AN AMERICAN TUNE
"I mime to the Beatles."
Michael James Moore’s
AN AMERICAN TUNE
“Track # 1”
We head for the record department of the J.C. Penney store at the Ford City Shopping Center because Sundays are the longest day of the week and any chance of a winter’s day getaway (“Out of the house!”) is usually seized upon by the Mom. After spending fifteen minutes looking at new albums at the big store that sells seemingly everything, the Mom has an armful of newly selected LPs. That’s what the grown-ups say when they mean record-albums. Us kids just say “records.” Usually.
Most important is that a new record by the Beatles is there. Even if the cover hadn’t had the greatest photo of them you’d ever seen—a very recent picture: with their hair longer than ever and all four in dark clothes (John wears a funky wide-brimmed black hat and Ringo sports a flamboyant scarf as a unique tie that looks to be silk or made of something equally fine and its pattern is colorful and bold, as though a woman might have picked it) and even if the album cover hadn’t appeared as a truly stunning portrait of the four most famous men of the so-called Counterculture (as we hear it called on TV or when written about in newspapers or magazines; this being March of 1970)
still, you would have been stirred by the chronological way that the list of songs on the album’s back cover highlighted a specific time-span: 1964-1969. That caught the eye.
You see, that’s what stands out right off the bat—even more than the stunning cover portrait of all four Beatles standing in front of what appeared to be a medieval cathedral entrance. It isn’t billed as any sort of Greatest Hits package—there are no stickers adorning it. On the spine of the album cover is the title: “Hey Jude.” That’s still the Beatles’ most famous song, although by then it’s more than a year-and-a-half old. And even though I’m then barely ten-and-a-half years old, instantly I can see that this new record is different. It’s a chronicle of sorts. A compilation. I must have it.
The Mom has all four of us there that day. All four of us are with her most of the time, except (of course) when we’re in school or playing with friends up and down 85th Street. But Sundays are the longest day and they’re never easy for her, especially when Dad is far away (almost always) on one of the business trips he takes each month.
Dad’s career is at a peak in early 1970. We hardly ever see him. A one-week trip is typical for him; a two-week trip (or nine or ten days) is not unusual. He flies everywhere.
Probably that’s why I knew I could acquire the Beatles’ new record that day . . . if Dad had been there he might have told me to put that LP back in the bin; perhaps saying that their hair is now just too long and they aren’t the four smiling mop-tops who once charmed the world on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Plenty of press about the Beatles and drugs and their gurus and the radical remarks—that’s what Dad might have thought about. Especially the notoriety of John Lennon with his hippie glasses and shoulder-length hair; that one had mouthed off about Jesus and all, way back in 1966. If Dad were at J.C. Penney that day it’s likely I would not have had such an easy time with an album boasting those bold color photos on the front and back covers. The pictures that might have caused a lot of older folks to say that the Beatles were looking as bearded, as awful, as hairy and druggy and stoned as that lunatic Charles Manson (whose face on magazine covers since Fall ‘69 has literally scared the hell out of the public). Manson crazily claims that certain Beatle songs inspired his orders to kill.
Or if not really all that bad . . . some would say it was still not good that the early Beatles who’d looked so fine in their matching suits in the old days now resembled—and were somehow leading—this whole panorama of rebellious upheaval and youth-oriented turmoil. There’s provocation everywhere, from the Chicago 7 to the Rolling Stones (and they were the real troublemakers among the Pop music favorites; everyone knew that).
Maybe it’s so different with the Mom because the big Zenith radio in the kitchen at home is the centerpiece of our lives and has been since we moved into the house on 85th Street back in May of 1965. They’d gotten the radio as an anniversary gift years earlier, when I was an infant. Cannot remember when I did not see it every day of the week. It’s a fixture. Like Mom, in a way. And it was her father—the Grandfather, to us kids—who gave our family that gift.
From before breakfast until after dinner (on most nights) the kitchen radio plays on. Perhaps that’s why after scanning the titles of the tunes listed on the LP cover handed to her, the Mom quickly embraces the album I said I absolutely have to have (the beards and the hair don’t seem to faze her): from 1964’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Should Have Known Better” up to “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” from 1966, all the way to “Lady Madonna” and “Hey Jude” and George’s “Old Brown Shoe” from the ’68-’69 epoch, the Mom had heard these songs and has a genuine fondness for some. She nods and smiles.
For my older sister, Colleen Marie, the Mom buys Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album.
On her Simon & Garfunkel record, there is poetry enough—what with the title song and also “The Boxer” and “El Condor Pasa” . . . soon those songs are filling the 85th Street air with Paul Simon’s words and Artie G’s pitch-perfect vocals. And when I take a break from staring at the cover photos on the new Beatles’ album, I am most definitely listening as best I can to the uncanny way that the sequence of the songs offers up a capsule history of pop music’s many changes between 1964 and 1970. A mere half-decade to many others; it was half a lifetime to me.
“It’s because they’re mostly singles from years ago,” Uncle Kevin explains the following week. I tell him I’m not exactly sure what he means. “Look,” he says, “every song on your record was either a single or the B-side to a single—you know: the flip-side of the 45—and most of these songs were never on any other album. So, now they are.”
Kevin is the Mom’s youngest brother. It’s really weird that he’s her brother and not mine, because he’s only three years older than me. The Mom was born in 1936 and she’s the oldest of eight kids . . . Kevin was born in 1956 . . . so, he’s the youngest of the eight.
He was a year-and-a-half old when the Mom married Dad in November 1957. Now Kev is fourteen and I think he’s the coolest guy ever and whether it’s music we’re discussing or stuff he’s reading about in the Chicago Seed (an underground newspaper you’ll never find in our neighborhood stores, but Kevin gets copies from his older brother Eddie or maybe someone else who gets an issue now and then from who knows where), well . . . Kev can answer questions about everything from “Abbey Road” to “Woodstock,” and he knows lots about the Hells Angels and the trial of the Chicago 7 . . . and because we live in Chicago, that ongoing downtown trial of the 1968 antiwar protestors with the elderly Judge Julius Hoffman presiding and daily declaring contempt-of-court charges against the infamous attorney William Kunstler and his notorious defendants Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden and the others . . . it’s an everyday topic if you have the radio on all the time like the Mom always does. Or if you’re a TV-news junkie, the way Dad is.
* * * * *
Back on 85th Street it’s Colleen Marie who has a portable phonograph in her room. Whenever she’s out of the house, I’m in her room, the door closed, the shades drawn, and her turntable spinning. Both of the big stereos in our house are off-limits to the kids, and rightly so. Mom and Dad take great care of the elaborate Hi-Fi console out in the living room; it’s still as perfect as the day they bought it back when we lived in our first smaller house on 83rd Place, where I’d been a boy so scared of everyone and everything that the move to 85th Street when I was almost finished with kindergarten (a move of barely one mile) seemed to me like a trip to Mars. As for Dad’s stereo system down in the finished basement on 85th Street, nobody is allowed near it. Don’t even try to argue with him about that. So, in Colleen’s room I discover that music makes the world nothing less than a galaxy of new possibilities. Infinite possibilities (once my imagination starts soaring).
I mime to the Beatles. In Colleen’s room, with the shades drawn because even though you can’t see into her room through her elevated windows . . . still, I’m shy and I want privacy. And with the door closed, of course, and more and more with the Mom busy in the late-afternoon hours with one or another of my three sisters, more and more I’m sometimes home alone (and at ten and a half years old this seems A-OK with me). Then what I love most of all is the small portable phonograph on the shelf in Colleen’s room.
It’s my ticket to ride. And even then such a corny roundabout reference to a famous Beatles’ song strikes me as the only apt way to describe what seems to be happening. As for what’s happening, well . . . thanks to Colleen always visiting her friends, I’m saved.
Music is becoming more than my life’s blood. It’s a balm. Because Mom and Dad have been fighting in a really bad way for months (going back to even before New Year’s Day) and although they make up now and then and things seem to be okay on the Sunday nights out at New Corsica (always their favorite restaurant whether they were out on their own or with the Grandfather and his new lady friend, Helen; or out with all of us in tow), somehow, as the months unfold in 1970, there are flare-ups and conflicts and the house is riddled with tensions. So, standing in the shadows behind the locked door of Colleen’s room after school is over, pretending to hold a guitar while singing but not really singing (because I don’t want to be found out, with lip-synching being my thing), that’s all I do. Day after day. And I love it because it truly centers me. It calms me down. And more.
From the music I feel a sense of hopefulness that I cannot explain. A feeling of joy and this lightness and a buoyancy and boundlessness that school never generates. Then comes a true optimism, even though that word is not really part of my vocabulary yet.
It’s odd, but as I stand in the corner of Colleen Marie’s bedroom in the house on 85th Street, usually imagining that I’m holding a violin-shaped electric bass guitar like Paul McCartney, and then that line in “Lady Madonna” comes around (“baby at your breast”); it really does make me blush a bit. And I use that to augment my effort to perform the piece with gusto. Actually, I think about breasts and girls and women and their bodies all the time. However, no one can admit that anywhere up or down the block. Except when we trade dirty remarks before and after exchanging nasty jokes that comes from who knows where. But I’m not hearing much at all in the way of jokes or remarks these days, because every day it’s back I go into Colleen’s room for my secret sessions with the Beatles.
Pretty soon it’s a common question that I’m hearing on the way to school or on my way home: What’s with you? Why don’t ya come out anymore? How come ya don’t wanna play? And all like that. Everyone asks the same question, on a different day.
But there’s no way I can explain it. I can’t possibly find a way to say to all these kids that I’ve been side-by-side with for five years now . . . something like this: Look, listen up, it’s because I’d rather be alone in a dark room late in the afternoon, pretending to be
a Beatle (I can’t decide if I’m pretending to be a Beatle or perhaps joining them at long last as their beloved wayfaring ally: the 5th Beatle!). Explain? That simply does not happen.
But that’s all right. It does not matter that I never explain my disappearing act. All that matters is that when I mime, all my fear goes away; all my sadness dissolves. It’s like the bad fear about my parents’ fighting and other hassles ceases to exist. By magic. Yet, it’s really the music. The power of the music is magical. My imagination is born.
I've completed a memoir about coming of age in the city of Chicago; in the aftermath of 1968's turmoil and social chaos. The point of departure is when one of the Beatles' last albums was released early in 1970, and it was the first Beatles' record ever given as a gift to me.
That gift was a boon. It gave birth to my imagination.