Late in the Spring of 1970, approaching my 17th birthday, I met another teenager (one grade behind me, and in a different high school) named Mark. Mark also came from a Puerto Rican background, although in his case it was both parents. That seemed enough common ground at first to begin to “hang out” together. I don’t recall how we met, I only remember that we seemed to hit it off in a big way.
I had just emerged from my first heart break. It had been an ill-advised relationship at best. She was a fellow Seton Hall High School student, 15 years old and engaged to marry a 19 year old college student. She felt trapped in that relationship, and when she had her friends slip me a note that said, “I’m not B__’s property until I have his ring on my finger,” I couldn’t resist the temptation. She was a stunningly beautiful young woman who didn’t seem aware of just how attractive she was, and her interests were compatible with mine.
I told her friends that I wanted to talk to her. At first she thought I was angry about the note, but I smiled, and honestly don’t remember how we suddenly found ourselves in each other’s arms, our lips tightly pressed. Bad idea, and my only excuse is that my teenage hormones were running wild, and my brain apparently shut down.
She told her fiancée that night and the poor girl soon found herself torn between two young men who were both telling her that she’d have to make a choice. But she seemed unwilling or maybe unable to decide. We would meet clandestinely in dark quiet places around the school – the back of the auditorium, the stair well at the farthest end of the main building, empty classrooms. In truth it was pretty light weight stuff, passionate kissing for the most part. B__ knew about us and every evening he would try to persuade, and eventually to force her to stop seeing me, and she would meet me in secret the next day to tell me that it was over, but would quickly melt into my arms. This went on for about 2 or 3 months. Then, one fine day in the early spring I sprouted a spine and broke it off with her. I was not happy as part of a ménage à trois and believed that she was confused and did not possess the inner resources to make a clean break with either of us. It would be in everyone’s best interest if I simply bowed out, so I did.
So now, after having my heart ripped in two I decided to avoid romantic involvements at least for a while. In later years I often wondered whether it had been my heart that was broken or just my ego bruised. Over the years I’ve experienced both and a bruised ego always involves shame and anger, but not the pain of love lost. No, my heart ached, and I didn’t want it to ache again any time soon, so I bonded with Mark and we both talked about how we would be adolescents only once and not waste that youthful opportunity on amorous entanglements.
Together Mark and I explored what would for that summer become our 2 principal interests – girls and music. We sought out rather easy girls who were probably, and sadly, discovering their sexuality not as a means of empowerment but rather as a way to feel wanted by somebody – or more accurately, by anybody. I can’t speak for Mark, but I was a bit too insecure to push my exploits into the more dangerous ground of intercourse, but I did enjoy myself. Years later I would look back with a sense of relief that I wasn’t confident enough to pressure these young women into “going all the way.” There is a small gap between pressure and force, and I can say with honesty that I never crossed that line with a woman, even if my motivation at that time wasn’t quite as idealistic as one would wish. And, to be honest, I am also relieved when I realize that many of the girls with whom I had encounters wound up pregnant within the next several months, and their lives as well as the lives of the young men who bore equal responsibility were altered. There but for the Grace of God go I.
Much of our summer was spent enjoying music. We would take turns buying the latest albums of our favorite bands: Steppenwolf, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Traffic, Cream, Blind Faith, Ten Years After, Mountain, the Allman Brothers Band, Santana, Jethro Tull, the Who, and, of course, the mighty Led Zeppelin. The list went on. We discovered that the State University of New York in Stoney Brook was hosting a summer music festival of weekly concerts featuring some of bands that had played at the Woodstock Festival the previous summer. Mark and I went to the first one together – Ten Years After, with MC5 as the opening act. A week later we were there seeing Santana (the original Woodstock line-up) with Miles Davis opening. The jazz legend’s music, which was essentially all from his Bitches Brew album, went over my head a bit, but I recognized that something special was going on, and I took mental notes because I believed that eventually I’d understand the music and be glad that I was there. Several years later I did and I was.
That summer I also saw Mountain, the Allman Brothers Band, Jethro Tull, the James Gang, and a few other shows. These bands formed the soundtrack of my coming of age. It wasn’t just the music or the tentative forays into physical intimacy, it was more that this was the summer of a newly acquired freedom. I had a driver’s license and pretty free use of my father’s car, as long as I agreed to drive him to work in the morning and pick him up again in the evening. And for the first time I didn’t feel like I didn’t fit in. I was “cool”. I met many others on the cusp of adulthood who shared my interests and tastes and I was allowed to grow into the person that I had always been in the process of becoming.
I was also exploring my own artistic voice, listening to classical music for the first time and discovering that I really liked it. I bought my first 2 classical recordings – a box set of the Beethoven 9 symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joseph Kripps, and a recording of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos played by the Collegium Aureum. For some time before that summer I had played guitar in a folk trio and was now also playing organ in a rock band. Neither of my ensembles were very good. Since the Seton Hall High School’s dominating social circle revolved around sports I didn’t know any other good musicians. But my new found freedom put me into contact with students from other schools, particularly from Deer Park High School, and I began to meet much better players. It wouldn’t be long before I found myself playing organ in an 8 piece band that also included guitar, bass, drums, 2 trumpets, trombone, and a singer.
It was also during that summer that I met the girl who would eventually become my first wife. But it would be some time before I would become involved with her, preferring to adhere to my decision to not become romantically entangled with anyone. It was an evening when Mark and I had been making the rounds to different friends’ houses. We arrived at one house and were told that a group of them were downstairs in the basement. That basement, as were many others in Deer Park, was “finished” with carpeting, wall paneling, and furniture, converting into the perfect family den. We went down the steps, the sound of Ginger Baker’s drums pounding to Cream’s distinctive approach to the blues, blaring loudly through a pretty good sound system. There was incense burning, and the lights were turned low, a black light in the corner illuminating the bright day-glow colors of several posters in psychedelic ostentation. Everyone was sitting around on the floor, a few of them in the corner passing around a joint. Elena and her friend Danae were sitting on the opposite side of the room with some other people who were more interested in the music than in the drugs. Mark and I were introduced around, and we stayed for a very short time, deciding that this wasn’t where we wanted to be for the entire evening. We left, and I can’t recall where else we wound up, but the truth is neither Elena nor her friend made a huge impression – good or bad – on me at the time.
Summers eventually come to an end, although in some ways the summer of 1970 has remained my own personal endless summer. It was my coming of age, my renaissance, the first days of the rest of my life. The friends I made and the times that I shared with them would set the trajectory of my life in ways that I could never have imagined at the time. My involvement with music became more intense and more serious, and it was shortly after that summer that I decided that I wanted to major in music in college.
The recording below is a song that I wrote several years ago. It is a very rough demo quality recording on which I play all the instruments and sing all the parts. But I include it since the song was as much a product of that time long ago as it was of the life I was living when I wrote it.