By Neal Karlen
Neal Karlen is the author of seven books, on subjects ranging from punk rock to minor league baseball and religious fundamentalism.
With the sudden death last week of local talk radio legend Dark Star, aka George Chapple, Minnesota lost another of its last remaining karmic links to its Damon Runyon-like past. Dark Star harked back to those long-ago days of entrance-code speakeasies, when the Twin Cities gave birth to the national weekly gambling point-spread, and gunmen on every corner wore pistols in their pockets and their hearts on their sleeves.
Not that Dark, as his friends called him, ever saw that era when the town embodied actual wild times and bizarre personalities. He was only 66, and wandered into town long after St. Paul's sense of shame and Minneapolis boy Mayor Hubert Humphrey had cleaned up the Twin Cities. Dark, who allegedly got his nom de plume while moonlighting as a horseracing handicapper in Los Angeles, lived his life as if it were a half-century earlier, when true local characters were given their due and not reduced to the status of anachronistic cartoon characters.
Dark lived with rolls of cash falling out of his pockets, with which he'd often treat young know-nothing midnight DJs to late-night pizzas; with a devotion to slaughterhouse cuts of blood red fatty meat and great vats of whole butter, and with a religious aversion to exercise of any kind. When he shot golf with Twins Manager Tom Kelly, Dark proudly rode a cart while TK walked.
His death certificate might say "heart failure," but no one doubts that George Chapple passed away because of a life lived unashamedly as Dark Star. He lived and died alone, and was only discovered dead last Friday after his apartment was encircled by worried friends who fretted when he failed to show up for his KFAN broadcast. He may have bulled his way through three-quarters of his life, on and off the air, but he would never miss a broadcast.
I first met Dark in the mid-1990s, when he mentored me on the intricacies of post-midnight broadcasting, before the powers that were at WCCO-AM allowed him to tromp over the more genteel primetime airwaves of the then-trumpeted "good neighbor to the Northwest."
Before he was deemed ready for prime time, managers stuck him on late, in the slot before 1 a.m., right before I often sat in. These were times of no apparent importance because no one was listening, and he was marooned because of his propensity for mentioning the unmentionable on air, including some of George Carlin's seven words no one ever said on the air. Even in his obituaries, a former boss groused that he "could be a little off-color," grudgingly admitting, "He was one of those people who got away with it."
And he did, seemingly leading an unexamined life lived exclusively off angles, bounces and leaked stories. He taught me how to also get away with it for four hours in the middle of the night, at that deadly existential hour that F. Scott Fitzgerald called the "real dark night of the soul [when] it is always 3 o'clock in the morning." Fitzgerald was speaking metaphorically. Dark spoke specifically to me about the insomniacs, lobster shifters, truckers and cranks who largely made up 'CCO's after-midnight audience, which at that time of the clear-channel night stretched virtually from Bakersfield to Bangor.
Dark told me I sounded frightened that there were cranks out there who knew the radio station's address. "I am afraid of the cranks," I told him. "They do have the address."
"They're just lonely," he'd say, "like you're just lonely, like I'm just lonely."
"But I'm not lonely, and neither are you," I'd point out, nodding toward the phalanx of hangers-on and good old boys the Dark Man always seemed to carry in his traveling troupe of glad-handers and local VIPs.
The answer to the dilemma of late night radio, he said, was to engage in unremitting bull excrement with the audience, trusting your gut no matter what came out. No one could famously fling the falsehoods like Dark, be it about a featherweight boxer, or why it was time for a granny in Cedar Falls to fall asleep, or a rain pattern ostensibly developing over Butte, Mont., that Dark saw only in the theater of his own mind.
"Just kill the time, baby," he'd say to me, "before the time kills you."
He encouraged me to play games with the bumper music that would have turned music publishing companies apoplectic (if they were listening, which of course they weren't) and to read the stultifying daily soap opera updates from the paper as a public service to the insomniacs who'd slept through their shows that day. He encouraged me to awaken friends from my normal day life and have them on in-studio to provide human, sane voices. He persuaded me to have the three leading contenders for the DFL gubernatorial nomination on at 3 a.m. to give the weather report.
We drifted apart over the years after I took an extended sabbatical from radio, and he fell back into his morass of buddies and sources and steak dinners at Hoyt's.
Rest easy, Dark Man. You killed the time with more joy than most of us are able to do.