Not all of the flotsam from my father’s childhood drifted into my grandfather’s fireplace. When he was a boy growing up in his small mountain town, he struck a deal with the owner of the local bar’s jukebox. Each time the owner changed the music, he sold my father the old records for a dime a piece. He had quite a collection of unsleeved 45’s, and they managed to escape the ovens.
I don’t remember much of the music, but I remember the labels: The bright yellow Atco label with the elegant little trumpet; Mercury, Capitol, and Dot. The Roulette label was the best: A yellow and orange piece of pop art that was hypnotizing at 45 rpm. I’d sit on the rug in my bedroom and sort my father’s records by label, try to memorize the artists’ names and what was on the b-sides. Those 45’s were to me what baseball cards were to other kids my age.
Some of those records made it into my early childhood heavy rotation: Freddy Cannon’s “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy” on the Swan label; Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” and its much hipper parody, Homer and Jethro’s “Battle of Camp Kookamonga.” These three along with The Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron” were the bulk of my first grade playlist.
But without any doubt my favorite single from my father’s stack was Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya.” There was not another record like it. There wasn’t another R&B record in the house, and probably not in the neighborhood. “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy” may have had that swing, daddy, but “Ya Ya” made me shake my little Toughskins butt.
Maybe my first grade teacher was the coolest teacher ever, maybe the Denver public school system saw value in promoting the arts, or maybe Mrs. Hendrickson was looking for filler. Regardless, after we got settled into a groove of Dick and Jane, handprint turkeys, and pledges of allegiance, we started having Music Wednesdays. This was nothing more than musical show and tell, with my little classmates bringing in their favorite records for us to hear.
What kid doesn’t love show and tell? You have to put yourself out there, right? Make a name for yourself. Establish yourself as the alpha dog with a giant pine cone, real porcupine needles, or one of the many race car shaped Avon bottles your Mom put on your shelves but wouldn’t let you play with. I don’t remember ever having anything particularly good for show and tell – I think I may have committed social suicide by bringing a ventriloquist dummy once, but for my own well being I’ve blocked that incident. But Music Wednesday. I could own Music Wednesday with “Ya Ya.”
And so one Wednesday afternoon after Mrs. Hendrickson had us move the desks out of the way and sit Indian-style in a circle, I sat and waited. Carl brought “Tie A Yellow Ribbon.” The class seemed to really enjoy that. Really? Tony Orlando is on TV – how good can he be? Joe brought “Rocky Mountain High.” This got a huge response, not only because we were listening to a song about the mountains we could see from our playground, but because John Denver was unbelievably huge with the elementary school set. I don’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole right now, but I’ll get to it eventually. For now just trust me that John Denver enjoyed Hannah Montana-like poll numbers with the monkey bars crowd.
There were a few others as the circle worked its way to me: the ubiquitous “Monster Mash;” Loggins and Messina’s “Your Momma Don’t Dance;” “It Never Rains In Southern California.” Finally I was up. Mrs. Hendrickson motioned for me to hand her my record. She read the label, smiled, and dropped the needle.
Ohhhh welll I’m…..
I couldn’t help but look around the circle.
Sittin’ here la la waitin’ for my ya ya uh huh
I may have blacked out, I don’t know. The rest is a blur. It was like the dream where I was at the chalkboard showing the class how to make a proper “J” only to realize too late that I was in my underwear.
Sittin here la la waitin’ for my ya ya uh huh
My classmates were laughing and pointing at me. Somebody yelled “That’s old stuff!” My shot at cool had backfired worse than the ventriloquist dummy incident. Mrs. Hendrickson played the whole song, which took 12 hours and 38 minutes. When it was finished she unleashed on the class.
“How incredibly rude you boys and girls are. Jimmy sat nicely through your songs. Maybe he didn’t like them, but he was polite enough to clap for you.” And then she addressed me personally. “Thank you for sharing with us. I’ve loved this song since I was a girl. They just don’t appreciate it because it’s an oldie.” This was the first I’d heard that music had an expiration date.
Three years later I was in my fourth elementary school in as many years. We’d moved to Texas a couple of months earlier, and I was having trouble fitting in. I was skinny and my hair was long enough that adults weren’t sure if I was a boy or a girl. One teacher called me “Jen” for three weeks before someone finally told her that my name was Jim. I’d dropped “Jimmy” in one of the moves. Instability is great for reinventing oneself.
Aside from being the new kid, I was also a Yankee. This did not go over well in a town with a Wednesday night rodeo. I did my best to blend. I started wearing western shirts with lots of ugly embroidery and snaps instead of buttons. My visiting grandfather bought me a tooled leather belt with “Jim” notched into the back in raised black letters. But let’s face it: I was just putting lipstick on a Yankee pig.
My lack of pop culture savvy didn’t help much, either. One afternoon we were invited to join the other fourth grade class in a game of hangman. The subject was movies. Thanks to me we lost two games straight. I’d never heard of Smokey and the Bandit or Star Wars, neither of which had been released but somehow every kid but me in small town Texas was in on the Hollywood hype.
Our class had music once per week. Normally it consisted of playing triangles, maracas, etc., or singing Woody Guthrie songs like “Roll On Columbia” and “Grand Coulee Dam.” One Wednesday while we were putting the triangles and the maracas away, Mrs. Hatton made an announcement. “Next week, I want you to bring in your favorite song,” she said. Sink or swim, baby. I was going to break the Yankee Outsider curse. I was going to heal my first grade wounds.
My plan was simple: If oldies were scorn worthy, I’d bring the newest record I could get my hands on. That afternoon I asked my oldest sister to lend me her most popular 45. I took it to my room and listened to it repeatedly, scrutinizing it for any flaws worthy of my classmates’ scorn. That Saturday I grabbed the entertainment section of the newspaper as soon as my father was done with it and flipped to the record charts. My sister was dead on with her recommendation: the record was number one. I couldn’t miss. Wednesday could not come soon enough.
Monday and Tuesday crawled by, but music day finally arrived. It was a fine crop, I must say. Rhythym Heritage’s “Theme From S.W.A.T.” set the bar awfully high for the afternoon. “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players? Forget about it. These kids were playing for keeps. Paul, the tallest kid in class, broke out “Convoy,” always guaranteed to bring the house down in 1976 suburban Texas. But Michael sealed the deal.
Michael was an only child and spoiled beyond belief. He was one of those kids who somehow managed to get the whole world to agree to spoil him. Rules didn’t apply to Michael. If Mrs. Hatton said use a pencil, Michael used a pen. If she said sit down, he’d stand up just to be contrary. The kid was bulletproof.
So while the rest of us brought our favorite song, Michael brought his favorite album. When “Convoy” faded out, Michael and his “Fonzie for President” t-shirt slowly ambled to the front of the classroom.
“What I brung in can’t be put on a 45 because it’s banned in most places. You hear a guy die on it. A lot of people say that these guys are evil, but they aren’t. They put it in the record because they don’t want this to happen to anymore of their fans.”
“I don’t know if we should be listening to something like that, Michael, but I guess it will be fine,” Mrs. Hatton said. Michael dropped the needle and passed the album cover to the kid in the first row to circulate. KISS. Destroyer. Bastard.
I don’t know whether it’s possible to understand what a disturbing presence KISS was for suburban parents in 1976. They weren’t hawking Dr. Pepper, condoms, can cozies, and caskets back then. They were simply demonic. Consider this: Destroyer was released in March 1976. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons held onto #1 almost that entire month with “December, 1963 (Oh What A Night).” The Bay City Rollers, Barry Manilow, Chicago, Rick Dees’ “Disco Duck” – they all hit #1 in 1976. KISS breathed fire and spit blood. There isn’t much else to say.
So we sat and listened to “Detroit Rock City,” listened to the story of that unfortunate KISS fan unfold. All the guy wanted was to go a concert. He was obviously excited – it was getting late and he just couldn’t wait. But some dumb trucker – probably listening to “Convoy” – crossed the double yellow. Julie Potter started crying when the truck inevitably crushed the poor bastard. None of us doubted for a moment that what we were hearing was the actual fatal car crash. Michael gingerly slipped the album back in its sleeve and sat down.
I was up next. I cued up Wings’ “Silly Love Songs” and stood there while my classmates laughed and called me sissy, pansy, whimp, queerbait, etc. Mrs. Hatton told them to hush up, but she was laughing, too.
Not too long after that we picked up and moved again, this time to a small town in South Carolina. When the plane touched down in Greenville I was the biggest fucking KISS fan the world has ever known and I knew the difference between a land speeder and an x-wing fighter. Paul McCartney could kiss my Toughskins butt.