Friday, March 24, 2017

1964 Was Fifty-Three Years Ago!

Yes, over half a century. If we're counting, I was nine years old.

I don't know about other nine-year-olds, but I, for one, was enveloped in music. Maybe all nine-year-old girls are -- I've never taken a survey. Or maybe we didn't have a lot going on in 1964 -- I remember The Ed Sullivan Show and black and white episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show that seemed like reruns, but they weren't.

I remember lying on my stomach in front of our giant console TV -- honestly, our TV was the epicenter of my life. But what else did I have, really? Sauntering into the kitchen to stir a packet of French's onion soup mix into a container of sour cream? At nine, that was the extent of my "cooking" knowledge.

Somebody -- my dad? My brother? bought me a tan rectangular transistor radio, which was THE BEST THING I EVER HAD IN MY LIFE. Everything I know or would ever know emanated from the cathode ray tubes of our Motorola or the scratchy sounds sprouting from the diamond-shaped holes of my transistor's speaker.

Those are the two things that set me on my life's path.

Of course, I didn't know that at the time. I had other stuff going on. For one, I went to school. I didn't want to go, but I made the best of it. I had my accordion lessons (yes). I trolled the streets of Grand Forks, North Dakota with my best friend and tried to find trouble (disclaimer:  I found it.) I did other dorky things, like tramp the dirt paths that surrounded our farm and make up melodies while chewing on a stalk of tall-leaf grass I'd plucked from its bed on the roadside. I played imaginary games inside the shelter belt behind our house; played pretend. I was big on "pretend", because there frankly wasn't much going on. I can say I at least learned how to use my right cortex. Many people born later never mastered that skill. I pondered the weird sounds that emanated from my dad's car radio -- goofy stuff like Dean Martin and the instrumentals of Billy Vaughn. I was in my dad's car a lot, considering any time I needed to get to town, my dad had to drive me the seven or eight miles along the gravel road, past our distant neighbors' pig farm and sundry sloppy/neat (depending upon their income) homesteads 'til we reached the blacktop, so he could drop me off at Cathy's house; wherein she and I would devise devious schemes to cause as much mayhem as nine-year-old minds could conjure.

The only thing that salved my endless restlessness, between the horror of sadistic Mrs. Granger's fourth grade classroom and interminable school bus rides was MY TRANSISTOR RADIO.

Looking back, I think was always old; I just didn't know it. I don't remember being cynical, but I believe I was. One should not be cynical at age nine. That's not to say I didn't marvel at the wonders of discovery (did I mention MY TRANSISTOR RADIO?). Music essentially saved my life and kept me living. Life in those days didn't consist of therapist appointments or "concerned teachers". Those things didn't happen or exist. Life was something you plowed through. It didn't even register that I had a crappy home life. Everybody's life was crappy -- that's how life was. One lived for the fleeting happy moments, like floating tied inside a life vest in a seaweed-strewn lake on a Sunday afternoon, far away from Mom, far enough away to not hear the bitching and unremitting criticism. Life consisted of diverting. That was how we dealt with it. A half hour in front of the TV, enveloped in Rob and Laura's latest escapade; a playful smile from Dad every so often; a big brother who taught her silly stuff and brought home new music and allowed her to listen to it. Two and a half minutes that seemed like thirty; shimmering from a round disc.

I hated my life at nine. Things were upside-down. Our family was oddly-formed -- a sister married with a baby of her own; two odd little child creatures inhabiting our household that Mom viewed as two little burdens, atop the huge burden that was me. She'd only wanted three kids; yet through no choice of her own, she ended up with three more; one freakish one and two who were kind of cute. Two little ones who held promise and one she had no earthly idea what to do with. The one who was a miniature version of her husband, for whom she held very little patience. That one was okay, as long as she performed -- got good grades in school, so Mom would at least have something to brag about. That one knew she was put on earth to perform and heaven help her if she didn't. That one kept stuff bottled up inside; dumb stuff like yearning to sing and wanting to fly away to somewhere where people would recognize her huge talent and would tell her she was pretty and pretty awesome. She kept wishing for that, but that never actually happened. So she soldiered on.


The stuff coming out of that radio speaker was wondrous and diverse. Strange -- each melody or turn of phrase got tucked inside a special pocket -- none of it gelled into a cohesive core, because it was all so divergent, and it flummoxed yet excited her. Some voices were not conventionally pleasing, yet they were. Some guitar riffs sounded discordant, but worked in a non-linear new world. Some singers were heavenly; some brass orchestrations punched her in the gut. 1964 was a pummel of sound.

She listened for the disc jockey to spout the name of the artists; rolled the names around on her tongue; memorized them; pondered their odd spelling; appreciated the weirdness in a nine-year-old way of appreciating. Learned, but never mastered, the art of four-part harmony. Recognized that Motown was significantly different from California pop, but accepted it all as simply "music". Assimilated the power of image from staring at her rare decorated 45-RPM sleeve. Wasn't sure why the Righteous Brothers were so righteous, but knew that that deep baritone reverberated somewhere deep inside her gut.

She would never be the same.

She obviously was in love with music, but didn't fall in love-love until a certain sound pierced her ears:

In hindsight, this recording wasn't all that. Listening to it today with mature ears, the sound is tinny, the vocal mix isn't George Martin's best effort. John doesn't really sound like John. He sounds harsh. There's no nuance. The harmonies are slap-dash. I'm thinking it was a first take. I will say, though, if I heard it for the first time now, in 2017, I'd be enraptured. It has something. I'd get online and research this new band that spells its name so strangely. In 1964 "online" meant what? My mom's clothesline? All I had was an orange and yellow disc and if I was lucky, a poster tacked up on the wall at Popplers Music Store. Somehow, maybe from Tiger Beat Magazine, I knew that these were four guys with "long hair" -- bearing in mind the accepted style of the day was crew cuts. They were English. I assumed John was Paul, because Paul was the cute one and therefore the best singer must be Paul. They hadn't yet made their American television debut, but by the time they did, I already had a treasure trove of favorite Beatle songs bunched in my heart -- She Loves You and Please Please Me and I Saw Her Standing There.

I was primed and ready to see, finally, in person, on my TV screen, the GREATEST THING THAT HAD EVER HAPPENED IN MY LIFE. I never ever asserted myself with my mom, because that would've only led to repercussions, but I asserted myself that Sunday night. I plopped myself dead in front of the black and white television screen, while Lassie once again saved Timmy, and refused to move, lest Mom change the channel on me before seven o'clock. I was so afraid that once Ed announced that night's guests Mom would say, the heck with this and flip the knob to Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color and I WOULD MISS IT AND MY LIFE WOULD BE OVER. Mercifully, neither Mom nor Dad cared enough to get up out of their upholstered easy chairs, so they left me to my own devices. Perhaps they both realized how crucial this TV appearance was to me. If so, that would have been the very first time they noticed me as a person. Maybe they saw me chewing my fingernails and realized I would have a breakdown if they deprived me. And no doubt I would have. In the fourth grade, it was very important to be up on pop culture. It was the difference between someone who would hide in the bushes at recess time and a kid who attracted a gaggle of admirers around her. But frankly, even if I didn't even know any other nine-year-old kids, seeing the Beatles...if I died tomorrow...would be etched in my mind as one of the greatest events of my life.

So, I guess I kind of liked the Beatles.

I was so in love with music in 1964 I thought I might explode.

There was this guy I saw on TV who wore sunglasses, on some show called The Lloyd Thaxton Show, apparently a syndicated program, which makes it even stranger that the little tiny town I was living in then carried it. Lloyd Thaxton was Shindig before there ever was a Shindig. My musical muscle memory was formed thanks to Lloyd Thaxton.

Anyway, this sunglasses guy growled. His voice reached up and touched heaven. I knew nothing about anybody named Roy Orbison -- I think I might have heard Blue Bayou once. This guy's voice I would never let go:

Then there were five California boys who did something I could never master -- sing in beautiful harmony -- and still keep that beat. I figured anyone who was anyone could do that. As far as I knew, good music appeared fully formed. I don't think I even consciously considered that someone had to write the song. The song just was, and people got up and performed it. I've since learned differently:

A band with a weird sounding name, again from England, whose lead singer sang words that meant nothing and yet something, yet nothing; but it didn't matter.

This little guy did a live album, live from the Whisky (sp) A-Go-Go. He had a bunch of hits from that album and I thought they were all his. I didn't know from Adam anyone named Chuck Berry. I guess my brother had played Chuck's song, No Particular Place To Go, for me a couple of times, but to my mind, the guy who sang this song was the guy responsible for it:

Being nine years old, I liked peppy songs. Those were my bread and butter. So it was unusual for me to fixate on any sound that was maudlin. I appreciated the dramatic songs for what they were, though, and somewhere inside the carbuncles of my heart stirred feelings. Most likely, if it wasn't for my big brother, I wouldn't have even tried to understand them. To wit:

Nineteen sixty-four was an odd time in my life. I experienced the exhilaration of, I guess, living the commercial life, with my mom moving me to my uncle's business in another town, another state; where I lived with my two cousins, and then moving me back home to my old school to face the most evil teacher I would ever be unfortunate enough to meet.

Let me tell you, the commercial life was far superior. I was as free as any nine-year-old in 1964 could be. Nineteen sixty-four was when I became a whole person -- when I congealed art and music and when I soared. My cousin Karen and I wrote (hand-drew) a comic book in 1964 that we sold to my uncle's patrons at the bar; a comic that combined penned illustrations with pop music. It was genius! Seriously, it was the most imaginative creation I ever conjured. I gave Karen half-credit, but it was ME. Three-quarters ME. I'd give all the money I have (which is a very puny amount) to get my hands on a copy of that comic. Damn, how we devalue stuff at the time and rue their loss fifty-three years later. I knew about country music, because it played ceaselessly on my uncle's juke box, but my veins coursed with unadulterated pop. Like this:

I wonder whatever happened to Little Millie Small. I would Google her, but I'm afraid the story wouldn't have ended well. I don't know why.

Nineteen sixty-four was more or less a watershed year in rock and roll. It had one toe still dipped in the previous decade, and a hand fluttering through the churning waters of awesome possibilities. The fifties were obsessed with girlfriends dying of horrible diseases -- and thus becoming angels -- and guys pining for them and swearing to God above they would never, ever forget their one true love. Maybe it was the atomic bomb scare. I don't actually know. I vaguely remember tales of people building underground bomb shelters, which I thought would be extremely cool. I always wanted a below-ground fort. I kind of remember seeing Khrushchev on TV. He was rather portly and bald and I didn't find bald-headed men attractive -- not even Mister Clean. President Kennedy had a nice head of thick hair and he was young like my dad, so I had no concerns about who would beat who in a war (whatever a war was). I frankly gave no thought to war -- I had a record player and playground cliques to contend with, which was war enough for me, thank you.

However, being nine, songs seemed like real life. We lived in the country, seven miles from town down a gravel washboard road, and my oldest sister (the rebel) had her driver's license; thus she got to ferry my other sister and my big brother home from town on Saturday nights. One night my mom and dad told me, shockingly, that Carole had rolled the car with the three teenagers in it. Astoundingly, when I inspected them, they all looked just fine. No scratches or bruises. It must have been one of those astronaut rolls. Nevertheless, this song haunted me every time it burst through the speakers of Mom's kitchen radio. It combined the earth angel vibe with unimaginable danger (sorry; apparently J Frank and his Cavaliers have no live performance videos):

Let me be clear about one thing -- Elvis didn't exist in my world. Elvis belonged to the fifties. My memories of Elvis are going to matinees with my best friend, Cathy, on Sunday afternoons and seeing him on the big screen, generally getting into fistfights and driving sleek sports cars and snorkeling and/or cliff diving, generally in Acapulco. I did marvel how he was able to get up on a deserted beach and do a song in the middle of the clambake, and his backing band was nowhere in sight, yet there was clearly a four-piece ensemble accompanying him as he snapped his fingers and swiveled his hips and snarled his left eyebrow. Even at the innocent age of nine, I was embarrassed for him. We laughed at him. We were prepubescent snobs.

Elvis had no top 100 recordings in 1964, so if you were waiting for an Elvis video, dang. He was busy doing songs like "Viva Las Vegas", which is rather a parody of itself. I would love to post the video just for fun, but since it didn't crack the top 100, out it stays. Although my dad did like the single, "Wooden Heart". Elvis's last big hit was apparently in 1962 -- "Return To Sender", which I thought was called, "Return to Cinda", Cinda being the name of some gal he loved and lost. Elvis needed to enunciate better.

However, I was enthralled with a single by a group that I don't think ever had another hit song. I wrote a whole post about this group, the Honeycombs, somewhere back in time. I'm fascinated, strangely, by their female drummer, which was frankly odd in 1964. I'm still of a mind that she was somebody's sister, and as all bands are, they were hard up for a drummer, so they gave Stella (no idea if that's her name) the gig. The thing one has to listen for, in this song, is the weird dissonance of sound. Most likely, they were just out of tune and I'm making far too much of it. But it worked! And "Stella" really added a kick of resonance to the track -- little did she know. She's a great-grandma now and one hell of a knitter. This song still holds up:

The Dave Clark Five were apparently the poor man's Beatles. That's not entirely fair. One has to appreciate a band for what it was and stop the comparisons. A friend a few years ago schooled me in the brilliance that was Mike Smith (and Mike Smith was cute). The Dave Clark Five was nothing like the Beatles -- they just happened to appear on the scene at the same time. Granted, one doesn't normally name a band after its drummer (or there would be a super group called Stella), and granted, they did record some cover songs. But I will say that I danced energetically at the YWCA Saturday afternoon dance with my best friend to "Over And Over", so the DC5 served an important purpose. And really, how could they ever be compared to the Beatles? After all, they were five and the Beatles were four. So there you go. 1964 was essentially owned by the Dave Clark Five (if one discounts the Beatles). They had five (apropos) singles in the Billboard Top 100. (And I don't know why, but I still remember that one of the guys was named Lenny):

Motown was a thing in 1964, a thing I didn't fully get. I liked the Four Tops because of one single, and I knew they recorded on Motown because Motown always slipped its records into colorful sleeves (that's my takeaway memory of Motown, sadly). I do know that I liked pretty things, and the Supremes wore pretty things. Unfortunately, this video is in black and white (and Mary Wilson was pretty - fyi):

Truth be known, 1964 was a cornucopia of competing sounds. A Jersey group had five singles in the Top 100 that year -- five! We're so snobbish now that we choose to forget, but the Four Seasons were hot in 1964. I chose this one from the five because my niece's name is Dawn (and yes, all the videos are spooky and grainy, so they are what they are):

It makes me laugh to remember that we were in that limbo in 1964, where somebody like Roy Orbison could soar and Manfred Mann could sing about a girl "walking down the street", and yet we had singles like this that busted to number twenty-two. I don't know what happened to Terry Stafford -- as far as I know, he could be living with Little Millie Small somewhere in Ohio. My older sister might shed some light on Terry -- he was of her time -- but the fact remains that he had a hit with this song:

I'm not sure how I missed this track when I was nine. Maybe I wasn't sure enough to dance in the street. I did dance in my living room, but every stupid little kid did that. Nevertheless, this is one of those songs that holds up, even fifty-three years later. Martha and the Vandellas recorded on Motown, but Berry Gordy siphoned all the good songs to Diana Ross (well, because...), except for this one. Oopsie, Diana didn't get her manicured claws on this song. One just never knows what will stand the test of time, does one?

I'm not going to lie, or subscribe to revisionist history. 1964 had some flaky, fluky hits. Here's a couple of the fluky, flaky ones that nevertheless scorched a hand print on our brains that is seared forever:

I don't know who Al Hirt is (was?). I know he played the trumpet, which me at nine referred to as "an instrument one blows into). Think Don Draper and you'll feel right at home:

The Trashmen is a rather deprecating name for a band -- it kind of signals defeat right from the get-go. However, this band (I've since learned) hailed from Minnesota, which is sort of my home state, and we're known for being self-deprecating here. I guess it's a Lutheran thing about not showing off. Nevertheless, I wouldn't name my band after garbage. Then again, if I'd recorded a song like this next one, "trash" would be fitting. Surprisingly, this was a big hit. It was in fact number seventy-five for the year 1964. I'll just say, you had to be there. Bear in mind that music was still essentially "new" -- transistor radios were the iPhones of the early sixties -- a marvel we hadn't yet learned to take for granted. We'd gobble up anything that came out of that tiny speaker. And novelty songs weren't really novelty -- they were just songs that blasted our ears with a tinny fervor. Thus:

And for something completely different:  My dad liked this song. My dad was pretty important in my life when I was nine. Generally, if he liked something, I liked it or at least learned to like it. Don't knock it; this was the number six song of the year:

The Serendipity Singers was an optimistic (and lucky!) name. Sadly, the serendipity didn't last past this song, which reached number 32 on the charts (which is still good, and judging by the number of times the DJ spun it, it really should have been much higher). And, as serendipity would have it, they lived out the rest of their working lives toiling away in grey-walled cubicles (just like me!), staring out the window, praying that it didn't rain. Sad, really. I see there are no live performance videos by the group, and judging by their pictures, their numbers seemed to multiply bizarrely. By the end of their reign, there were approximately one hundred and forty-nine Serendipity's. All the better to maintain anonymity. 

Bear in mind that I'm just reporting the news; not filtering it. One could call this next song "cheesy", but I bet once you hear it, it'll become an earworm. Think cigarette holders and martini glasses while you listen to:

Here's someone I always hated -- when I first heard Bobby Vinton on the radio, he was unnaturally obsessed with blue velvet material. Even at age nine, I found that creepy. Apparently I was not alone. Even David Lynch found macabre inspiration in that song and fashioned a whole movie around it.  And, apparently bereft over the loss of his fabric fabric, Bobby Vinton crooned this song:

The Dixie Cups was a lazy name for a girl group. Their manager, Lenny, was in the men's room one day and spied one of those dispensers from which one could grab a funnel-shaped little cup, and he yelped, "Voila!". I actually have no idea if the Dixie Cups even had a manager, not to mention whether his name was Lenny or not, but this moniker sounds like something a Lenny would come up with. Now, I don't think the Dixie Cups ever had another hit, but one could not escape this song in 1964. It was innocuous, I guess. Moms didn't get uptight and yell to "Turn that down!", so naturally, it became a big hit. (The Dixie Cups are now living dormitory-style next door to Terry Stafford and Little Millie Small.)


Somebody who's been largely forgotten, and I don't know why, is Gene Pitney. Gene combined Broadway bravado with teen-idol angst. We (and by "we", I mean "I") liked him. He tended to do BIG songs, mostly written by Burt Bacharach. Gene was sort of the male Dusty Springfield -- big productions, pounding bass drum. And he was a star.

Bear in mind that Shindig wasn't yet on anyone's radar, nor was Hullabaloo (a pale imitation of Shindig -- all the cool kids watched Shindig). Therefore, we didn't know anything about some of these guys. One group I've wondered about from time to time is Jay and The Americans. Now, again, since Jay has separated himself from The Americans, does that mean that Jay was a foreigner? And if so, he has an awfully American-sounding name. I could understand Pedro and The Americans -- kind of a cross-cultural group. Jay and The Americans, whatever their heritage, had many hit songs in the early sixties. But much like J. Frank Wilson and his Cavaliers (lazily named after a Chevy), no one knows much about them. So let's learn together, shall we?

(Okay, I'm thinking they should have been called Jay and The Other Americans.)

I've taken up a whole lot of time, and used a whole lot of characters, to relive the year 1964. As you can tell, it was a momentous time in my life.

I will finish out the year with this song, again brought to me by my brother. There is a whole other post yet to be written about this guy, but that's for another Friday night. Suffice it to say that he influenced everybody who was ever anybody in rock music. How many can say that?

And here we go:


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