Ninth grade was a very strange time. I was a member of The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam, but I wasn’t hardcore enough for Prevo, or prevocational school. I played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons thanks to my thirty year old yard work boss and most recent father figure, not to mention the AD&D weekends at Winthrop College with my older sister’s crowd.
But at school I didn’t fit in with the AD&D smart kids, either. They approached me like some sort of lab creature in an Army jacket. Be nice to it. Laugh at its jokes. It fights eleventh graders, even if it loses.
Which is to say that not much had changed about my social standing since we left Colorado. I was persistently a misfit, like it or not. I wasn’t disliked for the most part, I just wasn’t quite right for clique membership. Too crude for this group, too stupid for that one, too nerdy for that crowd, too redneck for the other.
Unaffiliated and lacking a Southern accent has its benefits. South Carolina was in the midst of a new Reconstruction, attracting foreign industries to replace the dying textile business. With these companies came a new generation of carpet baggers; after all, that’s why my family emigrated.
Enter Eric: Tall kid, skinny, blond hair and a crooked smile. Awkward. Recently transplanted, and friendless. I had a weakness for these kinds of guys because I was one of them. Now lunch is the worst time of day for a new kid. In the halls there exists a destination. In class there is a teacher upon which to focus. But lunch? Nothing. Rows of tables unassigned but clearly spoken for, each group of diners an impenetrable clique for a new kid.
“Hey, you want to sit?” Eric was standing in front of me staring into space, turquoise tray in hand.
“Thanks.” He said, and stared at his tray. “What is this?”
“It’s a beetle hat.”
He poked it with his fork. “But what is it?”
“Piece of baloney and a scoop of mashed potatoes with a slice of melted cheese.”
“That’s disgusting. What’s this?”
“That’s half a pear with a scoop of mayonnaise in the middle, cheese, and a maraschino cherry.”
“We didn’t have food like this in Connecticut.”
“You from there?”
“No, but we moved a lot when I was a kid. No place else has this weird stuff.”
“Does anybody eat it?” He put down his fork.
“Danny Ray does.” I pointed at Danny Ray, who was raking beetle hats off of people’s trays.
It wasn’t much of a conversation but it broke the ice. Eric knew somebody now.
We have to take a little side trip here back to the opening paragraph. I apologize. I should have been more prepared — packed some cookies, peed, and checked the map before I pulled this story away from the curb.
My afternoon and weekend job was doing yard work for a pair of married chemists named John and Diana. They were more than employers to me, though — they were a second family. I idolized John, who was brilliant (degrees from MIT and Duke), funny, kind, and fit. For Halloween John would wear a pair of jeans and paint his bare torso green — instant Hulk costume, and he could pull it off. Not bad for a geeky chemist type.
He wasn’t just fit, though — he was athletic. And because he came of age at MIT in the Seventies his sport of choice was Frisbee. On nice days after we were done in his yard he would toss his “friz bag” into the trunk of his Opel and drive me to the huge lawn in front of the junior high school. While I struggled to keep up John put on a clinic of moves with exotic names like “air brush,” “trail,” “nail delay,” “chest roll,” and “air bounce.” The air bounce was a favorite. John and I would stand on opposite sides of his Opel, he would throw the Frisbee underneath the car, and it would hit me at chest height. Here’s the killer: It would never touch the ground.
“That’s impossible,” I said after he did it the first time.
“It just happened. You’re holding the Frisbee.”
“I know, but it’s a trick or something.”
“Hoooo, Jim. It’s just physics. Throw the friz.”
I spent hours — hours — in the make out basement listening to records and practicing my nail delay, i.e., spinning the disc on my finger. This is the key to Frisbee tricks, of “freestyle.” Thinking back on all of this, my obsessive nature was apparent even at that age. All I wanted to do was jam and practice Frisbee (which, ironically, professional freestylers referred to as “jamming”). Why I never became a Deadhead remains a mystery.
I carried a Frisbee with me everywhere, even school. If I wasn’t hanging out with Melody I was working on my skills, showing off, or throwing the friz around with Eric, Lee G., and Hal. I spent my class time doodling “Friz Whiz” logos alongside the requisite band logos and Beatles-inspired psychedelia. My sports heroes weren’t Walter Payton and Kareem — they were Deaton Mitchell, Donny Rhodes, and Dan “Stork” Roddick; Crazy John Brooks, Krae Van Sickle, and Victor Malafronte.
So when I stayed over at Eric’s house for the first time I was genuinely touched that he gave me his green 97g Wham-O World Class model without any hesitation or expectation. It was an act of true kindness and generosity and it says all one needs to know about Eric, which means of course that I will keep writing anyway.
“Hey, Lindsey lives down the street,” he told me.
“Want to walk over to her house?”
Lindsey was the Queen of the Untouchables. A ridiculously beautiful, wholesome-looking girl, she was the object of affection for almost every guy in grades seven through twelve. Bright blue eyes, perfect white teeth and so, so nice. Both Chuck the Magnificent and Lee G. followed her around school hopefully, but not I. I knew that I didn’t have a chance. Lindsey dated high schoolers — captains of this team or that, guys with little alligators on their shirts. Not a chance in Hell. “Yeah, let’s walk over and say hi.” But hope springs eternal.
It was crystal cold — the kind of cold that makes the dark even darker somehow, air so cold that sound seems slow and thick. I zipped up my Army jacket, hands deep in the pockets, collar up, only exposed from the nose up. We hoofed across Eric’s neighborhood, knocked on the door of the only house beautiful enough for the Queen of the Untouchables. A perfect television father opened the door.
“Hey, how can I help you boys?”
“Is Lindsey home?”
“Sure, just a sec. Hey, Linz? Door for you.”
She was even beautiful when she was off the clock: no make-up, hair falling naturally. “Hey, what are y’all doing?” she said.
“Jim’s staying over. We’re going to the Clemson game tomorrow.”
“Go Tigers!” Lindsey said.
“Go Tigers!” I repeated. I understood why everyone was so taken by her. She was one of those rare people who makes everyone feel welcome.
So I made my play, but here’s the thing: I didn’t have game like Chuck the Magnificent or his pal, David. I wasn’t a jock, either. All I had going for me was the awkward humor that comes from changing schools often. I clowned it up, Lindsey staring directly into my eyes as my clever wit enveloped her. The longer she stared the funnier I got. She could not tear her eyes away from me.
“Well, I should go back inside,” she finally said. The spell was broken. “I’m glad y’all came by.” The door closed behind her and I turned to high-five Eric.
“Dude, you had a booger hanging out of your nose the whole time,” he said.
Of all the bands to visit within concert radius of my house, none were bigger than Rush. In the last few months I’d seen The Outlaws on their Ghost Riders In the Sky tour with opener The Johnny Van Zandt Band, who laid down a great cover of The Beatles’ “Drive My Car.” Ricky Brent and I went to see Foreigner on their 4 tour with Bryan Adams opening. He didn’t have an album out yet, so that was kind of cool. I hoped that he would be a huge star so that I could brag someday that I saw him before he even had a record out. He did in fact become an Eighties megastar, and I conveniently forgot that I’d ever seen him or that I liked “Lonely Nights.” Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam have standards, after all.
In other words, I’d seen a bunch of ticky tack concerts because they were what was going on nearby, but Rush — they were huge. Mike, my sister’s ex-boyfriend, had Hemispheres and 2112; my pal Hal owned All the World’s Stage. I borrowed the latter for months, and I played Mike’s Rush tapes in the make out basement regularly. Mike and Hal were solid endorsements, but then Rush released the single greatest cheap thrill to ever land in the record bins: Permanent Waves. Any hope I had of developing a normal, well-adjusted sexual appetite flew away with the breeze that blew up the album’s cover model’s skirt.
All fine reasons to appreciate the greatest thing to come out of Canada since jokes about nothing great coming out of Canada, but if I never experienced any of the above I still would have been jazzed that Rush was coming to the South. They were touring behind Moving Pictures, which even at that time was a beast, a game changer that transcended the usual musical boundaries.
There are many brilliant records out there: Lou Reed’s Transformer; Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power; Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. All are examples of albums that no iPod should be without, but these aren’t the kinds of albums I’m talking about. Moving Pictures was up there in the rarefied air of Van Halen’s eponymous debut, Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. These were albums that not only changed the path of popular music, but did so because they were insanely popular. Everybody knew that they were listening to a monster. 1981 was Rush’s year.
I needed a concert buddy and Eric was the man for the job. I enjoyed his company and I wanted to repay his generosity. We sat through openers Riot, of whom I have no memory but I’m sure we flew our devil horns and pumped our fists. I’m equally certain that there was a build up to a final power chord, everybody beating their instruments until the tension was simply too much, the spandexed singer punctuating that final crunch with a mighty leap and a “Thank you! Good night!”
Then it was the roadies’ turn. They hurried Riot’s gear from the stage and set up for the main attraction. Three guys — Geddy, Neil, and Alex — with enough gear for a music store. Geddy’s side of the stage was a tower of keyboards, bass pedals, and amps. Alex’s gear over on stage right was a guitar geek paradise. And at the back of the stage Neil Peart’s — the master’s — drum kit looked less like Ringo’s and more like some sort of percussion R&D lab: double bass, toms, chimes, gong.
“How the hell is he going to get in there?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they take it apart then build it around him.”
Now I have to confess that I haven’t always captured the set lists at shows. The first time I did this was in 1986 at a John Mellencamp concert that I attended for free with a petite lesbian who used to hide in her foot locker and listen to her roommate having sex. But I’m off topic again. My point is that thirty years later I am unable to provide a blow-by-blow of that show, but it was a clinic — three musicians at the tops of their respective games. The phrase “Neil Peart drum solo” still gives me chills, and like any responsible citizen of voting age I think of drum solos as self-indulgent stroke fests.
Eric and I were blown away. I literally wore the silkscreen off of my Rush concert tee, though admittedly it took a few years. That show was the greatest concert experience of my life until Jane’s Addiction crawled up from the catacombs a few years later.
I bought Eric the Moving Pictures album for Christmas. It sat in my mother’s sewing room for a couple of weeks, waiting for me to wrap it. I just couldn’t seem to get around to it, and then Christmas came and went. The shrink-wrap was like cake frosting begging to be cut. Just one listen.
Eric’s album is still in my stacks. Merry Christmas 1981, buddy, and I’m sorry. Thanks again for the frisbee.
Related Why It Matters pieces:
Chuck the Magnificent and Lindsey: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/34-little-john-the-conqueroo/
Rush performs Moving Pictures again thirty years later: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/rush-photos-and-set-list-sleep-train-pavillion-concord-california-june-26-2011/