Without question the biggest album of 1983 in Boiling Springs, South Carolina was Def Leppard’s Pyromania. Nothing captured the upstate zeitgeist like that album: mullets, alcohol, and big dumb songs about rocking and fucking. Sweet Thatcher’s dentures, Union Jack gear was everywhere: muscle shirts, painter caps, shorts, bandanas. I’m still amazed that Chevrolet didn’t release a special edition Camaro with a Union Jack on the hood.
I hated that album, with exception to “Foolin'” and “Too Late For Love.” I hated its slick production, poppy sounds, and teenybopper videos. I hated its pandering and the resulting popularity. But mostly I hated that it wasn’t On Through the Night or High ‘N’ Dry. Def Leppard was no longer this little English band that only The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam cared about.
This is a perpetual problem for music geeks, and it always has been. Somewhere in Salzburg as the Nineteenth Century loomed Augustus — Der Bursche In Schwarz Pantaloons Who Jammed — was bitching to Heinrich that Mozart’s new stuff sucked. I am a repeat offender, and I’ve always assumed that the driver was purely ego but now I’m not so sure. There is something very special about that initial discovery of a band that is not unlike the moment one spots his or her future spouse. There was just something there. I felt a connection. Now imagine that a year passes and everyone in town is wearing an “I Banged Stacey” tee-shirt. Damn, Stacey, I thought you were cool. Or something like that. My fondness for High ‘N’ Dry survived the Pyromania-mania. It even managed to peek through the Bowie/Bauhaus facade that I was carefully constructing.
Sherri’s family owned a Pomeranian and a swimming pool, neither of which liked to be left alone for extended periods of time. “We’re going to visit my grandparents this weekend. Daddy wants to know if you’ll feed Tippy and run the filter.”
“He says you and Matt can use the pool.”
Matt and I would spend whole days in Sherri’s pool, family room windows open so that we could hear High ‘N’ Dry blasting from the stereo.
It’s hardly an obscure album. When it was released back in 1981 it went top forty in the US and top thirty in the UK — not bad for a sophomore effort. Mutt Lange was on board as producer, but somehow he didn’t manage to squeeze all of the life out of the album. The songs were heavy and interesting, covering a broad stretch of musical territory. The title track is solid New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak” foreshadows the power ballads that littered the decade, and “Lady Strange” dips a toe into April Wine territory.
The album cover was very cool, too. For thirty years experts have sulked about in their “End Is Near” sandwich boards, warning that album cover art was all about dead. They were certain that the compact disc jewel box was simply too small of a canvas for the likes of Roger Dean, Frank Frazetta, and Storm Thorgerson. In 1983 Hipgnosis, the legendary design firm responsible for some of rock’s greatest album covers (including High ‘N’ Dry), packed up its Prismacolors.
Album art hung in there, though. Vinyl didn’t die as quickly as the doomsayers predicted, and that little CD booklet was better than no cover art at all. The rise of the box set helped the cause, too. But the digital age? I don’t know if cover art can survive the intergooglewebtubes. Without record stores there is virtually no need for the posters and other artwork that were once essential to a marketing campaign. I guess there’s always the merchandise table, which grows more important as the dollars shift from music purchases to concert tickets, so maybe cover art still has a chance. However, if album art takes its last breath thanks to the digital age I suppose it will simply be another unintended victim of the march of progress — sort of like Playboy only without the breasts and stereo advice.
Album art was important to me. I always saw myself as an artist rather than a writer; well, not always. My ability to render things realistically was noticed when I was in the fourth grade, and much like a kid who can throw a spiral pass I gravitated toward what came naturally and brought validation. Writing was always there, but it was a struggle. I remember the relief I felt as a kid when I read Vonnegut’s assertion that writing requires life experience where visual art doesn’t, which is why we have no literary child prodigies. At the time I agreed, but in retrospect I’m not so sure. Technical proficiency can happen at any age, but there’s an emotional maturity that is essential to making art.
Sherri’s mother knew how much I loved to draw. She was a bored, middle-aged housewife taking watercolor and pastel classes at the local junior college. Her small still lifes, landscapes, and country paintings (out houses, shacks) decorated the house. Rather than patronize me, Sherri’s mother treated me like her artistic peer, a fellow student.
“We worked on shadows today in class. I know it sounds silly, but I didn’t realize that shadows aren’t black.”
I pictured my shadow stretching across my asphalt driveway. “They aren’t?”
“That’s what I said! But no, they’re just a darker shade of whatever they’re cast on.”
“Oh, right. I thought you meant like on a street.”
She bought me art supplies and asked occasionally to look through my sketchbook. I started keeping two — one with finished drawings and one where I actually doodled — so that I could impress her.
“I wish I could draw like this. You’re so talented, honey. Have you thought about entering the county fair?”
“Nah, it’s too much trouble.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble. I’m entering some things. Just give me what you want to submit and I’ll take care of it.”
Her excitement was contagious; besides, if the rush of her admiration felt so good I couldn’t wait to feel all of Spartanburg County’s warm embrace. I went home and got out my charcoals. This needed to be good — not a stupid plant or an outhouse — something with a unique perspective. My High ‘N’ Dry album was leaning up against the stereo. All those faces looking up — I’d never seen a portrait posed in that manner. For the next five minutes or fifteen hours I reproduced the High ‘N’ Dry faces with a hunk of soft charcoal on a toothy piece of paper. When I was finished I sprayed it with my mother’s Aqua Net and carefully set it aside.
True to her word Sherri’s mother took care of everything. She matted and framed my drawing, filled out my submission form, paid my entry fee and dropped it off. She even gave Sherri and me money for the fair when it finally arrived so that we could go see the beast hanging in my first public show.
We rode the rides and walked the midway, ate crappy food and kissed on the ferris wheel until a reasonable amount of time passed. Have to be cool, you know — can’t rush right into the exhibit like a preschooler with a finger painting.
We walked around the exhibit hall, admiring the still lifes, landscapes, and outhouses. We found Sherri’s mother’s piece and a pair of photorealistic watercolors by some local guy whose name is now lost to me. We walked and we walked, and we never found my drawing. We circled the room at least five times. Never mind not winning a ribbon, I didn’t even make it into the show.
I stormed out of the exhibit hall, Sherri running behind me. I was angry, embarrassed, humiliated. I was a failure and a fraud. The one innate ability I possessed, and I couldn’t even cut it at a podunk county fair.
“What’s wrong with you?” Sherri asked.
“Are you kidding? I don’t have anything. Everyone has been lying to me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your mom did this on purpose. She didn’t have the heart to tell me that I don’t have any talent, so she set me up.”
“What? My mom thinks you’re talented. Everybody does. You just don’t draw the same boring stuff that these people around here like. They don’t understand you because you’re a real artist and they’re just a bunch of country people drawing flowers.”
“I don’t care. I’m never drawing again.”
I’m not sure what happened to that drawing but I spent twenty-five years repeating variations on that conversation, much to the frustration, pity, sympathy, disgust and anger of those caught in the crossfire. Fortunately that bit of chaos is in my rear view mirror now. Little pink happy pills might not be right for everyone, but for me they are the difference between functional human and sixteen year-old boy shuffling in ever maddening circles, looking for a doodle that isn’t there.