My Life In Music - Chapter 1: The Cenozoic Era

The first popular song I remember hearing is “Your Song” by Elton John.

It’s one of four "grown-up" songs I positively recall hearing in the first house I remember living in, on Delone Drive in Yuba City, California. The others were two Beatles songs, “Let It Be” and “The Long And Winding Road,” and "The Love You Save" by the Jackson 5. My earliest memories of my home environment are imprecise, in terms of what it looked like and what I did there besides watching TV. But I’m certain I heard all four of those songs in that house.

I call Elton’s song the very first because I have unmistakably clear impressions of hearing his line “I hope you don’t mind/I hope you don’t mind,” and the picture-memory connected with that lyric has always been Delone Drive.

Yuba City is 42 miles north of Sacramento, a straight shot from the state capitol via State Routes 99 and 70. Its nickname is “Prune Capital of the World,” reflecting the fact that California’s Central Valley, which includes Yuba City, produces 70% of the world’s prunes (and 99% of the United States’). Yuba City hosted a Prune Festival for many years, up until 2001, by which time it had been strategically renamed The Dried Plum Festival. (One of the foods featured at the last PruneFest was “prune chili,” the mere thought of which should send a shudder through colons across the world.)

Sometime in the mid-‘80s map publishers Rand McNally ranked the 325 or so most populated cities in the US according to general livability, using the usual factors like crime, employment, education, etc. Yuba City was, no exaggeration, ranked dead last – the worst city in the US. A lot of people claim they were born or raised in the worst town in America, but I got stats to back it up. The last time I visited Yuba City, sometime in the late ‘90s, it didn’t look like they’d made much of an improvement. A lot of disrepair and closed storefronts. C’mon, guys. You can’t just throw prunes at civic problems and expect them to get better.

* * *

My dad worked at a savings and loan. I want to say he was the manager, but I don’t recall the particulars of his employment. Maybe I should ask him. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and a Jehovah’s Witness, as were my two older sisters. My dad was never a JW. He mockingly referred to himself as the household’s resident heathen. I was the only one of my family to be “born” into the religion: My mom converted after my sisters were born, but before I was.

My father was born in 1934 in Lubbock, Texas. My mother was born the following year in Edmonton, Kentucky, a hamlet about 50 miles east of Bowling Green, 25 miles north of the Tennessee border. This meant they couldn’t have been far out of Elvis Presley’s target demographic when he first came around -- the King was born between my dad’s and mom’s respective birth dates. But rock and roll, actually the mid-‘50s in general, turned out to be their cutoff point for most of their music listening, at least while I was growing up. I only recall one Elvis record ever being in our home: his 1967 single “Fools Fall In Love,” which peaked at #102 on the Billboard charts. I suspect one of my sisters bought it. The song contains the line “Just play them two bars of ‘Stardust,’” referring to the Hoagy Carmichael standard. I mention that because I remember my dad once saying “Stardust” was his favorite song of all time. With all the huge Elvis records that were available, I always wonder how “Fools Fall In Love,” a decided non-hit, was the only one that found its way into the Pearson residence.

Dad preferred traditional jazz and big band music. When he was a young man he played trombone (and eventually would again after a 40-year layoff). I don’t really know what music my mom was into. Maybe a few old-timey standards that everyone knows. On long car trips my parents would often sing “You Are My Sunshine” with my mom taking the upper harmony. That’s the only insight I have regarding my mom’s taste in music.

The family record collection had relatively few items. The entire assortment was contained in one single moving box kept underneath one of the linen closets in the hallway. There was a Louis Armstrong compilation that had “Mack the Knife.” It was on Columbia Records. I remember the Columbia label, the real old red one, with the word “Columbia” curving around the bottom, white letters on black background. We had the Smothers Brothers’ Curb Your Tongue, Knave!, the first comedy album I ever heard. There was a record by Kay Starr, whose version of “Wheel Of Fortune” is one of the songs my dad and I both love. Dad marveled at Kay's voice. He talked about her and Patsy Cline more than any other singer.

There’s one valuable item from our family collection that I dearly wish I’d taken more ardent care of: a box set of the soundtrack to Singin’ In the Rain on 78rpm discs, one song per side. As a post-toddler-pre-kindergartener, I particularly liked Donald O’Connor’s version of “Make ‘Em Laugh” from that movie. Much later in my life, Gene Kelly’s rendition of “All I Do Is Dream Of You” would become a key ‘50s recording for me personally. And my wife and mother-in-law sometimes hum the title song to my youngest son John when they’re trying to rock him to sleep. So just in terms of how frequently and ubiquitously it’s manifested itself, the Singin’ In the Rain soundtrack might be considered one of the more silently important albums of my existence. On 78rpm.

The cabinet looked something like this. I think.
(Source: The Other  Tiffany)
My sisters and I had our own record players, but the family turntable was in of one those ridiculously huge hi-fi “cabinets,” something you’re likely to see on Mad Men. It had a radio tuner (with FM!) and a turntable. No 8-track. The rest of this monstrosity had a small shelving space for albums in the middle and two big speakers on each side. The turntable-and-radio platform had a drop-down cover which matched the wood style of the rest of the cabinet’s top. So when that was closed the whole thing looked like a concierge’s desk with Nat ‘King’ Cole sounds coming out of it. It wasn’t equipment, it was furniture.

The other musical item in our living room was a spinet, at the time the smallest 88-key piano you could buy. I can’t remember for certain what brand it was – I want to say it was a Kimball, or maybe a Baldwin, but I can’t. I keep picturing the brand name logo across the bridge of the piano in a gothic-influenced font, and that the company started with the letter “S.” But I could be wrong. Damn, I wish I could remember what that company was.

Well, anyway. Keep that piano in mind, since it has a somewhat pivotal role later in this costume drama.

It looked something like this.
* * *

I suppose I was in the first generation of kids who always had a color TV in the house. A Magnavox, I believe. Or an RCA. I’m a product of PBS’ Children’s Television Workshop. Hell, more than that: I was one of the earliest adopters of Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Morgan Freeman, as storied a career as he’s achieved, will always be Easy Reader to me. My animated diet included the usual Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers reels, during a time when acts of cartoon violence were considered plot points and not scourges of the subconscious. But Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle The Moose were my joint, to the extent that Rocky was my invisible friend. My parents will proudly regale you with an anecdote about one dinner at Mr. Steak in Yuba City in which I insisted we order Rocky a hamburger.

Two cultural symbols of this time resulted in the first music albums that were solely my possessions. One was the first Disney incarnation of Winnie The Pooh. Of course I thought this was an original Disney creation and didn’t have a clue about the A.A. Milne series, except that a guy with that name had something to do with it. I suppose I thought A.A. Milne worked for Disney. Probably the very first album docked exclusively in my bedroom was the soundtrack to Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, with Sterling Holloway singing the voice of Pooh. It was on Disneyland Records. Since we couldn’t view the program on videotape in those days, playing the record over and over was as close as we could get to the repetitive immersion experiences kids can do now.

More important was the comic strip Peanuts. I was full-on with the Schulz. I had a bunch of Peanuts anthologies, and a Snoopy Red Baron bedspread exactly like the one in the picture to the right. I learned to read pretty early, and Charlie Brown was my first literary protagonist, which explains a whole lot. I knew he was a romantic character who was constantly having bad luck, who moped around with the self-knowledge that he was predestined to always have it. I caught that right away (although not in those words). I’m afraid I sucked Charlie’s melancholy right into my bloodstream. And this was long before I understood how psychologically intricate the Peanuts narrative was, and that it wasn’t totally about children.

The Peanuts-related music artifact that I glommed onto was the original off-Broadway cast recording of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, with Gary Burghoff (Radar from M*A*S*H) in the title role and Bob Balaban as Linus. Someone in my family had the extremely bright idea to buy that for me. I recognized a lot of the songs as coming directly from Peanuts plot lines I already knew by heart.
I don’t have a lot of other memories about Delone Drive. I remember a big parade with a marching band coming down our street and scaring the shit out of me. I remember seeing a monarch butterfly one afternoon on the ivy in our backyard -- I approached it and it didn't flinch. I remember a sandbox. I remember going to the Hostess factory outlet store for fruit pies – that, in fact, is my first memory ever. I chose apple pie, in a green wrapper. But not much else has fixed upon my recollection about that time.

We weren’t there very long. Dad got a job at a bank or a savings and loan (I really need to clear this up with him) in Fairfield, 80 miles southwest of Yuba City, so we packed up and moved to Fairfield’s closest neighboring town, Vacaville. I was four.
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