Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-Out In Jukebox Night-With Ben E. King's Spanish Harlem In Mind Spanish Harlem

The Roots Is The Toots: The Music That Got The Generation Of ’68 Through The 1950s Red Scare Cold War Night-Out In Jukebox Night-With Ben E. King's Spanish Harlem In Mind
Spanish Harlem

There is a rose in Spanish Harlem
A red rose up in Spanish Harlem
It is the special one, it's never seen the sun
It only comes out when the moon is on the run
And all the stars are gleaming
It's growing in the street
Right up through the concrete
But soft and sweet and dreaming
There is a rose in Spanish Harlem
A red rose up in Spanish Harlem
With eyes as black as coal
That looks down in my soul
And starts a fire there and then I lose control
I have to beg your pardon
I'm going to pick that rose
And watch her as she grows in my garden
I'm going to pick that rose
And watch her as she grows in my garden
La la la, la la la, la la la la
(There is a rose in Spanish Harlem)
La la la, la la la, la la la la
(There is a rose in Spanish Harlem)

Sometimes it is hard to figure out why a certain memory draws certain other memories out although today, musically, which is what I want to talk about, just flipping to YouTube and its cross-references makes that statement more explicable since one is almost automatically bombarded with about seven million songs with some memory meaning. Meaning maybe a memory of that first record hop at school, elementary school in the 1950s, just by the reference. Or that first time you noticed that girls were, well, kind of interesting or at least approachable at some basement family room “petting” party. (The first “private” time when adults may be hovering around unseen but when they are persona non grata with the confines of the party room and a time when lights low or out the first “feels” occurred however innocent or bewildering for either sex. That basement family room also serving as fall-out shelter, fully-stocked, if the Russkies decided to blow one by us.) Better just a little time later, although time seemed then to drag infinitely by and you tried to hurry it up then, when you started dreaming about that brunette on television (you can fill in your own color preference) swaying back and forth provocatively, provocatively in your mind anyway, just for you after rushing home after school to watch American Bandstand. Or later when the hormones really kicked in that first night time junior high school dance with her, the her with the faraway eyes whose bubble soap (or maybe some “stolen” scent from the top of mother’s dresser) drove you crazy. Yeah, I like the latter better since that scenario would mean that she was provocatively trying to drive you crazy with her amateur womanly wiles. Moving on to that first double-date night down by the seashore watching the “submarine races” and you copped a “feel” (for those who did not have a seashore to go down to in order to look for those locally famous submarines at midnight, sorry, but okay so maybe at a drive-in movie, or that spot out by the dam or up in the foreboding hills known strictly as a lovers’ lane). Then before you know it you had graduated high school and the memories got fonder but faded with time until you got to the 2000s night and you woke up in a sweat thinking about that girl with the faraway eyes and that damn bubble soap smell that filled your nostrils (and wondering, wondering did she really have the cunning to steal that mother’s scent right off the top of her dresser). 

Recently I have, seemingly endlessly, gone back to my early musical roots, my memory roots, in reviewing various commercial compilations of classic rock series that goes under the general title Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Never Die. That classic rock designation signifying the “golden age of rock,” the time of some Les Paul guitar zip rocket 88 Ike Turner, zap finger-snapping the big man flapping shake, rattle and roll Big Joe Turner, from long side-burned, sexy-eyed (yeah guys can say that now about guys without blushing), sneering one night of sin hunger Elvis, from sweet little sixteen Mister’s girl hunger telling Beethoven his time had passed Chuck Berry, from the back of a flatbed truck  double girl hunger high school confidential Jerry Lee, the time of the original jail break-out and not the smoother later patched-up stuff-ouch!. While time and ear have eroded the sparkle of some of the lesser tunes (and lesser singers like blueberry hill Fats and he/she good golly Little Richard) it still seems obvious that those years, say 1955-62, really did form the musical jail break-out for my generation, the generation of ’68, who had just started to tune into music.

We had our own little world, or as some hip sociologist trying to explain that Zeitgeist today might say, our own sub-group cultural expression. I have already talked about such notable phenomena as the pre-chain convenience store mom and pop corner variety store corner boy hangout with the tee-shirted, engineered-booted, cigarette (naturally unfiltered, not some “faggy” (yeah, that’s what we said then and what did we know about such things, such same-sex things that were whispered then and are now laughingly out in the open, anyway) Kents, Winstons or Marboros but real coffin nails Luckies, Camels, or Pall Malls) hanging from the sullen lips, Coke, big sized glass Coke bottle at the side, pinball wizard guys thing. Complete with foxy tight cashmere-sweaterd girls hanging off every bump and grind of that twisted machine. And, of course, about the pizza parlor, you name it House of Pizza, Marios’s, Mama Mia’s,  juke-box coin-devouring, playing some “hot” song for the nth time that night, hold the onions on that order please as I might get lucky tonight, dreamy girl coming in the door thing. Another of course, the soda fountain, and…ditto, dreamy girl coming through the door thing, merely to share a sundae, please. Ditto for the teen dance club, keep the kids off the streets even if we parents hate their damn rock music, the now eternal hope dreamy girl coming in the door, save the last dance for me thing (and where Mister Ben E. King at some point was “walking with the king” to get us close on his la la la’s in Spanish Harlem.

Whee! That’s maybe enough memory lane stuff for a lifetime, especially for those with weak hearts. But, no, your intrepid messenger feels the need to go back again and take a little different look at that be-bop jukebox Saturday night scene as it unfolded in the early 1960s. Hey, you could have found the old jukebox in lots of places in those days. Bowling alleys, drugstores, pizza parlors, drive-in restaurants, and as had been shown in the cover art on one of that rock and roll series CDs I reviewed also at the daytime beach. While boy or girl watching. Basically any place where kids were hot for some special song and wanted to play it until the cows came home. And had the coins to satisfy their hunger.

A lot of it was to kill time waiting for this or that, although the basic reason was these were all places where you could show off your stuff, and maybe, strike up a conversation with someone who attracted your attention as they came in the door. The cover artwork on that daytime beach scene, for example, showed a dreamy girl waiting for her platters (vinyl records, okay, check on it) to work their way up the mechanism that took them from the stack and laid them out on the player. And tee-shirted sullen guy (could have been you, right?) just hanging around the machine waiting for just such a well-shaped brunette (or blond, but I favored brunettes in those days, and still do if anybody is asking), maybe chatting idly was worth at least a date or, more often, a telephone number to call. Not after nine at night though or before eight because that was when she was talking to her boyfriend. Jesus. But lucky guy, maybe.

But here is where the real skill came in, and where that white-tee-shirted guy on the cover seemed to be clueless. Just hanging casually around the old box, especially on a no, or low, dough day waiting on a twist (one of about a dozen slang words for girl in our old working-class neighborhood usually made up by or learned from corner boy leader Frankie Riley who had a thing for old time detective novels and films where he would pick them up) to come by and put her quarter in (giving three or five selections depending what kind of place the jukebox was located in) talking, usually to girlfriends, as she made those selections. Usually the first couple were easy, some old boyfriend memory, or some wistful tryst remembrance, but then she got contemplative, or fidgety, over what to pick next.

Then you made your move-“Have you heard Spanish Harlem. NO! Well, you just have to hear that thing and it will cheer you right up. Or some such line. Of course, you wanted to hear the damn thing. But see, a song like that (as opposed to Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Rock and Roller, let’s say) showed you were a sensitive guy, and maybe worth talking to... for just a minute, I got to get back to my girlfriends, etc., etc. Oh, jukebox you baby. And guess what. On that self-same jukebox you were very, very likely to hear some of the following songs. Here’s the list and there are some stick-outs (and a few that worked some of that “magic” just mentioned above on tough nights):

1)   My Boyfriend's Back-The Angels: it seemed that every good-looking girl had some hidden boyfriend stashed away for just that occasion when you got too close and she sprung the hurting news on you without grace, worse scorned you for thinking that you had a chance beyond “being friends” when everybody, everybody who counted, knew she had been going with Joe College from State U who had graduated from high school a couple of years before forever. Although if you thought about it for a minute the real problem had been the break-down in your “intelligence” network, you know, your Monday morning before school boys’ lav info session where you gathered the scoop on the weekend doing and discreetly asked around about that Laura something, the one who you had been eyeing in study for about a week before you made your big move and got your hopes up.  Or at least had gotten “the word” from one of your corner boys, maybe Josh, maybe Frankie, who were sworn to not leave you in the lurch on such matters and make you the laughing stock of subsequent Monday morning boys’ lav talkfests about the weekend doings. No, you had to jump in with both feet, hell, both feet and both hands, on the basis of a furtive glance that she threw you way in the corridor one day. Hadn’t you learned by then that those subtle furtive glances were thrown at every guy with anything going for him by the Lauras of this wicken old teen world. Join the club brother, join the club.     

  2)Nadine (Is It You?)-Chuck Berryanything by Chuck by definition in the theme and tenor of his lyric, or by the various hot licks he laid down on his guitar spoke of sex, back seat of the car sex which was just fine then when you were young and agile. Young and agile and if the moment was right and you had some Chuck playing on the car radio permanently tuned to WMEX down by the seashore (or wherever that local lovers’ lane was far from prying adult eyes and far from children glares) and you needed every inch and ounce of young and agile in that damn crowded backseat that somebody, some S.O.B car manufacturer though was saving profits by making as small as possible you still managed to do what you, and she (or he for she or whatever combinations pass these days in the love circle) started out to do because otherwise why were you down by that seaside far from prying eyes.    

 3)Spanish Harlem-Ben E. King: I have already pointed out the central importance of this song come late night school dance night when you want that she you were eyeing all evening to slow dance with you on that last chance to dance, and you were looking for that one moment when you could put your hands down her back toward her ass and she didn’t brush you off, didn’t seem to mind at all in that dark hall moment. Thanks, Brother King. 

 4) Come & Get These Memories-Martha and the Vandellas: well, it is not dancing in the streets but Martha and the girls had that Motown sound down. That sound that got everybody up and dancing just to be dancing, dancing close or dancing apart but just dancing. A big relief for bad dancers and semi-wallflower guys like me. The real full-time wallflowers that hugged the gym walls like they were a life-saver thrown in the sea just kept to their walls as they always did but the rest of us decided to live a little dangerously, and we survived.  

 5) Little Latin Lupe Lu- The Righteous Brothers: every guy, at least every guy I knew, wondered about that Latin girl thing from these guys like maybe we missed something, like maybe there was something to that Tia Taco thing, that high-blown Spanish blood lust thing. Problem, big problem around our way was that there was no way to verify or not verify that hot blood thing since there were zero, nada nunca nada, Latinos in our high school, hell, in the whole town. Needless to say no blacks either, none. The closest we came to dark-skinned ethnics was a girl from Lebanon who seemed very exotic. It would be a long time and a couple of thousand miles south in old Mexico before I got the message that those hermanos were laying down.         

6)It's Gonna Work Out Fine-Ike and Tina Turner: Yeah, we all know now, have had it knocked into our heads that Ike was not nature’s noble man but they rocked on this one with that drop dead guitar work of Ike’s and Tina’s on fire singing.

 7) When We Get Married- The Dreamlovers:  after a bunch of busted marriages, a few off-hand affairs that didn’t work out and a few things that did that kid’s rush to the blissfully wedded aisle with his ever-loving honey seems kind of wishful thinking now. And you know what in those days I had a lot of the same feelings although not directed to a specific person since the routine was finish high school, get a job or go on in school, get married, have two point three children, one white picket fence with whitewashed house attached, have a dog named Spot or Rover and bliss. Yeah, life turned out a little different, no, a lot different.

8)Dear Lady Twist –Gary U.S. Bonds: Brother Bonds saved more two-left feet guys in this universe than you could shake a stick with his twist mania where you could look pretty good all tangled up as long as everybody else was too. Except don’t watch this lad, me, too closely because his tangled up is off the beat even though his kindly partner was courteous enough to mention that, said he was a great dancer. Said it in such a way that they wound up sitting down by the seaside shifting sand before the night was over where she admitted that her tangling up was off too. Get this, and suggested we form a club, a two left- feet club, with two members. Well, okay.   

9) If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody –James Ray: the national anthem for guys who did not get to dance that last chance dance, damn, after eyeing her all evening until your eyeballs got sore. And you suddenly learned if you did not know already, and maybe you should have, maybe some boys’ locker room guy, come brethren corner boy, heck, your older brother, consulted wiser heads to find out that the good-looking women of the world, the Lauras mentioned above throw out those furtive glances just for kicks, just to see what sore eye-balled guys would do. And guess what 16 or 68 it does not get any better. Jesus.  

 10) I Count the Tears-The Drifters: a great backup song just in case Spanish Harlem had already been played and Loopy Lenny the DJ was not into taking requests or maybe the borrowed record was worn out from play or the guy running the record-player if not Loopy Lenny had absolutely no sense of what a high energy, high hormonal count teenage crowd wanted to hear late at night. Wanted to have a chance for that last dance.   

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