It is hard to believe that it was 20 years ago now when a most remarkable year of my life took place. In many ways it was the year when I began to think that my own story had a flow and meaning to it, and perhaps the first year when I took any steps to document it at all in anything resembling a journal or calendar notes. Sure, there are bits from before that year, but in large part, there was a shift in this period—10th and 11th grade, 15/16 years old—and somehow things seemed important enough to weigh and consider. Certain characters and experiences laid the groundwork for those in years to come. It was a time of paradigm shift for me, as you would sort of expect of a person of that age. Here are some bits of the picture. I suppose I shall revisit this theme some more before the year is out.
I first heard the name Jethro Tull the day after the infamous Hard Rock/Metal Grammy award show that gave Tull the dubious honor in a complete upset over the odds-on winners Metallica or Jane's Addiction. Even Tull were embarrassed by the attention. So, the next morning, the radio show I was listening to then (the B-100 B Morning Zoo with the Rich Brothers) were mocking the win. I had no idea what was so funny about it all; I knew none of the characters they were talking about. It wasn't until maybe a week later when I somehow decided to try the leading rock station, KGB (which for some reason always seemed like it was a metal station before I gave it a go), that I eventually heard Tull's song Bungle in the Jungle, and the irony slowly dawned on me. I didn't like metal. I really didn't even know any of the classic metal repertoire, but it was pretty clear that Bungle wasn't metal! So the joke was sinking in. But before long, I heard a couple more Tull songs—new ones from their most recent album, intriguingly named Steel Monkey and Farm on the Freeway. Steel Monkey rocked more but it too didn't seem like metal. Farm on the Freeway captured my interest right away and I never stopped liking that song. But yeah, metal they were not!
So, I stopped listening to the pop music radio programming I had long listened to since I was about nine years old, and went with KGB and its hard rock/classic rock programming. All of a sudden, it came alive and I found myself reconnecting with some riffs that I had heard and liked but never knew how to find. I would do the obligatory recording-off-the-radio onto old tapes so I could absorb some favorites, and you can be sure that my fragmentary collection of Tull songs were on there. I think for a while I had no idea Tull were already a 20 year old band with a few hundred songs. After a while of expressing interest in them at the Command Post (hobby shop detailed below), an employee named Sara hooked me up with a cassette copy of the 20 Year of Tull set, which was a totally weird experience. I followed that by launching headlong into a collection of Tull music, a couple of albums at a time. I had no idea how deep the well was, but I plunged in. Even now, I am still listening to some things in a serious way for the first time.
The Command Post was a hobby shop I used to frequent every weekend for months and months during my heyday of model building. I'd bike over there twice a weekend and spend all my free time there. I wasn't old enough to work legally, but my expertise and product knowledge scored me some free swag sometimes. I would also help stock things and fetch rolled tacos for whoever was working for the day. There was a pair of dudes who operated the shop then, and to them I owe the shift to rock music and all that it opened up for me. Ross Shekleton and Jim Kerr—both about 20 years old, and sort of like big brothers to me at the time. Ross was an Anglo-American guy, a history major and a prog rock geek who is directly responsible for me getting into Rush and Yes and not going down the path of Guns N Roses. He played up other prog acts, but his most memorable influence on me was his piquing my interest in Rick Allen of Def Leppard. He used to do a one-arm-behind-the-back mocking of Rick and I didn't get the joke till he explained that Rick was THE guy who bounced back to drumming after losing his arm. (I recalled a friend telling me that back around the time of the accident in 1985, but that had long slipped my mind till Ross brought it back in 1989.) I got intrigued by Rick and still am amazed at his determination after his accident. That led me to ask myself that summer, after rediscovering some Def Leppard I had not heard in years, what exactly is my excuse for not playing drums? After all, I had a set in the corner of my room for the last few years. Anyhow, in this shift to more rock oriented stuff, I also happened into Def Leppard, which set the stage for the next thing that led me into a totally new direction for years. My recording collection officially commenced with my purchase of Pyromania on July 15th of that year.
Ross Shekleton was influential in two ways. Initially, he egged me on to be a model building junkie, and then later on he set the stage for a musical identity that arose out of his prodding to listen to something more than the pop stuff I had been listening to. His influence was such that he is the one figure to straddle two sides of this lifestyle fence of mine. While I was still consumed with building models, I was getting really good at the craft. That summer of 1989 I entered a few of my pieces in the contest at the national convention of the International Plastic Modeler's Society (IPMS—sort of an unfortunate initialism, eh?) It happens the convention was in San Diego so it was easy for me to get to. I guess there was a small hometown advantage. After a year or two of sweeping a few quarterly contests of the local chapter (big fish in a small pond), I entered the national contest and did quite well, taking a Junior Best of Show and some others (Best Jr. Sci Fi for a radical mod of an F-14 Tomcat, and Best Jr. Armor and Best Jr. "Out of the Box"). Even there among national juniors who showed up, I was sort of a big fish in a small pond, but it was a fairer competition. Anyhow, I got my models pictured in the post-convention newsletter, and that was sort of my model building swan song. That contest was in July, but by October I was so into drumming that I had dropped model building altogether. The materials and half-finished models and the reference materials just got pushed aside not unlike the drumset once was when it fell out of favor in 1985 or so.
But I guess I am getting ahead of myself. It used to be that for a few summers between 1987-89 I went to my grandparents' house for the day while my old man was at work. Much of the time I was working on models outside in the patio area. In the first two years I was regarded as too young to ride clear across the three mile span of Clairemont between their house and mine, so usually I stayed put. But by 1989, I was free to do so, and one day rode back home earlier than usual and uncovered my drums, set them up, and dug out my old instruction books and tried to make heads and tails of the stuff. Of course, you can't be too discreet about playing drums, particularly when you play them as badly as I did in that period. But for a couple weeks in August—starting on the 15th—I clandestinely did what I could to read musical chickenscratch and discern how to play what I heard on recordings, and dammit to blazes, but my lessons had prepared me more than I realized! The main difference between my newfound interest and the old days of lessons was that back in 1984-5 I was not exposed to records and told to go listen and enjoy the music. It was just exercises issued me by my teacher, an older man who played many instruments and taught out of his general service music store. But now I heard the music and wanted to be a part of it, and with Rick Allen as my first influence, I wanted to prove that I could "come back" to the drums. A couple weeks later, after my old man's birthday dinner at Anthony's Restaurant, I "treated" him and the grandfolks to some of my tennis shoes-in-the-dryer playing. And I guess they pretended they liked it. Or maybe my grandmother was happy to see me finally playing after those years off. It was she who bought the drums and paid for lessons after all, only for me to give it all up after a few months once I had a kit!
In a parallel universe, another part of me was trying something new, and by far the influence of this is deep and long lasting. It seems sort of twee to consider what church was to me back then, but one has to start somewhere. My association with the church of my birth/baptism/youth was never consistent. I didn't ever go too regularly unless that was sort of required or convenient for an adult in my family. Most of my history is at the one church in Pacific Beach where my grandmother was among the founders, with most other churches being very short lived dabblings of my parents. But, about the end of 1988, I darkened their door more frequently, frankly because of a girl (more later), but because there seemed to be some community of folks who cared for me. My pastor Jerry had been there since early 1986, and so I already had some rapport with him, and indeed he had been highly concerned for me. But I was still sort of at a distance from the church until one time when the youth group leader-cum-associate pastor Judy took us to see Dead Poets Society and hosted a pizza dinner and discussion afterward. The theme of carpe diem left an impression on me. (Later that summer after the IPMS contest sweep, I pointed to carpe diem and had a fun time telling people how I seized the day, just as I was told!) That movie and discussion helped lead me to some feeling of fondness for the people involved, and I was persuaded to take part in the summer vacation bible study with them and members of another church from down the road. That was my social world for the next few months, really. It's funny how I can't remember a damned thing about what happened there as a bible study, but I remember the feeling of being among some good people who were preferable to my school scene. (Years later as a 28 year old, I would return to the church after a ten year gap and try to find that chemistry again, but it never quite worked out.) From that point on, in early July of 1989, I spent about a year and a half doing literally everything that I could at church. All the social, study, worship, workshop, youth and mixed fellowship and other gatherings that I had time to do, I did. It was in that time when I was introduced to the ideas of Martin Buber in an evening study group. Now, I have a dog that is named after him, but back then it was sort of exceptional to be the only 16 year old in a study group reading I and Thou. Jerry and Judy used to be quite supportive of all this, even picking me up to take me to some of these events. A number of folks opened their homes to me as well.
In that same summer I was part of the brainstorming effort to launch a group that Jerry and Judy thought was needed to address alienation among people my age, of which there were close to ten at the time. The so-called Shalom Group was created to keep peers in touch not only with each other, but also with a few well-chosen adults. There was a lot of dialog that was held in confidence so it was made to feel safe for us who were dealing with various of the problems of that age. The kickoff gathering was in the mountains and held over a weekend immediately before the school year started. It was a really magical time for me, and coming down the mountain and rejoining the "real" world was misery-making in a way that I guess Moses understood. Not all the meetings were so transcendent, but enough of them were, and there was a good trust that resulted. A certain new girl showed up and joined Shalom about a year after its founding. Her name was Kelli Parrish. She liked classic rock and even some of the Jethro Tull stuff I copied for her. The rest is history.
Suffice it to say, church was a profound experience for me, but it had its disappointments. As much as one would like to think of it as a different world than the one outside, it has its shortcomings because church people are of course a cross section of the population at large. At the time, I was a really uptight guy, and was not prepared to see my peers (barely into high school, and with the Shalom group barely formed by then) sneaking some beer at the church camp. It was a lot for me then. It was the first of many such disappointments with the church that unfortunately revealed themselves over many years—up to the present even—and a chain of instances which led me to leave the place a couple years back, but one where Kelli still participates. Anyhow, for consolation at such scandalous behavior as a group of teens cracking a beer in the camp cabin bathroom, I retreated to my bunk and listened to Jethro Tull. It was all I had at the time. It spoke to me somehow, and that was just one experience that led me to absorb Tull's music on more and more levels over the years. Disappointments aside, the church was a place that did me a lot of good. It was from those experiences that I never really too closely identified with my peers or some who were younger, except Kelli who turned up later on. In this period of church life, I associated with people who were 40 something and older. Then later on, I found that many of them were alcoholics in their own right, and in some ways, even some of my most respected figures were among them. But let me not soil the image they had for the naive 16 year old me back then. They were some of my most trusted relationships then. Ignorance was bliss.
It is true that I met my wife at church, but over a year and a half before we met in the middle of 1990, there was one girl who came to church and was cause for a lot of hope and vexation for years to come. Shelby was a friend of Judy's daughter Jennifer. Shelby dropped in a few times in December of 1988 and totally lit up my world at the time. She was an odd bird for sure. She wasn't really interested in religion except as an anthropologist would be, or perhaps a comparative religions student. I had no understanding of the stuff myself back then so she was a total mystery to me except that on one evening a week before Christmas, we were at someone's party and we got to talking, and for the 15 year old me to talk to a girl-peer was heady stuff! I guess the feeling was one of acceptance as she listened to what I had to say. Considering I dressed like a dork (not of my own choosing, I assure you), and she came off looking like an angel to me then, it truly was something new to behold. Anyhow, for a few weeks in early '89 (months before the whole summer experiences with DPS and VBS) I was sure to get to church to have a chance to talk to her again. We talked on the phone too, but she was from a different school and therefore a different world. I don't even know how to sum up what we had in common because it seemed so little. But she was nice to me and that was a leap ahead like no other. You can imagine the hope.
That little fantasy lasted for about two months and seemed to come crashing down at around the time of Valentine's day, or maybe it was because of the idea to go to Balboa Park and see some museums, among which—the Aerospace Museum—had on display a model of mine. Whatever the reason, I didn't feel like going to church for several months and she totally dropped off the radar for a few months till later in the summer as the youth group was planning a youth service in September. From that time on, she was a total enigma to me, and an emotional rollercoaster for me as I tried in vain to figure her out—for the next 11 years! The few weeks before the youth service were spent with a couple planning meetings with Shelby and Jennifer and a couple others, had over pizza and soda at Round Table. It was different at least, and I don't think I mentioned models anymore because by then I had shifted my allegiance to the gods of percussive thunder anyway. (The shift to music didn't automatically increase my cool quotient, but if I was relying on Shelby for validation, I could die first. For years to come she routinely gave me shit for listening to Rush and having Neil Peart posters.) The day of the youth service was a fulcrum moment for she and I. I knew she was at church to sort of just give herself exposure to Christianity while not really liking any of it, or seemingly not liking any religion, having been raised with an atheist mom and agnostic grandmother. Judy had been beaming about the service to some folks after church and was heard to say that she was proud of her "investment" in the kids. Hearing this, Shelby flew off the handle, stormed off, and as far as I know, was not seen there again. Later on, she got all political on me (her consciousness for this sort of thing was astounding at even that age) and was angry at the term "investment" being applied to impressionable young people. I think she was a bit severe; I think anyone else understood Judy was making a compliment and expressing pride in her experiment. Shelby's semanticism didn't tarnish my fondness for Judy and her impact on me.
That division between wishing to understand Shelby and participate in church life was in the mean time met with the decision to remain connected to the church. Later on most of the decade to come was spent more in some pursuit of Shelby and away from church altogether, only to reverse itself in that amazing period of 2000-2001 when the whole Shelby thing crashed down in a single day. But, for a while during the remaining period of high school I held them in tension, often to face some ridicule from Shelby who was more and more aggressive in badmouthing the church life I led. Later on, most of what my life was like was badmouthed. I guess maybe I should have learned to let it go back then. I have said for years now that everything I needed to know about her was learned in the first two years. It was a far cry from the seeming acceptance that started it all off. Oh well.
By the second half of 1989 the components were in place: Jethro Tull, drumming, Shelby, church life, a shift away from models and the interest in military machinery. It was far from the multiinstrumental, Jesus-loving, peacenik-Democrat, naked-biking, domestic wife/dog family man I am now, but it was a first step. Or maybe it was a bunch of first steps, all taken at once with a bunch of left feet!
I found myself doing pretty horribly in the first semester of my junior year in high school. After all, the start of my drumming, the fateful youth service and complicated quasi-relationship with Shelby, the start of Shalom group, and my plunge into Tull collecting all happened within a few weeks of each other. I spent all my allowance on Tull cassettes (and got my first CD player for Christmas that year). I really had no idea what I was getting into with that music, but even still, I was pitching them to church peers nonetheless, and finding no one to share my deep and abiding love for the band (so you see it was amazing when Kelli came along the next year and sort of took the bait). I was so into playing drums that fall that for a few weeks I had my kit in the living room, and in order to stay close to them and play whenever possible, I actually did my homework on them—literally, upon the drum heads! The only class I distinctly remember hating was a chemistry class, but I soon got transfered to a biology class and got along a lot better. I guess I hated my math class too, and by 11th grade I must have already been repeating algebra. The school scene was all so shallow to me compared to my life outside. Social life in the school setting was something to be endured for five days while as much of my own time was spent trying to do something associated with church, if it's a social life we're considering. All of that did pave the way for the church to elect me as a deacon the following year, at the tender age of 16. The year of 1989 was an interesting time of finding new stuff to do, but by May of the following year, I felt overwhelmed and was about to have my first brush with depression, coincidentally about the same time as I began my first job—at the Command Post!
Yeah, this is skipping into the next year a bit, but it is interesting to behold. The Command Post used to be paradise on earth when I went there as a sycophantic kid on his bike. But I got the invitation to work there (albeit at a new location where I had helped them move to in the summer of '89) in April of 1990, basically on Easter weekend if I remember right. I had always been cautioned not to get drawn into working on Sundays. And here I was, getting called in to fill in at the counter one Sunday when no one else would work. The world got complicated all of a sudden. This was months after I had stopped building models, so already I was a bit ambivalent about the place and the personalities, particularly after Ross left. The new location didn't have the funky charm of the old one. But somehow, I ended up working there for a few months in 1990. These days, I am far more defensive about not working on Sundays, and feel cheated and sold out when I do get suckered into it. Back then, despite the church life I led, I didn't fancy myself religious per se, but I think that doing commercial work on Sunday, even sometimes, was a crack in the wall that pointed me away from my meaningful social life, particularly a year later still in 1991 when I worked at Subway and didn't get home till 1:30 am on Sunday morning—hardly making it easy to get to church life at 9 am. Subway pretty much was the wedge that kept me from church long enough to forget it for a decade. Among the circumstances that led me back years later were developing more of a relationship with Kelli and a massively empty work schedule in the post-9/11 period.
There was another mildly interesting subplot to the year of 1989, and that was the matter of all things German. I started taking German in tenth grade after a summer of dabbling but more so once I realized the connection between it and early forms of English. The school years included my first and second level German language classes. The second year level was in the fall of '89 and was actually an independent study. I was the only one who took the second year course that year. Jerry, pastor from church, had taken German a long time back to help with his theological studies so that he could get more from certain of his theological heroes. He sort of egged me on with the subject but always joked that I was much better at it. For years afterward, he consulted me on pronunciation. One of the extracurricular church events in 1989 included a local concert which featured this remarkable bass vocalist who sang in German. (It was a little surprising because he was a black man. But have you ever heard a black bass soloist fill an old church? The richness of tone! Ahhh.) I talked to the guy afterward and asked him if he spoke German, and he said he didn't really know any at all. Hah!
All this makes for a backdrop to be excited for the news of what was going on in the world at the time. This was of course the season when the old Eastern European Soviet bloc began to crumble and Germany was among the first to throw off the old regime. My old man seized upon the moment to go to Berlin and actually take some hammer swipes at the Berlin Wall in the midst of all the crowds that were there in the last week of 1989. I know he had a pen-friend/love interest at the time who lived there and set him up for this particular trip, so that was justification enough, but I think the historical import finalized the scheduling. He brought home a bit of the wall and it was quite a piece of show-and-tell that season. Upon reflection of all that has happened since, he seems to be better at putting walls up than taking them down, though I guess it is a feather in his cap that he helped bring the Berlin Wall down. He can tell that story. I will tell mine.
Good as that experience was for him, I remember that Christmas being one of the turning points of fractured family experiences for the holidays. I spent it with my grandparents and doing whatever was available through the church family. At Christmas Eve dinner with my grandparents, in a cheesy family diner that is now replaced by an Outback Steak House, I remember enthusiastically enumerating all the instruments I knew Ian Anderson of Tull to have played on Tull records. I barely knew what a sopronino sax or balalaika was! I may as well have been speaking Mandarin to them. Or maybe Mandolin. Whatever.
So that's what is on my mind about my experience that year. The rest is details. But I wouldn't want to bore you with details. Not at TAPKAE dot com!