Spring and summer 1992 — the warm months that closed out my junior year may have been the best time of my life. Afternoons of swimming and shooting pool at Bret K.’s house (was it elk jerky or bear jerky we were eating that one day?), long twilit evenings of “tennis” (see below) or spending quiet time with the girlfriend, nights full of innocent teenage fun (like the time Jeff O. sped through the Placer Video parking lot with Anthony on the hood of his car). We were easy to spot around town with our fleet of candy-colored early 70’s GM vehicles: my sky-blue Blazer, Bret’s shamrock-green GMC pickup, and Jeff W.’s Cheeto-orange Chevy pickup. Jeff O. and Eric L. broke the pattern with their turd-brown Mustang II (prone to overheating) and two-tone Eddie Bauer-model Bronco II, respectively. Bowling…movies…SNL…MTV…all backed by the soundtrack I’m featuring here…
Those long, warm evenings of that particular spring were tennis evenings at Sam Brannan Park. Not that I played much — or at all. Jeff O. and Eric were the racket sports fanatics, and I was quite content to lounge along the baseline with a stack of magazines and keep up a running conversation with them as they lobbed the ball back and forth. Sooner or later, they would get tired and we could all go rent a movie, which was more my speed.
The tennis court was surrounded by a high wall of oleander bushes, and for several evenings running there was evidence that a poor soul in straitened circumstances was making these bushes a temporary domicile. After a week or so of noticing the tattered sleeping bag and empty government cheese boxes, the occupant himself finally made an appearance.
He was already there when we arrived. Seemingly asleep, he was curled up with his back against the tennis court’s chain-link fence. We all noticed, but said nothing. The game started. Fifteen feet away from us, he continued to sleep, or pretend to sleep. The game finished, and the next game in their set began. Conversation rambled from topic to topic. THWACK! went the ball as it volleyed between the two players. THWACK! The man stirred slightly. For almost forty-five minutes, it was as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Then Jeff O. piped up — loudly — between lobs:
“Wouldn’t it suck to live in a bush?”
Well, I thought it was funny at the time.
And the Soup Dragons? I was aware of them through their criminally inept cover of The Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free,” and I seem to recall Eric being a casual fan around this time. I have a clear mental snapshot of 3 or 4 of us listening to this in Eric’s Eddie Bauer Bronco in the Sam Brannan parking lot. In the very parking spot shown above. Eric was the only one of us who had a CD player in his car.
I spent most of my high school years actively despising two bands: The Cure and Depeche Mode. Emily was a world-class Curehead, however, so whenever we drove in her car I was assaulted by Robert Smith’s caterwauling. (Our deal was whoever drove picked the music. I was usually able to sweet-talk her into letting me pick the music even when she drove, though not often enough to escape learning Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Disintegration forwards and backwards.)
Why did I hate The Cure so much? Because they just seemed so antithetical to everything I wanted out of music — swagger, confidence, general ass-kickery. I most certainly did not want to hear some lipsticked, cartoon-character freak with a rat’s nest of hair and raccoon eyes expound in an adenoidal yelp about how forlorn and misunderstood he was. Fuck that noise! Plus, they used lots of synthesizers, which was a no-no in my book back in ’92. I’ve since realized The Cure’s “Goth” (TM) look was no more of a pose than any other band, and that under all the mopey whining were some tight little pop songs — “Friday I’m In Love” perhaps the best of them.
Why did I hate Depeche Mode so much? Because they sucked and still do.
So The Cure’s Wish album came out in late April, right around the time everyone was gearing up for prom. In fact, it was probably blasting from the tape deck in Emily’s Datsun Z as we went dress shopping. (We had been spinning Wish so often at the time, I felt as though I should go ahead and get a dress too.) My junior prom was also directly responsible for me learning how to drive a standard transmission (“stick shift” for you non-gearheads.)
“I am not getting all dressed up and and going to a nice dinner and prom in that thing,” she said, gesturing at the Mattmobile.
“We’ll take your Z,” I suggested.
“No. The guy drives to prom. That’s tradition.” [NOTE: I may have been the one to insist that driving to the prom was the male prerogative, but this is how I remember it, and if anyone doesn’t like it, they can get their own long-winded blog. E. definitely vetoed the Mattmobile up front, though.]
So began several nerve-wracking practice turns around south Yuba City in my mom’s non-Eddie Bauer Bronco II with the hair-trigger clutch that popped if you looked at it hard enough. I eventually got the hang of it, but I spent much of the month of May with a sore left leg.
It was also around this time that I became a member of a band — we lasted one rehearsal. I was an admirer of the Chili Peppers’ Flea, plus I had, shall we say, limited musical ability. Those two facts about Your Humble Narrator made him perfect for the role of bassist. Jason Van Zant played lead (he owned two guitars — a blonde Telecaster and the arctic-white Stratocaster fetishized in the Wayne’s World movie.) Brian Cunningham and resident school weirdo Mike L. were also involved, but I forget in what instrumental capacity. I do remember we were drummer-less.
Cunningham conned someone’s grandma out of a Frankenstein’s monster of a bass guitar. It looked like it started life as a some kind of Fender knock-off, but its formerly solid body had been stuffed with cotton wool for some reason, and a piece of old leather had been thumbtacked over the enormous hole that had been gouged out of the body’s backside. Its never-been-changed roundwound strings had been worn smooth by the seventy-year-old woman who played in the country-western cover band that had been her late husband’s hobby.
Rehearsal time came. I plugged in, stood stock-still in Mike L.’s garage, clenched in concentration, and plunked the notes Jason told me to plunk. The bass sounded so terrible, it covered my lack of skill nicely. I made a warm, bass-y wash of sound that was at least in the neighborhood of the same key Jason was playing. We made it through two (or possibly one-and-a-half) Dead Milkmen-style snot-rock originals. (We didn’t get to my edgy songwriting effort, “Hatefuck.” Hoagy Carmichael I was not.)
We then began a 45-minute discussion of how our first video should look. In one of our nocturnal countryside cruising sessions, we had already ran across a perfect location — a set of grain elevators out in Sutter, a small(er) farming town about seven miles away. From a distance, they looked like a gigantic pack of twenty-four ounce beer cans. Up close, at night, they looked like a whirring, hissing, Gilliam-esque industrial futuristic nightmare-scape. All color washed away against the towering white silos floodlit by powerful flourescents. How cool would it look to set up band gear and rock out with all this as a backdrop? Security at the place was clearly minimal/non-existent as we had already paid it a night-time visit or two. In fact, it was clear we could simply back up a truckload of gear and film our video till the wee hours.
We never got that far. No one was motivated enough to plan even a second rehearsal. The old bass moldered under my bed until I handed it off to Jason when he got out of the army(!) the following summer. The grain elevators would re-enter my story, however.
On prom night.
But in between my first/last band rehearsal and my junior prom, something terrible happened. Check out the previous entry, “Interlude,” for the story.
#67. “Why” — Annie Lennox
Prom night rolled around in mid-May. We were all abuzz about our acquaintance Jeff C. (yes, another Jeff) and how he was hornswaggled into taking a girl he didn’t like to prom. She laid a cunning, Palpatine-style trap by asking him to prom in the middle of church with both his and her parents watching. Poor Jeff C. couldn’t say no without earning the Heartless Douchebag of the Year award.
Emily and I began the evening by bucking and jerking the Bronco II to the photographer’s studio, my clutch leg cramping something awful. She was in a classy little black outfit (above), I went with the bright red bow tie and cummerbund, which we decided would add a splash of color, but resulted in me looking something like Opus the Penguin (right). We ran into Jeff O. & Eric and their dates coming out of the photographer’s as we came in. I subtly tipped Eric off to a blob of shaving cream still lingering behind his right ear (shaving was still something of a new procedure for most of us) and we parted ways. Dinner at The Refuge was uneventful, and over so fast we had some time to kill before we arrived fashionably late to the Veteran’s Hall where the prom was held.
In that time, I decided to show Em the planned location for our band’s video shoot, which was still considered a viable activity despite it being six weeks or so since our only rehearsal. We drove out to Sutter, and drove through the always-open gate to the facility.
“This is it?” she asked incredulously.
“This is it. Wouldn’t it make a great location for a video?”
“It’s a bunch of fucking silos.”
“But if you go in between them, and they’re towering up all around you, and the lights, and the machinery…”
“Whatever. You’d better get someone’s permission before you haul all of your band crap out here.”
“Nah, it’s no big deal. The gates are always open, and no one’s ever around.”
About that time, I really could’ve used a bathroom, or a Port-a-Potty, or a handy bush. None of these were around, but my situation was not going to solve itself. So I got out of the Bronco, went around the side of one of the big grain dryers, and began giving it a biological anointment.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?!” came a harsh voice from behind me. It was actually directed at Em sitting innocently in the passenger seat, and not me, still out of sight. But it was close enough and loud enough to make me jump — in mid-stream. There may have been some collateral damage to the rental tux’s pants. May have taken some friendly fire, if you catch the Holy Bee’s drift. For a nanosecond, I considered fleeing into the darkness, but I ended up sprinting back to the Bronco to take control of the situation. Em was trying to explain to some glowering authority figure that her idiot boyfriend had brought her out here for no conceivable reason on prom night.
I couldn’t tell if the guy was a security guard or just a late-working employee, but he was convinced we were dangerous graffiti vandals, despite the fact that I was attired in a full tuxedo. (I guess I did vandalize a grain dryer in a small, temporary way, leaving it looking like the concrete slab on the cover of Who’s Next.) He continued to harangue us and threaten legal action as I commenced my panicked attempts to start the car, get the damn thing in gear, and complete our escape.
As I stalled the engine for the second time and rolled to a halt just shy of the open gate, I looked down at my tuxedo shirt poking through my open fly, and heard Em mumble through her face-palm “Way to go, 007.”
Luckily, it could only go uphill from there, and the only prom I would ever attend turned out pretty fun. I fast-danced in public for one of the only times in my life, flicked M&Ms surreptitiously at Jeff O., and observed Jeff C. moping around with his date looking like someone shot his dog. Until he mysteriously disappeared for awhile…then just as mysteriously re-appeared, alone. According to the story he told later, he feigned illness, took his date home, then returned to the prom and wrangled his way back in and had a grand old time for the remainder of the evening.
Annie Lennox’s new single “Why” was the last song we danced to, but it wasn’t the last song of the night. I think that honor went to Boyz II Men’s “Please Don’t Go,” which was playing, ironically, as we were heading out the door. [A song you won’t find on this list. Let me reiterate once again that, for many people, the sound of the 90s is the sound of Whitney, Mariah, and Boyz II Men, but these are my 90s, and for me, generic, boring “modern R&B” is a wart on the ass of popular music and a collective slap in the face to every real R&B artist from days gone by. I kept wishing Otis Redding would rise from the grave and wreak havoc at the offices of Arista Records every time I heard Houston’s histrionic version of “I Will Always Love You.” At the very least, I wished Dolly Parton would rise from the grave and slap her a good one.]
To wrap up, I can’t recall specifically if I got laid on my prom night, but signs point to “no.” Jeff C. probably did. When we saw him pull out of the Veteran’s Hall parking lot at the evening’s conclusion, he was not alone.