30 Years of Rocking in Place

How not to become a star

Photo by Davis Barber When I first started rocking, it waswith the same grandiose dreams that everyone else has. I was in junior high. My friend Dave Grogan's parents had bought him a hulking new Fender Bassman amplifier, and of course we had to do everything we could to destroy it.

Dave lived in Buena Park. I lived in Newport, and every other weekend I'd stay at his house. The guest bedroom was also our music room, and while staying in there one night, I decided to hook the amp head's output up to a 2-inch transistor-radio speaker. There were some ants in the room, and I thought maybe I could put one on the speaker cone and train it with music. Dave and I had already figured out how to route my electric guitar's signal through a toy tape recorder to overdrive the Fender amp, so every time the ant tried to transgress a certain line on the speaker, I'd hit a big, fuzzy Townshend-like power chord and send the little guy flailing half an inch into the air.

Before long, the ant didn't show much enthusiasm for going anywhere. Shortly after that the speaker burned up, and it is a testament to the foresight of Leo Fender's designs (I imagine him conducting similar ant tests in his workshop) that the amplifier didn't follow suit. But before the speaker blew, I'd had my crucial thought: If I can do this to an ant, why not to 18,000 hippies in the Los Angeles Forum?

I'd seen Hendrix at the Bowl, Cream at the Anaheim Convention Center, Zappa at Cal State Fullerton, all playing loud enough to liquefy body organs.

Why not me?

It was a good dream, a strong one, but one that reality was soon to dash against the rocks of hurtdom.

The first hint that I wasn't arenamaterial came during a high school concert, when the school orchestra, augmented by yours truly and band mates, galloped through a medley of tunes from Jesus Christ Superstar. I read music about as well as I docked spacecraft, but I didn't have much to do in this piece except come crashing in with a single thunderous distorto-chord when the conductor signaled me.

I was poised with my Danelectro guitar, Jordan Bosstone fuzz and 120-watt Vox Super Beatle amp. I finally got the nod, and my arm, very Townshend-like, came slashing down to strike the chord. The only difference between Pete Townshend and me is he generally accomplished this gesture without simultaneously rolling his volume knob off so that 120 watts of absolute silence ensued. It sounded sort of like this: _________________________________.

The conductor, legendary CdM music teacher Harry Corea, didn't have very high expectations of me to begin with, but he still managed to look disappointed.

Perhaps it was revenge, but Mr. Corea had a few of us rock types called out of our classrooms one day and asked, "How would you like to get out of your afternoon classes?" Next thing we knew, we and our gear were in a van headed for we knew not where, until it pulled in at Fairview State Hospital, better known as the Nut House.

Were we terrified of retarded people?

Were we even more terrified because it was their Halloween dance, and we were playing for crazy people in costumes with makeup smeared across their faces?

Were we just about pissing our pants when a looming guy in a gorilla outfit came onstage and appropriated bass player Mark Soden's flŁgelhorn?

You may answer yes to the above.

Little did we know that we were home. For years hence we became practically the house band at Fairview, and I couldn't ask for a better gig.

We'd played a variety of other strange jobs: rich-kid cotillions on the Pavilion Queen party boat; Catholic church dances; cabana parties; little theater shows sharing the stage with a mime whom everyone thought was acting out eating his own crap. None of those could hold a candle to the Fairview or Special Olympics gigs we did.

Playing for people with disabilitiesis such second nature to me now that I really have to work my memory to recall the initial horror of those gigs. There is a primal fear of the misshapen form and the ill-formed mind—dating from when disfigured babies were abandoned to die, up through our current monster movies—and seeing so much of it concentrated in one place can be an overwhelming intimation of what any of us could have been or might become. But I also get that feeling at wrestling events.

Some of our Fairview shows were in their auditorium; others in halls where we were set up on the dance floor with the patients (since re-named "clients" and now "consumers" in the official-ese of the day). It was at one of the latter dances that one fellow took a dump in his pants and started improvising these sprightly shake-a-leg steps to work the mass down his leg. I'm surprised that dance never caught on in the LA club scene.

Some of our audience, who evidently had enough problems without having to distinguish between their favorite music and ice cream, would stand at the stage edge and shout "Rocky Road!" until we'd play a fast one. Realizing this was perhaps my one chance to write a song that would get requests, I penned a tune called "Rocky Road."

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