In June 1962, the top tune in the land was Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and Niskayuna High School sent 210 grads into the world.
“Turning Pages” tells what; the 90-minute documentary premiered at Proctors on Saturday during the grads’ 50th reunion. Some friends of mine made and are in it, including Don Wilcock, my first editor, at Kite. So I went to see it, though I wasn’t in the class. Some assumed I was, welcoming me in that tentative way we greet the half-remembered.
Settling into my seat, some grads seemed way luckier in the genetic lottery than others, and some had clearly developed healthier relationships with exercise and diet. Looking around that crowd, I could see who’d been popular/powerful and who hadn’t, confirming the scary truism that nobody ever really graduates from high school emotionally.
At first, folks talked excitedly, recognizing themselves or each other in yearbook photos on the big screen as vintage tunes took them back, some speaking in the big voices of the hard-of-hearing. But, as the narrative flowed through the decades to the present, the audience grew silent, watching discussions of first jobs; college; social changes around sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll; Vietnam; marriage; parenthood; divorce — many divorces! — aging, illness and the loss of loved ones.
Insights and honesty
This was real, and it was deep, way better than I expected in its thoughtful insights and honesty. The 25 interview subjects ranged from playful to uncomfortable in how they presented themselves, but they always seemed candid. The interviewers connected impressively. Wilcock was one, as well as an interviewee, but the interviewers aren’t seen or heard. People gave their real selves.
Some suffered bad childhoods (parental alcoholism the main culprit), others got good guidance and loving support. Some served in ’Nam, some protested the war — and one vet scammed his way into Harvard; his “A” in a single college course after leaving the Air Force earning a deceptive 4.0. The film has an audio interview with a witness to the death of a grad in combat; and I wondered, by comparison, how many more died from the 1962 Mont Pleasant class of blue-collar kids.
The Niskayuna grads included successful business people (one regretted not working more ambitiously), artists and engineers, hippies and workaholics, addicts and religious. They had come from very different families, crossed paths for a brief but important time, then moved in all directions and changed in all kinds of ways.
“Aging is mandatory,” said one grad onscreen. Several described surviving cancer, others mourned lost spouses, one lamented losing a young child. Nearing 70, they seemed more upbeat than stoical, more hopeful than resigned.
Their lives, like mine, have spanned the history of rock ’n’ roll — which has shaped and reflected our thinking on love and life and war and work and peace and politics. Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane-Starship-Whatever once told me, with modesty I hadn’t expected, that even 1960s music at its most defiantly topical only reflected the reality of its time; he didn’t claim any influence for it.
But I think Kantner was wrong — in part because Bob Dylan released his first album in 1962 (he has just released his 35th). And as the war wore on, I bet the Jefferson Airplane’s “Revolution” won more fist-waving agreement than “Ballad of the Green Berets.”
Tunes of the time
The grads of 1962 cruised, danced and made out to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” “The Twist,” “Duke of Earl,” “Hey! Baby,” “Don’t Break the Heart that Loves You,” “Johnny Angel,” “Good Luck Charm,” “Soldier Boy,” “The Stripper,” “Roses Are Red (My Love),” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Sherry,” “Sheila,” “Monster Mash,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Telstar” — and those are just some of the chart-toppers in that last year before the Beatles exploded. (The Beatles recorded “Love Me Do” in 1962, but nobody knew what they would become, because nobody had ever become that before.)
Many cultural critics have recently agreed that musical tastes form around age 14, so those Niskayuna kids probably first got hip to “At the Hop,” “Sugartime,” “Don’t/I Beg of You,” “Get a Job,” “April Love,” “Tequila,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “All I Have to Do is Dream,” “Twilight Time,” “The Purple People Eater,” “Witch Doctor,” “Hard Headed Woman,” “Yakety Yak,” “Patricia,” “Poor Little Fool,” “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare),” “It’s All in the Game,” “Tom Dooley,” “It’s Only Make Believe,” “To Know Him is to Love Him” and “The Chipmunk Song.”
Again, that’s just the chart-toppers. A nationally known blues expert, Wilcock probably heard the first Howlin’ Wolf album, released that year, the same year Muddy Waters first went to London and inspired the British kids who became the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.
And, just like now, in 1958 and 1962 there were some classics on the charts and some utterly dismissible crap, product to pry pennies from the fingers of kids craving something new, something different from what their parents listened to, something to express who they were and what they wanted to do in the world. Some of that music was art, but in a sense all of it was product.
It doesn’t matter that those 1962 grads saved their pennies to buy 45s from Larry at Apex Music Corner at State and Broadway while today’s grads pay for downloads (if they pay for them at all) with credit cards. It’s still all about the new sound — ideally a sound that says something loud to and about the kids and their world — and pisses off their parents.