Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Walk Right In

This afternoon as I completed my run and passed the International Fountain on the Seattle Center Fairgrounds I heard Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” playing over the speakers. I was reminded that  this is the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair. They had probably programmed the music at the fountain to be heavy in hits from 1962, the year the fair opened. I didn’t stick around to see what the next piece of music was, but “Loco-Motion” did start a chain reaction of hits from 1962 in my brain, the mushy broccoli jukebox in my skull. 

1962 was an odd year in music. This was just before the Beatles, who had recorded “Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me” and “P.S. I Love You” in England but were not yet known in the U.S. Yet, I swear, they were somehow sensed. Maybe it was the Everly Brothers, whose sound presaged the lush harmonies and sweet melodies of the Beatles, or the growing popularity of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village, but there was something definitely adrift, a new model for being cool that didn’t involve duck tails or switchblades or monster cars. It was sensed in songs like “He’s A Rebel,” written by Gene Pitney and sung by the Crystals, “He’s a rebel and he’ll never be any good / He’s a rebel ‘cause he never does what he should.”

Whether Gene Pitney intended it or not, he definitely caught the mood of non-conformity agitating high schools and family dinner tables. Thanks in part to the Beats, whose poetry was intimately connected with the folk music scene, and the amphetamine  incandescence of Bebop, kids were rejecting the usual materialistic goals of suburban America for more fantastical and exotic experiences. The Civil Rights movement was in full gear and Martin Luther King’s voice was gaining a larger and larger audience. Being someone outside the norms of an oppressive, bigoted, and narrow-minded society was way cooler than being clean-cut. Suddenly, that whole goodie-goodie Pat Boone Boy Scout Norman Rockwell sentimentality seemed scary and repugnant. People started getting hip to the fact that there was something fundamentally false and contrived about those freckle-faced boys and smiling beneficent barbers in Rockwell’s America. There was far greater glory in the work of the Abstract-Expressionists: angst, ferocity, fire. Raw, volcanic being.

I was 14, a 9th grader in high school. I was exceptionally small for my age and slow to develop, so I was, by default, a loner, spending most of my free time building model airplanes in the basement. I listened to the radio a lot, though I hated most of the music. You had to sit through about 10 songs before they played something decent. These would be songs of absurd vapidity and boredom such as Bobby Vinton’s “Roses Are Red” or Shelley Fabares’s “Johnny Angel.” Even Presley was putting out lame, sentimental shit like “Good Luck Charm.” Yuk! But then, out would come “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers and I’d be hooked into listening for another hour hoping something equally great would emerge.

Something like “Duke of Earl” or “Baby It’s You” or “Green Onions” or “Crying In The Rain.”

And then, in January, 1963, “Walk Right In” walked right in and changed everything. This was the most amazingly different sound ever to get played on a mainstream AM radio format. This song was a completely different sound, lyrically, vocally, melodically. It seemed to be about entering a new mental paradigm: “Walk right in, sit right down, baby let your hair hang down  / Everybody's talking 'bout a new way of walking / Do you want to lose your mind?”

The song was actually from 1929, written by Gus Cannon, a black American blues musician born in 1874. That would have made Gus two years old when Wild Bill Hickok was murdered in Deadwood, South Dakota.

I have vivid memories of that song because it was so completely different than anything I’d heard before and it was, literally, an invitation. An invitation to let my hair down (which was an implicit invitation to grow my hair long), and an invitation to just be different. It didn’t specify anything. The lyrics were rather stark. There was scant detail. Just, you know, walk right in, because anyone can, because we’re non-judgmental here, having a good time, getting high, you can join us, you can behave any old way, just don’t hurt anybody. And there, pretty much, was the fetus for the monster being that became the 60s.

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