Recalling The Year Of No Crayons

Originally posted July 30, 2008

I saw the first back-to-school ads in the paper the other week, and we got the first ad supplements in the mail this week. As with every other annual event that carries commercial weight, the back-to-school season begins earlier every year.

Never having had kids, I’ve never had to deal with back-to-school from the parents’ side of the aisle, but I recall coming home from the first day of school from, oh, third grade onward and being quizzed on what it was I would need to survive the scholastic rigors of the school year ahead.

And as soon as dinner was over, my folks, my sister and I would get in the car, head across the river to downtown and walk along with what seemed like hundreds of students and parents to Dan Marsh Drug. We’d find notebooks and pens and pencils, struggling through crowds to get them. Mom and Dad would look over our choices and check them against the lists we’d made that day in school.

(As I understand it, schools these days mail lists of required supplies to students’ homes during the summer. I imagine that makes the first day of school a day with one less chore to accomplish, if teachers no longer have to spend time listing required supplies. And it most likely lessens the madness in the stores: If parents and students have some weeks before the start of school to acquire supplies, then there’s no need for the first-night-of-school mania that I saw many autumns at the drug store. But it also takes away from the student the responsibility of listening during that first day of school to make certain that the list he or she brings home contains everything he or she will need during the year.)

One of the highlights of school shopping during elementary years was the selection of the new box of crayons for the new school year. Most years, my folks were firm that twenty-four crayons provided my sister and me with enough colors to accomplish any art project that might be required. During my later years of elementary school, I looked longingly at the larger sets of crayons. Never mind that I was an indifferent artist, one whose life as well as his art was defined by coloring outside the lines. The thought of all those new colors fascinated me.

My birthday falls in early September, and as I entered sixth grade in 1964, one of my gifts was a canister with forty-eight crayons. I remember the gold crayon and the silver one. There was periwinkle and brick and slate, spring green, sienna and burnt umber. I enjoyed the names for the colors almost as much as the crayons themselves. (That holds true today; I find the art/science of naming paints and fabrics fascinating, an interest that was augmented in 1964, when Dad bought a new car. I remember being captivated by the fact that a car somehow became more desirable when one said that its color wasn’t light brown but was in fact chantilly beige.)

A year later, I entered seventh grade, a move that brought lots of changes. I’d ride a bus to school for the first time, I’d move from classroom to classroom during the day, keeping my things in a locker, and I’d have to shower after phy. ed. And I was no longer required to bring a box of crayons to school. Whatever supplies I needed for projects in art class would be provided, and crayons would not be among them.

As points of passage go, it’s a small one, I guess. It’s nothing as important as a first kiss or a first driver’s license or a first beer. But I noticed it, and although I probably didn’t say anything to anyone, it felt to me like one tiny step on the pathway from kid to adult.

And here’s a random set of songs from the year I didn’t need crayons. Some of them I most likely heard; most I probably didn’t.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1965, Vol. 2
“Just Like Tom Thumbs’ Blues” by Gordon Lightfoot, United Artists single 929

“I’ll Be True To You” by Spencer Wiggins, Goldwax single 118

“Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan from Bringing It All Back Home

“Wernher von Braun” by Tom Lehrer from That Was The Year That Was

“Now The Sun Has Gone” by the Beatmen, Pye single 7N15792 (UK)

“007” by David Lloyd & His Orchestra from Sounds For A Secret Agent

“Tired of Waiting For You” by the Kinks, Reprise single 0347

“You’re Going To Lose That Girl” by the Beatles from Help!

“Wang Dang Doodle” by Koko Taylor, Checker single 1135

“Don’t Ask Me” by the Staccatos from Come Back Silly Girl

“Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre from the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago

“Respect” by Otis Redding, Volt single 128

“It Was A Very Good Year” by Frank Sinatra, Reprise single 0429

A few notes:

Gordon Lightfoot’s take on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” has to be one of the first cover versions of Bob Dylan’s surreal tale of Juarez, Housing Project Hill, Sweet Melinda and all the rest. The arrangement is interesting, and Lightfoot does a pretty good job with it.

Spencer Wiggins’ name and work has popped up here before. A good singer who hailed from Memphis (and went to high school with, among others, Booker T. Jones and William Bell), Wiggins recorded for many years, most often for Goldwax, but never really made a dent in the public awareness. His work for Goldwax was collected and released in 2006 by Britain’s Kent label.

“Wernher von Braun” is one of the tracks from That Was The Year That Was, a live comedy album by Tom Lehrer, who was one of the most on-target satirists of the mid-1960s. Von Braun – whom I met once after he gave a talk at St. Cloud State – was one of the German scientists who designed the first workable rockets during World War II, rockets that were used late in the war to attack London. After the war, von Braun was brought to the U.S. and was one of the chief scientists in the Apollo program that put men on the moon. Lehrer’s song is witty, his audience liked it in 1965, and he makes a point worth pondering: Von Braun’s conduct was open to criticism; his work for Nazi Germany resulted in death and damage in England, and there’s clear evidence that much of that work in Germany was accomplished with the use of slave labor.

This version of “007” from the James Bond films comes from an album mentioned here some time ago. David Lloyd jumped on the Bondwagon in 1965 by recording not only the themes to the three James Bond films already released but by also recording themes for the books not yet turned into films. The record was one of four Bond-related albums I collected in 1964 and 1965, and it may be my favorite of them all.

I’m not sure what a “Wang Dang Doodle” is, but you ought to give Koko Taylor’s song a listen. Taylor takes her listeners through a cityscape peopled by characters that sound as if they came from Bob Dylan’s notebook as interpreted by Howlin’ Wolf. The song actually came from the pen of Willie Dixon, bass player on many Checker and Chess releases and one of the most important writers in blues history.

Otis Redding wrote “Respect” and had a minor hit with the record (No. 35 in late 1965), but of course, the song was pretty much taken away from him by Aretha Franklin and her titanic version two years later. But it’s always good to go back and take a listen to the original, of course.

There are plenty of sad songs out there, always have been and always will be. But few of them are as melancholy as Frank Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year,” which was written by Ervin Drake. Even though the narrator claims that all is well, the fact is: All the wine is gone. And Sinatra nails the song. To me, it’s one of the best performances of his long career.

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