My sister is in the backseat with her best friend Jane, chattering away about boys and teachers and who knows what else, with their mini-skirts and go-go boots swinging back and forth, giggling and laughing at things indecipherable to me at five. "Oh, I love that song! Turn it up, turn it up," she says, and my mother obliges, the mono sound crackling through the car radio. My sister and Jane swoon in the backseat. I'm on my knees in the front seat, leaning into the backseat, trying to decipher their words. I don't get it. I don't understand sisters or girls or the music they love. I turn away, just disgusted and bored.
I didn't know it then, but the song was "Please, Please Me;" the band, the Beatles; the year, 1964. I wasn't thinking about the Beatles that year, and they weren't yet a household name in the United States, but they were coming. The album bearing the name of the UK #1 hit, having been released in 1963, didn't reach the United States that year, but the song came via another release, "Introducing the Beatles," in early 1964. I heard it, but I didn't know what I was hearing.
Listening to "Please, Please Me" now, in its newly remastered edition, it's almost understandable the sensation it caused in my sister and many other teenagers. When Paul reaches "four" in his countdown to "I Saw Her Standing There," the kickoff song for the album, it's almost a promise of things to come, a breathless "four" shouted into the mike. The boyish energy, the clean guitar sound, the working class British vocals, the driving bass --- they must have sounded exotic and exciting to my sisters and yet, to my parents and many others, bewildering.
"Listen --- do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?"
Trina Payne and I had a secret. Despite our youthful stature, we were an item. I liked her, all six years of her. Or maybe I didn't. I wasn't sure. Or maybe it was just that she liked me so much. Sitting in my first grade class with Mrs. Teague, I'd catch her looking at me and smiling, and I have to admit that I enjoyed it. And yet I wasn't ready for the responsibilities that such affection entailed. For example, Trina insisted on hanging out with me during recess, when I was playing with the guys. I began to wonder what part of "secret" she didn't understand. Besides, I had no idea that this relationship brought with it a commitment to actually spending any significant time with each other. It was the idea of it and not its reality that captivated me.
So one day I'm exiting the cafeteria line with my tray of watered-down tomato soup, and I see a gaggle of girls gathered around Trina. it doesn't look good. I sit down at another table. One of the girls comes over and tells me Trina is saving pennies for our marriage! Good grief! This has gotten way out of hand, and so I decide I need to break it off and that I'll tell her just as soon as I can, but not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, I promise myself, soon this will all end.
At nap time that day, we roll out our towels on the floor. Some kids actually sleep during that time. I never did. I look a couple of towels over and see Trina beckoning me. I go. I know this sounds crazy, and I don't know how it happened, but I let her kiss me. She said no one was watching. I know I made a promise to myself that I would break up with her, and so all this was very confusing. It was like the siren call of a mermaid, luring sailors to their death, nd that kiss was deadly. By the end of nap time, out secret was out. Everyone knew that Trina and I had kissed. Never mind that it was just a little kiss, on my cheek, a kiss it still was. I promised myself I would break up with her --- tomorrow.
At recess the next day, I did the deed. She cried. I felt like a heel. Her mother called my mother. And I learned that six-year old girls are terrible at keeping secrets.
"Well my heart went boom, when I crossed that room, and I held her hand, in mine. . . . Now I'll never dance with another, when I saw her standing there."
My friend Bobby and I had been looking forward to this day for a long time. We dressed up in shirt and tie and met out in the street after dinner. My Mom slicked back my hair. Exiting the door, I bounced down the front steps and took my hand and pushed my bangs back down over my forehead, like James Dean (who I did not know at the time). I had adopted the concept of "cool," felt certain, confident, having nourished the idea of myself as a guy who could really make the moves on the 12-year old girls in the class. Walking the quarter mile to the school, we were full of ourselves, gushing with possibilities for our evening out, checking off the girls we would sweep onto the floor. We were deluded!
I guess we had visions of dancing with girls all night, and yet when we got to the school auditorium, we froze. We took our place along the wall with several other guys, watching the guys brave enough to dance. I never even got near a girl much less danced with one. I never even spoke to one. I counted the lights above the dancers, tried to look above it all, drank a gallon of punch, and ate a lot of cookies. About 45 minutes into it, we left. Walking home in the dark, neither of us spoke about it.
"Come on, come on, come on, come on baby, twist and shout"
I discovered songs like "I Saw Her Standing There" or "Love Me Do" when I discovered popular music at the age of 13. Until then, I listened to the music of my parents --- old-time country music and bluegrass. Artists like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Jim Reeves, and Marty Robbins. We watched the Glen Campbell show or even Hee Haw, more for music than comedy.
I don't know what the first bit of rock music I attached to would have been, but I know that the Beatles were among the first. I bought Abbey Road and Let It Be when they were originally released, saw the movie Let It Be at least twice at the college theater on Tate Street in Greensboro. I worked my way back through the catalog, an interesting process of going back to roots. I love it all, but there is something raw and so exciting about this album of songs recorded live in Abbey Road studio in 1963, "whistled through" (as producer George Martin recalls) in a twelve-hour day, history in the making while I was busy being five.
I missed all this, of course. It's all history to me, experienced vicariously via biography, documentary, and recordings, and yet it was there as a backdrop to my childhood. In the wasteland of music in my college years (1976-1980), when disco dominated, I would come to believe that all the great rock music had already been made between 1963 and 1975. That was a mistaken belief, of course, and yet I still feel like all my musical sensibilities were rooted in that era for which I was born to late.
The funny thing is my son says the same thing --- that he was born to late.
"In my mind there's no sorrow/ don't you know that it's so?/ They'll be no sad tomorrows/ don't you know that it's so?
[Like many other collectors of music, I recently bought the box set of all the Beatles' newly remastered albums, some (like Please, Please Me) in stereo for the first time. I'm listening to them chronologically, one each week, and reacting to them. What could I possibly say original about them? Nothing, of course. Except this is memoir, my personal recollection and reaction, and since no one has lived my life, maybe there is something unique about it. Maybe it'll make you think about where you were and what you were doing so long ago, when these records were released.]