Monthly Archives: August 2020


Reading Time: 5 minutes

Free your mind instead

I-95 was cranking up The Beatles as Fred helped himself to seconds of Naomi’s famous potato salad.

“That’s another thing I was wrong about,” he said. “I was so naive back in the day.”

A small knot of friends from work and neighbors from the farm clustered around the table. “OOOh, tell us a story, Uncle Fred!” Ruth teased.

Fred paused for a moment, watching Debbie and little Freda wander down toward the barn to visit the sheep. “Well, it’s kind of a long story,” he demurred.

“We have time,” Ruth said, taking their recently vacated space at the picnic table. “The fireworks won’t start until after dark.”

“True,” Fred said as his family disappeared into the barn. The fireworks wouldn’t start until Freda had gone to bed. Debbie had left her pediatric practice to take a yearlong assignment with the Indian Health Service in South Dakota. Now Freda wanted to go with her and Debbie was talking about home-schooling her out in the middle of nowhere. It was better than the city schools, though. Better than he could do alone for a whole year.

Still, he needed to think about something else, at least for the party.

“All right, then. Well, you may remember from my days at the Features department that I know about as much about popular music as I do about sports,” he started.

Bud, the sports editor, snorted but said nothing.

“My parents weren’t musical, either,” Fred continued. “Neither of them played instruments, and we didn’t go to concerts. The FM radio at our house was permanently tuned to the city’s ‘easy listening’ station–you know, instrumental arrangements of show tunes and movie themes and popular music. Only I had no idea what popular music was. We’d listen to Bob Steele on WTIC in the mornings, but his taste was … eclectic.”

“Still is,” Bud said.

“Debbie still listens,” Fred said, glancing toward the barn. “But now that I’m working nights, I don’t hear him in the mornings anymore.”

The oldies

“Bob used to play occasional short classical pieces, you know, Boston Pops, Leroy Anderson, that sort of thing. But classical always had an intellectual-snob stigma. So when people would ask about what kind of music I liked, I told them classical only when I was trying to impress someone. It’s broad enough, but most people don’t know enough to carry on a conversation. The only problem was when classical buffs would ask me about favorite composers and conductors. It was hard to bluff past that.”

“Beethoven and Bernstein, New York Philharmonic,” Naomi chimed in, sliding next to Ruth. “That usually works. Or did back then. Every generation has its diva conductors and their favorite composers.”

Fred nodded. “I used those too. But it helps to know the titles of the works. And that was my problem with pop music. I hadn’t even heard of American Top 40 until I got to college and listened to WDCR. I thought Casey Kasem was some upperclassman with a really ballsy voice and good connections. So one day I went up to the studios in Robinson Hall while AT40 was on the air. A DJ I knew was sitting there, feet up on the console, reading a book. I asked him if I could see Casey in action, and he pointed to the LP that was spinning on the turntable.”

The assembled knot of co-workers, not sure how to respond to a senior editor confessing his naiveté, gave a polite flurry of laughter. “That sounds like you,” Ruth chuckled.

“But wait! There’s more!” Fred said, echoing a late-night TV pitchman. “I haven’t told you about The Beatles.”

He filled a disposable plastic cup from the iced quarter-keg, partly to set the stage and partly to crank his courage. “In my freshman year, I did what all the other guys did: I joined a fraternity. And like everybody else, we’d make small talk in the tap room. Illegally, I’ll admit. The drinking age in New Hampshire at the time was 19, and I was only 18. So there I was, sipping my–ah, Coke. The other guys were punching up tunes on the jukebox. And somebody asked what kind of music I liked.”

“Not much Tchaikovsky on a tap room jukebox,” Ruth said.

“Or Living Strings,” Fred agreed. “But I had an answer to that one: The Beatles. Everybody loves The Beatles, right? And I’d heard a lot of them back in my Scouting days, when the camp loudspeakers and guys’ transistor radios were all tuned in to WABC out of New York, back before it went all-talk. You know ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Love Me Do.’

‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’,” Naomi sang to Ruth, their fingers intertwining briefly.

‘Help!’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night,‘” Ruth said, letting go to pour some lemonade. “The teeny bopper stuff.”

“Exactly. But I hadn’t followed any of their albums and didn’t know how they had really pulled ahead as artists. And my mother used to tsk-tsk about how they were leading my generation into drugs, and how ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was about LSD, and all that. So I wasn’t really into their later albums, and by the time I was in that fraternity basement they’d already broken up. But of course I didn’t know that.”

Bud swallowed his beer just short of a spit-take.

Flip sides

“I’d heard, of course, ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and the like, but mostly I knew the singles rather than the albums. We had three Beatles singles on our jukebox.” Fred gestured the flip sides with his hand. “‘Penny Lane’ / ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’; ‘Eleanor Rigby’ / ‘Yellow Submarine’; and ‘Hey Jude’ / ‘Revolution.’ All in all, not a bad selection.”

“Yes, but then you could have filled that entire jukebox with Beatles singles, punched up any three at random, and it wouldn’t have been a ‘bad selection,'” Ruth said.

“Not to my tastes,” Fred said. “Remember, I was a teeny bopper at heart. I’d grown up on easy listening, so I liked the ballads and love songs. I was wary of the drug scene and the war protests and even hard rock, so ‘Revolution’ didn’t do it for me. Someone played ‘Birthday’ for me on my birthday because I was supposedly a Beatles fan. I didn’t recognize it, even though it had been out for about five years already. They said, ‘but it’s The Beatles.’ I said, ‘I like my Beatles mellow. Mellow, and not too trippy.'”

“Stirred, not shaken,” Ruth said.

“Something like that. Anyway, ‘Revolution’ didn’t do it for me.”

“You’re more a ‘Revolution 1’ kind of guy. Shoobee-doo.”

“Musically, I guess so. But I never actually paid much attention to the lyrics. If I had, that would be the version I didn’t like. John clearly said ‘But when you talk about destruction/ Don’t you know that you can count me out–in.’ In instead of out. But I never heard it that way.”

“So what’s your point?” Bud asked impatiently.

Gonna be all right

“Good question. What is my point? I guess it’s just that I believed what I was told, that they were becoming rebellious and destructive. And the words are right there: ‘But if you want money for people with minds that hate/ All I can tell is brother you have to wait.’ Have to wait. Count me out. Not very revolutionary at all, is it?”

“Revolution is in the mind of the beholder,” Ruth said. “I was a real hippy-dippy flower child back then. But I was all into the peace and love.” She sang: “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow …”

She caught a smile from Naomi and they all snickered. Someone at the other end of the table started chanting “Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine …

Fred gave a knowing chuckle. “Now that one, that was revolutionary! But way too trippy for me. So yeah, I guess I count as a conservative. More evolution than revolution. Try to change the world by working for the common good, not through hatred and destruction.”

“Well, you know/ You better free your mind instead,” Ruth sang as she and Naomi got up to bring out more refreshments from the farmhouse kitchen.

Fred watched as his daughter came skipping out of the barn. Debbie, close behind, smiled and waved at them.

“Yeah,” he said. “Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright.” He sighed and polished off his beer. “Though they should have spelled it a-l-l-space-r-i-g-h-t. Two words.”