“I’m here to announce the end of bad radio on this frequency.”
That’s how Marco Collins introduced himself to a Seattle audience at the beginning of his run as the most influential alternative rock DJ of the 90’s. The moment is depicted in a film about his life, The Glamour & the Squalor, which screens Saturday, December 5th at the Irenic in North Park.
Directed by first-time San Diego filmmaker Marq Evans, the award-winning documentary tracks Collins’ emergence as the tastemaker who broke some of the decade’s most iconic records. He’s credited with being the first commercial DJ to play such tunes as Beck’s starmaking “Loser,” and Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Most notably, Collins was the first to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the track that introduced the nation to Nirvana, and to the entire Seattle grunge scene.
In fact, he tells us in the film, he liked Teen Spirit so much he played it two or three times in a row — a seminal moment that jibes pretty well with what teens at the time were doing the minute they brought home their copies of the album Nevermind.
But as the film goes on, we see a current-day Collins scouring Seattle area pawn shops in search of the gold record he received for Nevermind, lost along with 30 crates of vinyl when he failed to pay rent on a storage locker. He spent the money on drugs instead, he recalls, and the contents of his career were subsequently sent to auction.
Collins has some San Diego roots — The Glamour and the Squalor was actually the name of his first radio show, at SDSU’s old college station KCR. But the two words pretty well summarize the ups and downs of his life and career, and over the course of the film we see him go from partying with rock stars to several stints in rehab.
Through on-camera interviews, archival footage and animated sequences, we trace the arc of Collins life, and he discusses his missteps as frankly as his successes. He also opens up about his homosexuality, championing the same sex marriage movement and sharing regret that he didn’t come out on air during his radio heyday, when he could have been an influential voice in support of young listeners struggling with their own orientations.
But the movie works best as a document of his place in music history — we simply don’t experience radio the same way anymore, and the idea a DJ could have nationwide impact in the internet era seems beyond anachronistic. In many ways, Collins was among the last of his kind.
He first worked his way onto commercial airwaves while living here in San Diego, answering request lines at 91X back when it was “the cutting edge of rock’n’roll,” then starting the station’s still-running, all-local-music show, Loudspeaker.
When 91X ownership wanted to replicate the success of its alternative format in other markets, Collins wound up moving to Seattle and becoming music director at the newly minted 107.7FM, “The End.”
A litany of rock stars appear throughout the documentary to stress the impact of Collins’ work at The End, where he’d pore through hundreds of records each month to hand-select songs that would go on to become hits. “I couldn’t be bought,” he says, “I listened to everything, but I played what I wanted.” It depicts a time when radio shows such as this didn’t just feel important, but vital, and even urgent.
In one of the film’s best moments, an old interview shows a light-hearted Kurt Cobain describing how Collins cleverly leaked an unfinished copy of In Utero on a Friday night so he could continue playing it through the weekend — before lawyers had a chance to file a cease and desist the following Monday.
There are fewer issues with the music playing throughout The Glamour & the Squalor — thanks to Collins’ music connections it’s got a way richer soundtrack than a small-budget documentary should, plus a score composed by Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. Fittingly, Saturday’s screening will be followed by live music from local bands curated by Collins: Octagrape and Big Bad Buffalo.
Sponsored by the Casbah and 91X, the one-night screening marks the film’s San Diego premiere, and will be followed by a Q&A with Collins and Evans, as well as producers Michelle Quisenberry, Andy Mininger and San Diegan Matt Hoyt, co-owner of Starlite lounge. It may be our best and only chance to catch this fascinating, locally produced rockumentary on the big screen before it goes to video distribution in early 2016.