Jeff Koji Giles
At the beginning of eleventh grade, my friend Barry told me there was a new kid in school and he was from somewhere in California, and that he played the guitar. I was at once excited and intimidated. Excited because The Golden state was where Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads lived and was where I wanted to be, and intimidated because the new kid must be good on guitar if he hailed from that same magical land of my heroes. (Having a world renowned inferiority complex didn’t help the intimidation factor either). Knowing I was bashful, Barry introduced us.
“This is Kevin; he plays guitar too.”
“Cool, I’m Jeff, we should jam sometime.”
“Okay, I said.”
My face turned red and I scurried down the hallway.
In no way did Jeff fit the California image. I wondered which part of the state he was from and why was he in hillbilly land. He was wearing outdated bell bottomed jeans, work boots and a flannel shirt. He had a farm boy look. Are there even cows in California? I figured he was just trying to fit in to our country ways. But he had shoulder length jet black hair and spoke without an accent which was real cool. And he asked me to “jam” sometime. No one said jam in Madisonville … it was more like, “let’s pick a little sometime.”
After we were introduced it wasn’t long before Jeff came over to my house. He confidently walked over to my guitar and picked it up. “A Gibson! That’s Bad!” I turned the amp on and he began playing something that I couldn’t discern.
“What’s that song?” I said.
“Rock Bottom by UFO. You’ve probably never heard of them.”
Of course, I’d heard of them. UFO was one of my favorite bands. I knew that song note for note. Jeff was playing it so poorly that I didn’t even recognize it.
“Oh, don’t it go more like this?” I said, reaching for my guitar. I played both the rhythm part and some of the lead.
“That’s bad!” he said surprised. “You’re really fucking good!” My faced turned red again. I put my finger against my mouth sssh-ing him and closed my bedroom door.
“You can’t cuss here. My momma’s home.”
“Oh, sorry.” He said. “My mom is used to it.”
We passed my guitar back and forth. I played the new AC/DC song Back in Black and Van Halen’s Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love. Every time I played something, Jeff would laugh and say “that’s bad.” It took me a minute to realized that where he was from, bad meant good. He asked if I was in a band. “No, but I want to be,” I said.
“You should go back to California with me. My best friends out there are a bad ass rhythm section. You guys would sound fucking rad together!”
I ssshhed him again.
“Oops, sorry.” he said.
I didn’t have a clue what rad meant, but I couldn’t stop smiling.
Child Labor and the Auto Auction
Dad’s gas station was called U- Pump-‘Em, except, WE pumped ‘em … because the older folks wouldn’t conform to the new self service craze. They’d just sit in their cars and blow their horns, or drive off. He opened “U-Pump-‘Em 2” on the new 411 by-pass in the summer of ’76, and that’s where I worked from the time I was eleven until I graduated high school. It had three gas pumps, uncovered and fully exposed to rain, sleet, hail and electrical storms. There was a little white 8 x 6 foot building stocked with a portable radio, an umbrella, a coffee tin for change and a few cans of Quaker State motor oil. There wasn’t an air conditioner in the building, but a giant oak tree provided plenty of afternoon shade. Dad hung a porch swing on long chains off one of its limbs and we’d rock over the steep embankment and back to the paved drive in between customers. At the end of my shift, I’d have a big wad of folded cash in both pockets. Hard to believe I was never robbed.
I grew up in a trailer park … well, kind of. We owned it. Our house sat in the middle of thirty trailers. Two rows on each side. There was an L-shaped apartment building at the top of the property with six units in it, and another apartment above our garage. During the warm months we mowed the grass. It took two days to finish the whole trailer park. We had a small riding lawn mower, a push mower and those big scissors for trimming. Once we got to one end, the other end was already growing. Dad liked the grass the same as he liked my hair; short. Tidy house, tidy kids. But the summer mowing was a constant, and I kind of enjoyed it. I had an over-active imagination and spacing out was my favorite pastime, so when I was on the mower I got lost in long daydreams. I made up songs and whole concerts including guitar and drum solos.
Dad was also a used car dealer. We spent a lot of time washing and vacuuming cars. Getting them ready for auction. My sister and I were driving by age twelve and I believe Dad taught us how specifically to save money and keep most of the long drives in the family. We’d be in a convoy, along with a couple of dad’s employees, kids in the middle, grownups in front and rear (to avoid the police), winding our way down the back roads the 30 miles over to Lenior City.
“If you get pulled over, just tell ‘em you ain’t old enough to get a license.” Dad would say.
The car auction was dreadful. Three hours of cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes. Scruffy men with beer guts, revving engines in scraped up brogues and neutral colors talking shit under the hood. Dealer plates, sketchy titles and tobacco spit. The auctioneer barking numbers like a monotone preacher on methamphetamines. Dad stood out with his big cigar and bright red hair. A little man of about 5’5”, he’d wear yellow Bermuda shorts he’d saved from his high school days which came down to his knees.
Everybody called him Little Red, and his dad was Big Red. Little Red started trading cars right of high school; he knew how to wheel and deal at the auction. Big Red taught him everything he knows. My nickname was Little Red Junior. I didn’t give a rats ass about cars, but, Little Red had style and personality; Everybody in those parts knew him.
But because dad dabbled in so many things, everybody thought we were rich. Our house was modest and old, BUT, we did have swimming pool in the back yard. If that made us rich, I guess we were…but it didn’t feel like it. Rich people don’t mow their own trailer parks.
Young Grandparents and cover bands
Not long after Scott and Lisha starting dating, Scott quit playing guitar for Maxx and his hair got shorter and shorter. He traded in his rock and roll clothes for the straight look. I was saddened and confused. I didn’t even get to see him play live. It was obvious it had something to do with my sister and I didn’t understand why he couldn’t have a girlfriend AND play in a band. That’s when I first realized falling in love could be both a launch pad, and a ball and chain. I was on the riding lawn mower one Saturday when Scott came walking across the yard smoking a cigarette and waving me over.
“Hey, I’m selling my amp and wanted you to be the first to know. I know you’ve been wanting a Marshall.” He said
“Really, but why?” I asked.
“I’m just getting out of music for now. Besides, I guess you’ve heard, Lisha’s pregnant. I’ve got to be responsible now and I need the money. I’m letting it go for $500.
At 15 I was hyper-aware of my small town surroundings and could easily glimpse a future there without much imagination. There were a lot of Forty–year-old grandparents and teen-aged uncles in Madisonville. It was as common as dog ownership. When you got out of school (or dropped out) you “got on” at one of the local factories, or went to the local junior college then got on at the factory. You’re married with children by age twenty, or, like in Scott and Lisha’s case … even younger. It was sinful to shack up with a lover or have a baby out of wed-lock, so early parenthood was normal. Each year there were several pregnant teenagers in our school. Now my sister was one of them. I knew 10th grade was going to be weird.
I was excited to have Scott as a brother-in-law, and although he didn’t play in a band anymore, he’d stop by my room and show me a new guitar riff, before he was off somewhere with Lisha. He’d gotten on over at Charisma Chairs in Sweetwater making $110 a week. He was so proud of that job. Sometimes I’d meet him after work and we’d ride around in his Mercury Cougar and listen to cassette tapes. He had an eclectic taste in music. He turned me on to bands like Devo and Kraftwerk.
Since Lisha and I had both flunked high school algebra, we wound up in a special math class together to earn our credits. It was the first time we’d ever had a class together. She sat behind me with our little family secret growing inside her. She wasn’t showing yet, but the shotgun wedding was being planned for January, and after Christmas break everyone would know the rabbit long died. Lisha could care less what anyone thought of her, and was excited about her early domestication and motherhood … but for me it was embarrassing and I too carried the weight of her pregnancy for most of the school year.
Playing cover tunes for a living was something I didn’t want to have in common the other local musicians. Well, that and the partying. I was the creative type, and I was already making up songs and poems.
Up and down Highway 411 there were sparsely placed honky tonks and dive bars with names like Cripple Creek, Giles Bar and Grill and The Hideaway. Window-less buildings with dimly lit beer signs hung on painted cinder block. Darkened dirt parking lots with deep mud holes that never seemed to dry up, packed on the weekends with beat-up long beds and primered muscle cars, quarter panels sanded to the metal. Lay Down Sally and Tuesday’s Gone spilling out in the night delivered by twangy guitars with phase shifters abiding and ill-timed rhythm sections lilting to the sway of ragweed in sticky heat. Barmaids with Marlboro scratched voices, and sallow faced men gathered around pool tables betting a weeks pay against the young poker faced hustlers. It’d be another decade before an AC/DC or a Judas Priest song played in there. In the mean-time you’re singing the blues for guys who never took a shot at anything except someone’s head with a beer bottle. Looking back, it might’ve been a good way to cut my teeth, but that wasn’t my gig, and I was determined not to go down that road. I focused my thoughts on a different path, one that lay miles and miles past the county line. An unworn path overgrown and hard to see down without some imagination; a path where one’s torpid desires and ambition crept along the ground in the tangles of the undergrowth just on the edge of town, season to season, year after year, until a committee of vultures take flight over the dying of a dream. I wasn’t going to let that happen to my dream, and I kept it a secret … even after my ticket west blew into town.
Lisha grew bigger and bigger, and by April she could hardly fit behind a school desk. She was unable to finish her Junior year. In June she gave birth to a baby boy. They named him Andy. That summer I took my guitar playing to another level. After work and supper, I locked myself in my bedroom and learned songs and practiced scales, from six in the evening to the wee hours of the morning, moving the needle back on the record until it was perfected, or until mom knocked on the door and said “turn it off and go to bed, it’s late.” Then I’d unplug and play another hour.
In hindsight, Scott and Lisha’s situation was the impetus to my new way of thinking, and made it easy to figure out the tenets of the standard rock and roll philosophy.
1 Write your own songs
2 No serious relationships
3 Practice, practice, practice
4 Find some like minded musicians
5 Get out of town
The Tee-to-tal-er, and Ozzy
Everyone liked the new guy from California, and it seemed we were all vying for his friendship. Jeff was smart and funny, and always had a group of guys around him. He was hanging with Huey, who was a friend of mine, until I started dated his former girl friend. Huey was the first person I met who was my age who played an instrument and liked rock music as much I did. We started hanging out in 7th grade. I went to my first concert with him. It was Ted Nugent and we were twelve. Huey and I had a lot in common, and tried to start a band, but we couldn’t connect as musicians. He was crippled by perfection, and we rarely could make it through a song. If he made the slightest mistake he’d throw his drum sticks against the wall and storm out of the room, leaving me standing there with my guitar until his tantrum was over. Huey was more about the rock and roll image than he was playing it, and bought into the myth that you had to get fucked up to be a musician. He had the rocker look for sure. I understood why Jeff was drawn to him. I didn’t stand in line. I quietly waited until Jeff gravitated back my way. It didn’t help that I was a non-partier.
I had smoked marijuana twice, both times the summer after 6th grade. The first time, my friend Nathan and I sat cross legged in a ceremonious circle with a group of high school girls. They told me to inhale the smoke deep into my lungs and hold it until the joint came back around, which was impossible because there were like eight of us. I took one hit, coughed, and left the circle. I didn’t feel any different. The pot didn’t take. Nathan stayed for the duration. He was a pro at eleven. The second time was at my aunt’s house in Florida, just a few weeks later. I knew my older cousin Johnny smoked pot (mom had warned us with the “drug talk”) so I ask him to get me high. The first 25 times he said no, but I begged until he relented. Johnny went to his room and returned with something called a bong. It was clear plastic and curvaceous and tall. I watched the smoke swirl toward my mouth like a scientific experiment only a hippy would come up with. I lifted my finger off the carbeurater and coughed out smoke. This time it took, and it was fun… until the paranoia set in. My entire body felt numb and I freaked out. I asked Johnny to take me to the hospital. He took me to the beach instead. After that experience I was scared of everything. It re-wired my brain, and turned me into a professional hypochondriac. I was always asking to go the hospital.
And that’s how I became a tee-to-tal-er, and no amount of peer pressure could change that …. At least not for a long time. I didn’t have long hair either, which was a kind of a universal sign for rocker and stoner. When my hair got below my ears, dad made me cut it. It was frustrating because I really wanted long hair. Then, Holloway told me about a new hairstyle called the “punk look.” So I went to the hair salon and asked for it. They chopped it and cropped it up. It wasn’t long, but I looked liked the Clash. Yeah! Teenagers always find a way to rebel.
Pretty soon I found myself riding around with Jeff in his dad’s ’69 Cadillac De Ville, or he in my ’69 Cutless, listening to radio and talking about music. And even though Jeff wasn’t a very good at electric guitar, it turned out he could strum an acoustic and sing REO Speedwagon and Todd Rundgren songs pretty well. He had a high tenor range which I loved back then, and could even sing Journey’s stuff. After school he’d stop by U-Pump-‘Em with his acoustic and we’d play and sing and he’d talk about growing up in California. Turns out, he was from the Bay area; 9 hours from L.A.! He really talked it up, making the music scene sound just as cool as down there, sparking my imagination, feeding my curiosity and aspirations. He told me about his friends “the bad ass rhythm section” Nick and Uwe (pronounced Ooova). Said there were lots of rock clubs we could play out there. I was all in and ready to go. But, for now, we should start a band! Jeff said, “totally, man, totally!” The school talent show was a few weeks away. I signed us up.
Jeff’s new life in Tennessee had to be a culture shock. His dad’s place was out in the Hiwassee Knobs off a windy narrow road near the small Monroe county airport. The house was an old 1920’s shotgun shack with no indoor plumbing; primitive even for Madisonville in 1980. The outhouse was about fifty feet behind the house next to a dilapidated barn. The well pump was near the side door in the center of a small concrete slab. Bath water had to be heated on the stove. Jeff forewarned me that “my dad likes to rough it.” Ozzy was old for a teenager’s dad. About the age of my grandparents. He’d served in the military during the second world war. Landed on the beach at Normandy on D-Day, and after dodging those bullets enlisted in the Air Force to fight in Korea. He met Jeff’s Japanese mother, Kei, in Tokyo at an orphanage where they both volunteered during the post-war cleanup. They ended up in Northern California in the late 50’s settling into a life far away from where they started. Ozzy was an articulate man, his southern drawl refined, no doubt by his world travels. He was slim with an unshaved oval shaped faced that housed a set of eyes that were both friendly and intense. Soldiers eyes that’d seen unspeakable horrors, hard to refocus to the rose colored reality of civilian life. He wore the clothes that matched the description of the rustic environs that surrounded him. He didn’t talk much about California. If he did, it was in a joking manner, and with anger if he was drinking. He was bitter about the divorce and hated being 3000 miles from his kids. Neither had the means to visit on a regular basis. It was hard to imagine Ozzy the west coast family man, walking the sidewalks of the bourgeoisie; minding the codes of municipality in wingtips on a concrete driveway; waving to the neighbor over the hedgerow of the morning.
He kept old letters and song poems that he’d written to relatives during the war. He’d read them aloud as smoke curled around his head in his taped up recliner by dim yellow lamp light. He liked to tell us war stories. Some of them were funny.“One night I was on guard duty over in France. Everyone was sleeping. I went into the latrine to take a piss and there was a guy on his knees with his head over the hole.”
Oh, a sick soldier? I asked
No, no … a fart smeller.
The Talent Show, Starring Barf and Kenny
After Maxx disbanded Barf and the bass player Kenny joined a country band that Kenny’s mom backed and managed from Nashville named Sweetwater. Kenny didn’t play bass; he was the sound man. The bass player was a guy named Scott Borchetta, who eventually became a big time manager in Nashville with clients like Taylor Swift. Barf and Kenny really didn’t care for the new kid in town, they thought he was too cocky and that he couldn’t sing, so I was surprised when Jeff was asked to run lights for Sweetwater. I think the main reason was because Jeff was good looking and could attract girls. It was exciting that Kenny’s mom was in the music business. If only it was a rock band, and they were from New York City.
I somehow got the nerve to ask Barf and Kenny if they’d be our Rhythm section for the talent show, and they agreed to it as long as it didn’t interfere with their Sweetwater schedule. Jeff and I decided to play Journey’s Wheel in the Sky and The Baby’s Midnight Rendezvous at the talent show. Since Jeff had a high tenor voice I pushed for the Journey and assured Jeff he could sing it. It was a ballsy move… I know. We also needed a name for the band and Jeff encouraged me to use my name. I didn’t want to go with The Kevin Abernathy Group or Band, no… those were boring. It was going to be much better and imaginative than that. So I chose “The Kevin Abernathy Project.” Yeah! Of course, I stole it from The Alan Parson’s and Joe Perry Projects. No one would ever suspect.
At the first rehearsal Jeff sounded weak. He was singing from his throat using a falsetto voice and he was singing flat and sharp. Barf seemed annoyed. I couldn’t sing a lick but I somehow knew that you’re supposed to sing from your gut, so naturally I became the instructor.
“Hey man, you gotta sing from your diaphragm; you sound like a girl.”
“Okay, okay. I’m trying!” Jeff retorted.
It was a terrible first practice.
The Office got rented out to a real-estate company, so we had to find a new place to practice. I was worried. The talent show was only 3 weeks away. A few days later we moved our equipment to one of the sewing mills that Kenny’s mom owned and operated on the south side of town. It was a strange environment to rehearse in. Rows and rows of sewing machines with large spindles of thread, and the smell of cotton and denim. There were stacks of folded shirts and pants. We set up our stuff while a couple of maintenance men pushed brooms, cleaning up the leftover shreds of fabric. Employees working overtime were punching out. Digging in their pocket books for keys and cigarettes. Playing rock and roll in there felt disrespectful. Like rogue imposters celebrating someone else’s honest day’s work. The loud music echoed through the massive warehouse, beating out the repetition of the 9 to 5 doldrums in 4×4 time.
The second practice was much better. Jeff had been putting in the time on his singing. He had more power and confidence. I still felt that Barf and Kenny weren’t all that into it. Barf complained that I was pulling the tempo on Wheel in the Sky.
“Kevin, you’re speeding up the song again. Let me set the tempo and you stay in the groove.”
“Okay, sorry.” I said.
Jeff and I were green and quickly learning that singing and playing to a record isn’t the same as playing live with people. I was confident by the next rehearsal things would come together. But, afterward Barf and Kenny dropped a bomb on us and said that this would be the last practice before the talent show. They were back on the road for a week in Georgia with Sweetwater. Barf told me he thought Jeff was improving and not to worry, it’s only two songs, that we can pull it off. Not worry?! Worry was my middle name! Jeff was excited to go to a different southern state.
On the day of the talent show, we were super excited. Our first official gig! Jeff and I were in charge of taking the equipment to the school. We had to take our own P.A. because the theatre, known as the “little theatre” where the show was held didn’t have a sound system. We backed the big white box truck to the entrance at 4 o’clock. The show started at 7, but we had a lot of stuff to unload so we got an early start. Barf and Kenny had to go to down to Chattanooga to pick up the snake, which is a long group of cables that runs from the stage to the sound board. They had left the night before and would meet up with us at the school to set-up. They weren’t there yet, but our pal Barry helped load in. Jeff was in charge of the lights, running them from the stage with a footswitch, and he had trouble getting them to work. I plugged in my guitar. It was cool hearing it echo through the empty theatre. We managed to get everything except the drums set up. It was now after 5 and still no Barf and Kenny. Barry went to the office to see if they had tried calling us but they hadn’t. Jeff still couldn’t get the lights to come on, and other performers began arriving. Mary Wiggins – the only punk rocker in school – was lip-syncing to a Ramones song. She brought her own stereo. Jeff told her she could use our lights once he got the footswitch to work. I was a ball of nervous energy pacing and worrying. Where could they be?! I kept picking up and putting down my guitar. I went to the office and called home to see if Barf had called; he hadn’t. It was getting close to 6 and people began showing up early. Girls who normally didn’t talk to me were hanging out with us like groupies. I went back to the stage and picked up my guitar, thinking of what I could play if they didn’t show. I knew Gary Richrath’s entire solo from the live REO Speedwagon record. I started quietly playing it, knowing that I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. Then suddenly, a frustrated Jeff hits the footswitch with a final pounce, and the theatre lights up. He throws up his arms and yells a celebratory, yeah! Simultaneously, Barry comes walking down the isle waving his arms and shaking his head, “Barf called the office…they’re not going to make it.” We were devastated. I immediately started packing up my shit. Barry tried to talk me into playing a solo or something, but I was I too mad to answer him. My teeth were clinched. I walked over and kicked one of Barf’s cymbals stands over. There was nothing to do except load out. There was a line of people, a lot of them there to see us, going out the door around the back of the box truck, watching us literally throwing Barf and Kenny’s gear back on the truck, not caring if we trashed it or not. It looked like a tornado had hit a music store. I was angry and felt like a fool. If I’d known anything about Karma, I would’ve packed their stuff neatly, like a pro, letting the ruins of that day be on their shoulders. I felt they deserved it, but a part of me always regretted trashing their gear. As we pulled away, the April sun was almost gone, and a host of stars danced above the campus. We rolled down the windows as Jeff lit a Marlboro Red, and said, “man, what a totally fucked up day.” I Wanna be Sedated faded behind us.
We went from one botched gig to another. About a week after the talent show we got offered to play a back yard birthday party. We didn’t have long to prepare but took the gig anyway. Scott played bass and a friend of ours named Jim played drums. I don’t remember much about it, except this time the PA blew up and we couldn’t sing. Then Scott, Jim, and I attempted to play a song without Jeff but we couldn’t get through it without the vocal to guide us … so we stopped. Once again we felt like fools, sitting there in our rock and roll outfits. Jeff in bright blue spandex pants, and I in green pants with white pinstriped baseball jersey. Maybe it would’ve been easier to have lip-synced to the Ramones. Two gigs and we still hadn’t played … but, we still had lots of girls talking to us. That counts for something.
Jeff was really bummed out because after the talent show and the trashing of the Barf and Kenny’s gear, he inevitably lost his job running lights for Sweetwater. Then, with less than two months of school remaining he got expelled for leaving campus and refusing his punishment of 5 licks with a wooden paddle. Ozzy was called down to the school for a meeting with the principal.
“Mr. Giles … seems your son here thinks he can run our school.” Said the principal.
“Well, that may be, but, not you, or anyone, is going to hit my kid with a wooden stick.” Ozzy replied.
And, that was that.
A lot of things were going wrong, but it didn’t detour our plan. Things brighten up when Jeff received a cassette tape in the mail from Nick and Uwe. It was a couple of original instrumentals they’d worked up. The sound was of poor quality but I could tell they were good players, and it was cool to be corresponding with musicians I’d never met. I had written a song called Who Needs a Wish. It was a sappy love ballad but I showed it to Jeff and he loved it. I taught him the melody and we worked it up. So now we had bi-coastal song writing sessions going. It felt like the four of us were on the same musical wave length.
Jeff thought that we had a great rock and roll story, too, and someday it’d look good in print. Troubled Boy gets sent from California to bum-fuck Tennessee to live with his dad, where he meets a red headed- punk ass guitar player and they take a bus back to the west coast to join up with drummer Uwe and bassist Nick to make their rock and roll dreams come true. Of course, having grown up reading all the success stories in the rock magazines I could easily visualize it. I couldn’t wait to make it all happen. There was just one tiny obstacle: School. I knew it would be over a year before I could go anywhere.
I get my first gig, Jeff leaves Tennessee
After the two gigs that never happened, Holloway told me about a band over in Lenoir City that was looking for a guitar player. He knew one of the members and said he would put a call in if I was interested. He thought it was the perfect opportunity, and pushed me to do it. It was a cover band called Secret Service, but they also played a few originals songs. I agreed to go, as long as Holloway came with, and the following weekend he drove me over there. I felt bad about ditching Jeff for another band but I was itching to play. I had to move forward for now. Barf was the only drummer around who was any good. If he had apologized and we hadn’t trashed his drums, maybe we could’ve continued playing. It wasn’t meant to be, and I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. Jeff essentially lost his job, his band and fucked up his high school graduation, all within a week.
Secret Service practiced in a long non-descript building, not unlike the honky tonks in Madisonville. It was a defunct game-room and bar. They called it “The Arcade.” A guy named Gordon was there to greet us. He owned the building and lived in a mobile home which sat a top an embankment behind the Arcade. He was a short man with a perm of tight curls. He wore sleeveless shirts and gold jewelry around his neck. Inside there were several fooze ball and pool tables in the center of the room, and some ancient looking pinball machines lined one of the walls. On the far end of the room there was a stage with drums and amplifiers, a big PA system and a light rig. Looked as if a major concert was about to go down. The rest of the room was fairly dark, and what was left of the evening light sifted through the small window on the door. The guys in the band were a good deal older than me, all in their mid- twenty’s, except the bass player who was nineteen. His name was John Little and he seemed to be running the show. After everybody drank and smoked up, we played some Bad Company and AC/DC songs. David, the singer could both croon and scream the hard rock blues. Very Impressive. The drummer was energetic and usually shirtless, with rainbow colored Mork from Ork suspenders holding up his baggy jeans. He had pink and blue feathers dangling from long curly hair attached by a roach-clip. His name was Ted, and his brother Rick, who was as quiet as me, played lead guitar. They seemed to really have their shit together. I was nervous as hell, but everyone had a positive reaction to me, and at the end of the night invited me back.
I was disappointed that Holloway couldn’t go to the next practice. I was only 16 and barely knew any of these guys. Plus, there was a lot of illegal behavior going down. I got there early with the hope we could wrap things up at a decent hour because I had school the next day. When I got to the arcade, no one was there so I drove down to the Bimbo’s to get a Mountain Dew. When I got back, there were a couple guys in the parking lot. Said they were friends of the band. The three of us were standing there when suddenly there was a loud pop. Sounded like it came from the roof. We stepped back and looked up. Then there was another pop. This time in the parking lot near where we were standing. We jumped back underneath the small awning over the door. A few seconds later we saw something hit the ground with a lit fuse… then, bang! We realized they were firecrackers. Gordon came around the side of the building laughing and holding a slingshot. They were fireworks alright. He was launching M-80’s on top of us!
The rest of the band rolled in along with several hangers-on and began drinking and smokin’ up. So much for getting started early. AAhhh, young grasshopper … you will learn this is the rock and roll life style. There was a ritual of pre-gamming before each practice; especially on the weekends. Like a tailgate party, except with a band. I would see different people there every week, older guys moving in and out of the shadows. There was a back room, I avoided, that was heavily trafficked with a couple of couches and a coffee table. Someone was sitting at the soundboard one night. I walked by and he had a belt around his arm. He asked if I could tighten it. I shook my head and walked on, not sure about what I just witnessed.
We eventually started practicing, then took a break. John asked me to give him and his girlfriend, Lisa, a ride to Bimbo’s to get beer and smokes. He always had a quart of Budweiser in a brown paper bag between his legs. Lisa was pretty and petite, and usually sitting in his lap with a perpetual cigarette burning. They both had long blonde hair … his longer than hers. On the way, John tells me he likes my playing and that the gig is mine if I want it, but I should know the band is preparing to go on the road. He said sooner or later I’d have to talk to my parents, and quit school.
“How old are you, Kevin?”
“Seventeen” I lied.
“Man, I can tell you’re young and ambitious like me. Tell your folks you won’t make any money but it’ll be a great musical experience for you.”
“Okay, I’ll ask them.” I lied, again.
My first gig with Secret Service (my first gig ever), was on a hot summer day in West Knoxville at a lake side park. It was some kind of hillbilly regatta where people raced homemade rafts. The band stage was on a flatbed truck. I played a black Les Paul Custom that I borrowed from a friend, and wore a white shirt with French cut sleeves and blue horizontal stripes, that I borrowed from my girlfriend. Even though he was a little jealous, Jeff was there to support me. I’m pretty sure I was smiling the entire 45-minute set, which seemed to fly by. At some point I looked over at John and he was doing weird things with his mouth. Like he was chewing invisible food. Holloway told me later that it was the cocaine.
Despite their bad habits and the late practices, (I never got home before 2 in the morning) it was exciting to be in a real band. We had several shows lined up throughout the rest of that summer. Then right when things got cooking, Rick, the other guitar player left the band. I thought this was a good opportunity to show ‘em what I got. So for the next practice, I borrowed a Fender Mustang because it had a vibrato bar. I wanted to be in a trio like Van Halen or Montrose anyway. Even if it was just for a few practices. I got to the arcade early (I had a key now) to try out the Fender Mustang. I was wearing the vibrato bar out, doing dive bombs, making all kinds of cool noise. I was ready to rock! Then the door opens and in walks John and a guy with a guitar. He’d already replaced Rick. I was deflated. His name was Jimmy Large, so now we had a Large and Little in the band. Jimmy was a good guitar player, but from the git-go he wasn’t very nice to me. I was sitting on the drum riser warming up before practice and he says, “hey, you can stop that. You don’t have to try to impress me.” Although Jimmy was an asshole, he wanted to play more original songs. That’s what I wanted too. So I endured.
When Jimmy got in the band the pressure mounted for me to talk to my parents about going on the road. And since my amp had been on the fritz, they pressured me to get a new one. The road sounded like fun but I knew my parents would say no to me quitting school. There was no way I could afford a new amplifier. I took mine to the shop hoping it could be fixed.
That summer Jeff and I fell out of touch. I felt like a lousy friend. Playing in Secret Service and work was taking up most of my time. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him but a few times since my first gig on the flatbed. He was apparently hanging out at Scott and Lisha’s a lot, so naturally a rumor started spreading that Jeff and Lisha were fooling around. One morning my mom and I drove over to their house to pick Andy up so mom could baby sit. Jeff came to the door wrapped in a blanket. My mom gasped and said, “I want you to look. What on earth is he doing here?” I played dumb and said I didn’t know. He and Scott were my best friends, and I didn’t want to believe it myself. It was obvious that Lisha saw in Jeff what she once saw in Scott; a long haired rebellious rocker. Somehow she resented Scott for working all the time and being the responsible adult. She wasn’t ready to grow up yet. They were just kids. I hated to see their marriage fall apart so quickly. I stayed clear of the whole mess.
I wasn’t surprised that August when Jeff told me he was going back to California. He said he felt like he was screwing up too much in Tennessee and should go before things got worse. Plus, he missed his friends out there. I felt bad for abandoning our friendship and our musical partnership, and as a young and dumb teenage dude, I didn’t have a clue how to express any of my feelings. I just kicked the dirt with my head hanging down and said, “okay, man.” He wrote down his mom’s phone number and address and we promised to keep in touch with one another. I told him I still want to go to California and start a band with Nick and Uwe like we had planned after I finish school. “Totally man … totally.”
A few weeks later I started 12th grade with little enthusiasm. As usual I wasn’t very excited about anything but playing music. Since Secret Service was planning to hit the road the practices became more frequent and longer. I was getting home at 3 and 4 in the morning, sleeping a few hours then going to school. Barry said I looked strung out. I was already a lousy student, now I was just showing up because I had to. I was living the rock and roll life style … too cool for school. Sometimes after practice the band would drive up to Knoxville to check out other bands at a place called Bun Dooley’s on the Cumberland strip. David, the singer, had an old drivers license that he gave me so I could get in. It said I was 27! It was a gritty place. Nothing but beer and music, black walls and black floors. I saw my first punk band there. Three skinny guys from New York with out of tune guitars. I got a real taste of what the road would be like. David tried to get me to have a drink, but I refused. I was still as straight as an arrow.
John was upset that I hadn’t talked to my parents yet about going on the road. And my amp was still not working right. He said no way could I take shitty gear on the road. So every week at practice he and Jimmy were hounding me about the road, and getting a new amp. It felt like they were trying to get me to quit the band. Everything was coming to a head.
I was crying like a baby when I told my parents I wanted to quit school and go on the road. Their reaction was: “well, okay, if that’s what you really want to do.” I was like, really? I had no clue back then, but, now that I’m a parent myself they probably had me all figured out and had already discussed it prior to me crying like a baby. I was quite the hypocrite for telling Jeff I couldn’t quite school for music, then 3 weeks later quitting to go on the road with Secret Service. It never happened anyway. The remainder of my time in the band is one big blur. Shortly after I got the green light from my parents, I went to the arcade in the middle of the day when I knew no one would be around and loaded up my shitty gear. I left a note on the door.
Sucks that it didn’t work out. Have fun on the road. I’ll see you when we’re rock stars.”
On a sunny day in late September 1982, I was excited to find on top of the mail piled on my Dad’s desk, Eddie Van Halen doing the scissor splits on the cover of the new Guitar World I had subscribed to. I sat down in a green fanned back chair, draped my legs over the arm and with a smile on my face began reading the interview. I had just turned 18, and I was still soaking in the strange feeling that I wasn’t enrolled in school. Earlier that summer after my high school graduation and much to my dad’s dismay, I quit working for the family biz and took a job in nearby Sweetwater at Ron’s Music Store. This is when I learned how sexual affairs can screw things up. What started out as five days a week at Ron’s had been whittled down to a measly one day. If I remember correctly, Ron got caught screwing around and ran off with the other woman, leaving his wife to run the store. In return, she started screwing around with her assistant manager (I think his name was Zach) who in return started screwing around with my work schedule. I think I was collateral damage, not sure. If my father instilled anything at all in us kids, it was a strong work ethic. Of course, I didn’t know it then. I just thought it was a hassle and unfair to be working everyday after school and on Saturdays while my friends were having fun. But, the more my hours got cut that summer, the more of a presence I had at home. This was the least I had worked since 6th grade, and it was like a vacation. It meant sleeping until late morning and then playing guitar for most of the day. Dad had already given me the “if you’re going to live in this house” speech earlier in the summer and had recently been asking what was going on at the music store.
I was enjoying the Van Halen interview when Dad burst threw the front door, angry that I was lazing around reading a magazine. “Why ain’t you at work?” He didn’t care for my answer so he called the music store to talk to the boss lady. Unbeknownst to me, she said I didn’t work there anymore. Fucking Zach, I thought. That’s when Dad started sending Bob the maintenance man over in the mornings to wake me up for work. Seemed my little vacation was over. Dad still wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to know what my plan was; why I didn’t enroll in the local college like the rest of my friends. Well, I did have a plan. I had a phone number.
I had only written and spoken to Jeff a couple times over the year he’d been gone. He told me when I was ready to come west that he’d take a bus to Tennessee and we’d go back together. Eight months later, I called to say I was ready. I wasn’t sure if either of us would even follow through, but, for over a year and 3000 miles apart, our minds were set, and our destinies had crystallized. With excitement in his voice he told me that he, Nick, Uwe and a friend of theirs were renting a place on the coast not far from Bodega Bay. This would be the band house, where we’d write songs, live and practice.
A few weeks later Jeff was back in Madisonville and everyone was suspect. Dad asked, “Why is Jeff Rotten back in town?” (He nicknamed him that after the affair). I pretended I didn’t know. I tried to keep it a secret but, hey, it was a small town. Some of my friends knew why, and my sister, and eventually it leaked back to my parents that I was planning to head west with Jeff. In two weeks I was scheduled to get my wisdom teeth pulled and then we would depart.
Jeff and I immediately started working on songs. I showed him a couple of mine that he added lyrics to. One was called “Don’t Stop Me Now”. It was fast, like Van Halen meets Metallica. Except no one had heard of Metallica … yet. Jeff wanted to write a love ballad for his new girl. Ugh. It was called “If I could Paint a Dream.” I was leaving my girlfriend behind, and he was newly smitten. It was a bit annoying, but, I endured. Ozzy was excited for us and enjoyed giving me advice about living out there. “The foliage will change, and people are different. Everything moves faster out there. It’s the way of the wild west.” Then he took an ominous tone. “You’ll want to beware of the hippies. Don’t follow them into the communes.” He also gave us a few song titles to work on:
- The California Way
- I Love Ya Darling but Don’t Give Me Herpes
- Mom, I Smoke Now
Everything was happening quickly. I finally told my parents I was moving to California. Yeah, I was crying again. And once again they said, “Well, if that’s what you want to do.” It didn’t matter. I was going regardless. I needed money to pay off a bank note I had on a little combo amplifier that I was taking with me. My girlfriend gave me the money. To this day, I still owe her $300. Then we bought our bus tickets. Said goodbye to my friends. And just three weeks after Jeff came back, we’re standing at the bus station in Athens, Tennessee. I had my Les Paul, my Strat, a suitcase full of clothes and my records. It was Halloween. Papaw Jack said, “Aww, son … you’ll be back before too long.” I hugged my family and boarded the bus. I still had stitches in my gums.
There weren’t very many passengers on the bus until we got to Dallas. We had a transfer there. Had to take all our stuff off one bus, wait a couple of hours and load onto another. Now it was packed. In the back of the bus there were an array of characters who talked through the night. There were two young “Dead Head” hippie girls from Virginia headed to San Francisco with hopes to meet Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. I didn’t know anything about The Grateful Dead and had to ask Jeff who they were talking about. They kept asking me what kind of drugs I like and to meet them behind the next bus depot in Phoenix. The hippie girls scared me.
“Better get used to hippie girls” Jeff said. “You’re moving to the hippie capital.” And there were a couple loud guys from New Jersey. One of which started every sentence with, “hey, I’m from Jersey, so –.”
We had just left the El Paso bus station — which Jeff dubbed the arm pit of America – when it was pulled over in the emergency lane of interstate 10 outside of Las Cruses. Three men came aboard and began asking questions and shining flashlights in the passengers faces and asking for identification. They were wearing gun belts. One stood at the front of the bus as the other two made their way down the isle speaking what sounded like Spanish. A hush came over the passengers, and my heart picked up a beat or two, (I was still a paranoid kid). We’d been on the road two days and I’d already experienced more than I would in a year back home. Earlier that day when we arrived in El Paso, there were dirty faced Mexican children in a line at the door of the bus with signs around their necks that read: “Hungry,” and “One Dollar Please”, and “I need shoes.” Their parents stood behind them pushing them forward, pointing at us as if to say, do your job. Beg. I had never seen that before. Not even on the TV.
The men were Boarder Patrol agents making sure there weren’t any illegals trying to enter the US. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. I was just a country boy from East Tennessee trying to get to California to play in a Rock and Roll band. All I knew, is that the darker the hair and skin, the longer the scrutinizing. When the officers reached my seat they asked where I was from. America, I said. With my pasty Scotch-Irish ancestry being obvious, they hardly stopped. I looked over my shoulder to see if Jeff was still asleep. He was.
Our seating got rearranged in Dallas during the bus transfer by two heavy set black ladies who laughed when we asked to switch back and said, “oh, we too big to sit together.” They were cousins from Memphis. I got one, Jeff got the other. We were separated (and commically squashed against our window seats) until we got to L.A. All for the sake of rock and roll!
One of the officers pushed Jeff’s shoulder but he didn’t budge. Hey senor, wake up! Jeff swatted at the officer’s hand like he was shooing a fly. He adjusted his jean jacket pillow and nestled back against the window. I wanted to stand up and say he’s with me, he’s American. But I was too scared. I was frozen in my seat imagining worst case scenarios. Then I remembered that back home, a friend of mine nicknamed Jeff, “the Japexan” because he looked both Japanese and Mexican. He had jet black hair and a dark complexion. He could easily be mistaken for an illegal immigrant. Panic began to set in. What if they take Jeff off the bus for questioning? Will the driver wait on us? I pictured us stranded in the desert with our guitars and luggage. Come on Jeff, wake up! The officer shined the flashlight in Jeff’s face, grabbed his arm and shook him. Jeff opened his eyes for a second, dazed looking, and mumbled something. It wasn’t a city, state or country. It sounded more like fuck off, I’m sleeping. That’s it, I thought. We’re going to jail in New Mexico. Two days away from home and I’m going to be calling my parents for help. Shit. I knew I had to do something. I stood to defend my friend, but, whatever Jeff mumbled must’ve sounded convincing enough. The officers moved on down the isle. The Greyhound eased back into traffic and headed west to Tucson. In the distance, tabletop mountains stretched out under the vast southwestern sky. The tall cacti along the highway seemed to be waving goodbye in the moonlight. “Hey, I’m from Jersey sooo, I got your ID right here, pal.” Laughter.
Two days later we were crossing the Golden Gate. As San Fransico faded behind us, it felt like we were going away from where all the action was. We headed up Freeway 101 to the north bay and arrived at the Petaluma bus station about an hour later. Nick and Uwe were there to greet us. They were as jovial as can be. Uwe was looking so rock and roll with his long blonde hair and black leather jacket. He said, “Our secret weapon has indeed arrived! Yes…these are monumental days, man, monumental days!” I couldn’t stop smiling. We loaded up our stuff and headed to a motel room to wash off four days of road grease. Then we went to “the barn”, and rocked out.