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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: The Turtles

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

Some of the best stories start with a bunch of 45s. Even if the story itself never goes anywhere, you’ve still got a bunch of 45s. That’s a great start for anything. 

The story of my discovering the music of the Turtles doesn’t exactly start with a bunch of 45s, but a small collection of 7″ singles served as an integral early part of that story. The setting was Jean Price’s front porch in Syracuse’s Northern suburbs, 1967. Jean wasn’t there at the time; she was older, and she certainly wouldn’t have been hanging out with a bunch of seven- and eight-year-old children. In truth, I don’t even remember Jean herself, and I have no recollection of why I was hanging out on her porch with a small group of the other neighborhood kids.

But if I don’t remember the why, I remember the what. We were looking through a box of 45s, presumably Jean Price’s 45s. Memory won’t surrender the identities of most of those singles, though I think the stash included either “Liar, Liar” by the Castaways or “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, or maybe both of those. But I clearly, clearly remember seeing the White Whale Records logo, as I stared at the Turtles’ “Happy Together” single.

I knew the song from the radio. I had no other specific tether to it in the moment. But in that moment, for whatever mystic forces manipulated (but fail to explain) the situation, “Happy Together” by the Turtles became immediately important to me.

My Mom thought it was even more important to me than it was. I must have mentioned the song a time or two, prompting a reasonable presumption that the Turtles were my favorite group, and  “Happy Together” my # 1 favorite record in the world. I don’t think that was ever the case, but I sure did like it. A lot.

Still, over time the Turtles faded into a secondary realm of awareness, no longer a current hit, no longer a part of everyday life. If I heard any more of their music on the radio in the ’60s–and I must have–none of it registered with me as THE TURTLES!, at least not at the time.

That changed for me in the ’70s. As a teenager, I developed a consuming interest in the rockin’ pop of the ’60s, both the stuff I remembered from childhood and stuff that was essentially new to my post-adolescent ears. Oldies radio hooked me on the Turtles’ pop classics “She’d Rather Be With Me” and “Elenore.” “She’d Rather Be With Me” became the first Turtles track I ever owned, courtesy of a various-artists set called 20 Heavy Hits, scarfed up at the flea market. “Happy Together” followed, with a purchase of a (very) used copy of the cheap-o early ’70s Do It Now compilation in the spring of 1977, my senior year in high school. 

One evening in that same spring ’77 time frame placed me in the audience for Rock Of The ’60s, a presentation of rock ‘n’ roll TV clips screened at Syracuse UniversityRock Of The ’60s gave me a glimpse of the Turtles on (I think) The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, alongside clips of other ’60s luminaries like Buffalo Springfieldthe Kinksthe Whothe Byrdsthe Holliesthe Yardbirdsthe Lovin’ Spoonfulthe Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. By then, I’d learned that the Turtles’ Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman had a post-terrapins pop life as Flo and Eddie; I’d seen them on The Midnight Special and read their Blind Date column in Phonograph Record Magazine

My first Turtles album was the 2-LP anthology Happy Together Again, a dusty and well-worn used copy rescued from the basement of Record Revolution in Cleveland Heights in the summer of ’77, right before the start of my freshman year in college. This was my real indoctrination into all things Turtley, introducing me to wonderful Turtles tracks like “Outside Chance,” “Grim Reaper Of Love,” “Love In The City,” and more.

Happy Together Again accompanied me to college in Brockport. I met a pretty Long Island girl named Eleanor (never mind the spelling), who of course loved the Turtles’ “Elenore” but would have greatly preferred me refraining from singing it to her. Back home in the summer of ’78, I played the album for my doomed friend Tom, who liked the Turtles but hated one line in “Let Me Be:” I am what I am and that’s all I ever can be. That apparent expression of limitation bugged Tom; looking back decades later, I can’t wrap my mind around how to reconcile that sentiment with the fact of Tom’s suicide in 1979.

It’s weird the things we wind up remembering. A friend objecting to an innocuous lyric he heard a year before he killed himself. A box of 45s on a neighbor girl’s porch. I became a big fan of the Turtles, and I own each of their original albums via CD reissues on the Sundazed label. I missed a chance to the Turtles/Flo and Eddie at a club show in Buffalo in the mid ’80s, but saw them in Syracuse a decade later. I play the music of the Turtles at home, in my car, and on the radio. The story didn’t really start with a box of 45s. But by God, it should have. Happy together? Imagine me and you. I do. Brothers and sisters, friends and lovers and random passers-by. Together. We’ll do the best we can in that regard.

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