Tune in to The Wax Museum for a classic rock trip through the deepest grooves
Sitting in on a Wax Museum radio show is a little like hanging in a scene of the 2009 film Pirate Radio. Small stacks of vinyl records, full LPs and 45s, are scattered about the studio; some are pristine, some worn and some are kept in old, chipping, painted metal carrying cases straight out of 1965. And the small group of people present are there just to hang out, revel in the music and add some color to the show. And they love it.
However, there are a few slight differences: Pirate Radio, a film about a rebel rock station broadcasting rock and pop to the United Kingdom while anchored in the North Sea, is set in the 1960s when the music they so scandalously played was current. The Wax Museum plays some of the same music, just a few decades later. The “pirates” were out floating on the sea; the radio show is in East Syracuse. And the English government was on a mission to shut the shipbound deejays down because of the music they played; The Wax Museum is, thankfully, legal.
Although there are no English accents on the program (the hosts would probably do impressions in a heartbeat) and the government has stayed off their backs, Ronnie Dark, John “The Commander” Walsh and Mike “The Night Owl” Adams are still fighting a battle of their own. In a time of endless musical options and all types of radio formats, the Museum men are bringing it back to the basics—and it sounds incredible.
The Wax Museum airs Sundays from 7 to 10 p.m. on WVOA-FM 95.3, a Christian station, and can be streamed online from wvoaradio.com worldwide. The hosts each bring in a stack of records from their extensive vinyl libraries, which collectively amount to more than 260,000 albums, and for three hours, it’s as if CDs, computers and Napster never happened. They also host frequent phone interviews and in-studio guests, including a group of veteran Syracuse musicians slated to appear on Sunday, Feb. 19, for a “History of Syracuse Music” program.
At the start of the show, the three amigos share what they’ve brought for the night and begin lining up the records. Before too long, others trickle in, often with their own stacks in hand. The guests casually pull up chairs or stand in doorways as Dark functions like a conductor. He coordinates the entire show, throwing in commercials and station ID information as well as rotating the albums, cleaning each before it spins, controlling the conversation as the song breaks come up and often hosting special guests on the show.
Dark keeps a log of each night’s playlist and when he’s not on air, he pounds the pavement to find sponsors. He also promotes the show through social media in addition to playing guitar with local group Down to Funk and bass with Dan Elliott and the Monterays. And he makes it look easy.
Conversations bounce around the room like orbs in a pinball machine. Talk of a band or a specific musician will come up and the place erupts with impeccable historical accounts, led primarily by Dark and Walsh. “He was the guitarist of this band before joining this band on this label, and the guy who produced this album also did that, and the bass player on that album actually produced the guitarist of this band…” The facts keep flying as everyone in the room tries to string together one song after another that often follows some common thread.
It’s a whirlwind of activity contained in a tiny room at the end of an old trailer. It might not seem like much, but the old, homey atmosphere fits the vibe of the show perfectly. Since June 7, 2009, when the show first aired, Dark has been making his dream show happen and grow, one album, one hour, at a time.
It’s gained such a following that Dark is bringing new themes and shows to the airwaves. For this Sunday’s “History of Syracuse Music,” Dan Elliott of the Monterays, singer-bassist Isreal Hagan, Hammond B3 player of The Coachmen (and New Times photographer) Michael Davis and others will all join the party, bringing their own stories and knowledge to share.
Dark, 35, grew up in East Syracuse and, thanks to his father, Ronald G. Lauback, also a musician, developed a classic rock bent when it came to musical taste. Growing up, he’d sit in his living room for hours listening to 2112 (Mercury, 1976) by Rush; he also played Styx, Electric Light Orchestra, Heart, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick and a comprehensive list of others. His long history of loving music is obvious in any exchange with him and is the very reason The Wax Museum exists as it does today.
“There was a time when radio, 40 years ago, you didn’t have classic rock. It was current rock,” he explains. “It was what was going on and record labels were probably putting out 100 albums a month. So only a fraction of those got some airplay and then an even smaller fraction became big hits. So you could hear songs from groups for three or four months and then never hear them again. But people remember those songs. They were big for their time and stations had much deeper playlists. Today it’s the same. There’s like eight songs, if that, that they play of Styx or Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin. It’s our job to go back and go deep.”
The group does just that. A typical playlist will skip around The Buckinghams and The Byrds to Crabby Appleton, Jimmy Reed and Bread to Bruce Springsteen, Three Dog Night, The Allman Brothers and Genesis. Depending on who brings what music, the show can, and usually does, take unexpected turns in all directions, which is all part of the charm.
“We play the garage bands, progressive rock, surf music, but I’d say especially over the last five months the listenership has reached a point where now we’re getting requests,” Dark says. “People are calling us for requests, placing them on our Facebook page. It’s starting to take off.”
“No request is too strange,” Adams chimes in. “A lot of places say, ‘Oh, we don’t have that.’ Well, we do.”
“Well, yeah, because Mike has a quarter of a million records in his barns up in Palermo,” Walsh chimes in.
The Wax Museum didn’t always have so many albums to choose from and for some time didn’t even have a station to support its mission. Dark, who earned a degree in radio and audio recording production from Ithaca College, worked at WTKW-FM 99.5 from his 1999 graduation until October 2008. He became familiar with the mixing board by engineering various shows on the station and on Sundays would work the program Breakfast with The Beatles from 8 to 9 a.m. before running to the Regional Market’s flea market and returning to the station for another program at 10 a.m. In his short sprints to the market on frantic hunts for records, he started passing by familiar faces, including Walsh and Adams.
“I met Ron probably six or seven years ago,” Walsh says. “I was a record collector and I’d see these guys there every week and think, ‘They’re on my turf!’ but then my friend introduced me to Ron and we became a little closer…”
“We bonded like glue!” Dark pipes in.
Adds Walsh: “The weird way it happened is I said, ‘When’s your birthday?’ and he goes, ‘The same day as Chuck Berry’s.’ and I go, ‘Get outta here,’ because everything’s gotta be about music. That’s how we found out we had the same birthday.”
Dark pitched the show to TK99 but it was never picked up. It wasn’t until after working as an engineer on other WVOA shows that he decided to take the idea to station owners Sam Furco and Craig Fox, who also own WOLF-FM 105.1, WOLF-AM 1490 and WMVN-FM 100.3. Although WVOA is a Christian station, the classic rock format works on the weekends when the station has open air available for variety broadcasting; Radio Bosnia also fills some air time. They gave Dark the go-ahead in January 2009 and he started picking up paid sponsors including The Music Center in East Syracuse, Off Center Records in Utica, Books and Melodies on James Street, Mac’s Bad Art Bar in Mattydale and Speno Music in Auburn.
By June 2009, he was ready, starting with one hour on Sunday nights, but knew the show needed more than just himself and a few records. He asked Walsh to join and started coming up with jingles, artwork, even a name for the show. He had originally planned on calling it Out of the Garage, but he didn’t want to exclude more polished bands like REO Speedwagon and Rush. He decided to make the switch to The Wax Museum and with the help of a friend, Steve Alexander, slogans like, “Don’t be scared, it’s only vinyl” and “The ultimate dimension in rock” were developed and are still used today.
Dark also had the task of professionally writing, playing and recording the program’s intro music, promotional breaks for the show and ads for many of the sponsors. He also had Walsh come in to help voice some of the commercials and eventually got him in for a show.
“My plan all along was to bring him in,” Dark says. “I know that I’m not a funny person and I’m the first to admit it. My job is to be more like the referee and let these guys and whoever else hangs out or talks on the air be like color commentary and then I’m the one who wraps it all together. I thought it would be too dry by myself, so I wanted someone else as a sidekick and I knew that John was the guy.”
Dark didn’t get him in until a few weeks into the show, but as soon as he did he slapped the microphone right under Walsh and off they went. Adams came along later, in June 2010, after hearing of the program through Facebook and listening to a few shows. Once he started coming in with records, he became a permanent fixture.
“A lot of time we meet up at record stores, even unplanned,” Adams explains as he talks about stores in Syracuse, Ithaca, Utica and beyond. “Alcoholics hang out at a bar. Vinyl junkies hang out at a record store. It’s fun. We bring our findings here. It’s like a party every Sunday. But instead of playing records in a living room, we’re playing records on a radio station.”
Others have found a similar appeal in the experience, including local fans and frequent visitors to the show, Tony Busco and Steve Kratz. The story is the same with every fan that joins the show in the studio: They started noticing the trio of hosts marching through record sales and stores, eventually talk of the show cropped up and once they were invited to sit in on the show, they never stopped. Busco has only missed three shows in three years and Kratz has stopped by on and off for two years.
Although both enjoy the music, the interviews hosted on the show also hold great appeal for curious listeners, “He’s interviewed some really good names here in the three years it’s been on,” Kratz explains.
“And people that would not normally be interviewed,” Busco adds. “They’ve done a lot to research it, too.”
On that list are artists including Eddie Money’s guitarist, Tommy Girvin; Jimmy Walker of The Knickerbockers; Richard Williams of Kansas; Dr. Elmo; Felix Cavaliere; and local groups including Born Again Rebels. Some groups have even played live, in-studio during the show. “They get to play on the radio which can be heard worldwide on the web,” Kratz puts in perspective. “Anybody can hear it. You don’t know who’s gonna hear you on any given night. It’s the chance to get out there somewhere.”
Both hosts and fans of the show are hopeful that with enough interest, more sponsors will hop on board, allowing the show to expand into another hour and perhaps beyond. Kratz has no doubts Dark is on the right path: “He’s got the drive to do it.”
That’s something that never stops with the curators of The Wax Museum. Even after three hours of vinyl spins come to a close and the collectors pack up their precious property, as the group exits the station, they continue talking about this guitarist and that band and who to have next on the show. For them, it’s all about the music. And that’s what sounds best.