In 1964 at age nine, I had no disposable income. It could be that my mom figured I had no use for money of my own, and she was probably right. After all, every Sunday morning after Mass my mom and dad would drop my brother and me off at the Knick Knackery, and they'd give me a quarter with which to buy one comic book and one candy bar (I assume my brother, who was sixteen, had his own damn money). I usually went with a Caspar comic and a Three Musketeers bar. But as far as shopping for "needs", my mom presumed I had none.
Once I turned ten, Mom's presumptions were proven wrong, I needed records.I was sick to death of spinning my older sisters' crappy Bobby Rydell and Ricky Nelson 45's, and all my brother bought were albums, which I didn't dare touch anyway, for fear of my life. What I needed were today's top hits, in particular Beatles hits. The Beatles had become everything to me the year before. None of us in fourth grade had even seen the guys' faces, but their voices were all over the radio air waves. I stood out on the sidewalk in front of Valley Elementary after school one day and engaged in a spirited debate with Debbie Lealos over which Beatle was the best singer. I insisted it was Paul, but having never seen the band in the flesh, I'd confused Paul with John. I'd conveniently combined the cutest guy in the pictures with the one with the best voice. Nine-year-old girls are superficial that way.
When Ed Sullivan announced on his show that The Beatles would be appearing the following Sunday night, it was the most earth-shattering news my friends and I had ever heard in our less than one decade of life. My parents always watched The Ed Sullivan Show, which was actually awful. The spasmodic Sullivan invariably showcased some opera singer and a guy who balanced plates on a stick and a Spanish man who conversed with the linen-gloved puppets on his hands. Every once in a while a doo-wop group like Dion and The Belmonts showed up and faithfully lip-synched to their latest hit. The studio audience was comprised of women in sequined gowns and bow-tied dandies.
But this particular Sunday night, February 9, 1964, I staked out my spot directly in front of our TV screen sometime around 6:00, my hand hovering near the dial to guard against anyone even considering changing the channel. My mom and dad were bewildered by all the fuss, but since Ed's show was their regular go-to program, they simply shrugged. Mom finished washing the supper dishes and Dad stepped out on the porch for a smoke. At seven they each settled into their chairs in the living room and I fidgeted through the opening acts, some family of acrobats and a guy doing Kirk Douglas impressions.
Then at last:
Music fans can wax poetic about their favorite concert; you know, the one showcasing their all-time favorite artist. They can reminisce about the first time they heard Led Zeppelin on the radio. But very few ever experienced something completely new, the rumbling of a musical earthquake.
And I was nine.
Nothing was ever the same again.
Thus, by the time I turned ten I sorely needed money to buy Beatles singles. I proposed the idea of an allowance to my mom. Twenty-five cents a week for dusting the furniture and straightening up around the house. She guessed that would be okay. Four weeks of minimal effort and I could traipse over the bridge to Popplers Music and pick out one precious '45.
When those four weeks rounded the corner, though, I found that my decision was more difficult than I'd envisioned. There were so many pop hits I really, really liked.
Two that I bought with my lackadaisical earnings:
California Girls ~ The Beach Boys
I loved - loved! that track. I even wrote my own alternate version, called "English Boys" I spun the grooves off that single, dancing the jerk in front of the big upstairs dresser mirror with a hairbrush microphone, warbling my substitute lyrics.
I Can't Help Myself ~ The Four Tops
And my big brother helped me fill in the gaps. He forked over money to buy me singles I wouldn't have bought on my own, like this one that had a sleeve with three women posing in elegant jewel gowns:
My brother also bought me a few albums. Birthdays and Christmas were a guarantee of something new to add to my collection of -- count 'em -- three LP's. He is the one who bought me If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears by The Mama's And The Papas, and also Heart Full Of Soul by The Yardbirds, one of his few selections that missed the mark. I didn't like it. I liked maybe one song on the entire album, but I never told him that.
My main treasure trove of musical listening, however, was sneaking into my brother's room when he was away and pilfering a few of his many, many albums. I knew it was a fraught excursion, but I couldn't help myself. My brother owned anyone who was anyone. He had all The Beatles LP's and he had Bob Dylan and Johnny Rivers' Live At The Whisky A Go Go. All I owned was an orange oblong phonograph with a clamp-on lid, unlike the sophisticated stereo system of my brother's, but I was extremely careful to only drop my needle on the bands and not cause any inadvertent bumps or jostles. Then, when I was done, I'd slip the album back into its curated slot on my brother's bookshelf and he was none the wiser.
There was one singular album my brother owned in 1965 that became my obsession ~ Help! I filched that LP approximately 5,000 (okay, maybe 50) times. Anytime I saw, through my upstairs window, my brother zoom out of the yard in his blue Ford Fairlane, I'd watch for a bit to make sure he didn't inexplicably come back; then I'd pad into his room and pinch the album out from its space and sit on my bed with my record player and spin the grooves out of it ~ over and over ~ until it was time to cast a watchful eye out the window again.
There was simply something about that album ~ to my ten-year-old ears, it was perfect. I even created a musical featuring all its songs. I never actually put pen to paper, but I certainly had the song order set in my mind. Help! was my obsession.
1965 was also the year that Shindig! became my must-see. Shindig! (apparently everything ended in an exclamation point back then) aired every Wednesday night on the ABC network, and it featured essentially every act that had a hit record. Even The Beatles made an appearance. The Righteous Brothers were regular performers, but if one wanted to see any hit of the day live, here it was. One or two-hit wonders like Freddie And The Dreamers, Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs, and The Honeycombs, along with multiple hitmakers like The Animals, The Turtles, Sonny and Cher, and The Lovin' Spoonful all showed up. The problem for me was, my weekly accordion lesson was on Wednesday night. I already resented having those stupid lessons foisted on me, and now my frustration was multiplied. I couldn't miss Shindig! (!) My mom, however, always managed to get us home in the nick of time. I waved off supper and instead parked myself in front of the TV. Mom wasn't normally accommodating, but she sometimes allowed me to chew my pork chop and boiled potatoes on a TV tray in the living room, with all the lamps switched off, the better to view the magnificent black and white of this wondrous show.
In December, four months after Help! first appeared on my horizon, The Beatles released their sixth album, Rubber Soul. Of course my brother bought it, and of course I "borrowed" it. Was there no end to the awesomeness of these guys? While Help! would always claim a special place in my heart, Rubber Soul was pretty good! I loved almost every track, except for the one named after me, which was embarrassingly bad. I lost count of the number of adult strangers who, upon learning my name, spouted the clever line, "Oh, like MEE-chelle, my belle?" On the other hand, Norwegian Wood, You Won't See Me, and In My Life were astoundingly good.
In 1965 I finally felt in control of my own musical tastes. I could buy a 45 every four weeks, sometimes sooner if my uncle flipped me a quarter for no discernible reason. I had a treasure trove of magnificent albums only a few footsteps away ~ I just had to be stealthy enough to snag them.
And music felt brand-new; thrilling. Even tracks I now wonder how I ever favored felt at the time like shooting stars.
From Billboard's Top 100 hits of the year, these still hold up:
- California Girls ~ The Beach Boys
- I Can't Help Myself ~ The Four Tops
- Ticket To Ride ~ The Beatles
- Back In My Arms Again ~ The Supremes
- Help Me, Rhonda ~ The Beach Boys
- Do You Believe In Magic ~ The Lovin' Spoonful
- Like A Rolling Stone ~ Bob Dylan
- Baby, The Rain Must Fall ~ Glenn Yarbrough
Of course, who could know at ten? But in hindsight,1965 birthed my proclivity for writing my own lyrics and for big-picture thinking. Shoot, it beat trying to master math. Fourth grade was a trial I'd had to endure, and thus '65's sunburned summer was ripe for musical abandon. The dream world was always superior to real life anyway.
What better to nurture a dream than a tumble of newborn, succulent music?