Girls love a lead singer (excerpt from the book)


Lead Singer

Well, she was just seventeen
You know what I mean…
The Beatles

Zombies.
No, I was never really afraid of zombies, except for a few nights after I saw “Night of the Living Dead.” And the Zombies were a great band. Just thought I’d mention them. Where’d they go, anyway?
Despite the wolf spiders and the insufferably moronic hard guys, by any wide-worldly standards my childhood was idyllic. I didn’t have to deal with war, racial discrimination, or poverty. I played outside in the dirt with my toy soldiers and engaged in make-believe battles in the dunes at Muir Beach until I was too old for that to be cool anymore. I wandered around Mill Valley, Muir Beach, and Sausalito, riding my bike, fishing on the bay, and playing a lot of baseball. Finally in eighth grade I broke through the girlfriend barrier and snared a real-make-out-at-the-movies-and-everywhere-else girlfriend.
But by seventh and eighth grade, my grades were falling. I was going to be a rock and roller, so who needed school? My Harvard- and Vassar-educated parents, in their wisdom, decided that I should be removed from the temptations of public school and the bad influence of my friends, who all seemed afflicted with a common distaste for homework and with dreams of a future that only featured cool hair, Marlboros, and getting detention slips.
So I was shipped off to Verde Valley School in Sedona, Arizona, where my older sister had gone. It was that or San Rafael Military Academy. The military school uniform fitting scared the shit out of me, to say the least. I might have ended up marching around and standing up straight. Maybe my parents were just motivating me. In any case, I wrote an impassioned letter to the school in Sedona, begging them to admit me and promising to change my scholastic ways. After all, my sister was a straight-A student there.
I lied. It worked.
At the rather tender age of thirteen, I anxiously climbed aboard the old Santa Fe Chief in Richmond, California and clickety-clacked off into the night all the way to Arizona, a shoebox full of my mom’s deviled eggs cradled in my skinny arms and a smuggled pack of Pall Malls in my coat. The eggs were consumed in a fit of anxiety a half hour after the train left the station in the East Bay. I lit up the Pall Malls with my trusty Zippo in the open, jostling, clackety space between the coach cars and stared out at the passing Central Valley, hot, brown, and crackly in the autumn sun. The racks of raisins drying alongside the dusty, oily train tracks in Fresno made me not eat raisins for a very long time. When it got dark, I tried to cat-nap in the dome car. I felt abandoned and alone, but not for long.
I arrived at my brave new school by van the next day, driven by a teacher and in the company of a few new companions. We’d found each other on the train during the night. It wasn’t hard to guess who they were. Most train travelers in 1962 were old, bald men and tiny, birdlike grannies, members of a generation born before the universal use of the personal automobile, not to mention the commercial airplane. By traversing the coaches of the Santa Fe I met a handful of fellow future Verde Valleyans who I would come to know better than my birth family over the course of the next four years.
Since I am one of those fall birthday kids who are always among the youngest of any class, I felt a bit lost at the school at first. I saw that there were school traditions I needed to figure out quickly. I was a thirteen-year old in a school with eighteen-year olds. That’s a big difference at that age. I was upset at my parents for having sent me into such irrevocable exile. But despite the minor homesickness, I soon made a dorm full of like-minded horny little freshman friends and found myself reveling in a whole new world.
If my childhood, absent the spiders and shithead hard guys, had been largely an idyll, Verde Valley School—VVS as it was called—was even more so. It looked like a little pueblo in its own otherwise-unoccupied valley beneath the majestic loom of Cathedral Rock, one of the seven sacred mountains of the Native Americans and nowadays as ubiquitous a hunk of red rock as ever graced a Sierra Club calendar. The school was run by anthropologists, and had ties to both the Native American communities of Arizona and New Mexico and to academic and community organizations in Mexico proper. From day one, we were taught the virtues of multiculturalism, long before it became a buzzword. One hundred ten coed students lived in a hard-guy-free world of white-washed, red-roofed Southwestern-style buildings peopled by intellectuals, both students and teachers, with high scholastic and moral aspirations.
Verde Valley School was a real tight community. Students were on first-name basis with teachers; Cliff, Tom, Pedro, Maggie, and Ham, and Babs, though oddly the students usually used last names with each other. Hey, Holbert. Hey, Call. You seen Fernandez? The students had responsibilities such as waiting on tables, dishwashing, and basic school maintenance, like whitewashing walls, hauling trash by tractor to the remote dump, and cleaning out the stables, which was a real chore in the winter. I chopped up frozen horseshit and blocks of pee while wading around in fresh, unfrozen glop in my rubber boots.
The studies were rigorous, but also stimulating. Verde Valley was a top academic prep school at that time. Our days started early, with work and dorm inspection and ended late, with evening study halls. I’ve always been a dawn patrol person, so I got up before five and went in the darkness to the kitchen, where the cooks had an urn of coffee going as they baked the daily fresh bread. I’d take my coffee and go the library, where the math answer books were sitting innocently on the shelves. I’d work my way though math problems from the answer books, making enough intentional mistakes to average a B. I leaned otherwise incomprehensible advanced algebra in that way, so I was able to squeak by on the tests as well. We had some great, great teachers: men and women of real vision who gave us the keys to a larger world of ideas and ideals. I’ve never felt that I was undereducated by not going on to college. I soaked up a lot, even when I was sitting in the back of the classroom looking out the window at the red cliffs.
We were supposed to learn a wide curriculum of liberal arts and go out and make a difference in the world when we graduated. Our time was one of change; we were on the cusp of a new era, so we straddled the old and new. We still dressed for dinner every night except Saturday: coat and tie for boys. But Bob Dylan could be heard coming from someone’s dorm room suitcase record player: “the times they are a-changing.” Yes, they were. When we had free time, after Saturday morning classes until Sunday dinner, we had total freedom to hike or race horses through the wide-open fields or climb the sheer, red-rock cliffs that towered above the isolated campus. We found Indian ruins, skinny-dipped in Oak Creek, and slept out under the Arizona stars.
Every year we’d camp our way down into central Mexico in “Brenda,” our little bus and these old GMC flatbed trucks with unheated, windowed metal boxes on them. We piled in and lay around on each other’s legs for hours on end. We had jobs on the trips as well. Fire, wood, and water was a good one. Collect firewood, find stones to make a fire ring, put out the water jugs. We set up a couple of folding tables and laid out food. We’d eat around campfires: canned sardines, bollios, and hot chocolate. The teachers had “faculty tea.” They’d been driving those cantankerous trucks all day on the dusty Mexican roads, dealing with the authorities, with overheating engines and blown tires, and trying to not lose any students at rest stops out in the cholla-studded desert. We camped with tarps—no tents—on the ground under the blazing stars or in the rain or snow. It was hardy and fabulous.
We’d be dropped off singly with Mexican families, where we’d live as guest family members for a few weeks. There were often no VVS teachers in the towns and cities we were left in. We were on our own and were expected to behave responsibly. That was hard sometimes, as in Mexico a fifteen-year old might get served Cubalibres at a bar. Let’s just say we had a blast. I was walking the streets of Guanajuato with Mexican girls when I was sophomore, promenando in the Zocalo while mariachis played and older women watched for signs of forbidden hanky-panky.
Spanish was a requirement at school and I had a good ear for it. On one side trip by commercial bus to Leon, a conductor made fun of me for wearing sunglasses. I wore my prescription shades day and night to avoid wearing my big, black-framed glasses. This bus was of a mixed class, schoolgirls in uniforms, farmers with chickens in cages. He joked to the passengers about the gringo movie star, unaware that I understood every word he was saying. I whispered to the Verde Valley girl next to me to lead me off the bus when we got to Guanajuato. The bus rolled to a stop. I stood slowly and played blind, stumbling along, feeling with my hands and feet as my fellow student helped me make my way along the rows of seats. The poor conductor, no doubt a good Catholic, crossed himself and broke out in a visible sweat. He helped me off the bus as I stared straight ahead, seemingly unseeing behind my shades. Cuidado, chico! We nearly peed ourselves laughing when we got around a corner from the bus stop.
We took extended trips to the Navajo and Hopi reservations as well. We attended Native American events like healing dances and ceremonies. I was a lucky boy. If I’d stayed in Mill Valley, I’d have missed hearing about the deer-legged woman at the healing dance that the Navajos chased across the mesa in their pickups. I wouldn’t have gotten gloriously drunk in that bar above the Zocalo in Taxco with my buddy Ernie. I wouldn’t have camped out at the base of the giant statues of Tula or picked up obsidian blades from the grounds of the ruins. I’d have missed out on racing horses across the open lands around Oak Creek in the days before so many people and fences changed Sedona. I wouldn’t have had the thrill of having the buttons cut off my shirt at the Indian Arts Institute in Santa Fe by a student Indian painter with a switchblade who’d eaten the stuffing from two inhalers as my friend Big Bruce the Tlingit watched over me with his war club to make sure I didn’t get accidentally killed. I was very lucky to go that school.
We heard or knew little of the outside world. There was no TV or radio, though on a Saturday night you could sometimes get a wavering, fuzzy Prescott or Flagstaff radio station playing the hits of the week. It was a sheltered, cloistered world of high ideals and transcendent social vision. There was no fighting, stealing, or any competition beyond friendly inter-class rivalry. Later in my life, I connected to what this paradise was. It was our own little version of Prince Siddhartha’s Kingdom.
All this broad, visionary thinking didn’t stop me pursuing my dream. In fact, it helped, because there wasn’t much competition for what I wanted to do: be a lead singer. The Beach Boys, Dick Dale and the Deltones (Miserlou), the Chantays (Pipeline) and surf music were the rage in ‘63. We had records from home. I listened wistfully on my tiny, suitcase record player with its vinyl-destroying two-pound tone arm, but I no longer had my two-stringed guitar. I didn’t know how to get this rock‘n’roll band thing going.
Then something incredible happened. A weird British band appeared on Ed Sullivan when I was home at Christmas my sophomore year. They wore their hair combed down and their band was all guitars. They made the cover of Life magazine. They were everywhere. Beatlemania. No more She Wore Blue Velvet or Tell Laura I Love Her on the Top-40 charts. It was real rock-n-roll again.
Wow, what a rush the Beatles were. I instantly combed my hair down. I lived in the senior dorm that year, and a bunch of the older guys with whom I played baseball somehow heard I could sing. So they started a band and incredibly, they wanted me to be the lead singer. We had a “rehearsal” in a dorm room. There must have been twelve guys, ten of whom were seniors, crammed in there, with nylon-stringed guitars and maybe a set of bongos or two.
One senior had a skinny gray cardboard guitar case with black plastic piping around the edges. I burned to know what was inside. He opened it and there was a Danelectro, a one-pickup, black-painted electric guitar with knobbly white tape striping the edge of the body. Unbelievably cool. I asked if I could try it. I guess I played something that made sense, because he told me I could keep it in my room. It was like it was mine for the rest of the year. I couldn’t believe it. A real electric guitar. I started playing and I just didn’t stop. I played every minute I could. It was like learning how to catch grounders off the schoolyard wall. Over and over and over.
That summer vacation I went home and somehow got my hands on fifty dollars and took the bus with my childhood best friend Mitch Howie to a pawn shop in a seedy part of San Francisco, where I bought a cheapo Japanese electric guitar (with three pickups and a wiggle stick for bending the notes), a bass (with a bowed-out neck, and dead-sounding flat-wound strings that were half an inch off the fretboard, but who cared?), and a one-speaker amp with its own microphone and stand (the amp even had tremolo.) All for fifty bucks!
Mitch, a “drummer” (who only had a snare drum) and I practiced every moment we could and played our first gig that summer, just the two of us entertaining a packed kegger thrown by my older brother’s friends at a third floor walk-up apartment in San Francisco. Mitch’s drum kit was the snare drum and a wire magazine rack that he used at a cymbal. I didn’t have a guitar strap, so I put my foot up on the amp and held the guitar on my knee for about three hours while we wanged away. I spray painted the guitar candy-apple blue—a bad, drippy, streaky paint job. We played Louie, Louie and What I Say until my fingers bled, and then we played some more. The crowd, all college types five years older than us high-school twerps, danced their asses off. It was a powerful experience, to say the least. A few in the crowd even complimented us. Of course, they then puked Budweiser on their loafers.
That fall, my junior year at Verde Valley, five of us formed my first real band, the Urthworms.
Yeah, with a U. I know. Well, the Beatles was taken.

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