The Songs of My Youth
My wife, Barbara, and I took a multi-state road trip recently, and one of our stops was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland. This unique and beautiful building designed by I. M. Pei — who also designed the John F. Kennedy Museum in Boston — opened in 1995 and includes six floors of chronological displays and presentations. We spent about three hours wandering through this musical labyrinth, and as we did so, I heard many songs that allowed me to experience again the wonder and beauty of my youth.
Junior High with the Beatles. I really didn’t listen to music much until the Beatles came to America during the spring of 1964. Then, I got caught up in the hysteria, and I vividly recall sitting in my English class, in the last seat in the last row near the windows, humming the tunes to my personal favorites: “Love Me Do; Do You Want to Know a Secret?; and I Saw Her Standing There.”
At the time, everyone had a favorite Beatle, and as an immature joker myself, I identified with Ringo Starr, the drummer. In fact, instead of taking notes on the proper use of a semicolon, I sometimes imitated Ringo’s art by lightly banging two pencils on the top of my three-ring binder.
Freshman Year with the Rolling Stones. By the time I reached high school, I was ready to attend my first Friday-night dance in the third-floor auditorium of St. Mary’s Institute in Amsterdam, New York. There, the disc jockey filled the venue with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones playing “Get Off of My Cloud.” I had no idea what those lyrics meant, I didn’t know how to dance, and, even if I did, I was much too shy to ask. So, instead, I stood on the sideline and watched everyone else for four consecutive Fridays before I somehow approached Paula, an extremely sweet girl I had known since kindergarten, and asked her to dance. She kindly said, “Yes,” and I stiffly moved my feet and snapped my fingers for three minutes. The experience was fun, I have to admit, and I fondly recalled that moment as I watched a film clip of the Stones at the Museum.
Sophomore Year with The Jefferson Airplane. After the British invasion of the mid-1960s, the music scene shifted westward to San Francisco, and Grace Slick and The Jefferson Airplane asked all of us a series of questions:
“Don’t you want somebody to love?
Don’t you need somebody to love?
Wouldn’t you love somebody to love?
You better find somebody to love.”
Yes, yes, and yes to the three questions, and, yes, I had found somebody to love. Noreen, a beautiful, Italian girl from the South Side, had just transferred into our school, and I spent most days thinking about her and wondering if she would go to our Sophomore Soiree with me. Never much of a conversationalist, I sat in classes with her for over five months before I spoke to her for the first time in a quick, 19-word phone call:
“Hi Noreen. This is Jim LaBate from school. Would you go to the Soiree with me? . . . Great. Thanks. Bye.”
Amazing, right? Looking back with laughter and amazement, I can only thank Grace Slick for helping me with this important rite of passage.
Junior Year with Otis Redding. Obviously, most of the songs I remember well are love songs, and Paul Mauriat’s “Love Is Blue” was the theme for our Junior Prom, but I more fondly recall a different song from that year. During the summer of 1968, between my junior and senior years, I had my first real job, loading and unloading boxcars at a local factory. I rose every morning at 6:00 a.m., and as I ate my Frosted Flakes, I listened to the radio, and every morning, I heard Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” I came to like that song a lot because I, too, was sitting on the loading dock during our breaks, and that experience with real manual labor convinced me that I didn’t want to do that kind of work forever. I realized pretty quickly that I needed to go to college to pursue my love of literature and writing. Thank you, Otis, for that important lesson.
Senior Year with various artists. I actually remember numerous songs from 1969, but many of them were silly songs like “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies and “Guitarzan” by Ray Stevens. As a result, the song I remember most from that year was the song that our graduating class sang at our commencement ceremony: “Somewhere” — otherwise known as “There’s a Place for Us — from the 1957 Broadway play and the 1961 film, “West Side Story.” In that drama, the song serves as a tragic ending to the tale of Tony and Maria, two star-crossed lovers, but for us, as fresh-faced, optimistic graduates during a tumultuous time, the lyrics promise a brighter future:
“Someday, somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living.
We’ll find a way of forgiving.
Almost 50 years have passed since I walked across the stage at Bishop Scully High School to receive my diploma, and during all those years, I have been periodically reacquainted with my peers at various reunions. Though we no longer know the specifics of one another’s lives, we do still connect as we discuss the additional universal experiences we have all shared: post high-school education or training, career, love, heartbreak, family responsibilities, aging, and saying good-bye to our parents and other loved ones. As we move through those experiences, we gradually recognize our own vulnerabilities, and we are reconnected to our old friends by those experiences. Finally, we can truly sing the lesson we heard from the Beatles in 1965, a lesson we could not truly appreciate at the time:
“When I was younger, so much younger than today.
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now those days are gone, I’m not so self-assured.
Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the door.
Help me if you can, I’m feeling down,
And I do appreciate you’re being ‘round.
Help me get my feet back on the ground.
Won’t you please, please help me?
Help me? Help me? Oooh.”