Friday, January 6, 2012

Missed Opportunities

REGRETS DEPT. - These are opportunities that I took pains to miss.


I'm not going to belabor this one. The Beastie Boys played my hometown arena, and instead of catching the second band, Public Enemy, I elected to interview Murphy's Law in their tour bus for my fanzine. I think I was feeling defensive, as every kid in my school was at this concert (meaning, every kid at my school was, technically, at a hardcore show), and I probably wanted to be able to brag I'd gotten "backstage".

This isn't a big deal. With the miracle of time machines, I'll have plenty of other opportunities to see Public Enemy on their first tour. I'm not worried about it.


I was visiting family in Maine one summer when the President's advance team came to town. They needed a quiet spot from which to drop Bush's cigarette boat into the Atlantic, far from the hounding media of Kennebunkport. Eventually a limo arrived and disgorged the leader of the free world. He was tall. His few security men seemed relaxed by the surroundings. I could've gotten in one good smack across the face. This was pre-Panama and Iraq, so one manly, pistol-crack loud smack - nothing worse - would have been the appropriate response.

Say I'd gotten 20 years in prison. Would I have missed so much?

"I'M IN HELMET" (1992)

In the early 1990's, I spent some time in Fun City, the Manhattan recording studio of Wharton Tiers. At the time, Tiers was known as the go-to guy for a large swath of the alternative scene that would break mainstream in just a few years. He was very personable and professional, and adept at dealing with band members who quarreled openly in his recording room, or in the control room, or on the sidewalk outside, long after the session had ended.

The studio was less of a city, however, than a low-ceilinged basement. Here is where the problem came in. Tiers lived in the building upstairs, and he took increasingly long "breaks", leaving all of us waiting, watching the clock tick away our paid minutes. What did he do up there? Eat leisurely meals? Take baths? Did he have a secret life with another band in another recording studio?

During these breaks, there wasn't much to do besides stare at the walls and wait for his return. One of the walls was worth staring at, holding dozens of master tapes for the city's indie elite: Prong, Pussy Galore, Sonic Youth, Swans, White Zombie. Again and again, I found my gaze returning to the master tapes for Helmet's "Strap It On".

I liked this album. It wasn't such a stretch picturing myself singing karaoke on this album. Specifically, it wasn't such a stretch picturing myself smuggling a blank 1" Ampex tape into Fun City, swapping reels during our unsupervised downtime, bringing the Helmet masters to any one of hundreds of competing studios, re-recording a new mix with my own vocals, replacing the tapes on my next visit, and producing a bootleg a few months later. I wouldn't have needed lyrics; Helmet's staccato riffs required nothing more than someone singing "I'm in Helmet" over and over. I'm in Helmet, I could almost hear myself croon. Helmet Helmet, I'm in Helmet. Helmet Helmet. I'm in Helmet!

I wish I'd done this. Instead,  I'd get depressed at my own cowardice and eat lots of junk food from the corner bodega. "You're always eating snacks," Tiers jovially told me during one session. In retaliation, I stole the studio's copy of Celebrity Sleuth magazine.


I spent my first two years in Richmond, Virginia, living in Jackson Ward, which was then a nearly all-black enclave of working families. Me and my roommates weren't greeted with any fresh baked cookies, but it was a safe, quiet neighborhood with exceptionally bright street lights. Whenever any of our parents would visit, they'd look around nervously and say, "how are race relations here?"

Nation Of Islam Muslims manned the intersection that formed the western gateway to this neighborhood. They sold copies of  their newspaper, The Final Call, to most drivers stopped at the light. If the driver was a young white male, they'd politely motion for us to roll the window down and then ask us if we'd seen the movie "Congo".

"Not yet," I'd lie to the crisply dressed Muslim man.

"Well, you should," he'd say with a smile, motioning me on when my light turned green.

When Minister Louis Farrakhan came to town, I biked down to the lecture hall. I'd been excited about seeing him speak in person, but when I arrived, I found myself the only bicycling, not-angry, non-black person at the event. I rode home in a cloud of intimidation and self-disgust. Later, a pasty Caucasian acquaintance told me it'd been "fun", despite the bomb threat. Later still, I boycotted the Marilyn Manson protesters at the same venue, to provide some racial balance to my inexplicable cop-out. The end.