Thursday, March 22, 2012
Dave's Movie Guide: American Pop (1981)
I spent my teenage years growing up in a neighborhood development called Alderhill (don’t ask me what the hell that means). My parents had a house built for them there, a really hoity-toity block where the builders constructed homes based on the buyer’s specifications. We moved into our house when I was 13, and only about half of the neighborhood homes had been completed, and there were numerous others in various phases of construction. A kid I vaguely knew from school, Clay Walker, was already living there with his parents, and because of our proximity to each other, he soon became my best friend.
Clay was (and still is) a great guy, with an off-kilter sense of humor and sharp wit which often came to the forefront when he’d drop obscure pop-culture references into conversations (mostly music or movie-based). He also did some crazy stuff (which I often encouraged), such as the day he decided he’d it would be cool to be a pyromaniac. So off he went to achieve this new goal, filling balloons with propane from his dad’s garage before lighting them up. The instant result was a brief-but-huge ball of flame. Then one day he had the brilliant idea of tying together a dozen propane-filled balloons and igniting them in his back yard. He ended up blowing his eyebrows off, and soon after that he smartly decided being a pyromaniac wasn’t such a great idea.
Clay wasn’t really crazy or anything. A lot of what he did was deliberate, for the purpose of amusing his friends (much like the guys on Jackass years later, only they actually got paid to put themselves in harm’s way). He wasn’t stupid, either, even though he kind-of had that reputation because he had to repeat the eighth grade. Quite the contrary; the guy was smart as hell and got consistently better grades than I did in high school. With hindsight, I think a lot of the crazy stuff he did came from a desire to fit-in with the crowd we considered cool at the time.
And Clay never had to beat his parents to the mailbox to intercept report cards, like I did. This was back when grades were sent home on mimeographed sheets, and I discovered it was possible to deftly incorporate the clever use of an eraser and blue pencil to change a D into a B. I even purchased the supplies required to alter my grades into something my parents would deem acceptable. The ruse worked a few times, but I got cocky once, erasing an F so hard that I tore through the paper. Considering this was during a time I got grounded for Cs, I thought my life was over. When I told Clay of my dilemma, he just laughed, and taunted me with what seemed like dozens of phone calls where he cackled, “You screwed it! You screwed it!” This didn’t help; my world was coming to an end, and my best friend thought the whole thing was funny. Of course, 30 years later, I think it’s hilarious now. What’s doubly hilarious is, after several weeks of no report cards showing up in the mail, my parents finally decided to search my room. They found the incriminating evidence under my mattress. They were so upset about my grades (and my efforts to conceal them) that they weren't even the smallest-bit fazed at the tattered Penthouse magazine I also had stashed there.
Me and Clay did a lot of pretty dumb stuff together, and some of it was probably bad enough to land us in juvie if we were caught.
Actually, we were caught one time. Me, Clay and another kid named Brian all told our parents we were spending the night at each other’s house, just so we could drive around all night and raise some hell. The first activity of the evening had us going to the 82nd Street Drive-In and getting loaded on vodka Brian stole from his parents. To save some cash, I stashed away in the trunk of the car before going in. By the way, if you’ve never ridden in the trunk of a car, trust me, it’s not fun.
The theater was showing a double-bill, American Pop and Tommy, the latter being a musical relic from 1975 based on an album by The Who. Tommy played first; I remember wanting to see it when I was younger, mainly because I was an Elton John fan and loved his version of “Pinball Wizard.” It turned out I didn’t miss much. I was never a huge fan of The Who’s music to begin with, and even though the movie was loaded with stars, including Jack Nicholson, Oliver Reed, Elton John (who can’t act) and Tina Turner (who can), the only part I liked was seeing Ann-Margaret writhing around in baked beans. I was always somewhat infatuated with Ann-Margaret, and probably would have enjoyed baked beans more at the time if I knew she was waiting for me underneath them. Another strike against the movie is that there is no dialogue. The story is all told in song, which I’m not necessarily against, but I personally blame Tommy for probably inspiring director Alan Parker and Roger Waters for trying the same thing years later with Pink Floyd The Wall (my vote for the most boring musical of all time, even with the aid of narcotics).
Still, Tommy was better than American Pop, an animated movie directed by Ralph Bakshi, who's been mistaken for a genius on more than one occasion. This was the guy who made the first X-rated cartoon (Fritz the Cat) and was the first to try adapting The Lord of the Rings for the big screen. He also decided to use his dubious animation skills (much of which consisted of Rotoscoping, a crappy-and-cheap technique which involves tracing over live-action footage) to chronicle the history of popular music in American Pop. According to the genius of Bakshi, the evolution of modern pop culminates in a drug-dealing James Dean look-a-like lipsyncing a Bob Segar song (Bob Segar is the culmination of popular American music???). Anyway, even though well-snockered by this time, the three of us pretty-much agreed the movie was phenomenally slow, crudely animated and boring, even back in 1982. Today, it looks downright archiac.
Being a big music fan, I was willing to actually give the movie another chance when it played on cable years later. After all, lots of movies are better the second time. But I wasn’t able to sit through it again. Too many painful memories. Not of the movie itself (it’s been deservedly forgotten by most people), but how I associate seeing it with what me, Clay and Brian did later that night.
Have you ever done something really stupid when you were younger and, upon thinking about it years later, you shutter at how dangerous your actions really were, and how much worse things could have turned out if luck wasn’t on your side? I have a lot of memories like that, such as when me and Clay once snuck out of our houses in the middle of the night and got the bright idea to try and climb a 300-foot radio tower. Even though this genius idea was initially mine, I got increasingly cold feet as we approached the tower, and it was only with Clay’s encouragement that we kept going. He even volunteered to climb first, which turned out to be a good thing for me, because Clay only got about ten feet up before he was electrocuted and fell back to the ground. He was scared, dazed and sported a nasty burn on his arm, but other than that, he was okay. Thank God because, besides losing my best friend, I wouldn’t have been able to effectively explain his char-broiled demise to his grieving parents. I have to admit, though, his continued terrified ranting on the long walk home afterwards, when he briefly entertained the notion that he really did die and was now in Hell (yes, we were both drunk), is pretty chuckle-worthy.
But not even a year later, on that fateful night when we saw American Pop, I discovered that there was one thing scarier than a near-death experience…getting busted.
It was around three-in-the-morning, long after leaving the drive-in, and the three of us soon realized the idea of staying out all night wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. We were tired and bored, but couldn’t go home; the lies we told our parents excluded that option. We tried to get some shut-eye in the car, but have you ever really tried getting a good night’s sleep in in one? Not gonna happen.
That’s when I had the bright idea to go egg a house. But not just any house; the house of a kid we all hated. The kid in-question, Dan Sweet, had never done anything to us personally, but he was ‘different’ from us, and somewhat lacking in social skills, so of course we thought he was an utter dork deserving of punishment.
No, I’m not proud of that, and Dan, if you’re reading this, sorry man. I hope life has treated you better than we ever did.
So after stopping by a nearby 7-Eleven to grab some ammo (this was back in the day when apparently there was nothing suspicious about three bloodshot-eyed teenagers buying a carton of eggs in the middle of the night), we headed to the Sweet residence. I knew where he lived because I walked past his house every morning on the way to school.
Upon spotting the house, which was totally dark save for a porch light, we gathered our eggs and climbed out of the car. After we scanned the surrounding homes to make sure no one happened to be peering out their windows, we let the eggs fly, splattering the roof, the front door and one of the bedroom windows. Laughing hysterically, we jumped back into the car and high-tailed it out of there.
It was maybe twenty minutes later, Brian once again driving around with nowhere to go, that Clay spotted flashing red and blue in the distance behind us.
“Shit!” he cried. “Is that a cop?”
I turned around. The lights must have been a quarter-mile back, but they were coming fast. “He ain’t after us,” I said confidently, probably because I was still drunk.
“Oh, man,” Brian said, unsure of what to do. “Should we pull over?”
“No!” I snapped back. “He’s probably going on another call.”
“What if I was speeding?” Panic spread across Brian’s face. “Oh, shit, we got booze and eggs in the car!”
I whipped around to Clay, who was sitting in wide-eyed panic in the back seat. “Stash the bottle and the eggs!” Then I turned to Brian. “Turn off on the next street. Maybe they’ll just keep going.”
He never got that chance, because the cops were indeed after us. Still, I refused to believe it was because of the assault on Dan’s house. After all, we’d never been caught before. We were too smart, right?
Brian pulled over. The flashing police lights were blinding in the rearview mirrors. Two cops ordered us from the car. We complied, and it wasn’t until we were being frisked that reality instantly sobered me up.
The cops tossed the car, and almost immediately found the almost-empty vodka bottle and egg carton.
“I swear to God, I had no idea those were in there!” I remember claiming, even though both Brian and Clay had already manned-up and admitted what we did. Not much of a friend, was I? Turning chickenshit to try and save my own ass.
One of the cops, sporting a bushy porn-star mustache and coffee breath, got in my face and sneered, “I don’t think I like this kid. He’s a fuckin’ liar.”
I nearly pissed myself.
“Tell you what…either we call your parents or haul your sorry ass to jail.” He leered at me with a shit-eating grin I’ll never forget.
Jail or parents. What, no third option, like death? I would have preferred that one over calling my parents. After all, in my mother’s eyes, I was still some sort of golden boy, incapable of such behavior.
One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is seeing my parents driving up in their Volkswagen to pick me up by the roadside where cops stopped us. Dad always had a short fuse. No, he never beat me or anything, and was an awesome father, but he was also easily angered back then (which suddenly went away forever after he later retired from his career in public education…fancy that). But on this night, he had no expression at all as he climbed from the car to collect his delinquent son. His face was the scariest thing of all. No emotion, no rage, nothing. That’s when I knew I really screwed up. I triggered something in him beyond anger. I didn’t simply piss him off. I truly disappointed him, which was worse.
Mom was in tears, of course, as I knew she would me. She was also still living in total denial, because she couldn’t bring herself to believe her son could be involved in such an activity without being coerced by his friends. I must have given in to peer pressure. For a short time afterwards, she forbade to hang around Clay, even though egging the house was actually my idea. In fact, a lot of the deviant behavior we engaged in was my idea.
I got grounded for about 800 years, which I deserved. I also remember being pissed that Clay got off scot-free; his parents just chalked it up to boys being boys. Where could I buy parents like that? It could have been worse, though. I could have gone to jail, and thank God the Sweets chose not to press charges. Still, this incident is the only time in my life where I was nailed by police and treated like a criminal.
I don’t know whatever became of Brian - he was more Clay’s friend than mine - but Clay turned out okay, having developed some common sense long before I chose to. I still talk to him on the phone from time to time, and he’s married with a good job.
To this day, even if American Pop was the greatest animated achievements of all time (which it isn't), there’s no way I could watch it today without reliving that night in excruciating detail. Getting busted for egging a house may not rank anyone in the company of Dillinger, but when you are 17, it’s like your world is coming to an end.