From then on, everything was different. For days the phrase “rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie-woogie flu” would not leave my mind, and I didn’t want it to — I had the rockin’ pneumonia, I had the boogie-woogie flu. Oh yes, I had the fire down below.
The school year ended, leaving me with plenty of time for my new fixation. Feverishly I began to listen to rock & roll on WAVI, to collect rock & roll records, to study rock & roll magazines, to read books about rock & roll, to pick up the nuances and the slang and the attitudes. From then on, all my not-inconsiderable powers of nerdiness were focused on mastering the culture of rock, the whole package — the underground history, the counterculture politics, the fashions and anti-fashions, the nostalgie de la boue, the alternatives to sobriety and dullness. It was from rock & roll, not my mother’s long-ago spasm of religion or my father’s chilly intellectualism, that I first got an inkling that life might have a spiritual dimension after all and this might be well worth looking into. Rock & roll gave me a life.
By the time I started eighth grade in September, my life was transformed. Rock & roll had more or less completely filled the voids left by stamp-collecting and non-rock-related reading. I refused to submit to my annual back-to-school haircut, and then refused to do schoolwork without the radio on to WAVI. Much to my father’s well-suppressed, tongue-bitten alarm, my grades soon began to slip. I didn’t care. For most of my life I’d eased his burden of single-parenthood by being a good boy, a little him; his discipline was mainly a matter of sometimes patient, sometimes exasperated appeals to reason, and I learned to comply. But now for the first time I was into something so distastefully and incomprehensibly alien to him that he didn’t have a place for it in his Weltanshauung (a word he used routinely with me from the time I was about ten) and mainly he just rolled his eyes and escaped to the life he lived in his head, venturing out occasionally for bewildered spot checks. Once I came upon him poring over the lyric sheet included in Magical Mystery Tour. “Goo goo goo joob,” he muttered sadly. “Goo goo goo joob.” Meaning: so it’s come to this.
Our household was all but silent. My father escaped into his head, and I escaped into my headphones. In the five years from the sock hop until I went away to college, I was transformed from a bookish, introspective adolescent into a bookish, introspective teenager with his head and his heart full of rock & roll. I neglected my studies in favor of cramming my brains with rock & roll trivia the way a medieval cardinal stuffed his duomo with holy relics — but instead of splinters of the True Cross and tarsa of St. Jerome, I venerated the Beatles, anything I could learn about their music or their history, with no detail too trivial to be fascinating. I could name every band member on the first three Santana records. My idea of scripture was a mail-order catalog of bootleg Jimi Hendrix and Allman Brothers and Johnny Winter LPs.
It didn’t take me long to assimilate the whole rock & roll story (then less than twenty years old), proceeding in reverse chronological order: from my own era, the early ’70s of Led Zeppelin and Santana . . . back through the late ’60s — Jimi and Janice, Creedence and Cream, psychedelia and soul and protest and explosive creativity . . . back through the miracles of Motown and the British Invasion, the Stones and the Who and, above all, the Beatles; back through the surf craze — Dick Dale, the Beach Boys; back through the folk revival — Bob and Joan and Pete; back into the primordial ’50s when all the different streams of R & B and country and gospel and blues, black music and white music, had first flowed together to form the mighty river of rock & roll.
I loved all of it. Even in eighth grade I was well on my way to becoming an insufferable rock & roll snob, far outstripping Leonard, whose knowledge of music, I soon decided, was shallow and hopelessly immature. In the months after the sock hop, we spent many an afternoon in Leonard’s basement, listening to albums and debating the present state of rock as it appeared to us through the haze of those little bottles he managed to swipe from his dad. Leonard was a strict evolutionist: to him, music just kept getting better and better — that is, “heavier and heavier, man.” Anything older than a couple of years was an oldie, and oldies were quaint at best.
I drove Leonard to fits of exasperation by insisting that, in fact, rock’s Golden Age was turning to lead, that the music business was wrecking everything, that the best of the ’50s and ’60s was way better than typical early-’70s fare, and that the rock & roll marriage of black music and white music was coming apart disastrously — that, in short, the critics of the day (from whom I’d cadged pretty much all these opinions) were right.
“What about this?” I would demand as I lowered the tonearm of Leonard’s creaky turntable onto whatever I was presenting that day as Exhibit A: a Buddy Holly best-of collection, or the Temptations “Ball of Confusion” single, or the rare Yardbirds EP I’d ordered all the way from England. Leonard thought my devotion to rock & roll history was ridiculous; I thought his unquestioning embrace of the newly emerging “progressive” rock was absurd.
We finally came to blows over Elvis. I had managed to get my hands on a rare bootleg pressing of Elvis’s legendary Sun sessions of 1954. When I brought it over to Leonard’s, he took one look and then pointed to his tonsils and made gagging sounds. No way was he gonna let me put that crap on his stereo. Elvis was a joke, prancing around Vegas in his spangled jumpsuits — which proved how much better music had gotten since Elvis’s day.
No, no, no, no, I countered. The early Elvis of the ’50s — the real Elvis — was brilliant, a natural genius, but then the music business and the movie business corrupted him — thus proving my point that the current state of music was rotten and getting worse. I insisted that we listen immediately to the indisputable truth contained in the Sun sessions. I elbowed Leonard out of the way and said, “Just wait’ll you hear Scotty Moore’s guitar on this one.”
But no sooner had I set the needle to the vinyl than Leonard snarled, “Oh yeah, well wait’ll you hear this!” — and with that he grabbed the tonearm and zizzed it hard across the surface of the record — zzoooozzOOP! The needle had plowed a deep furrow across the grooves.
Overcome with fury, I snatched Leonard’s Emerson, Lake & Palmer album, his current darling and the epitome of everything I was learning to hate about prog rock, and bent it violently over my knee, hissing, “Well wait’ll you hear this!”
Leonard let out a high-pitched scream (our voices still hadn’t changed) and lunged for my throat. I dodged him, and for a minute or two we batted at each other with our ruined records, stumbling around, shouting things like Your music sucks! and Oh yeah, well, you suck! Then we heard the heavy tread of someone coming down the basement stairs and Leonard’s dad shouting, “What the hell’s going on down here!” Leonard scrambled to hide the little bottles he’d pilfered from upstairs, but it was too late: his dad saw everything. “You little shits! So that’s your game!” he yelled. “That’s what’s been happening to my hooch!”
Less than a minute later I was leaving Leonard’s house for the last time. Leonard was sniffling; his dad had his arm in a tight grip that Leonard couldn’t break. “You think you’re so goddamn smart!” Leonard wailed at me. “You think you know everything about rock, and you don’t know anything, you don’t even know how to play guitar! And Karen didn’t even like you — she just felt sorry for you!” The door slammed behind me.
Leonard’s remark about Karen was just meanness, I knew that, and the dart didn’t stick. As for what I did or didn’t know about rock & roll, that was just pure envy — I was already developing a well-known mastery of rock trivia and, at the same time, a big-picture overview encompassing my enormous trove of data and chock-full of insightful connections and intriguing theories. Oh, I was a cocky little bastard, all right. But Leonard’s other taunt, about the guitar, planted a poison tree that grew both day and night till it bore an apple bright: I couldn’t play guitar.
Well, who could? Certainly not Leonard or any other of my junior-high contemporaries, even though most of them had managed to acquire guitars. Oh, sure, they’d get a lesson or two, and it was no big deal when they dropped it. But then they weren’t really supposed to play the guitar anyway; they had other lives, they were jocks and soshes and hoods and dweebs. Whereas I was the rock & roll guy: I was supposed to play the guitar. And by the time I was in high school this wasn’t just a hypothetical matter anymore, because a couple of my classmates hadn’t dropped their lessons and now, several years into music, were beginning to get good — “good” meaning, good enough to play the opening riff of “Smoke on the Water.” Which chicks dug.
It made me crazy that guys who didn’t know Roy Orbison from an orbital sander, guys who couldn’t even name one of Ronnie Wood’s predecessors in the Rolling Stones, guys who knew nothing of Alvin Lee’s smoking solo on “I’m Goin’ Home” on the Woodstock soundtrack, could nevertheless play guitar and get that look as a reward. It wasn’t fair! Some of them were even forming bands, getting paid gigs. In a state of acute crisis I told myself that if I didn’t learn to play the guitar, I would die — as simple as that. And so, summoning my powers of reason to persuade my father, I got a guitar and set myself up with lessons. And then —
— And then nothing much. It turned out that averting death was not a sufficient motive for, say, actually practicing, and besides, new issues of Creem and Rolling Stone were coming out every month, to say nothing of the floodtide of rock & roll singles and albums, so just keeping up left me with barely enough time for my schoolwork, much less the tedium of music instruction. Oh, I never for a moment stopped telling myself that indeed I was going to learn the guitar, and to this end I periodically renewed my sense of impending demise . . . but I knew myself well enough to doubt my own sincerity. I kept not learning, kept not dying. And anyway I was too busy obsessing about rock, and politics, and rock politics.
During my junior year of high school, the editor of the school paper told me that somebody had gotten sick and she had some space to fill so maybe I would like to write a record review or something. Write about rock & roll? I hadn’t thought of that. I’d give it a try. Did I know any good new records? Well, it so happened that David Bowie had a new album out, Diamond Dogs, his best since Ziggy Stardust, and now I had a mandate to share with my schoolmates the sheer screaming importance of this fact. My rock journalism career was born. The looming guitar/mortality crisis was, at least, postponed.
That first review was rewarded with an invitation to write another, and another after that, and then a regular feature. I adopted a nom de plume that stuck — E Ben Reed — and a passionate, discursive, derisive, sassy, and rather psychedelic style, modeled (or so I imagined) after that of Lester Bangs. By the time I graduated, my column was the only thing in the whole paper that everybody read, and chicks kind of dug it . . . and all the while I was thinking, Oh sure, I could write about music, but so what? Me writing about music, however cocksure it came across, was like a virgin writing about sex. The only thing I really wanted was to play guitar in a rock & roll band, but I couldn’t. Why not? Because I just — couldn’t.
Hence everything that came after. Hence the person I was ten years later, when I heard that guy playing the guitar on Ocean Beach.
Hence this book.
© Michael Fleming
New York, New York
And don’t even get me started on the whole Paul-is-dead-and-these-are-the-clues thing.
When I was about fourteen, just beginning to learn how politics and power seep into or out of everything, and no longer wanting to be a mere “Eddie,” I started to sign my homework assignments Edward Benjamin Reed. After we read This Side of Paradise in sophomore English, I amended myself to E. Benjamin Reed. The other kids, of course, had a field day with this, especially when we studied e. coli in bio class, and I became e. benjy and Bacteria Boy and finally E. Ben, something we could all more or less live with. (My father was amused when I told him. He nodded, chuckled his stifled, inhaled wince of a chuckle, smiled enigmatically, and said, “Yes. Son of Reed. Good, good.” Years passed before a Lebanese friend explained the joke to me.) I tinkered with it just a little more, zapping the period when I signed my first music review. A keen student of the Beatles, I noticed that it’s “Sgt Pepper,” not “Sgt. Pepper” like you’d think. Cool, I thought. So: E Ben Reed.
Which I knew to be true because I did that too, though for no one’s eyes but my own, and of course I burned the shameful results.