A time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences…
My parents weren’t particularly lenient, but on a school night in the spring of 1968, they let me go to my first concert. A new friend, Colleen, got her folks’ okay, too, and my dad dropped us off at Memorial Gym at the University of Texas at El Paso. Simon & Garfunkel were playing.
I had strict instructions when and where to be post-concert; my soldier dad had to get us home before reporting for night duty. When it became clear that lingering backstage meant I would meet Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, I stood up my dad. I have the autographs to prove it.
I’m sure my dad was both pissed and conflicted when he drove off — we had to call Colleen’s parents for pick-up — but at school the next day, I was an 8th-grade movie star. I had not only heard Simon and Garfunkel perform Sounds of Silence and Homeward Bound, I had seen them up close; I had spoken to them!
That’s the currency I found to ease my way into a new school, to find acceptance (maybe even admiration) among the 14-year-olds who had been together for months when I showed up for the last grading period of the year. It was school #9 in my educational odyssey.
That fall, I started my freshman year at yet another new school. Fortunately, it was close enough to Fort Bliss to attract lots of other Army brats, and the civilian kids were accustomed to all our coming and going. One of those kids was Janice. We met on the first day of P.E. class when she admired my Roman sandals.
We started hanging out, leafing through Seventeen magazines in her bedroom while listening to records introduced to us by local DJ Sonny Melendrez. Top-40 bands routinely touched down in El Paso and, as often as possible, we bought a pair of concert tickets.
Concert nights started on Saturday morning. We had to decide what to wear and book our ride with a parent. Then, to pump up our anticipation and dissipate pre-concert energy, we headed to the airport, where we could loiter at arrival gates and baggage claims in hopes of encountering whatever band we would be seeing later.
There weren’t all that many flights coming into El Paso back then and, certainly, security was non-existent. We could wander around, buy a snack, use the restroom, lounge in the waiting areas: It was hanging out with a purpose.
Fittingly, our first big score was The Box Tops, whose #1 hit The Letter opened with the line: Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane/Ain’t got time to take a fast train…
It was 1969, eons before MTV or social media, so our only idea of what these pop idols looked like came from album covers. What could we do but scan the airport for long-haired guys wearing bell bottoms? Sometimes we messed up, and a few roadies and managers found themselves staring bemusedly into our Instamatics.
I can’t imagine what we said to these musicians — or them to us. I’m fairly sure we didn’t ask them to talk chord changes or explicate their lyrics. Our conversational overtures likely were limited to asking for an autograph, shooting some photos…and giggling.
A month after the Box Tops caper, Janice and I repeated our airport modus operandi and snagged the Grass Roots. This time, we distinguished the stars from the grunts by gravitating to the idle, those conserving their energy for that night’s performance. Our strategy worked, as evidenced by this photo of us — two 9th-grade besties with all four Roots.
What did we teeny-boppers get from these encounters? Bragging rights, as mentioned. And a change in our routine — one less Saturday afternoon circumnavigating Bassett mall. And maybe, practice at being the big-city journalists we both became, putting ourselves in the vicinity of someone shiny and circulating the story afterwards.
I can’t leave out the obvious: We got to practice falling in love. These 20-somethings were cuter and cooler than boys we knew at school, and the lyrics of their songs proved they not only were romantic, they were…deep. Having yet to encounter Horace or the phrase carpe diem, I was unduly impressed by the Grass Roots’ philosophy, as set forth in Let’s Live for Today:
When I think of all the worries/People seem to find/And how they’re in a hurry/To complicate their minds/By chasing after money/And dreams that can’t come true/I’m glad that we are different/We’ve better things to do/May others plan their futures/I’m busy loving you…
Post-concert, we G-rated groupies went home and chose a favorite — the rule was we couldn’t choose the same guy — and we could bring him to mind while repeatedly playing whatever song best matched our image of him, building ourselves a pretend boyfriend as perfect as imagination allowed.
We were the female version of that boy playing air guitar in his bedroom mirror, his silent strokes directed at the hottest girl among the screaming masses.
When my dad left for Vietnam, my family moved back to Louisville to wait for his return. It was the most newsworthy summer of my life: There was the moon landing, Manson killings, Woodstock…and importantly for me, the release of the iconic Easy Rider and its wildly popular battle cry, Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild.
When I moved away from Louisville those last weeks of 8th grade, I had left behind a best friend named Essie. On my return in the summer of 1969, we slid back into an easy intimacy. What better way to celebrate our reunion than to launch a plot to meet the moment’s hottest band?
Essie’s big sister, Ruthie, became an essential crew member, and her willingness to play chauffeur/bodyguard freed us from begging rides from parents. We ditched the pre-concert airport stake-out that had served Janice and me, opting instead for post-concert hotel stake-outs. I assume we chose the hotel nearest the concert venue and waited outside until the band’s limo appeared.
I didn’t actually meet John Kay, the lanky, light-sensitive lead singer of Steppenwolf. I caught a glimpse of him by peering into his darkened room from the hallway. Someone brought his autograph to me. The other band members pleasantly opened their doors to us wearing only towels wrapped around their waists. Apparently, we caught them on the way to the shower.
It was keyboardist Goldy McJohn who first made me question the wisdom of what my 15-year-old self had considered an innocent activity. When he stepped from his room into the hallway, he asked, “Are you a groupie?” then wrapped his arms around me for a kiss. It was a little exciting… and a little scary.
Was I a groupie? What was a groupie anyway? A fan, right? More than that? When a girl meets a rock star by knocking on his hotel-room door, is she signing up for more than his autograph? It’s hard to imagine I was so naive, but I was. In retrospect, I should have thanked him for his question; it put me on guard. And though nothing more occurred after that kiss, I lost my innocence to Steppenwolf’s keyboardist that night.
That fall, Iron Butterfly flew into town; Essie, Ruthie and I executed one more hotel reconnaissance mission. After the evening’s highlight — 17 minutes of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and its highly anticipated drum solo — we found the band and collected our usual souvenirs. Essie posed with drummer Ron Bushy while I grinned at the side of lead singer Doug Ingle, whose rock cred I surely challenged by telling everyone how nice he was.
There were more concerts in my future, but my two years as a G-rated groupie ended with Iron Butterfly. At 15, I didn’t need fantasy boyfriends any more: I had Davy with the blond bangs and Phil with the strawberry Boone’s Farm and two really good singers — Jamie, who went to Hollywood, and Jim, who (I learned from Facebook) still makes his living as a folk singer.
Today, I listen to NPR on the radio. I’ve never owned an iPod nor downloaded a song to my phone. When I come out of movies and someone mentions the quality of the soundtrack, I ask, “There was music?” The last concert I attended was a benefit performance by a world-renowned soprano.
Obviously, it was never about the music for me.
It’s been exactly 50 years since I played at being a groupie. Today, I have gray hair, a Medicare card and, in my 12-year-old Prius, a CD of the Grass Roots’ greatest hits that Janice gave me ages ago. From time to time, as I drive around Dallas, I play it — singing along without missing a lyric — transporting myself back to the spring of 1969, when we were girls who crushed on boys who played in bands.
AFTERWORD: In writing this piece, I scoured photo and autograph albums, journals and scrapbooks, and consulted old friends and websites that track dates/venues of concerts going back to the 1960s. In doing so, I compiled a list of concerts I attended. I include them here for interested readers and posterity. In no particular order: Paul Revere and the Raiders, Glen Campbell, Simon & Garfunkel, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, The Box Tops, The Grass Roots, Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly, Sly and the Family Stone, Elton John, Vanilla Fudge, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jackson Browne, Santana, Three Dog Night, The Who, Jethro Tull, Bread, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt.