Paul Revere died this week at the age of 76, which is ironic since it recalls the year 1776. I don’t mean Paul Revere of “one if by land, two if by sea” fame, but Paul Revere the leader and organist of the 1960’s group, Paul Revere and the Raiders. They had hits like “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” and “Cherokee People,” which extended the revolutionary theme to Native Americans.
Surprisingly, their music stands up today. Well, maybe not their appearance on Batman, but most of their garage-band, bass-percussion sound surely does. They even played in between games of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium in 1967, which wasn’t exactly a good year for the Yankees (they lost 90 games), but that’s another story.
I remember around that time a friend of mine, Peter Viegas, proclaiming that “bell bottoms will never die.” The rest of us, all eminently cool junior high schoolers, agreed. It was what they now call a no-brainer. Bell bottoms were the foundational fashion statement of the under 30 crowd. Actually, back then we looked upon anyone around 30 as an adult, one of the older generation. I’m not even sure we knew anyone that age except for maybe a distant cousin or two. It wasn’t long afterward that we donned Army jackets, tore holes in our jeans, and grew our hair out. Some of us even wore the Che Guevara beret, although we didn’t have a clue what it stood for. As long as it annoyed our parents, that’s all that mattered.
It was a difficult period. For me, my family, my neighborhood, the country. While my friends were rebelling against everything, I was trying to fit in. I was the first person in our family to go to college, and although that happened later, it is a reflection of the struggle we experienced as both Italians (outsiders) and Americans (insiders). That struggle was complicated by my grandparents dying and my family moving out of state. Years later, it surfaced again upon the discovery of family members around the world thanks to social media. The Digital Age has been good that way.
Identity is a bizarre thing. Paul Revere (his actual name) dressed up in Central Casting’s version of what Colonials looked like during the Revolutionary War, although methinks the actual leggins were not that tight. The band’s boots matched the go-go style popular in the 1960s, but the velvet, tricornered hats were a bit much. They looked like a scene from a drag version of Tartuffe. I guess their manager thought it worked. I don’t think anyone else did. Then again, we all seem to go along with the burlesque of Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus.
So, what is identity, anyway? It’s not just something we create ourselves but has a strong social dimension. When I think of the 1960s and early 70s, I remember meeting at the firehouse on Jewett Avenue, Army jackets, long hair, patches, Apache ties, girls with boots, fall evenings, orange sweet gum trees, Donna Dolson’s front porch, and music that we thought spoke to our souls. I know it spoke to something, although I think it had more to do with our friendships than anything else. I remember sitting in a black Volvo 122 on a leafy street on an autumn night, the car packed with a bunch of us, boys and girls, listening to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The moment was magic. Of course, a little Mother Mary helped, too.
Contrary to logic, I don’t think those moments die at all. I believe they live on if we let them. We can call them up to the present and not just reminisce but give them new meaning here and now, which, after all, is all we have. Sadly, I have seen those moments fade away not because they die but because people betray them. People come up with a thousand excuses–rationalizations–to betray them, but truth, beauty, and goodness are things that last forever.
I never knew the man or his band. I may have watched him once or twice on American Bandstand. Yet, Paul Revere is part of me. Why? Because I get to tell the story of the music, the firehouse, the crazy schemes, the crush I had on Beth Flanzbaum, braces and all. No one else can do that, no one else knows it the way I do. And that’s part of my identity, part of my contribution to the great narrative of life. But it is something that all of us can do.
By the way, the British came by sea.