Thirteen: a soundtrack in search of a movie


MY SON TURNED 13 this summer, an adult in some cultures, still a boy to his father. A good boy and, I think, a happy one.

I became a teen-ager 25 years ago in 1971, the summer that George Harrison, the quiet Beatle, invested his stardom in a concert to relieve the people of Bangladesh. The title song from the concert reached No. 23 on the American charts and it's always thrilled me the way George's Liverpool accent lyrically added another syllable to the beleaguered Pakistani region: "Boun-gah-la-desh . . . BOUN-GAH-LA-DESH!

Ringo was there. So was Dylan, but Bob was just a name to me then and it would take another decade before the Dylan door opened for me. What mattered to my adolescent soul was that Beatles were appearing on stage.

And I couldn't wait to taste it.

I've known plenty of kids who couldn't wait to grow up, most of them first-born like myself; nearly all eager to take reckless chances, as I did, to get where they needed to go, where they had to go, even if they didn't know where that was. (Baby if you wanna be wild, you've got a lot to learn.)

By the summer of 1971, I could not wait any longer and so, at 13, I got bombed for the first time in my life.

What makes a kid about to enter the 8th grade go into the woods and drink until the world passes away? I think I know now, but back then it wasn't an action based on thought. I sensed that something important and exciting was going on without me, somewhere just beyond the radio waves. Does there exist a place with a pull more powerful than somewhere?

Ready for the day

And since I couldn't hop a bus to New York to see George and Ringo sing their hearts out with freaked-out friends like Billy Preston and Leon Russell, I determined to ready myself for the day when nothing would hold me back.

My parents weren't prepared for their 13-year-old son showing up drunk for dinner. With the sun still shining in the backyard, they sent me to bed and decided to put some distance between me and my wayward friends. I was shipped into the city to stay awhile with my grandparents in Highlandtown.

Down on Macon Street, the air above the rowhouses was charged with the same current of discovery. Sounds and colors and sensations waited only for me to catch up to them. Even the magic of Grandmom's kitchen -- where the sight of her frying eggplant in olive oil is a memory for which I'd trade all of rock and roll to relive for one day -- could not compete with the soundtrack in search of a movie in my head.

Foster Avenue dead-ends into railroad tracks around the corner from my grandparents' house and back then, as now, kids played baseball there. I hung out with the older boys, hoping to learn something, and never had any trouble getting in a game.

Around the corner

One afternoon, instead of playing ball, the guys asked me to stand lookout in the street while they ducked into an alley. I wasn't exactly sure what they were up to, but I had a good idea and I remember, while stealing glances over my shoulder, wanting desperately to be in on it.

I was 13 years old and it was right around the corner.

It took me years after turning that corner to understand why a boy would willfully chase poisons. It wasn't knowledge deduced from reason, but more of an epiphany -- a blessed moment of clarity that opened without notice one day after I'd walked into the same wall over and over and over again.

It was the beginning of learning my hard lessons and because of that moment, I don't do the things I used to do anymore.

This summer, my son and I went to a party where, aside from him, I was the youngest guest by half a generation. It was a small, elegant gathering of middle-aged artists, old friends who had survived the Sixties together and couldn't believe that a quarter-century had passed since the concert for Bangladesh. None of them even knew anyone who had shown up to help George save some lives at Madison Square Garden on August 1, 1971.

Beer and wine were plentiful, but no one seemed to get drunk, even as the evening moved toward midnight. My son and I shared a few cans of soda, taking turns pouring it for each other as the evening percolated gently around us.

Late in the party, I glimpsed a white-haired man hunker down with a match over a small wooden pipe and inhale a substance the Beatles experienced for the first time courtesy of Robert Zimmerman. There were others nearby (my son wasn't around), but no one joined the toker. Some averted their eyes, but I made a point of looking long and hard, to see clearly. I saw a man alone, coughing out gray smoke that read to me like death.

Walking home, my son and I chatted about what a nice time we'd had: the twinkling lights strung through the trees, the pungent pies of Arabian zahtar, and how much we admire folks who turn their homes into works of art. We had passed an evening with cool people; smart, passionate intellects who'd lived lives that made for good conversation.

As we approached the house where my son lives with his mother and sisters -- he is the middle child, seemingly content with life as it is and not as he would have it be -- I heard myself talking about drugs and alcohol. It wasn't the first time we'd discussed the subject, but with the enemy looming, my cautions were more urgent than before. I told him: It's all out there, waiting, and you will have to decide for yourself whether or not to cross over.

He was adamant: "Dad, I'll never do those things."

I'd believed the same thing when I was a haircut younger than he and the swiftness of his reply unsettled me. I don't doubt his conviction, only that he might underestimate the wiles of the monkey.

Yet he'd given his word -- the word of a man in some cultures -- and as we hugged I told him that I loved him, knowing too well that if the voices start calling his name, there isn't much I can do beyond persevere and pray.

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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