Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Fearless Freaks

Documentaries on rock bands tend to be hit-or-miss affairs. Look no further than The Stones, who have interesting stuff like Gimme Shelter matched with utter garbage like Sympathy for the Devil and any of their concert movies. I went to see many concert movies in theatres, which was an awful idea. These things are dead on a movie screen, or at least we're trained to respond to movies and rock concerts differently, and everyone just sort of stares at each other in the dark, wondering if they’re supposed to be having more fun.

One that I’ve been watching quite a bit lately is The Fearless Freaks, which chronicles the Flaming Lips from their early-teen years up through their hugely successful Yoshimi album from a few years ago. It’s an interesting watch, including the commentary track, as they managed to include a truckload of Super 8 footage from lead singer Wayne Coyne’s bizarre working-class childhood in 1970s Oklahoma.

(Wayne’s recollection of his father’s passing is also touching. Pretty much like mine. Months of the emotional equivalent of radio static, followed by death’s silence, which is no better. Nothing romantic, sentimental or final about it – just a very bad shit storm we all must go through. Songs like “Waiting for a Superman” and “Do You Realize” make a lot more sense in this context.)

The documentary gets its title from a loose group of Wayne’s older brothers and friends in the early 70s forming an impromptu football team called the Fearless Freaks. All stoners, losers and outsiders, kids who never went out for sports in school, and a big part of their lives was to play neighborhood football games with each other and against other towns and neighborhoods. They even went so far as to design t-shirts with their own logo (see picture to the left).

The Super 8 footage of this gang is amazing and takes me straight back to that time in my life. I suspect gangs of kids like the Fearless Freaks existed all over rural America, loose collections of hard-edged stoners who liked sports, but despised the social hierarchy associated with playing the organized version in high school.

You have to realize the time lag that existed between big national trends occurring and how long they took to filter through to acceptability in rural America. I had the shock of my life in an English class in 1980 researching old high-school yearbooks from about 1968 through 1976 for a project. The kids from 1968 through 1972, for the most part, looked like they came out of the 1950s: crew cuts, a few bouffant hair-do’s, etc. There was an occasional hippie, and he would really stand out. It seemed like 1972-74 was ground zero for hippiedom to filter down to rural America – those yearbooks were filled with hippie freaks. Girls picking “Dazed and Confused” as their favorite song. (I’ll always remember with my older brothers’ class, 1978, dozens of kids selecting Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” as their favorite song.)

Thanks to MTV and cable TV in general, I don’t think that time lag is as radical as it once was. Rest assured, by the mid-70s, all those kids on the tail end of the Baby Boom in my hometown were long-haired and, in many cases, stoned. Our neighborhood was simply swarming with kids between the ages of 10 and 20. A few of the older ones went to ‘Nam, but most were slightly too young for that. We’re talking at least 40 or 50 kids in a town of, what, 200 people? It was a lot of kids for such a small town. If I were my age now back then, I’d have shit my pants. There were at least a dozen kids who were constantly stoned and/or in serious trouble, and more than few of them went on to do stints in jail for various misadventures, most drug or theft related. A few checked out of the planet early.

Me being a kid at the time, it didn’t occur to me to feel threatened, playing baseball with guys who were wired on crank or what have you. Probably because these guys were normally huge assholes anyway and may have been slightly more likeable when they were high. I was slightly younger, 12 years old in 1976, and the older teenagers in that year were a motley assortment of stoners, weirdoes and the occasional “good kid” who wasn’t perpetually wasted.

Despite this, you’d be amazed at how crucial sports was to so many of us growing up in the neighborhood. Plenty of us followed football, baseball and basketball, collecting trading cards and such, but I mean simply playing those sports in the neighborhood when they were in season. Generally, baseball was April through August, football was September through December, and basketball was December through March, although that was more sporadic due to snowfall and colder weather. If there weren’t enough kids around, we’d play touch football and rubber-ball baseball in the schoolyard right next to my house (which is still there, albeit a day-care center now). If we got enough kids, say, eight or nine kids per side, we’d head over to the grass fields of the cemetery or hospital to play hardball or tackle football.

I’d write it all down to sheer boredom that we’d all be out there from five to seven days a week playing these games when they were in season. There simply wasn’t much else to do. If kids weren’t into sports? They were placed a bit on the outside, although this would slowly lose its meaning once a kid hit sixteen, and would be gone by the time he hit eighteen. Once kids could drive, they found other ways to entertain themselves, meaning driving the circuit between all those towns in the northern part of Schuylkill County, listening to heavy metal and rock on the eight track, and doing fun shit like shooting pool at Holiday Lanes or partying in the woods.

But in terms of sports, the most violent, by far, was tackle football. Things got nuts sometimes. I remember kids doing splits, getting broken arms, noses and legs. Fights of all sorts. Blood-stained t-shirts, ripped pants. Kids tend to be pretty flexible and stout in terms of contact sports, but even with that, it was rough stuff. I’ll never forget the one time when I went out for a pass, and Pat S., who was smaller than me but a better athlete, made an amazing interception in front of me. For some reason, this enraged me. I chased him down and laid a hit on his back that was mindblowing. I laid there afterwards, groaning and literally seeing stars. Pat just laid there whimpering and shaking like a dog having a nightmare. Luckily, my hit made him fumble the ball, and my team got it back. Pat stumbled home once he could walk again, and I played on with a weird buzzing sensation in my head. But I think that one hit made me think, “What’s the point of all this?”

By the time I was of age, it was mainly neighborhood kids playing against each other. But my older brother J got hooked into the intra-town rivalries between these Fearless Freak style teams of stoners and unofficial jocks. Basically, kids would pile into their used Novas and station wagons, then drive to some barren, often rocky, desolate field in a town and play tackle football with each other. These games were known for being especially violent, I guess with town pride on the line. Please note there were no spectators for these games. It was just outsider kids playing against each other, with nothing to gain, no social status to achieve through winning. Just the concept of your hard-assed little town beating the shit out of the guys from another hard-assed little town.

What was really strange was that very few of these guys ever played high-school sports – maybe 20%, at most. In The Fearless Freaks documentary, Wayne Coyne puts forth that these guys were just as good as the high-school athletes. But this really wasn’t true, at least for us. A lot of these kids were good athletes, but they weren’t disciplined or talented enough to compete on an organized level. They probably were just as tough as high-school athletes, and certainly had worse/more frightening reputations. I seem to recall a sort of begrudging respect between most high-school athletes and stoners who only played unofficially. But there’s simply no way a reasonably talented kid on a high-school team going through hours of strength/stamina drills a few days a week was going to be less competitive than some natural athlete getting high those same few days and really not doing much of anything physical between these informal games.

Frankly, by the time I hit thirteen or so, I was pretty fucking fed-up with team sports. As noted earlier, our house was right next to the schoolyard, meaning any time any sort of game was imminent, there’d be a knock on our door to see if we’d come out and play. Simply because we were right there, it was automatically assumed we’d play in all the games. And by thirteen or fourteen, shit, I was just as happy sacking out in my spare time with a Stephen King book or something, as I became a voracious reader about that time. I also got into running around then, doing seven- or three-mile runs along the back roads around our town, and tennis, as the sport was huge in America at the time, and there were plenty of public courts around. (Let’s not talk about my teenage golf phase … it’s still too painful.)

And I recall feeling like I wish these guys would just leave me the hell alone. Most of the kids got the message in the next few years, but it took some of us longer than others to ditch the sports habit. Yeah, it was boredom, and the feeling of an impromptu tackle football game that you could be obliterated at any moment, and this was quite a rush. Like those older stoners, I didn't have much of an urge to experience this on a high-school team, lasting only a season or two in basketball before I realized I didn't like the scene. (In some ways, I kick myself for missing out on high-school sports, and in other ways, I don't. My knees can't predict rain, like they can for some guys still suffering from injuries they received back then.)

So when I see Wayne Coyne’s old Super 8 footage of shirtless guys with long-hair and headbands, playing ball in a beat-down looking vacant lot, I recognize the images from my own life, and feel a strange shock of recognition. Wouldn’t call it entirely comfortable, but I know where the guy’s coming from. And as kids these days don't seem to indulge nearly as much in this sort of stuff, I have to wonder how or if they socialize with each other in any real way. Because however tedious and boring this shit got with passing time, these games were how many of us came to know and respect each other. I'm not sure how hanging out with a gamebox and a TV set changes all this, but it surely must.

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