15 May 2006

Some Of My Yesterdays

I went into a semi-popular (i.e., cheap) restaurant on one of the more colourful back streets of Soho, and asked to be seated in the dimly lit, nearly deserted room at the rear because the brightly lit front room, buzzing with energy and excitable, edgy people, is also the room where smoking is allowed.

The non-smoking room contained, counting myself, just three customers, one seated in each corner, as far as possible from each other (if you're wondering about the fourth corner, there wasn't one; that was where the hallway led into the lively but polluted room). Before I could ruminate more than a minute or two on 21st century anomie and alienation, or the fact that given the choice, the average English person will sit as far as possible from any other average English person, my train of thought was derailed by the unexpected sounds of "Penny Lane" by the Beatles.

I say unexpected because this restaurant normally features a soundtrack of cheerfully inane Europop, which can barely be heard anyway because of the boisterous crowds of poppy Europeans who socialise there. But in the morgue-like back room, seated beneath a speaker, I could hear every note and nuance of the song, one which I hadn't heard in years and hadn't really appreciated since about 1966, well, 1968 at the latest.

It faded away, and was replaced by another Beatles track, "Yesterday," which came out when I was still in high school, and which I hated for its soppy sentimentality for about the first three years, then gradually learned to appreciate, and eventually grew to love enough to include in my repertoire during my brief and unremarkable career as a restaurant and saloon piano player, circa 1985.

I wonder if this is going to be a full-fledged Beatles fest, I thought to myself, but no; the next song was by the Doors, and things looked even grimmer: another one of those dripping-with-hokey-sentiment tributes to the 60s. See, I'm normally not a big fan of oldies in general, being a firm adherent to the "nostalgia isn't what it used to be" school of thought, but while I can tolerate, even enjoy a brief set of Happy Days-style 50s pop, and go all moon-eyed and maudlin at the sound of some authentic greaser doo-wop, I draw the line at any romanticisation or idealisation of the 60s. A crap time by and for crappy people, I always say, eager to puncture the delusions of folks who've been sold a bill of goods by propagandists, fantasists, and still-stoned 60-year-old hippies and yippies.

Then the Animals' "House Of The Rising Sun" came on, and I remembered the thrill of being shown and then mastering those guitar chords, at the time the most elaborate thing I'd ever learned to play (okay, okay, so 40 years later I still haven't got much fancier), and how at Gilman the Lookouts used to butcher the same song by speeding up each verse until by the end I was just pounding on my guitar and screaming. Then the swirly little organ bit at the end gave way to "Brown Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison, and suddenly it was June of 1967, and I was marvelling at how the maples and elms lining the Gothic Victorian streets of Ypsilanti had so suddenly burst from tenuous buds into the lush, voluptuous fullness of summer as I made my way down the hill from the graveyard where I'd often spend the night.

Forty years ago, I mused, well thirty-nine, anyway; once I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to live that long. In the whole restaurant, there might not have been another person who was alive forty years ago, and here's me, for whom forty years doesn't come even close to a lifespan; now it's just an interval, a seemingly almost brief one, separating me from what should have been the halcyon days of my youth. In "Brown Eyed Girl," Van Morrison, who can't be more than a couple years older than me, was already lamenting over the lost innocence of yesteryear in 1967, and that's how I, 19-going-on-20 at the time, read it too. I was in the throes of my first doomed love affair and was already looking sadly but longingly toward a past which had largely lacked for love of any kind, doomed or otherwise.

Anticipating the Smiths by a couple decades, I was already singing "Oh what a terrible mess I've made of my life" when I'd hardly begun living it. And that, it seems, is what underpins my distaste for nostalgia. I slag off the 60s not because they were an utter and complete waste (though come on, the costumes and rhetoric were tacky beyond belief), but because deep down I feared that I had utterly and completely wasted them. They were, after all, the years I was a teenager and young adult, the years that annoying adults were always telling me to enjoy because, blah blah, they're the best years of your life, and you'll never have another chance to do the things you can now, etc., etc., and all I saw was work and school and cops and the army and Vietnam and drugs and impending old age and death.

Anyone who's ever read a self-help book has probably been advised at some point to learn to forgive their parents for past transgressions, whether real or imagined. "They did the best they could with what they knew at the time," is a typical formulation, and one which has gradually become a near-mantra for me, not just with respect to my parents, but to nearly everyone who seemingly wronged me at one time or another. Sitting in that restaurant, wondering if it was really that bad to enjoy a medley of hits from my mid t0 late teens, wondering if those years had really been as barren and unhappy and wasted as I'd always made them out to be, something finally clicked.

If I could forgive my parents, and siblings, and estranged friends and even bitter enemies on the grounds that they had done the best they could with what they knew at the time, shouldn't I be at least willing to consider cutting myself a similar degree of slack? No, my 1960s weren't exactly The Wonder Years or The Love Generation, there was little in the way of romance and lots of running from the law, but all that fear and lust and anger and frustration notwithstanding, I was intensely, fanatically alive, and the world all around me beat with that same manic intensity, like a great thumping heart that called me on to greater feats of madness while simultaneously scaring the living bejeebers out of me.

Would I want to live like that again? Could I? I'm not sure I'd like to find out. There's a pleasure in calmness today that I once would have brutally scorned. But regret is poisonous, and to let it seep into my life the way I've too often done renders calmness all but impossible. You still won't see me making excuses for bell bottoms or patchouli oil, but perhaps I've got to look a bit more closely, maybe even a bit more gently, at the 1960s and the way I spent them. Best years of my life and all that crap... Or so I've been told.


One crappy planet, one crappy people said...

Hey, what's all this regret about anyway? Come on!! You've had your share of fun. And success.

Yes the 60s are overplayed like some of those records you mentioned, but it doesn't make it/them crap. It just makes them unlistenable.

Rock on into the future!!

JAB Seattle said...

I hate van morrison!! the bastards records were always right before morrissey and it too for fucking ever to sift through them.

tim said...

Speaking of...here's a nice quote from the last song from his latest album.

I once thought that I
had numerous reasons to cry
and I did, but I don't anymore
because I am born

I like that one, especially because of who wrote it and what has come before it.

Anonymous said...

Aww...your mention of Ypsilanti reminded me of the summer I first visited the gas light district of Petosky. So beautiful...

As far as oldies, I can't say I completely agree with you. I wasn't alive at the time when they were popular so I never had to suffer through them being over played. I do agree with the sentiment, though. Just because it's old doesn't mean it's good. But, like any other era of music, I still feel like a good song is a good song. I don't care how popular, old, new, sappy, etc. it is.

Lefty said...

spot on. hard part is that, for me at 41, all time seems to be happening at a single point. so it's too easy to have some memory from 1983 pop up and seem as real as the 8-year-old kid who dominates my life now.

glad to hear that mine is not a one-man crusade against hippie baby boomer propaganda, however.