High school, Melbourne, the Class of ’69.
I was nurtured by the most poetic and influential cultural artefact of the twentieth century, the three-minute pop song. My parents were young. When I was born my father had just turned twenty-one and my mother was only eighteen years old. The radio sitting on top of the refrigerator in our kitchen was rarely turned off and was tuned to a pop station, either 3XY or 3AK. We also had a ‘three-in-one’ radiogram in the front room, where we sat playing records on Saturday afternoons. Forty-fives – singles – were the go and my mum loved the girl pop stars, be they English singers of the time, such as Petula Clark and Cilla Black, or the stars of Motown, particularly The Supremes.
The first song I fell for was Be My Baby by The Ronettes and I would play it over and over, threatening to wear out both vinyl and the needle. Anytime I hear the song I am transported to the narrow terrace of my childhood, jiving across the linoleum floor with my big sister, Debbie. By ten years of age I’d moved on to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. I wasn’t interested in the competition between the bands, or the idea that you had to be either a Stones or Beatles devotee. (Imagine having to choose between I Saw Here Standing There and Satisfaction).
In high school I hung out with teenagers whose families had come to Australia as migrants after the Second World War – predominantly Italian and Greek kids. A phenomenon that drew us together, beside smoking at recess and lunchtimes, was pop music. While some had more sophisticated tastes than others, favouring LPs over singles, and listening to bands such as Cream and Iron Butterfly (whose In A Gadda Da Vida came in at over 17 minutes), I had better things to spend my time on, like mastering the perfect smoke ring, than falling asleep to a guitar solo.
While I loved music and sat in class day-dreaming that the girl sitting in front of me in class was the girl Marc Bolan swooned over in Hot Love, I hated school, a situation reflected in my term reports. At the end of Form Three I understood I’d be unlikely to make it through another year of school. The refection gave me no personal grief, although I was sure it would cause my mother heartburn.
In the last week of school that year we had a class party. Kids were invited to bring their records in from home and we took turns selecting songs. As each record began most kids would clap, although there was the occasional groan, most likely from the Iron Butterfly fan bemoaning The Monkees’, Stepping Stone (a truly great pop song). Although I was only fourteen at the time, I have never forgotten how I felt that afternoon, experiencing a deep sense of both sadness and what I would realise only years later had to be love.
Someone, I cannot remember who, chose to play Simon and Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa. I was not a particular fan of the duo, although I loved Sounds of Silence. As El Conda Pasa played I became fixated on the lyrics; ‘I’d rather sail away, like a swan …’
I looked around the room and knew that I would soon be leaving my friends behind. I suddenly realised that I didn’t want to go. But it was too late. I’d been behaving badly all year, mostly fighting and wagging school for weeks on end, which I now believe stemmed from my father being locked away in a psychiatric institution at the beginning of that year. Most of the others kids in the classroom that day would be staying on – together. As I left the school ground later that day I felt already disconnected from them. And it hurt far more than I could have understood or admitted at the time.
El Condor Pasa would become my high school anthem. In the years after leaving school I often played the song and remember a particular boy I’d jumped from a bridge into the Yarra River with. Or a beautiful girl I’d hardly spoken to during three years at school, a girl who without realising it, I had a deep and lasting crush on.
A few years back, against what I thought was my better judgement, I went to a school reunion and met up with many of those same classmates. I was a little shocked by how emotional I felt afterwards. I shouldn’t have. I now understand that teenage friendships can be deep and lasting, as you are, consciously or not, sharing and experiencing the most formative years of your life. Fortunately, some of us have retained and strengthened our initial reconnection. I feel deeply grateful for the friendships I enjoy.
I also enjoy a song that reminds me that ‘I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet … yes I would.’ Simon and Garfunkel and my old classmates – the Class of ’69 – enable me to do that.
Tony Birch narrated this story, backed by The Stereo Stories Band, at the Write Around The Murray Festival, Albury, Saturday 16 September 2017. He also narrated an excerpt from his story Sticky Fingers, from The Promise.