This Used To Be My Playground, Part 9: What’s Up? Cereal Killers, Vampires, And 12 Inches Of Snow, That’s What

#77. “Connected” – Stereo MCs
Connected I was most certainly not. I lost my first real job in January before I even worked a minute. I was all set to be a lot boy on evenings and weekends for Enterprise Rent-A-Car (drawing upon my recent experience as an employee of Emily’s Detail – see previous entry.) Right before I was scheduled to start, I received a panicky call from their office manager. It seems they thought they were hiring someone already in college, and a quick review of my paperwork showed I was still a scum-sucking lowly high-schooler. The job was yanked away from me without much in the way of apology, even though they were the ones who made the mistake. Who’s laughing now, Enterprise Rent-A-Car? I went on to bigger and better employment later that year in the field of home video entertainment, and your crummy rental company…is, according to my notes, still going strong in its same location. Still…I think the moral victory was mine, as I was soon able to earn my gas and CD money without having to pick dragonfly corpses out of the grills of Ford Fiestas.

I think the confusion may have sprung from the fact that I told them I would need Tuesday and Thursday evenings off for my Algebra II class at Yuba College. Yes, folks, I was taking another stab at that elusive math credit, this time via night class at our local community college.

#78. “Man On The Moon” – R.E.M.
I won’t try to convince you that this was R.E.M’s best all-around song, but it’s certainly my personal favorite. A sprightly, melodically-perfect tribute to late comedian Andy Kaufman, whose provocative, confrontational anti-comedy broke barriers in the 70’s, it reminds me of the times I would try to rock the establishment boat in minor ways. I was not much of a joiner. You can page through the yearbook and not see me participating in any sport, or as a member of a club. As Groucho Marx said, “I refuse to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” That, and I valued my personal time away from school. And I was lazy. And a poor athlete.

I raised my profile by trying to be amusing in various semi-subversive ways. I was given an Opinion column in the school newspaper, which was desperate for content that year, and then had it taken away when I informed its readership that the rag they were holding was an embarrassment to student journalism, a biased mouthpiece for the administration and “popular” kids, and should be used as birdcage lining or fish-wrapping material. And I forget which student council wonk handed me a microphone and told me to drum up business for the charity snack sale one lunch period, but my remark that “whatever lucky so-and-so finds the toenail I hid in one of the Nutter Butters gets a prize” set off a mild disturbance and I was relieved of my sales duties. All of this tomfoolery eventually ended up with me onstage as Master of Ceremonies for the Senior Showcase, but that’s a story for a later entry.

cereal-killer#79. “Three Little Pigs” – Green Jelly
A true abomination of a novelty/metal song, I only include it here because it represents a time when anything seemed able to break into the musical mainstream. Green Jelly (pronounced “Green Jello,” but the good people at Kraft Foods objected to a shitty band using their trademarked brand name, so the band changed the spelling – but not the pronunciation) hyped themselves as the world’s first “video-only” band. If you wanted their album Cereal Killer (and who didn’t?), you didn’t buy a cassette or CD. You bought it on a VHS tape and watched it. And then when you were done watching it, you reached for the nearest ball-peen hammer and shattered it into a thousand pieces so you would never be subjected to it again. Green Jelly eventually broke down and released the album in standard audio formats (as Cereal Killer Soundtrack), and snuffed out the only thing about them that made them worthy of attention in the first place.

Speaking of audio formats, it was around this time that the shrinkage of the cassette sections in music stores was growing ever more noticeable. I went straight from vinyl to CD back in ’88, so it didn’t impact me directly but cassettes had been the format of choice for a lot of my peers, and it’s always kind of sad to observe the slow death of a format that had served its purpose well. Blank cassettes still sold like hotcakes, however.

Juvenalia like Green Jelly and Beavis & Butthead (who made their debut in early March) nestled tusk to tusk in my personality next to (what I hoped) was a growing level of intellectual sophistication. AP English was my most challenging and enjoyable class senior year. As an inside joke to myself, I titled all of my essays after songs on Metallica’s Black Album (e.g., “The Struggle Within: Hamlet’s Dilemma,” “The Unforgiven: Sins of Madame Bovary.” Clever, no?) Certainly, the references were lost on our teacher, Mr. Wemple, cranky old head of the English Dept. and a frustrated True Intellectual within shouting distance of retirement. I remember he all but sneered at me for drinking pre-ground brand-name coffee one morning.

One late winter day, Mr. Wemple did not appear, nor did a substitute. We sat for five minutes, then ten. I forgot who first said, “Well, if that old bastard’s not bothering to show up, I’m not going to waste my time here,” but it became the majority consensus. Except for a few of the more timid souls who stayed behind reading their Joseph Conrad, we all signed our names on the board to demonstrate we had shown up in good faith, then promptly left campus to kill forty minutes before second period. I forgot whose house we went to about a block-and-a-half from campus, but I do know we put on MTV, and there it was — the cream of YCHS’s literary intelligentsia ended up staring dumbly at the “Three Little Pigs” video.

#80. “Informer” – Snow
Also known as the “Licky-Boom-Boom” song. It’s really fucking stupid. Went to #1, naturally.

#81. “Eat The Rich” – Aerosmith
First heard this one on Em’s car radio, waiting in the parking lot for her to come out of some store or salon. Something about it’s overall sound made me think it was Warrant or Skid Row. That’s not a compliment.

#82. “What’s Up?” – 4 Non-Blondes
This isn’t the first poorly-written song to be a huge hit, but it may be the only one where the writing is bad enough to actually make the listener angry. 4 Non-Blondes, and their songwriter-in-chief Linda Perry, stumble right out of the gate by originally titling it “What’s Going On.” Points for chutzpah, but naturally their record company feared there would be confusion with the classic Marvin Gaye song of the same title. (Anyone who’s heard them both can attest that the confusion would be very, very minimal.)

The source of our narrator’s angst is never once made clear. She’s simply a sobbing, shambling wreck right from the start. She “cries sometimes when I’m lying in bed/Just to get it all out, what’s in my head,” before screaming “at the top of my lungs” to anyone unfortunate enough to be in earshot: “What’s going on?!” Well, there’s some emotionally unhinged girl in a top hat and dunebuggy goggles bellowing randomly, that’s one thing that’s going on. Infusing every single syllable of her inane, shitty-ass song with an unintentionally hilarious, larnyx-shredding intensity is another. Perry’s ultimate solution to her dilemma in the final verse? “And I pray…ohmygawd… do I pray…I pray every single day… for revolution!” Well, you know, we all want to change the world… but how a violent armed uprising against the government will put her back on the long road to mental stability and a healthy night’s sleep remains totally baffling, as does how Perry went on to become one the hottest songwriters-for-hire of the 2000s. What’s up with that? Watch the video and try not to piss yourself.

#83. “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” – Sting
#84. “Ordinary World” – Duran Duran

Sting’s uber-pretentious album (did he ever make any other kind?) Ten Summoner’s Tales (really, what kind of self-important jackass names a rock album after a work by Chaucer?) reminds me of some of the performing arts types I had been spending time with since joing up with the drama class at the beginning of the year. Most of the real dedicated thespians were in the Drama 3/4 class. I was among the cast-offs, misfits, and burn-outs in Drama 2, so it wasn’t too bad. We had an extensive backstage crew due to at least four class members who suffered from crippling stage-fright. Even so, when it came down to it, as the drama instructor’s aide, much of the grunt work was done by Your Humble Narrator. The Drama 3/4 class wrapped up a very intricate drawing-room whodunit based on A.A. Milne’s novel The Red House Mystery in early February, and it was up to me to recycle the scarlet walls of the stage set into the baby-blue stage set of Drama 2’s B-grade version of Dracula in time for its March 3 premiere. Do you know how many coats of baby-blue it takes to cover blood-red? I do. Five. I spent an hour or more every day for a month painting those goddamn scenery flats.

I was also responsible for making the costume run. All of the YCHS Drama Department’s costumes were rented from the Crazy Costume Lady who lived a few blocks away from the campus. She had filled her eerie bungalow with thousands of theatrical costumes and seemed to scratch out a meager living by renting them to Halloweeners and us in the drama dept. Handling the picking up and dropping off the costumes was not a coveted job, because Crazy Costume Lady smoked like a chimney (all of her costumes smelled like cancer and were covered with tiny burn holes), and as her nickname indicates, she was kind of crazy. Not in a cheery Doc Brown kind of way, but in a disturbing Hoarders kind of way.

Making the costume run one day, I caught “Ordinary World” on KWOD 106, and I had no idea it was Duran Duran. They were kicking off a comeback attempt that year, and trying to prove they were no longer a pretty-boy synth-pop band, but Serious Musicians. It almost worked. I liked the song, in spite (or because of) my low opinion of their 80’s work. (I have since come to reverse that opinion. There are few things more sublime than “Hungry Like The Wolf.”)

Dracula was a dog of a play, but it was better than the alternative that the drama teacher was incredibly keen on — a postmodern quasi-musical about eugenics (if anyone can help me out with the title to that monstrosity, which I think was finally staged a couple of year later, send word.) Bram Stoker’s Dracula had hit movie theaters the previous fall, and was still something of a pop-culture phenom. I remember the ticket line for the film wrapped around the block on opening night, but good ol’ Brian C. was there, and let me and Em cut in. He also gave me my first clove cigarette that night.

Anyway, parts of the Dracula script were so bad that I was given the go-ahead to do some re-writes on it. With very little effort, I turned it from modern-day telling into a period piece (who the hell wants a modern-day Dracula?). I upped the violence, adding a scene showing the graphic death of Renfield (only alluded to in the original script), and gave additional dialogue to Dracula’s wives that was drawn entirely from real quotes by serial killers such as Charles Manson and David Berkowitz (did I mention I had taken to wearing a long, black trenchcoat around this time?) The most egregious failure of the original script was that the death of Dracula happened offstage, leaving one of the supporting characters to lamely describe it. (“It was terrible…the stake hit him and he turned to dust…”) The Holy Bee’s new, improved Dracula 2.0 had the staking at center stage, necessitating our props department to create a special collapsible stake. Even with cutting edge special effects, after dozens of rehearsals and three go-for-broke performances, I suspect Ryan Graham, who played the Count, had a nasty bruise on his sternum. I played Jonathan Harker, and attempted to grow some Victorian side-whiskers, and my hair into a romantic, flowing Byronic coif. I couldn’t quite pull it off, and was instead nicknamed “Kramer” for duration of work on the play.

This Used To Be Me: Onstage as “Jonathan Harker” in Dracula. (Note the neatly-painted scenery flats in the background.)

I’ve never felt entirely comfortable as part of an “artistic” group. After dress rehearsals, the cast would go out to Lyon’s or Jerry’s restaurant in full costume and make-up. I was always the one who couldn’t wait to get out of costume and make-up. I would join them for dinner as an ordinary civilian, odd-man out, because I just never got a charge out of that sort of thing. This kind of self-regarding, attention-mongering behavior by “theater types” is what kept me from pursuing a little more acting in college. More on that later.

Hey Kids! Click here for a look at original video footage from the YCHS production of Dracula, March 1993. As it starts, I’m on the left in the white shirt. (Many thanks to Mrs. Murphy for giving me the heads-up that this exists out there in cyberspace)

As soon as the sets were struck for Dracula and I was shorn of my Jonathan Harker locks, we plunged headlong into our next project: a dinner theater performance. And the Holy Bee would be…in drag.

I would be Thisbe in a burlesque of the “Pyramus and Thisbe” sequence from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For those of you not familiar with the works of the Bard of Avon, Thisbe is a role meant to be played by a man in totally unconvincing drag. Well, mine would be the most unconvincing drag ever committed to stage. I stopped shaving for two weeks before the performance. I wore a red cocktail dress and my usual black steel-toed work boots. A sideways wig. One false breast at my stomach, the other near my shoulder. Crimson lipstick smeared all over my face as though I had just finished a meal of raw horse meat. And a screeching, Cockney voice that was pure, unfiltered Monty Python. Unlike my intense, brooding portrayal of Jonathan Harker, no video or photographic evidence exists of this performance, and it lives in memory and legend only.

The combination of these two roles won me 1993’s Best Actor award.

A little scratched-up and cobwebby (like its owner), the trophy still resides on top of one of my bookshelves.


Filed under Music -- 1990s, This Used To Be My Playground

2 responses to “This Used To Be My Playground, Part 9: What’s Up? Cereal Killers, Vampires, And 12 Inches Of Snow, That’s What

  1. It is time for me to make a trip to your area so that we can have a beverage. I believe we share a mutual love of the gin. All the skipping down memory lane and then watching the Dracula video has made me thirsty and reminded me how fleeting it all is, and damn it, we should all have a good laugh together every now and again. Warmly,Mrs. Murphy

  2. My social calendar is a vast wasteland, so any time that's good for you is good for me.

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