Tuesday, February 23, 2016

KICK OUT THE JAMS by Peter Nolan Smith

In the fall of 1969 my all-boys parochial school entered a chocolate-selling competition with the other Catholic educational institutions in Boston. The top prize for most sales was a concert by a band from Elektra Records. Rumors abounded that the band on offer was The Doors.

Everyone wished it was true, because in 1967 the LA band had a # 1 hit with LIGHT MY FIRE. Catholic girls loved Jim Morrison, however the Lizard King couldn’t satisfy all of them, so our 1000-plus strong enrollment scoured the virgin suburbs of the South Shore with boxes of outdated chocolate bars, dreaming of teenage girls dancing to THE END and we beat our nearest rival by over $5000.

On the cold morning December 1st our principal ended the morning messages by saying, “I congratulate you for selling the most chocolate bars. The cardinal also sends his thanks for the papal recruiting fund. I suppose you’re wondering who the band is.”

I sat in English class with thirty-five other seniors. Brother Bede leaned against the blackboard. We chanted, “Doors, Doors, Doors.”

The ex-boxer raised a hand to still us. My father had seen him fight as a heavyweight at Boston Arena. No one challenged the broken-nosed brother’s commands.

“I’m pleased to announce that Elektra band chosen the MC5 to be backed up by a local group, the Odyssey.”

The majority of the class muttered out their disappointment. The Doors meant making out with girls.

“MC5?” The school’s quarterback pounded on his desk. “Who the fuck are they?”

Only WBCN-FM played the MC5. Most teenagers only listened to the AM stations and the football player's questionis question stumped everyone in the room, but me.

“The Motor City 5 are out of Detroit. They opened for Led Zeppelin at the Garden two months ago.” Narragansett Beer had hosted its first Tribal Rock Festival to a sell-out crowd of 17,000. “In 1968 they appeared three nights at the Boston Tea Party with the Velvet Underground.”

“I w-w-wish you w-w-were as good w-w-with English as you are w-w-with rock and roll.” Brother Bede had not won that fight in Boston Arena and his stutter was a result of many beatings.

“Yes, b-b-brother.” I shared his perchance for a stammer.

“Who cares about history?” The quarterback glared in my direction, as if I had personally decided which band played at our school. He was from Brockton. It was a tough town. “Are the MC5 any good?”

“I know the Doors are what people want you to hear, but the MC5 are the best live band in America.” I was into rock and roll. My record collection was second to none. I had seen the Turtles, Animals, Shocking Blue, the Remains, and Rocking Ramrods at the Surf Nantasket, the Modern Lovers at Cambridge Commons, the Ultimate Spinach and Beacon Street Union on Boston Commons. My hair ran over the back of my shirt. My mother called me a hippie.

“Have you ever seen them?” The quarterback had won our school a state championship. He was a god in the eyes of my classmates. His favorite band was the Beatles.

“No, but I have their live LP. KICK OUT THE JAMS. I'll bring it to school tomorrow. We can listen to it in the audio lab during study.”

“At least they have a record.” The quarterback wore his hair long like Paul McCartney and his girlfriend was the head cheerleader at our sister school, Our Blessed Virgin High School.

“And it’s better than THE WHITE ALBUM.” My girlfriend was cheerleader at my town school. Kyla loved the Beatles and I never told her about my deep dislike for the pop sell-outs. At least she wasn’t into Paul.

The quarterback rose from his desk. Brother Bede stepped between us.

“Sit down. There’ll be no fighting in my class or anywhere else.” Brother Bede liked my poetry, but he was asst. coach on the football team and the quarterback was his boy.

“Yes, brother.”

We shook hands and then took our seats. We both rubbed our knuckles on the way back to our desks. Brother Bede had us read from A SEPARATE PEACE.

During lunch everyone discussed the MC5.

Three other boys had heard of them; my best friend Chuckie Manzi and my two younger cousins.

“Hippie girls love the MC5. They symbolize revolution. The record opens with the lead singer yelling ‘motherfucker’.” Chuckie had listened to the album in my basement. His mother would kill him, if she heard that word in her house. My mother too, only she worked during the day.

“They have the balls to sing ‘motherfucker?” The quarterback’s opinion elevated the MC5 to that of the Kingsmen, who mythically shouted ‘fuck’ during LOUIE LOUIE.

“They were also the only band to appear in Chicago during the Days of Rage in 1968 and they played for eight hours straight.” I learned about the band from the WBCN DJs, who worshipped their non-commerciality.

“So they’re against the war.” The quarterback had a brother stationed in Da Nang.

“Yes.” I was no liar at this point in my life.

“Then that’s good enough for me.” The only way outs for Brockton boys was the army or prison and the quarterback was lucky enough to have colleges interested in his arm.

None of us were traitors, but at the end of the school year we were meat for the draft and even high school seniors knew that the Pentagon didn’t want to win this war.

The next day I brought in the MC5 LP. Our study period was right before lunch. The quarterback and I entered the audio lab. The librarian lent us headphones. I cued up the first track and turned the volume to 10. John Sinclair introduced the band.

“Brothers and sisters.” The radical from Detroit shouted to the audience at the Grande Ballroom,

“Are you ready to testify? I give you a testimonial. The MC5.”

The feedback guitars and falsetto lead voice caught the quarterback off guard like a safety blitz, but within seconds his head was rocking on his neck and he smiled his approval.

Hearing ‘motherfucker’ on KICK OUT THE JAMS turned his smile into a grin. He pulled off the headphones and said, “They’re great, but we have a problem. The brothers will never let them say ‘motherfucker’ at the concert.”

“How they going to know about that? They only listen to Georgian chants."

“Some of them are young. They have contacts with the anti-war movement. We have snitches at school. They’re going to find out.” The quarterback believed in a good defense and lifted the stylus off the LP. “You never brought this to school.”

“You want to borrow it?” I rarely lent out records. No one ever gave them back in good condition.

“You would do that?” The quarterback slipped the record into the cover sleeve with care.

“We are not the problem,” I answered by quoting John Sinclair. “We are the solution.”

It was 1969. This was our world.

The quarterback instructed his team to squelch any mention of the MC5 and the word motherfucker.

His offensive line were the biggest boys in the school. We reached the Christmas vacation without a breach in our silence. The quarterback gave back the record on the last day before break. It was in good condition.

“Sorry, but everyone in my town wanted to hear it.”

“I understand.” I resisted checking for scratches and wished him a happy new year. “You too.”

As soon as he was out of sight, I pulled out the LP. It was untouched.

We were the high society.

Tickets went on sale the first day back at school. They cost $2.50 each. I walked into school in January and headed to the school store. Over a hundred students were lined up for tickets. The Dean of Discipline was asking them about the band.

“Do they have a hit?” The Dean was fast with his hands.

“No, brother,” answered a nervous sophomore.

“Then why are you going?”

In his US history class he preached that J. Edgar Hoover deserved our respect for fighting godless communism and now suspected something was amiss with the MC5.

“They have a new album coming out BACK IN THE USA.”

“So they’re ‘hip’?” The Dean of Discipline kept up with teenage slang to pretend that he wasn’t so different from us. The act didn’t fool any of us.

“Yes, brother.” Conversations with the Dean was best kept to five words or less. He was a dedicated witch-hunter.

“I look forward to seeing them.” The Dean of Discipline walked away from the queue with his hands in his pockets, but this first round of interrogation was not the last. The Dean was very thorough in his investigation into subversion.

“Keep your mouths shut.” I wagged a warning finger at the sophomore.

“About what?” I bought two tickets for Kyla and me.

“Good answer.”

The MC5 show sold out the first day to the amazement of the school principal.

The quarterback told him that the student body was charged up about the first concert at the school. His hero status convinced the principal that a rock band was no threat to our souls and said that he was looking forward to seeing the group.

“They’re loud.”

“As long as they don’t break the sound barrier, I’ll be fine with loud.”

The quarterback and I felt confident that our deception would skate under the radar, then two nights before the show a disc jockey on WBZ reported on a secret concert by the MC5 at our high school.

The second I heard his report I knew this was trouble and the next morning the principal ended the morning messages by announcing, “It had come to the school’s attention that the group scheduled to appear this Saturday night has been involved in an obscenity controversy. School policy strictly bans any curse words by teachers, students, and visitors.”

“Obviously the principal has never been to football practice.” the quarterback quipped from his desk. His coach was renown for his vitriolic outbursts of four-lettered words.

“Q-q-quiet,” Brother Bede’s commands were stuttered once and only once.

“Any mention of the bad words mentioned by the band before or during the show will result in my immediate termination of the concert. I have contacted the record company and warned them that any incident will incur the full wrath of the arch-diocese of Boston. That is all for today.”

This heavy-handed suppression of free speech instilled rebellion into our hearts, for the brothers thought that we were meant to be seen and not heard, but those days had ended at our school after last year’s strike to abolish the dress code. White shirts and tie were now optional and we regarded anyone wearing them as stooges for the old regime.

“S-s-slow down, class.” Brother Bede sat on the edge of his desk with ON THE ROAD in his hands. We had read CATCHER IN THE RYE, 1984, and BRAVE NEW WORLD under his tutelage. He believed in an open mind. “A-a-at least the concert was not cancelled and from w-w-w-what the principal explained to the other brothers, the b-b-band only said one bad word on its record. He said nothing about their b-b-being revolutionaries.”

Brother Bede’s common sense calmed our young minds and we spread his good news throughout the school. The omission of one word wasn’t the end of the world, even though the truth of the matter was that none of us would be here if our fathers weren’t motherfuckers. Even Jesus had a motherfucker and the word was bantered around the school like a badminton cock at a summer barbecue.

The night of the show Chuckie drove us to school.

I was wearing a fringed suede jacket and bell-bottom jeans. Kyla was a little Tibetan goddess in her lambskin coat and miniskirt.

Snowflakes darted across 128. Chuckie put on WBCN. JJ Jackson was playing PINBALL WIZARD.

At Woodstock Abbie Hoffman declared that the concert was bullshit while John Sinclair was in prison for marijuana. Pete Townsend had driven the Yippie leader off stage with his guitar. Woodstock was about love and peace, not the injustice of the MC5's spokesman languishing in prison for a few joints and tonight was no different.

The four of us drank a six-pack of beer in the parking lot. Kyla and I made out in the back seat. Her lips tasted of bubble gum. My hands wiggled under her sweater to glide on baby-powdered skin. The heat of our young bodies fogged the windows.

Time was lost to passion, but at 8pm Kyla broke our embrace. I wiped away the condensation on the rear window.

The doors to the gym were open.

“Let’s go.”

As we approached the gym, two hippie girls asked if I had an extra tickets. They were college age. Two more co-eds posed the same question at the door. A pair of freshmen offered to be their dates. The girls did not refuse the request. This was a big show.

Inside the deejay was playing popular hits and the gathering crowd danced to Marvin Gaye and Sly.

My classmates were costumed in haute Haight-Ashbury. The pungent aroma of marijuana emanated from the bathroom.

Three long-haired men in colorful robes exited a minute later. None of them attended Xaverian and they smiled at Kyla with reddened eyes. She clutched my hand. Strange men scared the buxom brunette. I held her close. Her beauty was safe with me.

The stage was set up under the basketball net. I recognized the Odyssey from their gigs at the Surf Nantasket. The quartet looked nervous about performing tonight. They were a cover band. This was a big gig for them.

I didn’t see any sign of the MC5.

“Where are they?” the quarterback demanded at the table serving cokes. His girlfriend introduced herself to Kyla. She was as blonde as Peggy Lipton of THE MOD SQUAD.

“I heard on WBCN that they were playing an afternoon show in Detroit.”

“This afternoon?” Driving in a GTO at top speed from Detroit was a six-hour trip with police lights in the rearview mirror.

“Yes.” The DJ Charles Laquidara had told his listeners that the band had been playing an afternoon show in Detroit.

“How will they get here ?” The show was scheduled for 9:30.

“They’re taking a flight to Logan.”

I leaned over to the quarterback. He smelled of Brut. It was Joe Namath’s cologne.

“They’ll be here. Just don’t tell anyone else. We don't want a riot here.”

The Odyssey opened their set with a cover of HEY JOE. I checked at my Timex watch. It was 8:30. The younger students danced to the hits.

None of the hippies in the audience paid attention to the group. Some of them looked older than 20.

The Dean of Discipline was keeping a close eye on them. Brother Bede had cotton stuffed in his ears. Chuckie and I went outside to finish our beers.

The night sky was clear of clouds and the stars showed their power from distant positions in space.

A car engine was grinding up the road to the school. A white van slid on black ice into the parking lot. The vehicle accelerated between the rear-ends of our cars and braked before the gym. Five men jumped from the van. It was the MC5. I recognized the lead singer from his Afro. He waved for me to come closer.

“You go to school here?” His name was Wayne Kramer.

“Yes, sir.” I had never spoken to a famous person.

“I’m not a sir, brother. This is Xaverian, right?” The guitarist checked out Kyla and eyed me with admiration.

The smell of bubble gum on her lips was a beautiful thing.

“Yes.” I couldn’t bring myself to call him brother. I already had three.

“Damn, we didn’t get lost. Good driving.” He slapped the driver on the shoulder. He was Fred Sonic Smith, the guitarist. “Let’s get set up. Brother, you want to carry an amp into the gym. The faster we set up, the faster we play for you.”

“Yes, sir.” The sir thing was a hard habit to lose in less than a minute. “Cool.” He handed Chuckie and me each a large Marshall amp.

The Odyssey had finished their set. Chuckie and I hauled the amps to the stage like altar boys carrying Sunday communion to the faithful.

The MC5 shook hands walking through the crowd. The hippie girls abandoned the freshmen for the stars of the night. The MC5 were a live band. They performed more than twenty shows a month. The roadies assembled the equipment array within a half hour.

The band climbed onto the stage, only to have the principal and Dean of Discipline to confront them. The topic of discussion was no secret to the student body and the murmur of dissent rippled through the audience.

The Dean of Discipline shone his sated disapproval, but Wayne Kramer raised his hand and strode over to the microphone.

“Brothers and sisters, we’re the MC5. You know who we are. You know what we stand for.”

He turned to the two black-robed brothers.

“Your principal has requested that we not use a word during the show. If we don’t agree to this condition, we won’t be allowed to play and we flew a thousand miles to be with you tonight.”

Boos rocked the gym.

“It’s just one word. You know the word. We only say it one time. We didn’t come here to walk out the door.” The lead singer waved for the band to take their places. “We are the MC5 and you are you. One two three.”

They rocked the building with the MOTOR CITY IS BURNING. Rob Tyner drove the girls crazy with his strut during DOING ALL RIGHT. Mike Davis led the band with a thumping bass and the drummer drove a basic beat into our bones. The basketball floor bounced with our dancing and Kyla sang along to BABY PLEASE DON’T GO. The quarterback and I hugged each other with joy after HIGH SCHOOL. We were seventeen and free.

The MC5 left us ragged after two hours of solid rock and they ended with a homage to Chuck Berry and the title track of their new LP, BACK IN THE USA.

“Thank you, Xaverian.” Wayne Kramer shouted into the mike. “Peace, brothers and sisters.”

The MC5 jumped off the low stage and we chanted out more. We stomped the floor to the chant of ‘more’. The band emerged from the underneath the bleachers and Wayne Kramer grabbed the mike.

“We have saved the best for last and we have also kept our promise to the good brothers, but you didn’t make any promise,” I pointed the microphone into the audience. “Brothers and sisters, it’s now time to KICK OUT THE JAMS____”

Our voices shouted the word as one. “Motherfucker.” There was no quieting us. The world was on fire and the MC5 drew us into the flames that evening.

It was January 24, 1970

On January 25 today became yesterday and tomorrow was a long way away from yesterday.

No comments: