In 1983 my friend, Danny and I tried to ditch this neighborhood misanthrope when he stepped into the Harbor Deli. We discussed and then decided to just start running, willy nilly, with no destination in mind other than “away.” Billy G. stepped out of the deli, looked left then right, saw us scattering in the back alley and chased after us. He caught Danny, who was already up to two packs a day by then and started pummeling him, asking loudly voiced rhetorical questions such as “what the fuck?!” and the expanded “why the fuck were you guys running?!” Stupidly, or out of loyalty, or out of stupid loyalty, I stopped and came back to try and reason with Billy, who, as I remember it, started swinging his stocky muscular arms at me. As Danny and I were reminiscing over at Facebook recently, he thought he was the only one hit. He may be right, maybe I was just such a pussy and scared into thinking I was hit as well. But I seem to remember taking at least one to the cheek. The point here, at least one of the points, is that two kids got their asses kicked by one kid, even with a pretty sizable running start.
As I have mentioned in this space already, I moved from Huntington, Long Island, New York, to Medfield, Massachusetts when I was 16. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the neanderthal bully Billy was originally from Massachusetts and his football coach father was what I came to know as that type that we in the Boston area refer to as a “Masshole.” During these last couple of years of high school, I would often take the train back down to visit the kids I grew up with. I had been in bands in Huntington starting around the age of 13. The very first iteration was a trio of us 13 year old boys heavily smitten with classic rock (back then it was merely “rock,” the “classic” modifier coming in the mid-’80s) and its very popular sub-genre, southern rock. Toward this end, we chose the band name 200 Proof (y’all). Because at 13, we knew a lot about pounding down 100% alcohol. We were surely whiskey rock & rollers. But you know, sad to think back, but from the tender age of 13 it is only a mere year or two out from my actual drinking and then another year into my drinking-in-earnest.
Those intervening years are the ones that seem to change everything. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know, but as the years fly by, to think back on the teens, the upheaval seemed to last for decades and the bittersweet changes take on a more acute sort of agony.
The Internet has changed almost everything as well. I imagine, for example, that it is far easier to be a private detective (private detective overcoat or none) now than it was 15 years ago. Google aside, grown adults (myself included) are decreasingly private in the age of Facebook and so on. I have spent embarrassing hours playing the nostalgia game with people I grew up with but in some cases have not seen in 25+ years. And, aside from some tweaks, they are the same personalities that were forming in those years. There was about a week of commentary flowing on this one picture from a junior high Sadie Hawkins dance:
As you can see, it is daylight. In a sort of Virgin Suicides episode, a girl trying to cross the street in front of the school during the last dance held after sunset was hit and killed a car. All subsequent events were moved into the afternoon in the way that all such draconian bureaucratic school board moves make perfect sense. The guy all the way to the right in this picture, swigging the C&C; Cola that we are all drinking and loved so well with our cafeteria burger pucks, was named Dennis. He and I lived a couple of houses away and met in nursery school. We remained best friends right until I switched high schools. He was working at Cantor Fitzgerald in the WTC on 9/11 and left behind a wife and toddler the same age as mine.
The posting of this photo, from 1978 or ’79, by Danny (the second-to-last one on the right, next to Dennis and recently sprung from Catholic grammar school for a 2-year furlough before being re-incarcerated Catholic high school) brought out other such painful memories but also much hilarity. By the way, in case you have not noticed, I am the twerp in the center, pretty much wearing the same style I adhere to now.
It is photographic evidence such as this that demonstrates why the short-lived TV show “Freaks and Geeks” hit so close to home. Clearly, I fell into the second classification, though we really wanted to be a “Freak,” which was an actual social class in our town. The two warring parties were the Freaks, refried burnouts that were the late-70s leftover lifestyle iteration of hippiedom, with flannel shirts, long hair, concert T’s, and work boots or sneakers being the uniform. And there were the “Hitters.” These were the flashier velour-wearing disco enthusiasts who tended to be a lot tougher. The Hitters group was mostly made up of more working class kids and a lot more black kids than the Freaks, who tended to come from the upper middle class. The town (which is really a large township) ran the gamut of extreme wealth up along the north shore, to the projects and poorer families in the southern, more inland part of the town. There was a lot of overlap of these groups, though, in the middle class. You could go either way – Freak or Hitter. Or you could just end up like the silent majority of us, some sort of wannabes that were more of a cliquey outcast sub-strata more than one affiliation or the other. In discussions with other friends who grew up in this era, I have learned that this sort of social organization was not uncommon and almost all larger suburban towns had similar classifications, “Freaks” being the more consistent term while the term for the other side being the more idiosyncratically named group. Nowadays it seems kids have way to many Balkanized groups. For example, I think there are now multiple variations of goth/industrial/trenchcoat mafia…
I have already discussed in this space what the changing music scene meant back in those years. So for someone who wanted to live all the decadence of the Stones, Skynyrd, et. al. but who looked as I do/did in photo Exhibit A, the coming of Elvis Costello was a godsend. Just as we were also starting to develop enough of a sense of irony and self awareness to realize that we had to change our band name from 200 Proof to something as goofy and self-mocking as the Plastic Peach, here comes a guy actually cultivating the geeky look and writing angry but arch lyrics over a pummeling musical onslaught, but with non-ironic and tender ballads such as “Alison.” With the relative dearth of live music on TV (there was “Don Kirshner,” “Cal Jam,” “Midnight Special,” and a few other shows) “Saturday Night Live” was a lifeline and glimpse into new music. Back then, they had everyone from Joe Cocker, the Stones, and Tom Waits to Fear, B-52s, Talking Heads and Devo. And seeing Elvis, with the big old horn-rimmed glasses, tight suit, and pigeon-toed stance was revelatory. I can indeed be a rock star, thought I and millions of other geeks like me. As David Lee Roth quipped reacting to the negative press Van Halen got back when they started, (paraphrasing) “Well, music critics like Elvis Costello ’cause they all look like Elvis Costello.”
Elvis, along with Talking Heads, the Clash, early U2 and some others, was one of the threads that kept me connected and sane during my extremely tumultuous move from Long Island to small-town Massachusetts in 1982. It was cool to see all my open-minded friends having their musical horizons broadened back home and it was such artists as these that helped me make new simpatico friends up in Medfield, which for a small town, had some (some) really broad-minded (musically) kids eager for new records. The football players in my old town liked Loverboy, Rush and pretty much any other lame act, Canadian or otherwise. But the jocks in my new town were into Elvis and the Clash. The cheerleaders were into the Violent Femmes.
It was also right around this time that Rolling Stone magazine came out with Elvis on the cover, and his new record Imperial Bedroom came out to a lot of critical acclaim. A copy of the same magazine cover I kept on my own imperial bedroom wall for years also hangs at Q Division studios, where I spend a lot of my time. It meant a lot to us geeks who grew up to still play music in our middle age. Costello grew in leaps on this record. The lyrics felt so grown up and I felt like I was growing up too, though clearly still had a long way to go to understand these songs. In fact, for some fans, Costello got a little too clever on this record and never really returned to the primal urgency that made him great on this early records. I disagree and see IB as a pinnacle of al of the above. It stands as one of my favorites. While earlier records had us periodically scrutinizing songs like “Oliver’s Army” to learn more about Cromwell or Oswald Mosley, Costello was pretty easy to follow. This new record saw him compared to Gershwin and Porter. While I feel he later did start to gather more of a “standards” approach on subsequent records, such comparisons regarding Imperial Bedroom must have come more from the melodic/structure aspect, as the lyrics are actually as dense as Geoff Emerick’s production. Porter and (Ira) Gershwin were clever, yes, but their turns of phrase were clear and in the service of easily understood songs. Just as the Beatles, with whom Emerick had worked as a young engineer, had a previous generation digging to discover the significance of “Blackburn, Lancashire,” I wanted to know more about these “pretty things of Knightsbridge” and why “love is always scarpering or cowering or fawning.” But I definitely understood “you drink yourself insensitive and hate yourself in the morning,” all from this installment of Cover of the Week, “Man out of Time.” We have been playing this at the Toad shows, but here it is acoustic.