ry Cooders and Linda Ronstadts, for an intimate party like no other. Those college kids never knew what hit ‘em…and pretty soon, every act--no matter who Chuck booked--was packing the house, for two shows nightly.
As fate would have it, Chuck had the inevitable 'falling out' with the owner, Herb Kauvar…and left town to open a new club in Denver, named Ebbett's Field for his beloved Dodgers’ foresaken Brooklyn home.
Kauvar was happy to be rid of a guy who’d outgrown him, and even knew how to book the place himself--but being an older man, with little to no knowledge of rock or roots music, Herbie had no idea who to book. 
Once he ran out of 'repeats' from Chuck's act roster, Herb was lost.
He began showing up at the record store to ‘pick my brain‘ every week, trying to figure out how to book Tulagi without Chuck.  Though he canvassed the whole neighborhood, he always ended up in my store, trying to make a final decision. “What do you think of Tower of Power?” he’d ask. “Who’s Claudia Lennear, anyway?” 
After several months of this, I decided to make him an offer: 
How about if you pay me for all this information?  Why don't I come to work for you?  In truth, I knew nothing about how to run a major  nightclub.  I was 21, for God sakes!
But he was desperate, and soon enough I left the store to run Tulagi for Herb.
I had no idea what I was in for.  

For one thing, the job entailed overseeing three places:  Herbie’s Deli and ‘The Sink’ were The Hill’s most popular hangouts and lunch spots--and Herbie owned them both, in addition to Tulagi.  
As his 'General Manager,' suddenly I was in at 7:30 every morning, ordering massive amounts of salami, and dozens of kegs of beer (which are always delivered just after dawn, for some reason)…and never got home 'til after midnight. No wonder he didn’t wanna do it! 
I began to gently remind Herb why I was hired in the first place, and pretty soon I was mainly just booking Tulagi, and managing the staff there.
Now the onus was on me, to SELL the shows I’d booked. (“With my money!” he always reminded me.)

Thank you for your patience. The detour is now over.

One of my standard ploys in promoting Tulagi shows was to arrange radio interviews for my acts. (Today, that's a given;
Michael Muirhead, manning the board at KRNW in Boulder, Colorado.
Photographs Copyright 1974, 1975 and 2015 by Peter Rodman.
back then, a rarity.) 

Whether it be Asleep at the Wheel, Elvin Bishop or Tim Buckley,  I needed to ‘get the word out’ any way I could--and Boulder’s ‘underground’ FM radio station (KRNW) seemed like a great place to start.  For one thing, it literally echoed through the streets--as every single boutique or head shop played it inside (and sometimes outside) their stores!
Part of the reason for the station's popularity was the diversity of music you could hear--from droning Indian sitars, to country rock; from David Essex to David Bromberg; from John Fahey to 'Mahavishnu' John McLaughlin.
Its DJs  all had very specific tastes, so you kinda knew what to expect from each one…but then again…it was ‘free form’…so…not always. 
Truth be told though, the main reason for its ubiquitous presence in Boulder was probably signal-related. 
Boulder sits in a very dramatic valley, backed up against a stunning wall of mountains (the ‘Flatirons’), which are its trademark. FM radio is, by its nature, almost a 'line-of-sight' (technically called a 'straight line') signal.  Ergo, the puny 55 watt KRNW was omnipresent in town, while Denver’s mega-hit FM stations never quite cracked the ‘hipster bubble,’ there.
So now I began ferrying acts (in my ‘66 Bel Air) to KRNW in earnest, focusing on the afternoon show, which was most closely associated with those hip retailers, and where I’d first heard it…places like ‘The Co-Tangent’ and ‘The Carnival CafĂ©.’  It was 1973. 

Sitting behind the microphone every afternoon was the most matter-of-fact, dismissive, likeable, charming, smug, handsome, preoccupied, engaging, conceited,  rockin', nefarious, articulate,  condescending, lady-killing rogue I’d ever met. 
Michael Muirhead, it turned out, was also the nominal 'Program Director' for KRNW.  (What that meant, I'd find out for myself, later on...)
That calculatingly cool voice I’d heard throughout the town, veritably murmuring his 'back-sells,' after disturbingly long (but somehow addictive) pauses was Muirhead, who went beyond being just the ‘arbiter of hip’ in town. (Which he clearly was, at that time.)
In truth, he was almost more like a ‘code-talker,’ or some kind of Pied Piper…and (most impressive to this lifelong radio fan) his listeners followed him, wherever he took them.
Few will remember that Michael almost single-handedly elevated Boulderite Tommy Bolin to ‘Rock God’ status, by playing the obscure James Gang track “Alexis” in such ‘high rotation’ it became, for a time, a kind of default Boulder, Colorado theme song.  The cult status that track--and in turn, Tommy himself--achieved in town was truly Michael's radio invention. And Bolin's wider success began, in large part, with the three-story staircase waiting lines, to see his local band 'Energy,' just one floor up from KRNW, at The Good Earth niteclub...because listeners flocked to see him.  The rest, as they say is...well, forget the cliches. Listen:

Though well known as the former guitarist for Zephyr, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Tommy Bolin’s international career as a 'guitar icon' got jump-started on Michael Muirhead's show.  None.  Michael's afternoon program was Ground Zero, for Tommy Bolin's launch into infinity...and eventually, sadly...oblivion.

Anyway, back to me for a moment--the long haired neophyte club manager, still anxiously peddling radio interviews to sell tickets, lest he be canned from his gig--a seemingly daily threat from his nervous club owner. 

Though it sometimes seems to have been pre-ordained, my entry into radio was quite by accident.   
Illustration Copyright 1973 & 2015 by Amanda Rodman.
Graphic Design/Lettering Copyright 1973 & 2015 Peter Rodman.
KRNW was the first radio station I had actually ever even  gone to, in person.  Suddenly, I’d fallen back under a spell begun by Murray the ‘K,’ back when I was 10, listening to the radio in my father’s woodshop, and imagining I had my own radio station.

Strangely enough, Michael Muirhead already had designs on what to do with me, but for the moment, my main concern was “Will he pull it together, and focus on Ray Benson, here?  I need to sell some tickets!”
Being ‘cool’ requires distance.  Muirhead had cool down to a science--but in the case of interviews, his slightly detached, always unimpressed manner could either click…or not. 
Eventually I realized, it was either hit or miss with him. 
He really didn't care if an interview went well or not. Leon Russell could kiss his ass, if he didn’t like it. No star, big or small, was ever bigger than Michael Muirhead, on his show. 

My primary job for Tulagi (let’s call it booking and ‘artist relations’) became even more challenging, when my only viable conduit for radio promotion (Michael) was either 'down the hall' being naughty, or just said “Peter, why don’t you do it?” and left me alone at the station, to do just that! 
Peter Rodman at KRNW, 1975
Photograph by Michael Muirhead.
Copyright 1975 and 2015 by SNPR/Peter RodmanRadio Archive.

In truth, Michael Muirhead was a sun, not a planet--and if you could cop a decent rotation around him, fine.  If not, that was fine, too.
Every time I thought I was maddeningly pissed at the guy, he’d basically sit there, staring at my innocent face, waiting for me to get a hold of myself  (he knew I would)…and man, he could wait
That may be 'a cool guy’s' greatest gift--waiting out the rest of us.  He didn’t need.  But he sure knew I did.

Michael Muirhead carried the first ‘Anvil case’ I ever saw. 
Brought it to his show every afternoon, and never spoke about what was in it. 
In fact, if I was there--whether with an artist or just visiting, as I had begun to do shortly after I first showed up--he’d often ask me to leave the room, if somebody more important came in.
“Listen.  I gotta do some business here.  Can we have a few minutes?”
I acted like I knew what was goin’ on--you always did, around Muirhead--but really, I had no clue.  Sometimes he’d up and leave the station altogether. “Take over for me.  And don’t mess up!”
Pretty soon this was happening almost daily.
RADIO, at last...I was home!

By the end of 1973, Herbie decided to sell Tulagi--but I had  already found another purpose in life. 

For whatever his other peccadilloes might have been, Michael Muirhead gave me that.  He saw something in me (beyond just my availability, I like to think) and nurtured it, even as he kept me at arm’s length.  Michael effectively groomed me to be his personal substitute...and eventually, his successor...before I even knew what was goin' on.  

He never tried too hard. 
Talent, like looks, came naturally to Michael.  (I, on the other hand, have spent a lifetime doing nothing but trying too hard.)
You can actually hear these opposites, on an early tape I found, wherein--just before taking over his show for good--Muirhead decided to have me on as a performing guest.  

The Boulder Daily Camera had done a feature on me, headlined Closet Songwriter Comes Clean, to promote a gig I had at Shannon’s--and probably just for his own amusement, he mumbled offhandedly (almost derisively), “Why dontcha come on tomorrow...and play some of your 'songs'?”
Talk about pressure!
A rarely heard link to that moment in time (February 26, 1974) exists on cassette, and is a priceless encapsulation of our relationship.  It begins with Muirhead's trademark laid-backness, with...several.......seconds of......pure..... silence....after an album cut ends:
MM (in low tones): "Anyway......that was, uh......let's see w't we got.  Peter's, uh...gonna make his, uh...performing debut, after uh........"
PR: "...a three year hiatus?"
MM: "A three year absence. (chuckles)  Or as it says, uh...Closet Songwriter Comes Clean..."

PR: "...so to speak."
MM (perking up more formally): "G'd afternoon, Peter!"
PR: "Hello, Michael...it's good to be here on KRNW."
MM: "...as always. Peter's gonna be down at, uh...Shannon's.  On Sunday night...for uh, like we said...the first live performance, in a...in a while. Scared?" 
PR: "Yeah..."
MM (suddenly snapping at me) : "How 'bout now...?"

This was like a tourist getting in the ring with Muhammad Ali, but instead of fakin' it...he was throwing real punches.
So I ducked, bobbed, and weaved my way through it. I had to.
He was the confidant Alpha Male; I the goofy, but anxious-to-please Court Jester, repeatedly saving my ass with quips, filling in awkward silences after each song, and answering questions he never even bothered to ask. 
It’s very obvious from the tape, who had the confidence and who didn’t, at that point--or maybe, on some deeper level, in retrospect...it isn't.
And while he may have let me flail a little too much for comfort, he never quite let me drown.  In fact, though I was totally wrung out at the end of an hour on the air, sparring with him and playing live originals, deep inside I knew he’d actually just taught me how to swim.  (Via the 'dunking' method, but it somehow worked.)

Pretty soon after that,  I was doing more afternoon shifts than he was. I knew something was up, but I didn’t know what…at first…until one day later that Spring, Michael got busted for something drug related...I think.
Michael Muirhead ducks offstage,
after taking a rare turn as 'emcee'--very
likely for Tommy Bolin, at The Good Earth.
Photograph Copyright 1974/2015 by Peter Rodman.

To know him though, I'd have to say he was more into the Anvil case and the intrigue,  than the drugs themselves. I never saw him out of control.

To this day, all I know is that he ‘went away’ a few months later.  His afternoon show fell into my lap, and KRNW’s owner (Robert N. Wilkinson) adopted me as his new boy--to hand out paychecks, do all the scheduling (including showing up to cover shifts at all hours, if/when others didn’t) and be the (de facto) ‘Program Director,’ for what turned out to be KRNW’s last three years.                              
Michael Muirhead gave me my radio career. After he resolved his legal problems a year or so later, I didn’t see him again, although I heard he was still in town.  By this time things had gotten pretty busy for me, and the new show was high profile enough that you couldn't miss it...so I know he was aware of it, but I always wondered what he thought of  Sunday Night with Peter Rodman on KBCO.  Still, during my next eight years in Boulder, I never heard from him again.

Peter Rodman on the afternoon shift at KRNW, 1976
Photograph Copyright 1976 & 2015 bySNPR/The
Peter Rodman Radio Archive.  All Rights Reserved.
Eventually I moved--first to Chicago for seven years, and then to Santa Barbara in 1991.  
One day out in California, I was hosting my sister and her husband for a visit from back east, so we stopped in to the most infamous tourist joint in town--Rocky’s, on lower State Street, near the beach. 
You know the scene... Very high ceilings; a deafening cacaphony that challenges your lip-reading skills over drinks;   goofy illustrations of local celebrities on the wall (like they have at The Palm, only more risque); tall tables and stools, and a vast back room for dining.

I went to the bar to order a round, and there he was...
Michael Muirhead--and he was runnin’ the place.
“Wow!” I said, reverting to my naive, 21 year old self, from two decades earlier.
“Hey, Peter…how ya been?” he said, barely moving his lips.
It was like he'd never left.  Cool as ever. 

Behind him, on the wall, was a perfect caricature, of... Michael Muirhead.
“How’d you end up here?” I began.  “Wow, Michael…What have you been doin’ all this time! Where’d you disappear to?"  Now I'd worked up a head of steam, and was fairly gushing with enthusiasm. "Are you still with Caroline? What ever happened to you, when--”
He’d heard enough. This outlaw cut me off at the pass. 
“Peter, listen: These people know nothing about my past.  I’d like to keep it that way.  I’m happy to see you. We’ll talk another time, I promise…I’ll tell you all about it then. Enjoy your drinks. Tell everybody you’re my friend; they know to take care of you, I promise. I gotta go now.”
And that was it.  1992.  Last time I ever saw him.

Michael Muirhead died last week.
Hit by a tractor trailer, in a small town in upstate New York, crossing the street…or maybe not.  His obit doesn't mention the accident.  It simply says he died "after suffering from years of severe anxiety and depression.” 

Which makes you wonder.  (If anyone would want to choose his own way out, or leave on his own terms...it would be Michael.)
    Update, 3/31/15: Michael's death has been ruled a suicide.
The saddest part was to read about the depression. 
I could never picture Michael suffering.  Most unlike the Michael I knew was the part about 'severe anxiety.'  His exterior was so convincing, I just assumed he took everything in stride. 
Kinda makes you think about 'cool.' What's it good for?  I'm sure Michael thought about that a lot. 
Right ‘til the end, he had world-class movie star looks--square jaw, perfectly symmetrical features--like a sort of Errol Flynn for hippies, back in the early '70s when I knew him.
Michael Muirhead, in his later years
(Photo from newspaper obituary)
But behind every swashbuckler lies a mere mortal--as we all are.  I'm ashamed to say I never found the vulnerability behind the mask.
Lesson #3: 
Look harder next time.

Because if anyone ever followed the adage, ‘Never let ’em see you sweat,’ it was Michael Muirhead.
I think the good part is, he knew people were drawn to him.  He knew they automatically loved him.  He knew they didn’t understand why he’d take them out to the edges of reason and test that love, but he knew he could do it, and they’d love him anyway.  Michael enjoyed bein' on a roll, and he usually was.
This was one cool cat. Though he could be maddeningly aloof, I always liked him a lot. (I can picture him now, saying "What's not to like?")
One top of it all, I’ll always be deeply grateful to him--for the generosity he showed, in jump-starting a three decade radio career for me.  He certainly didn't have to help me--his direct opposite, in terms of being 'cool'--out. 
We were an unlikely pair, that's for sure. 

All these years, I've kind of felt like I 'snuck in the back door,'  to get that radio career going--but now that he’s gone, I know his was my best possible training, as squirrelly and nefarious as it sometimes seemed, at the time. I had to learn on the sly, but he trusted me to do it.
I was only two years younger, but couldn't even conceive of what his life was like...and in many ways, still can't.
Say what you will about him (and I know I just did), but it doesn’t even matter. Any of it.
Whatever anybody (including me) thinks, or ever thought about Michael Muirhead…he knew who he was, and he played the game of life like a guy carrying  four extra Aces in his inside pocket.
He had a damn good run, for life's first couple acts. That much is clear.  I'm especially saddened, to hear about those painful later years...and I've just gotta bet that his time at KRNW--that long gone, small-time radio station in Boulder-- was a highlight of his life...though I have no real way of knowing that.

All I know is, at a certain point in time--that being the early '70s--Michael Muirhead was the reigning Arbiter of Hip in Boulder, Colorado.
And yeah, I keep coming back to that one word...'cool.' Whatever that is, he had it. 

And if I said it was 'hard to know how to say goodbye' to such a person, I'd be lying...because Michael taught me well. Listen.
...it's a cinch, man:

Ciao, Michael.

This opinion column and ALL photographs herein are Copyright 2015 by Peter Rodman, except as indicated. All Rights Reserved. No additional publication or copying of this material is allowed without the express written permission of the author/photographer.  


  1. Peter, an apt tribute to one of the most interesting people I have had the pleasure of calling my friend. Michael and I were close his last years in Upstate New York and I will miss him tremendously. Well done.

  2. Peter, Thank you for your fitting tribute to Muirhead. He was a friend of mine in Boulder. I have thought of him over the years and wondered what happened to him. He just disappeared from Boulder one day. I always figured the town, as hip as it was, just got too small for his level of coolness. I always felt somewhat honored that Michael thought I was cool enough to be his friend. I went to business school. I got a corporate job. Bought a house on the Hill. You would think those thing would disqualify me. I heard from someone (maybe Otis Taylor?) awhile back that Michael had been living in a small upstate New York town. By the way, I also had the "trial by fire" experience of being told to handle the board while Michael went down the street for a box of Shermans, or whatever, he giving me a 10 second overview of how to speak into the mic, and tee up the next track. I will always treasure my memories of Michael Muirhead, one of the coolest dudes I ever knew. Sorry to learn of his passing. The world loses some of its charm with Michael gone.
    Michael Choniski