Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Oldies But Goodies

I consider myself the very model of a modern mature citizen.

I can text with the best of them, I own an I Pod and a flat screen LCD TV complete with Tivo system. I even know how to use it.

I embrace the future and look askance at those who dwell too much inthe past.

Except when it comes to music.

I used to tell my kids that there hadn't been a decent song written since they stopped making 45s. That was a slight exaggeration. But only slight.

Thus it was that I found myself on a recent Saturday night at aDoo-Wop concert at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, listening to the greatest hits of the 50s performed by many of the original artists.

It's been a long time since I've been to concert where those on stage were my age.

The setting was a bit surreal. Doo wop emerged from America's urban centers, a sort of modern-day barbershop quartet music but with a bit of grit and grime as befitting its origins.

It was raucous, it was sweet, it was sexual, it was innocent. It was born on the corners under a street light.

It was also small in the best since of the word, often done a capalla style.

Here it was being presented at a venue erected to house the Academy Awards, a towering edifice with a main floor and three balconies that looked like it could host the Rose Bowl game.

Like the Hollywood it was built to honor, it was massive in scale but somehow superficial.

On the other hand, the place was sold out, packed with people whose bedtimes were approaching as the curtain rose.

There was a lot of conversation in the audience about "the good old days" and "simpler times." Much as I loved the when and where of my childhood, there clearly were some dark moments in the 50s. Some personal recollections:

The smog in most areas of Los Angeles was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Contributing to the problem was the fact that most families had an incinerator in the backyard where they would burn their trash. That was my job as a kid, to take the residue from a family of five out back and torch it every morning. Talk about a carbon footprint.

We practiced dropping under our desks in the case of nuclear attack.This was the time of the Cold War and the threat of the Ruskies engaging us in atomic ping-pong was never far from our minds. (We were bombarded by "public service messages" that portrayed Soviet citizens as shifty-eyed Bolsheviks who hated God and dined on puppies).

Even at a young age, it struck me as a futile gesture to hide beneath a desk when a multiple-headed ICBM was falling out of the sky. But we dutifully hit the floor when the teacher would yell, "Drop down!"

We had an air raid siren on a utility pole just outside the backyard fence at our house, built to be heard for miles around. The authorities would test it monthly and on those days, we would freeze in our tracks for three minutes, paralyzed by the noise and wondering if this it.

In the event of an actual nuclear attack, however, we would have had a head start in dropping under a desk.

We lived in mortal fear of contracting polio.

We lived in mortal fear of the Draft.

I avoided one but not the other.

The Cold War begat McCarthyism and the arms race complete with nuclear testing, much of done down the road in Nevada.

Racial segregation was a fact of life. I didn’t meet an African-American until I was in high school. On the other hand, I am convinced that pop music, such as Doo Wop, did as much to boost integration in American society as sports did.

To give the 50s their due, it was a safer time and we had great personal freedom. As soon as I could ride a bike competently, I could go anywhere with my friends as long as I was back by dinnertime. And we roamed far and wide.

Soft drinks were a nickel, gas was 25 cents a gallon.

It was Friday night football and proms and drive-ins.

It was a lot like "American Graffiti." It was not at all like"Grease."

It was a time of discovery. Of friends and first cars and first loves.

It was the time of my youth.

Or as the Earls so succinctly put it in their classic song, "RememberThen,":

"Wop, wop, patta patta pop-pop, shoo-wop-dah bop bop..."

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