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.)

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