Junior high school, seventh grade, 1970. This was the time of Nixon — The Age of the Great Collision. For days all I’d heard on the radio (no TV at home, weird dad) was Kent State, Kent State, massacre at Kent State. Mr. McCrary, our tough and inscrutable civics teacher, was punching his finger against the pictures in the newspaper: student demonstrators choking on tear gas, a phalanx of National Guardsmen firing their rifles, a sobbing girl kneeling beside a dead boy hardly older than we were. Mr. McCrary was haranguing us, demanding that we speak up, but not letting on to what he might want us to think about Nixon or Kent State or Vietnam or any of it. “No, what do you think?” he said. “Since thinking is the only business in town. Right? Ideas are the only things anybody makes around here. So what’s your idea?”
We were scared of him anyway, and now there was an edge to his voice we hadn’t heard before. One by one we parroted back whatever it was we had heard at home, but he wouldn’t let us off the hook — “C’mon, this is a college town, think for yourself.” Under his oblique, bullying guidance we stumbled toward a vague but sincere consensus that killing is bad and peace is good — which made us, he then gravely informed us, leftists. We glanced at each other with alarm, and then a giddy outlaw thrill — leftists. Like the demonstrators. Like the hippies. We were them, and we hadn’t even known it. Mr. McCrary — was he a leftist too? He wouldn’t say. He had sideburns, though, and he sometimes wore shirts that were not white beneath ties that were not dark and narrow — so he might be one.
For a moment all this was electrifying, but I had something else on my mind. Not only was Mr. McCrary our sole teacher with sideburns and wild ties, he was also the first teacher we’d ever had who made us push our desks out of rows and into a large circle — “to foster dialogue,” he said. What it fostered, for me, was the obsession and paralysis that came of staring-but-not-staring at Karen Christopoulos for a whole school year — and now it was May, classes would be over in just three weeks, and I’d never worked up the courage to . . . anything. Today Karen Christopoulos sat directly across from me, so pretty with her tiny legs folded under her, like a dark-eyed fawn — Karen Christopoulos, who was going to the sock hop.
At lunchtime, right before civics, my annoying friend Leonard had asked me about the sock hop after school, was I going.
“Hell, no,” I told him. “No damn way. Three-thirty and I’m outta here.” I had just gotten a batch of stamps that had to be soaked off their backings before I could mount them in my U.S. Commemoratives album.
Leonard told me there would be a band and drinks and cool lighting and stuff. And girls. He called them chicks. Chicks dug rock. And the band, he said, would be live.
“Oh, like I thought they were dead,” I said.
“C’mon, it’ll be fun,” he insisted, poking me. “We can dance and stuff.”
“I don’t want to dance.” (A patent lie.) “I mean, I don’t know how.” (Oppressively true.)
But he saw me waver, and he leaned closer. “Karen Christopoulos is going. They might play some slow songs.”
In case I didn’t catch his insinuation, Leonard hoisted his eyebrows a couple of times.
A hot sting sprang to my face. I’d already revealed my crush on Karen to him, but that didn’t mean he could — well it didn’t mean anything, it meant hell no, man, I’m not going.
Three hours later I was milling around the gym with the other guys in my class, trying to be cool and glancing nervously over at the girls, who were all shrieks and secrets and peals of giggling. They knew we couldn’t keep our eyes off them, and we knew they knew. Karen was there with them, and I watched her in furtive snapshots: Karen listening intently to her best friend, Lisa; Karen breaking up with laughter at Lisa’s imitation of somebody; Karen glancing over at — me? I fixed my attention on the twisted crepe-paper streamers that festooned the walls. All this was maddening. I’d never been to any kind of dance before; I kept thinking that I must be doing something wrong, something worse than wearing my pointy green socks, but what? How do you do this? Why did I come? Leonard was saying something to me about the sound system, the p.a., but I wasn’t listening. Like all the other guys, I had a paper cup of fruit punch in one hand and the other hand thrust into my pants pocket. And every boy but me had sneakers on — word had gotten around. Sock hop meant, “no street shoes on the new parquet floor in the gym.” Now I had to bear the double humiliation of losing an inch of height and looking like Robin Hood.
The band stepped onto the stage at one end of the gym, where the basketball hoop had been cranked up out of the way. They made for their instruments. Older kids, teenagers, probably in high school. Long hair. Bell bottoms. A guy sitting at a drum set, which he began to whack at haphazardly, testing it. The bass drum with the band’s name lettered in friction tape: HARD CANDY. A guy strapping on a very long guitar — a bass, Leonard informed me. A girl with an electric piano and an electric organ, stacked one above the other. A couple of guys strapping on electric guitars. A girl with butt-length hair popping her finger against a microphone. A lot of loud clicks and buzzes as the band got plugged in, and then lots of painful tuning up.
Meanwhile I was getting annoyed with Mister Know-it-all Leonard and his nonchalant grasp of the lingo: amps, traps, gig. The singer, he said, “thinks she’s some sort of Grace Slick clone. As if. Gaw.”
I pretended to know all this already, yeah yeah yeah, when in fact I knew nothing about music other than my father’s shrill, methodical violin practice and our dusty little unvisited record collection — Bach and some operas recorded in glorious mono, and a few oddballs left over from my mother, South Pacific and a Harry Belafonte calypso album and a Chubby Checker twist record I’d never played again since the one time she had danced to it, laughing crazily, trying to get my father to dance, and then, desperately, me. But my father wouldn’t and so neither would I, and suddenly all the joy drained from her face, she stopped dancing and ran from the room, croaking between sobs, “Oh, the philosophers don’t dance!” Philosophers — even at age five I noted the plural.
And now, at thirteen, I didn’t play records, or even own any. Music was boring. I knew as much about pop music as I could infer from catching snatches of it on TV over at my friends’ houses. Dean Martin, Tiny Tim, Herman’s Hermits, Lawrence Welk, The Archies, Liberace — I had the general idea. Music was boring. As if to prove this, Leonard was even now expanding, boringly, on the relative merits of the two kinds of guitars on display, one of which he called that wicked little Gibson and the other that wicked little Strat.
“Right,” I said. “Like I care.”
And then the drummer clicked his sticks hard above his head — one two three four — and the music exploded from the stage, alarmingly loud. The girls squealed, most of them began to jump and writhe, so did most of the boys, and little by little the pack of dancing girls and the pack of dancing boys converged in the center of the floor like a couple of raging weather systems. I was mortified by the spectacle, and I fervently wanted to join them. I backed away to the safety of the bleachers, the better to take it all in — the dancing, the band, the music. I thought of snotty ways to characterize all this, phrases I’d heard from my father. Moronic rubbish. Pointless primitivism. Unevolved, uninteresting, unlistenable. That — noise. I tried to catch the lyrics, something about rolling over Beethoven. The notion of rolling over the dour old grump depicted in a tiny bust in my father’s study was something appealingly grotesque, and I wanted to impress Leonard with my wit.
But Leonard had inserted himself into the throbbing mass of dancing; in fact, he had penetrated the girls’ side — and then, to my horror, he was cupping his hand and shouting something directly into the cupped ear of Karen Christopoulos, who laughed and then, thanks to Leonard’s outstretched finger, looked directly at me. I quickly glanced away. The guitarists were grinding and the drummer was pounding and the vocalist was screaming Roll over Beethoven! Roll over Beethoven!
Karen was coming toward me. Beneath her little pink sack of a dress, she wore yellow tights, no shoes, and the soles of her feet were getting grimy — I couldn’t keep my eyes off her feet, which were soon directly in front of me.
“Eddie,” she said. “Would you like to dance?”
Stricken, I made the classic wise-guy move of looking back over my shoulder at some other Eddie, any other Eddie.
“That’s very funny, Eddie,” she said, smiling the sweet dimpled smile that was giving me the sweats at night. “But would you like to dance?”
I started to mumble, “Well, I really don’t know how to —” when Leonard, who had snuck up behind, shoved me hard and I stumbled forward awkwardly — but no more awkwardly than I then began to jerk myself this way and that, in crude approximation of Karen and the other kids. I was terrified, exhilarated. I tried to concentrate on biting my lower lip soulfully, like most of the boys seemed to do, and I kept my eyes on Karen’s feet. Her right big toe, emerging with chipped pink nail polish through a hole in her tights, put me into an erotic tizzy (not that I comprehended this at the time). All I knew is that something deeply primal demanded that the revealed flesh of Karen’s toe was a matter of burning concern to me. And this something told me to dance, dance, dance.
She giggled adorably. “Loosen up, Frankenstein!”
I jerked a little harder, bit my lip a little harder.
“Just feel the music!” she said. “That’s what it’s for!”
I didn’t even know what she meant — and then, all at once, I did. The rock, the pounding of the drums, seized my legs, my arms, my blood, but the roll of the bass and the guitars turned me fluid through and through. My jerkiness eased a little. I forgot about my lip. Damn, I knew how to dance, just like Karen Christopoulos knew, just like everybody knew. For the first time in my life, I simply let my body do what it would do. And with that, something in my psyche settled back to consider: this dancing, this girl, this band, this rock & roll — I like this.
The song ended. Karen wheeled around to face the stage; I took that as an encouraging sign that she wasn’t dismissing me, that our partnership was good for at least one more song — that I still hadn’t flubbed up too badly. More clicks, pops, tuning. Then the singer gave her bandmates a meaningful look and screeched into the microphone: When the truth is found . . . to be lies . . .
The band supplied a bludgeoning pulse and instantly Karen was dancing and I was dancing and everybody around us was dancing too. Don’t you want somebody to love, don’t you need somebody to love, wouldn’t you love somebody to love, you better find somebody to love . . . Karen was hopping joyfully in front of me, evidently delighted with how deftly I had picked up the beat this time. Yes! I thought. I most certainly do need somebody to love, in fact I need —
But no sooner had I talked myself up to this vertiginous brink than the lead guitarist broke out with a lengthy solo, piercingly loud, raw with distortion, heedless of rhythm or key or any such niceties — savage. Karen’s mouth fell open in rapturous wonderment. This was the first time I’d ever seen, so close at hand, that look — the look girls reserve for movie stars, football heroes, rock & rollers. I felt myself evaporate from her consciousness. Everyone turned to the stage and stopped dancing. My thoughts flickered past in rapid series: I was mortified for this guy, making an ass of himself this way; I hated this guy, who had commandeered the eyes of every girl in the room, and every boy too; I was transfixed by this guy, with his eyes squinched tightly shut, pitching his head back while his hands ran wild on the guitar; I was blown away by this guy, by the torrent of noise and power, all teetering at the edge of control; I wanted to be this guy, who had to be a leftist. When at last he scrubbed the solo to its violent, string-breaking climax, Karen joined the other girls in a screeching mob at the foot of the stage.
I retreated to the bleachers and sat sullenly while Leonard poked at me, daring me to ask Karen to dance a slow song. The singer cuddled the microphone stand and began to simper: Hey have you ever tried . . . really reaching out for the other side . . . I may be climbing on rainbows but baby here goes . . . The energy in the room died without a trace and a familiar tension took its place: the boys looked at the girls looking at the boys. Then two smirking jocks danced with two gum-chewing cheerleaders, all four clinched together in a shuffling huddle while their friends hooted, “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” Karen disappeared into a dense scrum of murmuring girls.
Leonard poked me again and leered, “Hey, guess what I got?”
“No, look,” he said, and began extracting tiny bottles from his wadded-up jacket. “You know what this is? Scotch. You know, whiskey. And this one’s vodka, and this one’s gin, and this one’s Canadian — that’s like whiskey too. But different. My dad flies a lot, and he gets these. I kyped three for me and three for you, but I get first dibsies on the Scotch.”
An hour later, I was having more fun than I’d ever had. Leonard and I sat swaying in the bleachers, thrashing our arms around in rough imitation of the guitar players, yowling along with the singer — Wild thing! Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh. You make my heart sing! Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh. You make everything — groovy! Nothing had ever been groovy for me before, and suddenly grooviness was flooding in on me from all sides, filling me with pure molten possibility. I could dance, I could be a leftist rebel or even a hippie, I could break rules, I could drink hard liquor from little bottles. Karen Christopoulos could be my — baby. The very thought gave me the hot fantods, made me punch Leonard in the arm. Damn! He punched me back. Hell! We grinned blearily at each other and then Leonard thrust his fist in the air and bellowed, “Rock & roll! Rock & roll!”
The room was starting to spin but I understood: rock & roll was the ticket, rock & roll was the X-factor, rock & roll made this day happen. I didn’t know then that I would never dance with Karen Christopoulos again because she would die in a car crash that summer, or that HARD CANDY wasn’t really any good at all and would soon break up over “artistic differences,” or that their repertoire was a bizarro mid-1970 mix of oldies and newies, goodies and baddies, or that my musical taste would, from that day onward, become ever more discerning, judgmental, and jaded — that it would, in fact, become my livelihood. I didn’t know that my life was changed permanently, that I was hooked by obsessions that would never let go, or that it would be a full fifteen years and a thousand concerts before I would ever again be so unexpectedly and unselfconsciously blown away by a guy with a guitar.
No. All I knew then, as Leonard and I struggled to keep ourselves vertical, was that there was something to this rock & roll stuff after all. Chicks dug it. My father would hate it. I wanted more.
© Michael Fleming
New York, New York
In The Age of the Great Collision you could still call a school dance a sock hop — but already that ironic sneer was creeping into it.
Not that I wasn’t already involved with music politically. As homeroom representative, I had only two duties: (1) to attend the Student Council meetings held every week in the library, meetings that accomplished nothing whatever other than to immerse us in the minutiae of Roberts’ Rules of Order; and (2) to conduct a weekly poll of my constituents for WAVI, the local pop-music radio station. WAVI was fourteen-hundred on the AM dial, and they made a big deal about the Fabulous Fantabulous Fourteen — the week’s fourteen most-popular songs as determined by polling the town’s junior highs and high schools. Every Tuesday morning I dutifully stepped to the front of my homeroom and counted the hands that shot up as I read down a list of songs: “Evil Ways,” “American Woman,” “Spirit in the Sky.” (I’d never heard any of them; my father and I listened only to news radio.) Then, with all the gravity of a papal elector, I tabulated the votes and delivered the totals to the school office. The next evening, WAVI presented the WAVI Wednesday Windup — the week’s most popular songs, played back to back, counting down dramatically to Number One. All of my classmates listened religiously to the Wednesday Windup — except me. Music was boring.