Monday, March 21, 2016

******One More Time Down 1950s Record Memory Lane

******One More Time Down 1950s Record Memory Lane


Sam Lowell, considered himself a corner boy from the time in the early 1960s when in the working-class neighborhoods of America were filled to the brim with such guys hanging out on the corners, in his case North Adamsville not far from urban Boston at Jack Slack’s bowling alleys. Places like South Boston (an all Irish enclave then where even those who like Sam’s maternal grandparents had moved out of the enclave to an Irish neighborhood in North Adamsville were considered suspect, were looked at with jaundiced eye even by the relatives left behind), Main Street in Nashua (at the time a dying city what with the mills heading south to cheaper labor and eventually overseas and so a tough place to dream in), New Hampshire, 125th Street in high Harlem (with all the excitement of jazz and be-bop but with all the high segregation of the South except for the formality of Mister James Crow’s laws), New York City, any of a million spots on Six Mile Road in Detroit (never a place of dreams but of steady work in the golden age of the American automobile from Delta Mister James Crow black refugees and the Okie/Arkie white rabble coming out of the hills and dustbowls), the same on Division Street in Chi town (the beat street divide of many of Nelson Algren’s tales of drugs, urban lost-ness, and disappointments), the lower end of North Beach beyond where the “beats” of a few years before did their beat thing (the places where the longshoremen and waterfront workers did their heavy drinking after work and where the sailors off their Pacific ocean ships fought all comers.

At least Jack Slack’s was the last port of call for the crowd, for that motley collection of corner boys picked up and discarded along the way although the core of Frankie, Jack, Jimmy, Allan, Markin and Five-Fingers held throughout which had started at Doc’s Drugstore complete with sofa fountain and shiny glass penny candy-case to draw selections from after  school to energize up for the real world activities of kid-dom in elementary school, Miller’s Diner for the jukebox in junior high when they were just becoming aware of girls, maybe having to dance with them, and maybe trying to figure out, the eternal trying to figure out how to approach them without them giggling back and Salducci’s Pizza Parlor in early high school before the new owners decided that unlike Tonio, the previous owner who sold out to go back to Italy from when he came as a boy they did not want rough-necked boys standing one knee against the wall in front of their family friendly establishment. That time, those early 1960s times for some reason known only to them, was time that you had best have had corner boy comrades when you hung out on date-less, girl-less, dough-less Friday and Saturday nights to have your back if trouble brewed (that “comrade” not a word to be used then in the tail end of the height of the red scare Cold War night not if you want knuckle sandwiches from the unthinking patriotic guys but that does convey the sense of “having your back” critical to your place in those woe begotten streets.

That corner boy business extended through the 1960s after high for a couple of years when in addition to being a corner boy he became a “flower child” along with his long mourned and lamented friend the late Peter Paul Markin (who met a horrible end down in sunny Mexico after the fresh breeze of the 1960s turned in on itself and he got flat-footed by the backlash and could no longer hold back his “from hunger”  wanting habits and made the fatal, very fatal, mistake of trying to broker an independent drug deal and got two slugs to the back of his head for the attempt) heading out west on the hitchhike roads when the world turned upside down later in the decade. Sam, now a sedate grandfatherly semi-retired lawyer filled with respectability and memories had to laugh about how much he of late had been thinking about the 1950s, about not just those corner boy days but about the music that drove every corner boy, including Markin, make that perhaps most of all Markin, to distraction as they tried to eke out a sound that they could call their own.

Thinking about the 1950s when he came of age, came of musical age, an age very mixed up with that corner boy comradery, that hanging at Doc’s and Miller’s Diner when he started noticing girls and their charms, started his life-long journey of trying to figure out what made them tick, what they wanted, wanted of him, from a girl-less family making everything that much harder, noticing that they too hung around Miller’s in order to play that fantastic jukebox which had all the latest tunes and plenty of oldies too (oldies being let’s say we are talking about 1958 then maybe 1955 hits like Eddie, My Love, Rock Around The Clock, and Bo Diddley showing that teen time, youth time anyway is measured differently from old man lawyerly time) drawing away from the music on his parents’ family living room radio and their cranky old record player music. Music   emphatically not on Miller’s jukebox or there would have been a civil war no question, a civil war avoided in the home after his parents had bought, to insure domestic peace and tranquility if he remembered correctly, his first transistor radio down at the now long gone Radio Shack store and he could sit up in his room and dream of whatever coming of age boys dreamed about, mainly how those last year bothersome girls became this year’s interesting objects of discussion (by the way in that small crowded room, shared with his two brothers, he found out he could discover the beauty of the “hold up to your ear”  transistor radio and drown out the world of brotherly scuffings). 

More than that though, more than just thinking about the old days like every old guy probably does, even guys who had not been lawyers as a professional career, guys who you see sitting on park benches, a little disheveled, maybe some crumbs in their unkempt beards, feeding the birds and half-muttering to themselves about how when FDR was around everybody stood tall, every country bent it knees in homage to America, or else, or old bag ladies rummaging through trash barrels looking for long lost lovers or their faded beauty Sam had been purchasing compilations of what are commercially called “oldies but goodies” CD. Doing so via the user-friendly confines of the Internet, at Amazon if you need a name like today anybody, except maybe three people up in heathen Alaska or the Artic,  doesn’t know that is the site to get such material these days instead of traipsing over half the East Coast trying to cadge a few examples, and  purchasing several record compilations of the “best of” that period from a commercial distributor (and also keeping up to date on various versions of the songs on YouTube) and through his friend and old corner boy Frankie Riley been spilling plenty of cyber-ink on Frankie’s blog, In The Be-Bop ‘50s Night, going back to the now classic age of rock and roll.

Sam had to laugh about that situation back then as well since he had been well known back on the corner, back holding up the wall in front of Salducci’s Pizza Parlor, on many of those date-less, date-less because although he might have been all “hail fellow, well met” hard-assed corner boy full of bluster and blah he was sister-less and hence baffled by girls and their ways and very shy around the question of asking for dates although he was quite willing to tell each and every girl who would listen to him about ten thousand fact on any of sixteen subjects, not excluding science, philosophy, and the poor fate of the Red Sox then. Although those ten thousand facts would come in handy when he got to college a couple of years later and he had girls hanging off the walls in debate class waiting for him to ask them out then those precious facts did not add up to a date by osmosis but rather incomprehension even by girls like Patty Lewis and Mary Shea who liked him and would have be glad if he asked them for a date without the ten thousand facts, thank you. Here though in something about the mores of the time that young people today might not comprehend girls just waited for guys to make a move, or moved on to the next guy who would, especially if he had a boss ’55 Chevy, like Patty and Mary did). Also girl-less (already explained but here the question is having a serious girl and the just mentioned facts will hold here as well), and dough-less (self-explanatory in working-class North Adamsville, the sorry fate of the working poor, the marginally employed like his father, no money when the rent was due and Ma had not money for the damn rent collector much less discretionary money for dates with girls) on Friday and Saturday nights when he  proclaimed to all who would listen (mainly Frankie, Markin, Jimmy Jenkins, Jack Callahan, Kenny Hogan and Johnny “Thunder” Thornton and an occasional girl who wondered what he was talking about) that “rock and roll will never die.”

Mainly, through the archival marvels of modern technology, pay-per-song, look on YouTube, check out Amazon Sam had been right, rock and roll had not died although it clearly no longer provided the same fuel for later generations more into hip-hop-ish, techno music, or edge city rock. But Sam always though it funny when kids, his grandkids, for example, heard (and saw) Elvis, all steamy, smoldering and swiveling in some film clip to make the older almost teenage girls among them almost react like the girls in his time did when they saw him on the Ed Sullivan Show and had half-formed girlish dreams about personally erasing that snarl from his face, especially that flip clip of the prison number in Jailhouse Rock. Bo Diddley proclaiming to the whole wide world that he in fact had put the rock in rock and roll and who could dispute that claim when he went bongers in some Afro-Carib number with that rectangular guitar. Say too Chuck Berry telling a candid world, a candid teenage world which after all was all that counted then, now too from what he had heard, that Mister Beethoven from the old fogy music museum had better take himself and his cronies and move over because a new be-bop daddy, a new high sheriff was in town was taking the reins, making the kids jump on jump street. Ditto curl-in-hair Buddy Holly pining away for his Peggy Sue. Better mad monk swamp rat Jerry Lee Lewis sitting, maybe standing for all Sam knew telling that same candid world that Chuck was putting on fire everybody had to do the high school hop bop, confidentially. And how about Wanda Jackson proclaiming that it was party time and an endless host of one hit wonders and wanna-bes they went crazy over. Yeah, those kids, those for example grandkids jumping around just like the young Sam who could not believe his ears when he had come of age and, yeah, jumping around for those same guys who formed his musical tastes back in the 1950s when he had come of age, musical age anyway. Jesus, Jesus too when he came of teenage age and all that meant of angst and alienation something no generation seems to be able to escape since the world had no less dangerous, no less incomprehensible today.

Sam had thought recently about going back to those various commercially-produced compilations put out by demographically savvy media companies that he had purchased on Amazon to cull out the better songs, some which he had on the tip of his tongue almost continuously since the 1950s (the Dubs Could This Be Magic the great last chance dance song that bailed him out of being shut out of more than one dance night although his partner’s feet borne the brunt of the battle, and the Teen Queens Eddie My Love, where Eddie took advantage of the girl and she is wondering when he is coming back, a great love ‘em and leave ‘em song and the answer is still he’s never coming back, are two examples that quickly came to his mind). Others like Johnny Ace’s Pledging My Love or The Crows Oh-Gee though needed some coaxing by listening to the compilations to be remembered.

But Sam, old lawyerly Sam, had finally found a sure-fire method to aid in that memory coaxing. Just go back in memory’s mind and picture scenes from teenage days and figure the songs that went with such scenes (this is not confined to 1950s aficionados anybody can imagine their youth times and play). But even using that method Sam believed that he was cheating a little, harmlessly cheating but still cheating. When he (or anybody familiar with the times) looked at the artwork on most of the better 1950s CD compilations one could not help but notice the excellent artwork that highlights various institutions illustrated back then. The infamous drive-in movies where you gathered about six people (hopefully three couples but six anyway) and paid for two the other four either on the back seat floor or in the trunk. They always played music at intermission when that “youth nation” cohort gathered at the refreshment stand to grab inedible hot dogs, stale popcorn, or fizzled out sodas, although who cared, especially if that three couples thing was in play, and that scene had always been associated in Sam’s mind with Frankie Lyman and the Teenager’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love.

That is how Sam played the game. Two (or more) can play so he said he would just set the scenes and others could fill in their own musical selections. Here goes: the first stirrings of interest in the opposite sex at Doc’s Drugstore with his soda fountain AND jukebox; the drive-in restaurant with you and yours in the car, yours or father borrowed for an end of the night bout with cardboard hamburgers, ultra-greasy french fries and diluted soda; the Spring Frolic Dance (or name your seasonal dance) your hands all sweaty, trying to disappear into the wall, waiting, waiting to perdition for that last dance so that you could ask that he or she that you had been eyeing all evening to dance that slow one  all dreamy; down at the beach on day one of out of school for the summer checking out the scene between the two boat clubs where all the guys and gals who counted hung out; the night before Thanksgiving football rally where he or she said they would be there, how about you; on poverty nights sitting up in your bedroom listening to edgy WMEX on your transistor radio away from prying adult eyes; another poverty night you and your boys, girls, boys and girls sitting in the family room spinning platters; that first sixth grade “petting” party (no more explanation needed right); cruising Main Street with your boys or girls looking for, well, you figure it out listening to the radio in that “boss” Chevy, hopefully; and, sitting in the balcony “watching” the double feature at the Strand Theater on Saturday afternoon when you were younger and at night when older. Okay, Sam has given enough cues. Fill in the dots, oops, songs and add scenes too.                      



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