The Chronicle Review

Love Songs With a Side of Theory

Time Life Pictures

September 18, 2016

I’m from New Jersey. My mother was a waitress at a chrome-clad diner on Route 22, the old highway that was the main link between New York and Pennsylvania before the interstate was built. During my childhood, the New Jersey portion of Route 22 stopped in the east at the Holland Tunnel and in the west at the bridge across the Delaware River, where drivers handed dimes to my father, who was a toll collector.

The diner where my mother worked was located on the edge of our town, Phillipsburg, about five miles east of the bridge. It was called the Gateway, a word that suggests the way a lot of people tend to think of New Jersey. The state has always been widely perceived less as a place of its own than as a conduit for getting to somewhere interesting. From the East Coast, it’s the gateway to the whole of America; from the west, the gateway to New York City and the urban Northeast.

The Gateway had a jukebox hooked up to table stations with menus of song titles on those fun-to-swing metal-frame pages. My mom persuaded the amusement-company rep to give her the worn-out records so she could bring them home to me. Through this arrangement, I built a superb collection of nearly unplayable copies of mid-1960s pop hits. I had "Hanky Panky," by Tommy James and the Shondells, which I treasured as the filthiest thing I had ever encountered; "Cool Jerk," by the Capitols, which I fantasized as being all about me; and "I’m Your Puppet," by James and Bobby Purify, whose lyrics I pictured literally and found disturbing. Nearly all the records skipped from having nicks or scratches or were so battered from being overplayed with the steel-tipped jukebox needle that the music sounded like the dim radio broadcasts from West Virginia my father tried to tune into at the kitchen table late at night to hear Bill Monroe.

I learned how a jerk could, by virtue of his coolness, be the heaviest cat there ever could be. I rode the elevator in the brain hotel.
The records’ flaws never bothered me much because we didn’t have a record player. (Later I got a portable from Sears as my eighth-grade graduation present.) To play the 45s, I would have to walk across the alley and down a few houses to my cousin Dick’s house and ask to use his player. Deterred by boyhood lethargy, I generally stayed alone at home and sat on the floor of the basement with my piles of records, and I studied them. I examined and compared the labels. I learned the names of the songwriters and cross-checked the production credits. Because I couldn’t play the songs, I drew on my memory of hearing them on the radio and pored over the cryptic particulars of their making. I started learning to theorize.

A great many important artists and other notable figures came through the Gateway, according to my mom. "Leonard Bernstein loves pudding," she would always say. The Beatles once took one of the booths on the left of the entrance, she said — or maybe that was another one of those bands from England. She couldn’t be sure. The Rolling Stones were rumored to have eaten there, too. The one almost notable musician in the Gateway’s regular clientele was an Italian-American from my hometown known as Red Mascara — an oddly transgressive-sounding pseudonym for a chemical-plant worker named Joseph Mascari. He had written an awful song called "I’m From New Jersey."

My mother’s rank and skill earned her the dinner shift, from 3 to 11 p.m. Accordingly, I saw her only occasionally as a child. The walk from our house to the Gateway was more than two miles each way, and I made the trip alone, by foot, after school just a few times a year, including once in the spring of 1967 when I was 12 and my mother arranged for me to meet Mascara, the only composer she knew, Bernstein notwithstanding.

I can date the occasion fairly accurately by the songs I remember playing on the jukebox while I waited in a booth for Mascara’s arrival. "Epistle to Dippy," by Donovan, a trippy jumble of pseudopoetic images — stuff about looking through crystal spectacles and riding the elevator in the brain hotel. I studied it in hopes of learning what it was like to take those drugs we were being warned against in health class. "Ruby Tuesday," by the Stones, a twee, un-Stonesish ballad about a mystery woman who disappears before her lover even learns her name. Most memorably, its flip side, "Let’s Spend the Night Together," a blunt entreaty for sex that I could hear only on the jukebox because most AM radio stations refused to play it. I got three tunes for the quarter my mom gave me, which I think I realized even then was probably the sum of her tips from one or two customers.

Mascara sat down next to me in the booth instead of across from me and laid a copy of the song sheet for "I’m From New Jersey" in front of us on the Formica tabletop. He proceeded to sing the tune for me. I learned later that he would croon it to virtually anyone, with little excuse. He labored for decades, in vain, to have it adopted as the official state song, rendering it for legislators and their staffs in the chambers of the Trenton State House.

Having just listened to "Let’s Spend the Night Together," I recognized "I’m From New Jersey" as anachronistically corny and dumb, a bouncy flag waver. The lyrics read:

I’m from New Jersey and I’m proud about it
[blank] is my home
I’m from New Jersey and I want to shout it
No matter where I roam.

In the second line of the stanza, the blank is intended to be filled in with the name of the singer’s hometown. What better symbol of the elusiveness and contingency of identity, especially in Jersey? Where do I belong? I wondered. What [blank] is my home?

Looking back, I see that it was not my town that filled the blank for me, but the imagined landscape of pop music. That’s where I lived in my heart and mind and where, in a contradiction I could not see at the time, commercial products aimed at millions fed my adolescent feelings of alienation and exceptionalism. I learned how a jerk could, by virtue of his coolness, be the heaviest cat there ever could be. I learned how much fun it was to do the hanky panky, maybe even overnight together, even if the girl disappears in the morning without saying her name. I rode the elevator in the brain hotel.

My older brother, Chuck, a folk-music purist, teased me mercilessly. "Don’t you realize pop songs are only trying to sell you something?"

"But what’s wrong with what they’re selling?" I asked. It was only love.

Chuck thought about that and grinned a grin I recognized. He was doing the hanky panky in his mind.

"Let’s just drop the whole subject. You’ll grow out of it," he said.

Fat chance.

David Hajdu is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and music critic for The Nation. His new book, Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, will be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.