My folks had split up. Dad lived four blocks away, up a hill. Miles away, theoretically, a thousand feet off in reality. After a particularly long battle of wits, Mom delivered me to his apartment. First thing the old man said was that it was high time I got a job. He hadn’t been paying attention. While my older brother never seemed to have a summer job, I’d long held a position at the tennis courts on the other side of the golf course bordering his apartment. Rolling them, cleaning them, sweeping them, giving the odd lesson to four year olds barely bigger than their racquets. I’d been doing that since I was fourteen. He should have known better. I’d kept the job because I needed money to pay for my bad habits. I brushed past him, dropped my bags in the living room, and burrowed into his study, clicking on his old Zenith, tuning it to MTV. The dawn of the video age perfectly coincided with my teenage apathy.I slumped into the orange desk chair he set up to overlook the parking lot his apartment had views of, when out of nowhere Whitesnake’s uniquely retardo/erotic videos shot a hot bolt right into me brain, severing any ability to pay attention to anything but that fucking video. The old man started to make conversation, but it was too late, I’d already been zapped.
That’s how it went for the next year of my life. I’d already discovered Count Basie, Coltrane, D.C. Go-Go, and straight edge hardcore. By day I balanced precariously between Astral Weeks and Fisherman’s Blues, looking for the lyrical divinity of modern Irish singers while at night, I’d flicker hopelessly in the spindly schlock MTV paraded as eroticism, coyly embracing neurotic reveries featuring Tawny Kitaen and Alicia Silverstone.
On the days the tennis courts didn’t need my attention, I’d accompany Doug in his Germanic sportster, committing minor crimes and misdemeanors throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area, visiting Alicia Silverstone approximations at the posh private girls schools of Roland Park. Oh, secretly I cried out to each of the brilliantly and lush maned lasses who skittered over to Doug’s car skipping lunch break in order to flirt. I kept quiet because while I’d always been a spastic blabbermouth at home, in times of nervous anxiety I clammed up. Best let Doug-o do the talking. Suddenly, mouth shut, I owned a quiet, dangerous mystique. A myth. Out of nowhere, girls knew my name, my phone number without me ever having offered them up. They didn’t know about my late night hair metal video meltdowns, and they didn’t need to.
The old man was a snorer. Before Ma moved me out, in peels of Chardonnay infused laughter, she would tell me about sleeping beside him as he snored himself awake, only to blame her for it. Now, while Ma slept in her own house down the hill, the old man began sharing his nightly ritual with me. Around midnight, he’d snore himself awake, hop out of bed, walk the ten steps to his door, the one to my door, and throw it open, his finger wagging temper flared. Have you ever slept on a couch bed? Not so bad for a night or two. After twenty, it’s a curse. Usually, I had enough time to turn off the TV before the old man flung the study door open, enough time to feign sleep, to do half a Saturday NYT crossword, to drink a quarter bottle of warm gin. Being seventeen, just comprehending the power of youth, some nights I said fuck it, and left Aerosmith to do their thing, Alicia Silverstone, and dear Liv Tyler making mincemeat of my internal desires. Ardor and adolescence make for rotten roommates. The old man had to be in surgery early each morning, here he was stuck in a few moments of mindless combat while video vixens writhed in televised ecstasy, bombastic odes to ridiculousness seething out of his tinny Zenith speakers. He did have a point, the snoring bastard. The walls of that apartment were criminally thin. The whole place operated as a kind of informal retirement community. The down stairs neighbor wore knit suits from the Eisenhower era, quite literally had hair the color of a pale sky. But I never played the metallic video nonsense loud enough to hear whole songs myself, let alone at enough volume to waken that half dead widow down below. The reason the apartment types got away with paper thin walls was precisely predicated on the fact that they rented to the elderly and largely deaf denizens of Roland Park as they downshifted from house to apartment before finally touching down at Keswick assisted living.
I wanted out. Only, there wasn’t any out left. I’d already run through my options, just like a teenager, rising to a boil much too fast. In the past year I had been shipped off to work my youthful indiscretions into manhood, down in Texas, to a boarding school in western Maryland, and to another boarding school in southern New Hampshire. They’d finally given up, installing me in a county public school, but I stopped going. I didn’t see the point. All schools eventually tossed me out for one reason or another. At least that’s how I saw it at the time. Why go to school when I could revel in the impossibly tangled delusions of my very own grandeur. My myth growing wings even while I slept on that ratty Luskin’s (cheapest guy in town!!!) sofa bed, watching hair bands wring out their fancy to contrived and juvenile reveries. Videos, at that time, were the number one source for music, MTV the chief provider. Their playlists were narrow, their rotation thin, but every household in America with cable was tuning in. So began my rigorous allegiance to the falsehoods and pretensions of other people’s successes. I couldn’t stand the sound of Steven Tyler’s voice, but years later, when I ran into his daughter at a bar in New Orleans, I immediately complimented her poppa’s pipes. I’d already made a dent in her psyche at that point, having gotten into a minor brawl whilst ordering a drink, after another patron kicked my dog. When I sat down to nurse my anger and my drink, Liv, by way of introduction, whispered conspiratorially, I’d have done the same thing. Hubba hubba.
There were better vids on the box. More inventive ones, funnier ones, artier ones. Shit, the Talking Heads ‘Burning Down the House’ vid is case in point. David Byrne’s face zooms down the highway as the white traffic lines shoot up his nose. Best damn post-modern declaration of drug use ever. U2 jumped headfirst into the arena, like they always did, with their bizarre Beatle-esque rooftop impromptu that spiraled downtown Los Angeles into a wicked traffic snag, a no-no for a town already well beyond it’s boiling point, pure gold for music vid watchers. Sugar Kane!
But, ultimately artifice is shoved aside, in favor of the lowest common denominator, in this case, S-E-X. Who can replace the urgent depravity of Tawny Kitaen’s masturbatory fits on the hood of that white Jaguar? I know grown men who soon looted the coffers of their children’s inheritance so as to purchase the same model Jaguar featured in that Whitesnake vid, searching in vain for a moppet haired harpy to ride shotgun. I would have done it, too, save for two things. I was seventeen, with two car wrecks to my name. Insurance would cost me more than the Jag. Secondly, my job paid shit. The time it took to amass that kind of dough working for minimum wage, well, since I quit school, math’s never been my strong suit.
And like I said, I knew better. I listened to real music, to scholarly songs crafted by high brow types. And, when that didn’t do the trick, I’d escaped my parents’ grasp and traveled as far south as D.C in search of lower minded freak-outs that skewered that metallic cookie cutter crap on MTV. I crammed into the 9;30 club as the Circle Jerks preyed on my youthfully wayward mind, inducing me near to riot. Scrambled out of back alley clubs in the wrong side of our Nation’s capital while Jheri curled gangsters, dressed head to toe in can only be described as “Kid N Play” gear, popped out switch blade combs to strike terror in me, producing a specifically cowardly kind of wetness in my pants.
No, I knew what sounded good, I knew the travesty of my gross attachment to Riki Rachtman’s late night reports on hair metal no-good-niks. When Guns and Roses shot to fame, I plumbed their blissful depths if only to scour a piece of the paradise city they kept locked under all that Aqua Net and spandex. Big brother had migrated off to college, discovering among other things, the Grateful Dead. I’d even tried them on for size myself, though if truth be told, I went to see them for the very same reason I paid any mind to the vapid and also endless stream of hair band vids. The girls. Well, the girls, and the exotic drugs. When Big Bro came back doused in unrecognizable smoke, his eyes unable to focus for hours after the fact, I knew I had to get some of that.
Which brings me back to the TV in my old man’s apartment above the deaf ladies with the sky colored hair. Name a night, and I could have easily escaped, in search of the fairer regions of debutante thighs, yet I stayed put. Glued to the TV, to the approximation of a world I knew would never be mine. And that’s precisely why I stayed, enduring hour after hour of jive lyrical embarrassments, sand blasted guitar lines that never knew a hint of Mozart. Why did I stay on the supremely uncomfortable Luskin’s (still the cheapest guy in town!!!) sofa-bed, straining to watch the screen of the pixilated Zenith? As Diamond Dave so earnestly sang, before the second wave of Hair Metal replaced him with the numbingly mundane Sammy Hagar (second cheapest guy in town!!!), everybody wants some.
Even if it was but a fantasy, I wanted some, too.