When someone asks me where I grew up, my answer is usually something like “Suburbia USA.” I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (where I now live) but throughout my childhood, my family relocated every single year so that up until high school, I started each school year in a different town, often a different state, than the one I finished in the previous spring.
The story behind that isn't really important here. My point is that I don't have much of a regional locus to pin my childhood memories on – what sticks with me isn't “place” as much as culture. TV was my constant, along with pop music, Mad magazine, Marvel comics, Hollywood movies and all that stuff that in the 60's and 70's was already well underway in homogenizing the USA into one massive consumerist society. I grew up on junk food basically – even though I didn't really know what it was I was missing, I got to a point where I realized that what I was being fed wasn't really what humans tend to thrive on.
I liked listening to my parents' records when I was a kid. My mom had some cool old Elvis 45s and other stuff from her teenage years and in the late 60s exposed me to bands like the Doors, the Ohio Express, the Fifth Dimension and the soundtrack to the musical “Hair.” An eclectic mix already. My dad was heavily into Janis Joplin. And a lot of AM radio pop music got stuck in my head in those years. But it wasn't until 1975 that I started buying my own records. I was a 14 year old freshman in high school and I remember hearing an older guy talk about Kiss “Alive,” this awesome double-album record he was eager to get. I wanted to be cool so one day when my mom took me shopping I showed her the album – four freaky looking guys wielding instruments, grimacing for the camera and strutting their stuff on a smoke-filled stage. Looked pretty attractive to me, enough to push me past my mom's tentative objections and get her to let me buy it.
So I brought it home, tore off the shrink wrap and immediately got drawn into the rock and roll scene on a personal level. The innuendos were still a bit beyond me, but not too much, and the music provided a swift education on what a blast it is being a kick-ass rock star living the high life and doing whatever you feel like. It wasn't too much longer before I had picked up the Kiss back catalog and expanded my collection to include pivotal discs from bands like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Ted Nugent, Thin Lizzy and Foghat. And that was just for starters.
Since I liked discovering new sounds but didn't have the funds to buy everything that looked interesting, I needed help finding out who was good. And that led me to start checking out the rock magazines that were kept on a rack at my favorite local hangout, Flaming Rat Records. The guys who worked there were pretty cool – they'd put on albums at my request if they had an open copy. But it wasn't too long before the stuff that sounded most interesting to me exceeded the contents of their demo bin. Creem magazine hit the spot for me better than Rolling Stone (too smug), Circus (too dumb) or Crawdaddy (too mellow.) Creem introduced me to a lot of bands that the other magazines ignored or were just didn't know about. Iggy and The Stooges took on a legendary status in my mind well over a year or two before I'd even heard any of their music (this was back when their albums were out of print and impossible to find) simply from how Iggy Pop's antics and persona were described. He seemed to be the perfect embodiment of the wild manic rejection of social norms that I was feeling at the time – and if his music rocked as hard as the Creem writers made it seem, all the better.
But Creem's endorsement went beyond their hometown favorites like the MC5 or Nugent. They also introduced me to the Ramones, a new band coming up out of New York City who played hard fast riffs with simple but stupidly funny lyrics – and their record wasn't out of print yet. Over the years I have bought a lot of records, tapes and CDs but I don't know of many other purchases as fateful as the day that I bought the Ramones first album – along with Led Zeppelin's “Houses of the Holy.” How big a deal was it? Well, within the next two years, my collection of punk rock grew immensely, while that Zeppelin album, along with the rest of their catalog that I owned, was given away by me before I graduated high school because I simply had no more use for arena rock bands anymore.
The Ramones, and later punk bands like the Dead Boys, the Damned and the Sex Pistols, provided the evidence and the inspiration I needed to convince myself that I too could be in a band. I knew I couldn't compete with Kiss when it came to spectacle or Led Zeppelin when it came to musicianship. But I could definitely see myself taking to the stage and doing my own version of young, loud and snotty. It was about the time that punk rock was coalescing in New York and London that I moved out to live with my dad in Alameda, just across the bay from San Francisco. I turned 16 in 1977 when “Never Mind the Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols” came out, and I had the band's UK singles in my collection before the import version of the LP was released. I think that's the perfect age to be for hearing that album for the first time. I graduated from high school in 1979, one of maybe three or four kids there who even knew what punk rock was, and the only one who dared to wear shirts and jeans held together with safety pins in class.
Living as close as I did to the city, I was able to go to a few shows at the Mabuhay Gardens, and I also got to see the last Sex Pistols show at Winterland in January 1978 – even though the band failed to live up to my expectations, it was still a major event. By that time, I had bought a guitar and taught myself a few techniques of rhythmic pounding and bending of strings. Not really chords in any traditional musical sense of the word, but they enabled me to play along with some of my records and gave me the sense that I was making progress toward being in a band. Problem for me was that I was still socially isolated and not very clear on who I would join up with when it came time to really form that band.
After graduation, my dad moved out to Contra Costa County, further into the depths of the East Bay. The move was fine to me – I didn't have many close friends in Alameda and the new house was nice. I enrolled in Diablo Valley Community College, completely unfocused and unclear about what I was trying to accomplish with further education. I only lasted one semester basically (though I did stay in one creative writing class for the second term) but it was there that I met my future bandmates Tim and Bruce, and through them, Eric. The four of us went on to become the Church Police, an obscure and short-lived combo that nevertheless went on to become a significant part of my life story.
I could go into story-telling mode here and lay out any number of little anecdotes about the band, but what I really want to say here is that it's pretty easy to undervalue an experience like that when you're in the middle of it. Our group was not all that proficient in terms of musical talent, a coherent message or even purpose for existing, but we had fun and I think in significant ways we connected with a small group of people who saw something in our bumbling madness and gleeful chaos that one doesn't always find when watching bands strive to become popular entertainers. We had somehow found a way to sidestep the customary need to be “good” on our instruments or to develop a concise musical package that would fit tidily onto the bill of an evening's schedule of performances. And in an industry where image and style and trendiness wield enormous clout in determining who even makes it to the stage, the Church Police, along with many other groups who muddled their way through the first “post-punk” era of the early 1980s, found a way to strike a unique pose by being ourselves, not thinking too much about what we looked like or more crucially perhaps, who liked us. We just took our spot on the bill, walked on stage, made our noise, and let the roof crash down upon us, until either the audience erupted in weary impatience for us to get off the damn stage, or the house management decided we'd gone on too long and simply shut off the power.
To me, the Church Police epitomize not just the goofy youthful fun that I try to describe above, but also a potential for creative expression that wasn't adequately fulfilled. I'm not going to lay out a long list of regrets here, but let me just say that if you, the reader, are involved in any kind of a creative endeavor at this time or in the future, give it your fullest effort and attention – especially if it involves other people. It is too easy to get caught in traps of self-doubt or distraction or discouragement – that you're not good enough, or that you're bored of the scene, or that it's just not going anywhere. Maybe that's what the final verdict will render – certainly all things must come to an end – but don't get there until you're sure you've explored the full potential. I think the Church Police underachieved, but for what we did, I'm pleased with how much life has grown out of it.
Given that I can't go and change the past, I make do with the knowledge that my life after the band turned out pretty good, so far anyway. I was able to take some of the hard times that I experienced during those years (the loneliness, the confusion, the poverty, the depression, the drug abuse...) and get a new perspective on what I went through, what it all meant. For nearly 20 years now I've worked with teenage victims of abuse and neglect as a mental health care provider. It's not always easy work and many of the youth I've gotten to know really don't like the circumstances they're in – including the treatment that my colleagues and I seek to provide. I think I understand the reasons for their struggles and resistance. Learning the things that life has to teach us is not usually very fun, convenient or easy. Often, a lot of pain and bitterness accompany those “lessons” - and the words of an adult who's trying to be all nice and empathetic and “I've been there too” are not nearly enough to remove the crappy aftertaste of what we've been dealt.
But one mistake that I wish I had avoided was my tendency to get stuck in dumb habits that I did over and over again. Whether it was smoking pot as a routine, choosing my likes and dislikes based on what I saw others around me saying, or just buying into self-defeating, “I'll never make it” attitudes... those were behaviors that did me in, when it wouldn't have been that hard to reframe my situation in a different (not even a “better”) way. Look at life from as many different angles as you can imagine. Don't get too stuck on any one way of seeing the world – think of yourself as awesomely great at what you do and who you are – and then remind yourself of what a screw-up you have been too. Build for yourself a mind that can handle big and complex ideas, and still stay sane. Press your limits, but strive for the best health you can achieve. Being a teenager or a person in your early 20s is a pretty unique and incredible time of life. Don't let fear or discouragement hold you back and rob you of the joy in life, both now and in decades to come.