Tim Lucas: Telstar & Me
In 1962, “Telstar” became a #1 record in the United States –
the first British band recording ever to earn that distinction. I was only five years old when Joe Meek and The Tornados recorded it; when it was inundating the Top 40 airwaves, I was six and being raised by my widowed mother and grandmother. I never knew my father, who died of a congenital heart defect before I was born. All that I ever knew about him was that he had worked in a print shop as a typesetter, that he played bass, and that his favorite song was Hoagy Carmichael’s “Old Buttermilk Sky.”
It was at the age of six that I made the internal adjustment that separates people who like music from those who become serious listeners. For my birthday at the end of May, I was taken by my mother and grandmother to the record department of a department store in downtown Cincinnati, probably Shillito’s, and treated to any two records of my choice. To be six in 1962 was different than turning six in our information-dominated present.
Aside from Elvis Presley, whose surname I barely knew at that time, I didn’t know the names of any artists or their songs, so my selection was guided more by the appeal of album covers than by sound. In the end, I made the unusual choice (for my age group) of selecting two soundtrack albums: Elvis’s GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! and Henry Mancini’s HATARI! I hadn’t seen either movie, but in the days and weeks that followed, I found that playing these albums encouraged me to imagine them, to invent situations and storylines to connect the songs and instrumental music cues. “Return To Sender” was my favorite of the Elvis tracks, but I had a different experience with HATARI!.
With that album, I found myself more attracted to the atmospheric tracks, like the title cue, than to the more popular novelty tracks like “Baby Elephant Walk.” Listening to Mancini’s dark, percussive mood music and its romantic soaring brass took me deeper into myself in a way that was new and confusing and couldn’t be undone. Where was it taking me, and why?
It was my mother’s habit to take me to the drive-in on weekends. We would pile into her sky blue Rambler on Saturday nights and drive to a pharmacy that sold comic books, where I would stock up on 12 cent titles like FOX & CROW and THE ADVENTURES OF BOB HOPE; this was followed by dinner at a Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant and then the drive-in, either Norwood’s Twin Drive-In (a two-screener) or Madisonville’s Oakley Drive-In. We would park somewhere close to the concession stand, and then I would change into my pajamas in the back seat and read comics till the sky darkened enough for the first film to begin. As we waited, contemporary music was played over the speaker which my mother had hooked onto the passenger seat’s window. Other songs I remember particularly well from this period are The Orlons’ “Wah-Watusi”, Joanie Sommers’ “Johnny Get Angry”, Chubby Checker’s dance sensation “The Twist” and Mr. Acker Bilk’s haunting “Stranger on the Shore.”
I don’t remember which movies I saw on the particular night I’m about to describe; what I remember is waking up during the ride home, having fallen asleep at some point during the double feature. It was sometime after midnight. I was stretched out in the back seat, in my pajamas, and my mother was driving with the car radio on. At that age, I was easily distracted by neon and other illuminated signs, especially animated ones. I loved the sequential illumination of signs that would say, for example, “S-N-A-C-K BAR, SNACK BAR.” So my eyes were attracted by the lights I could see by looking up from my vantage through the Rambler’s rear window. What I saw were street lamps passing overhead. I found that, when one disappeared from view, I could count to three and another would appear. They were passing over me like sheep to be counted to induce sleep, but I found their recurrence invigorating. I could imagine they were stars or passing comets and that I was racing with them toward some unknowable destiny. Somehow I was articulating these adult thoughts to myself though I did not at that point have the mastery of language to do such emotion justice. Nevertheless, I was feeling it and going with it, and it had something to do with the music playing on the radio.
That music was “Telstar.”
It was in the nature of AM Radio in those days for the disc jockey to talk over the introduction of a song, stopping only when the proper melody commenced, so I wouldn’t have heard the bubbling, incantatory electronics that announce the song. But the song’s galloping cadence seemed to accompany the forward movement of our car, while the melody played on the clavioline seemed to be sending me a message from those lights passing overhead.
I don’t remember hearing the song again for several years; it could not have been earlier than 1964, when I was given my first transitor radio. But when I heard it again, I knew exactly where I had been when I heard it before and, even though I was by then an energetic eight-year-old, I remember sitting down on the cement step leading to the front porch of a stranger’s house, never mind that someone might appear to chase me away, and absorbing the song’s restatement like something sacred. Because I had consciously preserved the unknowable quality of that memory from the back seat of our Rambler and the strange wordless music that had accompanied it, which had now returned to me like Halley’s comet. I knew in my gut that it was an odd memory to have cherished, to have refused to let go, a memory in which nothing outward or certifiable really happened — just passing streetlights, a song on the radio, nothing that hadn’t happened many times to me before. But the song took me to a place, or perhaps pointed to one, an inheritance perhaps, that in retrospect the Mancini soundtrack had prepared me to recognize.
But what was the substance of that moment? Why did it assert such importance?
In retrospect, I can point to my initial “Telstar” epiphany as the moment on my timeline when I fully became myself. Because I didn’t share it with anyone, because I didn’t have the ability to communicate to anyone else what I had experienced, it marked the beginning of my interior life. To make adult sense of its eureka, it sent me a message of otherness; it suggested to me that anything of deep personal significance I would ever find in this life would be found tucked away somewhere in its margins, in places where most other people wouldn’t be looking. (I admit it’s strange that I should interpret this message from a song that struck such a strong international chord that it became #1 on both sides of the Atlantic!) I understood that I would have to be vigilant and independent in seeking these out if I wanted to feel such epiphanies again. “Telstar” was the first work of art that spoke directly and specifically to the secret me in me, the me I was destined to become. It found me and, in hearing it, I found me too.
I once related a shorter form of this story to my friends on Facebook. To my surprise, my posting drew a response from Michael Nesmith, who is generally disinclined to post messages outside his own wall. “Not the first time I have heard this,” he wrote. He explained in brief that, over the years, in various recording studios as fellow musicians got to talking, this song has turned up again and again as a mysterious memory that brought people of all different walks of life to a common love of music, people who felt it was speaking directly to them, but without knowing precisely how.
“It’s music from another place,” he closed in summary.
It’s said that the very matter that composes our bodies came from a dying star — stardust, they call it — so perhaps the elegant explanation offered by Papa Nez is sufficient. How appropriate, then, that “Stardust” should be the name of another hit instrumental! And one written by Hoagy Carmichael at that.
(c) 2013 Tim Lucas, all rights reserved by the author.
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