The Sounds of the Old Ways Falling

By the time I got to college in 1964, I had heard hundreds of songs, but I am not sure I really had an identifiable taste.  I awakened to popular music in grade school and lived by the charts through high school. I loved R&B, Doo-Wop, a lot of country crossovers, folk-based music and some of the new British music, particularly the Animals.

At my little Methodist college in West Tennessee, I was paired with a boy from Centerville, who played organ and piano in a rock and roll band and, like me, had visions of being a minister someday.  His name was Doug but everyone called him Meador, his last name, and one among us, sought poetry by calling him “Meadow.”  Meador had one album, Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits, and he had one album I discovered, because it was the one he liked to hear. And so every night, we went to sleep to “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Crying,” “Running Scared” and “In Dreams.”

I was an innocent, the child of a Methodist minister, who had lived in a lot of towns but none larger than 2,500 and none outside West Tennessee and Western Kentucky. As for cities, I had been to Memphis and Nashville. I had never been in a pool hall, much less a honky-tonk, never taken a drink, never smoked a cigarette, and believed that copulation was for love and procreation. Future preacher or not, Meador knew far more about the darker side of life and was quite sure I was missing out on most of life’s greatest pleasures.  His band took him to honky-tonks within a 200 mile radius and he often staggered into the room near dawn with too much of a crooked grin to profess sorrow for his sins. The ministry was a boyhood dream for both of us, but by the end of the year we would have both put it behind us. We had gotten into a fraternity because we didn’t know what else to do, but, like the ministry, it didn’t seem to be either of our callings, though Meador found out a little sooner than I did.

There was nothing stylish about Meador. He was a little heavy and some part of his shirt tail was always outside his pants.  His dress style was slightly wrinkled way before wrinkled was cool. And yet, Meador had great charm and a wicked smile that along with his curly hair seemed to carry him further with attractive women than I ever would have imagined. Meador had confidence. He was a natural born con man, and even when his deceptions were obvious, he would flash a wicked smile that said, “I know you see through all this, but think about how boring life would be if I weren’t putting you on.” I couldn’t help but like him.

Meador thought I needed a mentor, and he was just the man for the job. With Roy Orbison playing in the background, he taught me how to inhale a cigarette, drink beer and scotch without gagging, how to dance well enough to get by, and most of all, how to think I looked tough even if underneath it all, I was running scared.  Meador was the growl in “Oh, Pretty Woman.”  Though I had good cover with my Ivy League clothes and small town friendliness, I was far more the dream-filled frightened adolescent Orbison’s songs brought to life. Still I never let the songs get too close. My cover was about the only protection I had against the grief and insecurity I carried.

Meador and I were both miscast as frat boys, but neither of us knew it. There seemed so few options in September  when our college life had begun. But at the end of November, I got a vision of a different life. I visited New York City over Thanksgiving. The streets of the city showed me how limited my view of life truly was.  And at the Gaslight Café, I saw the protest singer Phil Ochs, who made the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the injustice of many of my country’s policies real for me in a way they had never been.  Implicit in his songs was the notion that citizens—even students–should think more expansively and try to make a difference in the larger world.  These were issues that would dominate my college years and beyond, but I first heard them in Ochs’s songs:

What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear?

I’ve heard that sound before.

What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear?

I hear it more and more.

It’s the sound of the old ways falling.

You can hear it if you try.

You can hear it if you try.

(“What’s That I Hear?” 1964)

At the end of the semester, Meador and I parted ways. He didn’t make his grades and left the fraternity. I skimmed by. It might have been better had I not, but changing your life is more than a one-semester project.  I found a new roommate, a dedicated student whom I thought would help me bear down. As it turned out, I was not quite ready, even then, for the studious path. Meador had taught me well, and I was just starting to develop my talents for drinking and carousing. I had a new soundtrack though, and this one pointed forward. On the day after I heard Phil Ochs, I bought his album “All the News That’s Fit to Sing” and later that month an album by a guy Ochs could not quit talking about in his show, Bob Dylan. I would come to love Dylan’s songs in all his many incarnations, but Ochs’ music pushed me on to explore what it meant to be a citizen in ways I had not even considered.

For me the old ways started falling in the Gaslight Café on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1964.  By the time I graduated from college, I would discover a love of learning, a thirst for social justice and a more global way of thinking, but I carried a little bit of Meador along too, a personal rebelliousness that put less emphasis on fitting in, a love of hard living, and a belief in following the song.

Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall

To brown and to yellow, they fade

And then they have to die

Trapped within the circle time parade of changes.

(Phil Ochs, “Changes,” 1966)




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