Pop rocks

This Father’s Day, remember the best of dad’s musical generation

His jacket was scratchy wool, but I still snuggled into it. He reeked of cigarettes and Old Spice. My dad was standing in a parking lot next to a storefront Kingdom Hall on Highway 101 with me in his arms. I don’t remember why I was upset, but we were out in the chilly night, and he was rocking me and singing under his breath:

“Sittin’ in the balcony / just watchin’ the movie. / Just sittin’ in the balcony / in the very last row.” Eddie Cochran. Mmm hmm.

Of all the gifts my father gave me, the music of his generation has been among the most pleasurable. Sometimes it’s a comfort; sometimes it’s music to clean house by. Like most people, I mark time by what songs were popular (and please, please don’t send me back to that terrible year in high school that was book-ended by “Afternoon Delight” and “You Light Up My Life”). But the music that’s stuck with me the longest is the music I first heard with my dad. For a fellow who couldn’t carry one to save his life, he sure loved his tunes. Last Father’s Day, my dad had been dead only a few weeks and I found myself in a high state of pissed off—at him for dying on me, and at everybody else for celebrating the day with their own fathers, still very much alive enough to rock.

What I had was his 1971 vintage Fisher stereo, along with the massive collection of vinyl that made up my inheritance. In the year I’ve spent listening to more albums than any reasonable person would keep, I’ve been able to let go of some of the anger, shed a few necessary tears and find a deep appreciation for how Pop rocked his way through life.

Some of his choices were, frankly, weird. He had a stack of Sheb Wooley & Ben Colder albums, and what seems like every Redd Foxx record ever cut. In the pre-Sanford and Son days, Foxx was incredibly … well, “off-color” puts it mildly. I had no idea. Dad protected my innocent ears—he must only have played those records after midnight.

But the real fun is the rock: Chuck Berry. Cochran. Fats Domino. Gene Vincent. Buddy Holly. And, of course, Elvis. There’s plenty of country, too, but it’s from before country left its folk roots: lots of Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, and one perversely wonderful album by a fellow named Claude King that includes a rollicking hillbilly song called “Pistol-Packin’ Papa.”

Dad worked the night shift at the plywood plant to support both his racing habit and his family. He generally spent his mornings working on his race car—a 1963 Impala Super Sport 409 called “Keep a Knockin’,” after the Little Richard song—with the stereo playing through an open door between the house and garage. The Beach Boys: “409,” of course, but also “I Get Around” and “Heroes and Villains.” Classic guitar rock: Cochran’s “Fourth Man Theme” and anything by Duane Eddy.

But Dad wasn’t stuck in the past. One incredible morning, he opened his battered black lunch box, held closed with a piece of coat hanger that he’d twisted into a latch, and pulled out a single with a funky green and orange label. It was “Bad Moon Rising” by some band called Creedence Clearwater Revival. “You’ve gotta hear these, guys Maida,” he told my mother.

She was less than impressed, since her tastes at that time ran more toward Bobby Vinton.

Maybe most people have a handful of songs that remind them of their pop. My mother can’t hear “Goodnight Irene” without mentioning her father. I’m luckier than most. Anything from Nervous Norvus singing “Transfusion” to Tom Petty’s “The Last DJ” reminds me of my dad. When it came to rock ’n’ roll, country, folk, pop or something with the appeal of a 10-year-old boy’s fart joke (think Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling”), Dad loved it.

When I brought home Born to Run in 1975, I played it for Dad. He was reading a Hot Rod magazine. Because he didn’t look up, I thought he didn’t like it. But as the last notes of “Backstreets” faded away, he said, “That guy’s pretty good. Turn it over. Let’s hear the other side.”

When I left for college, he kept the Springsteen. I got it back last year.

Ten treasures from Dad’s trove
1967: It’s the year Elvis got married. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire—literally—for the first time. The Monkees gave us a few laughs and some surprisingly long-lasting pop. The Bee Gees broke through with “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” and if we’d known what it would lead to, we’d have invested in white polyester and mirror balls. Otis Redding died. The Supremes made girl-groups chic. And there was some memorable music that wasn’t recorded by the Beatles.

Dad brought home a lot of records in ’67; that’s the year we upgraded from a portable turntable to one of those television-stereo combos that took up half the living room but sounded great. Forty years on, his musical gifts to me keep on giving—and I can tell you, they still sound better on vinyl.

The Rolling Stones, Between the Buttons. Most memorable for the shocking “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Remember the rule, though: The Stones were for bad boys and the Beatles were for good boys. My dad was a bad boy.

The Byrds, Younger Than Yesterday. Now we call it Americana. Then it was “psychedelic folk.” I loved the upended lyrics to “My Back Pages,” and spent a lot of time singing “I was so much older then. / I’m younger than that now.” Still true.

And speaking of Americana, ’67 was the year that Bob Dylan cleaned up John Wesley Harding. His version turned the outlaw into the sort of anti-hero that dominated the next decade. It’s an uneven album, but “All Along the Watchtower” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” more than make up for the low points.

Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow. Once you get past the big hits—and who can knock “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”—there’s the classic “psychedelic” sound. I can testify that an altered state of mind is not necessary to enjoy this album. Or maybe being in the first grade is an altered state of mind. But “Plastic Fantastic Lover” raised some uncomfortable questions for a 7-year-old, and this album disappeared. My mom probably hid it so I’d quit asking.

Nancy Sinatra’s Country, My Way. This follow-up to her 1966 smash Boots has an edgy cover of “Help Stamp Out Loneliness,” plus other country standards that she took for a pop spin, like a duet with Lee Hazelwood on “Jackson.” “Sultry” doesn’t begin to describe those incredible blue leatherette pants Nancy’s wearing on the cover—that gal’s hot enough to melt the record inside. We had all her albums. My dad had a crush on her. So did I. At one point, he bought me a pair of go-go boots just like hers. I suspect Dad wanted me to grow up to look like her. I wanted to grow up to date her. We both were disappointed.

Was there any point in time at which “Light My Fire” wasn’t a great radio song? And did anyone not buy The Doors? It has to be the best debut album of all time. Hide the matches from the kids; you know they’ll take it literally.

That same year, the Doors also released Strange Days. None of this “one album a year” crap; in those days, bands had a work ethic. This album had a disturbing “freak show” cover: If clowns scare you, stay away from the strong man and the dwarf. But play the record.

“He’s gonna die if he don’t get off them damn pills,” was Dad’s shocked response to how sick Johnny looks on the cover of Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash & June Carter. They weren’t married yet, and the title was a jab at all the rumors about their, well, carryin’ on. The biggest hit was “Jackson,” of course, followed by a cover of Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” But don’t miss the hilariously sexy “Long-Legged Guitar-Pickin’ Man” and the scorching cover of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman.”

The Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed. Most people just remember “Nights in White Satin,” but this album musically compressed an entire relationship into a single day. Or maybe it was all of history into one day. I’m never very clear on what the Moody Blues mean.

Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron/Snoopy and His Friends, by the Royal Guardsmen. Go ahead, laugh. But one whole side of this bubble-gum pop record was taken up with a trilogy of Snoopy and the Red Baron stories and songs: “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” “The Return of the Red Baron” and “Snoopy’s Christmas.” The little dog in a Sopwith Camel saved the world. C’mon, sing it with me: “10, 20, 30, 40, 50 or more …” Well, what did you expect? I was 7 years old.