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“Tyranny of the Downbeat” Remembrances of Things Musical

It was twenty years ago today, That Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. They been goin’ in and out of style, But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile. So let me introduce to you, The band you’ve known for all these years, – The Beatles, “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

There’s a saying. Our mortality is measured by the celebrities we grow old with; that movies help mark out our lives. Do you remember who you were when you first saw Casablanca, Citizen Kane, or 2001? In the Forties and Fifties, perhaps even today, that was true. But for me, it wasn’t the movies. It was the music. I remember exactly who I was and what I was doing by certain songs. And every time I hear one, I’m back to what I was then, at that moment. In the Sixties, music really did mark the time of our lives. All the events, all the experiences, all the memories from that time are linked forever to a mesmerizing melody or smashing power chord, a mobilizing lyric or communal chorus. There’s another saying. Everything is changeable. Only change is eternal. It is inevitable. It is persistent. As predictable as time. As tyrannical as the downbeat. The Sixties were a time for change and a time of change. And rock ‘n roll provided our anthems. Because I lived in the Central Valley, I wasn’t always a part of what was happening in San Francisco – The City. So I participated, vicariously, on my time machine – the radio. It seems we always begin and end these travels with the same band. A group that keeps that decade alive for thousands. The Grateful Dead started us down the golden road and they’re still truckin’ today. But “The Herald” who signaled the real beginning of our trip was, appropriately enough, a music critic: Ralph J. Gleason, with a little back-up from Ben Fong-Torres and local disc jockeys. Some on AM, but most on the first underground, free-form, FM stations, like KMPX, then KSAN. It was “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue, or Creedence Clearwater Revival playing the long version of “Suzy Q” at a street dance. The official journal of the journey was not Gleason’s Chronicle, but a “rock tabloid.” A new publication that commented on the counter-culture by writing about the music it made. Rolling Stone, a rag dedicated to printing “All the News That Fits.” Why fate chose The City as the location for this flowering of music and gathering of tribes will never be known. But it did. And it gave us an incredible amount of music and musicians. The Charlatans. Moby Grape. It’s A Beautiful Day. The Beau Brummels. The Jefferson Airplane. The Steve Miller Band. Big Brother. The Youngbloods. I hear Quicksilver’s “Pride of Man” and I think of Chet Helms and “The Family Dog.”

The new children will live, For the elders have died. I wave good-bye to America, And smile hello to the world. – Tim Buckley, “Hello/Good-bye”

I remember the first “official” outdoor rock concert. “Magic Mountain” at Mt. Tamalpais in Marin. Tim Buckley backed by Carter C.C. Collins. I wondered if I should wear flowers in my thinning hair. “Pushin’ Too Hard.” Sky Saxon and the Seeds. “The Loner.” Neil Young’s first solo album. We were all counter-culture cowboys, denim Indians like him. Fringed, buckskinned, and alone in our melancholy. “Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” will always be Vietnam and a long bus ride to Fresno for my induction physical. I was terminally healthy. Then, there was a longer trip to the Oakland Draft Resistance Center, knowing that if I didn’t do something I was going to die. After all, when the numbers were called the night of the lottery, I was number twenty-four. Cannon fodder. “Light My Fire.” The flip side of the awakening. The Doors at a roller skating rink by the junior college. On the inside, Jim Morrison was smoking and sultry. On the outside, two gangs were beating the hell out of each other. The old and the new; one living, one dying, in 4/4 time. “Long Time Gone.” The Polo Grounds. The Moratorium. The first taste of revolution, of defiance, of togetherness. CS&N wearing those furry coats. I remember walking by them and thinking how short they were. There was a point when music and movies did come together. Easy Rider broke new ground in many ways. But, I remember it especially as one of the first movies to really use rock ‘n roll to help tell the story. “Born To Be Wild,” “Ballad of Easy Rider,” and “Don’t Bogart that Joint.” Reality at twenty-four frames per second. Watching Top Gun again the other night, the latest rock ‘n roll movie, I hear Tom Cruise say his mom’s favorite song was Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay.” It’s a little unsettling. We are now the parents we warned ourselves about. But, it’s really no surprise. It’s predictable. Just like time. It’s persistent. Just like change. And it’s inevitable. Just like the downbeat.

Lately it occurs to me, What a long, strange trip it’s been. – The Grateful Dead, “Truckin'”

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