It's 1980. I'm the most awkward, alienated, insecure kid in the sixth grade, yet convinced that I can be a rock star. It's all been worked out. My best friend and next-door neighbor Gary is going to play guitar. Mike, down the street, is on guitar as well, and Eric, who lives a world away (a ten-minute walk) gets the drums. I'm the singer. None of us own any instruments yet, but we've all walked over to Sears-Roebuck, priced out the gear and started thinking of ways to pay for it. Plans have been set into motion. All I need is a mic. Never sang before, but I know that as soon as I'm on stage I'll have the charisma to be a frontman.
This rock band thing has to be kept a secret from my family. It's not allowed in this household. I've been required to practice classical piano every day since the age of six, and will continue to do so until I'm 14 and allowed to quit. I'm also being enrolled in piano competitions which I have no interest or hope in winning (spoiler: one of the chinese kids will win). My siblings are a few years older, but they don't open any gates for me; my sister only likes MGM musicals and 40's tin pan alley stuff, and my brother the mathlete seems to have no interest in music at all.
But I sneak things in. I have a little portable cassette recorder, and over at Gary's house I've made a dub of the Who's "Who Are You". I listen to it at home with the sheets over my head, the cassette speaker close to my ear and the volume almost all the way down. A whisper of other music besides that notation, scribed by wealthy European males centuries ago, which I'm obeying every day for reasons I don't understand.
Cable TV also helps. We just got it this year. Three movies (in constant rotation) come to mind: "Tommy", which freaked me out when I saw it at the drive-in as a six-year old but now thrills me with its decadence and debauchery, "Rock and Roll High School", which has this band I've never heard of, but they're apparently the biggest band in the world and they sound incredible, and "Flash Gordon", with that killer Queen soundtrack. I hold up my cassette recorder to the TV speaker and tape the little bits of music that interested me on previous viewings, and quietly, secretly play the tapes back in my room later.
On the weekends I'm over at Mom's on the North side of Chicago. My stepfather has mostly jazz and classical records, but there are three "forbidden" ones: "Meet the Beatles" (too childish) "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (too sappy) and the Rolling Stones' "Hot Rocks" compilation, which is okay, but it still sounds antiquated. I want to discover some new music. Mom doesn't have cable, but television isn't closely monitored here, so I get to see some performances that inspire me:
Most importantly, at 10 p.m. on Saturday there's the Kenny Everett show, which screens some of the very first "promotional films" (later to be called "music videos") of contemporary artists. I see this Gary Numan video and practice my onstage swagger:
The last day of elementary school arrives. It's sunny and warm out. My best friend Gary and I are in my backyard, bouncing on the trampoline together and playing the radio loud because dad's not at home. "Don't Stand So Close to Me" comes on, and we're holding tennis racquets and playing them like guitars, lip-syncing to the song, doing our mid-air scissor kicks and Pete Townsend windmill guitar chops, dreaming those rockstar dreams of adolescence.
We never start up that particular band, of course. But I do get into a band with the same Mike, down the street, when I'm seventeen. He's the singer / bass player, two others are playing guitar and drums, and I'm the rhythm guitarist / keyboardist / backing singer. I go along with most of his ideas for covers: we do some REM, Clash, U2. But my tastes have changed; by this point I was going to the all ages punk rock shows at the Metro uptown. No matter what song we're playing, I have my guitar all the way up and I scream every word of my backing vocals with all of my energy and rage behind it. He caves on a few of my suggestions for songs: Black Flag, Sex Pistols, Flipper ("to sound like Flipper you have to distort the bass signal!" I keep insisting. "I won't do it!" Mike keeps retorting).
We play one live show, a high school graduation party thrown by a girl in my homeroom whom I've never spoken to, somewhere within those few short, precious weeks of freedom before I leave for boot camp so I can get away from under dad's thumb. We nearly start a riot with our closing tune, a cover of Flipper's "Sex Bomb". It's the only song of the evening that I sing, and the only one that gets any sort of response from the audience. The crowd is loving it, doing the pogo and chanting in unison. I finally get a little bit of what I was yearning for in the sixth grade.