Despite its sprawl Boiling Springs High School was an oversized shotgun shack. An uninterrupted hallway ran like an artery from front to back door, the lettered A-B-C-D wings spreading out to either side. We were not allowed in the wings before first bell, so each morning hundreds of kids aged fourteen to twenty gathered in the central hallway waiting, socializing, making out.
Up and down the corridor paced Big Mac, our Brylcreemed principal, demanding that feet be removed from walls and reminding intertwined couples that “the Good Book says there’s a time and place for everything but it doesn’t say it’s right now and it doesn’t say it’s at Boiling Springs High School.” I once was threatened with suspension for my keen observation that neither the New nor Old Testament mentions BSHS in any context, though Paul signs one of his letters to the Ephesians “Go Bulldogs.”
I assume that I probably need to slow down here and address the presence of twenty-something students that aren’t named Luke Perry. Our student body included three: Robert, who in retrospect was likely an undiagnosed special needs kid but to us was simply an oversized, mean bastard; Kevin, a young man with physical disabilities who was getting it done slowly but surely on a pair of creaky Canadian crutches; and Tim.
Tim rode my bus from as far back as I could remember, and though I now drove my deathtrap MGB to school I was sure that he was still holding court each afternoon from the back seat, wailing to the younger kids:
There’s a skeeter on my peter knock it off,
There’s a skeeter on my peter knock it off.
There’s a dozen on my cousin
I can hear them bastards buzzin’
There’s a skeeter on my peter knock it off.
He was every horrible stereotype of a Southerner. Tim was the kind of guy who thought that The Dukes of Hazzard was a dramatic series. He was Cletus from The Simpsons, Rick Perry without the suit. (Note: Joke expires 11/12/11. Not for use in foreign countries. If exposure to Rick Perry Joke causes a painful erection, please consult your physician.)
So there are your outliers from one end of the hallway. Tim hung out near the back door and across from the cafeteria, along with the rednecks, vocational kids, and assorted bad asses. Just outside was the Herb Curb, where the stoners spent their mornings.
At the other end of the hallway was the school office, and out front were the other outliers — the brilliant kids. They spent their mornings hunched over the notebooks in their laps, putting the finishing touches on homework and projects.
The fulcrum between these two extremes both physically and socially was the library, and that was where Lee G and I hung out. Most of the kids in that strata were white, middle-class residents of Springfield, the biggest kid neighborhood in the area. It was a decidedly duck shoe and topsider group, sort of a Triple A for the Untouchables and the rest of the in-crowd. They were constantly sending players down due to some social infraction, or calling people up thanks to a particularly sharp fashion or dating choice. Their musical tastes ran toward whatever was big at the moment: J. Geils Band; Queen’s The Game; Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra”; Donnie Iris’s “Love Is Like A Rock.”
Great Tommy’s Two Tone was “Love Is Like A Rock” a monster, at least in Boiling Springs. I heard that song everywhere I went that year, and his previous hit “Ah Leah” still had legs, too. Two hits are more than most musicians can hope for, but Donnie also was part of the Wild Cherry line up that recorded “Play That Funky Music.”
The intergooglewebtubes tells me that Donnie Iris is still touring Ohio, which I think is pretty cool. If I stumbled into one hit — much less three — I would ride that bastard all the way to the grave. I’m the guy who would be showing up at Facts Of Life conventions and signing autographs as “The Guy Who Picked Up Tootie’s Books For Her In Episode 52.” I once heard Mike Score from A Flock Of Seagulls bitching about audiences screaming for “I Ran.” Are you kidding me? Thirty years ago you borrowed your sister’s blouse, played two notes on your Casio, and launched a three decade career? Just play the song, goddammit. Be more like Donnie Iris.
But back then I wanted nothing to do with duck shoes, Izod, and Donnie Iris. I didn’t want to be at the Herb Curb either, nor did I want to obsess over homework or sing odes to bloodsucking insects attacking my genitalia. I didn’t want to be in Big Mac’s hallway at all. Since discovering The Clash and X over the summer I had lost interest in the whole deal. I no longer wanted to be a Guy In Black Tee Shirt Who Jammed, but that’s about all I knew. And with no MTV in a tiny Southern town with no indie record stores within towing distance of my MG I had little access to alternatives. No college radio station, even. The closest musical wormhole out of Boiling Springs was Westgate Mall’s two chain record stores.
Two record stores in a mall comprised of sixty retail stores located in Spartanburg, South Carolina – population 45,000. That’s really all you need to know about the decline of the record store over the last thirty years. Between Amazon, eBay, and iTunes I have access to more inventory than those two stores ever held. I can (and did) pick up the new Jane’s Addiction import, or a Butcher cover of Yesterday and Today, peeled or unpeeled. But why buy? I can listen to compressed versions of whatever I want whenever I want on Pandora, Spotify, Youtube, etc., the only costs a lack of fidelity and my eternal soul.
But what I can’t get online is this: Mickey the Nine Fingered Hippie; or Jill the Hot Brit in Elf Boots. Mickey and Jill embodied the differences between Record Bar and Camelot Music. The competitors were hardly rivals, as their vibes were so different.
Mickey kept Record Bar firmly planted in the Seventies with his Doobie Brothers hair and goatee. I could almost smell the patchouli and pot smoke whenever I walked into the place. Mickey was the man to see if you needed an education or a smackdown.
“Hey Mickey, can you believe that dude bought Chicago?”
“What? Chicago sucks.”
“Chicago’s original guitarist. Hendrix idolized Terry Kath, man. Didn’t think he was as good.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right.”
This kind of bluff would bring a withering stare over the top of his Lennon specs, followed by the “I know you’re bullshitting me so I’ll take mercy and educate you” closer: “Hendrix wanted to record with Chicago, man. He dug their horns.” But Mickey always left me on a positive note with a hearty handshake that included digging the nub of his missing index finger into my palm.
At the other end of Westgate Mall rested Camelot Music. Camelot was headquartered out of Ohio and was all about moving product. When Thriller broke, for example, the front third of the store was dedicated to Michael Jackson. The place was well-lit and clean, and few records past their expiration dates lingered in the bins. Jill brought the place a bit of an edge with her English accent and her suede elf boots. I don’t know if the girl maintained some sort of lifeline to the UK or had a sixth sense, but she was always months if not years ahead of the rest of Spartanburg. She was the ghost of music future to Mickey’s ghost of music past.
“Hey, you’re Dia’s little brother, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, and you’re Rob’s older sister.”
She laughed. “We know each other without knowing each other. So what are you looking for?”
“I don’t know. Something different.”
“What are you into?”
“The Clash, X, The Police. Stuff like that.”
“Oh, you like New Wave?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool.”
“Come here, you have to check this out.”
We walked over to the bins and she pulled out Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming. A big sticker on the front read “Sale! 7.99!” Camelot. All about pushing product.
“These guys are huge in England right now. They’re another Malcolm McClaren discovery.”
“Really? Cool.” No idea what she was talking about.
“Yeah. Adam was part of the Bromley Contingent. You’ll like it. Some of the Ants were in Bow Wow Wow so it has those same cool tribal drums.”
At least I’m pretty sure that’s what she said. Honestly all I heard was “British British British smart British. Cultured British British cool British British.”
Here is where we get to the tricky part of the story. I’m supposed to tell you how with my massive X and Clash street cred I yanked Prince Charming off of the turntable immediately upon first listen and hurled it across the room. “Damn you, Jill from Camelot! You and your Pat Benatar boots conned me out of eight bucks!” I can’t, though, because the truth is that she was right — I really dug it. I loved the Burundi drums and the faux Native American chants, the Latin brass and woodwinds of album opener “Scorpio.” More than anything I loved the humor and playfulness of the lyrics:
As the masters rot on walls and the angels ate their grapes
I watched Picasso Visits the Planet of the Apes
I’m a big tough man
and my name is Stan
Gonna take a whirl
With a big tough girl.
The next day I took my new album to school with me. The duck shoes and topsiders passed it around in front of the library.
“What is that?”
“Is it a he or a she?”
“Just call him an it.”
“Why’s he wearing makeup?”
“Because he’s gay.”
“No he isn’t, I saw him on TV.”
“That don’t look like no man I’d go out with.”
“I’m not gay or anything but for a guy he’s got a pretty mouth.”
Who knew that when it came right down to it all that separated the cliques was duck shoes and crotch mosquitoes? I did. Well, at least now I did.