Boomers Strike Solid Gold

Music and boomers go together like Fritos and corn — you just can’t have one without the other. Many would say that’s the case for every generation that followed the boomers, but the current explosion of portable music devices could not have developed if it were not for the successful roots planted in boomer teen time. Chief among the early devices was the portable radio.

Our parents had their music, as did every generation, but it was hardly portable. After all, it was tough to carry a big band around. To hear current, popular music, they only had two choices: the family radio or visiting in-person music venues. That all changed after World War II with the wide-spread introduction of the transistor into consumer products.

Though the first transistor radio made its debut in the late forties, it wasn’t widely distributed in the U.S. until the mid-fifties. The perfect storm for the new device was at hand: a boomer population reaching teen years, burgeoning rock ‘n roll and radio industries and two ways for this population to listen to “their” music without parental interference — namely, car radios and the portable transistor radio. That meant whether cruisin’ down the highway, into the drive-in parking lot, in the house or having a beach blanket party, music could be a part of the action.

Mister Boomer wasn’t a big radio — or music — fan in his pre-teen early days. The bulk of Mister B’s musical exposure came later, from sharing a bedroom with a brother who was two years older. Then, one day Mister Boomer’s Dad came home from his annual golf banquet bearing prizes. Through the years he had received great products that reflected the ideal suburban lifestyle that we all were supposed to be living: a badminton set; a mini charcoal grill; a picnic set with two Thermoses housed in a plaid fabric and pleather case. We used the grill on many state park visits, set up badminton games in the backyard and took the Thermos pack on driving vacations, with one Thermos dedicated to hot coffee, the other to milk or a cold beverage for the kids. On this occasion, he had a gift specifically for Mister Boomer and his brother. Mister B’s Dad opened two cardboard boxes and revealed two portable radios. Mister B’s brother grabbed the one with the light blue plastic casing. Mister Boomer received the other. It was a rectangle with slightly rounded corners about the length of a first generation iPod. It had a one-and-a-half inch tuning dial on the upper right corner. The remainder of the front was a shiny metal sheet with tiny holes that covered the on-board speaker. The backside was a plastic, dark burgundy casing, about an inch thick. The bottom had a sliding cap where you could install the 9-volt battery (included). On top was an on/off switch and a volume control. Since Mister B’s brother was barely in his teen years, he had not yet purchased a record player for the bedroom. It was the transistor radio that first filled the room with the sounds of the times, announced by local star radio personalities.

Boomer musical experiences varied slightly in those simpler times before the Summer of Love changed everything. Little by little, a national playlist was forming (we now know it was mainly bought and forced) as regional differences began to fade in importance and a more homogenous list of hits played the airwaves. Surf music mixed with Motown and pop/rock crooners everywhere. You’d walk on a beach or past the local drive-in and every car or portable radio would be tuned to the same station.

Boomer boys and girls did react differently to their music, though, and sometimes to the same song. The early days produced a conglomerate of genres emanating from radio speakers, that fell into two main categories: romance and fun.

Doe-eyed boomer girls felt the songs expressed their fledging feelings for the opposite sex. They knew that Where the Boys Are was where they wanted to be. They all wanted a Leader of the Pack, but Wishing and Hoping wasn’t going to get them into boys’ hearts. They wrote Love Letters in the Sand. All I Have to Do Is Dream, they thought. Eventually they’d see He’s So Fine, but calling that special boy My Guy would lead to heartache as Lipstick On Your Collar told a tale on you. They’d come to understand that Breaking Up Is Hard to Do. They would prefer that he Break It To Me Gently and might exclaim, It’s My Party, and I’ll cry if I want to, when they realized that It Hurts To Be In Love.

For boomer guys, it was all about Fun, Fun, Fun, at least until Daddy took the T-Bird away. They spent a great deal of energy thinking about fast cars, even more than romance. Or rather, they envisioned fast cars would lead them to romance. Combining the two — cars and romance — was the ultimate in musical expression to the boomer boy. Whether they had a Little Deuce Coupe or a G.T.O., they’d still want to keep away from Runaround Sue. Often the mix led to tragedy. That seemed epic and heroic to boomer boys. If they didn’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve, well, that was an honorable end. In the fiery crash that ensued, they’d get all soft and with their dying breath, remind us to Tell Laura I Love Her. If they had to make a choice, many boomer guys would prefer to be The Wanderer since their mamas told them they’d better Shop Around.

As the sixties moved on, car radios begat FM stations and stereo broadcasts. Eight track tapes and cassettes would follow, and the rest, as they say, is history. Whatever our musical roots, many of us aging boomers may not be able to remember where we placed the car keys; but Mister Boomer is betting a few of those song titles are going to get you to recall whole swaths of lyrics. Which songs are going to run through your head today?

In case you did actually forget (in order of appearance):

Where the Boys Are – Connie Francis, 1960
Leader of the Pack – The Shangri-Las, 1964
Wishing and Hoping – Dusty Springfield, 1964
Love Letters in the Sand – Pat Boone, 1957
All I Have to Do Is Dream – The Everly Brothers, 1958
My Guy – Mary Wells, 1964
He’s So Fine – The Chiffons, 1963
Lipstick On Your Collar – Connie Francis, 1959
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do – Neil Sedaka, 1962
Break It To Me Gently – Brenda Lee, 1962
It’s My Party – Leslie Gore, 1963
It Hurts To Be In Love – Gene Pitney, 1964
Fun, Fun, Fun – The Beach Boys, 1964
Little Deuce Coupe – The Beach Boys, 1963
G.T.O. – Ronny & the Daytonas, 1964
Runaround Sue – Dion, 1961
Dead Man’s Curve – Jan & Dean, 1964
Tell Laura I Love Her – Ray Peterson, 1960
The Wanderer – Dion, 1961
Shop Around – The Miracles, 1960

Mercury Blues

Mister Boomer note: Sorry about the length of the video, but the song (David Lindley singing “Mercury Blues”), and the great visuals of those classic Mercurys are worth the time investment!

Ford Motor Company has announced that the Mercury line of cars will be phased out in 2010. Originated by Edsel Ford in 1935, the brand was fashioned to fit between the regular Ford line and the luxury Lincolns. Thus, Mercury joins the other brands of our youth, particularly Oldsmobile and Pontiac, now relegated to the dustbin of boomer memorabilia.

Some of us inherited Mercurys from our parents, especially those earlier models with the rounded, bulbous profiles. Some early boomers set about customizing the things to boomers’ discerning standards. With new wheels, fresh paint, rolled and tufted interiors and a Coca-Cola rubdown of any chrome bumper rust, we could be crazy about our Mercurys. Others will recall them as the utilitarian family car, though at least they had some semblance of modernist style (even if it was misguided at times). As for Mister Boomer, Mercury held peripheral memories dealing with other people’s cars.

Mister Boomer’s family was all about the Ford and Chevy, so a Mercury was out of the price range. A neighbor two houses down, across the street, did have one at one point. What Mister B recalls of that early 60s model was mainly the roof line and back window. The neighbor was one of the few on the block to have a garage to house his vehicle, so we only saw it when he would back his Mercury out of his driveway. This gave us a full driver side and rear view of the vehicle. It was a single paint color, all shiny turquoise and, of course, chrome. The cut of the car made it look like an italic font from the side, zooming forward to make its point. The roof line had a bit of a rounded overhang in the back — like a small car soffit covering the back window, which slanted slightly forward as it neared the trunk.

Once the car was safely backed out onto the street, we could see the neighbor kids in the back seat, waving to us through the rear window. The glass was flat and sloped inward, with an inch of chrome molding framing the center two-thirds of the window. Mister B discovered one day that the chrome molding was more than decorative; it served a function. The back window OPENED — by a power switch, no less! As an impressionable youth, that seemed more luxury than our suburb deserved.

Another Mister B/Mercury connection happened in high school. There was this kid who got a used mid-sixties Mercury Comet from his aunt as we were heading into our senior year. It was in showroom condition and a sight to behold. Blazing red inside and out, the only “eye rest” was the shiny chrome. Mister B had ridden in this blaze of color on wheels a few times since the owner lived nearby and would, on occasion, drive a few of us to Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt High School. (Yes, some of us really did walk five miles in the snow to go to school!)

Somehow, the folks at Mercury exactly matched the vinyl interior to the paint color. The metal dash (remember when they were all metal?) was also painted the exact same red, accented with blinding chrome when the fall and winter sun was at the right angle. Now, red is a fine color, even transcendent in the candy apple variety that appeared on tricked-out hot rods in the area. This particular incarnation, however, was not Mister B’s cup of tea. Insert your rendition of “Paint it Black” here if you like. Mister B is humming it now…

A few years later, a neighbor was coming home from Vietnam. His exact story is hazy at this point, but the facts are he was discharged and ended up down south somewhere. Shortly after that, he walked into a Mercury showroom, bought a Cougar and married the saleswoman a few days later. He drove back to the Midwest with his discharge papers, new car and new wife. Well, the wife didn’t exactly work out and she was gone within a week (a not-so-humorous story for another time, perhaps). The Mercury Cougar fared a little better. Before he was drafted, he drove a Chevy Corvair. Since the back seat was positioned over the rear-mounted engine, Mister B recalls that riding in the back of that thing was like sitting on a griddle. We’d sit on our hands to avoid roasting our rumps. It was no surprise to this boomer when Ralph Nader announced the thing was “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Now sitting in his parent’s driveway was this gleaming, jade-green, V-8 muscle Mercury with a tan leather-like interior. It was the model that had the headlights flip out of the grille when activated. Pretty sleek, my man. This Mercury model was one of the early attempts by the auto industry to tempt the younger buyer into purchasing off-the-shelf, with no need to customize a vehicle to be “street-ready.” Though Mercury turned the Cougar into more of a luxury brand a few years later, car companies continued the muscle car lines for several years into the seventies. Surely this resulted in every boomer out there having a muscle car story.

Yet what about Mercury? Once a Greek messenger to the gods … and now, a car line soon to be gone. Will it, like its Greek god namesake, be forgotten? Do you have any memories of Mercury you’d like to share?