Thursday, April 24, 2008
I Was a Rock & Roll God, Part Two: The Rise and Fall of a Childhood Friendship over the Course of Seven Full-Length Albums and One Movie Soundtrack
The following, dating from 1979 to 1983 and spanning my entire junior high school experience and half of high school, is the admittedly incomplete discography of my band Coach (there were actually 14 albums in all). Some exacts titles, some “concepts,” even some entire albums, have long been buried both my time and by several hundred tons of garbage somewhere in Long Island. But the story remains as fresh today as the day it started in a suburban basement with an one eight-track tape deck, two childhood friends and at least six fistfights.
“Coach Original” (1979): Our very first album also set the template for every recording to follow—14 songs (12 originals plus one Aerosmith and one Ramones cover)—all played on lead clarinet and Duraflame carton drums—along with album art cribbed from another source (in this case, the package design for Atari 2600’s “Space War”). “Original” also features our one and only hit—“I’m a Fighter”—first penned during the “Lazer” years and obviously influenced by the theme song for “Rocky,” down to a few of the lyrics. I call it a hit because it remains the only Coach song title I can still recall (although as I write this I’m not completely certain if the title is actually “I’m a Fighter,” “He’s a Fighter” or “Let’s Just Fight”).
“Doubleheader” (1979): Released a mere two months after our smash debut, “Doubleheader” followed the “Original” pattern with another 12 original songs, two covers, our signature “clarinet/box drum give-and-take” and album art copied from an Atari package (this time “Video Olympics”). The album not only managed to avoid the sophomore slump by being successfully recorded over a microphone, but also further solidified the Coach sound, best summed up by James’ mother’s response to my constant clanging of the teapot cymbal as “Armageddon meets Chinese New Year.”
“Coach Alive” (1980): The seventies had been a heady time for concert recording aficionados, thanks in part to such major releases as “Frampton Comes Alive!” and “Kiss Alive!” With two full-length albums, 24 original songs and what might have been either an EP or an accidentally-taped practice session, James and I felt the time was right to release the Coach live album, made possible by simply lifting the crowd response from “Cheap Trick at Budokan” (during one song you can actually hear 20,000 screaming Japanese girls chant “Cry! Cry! Cry!”). In addition to being recorded “in front of a live audience” (and featuring cover art practically lifted from Styx’s “Paradise Theater”), “Coach Alive” plays a significant role in our band’s oeuvre for two reasons: 1) I actually sing lead in one song and 2) my voice actually breaks during said song. Yes, thanks to “Coach” I have recorded proof of the very second I hit puberty. Immediately after the song I suggested we take advantage of the moment by “laying down tracks” for a cover version of Peter Brady’s hit, “When It’s Time to Change.” James was never more insulted in his life. It was our first “professional” argument.
“Soundtrack to a Science Fiction Movie Never Made” (1980): Not so much an actual Coach album as a soundtrack to a film James and I had longed to write, direct, star in, edit, produce and market (the album featured only two original Coach songs in addition to ten illegally recorded AOR hits of the day), STASFMNM is a sad reminder of what could have been. Since fifth grade James and I had been working on a full-length sci-fi movie that incorporated characters and plotlines from both our comic strips (which was another way of saying it incorporated elements from “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica”). This being a time before not only digital cameras but also the prevalence of VHS camcorders, James insisted that we do it on 16mm film stock and rent real movie cameras, resulting in an initial budget of $47,000. James said we could easily raise the money. I said much like a depraved squirrel he was fucking nuts. We didn’t speak to each other for almost an entire month. Looking back on it now, it’s somewhat sad that I had opted against wiping out my parents’ life savings to finance the vision of a 13-year-old filmmaker. After all, seeing a rocket ship dock at a spinning space station to the Johann Strauss II’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” is one thing. Seeing almost the exact same scene reenacted with cardboard and string to Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” well, now that’s just art.
“Junk Rock” (1980): Very few musicians can say that they were directly influenced by Sonny Bono. Even fewer can say they were influenced by a Sonny Bono guest-turn on “The Love Boat.” It was during one such appearance that Sonny played an Alice Cooper look-alike called “Deacon Dark,” the leading light of a musical genre the show called “junk rock” and singer of such hits as “Smash It” and “Step, Step, Step on Toads.” Eventually Deacon sees the errors of his hard, head-banging ways and even wins the heart of a deaf girl by switching to soft-rock ballads (she can feel the vibrations when he plays on the piano). But the idea of “junk rock” stuck with me, both because it sounded so damn stupid and because it seemed like just what our band needed to offset the increasing tension of our practices and recording sessions (we were now arguing every half-hour for every hour we played and were often on the verge of a fistfight). Fortunately, James had just recently switched from the clarinet to electric guitar and was quite eager to blow the roof off of Dix Hills, Long Island. By all accounts the album was a raucous (read: “unlistenable”) affair, concluding with our major opus “Crash It,” which clocked in at over 27 minutes and featured the two us of destroying both our instruments as well as part of James’ parents’ basement before spending the final ten minutes beating the living shit out of each other, all of it captured on eight-track glory. And just like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” ends with the now iconic “heartbeats” from “Eclipse,” Coach’s “Junk Rock” ends on an equally celebrated audio moment—the sound of James’ mom screaming, “Stop it! Stop it!” as James and I banged each other’s skulls against his Ping Pong table.
“The Breaking of the Dawn before the Morning” (1981): Over the next few months James dedicated every waking second to mastering the guitar—taking lessons, learning how to read music, writing more and more songs—everything possible to help him become a real musician. At the same time I was becoming mortified with every single aspect of my life, from the way I looked to the things I did to how I sneezed when alone in my room. Already pathologically shy and having only a few more months before I entered high school as the class pariah, I started doing everything possible to avoid acquiring any further social black marks, from never, ever playing a game of “Dungeons & Dragons” (I have yet to hold a 20-sided die) to never, ever mentioning Coach. Instead, I threw myself into the rather solitary art of cartooning and writing, which after several years would eventually win me a few friends as well as result in me getting very temporarily suspended from school, threatened with a slander lawsuit from a student’s mom, getting my locker searched the two days after the law allowing such was passed and having to spend time with juvenile detention officer Sergeant Jablowski, memorable for both his ridiculous name as well as the fact that he had three nostrils (but all that’s for another tale). Meanwhile James, who had switched to a Catholic school system a few years earlier, was telling every single on of his sacramental school chums about the group, even suggesting that we perform a concert for them, an act that I equated to getting caught masturbating in the gym. When he pressed the issue I clearly pointed out my Duraflame carton bass drum. He then cursed me out for having never invested in a real drum set. I then cursed him out for not knowing when a joke had run its course. We then spent the next two hours threatening to beat each other senseless before recording “The Breaking…,” which James claimed to be our first “serious work” if only because I didn’t write any of the songs or make a single musical suggestion (it was a claim severely tested when James’ mother walk in the middle of our power ballad only to break into uncontrollable laughter).
“Sunday Afternoon” (1982): By now James had started smoking, drinking, driving and growing an actual mustache. I was fat, more or less friendless and almost incapable of speaking in public. Our rehearsals and recording sessions had gone from practically every day tone or twice a week, during which we barely spoke to one other, not out of anger but out of indifference. James had become an excellent guitar player. I couldn’t look at my Duraflame carton without getting ill and spent most of the time drawing while James tuned his guitar between each take. Recorded over eight months—which was eight months longer than we had ever spent recording a Coach album—“Sunday Afternoon” was an all-acoustic album written and sung entirely by James and heavily influenced by Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska.” For an album put together by a high school sophomore who had just taken up the guitar just two years prior, it’s by no means a bad collection of songs, marred only slightly by the unfortunately chosen cover of Aerosmith’s “Kings and Queens and Guillotines.”
Album Who’s Title for the Life of Me I Can’t Remember (1983): James and I now traveled in different social circles (if you could describe any group I was in as a “social circle”). We had gone from hanging together almost every afternoon to a couple of days a week to every couple of weeks to eight months down the line when we happened to cross paths. James said he was recording a new Coach album. I came over and played drums on one song, but by this time my presence was completely unnecessary. James was now not only an excellent guitar player but had also taught himself rudimentary multi-track recording, allowing him to play all the instruments as well as provide his own back-up vocals on the very first Coach album committed to cassette…and to my knowledge the last Coach album ever recorded. Having decided long ago to focus my energies on cartooning and writing, I was happy for him. I didn’t really get what he was doing at the time—or why he kept doing it—but I was happy for him all the same.
Sometimes I wonder how things would have turned out had James been a little more realistic and I had been more willing to take a risk. Quite frankly, we would have ended up at the exact same place at the exact same time, all the fights, all the awful recordings, all the now-great memories still intact. On the very rare occasions James and I see each other we laugh about a time in our lives when we had the absolute freedom to try and achieve a dream or just make a complete ass out of ourselves, depending on your point of view.
I never joined another band again. After all, I never really possessed any musical talent. And besides, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I played the hell out of that Duraflame box.