Psychologists tell us that certain key skills, talking for example, must be learned by a certain age or they can never be learned. If a person, born deaf, never learned to vocalize and had his hearing been restored as an adult, the chances are that he would never learn to talk. So it is, it seems, with many of life’s experiences. Our later perceptions of some events are forever colored by early childhood experiences. Christmas, for example.
Adults are often heard to complain that Christmas just doesn’t seem to be the way it used to be. Truth be told, it isn’t nor can it be. We are forever trying to replicate childhood Christmas memories. It can’t be done. Our experiences do not allow us to suspend belief, a necessary precondition to the unconditional acceptance of the magic of Christmas. While we might still anticipate the pleasure of gift giving, the pleasure is short lived. Other cares soon crowd out the pleasure of the day and memories are boxed and stored with the Christmas ornaments.
This train of thought was brought on by the purchase of some CDs; CDs of hits from the ?50s. A bargain found by my wife. An early Christmas present if you will. I have never been a particular fan of popular music. My tastes tend more to Mozart and Beethoven than to modern rock. My inability to recognize, let alone name, any current group or their music testifies to my illiteracy. But the music of the 50s is an exception. Bill Haley and Comets burst on the scene with Rock Around the Clock and the popular musical preferences of a generation suddenly clicked into place. The decade ended at opposite poles with the sappy Teen Angel and the suggestive Come Softly To Me.
In between was an explosion of music targeted most specifically at the teen-aged generation. It marked, perhaps, a watershed in how children and adults dealt with one another and culminated in a general lack of parental control of their children’s lives. I step carefully here because my perceptions are colored by a small town upbringing. I understood that things might be different outside of our rural community; a knowledge prompted by James Dean’s performance in Rebel Without a Cause. We watched this film and secretly envied Dean’s braggadocio. But this was small town America and publically we still conformed to a rigid code of moral conduct. To break this honor code was to face ostracism. Some, the Greasers, had in some way or other openly defied this code and they forever remained on the fringe as conformist in their imitations of James Dean and the Hell’s Angels as those of us who outwardly behaved. We disdained them, but we feared them too, and sometimes, secretly, we admired them.
Always in the background was the music. Ranging from the innocuous Little Darlin’ to the frankly sexual Long Tall Sally, it was a target of adult censure. Concerned parents and pious preachers constantly warned of the dangers of rock music. Citing the erotic beat of some songs as well as their suggestive lyrics, the campaign to get Rock and Roll banned met with varying degrees of success. Some songs, like Honey Love (I need it in the morning sun … what do I need, uuuuhhhh, Honey Love!) Actually were banned. Even so the airways were jammed with Rock and Roll. These were days when the AM station was king. FM stations were still too high brow requiring, as they did, a special receiver and antenna. They were out of the reach of Everyman. In the Midwest, WOWO (1590 on your dial, comin’ attcha at 50,000 watts) was supreme. It’s DJs were well known and in great demand at Sock Hops in the tri-state area of Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.
Ours was a contradicted generation. We inherited our parent’s morality and accepted its double standard. We swore, but we did not swear in public. Men apologized if they inadvertently said Hell or Damn in front of a woman and no one would have used terms like penis or vagina in mixed company. Words like naked or intercourse would raise an embarrassed titter in the classroom, regardless of the context of their use. It was accepted that unmarried couples didn’t have sex and they most certainly did not live together. Some public figures, like Ingrid Bergman, paid dearly for their open defiance of this convention. Media portrayals of husband and wife showed a rather chaste couple who slept in twin beds and aside from the occasional passionless kiss, had no physical contact at all. We had not yet cracked the adult code, a code that made it possible to understand movies and cartoons on two levels. Bugs Bunny made many a comment which was just funny to kids while conveying an entirely different meaning to adults. Watching these cartoons today, I still laugh, but I laugh differently..
There was no mistaking the language of the music. It spoke directly of love, feelings of love, and need. Everyone understood what it meant when the Everly Brothers sang “whenever I need you, all I have to do is dream.” We danced at Sock Hops and melted into each other in the semi-darkness of the auditorium. Dancing in the heat of each other’s bodies as the Platters sang My Prayer, we all wished to while away a few unsupervised hours with each other.
We met, we held hands, we dated, we went steady to this heady background of music. Some made love to the music in the glow of the radio dial. This was never without guilt and fear of discovery (Wake Up Little Susie). We didn’t understand, and no one told us, that our parents danced the same dance, but to a different beat.
Listening to the music now is like entering a time machine. Listening, one remembers the softness of a first kiss, of flouncy skirts with stiff crinolines, of soft blue sweaters and one remembers when I Love You was first spoken. It all returns in a rush and I can but wonder if the same is true of succeeding generations.