Saturday, August 21, 2010

Jersey Boys: I heard an America on the radio

Seeing the musical "Jersey Boys" brought back a vivid set of memories for me. At age eleven, I was just beginning to spend a serious amount of time listening to a big old floor standing radio, rather like the one shown here.

I had inherited that from older siblings, along with a bunch of 1950s paperbacks about juvenile delinquents, a flat football, a somewhat exotic collection of matchbooks and matchboxes stuffed into a cigar box, and some 78 records, including Spike Jones' version of "In the F├╝hrer's Face".

You can hear that little classic on YouTube at:

My parents were already in their late 50s and my siblings all quite a bit older than me, so while all the stuff I inherited from them was pretty interesting, I was beginning to want to discover the world for myself. I had become a voracious reader of all kinds of kids' books and more recently, historical fiction, so I had a lot of jumbled images of lots of times and places from the USA in my head, not to mention a lot of images from TV news and programs, but the narratives from the books were more complete and more compelling.

What had become most compelling about my current world, though, was radio. There was one local AM channel from Boise, Idaho that played rock and pop, and at night, if I tuned in carefully, I could pick up Wolfman Jack coming up all the way from Tijuana, Mexico on a powerful clear channel AM signal. Increasingly, the America I imagined was the one on radio.

The title to this post is an obscure reference to a song by the Brazilian Chico Buarque, the title tune to "Bye, Bye Brasil," one of my favorite road movies about the Northeast and North of Brazil. Part of the lyrics say, "I saw a Brazil on TV," (which has been a favorite line among Brazilians who study TV). Chico Buarque is referring to the fact, that from the edges of Brazil, while you can see "a" Brazil on TV, it may well not be the one you happen to be living in. Here is a clip with a good version of the song, with visuals of someone riding around Rio on a motorcycle.

I guess the point is that I began to hear an America on radio, which was really several rather distinct Americas held together by pop music as much as anything else. When I heard the Four Seasons singing their first big hit, "Sherry," on that radio in 1962, I had no idea what their America was like, the New Jersey of urban streets, wise guys who would lend you money (for outrageous interest), friends and relatives going in and out of jail for petty crimes, and ambitious young guys singing songs under lamp posts, hoping to make a break out of there and into the big time through music. If I remember right, one of the lines from "Jersey Boys" was that the ways you got ahead in (or out of) that New Jersey were the Army, the Mob, or music. I had not yet begun to form my own ideas about how to get ahead in (or out of) rural Idaho yet, but music from these other Americas was probably part of the process.

At any rate, I found the Four Seasons' music pretty riveting. Eleven year old, pre voice change me could do the Frankie Valli part, which was a lot of fun. Here are the "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," and Who Loves You" sequences from "Jersey Boys," introduced appropriately by a guy playing a DJ playing the song over the radio, which is how we all heard the songs at the time:

In hindsight, what made my imagined Americas from the radio particularly complicated, was that the big competitor to the Four Seasons for my listening affections at the time was a very different band from a very different America, the Beach Boys, who came out with "Surfin' USA" around the same time. Here is what that looked like on a TV show, in black and white, the way I would have seen it, although I remember them a lot more from the radio than from TV:

I had an easier time imagining the America, or more specifically the California, of the Beach Boys. And when my time to get out of Idaho came, California was where I headed. (By the time I got there, in 1969, it was more the northern California of the Grateful Dead that called to me than the southern California of the Beach Boys, but that is another story.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Losing Newsweek (the main info medium of my adolescence)

Caveat: I did a short Face- book post about this earlier, but ended up wanting to reflect a bit more deeply, so the short version is on Facebook, the longer on a blog.

I have mixed feelings about the passing of the newsmagazine era. The story positions it as the loss of one of the few remaining mass news media that spoke to non-fragmented audiences. I do remember starting to read Newsweek as a teenager and feeling that I had entered into what Benedict Anderson calls the national imagined community. I gradually felt that I knew more about and identified more with what was going on beyond Kuna, beyond Idaho, maybe even beyond the USA, which was something I had not thought much about before that. But I found myself fascinated, not only by what was going on in Washington, DC, but around the world.

Newsweek was an important national lifeline to me growing up in rural Idaho. It was something you could find in most any library and in magazine racks at a lot of stores. As a farm kid, I could not afford to buy magazines, but libraries were an even bigger informational lifeline in many many ways. I remember exhausting my elementary school library (in a very small room) and getting permission to use
the high school library. That had its own entrance at one side of the school, up some brick stairs that were covered with ivy. You can see it in this photo from my high school senior year annual from 1969, as the backdrop for a photo of the student council of that year.

That may not seem like the Ivy League, but it seemed exotic and exciting to a small boy. A largish (to me) well-lit room with a what seemed like a lot of books, a magazine rack with quite a few things that were not in the supermarket, and archives of old historical magazines and things you could dig through. Now, I have to admit that I was also a fairly typical boy. The only Newsweek cover I specifically remember from high school was the one with Jane Fonda's bare back facing us, in a story about Barbarella.
That definitely leapt out to my eye from the magazine rack in the Kuna High School library.

As I learned what was going on nationally and internationally, I got very interested in both. It really intrigued me to learn about all these people who seemed foreign but interesting. Mad magazine was almost better than Newsweek that way. I was particularly intrigued with East Coast culture and humor. I couldn't figure out who Howard Johnson was at first and why the magazine wanted to make such fun of him.

Perhaps more important, Newsweek helped me figure out what was important to learn to get ahead in the U.S. I found I wanted to get out into that larger pond and Newsweek offered a lot of clues, if you read carefully. One reason I both took and passed the foreign service test was that I had been reading Newsweek's international coverage closely for over a decade. It turns out that was just about the level of knowledge the test was looking for.

Newsweek was where I learned a lot of the cultural or knowledge capital I had acquired before college. When one of my high school teachers was trying to figure out why I was leaving Idaho to go to school in California (what went wrong from his point of view), after talking to me about it for a while, he put the blame (or maybe the credit) on Newsweek.

By the time I got to college, my other big source was Rolling Stone magazine. I figured if I read both Newsweek for the mainstream, establishment view of things, and Rolling Stone for music and counter-culture, I was getting an interesting kind of balance. Now it seems like the interest in knowing what the large scale broadly shared news and culture of the US is has declined, hence Newsweek's decline. Or maybe as the NY Times article asserts, there is no middle anymore, and people are gravitating to more specific points of view, whether Huffington Post, or Fox News, with very little center to aim at. That seems sad to me. I remember the excitement I felt for figuring out what was going on in US politics and culture, trying to figure out where the center of it was. Now, the center cannot hold because it isn't there anymore.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pete Seeger's banjo

Pete Seeger's banjo
Originally uploaded by guano
Here at home we have been watching a documentary about Pete Seeger, the man who invented folk music in the way we think about it since the 1950s. It brought tears to my eyes more than once. Here is someone I really admire, who has affected my life in more ways than I realized. Makes you realize among other things, just how informative and affecting a good documentary can be.
Folk music was a key part of the background for growing up in America in the 1950s and 1960s. I didn't get a chance to hear much of it before it finally broke through to mainstream radio and TV in the 1960s. For Sandy, growing in Sherman Oaks, CA, with the kinds of families, kids, summer camps, that a more cosmopolitan (and dare I say the word "progressive") kind of world produced, she heard about all of this, like the Weavers and Pete Seeger himself, a lot earlier, and in a lot more detail than I did. Makes me a tiny bit envious, but hey, I had a whole herd of Holstein cows, barns, fields, a creek and railroad tracks to explore, so it all evens out somehow.
By the mid-1960s, though, Seeger's music was trickling out through people like the Byrds (Turn, Turn, Turn), Dylan, songs picked up by the civil rights movement (We Shall Overcome, etc.). So this guy was informing the most intriguing parts of my world even though I did not know his name yet.
He has a brilliant idea that music makes many things plainer to us than speeches or newspaper columns or TV. Works for me. Certainly worked for me then. I think both Sandy and I have the kinds of curiosity about the world we have, and to some degree, the politics we have because we started listening hard to those songs we liked.
Probably my favorite line from the whole documentary is what Seeger has written on his banjo, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." At this current moment when several sides are ramping their followers up to truly hate the other side(s), I wish this were more the tactic now.
One final thought: the documentary was brought to us by our local library. All my life, libraries (along with public schools) have been the thing that gave a poor kid from an Idaho farm the chance to dream big and go after those dreams. In these days when public leaders would rather cut back libraries' collections and hours than even consider raising taxes, I think we need more libraries with more hours to give more kids a chance, even if means raising a few taxes.