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I’m in my dotage now, so old and out of touch that young people look right through me, an invisible man. But there was a time when I was opaque. That was in the 1950s and I was a teenager in Compton, CA, about the same time that teenagers were being invented.
I did my part toward that invention. I put a lot of pomade on my hair and wore a ducktail for a while, and I used teenage slang; words like “made in the shade” (doing well), “going Hollywood” (wearing sunglasses), and “bitchin’” (something that’s good).
But it was music where I helped the most to shape that definition. I listened to Elvis, The Everly Brothers, and Buddy Holly on the radio. I talked smugly about the guitar licks of Les Paul and the shuffle rhythms by Bo Diddley (Bo Diddley). I knew the lyrics, and still do, of “Chantilly Lace” (The Big Bopper) and “Yakety Yak” (The Coasters). And I actually shelled out some of my pinsetting money for a couple of Fats Domino albums. Loved the Fat Man.
But the closest I came to being a part of the new teenage rock ‘n’ roll zeitgeist was when I bought a Little Richard album, Here’s Little Richard (1957), the one with a photo of Richard, the quintessential rock ‘n’ roller, with his big hair, sweaty face, and open mouth that looked like he was screaming. My mom visibly shuddered—or at least I liked to think that she did — when she‘d come into my room and see that album lying face up.
I bought that album after I saw the movie The Girl Can’t Help It. In a scene I’ll never forget, Jayne Mansfield, with that impossibly small waist of hers, gets up from her table at a swanky Hollywood night club and, her pneumatic breasts ajiggle, sashays her way across the floor on her way to the powder room. Little Richard accompanies her walk, standing up at the piano on the stage, by singing/shouting out the song, “She’s Got It!” Forget Olivier’s St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Mansfield’s stroll to the bathroom makes all other movie scenes pale by comparison. It haunted my adolescent dreams for a long while.
In 1956, I tried Compton Junior College for a couple of semesters before I dropped out. Then the Army drafted me in 1958 and that was the end of my life in Compton (I never came back to live) and my rock ‘n’ roll days, such as they were.
The Invisible Man