I’m not sure how many people remember their preschool years the way Rye and I can. Maybe it’s a bit unhealthy, this clinging to the past, this attachment to things that happened in life not long after we had learned to properly use a toilet. Nobody really talks anymore about what a wicked collection of Hot Wheels they had. Nobody talks about what it felt like to find a really awesome stick on the ground, one that you could drag along a fence all day long making that perfect, percussive da-da-da sound.
It’s sad, really. In many ways I felt more on top of things between the ages of two and six, than I ever have since. Probably because life was so impossibly immense, that you knew your place in it; stay close to you parents (they have the money, food, car, toys, etc.), stay away from dark areas (closets, mysterious cars), and keep your eyes open for a good stick.
It was simple. Eat the crust of the sandwich, don’t touch electrical stuff, don’t use bad words, don’t go up on the roof, and don’t mess up the pillows on the nice couch in the living room. There was little space for illusion. We were so very small, the thought of even surviving to live as long as our parents was an absurd assumption. Not because we were living in wartime or something—quite the opposite in suburban Silicon Valley (what was it called before the silicon?). It was just that life was so very big, and we were so diminutive, how could it last? Rye and I used to be absolutely certain we would be beaten up by big kids, run over by trains / cars, electrocuted, drowned, or just left somewhere accidentally before we were sixteen. Sounds morbid, but it was just kid-logic; we are small, and there are a great many large and dangerous objects around that we don’t stand a chance against. Best to be realistic.
Don’t track mud in the house, don’t fight with your sister, try to find a good stick.
Oh, and listen to The Monkees as much as you can, because they are absolutely the greatest band to ever walk the earth.
Every kid needs a soundtrack, and most kids are capable of creating their own, but a little inspiration never hurt. The Monkees were the perfect band for a kid—the tunes were catchy, the themes were innocent, and the guys in the band were likeable and unthreatening. For my best friend Rye and me The Monkees were the entirety of our rock and roll world in the preschool universe, and there was nothing better. We found them when my aunt left the first two LPs (The Monkees, and the aptly titled More of the Monkees) over at my house, and from that point on nothing but Monkee-rock ruled the soundtrack of our lives.
I was partial to “Mary, Mary” and “Sometime in the Morning,” and Rye preferred the harder edge of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and “Last Train To Clarksville.” We both, of course adored “Gonna Buy Me a Dog” and would roll around on the carpet in hysterics at the sheer comic brilliance of it. I don’t think we were the target demographic for The Monkees, but the art cut deep to our souls.
Rye and I spent our time running wild about the neighborhood, humming Monkees tunes, looking for good sticks, smooth rocks, and the occasional lizard, none the wiser to the fact that The Monkees, if they had ever been a real band, had splintered years earlier, and The Monkees shows we watched on television were reruns from another era. We didn’t have the concept of ‘break-up’ in our understanding yet. Why would a band as awesome and mighty as The Monkees ever break up? They lived together in a house that had a firepole, rode motorcycles, got into all manner of hijinks from week to week, and were the most kick-ass rock supergroup in the world. How could it go wrong? We hoped we could be so lucky as to grow up and live exactly like them. I once sent a handwritten letter to the fan club address on the back of the record in an effort to join. When the letter came back, I just thought they’d moved to a bigger office and forgotten to leave a forwarding address.
My favorite Monkee was Mickey. Like every young boy, I was partial to the drums, and I loved the way Mickey’s voice sounded, so smooth and thick, like there where two of him. On the show he was clearly the leader, the frontman, and also the funniest. He was zany in a charming way. The girls loved Davey Jones but his songs were crap. We always picked up the needle and tried to skip over ‘On the Day We Fall in Love’ and ‘I Wanna Be Free.’ Even at the age of six, we could identify these offenses as sentimentalist pap aimed at young girls. Mickey’s songs had edge,verve, and rock-swagger. Willingly or not, I sported a bowl-cut hairdo just like him.
Rye was partial to Peter Tork, mostly because there was a shot of him riding a motorcycle indoors during the opening of the show. Rye had a big green plastic motorcycle that we could ride (only outdoors, much to our chagrin), so whoever was on it while we were ‘playing Monkees’ was obviously Peter.
We both liked Mike Nesmith. With his skullcap and southern twang, he was a likeable Monkee, but lacked the mysterious allure of Peter, or the command of Mickey. I think it was the hat. Nobody can be taken completely seriously living in LA wearing a ski hat at all hours. When we tried out for our school’s talent show lip synching to ‘I’m A Believer,’ our friend Ray wore his navy blue toque and played his best Mike Nesmith, but we didn’t make the gig.
Our days were doused in nothing but play. In our neighborhood in the late seventies, we roamed the streets, parks, and sidewalks without care, worry, or fear. Well, there was always the fear of mean dogs who had gotten out, and big kids on threatening skateboards and bmx bikes who were always (we thought) looking for someone to beat on. Nonetheless, our simple adventures were idyllic.
We played Hot Wheels in the dirt. We made bike jumps in the dirt. We collected rocks. We walked the municipal creek behind Murdock Park and found pieces of bottles that had been smoothed over by the water (we called them ‘sea glass’ – ‘creek glass’ just didn’t sound exotic enough). Our tiny, beat-up bicycles took us everywhere. We ‘ghost-rode’ them down hills and made them crash. We played hot lava tag at the big park and ball tag at the small park. We played tackle football and were smeared with grass stains and the smells of earth. We were on a constant mission of the outdoors—pools, backyards, parks, streets, neighborhoods, trees, bushes, blacktops, and open spaces—these were our domain. All this was done to the sounds and songs of The Monkees swirling in our heads and through the 4-inch speakers on our Zenith television sets. We didn’t think we’d survive to get our driver’s licenses, but our lives were rich. I think we must have known it then. The only burning question we asked was to call each other up and ask,
“Can you play?”
Then, one day, it happened.
Rye’s next door neighbor was Gavin, a tall high school kid who used to babysit both of us, and our older sisters. He had a gap-toothed smile, loud laugh, manic hair, and was probably a little too young and a little too wild to have been babysitting anyone, but we worshipped him nonetheless. He shivered with energy, like a spring wanting to uncoil, and he was impossibly cool. He had a pachinko ball machine in his room, zebra-striped sheets on his bed, and tore around the neighborhood in a lowered Datsun 510. For Rye and me, Gavin was the embodiment of age, of wisdom, and of everything we thought we were too little to reach.
Gavin’s parents had a yellow speedboat in their driveway that Rye and I would play on, even though it was forbidden territory. Clambering around the suburban vessel in our underwear playing superheroes (because superheroes wore their underwear around in public), usually produced a swift reprimanded from Rye’s mom.
On this particular day we were messing around on the boat and Gavin sauntered out around noon, squinting and shirtless in bare feet and running shorts, a gold chain swinging from his neck. We exchanged our usual pleasantries and asked him what ultra-cool stuff he had been up to.
“The usual, dudes. You know, Matt and I were riding dirt bikes yesterday at his mom’s place up off of Skyline.”
Dirt Bikes. Our imaginations swooned. What was it like to live even a fleeting moment in the World Of Gavin? When he asked us what we were up to, we told him the truth—we hadn’t been riding dirt bikes, cruising for girls, or playing with chemistry sets. We had been digging in the dirt with sticks, playing on his parents’ boat, and listening to The Monkees.
“You guys are always listening to The Monkees. How old are you now?”
We were six. Rye and I were born a week apart.
“Okay, you’re old enough now. Come upstairs.”
Gavin turned and walked toward the house. To be welcomed into the inner sanctum of Gavin’s Room was a holy occasion. Gavin was not only our measuring stick of mega-cool, his room was the unchallenged Theater Of Cool. He built intricate scene models, and his room was filled with the work he’d done—‘57 Chevy’s, Corvette Stingrays, WWII battle scenes, even displays of two model cars crashing into one another and melting. Very boss.
We weren’t sure what the crux of this particular visit would be. We would often just play pachinko for a while until Gavin had to get in his Datsun and screech away on his next swinging errand. This time though, he sat down on the zebra-bed and said simply,
“I know The Monkees are your favorite band, and they’re a good band, but you guys need to start listening to The Beatles.”
“The What?” I asked. I loved Gavin, but he was wading into sacred waters.
“The Beatles, man! Haven’t you guys ever heard of The Beatles?”
“You mean like bugs?” Rye asked.
Gavin sighed and turned his attention to the stereo, which, like everything in his room, was big, shiny, adult, and awesome. He popped in a cassette and hit play. The speakers hissed as he cranked the big chrome volume knob to the right. What came out was a noise that transformed Gavin’s room to a symphonic hall, full of wild sounds, color, and people. Then the drums came on with an earth-moving shudder, and the walls of the house seemed to move in and out with the cones of the speakers.
It was the intro of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I was six.
Gavin laughed, wide-eyed, air-drumming and bouncing on the zebra-bed as he watched our minds split open. “It was twenty-years ago today…”
“The Beatles, man!” He laughed louder.
The sound was frightening to me. The power and clarity of the drums was overwhelming. You could hear everything. Maybe most of that was attributed to the sheer volume of Gavin’s hi-fi, but on most Monkees albums you had to strain to hear anything but the singing. On certain songs, they had neglected or simply forgotten to record certain instruments like the bass guitar. The Beatles not only had bass guitar, they had about a thousand other sounds I couldn’t name. The music seemed so wide, so spacious, so echoey, my little brain didn’t know what to do with it. The pachinko balls in the tray of the machine rattled and danced with the vibration of the bass.
Gavin’s dad roared through the doorway letting him know that a friend had swung by to pick him up. Gavin leapt up, turned the stereo off with a click, and left two preschoolers sitting there with their minds blown forever.
“Guys,” he chuckled. “Welcome to The Beatles. I’ll make you some tapes.”
He patted us on the shoulders and flew out of the room.