Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Runner Stumbles, Then Walks Away

NOTE: This is the beginning of a novel that I began writing a few years ago and didn't finish. In fact, I hardly got started. It stops suddenly after eight pages. Anybody care to pick up where I left off?  "Interactive fiction!" Why the hell not?

"The wild god of this world is sometimes merciful
 to those that ask for mercy; seldom to the arrogant."
--Robinson Jeffers
            Nobody hitchhikes any more, not unless they have a death wish.  We’re told that hitchhiking used to be as American as hopping freight cars, something else no one does any more.

 It’s a new world, and it’s been a long time coming: way back in 1978, Bob Dylan told an interviewer that he wouldn’t consider hitchhiking even then, although he had famously hitchhiked from Minnesota to New York when he was about 20 years old.  “Too many drugs out there now,” I think he said.

 Already, as early as 1978.

I sometimes get nostalgic for this America that I never saw or knew, (call it second-hand nostalgia) the America in which Jack Kerouac could thumb and freight-hop his way from one coast to the other without having to worry about any threat more sinister than a railroad bull looking to toss him off the Midnight Ghost from Los Angeles to San Francisco, (yes, I know that this has been exaggerated—he did most of his actual  traveling either in friends’ cars or on Greyhound buses, but what the hell, it makes a good story), the America of Route 66 and its less-storied sister two-lanes, which ran right through the middle of otherwise-sleepy towns where you could get a hamburger, french fries and a milkshake for 85¢. 

The advent of the interstate highway system ended all of that.  The Eisenhower years are traditionally depicted as a time of stagnation, but in that sense they were revolutionary:  they killed off Kerouac’s “great American night” and replaced it with a homogenized network of coast-to-coast asphalt on which you can go for a thousand miles in any direction and hardly have a sense of where you are outside of the state name heading the red-white-and-blue sign by the road that reads “70,” “8,” “95” or whatever. 

Hitchhikers?  You’ll still see them haunting the occasional on-ramp about once every conjunction of Jupiter and Mars, but nobody in his or her right mind would give them more than a glance while accelerating into the right lane past the “Speed Limit 55” sign which everyone also ignores. Too many drugs out there. Not to mention guns, knives and wannabe space aliens waiting to hijack your car for a side-trip to the Planet Mongo.

            These problems didn’t exist, or barely existed, when my father, James Donahy, hitchhiked from Los Angeles to El Centro in 1940. 

The Great Depression was lingering.  America’s entry into World War II wouldn’t come along to finally end the massive unemployment for another year and a half.  My father knew how to drive a truck and someone had offered him work driving lettuce out of the Imperial Valley.  He quit a job as a security guard at a Long Beach oil refinery to take the truck-driving job in El Centro because it promised to pay better.  But he didn’t have much money in his pocket and he wasn’t sure whether the new job was going to work out or not, so to save a couple of dollars he hitchhiked out to the desert rather than taking a bus. 

But as it happened, the truck driving job worked out well, so well that he stayed in Imperial County for three years.  He got married there, (he’d already been married and divorced once) to a woman whose family was from Long Beach, the place he had left to come to the desert.  Having Long Beach in common was in fact what started their first conversation at the Centinela CafĂ©.  It was a Saturday night, and I like to imagine that Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman were blowing out of the jukebox.  (Another boring romantic, that’s me.) 

My father and his second wife, whose name I think was Betty (my mother was his third wife) moved into a house in Holtville, about 15 miles east of  El Centro.  

Betty died in childbirth, as my father’s story went, and the child lived only a few hours.  Her family back in Long Beach wanted to have her body returned to the coast for burial there.  The baby, who didn’t live long enough to be named, was buried right there in Holtville.  My father moved on. 

Almost four decades later, I went to El Centro to take my first real job. Call it a coincidence if you  like.  I didn’t hitchhike there, I drove—in a 1973 Plymouth Scamp, to be exact. 

But modes of transportation aside, the Imperial Valley is a place where my family has gone to burn a lot of karma. 

            Later I found out that Herm Syktich wasn’t exactly home-grown either.  He was a transplant too, in his case from Pomona.  The official story from the Syktich family was that he’d come to the Imperial Valley for his health.  He had asthma and they thought the dry air of the low desert would be good for him.  That, and real estate was cheap there—very  cheap, for the obvious reason that nobody in his right mind who wasn’t born in Imperial County would want to live there, not with those 115-degree summers—so the house in Holtville where the Syktiches lived had been a bargain. (Syktich is a Ukrainian name,if anyone cares.)

But I suspected that there was more to it than that.  Pomona is in Los Angeles County, and Los Angeles is a big place.  Herm’s incessant letters-to-the-editor couldn’t have been attracting much attention there. But in Imperial County,  a sparsely-populated farm area with lots of churches, Herm and his alternately neo-Marxist and neo-atheist broadsides would get listened to, if not necessarily welcomed.  Pissing people off, after all, beats the heck out of being ignored. 

How I came to close my father’s circle is simple enough.  When I got out of college the country was in a recession, (again) so jobs weren’t that easy to get generally, and to make matters worse, I had majored in journalism, chiefly as a sop to my father, who was worried that I wasn’t “learning a trade.”  I’d wanted to major in history; in fact I did pursue a history major, but after witnessing not only my father but both of my parents wringing their hands over the generally-accepted “uselessness” of a liberal arts degree, I added journalism as a second major.  Yes, it came under the College of Professional Studies, so I suppose in a sense it passed for “learning a trade,” but journalism is a field in which it’s notoriously hard to find work, (and once you do find it, the next thing you discover is that the pay is a joke) so I didn’t just walk out of Cal State Northridge’s front door on graduation day and find a job waiting for me.  No, to my parents’ continued consternation (and continued hand-wringing) I lived on at home for a time after graduation, working at odd jobs and trolling for that first break in the news business.

 It was a while in coming.  In fact after a few months I began to think that maybe, despite my father’s misgivings about liberal arts as a career, I ought to go back to Northridge, get my M.A. in history. After that perhaps  I could at least teach somewhere. 

But then, when I’d been stocking shelves and mopping floors in a 7-11 store in Los Angeles for about six months, on the graveyard shift no less, a man walked into the store at 4:00 one morning for a pack of cigarettes.  He stopped long enough to have a cup of coffee and I, grateful for a chance to put the mop down, chatted with him for a few minutes as he sipped and smoked. 

His name was Tom Bergland.  He had just driven most of the night to get back from Santa Cruz, where he’d gone to attend a funeral.  He was a reporter for L.A. Press Service, an independent news organization that served subscriber newspapers in the county.  Naturally I mentioned that I’d just graduated from Northridge with a journalism major, and we talked about that for a while.  

He came back about a week later and asked me if I were ready to go to work.

 I thought he was joking.  But he wasn’t.  He said LAPS had just lost two reporters and he needed to replace them quickly.  He’d decided to offer me a shot at a real job.  He said he believed in giving young people a chance, and he gave me a test which, if I passed it, would convince him that I could be placed on a news beat. 

The test: he pointed to an office building across the street and told me that if I could find out who owned that building, that would prove that I knew how to dig for information, which he said is the most important thing any reporter does.  He’d put me to work if I could find out who owned that building.  He gave me his phone number and told me to call him when I did.

Not sure whether I was getting the break of my life or whether I was having my leg pulled by a loony, I drove out to the L.A. County Administration Center, found the hall of records and learned that the building in question was owned by a large insurance firm based in Indiana.  I called Bergland and gave him this information and he told me to meet him at the press room at city hall the next morning.  He was going to put me to work, he said, covering the Los Angeles City Council. 

 I could hardly sleep that night.  Six months out of college and I was going to work for a news service, covering the L.A. City Council, no less!  Either I was “on my way” or there was some very big catch to this that he wasn’t telling me about.

Of course there was, and I should have thought to ask, but when you’re 22 you don’t think to ask about such things, or at least I didn’t.

The catch was, of course, the money.  L.A. Press Service was a shoestring operation that didn’t even have its own office space.  Its reporters worked out of the press rooms of the public buildings where they worked: the city and county buildings and the county courthouse.  LAPS used desks and telephones that were furnished by local government for the media’s use, and often had to jockey for space and facilities with the more-mainstream people from the L.A. Times and other papers, not to mention the TV news crews, when something flashy enough to attract local television’s interest came up.  

             As a newcomer I would be paid 60 cents per column inch for everything I published in the subscriber newspapers.  I soon found out that, with long hours and hard work, I could expect to make $300 or $400 a month, and that would be a good month. 

Still, I quit the 7-11 store where I was working and accepted a berth with Bergland’s little organization. 

My parents were in despair of course, utterly convinced by this latest folly of mine that I would never move out of their back bedroom and get a “real” job.  I tried to explain to them that, even though L.A. Press Service wouldn’t be paying me much, this was an opportunity to get some hands-on experience which could lead to a regular, salaried job later on. 

It was a tough sell, to my father especially, who had lived through the Depression in his youth and even now, decades later, still subscribed to the belief that it was unreasonable of anyone to feel that they should be allowed to “pick and choose” their employment.  In 1934 you were grateful to have a job, any kind of job, and that was that.  He saw no reason to think that things should be any different now. That I would give up a guaranteed $3.25 an hour to go chasing after something that promised only so much for what I could sell seemed crazy to him.  So I took a second job, working weekends as a swing-shift security guard in a tuna cannery in San Pedro.  This served two purposes: it added a little extra change to what I was bringing home from my work at the L.A. Press Service, and it convinced my father of my seriousness: if I was willing to work seven days a week so I could be a reporter five days a week, well, that impressed him.

The city press room saw a lot of people come and go during the course of an average week, but there were some regular “fixtures” there besides myself.  A couple of times a week either Tom Bergland or Katie Cusic from LAPS would come by to check up on how things were going—they both handled client relations as well as reporting, and their time was as much filled with selling the service and getting the bills out as it was with actually covering news—but for the most part I spent my time with Leslie Sirota, who covered city government for the Los Angeles Times, and Juan Fontes, who covered it for the San Gabriel Valley News. 

Within fifteen seconds of meeting her, I decided that Leslie Ann Sirota was beyond any doubt the most beautiful woman upon whom I had ever laid eyes.  About three years my senior, she had already spent considerable time “in the trenches,” a fact made obvious in turn by the fact that she was, at age 25, already a reporter for the biggest newspaper on the west coast.  In fact, I learned as I talked with her, that from age 13 on she had never wanted to be anything except a reporter.  She’d gone to U.C.L.A. and had done an internship at the Washington Post  during the summer of her senior year.  After graduating, she’d taken a job on a tiny twice-weekly in Huntington Beach called the Huntington Beachcomber.  A dumb move?  Not at all—on a newspaper that small, one tends to become an editor very quickly, in fact, sometimes one becomes an editor upon walking through the door.  Leslie became the Beachcomber’s editor in less than two years.  Subsequently, when the Los Angeles Times was looking for someone to cover local government in Orange County, Leslie caught their attention and, at 24, she was hired.  A year later they had her covering L.A. city government.  She was a blue-eyed brunette, and I’ve always been a sucker for blue-eyed brunettes.  She was Polish-Jewish by descent; her parents had been in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II.  They had both died by the time she was 18.  She didn’t put a lot of effort into dressing well—she was too wrapped up in her work, I always supposed—but she had a good figure and an engaging smile and what with that thick brown hair and those blue eyes, I spent the best part of the year I worked for LAPS hopelessly in love with her.  She was usually too busy to even talk to me, though, and I spent whole days sitting at my desk in that press room contemplating the back of her neck and grinding my teeth.

But although I would moon and moan at length over Leslie Sirota in the months to come, it was Juan Fontes who ultimately proved the wild card which would result in the closing of my father’s circle by bringing me to El Centro. 

Juan was in his thirties and had been in the business for ten years.  He was originally from San Diego.  In my early days of covering the council, he gave me pointers on everything from when was the best time to catch the city clerk in her office to cleaning my typewriter (yes, we still used typewriters in those days—mine was a Smith-Imperial Classic 12 portable, and no, L.A. Press Service didn’t provide me with it, I brought it from home.)  Soon Juan and were hanging out together.  We would sometimes go jogging during his lunch hour (there was a locker room in the basement where we could change and shower) and once in a while after work we would slip off to a nearby tavern for a beer or two, although my tight budget didn’t allow for too-frequent bar drinking.  It was during one of these beer-drinking sessions after a day at city hall that Juan raised the question of where I was planning to go from LAPS. 

“After all, sooner or later you want a job where you ain’t being paid so-many peanuts per column inch, right?”

“Well, yeah, of course,” I replied.  “But I don’t think the Times is going to look at me just yet, or the Valley News either.”

“I had my first newspaper job down in the Imperial Valley, in El Centro,” he said.  “You ever think about going down there?”

“Are you out of your mind?”  I asked him.  “The DESERT?  There’s nothing down there but lettuce.  And doesn’t it get up to something like 20,000 degrees in the summer there?”

“Right on both counts, and precisely my point.  See, because it’s such an undesirable place, nobody wants to stay there for very long.  So the daily paper down there has a turnover problem.  People come and go.  If you get your resume on file there, you might have a chance at getting a job.  I know it’s not much of a place, but it would be a step up from this.  At least you’d be working on a daily paper.  And you’d have a by-line—LAPS don’t give nobody a by-line, your stories just say ‘L.A. Press Service’ at the top.  Nobody’s outside city hall’s getting to know who you are, and people getting to know who you are is half the game.” 

He had a point. 

Still.  “The Imperial Valley?”  I cringed.

“Well, just think about it.  If you at least want to send a resume down there, I can tell you who to send it to.  The managing editor’s name is Henry Birnbaum.  He’s been there for about 10 or 11 years.  He was sort of ‘exiled’ from the paper’s parent organization, the Springfield, Illinois Tribune.  That’s where he’s from, Springfield.  But about ten years ago the Tribune decided they had too many assistant managing editors running around, and Henry got transferred all the way out here.  The Trib actually owns a chain of papers down there in the desert.  They have papers in Indio, Blythe, and Needles besides the one in El Centro.  Henry’s a case.  He used to give me a bad time about my long hair.  He called it my ‘Buster Brown’ haircut.  I couldn’t convince him that that was the style then.  Henry still lives in the 1950s.  But he’s really into the business.  His father was an editor, and Henry has ‘printer’s ink in his blood,’ as the old saying goes.”

“I don’t know.”

“Just think about it.  I’ll even give Henry a call if you like.”
From here, my protagonist was to have gone down to the Imperial Valley and gotten involved in the investigation of a ten-year-old murder case involving the killing of two FBI agents by a local young crazy whose trigger-point turns out to have been Herm Syktich's political ravings in the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper. But this was as far as I got. I fear this book will never be written, and I spent 25 years thinking about writing it, because the story would have been based on true events.
Anybody out there care to make a suggestion as to what should have happened next?


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Music In My Life Part I

NOTE: This is the first section of a book I started writing a few years ago and never finished. Hence, as blog postings go, it's a bit lengthy. But I'm confident that readers of a certain age will find plenty in it of interest, and much that is familiar. KD

“How could I tell him what music meant to me?”—Amadeus
 My niece, Alicia Marianna Guido, was born on December 20, 1982.
She didn’t happen along until late that evening. But earlier that same day, the world had gotten the news that Arthur Rubinstein, one of the supreme concert pianists of the 20th century, had died in Zurich, Switzerland at the age of 95.

Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) one
of the twentieth century's premier
pianists, died at nearly the same
moment my niece was born.
I was home for Christmas that week in Chula Vista, California, as was my lifelong pal, eminent musician and man-about-Manhattan Charles Berigan, and at the moment Alicia made her debut, Charlie and I had been having something of a colloquy all evening long on the passing of old “Rooey,” as Charlie sometimes called him.

No slouch of a pianist himself, Charlie was of course more than conversant with Rubinstein’s career, biography, discography and stage presence. (I think that by the time he graduated from high school, Charlie had seen Rubinstein in concert four times.)

Vladimir Horowitz was Charlie’s particular god in those days, and his pantheon of favorite pianists shifted with time, not to mention with the changes in taste that his own development as a musician brought along with it. But Rubinstein was a special favorite, one of the inner circle of Charlie’s heroes.

Mine, too, even though I’m not a musician by any stretch of the word. (Oh, I've sung in a few choirs, but that's not the same as being proficient on the piano, guitar or sousaphone.) I have never been able to figure my way around clefs, staves, sharps, flats, leger lines and semiquavers; even Chopsticks is beyond me if you stick me at a keyboard. (I once took a few guitar lessons, but gave up and sold the guitar.) Still, I had read both volumes of Rubinstein’s memoirs, and by then had plenty of his records; the great pianist was just that kind of guy—you didn’t have to be a musician to love him, as millions of concertgoers and record buyers the world over would have told you at any time during his long life, and will still tell you now.

So there we were, Charlie and me, sitting in my parents’ living room in California on the night before Christmas four times removed. It was about 11 p.m. My parents had long since retired to bed at their opposite ends of the house. We had a bottle of Scotch and some melting ice, and were deep in our discussion of the life and times of Arthur Rubinstein,  (the “Artur” spelling familiar from concert posters had been his impresario’s idea) when we heard the kitchen door open and close. My younger sister Lynn walked into the living room. She had just come from Sharp Memorial Hospital, and brought us the news that my older sister, Carla, had just given birth to a five pound, four ounce baby girl.

I refilled our glasses, Charlie’s and mine, and we drank a double-toast, to the arrival of my new niece and to the departure of our hero.

It was a moment that I think "Rooey" would have appreciated.  

But there was a problem. The baby wasn’t well. (“This is going to be a delicate child,” my mother remarked the next day. Then, in a tip of the hat to how hale and hearty babies in our family had generally been up until that time, she added, “We haven’t had one of those before.”)

Alicia had been born “blue:” her billeruben levels were unacceptably high, and there was apparently a congenital heart defect which would have to be corrected surgically when she got old enough—if she got old enough.

She was taken immediately to the Infant Intensive Care Unit, where they kept her for a few days. Lynn bought her a teddy bear and put it in the hospital crib with her. They took a picture of the baby sleeping alongside her teddy bear, and when I saw the photo, I assumed that the teddy bear must be quite large; it was almost as big as the baby.

But when I visited Alicia in the IICU a day or two after Christmas, I learned the truth. It wasn’t that the teddy bear was that large; it was that Alicia was that tiny.

I have a photo of myself, somewhere, wearing a green surgical gown, this bundle only slightly bigger than one of own my big feet cradled in my arms. 

In 1982, the year of the film Chariots of Fire's release,
I'd be willing to bet that no one expected its theme
music would be hummed to a baby in a hospital intensive-care
When they handed her to me, I decided it would be nice if I could sing something to her. (I’m hopeless at reading music or playing an instrument, but I can carry a tune and have a not-bad baritone voice.) But what?  Rock-A-Bye-Baby is the only lullaby I know, and since I’ve never actually heard it sung anywhere outside of a Warner Brothers cartoon, it didn’t seem to fit the moment. Something encouraging, I thought, would be perfect. But again, what?

 I began rocking Alicia back and forth in my arms and humming the theme from the movie Chariots of Fire, which, I don’t know, perhaps I’d seen recently. The tune didn’t have any words, but the sentiment seemed appropriate.

So there you have it: I’m telling you the story of my niece’s birth, and by the time she’s a week old, music has intruded itself into the story twice.

Not unusual, I would think, outside of the noteworthy coincidence of her arrival on the day after Rubinstein’s departure. Truth to tell, if I weren’t a fan of Rubinstein’s, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the confluence. But there it was. Okay, it’s a personal quirk of mine, noticing dates that cross in such ways. A similar, if less remarkable intersecting-of-orbits: one of my Russian acquaintances, Nadya, was hugely amused when I told her that her birthday, August 16, was also the anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.

For the record, I share my own birthday, October 12, with English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and also with tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

But getting back to myself sitting in the hospital, humming Vangelis to Alicia: it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that just about everyone on earth has an album in their own head of snapshots just like that, moments from their own life that are symbolized—and can be re-evoked—by some snatch of music, or a familiar song, or even a longer piece. In his masterpiece A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust’s “little phrase” from the famous sonata by Vinteuil (purported to be in real life the Sonata in A major for Piano and Violin by Cesar Franck) is probably the most famous example in literature.

I have a lot of them, as I’m sure you do too.

Here’s a favorite: Thanksgiving night, 1995. Washington, D.C. My friend Boris Demidov was visiting from Moscow. He and I had been invited to Thanksgiving dinner by a co-worker of mine from the U.S. State Department, Ron DeBrosse. We had finished with dinner and were driving back from Ron’s house in Burke, Virginia to my apartment in Rosslyn, across the river from D.C.

I’d just had a tough year: I’d gone to work at the U.S. embassy in post-Soviet Moscow in 1993 and run smack into a veritable movie scenario: I fell in love with a local woman, (the above-mentioned Nadya) but the U.S. government had not yet gotten around to lifting its Cold War-era “non-fraternization” policy in Moscow, even though the communists were gone and the USSR had been dead for more than two years at that point. Someone ratted on me for having a “Russian girlfriend,” and the next thing I knew I was back in Washington, being interrogated by a bunch of yellow-necktie bozos who thought there was a spy under every bed, and then, when they couldn’t find any evidence of counterintelligence hanky-panky, I was re-assigned to a stateside job. 

But I was in love, you see, and angry. Thus began a long year of letter-writing to members of Congress, fuming...and waiting. The idiotic “non-frat” policy was finally lifted in the spring of ’95, and Nadya and I were reunited the following summer: we vacationed together on Spain's Costa Brava. (And fought like two cats in a sack, I might add, which only proves that at some point, life usually quits imitating Hollywood.)

But now it was Thanksgiving night, raining, and “Bob” and I were on our way home. I had the radio in the car tuned to WGMS, then Washington’s classical-music station. They were playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. I knew Tchaikovsky to be Nadya’s favorite composer, and there wasn’t a note of his music that didn’t make me think of her. How things can change in 12 months: the previous Thanksgiving, when I was still suffering the misery of being separated from Nadya  and fighting the bureaucracy to see if we could get somehow reunited, my well-meaning Brooklyn dinner host put one Tchaikovsky symphony after another on the stereo, thinking that would please me, as I’d just been in Moscow.  But it was so tormenting that I finally had to ask him to switch to Haydn instead.

But now, a year later, the sound of Tchaikovsky wasn’t tormenting. It was more like a benediction. Somehow, having that music playing in the car as we drove home in the rain made a perfect “closing of the circle” moment. The night, the rain, Tchaikovsky, Thanksgiving, and I now had a photograph on top of my TV set of Nadya in her swimsuit that I had taken three months earlier in Spain. And I still had a job.



 All of this had to start somewhere, as it does for everyone. Music is everywhere. It entangles itself with our lives, all our lives. “Each sensation makes a note in life’s symphony,” sang The Who in Tommy. Nice sentiment, but “life’s symphony” also includes a lot of external music. (Like Tommy for instance.)

Now, I don’t know if anybody could tell you the title of the first song they ever heard, nor could I.  It would have to be something my mother crooned to me when I was in something like Alicia’s position, although I was never in the Infant Intensive Care Unit that I know of. I did get very sick as a baby once; I’m sure Mom sang to me. My mother had a good singing voice. I probably get mine from her.

But I do remember the first song that ever embedded itself in my memory and stayed there. And I wasn’t too far past “baby” myself at the time.

I wish I could say that the earliest music to embed itself in my
memory was Mozart, but no, Frankie Avalon got there first.
My family was living in Burlington, Vermont. (My father was in the U.S. Border Patrol and we moved a lot.) There is no way I could have have been more than three years old, because I was not yet four when we left Vermont and moved to suburban Los Angeles. So this would have been the year 1958.

My eldest sister Madelon, 14 at the time, brought into the house a 45 rpm record of Frankie Avalon singing Hey Venus. My memories of that time of life are as murky as anyone’s would be, but she must have played it a lot, because to this day if I happen to be listening to an oldies station and they spin Hey Venus, what few memory-pictures I have from that early in life come popping into view: the afternoon sun shining into our Vermont living room, an old wooden spring rocking chair painted black, with red and white transponders.

Circa 1983, when the cutting edge in pop music was stuff like Air Supply and She’s a Maniac from the movie Flashdance, I saw a British critic interviewed on a TV talk show, who said that he felt sorry for the kids of the early 1980’s in that respect. “They don’t have any great music,” he said. “They have no Beatles.”

Well, music, or popular music anyway, is one of those areas—maybe the most obvious one—in which generations seldom see eye to eye. When we baby-boomers began to decry the lack of great music on the airwaves in the 1980s and ‘90s, we were immediately accused of  creeping old-fogeyism. I’m sorry, folks, but stuff like Video Killed the Radio Star (staying with the early ‘80s motif) was nothing but wishful thinking, and history has borne that out in the last two decades. The Beatles are more popular now, more than 30 years after they broke up, than they ever were. Who listens to Air Supply or Culture Club anymore? Dixit Dominus.

I don’t know if I was fortunate or unfortunate in being a little kid during the early-to-mid 1960s. Certainly being an adolescent and a young adult in the 1970s was no picnic, and my older confreres who were themselves in high school and college between the Kennedy and Nixon years talk with great nostalgia about that period, and specifically about the music they remember. (If the number of people who claim to have been at Woodstock had actually been there, Max Yasgur’s farm would have to have been the size of New Jersey.) The Big Chill was the great cinematic celebration of their experience. (And, by the way, has that line, I think it’s Jeff Goldblum’s, when host Kevin Kline is playing a Procol Harum album, “Don’t you have any music from this century?”)

Okay, I missed out on the partying and the love-ins and the drugs, having been a mere 11 years old in the summer of ’67 when Haight-Ashbury was the capital of the hip world.

But I wouldn’t trade having been eight years old when the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for anything. Why? Because the perspective of a child is remarkably uncluttered.  The “white noise” of everyday reality has not yet closed in and shouted out the inner workings of your imagination. Children are omnipotent within their internal worlds in direct proportion to how dependent they are on the adults around them for everything else. (I love the anecdote, at the very end of his memoir Speak, Memory, in which Vladimir Nabokov is describing how he, his wife and their small child are approaching, in 1939, the steamship that will take them to America. Nabokov notices the startling visual perspective of the ship’s enormous smokestack apparently rising up from behind a clothesline as they approach the dock. But he does not point it out to his son: he decides to let the child notice it for himself, and make of it an unforgettable memory of his own. We should all have such sensitive dads.) This curious omnipotence of children within their still-cozy worlds where imagination is still puissant, and not gelded as it will usually be later in life, is the subject of a poem I wrote when I was about 27, called Snowflakes. I have included it at the end of this essay as a appendix. Given this, I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been a school-age child at a time when popular music was entering upon what may have been its most fecund period of the 20th century.

I was in the fourth grade at Castle Park Elementary School in Chula Vista, California the day President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas. November 22, 1963.

More than one opinion columnist has suggested that decades don’t really end in zero numbers (or ones, if you want to split hairs), and that the assassination of President Kennedy was Part One of a brace of events that effectively brought the 1950s in America to a close. (If you don’t believe the pundits, take a look at the photograph of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald two days later, and note that Ruby is wearing a depressingly baggy suit, not to mention a snap-brim hat. Except for the pistol that he’s shoving into Oswald’s abdomen, he looks like he just stepped out of an episode of Leave It To Beaver.)

Part Two was of course the appearance, less than three months later in New York, of John, Paul, George and Ringo. The murder of Kennedy had put the nation into something of a funk; looking back, it’s been opined that the Beatles were just the tonic America needed. And they came along in the month of February, when a lot of people would be in a funk even if the President of the United States hadn’t just been assassinated.

No one who didn't live through the 1960s can have any real
idea of the impact that the Beatles had. They owned the world.
We weren’t big watchers of The Ed Sullivan Show at our house. Sunday nights usually meant Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, after which we kids would have to go to bed. So I missed the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan, but that didn’t mean it was lost on me. In those days the word “buzz” as a marketing term had not yet entered the lexicon, but let me tell you, after that Sullivan show on Sunday, there was plenty of “buzz” at Castle Park Elementary School on Monday. Two and a half months earlier, the lunchroom crowd had murmured, “Kennedy’s dead.  Kennedy’s dead.” Now the buzz was, “Have you heard the Beatles? Have you heard the Beatles?”

I had not, and thought my classmates were talking about insects.

But I soon did. The Beatles’ second appearance on Ed Sullivan, not long after, was my first experience with what soon came to be called the “generation gap.” Those of us who remember the 1960s will remember that a major generational issue was at root, follical. More shouting wars were fought across the dinner tables of America over the issue of hair than were probably fought over politics, but of course, eventually hair became political: that was part of the Zeitgeist of the ‘60s. The Beatles, with no implicit political intent, wore their hair long, or what was considered long in those days. It shocked an America accustomed to the idea that only women wore their hair over their ears: men were supposed to wear crew cuts. (And hats, you know, like the one Ruby was wearing when he shot Oswald.)

The nose-piercing and tattoos of the 1990s and 2000s were by and large greeted with sighs and shrugs by parents who had themselves been young when the national hysteria about long hair began with the Beatles. My guess would be that these more-contemporary parents were remembering their own youths, and all the shouting matches that erupted when the Beatles first brought the notion of male long hair to America, and were determined to not repeat such unpleasantness.
And I’m also sure that there were open-minded parents in the ‘60s who greeted the hair phenomenon with nothing more than a sigh and a shrug, which is all that any trend in fashion deserves.

But my father was not one of those open-minded parents. He was a textbook reactionary, openly—noisily—hostile to anything that he hadn’t been seeing every day for 40 years. He was also a nearly-hysterical homophobe, which led to much speculation in the family over the years about the lady “who doth protest too much.” Everywhere he looked, my father thought he saw a “quee-uh,” in his Massachusetts accent, and he wanted to kill every “quee-uh” he thought he saw. If he took a disliking to someone’s looks or their manner of speaking, he would immediately start casting aspersions on their sexual orientation. He was a sick little puppy, my father. Naturally, when he saw the Beatles and all that hair, he thought he was seeing androgyny. And when my father thought he saw androgyny, clear the arena: the bull had been caped.

Years later, when I started to read, I came across a grotesque short story by Thomas Mann, The Way To The Churchyard. In this story, one of life’s losers, an ugly, misshapen little drunkard with the absurd name of Praisegod Piepsam, is on his way to the cemetery to visit the graves of his wife and child. Everything Praisegod Piepsam sees throws him into a fury, and when he encounters an exuberant young man on a bicycle bearing down on him along the road, he becomes so enraged by this display of “Life itself” that he just about has a stroke, shouting at the cyclist that he’ll report him for riding in such a manner in such a place. At the end of the story, Piepsam’s rage and its attendant inarticulate roaring do in fact bring about his death.

When I read that story, I couldn’t help but remember the first time my father saw the Beatles. Or the second or the third. In fact, 30 years later he was still screaming, but of that in a moment.

Someone, probably my older sister Madelon, who was still living at home and had just started at nursing school that year, switched on The Ed Sullivan Show that night. My father entered the room just as the Beatles were being announced, and right away the air tightened. I think someone offered to change the station. But my father raised his hand to stifle any initiative of that sort. “No,” he said. “Leave it on. I want to hear them sing.” And it wasn’t because he’d just heard Love Me Do on the radio and liked it, either. This was Will Kane in High Noon, about to face down the enemy.

The Beatles launched into a joyous cover of the Iseley Brothers’ Twist and Shout. Smiling, hair flapping, guitars waving, they were the very spirit of the guy on the bicycle in Thomas Mann’s story.

 And my father reacted just like Piepsam. George and Paul hadn’t finished harmonizing their second chorus of “Oooooh” in Twist and Shout when my father went nuts. His idea of music was Bing Crosby; this, this was the end of the world. To use a phrase I used to hear him use from time to time, I thought we were going to have to coax him off the roof with a bunch of bananas. Like many short men, my father had more than a little of the bully in him, and the whole family was afraid to say “boo” or even to move while he stomped around the room, ranting about how “this sort of thing” was going to be the downfall of America, etc. etc. There are plenty of people in the world who find anything new threatening. But in my father’s case the fear was particularly acute, because he took everything he saw or heard personally. Tolstoy was self-absorbed, but also achieved during his life a great depth of self-understanding. My father’s self-absorption, in contrast to Tolstoy’s, was in direct proportion to his lack of self-understanding. He was his own favorite subject, but never understood himself for a moment.  My father never understood, or cared to understand, what motivated him, what really made him tick. He only knew one thing: he stood at the center of his own tiny universe, and if the Beatles wore their hair long, there was only one explanation of why: it was to aggravate him, period. It never would have occurred to him to ask himself the question of why it aggravated him so much; that would have required a deeper self-analysis than he would have been comfortable with. He would have had to face the fact, at some point, that the reason the Beatles made him so angry was because they made him feel threatened. And they made him feel threatened because, with their long hair, they seemed androgynous to him. And if he felt threatened by androgyny...well, that was a place he would never go. But clearly, my father saw something here that terrified him, something like “life itself.”

My father never got over his terror of the Beatles. More than 30 years later, in 1995, when my father was 81, I was visiting home from back east and happened to tune in a documentary on the A&E Channel about the Fab Four. He was sitting in his armchair in the corner of the living room, reading one of the large-print westerns which by then were just about the only thing he could or would read. He happened to glance up from his chair and notice what I was watching: an old black-and-white film clip of the Beatles’ first arrival in New York in that February of ’64.

Immediately  the snarling started: “Look at THAT,” he growled. “What fine specimens of MANHOOD.” He lost interest in his book. Here was The Enemy one more time, for him to growl at like an aging dog on the front porch who doesn’t like the mailman. “Four FINE specimens of MANHOOD.”

He continued in this vein until I finally got up and walked over to his chair.

“Do you realize you’re barking at a piece of film that’s 30 years old?” I asked him.

“That’s 30 years old?”

“It certainly is.”

But it didn’t stop him. As long as the Beatles remained on the TV screen, my frightened father went right on snarling and sputtering at these gay caballeros, so blithely and so cheerfully in his face.

By this time my mother had come into the room and taken a seat on the piano bench, and just about this same time, I decided that I’d had enough. I’d been listening to this for 30 years; I didn’t have to listen to it any more.

“That’s it, I’m going to go watch this on the TV in Mom’s room,” I said, getting up.

“Oh, sit down and watch your program!” my father said.

Nope. I left the room. And as I walked out toward the kitchen, I heard my mother’s voice behind me, hissing at my father: “The problem with you is, you just can’t leave ANYTHING ALONE!”

Well, that was the continuation, three decades later, of what the sixties were pretty much all about, at least at our house: guys in long hair waving guitars, and my father barking and screaming, ordering that someone immediately change the channel, then holding the family circle in thrall while he delivered himself of yet another tirade about hair, “surf bums” and everything else about the under-25 crowd that he didn’t like. I suppose similar conditions prevailed in many households across America. They must have, because they became the stuff of jokes in TV and the movies. I loved an unforgettable line from a highly forgettable movie: I’m not sure whether it was in The Trouble with Angels or its sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows, but in one of those two films, there’s a scene in which a teenage girl is on the phone with her father, explaining, “But Daddy, not all folksingers are communists! Only those with beards!” That was my father she was talking to.

But despite the atmosphere in the living room, the pop music of the 1960s flourished in our house. It was sort of like the samizdat culture of the Soviet Union—it stayed in the corners. I had an older sister who wasn’t much different from other girls her age, and she managed to sneak the Beatles, and all the rest of it, in through the back door, so to speak. We had an old Zenith console in the living room, one of those 1950s pieces of electric furniture that had a lighted AM-FM dial on one side and a pull-down turntable for playing records on the other. Whenever Dad wasn’t home, and like most dads he worked, sometimes late, my sister Carla had that radio tuned to Top-40 KCBQ and KGB, the two stations in San Diego that played the music the kids wanted to hear. I don’t know where my sister got the money to buy records with, but somehow, around Christmas of 1965, the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul appeared in the house, and furtively, a toe-hold was established for the music of that period. That same year, Carla got a little plastic record-player as a Christmas present. My two sisters shared a bedroom right next to mine, and I could hear the music filtering in through the wall—it was almost by osmosis that I was exposed to the music of the British Invasion, although I spent my share of time crouched next to that Zenith console in the living room. At age 12, my older sister bought enthusiastically into the image-selling that the marketers of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had so cunningly devised: she adored the Beatles, and their music was heard night and day coming out of her bedroom. But she hated the Stones—never mind their compelling music, they were “bad boys.” Perhaps precisely for that reason, (since when did a younger brother ever follow the lead of his older sister?) I embraced the Stones enthusiastically, proclaiming Satisfaction my favorite song. If I were playing baseball in the street, and my younger sister would stick her head out the front door and announce that they were playing Satisfaction on the radio, I would drop my ball and glove and come in long enough to listen.

I t was an interesting time to be a kid, the sixties, because the packaged culture that we had been fed since World War II was beginning to get just a little frayed at the edges, beginning to show its underbelly just a bit. The new and the strange were beginning to obtrude themselves, and you either got used to it or you didn’t. For example, when I caught my first glimpse of Bob Dylan, around the time I was 9, I thought he was the oddest-looking duck I’d ever seen. Sure, the Beatles had long hair, but in those mid-60s anyway, when they were still under the management of Brian Epstein, they at least wore it neatly-groomed, and most of the other pop groups on TV and radio in those days, from Herman’s Hermits to the Byrds, mimicked the Beatles and wore their hair long, but carefully combed. The 1965 version of Dylan didn’t bother with that: his head looked like a blizzard, uncombed, crazy hair going every which way. To me he looked like something from another planet. (I’m just glad my dad never saw him.)

Ah, but then, that same summer, I heard Like A Rolling Stone on the radio for the first time.

In this compartmentalized age of 180-channel television and 25 different genres of popular music, it’s hard to get across the kind of impact Like A Rolling Stone had when it first blared from the radios of America in late June of 1965. I think of George Burns trying to explain the impact of the first appearance of radio itself to a generation that didn’t live through that time. Perhaps Dylan’s protracted electric broadside in the summer of ’65 didn’t have the impact that the flourishing of radio itself had had in the 1920s, but it did have a profound impact on popular music, and on me.

Plenty has already been written about Like A Rolling Stone, and about the album of which it was the flagship track, Highway 61 Revisited. Of the fifty-or-so greatest albums in rock n’ roll history, you’ll find partisans of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Revolver, Talking Book, Never Mind The Bollocks, London Calling, Thriller, The Joshua Tree, The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, Born To Run, Synchronicity  and scores of others, but I sit firmly in the camp of Highway 61 Revisited: I think it’s the greatest rock album ever, and there have been some greats, including those just listed.

The week of June 21-28, 1965, when Dylan went into a New York studio to record what would become Like A Rolling Stone, the Top 10 songs in the country included the aforementioned Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones, Mr. Tambourine Man by the Byrds (a Dylan cover of course) Can’t Help Myself by the Four Tops, Elvis Presley’s Crying In The Chapel, I’m Ready To Learn by Barbara Mason and I’m Henry The Eighth, I Am, by Herman’s Hermits. Some great stuff there, also some fluff. That’s the way it was, though. One critic, I forget who, remarked that those who remember the ‘60s as nonstop great music are remembering wrong: such phenomena as Dylan, The Beatles, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were “islands in a sea of bubble gum” in that critic’s phrase. If you review the Top 50 chart for any given week of that era, you’ll see that he was pretty much right.

But Like A Rolling Stone was like nothing anyone had ever heard that summer. It was strident, it was harsh, it was no moon-June-spoon lyric, but a long, eloquent denunciation, presumably of a former lover. The operative word here is, in fact, “long.” The song ran 6:05 in an era when most songs on the radio averaged about two minutes in length. Radio stations promptly bowdlerized the daylights out of it, trying to get it to clock in at under three minutes. (Two years later they would do the same shameful thing with the Doors’ Light My Fire.)

I was not quite ten years old, and already, thanks to my older sister, had been thoroughly exposed not only to the Beatles but the rest of the British invasion, (she especially liked Herman’s Hermits) not to mention the whole teen pop-culture scene of that era, since it was also about this time that she started bringing home 16 Magazine. This was a periodical that combined lots of celebrity photos with interviews and articles written in the hyperventilated, pimply gush-speak that the magazine’s editors took for the way real teenagers talked.

To me, the summer of 1965 will always and forever
be the summer of Like A Rolling Stone.
Somehow, Dylan didn’t fit into all of this very well. There was a deliberately-cultivated “edge” to Dylan that didn’t mesh with the likes of 16 and its rival publication, Tiger Beat. I was still far too young to appreciate his depth, nuances and range, and in fact I would not become a full-fledged Dylan fan until some years later, in high school. But there was something about Like A Rolling Stone that really grabbed my ear. I was too young to appreciate the lyrics, really, so it probably wasn’t that. No, I think it was more likely that Hammond organ. That high, bright, brittle, somewhat-screechy organ, combined with Dylan’s blasting harmonica riffs,  was like nothing I had ever heard before, certainly like nothing the Beatles or the Stones had ever done. This was intensely American, although I could not have known it at the time, nor could I have known at the time what I learned many years later when I heard the first of Dylan’s “bootleg” series of releases, that in one of its early takes, Like A Rolling Stone had actually been played in ¾ time—a waltz, no less!

From the Byrds to James Brown, the summer of ’65 was a high point in American popular music, in some ways a watershed. But for me, the summer of ’65 will always be the summer of Like A Rolling Stone. 


It was in 1965, the same year that Dylan unleashed Like A Rolling Stone and the Beatles released Rubber Soul, that Frank Zappa, the ozone-layer genius behind The Mothers of Invention, first coined the expression “Freak Out.”

Zappa was on the edge of something, but whatever it was, it was something consciously, perversely and obstinately weird. He and his band made albums with titles like Hot Rats, Burnt Weenie Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. This kind of  ostentatious grotesquerie was never going to have mass appeal, and The Mothers of Invention remained, for their entire existence, a marginalized act with a hard-core cult following. But Zappa's influence on his fellow musicians was profound.

Ironically, after Zappa died of prostate cancer in October, 1993, (I was in Moscow when it happened) his dirty little secret came out: he had lived, by and large, a clean and sober life, staying married to the same woman for 20 years and raising a family, children with such San Fernando Valley names as daughter Moon Unit and son Dweezil. 

But Zappa’s personal peccadilloes—or lack of them—aside, “Freak Out” definitely heralded a sea change in popular music. “Freak out” smelled of chemicals. It was a signal that things were moving in a certain direction, and that direction was unquestionably drug-fueled, whether Zappa himself used drugs or not.

Rock n’ roll and jazz have the same roots, and both have an intensely druggy history, as everyone knows. (And by the way, both expressions, “jazz” and “rock n’ roll” were once African-American slang words, and they both meant the same thing: sex.) The great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker Bird was only being true to a tradition when he died of an overdose of heroin at age 34. It was a tradition that would also plow under Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Keith Moon, Janis Joplin and a charivari parade of others as the years went by, including of course, Elvis, and going all the way up to Layne Staley (if anyone remembers him.)

One of the best-known anecdotes in Beatles lore tells of the night in New York when the Fab Four, who up until then had satisfied their craving for mind-altering substances with Scotch-and-Coca-Cola, plus occasional pep pills, were first introduced to marijuana by Dylan himself.

I have put it in my will that I
want the Byrds' cover of Mr. Tambourine
Man played at whatever memorial service
my survivors might give me.
It has been observed that, for the Beatles, Rubber Soul was a turning point. Their first few albums, good as they were, were pretty much albums in the sense that “album” was understood in those days: a couple of hits and then a half-dozen or so covers and standards. Rubber Soul (along with the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man) essentially redefined the album as a self-contained work, but that’s not all it signalled: by the time Rubber Soul appeared, as one critic appointed out, you could “smell the marijuana” in the music.

Yes, the whole dizzy world of popular music, on both sides of the Atlantic, was about to “freak out.” In short order, LSD followed marijuana into the headlines, and by late 1966, pop music culture generally was stoned out of its head, tripping out of its mind and making some truly weird noises.

I’m not here to write a history of popular music since 1964. Others have done that, admirably. I’m writing about the music in my life, and with the Beatles’ (and just about everyone else’s) druggy descent into the basements of their own consciousness in the mid-to-late 1960s, the music that I grew up with changed, quite suddenly, along with the world I was growing up in. I liken the change to another cultural trend that was in progress at that same time, the gradual migration of American households from black-and-white to color television. Color TV, an expensive luxury in 1960, was pretty much ubiquitous in America by the end of the decade. (My family got its first color TV in the summer of ’66.) By the same token, in those same ‘60s, music got more and more colorful as it surfed along on a sea of drugs until virtually everything we were hearing was in some tonic version of Technicolor. (and not all the colors were pretty.)

I was 10 when the Beatles made their legendary trip to India to meet with the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, and came back sporting mustaches and Nehru jackets. This was also about the time that they stopped touring and became almost exclusively a studio band.

A contemporary reader who doesn’t remember the ‘60s might be wondering why I keep harping so incessantly on the Beatles. Again, what someone who didn’t live through that era will have trouble understanding is how all-pervasive their influence was. During the second half of the 1960s, (remember there was no Internet then, and even in urban areas usually no more than three or four TV stations) virtually anything the Beatles did immediately became a worldwide trend. The world imitated the Beatles. The mustaches and Nehru jackets were a case in point; when George Harrison picked up a sitar and began taking sitar lessons by mail from Ravi Shankar, suddenly everybody and his dog was playing the sitar, and a new genre, “Raga Rock” was born. Revolver (another spot-on favorite for anyone’s Top 100 who was around back then) closed with a track called Tomorrow Never Knows, which never appealed to me especially but was definitely the warning shot across the world’s bow that sitar music was the coming thing, because one of the Beatles said it was. That’s the way things were in those days. John Lennon dropped LSD, Timothy Leary passed the word and soon “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out” was the unofficial slogan of Haight-Ashbury and everyone who wanted to be part of that culture. 

TV always lags a couple of years behind the cultural curve. On Monday, Sept. 12, 1966, when the Fab Four were about to withdraw into the studio for several months to noodle, tinker and experiment with what eventually became Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, NBC Television premiered a new sitcom, The Monkees.

My sisters and I tuned in the very first episode. (My parents were at a party that night, so we were able to slip The Monkees past my father, at least that one time.) We kids thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever seen, and we laughed our heads off, but we also loved the songs. Now, the whole controversy about how these four actors were hired to play a rock band on TV, and how the line between fantasy and reality quickly got blurred, and people got the idea that they were a real band, and then they insisted that they were a real band, not just four lip-synchers whose instruments were being played by other people, etc. is something I’m going to steer clear of. The point about the Monkees is that (a) they were an attempt on the part of NBC to create something like the 1964 Beatles when the 1966 Beatles were about to go “psychedelic,” and (b) we loved them. Their first album on Colgems, whether they were playing their own instruments or not, was a smash hit, and rightly so, because the list of names behind the songs is a Who’s Who of ’60s pop: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Don Kirschner…if the Monkees were indeed the “Prefab Four,” they were prefabbed from gold material. And between the fall of 1966 and the fall of 1967, we hummed along and tapped our feet to one hit after another, which made its way quickly from our TV screens to the Top 40: Last Train to Clarksville; I’m a Believer (written by Neil Diamond); Take A Giant Step; I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone; Mary, Mary; Pleasant Valley Sunday; Daydream Believer.  If some of the tracks were obviously treacle intended to keep 14 year-old girls tuned in, (I Wanna Be Free, On The Day We Fall In Love) a lot of them were just good old-fashioned toe-tapping rockers which, given the cast of players behind them, were not surprisingly, good.

But that’s my point. The Monkees’ music is a guilty pleasure to us aging Baby Boomers, but when we were kids we loved them, and I don’t mind admitting that I did. But it’s also true that by early 1967, given everything else that was going on, they were already old-fashioned.

In late January, 1967 my grandmother had a massive stroke that killed her. Again, the musical photo
album must be evoked. I was not yet 12, and this was my first experience of death up-close. My

mother’s stepmother, Edith Gray Winrow (1884-1967) was the woman I knew as “Grandma.”

My grandmother had an ancient Zenith radio
like this one in her bedroom. It fascinated
us kids
I remember little about Grandma Winrow’s tastes in music. She was a rock-ribbed member of the Community Congregational Church, however, and given what her own children remembered about the important presence of music in the house when they were growing up, and the fact that my own mother was an accomplished church organist, I’d say it’s a safe guess that Grandma Winrow’s tastes in music ran comfortably through the hymns found in Sing To The Lord, the hymnal used every Sunday at the Congregational Church. In one corner of her living room, tucked in behind the sofa, (Grandma called the sofa “the davenport”) was a cabinet containing an ancient wind-up phonograph. We kids were curious about all the curios we found at Grandma’s house, tucked away in various overstuffed rooms. In the back bedroom, where Grandma slept, was an ancient—vintage 1920s, I think—Zenith console radio. It had a large, round dial that lit up when you switched it on, after the tubes came to life. We kids loved to climb up on the big armchair next to that radio, twiddle its dials and pretend we were talking to outer space.

 I was also curious about that big wind-up phonograph in the living room. It was huge, and closed-up like any other cabinet. Grandma explained to us what it was, but I wondered: where did the records go? How did you play them? And indeed, what kind of records might Grandma have, and what kind of music might come out of such a contraption? One day when we were visiting at her house, one of us asked Grandma about that big old phonograph, and did she have any records she could play on it? From somewhere she produced a 78 rpm disc of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and that was the first and only time that I ever heard music coming out of that mysterious big cabinet. And Alexander’s Ragtime Band sounded as strange to me as The Beatles must have sounded to Grandma.

 I’d received a special Christmas present less than a month before Grandma Winrow had the stroke that would leave her lying helpless in a hospital bed for six weeks before death brought relief. (And by the way, hers was a cautionary tale against elderly people living alone. Although she never regained the power of speech and was unable to tell what happened, it appeared that she had had the cerebral hemorrhage in the morning, shortly after getting up, and then lay on the floor all day, unable to move or summon help. when evening came, her neighbors noticed that her lights were off and called my parents. They drove across town and found her on the floor, in her bathrobe, her hair still down. She was 83.)

But for Christmas, 1966, I was given my first radio, a Raleigh six-transistor. Up until then, I had been restricted to crouching beside the console in the living room, or furtively playing some of my older sister’s records when she wasn’t around. Now I had a radio all my own, and night after night I would lie in bed until they made me turn the light off, holding that radio in front of my face, admiring how beautiful it was while I enjoyed the offerings that poured forth as I channel-surfed (the expression didn’t exist in those days) between KCBQ and KGB. Again, a quick glance at the Top 40 for January, 1967, the month Grandma Winrow had her stroke, shows that I was digesting a neat mix of memorable tunes and fluff: the hits included I’m A Believer by the Monkees; Tell It To The Rain by The Four Seasons; Words Of Love by The Mamas and the Papas; Snoopy vs. The Red Baron by the Royal Guardsmen (Peanuts was a nationwide fad in ‘67); and Good Thing by Paul Revere and The Raiders. Further down the chart were such marzipan as Born Free by Roger Williams, Mame by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Music To Watch Girls By by the Bob Crewe Generation. (Music To Watch Girls By! So much for those who remember the ‘60s as a nonstop festival of counterculture rebellion. It’s worth noting that, in the following year, tumultuous 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, the Pueblo incident, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the near-collapse of the government of France, the riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, one of the most popular programs on American television was The Beverly Hillbillies.) But keep in mind that at the very moment I was lying in my bed listening to such fare as 98.6 by Keith and Winchester Cathedral by The New Vaudeville Band, the Beatles were in the studio mixing Sgt. Pepper.

And anything The Beatles dropped in those days made a big splash. Is it any wonder that, to this day, when I hear Strawberry Fields Forever, I’m looking at my dead grandmother’s face? It’s odd, or maybe not so odd: The week we held my grandmother’s funeral at Hubbard Mortuary in Chula Vista (a building in which, over 35 years later when it had been converted from a mortuary to a newspaper office, I would work as a reporter), the top five songs on the charts were The Happening by Diana Ross and the Supremes; Happy Together by the Turtles, Something Stupid by Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Western Union by the Five Americans and I Think We’re Alone Now by Tommy James and the Shondells. Strawberry Fields Forever and its flip side, Penny Lane, were way down at Number 21. But it is those two songs, and not any of the top five just mentioned, which bring back to me, vividly, the time of my grandmother’s death.

 To a  newborn baby I saw  at Safeway

When I was young and you were unimagined
a compass in a circle, I looked out
At a landscape only as wide as I dreamed,
And peopled and colored it with what seemed
The very best the kaleidescope (my gift at birth)
Could whirl into being.  And you were looking
At me like that—you had the same secret
Strength, a god unaware,
Riding along in that shopping cart,
Leaving it to your mother to worry about
More earthbound, less-important things.
I waved, you stared.  What background place
In the lonely circle you’re building yourself
Will I occupy?  The sun, the sky, the circumference
As it looks to you are yours alone,
As mine were, before that circle widened,
And everything shrank to its appointed place.
Worlds like snowflakes: within the space
You occupy, (as I once did) where trees
Could be monsters, sunrises gifts,
And holidays lurked beyond the horizon
Like joyous constellations waiting to rise,
Everything you see, singular crystals,
Was there to be arranged as I saw fit,
And now it’s your turn.  So build away,
And live as long as you’re allowed
In the magic circle of that divine neurosis,
Doomed to grow until you awake one day
To find the process of its destruction
Suddenly complete, the boundaries you laid out
Nowhere to be seen, the colors dulled,
The constellations set,
The mysterious noises just distracting sound,
The snowflakes melting as they hit the ground.
Benicia, California
May, 1983