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FIRST PERSON

From the Start, It Was All Music to His Ears

February 26, 1996|OSCAR GARZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the past several months, ever since the arrival of our son, a drowsy trip down the hall to deliver him to his middle-of-the-night feeding has become my ritual.

Invariably during this dazed walk, a song begins to play over and over in my mind. It is never an entire song, but rather a line, a snippet, a rhyme--usually from some forgettable tune that, for the moment, I can't forget. It is, literally, a song I can't turn off; a radio station I can't change.

There's a song by the Talking Heads titled "Radio Head." I think it's about me.

It seems like punishment for a lifelong indulgence in pop music, which I firmly believe began in October 1957--the month I was born in San Antonio and the month that "American Bandstand" made its network television debut. It's no coincidence that I intimately know the hit songs from that year: "Party Doll," "Diana," "That'll Be the Day," "You Send Me" and a string of Elvis smashes, including "All Shook Up." My brothers, 11 and nine years older than me, still regale family gatherings with stories of me sitting on the floor in front of our TV and rocking to the beat, even before I could walk.

Because of my siblings, the music of the late '50s and early '60s turned me into a fan earlier than most. Heaven was accompanying my dad to his tavern on Saturday mornings when the man from the vending machine company would come to empty the till and ring up free credits on the jukebox, on which I would always play the same three songs: "My Dearest Darling," "Our Day Will Come" and "Sugar Shack."

My brothers' record player was in the bedroom we all shared, and it was there that my earliest rock star fantasies took root. With a stack of 45s on the spindle, the handle of our upright Hoover became my microphone and it was show time as I practiced the moves cribbed from the singers and bands on "Shindig" and "Hullabaloo." One night, as I was watching Chuck Berry strum his guitar while spreading his legs into a full split, an exclamation escaped from my mouth:

"Shhhhoot."

"What did you say?" one of my brothers shouted angrily.

"I said 'shoot,' " I insisted.

"No, you didn't. I heard what you said. You'd better watch your mouth."

He must have been worried that our parents would blame him for the language I was absorbing. In any case, he was mistaken. And, besides, I wasn't moved to profanity until I saw James Brown for the first time.

After my brothers flew the coop, I was left to my own devices. A transistor radio was my constant companion, and every Saturday meant a walk to the neighborhood variety store in search of the latest copy of Hit Parader magazine, which published lyrics to all the current hit songs.

All the while, I was committing to memory song after song after song that, to this day, will crop up at the oddest times--like at 5 on a recent morning when, as I stumbled down the hall, "Together" started running though my head. . . .

Not the 1967 version by the Intruders, nor the 1981 remake by Tierra--a standard on oldies playlists, which I'd heard on the radio the day before. No, my memory of the song is a version by a band called the Royal Jesters, local favorites during the '60s.

*

The song takes me back to countless afternoons spent in the company of the Flores girls, who lived next door. On sweltering summer afternoons, their parents would make the rounds on an expansive newspaper delivery route, leaving their three daughters with explicit instructions for the chores to be completed. As soon as their truck left the driveway, the air conditioner was turned on and the TV was turned to "Where the Action Is," kicking off an afternoon of frivolity.

When the show ended, the radio was tuned to a station that featured a riotous mix of bilingual deejay patter, the best soul music of the day and dedications from listeners: "Would you please play 'Together' by the Royal Jesters? I wanna dedicate it to my boyfriend Johnny. We broke up last night, but I love him and I want us to get back together again." Such sentiment would set off two of the sisters--JoAnn and Lucy--into ad-libbing their own twisted dedications, leaving the third sister, Priscilla, and me in stitches.

But the fun would often end in the panic of seeing their parents' truck return to the driveway before many, if any, of the chores were tended to. I would skulk out the door as Mrs. Flores entered and made a quick survey of the work left undone, whereupon she would come undone, launching a string of Spanish invective that would continue even as she prepared dinner--her shouts, the slap of her hands shaping masa and the smell of flour tortillas wafting through their kitchen window, across our driveway and into my bedroom.

JoAnn, the youngest of the Flores daughters, was two years older than me. When she was in the seventh grade, I attended her birthday party, which led to an invite to a party from one of her classmates, which, in turn, led to my first dalliance with an older woman.

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