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Tuesday, April 22, 2003
My very first memory is of watching family members sing "Rock a Bye Baby" to me. Big smiling faces crooning this song about a baby like me (no, it WAS me… what did this budding solipsist know or care about other babies?) falling out of a tree. I'd fucking freak, reliably. Too small to form very many words, I was pretty precocious about understanding them, and this tune was a nightmare guaranteed to set me bawling. My older brothers found great amusement in this phenomenon, and their repeated applications of the lullaby torture must account for the indelibility of the trauma. Soon I was sprung from the confines of crib and muteness, and songs began to accumulate as a mental file of atmospheres and incidents. I dunno about you, but for much of my early life (and onward) I felt like I was just passin' through. Deeply involved in my inner life, the world around me was only something to observe, a set of random particulars with little connection to that interior life. This is why the most vivid and satisfying mnemonic events tend toward the banal; experiences that "actively" involved me didn't usually sink into the psycho-acoustic tar pit for preservation.
Some exceptions involve a combination of the two modes. For example, as a pup I loved Laurel and Hardy, and for some reason was deeply moved by a film sequence in which Stan and Ollie sang "Shine On Harvest Moon." As their image faded from the TV, I became upset and wanted them back. In that pre-VCR age, once something ended on the tube, it ended. Likewise, I had no idea one could go buy a record of the song. All I had was the image of "fat-n-skinny" smiling and singing in my mind. The song nestled there for a while until my parents dragged me to one of the frequent parties where all the aunts, uncles and cousins would gather and gambol. At some point in the night the song "Red Roses for a Blue Lady" played, and certain melodic similarities to the other song (the A line of the former closely follows the B line of the latter) tripped a switch. This instantly became my favorite tune, and my unaccountable affection for singing it prompted performance demands at every subsequent party. Never do I hear the tune without smelling the medley of perfume and cocktails that permeated the given apartment - Aunt Sis's place or Aunt Ronnie's… holy precincts. I see all the grown-up faces laughing and their voices chattering. I see my cousin Patricia - object of my first crush - laughing with them. Is she goofing on me? If so, it's OK… look at her laughing face. Lovely. Most of the adults were then around the age I am now, and most of them are now long gone. I miss them all, and I miss those nights with an undiminished aching. Now I can rent the film Laurel and Hardy sang in, but I can't really see those relatives any more, so the Vic Dana recording brings on another, deeper longing.
More common than this cause-and-effect song-nostalgia is a strictly atmospheric association: whenever I hear "Tell Him" by the Exciters, it's the early/mid 1960s and I am a tot. Bobby and Brian are adolescents and Maureen is living in Puerto Rico. We're on the street in Brooklyn, and the hoody girls with whom my brothers consorted are snapping gum and commenting enviously on my long eyelashes. This confounds me… who wants girls envying your eyelashes, fussing and calling you "cute?" Kinda quiffy. My brothers are wearing pea coats, tennis shoes and white slacks. It's hip to have a long lock of hair in front, which requires a frequent toss of the neck to flip it back from one's eyes. We little kids affect this neck toss, even though our heads are regularly shorn at the Pride of Brooklyn barber shop ala Garry Moore, and no hip forelock is possible. There they loiter, brothers and gals, insolent around stoops as little transistor radios with perforated metal speakers spew forth hits from WABC and WMCA. These teens are mighty. They inhabit a fascinating world centered around "school" (whatever that is… a place of deep mystery) and parties. No booze yet, no drugs. All is sunshine and languor. I'm content to ponderYogi Bear and dinosaurs as I tote my talking Beanie (Cecil's pal) doll, but "Tell Him" is exerting its strange minor-key magic upon the mascara-and-hairspray hoody gals, inciting gyrations in these gamins as my brothers and their buddies flock around them, all wound up for reasons yet unknown.
The crush on my cousin was not akin to the yearning my brothers felt for these girls; my first taste of that came in 5th grade, when the ceremony of Confirmation temporarily interrupted the segregation of boys and girls in the Catholic school I attended. There was a cutie across the church who caught my fancy and how, and hymns like "Faith of our Fathers" still inspire a brand of awe different from that intended. Boy, did I love her. We hardly ever spoke, and her name is lost to time, but I still search vainly for a private recording that will simulate the cacophony of us kids screeching that hymn ever louder, as per Monsignor Downey's instruction. I know that when I listen she'll be smiling across the church to me again, and I'll again blush and feel the thumpa thumpa of true romance. At that time, backyard tenting was a big deal. Two or three other boys would join me in my dad's old army tent as the surrounding city melted away... clotheslines became jungle vines and the yammer of neighbors all about was just a monkey din behind our vital conversations. We played with GI Joe figures and told jokes through the night, sometimes growing loud enough to prompt threats from annoyed parents from the second floor bedroom window: "I'll send your friends home!" Ssssh… anything but that! For some reason, the beloved song was a little-remembered minor hit by Manfred Mann entitled "My Name is Jack." Whatever was going on, we'd keep the radio just at the level of audibility until that tune came on again. Then it was stop everything, turn it up and sing along. Other songs of the period invited this kind of fun, but most of them - such as "Yellow Submarine" - were too popular and often-heard, so the specific impression got lost. Hearing "Jack" again (25 years later) was magical because its association with that backyard tent remained undiluted. To this day I can practically taste the fennel we'd steal from Mr Alberti's garden next door. I can nearly smell Joe Quirke's feet. I can certainly recall our agreement that "Voice Control Kennedy Airport" was the toy to have.
A little bit later, I'm walking past the Holy Name schoolyard with my pal Woody. The tune is "Help Me Rhonda." Since everyone listens to the same station, Brian Wilson's mono mix bursts out in decaphonic omnipresence from every corner of the scene. Older kids are shooting hoops and smoking. By this time, America and my brothers had discovered drugs, which would bring a world of misery into our home for years to come. But today, that's not imaginable. My brothers are my heroes: a pair of scenesters with the longest hair and the coolest records. Bobby had recently stolen into the playground at night and painted few strategic lines in the circle over the division line, turning it into a peace sign. This raised a fair amount of controversy, but nobody could prove he'd done it and some of the hipper teachers managed to prevent the removal of Bobby's addition. I am here, secure in the smug knowledge that my bro had brought revolution to the communal asphalt. By now I have my own "little brother," Petie.
My sister had come home to the folks' house and her son Petie suffered at my hands the same abuse Bobby and Brian had heaped upon me. Ferinstance, I'd hold him down and produce a long, suspended extrusion of spit above his face, sucking it back up before the strand snapped. It usually worked. He and his buddy Paul Quirke (little brother of Joe of the Vile Feet) would pester us, just as we'd pestered Brian and Bobby, and as irksome as it was, who'd want it any other way? An eager fly proves the majesty of one's dogstink. Now, with that little acolyte to confirm my status, a close friend who played the delinquent Huck to my reserved Tom, and a long haired brother who'd made his statement right there at the school, I am exultant. Woody and I are making fun of the jocks (not loud enough so's they could hear, mind you) as we lean against the cyclone fence. We'd already burned our notebooks in a "school's out" Savoranola ritual, so the looming school building holds no dominion on this freewheeling summer day. We sing along with the Beach Boys and continue the jock-mockery until one of them senses our sarcasm and gives threat. No problem. Let's go to Ray's and Otto's and buy some stickers. Never has life felt more right than it did that day. In my teen years, when I rediscovered the Beach Boys through the Endless Summer set, it was disconcerting to find that "Help Me Rhonda" sounded different. No high climax, just a unison "Help me Rhonda yeah!" It was an alternate version, and I didn't hear the right one for another 15 some-odd years, when the remembered single poured forth its glories from a cd. Suddenly I was there by the schoolyard with Woody again, and I've often returned happily ever since.
There'll be more of this.
In current news, tonight I broke my NYC club ban in order to toast Meredith's good fortune with the new Vanity Set cd. Meredith is one of the current exemplars of all good people I've known, so mind you, all isn't retrospective. It goes on, and music will recall today's pleasures just as fully as yesterday's. And the twins will learn it all soon. Easter Sunday was nice, but bring on domani. God bless us, every one.
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