Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Hard Rock and Lite Metal was what I was listening to in the waning days of my tenure at the High School of St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street in Manhattan. It was music that I'd always been drawn to, but it took a backseat for a few pugilistic years of puberty. I had (what seemed like) solid reasons.
In part, it was because the full-blown drag queen's sense of camp that I had naturally developed by age five was something best downplayed at a Catholic all-boys military academy. And it was also because, back then, and maybe still today, adolescent class warfare was waged along what you wrapped yourself in – sneaker brands, collars-up or collars-down choices and, above all, who that was coming out of your Walkman.
Seventh and eighth grade at Our Lady Help of Christians elementary school – ten million miles away, across one bridge (or tunnel, if you wanted to pay a toll) and two expressways, in Flatbush, Brooklyn – had its soundtrack provided by a pair of still slightly progressive album-oriented rock stations (WPLJ and WNEW-FM), the withering teat of AM pop presented by cattleprod-hyper DJs (WNBC and WABC, which flipped to all talk in '82) and a momentarily exploding adult-contemporary outlet (WYNY - the Atlantic Seaboard's very anchor for what we would later goof on/revere as "Yacht Rock").
I won't pretend I didn't love what those mainstream hacketerias were dishing out in favor of like, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks or whatever, but I did know enough at the time to at least drop names like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (or whatever).
My sense of cultural curiosity was nourished and stimulated by my extreme right-wing, ex-Green-Beret, Vietnam-vet father's inexplicable dedication to bringing home the Village Voice every Wednesday (it wasn't even like the Voice had copped massage parlor ads from Screw at that point, so I've long since bailed on trying to figure out Pops' motivation), and New Jersey's cosmically underappreciated afternoon children's TV program, The Uncle Floyd Show.
The saga of Uncle Floyd could (and should) make for an epic poem. From a shanty studio in the glamorous Garden State came this a brilliant, bizarre mélange of ancient vaudeville, classic kiddie show schtick, avant garde theater and groovy, unwashed, mustachioed '70s "head" humor, along one other crucial element: punk rock.
Broadcasting 30 minutes away from CBGB's, The Uncle Floyd Show's daily musical guest was routinely one of the just-congealing New York area punk ensembles, to the point that the Ramones essentially became Floyd's house band.
Big leaguers like the Talking Heads, Blondie and The Voidoids all put in appearances, but so did record-collector curiosities such as The Mumps, The Shirts, Tuff Darts, Thor, Shrapnel, The Rattlers (featuring Joey Ramone's brother), whatever rodent-chomper Joe Coleman's combo was called and one terrifying freak-out-inducer named The Chuckleheads.
Floyd's appeal worked its way northward through the rock infrastructure to the point that David Bowie turned up at one of the cast's live performances at The Bottom Line in 1980. There, Bowie revealed that John Lennon had turned him on to the program, and that he and Iggy Pop never missed it whenever they were in New York. Bowie remained sufficiently enamored of Uncle Floyd to write a song about him in the far-off future of 2002 ("Slip Away" from the album Heathen). It's one of the heaviest things you'll ever hear.
Again, this was a kiddie show. And I was a kiddie. Watching, and listening, intently.
Outside of the comedic antics, the aforementioned Ramones were my favorite part of The Uncle Floyd Show. Their music sounded like bubblegum mixed with horror movies. Coupled with my thumbing through the Village Voice, I was even able to cajole my way (with an older cousin) to a midnight screening of Rock-N-Roll High School (1979) shortly after its release. It was all the way in the actual Village.
My other seminal rock-TV moment of this era was the May 15, 1982 edition of Saturday Night Live. Danny DeVito hosted. Sparks handled musical guest duties. The Brothers Mael performed "Mickey Mouse" from Angst in My Pants, and it instantaneously prompted me to pledge allegiance to New Wave.
That would change.
New Wave remained a popular catch-all term as I entered high-school. As long as it meant the Ramones and Sparks, I wanted in on it. But much like the freshman-nerds sitcom Square Pegs, whose Devo-worshipping character Johnny Slash repeatedly assured all who asked that he was not punk-rock, but New Wave – "totally different head" – what once held so much bright promise to short, plump, 14-year-old me proved repulsively disappointing.
Upon witnessing some creep classmate of mine from the Upper East Side wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt but mouthing along with the lyrics of Depeche Mode’s wussy-in-every-possible-way “People Are People” pumping out of his headphones, I pledged myself to whatever it might be that such bait-and-switch scumdogs would most despise.
That meant, in general, heavy metal and prog-rock. For me, specifically, that meant Rush and Pink Floyd.
Over the next three-and-a-half years and countless beat-downs, emotional and otherwise, that was the music I’d wander down to buy used at St. Marks Sounds and Venus Records, in defiance of my old man’s proclamation: “If I ever catch you below 14th Street, I’ll beat the shit out of you! And I have eyes all over that neighborhood that have already identified you! So don’t ever let me catch you below 14th Street! Ever!”
Floyd, Rush, Queen, King Crimson, Yes, Jethro Tull, Zappa, ELP, ELO, Peter Gabriel’s Genesis and their ilk were also the bands I researched by hanging out in the book section of It’s Only Rock-and-Roll, a memorabilia shop on (fuck you again, Pop) 8th Street.
Heavy Metal, per se, was the domain of legitimately repugnant dirt-mongers who drank in Greenwood Cemetary and probably did, as was rumored, crucify kittens and make upside-down cross necklaces out of their bones. I was also, in high Catholic fashion, still very much afraid of the Reality of Satan.
Copping a move from the fakes who’d listen to Spandau Ballet and The Thompson Twins but then write Black Flag and Dead Kennedys on their notebooks – making a connection that was utterly ludicrous but, alas, omnipresent – I’d groove to Mountain and Ten Years After but then adorn my book bag with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest buttons.
I at least liked Maiden and Priest, musically. I was just too scared to keep their albums in my house (let alone Black Friggin' Sabbath).
My radio was on all the time, too, usually tuned to the rock station, but always keenly in touch with the Top 40.
As high-school graduation loomed, all the pomp and circumstance in my record collection started to seem … goofy. And then that idea started to creep out into all rock, period.
Consider the era.
First came the one-two-billios Self-Congratulatory Rock Star blows of “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, "We Are the World" and Live Aid.
U2 took flight en route to becoming the biggest, worst band in the history of the world.
On the FM dial, Album-Oriented Rock radio was quickly transitioning into the damnable jukebox of Classic Rock radio, and powered by christawful simultaneous solo hits from Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend – do worse listening experiences exist than “Under a Raging Moon” and “Face the Face”? – it’s easy to understand how the brain-rotted masses just wanted to hear the same 15 songs on repeat forever, interrupted only by commercials for Honda of Minneola.
Rock-Seriousness even ruined marijuana for me. While passing the bong with my pals Reggie and Gio as “Kashmir” wafted out of nearby speakers, talk turned to what might happen if Led Zeppelin ever embarked on a reunion tour. At one dizzying high point, Gio marveled: “Do you realize that there would be NATIONWIDE RIOTS?”
At that moment, I decided: “You know, weed just ain’t for me!”
(Fret not, though, inebriation devotees – a few years later, I’d be a hardcore alcohol and narcotics addict.)
On top of this was hostility among my peers to The Beatles with which I could never sympathize. The charge, most often, was that they played wimpy fluff music, as opposed to the deep-and-dark stylings of, say – yeccch – The Who (yes, them again).
All this led me to kind of actually hating rock music for a little while. Not all rock music, but certainly that of the capital-R variety. I turned back to the sounds that initially caught my ear in the crib: bubblegum, novelty records, and unselfconscious power-pop.
That meant The Monkees and The Archies, Tiny Tim and Dr. Demento compilations, and Sweet and The Raspberries.
Those last two bands proved especially intriguing as they were clearly “hard rock” acts, but you could still hear the connection between them and, say, The Cowsills, and nothing else exuded such vital energy since disco stormed the party in the late ’70s.
But then I heard the oddest damn bass notes emanate from the clock radio in Mr. Bambury’s office at school. A bunch of us were hanging out there and, after Howard Stern signed off, those notes – sort of clucking, sort of thumping – took over my consciousness, followed by a guitar-lead that sounded like somebody had imbued one of those old (and toxic!) Giggle-Stick toys with divine powers.
This turned out to be New York’s FM radio debut of “Why Can’t This Be Love” by Van Halen, featuring brand new lead singer Sammy Hagar. Grumble what you will about the Van Hagar that followed, but that initial blast pumped explosive fresh air into commercial hard rock as nothing else had for at least a decade.
It felt relevant to my circumstances, too. With prom night approaching, I’d begun a psychotic weight-loss regimen that would ultimately take me from a junior-league-heart –attack-courting 265 pounds to a human-sized 163.
One motivation was my prom date Tara Sullivan who was, at that point, essentially the only female I knew who wasn’t related to me. She never viewed me in any kind of romantic context, but I imagined that with my shrinking bloat and my suve rented tux and the plaintive wail of “Why Can’t This Be Love” blaring in the back of our limo, that maybe I’d have a shot.
The prom came and went. I had no shot.
However, I did have AC/DC’s “Who Made Who” crop up on the radio shortly thereafter with its booming, intriguingly danceable beat, demonic dervish Angus Young lead, and steadily building suspense pumped up by lyrics about video games taking over the world or something.
“Who Made Who”, too, pulsated with a connection to Badfinger and Brownsville Station, AND it was the theme song from Stephen King’s upcoming directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive!
Just as I relaxed in the notion that AC/DC had created Mike McPadden’s Personal Theme Song, Blue Öyster Cult whelped forth its Club Ninja album. For starters, it contained a vocal cameo by Howard Stern, who was a cousin-by-marriage of BÖC frontman E. Bloom.
Better still was the album’s first single, “Dancin’ in the Ruins”, a relentlessly catchy nuclear blast of substantive heaviosity with a sunshiny 70s AM-radio heart pounding beneath its snarling power-metal exterior.
Lyrically, “Dancing in the Ruins” spoke to me – and maybe me alone – like nothing else as I prepared to depart for college.
Tomorrow soon turns into yesterday.
Everything we see just fades away.
There's sky and sand where mountains used to be.
Time drops by a second to eternity.
It doesn't matter if we turn to dust;
Turn and turn and turn we must!
I guess I'll see you dancin' in the ruins tonight!
Dancin' in the ruins!
Guess I'll see you dancin' in the ruins tonight!
My first seventeen years had been a calamity.
But I had just shrunken myself from a 42-inch waist to a 30. I could fit in medium-sized t-shirts, for the love of fuck.
My skin was clear from basting my hide in the sun for a month.
I used the dough I made sweating it out as a doorman on Park Avenue all summer to pick up contact lenses.
I was off to study filmmaking – my life’s dream! – at an art school distantly removed from Brooklyn in cultural terms, but still close enough to The City that I could partake of Manhattan’s freak attractions.
There would be girls there, too.
Girls who knew about movies.
Girls who could appreciate milk crate after milk crate crammed with novelty records.
Nobody would know me as Ebert.
Nobody would see me as “Dom Deluise with zits and glasses.”
Oh, the places I was going to go!
“Dancin’ in the Ruins” – the day I turned 18, and the morning after, when my parents drove me to campus for the first time – that’s how it felt.
But that’s when my life REALLY went down the shitter.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
1. Playground in My Mind – Clint Holmes
Call me Mike.
Mike is not my actual name and it’s certainly not the only one to which I’ve every answered.
At age 10, for reasons to be disclosed later, I was deemed Humper by my parochial school playmates. Charming, no?
In high school, because of a similar-sounding surname association with Hollywood’s Van Patten family, friends called me Vince. The other, more obvious, option would have been Dick. I lucked out on that one.
Less benign – and only appreciated much later in life – was my other high-school moniker, arising in part from my preoccupation with cinema, but mostly from being a bespectacled fatboy with a predilection for sweater-vests: “Ebert.”
Then, in the early 1990s, I re(anti)christened myself Selwyn Harris. It was a commingling of the names of the last two grindhouse theaters on New York’s salacious
42nd Street entertainment strip (pun very much intended with that last word), the final holdovers from the city’s pre-AIDS, pre-crack, pre-sensible-adults-in-charge heyday.
Of that time and of those places, one might say, as Simon and Garfunkel did decades earlier, that Selwyn Harris took some comfort there.
In the beginning, though, I was Mike or, more specifically, Michael.
And circa 1973, Michael was the worst possible name anybody could wish on a ruddy-cheeked, blue-eyed kindergartener whose bowl haircut got him mistaken uncomfortably often for a girl.
The reason? One man and one AM radio smash – namely, biracial song-and-dance dork Clint Holmes, who charted high with a schmaltztastic discharge of childhood reminiscence titled “Playground in My Mind,” the sing-song chorus of which goes:
My name is Michael
I got a nickel
I got a nickel, shiny and new
I’m gonna buy me
All sorts of candy
That’s what I’m gonna do
Thus, from age four-and-a-half until “Playground in My Mind” slipped from the public mind and/or I morphed from an adorable towhead into a constantly distraught, fey, overweight nebbish – right about when I turned 10 – any time I was introduced to anyone, the person I met inevitably burst into:
“My name is My-kull, I got a nick-kull…”
I couldn’t stand it.
By any sane measure, “Playground in My Mind” is a dreadful thing. I write that as a devoted fan of the softest of soft rock, the bubbliest of bubblegum and all manner of contrived pop-cult nonsense. Still, Mr. Holmes’ treacle is just … indigestible.
Especially egregious in “Playground” is how, when the chorus comes around, Holmes’ semi-soulful, pseudo-Tom-Jonesish tenor is joined by a pinched-testicle falsetto back-up vocalist meant to suggest his Inner Li’l Clint exploding into the Wonder of Music. The true horror occurs in the second chorus:
My girl is Cindy
When we get married
We’re gonna have a baby or two
We’re gonna let them
Visit their grandma
That’s what we’re gonna do
The only strand of luck in all this is that I didn’t know anybody named Cindy until my late teens and, by that point, she spelled her name Syndi anyway.
Cruel Irony #1 of this post-toddler, pre-prepubescent punishment was that Michael isn’t even my name. Legally, today, I am William Michael McPadden. But that’s not what my birth certificate reads.
On August 21, 1968, the Great State of New York welcomed to its citizenry a newborn officially deemed “Male McPadden.”
Male – as in my gender, as in I was taken home from Brooklyn’s Methodist Hospital with nothing formal to call me, as in this lack of proper nomenclature speaks volumes.
I came about as the result of a physical union between a Flatbush kindergarten teacher and a Green Beret who, at the time of my arrival, was sweating it out in the jungles of Vietnam.
I’d like to imagine that my being stemmed from an act of affection. However, my parents’ post-partum argument as to what to call me – a berserk dust-up conducted across a distance in excess of 7,000 miles – suggests that maybe their relations were as, let’s say, off-the-goddamned-wall from the start as they would remain forever after.
Mom wanted me to be William. It was a family tradition – her father was William and his first-born son was William, too. So that was precisely the issue Pops had with the whole idea: her family.
He viewed my grandfather as a skinflint pain in the ass, and my uncle as an insidious hippie and, while not insanely off-point on either assessment, he preferred the name Michael regardless.
Michael – as in the Archangel, as in the patron saint of soldiers and police officers, as in the sword-wielding winged dynamo who cast Satan and his minions into Hell after serving as God’s General during the War in Heaven (read your Ezekiel – it’s in there).
Here on Earth, Pops clearly had some expectations of his boy.
Several days subsequent to my joining the diaper-soiling set, those two loons compromised. For documentation purposes, I would be William Michael McPadden, but they’d call me Michael.
Michael – as in (a few years later), the diabetes-inducing dipshit from Clint Holmes’s “Playground in My Mind.”
2. Little Willy – Sweet
Cruel Irony #2 is that simultaneous with the Top 40 rise of “My name is Michael” was that of one of pop-rock’s most perfect concoctions, a thrilling amalgam of candy-metal guitar bombast and nursery-rhyme irresistibility.
That song was “Little Willy” by an English glam five-piece known, appropriately, as Sweet.
And had my parents not saddled me (after intercontinental combat) with a out-of-order moniker that has caused me no end of irritation from that stupid Clint Holmes chant to constant explanations when it comes time to cash a check. “Little Willy” is what people would have serenaded me with when I was growing up.
This lesson I learned early: life is not Sweet.
3. Half-Breed – Cher
I heard some older neighbor kids singing "Half Breed" along with the radio. I thought it was "Care Free," like the gum. Later, I sang "Care Free," trying to be cool. They were nice to me, but I felt like a tool. And that's a truly misheard lyric, unlike "Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy."
4. Live and Let Die – Wings
Whenever it got to the really James Bondish part, I’d always slide my eyes back and forth, all spy-like. Until I got busted.
5. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Gordon Lightfoot
More misheard foolishness, specifically the line, “The gales of November came early,” which I took to be, “The GIRLS of November came early,” and it made me picture some girls from my third-grade class – led by the impossibly luminous Deidre Flynn – wearing bikinis. In November.
6. Reminiscing – The Little River Band
The closest I ever came to getting massacred by a homicidal pedophile (that I know) occurred when I was playing miniature golf with my friend Mickey Cosgrove in Keansburg, New Jersey.
“Reminiscing” was playing in the arcade, and I imagined the words describing my life in 60 years or so, as I sat with my wife (who I met in college, but who also may have been my next-door-neighbor Lisa) looking back on our decades of romance. Reminiscing about those thoughts makes me wish that the child-eater had consumed me whole.
7. I’d Really Love to See You Tonight – England Dan and John Ford Coley
After seeing England Dan and John Ford Coley perform on American Bandstand, I spent the afternoon in my grandmother’s downstairs bathroom, spinning the dial on her transistor radio toilet paper holder, hoping to hear the song again. I did, several times, and I thought it really, really rocked.
8. Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road – Elton John
In the wake of Manson devotee Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme’s attempt on the life of President Gerald Ford, Time magazine ran a topless shot of her (and another half-naked Charlie groupie).
This was a sight I could not possibly stare at long enough. To keep my cover, though, I put the magazine inside sheet music for “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” at my aunt’s house, and I just sat transfixed.
Eventually, she caught on to what I was doing and took my Squeaky away. Then we drove my grandmother to the airport. She was flying to Rome to go see the pope.
9. Pretty Vacant - Sex Pistols
It was 1977 and I lived in New York City and the first word in their name was the topic by which I was most head-spinningly captivated so, yeah, I was hip to the Pistols. I never actual heard their music, though, until they appeared on some recklessly eclectic CBS variety special wherein Telly Savalas touted their appearance by announcing: “Coming up, the FABULOUS Sex Pistols.”
So these four malnourished hobos fired up their instruments and one started screaming and, no, this is not the part where I talk about seeing God and understanding why I was put on this earth and how everything up to that moment was in black-and-white and now – POW – I experienced life in Technicolor.
I just thought the Sex Pistols were soil-your-shorts hilarious.
Really, I thought they were incompetent and I couldn’t believe this was being passed off as entertainment, and the whole scam cracked me up.
Prior to “Pretty Vacant,” two other musical moments struck me as similarly “who-do-they-think-they’re-fooling” uproarious: the first time I heard Jim Morrison sing “Light My Fire” and the very idea of Sonny Bono’s voice on “I Got You Babe.”
Years later, I learned to love the Sex Pistols -– as well as Sonny & Cher – straight up. But at some point, the Doors elicited anything from me but smiles.
10. The Things We Do for Love – 10cc
The Olympic-sized, open-to-the-public Belvedere pool in Keansburg attracted all kinds of cool teenagers, along with nine-year-old me, who walked around when this song came over the PA system conducting imaginary conversations with them. Actually, it was just them talking to me, saying stuff like “Great party!” and “Your private pool with a snack bar and pinball machines is far-out!” – but just in my head. I was there alone. Nobody was talking to me. And vice versa. Had I been wise, I'd have gotten used to that set-up. But wise, I am not, guy.