I belonged to the Y Indian Guides when I was seven. It was the YMCA’s lighter, less fascist alternative to the Boy Scouts.
The fathers in our group were World War II veterans who celebrated their bond with a dark humor. I was a few years away from completely understanding it. Like the chuckles our adopted names received. Dad was Big Red Beaver, my older brother was Little Red Beaver and I was the twice-removed Little Grey Beaver.
Stung by second billing only made me more determined. I got the best role in our skit when we joined other area tribes for a variety show.
Our Dads decided to dramatize one of their jokes. They built a cut out plywood airplane we four little warriors stood behind. A narrator set it up: we were on a dangerous international mission when our plane suddenly developed problems. Over the loudspeaker the pilot explains there’s a weight issue and asks for a volunteer to evacuate. A Frenchman boldly steps to the door, exclaims “Vive la France!” then jumps.
The pilot comes back on to say we’re still too heavy. A British soldier cries, “God save the King!” Then he jumps leaving just two of us.
In desperation, the pilot pleads for one more volunteer. With bravura I shouted “Remember the Alamo!” as I turned to push the Mexican out. Maybe the Guides were more fascist than originally thought.
I was intrigued by the laughter and applause I heard from the unseen audience on the other side of the lights. The stage bug had bit.
Jonesing for stardom, I pursued music when I was growing up. I played french horn for eight years in the school band. It was a collective effort, only an occasional solo made me feel the pressure.
Individual attention came with the piano. I studied it for seven years. Every Spring students performed auditions for a team of judges. Results were announced at our public recital a month later.
One year I sat waiting my turn at the recital, half-heartedly listening to my teacher’s general remarks. Amongst the blah-blah-blah I heard phrases like “one student stood above the rest” and “the judges noted a dramatic improvement in technique.” She was talking about me.
I was so shocked that when I took the stage to begin Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, I got through the first third then suddenly froze. We had to perform from memory and I could visualize where I was in the score. But that’s all I saw. I was blank. After a pause of several seconds I took it from the top again and nailed it.
I hoped I’d saved face by getting it right the second time. Afterwards, however, Mother wasn’t buying it. All she could do was softly shake her head while whispering “you started over…you started over…”
The discipline I had as a child puzzles me now. Today, hands that once glided over Mozart can barely pick out chopsticks. And the embouchure that framed my triple-tonguing has been destroyed by years of, well, tonguing of another sort.
Skills may have atrophied but my appreciation for music has never waned. Like the video of Chris Montez’s exhilarating Let’s Dance. I’ve been obsessed with it lately.
It’s from a 60’s dance show, the kind I watched to keep up with the latest crazes. I’d try to follow the moves and, when I needed a partner, would grab a doorknob on a swinging closet door. It’s unpredictable movement kept me on my toes.
While serious me pursued musical instruments, fantasy me wanted to be a regular on Bandstand. I longed to be like the tall guy in black pants in this clip at about :40. He doesn’t do much but those rubbery legs skimming across the floor are amazing.
I was probably closer in style to the black pencil skirt at 1:25 and 1:45. She’s all snake hips with plenty of bounce and controlled arm motion. Plus she’s having the time of her life.
The real stars are the couple who jitterbug at 1:00. They can barely contain themselves as they count off then blast into orbit when they lock hands. Their steps are at one with the rhythm, the music seems to emanate from their feet.
Another clip I’ve been watching is a 1969 American Bandstand. It’s a Top 10 Countdown, Sugar, Sugar is number 1.
At the time the song was dismissed as unhip and bubble gum. Five decades later I can confess I’ve always loved it. The infectious hand clapping beat, the way the volume increases with each chorus–it’s so exciting. As I’ve recently learned, it was the last hit of the storied Brill Building clique.
I marvel at the guys in these videos. They dance like that and they’re straight? This is America, goddamnit, they can’t do that. The sad thing is wondering how many of these joyous kids paid the price in Viet Nam.
I learned of Top 40 in 1961 because of Del Shannon’s Runaway. I became a devotee of the Saturday morning program for the next decade.
Feeling personally invested in that song, I was elated when it hit Number 1. When Roy Orbison’s Running Scared knocked it out a couple of weeks later I was furious. I vowed never, ever to support that blind guy’s music again. A 10-year-old’s lifetime grudge is lucky to last a month. I soon became an Orbison fan too.
There’s a 1986 clip of Del Shannon performing Runaway on David Letterman. After he uses his falsetto the first time he shoots Paul Shaffer a knowing grin. As if they’d discussed how something so silly ended up sounding so cool.
Shaffer is a wonderful musician who has kept basically the same bandmates for 30 years. No small feat. Here he generates enthusiasm by osmosis as he physically submits to the music playing the bridge. His above the melody line in the following verse gives me goose bumps.
When it ends the band seems delighted with their rendition of this great pop song. There aren’t too many other choices this Old Grey Beaver made 60 years ago that still stand up today.