Beyond this universe of countless worlds and stars I find many more, wrote Philip Whalen in July, 1965. Beyond this temporary imagination I call myself and mine there are countless others. Far away, all by their lonesome.
Where was I in July, 1965? Who was I, in July, 1965?
I was a 17 year old high school graduate who was clueless about the future. I had no particular ambition, other than some vague sense of becoming an artist, probably a painter. I was not a big reader at the time, nor had any intellectual inclinations outside of a fondness for Shakespeare. I was adrift, inchoate, with nebulous longings and opaque intuitions.
I was living at my father’s house in Seattle. I had one other brother, and two stepbrothers, who were also living there. My stepbrother Mike, who had been one year ahead of me in high school, had graduated the year before and was working at one of the manufacturing plants at Boeing. He seemed to belong to another world. A notorious bon vivant and lady’s man in high school, he became silent and distant and carried a large black toolbox. My brother was four years younger me, still just a kid. The other stepbrother was the youngest, a quiet, obedient little fellow who would one day become a Republican, supervise a department at Boeing, and drive a Leviathan four-by-four.
I had to fill my summer with something other than loafing. My father was a man who believed strongly in the character-building value of work. He did not take kindly to malingerers, particularly when the malingering had the appearance of habit and earnest intent. I was now officially out of school. Lacking a fuller, more defined goal, a means to an income and independent way of life that did not smack too heavily of tedium and cramped, spirit-killing routine, I decided to postpone my entry into the world of commerce and industry at least another month or two. I decided to go visit my mother in San José, California, who was married to a car salesman named Carl, an affable, balding, middle-aged man with a nice sense of humor.
My mother was living in a two-bedroom apartment with a swimming pool in the central courtyard of the building. She worked as a secretary. I was pretty much on my own during the day. I spent a lot of time by the pool, lying on an adjustable chaise lounge listening to a transistor radio. Hits that summer included “You Were On My Mind,” by We Five, “Help!,” “Ticket To Ride,” and “Yesterday,” all by the Beatles, “Unchained Melody,” by the Righteous Brothers, “Just A Little,” by the Beau Brummels, “California Girls,” by the Beach Boys, “Come See About Me,” by the Supremes, and “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones.
I liked being underwater a lot. I could stay underwater for an amazingly long time. I enjoyed hovering on the bottom like a manatee. I surfaced once just as a man in a business suit was preparing to dive in to save me. He thought I had drowned. He was quite relieved to find that I hadn’t. I was relieved that I surfaced in time to prevent him from jumping into the pool in his suit.
My mother got fed up with me lollygagging around. She and Carl drove to a nearby Car Wash and waited in the car while I went to inquire about a job. I felt very awkward. I had never asked anyone for a job before. I definitely didn’t want one. I preferred swimming and TV. But I recognized the fact that I would be turning 18 in a few weeks and that the luxurious irresponsibleness of childhood was about to go away for good. I hoped the manager of the car wash would recognize instantly that washing cars would be a ludicrous pursuit and a terrible incongruity for a shy and surly 17 year old fresh out of high school and urge me to seek employment elsewhere. He didn’t. Much to my amazement, he hired me. I started the next day.
I lasted four days. Four days of rubbing cars with a rag. That’s all I did. It seemed incomprehensible that rubbing cars with rags was any kind of a way to make money. I worked with a man who appeared to be in his late 20s. One day, a car appeared and some men got out and arrested the man. Handcuffed him and led him away. I never found out what this was about. No one stopped working. We all just kept rubbing cars with our rags as the man was led away. In some marvelously intuitive way, I realized that the captivity of this man being led to the car was not much different than the captivity of wiping cars with rags for eight hours in exchange for money.
My mother was not the least bit pleased when I told her I had quit my job at the car wash. She persuaded me to make a visit to the navy recruitment office at a nearby shopping center. I did it to please her. There was no way on earth I was going to join any branch of the military. The navy seemed far more benign than the army, just in case I fell prey to the lure of life in the military and an immediate solution to my employment problem, but four years rather than two gave me serious pause. I told the man I would give the offer serious thought. He gave me some pamphlets, which I threw away as soon as we got back to the apartment.
I was aware that when I turned 18 I would have to register with the draft, and that there was a war going on in Vietnam, but I did not think of it as a war, it seemed to be more of an occupation. Everyone was told that Vietnam was being invaded by communists and that U.S. intervention was required to keep the Vietnamese safe from communism. If Vietnam fell, the rest of the world was in dire jeopardy. It was all a bunch of bs as far I was concerned. Growing up, adults perplexed me with their fear of communism. They talked about it as if it were a disease like polio or tuberculosis. I never understood it. It was simply a political system. How could a political system hurt anyone? It made no sense.
I knew instinctively that I was not cut out for the military. It would be a disaster. Means would have to be found to avoid it, but that particular summer, it was still a distant reality. In fact, it seemed more than that: it seemed to be a total irreality. There hadn’t been that much protest to it yet, but I sensed something immoral about it, something nefarious and completely wrongheaded, and wanted nothing to do with it.
I also met a young woman named Jill that summer. She was 15, a couple of years younger than me, and was a member of the Santa Clara Swim Club. She was smart, pretty, and athletic, in many ways the quintessential California girl. Unwittingly, she became something of a guru to me. She was much more aware of current trends, and this was an age in which fashion was more than a superficiality, but a whole new way of perceiving and thinking and being in the world. She was aware of figures like Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure.
Jill had a passion for the British rock groups just coming into fashion. Except for the Beatles, I hadn’t seen what any of them looked like. I was a bit startled the first time I saw the Rolling Stones. I was familiar with some of their early hits, such as “Not Fade Away,” the Buddy Holly classic, and I had imagined them as being very cool in the manner of Steve McQueen, or James Dean, detached but masculine, tough but vulnerable. Well-groomed and slick like Ed Byrnes’s “Kookie” on the TV show 77 Sunset Strip.
This was patently not the case. Their hair was not only incredibly long, but shaggy, their expressions strangely, unashamedly effeminate. Not sissy effeminate; effeminate in a challenging, surly, rebellious way. It was the effeminacy of libertine outlaws, romantic rakehells, audacious sybarites.
I was confused. I didn’t know what to make of these Rolling Stones, whether to mock them, or emulate them. They were so contrary to the image of the American male embodied by Elvis and Yul Brynner and John Wayne. There was nothing about them to suggest stoicism and taciturnity. They looked neither combative, nor aggressive, nor hard or emotionally sterile. They looked wild and subversive, more like the tough, motorcycle jacketed rockers of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent than the modish, somewhat genteel look of the Beatles, but without the usual male hubris. There was an evident sensitivity there they made no effort to hide or contain. They resembled the romantic poets whose portraits adorned the walls of an English literature class I had taken in high school, Keats and Shelley and Coleridge, with a large dollop of James Dean’s male vulnerability and intensity mixed in for good measure. I sensed in this new look and music a path opening up, a fresh new potential for creating a life of poetry and creativity. When I returned to Seattle that August I felt that something in me had changed, but what, or how, I couldn’t say. The standards for what constituted the good life seemed less credible, and quite possibly harmful. I had been offered a new possibility.
Possibilities. There was more than one world.
And then it happened. I was riding with a couple of pals in a ’55 Plymouth sedan, on our way to a junkyard to buy a used automobile part. I heard “Like A Rolling Stone” blare from the backspeakers, “how does it feel / to be without a home / like a complete unknown / like a rolling stone,” and that was it. I felt like I exploded all at once into the person I was somehow meant to be.
Drums Along the Potomac
2 days ago