My Teenage Years
(This is a continuation of my autobiographical series. Go here for Part 1. It was initially sent to my music fan email list on August 19, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)
In my last email about my childhood, I mentioned Jorge, my best friend from the 7th Grade. It was Jorge who, after we had moved to Dallas, sent me the Jackson Catholic high school student newspaper endorsing a Black candidate for governor, with the quote from “Southern Man” on the cover. Jorge’s dad was a doctor from Mexico, and his mom a Yankee Catholic, like mine. (Have you noticed the misfit theme yet?) Jorge had a guitar and was taking lessons, and I would go to his house after school and he would show me songs he had learned. I remember he could play “All My Loving” by the Beatles and “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals. Jorge also turned me on to Tom Lehrer, who wrote satirical political songs. It was my first exposure to combining music and politics. I loved it.
I got an acoustic guitar for Christmas ’66 and started taking lessons, too. I was taught to read music and play song melodies, and learned basic chords as well. I had a fundamentals guitar book with chords, and also a book of songs by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which was big at the time. The teacher and I would trade off playing chords and melody. But I quit lessons after 5 months because baseball season was starting, and I wanted to focus on my last year in Little League. I was the leadoff hitter, batted .396 and made the all-star team. My athletic career was on downhill after that, because the other boys grew and I didn’t.
(That’s me in the center, behind the pretty girl.)
The Move to Dallas
My dad took a new job in Dallas, Texas that summer. The family moved there in August, 1967, right after my final All-Star game. I began 8th grade in a huge public Jr. High School with thousands of kids– a dramatic contrast to the small Catholic elementary school I came from. I was shy, I knew nobody, and I was the smallest boy in the 8th grade. It seemed like I was surrounded by giants. And Dallas public schools were still segregated in 1967, so there were no black students. I remembered thinking that Texas was more backward than Mississippi. I missed Jackson and my friends.
I soon made friends, however, with a guy named Richard who had a drum kit. I bought an electric guitar and amp from Sears, and took it to his house. I remember trying to play songs by the Ventures. I also have vague memories of jam sessions in someone’s garage. There would be about 8 guitar players, no bass player and a drummer. I learned at my 20th high school reunion that Stevie Ray Vaughn was my classmate. I don’t remember him. It’s likely he was in those jam sessions.
My teenage years were during the late “Sixties.” But it was visible to me only on the TV news and magazines like Newsweek and Life. Not much “Sixties” were happening in Dallas, at least where I lived and went to school. Not until my senior year anyway. Just before my senior year, the dress code was eliminated as a result of a lawsuit, and the public schools were finally integrated, as a result of another lawsuit. The “Sixties” had arrived in Dallas– in 1971.
At some point– I think I was fifteen– my mom pulled us out of the Catholic Church right up the street from us, and drove us across town to a smaller church in what seemed to me to be a poor neighborhood. (My sister recently told me that it was because the priest gave a sermon condemning Catholics for marrying Protestants– which, of course, included my mom.) There was a Mass in Spanish for the Mexican-American population, and a young priest who gave sermons supporting the farmworkers strikes. This priest also started a youth Mass on Sunday afternoons at 5:30, and encouraged us to play 60’s folk songs. I became the leader of that ensemble. After Mass, the youth group met and discussed current affairs. The youth group was multi-racial, with Blacks, Mexican-Americans and whites like me. Some of them became my closest friends. There were two black brothers, Duane and Mike, whose parents would let us hang out at their house and drink beer and listen and dance to music.
Those were good times. My friends turned me on to a lot of good music, including The Temptations and Santana, and I probably brought some records too. I may have brought “4-Way Street,” the live double album by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Included on that album was Neil Young’s song, “Southern Man.” I listened to that album– and that song– over and over and over. The lyrics spoke to me and my life. And I loved the long jams and guitar solos by Young and Stills. I would play air guitar to that song (and sing air vocals) in the living room at night after dinner. I dreamed that I would be in a rock band someday, singing political protest songs, and rocking out on electric guitar. After high school, I resumed guitar lessons and learned more advanced chords and blues lead guitar.
In the summer of 1971, between my junior and senior year of high school, at a trip to the local library, I was looking in the political section and found a book by Norman Thomas about socialism. Thomas had been the perenial Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party in the US. The book made an impression on me, and I began calling myself a “socialist” during my senior year of high school. I remember having lively conversations at the lunch table in high school. I was on the left, and my friend Louis held down the right. The rest of the boys and girls ranged in between.
Louis lived up the street from me. Despite our different political views, we were good friends, and Louis was my musical mentor. He turned me on to “underground” music when I was around 15. Up til then, the only music I knew was popular Top-40 music by bands like Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Herman’s Hermits, and the Dave Clark Five. Louis said, “we got to get you off that.” And he did. He turned me on to albums by Grand Funk Railroad, the Mothers of Invention, Jefferson Airplane, and other bands that are considered “classic rock” now, but back then, were definitely NOT played on commercial radio. I never went back to pop music.
The Gospels and Atheism
Also around this time I had become an atheist. I started having doubts about the existence of God in junior high school, but decided I’d better believe because, when I died, if it turned out that God did exist, I’d be sentenced to hell for eternity for not believing. But by my senior year of high school, I decided that if God did exist, surely he wouldn’t be so vain as to judge people solely on whether they believed in him or not. Surely how you treated your fellow humans would count more. Being raised Catholic, and being part of the Catholic youth group, I knew the teachings of Jesus from the gospels, and I knew that the gospels emphasized how you acted and treated other people, especially the poor and outcast.
My Mom and Katherine Drexel
Please permit me a necessary short digression. In the 1891, Katherine Drexel, of the wealthy Philadelphia Drexel family, decided to become a nun and devote her life to helping the most oppressed people in the US– the Indians and Blacks. She used her inheritance to start her own order, called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She built 12 schools for Indians, and 50 schools for African-Americans, including Xavier University of Louisiana. Starting schools for Black folk in the South was considered subversive by the racist white power structure in those days. One of the first schools she built in the south was burned down. She had to work through an intermediary to buy the land for Xavier University, since it wouldn’t be sold if they knew Drexel was buying it to start a college for Blacks.
Drexel’s order was based in Philadelphia, where she trained the nuns to be teachers and missionaries. They had a farm, where whey had livestock and food crops, to feed the nuns. My grandfather– my mother’s father– managed that farm. My mom knew “Mother Katherine” and was a lay student at the school. In the previous chapter in this series, “Little White Boy,” I mentioned that my mom raised me not to be racist. Now you know where she got that from. My mom also was never impressed by the haughty attitudes of the rich and their cynical politicians.
My dad, on the other had, came from a typical white family in Mississippi and grew up in that racist environment. But he was a “black sheep” in his family. Many of you may not know this, but the Democratic Party in the South was a one-party dictatorship, racist and ultra-conservative, serving the wealthy white class, basically from about 1875 to about 1968. My dad in his teenage years in the 1930’s began supporting the Republican Party, which was consistent with this conservative economic views. In 1963, he was one of a handful of supporters of the Republican candidate for governor in Mississippi. Of course that failed because the white Democratic Party machine rigged all the elections in Mississippi. 5 years later, after Blacks won the right to vote, most white conservatives would join my dad in the Republican party. But long before others joined him, my dad was willing to stand alone for his political principles, and go against the mainstream, including his own family. I remember him having political conversations with me, telling me how two-faced the politicians were.
I once asked my dad why he wasn’t racist like everyone else in his family. He said being in the Navy, and working alongside Black folk there, is what changed him. Being a “black sheep” politically anyway, it was easier for him to abandon old attitudes. No doubt meeting and marrying my mom influenced him further in this direction.
Little White Boy
In the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I grew from 5’2″ to 5’7″. I know this because I was so self-conscious of being smaller than all the other boys in my class (and most of the girls) that I would measure my height every month in hopes that I was growing. It finally happened that summer. I was now at least average height. I would continue to grow to 5’9″ over the next year. It was a great relief. For the first time– my senior year– I finally felt comfortable about my size.
I think it was my small size, and fear of bullies, that also contributed to my innate sympathy for oppressed and discriminated groups of people. It in addition to my support for the Black Civil Rights Movement, I was supportive of the women’s movement for equal rights, and the gay rights movement. This took no soul-searching on my part; it was innate. Afterall, people who oppress other people just because of their sexuality, gender or race are just bullies, when you come right down to it.
So there you have it: my small size, my parents’ non-racism, my dad’s willingness to stand alone for his political principles, my mom’s contempt for the rich and haughty, my own experiences growing up and making friends with Blacks and Mexican-Americans, the liberal Catholic Youth group and the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, the “Sixties” in the news and the music, finding a book in the library about socialism– all of that was the background and influences of my youth and led me to becoming a radical political activist after I turned 18. No doubt there’s something in my DNA, too.
In Part 3, I’ll talk about how I joined a socialist group in college and because a political activist for the next 18-20 years, before changing my focus to music.
End of Part 2. Click here for Chapter 3, “The Missing Years, Part 1”