Monday, April 19, 2004

Friday Night Dances

I love songs. Throughout my childhood, my mother sang songs. Nobody in my family can carry a tune in a bucket, but we love songs. I am not an audiophile, I can't tell surround-sound from quadrophonics from Dolby and, honestly, I don't know what most of it means. I just like songs.

I got my love of songs from my mother. Whenever a new word was mentioned, my mother would define it, explain it to us, and she usually knew a song that included the word, so it was always a combination vocabulary lesson, grammar lesson, and pop culture moment. I think she knew a song for every state in the United States and every major city in the world.

My love of songs translated to a love of the music industry. I started buying records young. The first single I bought was "Glad All Over," by the Dave Clark Five. I bought it for sixty-nine cents at Sears Roebuck on Park Drive in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston, which was walking distance from the projects where we lived. Whenever my friends and I would go there, I would insist that we take the elevator to the seventh floor where the electric guitars were on display.

My friends never wanted to make that journey to the musical instruments floor, because we were always dismissed by the sales staff and chased back onto the elevator. They knew the kids form the projects had no money to buy guitars, and we got in the way of those who might better afford that baby blue Fender. Now and then, though, I could convince someone to join me and I would gaze in awe at the guitars and organs and drum sets.

I loved the idea of music companies and factories pressing records and radio stations and recording studios; and although I never pursued it as a career, the music industry remains a hobby of mine. I like to meet rock stars, but I prefer to meet producers. I like to meet singers, but I prefer to meet songwriters. I love to listen to a lead vocal that leaves me in awe, but I prefer to find a sophisticated background vocal nobody else has noticed. This all came from my mother.

My mother's fascination with music sparked her to take on the task of chaperoning the Friday night dances at Building 19, in the projects. (This Building 19 was a community hall that bears no relation to the chain of retail stores that appeared some years later.) This task meant organizing, setting-up, running, chaperoning, breaking-down, and cleaning-up. It was a big job. My mother was a member of the local community council that received funding from various agencies and charities, mostly through Lyndon Johnson's poverty programs and Harvard University's School of Public Health And Ever-Expanding Medical Centers. This money was used to fund activities to keep kids from stabbing each other to death. It mostly worked, and the Friday night dances were one way to keep the teenagers off the streets for a few hours.

What these dances meant for me was not only a chance to stay out really late on a Friday night, not only a chance to do the Madison and the Monkey and the Cool Jerk and the Pony with the local teenage girls, not only a chance to sit near the leather-jacket-clad teenage boys who talked about broads and booze and cars and knives and sex, it gave me 24-hour access to the record collection played at the dances! Not only did I have access to my mother's record collection that included Bizet's "Carmen" and Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" and a load of George Shearing and Billie Holiday and Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland and The Beatles, and my meager collection of singles by the Dave Clark Five and the Rolling Stones and James Brown and Wilson Pickett and The Esquires and The Supremes, but there was an entire box of 45s at my disposal. It seemed like thousands of records were in that box, but I am certain it was only a hundred or so.

Most of the 45s were promo copies donated by music distributors and radio stations, so they had the same song on both sides (one side mono and one stereo); but every now and then the guys would add their own singles or pool their money to buy a particular record for the dance, and I would listen to the B-side of each one.

For the life of me, I can't remember a single song right now. I guess the flip side of "96 Tears" made no impression on me, nor did the flip side of "Funky Broadway"! That is neither here nor there. I guess it's just fun to remember that huge public hall filled with a hundred teenagers lined up doing the Madison, everyone in step, hands all clapping at exactly the same time, feet stomping or skipping at the same moment. Girls giggling and smoking and boys trying to look hard. Great haircuts and tight skirts. Being out of breath from dancing too fast to "Wipeout"!

In 1968, the dances were cancelled halfway through the summer. Although the dances made it through the previous summer unaffected by the urban violence and race riots that ripped through every major American city, we weren't so lucky in 1968.

The racial divide in the projects was palpable. As more Southern blacks migrated North and moved into the already over-crowded housing projects, white families fled to the out-lying neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury or the nearby-suburbs of Quincy, Braintree and Milton. During the Summer of 1968 I saw teenage boys stab each other because they were black or white. I saw the police beat the crap out of teenagers of any stripe. I learned about the Tactical Police Force and K-9 Units and tear gas. I saw the National Guard with military weapons on the streets. I heard horror stories about black men hanged in the playground and white women raped on their way home from work.

I listened to "I Wish It Would Rain" as all my friends moved away. I listened to "I Say A Little Prayer" and I heard my mother's whispered conversations with the few remaining friends about how to get out of the projects. I listened to "Get On Up" and heard the grown-ups talk about Nixon's threats to slash funding for public housing and welfare assistance (promises he kept). I watched the maintenance men refuse to come to work because they were robbed and beaten by those now inhabiting the projects, many of whom were not legal residents, and I listened to "Forever Came Today." I watched the fences come down and the lawns turn brown and the trees and shrubs get sick and die and I listened to "Jumpin' Jack Flash." I watched the incinerators stop functioning and the garbage begin to pile-up like mountains and I listened to "Tracks Of My Tears." I listened to "Love Child" and my uncle Joe begged my mother to get us out of the projects before it was too late.

We were one of the last white families to leave the projects. I didn't want to go. It was what I knew and I was listening to "Bernadette." We moved to Forest Hills. It seemed safe. I got Roberta Flack "Chapter Two" and T.Rex "Electric Warrior" and everything started to change. Freda Payne sang "Band Of Gold" and "Bring The Boys Home." The Supremes sang "Stoned Love" and the world seemed really different.

Much has happened since 1970, and there are always songs.

I look at my watch it says 9:25 and I think "Oh God I'm still alive"