Summertime, Betwixt and Between

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Summertime Betwixt and Between

Didn’t Want to Have to Do It, by The Lovin’ Spoonful (1966), encountered 1967

Buy it here | See it here[1] | Lyrics here

No Fair At All, by The Association (1967), encountered 1967

Buy it in a different mix here | See it in a different mix here | Lyrics here | Guitar tabs here

As I wrote in the last piece, we were leaving home.  Only not just yet.  College started in September.  There was all that time between graduation in June and matriculation in September to get through first.  This one is about getting through that summer.  It was, I think by my own choice, a rather solitary time for me, both busy and languid.

Sitting by Myself Writing

All three of us in the Gohn household withdrew into ourselves, under the shadow of the coming separation that college would bring (I was headed for the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, hundreds of miles away) – and my stepdad’s illness, mentioned in the previous entry.  Though to modern ears, conditioned by the way health care is delivered and paid for these days, it may sound incredible, it appears from the evidence that he was in the hospital for most of two months, and seriously convalescent for another month.

My mother, worn out with nursing him, changing dressings, etc., hardly wrote an entry in her diary, which was highly uncharacteristic of her.  And I nearly stopped journaling myself.  I also stopped writing to a confidante/pen pal in Rome.  I was too focused on other things.  But as a side effect, all of a sudden there isn’t much of a documentary record for a while, and I have to rely on my dangerously unreliable memories.

And what do those memories tell me?  They pretty much confirm what one little scrap of evidence tells me, a letter I wrote to my step-grandmother exactly a month after my graduation.  “My summer is perfect.  I’m not working: couldn’t find any.  So I keep my own hours – noon to 3 a.m.  I work on writing a book between 11 and 3.  Nobody calls up and there’s nothing else to do, and so there are no interruptions.  I go to every single movie I want to.  I share a fairly regular date with this other guy, and have enough friends to pass the time.  I do chores around the house, read … occasionally play tennis or billiards or canoe.  I imagine this is the last chance I’ll get in my life for this kind of existence.”

So I was keeping to myself, and writing.

The Wrong Models

My writing project: the Great American High School Novel – based, of course, on my own recent past, despite the fact that, on the evidence, I really had nothing to say about high school.  I lacked any theme.

I also was working from the wrong models.  There was Middlemarch and War and Peace and Tai Pan (which had just come out the previous year) and Kristin Lavransdatter.  And Advise and Consent (though as literature it doesn’t measure up to any of these other models, not even Tai Pan, a potboiler if there ever was one).[2]  Epics, one and all.

Now you can write about high school, or you can write epics, but you cannot do both at once.  High school is for sensitive novels about the shaping of the artist, about first love, about sports, and, now that we have YA fiction, about kids confronting various big life problems and social issues.  But, in the phraseology of this blog, it’s closeup work, not big picture material.

And even if I’d employed a reasonable focus, I had no idea about what tone to adopt, and no idea how to shape a story.

The result, of course, was that the 200 or so pages I completed that summer[3] are about as unreadable as anything I ever wrote.  I don’t think I ever supposed they were all that good, but I kept thinking I could fix it all in “post,”[4] that I could take this shapeless, toneless, theme-less mass and make something of it.

What I Was Really Getting At

And, as near as I can tell in retrospect, there was a kind of unarticulated (even to myself) design there.  The real plan was to write a story in which I got the girl.  If you’ve been reading these pieces, you know what had really happened.  Whatever else I might have accomplished in high school, I would still have had to acknowledge that I didn’t get the girl.  As Don McLean so riotously put it (“All the victories I’ve led/ Still haven’t brought you to my bed.”)[5]  But I think my inchoate hope was that by making sense of it all through a fictional reinterpretation, I could still get the real-life girl to love me.  She would read the story and see how foolish she’d been.  And she’d come to that realization by reading a story in which a character like her sees how foolish she’s been.

Glancing at this huge unfinished typescript (I can’t really bring myself to read it), I think I can see how that reinterpretation was expected to work.  The character who stood in for me would achieve a kind of moral grandeur through dealing compassionately with other characters’ difficulties and avoiding their shortcomings, persuading one or two girls (I think I hadn’t worked out the number) to fall in love with him.  Maybe, if there were two, he would break the heart of one of them because he had grown too lofty for her.

That might have been doable, in a jejune kind of way, if I’d had any idea how to plot a story, but I didn’t.  I wanted to afford the interactions of a bunch of high schoolers the kind of treatment Tolstoy gave to Russia’s Napoleonic wars or Allen Drury gave to the machinations by which the U.S. Congress came to vote on a presidential appointment.  I grasped from these sources that everything that happens is a consequence of a vast number of other events, and that providing a truly contextual understanding of anything requires the recreation of an entire web of human interactions.  What eluded me, apparently, was that no one wants a truly contextual understanding of young love.

Undeterred, I was listening to music that constituted Theme Songs to my one or two ultimate story lines.  (This time the term is actually employed more specifically; I was dreaming of having a movie made of the book, and was thinking along the lines of actually having these numbers played in it.)

The Songs

The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Didn’t Want to Have to Do It was the music for the story line having to do with the girl who didn’t quite measure up.  The singer has had to disappoint a woman who “keeps on a-tryin’/ And I knew that you’d end up a-cryin’.”  Actually, this was pretty much what had happened to me, not to the girls in my life, and I’m sure that’s the real reason it resonated so much with me.  It is an extraordinarily beautiful song, with heavy, heavy vibrato on John Sebastian’s guitar (or is it autoharp?), while in the lyrics, Sebastian is continually if reluctantly drawn to the two words “the end.”  But I’ll leave it to a pseudonymous YouTube poster to summarize in slightly technical terms what happens when Sebastian gets to “the end”:

“Absolute genius songwriting and performance. It’s not just John Sebastian’s beautiful “…the end” vocal… After he hits that beautiful Db note over the Gmaj7 chord, we have to endure Joe Butler’s gorgeous vibrato echoing “…the end” with an equally devastating A note (which makes the chord an intolerably emotional Gmaj7/9/add Db!!). But then it gets worse (better)…”[6]

Yes, it does.[7]

Meanwhile The Association’s No Fair At All was the song for the happier love story.  Jim Yester’s lyric is a scales-falling-from-the-eyes tale:

I’ve never seen the sight of you before
‘Till now.
I’ve never knew that you could feel this way
‘Till now.
After all this time we’ve spent together
Just doesn’t seem fair
At all.

“No fair at all” gets sung at the end by several voices, in something like a round, while a recorder weaves in and out.  It’s devastatingly beautiful.[8]  That scales-from-the-eyes experience conjured up by the song, of course, is what I wanted to happen to the girl in my life.  I wanted to be seen in all my magnificence.  And since in real life I was a little deficient in the magnificence department, and she seemed quite content to keep the scales on her eyes, fiction was the only route to that experience.

I know that The Association never gained much respect, as their music was too pretty, and too closely orchestrated.  With around six male voices it could call on, and some slick arrangers, it could be called ear candy.  (Although I challenge anyone to say that about their anti-war song Requiem for the Masses.)[9]  I’ve never liked putdowns like “ear candy.”  If it’s moving, say I, it’s good.  So I wear my heart on my sleeve unapologetically for the Association.

Still, I’ll grant you that it was no summer for profundity.  As exemplified by the book I was trying to write, I lacked enough depth, perception, experience to do anything except wait for the seasoning that college was about to bring me.


[1]   This video is someone’s very personal collection of the images he/she associates with the song, interspersed with some stills of the Lovin’ Spoonful.  But the sound is crystal clear and gorgeous.

[2]   To be fair, Advise and Consent (1959), a Pulitzer Prize-winner, still has page-turning qualities; most of its sequels are unreadable rubbish marred by an utterly loony right-wing world-view.  The steep decline in the quality of Drury’s fiction has led to him being almost utterly forgotten.  But he did move youngsters to embrace politics.  Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s speechwriter, has been quoted as saying that all the baby boomers in the Reagan White House “had read Advise and Consent and at least one other of Allen Drury’s wonderful old novels about Washington. We had read them in the Sixties, when we were young, and they were part of the reason we were here.”  I think what Drury managed to do was animate the process, the procedural rules of political bodies, and legislative life, and make it seem not only overwhelmingly important but enormously interesting.

[3]   There are over 400 pages in my incomplete typescript, but I think half of them may have been written the following summer.

[4]   A bit of film-maker slang my older son taught me when he was being a film-maker, short, of course, for post-production.  It’s such a handy phrase I find myself mentally using it all the time.

[5]   Everybody Loves Me, Baby from American Pie (1971)

[6]  Quoting a poster called blackmore4 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfqwx7pMsqs .

[7]   It wouldn’t be accurate to suggest that that was the only Lovin’ Spoonful song I was playing over and over again that summer.  I was actually going through the entire Best of the Lovin’ Spoonful album (released in March) again and again.  I’d dubbed a tape of it on reel-to-reel from my friend Walter’s copy.

[8]   It should be strenuously noted here that the version I listened to all that summer is not the one widely commercially available today.  For some reason, when the song was remastered somewhere along the line, the mix in which the lead was sung by Jim Yester was wiped out, and the ensemble carries the melody in harmony.  I prefer it with Yester front and center.

[9]   Bruce Eder claims in his entry on The Association at Allmusic that Requiem for the Masses was “a searing social indictment, originally dealing with the death of boxer Davy [sic] Moore.”  I can find no evidence in the text of the song, admittedly somewhat abstract, that it has anything to do with Davey Moore.  Perhaps Terry Kirkman, who wrote it, has said so.  Absent such information, anyone hearing the song when it came out in 1967 would have thought it was talking about soldiers and war.  I did and do.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for commercial images

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