Up Against a Monster

(Or: How Rock-and-Roll Learned Me)

Jessie and me
Jessie and me on a cleaner day

Jessie was my best friend, and we were going to see the band REM play at Starlake Amphitheatre in Pittsburgh. This was a huge deal because Jessie’s parents had actually granted him permission to drive the two of us in their minivan, and they were the sort of parents whose trust in their teenage son was arbitrary at best, subject to mysterious forces beyond anyone’s understanding. One weekend he could come over and watch movies. The next, he had to stay home, just because.

Once, eight of us teenagers went out to Kings restaurant and ordered the behemoth 32-scoop ice cream dish called “Tons of Fun for Everyone.” After ten minutes the dish had vanquished everyone but Jessie. As we lay back in the vinyl booth and watched, he grabbed the big wooden serving spoon and started ladling the soupy chocolate chip and peanutty dregs into his mouth. In the car, he threw up, and when he got home, still sick, his parents grounded him because they would not believe that he hadn’t been out drinking. This, even though we were the type of kids who got off on making chocolate layer cakes and dancing around to “Don’t Let’s Start” by They Might Be Giants. They didn’t see this in him, and it infuriated me.

The summer before, I’d gotten my driver’s license and scraped the side of my dad’s new Camry on a guardrail while driving the two of us downtown to see Jeff Buckley and Juliana Hatfield play. To us, the notion of driving the family car to a rock show outside the green zone of Pittsburgh’s suburbs had amassed a fearful stigma. This night—two best friends off for an evening of rock ‘n roll fun—was huge.

Did I mention that it had been raining all afternoon? The field seating at the amphitheatre was already a muddy mess by the time we got there. The band Luscious Jackson came out to open, and they launched into “Naked Eye,” their bass-heavy hit of that summer. Jessie and I couldn’t stop beaming. We stood there in the squishy field, singing along and stretching our arms out towards the tiny figures on stage half a football field away, as we angled our bodies physically towards the sound we swore was keeping us alive that summer, the same sound we had turned up as loud as possible so many nights, flying far too fast down suburban streets in compact cars and station wagons. This was the experience we’d been seeking; this was the circuit closed, now. The rain poured and we were Real Teenagers Living Life. REM came on and Michael Stipe growled into the microphone, “Is everybody wet out there?” and Jessie and I both swooned some.

Then the frat boys came.

First things first. I know that the term “frat boys” has become sort of a dull catch-all for beer-guzzling beefy young men with no sense of the subtle or artistic, the kind of stereotype that holds little interest for those of us who like to imagine that people are more complex than that. However, if we were to imagine that the above definition evolved from some original, empirical truth, then these young men were the corporeal embodiment of that truth. There were probably about seven of them—or, in the most sparkling version of my recollection, a dozen or more, maybe the original such fellows for whom the term was coined—the Latin fraternitas and the Dutch broeder turned to living, breathing, beings walking this earth. They arrived in a pack. They shoved themselves and their coolers of beer, already very much depleted, into the very last remaining narrow strip of empty space in the entire amphitheatre, behind these two nerdy, awkward kids on the crowded, muddy lawn.

The boys seized the moments between songs to engage in lusty chants. “We are! Penn State! We ARE! Penn STATE!” they cried: clearly, an exercise in camaraderie among handsome corn-fed lads. Such a love as challenges the very descriptor “fraternal.” By the middle of the show, about thirteen of them had linked arms, and in this shoulder-to-shoulder, chorus-line-style, they swayed through the tune “I Don’t Sleep I Dream,” crooning along with the chorus: “I’d settle for a cup of coffee, but YOU! KNOW! WHAT! I really neeed!” The same with “Strange Currencies,” the unrequited heartsong of the album.

It was all quite romantic or something.

Meanwhile, Jessie and I inched forward. Every time we did, though, the Penn State brothers closed the gap on that slippery hill. We gritted our teeth and followed our mothers’ advice: Pretend not to notice them, and they will stop. Granted, we could have really moved. Just a few yards away, our concert experience could have been radically different. Why didn’t we move? We stood there and we got annoyed. We shot each other looks. We sighed heavily. I think the thing is this: At seventeen, Jessie and I were still imbued with that sense of masochistic submission that comes from years of being subjected to the constant threat of ridicule and bullying. We were the clumsy kids, the achievers who never had the right clothes. We had gotten our assignments as low men on the social totem pole years before, and we carried that mark around like something palpable and translatable to anyone else we met. Even if we had moved, we had the sense that things would be no better elsewhere.

And again, I stress: these lads were right behind us. Spitting distance. No. Pissing distance. I know this because when I hear the lush reverberation-chamber of guitar that characterizes the REM album that came out that year, especially when I hear “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream,” I can still feel big, quarter-sized droplets of rain on my already dripping-wet hair, feel the muddy filth squishing around inside my shoes and then, a drizzle on the back of my ankle, distinctly warmer than the water that had been pouring from the sky for hours. That night, I felt that drizzle and I turned around to see the line of young men, still in Rockette formation, performing their epic number: pissing as one.

“What the hell?” I shouted. Well, sort of. It might have been more like a mutter, not spoken directly to the frat boys, but mumbled, as I turned my head back to Jessie, then hissed, “We need to move up. They’re peeing. They’re peeing!” Again, they: 40 or 50 beefy gents. We: one gangly, closeted kid plus his dorky friend. We inched further forward.

When the show ended, Jessie and I slogged back through the fields to the minivan to find that he’d left the headlights on. The battery was dead. To an over-sheltered teenager who’s already up against his curfew, this fact translated to complete panic.

It was almost midnight and the wet denim from our jean shorts had grown heavy and chafing. Our legs were muddy and sprayed with beery urine, and our ears pealed with the shining, metallic echoes of tones we’d forfeited the ability to hear ever again. Jessie sat dripping all over the beige vinyl driver’s seat, staring into the middle distance, his hand on the useless car key.

“I am so dead. I am just so dead,” he said, again and again. I nodded at him, thinking of how quiet everything in the world was suddenly, compared to the way it had just been filled with loud melody and feedback that had filled every space that felt empty inside of us. It had electrified me; made me feel strong—almost strong enough to turn around and yell at the guys behind us. Almost.

I looked over at Jessie. He stared into a silent, dark place, miles past the plastic peeling dash and the beanie baby charm hanging motionless from the rearview mirror.

Something new was catalyzed in me.

“Stay here,” I told him, and swung the door open. Hopping out, I took an appraising look at the cars around us, sizing them up. A new sense of purpose drove me. I went first to the hippie kids in the station wagon. Then the couple in the green Saab wearing all black. Neither had jumper cables. After these two rejections, I was less sure. I stood up straighter and strode with purpose past a group of attractive kids my age wearing an array of flannel shirts; then I turned around. After all, I had a reason to address them. I turned to a boy with a braided hemp necklace and hair like Jordan Catalano on My So-Called Life. He shook his head and his friends followed suit. “Sorry, man,” they all chorused, and the Jordan-guy tucked his hair behind his ear and offered me a beer.

“Nah,” I said, every muscle in my body electric, careful. “I’d better move on.” I walked away, not tugging at my shorts, which, soaked, were giving me an exasperating wedgie. I was already imagining my new life with the popular kids from this other school, you know, maybe one night I might run into the Jordan Catalano guy at the park, and then—

Well, it was late and I was dizzy with these imaginings—dizzy! Meanwhile, Jessie needed me. In my daze, I had circled back to near where we were parked. A middle-aged couple sat and drank beers on the roof of a brown minivan.

“Do you have jumper cables?” I asked them.

Turns out they did. Valiantly, I pointed out our van just a few yards away, where Jessie sat in the driver’s seat, eyes still glassy and forlorn, staring at nothing. As the man stretched his arms and tossed back the rest of his beer, the lateness of the hour and the direness of our situation hit me again. The man moved slowly—how could he move so slowly?—scratching the back of his head, climbing down the van and inside. His wife stayed on the roof while he swung the vehicle around. I worried about this woman, who was basically risking life and limb to this husband, who was basically drinking and driving. Were we wrong to accept their help?

Well, it was too late now.

I ran in front and around to the side of our minivan, where, sweeping my arm around in an exaggerated fashion, I motioned for Jessie to unroll the window. He did me one better and jumped out.

“I got help!” I said.

“Oh, thank god.”

“Have him pop the hood,” called the alcoholic man.

We wrung our hands as the man walked back and forth between the vans connecting the cables, and whispered to each other about whether we were supposed to give these people money, but before we could say much else to them, our van was rumbling and he and his wife were gone.

Two years later I would go away to college and meet peers with survival skills that trumped my own by a mile. As freshmen, they were already familiar with terms like “management style” and “fundraise” and knew how to implement such terms to become mini-dictators of campus. I was just psyched that no one demanded a hall pass of me. As a teenager, snarling, sugary, barely-in-control-sounding pop albums like REM’s Monster were as close as I got to actually being bold. Our adventures at all-ages shows were our first and only moments to experience the loudest possible version of the larger world, and to prove ourselves against it.

At least that’s how it felt at the time.

On the ride home, elation swept us. I told Jessie about the Jordan Catalano guy and his friends.

“No way!” Jessie said. “He offered you a beer? A beer? Where does he live?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Oh, no. Well, maybe we’ll see them at Kings.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Maybe.” And Jessie put a tape in the tape deck—Juliana Hatfield or the Lemonheads or the Sugarcubes—and played it low; its longing and hope buoying us up all the way home.

Kings: Home of "Tons of Fun for Everyone"
Kings: Home of "Tons of Fun for Everyone"

One thought on “Up Against a Monster”

  1. Oh great, now I need to go get an ice cream fudge cake at King’s, then head out to the Starlake Amphitheater with your sister, who will have created some sort of heinous mixed drink in a bottle formerly filled with shampoo, but will proceed to share it with everyone else in the car, so I will be the only one sober when we arrive to see Depeche Mode.

    But anyway, I love your resourcefulness, even when covered with pee!

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