Was Youth Only a Dream?

Late at night, listening to the winter rain,
recalling my youth —
Was it only a dream? Was I really young once?
… Ryōkan

Need proof you were young once? Go back and listen to songs that were popular when you were a teen and, more than likely, you’ll discover you still love that awful music your parents and your children hate.

My latest indulgence in nostalgia and teeny-bopper music was provoked by fellow blogger Andrew Hidas’ “Second-Annual-Songs-of-Summer entry ” where Andrew opined that Loving Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” was the 2nd best summer song of all time (Sorry, but I didn’t check out the previous year’s nominee). I do like Loving Spoonful but couldn’t believe that “Summer in the City” could possibly be the best “summer” song so I started a search to find a better nominee. Turned out that summer hasn’t served as inspiration for many songs I like, but my favorite song turned out to be Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” a song I doubt I would have even remembered without searching online.

I only had vague memories of Cochran, who died in a taxi crash in England at a young age, so naturally I had to buy an album of his greatest hits from iTunes. Turned out that I only knew a few of his songs for most were released after his death in 1960, the year I graduated from high school and was too busy working and studying to listen to much music. His album certainly evoked memories of other artists I loved as a teenager, though, and for a while they have transported me back to a very different time in my life.

If I hadn’t been such an Elvis addict in Junior High and High School, I might have sworn that it was Elvis singing several of the songs on the album but I’m pretty sure I still recognize all of Elvis’ early songs. Cochran also managed to sound like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Big Bopper, and even Ray Charles in “Hallelujah I Love Her So.” Only “Summertime Blues” and “Skinny Jim,” my two favorite on the album, come close to sounding like “originals.” Even in “Skinny Jim” he used the phrase “Be-Bop-a-Lula” so many times that I finally remembered that it was the title of another favorite from that era, sung by Gene Vincent and not Cochran, though it turns out Cochran played guitar on the original song.

Out of curiosity, I asked iTune’s Genius to make a mix based on Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Not surprisingly, the list has artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Dion and Johnny Preston. In fact, I suspect it may be the “generic” quality of Cochran’s music that most appeals to me. Rather than standing out as a particular artist I once listened to, he represents a whole musical generation, the one I listened to in junior high and high school.

I have listened, listening, and re-listening to Cochran’s album much the same way I used to listen to a new Elvis song when local stations played “Hound Dog” every hour on the hour. I’m still trying to figure out why that music should have such a hold on me because I thought I’d long since outgrown it; heck, by the end of high school I’d already moved on to Blues and Jazz. Nowadays I tend to listen to New Age music when not listening to Blues or Jazz. I suspect my Deuter and Jessita Reyes’ albums have gotten more play than anything else in the last four or five years.

Apparently, though, I haven’t completely moved past classic Rock (though I notice a lot of internet sites now call it “Rockabilly”) since I spent the last few weeks drowning in it despite — or was it because of — the lyrics. Cochran is supposed to be known for his portrayal of “teenage angst, but Cochran’s angst seems pretty silly, at least from this old man’s perspective. It’s hard to believe I ever really bought into the lyrics in these songs and perhaps I didn’t because even in high school I was known for my sarcasm. Would you expect less from someone raised on Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movies?

Pretty sure I never had the “Summertime Blues,” at least not while a teenager, certainly not the version described in this song. First, my parents wouldn’t let me work full-time until I graduated from high school. I suspect I can thank my older brother for that restriction because he wanted to drop out of high school to work full-time. I was allowed to have a paper route, pick strawberries, and do yard work to earn spending money, but they were such miserable jobs I was never tempted to pursue them full-time. But since I couldn’t own a car, again, thanks to my older brother, I didn’t really need much money.

Though my best friend threw some notorious high school parties when his parents were out of town, Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody’s” call to party while his folks are out of town would never have appealed to me. First, I could barely gag down a beer. Second, I couldn’t imagine letting a bunch of unruly teenagers in mom’s house. I went to one of my friend’s parties after I graduated from college, and I spent the night trying to take protect his parents’ house while he took care of his sick girlfriend. Nearly getting in a fight with the boyfriend of some cute-but-very-drunk broad who kept leaning on me and asking me to dance didn’t change my attitude a bit; I’d left my fist-fighting days behind in Junior High.

The only lyrics I could really relate to on Cochran’s album was “Somethin Else.”

I’ll admit to having a crush on Midge and Colleen, football cheerleaders, when we were in Junior English together. I think that might have been the only time in my life that I wished I could be someone else, wished that my dad had signed my permission slip to play football (and that I weighed 40 pounds more than I did or could run twice as fast as I could). I probably would also have dreamed of having a car if I hadn’t been able to drive my dad’s Rebel V8 on dates. It actually took two Mustangs to make me finally realize that a car is simply a tool to get something done, not a status symbol, and that a four-door Dodge Dart was a better family tool than a Mustang fastback.

While I won’t quite admit to being a goody-two-shoes (I was far too cynical and sarcastic for that) I must admit when I think back to my teenage years I seemed to fit Catch-22’s Major Major’s description:

He never once took the name of the Lord his God in vain, committed adultery or coveted his neighbor's ass. In fact, he loved his neighbor and never even bore false witness against him. Major Major's elders disliked him because he was such a flagrant nonconformist.

Still not sure why that should be. I had way more freedom than most teenagers I knew and never knew what a curfew was. I could never have survived the kind of wild teenage years my father often described, so I really didn’t worry about my parents’ overreacting if I got a ticket or got into trouble. The INTP in me loved high school. Guess I just couldn’t find anything to rebel against. We weren’t “Christian” at least not the church-attending kind, but I still might have been the best practicing “Christian” I knew. Somehow it just seemed that all those Christian rules about treating others, including girls, as you wanted to be treated was the best strategy for a good life.

I have a hard time believing that I ever would have personally identified with the lyrics of Cochran’s songs. Since the lyrics of these songs don’t have much appeal to me, it must be the “sound” I still love. I do love the saxophone solos, and the beat is infectious. It’s hard for me to sit still while listening to most of these songs, and not just because my arthritis bothers me when I sit too long. Cochran’s saccharine ballads like “Three Steps to Heaven,” however, are nearly unbearable, even with the Jordanaire-like backup singers.

I noticed at our 50th High School reunion many couples were out dancing to hits of the day, and most people, dancing or not, seemed to enjoy the music. So it’s definitely not just me. Having attended more than my share of reunions as a high school teacher, I’ve noticed that every class seems equally drawn to the music that was popular when they were in junior high and high school. Why is that? What draws us back to music that was popular at a critical stage of our lives?

Are we little more than Pavlovian dogs drawn to the sounds that accompanied our first sexual stirrings?

Do they give us a “tribal” identity? My dad who had studied Opera wondered how we could stand to listen to people who couldn’t sing. My brother who was three years older hated the music I listened to constantly, and insisted that Pat Boone was a better singer than Elvis. I’m not sure my younger brother would even recognize the names of artists that I listened to, and I know that I kept telling him to turn his music down when I happened to be home.

I guess there’s always the possibility that repeatedly listening to Cochran’s songs is just another sign of approaching senility, and in the end I will be content to pass the last days of my life rocking out to Elvis’s “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up, ” though I think I’d prefer to regress a little further and go out listening to Bing Crosby’s version of “Zip a Dee Doo Dah” and “Don’t Fence Me In.”

4 thoughts on “Was Youth Only a Dream?

  1. Loren, thanks for the tip on Cochran, had never heard of him, though I knew and enjoyed “Summertime Blues” way back when. Minor correction on my list: I didn’t rank any of my songs in either year I presented them; just trotted several out as finely representative of the season! You’ve given me an idea, though, and I may just work up a “Top 10” list next summer and wait for the ridicule and invective to roll in!

    As for what’s up with music being the powerful force and memory inducer that it is, I don’t think it’s limited to adolescence and those first sexual stirrings, though that’s pretty powerful at that stage of life, for sure. I think music affects us deeply at every stage of life, through all the changes in our musical tastes, and the music we loved at 30 and 50 is no less powerful of a force—it just reflects different times, experiences, people and contexts. Music, along with nature and love, are our primary links to the transcendent dimension, stirring us internally as few other things do, and the love of and need for it is universal. We just can’t help ourselves but to rock and waltz and jitterbug on!

    • I certainly agree that music from any period can evoke powerful memories. What was amazing to me, though, is how many people, me included, continue to love the music that they grew up with in high school. I can only feel pity for those poor souls who grew up during the Disco era and are forever doomed to love that music.

  2. I think music affects some of us more than others. I’ve noticed many of my friends from that era (I graduated high school in 1972) have a pretty general connection to the music we grew up with, but for others, including me, particular songs engender specific memories of a time and place. Maybe it’s because I was much more involved in music – band from 7th grade into college, and playing in a rock group in high school – but the music of my youth anchors me far more firmly in the past than any other memory. And while I have liked many artists since then, the music I heard from 1967 or so until the mid-70s is the core of my preferences.

    • I like “the music of my youth anchors me more firmly in the past than any other memory.” In some ways, I feel anchored to that music throughout life in general. It somehow brings me back to those basic values that I held in my youth and still identify with. Sometimes I even think I’m exactly the same person I was then.

What do you think?