PART I: Growing up in Flyover Country
It was the early 60s, and I was living in the New Jersey countryside. Don't get snarky: yes, New Jersey does have countryside. I love the country, but it is the country, and at the age of 7, I was already bored out of my mind.
That year, my parents got me a 6 transistor radio for my birthday. I took it everywhere: to school, to the beach, to the ball park. Long before there was a Walkman, I found a way to strap it to my bicycle handlebars. I would go to sleep at night with it hidden under my pillow, tuned to 77 WABC’s “Cousin Brucie Show” as it went through the Top 10, which included Roy Orbison, Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, The Ronettes, The Crystals, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Surfaris, and Martha & the Vandellas. And then there was the Singing Nun. I actually like the Singing Nun these days, but other than those, much of the Top 10 through ’61 sucked. Same for ‘62. And ‘63.
'64 was different. The Beatles went on Ed Sullivan, and it somehow wasn’t so sucky anymore. In October, with money my dad paid me to mow the lawn, I bought my first LP. Even though all my friends were into the Beatles, I got The Rolling Stones’ 12 x 5. Not that I didn't like the Beatles: I just liked the Stones more, maybe because I was half Puerto-Rican? I had no idea because at the time I thought I was as redneck white as everybody else. But that’s another story.
I didn’t have a record player, so I had to play the LP on my parents “hi-fi”. In those days, that’s what they called almost any record player that came in floor-standing cabinets, regardless of sound quality. As a saying goes, it ain't much fun if it's legal, and playing the Rolling Stones in the living room - when it was permitted - wasn’t much fun. So the next summer I was mowing my neighbor’s lawn too. And his neighbor’s. At the end of the summer I had enough money to buy a portable record player and set it up - that is: plug it in - in my room.
By then, I had added two Beatles LPs to my collection. I played those records over and over. The needles would wear out quickly, so I was constantly running off to the record store to get a new one. Sometimes I couldn’t get there - or my parents wouldn’t get me there - and so in the meantime I would weigh down the tonearm head-shell by taping a quarter to it so that it wouldn’t skip, unaware that was a good way to wreck my records.
After I graduated grade school, I had a thriving “landscape care” business: I was mowing lawns and weeding gardens up and down and around the block. As I entered my freshman year of high school, I had enough money to buy my first component hi-fi system at the local Lafayette Radio store. I bought the integrated amplifier in kit form and put it together myself. The speakers were Lafayette too, the turntable was Garrard, and the cartridge was a Stanton.
Wow, the sound was much better. With this little setup, my life-long obsession with audio began.
That was also the year that the Jefferson Airplane album “Crown of Creation” was released. After another Stones LP, it became the 5th LP I got, and it was a big leap for me conceptually. It included songs about polyamorous relationships, getting high on LSD, going naked in public, and growing old as a hippie. The lyrics of the title track (and of the final track) were based on the post-nuclear-apocalypse science fiction novel The Chrysalids. When I was in the 4th grade, I asked a question about nuclear war in my Catholic school religion class and instead of getting a straight answer I was made to stand in the corner for the rest of the day. That gave me a lot of time to think about what was wrong with this picture, maybe not what the nun had in mind. So it blew my mind when I heard music that made me feel normal yet at the same time was so out there. I was never the same after that record.
That year also saw me buying a guitar and taking lessons. I quickly learned that I had almost zero talent.
NEXT WEEK: From Catholic high school to art school