The summer of 1965. I was a precocious 14-year-old, a few months from starting my sophomore year of high school. I can hear the sounds to this day. The sounds of KIOA radio coming from the lifeguard’s stand at the swimming pool across the street. I kick back on our front porch and ask the Byrds to “play a song for me,” honoring my request with Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man.
All these years later, I recall that idyllic summer, likely sparked by the recent passing of David Crosby, one of the founding members of the Byrds. He may not have been the one to decide on that unusual spelling, but it must have suited him well, someone known for his free spirit and independence. In fact, the story goes that, a few years later, he opposed covering another Dylan song, My Back Pages. Lucky for me he was outvoted. How else could I look back and claim that I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. Or so I would like to think…
A time zone to the east from me another boy sat on his porch that summer and listened to both Dylan and the Byrds. A couple years younger than me, he and I would have had little in common other than our love for music. I grew up in a small town in Iowa. His porch was in Oak Park, Michigan. And I certainly didn’t share his “ear” for music. I played percussion in the high school band and when it came time to tune the timpani, I didn’t have a clue. Mr. Johnk would come around and tune the big kettledrums for me. Not to worry, a high school sophomore wasn’t easily embarrassed.
Don Fagenson, he was a different story. From that young age in the summer of 1965, he had an ear for music. So much so that by high school he was the lead singer and guitar player in a rock band called The Saturns. A few years later, he formed a band with his close friend David Weiss. They called the group Was (Not Was) and young Don Fagenson took the stage name Don Was. Whether it entered his mind at the time or not, changing his name was something he shared with Robert Zimmerman, the young musician from Hibbing, Minnesota, known to the world today as Bob Dylan.
Was (Not Was) was just the beginning of Don’s illustrious musical career. He went on to produce some of the most famous names in music, among them Carly Simon, Bonnie Raitt and Elton John, winning Grammys along the way. Back in the summer of 1964, he saw a little rock band perform at Olympia Stadium on their first American tour. They were the Rolling Stones and, thirty years later, he started producing for them. Along the way, he produced a Dylan album on which he also played bass. A few years later, it was an album for one of those founding members of the Byrds, you guessed who, David Crosby.
Truth be told, I was a naïve teenager that summer of 1965. I had no clue what a producer did for music, only that songs like Unchained Melody sounded awfully good. Was I really that much older then, younger than that now? How to explain my obliviousness to what transpired in the 1965 fall classic between the up-start Minnesota Twins and the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers? Or better yet, what didn’t transpire? The starting pitcher for the Dodgers in Game 1 should have been Sandy Koufax. But he wasn’t on the mound, standing by his beliefs that a practicing Jew shouldn’t work on Yom Kippur. I can look back on this now and fully appreciate it, but at the time, it wouldn’t have made much sense to me. It certainly would have to Don Fagenson.
You might ask why someone who grew up in small-town Iowa would know about a producer from Oak Park, Michigan, named Don Was. Or better yet, why he would care. That porch a young Don Fagenson sat on, listening to the sounds of the sixties, was on Stratford Court. A decade later and another time zone away, I met my future bride Melissa Komisar at the University of Colorado. I soon learned all about Oak Park, Stratford Court and Dewey Elementary. And before long, I found out that Melissa grew up a few doors down from the Fagensons. To this day, one of her dearest friends is Don’s sister Nancy.
It is only natural that memories surface when someone dies. For me, with the passing of David Crosby, I was instantly transported back to that summer of 1965, when the Byrds with a Y played a song for me.