Between rock and a good place
With rare exceptions, the only music I listen to, or even care to listen to, is rock and R&B from the mid-’50s to mid-’70s.
This is due to imprinting at its finest, and I remember the moment perfectly.
It was fall 1958, I was 11 years old and in seventh grade.
Ah yes, seventh grade. No longer was I some grade school pisher. No longer would I sit in the same classroom and suffer through eight hours of the same teacher. Now I had a different teacher for each subject, and each was in a different classroom.
Beyond that, seventh grade was a melting pot, a micro-UN, in Saranac Lake terms. We now met and hung out with the kids who’d spent K-6 in the other grade schools.
This was all heady stuff, finally being allowed in the waiting room of The Big Time (which was high school). But the headiest stuff of all was my soul getting hijacked by rock and roll.
I was in the gym with my fellow pupae for that most splendid occasion of state — the seventh grade dance.
The dance was not like the ones today. First, it was not held at night, but on a Friday afternoon — as I recall, the last hour of the school day. Second, attendance was not an option. Instead, at the strike of three, all the homeroom teachers herded their charges into the gym for an experience of Joy Unbounded. At least that was the theory. But like all too many other theories, the reality fell far short of the mark.
I mean, we were Adirondack kids and our clothing reflected that. For 99 percent of the time, we wore jeans, boots and flannel shirts. We dressed for comfort, not style. Yet here we were, dressed in our version of “to the nines.” Gawd. I had on wool sport coats that was the fabric equivalent of a terrarium, ridiculous pants, uncomfortable shoes, and the kicker — a tie that was less a fashion accessory than a noose. That alone made me supremely uncomfortable.
But the main reason the dance was a mess was because our school impresarios hadn’t considered one vital thing — almost none of the guys could dance.
Today, dancing isn’t really dancing, so much as shuffling, hopping, and leaping and freaking about. Anyone can do it, it can be done in pairs or groups, and everyone’s having too much fun to give a rat’s rear how it looks. Not so in The Good Ole Days. Back then, you danced with a partner, whose hand you held and who you led. It required coordination and a basic knowledge of steps of some sort. It was as foreign and mysterious to us guys as the inner workings of the Illuminati.
Actually, there were boys who could dance, and they all had one thing in common — an older sister. And a bossy older sister, at that. The sisters taught themselves to dance by using their bros as partners, in the privacy of their homes. So by the time the gals hit the dance floor, they had it all going on.
Thus as the dance “progressed,” the only ones dancing were a bunch of girls and two or three Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers wannabes.
I had no sister; my boon companion Ralph Carlson had a younger one. So he and I spent the dance leaning against the wall exchanging snide and sometimes vile comments about all the losers who were trying to cut the rug at midcourt.
Tunin’ out to the tunes
But while I thought the dancing was lame, the music was worse. In fact, it was God-awful.
Stuff to snooze by, rather than shake your groove thang…or even tap your feet.
Teresa Brewer, Pat Boone, The Ames Brothers, the Lennon Sisters, Arthur Godfrey, Kate Smith and on and on. Squareness Squared.
“What next?” I said to Ralph. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir?”
A look of disgust crossed his face.
“If we’re lucky,” he said.
The Parade of Lames dragged on…and on.
Vic Damone, Rosemary Clooney, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Debbie Reynolds …
And not leaving any stone unturned, we got to hear the latest instrumentals — Glenn Miller, The Dorseys, Lawrence Welk …
Due to my trance state, I can’t remember if Rudy Vallee, Spike Jones and John Phillips Sousa, were in the mix, but if they were, it wouldn’t have surprised me.
And then, suddenly, with no segue whatsoever, I heard the words that would change my life.
From mild to wild
OK, so they weren’t words in any Webster’s International sense, but they sure changed my life.
They were, “A womp bama looma, a womp bam boon!”
And of course they were the opening of Tutti Frutti, by the Georgia Wild Man — Little Richard.
I snapped awake to find myself snapping my fingers to the beat.
The kids on the dance floor stopped and just stood there, their gears stripped, with no idea how they were supposed to move to that.
The song finished.
“Holy crap!” I said, articulate lad that I was.
“Damn!” said Ralph, equally articulate.
Before we had time to process what we’d just heard, the next tune came on, and its opening was just as mind-blowing as Little Richard’s.
This time the words were actual words, but the wild man was just as wild.
The lyrics: “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain.”
The wild man: None other than The Killer, himself — Jerry Lee Lewis, laying down his bad self in “Great Balls of Fire.”
I don’t remember the rest of the dance. But I do remember I became, not just an instant fan of rock and roll, but an instant believer. From then on, I dug them all (or at least all the good ones) — Buddy Holly, the Everlys, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis, Dion, Brenda Lee, Timi Yuro, Dinah Washington, the Drifters, the Platters, and on and on and on.
And I did so at my own risk. Back then, for all the kids who loved rock, there was an equal number of adults who blamed all kids’ problems on it. Juvenile delinquency, drinking, weird hair styles, crazy driving, heavy petting — you name it, they blamed it. And — perhaps inevitably — I got caught in the crossfire.
I was a lousy student, and I had the grades to prove it. I wasn’t rude, disruptive or disrespectful; I just didn’t give a tiddly-doo about school or schoolwork. Finally, in ninth grade, the hammer dropped : I got sent to the school psychologist.
He gave me a bunch of tests, the results of which showed I had a decent IQ and wasn’t at risk for becoming an arsonist, leather freak, or any other type of deviate. But what didn’t show up on paper, had to be revealed in conversation. Thus we had a couple of meetings where he asked me stuff about myself. Of course, in the process I revealed I loved rock and roll.
Any further “analysis” stopped at that point and he had a diagnosis: The reason for my failure as a student was my unhealthy attraction to the devil’s music.
When he told me that, I frowned and appeared to consider his every word in the seriousness with which he’d delivered it. In reality, I was faking it. I thought he was a nice enough guy, but on this issue, he was fulla crap. However, the last thing I wanted was to keep going back and examining my non-life in detail. So I told him, Yeah, that was probably it. He hit the nail on the head. And from now on I was gonna turn over a new leaf. No more rock and roll for this li’l Dope.
He was happy at his success; I was happy to get the hell outta there.
Of course rock and roll had nothing to do with my miserable grades. Only one thing did — I didn’t study. And I didn’t study because of music; I didn’t study because I was a lazy little zug. Period.
It’s been almost 60 years since I first got hooked on rock and roll, and 58 years since it landed me on the couch, but the effects still remain.
I’m still believe in rock and roll … and I still have serious doubts about psychologists.