Whenever someone asks where I get my ideas for Sally Forth I usually say, “While walking, Mom.” Or I make some pointless quip like “You’d be amazed how inspiring deadlines are.” In other words, I either avoid the question or realize only my parents are asking.
But truth is any story idea that has at least some resonance with a writer has its genesis in their own life. It can be something completely benign, like Sally’s favorite season being Fall, because that was the one season I wouldn’t sweat or freeze in, that had THREE Charlie Brown holiday specials (since the Christmas one usually aired before December 21st), and though due to crippling shyness I absolutely hated public school with an almost Latin-like passion, I still did very well in it, so I experienced some level of accomplishment. (That last part has informed Hilary’s experiences in school in a different fashion.)
Or it can be something that shades a little deeper, as when I experienced a prolonged, pronounced, “Gee, I bet lye tastes good” depression for a full year, and then Ted did as well for an actual calendar year. Of course, I did Ted’s story a few years after the fact, with a hint more humor, and through a prism of some wisdom and reassurance. Otherwise, the papers would have kept printing three pitch-black panels with a sole dialogue balloon reading “Maybe I’ll eat tomorrow” until I was replaced with reruns of Omar Sharif’s bridge column.
But when it comes to childhood memories, some are funneled through my admitted avatar Ted Forth when the tale is wistful or rather cracked. Case in point, while my friends and I did spend many days in the woods and tried to disrupt housing developments that razed trees, we did not build a life-size Voltron out of stolen lumber and realize we could never get down from the head. But actual stories are given to Hilary, who with her friends takes centerstage during the summer months because the season is first and foremost for kids. (It’s like when school was out and soap operas would focus their attention on their teenage characters, an observation I perhaps should not have made publicly). And so it is that this week’s Sally Forth story pinpoints its origin to an actual summer concert, musical cursing, and a business plan that almost got my friend and I severely beaten.
From the mid-70’s to the early-80’s, elementary school through junior high, my friend James and I had a band called Coach (whose history has already been told in no doubt far too much detail here) which, like much of my childhood, has been strip-mined to become part of Ted Forth’s own backstory in the strip.
As illustrated above, James and I did indeed write our own songs as well as did cover songs over 12 albums. We did crib almost all album cover art from Atari 2600 game boxes. But every album was actually recorded on eight-track tape rather than cassette, because, alas, Coach was never meant to last the ages.
James went on to be an excellent singer/songwriter. I, meanwhile, went on to finally nailing a 2/4 beat on the drums (a Duraflame log box and tea kettle full of screws for cymbals), the end result being that if the situation necessitates it—and there are no exits within the immediate vicinity—I can dance with some degree of not crushing embarrassment. I was also able to harmonize fairly well up until my voice broke during recording. In other words, somewhere, in a suburban basement closet or a Long Island landfill, there exists a recording of the precise moment I hit puberty, resulting in something like Peter Brady if he were covering a Ramones song.
But all this was not for naught. True, Coach’s influence never extended beyond our hometown of Dix Hills. (A place barely known for being mentioned once in The Bonfire of the Vanities, even lesser known for being mentioned once in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, as being one town over from the hometown of the Seavers in Growing Pains, and for it being impossible for me to use as the name of Ted’s hometown in Sally Forth without the editors thinking I was making a testicles joke), But our legacy did resonate with precisely one person. Well, perhaps not our musical legacy but the fact we even thought we should be performing music in the first place. And that person was my then six-year-old younger brother, Marcello.
As some Sally Forth readers might recall (that “some” probably being best defined as “one,” artist Jim Keefe), Marcello has occasionally appeared as Alice’s inexplicably ethnic son, a character that can best be described as “Dondi in need of methylphenidate.”
But while Marcello might have wanted to perform music because either he wanted to copy his older brother or thought he could do it much better, in all honesty, his musical inspiration was two-fold. The first was the brash pageantry and bold lack of most other qualities that was KISS.
KISS was a musical behemoth in the mid-to-late 70’s, so omnipresent that no one ever had the chance to wonder how like a sneeze that turns into a pandemic their success came to pass. The answer, though, was rather simple: KISS had presence. And with enough force and commitment, presence can cover all manner of sin and all absence of skill.
My brother understood this. Unlike me, who regularly imploded upon social contact or seemed to have the people skills that would later serve as the longline to Nell, Marcello constantly made friends. Marcello occasionally made enemies. To Marcello either was fine because he was out meeting people and, just as importantly, they were meeting him. And it was this showmanship that could help obscure the fact that, alas, my brother could not hit a single note without injuring others in the process.
The is because aside from my Mom, who was classically trained, nobody in my family can sing. (Perhaps not being a Marciuliano by blood spared my Mom of this infliction.) I can’t sing and so I know not to try. My Dad is convinced he has a wonderful singing voice and shares it regularly amidst much protest, because even at age 80 he still believes any attention is good attention. My brother, however, knows he has the absolute worst singing voice in our family—and perhaps yours—yet sings with great fervor because he enjoys it, which can be seen as either inspiring or a total disregard for humanity, depending on whether or not you actually hear him belt out a tune.
In fact, any true Dantean depiction of Hell would have to include a subbasement in which you are trapped in the backseat of a long car ride from New York to Daytona, Florida (where my dad would display his line of illustrated softcore pornographic T-shirts for the Adult Entertainment Expo) as my brother sang the longest possible songs he could think of, from “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” to his favorite, “Hotel California,” repeatedly, with emphasis on every possible wrong syllable:
Stab it WITH the STEE-ly knives
But YOU still CAN’T kill THE beast
*Allow me to amend that with a very inelegant imitation of a Wallacian-length footnote that would run at the bottom in print but online must appear in the body of the main text: Several years ago my family vacationed at the Acapulco Princess Hotel, a very nice place whose primary residents outside of tourists were peacocks and a scorpion I once saw get into an empty elevator, thereby ensuring I took the stairs from then on.
As it turned out, when we arrived we discovered our hotel room had been given to someone else. So they transferred us to another room, only for us to walk in on an elderly woman in mid-dress. Then the hotel staff said they had exhausted all (both) options. My mom became so incensed that she, with my brother in tow, went to the front desk and threatened to change into her swimsuit right in the main lobby if they did not rectify this immediately. Of course, my mom had no intention on following through on this threat…I think. But my seven-year-old brother immediately took up the cause with great fervor, in that by the time my mom had finished issuing her threat my brother had already seen it through and was now completely naked, having neither brought swim trunks with him nor even seeing it as a necessary part of the plan given the hotel fountain was nearby. We got the suite.
It was also during that very same vacation that the now-defunct company Wang Computers was having its corporate retreat. Because they held a majority of the rooms at the hotel, the Acapulco Princess staff more or less treated them as the de facto only residents, and so would regularly kick us out of the pools or restaurants when it came time for one the company’s functions. Again, this so angered my mom that at one point in a crowded elevator she turned to my dad, went into detail about everything that had happened, and concluded with “And what the hell is a Wang anyway?” To which my dad simply stretched out his hands and said, “About this big.” Then there was laughter. My parents turned around to see a nicely-dressed middle-aged Asian man who politely introduced himself as Mr. Wang. He apologized for what was happening, walked to the front desk with my folks, addressed the situation, and all was well after that.
The apparent moral of the story is that if you ever feel like your concerns are not being given their due merit or proper audience, never forget the persuasiveness of public nudity or penis jokes.
The second musical inspiration for Marcello was the movie The Bad News Bears (the original, not the remake or any of the follow-ups in which the Bears travel to Japan or are shot into deep space or whatever the hell happened). This had nothing to do with singing and everything to do with songwriting.
Back in the 70’s, with the exception of Star Wars and before Spielberg perfected a certain type of mass audience family film, most movies were either strictly for adults or had a sentient VW bug or a scrappy terrier. The audience lines were clearly marked. If the movie featured kids—and that kid was not the product of Satan—it was a kids’ movie. But The Bad News Bears muddied the waters a bit, and even though it was R-rated and the real focus was an alcoholic Walter Matthau, it was about Little League, so my Mom took us to see it. And it was—and is—a great movie, but it took only a few minutes before a parent would realize the adorable, underdog tykes had a way with the F word and middle finger. But again, fun was had by all, and when we left the theater and my Mom asked somewhat dazed and with a little trepidation how we enjoyed the film, my brother gave a great, big smile, pumped his fist, and exclaimed. “That was a fucking great movie!”
And that was it. There was no turning back. After all, you can’t expect someone to go back to the farm after they’ve said “Up yours.”
This newfound vocabulary gave my brother freedom. It also gave him a foul-mouthed muse. And so while other first-grader lyricists might have written about toys or their friends or whatever slips through the transom of a fickle, hyperactive child, Marcello used his new words, his new tools, to address the hot topic issues of the day…which in this case would have been the then-popularity of CB radio lingo, as explored in his song “Smokey 1-9.”
They always know how to take a shit
Of course, this was the “I Want You to Want Me” to what would prove to be Fat Tushie’s “Surrender,” to his biggest pop-culture touchstone, the classic “Fire”:
ASSES BURNING HIGHER!
(Scream for twenty minutes)
Naturally, these songs—each of which clocked a full eight seconds—were huge hits with kids his age and anyone else who momentarily wondered what the little brown kid was yelling about while gyrating. And thus while James and I kept writing and recording and fighting during those recordings, Marcello was actually getting people to watch him perform, if only because he would do so anywhere, anytime, any second there was a lull in the supermarket checkout line. And that’s when James and I decided the time was right for an end-of-summer concert, featuring Fat Tushie as headliner and, well, that was it because we certainly weren’t going to perform.
Note: The above ticket did not exist at the time of the concert. There is no way it could have. James and I were still using carbon paper to make copies of our weekly newspaper The Winston Writer, which treated our after-school activities like breaking news of which the local populace much be informed. After all, childhood is nothing if not solipsism with arts and crafts.
For us telling Fat Tushie he was going to put on a concert didn’t involve simply having him stand on an elevated patio and shake his namesake while screaming. It involved promotion. It involved creating the very experience of a concert venue that would involves VIP seats, overhead lights, and a venue where I could sell the boxes of Bubble Yum I got for free because my dad worked on the account. It also involved trying to figure out how much to charge eight-year-olds.
That’s because whatever James and I lacked in musical chops at the time we made up for in rampant OCD. We not only did album cover art for our releases but also wrote press copy for a PR agency that consisted of the two of us talking about the album to each other. We recorded our own live album without an audience, mostly because in the 70’s live albums broke groups and with some know-how and a quick trigger finger on the pause button we were able to record the screams from Cheap Trick at Budokan.
No, Fat Tushie was not unwittingly about to go into business with slackers. After all, when we made our own theme park in James’ driveway (as Ted would later recall in the strip) we built a haunted house out a lot of cardboard and holes to scream in, created games of chance, and fashioned day passes for those who wanted to go home for lunch or to pee. When we tried to build a working aircraft out of a plank of wood and two plastic air compressors we stopped trying only long after those watching stopped laughing, then stopped staring, then simply walked away with furrowed brows and audible concerns. And when James and I typed out our Jaws knock-off novels—Attack of the Killer Whales and Sand Shark, respectively—we made sure at least 80 people died within the first six pages, the fact that most of the victims were named after friends and family members only now seeming the height of passive-aggressiveness.
So we made posters for Fat Tushie’s concert. We made tickets that in no way resembled the above but did have a dotted line for tearing, the date of the concert, and a warning about recording devices, having recently seen that episode of What’s Happening!! when Rerun was caught taping a Doobie Brothers concert that apparently took place in a high school utility room.
And we did a grass roots campaign, marketing—and selling to—those we made sure were Fat Tushie’s core audience. And that’s where, in the language of the Bears, we fucked up.
Because asking for money from kids seven years your junior—even if it was just a quarter and even if you thought they would want to see a concert involving cursing and probably several breaks for capriciousness—could be seen as tantamount to bullying, especially to the kids’ older brothers, who rightly came out in force and to a person were all named David. (Some names are just a given for their time. Were this to occur today we would be facing several older brothers named Tyler or Zach. Had it been a hundred years earlier it would have involved a gaggle of Horaces. But this was Long Island, circa 1978, and almost every boy was named David.)
The Davids were not pleased. The Davids’ parents were not pleased. Marcello said he would have performed for free, which made everything far worse. So we payed everyone back. So we apologized profusely. So we realized that when Fall was in full swing and the Goldingesque Acorn Wars were once again upon us we would be beaned repeatedly from all angles and heights. In fact, the only saving grace was that the neighborhood’s paper of record, The Winston Writer, made no mention of the concert scandal at all. Sometimes it pays to have friends in the media.
Coach would go on recording. Fat Tushie would go on cursing until he got into soccer as the only goalie who played midfield and tried to score points. And the music world would never experience a concert that, by all reasonable guesses, would have lasted approximately 15 minutes before someone found an acorn and we all started going for each other’s eyes.
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