Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Beginning Was The End


This is how I remember it:

In junior high I was one of “the weird kids”.  All of my “peers” were into Journey and Foreigner, while I was much more into DEVO and the B-52’s and Blondie.  The other kids, male and female, were wearing the 1981 equivalent to Dockers and popping the collars on their pink or green pastel Polo shirts in order to attract the opposite sex.  I was wearing a gray felt Fedora and 60’s suit coats, so needless to say I didn’t really fit in.  To make it worse, kids who had formerly been my friends decided to follow the herd in their exploration of the subtle intricacies of the Top 40, immediately setting themselves up as one of “them” instead of one of “us”.  Unfortunately “we” were severely outnumbered by at least a hundred to one.  There were initially 3 of “us” who stood out from the crowd and did our own thing.  At least we were the ones who chose to do our own thing.  Obviously there were those kids who were really out there and doing their own thing without realizing it.  The kids that wore mis-matched shoes or who were still eating their boogars in 8th grade.

Early winter, 1982.  I had just turned 14, and was a social recluse. The end of my junior high school career was in sight.  Off in the distance, just above the horizon line enough where if I squinted I could make it out. By this time I had already been called every name in the book; fag, punk, freak, asshole, dork… I let it all slide. (Keep in mind that “fag” had no bearing on a person's sexual orientation.  It was meant as an insult akin to loser, freak.  Very similar to how the term douche bag is being used in this post 9/11 world.)
I didn't care what "they" thought of me. I didn't care what anyone thought of me.  I lived for New Wave music, record stores, and hanging out at the downtown Minneapolis library reading up on things like Nazis, The Golden Age Of Radio, and other such topics of interest to a kid with a pizza face and no social skills.

  My parents didn't understand me. My brother would thump me any chance he got, because that's what he was told to do to "little punk rock faggots" like me.  I had my Gary Numan and Kraftwerk records and a good pair of gigantic cans to drown out “their” world and shoot those beautiful analog oscillator sounds straight into my brain, bypassing the thought process and settling directly in the pleasure cortex.
With the arrival of spring and the ever-nearing end of 8th grade the gods of rock made me an offer I could not refuse.  The day was approaching when we were to register for our freshman year of high school.  A representative from North Community High School, "the Black school" on the complete opposite side of the city, came to our class and gave a spiel about the wonders of the KBEM Radio Broadcasting magnet program on offer.  Salvation in a recruitment speech.  Hell, I sat around and listened to records all day anyway, why not make a career out of it? I probably would have joined the army if they had promised me the chance to make a career out of listening to my favorite records.  I signed on the dotted line and told all of my "peers" to kiss my ass, I wasn't gonna go to the shit hole neighborhood high school with all of them, I was breaking away and leaving them and their pathetic, pot-smoking white trash Top 40 following asses in the dirt. I jumped with both feet pointed North and a middle finger as the last thing any one of them ever saw of me.
A few weeks before the actual registration my old man took the day off of work and we toured the radio station, then located in a dilapidated city building on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.  It was in the basement, there was rat shit in the corners and a busted pop machine under a blinking sign.  "On Air" it anemically attempted to flash.  I was transfixed, like a puppy with a Snausage balanced on its nose.  My dad was none too impressed but he could see the enthusiasm in my eyes and agreed to let me enroll.  Two weeks later he took another day off and accompanied me to the open registration at North High.  A few hours of boring orientation was followed by my John Hancock on my registration form.  As we walked out I was convinced that I made the right decision and that a glorious future of getting paid to play records lay ahead.
Two weeks before I was finished with Junior High my dad pointed out a tiny, 3-line blurb in the Minneapolis Star.  It said that KBEM was to start a late-night New Wave, Punk, and Reggae show later that month.  My mom asked if that was the station I was going to be DJing on, and she just smiled quizzically when I affirmed her query.  The show, "Ready Steady Go" was to broadcast on Friday nights from midnight to 6am and was to begin in three weeks.  It was the longest three weeks of my life and in my mind I had already planned out the entire playlist.  When my dad said that we would be back from our family vacation to Hollywood just in time for me to catch the debut show I knew the gods were truly smiling up at me.
My family took a two-week long vacation and flew into LAX.  From there we rented a car and drove the length of the state.  The San Diego zoo was rather under whelming much to the chagrin of my mom who was really looking forward to visiting it.  Disneyland was OK; Knotts Berry Farm was more fun.  My dad took us to a restaurant he knew of from one of his many business trips out there.  It was called The 98th Aero Squadron and the décor was set up to mimic a World War One aerodrome.  My mom and brother didn’t care about it at all, but I was transfixed.  However, the strongest memory of that trip was that of driving down Sunset Boulevard.  When I noticed that we were only a few blocks from the DEVO Fan club Headquarters I told my dad to keep driving.  I had memorized the address from the numerous times I had ordered t-shirts and other memorabilia from the inner sleeves of “Freedom Of Choice” and “New Traditionalists”.  Because I was only 14 and the world’s biggest DEVO fan my mind had allowed me to believe that there was a huge storefront packed with Energy Domes, Plastic Pomps, and 3D glasses.  When we finally passed the address I was crushed.  It was an apartment building.  After that revelation I started to focus on my return home and the debut of Ready Stead Go on the radio station I was soon to be commanding.
Finally Friday night came with the promise of a world of new music, new bands to discover and explore. I turned down the invitation to a party some friends were throwing, and instead camped out next to my dad's stereo with a stack of blank tapes ready to tune in to Ready Stead Go.  I can't tell you what they played specifically; all I remember is the feeling of glorious euphoria, knowing that there were other "punk rock fags" out there, and that they were seeing fit to fill the airwaves with our music.  That first night I made it until about 2:30 before falling asleep on the floor of the living room, C-120 cassette still rolling in the tape deck.
Ready Steady Go was sponsored by Harpo's/Hot Licks, one of the only record stores in the Twin Cities area to carry all the imports.  And Hot Licks was only 2 blocks from the library, although on the seediest street in the entire downtown area.  On my next visit to the library I took a break from reading up on the history of ventriloquism or some other such deep subject and hoofed it over to Hot Licks.  Never mind that the block it was on was more than sketchy, the bums and hookers were no scarier than the dirt bags I was forced to go to school with.  The record store was as close to a heaven that a 14 year old non-believer could believe in.  It was Nirvana.  It was Shangri La.  It soon became my home, the staff my new family.
And still I lived for Friday nights.  Taping over old cassettes of Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, and BTO, rearranging the magnetic oxide into the shapes of Gang Of Four, X, The Stranglers, Scritti Politti, Joy Division/New Order, Bill Nelson, Toyah… I had bought a Toshiba Walkman with the money I bamboozled out of my family for my Lutheran confirmation, and I was never without fresh sounds for my ear holes.
My freshman year of high school was the 1982-1983 school year.  I had agreed to be bussed to a school on the complete opposite side of the city in an attempt to reinvent myself.  I was still one of “the weird kids” but at least I was a weird kid without a history.  Even if I had been a collar-popping preppie I would have stood out in the predominantly black confines of North Community High School.  The population of the school never bothered me at all, as I had been shunned and made fun of by people of every race.  Cool people came in all colors; assholes came in all colors as well.

The big difference in high school, aside from the racial ratio, was the fact that there were a few more of “us” than at my previous school.  While “we” all didn’t necessarily congregate and fraternize with each other there still seemed to be a slight sense of safety in numbers. I was no longer out of place in my Suburbs t-shirt and yellow wrap-around sunglasses or my special-order green Converse High Tops.  Don’t get me wrong, there were far more of “them” as well. Just the size of the student body deemed that.  While my junior high had about 700 students, North High had about 1200.  So now there were about 12 of “us”, New Wavers, Punk Rockers, musically aware social misfits. I still got shit for wearing my Blondie “Tracks Across America” jersey, but not nearly as much as I had back at my old school.  Besides, these kids never knew me as the Alice Cooper fan, they didn’t know of my complete collection of Bachman-Turner Overdrive albums or my collection of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” radio records.  To these people I was just another punk rock asshole with stupid clothes and bad records.

Since the school was on the opposite side of town the bus ride was just under an hour each way.  That was fine in the winter, but when the weather was nice I would conviently “miss” the school bus and have to catch a city bus home.  Fortunately the public transportation forced me to transfer downtown, mere blocks from the record store I had started frequenting the previous summer. So at least twice a week I would kill an hour or so between school and home at Northern Lights (the store had changed its name from Harpos/Hot Licks to Northern Lights, aka “No Life”, a few months prior), looking at the new imports from England, skimming through the British magazines like New Musical Express and Sounds, and flip through the only American magazine worth its New Wave credentials; Trouser Press.  As I got deeper and deeper into the emerging musical underground my friends became more and more distant and out of the loop.  Perhaps it was me who was getting further and further into the loop and they were still just treading the waters waiting for the New Wave to pass. Very quickly I became the one other people looked to for information about what was going on in the UK music scene, and who the hip underground American bands were.  I was the one that was making comp tapes and recording full albums for the enlightenment of my colleagues (sorry RIAA, but this kind of thing has been going on long before the advent of the internet and downloading).

By the beginning of the second trimester of my freshman year I had a core of about 4 friends who I would sit with at lunch and during the various acts the principal would bring in to edutain us.  None of the other guys were one of “us” but they were misfits in their own right and I didn’t mind hanging with them.  The one thing we had in common was an appreciation for DEVO, although I was the most hardcore spudboy of the bunch.  Then again, I don’t think there was a more ardent or dedicated DEVO fan in the city at that time.  I had quickly and successfully removed myself from the popular cliques running the halls of the school and pretty much kept to myself.  On Friday nights I would rather sit alone listening to Ready Steady Go on the radio or listen to my records than to be out partying with the straights.  Most of my friends had started chemically altering their states of consciousness, and as I have made abundantly clear in other musings I was not one to partake of such activities.  So instead of going to the all ages shows at First Avenue or some preppie’s party I would lose myself in my growing vinyl collection and stacks of imported music magazines. 

One of the first people I met at North that was one of “us” was a girl named KT.  The second week of class KT told me about some sober guys she knew had started throwing a weekly New Wave Dance Party. It was held at a park building every Saturday night. The park was a 15-minute bus ride and 5-minute walk from where Billy and I caught the 18 bus.  That first Saturday Billy and I got to the park building a little early.  No one was there and the building was locked.  We killed some time at a record store a block away, and when the novelty of that wore off we went to the local cornet market and got some Mountain Dew.  Slowly wandering back to the park, we spied some guys unloading gear out of a van and into the park building.  Correctly assuming these were the hosts/DJs for the night Billy offered our assistance in unloading the van.  Our help was appreciated and rewarded with free admission to the dance.  We helped set up the P.A. and Billy even got to spin some records while the other guys were making sure all the connections were correct and the sound system was functioning properly. For the rest of the summer Billy and I would spend our subsequent Saturday afternoons down at Hot Licks, going back to his house to listen to our recent purchases as well as the tapes of Ready Steady Go from the night before in preparation for the dance that night.  I was 14, a social misfit from birth, and between Hot Licks and these dances I had finally found the places where I felt I fit in, where other people didn't throw things at me or hurl insults from their speeding cars.  A place where people were actually impressed with my Klaus Nomi and Flying Lizards pins on my black polyester suit coat. 

It was around this time that my mom instituted curfews on my brother and me.  He was already showing signs of becoming a hell raiser, so my mom laid down the law and said he had to be home by 10pm on weeknights and midnight on weekends.  I saw no problem in those rules, as I was always home way before that.  Harpo’s closed at 7, so what else was there to do?  I wasn’t much of a movie buff, so after the record stores closed for the day I just went home and enjoyed my purchases.  My brother protested to no avail, curfew was set at 10 and midnight.  As we got up to leave my mom told me to sit back down.  She had a different curfew for me.  At least two weeknights I was required to stay out of the house until at least 9pm, but had to be in by 11pm at the latest.  Friday and Saturday nights I was not to come home until 11 at the earliest and midnight at the latest.  I was perplexed.  This wasn’t so much a curfew as an exile.  My mother dutifully informed me that at 14 I was supposed to be out making friends, be out “doing stuff” and getting in trouble!  She didn’t think it normal for a kid my age to sequester himself in his room and avoid contact with the outside world.  I don’t think she ever understood to what degree I felt like an outsider, at odds with everyone else my own age.  I didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, hadn’t even kissed a girl yet let alone shack up and play bedroom bingo with them.  Luckily my Saturday nights were taken care of with the AA dances at the park, so that was one weekend night covered.  Friday nights found me hanging out at the neighborhood 99¢ movie theater where I would pay my dollar for the 7pm showing of whatever was playing, and then sit through two showings of it.  It kept me out of the house, and if the second screening went long I could always leave, as I already knew how it ended.  On the weeknights I would just hang out at Billy’s house, sitting in his room listening to records and reading magazines.  I spent a lot of time alone, just walking around the neighborhood listening to tapes of Ready Steady Go on my walkman. So much for my mom’s grand scheme to socially acclimate me to the real world!

This feeling of isolation, of being separated from the rest of the people my age; my supposed “peers”, has been something that has dogged me my entire life.  Even when I have been close with people; friends, girlfriends, casual acquaintances, I have never felt like I belong, like I am on the same wavelength as anyone else.  My love of music has never diminished, and I am still the person most people come to when they want to know the answer to some minute and esoteric musical bit of trivia. Sometimes I revel in that feeling, not as a feeling of superiority or cockiness, but as a reminder that I am me and I am who I am.  A lot of the time I just wish that I was “normal” and could relate to others on their level, not having the shred of a clue what “their level” may be.  I have no interest in sports or politics and have less than a working knowledge of both. I avoid watching the nightly news, and when I pick up a newspaper it’s probably to read the comics, or to see if there is any kind of musical news in the entertainment section.  I can’t talk about the latest television craze or who is up for what Oscar for whatever the trendy movie is currently the talk of the town.  Regardless of how I am feeling about it at any given moment in time, I am constantly aware that I am different, and that my brain has been wired differently than anyone else I have known.  When I think back and allow myself to believe it was OK to be that way as a kid, as a teenager, as a middle-aged man something is just wrong.  The only thing I can do now, aside from my menial day job, is to reflect on what my life on the fringes of normalcy has been like, the lessons I have learned, and the lifetime of stories I have collected (so far), and to relate them to you in an attempt to explain myself, justify my time on this planet, and to hopefully entertain anyone who may stumble across my meanderings.

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