I don’t know why my mother thought that I would enjoy Summer Science Camp, but it meant two weeks living in the Clemson University dorms so I was game. She dropped me off with one hundred bucks in my pocket, a Frisbee, the new Rolling Stone (cover story: A Kurt Loder interview with Pete Townshend), some Levis and a few black tees.
My counsellor, who had one of those Harpo Marx/Greatest American Hero curly blond afros, showed me to my dorm room. Waiting there was my roommate, a walking science camp cliché: short, round, bespectacled (that’s science camp talk), and no apparent signs of puberty.
“Welcome, roomie! I’m Miles.” He extended his tiny, dimpled paw. I shook it.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Jim. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve already selected this bed and dresser.”
“Are you sure? We could roll a die to see who gets the bed near the window.”
“No, it’s cool.”
Miles studied me. “I sense that we are going to be great friends. What’s mine is yours: paper, pencils, help yourself.”
“Thanks. I’m going to go check things out.” Down the hall one of the other rooms was open. A muscular kid in his underwear was throwing a folding knife at the wall. Stretched out on the bed lay a skinny kid with long hair and an Ocean Pacific tee-shirt.
“Hey, motherfucker, what are you doing?” he said to me.
“Just checking things out.”
“Come in here, motherfucker. It’s cool. I’m Monty and this is Mike.” Mike gave me the universal “what’s up” head nod, pulled his knife out of the wall, and stepped back to throwing distance.
“You met your roommate yet?”
They both laughed. “That is a weird little motherfucker. Come on, I need a smoke. You coming, Mike?” Mike threw his knife at the wall again, shook his head.
Monty and I walked the campus, got to know each other while he smoked. He was seventeen, I was fifteen; he was from the Lowcountry, I was from the Piedmont; he smoked, I didn’t. For all of our superficial differences we had one overwhelming similarity: We were both Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam.
Eventually we found our way to the student union, which had a pool table, Star Castle, Pleiades, Qix, and Galaxian, and a Bally Paragon wide-bodied pinball machine. I found this particularly cool, as Lee G. was in a “when I have a band I’m going to name it Paragon” phase.
But the big win at the student union was the jukebox. Monty and I bolted straight for it only to find that it had the same mix of top forty crap as every other jukebox. The only decent song on the machine was Aldo Nova’s “Fantasy,” so for two weeks we pumped quarters into the jukebox and did our part to ensure that “Fantasy” was thoroughly fucked out by the end of the summer. Some believe that it was the post-success rhinoplasty that ruined Aldo Nova’s singing career, but I know better.
Monty and I were best buddies for those two weeks. We went to all of the science camp courses, but as soon as we were cut loose for the day we were off to the student union to play pinball and shoot pool, or we were looking for a place where Monty could smoke undetected. Mostly, though, we looked for girls. Monty alternated between the phrases “I need a cigarette, motherfucker” and “I need some pussy, motherfucker” like a macaw with Tourette’s.
The female counselors were clearly off-limits. Though Monty was only a couple of years younger the power gap was too great to hurdle. In their eyes Monty had more in common with Miles than them. Landing a counselor would have been like McMurphy banging Nurse Ratched.
As for fellow inmates there were a couple of standout candidates. There was Cindy, a beautiful blond who would have been an Untouchable at my school. She obviously came from money: Hers was the first expensive bicycle I ever saw, a Gitane.
“What are those little baskets on your pedals for?”
“Baskets? You mean toe clips?” Snort, laugh, and away rode my shot at Cindy.
Carol was the other prospect: Seventeen, blond, eager to laugh….
Hold on a second. I am scribbling away as if I have some crystal clear memory. I can see Cindy, Carol, Monty, Miles, and Mike plain as day. I know where the Paragon pinball machine rests relative to the pool table, can hear the lack of top end on the shitty jukebox playing “Fantasy” repeatedly. I can even taste the stacks of Domino’s pizzas that we bought from the stoner who roamed the halls with an armload of boxes. I remember going to see ET and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and calling my mother when I’d pissed away my hundred bucks on pizza, pinball, Aldo Nova, and movies.
But I don’t remember a single girl other than Carol and Cindy.
I seriously doubt that Clemson’s Summer Science Program 1982 limited their female attendance to two hot blonds. Sure it’s possible, but it seems unlikely and a bit creepy.
A more likely scenario is that the bulk of my peers were girls my approximate age. Let’s face it: Teenaged girls as a species are more academically motivated than their knuckle dragging male counterparts. I was likely surrounded by bright, witty, funny, underdeveloped future Anne Hathaways and I was too goddamned shallow to notice.
All of you women who think that men are pigs are right. I thought I was down with the sisterhood, but apparently my memory only has room for two blonds with perky tits. I am living proof that the teenaged male apparatus is a divining rod capable not only of disrupting rational thought at that moment but of shaping history itself.
And before I get back on topic: How in the hell did geekiness become cool? As a kid I had to hide my Dungeons and Dragons love with a shame equal to Robbie Benson’s in Ode To Billy Joe, but just the other night I turned on the television to find smoking hot Anne Hathaway espousing her Scrabble love to uber nerd John Stewart. And lest we forget, John Stewart was once the expertly coiffed, leather jacketed cool kid. What the hell?
A lot of writers want to track the rise of Geek Chic to Radiohead, Weezer, Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement. Some will throw Jeff Tweedy and Wilco a bone, or maybe They Might Be Giants. If you are reading an old fart like me you will probably see reference to Devo, Thomas Dolby, or Rick Neilsen from Cheap Trick. Some may even go as far back as Buddy Holly, but none of these are the missing link between Geek and Geek Chic for one simple reason: They all were already geeks.
Mark Mothersbaugh was not hanging with The Untouchables in high school, and Thom Yorke wasn’t one of The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam. No, they were both Miles, my Summer Science Camp roommate who Monty and I traumatized by bursting into the dorm’s community shower wearing flippers and snorkels and acting like assholes while poor Miles tried to both hide and scrub the chubby little hairless body that his mother assured him would someday be a very special gift for a very special lady (Note: likely Anne Hathaway) (Another note: I’m probably going to Hell for that little episode).
Geeks can’t make geeks chic. That miracle requires a sort of divine intervention. It takes an Untouchable jumping the tracks, a Patient Zero of geekitude — some beautiful person who knows it’s all relative to the size of your steeple. I think you know where this is leading.
Sting destroyed the social order of Western Civilization.
When most people think of Sting (if they think of him at all) they envision a pretentious old lute playing yoga master who can blow himself for days at a time. This is of course a 100% accurate portrait, but it wasn’t always so.
In the late Seventies and early Eighties geekdom was a musical ghetto. Devo, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson — guys in black tees didn’t like these dudes. I think Tommy Lee once said something along the lines of wanting to be on MTV because ugly people like Joe Jackson were harshing his buzz. I’m too lazy to find the quote but that’s the gist: Music was for cool dudes in leather pants and cod pieces, geeks need not apply.
But The Police were cool kids. The band had mass appeal but truly rocked (“Next To You,” “Fallout”), and Sting was a sort of Plant-ian Golden God. It was okay to be a rocker dude who liked The Police, or a girl with Sting hanging next to the Rick Springfield poster in her chaste bedroom. Even Eddie Murphy endorsed “Roxanne” in a way.
Now here’s the rub: Sting was a Golden God with a Mark Mothersbaugh brain. References to Carl Jung and Vladimir Nabokov found their way into the infectious songs that The Untouchables and their like lapped up. Sting was one of them — this sort of unobtainable sexy beast — and he was slipping them small dosages of geek.
After The Police he upped the geek ante by surrounding himself with jazz musicians and singing about Anne Rice and the Cold War. Many of us were still caught in the thrall of The Police so we were sucked into the ever-expanding Sting geek vortex (I saw Sting twice on the Dream of the Blue Turtles tour. Twice). His next album borrowed from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and the next thing you know Ace Face was walking around with a tantric boner in his yoga pants and playing the hurdy gurdy.
That is the origin of Geek Chic. When the biggest fucking hot shit stud rock star on the planet starts swapping licks with a soprano saxophone the real geeks don’t stand a chance.
Okay, back to the only two women on the Clemson campus during the summer of 1982. I had eyes for Carol, but she was attached to Monty’s dorm buddy Mike, the knife throwing mesomorph. I liked the guy even if he was borderline psychotic. I once found about three feet of stereo wire and Mike offered his knife in trade.
“What do you want with some old wire?”
“This would make a good garrote.”
“To choke somebody.”
So I had his knife but he had Carol. The counselors took us to the movies, Mike and Carol made out. Everybody went to the student union, Mike and Carol made out. The sun went down, Mike and Carol…you get the picture.
But during the days Carol and I were in the same classes. I had hours every day to play the clown, work on her sense of humor. It was a tightrope walk: funny guy by day, horny adolescent barely able to control his jealous rage by night (the garrote made it a bit easier). I was a bit like the Incredible Hulk, but I could only transform from an organ grinder’s monkey into a blue-lensed, pissed off Bill Bixby.
I can’t remember how it happened but Monty, Mike, Carol and I ended up at a beer bash at someone’s house off campus. Mike the hairy mesomorph was kicked back on the couch shirtless, Carol beside him looking bored. Monty was smoking dope with some dude, and I was alone and bored in a beanbag chair. I made my way to the stereo. Nothing much in the stacks, but I found Uriah Heep Live 1973, which I put on based solely on the badass “The Way That It Is” from their newest album, Abominog.
The album was heavy in that early Seventies sort of way — lots of organ and bottom end. Mike was ignoring Carol completely now, showing some wasted dude how to kill a man with a piece of speaker wire. I settled back into my beanbag chair, caught Monty’s half-closed eyes mellowing on the other side of the smoky room, and crawled into the bluesy-prog groove of The Heep.
Who knows how much time passed — it was one of those live jam albums that goes on and on. Maybe I smelled her or felt her breath, I don’t know, but I opened my eyes just in time to see Carol lowering herself onto me. She pressed her mouth onto mine, and for the rest of Summer Science Camp she was inexplicably mine.