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Mobtown Beat

Bob Lopez


Tom Chalkley

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 6/1/2005

The last time I saw Bob Lopez was a brief encounter more than two years ago, at a bar mitzvah. He was looking plump and pleased with life. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, but we didn’t get a chance to talk. Last year I heard he had cancer; last week he died from it, at the age of 52.

Not being a listener of 98 Rock, the station where Lopez held forth for 27 years as newsman and commentator, I wasn’t aware of his struggle on a daily basis. I’d think of him occasionally and remind myself, “Gotta go see him!”

But I never made the trip. Instead of feeling guilty—Lopez didn’t lack for well-wishers—I just feel like I cheated myself of a final conversation. Unlike his radio audience, I’ll never know what Lopez had to say about death and dying—or about the war in Iraq, or local politics, or current pop culture, or anything that has happened since the mid-’90s.

At a crowded, explicitly nonreligious memorial service last week in Timonium, old friends and colleagues said Lopez handled his fatal illness with humor and skeptical philosophy—just the way he’d handled life. “‘They keep saying that I’m battling cancer,’” someone quoted him as saying. “‘But these guys [the doctors] are doing all the fighting. My body’s the battlefield.’”

I first got to know Lopez about 25 years ago. The occasion was inauspicious: A friend of mine had written him a letter, boldly questioning why a smart guy like Lopez had linked his fortune to the testosterone-driven programming of 98 Rock. Lopez responded immediately, with a typed letter, brusquely acknowledging my pal’s left-handed praise, listing several good reasons for having a high-profile radio job, and demanding to know who the hell my pal thought he was, anyway. The upshot of this prickly exchange was that they decided to get together for lunch, and I (who shared my pal’s opinions) tagged along.

We hit it off immediately. Lopez was funny, literate, politically savvy, quick-witted, and, in spite of it all, a good listener. When he was amused, his small, cupid’s-bow mouth would curl into a happy smirk.

Our friendship happened in episodes. In the ’80s and early ’90s, when I got involved in a series of social and political issues, Lopez would put me on his show to talk about whatever quixotic campaign I was pushing at the time.

Lopez was (for me) a friendly interviewer, but he asked challenging questions designed to educate his listeners. On a couple of occasions, he stepped in—perhaps too quickly—to rescue me from hostile callers to the station.

Off the air, he’d express admiration for my activist impulses, laced with skepticism about the causes. The obituaries and memorial speeches described him as “liberal,” but my impression was that Lopez never subscribed to a wholesale package of political ideas. He was an independent, “small-L” libertarian whose scorn extended to bureaucrats, politicians, white-collar criminals, and corporate polluters. I remember that we disagreed strongly on the 1990 war with Iraq; he was in favor of it.

When I quit a long-held job activist job in 1987, Lopez invited me out to lunch to celebrate; he thought I should be doing something more creative.

Over chili at the Charles Village Pub, he told me an outrageous story about his first real job as a teenager, washing dishes at a greasy spoon in Prince George’s County. After Lopez left the job, the fat, bad-tempered owner died, leaving a fortune to his long-suffering waitress and the kid who’d taken Lopez’s place. We turned the memoir into a comics piece that was published in Robert Crumb’s legendary Weirdo magazine.

In 1994, I happened to be with Lopez when the great baseball strike ended. 98 Rock had turned the long, gameless summer into an epic publicity stunt, with Lopez’s on-air partner (and off-air rival) Bob Rivers confining himself to the studio for the duration of the strike, boosting his own celebrity in the process. Lopez and his wife had dared to take the night off and go to a concert in D.C.—the very un-98 Rock-ish Penguin Café Orchestra—with my wife and me. We learned of the strike’s end when we got back to the car. All the way up I-95, Lopez floored the gas pedal and practically chewed the steering wheel, cursing the fact that Rivers—“Rivers!” he snarled—was in the studio, basking in the limelight. This was a wildly competitive, insecure side of Lopez that I hadn’t seen before.

Even when attempting to relax, Lopez was pretty intense. One summer, we decided to go camping together, with the specific purpose of using his hefty astronomical telescope. As dusk approached, we waited for Lopez’s boyhood pal Tyson to arrive with a tent, which turned out to be a huge, vintage 1960 Boy Scout contraption of heavy canvas and interlocking aluminum poles, minus directions. I will never forget the comedy of three male know-it-alls, all buzzed on Jolt Cola, fumbling with that tent in the deepening darkness. Failure was impossible.

The great moment came when we carted the telescope into an open meadow and Lopez tilted it toward faraway nebulae. “Chalkley,” he said—I can hear his crisp, resonant delivery— “the light you see left that galaxy when dinosaurs roamed the earth.” The cosmos, he said, reassured him that humanity’s melodrama was pretty unimportant in the big picture. He invited some other campers, a father and son, to come and take a look at Saturn. “Gosh,” the dad said, “Saturn looks like a big CBS logo.”

In the end, I hear, Lopez wondered aloud whether he’d had any positive impact in the world. For 27 years, he gave generations of sullen, confused headbangers a glimpse of intelligence and reason, a dose of heterodoxy, a constant counterpoint to the numskull ethos of commercial radio. He can’t be replaced. The one and only Lopez has gone to join the stars.

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