I pretty much dreaded the first day of school in the fall of 1967. I was returning to Tappan Junior High now for eighth grade with the memory still raw of my first difficult and painful year in that institution. The intervening ten weeks of summer sojourn had helped me recover my self-esteem to some degree, but I really did not like the idea of going back to those packed classrooms full of other uncomfortable kids my age picking on each other to blow off the anxiety of being jammed into that unnatural situation. If it had been my free choice I would never choose it. I’m not sure I thought of it at that point as something that all us kids had to do. Or was it more like it was something that if you were not willing to do it, there was something really wrong with you, and if you missed that developmental train that society had worked so hard to create for you that you would be doomed to never being able to participate in the adult world.
From my excruciating experience from the previous year at this crazy place, it’s when you had a classroom of bored unhappy kids that the dynamic got really uncomfortable. The alpha boys teasing the girls or teasing the the other boys who were fat or socially awkward. Little did I know that I wasn’t the only person who walked into junior high thinking I was smart only to “learn” in class that I somehow was not. I suspect now that most everyone was feeling that way, and looking for ways to redirect their self-loathing by loathing someone else who could be judged even less than they themselves felt judged.
Some people say it is natural for teens to behave this way, being moody and depressed, teasing and bullying and being generally cruel, creating a social hierarchy that elevates some to an elite status while denigrating others. I think this only seems natural when kids are viewed in the very unnatural environment of school, where so many otherwise energetic and socially precocious young human beings are forced to be sedentary at desks under the gaze of custodial adults who control all the discourse. Where so many kids the same age are jammed together, without the younger kids to look up to them and the older kids to mentor them. Kids have no opportunity to relax and have their space and their own wisdom and do things their own way. Add to that that they are continually evaluated and graded and given little doses of esteem or not as part of this grand orchestrated institution we call a school.
Like last year, I had eight classes every day, a class load unique to my three years in this discomforting place. Just when you were into an interesting discussion in a class that maybe engaged you, the bell would ring and you had to move on to say another class that bored you. This jerking around of your mind and forcing it to perform these unnatural jumps from one train of thought to something completely different, rather than a more natural deep dive into a subject of interest, contributed to this general feeling of discomfort and that one was not up to the academic muster of “real” (that is academic) learning.
But at least unlike last year I had a few teachers who seemed more comfortable up there in front of us and willing at least to try to really engage us with the class curriculum. If I had to be in all those classrooms every day, that was at least something.
First was my American history teacher, an older man who refreshingly seemed comfortable in his skin up in front of us kids as the “sage on the stage”. His take on the narrative of our country’s development was not in itself that interesting or provocative, but his willingness to at least once daily part with the curriculum and engage with the little off comments and other distractions an at times unentertained audience might come out with.
There was a kid in our class named Preston who shone out as a unique character in a sea of kids who were mostly unaware of or unwilling to be who they really were. He was not one of the alpha boys, but he didn’t care, which in its way put him above the snarling alpha pack, and that caught my attention and engendered my admiration for him as a possible role model for future reference. He was definitely one of the first counter-culture people that I had encountered, though more beatnik than hippie with his turtlenecks, black plastic glasses and moptop hair. His favorite music was a duo I had not heard of at that point called Simon and Garfunkel.
Preston had a perfect peanut gallery spot in the back of the room, from which to make occasional flippant or witty remarks about what we were studying. Sometimes he would even call out when he thought our teacher or our textbook was missing the point or dead wrong. His challenges were at times dubious, but I was impressed that he was at least making them, and our teacher enjoyed taking a break from his routine narrative (that at times seemed to even bore him) to spar with Preston about the course material or whatever other off the wall thing Preston might come out with.
One memorable encounter between Thayer and Noonan, at least how I recall it nearly five decades later, revolved around the former’s comment about “rolling a joint”, though unfortunately I can’t remember the context. The latter heard the quip, halted his routine monologue, and challenged Preston, something to the effect of, “So you know how to roll a joint?” Preston affirmed and produced a small package of cigarette papers but said he had nothing on him to roll in one. Mr. Noonan, improvising and trying to call what he thought was Preston’s swagger of a bluff, suggested that Preston demonstrate for the class with pencil shavings from the room’s pencil sharpener. Given a small palmful of shavings, Preston successfully rolled them into a passable looking cigarette, which he offered to light up and take a puff. Noonan decided to abandon the gambit at that point, though I, and I suspect others in the class, were dying to see it.
Thus inspired by Preston’s brazen example, several months later in class I had and took my own opportunity to be exceedingly cheeky and steal the stage. It was Noonan’s understudy, a young woman recently out of education school and doing her student teaching in his class that was wearing the “sage” hat up in front of the room, talking about the U.S. Civil War. I made a remark that I can’t now recall that got a reaction from others in the room, and trying to keep control of the room, Noonan style, she challenged me to come up to the front of the room and teach the class, her own gambit to call my bluff.
This is one of those moments for a shy and fearful kid, but one with delusions of grandeur somewhere deep inside, where you are between a rock and a hard place. Which is worse, having to get up in front of the room and try to play a passable sage, or have the ignominy of having to back down? So somehow greater fear triumphs over fear! Since it was the Civil War that I knew pretty well I accepted her challenge and got up in front of my peers and did my best imitation of a teacher and rambled on regarding the section of the history book we were covering today, generals Grant and Sherman’s strategy for ending the conflict by carving up the South and destroying its logistical infrastructure to continue its fight. After five minutes or so with Noonan probably chuckling to himself, and even Preston perhaps duly impressed, our student teacher said something to the effect of, “Okay Cooper, you can sit down now!” After that moment in the spotlight I again hunkered down and went back to my normal strategy of staying under the radar, but maybe with a bit better sense of my own esteem.
Then there was a young math teacher, Miss Vaness, who had an infectious enthusiasm for the abstract math they were beginning to teach us. It seemed that once math started moving away from concrete arithmetic with its daily practical application, and into the realms of algebra, geometry, number theory and logic, at least half my class was beginning to lose interest and just trying to do enough to pass the tests and move on. But I was resonating with and seemed to have an aptitude for this abstract world and also had a bit of a crush on my young teacher.
Among other things, she encouraged us to get involved in the after school math club, which I did for a while. Attending club meetings I was introduced to two math games, created by a University of Michigan professor, that seemed to be the rage at the time but I have not encountered since (though according to Wikipedia they are still played by the Academic Games Leagues of America or AGLOA). More so than my actual class, these math games were intriguing learning experiences for me to play with my fellow math nerd peers.
The first was Equations, a game played with a set of up to 24 wooden dice-like cubes each labeled with numbers (0-9) and mathematical operations (add, subtract, multiply, divide, etc). The cubes would initially be rolled to create a set of digits and operators for this round. One player would then set a “goal” using up to six cubes on one side of the game board and the remainder of the cubes would be be put in the “Permitted” section of the game board. Each player would then take turns taking one of three actions.
1. Moving one cube from the permitted section to either the “Required” section (number or operator must be used in the equation to match the goal) or
2. Moving one cube to the “Forbidden” section (not to be used in the equation) or
3. Challenging the other player to make an equation matching the goal using all the cubes in the “Required” section plus any (or none) of the cubes in the “Permitted” section but none of the cubes in the “Forbidden” section
Deceivingly simple rules for a very challenging game. I was at best an average player among those I played with in the math club.
The second was On-Sets, another board and cube game with similar board and rules, but rather than building arithmetic equations, one built logical expressions using set operators (union, intersection, subtraction and complement). The game included a deck of 16 cards, each containing a unique combination of colored dots, and each expression defined a certain subset of those cards. Similar to Equations, one player would set a goal, in this case the number of cards that needed to be in the set described by the cubes that formed the expression. Players tried to create an expression that defined a subset of cards equal to the number of cards in the goal, by using all the cubes in the “Required” section plus any cubes in the “Permitted” section.
This game was more exotic and intriguing to me. I had been dealing with arithmetic since I was a young child, and certainly working with numbers and arithmetic operations was daily fare in school math classes. But set theory was something I had only recently been introduced to, and the implications of categories and restrictions resonated with my non-linear mind.
It is interesting in retrospect that of all the math concepts I was exposed to in junior high, high school and college, it was this set theory, learned mostly at this time playing and discussing this game with my math-nerd peers that turned out to be applicable to much of the paid work I would later do as a computer business systems analyst. Not the “Sputnik math” – the algebra, geometry, number theory and calculus – that would prepare me to build advanced space exploration and weapon systems in our country’s Cold War competition with the Soviet Union and that I probably spent several thousand hours in classrooms learning.
I continued from seventh grade taking concert band as an elective. “Concert” in that we performed while seated indoors rather than playing while standing and marching. I had had my initial lessons in playing the alto saxaphone in elementary school, my mom even doing the research to buy me a used instrument, and now I had the opportunity to play in a band with some forty other kids playing the array of brass, woodwind and percussion instruments. Though I enjoyed contributing the sound of my sax to the performance of a piece of music, I always struggled to develop the discipline to practice enough to play my instrument proficiently.
Practicing required schlepping the instrument the three-quarters of a mile home after school and back to school the next day along with all my school books and notebooks, this at a time before school backpacks had been popularized. Particularly on frigid winter or cold rainy days, having to dedicate one hand to the handle of the instrument’s case required everything else I was carrying for all my other classes to be jammed under the other arm. On those really cold days my fingers clutching that handle tended to get numb quickly, and I would have to put the case down a number of times on the walk between home and school to wiggle blood and feeling back into those digits.
What was more interesting for me in band class than playing my instrument well, were the design aspects of constructing a musical piece that I was getting exposed to. First it was learning how music was written down on paper using notes, measures, time signature, cleft, and the various notations to change tempo, volume and to repeat or jump back and forth between various sections of the piece. Second seeing how all the different instruments contributed differently, some to the melody, others to harmonies, and yet others to the rhythm, and how all these separate musical “voices” combined to make the full sound of a concert piece. Finally was watching how the conductor orchestrated the whole thing by keeping the measure and tempo with their baton and using pointing, facial expressions and other non-verbal gestures and cues to facilitate and tweak the presentation of the music in the moment. I was into systems and this seemed a very sophisticated one.
In my life outside of school, my mom, always looking for developmental opportunities for me, found out that there was a daily Ann Arbor News paper route available in an adjoining neighborhood just west of us. Most newspapers at the time were delivered by teenage boys. She made me aware of the opportunity and I decided to apply, lured by both the gravitas it might afford me and the money I could make to support my military board game hobby/obsession plus my regular purchases of superhero comics, paperback sci-fi novels, slot-cars and accessories for my track, and increasingly music albums as well.
My stack of newspapers were dropped off each day around 3pm, seven days a week, near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wells Street about a third of a mile west of our house, just over the crest of the slight hill that descended to Packard Street. I recall it was my dad, up from his new digs in southern Ohio to assist me with my first day of this new enterprise, who taught me how to fold and tuck the papers so they could be tossed onto doorsteps from the sidewalk without flying apart in the process. That first day he helped me fold my sixty-some newspapers and arrange them all to fit in the bag slung over my shoulder.
My route proceeded from the dropoff point north through a residential neighborhood of single family houses plus some apartment buildings then onto the south side of the university campus including a couple sorority houses and dorms. On a good day it took about an hour to do the whole route, more when it rained and the papers had to be more carefully placed somewhere where they wouldn’t get wet. The route was seven days a week, 365 days a year, and at this point I can’t even remember what I did on the rare occasion I was sick. When I was going to be away for the weekend I recruited a friend to do the route for me, paying them a couple bucks for each day they did it.
I was essentially running my own little business, paying The News monthly for the stack of papers they left me each day and then having to collect from my customers on a regular basis what they owed me in order to make a profit. I was pretty diligent at getting those papers to all my customers, but I was lousy at the bookkeeping around the getting paid part. I was shy and did not like ringing my customers’ doorbells and asking them for the money they owed me, so I did my “collecting” monthly rather than the recommended weekly. I also never developed a good system for keeping track of who had paid and who hadn’t, so if I wasn’t sure whether a certain customer had already paid or not, I would generally err on the side of not asking. Despite my poor bookkeeping I did manage to make some money for my various expanding purchasing habits.
But putting myself out there on a daily basis in proximity to the lives of the people in sixty other households, and having to ring all those doorbells and interact with all of them at least once a month, I was beginning to develop a thicker skin. And given all the issues of their lives they might randomly share with me, it was helping me with my whole developmental thread of finally seeing adults as flawed human beings like me, rather than do-no-wrong deities of sorts. This thread had begun several years earlier seeing my parents’ carefully crafted adult personas shred during their divorce and its difficult aftermath. Sometimes some of my customers did not have the money to pay me and pleaded with me to come back next week. Others when I encountered them seemed depressed or disoriented or even shier than I was. Perhaps a motley crew but just what I needed to be seeing to humanize adulthood and make me feel better about someday joining that club of majority.
It was that October of 1967 that I saw on the TV news, and the next day on the front page of the newspaper I was delivering, tens of thousands of people marching to the Pentagon protesting the war in Vietnam. And just after Thanksgiving when The Beatles released their latest album Magical Mystery Tour, the first since their groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over the summer, which given the profits from my paper route I had the disposable income to buy immediately upon appearing on the shelves of Discount Records on State Street just across from the central campus.
That fall my “greek chorus” on the radio stations were continuing to put out the sweet siren pop songs of love, beckoning me to a world of romance that I both longed for and cringed at. Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”, a coming of age tale of a guy’s young female friend blossoming into a teenage sexual partner. The Monkees syrupy bubblegum pop hit of young romance, “Daydream Believer”.
And then beyond the sweet and syrupy, more nuanced songs of love and loss. The Young Rascals ambivalent “How Can I Be Sure”
How can I be sure
In a world that constantly changes
How can I be sure
Where I stand with you
Whenever I heard that lyric I always thought that I’d take my chances in a world that constantly changes. I was not wedded to any status quo, so roll the dice.
Then there was the hit machine of Motown on CKLW chiming in with Gladys Knight & the Pips “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, about the pain and indignity of hearing from the gossip that your lover has left you for another. The jazzy sophisticated voice of Dionne Warwick carrying a torch for her guy in “I Say a Little Prayer”. And that edge of misogyny as teenage male transitions from naivete to painful understanding that his girlfriend is playing him in The Who’s “I Can See For Miles”…
I know you’ve deceived me, now here’s a surprise
I know that you have ’cause there’s magic in my eyes
Well, here’s a poke at you
You’re gonna choke on it too
You’re gonna lose that smile
Because all the while
I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles
Oh yeah! I resonated so with the “don’t get mad, get even” teen angst of The Who, given my own passive aggressive tendencies. But I was becoming more distant from and uncomfortable with that misogynist edge in many of theirs and other male artists songs, projecting one’s own issues on the “soft targets”, the women, girlfriends and moms, in one’s life. I liked my female peers when I had the opportunity to get to know them one on one, without the glare of peer pressure and romantic expectations upon us. It seemed that the expectations of that boyfriend-girlfriend thing was the problematic part. It seemed, at least from the male voices of my “greek chorus” on the radio, to be either syrupy sweet googoo-eyed infatuation or this prickly “I love you but I don’t like you” stuff.
I was even beginning to like my mom, seeing her as a struggling person like me, someone who was ethical, honest and cared about others and not just herself. I would see her in action at parties, courageously challenging conventional wisdom among the local male academic elite around the growing issue of the Vietnam war and what to do to stop it. Many of them decried the conflict and the questionable ethics of U.S. involvement, but when pressed, weren’t planning to do anything about it beyond complaining at parties. They had the hubris to think that as university professors they had all the answers that they were happy to bestow on the rest of us, and it was up to the rest of us to do something about it while they kibitzed from their high pulpits. I watched my mom more than once fearlessly call some bigshot university academic out on this.
As part of her continuing effort to root herself within the progressive academic intelligentsia of Ann Arbor, our mom had been drawn to and joined the local Unitarian church the previous spring, led by a very outspoken and activist minister, Dr. Erwin (Erv) Gaede, with a strong commitment to the civil rights and against the Vietnam war. Quoted in the Toledo Blade March 18 1966, Gaede had previously said…
I believe that we’ve come to the place in our national and world life where we must decide whether we will disavow violence or not.
When she first attended the Sunday services Gaede led that previous spring she had brought me along a few times to participate in their youth program. But after a hiatus over the summer, this fall she had gone back and enrolled me to attend regular Sunday school classes. Consistent with what I would learn later about typical UU practice, rather than learning so much about the principles of Unitarianism, our class studied a range of the world’s other religions. We learned about the origins of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We had guest speakers from a range of other churches and synagogues in Ann Arbor, which would be followed by our class attending that denomination’s weekly worship service on a subsequent Saturday or Sunday. Throughout the school year I probably attend at least a dozen different services, including Catholic, Reform Jewish, Mormon, Quaker, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Congregational, Lutheran, Baptist (both majority white and majority black congregations) and Christian Scientist.
Certain memories stick with me from all those visits. All the getting up on your feet to sing or down on your knees to pray. Taking the various communions (wafer and grape juice or even real wine) and wrestling with the metaphor of ingesting the body and blood of Christ. The mostly incomprehensible sermons. The sing-songy canticulation by the Rabbi and Cantor. The exuberant call and response between the Baptist minister and his black congregation. In contrast, the Quaker service led by no one, where the attendees sat quietly until so moved to rise and randomly say something they thought was appropriate. The pomp and incense of the Catholic service which I recall was still in Latin rather than English. And I also recall at each religious venue looking around to confirm that these were just a subset of the regular people I otherwise encountered in my life in the more secular venues of my hometown.
Mother Nature generally bestowed on us Ann Arborite earthlings the first big winter storm in late November. A thick wet snowfall that blanketed the roofs of the houses and all the ground and gave all the bare tree branches glittering white highlights. Growing up in the northern temperate climate with its four distinct seasons, She was a daily factor in our lives, and a big snow always brought with it the possibility that school might be cancelled that day, a welcome and wondrous blessing when it occasionally happened.
Snow also meant that Christmas would be coming soon, my absolute favorite day of the year, loving all the anticipation in the runup to it as well. It was also so for my mom, particularly her love for the concept of Santa Claus, whom she saw as the patron saint of children everywhere in a world that was decidedly child unfriendly. In her thinking, there was no more important thing than loving and bestowing gifts on children. Perhaps she felt so strongly in this regard because she never felt that love from her own mom. Even now divorced, she and our dad continued to collaborate on researching and purchasing their best educated guess at the most compelling toys for us within their budget. They always did their homework and bought us toys they felt were well designed, facilitating the application of imagination, and that we would enjoy playing with throughout the year. Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, Legos, toy soldiers, wooden trains, slot cars.
The previous Christmas they had gotten us a table-top hockey set, which my brother and I played with often, particularly through the winter during the hockey season. Before the thing finally fell apart some years later, we had probably spent hundreds of hours challenging each other across the “ice”. They rarely made a bad toy investment.
Like other years the family runup to Christmas started with the purchase of a big cut spruce tree in early December (often so early in the month that by Christmas day the needles were falling off) set up in the living room by the big windows that looked out to and were viewable from the street. Mom preferred spruce to the bushier pine because from her artist’s point of view it had better “negative space”. Before the divorce dad would string the lights, but now that task joyfully fell to me. She would let my brother and I hang the ornaments, with her sitting at the dining room table making suggestions. She would always reserve the right to hang the tinsel which I had not the patience to hang one strand at a time, which gave the silver threads their best effect.
The decorated tree would glow with the lights on throughout each day and evening. I loved seeing it lit there as I approached the house on cold December days and evenings, marking its warm youth-friendly space. We generally kept it up beyond Christmas day until it was such a dry fire hazard that there was no choice but to remove lights and ornaments and drag it to the curb leaving a trail of remaining needles behind.
Christmas day came and like when I was a child I had trouble getting to sleep and was up at 5am in hyper-anticipation of opening presents to see the new toys my parents had bought for me. Was this narcissistic consumerist entitlement on my part? What drove that anticipation for me was always where those new toys might take me in my imaginative explorations, like getting a map to now explore a new land. But the receiving of those gifts from ones parents and the mythic Santa Claus was also a ritual acknowledgement by the adults of the world of the inherent worth and dignity of children and youth, particularly in a world that might still be youth-unfriendly in many of its aspects and venues. A well thought gift from an adult to a young person, a toy that might facilitate many hours of imaginative play, was like yet one more key to the complicated kingdom of the adult world.
It was the sort of “curriculum” I thrived on, one that catalyzed the rich and joyful developmental experience of play to apply my imaginative mind to some aspect of our world modeled by the toy. So say an Erector Set opening up explorations of building and other structural design plus the role of these structures in contemporary life. Lincoln Logs exploring structures and their role in an earlier pre-industrial time. Slot cars to explore the design possibilities and constraints to imagine, design and build various configurations of race tracks, including more complicated multi-level ones, and then explore the physics of momentum as you drove cars around that track. The game of Risk, modeling basic military campaigning and logistics on a map representing the entire Earth allowing one to develop an intimate familiarity with our planet’s political geography (the Middle East is adjacent to Egypt etc).
The featured gift that Christmas of 1967, presumably mostly our mom’s brainchild (though I’m sure she consulted with our dad), were small cassette tape recorders with microphones for each of us, leading-edge consumer electronics technology at the time. The minute I ripped the wrapping paper off the box and saw what it was my mind started to traverse all the permutations of possibilities for its use, including in imagination play. “Santa Claus” had gotten it right yet again, and mom would swear up and down with a twinkle in her eye that that child-friendly deity was the source of the gift.
After exhausting the initial cheap thrills of clandestinely “bugging” my brother talking to his friends or our mom to hers, he and I decided that we would collaborate on various ad libed comedy narratives of our own. Our most memorable recorded effort we titled “Sickies’ Circle”, our own lowbrow lampoon of TV soap operas, including the moronic sing-songy voice of our narrator. Having been exposed to a lot of the best of comedy and satire that was out there on television and record albums, we were inspired to try to create our own.
The late 1960s was a heyday of all sorts of recorded audio comedy and satire. The artists of this craft that we listened to and resonated with during this period were the likes of Bill Cosby, The Smothers Brothers, Alan Sherman, Bob Newhart and Tom Lehrer. We saw them on TV and bought (or got as presents) and listened to their records over and over again, to the point that we knew our favorite routines so well we could do many of them ourselves, and occasionally regaled our friends or our mom’s friends at one of her parties. There humor came out of a sophisticated knowing and lampooning of our culture. So understanding what made their material funny meant grasping that more sophisticated analysis of the adult society we were preparing ourselves to enter. There was also a significant fringe benefit of esteem and gravitas one got from being able to deliver humorous material, even if someone else’s material, and make people at least chuckle. Particularly as a kid, being able to make an adult laugh generally made you more of a full-blown human in their eyes, always an important benefit in my eyes.
Cosby and Newhart were unorthodox comedians who told stories from life rather than jokes. Theirs was the kind of gentle and loving commentary on the human condition, which like the music of Motown and The Beatles, gave me a bit more confidence that I could someday navigate my way through the twists and turns of the adult world. Cosby’s albums in particular that we had in our record collection, Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow… Right!, I Started Out as a Child, Why is there air?, Wonderfulness and Revenge, we listened to over and over until we had many of our favorite routines memorized. Their work also reinforced in me my own alignment with and preference for narratives rather than punchlines.
The Smothers Brothers, We had their Mom Always Liked You Best and Curb Your Tongue, Knave! albums at that point, added a younger more politically activist point of view to their humor. Their comedy was much more sophisticated than it first appeared. At a superficial level they were a conventional folk singing sibling duo who would weave stories as introductions to their songs. At another level they were the two folk-singing brother characters they were playing, Dick playing the more serious and mature front man (and straight man of the comedy act), and Tom playing the immature, child-like, passive-aggressive, and at times maniacal sidekick. At yet a third meta level were the two thoughtful and committed activist siblings, Tom actually the older and driving creative force of the duo, behind their more broadly drawn characters. Partners who had the sensibility and chutzpah to criticize conventional wisdom and the political and cultural mainstream.
My brother and I, who had had our own fair share of sibling rivalry, and I with my own passive-aggressiveness, appreciated the brothers and all three levels of their presentation. And that younger and at times even childlike sensibility Tom exuded for me provided another one of those bridges between childhood and the adult world that I was seeking.
Sherman’s For Swingin’ Livers Only and My Name is Allan provided his kitschy musical lampoons of elements of popular culture, including Jewish culture, the latter that I had not been exposed to before. His comedy was more conventional and at times at the expense of stereotypes, like mothers in law, fat Jewish women and alcoholics. But other of his pieces presented interesting and funny scenarios from adult life and from the point of view of a rather unsophisticated unhip narrator. The clash of the obsessions of food and sex in “When I’m in the Mood for Love (You’re in the Mood for Herring)”…
Herring can always wait
Herring does not mind waiting
Meanwhile I’m marinating
I’m in the mood for love
Lampooning the stodgy middle-class adult man who just doesn’t get popular culture in “Pop Hates the Beatles”, and avantgarde off-Broadway theater in “It’s a Most Unusual Play”…
There’s a most unusual scene
Where this man dates this Xerox machine
So his girlfriend gets mad
And she murders the cad
To the tune of “Begin the Beguine”
In this most unusual, most unusual, most unusual play
Oh, the language is a bit loose
It’s decidedly not Mother Goose
Outside on the marquee
This quotation you’ll see
“I was shocked!” and it’s signed Lenny Bruce
And contemporary consumer culture in “A Waste of Money”, “The Twelve Gifts of Christmas” and “Chim Chim Chiree”. A verse from the latter (FYI to get the last line below you need to know that Naugahyde was a form of artificial leather that was the state of the art in synthetic materials at the time)…
My Fastback has Wide-Track and Autronic Eye
Which winks when a cute little Volvo goes by
My tank full of Platformate starts with a roar
But when I try to stop, it goes two miles more
I measure my breathing with my Nasograph
It’s nice, but oh my, how it hurts when I laugh
My chair is upholstered in real Naugahyde
When they killed that nauga, I sat down and cried
More highbrow in his prodigious musical satire was Harvard mathematics professor turned piano man with a cult following Tom Lehrer. He directed his razor sharp satirical dagger at various aspects of high culture, including politics, art and academia. We had two of his albums, possibly Christmas presents from my aunt Pat.
The first, That was the Year that was, is now an unrivaled classic, a survey of some of the major news events and issues in the U.S. in the year 1965. His songs on the album are brilliant satire that my brother and I listened to endlessly to the point of memorization. (So many hundreds of times have I sung them to intrigued listeners or with fellow devoted Lehrer fans in the years since!) From perhaps his most well known song, “Pollution”…
If you visit American city
You will find it very pretty
Just two things of which you must beware
Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air
And later in the song cleverly weaving in another issue of the day…
Just go out for a breath of air
And you’ll be ready for Medicare
Lehrer seemed fearless in his zeal to skewer every pretentious aspect of our society. In his “National Brotherhood Week”…
Well the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants
The Hindus hate the Muslims
And everybody hates the Jews
But during National Brotherhood Week, National Brotherhood Week
It’s National Everyone-smile-at-one-another-hood Week
Be nice to people who are inferior to you
It’s only for a week, so have no fear
Be grateful that it doesn’t last all year
And particularly his songs exorcising the collective dread of nuclear war, certainly helping exorcise my own fears. His telling of the history of nuclear proliferation in “Who’s Next?”…
First we got the bomb and that was good
Cuz we love truth and motherhood
Then Russia got the bomb but that’s okay
Cuz the balance of power’s maintained that way
Concluding the song weaving in the strife in our country over civil rights…
And we’ll try to stay serene and calm
When Alabama gets the bomb
In “So Long, Mom”, he writes from the point of view of the eager young B-52 bomber pilot sending a message to his beloved mother…
So long mom I’m off to drop the bomb
So don’t wait up for me
But while you swelter down there in your shelter
You can see me upon your TV
And finally ending with…
I’ll look for you when the war is over
An hour and a half from now
All this comedy and satire, light and dark, was compelling social studies curriculum exploring the zeitgeist of our society and culture circa 1967. Being able to comprehend all this social commentary and perform it for others allowed my brother and I to quickly increase our sophistication. And it also was teaching us to be much more aware that our world was rife with social conventions full of hypocrisy, hubris and pretense. In memorizing many of these songs and comedy routines, reveling in sharing them with each other and presenting them to our peers and even adults we knew, we were accepting a mantle of sorts as change agents towards a more compassionate, humane and peaceful world.
From non-conformist Preston in history class to Tom Lehrer’s records on our record player, my guides on the side were calling out, challenging and tearing down conventional wisdom past its expiration date, that was perhaps holding back the progress of human culture. A quest that would grow to become a key part of my own life’s work!