This past May, Bob Dylan celebrated his 70th birthday.
In the May 23rd edition of The New York Times, author and educator David Hajdu had an essay published entitled “Forever Young? In Some Ways, Yes.” Mr. Hajdu puts forth the suggestion that although 70 is a significant milestone for Bob, it is his 14th birthday that was “the truly historic” one.
Mr. Hajdu quotes Daniel J. Levitin, professor of psychology at McGill University: “Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes. Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.”
When Bob was 14, he was a freshman at Hibbing (Minnesota) High School. It was 1955. That year Elvis Presley released his records “Baby, Let’s Play House” and “Mystery Train.” Mr. Hajdu quotes Dylan as remembering about Elvis: “Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”
Mr. Hajdu goes on to list other musicians with 70th birthdays in the year around Bob’s including Joan Baez and Paul Simon. He also mentions the soon-to-be-septuagenarians Brian Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Carole King and Paul McCartney. (Paul is quoted as once saying about first hearing Elvis Presley: “When I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ I thought, this is it.” That was 1956 and Paul was 14.)
The article’s list of those who would have turned 70 around this time includes John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.
I’ve been sitting on Mr. Hajdu’s essay and this topic, waiting for today, my birthday. I may not be turning 70, only 58, but the article did get me thinking back on what I was doing musically and what music I was listening to when I was the obviously-important age of 14.
My year of being 14 ran from August 1967 to July 1968. That was my freshman year at Exeter (NH) High School.
I had been playing the drums for a couple of years and had procured a full set, with the bass drum, tom-tom and floor tom sporting blue sparkle shells. I entered high school still playing with guitarists Gerry and Ricky in the trio we’d started at the end of the seventh grade. But I soon moved up to a full, four-piece rock band with Alan on bass guitar and vocals, Danny on lead guitar and Jim on rhythm guitar.
The only song I can remember that we played was a rock version of “Born Free.” (Yes, from the movie.) I used model car tires and strips of terrycloth to turn two drum sticks into a pair of tympani sticks for this number. During a performance of this piece at a “Battle of the Bands” in Exeter High School’s Talbot Gym, the amplifier of our rented PA system stared to smoke, bringing the song, and our set, to a complete halt.
Some musical badge of identity.
During my 14th year, my record collection grew substantially. The top hits of that time included the singles: “Windy” and “Never My Love” by the Association; “I Can See For Miles” by the Who; “Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock; “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors; “Hello Goodbye” by the Beatles; and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones.
Among the albums I purchased that year, three still stand out: “Their Satanic Majesties Request” (Nov. 1967) by the Rolling Stones, “The Beat Goes On” (Feb. 1968) by Vanilla Fudge and “Live At The Village Vanguard” (Oct. 1967) featuring Dizzy Gillespie. (The last one I received as a bonus for renewing my subscription to Down Beat magazine.)
Listening to the radio was a big part of my 14-year-old life and I can remember the two stations, both from Boston, that were my favorites: WBZ-AM 1030 and WBCN-FM 104.1.
I remember one night, lying in bed and listening to WBZ on my black, boxy Philco and hearing Dave Maynard play the first music I’d heard by this oddly-named San Francisco band called “The Grateful Dead.” I also first heard a cut from that Vanilla Fudge album on Mr. Maynard’s show.
WBCN, which started broadcasting on March 15, 1968, played anything and everything, each DJ having their own tastes and style. I can remember hearing one DJ play different versions of the same song back-to-back (“Corrine, Corrina,” I think) in what my pubertal growth hormones thought was a rather cool attempt to both entertain and educate his listeners.
Finally, I’m pretty sure that the first concert I ever went to was during that year: Judy Collins with a band at the University of New Hampshire Field House.
So, I guess 14 was a pretty good year.
I was a year or so away from starting to listen to Bob Dylan. Led Zeppelin, the blues (according to Albert King and B.B.King) and the jazz of the Dave Brubeck Trio with Gerry Mulligan were yet to enter my life.
Seeing B.B.King, Nina Simone and the Sun Ra Arkestra at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival with bandmate Alan and his dad was coming up in January of 1969.
Borrowing an acoustic guitar from bandmate Jim wouldn’t happen until May of 1970.
As music evolves, so does a musical life. Playing, singing, listening, collecting, writing: there’s always something new and old to discover. On and joyously on it goes.
What were you listening to when you were 14?
P.S.: This is my 100th blog post.