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VenusandMarsToday is a cold December morning, but the song that fills my ears flashes me back to a warm spring day on the cusp of summer, sunlight strobing through green leaves overhead as we drive along the Pond Road outside Manchester, Maine. My brother, some friends and I are on our way to go water skiing, and “Listen to What the Man Said” by Paul McCartney and Wings is playing on the eight-track in my brother’s Ford station wagon. It must have been late May or early June 1975, and I was ecstatic to be out of school and on the way to the lake, not least because I had just escaped what would have been, without a doubt, the worst humiliation of my young life.

It was a weird and restless spring, that sophomore year of high school. I would have been fourteen, almost 15, and just a flesh sack of raging hormones and insecurities, like most teenage boys. It was an odd spring for other reasons, too. My high school had been receiving a slew of bomb scares that quarter. Someone would call the office, claim there was a bomb in the building, and hang up. We would evacuate the school so the police could bring in dogs and conduct a thorough search. If it was late enough in the day, we would get sent home. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it created kind of a stop-start feel to the education process. There was also the growing fear that the school year would get extended to make up for the lost time.

People today forget how many bombings and bomb scares there were back in the late 1960s and 1970s. I recently read a book, Days of Rage, that detailed the efforts of far-left groups to make major social changes by blowing things up. There were hundreds of bombings—everything from army recruiting centers to the offices of big corporations. The Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol were hit. The Weather Underground accidentally demolished a brownstone in Manhattan when their bomb maker set off the explosive device he was working on. There was even a bombing in my home town of Augusta, when someone planted a device at the headquarters of Central Maine Power in May 1976. They were strange days indeed.

So there I was, sitting in sophomore biology class with the end of the school year tantalizingly close. It was already an uncomfortably warm day and promising to get worse. We had no air conditioning in Cony High School—this was Maine, after all—so the windows were open, but it made little difference. The air hung hot and heavy. And our teacher was talking about sex.

Specifically, he was talking about the human female reproductive system. He discussed eggs, uterine linings, mucus membranes, the menstrual cycle, blood, fallopian tubes. (Fallopian tubes? That sounded like something Scotty would have used to reach the engine room on Star Trek.) It was classic high school discomfort, sitting in a room with your classmates—many of whom were equipped with fallopian tubes and everything else—while pretending not to be deeply embarrassed and self-conscious. Was the room, already stifling, getting even hotter?

Apparently it was, because beads of sweat appeared on my forehead. I felt positively clammy. And then, at the edges of my vision, I sensed an effect like that on Star Trek when people used the transporter. My sight was slowly becoming pixellated, starting at the edges and gradually taking over my eyes, as though my consciousness was getting beamed out of my body.

With a growing sense of horror, I realized I was going to pass out.

I was panic-stricken. I was going to faint in biology class while my teacher was talking about the female reproductive system. Within minutes the news would flash all over the school. “Did you hear that Huntington passed out in biology class? Right onto the floor. Couldn’t handle the sex talk.” I would have to drop out of society and become a hermit. I would need to wear a paper bag over my head whenever I appeared in public. I would be shamed, mocked, and  jeered. Children would point at me in the streets and laugh. Everyone would make fun of me. I would never, ever live it down. My life was going to become a living hell as soon as I hit the floor.

The more the panic grew, the worse I felt. What could I do? As my vision clouded over, I considered putting my head between my knees. I heard that helped when you were about to faint. But, no. That would just attract attention. “Are you okay, Tom?” the teacher would ask, and everyone would hoot with laughter as I headed off to see the school nurse. Maybe I could just put my head on the desk. Nope. That would be just as bad. I had no options. Nothing. I was doomed. Doomed! I could barely see by this point. I was going down . . .

And then the intercom crackled into life and the disembodied voice of the principal granted me deliverance. “Students and faculty, please evacuate the building,” it said. Someone had called in a bomb scare. I was able to lurch to my feet and stumble out of the room with the rest of the class—pale, sweaty, not looking at all well, but still conscious and with my dignity somewhat intact.

Within the hour we were speeding down the Pond Road, windows open, Venus and Mars on the eight-track player, Lake Cobbossee beckoning, and all was right with the world. Thank you, anonymous bomb scare caller. You saved my life.


whipped cream and other delightsTruth be told, at present I do not have anything by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on my iPod. It was Frank Sinatra who got me thinking about the band the other day when I heard him sing “Sunny.” That’s a song I knew from The Brass Are Comin’, a 1969 Tijuana Brass album I used to own.

Is it possible to overestimate the impact of the Tijuana Brass in the 1960s? They were huge and ubiquitous. You heard them on the radio, in chewing gum commercials, in movies, and on game shows. They sold millions and millions of albums. Recently I saw an article about a record store that pretended to sell nothing but copies of Whipped Cream & Other Delights. The concept is not that far-fetched. Released in 1965, the album sold six million copies, and the cover—an attractive woman wearing nothing but the title dessert topping—entered pop culture iconography. It seems like every middle-class American home had a copy of the album in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Wayne Campbell described Frampton Comes Alive!: “If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.”

Ironically, Whipped Cream & Other Delights was one Tijuana Brass album my family did not own. But we had others. In fact, it was thanks largely to the influence of Herb Alpert that I became a trumpet player.

Initially, my parents had three Tijuana Brass albums: The Beat of the Brass, which accompanied a TV special of the same name, What Now My Love? and Sounds Like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. For Christmas one year I got the cassette tape of Greatest Hits. I also acquired South of the Border. I remember my father took me downtown to Day’s Jewelry, which sold stereo equipment and records, and helped me pick it out. Dad wanted that album because it included “The Girl from Ipanema,” one of his favorite songs. Later I got The Brass Are Comin’, the soundtrack to another TV special.

Beat of the BrassI remember times when Dad would come home from work and we’d sit in the basement and listen to the Tijuana Brass as we waited for supper. He’d sip a cocktail—probably a Manhattan—and I’d lie on the sofa (real Naugahyde!) and daydream about how cool it would be to play the trumpet like Herb Alpert and really impress the girls in school. I especially liked The Beat of the Brass, despite the clunkers that ended each side. Both featured Alpert’s vocals. One was “Talk to the Animals,” complete with kid chorus. The other was Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love with You.” I thought it was pretty sappy song. For years I was mystified by the line, “My hand . . . I shaved it.” What kind of bizarre love ritual was that? Years later I realized Herb was singing that his hand was shaking. So it’s a good thing he wasn’t shaving.

I wasn’t there for the vocals. I liked the band. I really  can’t tell you why. It certainly wasn’t great jazz. Alpert was a perfectly good player and he had a nice, bright tone, but he wasn’t pushing any boundaries. The songs were mostly covers of pop hits or Broadway tunes, things like “Monday, Monday” or “If I Were a Rich Man.” They were catchy, as were the arrangements, and it was all pretty easy to digest. I liked “Zorba the Greek,” the way it sped up and slowed down and sped up again; and the irresistible “Tijuana Taxi,” and the melancholic “What Now My Love?” I admit the Tijuana Brass songbook is a little cheesy, but it’s easy to like. It’s good cheese. I liked it then and I still do, although now my affection for the music is tinted by nostalgia.

When I was in fifth grade—this would have been around 1970—a man arrived at school to speak to the students. His name was Mr. Griffin. As I recall, he was somewhat short, a little stout, and had glasses and a Van Dyke beard. Look up the word “professor” in the dictionary and you might find his picture. This real-life Harold Hill came to pitch the idea that we should lease instruments from him for a very low monthly fee, and that eventually we would own them. It was a no-brainer. At the time my mother was pushing for me to take piano lessons—we had a piano in the living room—but I was not interested. The piano wasn’t cool. I went home from school that day and told my parents I was going to play the trumpet, and that it really wasn’t going to cost them much.

That’s how I ended up with a nice gold Conn trumpet in a gray plastic case. Shortly after I picked up the instrument, my fifth-grade teacher asked me to stand up and play something for the class. I think I tackled “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I attacked it with gusto and thought I sounded pretty good. No doubt my classmates listened to the squawks and bleeps coming from my trumpet with expressions of shock and horror. Some may have burst into tears. I don’t recall any girls swooning.


Portrait of the trumpet player as a young man. I blame Herb Alpert for this.

I got better. I obtained a few big books of music and learned some Tijuana Brass favorites, including “Tijuana Taxi,” which I played incessantly. I played the trumpet through elementary school, junior high, high school, and into college. Probably the high point of my trumpet career—not counting the time my high school dance band played at the Maine State Prison—was when my college jazz band had a gig in New York City at an alumni dance at a swanky club. It was my first visit to the Big Apple and I got quite a rush playing with a band in a Manhattan high-rise.

If I had possessed the talent, I would have liked to be a musician. But I didn’t. I became a good trumpet player, but not an especially talented one. I had no ear and lacked the ability to ad lib. I may have been good, but I was no Herb Alpert.

What NowThen again, who was? The guy has had an amazing career. Everyone knows that he’s the “A” in A&M records (Jerry Moss is the “M”), but a research tool I found on the Internet called Wikipedia has told me so much more. Did you know Herb Alpert co-wrote “A Wonderful World” with Sam Cooke? That the famous gang of session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew played on the first Tijuana Brass albums? That the band had albums in Billboard’s top 10 for 81 consecutive weeks? This Wikipedia thing also informs me that the woman in the yellow dress with whom Herb kanoodles on the covers of the South of the Border and What Now My Love? was Jerry Moss’s wife. I did not know that.

So thanks, Herb, for getting me to play the trumpet. It was fun, except for all the damned practicing. The trumpet became an essential element of the way I saw myself. I was a trumpet player. I was a band kid. I was a musician.

I still have the trumpet. Just the other day I took the case down from its shelf in the closet and opened it up. The old familiar smell of valve oil immediately sent me tumbling back through the years. The trumpet lay nestled on its nest of bright-red artificial fur. I needed to find a rubber band to keep one of the spit valves closed, and the tuning slide was stuck and wouldn’t budge, but the trumpet remained playable. I lifted it from the case, inserted the mouthpiece, put the instrument to my lips, and played. It sounded terrible, but I was a musician again, even if it only for a few minutes.



December 2017
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