February 1964. I was in the seventh grade at Homewood Junior High School in Birmingham, Alabama. President Kennedy had been killed just 3 months before, and the Civil Rights battles were still raging full blast in Alabama and all over the South. It was not a fun time in America. I had to take a week off from school to ride out what used to be one of the standard childhood illnesses, the "mumps" (the other ones were chicken pox and the measles). Those days for me were really a lot like that TV show "Happy Days", or "Leave It To Beaver", or one of those other old 60's shows that seem so goofy now to younger people. That's kind of the way a lot of America was then, for better or worse. So here I am lying in bed with the mumps for a week, and there was basically nothing to do but listen to the radio. We only had one TV, and it was big and heavy, and it was in the den, not in my bedroom. So, as fate would have it, I am stuck lying in bed, with nothing to do but listen to the radio, and it just happens to be the very beginning of "Beatle-mania", just a couple of weeks after their legendary appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Every other song on the local "pop" station was the Beatles, and I, along with millions of other American kids (and adults) became mesmerized by that sound. It's pretty hard to envision the spell that those four guys cast over the world if you are a younger person who takes cellphones, iPods, computers and the Internet, GPS, cable and satellite TV, digital cameras, I-phones, etc, etc, etc for granted. In those days, musical groups could achieve success in only one way, by their pure ability to write and/or perform songs that appealed to millions of people. In other words, you had to have real musical ability, and most of the really famous recording artists of the 50's and 60's and to some extent, the 70's, were extremely talented, almost geniuses in some respects. The point I am trying to make is that the impact of those Beatle songs was earthshaking, and if you were paying attention at the time, you know that what I am saying is true. Nashville, Tennessee is home to some of the most talented songwriters of all time, it is a mecca for songwriters, and yet there are very few writers I know of who could write even 2 or 3 songs in their whole career with the simple melodic beauty of "If I Fell" or "This Boy", or write melodies as brilliantly irresistible as "From Me To You" or "I Want To Hold Your Hand", and yet the Beatles filled album after album with songs of this caliber, and changed the world in the process. Those cool voices with the British accent, and that big guitar sound, and Ringo's tasty drum fills absolutely floored me and about 50 million other people, most of whom have never recovered. And then, right on the coattails of the Fab Four, came the Animals, the Kinks, the Zombies, the Searchers, the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, the Who, etc, etc ,etc !!!! Then toss in all the great Soul music like the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Aretha, etc, etc, etc, and it was almost too much to deal with!!! I got a bad case of the Rock and Roll Fever, and I owe it all to the mumps. It was all right there on the AM radio stations blaring out all across the USA, for free. And that was just 1964.
Fast forward to July, 1970. I had just finished my first and only year of college in Memphis, and returned home for the summer until I could figure out a way to make a living with music. The high school that I had graduated from in 1969, Indian Springs School, near Birmingham, had a world class "Glee Club" (which was basically a men's chorus) and they were getting ready to go to Europe for a month and perform in 5 or 6 different countries, including several countries that were part of the Soviet Union. The Glee Club was performing some American folk songs as part of their repertoire, and they invited me to go on the trip since I was a decent guitar and banjo player. Since we would be spending two weeks traveling and performing behind the "Iron Curtain", I jumped at this opportunity. For those of you who are too young to remember the Cold War, basically if you grew up in the 50's and/or 60's, you were growing up in a world that had the very real threat of nuclear annihilation always in the background. The Soviet Union and the USA each had hundreds of missiles armed with nuclear warheads aimed at each other, 24/7. It was a dark shadow that hung over everybody's head in those days, and we know now that there was at least one occasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, where we were very close to the edge of what could have become the Third World War. So not many American citizens had ever been to Russia or Poland or Czechoslovakia in 1970, the Communists kept a very tight border with Western Europe, and there was very little interaction between the Soviet Union and America and western Europe. So getting to go on this trip was kind of a big deal. The Indian Springs Glee Club performed in Prague, Warsaw, Kiev, and Moscow, among other Soviet cities. We were told to be on good behavior and to take the circumstances seriously.
One day while we were in Prague, Czechoslovakia, me and a couple of my friends got the bright idea that it would be cool to take our guitars and go sit out in one of the beautiful local parks and play some tunes. This was just a couple of years after the Soviet military had violently suppressed student demonstrations in Prague, you know, tanks versus college kids type-of-thing. Well, we geniuses sat down in the grass and started ripping through our usual selection of random Beatle, Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, 60's tunes (we sang "Back In The USSR" behind the Iron Curtain at least 15 years before Paul McCartney did) and after a few minutes there were about 200 people sitting around on the grass with us, hanging out and enjoying themselves. A lot of the teenagers who were about our age could speak some decent English, and as it turns out, these kids somehow had heard all about Hendrix and the Beatles and Clapton and they had even heard about Woodstock, which had happened about a year earlier (we didn't even hear about Woodstock in Alabama until 2006!!!). It was really cool to talk to these kids that had been born into a society that was totally dominated by the Communist Party, and to realize that somehow they had gotten word of all the great 60's rock and roll music, and they were eager to be part of it, even though their country had extremely strict censorship laws and it would have been illegal for them to even listen to rock and roll, even if they could get their hands on some records. These "Communist" kids who were supposed to be our "enemies", according to the prevailing wisdom of conservative Americans, were just regular kids who wanted to party and wear blue jeans and talk to girls, etc, just like us. It was really cool.
Well, about that time a bunch of big black police trucks full of German Shepards and serious looking military-type policemen showed up and approached us in a pretty intimidating manner. Of course, our young Czech friends were mouthing off to these Soviet cops and giving them some attitude, which kind of had us gulping and thinking our next stop would be Siberia!!! Finally one of our young friends turns to us and explains that the cop has ordered us to disperse. I still remember his exact words--"We are not allowed to gather". So basically, the KGB guys, or whatever they were, broke up a cool guitar party in the park on that nice sunny day in Prague because the citizens were not allowed to "gather". One of the Czech kids invited us to go back to the little apartment that he shared with his mother, and once we got there, he locked the door, reached up underneath the mattress on his bed, and pulled out a Beatle record, no jacket, just the vinyl record, his prized possession, hidden away so nobody would know he had it, illegally. His mother probably didn't even know. A Beatle record was what mattered to that young Czech, a symbol of freedom, and youth, and life. He wanted to be part of it.
Almost 20 years later, in the late 1980's, the "Iron Curtain" starting falling. The kids in Berlin tore down that God-forsaken wall from both sides, the free and the oppressed working together to destroy the most famous symbol of the Cold War, eager to re-unite their country. The tough-talking politicians and military guys always like to take credit for everything, but I know what tore that wall down. The Beatles and Hendrix and Clapton and Dylan. I know, because I was there.
Real music is important. Great songs are important. They are powerful forces, and they can change the world. They already have.