[Here I am, on that 1965 vacation, in my cousin’s yard, reading a biography of Arturo Toscanini.]
As far back as I can remember, every April, during school vacation, our family headed down south to Columbia, South Carolina to spend a week with my mother’s older brother Alfred, his wife Mary and their two daughters. That’s pronounced “May-a-reee”, with three syllables, in that deep southern accent my mom was so fond of adopting the moment we crossed the Delaware border and spotted the first South Of The Border store.
I looked forward to the vacation all year long. I loved seeing my two cousins Helen Ann and Nancy. And Uncle Alfred and Aunt Mary showered us with affection, lots of good southern cooking, and a ton of fun things to do, including ping pong tournaments in the garage, picnics in the nearby woods, walks along the Congaree River and visits to the South Carolina Archives. We’d also head across town to mom’s older sister Marjorie’s house for a big lunch and a long visit. Aunt Marjorie and Uncle Dargin’s land had lots of sand hills, which was a good setting for the toy gun battles we’d have with our other cousin Gina Marie, who was the youngest of all of us.
Uncle Alfred was the head of the library at The University Of South Carolina in Columbia. Though he was the son of a British-born Baptist missionary (my grandfather Dr. Frank Rawlinson) Uncle Alfred was the archetypal southern gentleman, a scholar and genealogist with a great sense of humour. I rarely saw him without a suit, complete with vest and gold watch and chain. Aunt Mary was the epitome of grace and wisdom, southern style. To this day, when I wonder about the right thing to do, I often ask myself “Now what would Aunt Mary do?”
Aunt Mary was a champion wearer of mumus. She had what seemed like an endless supply of them, as bright and colorful as she was. Of course on Sundays she’d get dressed up, as we all did, to go to their First Baptist Church in Columbia. Just because we were on vacation, my parents reminded me, didn’t mean I could get out of putting on a jacket and tie and going to church.
In my memory, all our South Carolina vacations smelled like pine trees. Everywhere you looked there were soft pine needles on the ground, in the sandy hills, by the side of the suburban roads, on the ground under the thick bushes of Aunt Mary’s amazing, well- tended garden. It seemed that every yard on Guignard Avenue had a stand of tall pine trees and a garden, though none as large and beautiful as Aunt Mary’s. But even with all the her flowers blooming – azaleas, gardenias, magnolias, begonias, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, Oriental lilies and roses – the powerful sweet fragrance of pine was always in the air.
In April 1965, our family headed down south as usual. I was 14 years old, turning 15 in October. That Spring it was not just the flowers that were blooming; my young self was exploding into being. My love of nature, my fascination with words, writers, books, music, songs (and GIRLS) – everything was astoundingly new and exciting.
My adolescent concept of myself as a young man who might actually make his living as a musician, songwriter and performer was taking shape. My brothers and cousins and I would go down to the record store in Five Points in search of the latest 45’s by The Beatles and The Byrds. Then we’d rush home and blast them on the stereo in their living room.
During that vacation, I happened to walk up to the nearby miniature golf course one day. For some reason my cousins and brothers were doing something else. The fenced-in course with tiny castles, moats and bridges was on the main highway into town, just a a half mile from their house. They had speakers through which they were piping a radio station.
It was a warm sunny day and I was feeling especially happy. As I played the ridiculous miniature golf game, my ears perked up to hear a loud drum beat, joined by bass and guitars and a jangling tambourine. Then the voice came in. Wow! The effect was thrilling. It was a guy singing really soulfully, but with what sounded like an English accent. Something about Adam and Eve, some great backup vocals, with a tongue in cheek nod to doo-wop groups, as somebody sang “Love, love” in a bass voice. A plunky bass guitar line, a second verse, then a very cool bridge on the 5 chord, a Bo Diddley beat – I like that – then another verse. Then they really got into the bo Diddley beat and had some great, high backup vocals. Repeat the verse and a vamp ending, using those gospel-style Isley brothers “Shout” chords.
I loved it. I started thinking about it. It’s not like it was a great song…well yes, it was a great song! It was deceptively simple. It made fun of itself, yet was totally serious. It quoted the doo-wop past yet was entirely new. Something about the song just hit me over the head and went straight into my heart.
Later that afternoon, I told my brothers and cousins about it. We promptly walked over to the record store at Five points, bought the 45 and rushed home to play it real loud in the living room.
It was one of many songs that year that excited me, and made me all the more determined to be a musician, and not just a performer but a writer of songs.This particular one, “The Game Of Love”, had the smell of pine needles, the light of the southern Springtime sun, and the undeniable confidence of youth all over it.
It was an unforgettable moment. It happened at a miniature golf course in West Columbia, South Carolina, as I heard the music that helped shape me, with all the cars on that busy road rushing by, oblivious to moments, lost in the big rushing river of forgetting.
To hear “The Game Of Love” on YouTube, click here.
[From left to right: Cousin Nancy (with toy gun), me (seated, with glasses, about to be shot by Nancy), brother David, cousin Helen Ann, cousin Gina Marie. We are assembled at Aunt Marjorie’s and Uncle Dargin’s, in 1962, for the traditional Big Feed picnic. We had gun battles alot in those days. Note the pine trees.]