Neil was my first contact with an alien life form—disguised as a blue-eyed freshman with curly brown hair who went everywhere with a bass guitar in a plastic case the size of a coffin. This was the new star of our high school orchestra. His guitar case was so big in comparison to his body, that, for all we knew, he put blankets on top of it and slept there. Neil was special: it was as though he walked around with a halo of positive energy; everything he touched was improved somehow. Like those grainy old videos in biology class where they showed a plant decomposing with stop-motion photography so that it appeared to wither, Neil could pass a seedling and see it flourish at high speed. He was a lodestone of optimism, and being around him for more than a moment made you begin to smile.
Neil invited Steve and I over. Fourteen and he had his own place! It was next door to his parents—a guesthouse—but it was Neil’s. And we were amazed at all of the musical equipment lying around. It was as though somebody’s backing band lived there but had just popped out for an extended lunch. There were guitars on chairs, percussion nudged into the corner, his clarinet on a table, an old organ with long yellow teeth slung against the wall; and Neil could play all of it—at least well enough to show us the basics. I still had a bit of rhythm from playing the drums briefly as a boy, but he upstaged me without trying. We decided to write something then and there, so he’d come around and show us what to do. Within a day of meeting him we knew that he was perfect for our group. Initially, it was agreed that Neil would be our musical adjuvant assisting GTA with the instrumentation end of things. But after we had written our first song together, we decided to step away from hip-hop. Steve bought a keyboard; I found a used drum set for a hundred dollars, and we began rehearsing every day, Neil alternating between guitar and bass. The clear lid over my turntable was stacked with tapes recorded on a boom box under our new name: Pandemonium. For a few months everything was perfect, and we churned out enough material for a juvenile concept album about being a puzzled teenager. It was so new to us that we didn’t notice or even care if it was original.
Pandemonium’s intellectual lyrical fare also dealt with weighty social issues, such as the plight of Mötley Crüe’s lead singer, who had been charged in the death of the member of another group in a drunk driving accident. In the end he was given a slap on the wrist. It didn’t help in our opinion that Mötley Crüe were a quartet of poodle rockers—the antithesis of what we thought was a serious musical outfit. “Poseurs” exemplified our trio’s cognoscitive approach, with yours truly singing: “I saw Vince Neil in early morning traffic, unzipped his fly and grabbed a National Geographic.”
The narrator of “The Courter,” a short story by Salman Rushdie, marveled at the number of people singing about the joys of being sixteen years old. He wondered, “where they were, all these boys and girls my age having the time of their lives. Were they driving around America in Studebaker convertibles?” When I was sixteen, not long after meeting Neil, my first car broke down within a month of owning it. I would visit my mother in Costa Mesa, and I fantasized about relocating and starting a new life there, wishing I could take my new band mates with me. On Sunday evenings I headed back to Scum Bernardino, hoping to make it before the engine of my rickety red car fell out and caused an accident behind me. The very American conceptualization of preeminence was symbolized through its automobiles. Perhaps at one point they were something to be proud of—the Studebaker, the Ford Fairlane, the Chevy Bel Air, the Plymouth Fury, the Chrysler Imperial—but my 1986 Ford Escort was obsolete when I took ownership of it two years later. In a remote junkyard, the junkyard dog sleeps atop that car, the owner’s manual still in the glove box, no creases.
In the time before Neil became a freshman and graced our school bus with that black, plastic sarcophagus, Steve and I labored with our dreams of a life outside the ramparts of smog that boxed us in. The time was marked by a frustration at my inability to do anything that might help me make escape from the unenlightened municipal outhouse into which I had been brought up. The friction between my father and stepmother worsened.
Before long, a friend of Neil’s joined Pandemonium. Steve and I didn’t even get to meet him beforehand: he simply materialized with a guitar. That’s how it was; the members of garage bands were, to some extent, disposable. But Steve and I had our misgivings: the boy was in love with Metallica, and he loved playing unbearable interludes on his out of tune Fender Stratocaster. During rehearsal, he seemed to bulge his eyes while he played, mouth wide open. Plus, his amplifier squealed in protest if he was nearby with his instrument plugged in. We used to hear CB radio conversations on it.
Breakity-break…pit stop up ahead, Kendall Drive…a little bean house bull, go ahead…
It was somehow less than possible for Chad to even get halfway through the first verse of a given number before being carried into an unaccompanied interlude by the Ghosts of Rock Stars Past. As though in the midst of convulsions, he became so tangled up in his guitar solo that we’d quit playing and wait for him to get it out of his system. The lad carried on, oblivious, a fifteen year old who thought he was Jimi Hendrix, making the kind of face which could have been interpreted in one of two ways: I’m in excruciating pain or I’m having the bowel movement of a lifetime. Chad would eventually realize that we were staring blankly and stop in absentminded embarrassment. But when the next empty spot in a song rolled by he would be back inside of it, shaking his dishwater blonde mullet. Our tunes now a minefield, Pandemonium became just that. Steve excused himself. He didn’t say much, but it was clear that he felt our crew had been musically and socially hijacked.
It was business as usual at band practice: Neil teaching me to play my drums, while the two of us exorcised our newest member’s demons one verse at a time. It was hard enough writing things that didn’t sound like variations of “Louie Louie,” but with our guitarist we always needed to add a bridge to hang one of his nightmarish solos from. Steve stopped hanging out at school too, since Chad was always just around the corner with his black Members Only jacket, pictures of sweaty rockers taped to the front of his Pee Chee folder. For the life of me I couldn’t understand the rationale of such an exchange. We loved our keyboard player; Chad was pockmarked by puerility. Rehearsal became drudgery.
Patrick was abruptly sworn in on second guitar as our nom de plume was changed again to Lunacy. We didn’t vote on either measure; it was up to Mr. Metallica. And our brand new guitarist was the anchor to Chad’s inclinations: since Pat wasn’t a showoff, he handled the rhythm chores. Lunacy practiced on the patio in front of Neil’s place, aiming our aural vandalism at the busy interstate on the other side of a chain link fence. We were somehow even worse. Indoors, the echoes of our shoddy equipment at least had something into which to soak. Various family members poked their heads in the door of Neil’s guesthouse and would mouth encouragement, but on the patio they fought the urge to cover their ears. Outside, my snare drum gave an asphyxiated yelp when I played it, making my teeth ache. It was like hearing ourselves for the first time.
Our big debut, our first appearance was fast approaching, and I was terrified, so I quickly purchased another bargain basement drum set, connecting it to the smaller piece of junk that I already played, to form a black and blue, mutant double-bass kit that no serious musician could ever sit behind. It matched both the way that my Tom Doolies looked and it sounded the way they felt when Linda addressed them so lovingly with her knee: my cymbals were acoustically evocative of trashcan lids; the tom toms were out of tune together and separately; the muffled thump of my bass drum was inaudible and my snare might as well have had a stuffed monkey attached to it.
Lunacy was supposed to go on in the living room of Pastor Greg’s house, in front of a sliding glass door that beheld a swimming pool dominating the backyard. Greg played in a gospel rock combo and he ran a youth group that the rest of Lunacy belonged to. Apart from Steve, who I forced to come along, I didn’t know a soul. And it was there on the little back patio next to a pair of chlorine-bleached, sun-blanched swimming trunks that my hands trembled while I assembled my pathetic gear. There were perhaps as many as seventeen people observing the spectacle, but it was seventeen more than I was used to playing for.
The lighthearted ballads about rock stars masturbating as they drove were substituted by a lengthy number concerning the Orwellian persecution of Christians set deep in the future. I had nothing to do with “They’re After Me” or any of the other new material, as it had become quite obvious that I was viewed as the weakest link. Steve watched from across the room, trying to be supportive in spite of everything. But I knew that he felt as out of place. Lunacy were playing for their target audience now, but as hard as he tried to get the message across, I doubted that anyone could hear a word that Neil sang.
Someone videotaped it all, giving the eleven and twelve-year-old girls who crouched at our feet an excuse to behave as though we were The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Their mayhem, several times louder than our amplifiers, grew with every passing second as each girl would attempt to out-scream her neighbor, making the performance bear a sonic resemblance to a series of car accidents. As each of our clumsy little anthems stuttered to a halt, the explosive shrieking increased, and in the millimeters of silence one could hear a little glass bulb behind one’s eyeballs detonize with a muted, fizzling pop as the will to live tendered its resignation. Like the crucifixion of a multitude of chimpanzees, I’ve never heard such frenzied caterwauling, and I couldn’t count the number of mistakes I made, those ten merciless minutes.