July 29, 2007

Music of the Dorks


Like everyone who ever went to high school, it seems—hell, like everyone who’s ever walked past a high school at least once in their lives—I look back on those days and think of myself as an outcast.

      Green Bay’s East High School in the early eighties was as about as ordinary as you could get for the place and time. It wasn’t a particularly tough school. It wasn’t especially good or bad. We had some good teachers. We also had our drunk teachers, our mean teachers, our teachers who regularly had affairs with students, and other teachers who sold pot between classes. It was all just a given, and no one really bothered much about it.

      The student body, likewise, was a pretty decent cross section of the local population. There were the jocks, the rich, beautiful kids, the Christians, the stoners, the punks (both of them)—my class even boasted the first generation of computer geeks just as the home computer revolution was getting underway.

      I wasn’t any of those things. (I considered myself a punk, but nobody else seemed to notice). The kids I ended up hanging out with weren’t any of those things, either. It was sort of a clique, I guess, but a dorky one. I think we spiraled together simply because we didn’t belong anyplace else—nor did we really want to. As a result, we were surprisingly different from one another. I guess you could say we were smart kids, but not in the right way. We weren’t math whizzes, so we didn’t hang out with the math and computer geeks. We were neither wealthy nor attractive enough to be accepted by The Beautiful People (as we knew them). And none of us was much interested in partaking in an after school social life, so we didn’t work on the paper or the yearbook or any of that shit. That was fine. Apart from some intelligence, though, we had little in common. Paul (I’m going to leave the last names out to avoid follow-up calls) was interested in government and politics—though the mechanics of bureaucracy seemed to fascinate him more than any “issues.” Given how much contempt he felt for people in general, maybe that made sense.

      At the time I wanted to be a physicist, and read lots of philosophy (mostly the existentialists). My own politics were a muddle of revolutionary communism, anarchism and nihilism. Steve was consumed by the rules of grammar and collected textbooks. Peter I was flamboyantly gay at a time when no one would ever admit to being a gay high school student. (Of course he never admitted it either—he was just really flaming.) Peter II was one of those rare outdoorsy, athletic geeks, who was also seriously into fantasy novels and role-playing games. And P.A.—the only girl in the lot—was a sensitive, boorish type who wanted to study medicine.

      For as smart and interesting as they could all be, I was always a bit astonished at how banal their musical tastes were. You’d figure a weird outsider would be interested in weird music, but no. Each of these people was obsessed with some insipid popular band. And when I say “obsessed,” I mean they would not only buy everything that band released—they would track down rarities, b-sides, alternate takes, everything they could find. In the days before CD box sets and the Internet, this could be a very tricky, expensive, and time consuming endeavor.

      This is not uncommon by any means—everybody has their favorite bands, especially when you’re that age. I just wish they could’ve chosen some cool bands.

      For Paul, the politician who hated people, it was Pat Benatar. I never got that, but there it was. He knew everything there was to know about Pat Benatar. A few years after graduation, a college roommate of his even reported that he would recite Pat Benatar lyrics in his sleep—”Love is a Battlefield” specifically—and if that little tidbit got out, it might mean the end of a promising political career.

      Peter I, the gay one, listened to nothing but Asia. That, even more than the Pat Benatar, struck me as a clear case of media brainwashing at work. I mean, they only recorded one song, but kept re-releasing it every couple of months under a different title. Who could be fooled? (Well, I guess Peter I was).

      For P.A. it was Simon and Garfunkel—which at least makes more sense than most of them. She thought Paul Simon was “a genius.” But she also had a serious depressive streak, wrote poetry, and could at time be almost comically P.C.

      I never really understood how Peter II latched onto Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins-era Genesis, but there you go. Always left me scratching my head when he started analyzing the songs, part by part. I mean, why bother?

      It was Steve, though, who put them all to shame. Not only did he have every Abba album and single ever released (and there were an awful lot)—he had every pressing of every album and every single. If an album was released in Japan, he had it. If the same album with the same cover art was pressed in Canada, he had it. If a single was released on four different colors of vinyl, he had all four.

      If members of Abba had a side project, he bought everything released by that side project. If there were other people connected with the side project, he bought everything they did, too. It didn’t even stop there. If another band or singer covered an Abba song, he had to own everything they did.

      And he packed every record neatly away in its own Mylar bag to keep it looking like new.

      This, mind you, was almost two decades before the hit Broadway musical, back when Abba was generally considered a disco-era joke. He didn’t care. Abba was his life. Abba and grammar.

      He was still my best friend, though, insane as he could make me at times with his non-stop Abba talk.

      I wonder now how I would have reacted at, say, age twelve if someone had told me that I’d be spending my high school years hanging out with kids whose lives revolved around some of the emptiest, most annoying pop music ever written (at least up to that point, anyway)—and that these kids would be my only friends.

      I’m guessing my first suicide attempt would’ve come two years earlier than it did.

      For the record, I spent my high school years mostly listening to hardcore and rambunctious classical music (especially Carl Orff and Wagner) Not that it made me any better, but Asia? Jesus. At least nobody was really into Journey.

      I should note for the record that I still listen to hardcore and rambunctious classical music (along with plenty of other things). I’m even listening to Parsifal as I type this. Nothing can top that third act.

      I wonder if Paul still listens to Pat Benatar?


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