Biff America: Cracked promises and a musical memory
Ryan Summerlin March 30, 2013
It was a beautiful place to work, yet could not be called luxurious.
My room was equipped with the minimum: bathroom, Bible, bed. No television or vibrating recliner. There was no Wi-Fi and the remoteness of the resort prevented most radio reception. I pack a portable shortwave radio when I travel; that night I broke it out. I was lying in bed, too tired to read, too awake to sleep while I waited for the Tylenol P.M. to kick in.
To those unfamiliar with world band radio, it is possible to receive broadcasts from around the globe in even the most remote locations. That night I picked up “Radio-Taiwan,” broadcasted from the other side of the planet in, albeit marginal, English.
The host sounded to be a young Asian woman and the show was billed as “A Rock + Roll History in the English Language.”
The DJ began the show with Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, all familiar names, but they did little more than get my attention. When she began to play early Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Stones, Dylan, Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, my life seem to pass before my eyes.
Scientists contend the most acute of your memory senses is olfactory – the sense of smell. Their belief is, no other sense can remind us of past experiences like the nose. Granted, I cannot smell a cigar without recalling hometown football games, cocoa butter without thinking of Cape Cod beaches, or rancid egg salad without the thought of my high school gym locker.
That said, I contend the most intense memories are associated with a onetime favorite song. For me, it happens often while driving, when over the radio comes “Maggie May” “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Fire and Rain.” I am then transported back to a time when getting your colon checked was all about punctuation and balding was confined to my car’s tires. I still remember most of the words and all the emotions.
That evening, I lay in bed – on scratchy sheets – while the DJ played music, almost all of which brought back intense memories of my teens and 20s. The Asian tendency to switch the letter “L” with “R” changed Eric Clapton’s “Layla” to “Ray-Ra,” which made me smile, but for me the music and memories were both blissful and sad.
Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” brought me back to the teenage days of “cruising the strip” in Brockton, Mass., listening to eight-track tapes while looking for trouble. The Turtles’ “Happy Together,” recalls innocent junior high groping with my first love. I was reminded of teenage angst and outrage by “Eve of Destruction” and “Masters of War.”
Dylan sang, “May you grow up to be righteous / May you grow up to be true / May you always know the truth and see the lights surrounding you /May you always be courageous / Stand upright and be strong / May you stay forever young.”
I wondered, had I had done that.
The lyrics of those old songs reminded me of the well-intentioned ideals of my generation. The music was our collective voice. The melodic declarations were filled with high-minded principles and moral integrity. “All you need is love,” “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand,” “You’re old enough to kill, but not for voting.” The songs I heard that night recalled the anger and fanciful belief that my generation would live by higher ideals, with purer principles than had our the generation before. I was determined not to become my parents – though in retrospect my parents were a lot smarter and more courageous than I gave them credit for at the time.
Granted, those were different times and we were young and naïve. I couldn’t help wondering that night if I had done all I could have to live by at least some of those lofty – and ,yes, romantic – standards. Or have I, as Paul Simon put it in the “Boxer,” “Squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises?” I fell asleep before I reached any conclusions.
I woke the next morning in a strange bed with a headache. I sipped coffee and sang some Tom Rush songs as I walked to the broadcast sight. For the next three hours I did what I do for a living with a reasonable degree of success. By the end of the show, my throat was sore and my back stiff. I was happy to be heading home.
As luck would have it, I found an old Phil Oches CD in my truck for the drive. I finally had time to analyze, with a clear head, some of my feelings and doubts from the night before. Admittedly, I haven’t been able to live up to every ideal and promise I’d made as a younger man. But it does no good to be too hard on yourself. I had no idea back then what I was getting into. Ultimately, if you find joy, share love and leave the world at least as fine a place as you found it, then you’ve done well. Though the clock ticks on, with sense of humor, coupled with the wisdom of time and realistic perspective, it’s still possible, while growing older with grace, to stay “Forever Young.”
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.