Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dancing In The Dark

Several months ago, I wrote about how certain songs can push me into a mental time-slip, allowing me to instantly travel to a specific place in the distant past of my 55 years. I wish that I had some control over this phenomenon, but it just sorta sneaks up and goes BOOM when one of those songs drifts into my conscious state. I am powerless to stop it. I just let it roll and see what mental images, sights, feelings and emotions pop up from my gray matter’s hard drive.

As I’ve only recently discovered, the musical time slippage is usually keyed to a strong emotional happenstance. It doesn’t seem to matter if the connection is good or bad, pain or pleasure, because none of those emotions are wrong, they are just… human. Methinks they are what really separates us from the rest of the life forms on this small Blue Planet. At least, the acknowledgement of those emotions, because I believe there are many other life forms dwelling here that feel emotions, but are not quite capable of understanding the resonance they hold. Wasted effort compared to, you know, surviving.

‘Born On The Bayou’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival is one of those songs, and when I hear it I whip back to the same place, every time.

‘Born On The Bayou’, released on their 1969 ‘Bayou Country’ LP, had become a major hit for the band. As a fevered 8th grader at Willow Junior High School in Southern California, I was enthralled with this new ‘swamp rock’ sound, all moody and slow and a little sleazy and sexy. So it was no surprise that on a certain evening in late 1969 or early 1970, I was among a gathering of guys and girls who found themselves together, dancing in the darkened Willow choir rehearsal room to a stack of vinyl 45rpm singles, moving as only junior high schoolers can.

I don’t know if it was a normal practice for other teens in dem days, but for some strange and wonderful reason I remember being at lots of dance parties, sometimes at a friend's home or in a school cafeteria, and always with the ever-present chaperones hovering on the fringes. This time, though… I cannot recall there were any adults around, and I remember the electricity in that beautiful darkened room. There was likely a single bank of accent beams glowing just to keep the place from going totally dark. Oh yeah.

I remember the girls were all cute in that junior high way, wearing mini-skirts or culottes or some other junior high-approved fashion of the day. We guys had crushes on the girls, and I’m sure they knew it and played us like little fiddles. All we knew was that cute girls were dancing with us, fast and slow, and they smelled good and moved good and were smiling and laughing and clapping their hands and spinning around and flinging their hair and they made us a little crazy.

And there we were, perhaps three dozen guys and girls, about the same age of 13 or 14 years young, dancing and moving and flirting and swaying and posing and trying to be cool. Most of us knew each other, so there was no veil of anonymity. We’d done this before, so the familiarity helped with the mood of friendly teenage lust, the kind junior high schoolers used to have all the time before rampant libidos and unfettered freedom and electronics smashed down the borders we shared. There we were, dancing, and one song ended and the next single dropped onto the spinning platter and the needle drifted gently down and clicked into the groove.

That’s when the magic happened. I will never, ever forget it.

(Click to play for a relevant sountrack)

The first sounds of ‘Born On The Bayou’ are a stretched guitar chord that morphs into a sequence of notes and chords, and it slowly choogles into the melody, pure rock sexuality. We had been dancing in a scattered fashion all over the place in that barely-lit room. But for some reason, when this song came on, something came over us. As the intro filled that room, we began to form two long lines, one of guys, one of girls, facing each other with about ten feet between us. No one spoke, no one said ‘HEY… let’s get in a line!’ Nope, nothing like that... it was unspoken and it just happened. We were all dancing in place, and the guys were facing the girls who were facing the guys. Our parents would have recognized the set-up for ‘The Stroll’, but we knew nothing about that. It just happened.

The song was swampy and sexy and we all danced facing each other across that ten foot space. Then, without a word, one guy and one girl at the far end dropped into that space and began to dance side-by-side and slowly danced to the far end of the line, then took their place in line again. How we all seemed to move in synch evades me now, maybe we weren’t in synch at all, but I remember everyone swaying and dancing in a weird unison. The ‘inside’ couple were a matched pair, shuffling and dancing along between the lines, with the rest of us whooping and clapping and doing the same where we stood. Eventually, it came time for me and my female other to ‘drop in’ and so we did. I think during that 5-minute plus song, we rotated thru the lines at least twice, each couple taking the limelight in a room with very little light. When the song ended, another single dropped and began to play, and the lines scattered and some of us danced and others went outside or went… someplace else?

Why this song, this moment, this memory? What made it so special that I whip-saw through time when this song plays? Was I smitten with puppy love for one of those cute dancing girls? I know that sometime during that party, one of those girls and I snuck into the small adjacent storage closet and necked for a few minutes… nothing serious, just goofy French kissing and, you know, necking… nothing more. For the life of me, I can’t remember who it was, but I know that I was over the moon for the rest of the evening, and her sweet perfume stuck to my Pendleton shirt like the nectar of the gods. How many other couples snuck off like we did, creating a vibrant memory or (more likely) none at all?

I don’t remember who all was dancing in that room, but I know they were all my friends, my classmates, guys I liked and girls I wanted to ‘go around’ with. I know that many of them were among my classmates in high school, and mebbe I even dated a couple of the girls when we got older. Some of them disappeared into the time/space continuum, never to be seen or heard from again. I can sit here at my keyboard, close my eyes and see the choir room and people dancing, but the 41 intervening years have fogged the names and faces in my mind's eye, perhaps now gone forever. But the two lines dancing, the moving, the necking, the music... it never fades, never leaves me, always stays with me and offers a mental anchor to another time, another place, another person that was me.

Was it a simpler time? My first reaction would be 'Yes', but it's really a matter of measure. Compared to our parents, we were all little rebels with flared pants and untucked shirts and hair over our collars, or too-short skirts and nylons and heavy eyeliner and mebbe a pack of smokes hidden in our locker. We thought of ourselves as awkwardly unique, as so totally different and misunderstood. Such has it always been for each succeeding generation of youngsters who sneer and sniff at the previous pack, all old and responsible and, you know, parental.

I'm glad that I was in junior high in 1969 and 1970, because now I know that it was a time of major change and upheaval, of so many new things to see and touch and eat and love and hate and want. It was all good, and I was barely a teenager and every day was filled with youthful anticipation. And now, as I recall those teenage minutes and hours and days, I get it. It is with me instantly, every time I hear 'Born On The Bayou' and the guitar chords progress and time slips and I am once again in that darkened choir rehearsal room, dancing and laughing and feeling strange and gawky and alive. Just like right now.

Choir rehearsal room image, Gracias de chestnutst.org; 'Born On The Bayou' vid by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Muchismas Gracias de youtube.com. Keep On Chooglin'.

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