Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I Was a Rock & Roll God: The All-True Story of a Band Called Coach

Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out had MySpace been around when I was a kid. Not simply because my preteen social awkwardness and crippling naiveté would have almost certainly made me the target of sexual predators, but because of how MySpace could have altered the very fortunes of my rock band. A rock band that didn’t feature a single guitar, bass, keyboards or legitimate set of drums. A rock band that had the questionable foresight to record every single one of its albums on eight-track tape. A rock band that—as so many before it—imploded due to infighting, commercial indifference and Catholic school.

Like most of my more memorable experiences from childhood, the band was the brainchild of my good friend James. James had previously been responsible for introducing our neighborhood to “Acorn Wars,” in which each Fall all the kids divided into two warring factions (everybody vs. James and me) and then proceeded to hurl acorns as hard as possible at each other’s head. It soon proved to a popular tradition, lasting ten seasons and both highlighting the very point of “Lord of the Flies” as well as inadvertently causing half my childhood home to burn to the ground, forcing my family to live in a trailer on our own driveway with a pipe leading to the garage toilet for the better part of two years (but that’s for another tale).

James also came up with the idea that we should each own a “pet robot,” a concept that tested both the limits of mid-1970’s technology and eight-year-olds’ wiring capabilities. Those obstacles notwithstanding, James eventually succeeded at his dream by simply inverting a flower-patterned wastebasket on a small pull-cart and topping it off with a wig that clearly said “severed mop.” He then spent the remainder of that summer feeding his robot special “energy pellets” (balled-up pieces of different-colored napkins) so it could help him in his never-ending quests to rid the neighborhood of evil (quests that almost always ended with some parent calling James’ mom and saying, “Uh, yeah, your son is in my backyard running around in a cape and yelling at a pail’). A few months later James sadly put away the robot, citing that its soul was being held captive in a cave by the Viet Cong.

It was also James who-- inspired by the then Sunday night one-two punch that was “Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom” and “The Six Million Dollar Man”—attempted to make the world's first bionic frog, with predictable results. Using a steak knife, the spring from a Bic ballpoint pen and a piece of yarn, James first cut the frog's right hind near the neighborhood pond, instantly severing the muscle. James then unintentionally tore the leg's skin wide open while trying to insert the not-so-coiled spring, resulting in both an exceedingly hyper-extended limb and a less than lucid amphibian. Unable to stitch the leg back up because neither he nor I knew how to sew or remembered to bring a sewing needle, James instead applied copious duct tape to the now "improved" body part, believing it to be both long-lasting and good protection from the rain. I, meanwhile, abstained from the surgical procedure because I had misgivings from the very moment my friend first united the words "frog" and "bionic" and because I come from a long line of less-than-hearty souls (including a little brother who was once deathly afraid of both the vacuum cleaner and the opening credits to “Land of the Lost” and a father who had tripped over a park bench while running away from a butterfly). The patient, alas, was released after only one installed bionic feature. He then proceeded to jump at angles often at 90 degrees variance from his intended direction, until he eventually made his way back to the pond...from which he never resurfaced.


By the end of our elementary school years, James—having exhausted all that nature and technology had to offer—came upon another idea. An idea that spoke directly to anyone about to face the visceral thrills and absolute horrors of junior high school. An idea that could be summed up in five short words—“Let’s start a rock band.”

Now, truth be told, this was not the first time we had tried to start and maintain a band. Back in 1976, James, our friend Bruce and I formed the jazz combo “The Winston Woodchucks” (named after our development, “Winston Woods”). The trio—perhaps the only one to feature two clarinets and a tuba—played such standards as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and the chorus to “Convoy” as well as our very first original songs, all of which were inspired and defined by the very limitations of our band. Our first single—“The Car”—brilliantly captured the driving, horn-honking sound of heavy rush-hour traffic. Our next single—“The Train”—beautifully portrayed the propulsive horn-tooting of a 20th Century Limited. By the time I showed up to practice with the sheet music for our third single—“The Boat”—we had all become painfully aware of the musical trap we had set for ourselves.

But out of the ashes of “The Winston Woodchucks” rose the Phoenix-like “Lazers” (spelled with a “z” instead of an “s” so as not to be confused with the real thing), an entirely new instrumental band featuring a tuba and only one clarinet (I had given up the instrument a few months earlier). The “Lazers” lasted less than a month but it was during that time James happened upon an idea that would shape our very lives…or at least the next few years.

“What we need,” he said with complete authority, “is a drummer.”

And so in the summer of 1979 James and I embarked on forming our two-man supergroup (featuring the major forces behind “Winston Woodchucks” and “Lazers”). James would handle lead vocals, lead clarinet and press the “record” button on his eight-track tape deck. I would sing backing vocals and play the drums, the latter hampered by just two little facts: 1) I had never played the drums before and 2) we had no drums. But for a kid like James—who had once tried to make his own one-man helicopter with a plank of wood and two fish tank air compressors—these facts were minor inconveniences at best. He quickly fashioned a complete kit, using a Duraflame carton for my main drum, a “Gunsmoke” lunchbox for my snare and a Chinese teapot filled with screws for my cymbals. After a few practice sessions—during which I eventually proved my proficiency at holding two drumsticks concurrently and no longer making guitar sounds with my mouth—we were ready to grab our seats at the rock & roll banquet table.

All we needed was a name. After much deliberation we settled on two choices—“Coach” and “Joe Booger and the Eight Nose-Pickers.” Further discussion led us to opt for “Coach,” if only because it sounded serious—and if there’s one thing a 12-year-old boy wants when hammering down on a Duraflame carton after a blistering clarinet solo in a cover version of “Toys in the Attic,” it’s to be taken seriously.

And so having decided upon a name, having proven our musical chops to ourselves and having purchased several blank eight-track tapes for recording, Coach set up shop in James’ parents’ basement, under the watchful eye of his younger sister’s Shawn Cassidy poster. It’s there that we spent almost all of our free time over the next four years, trying to set the world on fire one song at a time…

Next Time, Part Two: “The Rise and Fall of a Childhood Friendship over the Course of Seven Full-Length Albums and One Movie Soundtrack”

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