Before the summer an older kid introduced me to Dion & The Belmonts and altered my life irreparably, the music I heard came from two places: the LP’s shelved behind the sliding doors of a cabinet in the living room, and the plastic AM radio above the sink in the kitchen, tuned only to WNEW, where the disc jockeys, even in the very early sixties, acted as though rock and roll didn’t exist. The music was mostly terrific, I admit, but the attitude was like they were a Cultural Tea Party, trying to reverse the tide. To William B. Williams and Ted Brown, the voices I heard when I came home from school and was served a snack of milk and Mallomars at the kitchen table, Dick Clark and Murray The K were as Obama is to Fox News: poisoners of a generation’s values. Which I never understood. I liked a lot of this music they played — Sinatra, Ella, Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, some of the big band stuff — but I also loved Little Anthony & The Imperials and Duane Eddy and Sam Cooke and The Drifters, and would it have killed Mr. B. Williams to throw “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “You Send Me” into his playlist?
My mother passed away last week, after a relatively and mercifully brief illness, and for a while before she died, I didn’t want to have any music playing. I left the headphones for my iPhone at home, and didn’t put on any of the albums cluttering my apartment: I just didn’t want the call to come when a specific song was on, to be surprised and then have that song associated with that moment. My memories of my mother are so tied up with music in a sweet and funny way, the joy when a Benny Goodman clarinet solo started, her adoration of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, her stories of going to nightclubs with my dad in the ‘40s and ‘50s, that I felt very protective of the music that might be playing when I found out she’d gone.
As friends came by to visit and console, I told the story over and over about how, as a 10 year old who’d been gripped by rock and roll, I wheedled her into taking me over school break (April 1961) to a show at the Brooklyn Paramount co-hosted by Murray The K and Clay Cole, the Easter Parade of Stars. We got on the subway in The Bronx in the morning, and headed down to the Flatbush Ave. stop, where we waited to get in to an early show, and then I watched as all these people who lived in the radio and on my 45s came to life: Dion, Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds, The Chantels, The Isley Brothers, Carla Thomas, The Capris, The Vibrations, Rosie (of The Originals). I’m appalled to say that I don’t remember whether it was Sam Cooke or Jackie Wilson who was headlining (they played on different days over the week), or whether I saw them at all. It was just a fast-paced, dizzying show. Not many mothers would’ve been so indulgent, but she was a parent who never yelled at me to stop listening to records and do my homework; we didn’t have one of those cliched battles over rock and roll. As years went on, she stayed engaged. She loved The Beatles, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Mamas and The Papas.
My mom and dad had this LP collection. Many, many Sinatra albums, all the classic Capitol ones, and Ella’s Rodgers & Hart Songbook, and Cole’s Love Is The Thing, and the inexplicably Grammy-winning We Got Us by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme (my parents went to Taft High School with Eydie), the cast album of My Fair Lady. the soundtrack from Gigi, some jazzy things (Andre Previn), comedy albums (Bob Newhart). I’d sit on the floor and look at those album covers and read the liner notes and listen to the songs. Maybe I was eight, nine? What are eight and nine year old kids going to do now? Go to their parents’ iTunes playlist and become intrigued by a list of unfamiliar song titles and unknown artists? I held the albums in my hands and knew which ones intrigued me and which ones didn’t. I think that’s lost, like so many ancient rituals are.
I was also escorted to my first big-screen movie (Lady and The Tramp) and my first Broadway musical (Bye Bye Birdie) by my mom. and those were nice choices, and I realize that I’m reducing the mother-son relationship to memories of pop culture, but that’s what I do, and there are worse things. My childhood friends always said she was the cool mom, and she was. I’m grateful for that, and grateful that the albums she and my father bought didn’t include Jerry Vale and Mantovani and The Ames Brothers. What might I have been then? No, it was a more swingin’ affair, a mess of Sinatra with Riddle, Ella doing the standards.
My sister and I were considering playing a song from my iTunes at the cemetery, and I scrolled through the ones I had in my pocket. We ended up not doing that, but we thought about “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It’s sort of perfect: a wistful song about separation, and how images and memories linger. “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces.” Written in 1938, it became a #1 hit during WWII, when my mother was a teenager, and I can imagine her listening to it on the radio, singing along. “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”