By Brian M. Howle
(Note:The impetus for my very first band – The Trio Conspiracy – began after I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. After playing for about five or six years, gigs were booked with regularity around our little town. Some of our original songs had been recorded and broadcast on a local radio station, and we began entering talent contests – which, in turn, got us bookings for other events. We may not have been the greatest band assembled, but we were doing pretty darn good for a bunch of kids in a small Southern town in the late 1960’s.)
An English teacher for almost 25 years, my mom finally decided to upgrade her career. Between my freshman and senior years, she spent her summer breaks at Western Carolina University, earning her masters degree so that she could become a guidance counselor.
Now, having a teacher for a mom is one thing. But having a mom involved in guidance counseling and career planning is quite another. By the time my senior year rolled around, I only needed two units to graduate – the result of having my course load “guided” to the teeth.
Despite my best protests, school officials wouldn’t allow me to take just two classes and then have the rest of the day off. As a result, I ended up in a few classes that I ordinarily would never have dreamed of taking. But sometimes, these things work out to one’s advantage.
One of the classes I signed up for was Shop. Oh, even back then, in one of the first attempts at political correctness, they had just re-titled the name of the class as Industrial Arts – but everyone continued to call it Shop.
Now, most of the guys were happy and content to pursue the usual shop projects – birdhouses, gun racks (there were a lot of gun racks built back “in the day”), and a few of the more advanced students tackled the high-tech challenge of a picnic table.
When my instructor asked me what project I wanted to attempt, I pondered the possibilities. Looking around the facility, I realized there was a bunch of machinery and tools that I had never had at my disposal. Now, this was primarily due to the fact that – unlike these fools – my dad knew far better than to allow me anywhere near power tools that could cripple not only myself, but anyone in the general area. The Tim Taylor character of Tool Time had nothing on me when it came to project-realted carnage.
A discussion at the previous band practice popped into my mind – and, quite literally, a little light went on in my head. Actually, it was a lot of lights.
We needed a lighting system. After all, only the happenin’ bands had a light show.
And so, while the other guys were pounding out the usual stuff, I was over in a corner, drawing up plans for my project. Then I began selecting materials, and putting in my supplies request. Our instructor, Mr. Barr, looked at my list and scratched his head.
“What the heck are you gonna build, Howle?” was his first response. “We can’t furnish you with all this stuff. If you want to do this, you’ll have to buy most of this on your own.”
Hey, no problem. I was in a band, making the big bucks. I was knocking down over $10 a gig. Every other month.
I collected almost all of the items I needed right away. The school furnished the wood, nails and paint: I bought all the wiring, receptacles and switches. It pretty much wiped out my vast band savings, but it was gonna be worth it.
After a few weeks of sawing, nailing and cursing (and, remarkably, without any trips to the emergency room to reattach severed limbs), I had built the two boxes that would contain the lights, and the control panel. In 1970-71, a lot of my contemporaries across the country were burning the American flag, or wearing the flag in some form, or generally not giving it much respect. I decided to counter this attitude by painting my creations to look like our flag, and salivated at the thought of some commie hippie trying to desecrate them in my presence.
It was a time-consuming task. For the light cabinets, great care was taken in laying out the alternating rows of red and white stripes, and making the stencils for the stars. The control panel was striped, and the solid blue front panel had the switches framed by stars. In my eyes, it was absolutely beautiful.
The big day came when all the paint was dry and my little project was ready for public view. I unveiled the finished product and stood back, fully prepared to accept the accolades of my friends. Their perspective was a bit different.
“Hey, man,” someone piped up, “those things look like military caskets, man.”
Sure enough, at about 5’ high x 18” wide x 2’ deep, they did look a little creepy while in a horizontal position. But standing up – which, in my mind’s eye, was the way I always envisioned them – they looked great, and the necro-connection was more or less nullified. Needless to say, I got an “A” on my project. Now all we needed were the actual lights.
Well, as it turned out, lights were doggone expensive. It was gonna set us back around $40 for two sets of spotlights, and another $16 for the colored gels that covered them. Of course, we were all broke, and majorly bummed out.
As fate would have it, we somehow ended up in Myrtle Beach one night, which was unusual for us during the fall session of high school. But there we were, cruisin’ the boulevard and hanging out at Wink’s drive-in, looking for babes. Now, I’m pretty sure some form of libation was involved in all of this. At some point, while cruisin’ the boulevard for the 80th time, someone noticed that a lot of motels used colored spotlights to bathe their palms and parking lots.
Suffice to say – the next day, we had our light system up and running. And with plenty of spares, to boot.
Now we really looked like an honest-to-peanuts band. The sound may have been another matter, though, since we were still using the high school’s little 20-watt PA system for all of our gigs. Looking back, I’m just glad that these new, fancy, state-of-the art outdoor speaker systems you see all over the beach now, weren’t around back then.
One of our main venues was Cherry Hill Country Club’s clubhouse, located just outside of Andrews. We played a ton of private parties there, from birthdays to holidays. The neighboring school in the next county, Williamsburg High (Andrews is perched right on the edge of western Georgetown County, bordering Williamsburg County), may have been our arch-rivals in sports and the recipient of constant “farmer” jokes, but the kids over there seemed to be quite enamored with our sound. So much so that, in an act of innovative initiative, the members of the freshman and sophomore classes pooled their “tater” profits and contracted us to perform for their “Freshman-Sophomore Prom.” Honestly, we were impressed with their drive and desire to rival their upper-classmates’ “Junior-Senior Prom.” And, we were even more impressed with the huge $80 fee we requested and received (an all-time high figure for our services).
As in any small town, when there was a social event going on, age was not a discriminating factor. Although our music – loud, frenetic rock ‘n’ roll – was tuned toward a younger audience’s tastes, there were always plenty of adults in attendance. And not just as part of the chaperone factor, either. Some of the wildest behavior we ever witnessed from our vantage point on the stage emanated not from our peers, but from our elders.
We began to notice a pattern that ran true almost every time we performed. Beginning the evening with rigid, almost stuffy personas that frowned upon any type of interaction between girls and boys that might be construed as questionable, their personalities morphed with definite changes as the night wore on. I personally suspected that they had an “adult” punchbowl stashed somewhere in the vicinity.
The litmus test for this suspicion was whenever we played 5th Dimension’s “Age of Aquarius/Let The Sun Shine.” Folks who – prior to the song – stayed back in the shadows, suddenly were right up onstage with us, horning in on the microphones for the chorus. Balance and equilibrium seemed to become a bit of a problem around that same time, which sorta made us wonder – just who was watching the henhouse, after all?
There primarily to prevent kids from engaging in the usual teenage party agenda (alcohol and sex), these were people we all grew up knowing – friends of our families, classmates of our older siblings, members of our churches. Some were more open-minded and social than others, for sure, but they were all fair and tolerant in their dealings with kids who occasionally “crossed the line.”
As Christmas break came around that year, we had another big party to play out at the country club. Prior to the advent of our light system, it was always dark and shadowy in the clubhouse’s main room, as there was an absence of overhead lighting. Though slightly murky, we could see just about everyone in the room from onstage. But when we plugged in those 1800 watts of light, glaring directly in our faces, everything outside of the immediate “front row” was a darkened, obscured blur. Only the frequent opening and closing of the front door to the room was discernable from our view.
About half way through the show, the door opened yet again in the middle of a song. As I nonchalantly looked over, a petite, shapely form was silhouetted against the outside light for a brief moment. Then the door closed, and the shape was lost in the darkness.
Well, like I said before, you know everyone in a small town. I had taken count of all the little honeys in attendance, and knew who was out of town that night. And, this shape was not in my mental rolodex.
I quickly looked at my bandmates. None of them noticed the new arrival.
Now, I was always a little slow about things, when it came to dealing with the fairer sex. But I was just beginning to learn – when in direct competition with my buddies – that the difference between getting a little goodnight kiss or singing to my dog after going home unattached, was to strike first whenever the opportunity presented itself.
I turned to the guys during the last chorus and indicated it was time for a break.
We finished the last chords and announced it was break time. A smattering of polite applause accompanied my hasty exit from the stage, as I acknowledged well-wishers while searching the dark periphery of the back of the room for the vision of loveliness that had momentarily been framed in the light. As I drew near a group of folks, I spotted her.
She was engaged in conversation, her back to me, as I approached. She was short, blonde, wearing a cute little outfit and a very short little skirt.
It was my brother-in-law, Gene.
Just as I was recognizing him, a cascade of realization buried my ability to process thought. The same reactions you get from things like drinking soured milk, or watching your dog eat something you never dreamed any animal would ever consider eating, or the old stand-by, fingernails on the blackboard. These all overwhelmed me. Arrrrrrrgh!!!
And then, my sister – ten years my senior – turned from her conversation and greeted me. “Merry Christmas, Brian! Here, I know it’s not Christmas day yet, but I think you should open your present now. You’ll understand when you do!” She was all aglow, decked out in her little elf skirt.
I forced a smile while fighting off the heebie-jeebies of nearly hitting on my own sister – Arrrrrrrgh!!! – as I unwrapped the present. It was a guitar strap; pre-heavy metal genre, shiny rows of chrome, like medieval armor. It really was beautiful. I thanked her repeatedly. I used it that night, as not to offend her.
But I never could use it again.
The previous series of articles originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, 2000.