The first record I ever bought was the 45-rpm “Jezebel,” on the Mercury label, by the Rumbles. They were a garage band from Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is across the Missouri River from Omaha. Mighty Twelve-Ninety, KOIL, had been playing the song. The deejays pronounced KOIL as a word rather than spelling out the call letters individually. The station’s jingle included the slogan, “Million-dollar weekend.” I could never figure out who was getting a million dollars: maybe the station. Nor could I figure out why a band would name itself after a street fight. Or maybe it was just thunder. There were lots of things to figure out when I was twelve. I didn’t believe my mother when she said the Rumbles were only covering “Jezebel.” Indeed, the 1951 original, written by Wayne Shanklin, was sung by Frankie Lain, who was backed by the Norman Luboff Choir and Mitch Miller and his orchestra.
I probably bought “Jezebel” at Maple View Pharmacy, on 90th and Ohio Streets. I didn’t get too much farther away from home than that when I was twelve and thirteen. Maple View was within bike-riding distance, easily less than a mile from home by way of Brownley Drive. Maple View had a soda fountain where I tried cherry Coke a few times. It was also possible to buy cigarettes from the rack behind the main cash register, saying they were for my mom. Sometimes I produced a forged note. I don’t recall ever being turned down. The cigarette selection was pretty broad, and in these early days of the Marlboro man it was possible to buy old-time brands Chesterfield King and Herbert Tareyton and Phillip Morris. One source indicates the Tareytons had a cork tip, but the others were unfiltered straights. I had never seen any of my parents’ friends smoking them; instead, they preferred Kent, L&M (my mother’s brand), Bel Air, Salem, and Benson & Hedges. A fellow down the block named Tom Gaukel might have smoked Luckys, which indicated a defiant traditionalism: Luckys were a wartime brand, the kind handed out to soldiers. I had an older friend whose mother let him smoke at home. He liked Bull Durhams and thought it was hilarious when I puffed on these incredibly strong cigarettes and turned gray. When they weren’t making me gag or turn dizzy, cigarettes represented attainable adulthood. On top of this, the brand names and the packaging fascinated me. If I smoked today, it would be disappointing to have so few choices. As with so many consumer products, whether it’s soda pop or breakfast cereal, a relatively few companies dominate the market and the shelf space. Puffing a Basic Light from a packet with such a bland design would hold little innate allure. Smoking has become terribly prosaic.
Some other 45’s I owned:
- “Chain of Fools,” by Aretha Franklin
- “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay”: It always irked me to hear the deejays call him “The late, great Otis Redding” because I didn’t understand what that expression meant—or even that he was really dead: the song was recorded December 7, 1967 and he died December 10 in a plane crash at Madison, Wisconsin
- “Lean on Me,” by Bill Withers
- “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” by Looking Glass (“Brandy, you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you would be, but my life, my lover, my lady, is the sea”)
- “The Rapper,” by the Jaggerz (“Rap, rap, rap, they call him the Rapper; rap, rap, rap, you know what he’s after”)
- “Venus,” by Shocking Blue (“She’s got it, yeah, baby, she’s got it. I’m your Venus, I’m your fire at your desire”)
- “Sign,” by Five Man Electrical Band, uncannily summed up my growing anti-authoritarian feelings
- “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),” by John Fred & His Playboy Band was playing the other day in the supermarket, which prompted the writing of this entire memoir, and to prove how obtuse I am, even as a former owner of the record, I admit that it never occurred to me this song was a parody of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” until just moments ago when I read the Wikipedia entry. Ye gods!
Soul and pop gave way to rock records, and I added Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” to my collection. Even as a fourteen-year-old, I knew what Robert Plant meant when he sang “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love. Especially as a fourteen-year-old, I appreciated seeing “Lotta” officially sanctioned in print. The psychedelic instrumental “orgasm” section, which is followed by Jimmy Page’s rip-roaring solo on a 1958 Les Paul still make me tingle when I hear the song over these forty years.
“Revolution” and “Get Back” were irresistible, even though Beatlemania was nauseating and I hated to jump on the bandwagon. Conversely, the Stones’ bad-guy image put me off, but the riff in “Brown Sugar” hooked me; I’m still learning just how seedy the lyrics are and how deeply Mick Jagger understood the culture that ultimately spawned the blues. “Honky Tonk Women” was another that scandalized but also intrigued while getting the hips shaking. Reading the lyrics online, I finally understand that the singer met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis and laid a divorcee in New York City: decades of ignorance brought to end.
“Spirit in the Sky,” by Norman Greenbaum, plays all the time on classic-rock stations and while I don’t know how well the lyrics hold up theologically, singing along is fun.
I also had the folky “In the Year 2525,” by Zager and Evans. I liked songs with easily followed stories, but another part of the appeal was that the duo came from Lincoln, Nebraska. It just didn’t seem possible for anyone from Nebraska to be number one at anything besides perhaps football. (By 1969, when the song held number one on the charts for six weeks, the Cornhuskers had yet to win a national title.)
About six months later, “Bridge over Troubled Water” also spent six weeks at the top of the charts. This was the required slow-dance song for make-out parties, one of which I held at my house, so Simon and Garfunkel abundantly repaid the investment of $1.49 or so. Mary Steele later wrote me a note asking if it was still good between us, and she relayed this information: “Everybody said it was a w-h-o-o-o-l-e lot of fun!! Little ones are more fun than the great big ones!! That’s what I think at least!!”
By “little ones,” I trust she was referring to my party and not my part.