My memory has been a remarkable friend for as long as I can remember, which is a remarkably long time. But the price I must pay for that friendship is quite dear: when it brings up bad actions I have committed and horrible choices I have made, I must vividly experience them once again and throw myself at the mercy of Shame, which has never known mercy and never will.
But I do love it when I can steer past the bad and bring back the good for an appreciable amount of time, which is my intent with this month’s visit. What I experienced 50 years ago, from the middle of February to my leaving San Diego for four years at the end of June–all in 1967–truly seems just weeks or even moments away. Moments a moment ago. I’ve been reliving them a lot lately ever since a friend casually asked me, “Can you believe it’s been 50 years since ‘Penny Lane’ came out?”
Ah, so that’s what half a century feels like. It was just here. It’s here again, now. I haven’t forgotten anything from those nervous final months in eighth grade at Marston Junior High on Clairemont Drive and Ute Drive. I was going to be moving away to Maryland after school ended. I wanted to wrap up my decade in San Diego with as much fun as possible, so I set to work. And the soundtrack of my young life then, right up through the first week of June, was almost entirely comprised of “Penny Lane” and its flip side, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” That double-A-sided single was–and surely must still be–the finest, most magical 45 ever released.
The record (which my older brother, Tom, obtained for 99 cents at Apex music in the Clairemont Quad) had a jacket with the most magnificent color photo of the Beatles I have ever seen–dark and moody with halo lights, the four lads from Liddypool had evolved into iconic masters. Everything they’d been doing now for three years had been incredible. When it had seemed that they couldn’t get any better, they would continually prove that they could. And they now had grown mustaches, which all male artists must eventually do for a time (as well as the odd female; my apologies, Frida). I wouldn’t be able to grow one myself for another ten years, nor was I allowed in 1967 to grow my hair to even 1964-Beatle length, but something the Beatles did with these two magnificent songs struck a spark of emulation and ambition within me, inspiring the pursuit of a new hobby.
The Beatles had stopped touring the previous summer and would now promote their work with short films, which they licensed to television shows such as Ed Sullivan’s. The little films they did for “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” may not have actually invented the concept of the “music video” but they most certainly refined and defined it. Before, promo films of musical groups had been concerned with mimed (or, very rarely, live) performances of the featured song. Now you heard the song as you viewed footage of the artists walking around or riding horses or jumping up into trees; these were concept pieces and they were thrilling to watch. They thrilled me enough to make me want to make films of my own, using the Brownie 8mm camera that my father had been using to document the growth of our family since around 1954.
Soon I was filming my brothers and sister and myself running around the yard or playing tetherball or chopping up tomatoes like a homicidal maniac (an especially nuanced performance by brother Butch). By holding the camera upside down, footage could later be removed and spliced back into the whole with the end appearing first and all subsequent action occurring backward. That sounds far more confusing than it was, and such tricks were fun to figure out. We experimented with stop-motion animation of clay figures, which required a practiced quick-flick of the tricky motor switch. Most everything was shot outdoors, since we never had real photo flood lights that could make indoor scenes bright enough (it would be several years before I figured out that regular household lamps could do the job, if I used a lot of them.) It was truly exciting to pick up a newly-developed 50-foot spool of Kodak film from the Rexall Drug Store in the Quad and take it home to project on a wall of our large recreation room. When we decided that these ambitious little silent works might be enhanced and improved with the addition of music, there was truly only one obvious choice: “Strawberry Fields Forever” (“Penny Lane” wouldn’t work as well since it contained too much of a narrative; “Strawberry Fields” was clearly more dreamlike and open to interpretation. It worked superbly with any home movies of just about any kind.)
One Saturday morning in late February my friend John Pound and I boarded the number 5 bus (now number 105) with camera, tripod, two bags of costumes, and a fully-clothed dummy, and headed to Old Town. There we met up with our buddy Steve Epeneter and, over the next three or four hours, filmed most of our four-minute mini-epic, “Vampire,” at the old cemetery and at two locations in Presidio Park (the old building near the museum’s parking lot and the giant brick cross). While we were setting up the action and lining up the shots–all editing was to be accomplished in-camera–Steve’s terrifically loud transistor radio would blast both of those new Beatle tunes at least once an hour. Later we went to Steve’s house to film the final (crypt) scene in his garage. When I was writhing around in a bloody shirt with a fake stake sticking out of my chest and three plastic containers’ worth of Taco Bell hot sauce (these were pre-hot sauce packet days) spewing from my mouth, I was doing it to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which Steve kept playing in repeat mode on his record player.
I transfered the precious “Vampire” to video tape about 30 years ago and then transfered the tape to DVD more recently. The color has held up very well on this 50-year-old roll of film. I had toyed with the idea of remaking the film shot-for-shot at the same locations and with the same actors and might have done so as a 50-year celebration except for the intrusions of locations and lifespans–John Pound now lives the life of a famous artist in Northern California and Steve Epeneter never made it to 30.
My older brother, Tom, has been gone for nearly 21 years now. I watch him and I watch my Mom, who died in ’73, in the old home movies while I’m listening to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and I thank God for the Beatles. And 50 years later, “Strawberry Fields Forever,“ it makes “Vampire” even better than it already is… yet still not as fine as it will undoubtedly be tomorrow.