I had the biggest crush on a blonde hair, blue eyed boy in my 2nd grade class, Scott Van Seiver. Proximity is what made these feelings so urgent: he sat next to me alphabetically in class and lived down the street from the lady who babysat me, so I saw him on the walks to and from school. Sometimes he’d join us, and all this togetherness was exhilarating.
One day in class, I was quietly singing the chorus to “Ruby Red Dress,” and Scott said, “I love Helen Reddy.” I felt an odd pang of jealousy; if he loved her, could he possibly like me?
“Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone…” After constantly refusing to join, I finally said “yes” to becoming a Brownie. Hell, the meetings were at the babysitter’s house, and since I was already there, it was getting hard to avoid it. I liked the snacks and the crafts (jewelry boxes made of popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue – what’s not to love?), but was most enthralled when we gathered in a circle and sang songs. I especially loved that each meeting ended with the singing of the same song, much like Sonny & Cher always ending their show with “I Got You Babe.” I appreciated this adherence to showbiz tradition.
What I did not appreciate was the Brownie uniform. If it had been the cotton, shirtwaist dress model with the crisp, elf collar and bow tie with matching belt and hat, I’d have been ultra happy. Snacks and that uniform were the reason I gave in and joined. But 1973 was the year the Girl Scouts of America decided to update its image.
The uniform they sold to us at Goldie’s department store in the Village Square shopping center was a shapeless polyester jumper (you had to supply your own shirt to wear underneath!) the color of cheap chocolate milk. The hat had become a dark brown polyester/wool beanie that didn’t match the jumper, and the formerly natty bow tie was now a strip of burnt orange polyester shaped like a bowlegged man’s tie.
The new uniform made our troop look like walking baked potatoes, and even the troop leaders must have felt negatively toward the new look because they only made us wear them when out in public doing official Brownie business. And after suffering through one public Brownie event in that ridiculous costume, I made sure to somehow forget/skip out/be sick for every event after that.
See Helen Reddy perform "Leave Me Alone" on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
The walls of their tiny apartment were paper thin, so I had to endure hearing them make sex noises, which was gross and maddening. But even more damaging was Joy constantly trying to win me over with things that I had no interest in.
For example, for my birthday, she gave me the Donny Osmond album My Best To You. A new teen idol had yet to take the place of my beloved David Cassidy, and Donny certainly wasn’t even in the running. But Joy was thinking that since Donny was so hot at the time, surely I liked him, thus the album was presented to me with great fanfare.
She obviously did not remember how important teen idols were, and that a deep love for them happens spontaneously and organically. It cannot be foisted upon you like an arranged marriage, and I wanted nothing to do with that album.
But Joy insisted upon us playing it repeatedly, with her bopping and singing excitedly in an attempt to engage me in some giddy girlie bonding. I did like the song “I Knew You When,” and maybe I would have liked the rest of the songs if she hadn’t been so desperate to make me like them.
Then it turns out Donny covered a song that Wayne Newton had also covered, and turns out Joy absolutely adored her some Wayne Newton. So she pulled out that album so I could hear his version. You’d think that since the moment traumatized me so much, I’d remember clearly what the song was, especially since she was exuberantly singing along with it while Dad smiled wildly. But the mind tries to be kind by blocking out ugly things, and this was one of those things.
See Charlie Rich perform "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."
With one song, Cher made me switch sides from wanting to be a cowgirl to wishing I was an Indian maiden with the floor-length headdress like the one she wore while singing the song on The Sonny & Cher Show. I still want that headdress, and I’ve come close to it a couple of times: the Cher half breed doll and being invited to portray an Indian in a music video.
Cher performed the song on horseback, and I, too, could sing it on horseback…well, technically, on the back of my Shetland pony. But since she was short, there might be a problem with the feathers dragging on the ground. And there was one other technical glitch with executing this idea: Sugar had recently given birth, so was busy nursing a little one.
Yes, that public moment of copulation with Billy Blue Blazes did result in an exquisite little colt my Father named Star. Yes, Sugar gestated for about 370 days, which is not all that unusual.
During the separation, my Dad had shipped the pregnant Sugar from our paddock on Douglas Road to the ranch of Art and Ann Klein in Brighton, Illinois. Art and Ann were the couple who gave me the red cowgirl outfit, so this (and about 10 acres of fenced pasture) made them the perfect adoptive parents for Sugar.
I was enchanted by the little colt, and thrilled to see Sugar every now and then, but because it was every now and then, it felt more like visiting a petting zoo than spending time with my pony and colt. Sometime later when Dad sold the pair to a co-worker living in Troy, MO, it registered nowhere near the sadness he expected upon telling me the news. I had to pretend to be sad just to match his expectations. There was no way for him to understand, or me to explain, that I had a callused heart from having lost Sugar – among many other things – in September of 1972, and that I was just happy that some big, happy family would now love and play with my pony.
Here's an iconic Cher moment: "Half-Breed."
My Mother begins dating a man named Dale, who has a modified version of Charlie Rich's hair, drinks too much, drives too fast and smells of Old Spice (with a Cutty Sark top note). He also has a skinny blonde son named Jeff, who is the same age as me.
Jeff was a deeply morose little guy because his mother had died the previous year. I was angry because I’d “lost” my father around the same time. When we had to hang out together, it always felt like we should have had a connection but something key was missing. Now I realize that if we’d been adults, we’d have spent our time together moaning about how life sucks over way too many cocktails and bonding for life. But as it stood, I was full of piss and vinegar while he was mopey and lethargic, and that was an uncomfortable combination.
See Paul Simon perform "Loves Me Like A Rock."
Considering my age, I knew more about the solo Paul McCartney work than his legacy as a Beatle. In essence, I was unencumbered by the weight of his history, so I just took his solo work at face value, and was very happy with it. And his song “Live and Let Die” allowed me to work off a lot of steam.
In this month, I got two disturbing pieces of news.
#1: My Mother had to break the news that my Father had married Joy. This meant that when I went for a weekend visitation to their one-bedroom apartment in Ferguson, I had to be nice to wife #3.
Oh, she tried to win me over, plying me with macaroni and cheese and popsicles, but she felt more like an obstruction between me and my Dad. And it was especially confusing when he started talking about how I could come live with them – wouldn’t that be fun? But since I had to sleep on a fold-out cot in their living room, I didn’t think doing this full-time would be all that fun. And I noted that Joy never joined in these “come live with us” monologues, since they always happened when she wasn’t around.
#2: My Mother had procured me a babysitter, a place I could stay before and after school, as I was about to start 2nd grade.
Previously, I’d been staying with a lady named Linda, who was in the same apartment building as ours, so it was familiar surroundings. And even though Linda had me drinking powdered milk (ewwwww!), she also introduced me to making Charlie Brown Christmas ornaments out of dough that was baked solid in the oven, so she was cool.
But now I’d be staying with a lady – Shirley - who lived in Seven Hills, a subdivision about a quarter mile away from the apartments. This meant I’d be walking in the opposite direction after school, and would be in a new setting with her 3 kids, Kim, Lisa and Brian. I noted that Shirley had a little dog, which was a bonus, but not enough of a bonus to keep me from reacting badly to this change of plans.
Which is where Paul McCartney came in handy. He made me feel better when he sang, “But if this ever changing world in which we live in makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die.” Never underestimate the therapeutic qualities of good melodrama.
See Paul McCartney & Wings do "Live & Let Die."
This was the theme song to The Poseidon Adventure, and this movie marked my first visit to a drive-in theater (the 270 Drive-In, Florissant, MO).
Mindy was an older girl in the apartment complex, and I piled into her family’s station wagon for this maiden movie voyage. Now, my Mother had a serious, life-long movie-going jones, so I’d been to a lot of movie theaters, but this outdoor experience was really something special.
The sound of pebbles crunching under the tires was exciting, and then the car parked, the father rolled down the windows and attached a tiny radio to the window and that’s how we heard the movie! Then others in the car brought us popcorn – this was getting better by the minute!
But about 20 minutes into the flick, the problems with this concept became clear: Kids jumping around and screaming in the station wagon made it impossible to see or hear the damn movie! I had to wait many a year to finally see the entire movie and glory to Shelly Winters Shamu-swim through the water. But I did learn a valuable lesson: drive-in movies were about everything BUT watching the movie.
And the next time Mindy asked if I wanted to go with them to the 270 Drive-In, I simply said, “no.” She tried to bribe me into going by giving me a plastic Tyrannosaurs Rex. I took the dinosaur, but still refused to go.
Hear "The Morning After" with scenes from the movie.
My Mother’s best friend, Blanche, was marrying a quintessential Irish cop, and Mom was in the wedding party. On the night of the wedding, I stayed at the house of the woman who made the pink and white polyester bridesmaid dresses, and was left in the care of her 15-year old daughter.
The daughter was tall and skinny with long, frizzy hair (when I saw Lorraine Newman on Saturday Night Live a few years later, she reminded me of the daughter) and a dark brown suede vest with beaded fringe, which I thought was pretty cool because it constantly made a quiet clinking noise.
I thought it was even cooler when she me took upstairs to her attic bedroom and started sharing her stuff with me. She put on a record by a group called Deep Purple (turns out it was Machine Head) and explained what “Smoke on the Water” was all about. I nodded my head as if I understood, and then said that one of the guys (Ian Gillan) was really cute, which set her off into a spasm of excitement.
She yanked out her high school yearbook to show me that the guy she had the biggest crush on looked “just like” Ian Gillan. It was confusing, because the cute guy in the tiny black and white photo had long blonde hair, but she was a high school girl, so obviously she knew better than me, right?
After turning her back to me for a few minutes, she got all animated. I asked what that smell was.
“It smells like burnt Pop Tarts.”
She giggled wildly, interspersing it with the phrase, “Pot Tarts!”
There was that word again: pot. Just what in the hell is pot?
Somehow, I became her Mother Confessor, as she told a fast string of stories about pot, and booze and boys that made no sense, but because I was listening intently, she kept rambling on while slapping a rotation of vinyl onto the stereo. I was perfectly content absorbing all this new data (I really dug the beads hanging in the doorways), and was really liking the circular keyboard squawking of a song she told me was called “Frankenstein.” But then she handed me the album to look at, and on the cover was a really creepy looking white guy – really, really white – with makeup and ladies’ jewelry. And even though there were some cute guys in other photos on the album cover, the creepy white freak was in all of them, too!
All of a sudden, “Frankenstein” started sounding as creepy as that freak looked, and the daughter’s non-stop yammering became grating, and I’d hit my limit. I tossed the record on the bed and bolted out of the room and down the stairs. The daughter came running after me, asking what was wrong. I now stood in the kitchen, and simply said, “I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
She made me the sandwich, and asked if I wanted to bring it upstairs to eat. I simply took the sandwich into the living room, sat on the couch and stared at the TV. Daughter finally got the hint and left me alone.
See "the freak" doing "Frankenstein."
My Father’s reaction to the divorce was introducing me to his girlfriend, Joy. She was way younger than my Dad, which was confusing, and I didn’t like all the Aqua Net blonde hair piled atop her head and the thick black eyeliner. When she offered me a stick of Juicy Fruit in that high, sweet tone women use when talking to other women they dislike, I knew it was a bribe, and my distrust of her was immediate and enduring.
Incapable of making sense of all these changes, I focused – as usual - on the radio and my new favorite song, “It Never Rains in California.” I was hooked by what I considered the second chorus of the song – the repeating flute refrain, and I considered it a companion piece to “Do You Know the Way To San Jose”: this is what became of our heroine after show biz chewed her up and spit her out.
After learning the truth about the weather in California, I lumped it in with “A Horse With No Name,” wherein songs pass off inaccurate information as facts. After telling my Mother about the “lies” of “in the desert you can’t remember your name” and “it never rains California,” she explained the concept of poetic license. After mulling this over, I determined that America’s poetic license was just plain silly, while Albert’s was touching. In retrospect, I probably let up on Albert because he wrote a perfect, melancholy pop tune while America was just plain crap.
Shortly after this moment, I was cursed by two embarrassing moments at school:
#1: I wet my pants while sitting in the school chair during a reading lesson. I’d raised my hand to ask Miss Kelly if I could go to the bathroom, and she said no, since we were going for a bathroom break in just a bit. But I couldn’t hold it, and out it came. After my bladder was empty, Miss Kelly takes me to the bathroom, and then baffled me by asking why I did that. Adults are very confusing!
#2: I got chewed out by the art teacher over my painting. I was trying to depict a nature scene with tempra paint: a blue slash at the top of the paper, and a green slash at the bottom. The teacher – Mr. Kurd – took me to the window to point out that there was no white space between the earth and the sky – they meet, so my painting should reflect this. But back at my seat, I decided I wanted that white space between the earth and sky so I could paint some people in. Mr. Kurd swung back by, saw that I’d ignored his lesson, and said my painting would not get a passing grade.
Both of these incidents left me just as weepy and whiney as Danielle, and it taught me a lesson: if someone says it’s “my song,” leave it to them.
See Elton doing "Daniel."
Alongside the radio, variety show television was how we heard new songs, and the power of a TV star singing a song (hello, Cher!) could not be ignored.
The Carol Burnett Show was like a religious service in our home, so when one of its stars – Vicki Lawrence – put out the single “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” it was mandatory that I own it. Plus, the single was on the Bell label, so this was a no-brainer.
Luckily, I loved the song, playing it over and over again, trying to figure out the story line. No matter how hard I concentrated, I’d get confused by the plot: murder, multiple infidelities, and corrupt judges… hard for a 7-year old to keep it straight. But all this confusion and misunderstanding just added to the allure, and that chorus was undeniable!
Things got even more intriguing when two teenagers in the apartment complex overheard me singing the song while out riding my bike. Jackie and Janel stopped me to ask if I knew “what that song means.” I was too thrilled to have junior high kids purposely talking to me to give an intelligible response, but it didn’t matter, because they started talking animatedly between themselves about plot points, and “pot” and getting in trouble for sneaking off with boys.
I asked a question about this last point, and they came back to the reality of talking in front of a dumb grade schooler and went silent, staring at me. Finally, Janel said, “This song has real deep meaning for me, and I can’t tell you why. It’s a secret. And you wouldn’t even understand if I told you.”
With that, Jackie and Janel looked at each other and began laughing uproariously as they walked away from me. This sent me back home for a few more listens to the song, trying to unlock Janel’s secret… did she kill someone? From then on, I stayed far away from those two, but watched Janel with a cautious eye because, well, what if she was a murderer?
Hear the song.
Bell bottoms. Flares. Elephant flares. All the older kids in the apartment complex wore them, as did so many of the dancers on American Bandstand and Soul Train. I wanted a pair, real bad, and I finally got a pair!
They were elephant flares, of a dark blue, light weight denim. They made the most satisfying thwap thwap sound when I walked, and they swayed magnificently when (figuratively) joining hands with the kids on Soul Train to form a “Love Train.”
I loved those “dancing pants,” they made me feel as cool as those kids on TV. I started asking for platforms and an afro. I was told no, and “don’t let your father hear you say that.”
I understood what my Mother meant – my Dad didn’t like blacks, and he wouldn’t dig my burgeoning Black Pride. But everything he’d say about them didn’t seem to apply to the black kids I knew from school. This marked the first time I knew my Dad was wrong about something, and my elephant flare dancing pants became a symbol for “Father Does Not Know Best.”
Watch a Soul Train line dance to "Love Train."
Mom needed to find a place for me to go before and after school, so she got me hooked up with some of the other mother’s in the apartment complex. This was basically how I made my first new pals, and it wasn’t optimal conditions because it was borne of car pooling to school during bad weather and babysitting, rather than genuine friendship.
I genuinely loved the sound and feel of “You’re So Vain;” it had both a tense and languid tone and the chorus was undeniably great to sing along to... if you could carry a tune.
During the school day, it had begun to snow, getting heavier as the day went on. When school let out, the mother of an apartment kid was standing at the entrance to gather us all up and drive us back home, because the weather was too bad for all of us to be walking.
I saw all the kids piling into this little Chevy Vega, and decided I’d rather walk home in the snow, but the mother made me get in. So now, we’re all packed in tight, with the heater blasting and the windows fogging, while we sat forever in the parking lot, waiting for the buses to clear out so we could move.
And in this physically uncomfortable situation, “You’re So Vain” comes over the car radio, and the mother starts singing along during the chorus, because – really - how can you resist? Problem was, this lady gave “off key” a new meaning; I swear nearby dogs were howling.
After what seemed forever, the mother’s own kid finally yelled out, “Mommy, stop singing!” To which Mommy halts the yowling only long enough to say, “But I love this song!” and quickly jumps back in just in time to bray “Don’t you? Don’t you? Don’t you now!”
For the next year or so, just the sound of Carly Simon’s voice made me wince because it instantly conjured this horrific moment.
"You're So Vain" by Carly Simon.
Even though my parents were now leading separate lives, they decided to band together one last time for the family Christmas gathering at my Uncle Art & Aunt Marie’s house in Whitney Chase, a subdivision close to our apartment complex. Maybe they were trying to keep up appearances in front of the family (like they didn’t know, or something?), or maybe trying to let me briefly revisit the sense of being a family again, but whatever the reason, it failed. Everyone was uncomfortable, and I didn’t have near as much fun as I normally did at these events because too many family members wound up stroking my hair and looking at me sadly. Pity and Santa just don’t mix.
The first Christmas morning with just me and Mom was much better. It was a relief that Santa was able to find me inside this apartment complex, and didn’t mix up my gifts with any of the other kids in the building (a valid worry for a 7 year old). I knew “he” got it right because I got a long, gold necklace with a large round medallion with a cursive “P” in the middle (I still have it to this day), a way to acknowledge my new name.
And from a co-worker, Mom got a copy of the latest Neil Diamond album, Moods. “Song Sung Blue” was a huge hit, and Mom sung along with it on the radio with a fervor I didn’t quite understand. But there was a song on the album that made us both really happy, “Gitchy Goomy.”
It was upbeat and relentlessly tuneful, causing both of us to play the song over and over, singing along and doing a little jitterbug in the living room. Plus, the guy on the album cover was really, really cute; we both agreed on this important point. So, Neil Diamond forever owns a warm spot in my heart for providing us moments of pure joy in an otherwise bleak holiday season.
"Gitchy Goomy" by Neil Diamond.
From the get go, this was a polarizing song. I only knew that I didn’t like the sound of the singer’s voice, like she had something stuck in her throat and she didn’t bother to clear it before singing. But in the context of what was happening to my Mom, Barb, it must have really annoyed her for other reasons.
Barb had always paid her own way until she got married at age 30. She’d had her own credit cards (her first one coming from the Libson’s in Mid-Town St. Louis in the late 1950s ) and checking account up until she got married, when everything changed over to joint accounts. But now that she was newly single, she had to start all over again, and while the checking account was easy, credit cards were not.
It seems that going from Miss to Mrs. had wiped her previous financial slate clean, and now that she was returning to Miss, Mastercard considered her a blank slate with no credit history and refused to issue her a card. Even though they could see the excellent credit record attached to her Social Security number, being a divorcee made her an untested, financial risk in their eyes and they shut her out.
Atop the pain of a busted marriage and the fear of a strange new future as a divorced, single mom, she had to fight for her financial independence against institutions that were, basically, punishing women for no longer being a Mrs.
This was not an “I Am Woman” Women’s Liberation situation, this was “yes, I’ve paid the price…” but not with a credit card? You bastards! She fought Mastercard, and she won, and thankfully, she was now able to feed and clothe us. “I am strong, I am invincible,” I am credit worthy once again.
Here's more about Barb being an Accidental Feminist.
"I Am Woman" by Helen Reddy.
Mom and I were both a bit shell shocked and had trouble sleeping at night. One cold night, we were on the couch, with me lying over my Mother’s lap. The entire apartment was dark except for one lamp on the end table, and the glow from the Zenith stereo playing the radio.
As she scratched my back, “Oh Clair” came over the airwaves, and I keyed in on the singer trying to get the girl he was babysitting to go to sleep, while Mom was doing the same with me. But I didn’t get to learn the outcome of Gilbert’s story because I drifted away to sleep.
"Clair" by Gilbert O'Sullivan.
My parent’s legal separation was on the books, and it was time for me and Mom to move out of the house. I remember the Mayflower moving van in the driveway at the ranch, and then cut to being inside our 2-bedroom apartment in Black Jack, with my Dad hanging pictures on the one fake wood panel wall in the tiny living room, his way of helping out before he went back to wherever it was that he was now living.
We were to live in the Whisper Lake apartment complex for 13 years, but at this moment, it was strange. I’d always lived in houses with front and back yards (or in the case of the ranch, acres of yard!) and houses separated by driveways. The apartment complex was a series of courts and tall buildings surrounded by cars, and the neighbors were only a wall or floor away, and you could hear them, which meant I had to learn to be more quiet since they could hear us, as well.
This strange new environment meant I was going to a new grade school – J.E. Jury Elementary – which was a short walk away from the apartments. Mom brings me into the administration office to register me for class, and as she’s filling out the paperwork she explains to the ladies behind the desk that even though my name is officially Patricia, everyone calls me Toby, so please make note of that and call her by that name.
I abruptly interrupted this exchange to boldly state, in no uncertain terms, that I was to be called “Pat.” Mom’s outward shock certainly matched my inward shock: where did that come from? Even at the moment I said it, I didn’t like the name Pat, but I also didn’t want anyone in my new life calling me by a nickname my Dad had given me. Since he left, he could take his nickname with him!
In retrospect, that was the moment I had summoned forth the identity confusion that would plague me until I hit my early 30s. From then on, half the people in my life called my Toby, the other half called me Pat, which would get confusing for everyone when a new friend and my Mom were both calling for me at the same time by two different names!
With this exchange finished, a teacher’s aide walked me down the hall and down the stairs to my new classroom. I stared out the windows as we walked the long hallway with a song playing in my head: “Good morning, America, how are ya? Say, don’t you know me? I’m your native son…”
"City of New Orleans" by Arlo Guthrie.
He pointed to the horse pasture and told me that Sugar was gone, and that he was leaving, too. He said something about “divorce,” and started to cry. I didn’t understand the meaning of that word, but because he was crying, I started crying, as well.
After he left the house, I ran into my parents’ bedroom and saw that all the things atop his chest of drawers – a golf trophy, a tray for his watch, a little jar that held change and such – were gone. Only upon sight of the empty spaces did I finally understand the magnitude of his words. He was gone. He took his stuff and the pony, and he was gone.
Obviously, the folks had conducted all the heartbreak and details of dissolving a marriage as quietly as possible. Nothing was said before or during, and not much was said after, either. The oceans of silence may have been more traumatic than the crashing waves of discord that classically accompanies divorce.
The memories of the remainder of September and all of October are (blissfully?) unavailable to me, save for bidding a teary farewell to my dog Trouble, who was off to the pound. Maybe this mental rest stop was necessary to prepare for a new level of awareness coming my way.
Whereas things previously floated by on the whimsy of an idyllic childhood, my mind would too soon snap to attention, monitoring all the details around me and trying to fit pieces into a puzzle that made no sense. Though all the adults around me went out of their way to keep me from comprehending on an intellectual level, the emotional level could not be controlled by them, and that aspect was on the surface and all too active. I disappeared into the ether for a bit, and only the radio would be able to pull me back into a new reality.
"Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues" as done by Dwight Yoakam.
I was so happy to finally start real, official school. Even though by dint of birth date I could’t do kindergarten on schedule, I was already a voracious reader and had honed my writing skills with ballpoint pen all over my album jackets. Now it was time to fine-tune these skills and experience the pleasure of carrying a thermos of soup and Tupperware full of peaches in my very own lunch box.
The anticipated joys of 1st grade were quickly squelched by the cutest boy in the 2nd grade telling me I looked like the Jack-in-the-Box clown. At nursery school, we only insulted each other because we were friends, but I didn’t know this kid at all and he instantly hated me? This is what the big leagues are like?
But that was nothing compared to my teacher, Mrs. Brown, dressing me down in front of the entire class for turning in my writing assignment in cursive, rather than the wobbly, uncertain block print my classmates were struggling with. I was used to stern words for bad behavior, but this confused me because I didn’t understand what was bad about cursive and what I did wrong.
That night, in tears, I told Mom about this, and we struck a deal: I’d play along with what they wanted at school, but at home I was free to cursive all I wanted.
“You can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.”
"Garden Party" by Rick Nelson.
And even though that meant Mom and I spent more solo time together, she seemed distracted. Then on one gray, misty early morning as she drove me to nursery school, I picked up on a deep sadness seeping out of her. She said nothing, so I said nothing while bleakly watching a rain-soaked soybean field out the passenger window as Bread sang, “Then the lights begin to flicker and the sound is getting dim…”
A bit later, I got to “go bumming” with my Dad on a Saturday morning. This used to be a normal routine for us, and I loved tagging along while he took care of business, but it just wasn’t happening as much as it once did.
As were heading back home, “Black & White” by Three Dog Night came over the AM radio, and me merrily singing along was interrupted by Dad giving me a pop quiz: “Do you know what this song is really about?”
I recalled seeing an animated version of the song on The Sonny & Cher Show, but no, that wasn’t it. He proceeded to give me a basic overview of the song’s symbolism being about racial equality (“black ink is black people, the white page is white people”), which threw me off because one thing I knew for sure is that Dad didn’t like colored people. So what was he getting at?
In light of what was coming around the bend, I realize in retrospect that my Dad was probably trying to diffuse massive guilt by taking a stab at imparting racial harmony, which was probably easier for him to swallow than the things that could have been said.
"Guitar Man" by Bread.
"Black & White" by Three Dog Night.
Staying horse-related, “Popcorn” by Hot Butter always brings back a great memory of the sound of a blue-black, prize-winning pony stampeding down the street, dragging a cart behind him and barreling into our driveway.
Dad decided to breed Sugar with Billy Blue Blazes, who lived at Farmer Don’s place many miles further down Douglas Road. Seems bringing Sugar to Billy’s crib wasn’t producing the desired result, so when Sugar went back into heat, they’d bring Billy to Sugar.
Turns out Sugar was at the height of heat during the middle of a family gathering at our house, and relatives be damned, this was happening! Sugar was brought out to the driveway. Billy Blue Blazes was unhooked from the cart, and without any fanfare, he got right to humping. Naturally, this bit of equestrian procreation brought the entire family to the picture window to watch, and Billy gave them a bit of show by pooping while humping!
This attempt turned out to be the one that took, and good thing, because Great Aunt Lilly about fainted from the shock and indignation of watching animal sex. But if this was so absolutely upsetting, why didn’t she just look away?
"Saturday in the Park" by Chicago.
"Beautiful Sunday" by Daniel Boone.
"Popcorn" by Hot Butter.
Oh yes, one’s first vinyl LP is a major milestone, but nothing is sweeter than being introduced to the immediate pop gratification of singles.
Once again, Kmart was the place where a vinyl addiction took seed. Mom let me pick out any song I wanted, and the selection of this 45 rpm actually had more to do with the familiar gray and black Bell Records label (hello, Partridge Family) showing through the round cut-out of the single jacket than it did with an urgent need to possess this song. But it was a great choice; I played the crap out of this raucous single, and it brought about my first experience with musical criticism.
The B-Side to “Little Willy” was “Man From Mecca.” Musically, I found it crude and boring, while lyrically, I couldn’t think of anything more stupid than lines such as, “Like a white mouse hiding in a house.” Note that the B-side was written by the band, while the A-side was by Chinn & Chapman, the latter of whom would be part of another musical explosion in my world, before the decade ended. Here's a bit more about The Sweet experience.
Listen to "Little Willy" by The Sweet.
Many, many years later, when I first heard the voice of Nash Kato from Urge Overkill, he sounded so familiar to me… where had I heard that voice before? It was on a port in the western bay that served a hundred ships a day! I considered that another plus for UO.
Listen to "Brandy" by Looking Glass.
It was a glorious summer. The smell of the grass after Dad cut it with the riding mower, playing in the sandbox as the sun set, the smell of Sugar’s feed inside the tiny barn, and David Cassidy in constant rotation on the stereo. Yes, it was a glorious summer.
The joyous stomp of the beat in “How Do You Do” matched my boundless girl energy, and I always loved songs that had men and women’s voices trading off lines (like Ocean’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand"), so it was a natural favorite. To this very day, the song always conjures the scent and feel of a completely naive and free summer.
Listen to "How Do You Do" by Mouth & MacNeal.
Easter meant an egg hunt first thing out of bed, and then we left the ranch to go to the city to see both of my grandmas, who gave me lots of candy and a paddle ball. Nothing better than getting all hopped up on malted milk and chocolate eggs and thwacking a rubber ball against plywood until either the rubber band snapped or the folks did.
So, that was the anticipation, the hope based on former Easter’s, but it all went a bit odd on Easter Eve. My Mother rolled up two pin curls on either side of my face, held down with metal clamps that felt weird while awake, and made it nearly impossible to sleep. But I went along with it because she said it would make my hair look just as nice as my new Easter dress.
On Sunday morning, she undid the pin curls, combed out my hair and it felt weird. Then I checked the mirror and I looked horrible! There was no convincing me otherwise, and I could barely hear them say so over my constant wails as I ran around my bedroom. This hairdo was ruining everything.
To get me out of the house, Mother said I could wear my white fur hat which would probably flatten those curls a bit.
It did not. And because those concrete curls wouldn’t budge, neither did the hat from my head. I wore it for the car rides, through church, through paddle ball… which created a fair bit of bratty kid tension for the family. Mother dealt with it by taking a picture of me pouting in the back seat of our fire engine red station wagon.
The minute we got back home, I removed the hat, put on my play clothes and literally dive-bombed into Trouble’s dog house, hoping a good canine roll in the dirt would make that hairdo disappear so we could separate the sorrow and collect up all the cream.
Listen to "The Candy Man" by Sammy Davis, Jr.
The lyrics were confusing. The desert is hot and dry and his skin burns and he’s real thirsty but he’s happy about it? And what about the horse with no name… which you let go?!
I dearly loved my pony, Sugar, and the thought of being so whacked out that “after nine days I let the horse run free” was upsetting, and brought about a disturbing question: if I rode Sugar for 9 days in a row during the hottest part of the summer, would I possibly do the same heinous thing?
Yeah, well, there were “plants and birds and rocks and things” in the pasture where I rode, and it rained fairly often in the spring, so I was safe from accidental pony abandonment.
Listen to "A Horse With No Name" by America.
My family of Catholic Democrats were continually bringing up President Richard Nixon going to China. At this time, I became vaguely aware of “politics” as the White House and the President, and was catching on quick that “Tricky Dick” was a bad man, not to be trusted. Even without listening to the grownups fret, there was no getting around the sight, sound and feel of the man when he was on TV; Nixon reminded me of Snidely Whiplash.
And China was another geographical location I could add to my arsenal of places learned from Three Dog Night’s “Never Been to Spain.” Because of this song I now knew of Spain, England, Las Vegas and Oklahoma (not Arizona). Plus, the singer’s voice started out real low and smooth, which was just as enticing to my ears as when all their voices rang out at full throttle.
Music history tends to completely overlook the dominance of Three Dog Night from 1969 to 1974, both on the charts and with radio listeners. Then again, maybe they don’t need a critical rethink or a re-mastered reprise, because everything you need to know is in the songs when you run across them. Even though I can barely withstand “Joy to the World” due to endless repetition, it’s still the best description of how people react to their old hits: joy.
Listen to "Never Been To Spain" by Three Dog Night.
Previously, the parents had it on in the background - and aside from Batman - it couldn't compete with some of my better toys. But keeping up with new episodes of The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch got me into the weekly routine, and soon, each day became a smorgasbord of viewing options. It was one of the few fun things to do that had full adult approval.
I finally mastered “telling time” because of TV shows. Early morning: when The Lone Ranger and Fury were over it was time for one of the parents to drive me to Conine’s so they could get to work. Start the morning with Sesame Street. Mid-morning snack with I Love Lucy or Electric Company, and then my choice of game shows until the afternoon blitz of Ultraman and Johnny Socko’s Robot. A parent would pick me up before Walter Cronkite could get too deep into whatever it was he was going on about. The TV was just as good as a clock.
TV ads hipped me to a wider world of stuff. The ads in 16 and Tiger Beat magazines were selling David Cassidy stuff, the ads on TV were selling different stuff. Some I recognized, but many were new mysteries, like pantyhose inside a plastic egg (is this an Easter thing?) and a dog chasing a horse-drawn wagon that disappears into a kitchen cabinet. Freaky stuff.
TV ads had special music - short, easy to remember ditties that went with the images. For instance, a rainbow assortment of people singing “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company… what the world wants today is the real thing, Coca-Cola.”
A bit later, I hear the same song, with slightly different lyrics, on the radio. What? And the words are slightly different…where’s the soda? Is “plop plop fizz fizz” gonna be on the radio, too?
Cross-promotional music was a mind-bending discovery at the time, and I haven’t really ever made solid peace with it, even though there’s been 4 decades to get used to it. And Coca-Cola continued to meld radio and TV, confusing me a year later with Dottie West’s “Country Sunshine,” and making me worry about what they might do to Donna Fargo's "Funny Face."
I was glad that ours was an RC Cola house.
See the TV commercial that is the song, sorta.
The only disagreement I remember my folks having was over this song. A very heated exchange took place in the kitchen when it was discovered that Mom hated the song while Dad loved it. I was puzzled as to why a mere radio tune could call up such vitriol, and made a concerted effort to pay close attention the next time I heard it so I could wisely choose which side of the debate I was on.
In retrospect, the fuss over this song was actually about a marriage rapidly unraveling. They never argued or talked about any of their issues, they simply let the problems consume them. “American Pie” was the closest they came to an actual argument prior to their separation, and this song was the only outlet they had for venting their anger.
See and hear the song.
Cher gave me this song for my birthday! And Sonny & Cher came to life on TV every week! I’d always known who Sonny & Cher were; I’d heard the songs on the radio, seen the pictures. But it wasn’t until they blazed on a TV screen before me that it all fell into place.
There were plenty of variety shows to choose from, but theirs was by far the most tailored to my tastes. They had animated cartoons of popular songs as interpreted by Cher (her version of “One Tin Soldier” kicks the ass of the original), fast and breezy rounds of sketches full of motion and funny costumes, great songs and then there was CHER!
To my eyes, she was glamorous without being threatening because she was funny, sarcastic, laughed a lot and enthusiastically wore the stupidest costumes. And when not dressed as Raggedy Ann or Minnie Mouse, she wore dresses that looked just like the clothes I put on my Barbie dolls. But Cher wasn’t a doll, she was a real live lady! And she would always break out in song. She was the human personification of my imaginary playmate, the perfect person, and the time I got to spend with her (and Sonny) once a week actually eclipsed The Partridge Family in television importance.
At this time, to keep me occupied during a shopping trip at J.C. Penney, Mom had me go to the record department and pick out something for myself. A casual cruise of the racks turned dead serious when the cover of Sonny & Cher Live came into view. My dramatic intake of breath could surely be heard all the way across the store.
This album (with a gatefold!) was a level above the Partridges because not only was there music, but they talked! They told jokes, bantered, griped and then sang. It was like having the variety show come to life at my command, and the sense of power was heady. Sure, it took me years to get most of the sexual content of the jokes, but when I did it cleared up a kiddie confusion.
I wanted to take my new favorite record to nursery school for Show & Tell. Now, since I played the thing repeatedly, Mom had obviously heard the entire thing, and obviously got all the jokes right off the bat. So, she knew that if I took this record to nursery school, the risqué humor would sail right over my class mates heads, but that all the teachers would have mini-heart attacks. That would lead to them questioning her decision to let me listen to this kind of stuff, and who wants to be confronted with that while picking up your kid after work?
So, she tried to convince me to bring my Alvin & The Chipmunks record instead. Yeah, I liked that album well enough, but any of my classmates could bring that. I wanted to share Cher, and threw a miniature fit over being kept from doing so.
See and hear the song.
Down the road a stretch was a farming man who was also involved with pony cart racing. Through him, Dad bought a secondhand metal pony cart frame, which he spray painted a bright and cheery yellow. The plywood bench seat could hold 2 adults or one adult and two kids.
On a picture perfect fall afternoon, Dad attached Sugar before the cart, and entertained bunches of us kids with authentic pony cart rides up and down Douglas Lane. “Sweet City Woman” was just the absolutely perfect song for this moment, with its old-fashioned, laid-back country banjo strumming, and a beat that perfectly matched Sugar’s happy trot on the blacktop. Every time I hear the song, I’m completely back in that moment, and always amazed at how brilliantly one song could summarize an exact season, day, locality and activity.
Hear the song.