Story #10: The First Show I Ever Played
‘Twas (yeah, it twas) in May of 1989 at my high school’s Battle—err, I mean—Showcase of Bands. (Everyone’s a winner in rockandroll, you understand…)
I was sixteen and was in my first band. The Killer Avocados, we were called. I had discovered this thing called (oh God, do I have to say it?) punk rock during the previous Fall after buying a live Sex Pistols album on a whim at the Camelot Music in the Altamonte Mall. Brought it home, listened to it, thought it was the worst thing I had ever heard (so many thousands I imagine had similar reactions to mine) but then gave it another chance…then another…then another….then it made sense and everything I liked before that (classic rock, some metal) seemed incredibly stupid. Around this time the song “Bitchin’ Camaro” by The Dead Milkmen was making the rounds of the tape decks of the cars I’d be riding around in with other friends in the marching band, either headed home from practice or dicking around after football games, acting as obnoxious as teenagers can act without the assistance of beer or rum or adderrall you know….
(The backstory, the context, is important, so stick with me.)
So I got into the Sex Pistols and Dead Milkmen after doing my best to avoid punk rock and hardcore through the first couple years of high school because the kids that liked that shit were skinheads and/or fuckups and their anger as they stomped down the halls seemed really misguided and besides I liked music more than subcultures and never felt any particular need to belong to some group or gang or clique. (Also, I quit skateboarding by 8th grade.) The Who talked about the Sex Pistols (In “Who Are You,” when Townshend talks about “preaching from my chair,” he’s talking about lecturing Paul Cook and Steve Jones about how he thought they were the Heirs to the Rock and Roll Throne (Townshend, you know, really really gave a shit about these things…), but Cook and Jones told him that they “…just wanted to poke birds, man.” Or something. I bring this up because I think I got into this kind of music in a different way than most people. No boring “coming of age” stories about Baby’s First Mohawk in this here rigamarole.
So one afternoon in 6th period band class with the drum line—after football season had ended and before symphonic band time, when everyone’s just hanging out waiting for “winter” break (Florida, but you knew that), in one of the practice rooms with a piano and a kid who could kinda play piano, I started singing, making up songs, trying to sing like Johnny Rotten (rolling my rs and everything!) while coming up with Dead Milkmen style songs. Killer Avocados came up as my idea for the name of the band and everybody laughed. I liked the word “avocados” because I liked the way Eric Idle had said it in that one Monty Python skit about the sailors lost at sea who resort to cannibalism.
We were a three piece for Christmas break, where we cut an album in the keyboard player’s bedroom. The keyboard player was a straight-A student clean-cut Christian who didn’t really know what he was getting into. The drummer was a surfer whose musical goal in life at the time was to save up the money to buy a China cymbal. I sang directly into a tape recorder without a microphone and the drums and keyboards were behind that. We filled up two sides of a 45 minute cassette, and I was convinced it was the greatest thing ever. I couldn’t wait to go back to school and share it with my friends, who I knew would love it. I think one song was ten minutes of two of us making noises and with our mouths while the other played a recorder.
Anyway, we had this tape, which nobody really liked, unsurprisingly. I thought it was funny, at least. I liked to listen to it, anyway, and had no compunction about forcing it on people as they drove me home or to the mall or whatever. Probably the most well-received song on it was called “Kill Bon Jovi.” (Didn’t realize until later that James Hetfield had that written on his guitar. Delusion of grandeured minds think alike…) I don’t know if I even thought of it as punk rock or if it was all a joke…I can’t remember by this point, or if it was a bit of both…or if I even had the capacity to reflect on it in such a way. My understanding of punk rock was limited to the Sex Pistols, Dead Milkmen, the film “Sid and Nancy,” the television show “The Young Ones,” and the rest was pop culture ephemera floating around my head (the punk in “Star Trek 3” with the boombox playing the song “I Hate You” on the bus before Spock Vulcan deathgrips his shoulder). 1989. Central Florida suburbia. You still had room to make it up as you went along, without access to anything and everything at your fingertips. (For better or worse.)
Anyway, the Christian straight-A student keyboard player moved away (transient Central Florida…) so that version of the band ended.
(Hang on, hang on…I’m getting to the First Show I Ever Played…don’t worry!)
The drummer still wants to play in a band (even though he still doesn’t have the cash for a China cymbal), but who wants to be in the band? I don’t know. My friends who like the punk rock don’t play music, and my friends who play music don’t like the punk rock. Can’t recall how exactly, but I’m introduced to Greg (who I’m still friends with) who played the trumpet in the marching band but also played the bass guitar, or at least he owned a bass guitar and an amp and could pick things up quickly. We were also in Spanish class together and he’d witness how I almost made a metal girl cry because she loved Bon Jovi so much and couldn’t understand why I would want to kill Bon Jovi. She heard about the song somehow. She wanted to marry “Jon,” you understand. They were on a first-name basis.
But we hit it off and we had a similar sense of humor and he lent me a bunch of cassette tapes of bands he liked at the time…I think it was stuff like Let’s Active, the DBs, and some other things that didn’t really resonate with me at the time, but in it was “Leave Home” by the Ramones.
Then I had appendicitis…when we were at Universal Studios checking out all the buildings my Dad helped build…I had a stomachache it felt like but everyone in the family told me to tough it out so I did until the next day when I was lying on my side in the bathroom in severe pain because the appendix had burst so I spent two weeks in the hospital. I asked for my Walkman and two cassettes and two cassettes only:
–the self-titled David Gilmour solo album (I wasn’t there yet…wasn’t totally ready to shed the past…)
My initial reaction to “Leave Home” seems like it was a lot like many people’s first reactions to the Ramones. Still, by the late 1980’s, those first two albums in particular are so unorthodox and insane if all you’ve known is Led Zeppelin. And The Ramones weren’t as cool as they are now, or became getting into the late 90’s onward. This was when they still toured constantly, behind albums like “Brain Drain,” which weren’t exactly setting the world on fire. The people who gave a shit about the Ramones (and there weren’t many in my school) kind’ve took them for granted.
I played it at home, was like “Uh-whuhh?” and didn’t really want to hear it again. But unlike Let’s Active and the DBs and the other stuff Greg lent me, I actually did want to hear it again, I guess to see if it was as insane as I thought at the time.
So I’m in the South Seminole hospital, working my up to getting out of bed and getting a nice view of State Road 434, and I listen to this tape, and I play it again, and again, and again. Tubes up my nose, a catheter, a hospital gown….thinking about it now, it’s a pretty great way to get into the music and lyrics of The Ramones. Which I did. It all made sense to me. I left that hospital converted. (What David Gilmour solo tape?)
This is March, and now I’m out of the hospital, and there’s news that there’s going to be a Battle—err, Showcase of Bands (because, like I said, Everyone’s a Winner in RockandorRoll)…Greg and I want to play it, and the drummer wants to play it (still, no China cymbal), but we need a guitarist. One of my senior friends (I preferred hanging out with Seniors…they were cooler, and not just because they were Seniors, but because they were less damaged by the sterilizing effects of the late 1980’s, that conservative clampdown on teenage kicks that was infecting and killing everything interesting about music and culture…and yeah, I really did think of it in those terms back then…no shit…) played guitar. He was in the marching band and played the French Horn or one of those brass instruments nobody gives a shit about…but he had a guitar, one of those BC Rich guitars or something similar and a Peavey or a Crate and he had that awful late eighties guitar sound like you hear in recordings of dated thrash bands from that time. It took some persuading, but he agreed to help out.
We practiced once, maybe twice, for the audition. Yeah, they had an audition.
The audition. You could sense the line in the sand being drawn. The judges were metal dudes. Big hair. Hot licks. You know. The other bands were mostly of the metal and hard rock variety. Some of these bands’ members were former friends from middle school, with whom we discovered Zeppelin…and we’d have sleepovers and listen to Led Zeppelin 4 and be like “there will never be a song as great as “Stairway to Heaven,” and we sincerely believed it, but here we are now, and the audition is in the cafeteria and we’re set up and I grab the mic from the mic stand and we play “Kill Bon Jovi” and I swing it around Daltrey style and jump around in teenage energy—thoughtless, a foregone conclusion—screaming all “punk”-like…and the metal dudes laugh at me/us, and some pretend to slamdance—heh heh heh—and they stop us halfway through and tell us that we’re in, and they say this as they’re laughing at us….laughing like future guitar shop employees…whatever. We did what we set out to do.
Before this first show (almost there, folks), we tried to play a party, set up by the pool, under the screened-in patio, and I think we got through half a song—long enough for the skater kids to think we sucked as much as the metal kids thought we sucked—before the Seminole County Sheriff’s cars arrived to end the clandestine beer bash. So that doesn’t count as the first show, but now some people knew who the Killer Avocados were, and that kind’ve plays into this.
OK (whew)…the First Show I Ever Played was in the new auditorium of my high school.
Rumors: People wanted to kick my ass before the show. People wanted to kick my ass after the show. If we played the song “Kill Bon Jovi,” the metal kids were going to run up to the front of the stage and give me “the finger.”
But we had an ace in the hole. It was Greg’s idea, God love him.
The stage was adorned with a drum riser and ramps on either side of the drum riser, kindly donated by the popular pop-metal band who ruled Unincorporated Seminole County at the time. They had money and pro gear and big hair and acid washed jeans with the holes in the right places. They had since graduated, and therefore could no longer dominate these Battles—err, I mean, Showcases of the Bands, but like guys like these no matter the musical epoch, they hang around and linger.
So there are ramps on the auditorium stage, and a drum riser. Black ramps. Bad. Ass.
We were scheduled to go on third. The soundguy (he who checked the microphones before the show by saying in the thickest of southern dude voices: “Check One! Check One! Rock and roll, Orlando! Rock and roll, Orlando!”) informed me of how he heard I had a reputation for breaking microphones, and if I broke his microphones, well…he was a large older man and I was a scrawny little cretin so I nodded, amazed at having a “reputation” considering we hadn’t even really played anywhere yet except one song at an audition and half a song at a Sabal Point (name of the ‘hood, yo) par-tay. We waited behind the curtains (curtains!) as the show started.
Since there were like fifteen bands or something, each band could only play three songs. The first band was called something like Floyd Zeppelin. They did cover songs: first, “Your Love” by The Outfield, second, “(I Just Died In Your Arms) Tonight” by Cutting Crew, third, “Orange Crush” by REM. They could play, and they could almost sing, which was more than you could say for us. But I wasn’t nervous. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t. I still don’t get nervous before playing.
The next band was ridiculous, but this was the band most people packed into the auditorium wanted to see. They were a metal band called SO2S, which stood for “Social Outcasts of Society.” They only did two songs because their first song was a longer number by Metallica called “One.” The drummer could play double-bass, and he could do that sextuplet part in the middle. Blew my mind, man, even if I was evolving towards punk at the time. Because, as a drummer, you hear that, you’re like… “Whoa!” Sextuplets. On bass drums. I quit!
They did a remarkably accurate rendition of that song, in spite of their crummy BC Rich guitars and the like, but it was their second song that got everybody all riled up. They had this song called “Cow Mosh.” The only thing I remember about it was the ending part, that was a call and answer with the audience that went:
Band: MOO MOO!
Audience: FUCK YOU!
Band: MOO MOO!
Audience: FUCK YOU!
And so on and so forth. I peeked through the curtains to see the front rows, people standing up shouting along. Swearing. Swearing! We weren’t allowed to swear on stage, but these guys figured out a loophole. A loophole!
So they’re finished, their Cow Mosh and their double bass and their cover of “One” and all I can think is, “I’m going to be killed. Or at least booed.” But I’m still not nervous. Every other day of my life in high school is anxiety and boredom and a general malaise, but everything I felt then before going on was the opposite of that.
The MCs were these two Seniors who dressed wacky (a t-shirt with a tie?! Uh-whuhhhhh?!?) and walked out onto the stage in goofy dances, like in moonwalks or like they were marching in the army. You know: Goofy. They introduce us and inform the audience that “these guys are willllld.” My stage name for the night was “Bob the Slob,” so nobody knew it was me unless they knew me personally. Not that that mattered. What a stupid name.
One of the MC’s shouts, “So here they are….The Killer Avocados!” and the curtain opens and everyone kind’ve cheers because it’s so ridiculous that it’s, like…us…these kids not really dressed like rock and roll types at all. I’m wearing shorts and a purple and black striped collared shirt. I walk out carrying a box of percussion instruments I borrowed from the band room, and a couple bongos screwed into a stand.
We start things off with “Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy” by The Ramones. No middle fingers yet. No cans or bottles thrown at me. I almost carry a tune. Almost. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the Ramones, and I Really and Truly Get It.
During the drum break in the middle, I jump in a circle in rhythm with the song, and everyone cheers. I repeat it during the drum break, and everyone cheers louder. From the box o’ percussion, I grab two wooden (what we call in the biz) “slap sticks,” which are pretty much only used at Christmastime should the symphonic band play “Sleigh Ride” and windmill them all Who-like, cracking them until they start to splinter. Then I go back and warble out the lyrics, then repeat the jumping and the slap sticking.
The song ends. The applause is really loud, really enthusiastic. I expected boos and middle fingers, and this is quite the opposite.
“Thank you. This next song is called… ‘Kill Bon Jovi.’” I announce. Here, I await the rumored hatred in the form of metal militiamen upraising the bird, but instead, everyone screams “YES!” and cheers and whoo-hooooos. “Wait, you agree?” I ask, and people yell “Yeahhhhhhharrrrrhghghghthghghhhh!” which I take to be an affirmative response. Can’t believe it.
We play it, but don’t do a very good job, because we only had one practice and the chorus and verses get mixed up, but it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares. It’s the idea of the thing that outweighs the actual playing. All these “serious teenage musicians” taking the stage, and we’re not like that.
Which leads to the climax of the song…Greg’s idea. We don’t tell anyone what it is…the drums start. I add bongo drums on top of it, and as this is going on, the trumpet section of the marching band come out, in sunglasses, dressed in Hawaiian shirts and leis, and run up and take their places on the guitar ramps on either side of the drums.
The music stops for a second, and then the horns come in with the band to play the theme to the seventies television program “Hawaii Five-O.”
The roar—yes, the roar—from the audience is incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it before or since. I think I’ve spent decades now trying to get that sound, that response, back, and I’ve only come close once or twice, if that.
We do a mostly faithful version of the song, as best as we can manage in our utter incompetence, and then it’s over, and I go off the stage, and my friend Phil is standing by the steps that lead to the seats, and he waves me over and says, “Do you hear that?”
It’s a chant. “More! More! More! More! More! More!”
None of the other bands got the same kind of response, not even the band that covered “Spirit of Radio” by Rush.
When it was over, and not even the walk to the parking lot earned me a punch in the face or those middle fingers I had heard so much about, but the opposite, actually, we went to Burger King to celebrate. Leaving the bathroom, some dude was walking in, said, “Hey man, that was a good set.” At the time, I thought it was a strange place to get a compliment, hours after playing, there to eat a Whopper and bask in the tiny victory of the thing. (I guess I only bring this up because it’s typically the tepid compliment people pay you when you’re done playing for twelve people in some dive bar and someone wants to be nice, that’s what they say, whether or not they actually mean it…)
No….I don’t think I believed that every show afterward would be just like that one…couldn’t have been that stupid. The guitarist quit a week later because it was almost time to graduate, and a month later, Greg and the drummer (who never got the China cymbal) joined forces with this kid who had a purple BC Rich guitar and could tap guitar solos just like Eddie Van Halen.
But then…I felt like I, finally, did something Not Bad.
It was no “Cow Mosh,” but then again, what is?