Cheap Holidays In Other People’s Misery: Learning to Speak Van Halen, The Sex Pistols, and Me

by Michael T. Fournier

I moved to Concord, New Hampshire in 1987. I was thirteen. My grandparents gave some land to my parents, across the street from where my dad had grown up, the cite of a defunct chicken farm.

My last year of school in suburban Boston, seventh grade, had been marred by the onset of a virulent strain of acne which left me covered with throbbing whiteheads until my late teens. Huge glasses and mouth full of braces didn’t help my self-esteem any. Neither did the realization that the clothes I was wearing were hopelessly out of date: bulky ski sweaters, brown cords, low-top sneakers. All I wanted was to be left alone to read in peace during my lunch period, but my duds drew the attention of denim-clad grease monkeys who picked on me for sport.

The number of friends I had at the old school dwindled as cliques formed and grew – I was uncool, delegated to the geek table. Still, I was devastated when we left, despite the crash in my personal stock. I had lived in Wilmington for seven years, almost half my life at that point. Being uprooted midstream and thrown into something new was a terrifying prospect.

My folks were sympathetic to my plight – my mom told me she’d get me some of the Reebok hi-tops I had been talking about for the better part of the year. Everyone in school had them, it seemed, except for me. My attempt to blend in yielded a pair of Pony sneakers, which made the target on my back even bigger: the geek bought the wrong brand.

On the first day of school in Concord, I walked up my folks’ driveway to wait for the bus, Reeboks fairly sparkling, one strap on my backpack slung over my shoulder, across my brand new Ocean Pacific polo.

I was close to tears when I got home – I endured taunts and heckles all day. The cafeteria had been so daunting that I had spent my lunch period in a bathroom stall, reading with the door shut. Obviously, I was doing something wrong – my clothes were incorrect in some vital way that I couldn’t understand. My collar should be up, my pants should be rolled, something.

On the walk to my bus, I overheard some kids talking about Van Halen.

Maybe they were the answer.

My favorite band was Duran Duran – my dad had taken me to see them at the Worcester Centrum a few months prior. But kids at the old school gave me shit for liking them – a bunch of fags, they said. The ones that picked on me wore black concert t-shirts: Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, AC/DC.

Van Halen.

I remembered “Jump” from the radio a few years prior. And the video for “Hot For Teacher,” set in a school. I liked both well enough.

Learning Van Halen would be okay.

I convinced my parents to let me join a mailorder record and tape club. Shortly thereafter, a bunch of cassettes arrived in the mail, including ‘5150,’ ‘1984’ and ‘Diver Down.’ I listened to them over and over again, trying to find the kernel of truth buried behind the distortion which would keep me safe from taunts.

***

There weren’t any developments or subdivisions in the country. Nor was there anyone my age to hang out with, save for this one guy who lived three houses down the street, a half-mile away. His dad was a lawyer, and their house was really nice in a modern way that I didn’t think fit with the rest of the farmhouses on the road.

The Kid’s room was covered with ninja posters (I later bought a ninja magazine, hoping it would teach me how to disappear). We watched a movie about convicts forced to live together on an island. I sat there in the dark, wishing we could watch Star Wars instead.

I asked him what brands were big at school, hoping that my just-bought Reeboks and Ocean Pacific polos would dazzle my new schoolmates. He just looked at me.

 A few weeks later, he called me to ask if I wanted to go down to the Village with him, a little nook between two roads boasting a general store and a park. Sure, I said. He came over on his skateboard. I had my 10-speed.

I had never met anyone like the kids he introduced me to. They all had skateboards or trick bikes. Back in Wilmington, some of the kids I knew talked about buying freestyle bikes, but no one ever did.

The Concord kids asked me if I had a bike (“Yeah, a ten-speed,” The Kid told them all), if I skateboarded. I said no.

I didn’t want to hang out with The Kid – we saw each other on the bus and in the halls and silently agreed to pretend we hadn’t met– but the skateboarding thing seemed fun. It was something I could do by myself, at the very least.

I convinced my folks that I needed to have a skateboard. We went to Bradlee’s and picked one out. There was no pavement to ride – the main road was too scary and thin – so I stuck to dual ruts of hard, packed dirt the tires of my grandfather’s red Chevy pickup had cut into the slight swell in the yard which couldn’t rightly be called a hill. By the end of the summer I could ride all the way down without falling.

The kids at school who read comic books and played video games let me sit at their lunch table. It was dicey at best – the jocks and cool kids treated us, right next to the lunch line cash register, as part of their routine. Get a carton of milk, give the geeks shit, grab a sandwich, pay the lunchlady, give the geeks shit again. I couldn’t do it every day. Instead, I often went to the library. Initially it was just to escape the taunts, but it unfolded on me that I could multi-task: sequester myself and learn more about Van Halen. I dug through back issues of Rolling Stone and, when I had consumed them all, learned how to use the microfiche machine to find older articles. David Lee Roth, I knew, had been their singer – I thought his solo videos were funny (and I didn’t mind all the ladies in bikinis, either, though I wasn’t quite sure why).

One day, at an empty library table, I found a magazine about skateboarding.

I quickly flipped through. Guys who didn’t look that much older than me were flying above empty pools and jumping over trash cans. I wondered how they did it.

I pored over the pictures and words in the magazine. Lots of photos had been cut out, but it didn’t matter – the new world depicted was fascinating and complete even though some of the images had been removed. Here were a bunch of guys, I saw, who did things with skateboards that I never thought possible. Flying out of pools and jumping over trashcans had never even occurred to me – I thought going down hills was all you could do.

I wanted to be like them.

I spent the next few afternoons trying to jump over sticks. I couldn’t even get the wheels off the ground.

Should I ask The Kid how to do it? Or maybe his friends from down at The Village? I thought better of it –some of them called me names on the bus. They weren’t going to help me jump over sticks. I’d have to figure it out on my own.

I took my ten-speed to town and bought a skateboard magazine. Thrasher, it was called – different than the one I had found in the library. The pages weren’t as glossy, and the guys inside were dirtier, like they hadn’t showered for a while. Some of them had hair that stuck together like cigars. I wasn’t sure what to think: they seemed like they’d pick on me at the lunch table.

I bought new magazines every month. TransWorld Skateboarding was the one I had found in the libaray. I pictured jumping over sticks with the guys in that magazine – they would help me, I decided, and be nice to me. The guys in Thrasher might be friends with me, but only if I knew what they were talking about. They’d laugh and call me names if I fell when I was riding down the dirt path.

A third skateboard magazine had started. It was called Poweredge. I didn’t know what the name meant, but it was cheap, so I picked it up every month. I didn’t think it was very good – lots of misspellings and typos. I was so starved for information that I bought it anyway. It contained interviews with pro skateboarders, like the other magazines had, but they didn’t feel as jokey. The interviewers asked questions that were easy for me to understand. There was this one guy, Vallely, who seemed really sad even though he was a pro – he spent a lot of time alone reading and listening to records. Like me.

All three magazines had photos of skaters with t-shirts that read “Sex Pistols.” I went to the library and found their picture in a Rolling Stone book. They looked weirder than the guys in Thrasher – spikes, safety pins, rips and straps.

After I saw their picture, I couldn’t escape the Sex Pistols – every new skate magazine I bought had some guy with one of their shirts, their stickers. Something.

***

My mom went to do some errands this one Saturday, before church, and dropped me off downtown. I found the tape at the big record store: “Never Mind The Bollocks,” the cover said, “Here’s The Sex Pistols.” I wondered what bollocks were – some band, probably. The cover was bright yellow and pink, colors that reminded me of the clothes that a lot of the guys in the skate magazines wore. Maybe there was a connection.

My mom picked me up at three, then brought me back to the house so we could get my dad and go to church. We went to mass every Saturday afternoon. Usually we’d go to dinner afterwards. There were a few restaurants that my folks and I liked – this one, Skuffy’s, was on the outskirts of the sketchy section of town, where trailerpark lawns were littered with car parts and rusted-out truck husks on blocks.

The tape was in the pocket of my baggy khakis, still wrapped in cellophane. I slid a fingernail through the plastic wrap and pulled out the tape’s j-card – nothing was written inside, not even songwriting credits.

“We’re leaving in five minutes,” my mom called to me as she finished in the shower.

“Okay,” I said back. Five minutes was probably enough time to listen to the first song on the tape – “Holidays In The Sun,” the tape read.

I put the tape in the deck my dad had given me. He used to be a DJ and had a big record collection, so I was always getting stereo gear for Christmas. My old tape deck had died, so I inherited one of his old ones. It only played through one channel, in mono, but I didn’t mind that much.

When I pushed play, the sound of a marching army came through the one speaker. Then a drumbeat played along with the marching.

I stood there with my mouth open. What the hell was this?

Then the singer:

CHEAP HOLIDAY IN OTHER PEOPLE’S MISER-AAAAYYYYY!

Whoah!

The guy didn’t sound at all like David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar!

It didn’t even sound like he was trying. But the voice grabbed me somewhere I didn’t have a name for, deep in my chest, and pulled me. How could that possibly happen if he wasn’t even trying?

All this, in an instant:

The singer was smart. It wasn’t a thought. It was a feeling, somehow connected to that pull in my chest – I just knew the guy was smart.

And pissed off.

He probably read a lot, I thought. I could hear it in his voice – he was tired of being stepped on.

I heard it a few lines in:

I WANNA SEE SOME OF HISTO-RRRRRRR-Y,” he shouted. How did he do that thing with his ‘r’, roll it? I stood there trying to duplicate the sound, yielding pitiful fart noises instead, when the next lyric came:

’CUZ NOW I GOT A REASONABLE ECONOMY!” There was happiness in his voice even though he was pissed off – it sounded like he had needed a word to rhyme with ‘history’ and had pulled ‘economy’ out of his hat, spur of the moment. I flashed to Sammy Hagar, hunched over a pad of paper, crossing out lyric after lyric in an attempt to get things perfect. The singer of the Sex Pistols, I decided, didn’t need to do that because he didn’t care.

And it was because he didn’t care that they were the most awesome band I had ever heard.

Maybe I can not care, I thought.

Maybe that can be me.

I have to learn everything I can about this band, I thought. They know what they’re doing, somehow, even though it sounded like they had no idea what they were doing.

I went down to the car after the song ended with the singer shouting PLEASE DON’T BE WAITING FOR ME. I thought about the song for the entire ride to church, the entire mass, the entire time we sat at Skuffy’s afterwards. My parents and I ordered a plate of onion rings to start, and I had my nose in a book, as usual, but I couldn’t concentrate. That singer!

I had the tape in my walkman when I got on the bus Monday morning. I had listened to the tape so many times that I already had a sense of which song would come next. There was the song “Bodies,” the second one, which was about abortion. The singer said “fuck” a whole bunch of times, which made me feel dangerous. What if my parents heard the tape? Hell, what if they saw the tape? Would they take it away because of the band’s name? I didn’t know what I’d do without it, so I’d have to be careful.

Then there was “God Save The Queen,” right at the end of the first side, which was about England, I guessed. The song ended with “no future” over and over. I wondered what had happened to the people in the band.

“We’re so pretty, oh so pretty,” the singer shouted in this one song. I had seen their picture – they looked awful. Scary. But they still said they looked great. “We’re vacant! And we don’t CARE!” At the end of the song, the words were stretched to the point of breaking: “And we don’t caaaaaaaaaaare!

The bus ride didn’t feel so hard any more.The Sex Pistols were going to protect me.

During lunch that day, I went to the library and read the article again. Their singer was named Johnny Rotten– he was the guy it the pictures that looked the weirdest, with all of the safety pins and everything. Their bass player was named Sid Vicious.

He was dead.

No future.

I felt sad for him and his friends and wished that he was still alive.

The only record the Sex Pistols put out was “Never Mind The Bollocks.” I wanted more. I wanted to consume them, to digest a serving of Sex Pistols so big that my stomach burst. I listened to the tape over and over and over and over again and never felt full.

The library’s microfiche machines yielded more history:

Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend, then died of a drug overdose, like Len Bias a few summers before.

The Sex Pistols cursed on British national television, then briefly toured the United States before breaking up.

They were managed by a man named Malcolm McLaren.

I started buying ‘Rolling Stone’ and ‘Spin’ along with the usual cache of skateboard magazines, figuring on picking up more clues on the Sex Pistols. They were part of this thing called punk rock.

Every morning, it was the Sex Pistols on my walkman when I got on the bus. Some mornings I even played my old Duran Duran tapes. Van Halen started to gather dust.

My zits weren’t going away. Neither were my braces – a few of my teeth refused to grow in. My mouth had stretched to accommodate the miles of metal, but wires and brackets still shredded the inside of my lips every time I ate. And the lenses in my glasses were thick enough to work inside of a space telescope. My eyesight was still getting worse, the eyedoctor told me, making contact lenses impossible. I was damned to be a lightning rod. Stuck being ugly.

So were the Sex Pistols.

They didn’t sound like everyone else, always attracting attention with their lyrics and clothes and antics. But they knew it. And they didn’t hide from it. They glamorized being poor and ugly and not being able to sing that well.

The skaters in the magazines always talked about how you could skate with friends and have a good time. I didn’t have any friends that skated, but I still had fun with it – something to do after school to take my mind off bullies knocking books out of my hands or calling me a nerd in front of pretty girls. I didn’t feel so alone when I skated because I thought that there were other kids who were by themselves, skating. Kids who would probably be friends with me if we met. I could ask them if they knew who the Sex Pistols were. If they did, we could trade stories. If not, I could teach them, so the next time we hung out we’d be able to speak in code about something the rest of the world didn’t understand. We’d have something in common that belonged to us.

The code we’d share would protect us from the rest of the world. Kids would try and pick on us for not knowing enough about Van Halen and we’d tell them that Van Halen was okay, but the Sex Pistols were better. Did they know the Sex Pistols? They’d say no, and there would be a silence well-earned. Free, for a few moments, of taunts and heckles and the right sneakers and the table by the lunch line. We’d be far away from everyone. And we wouldn’t care.

Michael T. Fournier is the author of two novels — Hidden Wheel, and the forthcoming Swing State, both on Three Rooms Press– and a book-length discussion of the Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime. He co-edits Cabildo Quarterly and plays drums in Tooth & Germ.

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