Gaia – An intriguing concept in which the planet is seen as an organism capable of healing itself.
In the opening months of 1964, the world and our culture was still bleeding from a horrible wound inflicted in Dallas, Texas just a couple of months before. The planet had gone numb after this country’s earnest young president’s murder, but in a Gaia-like process, just when we needed it most, the human spirit raised a new and healing sound from the most unlikely locale – a hard, seaport town in Northwestern England. When the sound from Liverpool arrived on the nation’s radios and in its record stores, young folks went crazy. Out in southern California, I went crazy, too.
The Mersey Beat, the English Sound, the Big Beat…
the PR agents for VeeJay, Capital, Kapp, Epic, Mercury and a half dozen other record companies searched for a tag to identify the musical nova blazing across the Atlantic. The career copywriters who also penned promo materials for their pop contemporaries, stalwarts like Vic Damone, Jack Jones or Al Martino never got it quite right. The revolutionary new music arriving from Britain didn’t necessarily feature any bigger beat than drummers like Elvis’s DJ Fontana, or Haley’s Dick Richards had laid down in Rock n’ Roll’s powerful past. Ringo Starr, the timekeeper for the spectacular musical sensation at the heart of the British Invasion, was substantial, subtle and always in the pocket, and could ride a cymbal like a run-away jet. His predecessor, Pete Best was a far bigger beater, as was Dave Clark of the self-named quintet who gave the Beatles a run for their money in the opening salvos of the invasion.
What was big, was the explosive spirit in the music Gaia and those boys had given us. It was beyond description by wordsmiths hunkered over their Royals out in New York or Philadelphia. It was beyond drumming technique, or chords, riffs and fills…it was magic. It was the future. All I knew was that I couldn’t get enough.
The explosion’s glorious reverberations reached transistors in every bedroom, school bus, drive-in restaurant, and make-out spot across the country. At first we pop music fans and musicians couldn’t define what was different about British rock ‘n roll, we just knew how it made us feel. Standing unaware on the event horizon of a new future, we sensed that everything else was passé.
I watched as my brother and his friend Keith, who were both quite capable guitarists and singers, struggled to isolate the genie in this new music. They tried different fingerings, combed their hair down, affected Liverpuddlian accents, held their guitars a little higher on their chests Marsden- and Lennon-style, but two Californian kids attempting to master the British sound, could never capture the essence of Englishmen trying to mimic Americans. Nor could they put their callused picking fingers on the pulse of those desperately hopeful young lives across the sea that rose from the rubble of the second world war and ascended to new heights against the gravity of gritty grey towns. Even the legends that fired the imaginations of the barnstorming British bands, the old timers like the Every Brothers, Roy Orbison…even Elvis, would soon drop their hair but ultimately suffer at the misfortune of being Yanks.
I was a budding record collector as the invasion slammed home in Glendora, California – Rain Bird Town as some called the village once famous for lemon orchards and its namesake sprinkler manufacturer. I listened faithfully to the amplitude modulated DJs at KRLA and KFWB for the debut of every new revelatory disc. In an effort to remain hip to the changing music scene, would cycle three miles to the waiting room of the greyhound bus station in Azusa which housed the only magazine rack in the valley that, in addition to a lurid collection of what they then called ‘smut’, featured Billboard magazine. In those, the recording industry’s insider pages, I learned what records were being released and by whom. And even better, I would discover what new acts were headed our way before the jocks premiered their records.
Although this knowledge elevated my status among several of my peers, it also illuminated the deficiencies of our local record stores. The miniscule record bins at the likes of Vons, White Front, MayCo and so on, carried only a few selections beyond the Fab Four, the DC5, and the Animals. But many other UK musical treasures, which Billboard’s cryptic press releases told me were out there, only existed in ‘major record stores.’ And no major anything was within bicycle range of Rain Bird Town.
I was frantic to hear all this music, not just the hits that found their way onto Dick Biondi, Bill Balance, Bob Eubanks, Bobby Pickett, Casey Kasem, B. Mitchell Reed, Wolfman Jack and others’ play lists, but the obscure (even then) tunes on LPs, EPs, B-sides, promo discs and coveted British pressings. I became obsessed. My head began to swim with titles that had to join my collection. Out of sheer mental overload, I jotted them all down lest a critical song fall through my mnemonic grasp. The ensuing tally I titled Needs List then slashed two lines beneath for emphasis…as if it needed any.
As collectors of anything know, the specter of a missing piece in a set creates a gnawing at one’s peace-of-mind that cannot be ignored. Such a gnawing chewed at me as I looked at the growing discrepancy between my list and the selection available to me locally (the internet and Amazon were still decades away). There was only one solution: Wallic’s Music City… downtown LA, over 20 miles beyond the reasonable range of my bike and my roving experience. Los Angeles was too far to ride, and unfortunately, it was out of the question to ask my folks for a lift. My parents, had become convinced by a persuasive pack of nattering John Birch nabobs (and a sleazy little book entitled, Rhythm, Riots and Revolution) that rock ‘n roll was a communist plot to corrupt American youth prior to the Red’s invasion. There was no hope they were going to drive me to godless Babylon to satiate my thirst for recordings by those subversive fairies from Britain.
I was not deterred. As an independent and quite capable 14 year old, I would navigate the public transportation system into the sleazy streets of Los Angeles in search of music from the seedy streets of London, Liverpool and Manchester, England. If it was Marxist subversion that made me so gloriously happy with only a bar or two of this music, then I guess I was condemned to be a commie.
In April of 1964, thirty-five cents bought a 27 mile ride through Azusa, Monrovia, Duarte and Artesia into the City of Angels. The smog lifted as my bus penetrated the heart of the city. With the driver’s ambiguous warning to, “watch your step, kid,” ringing ominously behind me, I stepped onto the filthy sidewalks. Within the first minute on my own in “The City” as Sergeant Joe Friday used to call it, I had sidestepped a puddle of vomit, ignored two pan handlers and evaded the unsettling glare of a doomsday preacher raving under the triple ravages of Tourett’s Syndrome, Vino Paisano and a perfectly reasonable terror at the looming threat of thermonuclear destruction – a threat so tangible that within seven months, an image of a little girl picking flowers in the instant before being immolated by a nuclear burst, would sway the American public into rejecting Barry Goldwater’s bid for the presidency on the grounds that his itchy trigger finger would lead us to nuclear war.
If you doubt why I bother to yammer about that wild fellow’s fears, remember by then there were millions of fallout “shelters” and bags of spoiled survival provisions wasting away in American’s basements and beneath their backyards in the wake of the cold war’s closest call in the waters off Cuba. This fear, in equal measure, fueled the joyous clamor with which the music I sought was received in the US.
I had never seen or smelled mad, drunk, hopeless, and perverted people in such numbers or such proximity as those that milled on the streets within raving distance of the city hall’s iconic tower. The structure had always seemed so white, so pristine on TV’s Dragnet. As I walked in its shadow, sixty-five dollars earned by delivering papers and mowing lawns, lay like a coveted prize in my jeans pocket. In defense of my riches, I clamped the wad of bills in my hand and watched people’s red eyes for signs of aggression. A harrowing fifteen minute walk found me at my destination: Wallic’s Music City, a major record store.
The bins stretched out before me in categories of music beyond my understanding. The room smelled of the seductive combination of vinyl and freshly inked record jackets. At that age hard-ons were not difficult to come by, and I swear the atmosphere in that splendid room – and to be honest, the Julie London album covers – tested all my powers of restraint. When I found the generous selection of rock ‘n roll, I forgot my dick, and dove in. In those days records were available in stereophonic or monoraul (a word invented by ad men when stereo technology demanded a name for its inferior single channel cousin). A stereo pressing, if available, cost $2.49 and mono only $1.99. At two bucks a pop, I would get maximum bang for my sixty-five bucks.
I waded into the As – Adam Faith – and ended in the Ss – the Swingin’ Blue Jeans, the Zombies were still a few months away. When my money had expired, except for a few dollars reserved for lunch at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and a couple of breathtakingly lurid girlie magazines from one of the newsstands, my booty numbered 15 long-playing albums, 1 extended-play disc, and 6 singles. I clutched the heavy bag of recordings – oil was cheap and in vast supply in 1964, and record discs were thick and durable – and made my way back to the bus stop with Peter Asher, Gordon Waller, Gerry Marsden and his brother, Billy J Kramer, Mike Pender, Sean McNally, Graham Nash, Allan Hicks, Eric Burdon, Allen Price and a host of new British friends.
As the bus made its tedious afternoon journey back to Rain Bird Town I thumbed through the LPs. By time the bus arrived at my stop on Alosta and Foothill, I had read all the liner notes and learned the names of all the band members. The girlies would have to wait for scrutiny in a more private setting. Meanwhile, the prevailing residents of my record racks: Gene Pitney, Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, The Four Seasons, The Beach Boys, even the Everly Brothers went neglected and unplayed for months as I wore the stylus of my mother’s miserable Victrola to a nub.
I was in rock ‘n roll heaven for a while: on the cutting edge, ahead of the curve, possessed of major bragging rights to my musically aware friends. But by the end of the year and a furious torrent of new releases from the Beatles et al, my collection was riddled with gaping holes. I turned to the Needs List to keep it all straight, but my meager teenaged buying power and the explosive expansion of the new rock catalog overwhelmed me. To make matters worse – far worse – sixteen months after I had arrived home from LA with my vinyl bundle, my parents decided to pull their stakes from California’s soil and move to Utah.
In that summer, of all summers, I had every reason to stay; Southern California – the civilized world – was undergoing a fission of possibilities that extended beyond the remarkable new music. We all can recall the mileposts that marked the explosion of social consciousness, justice, technology and science. And sadly, we know the fear, the riots, the hatred and assassinations that marked the “push-back” to these changes. For my father, these were most likely the forces that sent him packing from a shady street just a stone’s throw from fragrant orange groves, to the impenetrable slump block suburbs of a surreal Utah town. Whatever his reasons, one evening in August 1965, eighteen months after I had watched the Beatles launch the reinvention of rock ‘n roll via Mr. Sullivan’s TV broadcast to our living room on Marcile Avenue – and just about the time Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No) was relinquishing its summer-long hold on the airways over Los Angeles – my father conspired with his John Birch Society buddies on how to best remove one’s family from that brilliant, roiling world.
That very evening I gathered with 18,700 Beatle devotees at the Hollywood Bowl, and from a good seat watched as the nexus of this cultural renaissance – the Fab Four themselves – rocketed through a manic set of irresistible tunes. Later John Lennon called it his favorite Beatle concert, it was certainly ours. The legendary mania was in full bloom. The screaming – which for the record included shouts of euphoria, frantic pleas to be recognized, and desperate tearful cries at the impossible distance between the boys from Liverpool and the girls from Los Angeles – never stopped to gasp for breath.
A few quiet hours earlier, before the bedlam descended, the scent of laurel from the Hollywood Hills hung heavily in the air above the Bowl, and the pollen from flowering canyon Yucca settled without regard for fame on our empty seats and on the lacquer, leather and brass of Ringo’s silent drums. Later, as we filled that amphitheater, an anxious charge built to what would become an ear-splitting discharge as the boys from the future took the stage. The electrons within us kids had pulsed with the knowledge that soon we would breathe the same fragrant evening air as our heroes.
That evening I screamed, too – howled, really – in empathy with the crowd. We instinctively sought to send the vibrations from our lungs to register in a communication with the four lively young men on the stage. The Beatles had three, three-hundred watt VOX amplifiers…we had the numbers. Together we made a joyful noise.
In a month, Bob Dylan, airborne on the cyclone of Like A Rolling Stone, would touch down on that same stage. The clubs on Sunset Strip, just 30 minutes from my bedroom radio, would morph from striptease to folk-rock, and I would watch the world shrink in the rear window as the family car made its way north up I-15 to fortress Utah, and the past.
Demoralizing social and cultural difficulties notwithstanding, in Provo I had to come to grips with the difficulty of hip record acquisition in the hometown of Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution which had just officially declared a ban on amplified music, and employed monitors to measure the distance between its co-eds’ kneecaps and the hems of their skirts. I was not happy, but I was not deterred. I had to turn to locating new releases and music news via letters from friends back in Rain Bird Town, by visits to Billboard magazines in the BYU library, and from Gloria Stavers’s – god bless her – monthly column in Sixteen magazine. It was a teenybopper publication – a ‘chick rag’ – that I had to handle discreetly for fear of homophobic remarks from my brothers and their pals. When I discovered a promising release, I would order the record from the Schwann Catalog at a local music shop then wait out the interminable pre-Fed Ex shipping cycle until I got the call that my disc had arrived.
By this time my parents’ rampage against communist musical-brainwashers (which had not subsided even though we now lived safely sequestered in the land of Zion) had reached a level so uncomfortable that I began smuggling the incendiary vinyl contraband into the house. Freak Out, It Crawled Into My Hand Honest, Are You Experienced to name three, are records that first found their way into my bedroom racks via the basement window. By 1966, my musical passion had become a crime.
As the shock of JFK’s loss, the epiphany of British Rock, and the pain of the transplant to Provo had softened, the music moved to the frequency modulated radio bands – FM or “underground” radio as the hip new DJs preferred to call their medium – and the rock, pop and folk canon grew too broad for anything but the most wealthy and obsessive record collectors to keep up. My list eventually fell from attempting to remain comprehensive to settling on being selective. Rolling Stone had replaced Billboard as my essential record guide. But the top one-hundred chart rarely contained more than six or seven artists I could recognize. My collection numbered a respectable 300 LPs, organized in wire racks which consumed every available inch in my living room (I did eventually graduate to the ubiquitous brick-and-board storage system), but in the back of my mind I was unsettled, I knew the recorded world was passing me and my odd-job income by. But what could I do with limited funds? I consoled myself disingenuously: Enough was enough. There was more to life than music…wasn’t there?
With this notion embedded like a thorn in the feet of my consciousness, and with memories of my overwhelmed Needs List and those spasms of musical delight nearly fifty years old, I awoke this morning to the dimly illuminated shapes of a Motel 6’s familiar furnishings and a wholly unexpected renewal of my musical passion.
They say you can’t go home…can’t go back. I understand this wisdom is offered as a warning not to dip too deeply into crippling nostalgia, but when my eyes opened the past was the last thing on my mind. Coffee was a far more urgent matter. I could have been in any 6, anywhere. For a few moments I was geographically disconnected. It wasn’t alarming, in fact at times I savor such disorientation; being lost – anonymity – has its rewards.
The muffled roar of an air conditioner laboring beneath my window consumed the sounds of a new day’s gears falling into place. The comforting drone was responsible no doubt for last night’s fabulous sleep in this foreign, friendly bed. A smile settled over my face. I love the road. I love the roar. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that I have left my home in Oregon on occasion with no better motive than to drift, as I did last night, into happy dreams on waves of a motel AC’s mesmerizing pink noise. But I was not traveling so aimlessly on this trip, I was on the road from work in Tucson back to Portland to meet my doctor and take several passes through his MRI tunnel.
An opaque drape blocked the incandescence of the blazing morning sun; only a yellow corona escaping around the hem of the curtain hinted at the day outside. In a flurry of well-practiced motions, I leapt from the bed and coaxed a cup of crappy java from the coffee device. While the happy little machine gurgled itself dry, I threw back the curtains. The sensuous double humps of the San Gabriel Mountain’s foothills loomed beyond the glass, a visual reference first burned into my brain in 1950. I was back in Rain Bird Town.
Before remembering to pull on some clothes, I swung the door wide to encourage sunlight and the familiar fragrance of oleander and citrus blossoms into my room. Lingering absent mindedly in the doorway, I committed an unintended act of indecency upon anyone who might have been watching the progress of palm shadows across my door. I was that comfortable back on this turf, and that oblivious to the scars across my naked belly. When it dawned how exposed I was, I retreated from the open door and fell back into bed. The AC ramped up to a howl in an attempt to cool the entire San Gabriel Valley.
With the fan’s roar in my head and the caffeine in my veins, I grabbed a 3×5 card from my deck on the bedside table and settled against the pillows to wince at the abominable coffee and to plan my day. But plans did not materialize; instead my mind paged through memories of a walk I had taken yesterday. The walk was, in fact, the reason my route from Tucson back to Portland ran so improbably through this placid suburb town east of Los Angeles. I had detoured from the logical to walk the stations-of-the-cross one tends to trace when touring their childhood home. In a nostalgic haze I visited my grade school, the city baseball diamonds, what had once been the Rexall soda fountain (a Korean bar BQ now), the site of my first real kiss, and the cemetery, where, as one of the young sons of the local American Legion’s Commander, I was, from solemn time to time, obliged to stand at attention during nerve shattering 21 gun salutes over soldiers recently returned from the 39th parallel to Rain Bird Town’s rocky alluvial soil.
My feet scuffled along weathered sidewalks and across the initials of playmates scrawled when the walks were wet concrete so many summers ago. The characters are still sharply defined, as legible as the week the cement cured. It was if I had never left, and I suppose the taste of immortality that accompanies that sense is what I and all of us seek when we return to these treasured places. Sure, crippling nostalgia may be a trap, but I don’t regard this town and its icons as relics to be regarded at a cautious distance. An essential unsettled part of my spirit still haunts these streets after I was forced away at my father’s whim a half-century ago without time to make peace with the losses.
Since that mythic departure, I have returned for a dozen fleeting visits to this place, but yesterday was different – beyond reminiscence. Perhaps it is because in these precious, teetering days I am moved to put all my spirits at ease. Perhaps it is because yesterday the AM, FM, HD and XM airways coursing through Rain Bird Town were alive with a reprise of the very notes that once accompanied my friends and I as we played out the parts of carefree California youth. For whatever reason, yesterday I lingered. I listened and encountered echoes of my youthful voice ringing from familiar old surfaces with an élan and understanding I had forgotten I ever possessed.
The vantage of this visit was different, the result perhaps of last year’s threatening events and the procedures awaiting me back in Portland, but I no longer pictured my young phantom navigating these comfortable streets as a Tom Sawyer. Yesterday I saw him as Huck Finn, a more fully-formed, savvy self than I had taken credit for then, or for too many years thereafter. Better late than never. Then it occurred to me: Huck wouldn’t have abandoned his passions – his Needs List.
I sipped coffee from the 6’s plastic mug and stared blankly at my 3×5 card and realized that perhaps in the trauma of being extracted from the burgeoning musical airways and a promising life, I left too much behind. But would Huck have whined?
Even as I stroll these days beneath the canopy of oaks and acacia, and pass through the scent of Glendora’s generous gardens, I don’t think wistfully of what I missed, or the part of me that remained behind. Leaving the benevolent weather, the citrus groves, my music friends, the awakening girls, the redwood-bouldered bungalows and their profusion of Mediterranean foliage, and the opportunity to grow within a tight community were the cards I was dealt. We made a stand elsewhere, yet when I take long walks up these congenial boulevards, I cannot avoid considering my father’s decision to flee, or ponder what darkness clouded his vision to where he could only see danger in this the most peaceful corner of the valley, when to my ears, so much joy was in the air. He seemed so much more courageous a man.
Of course there was some danger. Wildfires often ravage the San Gabriel Mountains and occasionally consume the outlying homes of Rain Bird Town and other villages crouched in the folds of the Gabriel Foothills. A conflagration can explode at the touch of lightning, or ignite spontaneously in the volatile oils of the chaparral brush with nothing more than the sparks from tumbling stones. It was an incendiary summer when we left, but my father imagined a different threat, a greater danger posed by what he viewed as a hostile black population forty-five minutes to the west. His evidence: their uprising in Watts against the LAPD that August. His motivation: a cadre of neo-nazi bigots who fouled our peaceful neighborhood and his mind like weevils in sweet grain.
I prefer not to think of our departure from Rain Bird Town as a flight in fear, but rather as moving like hobos to the call of something romantic.
I prefer to imagine that perhaps the bounty of this town was too anchoring for Dad’s roving spirit. I will never truly understand what manifest destiny was so profound as to uproot a family from such a fair place. Maybe it wasn’t Watts. Maybe he figured that his son’s friendships were getting too deep, too substantial. Maybe in his mind his boys were getting too soft, too settled…too happy. Enough was enough. The growth of roots was a malignancy.
Distracted from my morning list by the chaparral hills simmering outside my motel window, I thought about those friendships and tried to recall the names of the kids who shared those magic days. I came up with only three: Scotti, the manic Italian kid who shared my love of a new sound arriving from England and who’s pencil lead still lingers in the palm of my left hand; Cynthia, the achingly enticing Dutch Indies girl who lived across my street, and Larry, a black-hearted worldly-beyond-his years buddy who seemed destined to introduce me to every vice available in San Gabriel valley had I made it to sixteen and beyond in his presence. The rest are blank slots erased by time from a roster of friends that in the summer of ‘65 was filling rapidly. To my regret, when dropped suddenly at the feet of the Wasatch Mountains in Central Utah, with a freak September snowstorm only three weeks away, and with postage up to seven cents a stamp, I lost touch with them all.
I often marvel at my current friends’ abilities to recall acquaintances from all ages in their live; and am amazed at their frequent bump-ins with old pals and lovers when we are on the town together. I feel awkward and a little jealous in these encounters. Without the continuum of relationships or the validation of one’s existence through common stories, it is as if the past is only a fantasy. Like a jerk, I quickly change the subject from their class reunions and tales of old best friends to whom I cannot relate. The duration of his sons’ friendships that to my dad had once seemed quite long enough, were clearly insufficient.
As embarrassing as it is to admit the brevity of the list of friends from those days in southern California, I can list the names of at least thirty people from damp distant cities in England – people whom I have never met except to have laid eyes upon from within the frenzied crowd at the foot of their stages, or ear upon from within the spiraling grooves of their shiny black vinyl.
To be continued in Part Two in Some Gumbo.