The Listening Years…
Up until February of 1964 (when I was 7), music just didn’t really mean much to me. On that particular night, we were at my grandparents house in Los Gatos, California, and me and my sister and maybe some cousins were in front of the TV watching The Wonderful World of Walt Disney. I don’t remember what was on that night, it must not have been that great, because when my teenage aunt came into the room and abruptly switched the channel, saying “the Beatles are on!”, none of us complained much. Heck, sometimes what was on Ed Sullivan was more fun than what was on Disney…
Then the Beatles came on and I was electrified . I don’t recall ever being so excited in my life. I’d had some fun times, some good toys, some fun experiences, but all of a sudden I had a purpose in life. This was something important, something I was meant see, meant to do, it was something powerful, a force.
Thereafter I dreaded my weekly crew cuts with my father. I wanted my own Beatle hair!. That wasn’t about to happen (and wouldn’t for another 7 years). I received 2 Beatles wigs as presents, and wore them with a mixture of pride and sheepishness (and itchiness) as I sang along with the records every day after school.
I remember my sister Lynn, older by three years, getting our first Beatles LP. “Introducing the Beatles” on VeeJay records. I remember the Beatles fan magazine she had. I remember buying my first Beatles LP, The Beatles Second Album”. I earned $0.25 a week as an allowance, for mowing the lawns, washing the car, taking out the trash, and it took 3 months to save up the three dollars that an LP cost in those days. For the next few years, all my allowance went towards Beatles LPs.
In the summer of 1964, I was sent to visit with my great aunt and uncle on their cranberry farm in Oregon for two weeks. I got to drive a tractor, fish in the stream for trout with a spool of thread and a bent pin, and ride the zip line across their swimming hole and fall into it on my way across. There was only one other child around there my age, she lived down the road apiece. Her room was covered in Elvis posters. I remember some really heated discussions about who was better; the Beatles or Elvis. When I went into town with my aunt and uncle they asked if there was anything I wanted (perhaps to remember the trip by). A sampler of the famous local cheese? A toy fishing boat? No. I really really wanted “Meet the Beatles”. They bought it for me. The stereo version! (Not that I had a use for stereo on our sleep teaching device…).
Around this time we got a piano in our house as a gift for my grandparents. My sister started lessons right away, and she was good. After about a year I took some lessons too. It didn’t really excite me, because I didn’t sound like the Beatles. I practiced, but listlessly. I performed in the talent show at school, a piece called the Happy Hop Toad. Snoresville, daddy-o. My piano teacher got some Beatles songs “Yesterday” and “Michelle”, and simplified them for me, but still, it just wasn’t rock ‘n roll. Yes, it was the Beatles, but it wasn’t rock. After about a year of lessons I quit.
Our neighborhood in Palo Alto butted up against the back of a huge luxury hotel called the Cabana. It was kind of a Caesar’s Palace of its time with huge colored fountains in the front featuring armless statues of Greek or Roman origins. Very fancy, very impressive. That was where the Beatles were reported to stay when they came to play San Francisco. I remember spending long summer hours perched dashingly on my stingray style bicycle, hanging out with other Beatles fans at the big wooden gate at the end of that street, which looked onto the back parking lot of the hotel. We all speculated about how the Beatles might arrive. Long string of limousines? Hidden in a laundry van or milk truck? Maybe they’d arrive more royally in a helicopter. So, the sound of an approaching helicopter, the arrival of any delivery van or large car, would send us all to the fence peering over it hoping for a glimpse of our heroes. (Here’s a blow-by-blow account of The Beatles’ stay in my neighborhood. It turns out that they did indeed exit in a delivery truck, and they used the very exit that we all hung out at.)
For Christmas of ’65 I got a transistor radio. Wow. All of a sudden I had access to all kinds of music. My favorite station was KYA, a top 40 station out of San Francisco. I went to sleep with this transistor radio every night. There were the dippy songs that were catchy but that I didn’t like that much (“Judy in Disguise”, “Yummy Yummy Yummy”, the soupy songs by The Delphonics ). And then there were the Great Songs. “Dock of the Bay”, “Heard it Through the Grapevine”, “White Rabbit”, “Light My Fire”. While the Beatles were number one with me, there was so much more music out there and I was on fire with it all!
Playing The Happy Hop Toad in the talent show was an experience I never wanted to repeat. The next year I had a whole different idea of what I wanted to do for the talent show. I wanted to do a Beatles song. I knew a guy that had paper drum set. I had my two Beatles wigs. And I knew another guy whose mother had an actual electric guitar. I had a toy acoustic guitar. None of us knew how to play any of the instruments, but that didn’t matter. I knew the words to the song “Help” backwards and forwards and I taught the guys all the words. And we wore the guitars and the wigs while one guy sat at the drums and we just yelled the words to the song. We practiced a lot, I really pushed them hard, and we took it to the talent show.
All the other “rock ‘n roll” acts in the Talent Show were lip-synching to records. I was somehow weirdly proud of the fact that we were actually “singing” it live. And, oddly enough, the crowd went wild. A bunch of older kids ( fifth and sixth graders) came up afterwards and said it was really funny. One of the few times in my elementary school years when I was considered cool (if only for an afternoon).
As my tastes in music expanded, I sometimes found myself a little frightened by what I heard. My teenage aunt gave me “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison”, and while I absorbed it, I found the cheering of the prison crowd at the words “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” really chilling (still do). The Doors records she leant me were rather spooky. And even the Beatles were getting dark and strange (“There’s people standing ’round, who’ll screw you in the ground, they’ll fill you in with all the sins you’ve seen.”) That was a heavy lyric for a boy growing up in a strict born-again household (more about that subject some other time).
In seventh grade (first-year of junior high school), we were required to do half a year of choir followed by half a year of band. I didn’t care for choir. I found it dippy. When it came time for band, however, I really really wanted to play the drums. There were about 10 other boys, all much cooler than me, who also wanted to try out for the drums. I knew I didn’t stand a chance against them, so I set my sights on the trumpet instead. And I really kind of liked playing it. But after a few months the teacher told me that my lips were shaped wrong for trumpet playing, and that I should give it up. Discouraged, I gave up playing music again.
Oh, but I still listened and dreamed. Apart from rock music, my aunt gave me the soundtrack to “2001:A Space Odyssey”. I saw the movie on my birthday 3 years running (it ran for over 2 years at the Cinerama theatre in San Jose). There is some really wild contemporary art music by Ligeti and others on it that intrigued me. I went to sleep to it every night for a few months.
Then, I went to my first rock concert on May 19, 1968. The Northern California Folk-Rock Festival (lineup was The Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Grateful Dead, The Animals, The Youngbloods, Electric Flag, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and Taj Mahal). It was scary (I was only 11, and there were lots of drugs, including bad acid being passed around). It was also a dream come true (just look at that lineup!). It was a marvelous, sunny Woodstock-like experience (before Woodstock, even). But then the headliners, The Doors, began setting up. Dark clouds covered the sky, and by the time Jim Morrison took the stage, the sky was brooding, and the crowd’s mood changed. Someone threw a full can of beer over our heads. It hit a guy on a blanket 10 feet in front of us, and his head was bleeding from a nasty cut. Someone threw a cherry bomb that exploded a short ways away. Jim Morrison was spitting on the audience. It was huge, awesome, thrilling, terrifying, and it was exactly where I wanted to be.
As I entered my teenage years, I found more fantastic new music by Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Tim Buckley, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Donovan. I spent after-school hours at Pacific Stereo, drooling over component stereo systems. I worked extra jobs and saved, and when I was 13, my older sister and I went in together on a $300 system. (I still have, and use, the amplifier from it)
But I only listened. Playing music seemed impossible. I didn’t know how one could become a rock musician, that path was invisible to me. I didn’t know that there might be guitar teachers or drum teachers. What I listened to was everything to me, but nothing that I could ever do myself…