Like many, I’m a big fan of AMC’s “Mad Men.” I have long been disappointed by all the books and movies that fail to capture the spirit of the 1960’s. It’s one of my motivations for writing, to try to do that myself.
From the first episode Mad Men evoked in me chilling moments of remembrance – not of the counterculture, but the times that preceded it, and that are so necessary to understanding it. Those Selectric typewriters at the office, kids playing cowboys and Indians at home, the clothes, the incessant smoking and drinking were just what went on in my house and so many others. Bert Cooper’s office, with its oriental conceits takes me back in the office of a number of my friend’s dads, who were professors at Wesleyan University.
Matthew Weiner is a graduate of Wesleyan, as am I. Like me he was born in Baltimore. These facts make my connection with the show a little stronger.
“Mad Men” drops hints that the counterculture 60s are coming. At the beginning of Season One Don loses a lover to beatniks downtown. They’re smoking more than cigarettes. We see the teacher he later has an affair with dancing around a maypole in a flowery dress, grinning as only a flower child could.
And the big historical events which set our movement in motion are there. That they’re often in the background – Selma reported on a black-and-white TV behind a conversation, a passing shot of a wedding invitation on a desk, dated November 22nd –underscores the fact that much of the world at the time (certainly Don Draper’s) had no idea of their importance.
There’s nothing behind the scenes about the appearance of Dylan’s “Times They are a-Changin” at the end of Season One. And that’s as it should be. If books and movies are disappointing in evoking the counterculture 60s, music never is. From “We Shall Overcome” through “Are You Experienced,” it was the lifeblood of the counterculture, and still evokes it. Music not only expressed everything we thought and felt better than words or pictures ever could, announcing the times that were changing. The powerful vibrations of the music itself –its energy, hope, love –were actually changing the times.
Hearing that song I fell for the show. Why? I can hear Dylan sing it any time on CD, or cassette, even probably on vinyl if I want to look up in the attic. It was the context Mad Men had provided that made the song hit me so hard. But it wasn’t exactly a surprise – some commentary told me it was coming.
I saw episode 8 of the latest season – “The Summer Man.” Don’s in the locker room of his new gym. Vague music comes from a little transistor radio – it could have been the one I owned that summer –then as he steps into the sun of a Manhattan summer street that music turns way up, just as music was doing everywhere then. It’s the most famous 8 note riff in rock and roll. I felt it in my fingers, felt my blood rise.
When I'm watchin' my TV
and a man comes on to tell me
how white my shirts can be.
Well he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke
the same cigarettes as me.
The irony is delicious – Don wearing the whitest of white shirts, and he is that man, whose biggest account is Lucky Strike, pulling one front his shirt pocket on that line.
Then “Hey hey hey, that’s what I say..” a reference to Ray Charles’ breakout hit, as we see a smiling black couple, the guy looking liking Malcom X. Finally two girls with 60s hairdos, and Don thinks he smells perfume as Mick sings, “I can’t get no girlie action…”
The expert syncing of song and picture wasn’t what had me wanting to crawl into the nearest time machine and race back to 1965. It was seeing again those times so deeply, lovingly depicted, creating a context into which “Satisfaction” fell, giving me something I despaired of ever feeling again –a touch of what it was like to hear it, back then.
“Satisfaction” was a pivotal song because it made a critical leap – conflating dissatisfaction with the emptiness of consumer culture with the frustration of very personal desires. As such it became a rallying cry for the budding counterculture, which wasn’t getting anything they needed from the world created by Don Draper, but was starting to know where to look for satisfaction, if not more – to sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
I remember how “Satisfaction” sounded to me when I first heard it, in my dark night of teenaged dissatisfaction. I was starting my second year at boarding school. I had no friends, no promise of a girlfriend. But I still had an electric guitar, though I hadn’t touched it in months.
That fall my insomnia was worse than ever. It brought with it a bad mood that blackened with each waking hour, and reached a darker place with each cumulative night of lost sleep. I stared out at the floodlit gables of the other dorms. But I couldn’t see anything beyond the darkness inside, no hope for happiness. Not in music. I hadn’t had a band in the year and a half.
I saw a glimmer. Sex. This fabled experience might lift me. But with that thought I plunged ever further. For even if sex was the answer, it would never happen to me. With no friends I had nothing to counter the judgments of my tormenters of the previous year, nothing to tell me I wasn’t a member of the very lowest caste, of the terminally “out to lunch.” When it came to girls, I knew I was literally untouchable.
Things looked a little better in the light of day. Sex was no less attainable – indeed, I hadn’t even seen a girl in months. I couldn’t get a girlfriend, saw no prospect of a band. But I could get a fuzz tone – like the one on “Satisfaction.”
I had been suffering from a lull in the evolution of rock guitar. I could play most of what I heard. The couple of exceptions – that crazed solo on The Kinks “You Really Got Me,” and the even crazier one on The Byrds “Eight Miles High” –were impossible for me and every other guitarist I knew. So there was really no motivation to play.
Until “Satisfaction.” Not only did the lyrics precisely express my midnight despair, but there was this guitar lick that performed a magical counterintuitive function. Mick Jagger sang of despair, but all the time that guitar sang of pure pleasure. Each note delivered every ounce of satisfaction Jagger couldn’t get. In it I heard the guitar expanding beyond the realm of notes, into new sounds, and my interest was rekindled.
“Satisfaction” was such a big deal that I read about it in Newsweek, perhaps in the same issue as the full page picture of my family with my father, who was just then becoming world famous. I was more interested in the piece on “Satisfaction.” It told me that what made that magical guitar sound was a Maestro fuzz tone. I had to get one.
I walked into town to the local music store. Soon I would be frequenting it as all hot guitarists did in those days, using the pretense of trying out guitars to impress other kids. And it often worked. Unfortunately it would be a few years before any girls would brave music stores.
But that day I came for a fuzz tone. The old guy behind the counter fished it out from under the glass, giving me the same dour look that old music storeowners were giving aspiring rockers across the country. I rushed back to my room with it clutched under my arm, smiling for the first time in a while.
I eagerly prized it from the box. The instructions promised: “Make the sounds of all of these instruments! Violin! Saxophone! Timpani!” I shook my head, confused. What I wanted was the sound of “Satisfaction.”
I rigged the thing between guitar and amp, and, curious, tried out the various settings.
Whether I dialed in Violin, Sax, or Trombone, they all sounded the same – like nasty goose farts. Nothing like what was on the record. It was probably the fault of persnickety pre-silicon transistors, but I didn’t know what was wrong with it. The sound I wanted was a kind of distortion –but not those goose farts.
I met a fellow guitar player down the hall. Luke had a better sound. He plugged his guitar into the back of his Wollensac reel-to-reel tape recorder. I said, “What are you doing?” He smiled slyly, turned the dial to ten and the creamiest sound leapt from the little speaker. “Let me try?” He handed me the guitar and the frets suddenly felt like silk I was instantly a better player. I’d discovered – before many music manufacturers – what I was after: the beauty of smooth analog distortion, which came from tubes. I’d be using it to increasing benefit as I gradually turned up louder and louder over the next years.
I already recognized hipness, in the Beatles, and recently the Stones. Luke was the first person I met who possessed that quality. He was tall with a long face and longer arms, allowing him to perform a unique trick: as he talked he would loop an arm over the top of his head and absentmindedly scratch the whiskers starting to grow on his chin. I loved that he wasn’t afraid to act a little strange. He seemed aloof from all the mean nonsense at my boarding school, just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
Which made me half an iota less flabbergasted when he admitted that he’d gotten laid - the act that had so recently in the dark of night appeared as my only possible salvation.
I knew not to take such bragging seriously at school, except that if anyone wasn’t a bullshitter, it was Luke. And his tale had the sort of detail that’s hard to make up. He’d drunk peppermint schnapps and gone all the way with his girlfriend back home. “One night when her parents were out we did it three times on the white carpet of her living room.”
My eyes bugged out. I asked, “What was it like?”
He shook his head, “It wasn’t that great.”
What? How could that be? And why did he seem so sad when he told the tale? “What do you mean, it wasn’t that great?”
“The last time we did it her parents came home early and caught us. That’s why I got sent away to Logan.”
OK. That was pretty bad. Still, I asked for advice.
“Don’t worry about doing it. Get to kiss a girl first.” That sobered me right up. How was that ever going to happen? There were no girls around. It didn’t matter anyway. I was untouchable. And yet, Luke was no jock, even a little strange looking. What he could do was play guitar.
I knew I was never going to look like Don Draper, never get women falling over me like him. But I had something he didn’t. A guitar.
Soon after that frustrated moment, my guitar would start getting me girlfriends. More, it and the counterculture would give me a life.