Thursday, January 24, 2013

I Love Distortion (a rock & roll novel in 12 chapters) - January

(My idea for I Love Distortion (a rock & roll novel in 12 chapters) is a serialized set of
fictional stories; one per month, for all of this coming year, finishing Christmas week 2013.)

I LOVE DISTORTION - chapter one

The first time Billy Ray smacked his girlfriend in the mouth - in the back seat of the car on that long, dark drive back from a gig in Buckeye Lake - nobody said a word.  The second time, when the girl started crying softly I whirled around from my shotgun seat, put my finger in Billy Ray's face and said, "If you hit that girl one more time I'm going to put my fist right through your face."  As I turned back around to face the road it got really quiet in the car.  Nobody talked to Billy Ray that way and nobody in that band had ever threatened anybody else with physical violence.  After a long moment Billy Ray's girl said softly, "Thank you, Sean," sniffing back tears in the dark in the back of the car.  "You can shut the fuck up too, Nicole, I'm not that crazy about you right now either." 

Billy Ray's girlfriend shared a first name with my ex-girlfriend Nicole.  My Nicole - with whom in the past year I had decimated my marriage - had dropped me just a couple of weeks earlier, three days before Christmas 1978.  She cut me loose in order to return to the mentally and physically abusive guy she was engaged to before we met, so I was in no mood for any Battered Woman Syndrome bullshit.  (The fact that both our girlfriends had the same name brought about no end of conversational confusion in the band.  Whenever the name Nicole came up in band stories, there was always an exchange of "Billy Ray's Nicole or Sean's Nicole?"  You'd think we would've come up with nicknames, but we never did.)

Nobody in The Apartments - Billy Ray's band - had held out much hope for the Buckeye Lake gig.  It was at a suburban, almost rural, high school 30 miles east of our hometown of Columbus, Ohio.  In 1979 the Midwest live music scene was strictly the province of cover bands playing heavy-metal, its first cousin corporate-rock and/or country-rock.  Plus the ever-present threat of disco loomed over everything.  In that context the band's mindset was that The Apartments' punk-power pop style of all original rock & roll - not one cover tune to be heard - was just not gonna go over out in the sticks around Buckeye Lake.

Billy Ray was in a foul mood because the show had gone great, was possibly the best gig to date in the band's short career, and because Doug - the band's drummer - and I had been propositioned in no uncertain terms by two high school girls after the set.  I was standing in the wings at my roadie station when Doug exited the stage.  An impossibly pretty brunette girl who couldn't have been a day over 17 stepped between us, grabbed the lapels of the vest Doug was wearing over his now sheened-with-sweat shirtless chest, pushed him up against the backstage wall and stated, with real authority, "I want sex with you, RIGHT NOW."  Eyebrows of the nearby band members - including Billy Ray - went up as Doug laughed, looked down at the girl and said, in his best honeyed West Virginia-born & bred drawl, "Well, that's fine, little missy, but what about my good friend Sean here," pointing to me.  The girl, never taking her eyes off of Doug, gestured over her shoulder to a petite blonde girl standing a couple of feet away, "My friend will come along for your friend."  "Well, all right!" Doug said as Billy Ray stormed lividly through our little teenage groupie tableau.

There were probably 300 kids at that tri-county high school dance and obviously at least some of them were ready and raring to go.  I should have realized early in the evening that something was up when I was helping The Celluloid Toys - the all-girl band Billy Ray had put together to open Apartments shows - set up and get their set started.  We had expected maybe 50 or 60 bored teenagers at the show, but there were already probably 150 kids there by 7 pm and more pouring through the door every minute.  I was hyped.  The Apartments were fairly popular on what passed for an "alternative" scene in Columbus in those late-70's days and if we could get 30 people to a gig in our hometown it was cause for celebration.

By the 7:30 start time there were at least 250 kids in the huge school gymnasium and 100 of them were pressed up against the stage, staring at the girls in Celluloid Toys and waiting for them to start.  The Toys were certainly cute enough - 3/5 of them anyway - but hardly a group of girls to be stared at.  Looking back I can see where they must have looked really exotic - in mascara, black jeans and the odd leather jacket - to that crowd of exurban high-schoolers.  I remember right before they started the lead guitarist yelled over to me in a panic, "Sean, Sean, how do I get this guitar to stop feeding back!!?!!"  I walked out onstage, adjusted her guitar & amp volume to stop the feedback, glanced at the other girls in the band and realized they were all scared to death.  They had never played on a stage remotely this big, to an audience nearly this large, in a venue this cavernous and they were completely stage-struck.  "Want me to introduce you?" I asked the lead singer. "Yes," she nodded back quickly, wide-eyed with stage fright.  I turned to the band, said, "Play it loud, girls, give 'em hell," then spun around and yelled into the mic, "Buckeye Lake, put your hands together for greatest all-girl band in the world, The Celluloid Toys!!!!!"

The audience exploded in applause, the band kicked off the first song and damn, if those girls didn't nail it.  The Toys also played all originals but it didn't matter, those kids ate it up.  By the third song The Toys loosened up, began to enjoy their newfound rock star status.  Joyce - the lead singer - started playing with the little girls at the front of the stage, flirting with the boys, and I thought, "Holy shit, if the crowd likes THEM this much (and let's face facts, those girls could barely play their instruments) The Apartments are gonna KILL."  Five songs into The Toys ten-song set (and they only knew ten songs all the way through) I beat it back to the band's dressing room (actually, to be entirely accurate, the boy's gym locker room) and said, "There's like 300 kids out there and they LOVE The Celluloid Toys, you guys have got it made."  Bass player Glen - who had been with Billy Ray since their high-school bands seven or eight years before - said slowly, "There's three HUNDRED kids out there?"  "Yes," I replied breathlessly, "and they think The Celluloid Toys are rock stars and are the best thing they've ever seen."  The whole band, and the entire room, lit up.

That was the atmosphere at a gig that Billy Ray had chosen to bring his girlfriend to.  When The Apartments took the stage that night and blasted into their first tune - with Billy Ray deploying Pete Townshend scissor-kicks and Chuck Berry duckwalks as he was born to do - the crowd went CRAZY.  It was like they'd never seen a rock & roll band before ever in their lives and, at that point, maybe they never had.  They had certainly never seen a band as good as The Apartments that close up.  The magic was almost stifling.  The band played more than 90 minutes to a mass of dancing, raving, screaming teenagers.  I worked for The Apartments and a few of Billy Ray's later bands off and on from 1978 until the early 1990's, I must have seen well over 200 shows, and that set was absolutely one of the top three ever.  They could do no wrong, the crowd loved every single minute.  The Apartments COMMANDED that stage for close to two hours until the faculty chaperones shut things down.  For awhile during the show I went up in the bleachers to show the kids running lights how to do it better, stood watching that throng of happy dancing kids and thought, "All of rock & roll could be like this if radio would just let punk and new wave happen."  But it never did. 

So after the show everything should have been peaches & cream but the atmosphere in the dressing room was sheer poison.  Doug and I told our new little blonde and brunette friends to give us ten minutes, we'd be right back.  When we entered the dressing room Billy Ray EXPLODED, "You two have 20 minutes to get all the gear broken down and get blow jobs or whatever from those little sluts or we're leaving without you."  "Come on, Billy Ray, it's not me and Sean's fault you decided to bring your girlfriend along to the gig where we strike pay dirt," Doug spat back, red-faced.  Everybody else in the dressing room - including Billy Ray's Nicole and John, the band's lead guitarist - tried desperately to pretend they weren't there.  "You guys have 20 minutes, get out of my dressing room," Billy Ray replied, turning his back on us.  "Oh, so now it's YOUR dressing room?" I asked, but Billy Ray wouldn't look at me.  "Billy Ray calls every play, everything belongs to Billy Ray," I said in a sing-song voice as Doug and I exited, slamming the locker room door behind us.

Doug and I conducted a hurried conference in the hallway.  Neither of us had driven to the gig or even had a car back home in Columbus.  No way could we afford a motel for the night, even if we could find one at that hour in Buckeye Lake.  We seriously doubted we'd be welcomed with open arms into the homes of the schoolgirls' parents.  We tried to think of somebody we knew with a car who would be willing to drive over and pick us up on Saturday even if we did find a place to stay and came up empty.  Finally we just gave up, told the girls it wasn't gonna happen, made out with them a little while the gear got packed in the van by the band and English Todd, the other roadie.  (By the way, for any 2013 readers out there with teen or tween daughters tut-tutting our behavior that night long ago: It was 1979, AIDS hadn't been invented yet, I was separated from my wife and headed for divorce.  Doug was single, the girls were willing participants, we were rock stars and the valet of rock stars, so deal with it.)   

As Doug walked toward the group van for the return trip to Columbus he bumped Billy Ray's shoulder with his own and said quietly, "We wouldn't have done this to you.  I thought we were a BAND."   Billy Ray said nothing, walked over to the car where Glen & his girlfriend, myself and Billy Ray's Nicole were already sitting in silence.  Doug and I would soon be retired from The Apartments for our effrontery that night in Buckeye Lake.  It was the third week of January 1979, exactly one year after I met Sean's Nicole.      

© 2013 Ricki C.

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