Dennis Elsas knows how to get the stars taking and put them at ease. To wit, when he casually invited John Lennon in 1974 to stop by sometime for his Saturday afternoon shift at WNEW-FM in New York City – the legendary album rock station where Elsas was heard on the air for over a quarter century and also served as music director – the former Beatle ended up spending hours with Dennis sharing his favorite songs and even reading live commercials and the weather report on air… plus talking about whether the Beatles would ever reunite, his struggle to stay in America and much more regarding his life and music. Over the years he’s conducted intimate and revelatory interviews with such iconic artists as The Who’s Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, Ray Davies, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia and numerous others.
The tradition continues today at New York’s WFUV-FM, where Elsas keeps the progressive album rock radio tradition he helped create wonderfully alive on his 2-6 PM weekday afternoon shift. Dennis also shares his memories and extensive knowledge of rock music on Sirius/XM’s Classic Vinyl channel every Friday and Saturday evening. You can listen to many of the interviews from his archives at www.denniselsas.com.
Not long ago, Robert Plant called Dennis from England to talk about his time exploring the backroads of America while living in Austin, TX for a number of years with then-girlfriend Patty Griffin, his return to the English Midlands where he was raised, his love for football – or soccer, as we call it here – and his new album lullaby and… the Ceaseless Roar (on Nonesuch Records), and most recent band he recorded the disc and recently toured with, The Sensational Space Shifters.
Dennis Elsas: You did a promotional video in advance of the album and on it we see you driving in a car and you say “These songs are an ode to life and love and the fragile adventure that you set out upon unknowingly and unwittingly,” which kind of sets the table for the idea. It certainly set the table for this beautiful visual representation. Are you in the English countryside?
Robert Plant: Yeah. Well right now I’m in the city of Worcester, which was one of the hotbeds of the great Civil War between Cromwell and Charles the First, and I’m surrounded by Cromwellians as I speak. Uh, yes, of course, I mean that’s what I came back to. I came back to everything I’d thought I left. I mean talk about coming and going fast. I was raised not too far from here and I travel all around the place, going “Baby Baby” all the time.
So I got to a point down the line where I thought, well, maybe now I need to change cassette, change places just see what it’s like in another culture. And I was welcomed into America not just as an entertainer but as a friend and a sort of a yeah with so many musicians and stuff. And I finally had time to absorb America, kind of off duty if you like. But as time went on, I started missing my family and I missed lots of… the climate to be honest. I missed so many things. I missed the ancientness of my own culture.The antiquarian elements of the Welsh borders of Britain, and that’s how you see it. I didn’t want to become too detached. And I was welcomed back and everybody said, “Planty, you’re back. It’s time for cider.” And got the old apple juice out and now I don’t know what I’m talking about. (laughs)
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DE: Well you’re back with a terrific album. It was interesting as I was listening to “Pocketful of Golden,” there was no way to avoid the fact that there was a line in there that harkened right back to a song you had written. In fact, I think it was the first song that you wrote all of the lyrics for for Zeppelin.
DE: “If the sun refused to shine” in “Pocketful of Golden,” were you referencing the “Thank You” song?
RP: Yes. I wanted to start off with something that would arrest people and go, “Oh gosh, he’s got nothing left to say.” And then of course from there on the story elaborates so it’s not just a teen ballad anymore. It’s a sort of extension of what you give, what you get, and what you pay to get where you are.
DE: Radio people like myself always like songs about musicians and bands listening to the radio. And there’s a wonderful song in here called “Turn It Up.” Which seems to be part of a journey in which you’re driving in perhaps Mississippi.
RP: Yeah, that’s right.
DE: Tell me a little bit about that song.
RP: Well I had time in America where I had no calendar and no diary, and I had time to explore. I traveled through West Texas and down into the Mexican borders and stuff. And I traveled to see my friends in town there by Tutwiler [MS] and Clarksdale [MS]. I came out of the hill country on the Tennessee border and made my way from Como [TN] in the hill country and dropped down into the flat lands there, which I’d read about and heard about and listened to songs about since I was 14. I‘ve read all the [folklorists] Alan Lomax stuff and Samuel B. Charters, listened to Studs Terkel interviewing Son House, and all that kind of stuff. And I’ve always been intrigued by that culture of Afro-America, and the huge struggle, and the sort of development and a new dignity, I’d like to hope.
So I was driving now as a total voyeur rather than a musician on a tour, and I was just writing down what I thought and I felt. And it was the first opportunity that I really had to do that – drive through torrential rain like I was back in Wales… but I wasn’t. I was nowhere near the Welsh thing. Nowhere near the British thing. I was right in the middle of post-Africa America.
DE: I was fortunate enough to see the show that you did with the Space Shifters in Brooklyn [at] “Celebrate Brooklyn” in Prospect Park.
RP: That was great, yeah.
DE: I loved that performance and I realized as I was watching it – I’ve seen you all through the years including with Alison Krauss and Band of Joy on several times – but it seemed as if now, being back with the Sensational Space Shifters, there were no boundaries. There was this wonderful free mix of whatever it is that the new album is a reflection of, and as you said, when you would sort of give a little shout-out to your past, you could move easily in and out of that. So I think the audience that had come to relive their past a little bit was made comfortable, and then you were just taking them on this new adventure. Is that the game plan?
RP: Yeah, I think it’s a mélange and every artist has that will or wish, and you have to go about building it with everything considered. And you have to make sure that, ironically and selfishly, the first thing you consider is yourself. So I just found that by melding with these guys, there’s a sort of humor and a sort of humanitarian crazy sort of ambience about everything that we do, so sometimes we can dwell on the song with great drama, sometimes it’ll be a crescendo within the song. Sometimes it’ll go to nothing at all, just leave me singing by myself against nothing. And then maybe Dave [Smith] plays a little thing on the hi hat. Because he thinks I can’t keep time. Drummers do that. Yeah, it’s just a freedom. Freedom with a great deal of history that I have to and am very happy to acknowledge and show respect to.
DE: So basically the Strange Sensations have morphed into Sensational Space Shifters with the addition of a few additional musicians?
RP: Yeah, Strange Sensations [Plant’s 2001-’07 backing band] have morphed and our original drummer [Clive Deamer] during the interim when I was with Patty [Griffin] and with Alison Krauss and with Buddy [Miller] and so on, and he went off and worked with Radiohead for a year and everybody did different things. And when I came back to the UK, I called [multi-instrumentalist] Justin [Adams] and I said “I’ve got to wail again, man. It’s time to wail.” And so he brought in his drummer that he’d been working with, Dave Smith. Dave, at the age of 18, saved all his money and flew to West Africa and went full-in to learning West African rhythms. So not only can he play tough, sort of rock-infused music, but he’s got this kind of poly-rhythmic thing which works great with Juldeh [Camara], as you saw, you know, the West African thing. He’s right there. It’s not like getting an average drummer and teaching him how to play that stuff. It’s really… the crescendos and the detail is amazing, but the effect is even better.
DE: So America has suddenly fallen in love with soccer, and I think you at least have to tell us a little bit about the Wolverhampton Wanderers and your involvement with them.
RP: My involvement with them has been millions and millions of hangovers, thousands and thousands of tears. Girlfriends who have left me because I had to make a choice… because I had to go to the Wolves… or to the dogs. So I just love the idea of this community of crackpots, crazy guys and women who go week after week, month after month, year after year. I sit next to the same guy – I think he’s got cystitis – and he goes to the toilet and the Wolves score a goal and he comes back feeling deflated but feeling better. It’s just the comedy of life, and the irony and the sort of pain of it all. It’s just great; you know what it’s like. It’s just like being married, except you marry a bloody soccer team, which is nuts.
Listen to the original audio interview on WFUV here. If you live in the New York metro area, join Dennis at his live multimedia presentation “Rock’n’Roll Never Forgets” for a fascinating journey through the history of rock radio on October 3rd at Rockland Community College in Suffern, NY at 8 PM. Click here for more information.
Dennis was hired at WNEW-FM by the station’s program director, Scott Muni, one of the legendary DJs he had grown up listening to. He quickly ascended to the position of Music Director, and received the rock ‘n’ roll music industry education of a lifetime. The station was emerging as one of the premiere rock radio stations and Dennis was integral to creating its sound. He was also meeting and interviewing a stream of rock ‘n’ roll heroes, including Elton John, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Lennon was his in-studio guest on Saturday afternoon, September 28, 1974. They had met previously at the Record Plant Recording Studio as Lennon was finishing his latest album Walls and Bridges. During the conversation, Elsas casually invited him to visit WNEW-FM. When Lennon actually showed up, Dennis was more than a little surprised. What began as a discussion of the new album quickly turned into two hours of rare Beatles memories, speculation on a reunion, and candor about his immigration fight. Lennon even took over as DJ, playing some favorite, obscure 45s he’d brought with him, reading live commercials, and giving the weather reports.
Years later, excerpts of that historic afternoon were used in the Beatles Anthology, numerous books, and various documentaries. The entire show has become part of the permanent collection of the Paley Center For Media (formally the Museum of Television and Radio). It is also a pivotal part of the recent award winning PBS American Masters film “LENNONNYC”.
The interview also inspired Elsas to produce, co-write and host the radio documentary, It Was Forty Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America which won a number of prestigious awards (e.g. New York State Broadcasters Association Best Documentary, New York Festivals World Medal.) It aired on WFUV in February, 2004. Revised for the fiftieth anniversary in 2014, it is now featured in the Grammy Museum’s traveling exhibit Ladies and Gentleman…The Beatles!
In May 1976, Dennis took over the prime 6-10 PM slot on WNEW-FM, bringing his creative programming of the station’s vast rock ‘n’ roll record library to the nighttime audience. Rock ‘n’ roll history was being made at 102.7, and whether he was in the studio with Meatloaf, backstage with Bob Seger or onstage with John Mellencamp, Dennis was sharing the experience with his listeners. In the 1980’s he created the popular Beach Party program. The station became known as the place “Where Rock Lives” and Elsas remained there through 1998.
While still at WNEW-FM, Dennis expanded his broadcasting activities to include two years as the music correspondent for television’s PM Magazine, and to host such syndicated radio shows as Rock Today, Rock ‘n Roll Never Forgets and Billboard Entertainment News.
Dennis’ voiceover career also grew with numerous projects for HBO, Cinemax, Showtime and The Movie Channel. Corporate and commercial clients included American Express, Time, Lancôme, Procter and Gamble, and Kraft Foods. He is now featured as the “Voice of Rock History” at the Museum at Bethel Woods – the story of the Sixties and Woodstock – and has been the announcer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame broadcasts and VH1’s Concert of the Century at the White House. Dennis was the narrator of Discovery Magazine on the Discover Network and the “voice” of the Smithsonian Channel.
But his abiding passion is to be on the air, programming music that blends old favorites with new discoveries, interviewing artists and interacting with his listeners. Today he’s happily doing that seven days a week.
Since the summer of 2000 he’s been hosting weekday afternoons (2-6 PM) on New York’s WFUV (90.7 FM, and streaming at WFUV.org). With an eclectic mix of rock, folk, jazz and blues and, guests in the studio that have included Elvis Costello, Ben Folds, Patti Smith, Edie Brickell and Ringo Starr, Dennis continues the tradition of progressive radio he helped to create.
In May 2004 he joined Sirius/XM’s Classic Vinyl (26) and can be heard every Saturday and Sunday sharing his Classic Rock knowledge and memories with a worldwide audience.
In 2010 Dennis created Rock ‘n’ Roll Never Forgets – a live multimedia show featuring highlights from his history making interviews with John Lennon, Elton John, Jerry Garcia and more. As one of the pioneers of the progressive FM radio revolution at WNEW-FM and continuing today with new opportunities at WFUV and Sirius/XM, Dennis shares his favorite stories and unique perspective on rock and radio in person with enthusiastic audiences.