Songs of My Life: In My Room


songsofmylifeDave and I met Grandma after we moved in with the Beckmans. Obviously not our grandma but nor was she John and Jim’s grandma on Uncle Jack’s side. Mary Welch was a friend of Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s after they got married. Living in an apartment next door to John and Mary Welch they became good friends. John Welch was postmaster of Deerfield and Mary Welch worked at Lighting Products, a company on the outskirts of Waukegan that made lighting fixtures. They did not have children of their own. After John Welch passed away of a heart attack, Mary Welch adopted John and Jim as grandchildren. The Beckmans, in return, adopted her as Grandma.

When I first met Grandma she reminded me of Etta, a great aunt that lived with Grandma & Grandpa on my Dad’s side. But this Grandma was actually the complete opposite. Etta was a sister of my grandma or grandpa. She lived with them but we never actually interacted with her. She was an older and scarier version of my Grandma. John and Jim’s Grandma was very nice, wonderful, lovely, beautiful. I don’t remember exactly when I met her but she would occasionally come over for dinner, especially holidays. She was also John and Jim’s babysitter. Dave and I no longer needed a babysitter. She wasn’t so much a babysitter for John and Jim as she would play a referee.

Within the first week, Dave and I learned that besides cutting the lawn at Aunt Joyce and Uncle’s house, we also would cut Grandma’s lawn. The real trick was getting the Beckman’s lawnmower over to Grandma’s – she didn’t own one. Since they only had one car, one of us would go with Uncle Jack the evening before and drop the lawnmower off in her garage. There was plenty of room in the garage. Grandma didn’t own a car either.

John, Jim and Aunt Joyce showed Dave and I the path to ride our bikes to Grandma’s. From Wilmot road, we would cut through Woodland Elementary (Dave and Jim’s school), to Greenwood, to Broadway to Somerset to Prairie, which was just fields at the time, to Hazel to Forest which sloped downward, to Walnut to Chestnut, crossing at the light on Deerfield Road to Grandma’s house on the southeast corner. There were other ways to get there but they would be the wrong way. We would try these ‘other ways’ as the four of us would sometimes race to get there.

The general rule with mowing was everyone did a bag. Mowing a lawn without collecting the grass was considered uncouth. My Dad never collected the grass. This same process was followed both at home and at Grandma’s. The process of cutting the lawn at Grandma’s was pretty much the same – we would park our bikes on her driveway and knock on her backdoor to say we were there to cut her lawn. One of us would start, by the time we had each done a bag full, Grandma would have come out with a soda for each of us. Many times her lawn would only take a bag each. Aunt Joyce would weed or plant flowers depending on the season, or talk with Grandma about Lighting Products. Aunt Joyce used to work there with Grandma.

I loved talking Grandma about plants and she was a great listener. She had a flower garden on the east part of her property that we would walk together pointing out how the various plants were doing. Plants were something Grandma and I could bond over. Every holiday she would send the most beautiful flower arrangements from the Deerfield Blossom Shop. We would be eager to show her interesting flowers the Blossom Shop would use in her arrangements when she would come over for the holidays.

One of my worse memory after moving in the Beckmans occurred during one our lawn cutting sessions. There were two parkways we would need to cut, one on Chestnut and one on Deerfield Road. The one on Deerfield Road was tricky. Besides the big oak or walnut there, Deerfield was a busy road and it was a little nerve racking cutting that first strip right next to the road. The other issue with that parkway was the water pipe that stuck up by the sidewalk near the driveway and the tree. You had to be careful mowing around it because it stuck up pretty high but not as high as the picture to the right. Unfortunately, during one of my earlier times mowing at Grandma’s around the water pipe, there was a loud thud. The lawnmower, while still running, rattled like crazy and sounded terrible. I had hit the water pipe with the lawnmower. So I turned it off and got Aunt Joyce.

Uncle Jack stopped by Grandma’s on the way home from work to check out the lawnmower. I started it up and as soon as he heard the engine’s mangled growl and saw it vibrate. “Turn it off!” he yelled. He was pissed.

“Didn’t you see that pipe there?” he yelled.

“Yes,” I stammered. ” I was trying to get close.”

“God Dammit,” he said – one of his favorite curses I would learn.

It was the first time I saw Uncle Jack get angry at me. Needless to say, it would not be the last. Grandma knew I was scared. She could have predicted Uncle Jack’s reaction. Apparently, I had broken a ‘Lawn Boy’, which was a very expensive lawn mower. I didn’t know there were even different types of lawn mowers at the time.

The Lawn Boy was brought into the shop but there was no fixing it. I had broken the drive shaft. The whole lawnmower would have to be replaced. A few weeks later when Grandma was ‘babysitting’ us, she talked to me about the Uncle Jack and the Lawn Boy. She told me to give Uncle Jack time. Everyone knows it was an accident. Once there was a new lawnmower everything will be in the past. Just be careful around that water pipe. I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be a next time.

Within a few weeks with the new lawnmower, we were cutting the grass at Grandma’s again. With the bag rotations, I ended up doing the parkway with the water pipe. Everyone knew the care I had taken around the water pipe by the long grass I left around the pipe. In the months and years later. There would be comments about being careful and not to break the lawnmower. The sting of the comments faded and eventually turned into jokes. Which I would eventually accept. Cutting the grass at Grandma’s once again became a family activity. And we would take our turns cutting the grass and sitting with Grandma on the stoop, drinking our sodas.

In the winter after a snow storm, we would be driven over to shovel her driveway and sidewalks, mainly so Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack could pull their car into her driveway. Grandma very generous, slipping each of us a few dollars that we would refuse. Then she would force the money into our hands with instructions not to tell Aunt Joyce or Uncle Jack.

That Christmas Dave and I learned just how generous Grandma could be. Underneath the tree that morning were two stereos, one for each bedroom. We were excited to receive such extravagant gifts. These were clearly marked ‘from Grandma’. Each stereo came with 8-track player – the latest in audio quality. So each of us received an 8-track tape. When I was writing this story I ask Dave, Jim and John if they remember what 8-tape they received. None of them could remember. I could never forget, I received The Beach Boy’s ‘Endless Summer’.

As excited as we were to receive the stereos, we were not allowed to start the process of setting up them up since church was merely three hours away and we had to get ready. So Dave and I explored all the contents of the box the stereo came in. On the way to and from church, I read the pamphlet that accompanied our stereo so I would be prepared to set it up when we got home.

We picked up Grandma from her church, she was a devout Catholic and went to Holy Cross in Deerfield off Waukegan Road. We were Lutheran and went to Zion Lutheran Church on Deerfield Road. Holy Cross was on the way home for us. This was a pretty normal routinee for the holidays – picking Grandma up on the way home to spend time and share a holiday meal. This year, we boys, thanked her profusely for the new stereos. And when we got home, we piled out of the car, we ran to our bedrooms to change and began setting up our stereos to show them off to her. Dave and I needed shelves to put our speakers on since there was nowhere else in our room to put them. For the time being, we propped them up on each of our beds. Grandma came to each room and properly admired the gifts she had given us. So John and Jim had the radio playing our of theirs. It would be a number of months before I realized Dave and I needed to connect the power cord to the radio antenna ground post to get FM stations so Dave and I did could not get the FM radio to work that morning. So instead of the radio, we soon had ‘Surfin’ Safari’ playing from the speakers. Soon a ‘stereo war’ broke out as Dave and I challenged Jim and John. Grandma stood in the hallway cringing and Aunt Joyce came down laughing as we tried to out do each other. Uncle Jack yelled at us to turn them down and warned of future infractions.

Later that afternoon after Christmas dinner, Grandma’s generosity continued as she presented us with another gift, a gift certificate for Deerfield Record Shop so we could get another 8-track, an album or more 45’s. Unfortunately, Grandma, with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack did not know what they had released in me with this introduction to the world of music. It would turn out to be a lifetime interest, collecting, social connections and, for a little while, a career that revolved around music. While we were already buying 45’s, 8-tracks brought me a long way to my future obsession.

At the time, 8-track tapes offered a higher quality for music and the convenience to allow people to bring their music with them for the first time. 8-Tracks were originally developed Ampex Magnetic Tape Company, Lear Jet Company and RCA Records but embraced by Ford Motors in the Fall of 1965. Ford started offering 8-track stereo in all their cars. It knocked out the original 4-track tape, though they were only available in California. By the time we had received our stereos from Grandma, 8-Tracks were their peak. While cassette tapes were already available for recording purposes, they were deemed inferior to 8-tapes due to their low fidelity.

The technology of 8-tracks were great. OK, not really. First there was the annoying ‘click-CLUNK’ when the player switched from one program to the next. A program was collection of songs on the album. There were 4 programs per 8-track and two tracks for each song (left and right) which is why they were called ‘8-tracks’. Typically two programs would make up one side of an album. As we got more 8-tracks, we would learn that sometimes to avoid long periods of silence at the end of program, the record company would split the song over two programs. So in the middle of the song it would fade out, click to the next program and fade back in. That was annoying.

‘Endless Summer’ introduced me to not only The Beach Boys but to fandom. A few weeks later I would declare myself a Beach Boys fan. Endless Summer was originally released June of ’74. It was a brilliant move on Micheal Love’s part. ‘Endless Summer’ spent almost 3 years on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. But it was not only MY introduction to The Beach Boys, but also for millions of young people who had not heard of them since their fade from the music scene which began in 1967. The ‘Endless Summer’ double album greatest hits was a perfect 8-track that hid the fading problems of 8-track tapes during the height of their popularity. It was a perfect album to take advantage of 8-track’s portability.

‘Endless Summer’ set a pattern on how I would listen to music in the coming years. My sister Hope taught me how to shuffle and bridge cards. So I would perfect my shuffling  technique while playing solitaire. So as our 8-track collect would grow or the occasional stack of 45’s, I would listen to music. Eventually, vinyl records become my primary media format for my listening/solitaire sessions.

The Beach Boys were my first band – Alan Jardine, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson and Micheal Love. For a young boy they were like my first girlfriend. I loved anything they did. They opened my eyes to the world around me. They changed how I looked at myself and others. And yes, they would eventually disappoint me. But that was years away and I had a lot to learn. I was an eager student.

‘Endless Summer’ was soon joined with another Beach Boys collection – ‘Spirit of America‘, another double album greatest hits, though more secondary hits. It was from their illustrated portraits on ‘Endless Summer’ that I decided I wanted to grow a beard. They were my first representation of ‘cool’ in band form. The Beatles were right there too but their Red and Blue Greatest Hits were still another year away for Dave and I.

I remember watching an awards show one evening and the nominees were ‘The Beatles’, ‘The Rolling Stones’, ‘The Beach Boys’ and ‘The Kinks’. I was actually surprised that The Beach Boys didn’t win – surely The Beatles were not better than The Beach Boys! It showed how biased and how nieve I was about music. I would learn alot in the years to come. But in the beginning of 1976, The Beach Boys ruled my ears.

Even as I became a Beach Boys fan it was always about their music. I didn’t read much about them. I didn’t really care what they looked like (except most of them had beards). I didn’t know their historical place as a Rock ‘n’ Roll archetype. I enjoyed their music. The more I heard – the more I wanted to hear. I learned their names and understood Brian Wilson was the band’s leader. That summer they released ’15 Big Ones’ and the Chuck Berry cover ‘Rock and Roll Music’ was a huge hit for them.

In 1976 ‘Happy Days‘ was near the top ten for TV shows, making it to #1 the following year. Their theme song,  “Happy Days” written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, was released as a single that year peaking at #5. Another notable oldie released that year was The Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life.” This was The Beatles first single since they broke up 6 years earlier. It was released to promote their ‘Rock and Roll Music‘ compilation. So The Beach Boys were not the only ones riding a wave of nostalgia that year. There was a lot of nostalgia that year as we celebrated the Bicentennial that year.

Today when you think about ‘comeback bands’ – bands that had drifted into obscurity only to reclaim their relevancy – people typically think of Aerosmith and Heart. While The Beach Boys didn’t reclaim their full relevancy, they did become standard fare for the next 20 years for the Summer Concert scene. While this would be a huge success for any band, you have to know that The Beach Boys were once as popular as The Beatles – until the ‘Smile’ album.

While The Beach Boys started out Brian Wilson’s vocal instruments of surf music, it was soon apparent he wasn’t just any songwriter. Brian Wilson was gifted. Sure he cranked out songs about something The Beach Boys never did – surf (with the exception of Dennis Wilson) and the California culture – at a three album a year pace! But by their ninth album, ‘Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)‘ (which spawned ‘Help Me, Rhonda‘ and ‘California Girls‘) the music industry was well aware of Brian’s talent. So when he wanted to do something ‘different’ the studio gave him their full support.

The album was ‘Pet Sounds‘. It was a complete departure for The Beach Boys. It was Brian Wilson exploring his ‘In-My-Room’ type music while the rest of the band was on tour. Brian was no longer touring with the band so he could focus on songwriting.  The album was recorded mostly with studio musicians (know as The Wrecking Crew) with The Beach Boys filling in their vocals when they returned. The album wasn’t well received by the critics or the public. It was a songwriter’s album. In England, however, it was in the top ten for six months. The Beatles and The Who were blown away by what Brian had done. Now – the album is legendary. Some say it inspired The Beatles to make Sgt. Peppers. What it did do is change how artists and the public look at the album format.

Sadly Brian Wilson’s accomplishments would also become The Beach Boys’ albatross. With the late success of ‘Pet Sounds’, Brian would begin their next project – ‘Smile‘. Brian ‘locked’ himself in the studio for over a year (02/17/66 – 05/18/67) working on ‘Smile’; missing the original January release date. One single was released as a teaser – ‘Good Vibrations‘. It was The Beach Boys’ first single to sell a million copies. Anticipation for ‘Smile’ was huge. But the pressure proved to be too much for Brian. The project was eventually scrapped. And when The Beatles released Sgt. Peppers, it would be the nail in ‘Smiles’ coffin – almost. Smile was officially released 44 years later. The stories of Brian’s depression and instability in though following years would be on par with Bill Murray but without any of Bill Murray’s charm and playfulness.

Now The Beach Boys would begin to fail. ‘Smile’ turned into ‘Smiley Smile‘. For four years The Beach Boys albums would fail to chart better then their predecessor, each album peaking lower and lower. Their comeback album ‘Surf’s Up‘ stopped the descent but barely cracked the top 30. But The Beach Boys would return. And while that request would not come from their wives, it did come from Jerry Garcia.

After a classic 3-hour Grateful Dead concert at the Fillmore East in April 1971, The Beach Boys joined The Dead on stage for 7 songs. This was awkward transition from The Dead to the washed up Beach Boys but by the end of their set the crowd was going wild for their familiar California sound. After this impromptu performance, The Beach Boys go off to Holland to record ‘Holland‘ (which doesn’t do great) but ‘the cool kids’ (ie – Dead Heads) begin to think The Beach Boys are cool. A few years of VW buses crisscrossing the American concert scenes and The Dead Heads giving high praise to The Beach Boys (and I’m sure a few other things) a buzz begins (as one would expect).

So sometimes a band has a member that plays the villain. With The Beach Boys this was Micheal Love, Brian Wilson’s cousin. Michael did not like the direction Brian had taken the band with ‘Pet Sounds’. While Michael Love was a key contributor of The Beach Boys’ lyrics, he was not the creative genius Brian was. Michael was more like his Uncle Murray (the Wilson brother’s dad) when it came to business. Michael smelled the buzz during the tour for ‘Holland’ and recorded ‘The Beach Boys In Concert‘ which actually charted better than ‘Surf’s Up’. And it was Micheal Love that put together the ‘Endless Summer’ collection. I thank him for that business intuition. ‘Endless Summer’ introduced me and millions of others to more than just The Beach Boys, for me, ‘Endless Summer’ introduced me to music at a different level.

‘Endless Summer’ was a great collection of Beach Boys hits. Michael Love had alternated between upbeats songs with slow songs on each side, or program in 8-track tape terms. All those great Summer songs made me long to see the west coast. But it was ‘In My Room’ that captured my new sanctuary, a 10 x 10 room that Dave and I shared. With Brian Wilson’s vocal arrangements, ‘In My Room’ it would transport me to another quiet room where palm trees stood outside instead a Russian Olive. A room that was just outside sunshine, the beach and the possibilities of love.

I bought “The Smile Session” in 2011 to see what Brian was actually planning with ‘Smile’. (Brian Wilson actually release his version of ‘Smile’ as “Brian Wilson Presents Smile“, which I also bought.) For Christmas in 2015, I had “The Pet Sounds Sessions” on my Christmas List which Josh got me. It was great insight to those recording sessions.

Let me pause to explain how I listen to my music now, since I no longer have a 8-track stereo next to me in my bedroom. Over the years of constantly buying new albums, currently in the compact disc format, I have developed a process on how I listen to my new music. In full disclosure, checking my Amazon account, I purchase about 20-25 albums a year. Until my kids came along I would first listen to a new album when I had time to sit down and focus on the album. I would follow along with anything that came the album – liner notes, lyrics, etc. I used to say I would get over 50% of my enjoyment from that first listening session.

Until one evening in the basement our home, with a flashing overhead light caused me to take my headphones off. Desi was informing/yelling at me that our infant son Nate was crying. He had woken Desi up and she had to work early following morning. I was on dad duty – fail! So the process evolved to my first listens being relegated to the car, typically on the way to work. After this initial listening, I would record them to a cassette and listen to them on my commute to work. Once I got a CD playing for the car I would not need that extra step. After the ‘Nate incident’, the initial listening session got pushed to my daily commute, not nearly as satisfying. After a week of listening during my commute, the album is moved to wait until it is rotated into the CD player I typically have playing on the weekend. From there they get incorporated into my entire cd collection.

I went through my listening process because of this – this year for my birthday, Desi gave me ‘Made In California‘ a 6-disc Beach Boys box set for. When I started writing this story in the beginning of April, there 6 discs were waiting their turn for my daily commute.  As I finish this story the last discs are playing on the home stereo system. So dear reader, call it coincidence, cosmic energy, destiny or the hand of God, I thought I would share this bit of serendipity with you.

So to finish this story, 12 year old me, soon to be 13, did not know who The Beach Boys were when I began listening to ‘Endless Summer’. Thus began this journey of musical knowledge. Not just on discovering The Beach Boys but how music would soon encompass my life. But in the early moments, as I sat on my bed playing solitaire, the ‘Endless Summer’ 8-track would click along next to me allowing me to follow Brian Wilson’s muse through his music. Contrary to the lyrics of ‘In My Room’, I did not “lock out all my worries and my fears”, I was actually locking them in. I was working through my real worries and fears, and I had lot of them. In the darkness ‘My Room’ (actually our room),  I would ‘lie awake’ and cry and sigh and pray. And despite my brother being 3 feet away, I was alone in these thoughts. And I was afraid. My yesterday was not a laughing matter. But with Brian Wilson’s help, the Beckmans and Mary Welch – Grandma – I learned not to be afraid – ‘In My Room’ or anywhere else.

There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to
In my room, in my room
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room

Do my dreaming and my scheming
Lie awake and pray
Do my crying and my sighing
Laugh at yesterday

Now it’s dark and I’m alone
But I won’t be afraid
In my room, in my room
In my room, in my room
In my room, in my room

Leave a Reply