October 9, 2004
Joyce Maynard/Woody Allen

Nostalgia In Extremis

    As a general rule, I like to like people. Or at least I like it when something or someone gives me a good reason to like liking people, because otherwise, I have a tendency to act paranoid and tell people all the things I don’t like about them. Someone once called me “Old Fish-and-Chips.” I think it was Miss America who called me that. Maybe I just had bad breath that day? No, it was probably because I carp a lot and have a chip on my shoulder; I once told that woman that everything about her was phony. I didn’t believe her when she said that her interests included playing tennis and riding horses. Her constant smiling and sappy “I love the world” pronouncements were the last straw. I wonder if she loves Pete Seeger?

    Movie idea: A dramatic, serious social commentary on overachievers in a society where looks are valued over brains or personality. This film stars Miss America, saving the world and solving crimes with one hand while riding horseback the whole time. With the other hand she constantly plays tennis, but she never actually returns a serve because the term "love" represents her personality (and what it stands for, "zero," represents her IQ). Eventually she teams up with the other do-gooders of the world like Lassie—who not only fetches dropped tennis balls but pilots helicopters and saves children—until everyone in the group is convicted of income tax evasion.

    As I was saying, the banjo-toting Pete Seeger brought out the good side in me. He took away all those negative feelings I had, even the ones about whacking Miss America over the head with his banjo. I don’t know what it was about him—maybe his hillbilly-in-training wardrobe, maybe just the way his voice sounded like a rhinoceros with indigestion—but something about the guy made me want to run off and join the Peace Corps.

    Thought: Maybe I subconsciously disliked Pete and actually just wanted to run away to escape his corny songs? Either way, he reminded me that I like being tolerant of people.

    Down-to-earth, that was Pete Seeger through and through. I think that’s why he was popular. He wasn’t at all pretentious, and he knew he wasn’t perfect; in fact, the more his flaws, the more people liked him. Pete didn’t care about interruptions, either. You could start demonically spinning your head à la Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” and Pete wouldn’t object as long as the altos and mezzo-sopranos in the crowd weren’t being drowned out by the baritone voice of the demon that was possessing you. Maybe that’s exaggerating, but basically, if someone had to sneeze, cough up a lung or convulse violently, Seeger wouldn’t complain. It didn’t do much for the rhythm, though—it’s hard to clap to the beat of incessant sneezing and wheezing.

    Another thought: How come all those demonic presences in the movies never speak in a high-pitched voice? Don’t they get sore throats from all that bellowing and growling? I think we ought to hire Pete Seeger, doing an impression of Linda Blair singing, and have him re-dub the dialogue in “The Exorcist.”

    Anyway, Pete Seeger made his crowds feel special. Not just because we could sing “We Shall Overcome” in harmony, but because he gave us a warm feeling on the inside. It really could have been heartburn, I suppose, but we got a strong sensation one way or the other and just hoped that if it was food-related, that particular entrée would stay down through the last verse of “We Shall Overcome.” On a serious note, we once sang that song and dedicated it to the memory of the civil-rights activists who died in Mississippi. Another time, Pete asked us to form a circle and sing “This Land Is Your Land.” I never felt that patriotic when singing the national anthem at a basketball game. Inside a sports arena, when 300-plus people are all standing there belting out a melody, it feels like we’re just going through the motions… it’s like patriotic groupthink.

    Seeger may not have been much to look at and he may not have had anywhere near perfect pitch, but I never once felt like a mechanical jingo. I remember singing “This Land Is Your Land.” I’ll admit it: Part of me was muttering, “It’s just as much my land as it is yours, buddy… let’s see the deed with your name on it.” But at least I could put some emotion into it, and the song was still stirring. Some of those tunes were so emotionally enthralling that I would become almost mesmerized. Pete could’ve said to “throw your sweater into the bonfire” or “jump off a cliff” and I probably would have—even if I wasn’t wearing a sweater or standing near any cliffs. Pete and his songs were that powerful.

    Thought: How come we never sing songs other than the national anthem at sporting events? Wouldn’t it be fun to have a room full of people trying to remember the lyrics to “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” or “Guantanamera”? Or we could have Pete Seeger singing into the play-by-play commentator’s microphone, crooning some all-American song like “This Land Is Your Land.” Then, once everyone is entranced, they could be given a posthypnotic suggestion, such as “You will go buy a Pete Seeger album, but not before donating $10 to the Peace Corps.”

    When I was eight, Joan Baez came into my life. My friends began to like her, as well. The raven-haired hippie wore clothes that made me think she’d hired a seamstress to fashion a dress from a horse’s feedbag. If Miss America had been alive back then, her pony would have starved. When Joan’s first record came out, we were already calling her Joan “Baze”;  clearly, thinking up clever nicknames was not our forte. It wasn’t long until we amputated Joan’s last name entirely, but we still loved her album and played songs like “Silver Dagger” and “Wildwood Flower” until the record warped from overuse.

    Around that same time, my sister began to worship Joan Baez. Having converted, she began growing her hair long, wearing flip-flops and making pilgrimages to Harvard Square, the Mecca of Joanism. Meanwhile, I started plucking the strings of a hapless guitar and calling it practice; the guitar would have called it ritual abuse.

    Anyway, my friends and I loved everything that was Joan. We loved her voice, her songs; we idolized what Joan stood for. In our minds, she was the modern-day Joan of Arc. She had all the qualities of the 15th-century heroine, except Joan Baez was never burned at the stake—not even by people who hated her singing. I think she was admired because she was a free spirit. I’ve come to realize the irony of the fact that thousands of people, myself included, followed her in the name of individualism, which is what she stood for.

    Thought: I had a dream about Joan of Arc last night. It didn’t have anything to do with Joan Baez or Pete Seeger. The Maid of Orleans was sitting in a restaurant, ordering a steak. That’s pretty stupid. Maybe I’ll just write a short story about another dream of mine instead, like the one where a tape recording of my high-school history teacher keeps repeating “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System” while my dog translates Orwell’s “1984” into Pig Latin.

    Know who I was just thinking about? Jackie Kennedy. Compared to Pete Seeger, she was practically flawless. In my mind, she was too dignified to be capable of “ordinary” behaviors; incomprehensible was the notion that she might use the washroom, perspire on a warm day or even be seen in casual clothing. There were entire books showing Jackie doing common activities with uncommon panache. Normal people wore jeans and a T-shirt to do some painting—and wound up having painted more of themselves than the room. Jackie did her painting in semiformal attire, never spilling a drop of paint.

    I remember envying Jackie’s aplomb. Regardless of what she was doing, she made it look enjoyable. Spending a day at the beach never looked so attractive an activity, and who knew that riding elephants—India’s version of taking a taxi—could be done so gracefully? Jackie was so perfect that I wanted to be reincarnated as her, save for the whole dying-first ordeal. I also hoped she’d volunteer to repaint my house.

    The fact that I practically worshipped Jackie Kennedy didn’t conflict with my adoration of Joan Baez. Joan, for all that she stood for, was clearly human. Jackie wasn’t. She was the ideal woman. When she married “Rumpelstiltskin,” as I called him, I was devastated.

    Movie idea: After a close inspection of the birth certificate, Jacqueline Kennedy discovers that her husband’s name really is Rumpelstiltskin. The two consider how they are ever going to fit that on the luggage tags; this dilemma causes more problems down the road. Eventually, they decide that if Joseph “Man of Steel” Stalin can swing it—his birth name was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili—then so can they. So the Kennedys simply use “The President” and “The First Lady” for the damn suitcases, thereby averting any future crises.

    I was disgusted to read the Ladies’ Home Journal article that talked about Mrs. Kennedy. I found out that she was human, after all. I only read a few pages before feeling ill, but maybe the cheap-perfume-laden pages were what made me queasy. But suddenly I no longer cared about Jackie. The article wasn’t pretty. The devastating reality was a letdown. I had been setting myself up for a fall, I suppose; surely I would have found out the truth sooner or later, but all I could think about was Jackie Kennedy being “one of us.” She was never the same to me. After that fateful day, I never painted my house again.

    I have a confession to make that may shock some readers. I do not want anybody to go into cardiac arrest, so if you have a heart condition, please stop reading immediately. This may seem hard to believe, but there was a time when I didn’t know who the Beatles were. I’m part of the last generation of people who can say that. My friends and I were fifth-graders when Ed Sullivan introduced the British phenomenon to the States. I remember the earsplitting shrieks and screeches of crazed girls; it was a sound that pretty much overpowered any decibel level that the Beatles could achieve. I imagine that glass objects all over America were shattering that night.

    Lengthy Aside Number One: I actually think that there is great potential for a short documentary. Not about the Beatles; the girls. Keep in mind that these were the same girls who, in preparation for the concerts, would have makeup parties. I once made the mistake of attending one. These females start ripping out their eyebrows, rubbing stuff on one another's cheeks and putting on mascara until they begin to look like linebackers for the Saint Louis Rams. Once these girls get to the Beatles concerts, they begin making noises normally associated with small chimpanzees. (The stampedes, however, more resemble the behavioral patterns of water buffalo.) The girls scared the living daylights out of me, but that documentary will be great of course, it's best suited to the Discovery Channel. If she was still around, I'd ask Diane Fossey to direct it. After all, the crazy ladies did everything but peel bananas with their toes and scamper up trees to fling mud at people. Well, not all of them did, anyway

    Aside Numero Dos: Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness the power of those screaming fans? If we could convert it to electricity, the entire Eastern Seaboard would be glowing for years. Alternatively, the noise could be used to drown out noisy steel factories and airplane takeoffs. When we ran out of power, we’d have to “recharge” by somehow making girls scream at that level of intensity again. Oh, forget it; let’s first figure out how to get our hands on such energy. I only hope that a force of such magnitude never falls into evil hands, or the free world will be in peril.

    Unlike the other girls, I didn’t feel compelled to go crazy for the Beatles. I didn’t have any real reason to cry, swoon, screech at decibel levels only audible to dogs, or go into epileptic seizures. Yet when I heard “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for the first time, it was exciting. At the time, I likened it to the creation of a new color; today, I still don’t understand my own analogy.

    I’m one of the people who remembers both life “sans Beatles” and “with Beatles.” The latter felt like I’d grown up right along with them. I can’t quite describe how I feel, but I’m somehow put out when I see these recent generations of young fans beginning to experience the band and play those old tunes. The only thing worse is those who dismiss the Beatles in favor of these new, ersatz imposters. I’ve been through a lot with the Beatles seemingly right there with me, so I guess I can’t expect everyone to understand how I feel. But I have bittersweet memories of John, Paul, Ringo and George.

    It sounds strange, but a lot of what I remember is fragmented. I can think of particular songs and names, but not many details. The only really clear memories are of specific events, like George’s reply of “Arthur” when a reporter asked what he called his haircut. Some of the more unpleasant recollections, such as anything involving Yoko Ono, can’t be shaken. Oddly enough, the Beatles’ dissolution was a sort of liberation. I could actually love them once more, in the same way that a grandparent’s death gives us back our fond memories. I think it’s because once a person is gone, any tension and unpleasantness also fades away. In this case, it was a band, rather than a single person, that had “died.”

    Note to self: Stop sounding so serious all the time. People are going to think you’ve got something meaningful to say. Here’s a pointless idea: Call up my neighbors and say to them, “I have a large wax buildup.” Then, when they suggest that I really should be telling this to the doctor, laugh cryptically and explain that what I said just means “I have a big record collection, the Beatles in particular.” Once the bewildered neighbor has hung up, call the pharmacist and see if he’s done filling the prescription that the shrink gave me… then delete this paragraph before anyone reads it.

    Regardless of what you think of the Beatles, you have to admit they left their mark. We young people felt empowered, because for once it was someone other than a stuffy old geezer of a politician who was getting noticed. The Beatles weren’t that much older than us, yet they were successful. Of course, we wouldn’t have minded experiencing some of that financial achievement more directly. I always hoped that the foursome would announce their plans to “share the wealth” with all the kids who bought Beatles albums.

    That never happened, but still, there was a fair trade. The Beatles gave us hope, so we gave them our attention. Some of us also gave them our undying love, in the form of shrill shrieking noises. The more expressive ladies tried other means of expressing their never-ending passion, pulling stunts like fainting, making random hand gestures and writing notes threatening suicide if Ringo didn’t propose the very next day.

    Speaking of loving the Beatles, I was 10 or 11 when I realized that any feelings I felt for them were superficial—not to mention highly unlikely, short of an act of God forcing their airplane to make an emergency landing in my front yard. I discovered the truth: I was in love with romance itself. I wanted to dance, hold hands, drink milkshakes and ride merry-go-rounds. There was one little problem, namely, I didn’t have a boyfriend. Holding hands with myself seemed about as likely a proposition as holding hands with Paul. Some girls were more optimistic regarding their nonexistent chances with a Beatle, and these ladies had become convinced that purchasing Beatles merchandise somehow improved their odds. The infatuation usually faded away, though, and they went in pursuit of more attainable targets like the Dave Clark Five and the Beach Boys.

    Idea for informational leaflet: The advantages, both health-related and romantic, of correctly sequencing the activities you have planned for a date. For example, going on the merry-go-round should come before that milkshake-drinking contest with your girlfriend. Then there is a section called “Mind Your Manners,” which contains tips about behaviors that might ruin the date. Holding hands with more than one woman while in the theater is a bad idea, as is twirling your girlfriend in the general direction of a soda spill when you’re dancing. Thought: This above idea would also make a pretty funny poem…

    Things changed with the emergence of the Rolling Stones. Rolling Stones really don’t gather any moss. (The fact that a Rolling Stone never gathers no Kate Moss is another matter…) The group was continuously popular. They were completely different in appearance, and their attitude was rather unusual, too. It wasn’t about being romantic; it was about getting “Satisfaction” and “girly action.” And I kept hearing instructions to “gang the groover,” whatever that meant. I felt strange when I watched the Stones. The way they breathed, the way they moved, the look in Jagger’s eyes… I didn’t know what to make of it. I felt “with it” when the Beatles were around; the Stones made me feel left behind and very much “without it.” They were beyond me and ahead of my time; I didn’t understand them.

    I didn’t hold it against them, though; it felt painful and pleasant at the same time. A guilty pleasure, perhaps? Mick Jagger seemed to enjoy having an attitude of contempt. Charlie Watts always looked like he was up to something, especially when Sullivan shook his hand, saying, “Nice work, boys.” The way Jagger moved was sort of a funny chicken strut, while the Beatles looked like they had bungee cords in their shoes. Keith Richards looked like a real tough, gruff guy. I imagined the type of girls that the Stones hung out with… probably surly, smoking females with red hair, tattoos and painfully large boots.

    Afterthought: Well, that’s how I pictured the Stones and their girls, anyway. I guess I’ll never know, but as long as they’re not riding horses, swinging tennis rackets or claiming to love everyone, they’re okay by me. See? I can tolerate people. Now where’s Seeger gotten to? I want to borrow that banjo for a minute…