Writing in retrospect, the 50’s were a decade with an enormous impact on the youth pop-culture. If it wasn’t for rock‘n’roll music – or rhythm and blues, for that matter – strong critique from older, agitated, generations probably wouldn’t have opened the debate on issues such as maturity, entertainment, and sexuality. Let’s see what this period’s witness has to say. “I couldn’t say that I was ever a rocker but the music from 1953 to 1963, when I left to serve the navy for two years is probably the best that was ever recorded. Afterwards, the quality seems to have vanished…”
So says my uncle Zlatko, electrician and our family’s ‘honourable music dean’. I’ve been hanging with uncle on summer holidays for the past 30 years… Besides music, he’s been fomenting a technological revolution in the family, his office packed with old generators, lamps, amps, microchips, transistors, jukeboxes, TVs and assorted vintage pre-digital gadgets. For him, collecting music is more than a hobby; the ways in which sound is produced and reproduced link together his professional and aesthetic interests. With his Elvis-like romantic blue-eyes, he holds the remote control of his Sony DVD player which plays 250 MP3 singles collection he Soulseek’d from his American peer while we’re chatting.
He goes on, “The saxophone… sound of the tenor saxophone is my favourite thing about the whole era… When it starts the song, it changes the complete atmosphere… Gene Vincent, I like his metallic sound, from the times when singers didn’t have monitors and sound was offered directly to the audience, whereas the musicians could hardly hear themselves at all. When I came home from the army, in the mid-60s, the music has totally changed. All of a sudden all bands were playing something totally different…”.
In former Yugoslavia, the 50’s were a time when the mass-culture of holidays and leisure walked its first steps. The mere fact that harmonic vocal lines of Danny and the Juniors, The Platters and The Beatles could be performed without knowing English, explains the echelons of their followers and imitators in Eastern Bloc, even in other countries worldwide. “We still couldn’t buy records. So, people in the music business were known to gather on evenings to listen dedicatedly to Radio Luxembourg’s radio shows.” Then some band’s guitarist would track down the chord progression, while singers tried to imitate the lyrics and its phrasing, etc.
Yet, buying the records and getting to hear the music remained a difficult task for my uncle, as there was rather small import market, with the exception of military industry. “As a private, I served in city of Lovran, across the bay from Rijeka, the harbour city… The sailor and military navy officers would buy records in the States, or elsewhere, then bring them home as personal belongings. Sometimes they would give them to us, sometimes they would use them to pay for the ‘certain pleasures’… After a period of some time, you could get a good record from some old ladies or girls, all ragged and bruised.”, he grins.
If it weren’t for the peer-to-peer’ sharing of media over the Internet, complete emotional capital of his past would have been made of his old records collection and gramophones he repaired from relics of the technological revolution. Now, on Soulseek, he can enter an online ‘hub’ with peers of his generation and track down each and every piece of music from the magic 50s. Every evening, altogether, his gestures require no understanding of English, except music database, which he had already transferred to MP3 from his old LPs, to share. “In my opinion, its very similar to the ages when money didn’t exist, and people just share, like when I traded marbles with kids from my neighbourhood or when you could exchange two pairs of old jeans for some footwear in some flea market. I like this spirit.”
Skimming thru uncle’s ‘50s-‘60s MP3 compilation, I come across The Crests’ track “16 Candles” from 1959. Eight years before the world has turned their ears to Neil Diamond’s “Girl (You’ll Be a Woman Soon)”, The Crests’ 19-year-old Johnny Mastrangelo woes over his slightly younger potential girlfriend. In a consequent year, Brian Hyland sang “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” about these years in which girls stop being girls.
Carried away in reflections about my own teenage years, I could not recall Crests or Hyland but only the gaze above Bay of Kvarner that reveals the Northern Adriatic in all its beauty. Travelling southwise with my grandma and grandpa to the seaside, with its smell of beaches, pines and salt water announced that I’ll soon be meeting other boys and girls. The beach was an imaginary land where I could share teeny weenie bikini experiences with crews of boys from other cities and learn some new, errrm… vocabulary. My first tongue sharing also took place at a Public Park in Opatija, a city amidst Lovran and Rijeka. And though happily taken by an outstanding girlfriend for the past five years, and having long-lasting friendships with girls I can’t say I’m being less surprised with sex-appeal of teenage girls today. Like, when I see their bare bellies and tons of bling as a part of their evening dress-up, I find an old conservative hypocrite within me only waking up.
In that respect, I’ll never forget a bus ride when I started chatting to a beautiful blonde, all dressed in black, stockings and all, with green Ray Ban goggles hiding her eyes. To my inquiry on whether she was well-travelled, she replied that her summer vacation was over and she had to start school the next Monday. I almost choked. If you’re curious which question followed the choke just look up to the title of this article! I took off, grabbing my bag from the luggage compartment, performed a spoonful of tranquillity, with a hand on my inside pocket, right where my heart is…
When I got to breathe some air, I started to whistle R. L. Burnside’s “My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble” closing my eyes as I walked away. When I opened my eyes, I realized that I was actually, trying to follow the song in unison, as it was aired from the speakers of the DVD Player in my uncle’s room.