Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunday Evening at the McCarren Park Pool: Ronnie Spector

As we walked the few blocks up Lorimer Street from Dumbo Books HQ to the McCarren Park Pool at 5:30 p.m. last night, we were thinking about a boy we knew who graduated Meyer Levin Junior High School 285 in East Flatbush on the last Monday in June 1965.

Richie had just turned 14. Since the boys in the sixteen ninth-grade classes marched in and sat down, as did the girls on the other side of the auditorium, in size place, he was first out of the 250 of so boys. Next to him was the second-shortest boy, a Negro he'd never noticed before, and he didn't know what to talk about with him. In Richie's experience, you were probably best off talking baseball or music with Negro kids, since they were things everyone had in common, though he knew enough not to talk about the Beatles or Herman's Hermits.

There were fewer people than last week at the pool, and a few more people with gray hair. We don't have gray hair, but we might as well since everyone assumes we dye it. An older man, seeing our maroon Brooklyn College T-shirt with gold lettering, says, "I used to go there too." We talk to this elderly person and discover that when he was an undergrad, we were serving on the alumni association board of directors.

Getting some Fuze diet white tea at the booth near the dodgeball players, we notice the skinny sky-blue JellyNYC balloon figures are up again, swaying in the wind. They weren't here last week. Or were they and we just don't remember?

With nine members of the band already onstage, Ronnie Spector enters holding a mike. She's shapely in a zaftig way, in a black pantsuit. All the nine band members are wearing black too. "I dream about the boys," she sings. Her hair is a modified 21st century beehive. The song is "I Wonder." Crowds move forward, and we go closer too.

Ronnie Spector, after the first applause dies down, says that when she woke up she was afraid of it being rainy: "But, no, not in Brooklyn. This is where I started.
The Brooklyn Fox with Murray the K shows. I'll never forget them."

And she starts singing again:
Why do they say that we're too young to go steady?
Don't they believe it, that I love you already?
Gee the moon is shining bright
Wish I could go out tonight
Why don't they let us fall in love?

Waiting on line in their black caps and gowns outside Whitman Auditorium at Brooklyn College that hot June morning, the two boys at the head of the junior high graduation procession started talking about the Murray the K special "It's What's Happening, Baby!"

It was going to be on channel 2 that night from 9:30 to 11:00 p.m. They'd taped some it at Fabian's Fox Theatre on Flatbush and Nevins, the one-time movie palace where Murray the K put on his famous rock 'n' roll shows: a segment with Richie's favorite, The Four Tops, singing his favorite song of theirs, "I Can't Help Myself."

The Negro boy said he heard the Ronettes would be on it too. Other girl groups sang about boys, but the Ronettes sang
to boys: "Be My Baby," "Born to Be Together," "This Is What I Get for Loving You."

The Brooklyn Fox was demolished around January 1971, but it had been out of business for years. It was where the Con Ed building now is. The Ronettes also appeared as part of Clay Cole's Twist-A-Rama tour at the Town Hill Club on Eastern Parkway at Bedford Avenue, now a WaMu bank branch. Clay Cole was where Richie mostly saw the Ronettes, on his weekly afternoon TV show on channel 11; he also saw them on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" on Saturday mornings on channel 7. On both shows, the kids were integrated.

Ronnie Spector will be 65 next month, so she seems a little tired. She sits down after the first song, but gets up again after a few bars into the next song.

"I love applause," Ronnie Spector says, when the crowd claps. "Even after all these years in the business..." A few hipster kids sitting near me on the floor of the empty pool are talking. A girl and her gay-guy friend are tickling each other and giggling.

"Nineteen sixty-six!" Ronnie Spector shouts, with surprising exuberance. And she sings:
Do I want you for my baby
Do I want you by my side
Do I wanna run and kiss your lips
Say you're my loving guy - oh oh...

The Ronettes did appear on 1965's "It's What's Happening, Baby!" The show was done in conjunction with the Office of Economic Opportunity, the war-on-poverty agency headed by Sargent Shriver, who was not, Richie once exasperatedly explained to his best friend, an actual army sergeant. ("You think if someone were just a sergeant, they'd be so proud of it, they'd call themselves by it all the time?!") The show's serious aim was to tell drop-out teenagers and ones without jobs about all the government programs like Job Corps that could help them.

On the Murray the K TV special, the Ronettes were shown walking down Mott Street in Little Italy, wearing plain white blouses and blue jeans and baseball caps, carrying really long overstuffed hero sandwiches. Murray the K was playing stickball. The Ronettes sang the song Richie knew they'd sing, "Be My Baby," which had come out a year and a half before, around the time President Kennedy was assassinated. The world had changed since then -- the British invasion had come out of nowhere -- but you still couldn't beat "It's My Baby."

Ronnie Spector says she loves doowop, like Frankie Lyman, and she'd come home from school (she lived in Washington Heights with her grandmother and future fellow Ronettes, her sister and cousin) and listen to the radio till she got the voices in her head.

She sits down after each song and says at one point, "Woo, if you guys think it's hot down there, it's hot up here, oh my God." Actually, it feels cool on the floor of the pool where we're sitting, but we're in the shade. There's a nice little breeze.

She starts "He Did It" sitting down but then seems to get her second wind and gets up, more energetically, on this line:
People let me tell you

I don't understand his alibi
I don't understand his reasons why
I don't understand him right or wrong
But he, oh he did it and he's gone

Oh how he fooled me
When he used me
And then he, he accused me
Let me tell you oh

"I think you all know who I'm talking about," Ronnie says after the applause dies down.

We bet some don't. We'd like to poll a random sample of hipsters here, including the two boys standing in front of me, who were lip-syncing and finger-snapping along with the song. Phil Spector? Wall of sound? One blogger, we see, has already posted that something about her being with the Rhondelles.
Two days after "It's What's Happening, Baby!" appeared on CBS, Richie and his friends -- fellow members of the Sultans like Eugene, Arnie, Billy, Jerry and Steve -- were walking over the Ocean Avenue foot bridge across Sheepshead Bay to go to Manhattan Beach and hang out. Arnie's little red transistor radio had on WMCA, 560 AM, home of the Good Guys. Some of them preferred WABC and Cousin Brucie, but Richie liked Harry Harrison the most. The Sultans played a lot of ball and listened to a lot of music. Their secret password was Teragram-Nna, which was Ann-Margaret's name backwards.

Walking to the beach, Richie mentioned a Herald Tribune article he'd read that morning about Republican senators denouncing "It's What's Happening, Baby!" Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen said "It's What Happening, Baby!" was "immoral" and "lousy, double lousy" and called for a federal investigation although the Johnson administration said no government money paid for the show.

Senator Gordon Allott of Colorado said it was such a degrading and shameful show he called Dr. Stanton at CBS right away. "I told the president of the broadcasting company, 'I am about to throw up,'" Senator Allott said. "Every American who saw the show must be sick. The whole program was tuned to the lowest type of beatnik appeal."

Maybe we're wrong about the hipsters. People are asking her for requests. She sings several more songs, wipes her face a lot with a black hanky, sits down a lot. Ronnie says she's glad it didn't rain, "but I could deal with a little rain now." She's older than our grandmothers were when we bought Ronettes 45s on Church Avenue near Utica, on our way to our grandmothers' apartments after school. So we feel sorry for her. But then she says, "But since it's not raining..." and she gets up and belts out "Walking in the Rain."

We listened to this walking in drizzle one dreary summer afternoon on the boardwalk in Rockaway, one hand holding the transistor radio to our ear, the other holding an orange creamsicle we kept licking.

Ronnie Spector's voice gets thin at times and then gets strong. She's clearly tired, but she's a trouper, her hand at her hips as she shakes and sings some more. She says "Oh my god" about four times in a row and precedes one song by talking about its producer, Joey Ramone. It was the last music he produced before he died.

The highlight of the show, of course, is "Be My Baby," which the crowd loves. One boy standing in front of me with his arm around another boy's shoulder exaggeratedly lip-syncs "Be my baby" with her as he looks at his friend.

In the fall of 1966, Richie was fifteen. After spending tenth grade in two different schools, Madison and the private Franklin School on the Upper West Side, where he wore a school blazer and rep tie and carried an attache case on the three trains and a bus every day, Richie was in his junior year at Midwood, pretending to have moved in with a police lieutenant and his wife, friends of his parents, who lived across the street from the school.

Richie was messed up, confused, but at least he'd gotten his parents to let him see a psychiatrist. They'd just started, though, and he wasn't getting less messed up. He was reading
Franny and Zooey and The Crying of Lot 49 on his own but in danger of failing Miss Shapin's English class because she hated Richie for some reason.

"Don't worry, she's just a bitch," the black girl in the next seat whispered to him when the teacher was concentrating on the other side of the room.

She goes off, saying, "Good night, I love you, good night, I love you," to applause that somehow doesn't seem appreciative enough for how hard it is to do this when you're old. Louder applause gets the band, and then Ronnie, water bottle in one hand, mic in the other, back for an encore of one song: the Ronettes' final single, "I Can Hear Music," released in late 1966. Soon after, Spector closed the Philles label and the group disbanded.
I can hear music
I can hear music
The sound of the city baby seems to disappear
I can hear music
Sweet sweet music
Whenever you touch me baby
Whenever you're near

"Goodnight everybody," Ronnie Spector says after the song and we mostly file out, but a lot of people are just still hanging out since it's only 6:45 p.m.

We were near enough to Ronnie Spector tonight to hear her music and so we are old but we're happy.

Isn't life wonderful.

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