Look at that one guy with the brand new book bag wandering around in circles. He's keeps nervously walking into the wrong classroom and rushing back out and squinting at his class schedule as if it were a menu at an Armenian restaurant. He's about to meet his new classmates for the first time. It's his first daunting day in hell. He looks like he's about to cry.
He doesn't know any-body.
What a loser.
Hey...where are all of my friends?
Where are all of my friends from last year?
Oh...right...they were all seniors. They're all gone. I'm here on the first day of school in September 1985, a sophomore, and I don't have any real friends.
What a loser.
It seemed that the amazing year I had as a freshman fraternizing with the older kids had come with a steep price. I hadn't gotten to know any of my classmates and vice versa. I mean sure, I was in the same classes they were in, and I hung out at a lot of the same places they did, and went to the same dances. But I never really made a connection with anybody. I was always on my way to meet the gang, and now the gang's split town.
I was so wrapped up in being a rock star that I had been totally oblivious to the time sensitive social structure I had created. I had forgotten that the people who carted me around in their Dad's Skylark and had taken me along to see cool concerts were going off to places I'd have to wait 3 years see if I was lucky. Which, at the present time, on picture day, with a brand new unbreakable comb in my back pocket, and nobody to do the "dead parrot" routine with, didn't look like I was.
Lucky, that is.
Just as I was getting ready to get to know everybody, I ran into someone who had been keeping a keen eye on me all of last year. A guy with a fluffy black mullet so impressive and so enviable that at the end of the year, he had a three girl cat-fight over him at second period lunch right there in front of Brother Roger and Mr. Angelo. And none of them were even his real girlfriend.
No, his girlfriend wasn't in High School. She was twenty-four. And she was smokin' hot. And she loved her Roy.
If I may...
You know how there's always that one guy in High School who, for whatever reason, is a bit older than the rest of the kids in your class? I'm not saying he stayed back. He just started late.
And, because of that little fact, he's the fist one with a car.
Roy had a car.
Not just any car. Roy had the car. Roy had a 1984 Pontiac Fiero. Candy apple red, of course.
And Roy had his name spelled out in giant white decal letters on his rear window. So, if anyone was wondering who the owner of that candy apple red Pontiac Fiero was; the one that just blew by blasting 'Take on Me', you'd have a few extra seconds to focus your eyes on the back window and read those three, giant, white, cursive letters.
And Roy had an ax to grind with me.
Yes, Roy played guitar. And if prompted, he'd tell you that he knew 'Eruption' by Eddie Van Halen. In fact, you didn't even have to ask Roy anything related to music and he'd invariably guide the conversation so that he could throw in "I know Eruption, by Eddie Van Halen". And you'd just stand there, mind reeling, trying to remember how the conversation had taken this unexpected turn. And all you could say was... "Cool!"
October is a special time in the life of any student. A time to settle in to the newly learned patterns that will define their school experience for that year. But October is also an important month for a very different reason. A time when he or she can earn money for their school, learn important community social skills, and even burn a few calories.
A time for...the walkathon.
Yes, the walkathon. Who's going to win the big prize by bringing in the most money from the most people? Who's going to scoff and not even try? And who's going to get challenged to a guitar duel to be held in the cafeteria at the end of the walkathon with hundreds of people watching?
You guessed it.
One fine robust October school day, Roy had come up to me completely out of the blue and said, "Hey, Alex. You know that part in Eruption where Eddie bends the whammy bar all the way down? Can you do that?"
I said, "Roy I don't know Eruption, and I don't even have a whammy bar on my guitar. I've told you that before."
"Oh yeah, I forgot." he said, "I don't think you couldn't even do it even if you tried." (that's the way he talked)
"Roy", I said, "Why don't you leave me alone and play with your whammy bar by yourself."
"Well...uuuhhhh...why don't we have a duel" (he actually called it a duel) "in the caf at the end of the walkathon? Or aren't you too chicken, Johnson."
I said, "Is your girlfriend gonna be there."
"Why?" he asked.
I said, "Because I'm gonna beat you so bad you're gonna need somebody to wipe the tears out of your eyes!"
And so it was set.
We worked it out with the higher ups and they agreed it would be good for morale to have entertainment to look forward to at the end of a long day of for-profit walking.
The rules were simple. Walk for the school. Rock for the title. And the chosen song was 'Eruption', by Eddie Van Halen. What a shocker.
Believe it or not, I didn't care too much about winning the duel. I really just wanted Roy to leave me alone. He was super annoying and his friends were even worse.
I had a Guitar Player magazine from '84 with Eddie on the cover. I had put some of his pictures up in my locker. I don't know if kids today still put pictures up on the insides of their lockers, but in my day, it was expected. It was your colors. It was you.
And following that logic, I was Eddie Van Halen, and I was red and white striped. The colors of the Polish flag.
That Guitar Player magazine had a 6 page spread with the whole solo written out in easy to read tabulature. But easy to read doesn't necessarily mean easy to execute. Unafraid, I dove in head first. I learned the easier parts at the beginning. I learned some of the crucial walk downs in the middle, and I learned the all important two handed tapping that more or less closed the song. What happened between those strategic points was irrelevant as far as I was concerned.
While working on the end part with the two handed tapping, I did something crazy; something that could ruin an otherwise mediocre performance if not done with aplomb. I learned the two handed tapping portion with my left hand over the fretboard rather than under it. And I practiced this one part, over, and over, and over again.
The day came.
I brought my trusty Aria Pro 2 TS-600 in with my Yamaha amp and left it in the teacher's lounge. I put it right next to Roy's Ibanez. His guitar may have been a flashy fluorescent green (a popular color in 85), but I was pretty sure he'd be playing it safe and not taking chances. He knew a lot of people in school and he didn't want to let them down. Plus, he'd have to report to his girlfriend when he picked her up at the Newport Creamery after work.
I, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. I had made a few friends over the previous month but I wasn't building the event up like Roy had been.
All during the 3 or 4 hour walkathon I was heckled by Roy's right, and left hand man.
"Roy's gonna kick your ass!"
"You're goin' down, Johnson!"
I just smiled and kept on walking slowly. If they really wanted to heckle me at length, they'd have to slow down too. But they were with Roy, flanking him like he was some sort of professional boxer mocking his opponent for him; bouncing and clapping their hands and pointing and shouting at me. It was pathetic. I made a few friends that day from their feeble attempt at humiliation alone.
Conversely, Roy was very much in a hurry. He wanted to get it over with. And I'd soon found out why.
We got back to the school. There were hundreds of kids and the place was vibrating with energy in anticipation of the rock and roll rumble about to take place. Remember now, it wasn't just two teens randomly going at it with electric guitars. These people had the opportunity to see 2 performances of the greatest guitar solo ever. "Eruption", by Eddie Van Halen.
And there we stood; the buzz from our amps behind us just the tiniest bit louder than the students amassed in front of us. We had our guitars on. His impressive fluffy black mullet was a bit mussed up from all the walking and the warmth in the room. Me, I had brought along my clear and amber plastic bottle of Dep which was now almost empty from chronic use. I couldn't look more rock and roll if I tried.
We stood up and the room grew quiet.
"Do you want to go first?" Roy asked me.
I looked him square in the eye, ran my fingers through my hair, took one deep breath and said,
"No. This was your idea, and I think it's only right that you get the first shot."
"Ok." He said.
And that was his first mistake.
The crowd sat up in their seats and collectively fixed their eyes on the fluorescent green guitar.
Roy applied his pick to the strings and an ungodly sound came out of the speaker.
"Wwwwhhhhrrrrrr deeedly whhhhhhrrrrrrrr sccccreeeeeechhhhh wwwwhhhrrrrrrrrr clunk!!"
It sounded like a lawn mower caught in a wood chipper. It was awful, and the whole room knew it. Well, the whole room minus Roy's henchmen who were clapping and whistling and not helping out the situation at all.
After what seemed like an hour of rapid fire BB gun pellets to the ears, Roy stopped.
He got a modest response from the crowd. Roy was done. It was in my hands now. F. Alex Johnson, whom the class of '88 barely knew.
The modest clapping which was dying down suddenly started to come together in a simple unison rhythm accompanied by a soft but steadily growing chant:
"A-lex" "A-lex" "A-lex" "A-lex."
I realized at that point that more people knew my name than I thought. And the ones who didn't were getting a crash course.
I looked at Roy and smiled and said "Nice job." He looked away. I have a feeling he didn't even hear me. He was sweating so much I wouldn't have been able to make out tears if there had been any. It didn't matter anymore.
I picked up my guitar pick, smiled at the crowd, and dove in.
I was on fire. When the whammy bar part came I hit my low E string and de-tuned it with my left hand as quickly as I could, immediately re-tuning it back in place. The first stunt was greeted with hoots and hollers, as expected.
The middle parts were a little rough, but I barreled on through. When I came to the part of the solo right before the two handed tapping part I let the strings ring open; just a big open mess of a non-chord. Somehow, it worked.
I took 5 seconds or so and flexed my clasped hands above my head before I carefully positioned my left hand over the neck and started into the part.
It was money. It was ferocious. It was by far the fastest thing I had ever heard produced by my will. It wasn't perfect, but after Roy's meltdown, moments prior, it at least sounded like the piece we had agreed upon. That signature part felt like it lasted 20 glorious minutes, although I know it was 30 seconds or less. It was enough.
I finished with another full de-tuning on the E string and I then I dramatically bowed and let my Dep drenched head hang over my Aria Pro 2 in front of me. I was done. I was sweating. I was tired from walking all day. And I had only brought in about 30 dollars or so for the walkathon.
The place went nuts.
I shook Roy's hand in front of about 300 people and accepted the hilarious title of "Best Guitarist" at Bishop Connolly High School. I gave him an awkward hug and he hurriedly packed up his gear into his candy apple red 1984 Pontiac Fiero. From the windows of the cafeteria you could read his name in the back window all the way to the end of the parking lot until he took a left and sped off to the Newport Creamery.
October is a wonderful month. It brings the trees to their natural state of annual surrender. Some leaves turn the color of the sun that initially gave them life. Some turn the color of the fruits their branches brought to term. Either way, it is spectacular to see. My Mother was a science teacher. Earth science was her focus. She once explained to me that the colors of the leaves you see at peak foliage are the colors the leaves are for their whole life. It's the chlorophyll that covers up their personality and makes them uniformly green. When that chlorophyll is drained by the coming of winter, the leaves respond and reveal their hidden talents. Like the brilliance of fireworks born from plain, rough, wrapped paper and powder.
I shook a lot of hands on that cool October day. I met a lot of people who said they were glad to meet me. I told each and every one of them the same thing. I told them that, on the contrary, that the pleasure was mine. And I was happy and excited to finally join the class that I started out with; to remind myself that it wasn't so long ago that I had been the guy with the brand new book bag, wandering around nervously walking into the wrong classroom and rushing back out; the guy who was meeting his classmates for the first time.
The guy who was finally proud to be a part of the class of '88
As promised, there's another exciting track from Fall River's most legendary band, Atria, waiting for you to make its acquaintance. This one is sung mostly by Dean. I handle the parts that were too high for him. Until you actually hear the song you won't understand what a ridiculous idea that was.
Another one from a movie that we all know and love.
"You just bought yourself a month's worth of detention, mister!"
Photos of B.C.H.S. by F. Alex Johnson c.2005