Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rock and Roll High School

Not going to be writing about the bad movie that so many Ramones fans claim to be a cult classic.  I’m thinking more of the odd memories I have when rock and roll crept into our routine high-school lives back around the turn of the 1980s.  When teachers caught wind of the sub-culture and realized: we really were a bunch of assholes.  I’m sure nothing has changed.  But here are a few situations I still recall.

Harry Chapin.  This one isn’t so much rock and roll, but it sticks in my mind.  Ms. M was one of my favorite English teachers, a former model who came back home after her time in NYC must have not agreed with her.  She became a teacher and was known for having a big, horsey laugh, which seemed out of place on such an attractive woman.  It wasn’t unusual for teachers to bring rock records into class for a certain theme or lesson, always English class, anything to stimulate kids into writing a tolerable 500-word essay.
I still remember how hard it was for so many kids to write anything.  They just couldn’t formulate their thoughts into even the most basic themes.  It’s strange to me because I took to this like a duck to water, one of those rare kids who longed for essay questions, because I knew even if I didn’t know what the hell I was writing about, I could make the teacher see I was a smart kid trying to grasp the concept, and thus get a better grade. 
But your average kid in high school, despite reading plenty of books along the way, newspapers every day, magazines routinely … couldn’t put together a single, readable paragraph.  There would be kids in high school writing these short pieces that read like a second grader describing the sky.  All because they froze up and viewed this as something they never tried before, and would be judged harshly because they didn’t know what they were doing.  And that rigid sense of impending failure is something that would freeze up any writer.  If you think you’re going to suck, you will suck.  That goes for a lot more than writing.
Thus, some music to help open up the kids creatively.  I can’t remember why, but for one writing class, she brought in some Harry Chapin albums.  Chapin had passed away that summer, in an automobile accident on the Long Island Expressway.  We all knew “Cats in the Cradle,” a massive 70s hit absorbed into everyone’s musical DNA.  But not much else.  So she started playing his hit album Verities and Balderdash on the turntable.  (I remember this album because Brother M freaked out over it upon its release in the mid-70s; he zoned in on “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” as the song mentioned a banana truck having an accident just outside Scranton, PA.)
Some kids started to snicker.  Folk music.  This is the guy who did “Cats in the Cradle”?  Oh, man, what next, John Denver?  That’s how kids are, they laugh at new things they don’t understand, and most kids surely weren’t on the aging folk-singer bandwagon.  Hell, most of them thought Styx was better than The Beatles.
I don’t think she dragged the needle across the record to make that horrible scratching sound, but everything stopped cold.  And Ms. M freaked out.  Tears in her eyes.  Raised voice, nearly screaming, words along the lines of, “Harry Chapin was one of the best folk singers who ever lived, and I will not have you laugh at him like this when he just died a few months ago.  I try to broaden your horizons, and this is what I get in return?”
Most kids were shamed enough to stop snickering and avoid eye contact.  We sat there in silence while she quietly wept at her desk, clearly having one of those “what am I doing with my life” moments.  Honestly?  I thought Harry Chapin sucked!  I’ve since become more of a fan, have about a dozen of his tracks on the iPod, and like the pop-folky story/song vibe he had going.  But his image had that “overly serious, hairy-chested, pseudo-macho, pop/folk singer wearing boots and being taken way too seriously for his own good” vibe about him.  Started in the 60s by Barry McGuire with his silly song, “Eve of Destruction.”  We’d all seen too many variety shows on TV that would always feature a singer like this, like Neil Diamond or Gordon Lightfoot, gazing off in the middle distance, gold medallion gleaming on hairy chest, because his leisure suit with ruffled sleeves was open to his navel,  while an orchestra swelled behind him … and the whole thing felt like a 10-ton bag of shit falling from the sky.
Ms. M, while not considered hip by the kids, actually was pretty hip.  We had another project where we had to go through old yearbooks and note changing trends among kids over the course of years, and we found her graduation yearbook around the turn of the 70s, with her stunning picture … and the notation that she loved Jimi Hendrix!  This would have been a much hipper personal tidbit to spring on the kids, but she kept it hidden.  Kids regarded her as a strict disciplinarian, but I always got along with her because I could see this side of her.  And understand how someone born and raised when she was would be a huge Harry Chapin fan and hold that music dear to her heart.  But kids are pricks!
The Clash.  We’re in that same class, later in the school year.  Once again, Ms. M turns to music, but this time, it’s our turn.  We should bring a copy of the one song we love the most, write an essay about why we love it so much, and read it while the song plays in the background.  I’m sure I picked a Beatles or Kinks song at the time.  “Lola” was my favorite song in the high-school yearbook, a choice I’m still comfortable with.  Most kids picked the usual dreck floating around at the time: Journey, Styx, Boston, some disco, Barry Manilow.  Man, high-school girls, especially Catholic girls, loved Barry Manilow.  The metal kids would bring in Sabbath or AC-DC … it was pretty predictable.  A metal kid wouldn’t bring in “At Seventeen” by Janis Ian, even if the song nailed that teenage sense of dislocation he knew intimately as a stoner.  Most kids simply weren’t that generous or smart enough to recognize different people going through the same shit.
But there was one girl in that class who freaked out everyone.  She was a pretty girl, not a knockout, but I remember her being attractive, a grade behind me.  I always liked her, but never acted on it, which was my mistake, because I recall us making eyes at each other a few times.  And I would learn why in this class.  The day it was her turn to read her essay, she came in “dressed like a punk.”
That wasn’t true.  She was more a new-wave, slightly pre-Go-Go’s chick, but close enough to punk for everyone to think she was punk.  I think she had a neon blue headband, a very sexy short leather skirt with black stockings, and some sort of black/gold striped top that showed off her cleavage.  She looked great – all the guys were looking at her differently that day.  It occurs to me that she must have looked a lot like Pat Benatar … without the buck teeth!
Her composition was on The Clash, the song “Lost in the Supermarket” from the London Calling album.  You have to understand something about rural America, the early 80s and punk music.  Which is to say most of those kids thought “punk” sucked.  Punk meant anything from The Sex Pistols, to The Ramones, to Elvis Costello, to The Clash, to The Talking Heads … even to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Punk was really rock and roll and new wave, but had been marketed as such to be the next step in rock.  And most kids were entirely comfortable with their older siblings’ taste in Classic Rock (Floyd, Led Zep, Beatles, Stones, etc.), Heavy Metal (Sabbath, AC-DC, Deep Purple, etc., a long list) and their own taste in current big rock bands (Styx, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Boston, etc.).
Punk was for faggots and weirdoes.  I know … because I was one of about five people in the high school who owned any “punk” albums, and at that point, we’re talking the most cursory, plain collection: Elvis Costello, The Talking Heads, etc.  I’d hear a song like “Mirror Star” by The Fabulous Poodles on WZZO, the classic-rock station out of Allentown, recognize it as a good pop-rock song, rush out and buy it, which wasn’t a mistake, that was a good album.  But most kids would have viewed a relatively harmless, tasteful rock band like this as “punk” because they were British and being marketed that way.
I really didn’t like the driving, chainsaw sort of punk that The Ramones helped create … still don’t, it’s boring as hell.  The Ramones were different in that they were actually a rock-and-roll band.  But a lot of what sprung from them, the mohawked bands who would play underage shows, barking out their unintelligible lyrics and slam-dancing … I hated that shit.  That was punk to me, as opposed to the new wave I grew to love.  Green Day was probably the last big band to break out … starting as this bratty, loud punk band … only to realize their lead singer had some raw talent and could grow … which immediately meant all the punks hated him.  It seemed like a shit proposition to me, like wanting to be 15 years old forever.  Man, I was more than glad to leave 15 in the rearview mirror.
But this pretty girl brings in London Calling and starts expounding on how much she connects to “Lost in the Supermarket” (which I did, too, the song on the album that initially grabbed me), which is really a disco song done by former punks.  Even worse! 
Kids just sat there stone-faced.  If this was on a stage, you’d have seen a huge hook extend from the side curtain and pull her off.  The vast majority of kids at that time hated punk/new-wave music.  The sales numbers bear this out, too, from that time period.  Older fans, people in college and their early 20s, were buying this music in droves.  But that huge driving market for pop music, teenagers, simply were not buying this kind of music.  They would shortly.  The Clash would have a huge hit two albums down the road with Combat Rock, but it took that long, a few years into the 80s, to slowly turn things around.  At which point, MTV and synth pop took over, and things got  very strange and hollow.
But I’ll never forget that pretty girl in her headband, standing there about as alone as she could be, and listening to “Lost in the Supermarket” with her.  When the song ended and it was commentary time, most kids were too embarrassed to say anything.  But I immediately chipped in and started a dialogue with her about the album, saying how much I liked “Train in Vain,” too, and had just bought the first two albums as a two-fer set up at Record Town in the mall.  The look on her face – she just opened up and smiled, thank Christ, one person out there gets me!  We should have left that class, arm in arm, and started a relationship right there, heavy petting and hand jobs while listening to Give 'Em Enough Rope on the stereo console in her parents’ rec room.  But I surely had my head completely up my ass at the time not to recognize this perfect opportunity.
The Vo-Tech Guitar Hero.  There were a few kids like this.  My friend Jim R was one of them.  Guys who got stoned.  A lot.  Smokey vans in parking lots.  Clandestine meetings in the woods where the peace pipe went around the circle.  These guys didn’t smell like cigarettes.  They smelled like pot.  And it didn’t seem like fun.  It seemed like a job, like a three-piece suit they had to wear every day as part of the stoner routine.  Drugs were meant to be fun, relaxation, blowing off reality for a few hours.  These guys wanted to blow off reality forever.
Vo-Tech is short for “vocational technical,” and back then, kids who were interested in acquiring skills for a trade, like carpentry, farming or bricklaying, would go to the vo-tech school for part or all of the school year.  They got to take a lot of these construction-type classes, or also food preparation and things like that.  It was a strange sort of academic defeat to go to Vo-Tech, a mild copout, because if you went to Vo-Tech, you weren’t going to college.  You were probably going into your father’s construction company or farm or something along those lines.  Or you were just a kid who got high a lot and wanted out of the more academically-inclined high school.
But I’m sure some of those guys are having the last laugh now, with their own construction companies, possibly making six figures and taking some satisfaction in barely getting through high school, yet coming out so well decades down the road.  Or at least I hope that’s the case for a lot of them!
Jim wasn’t a Vo-Tech kid, but he would sit in the cafeteria sometimes with those guys, and they all had acoustic guitars.  And they weren’t bad!  Jim was a huge Neil Young fan, and we’d have constant debates over which was better, After the Gold Rush or Rust Never Sleeps.  He really could play, just about any Neil Young song, and that wasn’t easy.  But he’d sit with these guys, future plumbers and welders, often playing “Hotel California” … and they’d be note perfect.  If not that, then “Pinball Wizard.”  Which sounded fantastic with three guys blasting away on acoustic guitars.
At one of the big auditorium presentations we had periodically, one of these guys served as a guitar tech and roadie for the band that had played.  I can’t even remember what they played, but high school feeling like prison, it could have been a hand puppet version of Waiting for Godot, and we would have been overjoyed just to get out of class and do something different.
Well, the show ended, and this kid, with his long, straggly hair and nicotine-stained fingers, got hold of the guitar he had set-up and started wailing.  It had to be “Stairway to Heaven.”  When he started playing, everyone stopped leaving the auditorium, went back to their seats and started applauding wildly.  It was spontaneous, and the teachers didn’t know what to do.  So they let him play.  And play he did, even handling that 12-string guitar break where the song then speeds off into a faster solo.  He had obviously played this song a thousand times in his bedroom – his eyes were closed the whole time.  And the kids went nuts the six or seven minutes he was up there playing.  Those few minutes were as exciting as any professional show I’d see as an adult.
But like a warden who knew when to reel in the inmates, the principal waited for the song to end, and pulled the plug, escorting the kid off the stage.  He was raising his clasped hands over his head like the heavyweight champ of the world.  Standing ovation.  I often wonder what happened to him.  Not then.  I’m sure he got some after-school detentions for his impromptu performance.  But I gather he never turned into that Joe Perry-type rock star, who was an outcast in high school, but turned that confusion and rage into rock-and-roll superstardom.  Most guys weren’t Joe Perry.  They were just guys who liked to get high and play guitar with their friends.  I would hope they still do!
And I noticed something weird on the recent tour I took of the high school as part of my high-school reunion.  This is the music room.  Check out that back wall.  There must be a dozen acoustic guitars hanging there.  I can assure you, they weren’t there when I was a kid.  All we had was a few boxes of percussion instruments and a moog synthesizer, which we could only play on special occasions.  Do you know how overjoyed I would have been to have a music class where I could have learned basic chords on a guitar?
So I have to believe, that lonely stoner kid on the stage, taking a chance and letting everyone know who he really was, moments like that, led to all these guitars on the music room wall in 2012.  It was a good thing to see.


Beatles Comment Guy said...

Oddly, older relatives have told me that punk had something of a following in the rural areas in the western side of Pennsylvania. It seems to have been far from general, but a fair amount of fans of "heavier" music were somewhat receptive to punk. The issue was more along the lines of knowing it existed and actually hearing the bands; if it had been better known, that alone would have meant more popularity. In those days, there was a sort of youth culture that was part AC DC fan, part hippie with a twist of redneck that was surprisingly open to new styles (this is how the tale comes down to me, anyhow).

In any case, interesting anecdotes and well-told as usual. There is a memoir in you somewhere just begging to get out.

William S. Repsher said...

You're notiticing a certain novelty punk had with a very small fraction of metal fans around that time. The problem was the hair more than anything. Punks tended to have shorter hair. Most metal bands, the musicians had shoulder-length hair. (Judas Priest was a band that changed a lot of things about heavy metal image, and a lead singer with short hair was one of them.)

I'm willing to bet those guys had a smattering of punk cassettes ... as compared to album after album of metal and hard rock bands in their collection. The music just wasn't that popular with teenage kids in the late 70s and early 80s. The Clash changed a lot in this regard as they went along. I still recall hearing "Train in Vain" on the local AOR rock station, and it sounded great to me. London Calling didn't break them through here, nor did Sandinista, but I was routinely hearing tracks from both being played next to Led Zep, Floyd, Stones, etc. Everything changed with Combat Rock.

Beatles Comment Guy said...

That could be the case-and the hair thing might not have helped matters. Punk was also supposed to be brainier and artier (though was it in reality? nothing comes off remotely as "nerdy" than Iron Maiden doing songs based on classic literature sci-fi movies) and that wouldn't go over well in rural areas.

What's odd about that is that I still get the vibe that the hard rock crowd was slightly more open to it than the college bound types of the era; at least from the people I know personally, they were more likely to be into the singer-songwriter things or maybe prog holdovers. (The college rock "style" hadn't quite taken-off).

But yeah, Combat Rock sort of broke punk, but by that time it seems like it was a spent force, except for a few local scenes. As a whole, I don't know if I would even call that album punk. In fact, I bet someone could make a case that the big songs off of that album sound more like a band that was a 2nd generation group inspired by the Clash than the actual band itself!

Beatles Comment Guy said...

Also, we weren't too far from Cleveland, where you get Stiv Bators and some other stuff along those lines. I don't know how much it matters, but parts of that side of the state were closer to urban areas than places smack dab in the middle of PA (say, the small towns near State College).

The Stooges had a fairly big fan base in the rural western part of the state (many friends and relatives will confirm) when they were still together-and they were one of the bands that no one supposedly "got" until after the fact. While a lot of those fans might have a vague idea that Iggy did some work with Bowie later on, they probably had no idea that he became an semi-underground critical darling! And The Who were always big. So I guess you could say that people were open to the sound of punk if not the "ethos" or "ideology".

What's odd is that stuff like the Pistols and The Clash and other first wave punk groups had something like a following, but hardcore never really did take off in the area. Hardcore punk was closer in sound to metal than, say, The Damned.

One note on Lost in the Supermarket: it really is a song that can appeal to anyone with that sense of alienation and captures that feeling in a really precise way; and it sounds great, too. The Clash worked best when they chose that path. I like a lot of their stuff on a musical level, but I can do without their politics. When they go for the personal, rather explicitly, it comes off far better political. Anyone might relate to that song,whether you're a Marxist or a straight-laced conservative.