Carowinds was to Upstate South Carolina as Six Flags or Great America was to other parts of the country: a big, shiny amusement park full of roller coasters, arcades, and artists trying to draw you with a bobble head and a skateboard.
No childhood destination was more desirable to a Boiling Springs kid. Hal The Drummer and I spent a day there in KISS make-up when we were pups. Ricky Brent and I wasted a whole afternoon hustling the girl who ran the midway’s basketball game. (Note: All I got off of her was her name tag, but she took it off, like, really slowly.)
Like most amusement parks, Carowinds attracted music fans with their small amphitheater. I’m really not sure what the Paladium’s capacity was — I’ll guess in the area of three to five thousand — but I’m off on a details tangent that doesn’t really add anything to this story. Either I cut this out right now or I will spend the rest of my evening trying to find the capacity of Carowinds’ amphitheater in the autumn of 1984, not to mention the precise date of the the story I’m about to share along with the temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure.
Anyway, the Paladium was a small venue adjacent to a log ride, not a venue likely to attract a Van Halen caliber band. No, the bands who played the Carowinds Paladium sometimes were climbing, but more often were one step from the state fair circuit and then back to the clubs. The were good bands who could still draw, just not like they used to.
And this is why Matt, Sherri, and I made the seventy mile drive to Charlotte, North Carolina that fall day. The Fixx was touring in support of their new album, Phantoms, which barely cracked the U.S. top twenty and then plunged like the big hill on Thunder Road, Carowinds’ wooden roller coaster.
I liked The Fixx. They were new wave, and “Reach the Beach” was my mantra a few months earlier. Matt, the lucky bastard, had a giant satellite dish in his yard. His house looked like a NASA annex, but unlimited MTV access made The Fixx’s music a staple of Matt’s pop culture diet. Sherri? She thought guitarist Jamie West-Oram was cute, so she was there for here own reasons.
We spent the day walking the park, me in my Capezios and Forenzas, safety pins in my ears and “This Is Not America” spray-painted on my homemade tank top.
“What is it, then?” my mother asked earlier that morning.
“I don’t know, but it isn’t America when I get hassled just because of how I look.”
My mother smirked almost imperceptibly and went back to what she was doing.
The truth of the matter was that the 12-inch single of David Bowie and Pat Metheny’s “This Is Not America” was glued to my turntable at the time, and I liked the way the phrase looked. I never really gave any thought to what it might mean, other than it was a song from a movie named The Falcon and the Snowman that I would never see because it had something to do with politics and I was an artiste. Also, Spicoli wasn’t funny in it. All that mattered was that the phrase had something to do with Bowie, it looked good, and it fit on my scrawny chest.
That’s a lie, or at least a convenient omission. I knew that I was going to an amusement park in the heart of NASCAR country and I wanted to wag my dick and annoy as many people as I could. It worked. As the three of us roamed the park I dealt with hard stares at my shirt, shouts of “then get the fuck out” and, oddly, “Jesus loves you.”
Sherri countered every suggestion I made that day. If I said “Let’s ride White Lightning” she wanted to get some cotton candy; if I suggested that we eat she took off for the log ride. I didn’t mind. Mostly I clowned around with Matt and tried to start shit with the rednecks.
Rednecks. Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam. Three short years earlier I was one of them at this very venue, watching The Outlaws tear up “Green Grass and High Tides.” Johnny Van Zandt opened that show, Ronny’s little brother. Now here I was mocking them, betraying my black tee brothers for thirty silver safety pins.
As showtime neared the park’s crowd started to look more like me — more odd haircuts, more DIY shirts and eyeliner and hardware dangling from earlobes. We made our way to the Paladium and grabbed our seats.
The Fixx put on a decent show, but the mix was strange. Vocalist Cy Curnin sounded like he was sucking helium, and at one point he picked up a stuffed animal someone threw on stage and waved it at the crowd like, “Sweet! A fifty cent item you won pointing a squirt gun at a clown’s mouth! This is going in the trophy case!”
There’s only one point to this little story, and here it is: After Sherri and I dropped off Matt late that night, she turned off the car radio. We drove a few minutes in silence and then she said: “Did you notice that today we did everything I wanted? We only rode rides I wanted to ride, we ate what I wanted to eat, and I spent all your money. I told you I’d get you back for Asheville.”
I was every bit as clueless about what had just happened as I was about what the phrase on my shirt meant.