For our first real practice, we gathered out in the boonies. Tivans’ family owned a hobby farm on Drectrah Coulee Road, some ten miles from our hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin. It was August 1979, right before the start of our junior year of high school.
We set up in the sunny outdoors, on the grass, running power from an orange extension cord that led from the barn—which was not so much a barn as it was a huge garage that also had cooking facilities and a loft. The kitchen came in handy for sleepovers and parties; the loft was a great place to take girls. It was a perfect teen getaway: No parents. No cops. No rules except those we might impose on ourselves, and we seldom bothered.
Only Woody had been in a rock band before, having played for a month or so with a group back in junior high. A month or so was as long as most kid bands lasted. He and Tivans each owned their own guitars and amps. Mine were cheapo rentals from a music store in the middle of town. Woody and Tivans knew a lot of chords and some lead riffs. They’d already been working up tunes in the school band room during our sophomore year. For my part, I was just starting out. I knew C, G, D, and (sort of) A, and I still hadn’t gotten the hang of strumming.
From the beginning, Van was to be the lead vocalist, just as soon as we could snag a P.A. system. He often sang solos in school, and he’d been a member of the local boy choir since he was a kid. So that was kind of a lock. We didn’t have a bass player yet, or even a bass guitar, but we all figured on Van filling that role if he could scrape up some money to rent one. Bass was always the final consideration. Who in hell wanted to be a bass player?
Jim, who’d had a little experience playing percussion in marching band, borrowed some classmate’s kit and set it up like he really knew what he was doing. At that point, I mainly knew him as a teammate from football the year before, in tenth grade. In the locker room one day after practice, I’d mentioned wanting to start a band someday. He expressed interest in playing drums, and I logged that into my memory.
Compared to me—and really, compared to all of us—Jim was a tough kid and no stranger to trouble. I’d first met him on a weekend night a couple of years earlier, when we were still in junior high. It was in the parking lot of High Roller, an indoor skating rink. I walked over to where he and another kid were in the process of breaking into someone’s car, and I introduced myself.
It felt cool standing next to a crime in progress, being a comparative innocent who was just beginning to dabble in drink and the occasional cigarette. I hadn’t even tried pot yet. There’s no way I’d have had the balls to pull off a break-in, then or now. Criminality was never a lifestyle that appealed to me, even after I became a full-on druggie and spent a lot of time with dealers. Still, the mystique drew me to its periphery. I found I liked hanging close to that fire, mesmerized by an element of badness I could not (or would not) ever quite manifest.
The power of that draw has receded as I’ve grown older; but I’ll never forget the rush of standing in the High Roller lot, yakking with Jim and the other kid as they worked a bent coat hanger in through the driver’s side window.
Like I said, Jim and I ended up playing football together during our sophomore year, when the bodies of our respective junior high schools, Lincoln and Longfellow, merged at Central. Van, my best friend at the time, had also joined the team that fall, but he quit before the first game. Compared to our experience at Longfellow, high school-level sports now seemed too serious to him, almost like a business. I wasn’t too far from his way of thinking, though I did stick out the season. I was more cautious then, still reluctant to detach from a familiar herd. But that was about to change.
As it turned out, tenth grade was the last time any of us played on school teams. While I understand now that it was a shared turning point, I don’t think our awareness was developed enough then to see it as such. We each had our own private motivations to change, and I don’t recall us speaking about it in sweeping generalities. Like all teens, we were self-absorbed.
Plus, I think that we were each at different points on the continuum of delinquency. Some were into it more than the rest; and if we were aware of anything in a macro sense, it was the position that we as individuals held compared to others. The further along the line you were, the cooler. Many of us smoked cigarettes by then. We were pretty much all into drinking and pot-smoking. There was some petty thievery and small-time dealing in our peer group. A few cut school regularly. Some of us took pills.
I’d come to love amphetamines: black beauties, green-and-clears, white cross. I took them by the handful. I loved the intensity of feeling, the non-stop jabbering, the tingling in my scalp. I loved that people would recognize that I was speeding, how they’d see it in the size of my pupils, laugh, and comment:
“Man, you’re really zipping!”
“How many did you take?”
The attention I got from gobbling pills in quantities other kids wouldn’t dare to try was as intoxicating as the pills themselves. It bestowed, to a degree, that element of badness I’d come to admire. Plus, it conferred a new persona: I was now that crazy speed freak of Central High.
Make no mistake, my shift from being a jock-y, conformist, establishment-cleaving kid to someone whose allegiance now lay with the rebels (those who were called—and who called themselves—freaks) was both conspicuous and intentional. I set out to place a firm demarcation between the kid I’d been and the kid I was to become. Part of it was to shed the veneer of innocence I’d worn, which had become a liability now that I was older. I also knew that switching herds would be risky, bringing social consequences; so I must act with audacity, for there would be no turning back.
But on a practical level, I understood that delinquency better fit the newest role I intended to fill. Namely, that of a rock star.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived with delusions of grandeur. I am a timid only child of domineering parents, but my inner life is fraught with Olympian hubris. As a little boy, I was convinced I’d be a great paleontologist one day; and the time I was taken out of the kindergarten classroom to talk to first graders about dinosaurs still rings as a pinnacle moment. As I got older and switched my interest from prehistory to history, I set my sights on world conquest. I pored over books on autocrats and military giants like Julius Caesar, George Custer, and even Adolph Hitler. The concept of power over populations, and the prospect of wielding it someday, fascinated me.
When my adolescent male aggressiveness came to the fore during junior high, the focus of my fantasies again shifted—this time to sports, where, naturally, a career in professional football awaited. But, by high school, it became clear that this path would require more work and dedication than I was willing to invest. Plus, as an offensive lineman, I knew I could never reach the height of glory and adoration I sought. That place was reserved for guys who caught passes, made touchdowns, and delivered bone-crushing tackles. I was a foot soldier who wanted to be a general. So, disillusioned after that tenth-grade season, I traded my cleats for a pot pipe and a pocketful of little white tablets. And I rented an electric guitar.
By the time we gathered at Tivans’ farm in the summer of ‘79, Woody had already set chords to some lyrics I’d penned in tenth-grade geometry class. “Red Eyes” told a story about getting busted for pot. In the song, a kid wanders out of a McDonald’s with a headache “like you wouldn’t believe.” He goes out back to smoke a bowl of weed to take away the pain. Afterward, while walking home, he happens upon a police officer who notices a certain distinguishing feature, to which the kid refers in the chorus:
I’ve got red eyes, policeman’s delight, Perhaps some Visine would make them alright. I’ve got an O.Z. and a bowlful of dust, But there’s a narc on the corner and he’s looking for a bust.
Okay, it’s not exactly Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women.” But, hey, I was fifteen.
Though we worked up other songs that day at the farm, my memory’s eye sees us spending a lot of time on “Red Eyes.” Not that it was a hard tune—just a 4/4 rocker in “A”—but it was our tune, our first original. By launching the band with that song, we’d made a conscious choice not to be a strictly cover-playing band. After all, playing other people’s stuff is what everyone else did. Why be like them?
I can also see myself trying to keep up with Woody and Tivans on guitar that day, fully aware that it wasn’t happening. For one thing, they were so much better at chord changes. By the time I’d finally force my fingers into their proper positions, the next musical phrase was underway. Then there was my inability to strum with a pick. I just couldn’t do it. The pick would catch on individual strings, and I was always falling behind.
Still, in spite of my ineptitude, I never felt insecure about my place in this band. This wasn’t a tryout—neither for me nor for anyone else. We were all in. Guaranteed.
I can’t speak for the other guys’ recollections, but I like to think that I had dreamed this configuration of adolescent aspirants into being. Of course, believing so fits with my hubris, but I’d also contend there’s some truth to it. As my fantasies of pro-football stardom receded, I came to imagine playing onstage while listening to the great concert albums of the era: Frampton Comes Alive!; Wings Over America; Led Zeppelin’s, The Song Remains the Same. I’d crank those records on my parent’s console stereo, close my eyes and see myself filling any number of spots: vocals, keyboards, lead guitar.
And I was never alone. Certain friends from school would be in those dream bands too, and girls that I liked cheered in the audience. I especially loved a live album’s conclusion: the crash ending of the final song and the crowd’s joyous eruption, when, bathed in white spotlight, I’d grab my imaginary mic in triumph:
“Good night, [enter city of choice]! We love you!”
The rosters of these dream groups changed over time, but by the day of the farm practice session, the identities were set. Jim, of course, had expressed interest a year before. So he had been the drummer in my mind from then on. His outlaw persona fit the rocker role too; drummers are always the reckless ones, after all. Plus, with his longish brown hair, droopy mustache, and sleepy eyes, he was a dead-ringer for Ringo Starr from the Let it Be period. Woody wore a beard already, was solid on guitar, knew a lot of songs, and he drove a Camaro. Tivans, who lacked facial hair but resembled Peter Frampton and owned his own Gibson “Paul,” seemed an obvious choice. In our sophomore yearbook, he’d even made a reference to the probability of jamming over the summer at the farm, which I took as an act of prescience. As for Van, he and I had been tight since seventh grade at Longfellow, so I couldn’t have imagined a scenario that didn’t include him.
And me? My foothold in this fantasy-come-true was lyrics. I was going to be the songwriter. But not just any songwriter. I would be the next John Lennon of the next Beatles: the brilliant but drug-addled member. Profound, prolific, and problematic.
I cannot adequately express how crucial the Beatles were to my songwriting aspirations. Even though they had broken up nearly a decade before, I was enthralled by their music and lyrics, and especially those of John Lennon. In fact, my desire to experiment with drugs sprang in part from the way they had influenced Lennon’s body of work. It is no accident that when I first tried pot, I rushed home and listened to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—using my newfound sensory abilities to dissect the album song by song, word by word, sound by sound.
Soon after that, I was using weed to inspire my own lyrics. “Red Eyes” was the first of these. There would be many more over the coming years; and the deeper I got into the drug scene, the weirder and more complex they would become.
These days, my wife Katie and I like to go for drives, mainly just to see something besides the four walls of our own house in this time of social distancing. We venture into the country a lot, cruising amid the rolling hills and verdant coulees with Spotify playlists blaring from a Bluetooth connection. Aside from the drives being breaks from the norm and welcome bits of quality time with my beloved, they also enrich my creative side. Country jaunts are, for me, writerly activities.
Yes, I still write, though I haven’t penned a set of song lyrics in over thirty years. And yes, I have succumbed to fantasies of glory in this field as well, sometimes entertaining hopes of becoming a latter-day Hemingway or Fitzgerald.
But as I’ve grown older and more seasoned in my craft—humbly considering revision notes in margins, facing down rejections, celebrating the occasional acceptance, and keeping my day job—I’m coming to accept the notion that simply putting one word in front of another day after day confers its own sort of glory. And while I will never join Hem and Fitz in the pantheon of literary giants, I have my persistence, and I maintain a presence.
These days, that is enough.
Of course, there are times when I miss the intensity of youthful daydreams. The unshakable surety. The abandon of throwing my entire stake in without a second thought. I felt that pang just the other day on one of our drives, when I took a sudden left turn onto Drectrah Coulee Road and sped out to Tivans’ farm.
This wasn’t the first time we had passed the farm, and Katie indulged me as I recounted once again the story of that initial practice. The surrounding area is built up now, a true exurban neighborhood rather than the isolated haven from parental authority it had been in the late-1970s. But the red barn is still there. The same wire fence surrounds the property. And even though it now exudes a quaint, bucolic energy, nestled into an expanse of manicured lawns and spacious modern homes, I could picture for an instant the rebel outpost that it was, feel once again the precious burst of unbound belief in my chest.
Could I have known back then this unlikely group of delinquents would make it beyond its inauspicious beginning—that we would toy with goofy names like Mother Nature and Magnum Opus Cannabis before settling on one that would stick: Excalibur? Did I know that, within a week of our maiden practice, I’d exchange my unwieldy rental guitar for an electric bass, and that it would become the singular instrument I would play in Excalibur and in future bands over the next forty-plus years?
Was there an inkling on that first day that we five would survive as a viable unit over the next two school years (writing tons of originals, playing gigs that paid), only to break up right before graduation, when Jim and I got into a fight over my having missed a tear-down at the bar where we’d played the night before? Could I have foreseen that, shortly after our breakup, we’d patch things up and initiate annual reunions that continued well into the 2000s, reunions that would come to include wives, children, and even ex-wives? Did I imagine that “Red Eyes” would remain in my repertoire decades after the end of Excalibur, that I’d still be singing it in bands long after I’d sobered up at twenty-four and put drugs in my rear-view mirror?
And could I ever have guessed that these guys would remain the closest friends that I have, the people who know me better than anyone save my wife; or that we’d remain in frequent touch to this day, even as we close in on our sixties?
Of course not. My headlights cast their beam only so far up the road. All I knew then was that we’d given life to something exhilarating, and that I was up for whatever might happen.
No leap of faith ever came so easy as that one.
After practice, after we’d packed away our equipment and closed up the barn, Woody dropped me off at my dad’s barber shop back in La Crosse. A pile of crushed rock awaited that needed to be spread over the back parking area—a lame counterpoint to the heady experience I’d just lived through.
But I didn’t care. I squinted into the sinking sun, grinning the grin of a winner, and bent to grab the shovel at my feet. And for the rest of the afternoon, I tossed gravel around that lot like it was popcorn.
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.