Summer of Sixty-Nine (part 1 of a 6 part series)

This is part one of a 6 part series.

Janie had a reputation in the neighborhood as being 12 going on 30—some of the other girls called her “Evil Janie.” Some of the adults in neighboring houses weren’t very fond of her either—she frequently would crank up her parent’s stereo when they were away playing rock music so loud you could hear it 5 houses down. At that time I was 12 going on 10—in some ways anyway. One day my uncle Van sent me to the drug store to get something—as I’m leaving the house I see Janie across the street looking at me.

On impulse I go over and ask if she wants to go to the store with me. She says “OK” but she has to change—and tells me to come with her up to her room. I felt a little scared—I’d heard some stories—I hesitated. But something inside me—something new—was screaming “Go with her you retarded piece of shit.” She tells me to sit on the bed and to turn my head while she changed clothes. So I turn my head and I’m looking right into the mirror over her dresser and I can see her just as well as if I hadn’t turned.

She strips down to her panties and a floppy little “training bra,” acts like she doesn’t know I can see her—sort of parades around pretending she was having trouble deciding what to put on—I mean how hard is it to decide what to wear to walk a few blocks to the drug store?

Then she stops acting like she doesn’t know I can see her—she steps around in front of me—her panties are at eye level—she looks straight down into my eyes and says, “Bryan—learn to play the guitar and I might give you something.” It was like God saying “work hard—get good at this and I’ll turn you into Superman.”

That night when I was finally able to get to sleep I had the dream again—about the car accident that killed my parents. I figured it would come. It was always the same and always came when something unusual happened. In it it’s dark and raining; I’m lying in grass and mud and crying—something heavy is pressing down on me. I hear a crack of thunder and the weight is gone—a breeze blows rain across my face and body.

A lightening bolt suddenly turns the whole scene a scalding white. I see my dad’s lifeless body in the flooded road—and I see a pretty young woman—her face and clothing covered with blood—my mom—lifting the car off me. I hear a voice—a woman’s voice—but I know it’s not my mom saying, “Stand up Bryan—this is your moment.” I stand up and walk a few steps into the hellish night—all around me is blackness, pouring rain and thunder—I am surrounded by darkness but not scared—I’m calm and filled with this feeling that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

The next day I gotten hold of a guitar and was trying to play it. About a week later I made a deal to mow a guy’s grass in exchange for lessons. I kept it secret. I didn’t want any of my friends laughing at me—only my uncle Van knew. I decided I wanted to not just learn to play a few simple songs for Janie by strumming chords—I wanted to get really good and blow her right out of those panties. And it also dawned on me I could get revenge.

Janie wasn’t the only one I wanted to blow anyway—I was a nerd, skinny, awkward and not real popular. It occurred to me if I got good, all those assholes who picked on me would be knocked on their butts. I’d lay awake at night with band aids on my fingers imagining being up on a stage, standing like a rock giant in the bright lights—the bullies laying on the floor with looks of fear and astonishment on their face and hundreds of Janies jumping up and down waving their underwear at me.

However—by the time I knew my chords, could listen to a song and play it pretty good (about a year) later Janie had moved. Her old man got a good paying job in some other state. She left and took her panties with her.

End part one.

Reader—you can go on and read the whole story—all 6 installments—or stop here and come back tomorrow for part two

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Begin part two

By that time I’d put together a band. It just kind of fell into place—Uncle Van called it “Grace”—when things just come together without any effort. Turns out there were other nerds at my school dreaming of rock music revenge. A major dork named Astor played drums in the school orchestra—I‘d heard he was pretty good. One day he just walks up to me in the hall and starts talking about rock music. I asked if he was interested in joining a band—he was. Then came Marci—the kind of girl who was pretty but didn’t know what to do with it. She had taken piano lessons since she was big enough to sit on a piano bench and had no problem moving to electronic keyboard. Burt was a chess geek but was willing to learn to play bass—he very quickly figured out the bass was his ticket out of Geekdom. I taught him 4 or 5 chords—enough for simple stuff—and he really started working at it.

Everybody had a surprisingly serious attitude for kids and worked hard on their music. I had read all these articles about bands that come and go and players that come and go but in our band—which we called “Copperhead,”—everybody came and stayed—and turned out to have a lot of talent. I found out running a band—telling people what to do—really isn’t hard. You just act like somebody died and now you’re in charge. And if you act like you’re the big man but treat people with respect—listen to them but stay on your plan—in this case to play music—they want to please you. My uncle said I was a natural leader and helped us as much as he could. We came together as a band pretty quickly, developed a decent sound for a garage band and great energy but after a little less than a year we hit a plateau and just weren’t getting any better. It didn’t look like we were ever gonna get out of the garage.

I went to concerts, took music classes at school—learned how to write music. I figured out a song formula. Take a few really good chord phrases for lead guitar, add keyboard playing close harmony, the bass filling in with progressive and repeated minor chords between the lead phrases, steal somebody’s catchy bridge (and make a few changes) then drop on a heavy beat and crank up the volume. Flash some lights and suddenly you’re a rock star and the panties come to you. Well—the truth is that last part didn’t happen until several years later. For two years we were just another pretty good garage band. Like I said, we started out pretty good—made good progress for a while then just stopped improving.

Some of the stuff I just mentioned I figured out on my own but most of it—especially the more advanced musical stuff—I—we—learned in the summer of 1969 from this incredibly cool, pretty southern girl named Cheryl.

Cheryl had her own band down in North Carolina called Highway 61 and was spending the summer with a girl friend—Samantha—who grew up in this town. Sam’s house was a few blocks away and her parents were friends with my uncle who took me over there one afternoon to meet her. Cheryl was five years older than me—19—but seemed much more mature than that—more like a woman in her 30s.

One day while I was waiting for Cheryl Sam played a tape of Cheryl playing with Graham Nash and showed me a poster of her in concert. The music and image of Cheryl on stage blew me out of my socks. I listened to the tape—her playing style was crisp, brilliant, with a blinding feminine power that made my knees weak. The image of her on stage was of her back lit by a white-hot spotlight that shone through her long thick hair like an angel’s auburn halo. She was wearing jeans that looked like they’d been painted on and had the smallest waist I’d ever seen on a girl. She had on a frilly, tailored shirt that clung and accented her breasts in a way that almost stopped your heart and sucked the breath out of your body. As I stared at the image and listened to her driving, thunderous chords that simultaneously towered and seduced, she stood on stage as both a sexy Amazon and an innocent little girl.

I wanted to worship her as a rock goddess.

End Part two.

Begin part three.

The summer of 1969 was the summer we graduated from garage band to the real thing. And it was the summer I learned what the term “feminine mystique” really meant.  Cheryl was the most beautiful, most feminine girl I’d ever met and yet I discerned early while she knew exactly how attractive she was to men her physical beauty was never an important area of focus for her–it was a neutral fact. She could turn on the allure and sensuality if there was a reason to–or not.  She was completely in charge of her life and her beauty in no way determined her behavior, life-style or attitude.

As soon as I told her about our band she asked to hear us play–I was excited–almost euphoric at the thought of spending time close to her.  At first, every moment we were together I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. I studied and memorized every detail of her face–the perfect cupid-bow lips, the twelve small, light freckles around her nose, the sparkling depth of her eyes. At first I thought maybe  she had decided to work with the band because she was bored just hanging around town but later she told me that really wasn’t why she was interested. It was because she felt an immediate connection—like being right there was where she was supposed to be and working with us was what she was supposed to do.  The 3rd day we worked together she took me aside and in a very matter-of-fact but caring manner told me the reason she was in my life and the lives of the others in the band was because of that sense of connection and larger purpose–not to be romantically or sexually involved with me.

And that was the end of it. After that I put aside my physical love for her and related to her (as much as I was able) as a friend, colleague and mentor. I know that sounds hard to believe but with this incredible woman–there was no other way it could be.

The first day she attended a rehearsal she listened to us play for 10 minutes than starts tearing down everything we were doing–starting with the way I played guitar. She simply told me I had to learn much more difficult techniques and taught me beautiful new chord progressions. As the days went by she worked intensely with the other band members—pushing them to do more and more difficult stuff—even making the drummer—Astor—start working out with weights to strengthen his arms and hands. Everybody except me hated her. She pushed us to exhaustion but I could see right away we were moving to a new level.

In the year before Cheryl came, the band had played at parties and church basement dances—always out of town—we didn’t want to get laughed at by people we knew. Small potato stuff yeah—we almost never got paid—and when we did it was just gas money—but we were working–we were making music.

Samantha’s father knew some guys in a really clunky, old-people-dance-band called the Mellow-Masters. She said they sounded a lot like Guy Lombardo—whoever that is. They played a lot of American Legion, Moose Club dances, weddings and parties—that kind of stuff. I guess for what they did they were pretty good. Sam’s dad was able to get us the use of the band’s amp and speakers when they didn’t need them for a gig. After a while we started going with the band to their play dates. Astor took over for their drummer for a few gigs while the old guy was recovering from surgery.

During their breaks we would set up and play a few numbers. There were usually some kids and younger adults at these things—it usually wasn’t just old people. The first few times we played the older people smiled at us like, “Oh—they’re so cute.” But the kids laughed at us, booed and flipped us the bird. In fact that’s what they called us—“The Birds” and “The Fingers,” and instead of “Copperhead,”–“Shithead.” One time I thought we were gonna have to fight—we had to sneak out the back of the building—some guys were waiting for us out front.

Cheryl came along a few times to check out our stage presence. She explained everybody sucks at first. You just have to keep practicing and play the gig no matter how people treat you—that’s the only way you get better. “If you want to be in the club,” she said, “you have to pay your dues.”

Whatever we had trouble with she would make us work on it—relentlessly. The more she worked us the more the guys hated her but they all knew she was right. She was especially brutal with me making me play “Classical Gas” and the lead from “Layla” so many times I could have knocked them out in my sleep. Our sound, execution and presence improved—and with it our confidence. You want to be in the club—you pay your dues.

We didn’t just make progress the summer of ‘69—we exploded into a new band.

By the end of that summer we sounded like a real band. We worked up a version of “Proud Mary” that really kicked ass. We didn’t start out with the slow intro that Ike & Tina Turner used—we took off right away with the fast beat—knocked ‘em on their butts right from the jump. And they loved it. Whenever we played a hall we’d played before and started into “Proud Mary,” kids, who had seen us previously, would start screaming but when I stepped forward and opened up with those first chords from Layla they went nuts—you’d have thought Eric Clapton was on stage.

End part three

Begin part four

Cheryl worked with us 2 or 3 times a week the whole summer except for the 5 days she was away at the Woodstock Festival. One day I noticed her looking at me—she says I need to work out—start lifting weights—if I wanted to look like a rock star. I was already doing a half-ass weight-training routine but when Cheryl made her comment and the very same day my Uncle suggested the same thing I got the message and got serious.

In early September Cheryl asked for a meeting with the whole band. By this time we had a volunteer manager to help us with scheduling and paperwork and a couple of other kids who hung around and acted as “Gophers.”

Cheryl confirmed what we already knew—we had turned a corner and if we kept going the way we were we had a shot at some serious local work. But we all knew without a good sound system we would never get out of the American Legion Halls. Even though we were making a little money by then, we never had enough to do much with. None of us even had time for a part time job like most kids–we rehearsed and played so much.

A serious sound system would have really made a difference but even decent used systems were more than we could afford.

And she told us she was leaving. The summer was almost over and she needed to get back home to her own band—she wanted to try a few things she had learned working with us and was taking some classes at the university. As she left from that meeting she glanced at me in a way I’d never seen before—looking thoughtfully at my chest. As she turned for the door she said—“You need a new shirt.” A few days later a new shirt arrived.

When Cheryl came by the last time before leaving town with Samantha, these guys, who a few months before hated her guts, were bawling and blubbering like babies—my bass player Burt—begged her to take him with her to North Carolina—he was serious.

I can’t believe how lucky were to have Cheryl teach us. And I had learned some personal things from her she would never know about. It was also good that we’d been able to do our dues-paying out of town—most people had heard about the band by then but very few had actually heard us play. Whenever anybody asked about the band I’d always say we weren’t very good—it was just a hobby.

For the rest of ’69 and almost all of ‘70 we had all the small-time gigs we could handle. Every where we went we packed the house—the crowds loved us and were always asking, “What the hell are you guys doing playing in this dump?” Cheryl had told us to play in public as much as we could stand—that was how the Beatles became so strong. ”Don’t worry about the money,” she’d say. “Play until you drop, get up and keep playing.” And we did.

Then the plane crashed.

The school had lucked out–or so it seemed a few months before.  They’d been able to get a big-name band for the senior prom at a good price because the band was  substituting a few lesser known players and had a hole in their schedule while they were in our part of the country. The band was flying in from a date in the next state in bad weather. The small plane they were in went down in a cow pasture about an hour from here and except for some roadies who were driving, the entire band was killed.

The school principal, who was friends with one of the “Mellow-Masters” band members, called me and asked us to play the prom.

We had like–one day to prepare.

End part four

Begin part five

Everybody was in a panic and said we had to get Cheryl to come back up here from North Carolina—it was life or death. By this time we had a good set down and I was pretty sure we could play the gig OK. But this was in front of the entire school—one of the biggest schools in the state and the biggest dance of the year.  If that wasn’t enough–we were standing in for a professional band with a national reputation.

I talked to Cheryl who had heard about the plane crash. She listened and said this was what all the ass-busting and bird-flipping was for—this gig. Obviously it was tragic how we got the job—the odds against something like this happening were astronomical. An entire band dies less than 24 hours before a date and we’re handed the job. There was more going on here than just our little band falling into a great opportunity—this was meant to be.

She agreed this was definitely was a big deal and said something no one had ever said to me before—she said we were “beyond” her now, meaning we had arrived at a moment in time that belonged to us alone. And she said something she had said before—about moments of great challenge. “When the moment is right and you want it bad enough, you will transcend your best—you will do what you thought could not be done.” It was like out of all the performers in the world we were standing on this vast, empty stage alone with the entire universe stretching away in all directions—it was our time. She said her love would be with us—and the last thing she said—in a voice I had heard before was—“Stand up Bryan—this is your moment.” And she hung up.

I just stood there listening to the dial tone feeling like every minute of my life had led up to this moment. I felt light-headed—almost like I was floating. The fear faded and was replaced by an incredibly clear sense of focus, purpose and direction.

And I felt as though I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

The next night, shortly before the dance was to start, the principal told me the other band’s equipment—a light and sound system that in today’s money would be worth a hundred thousand dollars—had arrived and we could use it. The roadies who had survived had agreed to set it up and manage the sound board. Again I felt so light-headed I thought I might pass out.

We plugged into the dead band’s equipment and ran through a few sound checks. I looked at the roadie on the sound board—the expression on his face was somewhere between disbelief and desperation as he watched this bunch of teen-agers set up. I kept glancing at the other guys.  if we had found ourselves standing on the surface of the moon we couldn’t have been more astonished.

The big gymnasium quickly filled with a huge crowd of kids and an unusual number of adults. The mood was sober and uncertain as a mirrored ball scattered sparkling bits of color across the mass of tuxedos and evening gowns.

No one looked at us and smiled—every face regarded us with an awe and respect that bordered on reverence. Every person in that room knew as well as we did we were up there utterly, totally alone and exposed—we were standing in for the dead. I suspect everyone in that room was having the same thought—“I can’t believe these guys have the balls to do this.” A whole lot of people  showed up in that hall that night looking for a miracle. As I stood there in the wings looking out across that huge crowd I was suddenly back standing in the rain & thunder and darkness and I thought–”Shit–I’m gonna give it to them.”

End part 5

Begin part 6

The press was there. News cameras were set up in front of the stage and a dozen reporters and photographers were standing around—I recognized a guy from Rolling Stone Magazine. It was a great story. At the last second a nobody, hick town band was on stage filling in for a big-time professional band laying dead in a morgue—the single worst tragedy in rock music history. From the wings I studied the crowd—I could see several of the guys who bullied me several years back—looking very small and utterly blown away by what was happening. I looked across the crowd at the hundreds of pretty girls and didn’t see any—even girls several years older than me—that I would be afraid to approach.

Almost 4 years had passed since I sat on Janie’s bed gawking at her underwear. I was a lot taller, my voice had deepened and could handle the vocals well. I was more broad-shouldered—the shirt Cheryl sent me was what’s known as a “muscle shirt” and the fit was perfect. I knew my instrument—I was a pro who could take the stage like a pro, my band had become in three years a group of stone professionals.  As we waited in the shadows waiting for our que, my bassman Burt stood like a rock holding his instrument like a loaded machine gun, my drummer Aston had changed his name to Carter and had wrists and forearms that could bend steel and pound the skins like a sledge hammer. And then there was Marci.  Marci had turned into a keyboard master who could back up, fill in and knock out solos that soared like an eagle and knew how to use her beauty like a lethal weapon. When a spot hit her and she looked directly out at the guys in the audience you could see their jaws drop.

Finally the house lights went down—the huge crowd slipped into whispering darkness. The floods lit up the stage like a flash of lightening and the same instant and we hit’em with both barrels—opening up with the surging, passionate wail of the unmistakable opening chords from “Layla.” The band was playing better than I’d ever heard—better than even I thought we were capable of. The incredible amps and speakers delivered a wall of sound so massive, so solid and professional every time I hit a chord I felt like I was driving a tank. In the glow of the sound board I could see the roadie—kicked back with a look of relief on his face enjoying the show. Cheryl had nailed it—“when the moment is right and you want it bad enough you will transcend your best—you will do what you thought could not be done.”

As the opening chords filled the hall from floor to ceiling—for a second the crowd stood stunned and frozen like they didn’t know who we were or where they were at. Then—as the music flooded through them—they broke into screams and cheers that rattled the stage and filled the darkened hall with a roar like black , human thunder. We started the piece sounding like Derek and the Dominoes then eased into a style with a darker, more urgently sensual energy. Each time I hit the plaintive, solo chords I’d bring the volume up a tad. When I sang the phrase “Layla—you got me on my knees…” I’d drop to my knees, close my eyes and raise an anguished face to the ceiling—I could hear helpless gasps from a hundred teen-age girls.

As I wound down through the aching, closing notes of the 7 minute piece I found myself remembering the moment 4 years ago when I sat on Janie’s bed staring at her underwear. I couldn’t help but smile as I remembered my 12 year-old reaction to her invitation and thought to myself—“So—this is what it feels like to be Superman.”

End part 6 and end “The Summer of Sixty-nine.”

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2 Responses to “Summer of Sixty-Nine (part 1 of a 6 part series)”

  1. Larry Blackwood Says:

    I like this photo (and it’s not just because I’m a dirty old man). The geometry of the clotheslines and underwear is very pleasing and the vertical window bar, rather than being a distraction as you’d think it would be, actually adds some really interesting tension to the image. I do wonder if the composition would come across stronger in b&w, but that’s mainly my own prejudice showing. Well done.

  2. orion Says:

    Thanks Larry–your opinion is valuable to me–you’re definitely my toughest critic and I need that. In particular I need to know if I’m making progress so anything that gives you that impression I’d love to hear about. Thanks again.

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