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 flügelhorn?

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."

We came to love the gigs and our audience. Eventually you stop thinking in terms of who is disabled and who isn't. It was sad when, come the Reagan era, it seemed that anyone who could pass the tie-my-shoelaces test was put out on the street. We found ourselves playing to increasingly non-ambulatory, non-responsive people, folks strapped to wheelchairs with protective helmets on their heads. But even they seemed more into it than many a bar or nightclub crowd we'd faced. And some of these seemingly checked-out people would still surprise you by singing entire Beatles' songs into their pocket combs.

We endured our shareof jokes from our peers about playing for a captive audience. Or it might seem to you like it's just an easy ego stroke to play for such a bunch. You can say that because you've never had a brain-damaged person tell you your singing sucked; I didn't say they were deaf. Eventually the Fairview crowd even decided they preferred having a mobile DJ to us, and we were out on the street, without even Reagan to blame.

There came some sad years when we were forced to play for our fellow journalists and other losers. Then, a couple of years ago, I heard about Integrity House through Los Lobos' David Hidalgo when the band did a benefit concert for them. The north Fullerton organization is a "clubhouse" in which persons with brain trauma and developmental disabilities help each other to become independent (you can read more about them in News, page ??). Our kind of people!

Now we play dances for them every couple of months, and that's as close to an arena as I ever need to get. I've known so many bands that had business plans tacked to their rehearsal studio walls, plans assuming they'd be signed in a year and stars within two. Particularly around the industry town of LA, they would actually avoid playing music for people—which is sort of what music is all about—because they didn't want to "overexpose" themselves.

Let me put it this way: if you're looking to strike it rich in music, you're the only moron in this story. You aren't going to make it, and if you do you'll probably get screwed. In the meantime, you've got your whole reason for playing music ass-backwards. The respected musicians I've met who do make a craftsman's living in music—like the guys in Lobos—play from their hearts, for people, not from a business plan.

We've been fortunate to have real musicians augment our lineup—Chris Gaffney and members of his band, the T-Birds' Stephen Hodges, and others—guys who sure aren't getting rich in the kinds of things you can hold on to. At a recent show, an autistic woman who'd only sat and rocked for two years, wordless, suddenly came up to the microphone and led us in a six-minute version of "The Hokey Pokey." Does that factor into your business plan?

Integrity House's 70 members have their own anthem, to the tune of the Monkees' theme, with the main refrain being, "Hey, hey we're the Droolers!" They've learned to laugh at themselves before anybody else has a chance to, not a bad defense mechanism in a world that often makes them feel unwelcome. The lease on their current property is up, and they got the cold shoulder from Fullerton's redevelopment agency when they tried to relocate downtown. When they do move to a less-ideal location in the next few weeks, they could use some help, as well as donations of records and CDs for the store they plan to open. If you're interested, call (714) 526-9154 or e-mail cdmello1@msn.com.

What do I get out of playing thesegigs? More than I give. It's nice to be appreciated, to play for people who dance and enjoy it. But mainly the shows are humbling to me. Humbling to see people with so much less doing so much, to see so much openhearted sharing and hope from people whom life has whacked with its trouble stick. There but for fortune go you or I, Irene, and I can only hope we'd handle it with as much grace.

These dances are a great spot check for someone who spends as much time as I do obsessing over whether I'm cool. I'll be thinking, "Gee, I hope this solo makes Gaffney look upon me with newfound admiration," and then I'll notice some wheelchair-bound girl on the dance floor. She's out there trying with whatever she has to move to the music. She doesn't care if you look cool or not, and she makes it just about impossible for you to care anymore, either.

Instead, you just rock, and it doesn't ever have to go anywhere but right there.

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