1976 – Madisonville, TN
Me and my buddies are downing sugar packets in a booth at Wilson’s drugstore. Afterwards we go outside and start punching each other in the arm. My friend Keith says, “I made you flinch.” He draws an X on my arm and hits it with his middle knuckle poking out. My muscle pops out for a split second where his knuckle landed. “Frog!” he says laughing. I play along, biding my time, waiting for them to head home, then I go back in to the magazine rack at the front of the store. I’m hoping no one else is at the rack. I prefer to read alone, if I read at all. The pictures are the best part. The magazine rack is my private space; my hideout; my imaginary friend. The big clock on the wall says 4:05, which doesn’t leave much time before I walk to my dad’s gas station where Mom picks me up at 4:30. This is where I get lost in my rock and roll fantasy. I’m obsessed. There’s Creem, Circus, Hit Parade and some good boner mags too, like True Romance. This is the highlight of my day. But I’m disappointed … because when I get there someone’s at the rack; an older boy. I pretend to browse the school supplies until he leaves. I’m selfish about the space, and I certainly can’t look at the boner mag while someone else is there. I’m watching the big clock … 4:08 … 4:10. I can see from a distance that Jimmy Page is on the cover of the the new Creem. C’mon! Leave! I’m running out of time! The older boy picks up True Romance. Nooo! He’s never leaving now! Big clock says 4:12 … 4:15.
This was my routine during 5th and 6th grade. I caught the rock and roll bug and it wasn’t going away. I was through with the family bands like the Partridges, the Osmond’s and Jackson Five. My obsession with Elvis had faded. I graduated to Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Boston and Aerosmith. I knew where all the magazine racks were in town. There were three, and all a short distance from one another. I liked the different racks for different reasons. Jim’s Food Market had Tiger Beat, which really wasn’t a rock magazine but more like teen heart throbs, actors and pop singers like Leif Garrett and Shaun Cassidy. The Bay City Rollers were always in Tiger Beat. They had cool hair-cuts but I didn’t care for their silly Scottish attire. The IGA was directly across from the gas station. Not only did they have magazines, they had record albums too. I bought my first Rush album there.
The boy finally leaves and I hurry to the rack. I grab the Creem. I look at the rock Gods; study their clothes; their poses; the way they hold their guitars. Eric Clapton has a cigarette (a filter-less cigarette?) burning between his strings near the tuners of his guitar. Gross … I’ll never do that. The rock stars are like aliens. They came to Earth fully formed. Elvis appeared out of the blue at eighteen and wandered into Sun Records. The guys in Aerosmith didn’t read magazines, or sit and practice their instruments for hours like the rest of us. Nah. Joe Perry never had short hair.
Now I’m reading an interview with some guy I’ve never heard of before. He’s talking about how he left Florida for Los Angeles when he turned eighteen to join a rock and roll band. I’m intrigued! Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. But first I got to quit piano lessons and get a guitar. I’ll ask for a guitar for Christmas! That’s it! I begin counting the years in my head before I can head west. Let’s see, I’m 11 now, almost 12 … that’s 1, 2, 3 … then all of the sudden I hear a booming voice. It’s my dad. “Kevin, put that up and get down to the gas station! Your mother is waiting on you! Besides, you can’t read those without buying them! Go on now.” I snap back into reality. Scolded. I look over my shoulder on the way out. The big clock says 5:00. Time flies at the magazine rack.
Madisonville was basically a one block grid in the East Tennessee Valley. Everything was centered around the old courthouse with a traffic light at each corner. Main and Warren streets ran east to west, and College and Tellico streets ran north to south. A three-year-old could find his way around our town. We were more country than southern, and there were more churches than there were restaurants and gas stations. Friendship Baptist was our church. We were there every time the doors were open. Soon as I got my guitar I was expected to play in church like my papaw. Do the Lords work. Papaw Jack was once a country western singer. He was the real deal. Played all over the south and Midwest. By the time I came along he had given it up for church and family. Once, I asked him why he quit and he said, “everybody started drinking.” He became the choir leader at the church and he and I would play guitar during the alter call. Strumming away to Amazing Grace. My mom and Papaw formed the Friendship Baptist Quartet. They sang at all the country churches around Monroe County. They also sang at a lot of funerals and us kids would have to go. Death was always looming. If the preacher wasn’t preaching about hell on a Sunday morning, we were attending someone’s funeral. It was normal and it put the fear of God in me before most kids even know that someday you might die. My grandmother kept a photo album of dead relatives. She’d take her old Brownie Hawkeye camera to the funerals. After the line of people paid their respects, she’d amble up on her wooden cane, red-nosed with a wad of tissue in one fist and snap away. Sometimes she’d ask kin folk to pose in the shot. There were sisters and brothers lying in open caskets in picture frames in her hallway.
I am the son of a funeral singer. I was stricken young with a stranger’s grief. Bright days dimmed behind stained glass windows. And the broken eyes beneath a widow’s peak.
But I had bigger plans. I wanted to know what it was like “out there” in the secular world.
Several months later, the deep south was in a deep freeze. The roads were icy and nothing in our town seemed to move. Christmas came and went and I didn’t get the guitar I asked for. Instead I received an Atari video game. I was devastated and cried myself to sleep. Due to the weather we got an extra long vacation. I tried to enjoy the video game but there was no hiding my disappointment. Time seem to stand still and my sadness dragged into the new year. My parents finally caught on that I was bummed out and realized I was serious about learning guitar. So a few weeks later my luck would change and I traded the video game to a friend of my dad’s for my first guitar; a Silvertone hollow body with a small amplifier. I was happy again! Papaw Jack drew me up some chords and taught me how to strum. I banged away on the same six chords for the next six months. But there was a problem. I couldn’t get my guitar to sound like Ace Frehley’s. I asked Papaw and he’d say, “lord, son, I don’t know, I’m a country picker.” I thought the solution was to get a guitar that looked like Ace’s. That’s when I started saving for a Gibson Les Paul.
Around the same time, there was a lot of unrest at home. My sister Lisha turned thirteen, and wild. She was implacably rebellious and anti-authority. She wasn’t into drugs and alcohol, she just wanted to be a bad girl. You could hear her late night visitors coming in and out her window. She’d come into my bedroom and whisper, “Hey, I’m sneaking out for a while. Don’t tell.” The next day, the sheriff would be in the driveway with sis in the back of the squad car. She brazenly pulled an outdoor table over to her bedroom window, conspicuously placed to make it easy for her middle of the night outings. I guess my parents thought, well, if she’s going out her window at night, we don’t want her to break an arm. But there was no controlling her. She’d be gone for three days at a time. Once, they found her and two of her friends 150 miles away in Atlanta. While Lisha was having a blast, everyone else in our family was miserable. Mom was constantly worried and crying. I figured the best thing to do was lock myself in my bedroom and practice my guitar.
Holloway would come bopping down my street on Saturday mornings. He walked fast with his shoulders back swinging record albums under his arm like he was on a metal mission. His long shagged hair cropped on top rising and falling with his bouncy gate. He always wore a tight black concert t-shirt and Levi’s, with a cigarette burning. He looked like Pat Travers. There were very few rockers in Madisonville, and I really didn’t know any of them, mainly because they were a good deal older than me. But not long after I began playing guitar, they started coming around. Holloway didn’t play an instrument. He just knew a lot about music and bands. He’d usually call me on Saturday mornings. His thick country drawl talking metal. The conversations would go something like this:
“Hey man, whatcha doin’?
“Nothing, just playin’ my guitar.”
“Damn Kevin, man, you ain’t a gonna believe this new Judas Priest record. Man, K.K. goddamn Downing’s git-tar will blow the damn doors right off your mother fuckin house.”
“Helllll yes, by God. Want me to bring it over?”
“Alright, be down shortly.”
Holloway was grooming me to be a metal guitar god. He told me how to get my guitar to sound like Ace Frehley’s. Said I needed a distortion pedal. So I saved up for one and he drove me up to Knoxville in his Ford Pinto to get one. Now I was set! A couple years later he got me an audition for a band over in nearby Lenoir City. My first band.
The local guitar hero in Madisonville was a guy named Dave Hunt. I knew of him because in elementary school Lisha was a baton twirler with his little sister. One day we went to the Hunts’ to drop Lisha off. We were in their back yard where our parents were talking. My baby brother was squirming in mom’s arms while the girls twirled away on the patio in matching emerald green outfits. All the sudden from an open upstairs window came a racket. All of us looked up. It was an electric guitar. An onslaught of sound, loud and disagreeable with the quiet autumn afternoon swirled down around the oak trees and into a pair of benign eight-year-old ears. “Oh, that’s just David practicing his guitar. I swear that’s all he does” Mrs. Hunt said, shaking her head. She asked if I would like to go up and watch him. I shook my head, no. It was my first encounter with real live rock and roll. Frightful, wonderful, unforgettable.
Dave played a black Les Paul through a Marshall half stack and looked like a cross between Rod Stewart and Ben Orr of the Cars. He was pure rock and roll. By the time I started playing Dave had already toured the club circuit in a few cover bands. He was cocky and could play like a pro. One day Holloway took me over to Dave’s to hang out. On the way over he tells me that Dave walked up to a guitar player once at a club in Knoxville, and in the middle of a song took the guys guitar, played the solo break and handed it back. Now I was even more intimidated! When we get to Dave’s he and Holloway fire up a joint. Dave hands me his Les Paul and says check it out, but I was so nervous I couldn’t play a single note. Dave laughed and said, “you going to play it or just look at it?” He took the guitar and handed me the joint. “No thanks,” I said. He handed it to Holloway then began playing Rock Candy by Montrose. I couldn’t stop smiling.
Another musician I met through Holloway was drummer Jeff “Barf” McFee. Barf liked jazz and rock fusion. He turned me onto Jeff Beck. He played in a local cover band called Maxx with a couple of hot shot guitar players from the neighboring town of Sweetwater named Scott and Danny. I first heard about Maxx through Lisha who went to see them play and had been hanging out at their practice place they called the Office. I was so jealous! But if ever my sister redeemed herself of the pain and suffering she caused our family with her rebellious ways, it was when she told me she was dating Scott Newman who played in Maxx. The next thing I know, Scott and Danny are over at my house to pick up Lisha to go to a Styx concert. They’re standing in our den with their long hair looking like rock stars. Danny was wearing the biggest hoop earring I’d ever seen.
All was right with the world. Even my dad, who had once been a math teacher in Sweetwater, knew and liked Scott. Pretty soon I’m at the Office watching Maxx practice. They played Queen, Van Halen and Bad Company. Scott taught me how to play Runnin’ with the Devil, including the solo. These were exciting times!
Confidence was not my strong suit, and I was shy about my playing, especially around the other musicians. I played by ear and learned what I could by listening to records and watching other players. When I went to a concert, I’d get on the front row and take mental notes. But since I didn’t take lessons, there wasn’t anyone to support and encourage me on a regular basis. Was the practice paying off?
One day, Barf invited me down to the Office to play. I couldn’t believe it! I’m going to play with a real drummer! Yikes! He said to pick a couple songs I know and we’d work on them. I had recently been learning a song called The Pump off Jeff Beck’s new record, so that’s what we played; over and over and over. After about an hour we took a break and he lit up a joint. He took a hit and with the smoke in his lungs said, “you know, Kevin” … he exhaled a plum of smoke … “people have been talking about how good you’re getting. I bet it won’t be long before you’ll be giving Dave Hunt a run for his money.” I couldn’t believe it! That was the first big compliment I had gotten. It was also a boost of confidence. I couldn’t stop smiling. He handed me the joint. No thanks.
The older I got and better I got on guitar the more I obsessed about the rock and roll glitz and glam of Southern California. I wanted to be one of those cute boys with long hair that all the girls adored, but I also wanted to be technically proficient on guitar too. More than just fluff. I’d sit on the edge of my bed and practice learning song after song until I couldn’t stay awake. Sometimes I’d wake up with my guitar still in my hands. I wanted to be good before I went out in the world. I had no plans to go to college. I wanted to get in a band and leave town, or leave town and get in a band. Whichever came first. I felt like I was just biding my time. But living between two mountain ranges in east Tennessee I felt a million miles away from dreams of rock stardom. As much as I loved my family it felt like a classic case of being born in the wrong place. I couldn’t wait to get “out there.”