Funny how these things can leap into your mind as if from nowhere. Last week, when the British media world was abuzz with the news that Radio One would soon be getting a new breakfast DJ for the first time in nearly a decade, a few friends started randomly Tweeting entirely false rumours about who would be in line for the gig. My sole contribution to the gag came with a joke I knew would only be got by a select few, a few whom I hoped would cheerfully identify themselves:
"Rex Bob Lowenstein for Radio One breakfast".
Needing to enlighten those who had no clue as to what I was on about, I searched for a page which would explain all. Yet none seemed to exist, a situation it seemed only appropriate to now attempt to rectify.
Originally from North Carolina, Mark Germino moved to Nashville in the mid-1970s and swiftly became part of a new golden generation of C&W and folk stars, a contemporary to the likes of Lyle Lovett, Nancy Griffith, Vince Gill and Steve Earle, all of whom had varying degrees of success upon being handed record deals in the mid-80s. More folk-poet than country star, over 50 of Germino’s songs had been recorded by other artists before (thanks largely to the urging of Steve Earle) he was finally handed a record deal of his own.
It was his second album Caught In The Act Of Being Ourselves which contained the track for which he is arguably most famous, on these shores at least. The 1987 version of Rex Bob Lowenstein is a gentle but acerbic acoustic ballad about the kind of everyman character we all imagine used to occupy the airwaves of small-town radio stations up and down America. His name? Rex Bob Lowenstein.
“He puts two or three eggs in him, and he’s in your car by 6am”
Rex is the veteran breakfast DJ on station WANT, a man with wide-ranging music tastes and a penchant for sharing those with his audience, accepting their requests and being unafraid to present what might to the trained ear be jarring clashes of styles.
“He’ll play Stanley Jordan, The Dead and Little Feat and he’ll even play the band from the college down the street”.
Rex is, as the first chorus reveals “47 going on 16”, still in possession of a youthful joy in music and excited by the privilege he has of sharing it with his audience.
“He’ll talk to the truckers on the interstate strip, the housewife and the car dealership. When his second wife left him for a paper millionaire, he cried unashamedly right on the air.”
You start to understand just why Mark Germino was so highly regarded as a Nashville songwriter. This is utter poetry and the song has only just got going. Yet there are dark clouds on the horizon of Rex Bob’s world, for his entire reason for being is about to be turned upside down.
“Now one day a man in a pinstripe suit took the owner of the station to a restaurant booth. His pitch was simple: you’ll increase your sales if you only play the songlist we send in the mail.”
This was 1987 remember when the wholesale homogenisation of broadcast radio was only just starting to flicker into life, but even 25 years later the song has the capacity to send a chill down the spines of any radio lover listening. And as for what that means for Rex:
“But your drive time jock won’t get to do his thing, hey he’s not half bad tell me what’s his name.”
Rex’s reaction to the new format is a natural one for a man in his position. He goes berserk.
“He locked and bolted the control room door, and played smash and trash ‘til they cuffed him on the floor. Well they dragged him into court and the judge said ‘Rex, I gotta lock you up for what I’m not sure yet. But your boss here says he thinks you’re wrapped too tight…”
And at this point the song pauses for a few beats before the judge delivers the inevitably ironic payoff line:
“But by the way, thanks for playing Moon River last night.”
The final chorus finishes with Rex’s ultimate overriding philosophy and desire just to be free in every sense of the word and a line which repeats over and over on the fadeout:
“He could play it all if he was just set free. Just to find what the people W.A.N.T.”
Contrary to what many online biographies of Germino would have you believe, the song and album were never hits in this country. The one man who loved Rex Bob Lowenstein was Roger Scott who in 1988 inherited the Saturday afternoon show on Radio One and who was responsible for evangelising about the track. Upon his urging it was belatedly released as a single here in April 1989 but the track limped merely to Number 98 and remains to this day something of a lost classic. Roger Scott passed away later that year, leading to many of his fellow presenters to air his favourite track in tribute to their colleague, and it is almost certainly these plays throughout the Radio One schedule which are the reason the memories of the song chime with so many people.
This wasn’t, however, quite the end of the story. For his next album, 1991s Radartown, Germino ditched the musicians with which he had made his first two recordings and formed a roots-rock outfit dubbed Mark Germino and the Sluggers. With a possible eye on more mainstream commercial success, the band recorded Version 2 of Rex Bob Lowenstein, lyrically and melodically identical but this time with a chiming upbeat country-rock feel.
Recording new versions of “Rex Bob Lowenstein” became something of a Germino tradition from that point on. The Sluggers’ next album “Rank and File” was notoriously recorded in the space of eight days in 1995, entirely acoustic and naturally featuring a third version of the tale of WANT’s most famous disc jockey.
(despite the screenshot used by the uploader of the YouTube video, this is indeed the acoustic version from the Rank & File album).
Mark Germino vanished from the music scene for over two decades afterwards, re-emerging in 2007 with the album Atomic Candlestick which sadly failed to feature a new version of Rex Bob Lowenstein, but I guess by then he felt it was time to move on. Maybe three versions is enough after all. Much of Mark Germino’s catalogue is hard to track down in this country. Although Amazon list a couple of them on CD, you will search in vain for his name in online stores and he is entirely absent from the Spotify catalogue. It therefore seems entirely appropriate to pen these words in tribute to the greatest song about radio ever written and finally give it the online status it deserves. Rex Bob deserves nothing less.