Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Youth Gone Mild: Why Can't This Be Metal?
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.