In a Gadda da Middle Age

My 40th high school reunion is closing in, and our favorite music from the days of our youth has been requested. This story from 2006 is about my favorite formative musical memory.

I’m 52. There it is. I’ve said it out loud and it’s out of the way.

At my advanced age, something tells me my radio station ought to be tuned to a classical music station, or something smooth and mellow. But no. My radio always finds its way to those songs of the ’60s and ’70s that made our parents cringe — rock. Enough time has passed that it’s now called classic rock.

For my rock streak, I blame my cousin Alan.

In the summer of 1968, I was 14 years old and had just finished the eighth grade. The Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders, among other bubble gum pop singers, were my main loves.

Alan and my aunt and uncle lived in Charlie, a tiny place 25 miles northeast of Wichita Falls. I looked forward to my summertime visit with Billie, Pete and Alan all school year long. Alan is just a little older than me and had an array of music, like a record from some group called Cream, with a much different sound than the 45s that I listened to at home. (Rec-erds —  big, round, flat things, usually vinyl. Records came in cardboard jackets about a square-foot big with pictures large enough to see. 45s were smaller versions that played at 45 RPMs on a rec-erd play-er.) Alan spent those summers traveling with a wheat harvest group so when I stayed out there, I made myself at home with his records.

In with Cream, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Charlie Pride and Willie Nelson,  there was one record in particular that I listened to over and over. A single song took up one whole side of the album, 17 minutes and 5 seconds long, and its sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before.

Now if you’re on the upside of my age, your kids had this record or wanted it. If you’re several years younger, check your parents’ record collection. It’s in there.

It is “In a Gadda da Vida” by Iron Butterfly.

With a name that came about because the writer/singer was too drunk to say “In the Garden of Eden,” “In a Gadda da Vida” had a drum solo in the middle that amazed me, a mystical organ, and a “heavy” guitar sound with one of the most recognizable 10-note musical sequences of all time. It had a beat, a vibration that I felt in my chest, almost like it could change my heartbeat to the beat of the song. I listened entranced.

You didn’t hear much more from Iron Butterfly, but if you’re going to be a one-hit wonder band, what a hit to have. The album reached number four on the Billboard chart and a 2-minute, 52-second version was released for radio.

So, why do I still turn to songs that are way too loud for my aging ears?

I talked to Alan about this and he thinks it has to do with safety and comfort — returning to things that make us feel good. Things that remind us of when we didn’t have the worries we do as grown-ups. And that’s probably part of it. Those summers in Charlie, all I had to worry about was getting enough of Billie’s black-eyed peas and fried okra to eat.

Not long ago I drove out to Charlie and playing on the radio, the classic rock station of course, was the full 17-minute version of “In a Gadda Da Vida.” That was the first time in at least 25 years that I had heard the full song. Alan’s pickup was in Billie and Pete’s driveway, and as I pulled up, I realized he was sitting in his pickup. I knew what he was doing — listening to a song that brought back memories of a time when you didn’t have house payments and responsibilities.

So will I ever mature and start listening to sophisticated music? I doubt it. Skip ahead about 35 years, if we’re all still here. My kids and grandkids are moving Mike and me into the Thorny Mesquite Retirement Center. They’re reassuring us that we’ll love it there, that we’ll make new friends and enjoy not having a house and yard to take care of anymore. My son will check out the activity schedule and tell me how many things I’ll have fun doing.

“Oh look, Mom,” he’ll tenderly say, “next Friday night is Led Zeppelin night down at the social room, and the week after that it’s the Eagles. You’ll get to hear all those old songs you used to listen to all the time.” Maybe I can get some “Gadda” in there somewhere.

The only thing is, after all these years of listening to my music hard and loud, I won’t be able to hear a thing. Maybe I’ll still be able to feel it.

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