Thursday, June 10, 2010

How I Got This Way

To my knowledge, I was not genetically predisposed to being a music nut. My immediate family was not particularly musical: my sisters and I went through a variety of instruments, committing any number of crimes against humanity as we defiled the intentions of noble instrument makers, without ever mastering one. My grandfather Harry, though, he was another story. He possessed a magnificent bass-baritone voice and as a younger man performed in synagogue choirs, local operas, and even gave concerts.

In the early 1930s, he sang on a long-defunct Boston radio station under the less-ethnic name of Harry Robbins. A recording exists of three songs he cut at Ace Recording Studios, 120 Boylston Street in Boston, on October 27 and November 2, 1947: “Old Man River,” “Der Becher” (“The Cup”), and “Eibik” (“Eternity”). At his wedding in 1926, he sang a popular tune of the day called “Until” to his bride; he reprised it at each of his five children’s weddings and at least a couple of his grandchildren’s weddings as well.

His children, my father and his siblings, therefore grew up in a house filled with opera and lieder. None of them, however, seem to have gotten an ounce of his talent. I grew up with radio broadcasts of operas, from which I ran as fast as I could. I would not be influenced by my father’s music and instead took to rummaging through my older sister’s small stack of LPs and 45s. For the most part, this was a choice selection of early ‘70s pop and soft rock: Carpenters, Carole King, Three Dog Night, Bobby Sherman, and James Taylor.

Of course, I knew the Monkees from their TV show, which I loved and still do to this day. In fact, I’m still a huge Monkees fan and sincerely believe they belong in that abomination called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. True, they didn’t play their own instruments (most of the time) and didn’t write all their own material (though they did write a fair share of it, especially Mike Nesmith, who had at least a couple of songs on all their albums and whose solo material alone warrants significant hero worship), but guess what? Neither did the Temptations.

Looking back, it’s kind of funny how much rock music I got from television in those days. It seems like most of the kids shows I watched had some interstitial musical segment that usually featured psychedelic visual effects – an odd introduction to acid culture to an eight-year-old audience. For example, one show I enjoyed a lot was called Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, which featured a bunch of trained, costumed monkees – er, monkeys – doing Get Smart for kids not ready for the humor of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. In each episode, the chimps were decked out in Haight-Ashbury uniforms and toy instruments, and lip-synched (well, obviously) to some pop dreck as Lancelot Link & the Evolution Revolution.

Another rock animal act for kids was the Banana Splits, a group comprising four dudes dressed in dog, gorilla (hmm), lion, and elephant suits. According to Wikipedia, music for the Splits was composed by the likes of such legitimate talents as Al Kooper, Barry White, and Gene Pitney. Then, of course, there were the Archies, the Partridge Family, the Hardy Boys, and who can forget the episode of Gilligan’s Island when the Mosquitoes showed up for a little R&R? Even the Brady Bunch kids took time out from their incestuous offscreen hanky panky to sing “Sunshine Day.”

So despite my father’s contempt for rock music, there was no escaping it in my house. In time, I was buying my own records. Inspired by their Saturday morning cartoon series, I started getting records by the Jackson Five and the Osmonds (to this day I have an almost-complete collection of the works of the original Osmond Brothers, and still listen to them). But in no way did I exhibit the characteristics of a music nut. I just enjoyed what I enjoyed. I listened to AM radio but didn’t really know who sang what songs, and didn’t really care. I was the kind of listener I now despise: someone who passively and dispassionately accepts whatever inoffensive sounds reach his ears.

That all changed in 1976. The year of our country’s bicentennial was a turning point for me. I was 13 years old, had my bar mitzvah, and became a certified, card-carrying music nut. Here’s how it happened.

My best friend and I did everything together in those days. One day we saw an ad in a magazine for the RCA Record Club. For a buck, you could get six records and best of all, two-record sets counted as a single selection. My friend and I would each select three, and we agreed that we should each pick one two-record set so as to maximize the value of our shared investment. My friend chose Frampton Comes Alive, which was all over the radio at that time. I didn’t know what record I should choose. My friend offered to help me make my selection. He decided I should get Endless Summer by The Beach Boys.

“What’s on it?” I asked. I wasn’t aware that I knew any of their songs.
“I think it has ‘Barbara Ann’,” he replied. (He was wrong.)

So I ordered it. When our shipment arrived, it was exciting as anything. It was the first time we had purchased something through the mail. When you’re a kid, any kind of mail addressed to you is special, but when it’s a big square cardboard box, probably 14”x14”x1.5”, it’s momentous. The only downside was that there were only five records in the box. One of my selections had been back-ordered. However, RCA included a coupon entitling me to another free selection. I decided I would hold off on making that selection until I checked out my other records (aside from Endless Summer, I also had ordered John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2, which I still own).

And so it was that I broke the cellophane on Endless Summer, the gatefold cover smothered with a richly colored cartoon mural of the Beach Boys in a tropical setting, including a gull perching on a bikinied breast. I didn’t know who any of the Beach Boys were individually, all I could tell from the cover was that they were a hairy bunch, and one of them had a particularly sour expression and was seemingly trying to hide behind the foliage.

The records were sided as they were in the old days, designed for stacking on the tall spindle of the record player: sides 1 and 4 on one record, and sides 2 and 3 on the other. This was before I had a nice stereo system so I was used to the stack concept, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to hear two sides in a row right off the bat (after all, a quick peek at the song list told me that my friend was wrong about “Barbara Ann” being on the set, thus I was initially disappointed), so I just put on side 1. Five songs: “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfer Girl”, “Catch a Wave”, “The Warmth of the Sun”, and “Surfin’ USA”.

I couldn’t believe it. I knew four of the five songs (“Catch a Wave” was new to me) and liked them all. Those incredible melodies and harmonies, especially on the two ballads (“Surfer Girl” and “The Warmth of the Sun”) and the pumping beat of the uptempo tunes was absolutely entrancing. I immediately put on side 2: “Be True to Your School”, “Little Deuce Coupe”, “In My Room”, “Shut Down”, and “Fun Fun Fun”. Are you kidding me? How is this possible? How can any group have so many quality songs? While the Chuck Berry-inspired guitar on “Fun Fun Fun” got my blood racing like a dragster, the Beach Boys had me at “In My Room”.

I cannot underestimate the profound impact that “In My Room” had on me. I was 13. I was overweight. Painfully shy. Intensely insecure. My life to this time had been centered on superhero comic books (Marvel, of course). My favorite was the Thing, the brute made of orange rock who was the muscle of the Fantastic Four. He was powerful yet gruesome, the perfect role model for a boy who felt ugly and impotent. And so I lost myself in the colored squares of comic book narratives, lying on my bed and imagining myself making things right with my big fists and confident cry of “It’s clobberin’ time!”

With “In My Room” (which I didn’t yet know was recorded and released in 1963, the year of my birth), for the first time I felt that a song truly spoke to me, that a lyric really spoke for me. I felt understood, and the music conveyed with astounding accuracy the quiet sadness and morose yearning of someone who feels less safe, less comfortable among most of his school peers than he does in the solitary confinement of his own bedroom. This is the song that made me a music nut, that made me realize that I couldn’t content myself with these magical sides, that I needed more, that I needed to collect this artist and others that spoke to me. With “In My Room” I realized for the first time that there was a music that was made just for me.

Needless to say, after side 2 I spun sides 3 and 4. When I was done, having sampled the likes of “I Get Around”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, “California Girls”, and “Help Me, Rhonda”, I had heard 20 songs, liked them all, loved most, and had a new favorite group. More important, I looked at the composer credits and found that Brian Wilson (abetted on many of the tracks by a separate lyricist) was responsible for all of this brilliance. If I had thought it impossible that one group, one album, could have so many amazing songs on it, how much more outrageous was it to learn that it all came from the mind of one man? (The man, incidentally, with the sour expression trying to hide behind the foliage on the cover.)

I wasn’t done. I still had a coupon for another selection. I looked at the catalog and there was Spirit of America, the companion compilation to Endless Summer (which did include “Barbara Ann”). When it arrived, I had 20 more slices of insanely catchy melodies to play. I began collecting Beach Boys records and researching the history of the group. I came to realize that Brian Wilson wasn’t just the mastermind behind the group, he was now my hero. Not a hero like the Thing, someone who would help me through my adolescence, but a hero I could grow up with, someone whose music and whose very life would continue to inspire and speak to me to the present day, even after the thousands of other LPs and CDs I bought after he turned me into a music nut.


Anonymous said...

Great personal story about the Beach Boys. And speaking of that group, I recently saw a post of yours, where you mentioned having a copy of the unreleased Blondie Chaplin album Fragile Thread, saying that if anyone wants a copy, to let you know. I was wondering if that is still the case as I would love to hear it.

Jason M. Rubin said...

Thanks, Colin. Send me an address to jasonmarkrubin at gmail dot com.