Striking a Chord

The first intimations we got of the atmosphere in beer joints and nightclubs came around make-do dance floors at school. One night in the basketball gym, at a “sock hop” social dance, when we were in the ninth grade, the band was a revolting surprise. One of the players, with all-over long hair, combed back in a wavy ducktail, cranked up the first electric guitar I ever saw with my own eyes. As if he held some kind of a weapon used to assault little ladies and gentlemen in sock feet. The guitar and the greasy players irritated and repulsed the crowd. We were fans of rhythm and blues music, wherein a saxophone was the usual lead instrument. The band wasn’t very good, just loud and greasy-haired.

I had heard electric guitar played on the radio, and sometimes that aggressive, seductive sound reached all the way through to the roots of my hidden anger, the desire to become other than the docile, domestic animal I was raised up to be. The electric sound made me want to pick up a chair and wreck something. Or else French kiss a girl all the way down to her toenails and dive into her short shorts.

I remember Johnny Butler at the sock hop threatening to walk up to the greasy-haired front man, Johnny thinking out loud that he would take the guitar and swat the front man with it.

I remember the front man wore a white sport coat that was too big for him and a pair of white buck shoes that made him look like a farm hand wearing majorette boots. I started feeling sorry for the band because none of the crowd were dancing. We were all on the verge of booing out loud. And I remember the front man snarling at us while he kept on playing. And later, in the parking lot, during the intermission, I remember the band members standing in a clutch, smoking cigarettes, casting arrogant and disdainful glances at us sock hoppers, as if they, the greasers, knew something that we didn’t about the music, and long hair, and unconventional clothing, all of it that was coming like a late freight train across the Inland Waterway bridge.

And the greasers maybe even knew it, though they didn’t have the talent to demonstrate much more than repressed anger in the volume of their sound, and were very likely, mostly unaware of the seismic cultural shift they were harbingers of. They were just trying to look like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and sound like Duane Eddy.