When I was in elementary school, one of my best friends was a kid named Jon. Jon’s father was the vice principal of Dana Hills High School, which I would later attend (albeit very reluctantly and infrequently). Mr. Schlesinger, as his father was called, thought it would be beneficial for us young children to attend the air guitar there one year, so that we could glimpse how fun and exciting our futures would be. I was maybe ten years old, and even though the event would just be a bunch of pimple faced kids pretending to sing vapid pop songs, this would be the closest thing to a concert I would experience at that time.
I remember the hallways seeming really large and the ceilings really high. The students were so big that they were more adults than kids in my eyes; I was intimidated to be sure, but excited nonetheless.
As I would come to discover in time, the event wasn’t much different from nearly every other air guitar, pep rally, and school dance function in existence. Students did performances of popular radio hits of the day and classics from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Some were more entertaining than others, but nothing really stood out too much in hindsight—with one notable exception.
After a particularly mediocre Madonna rendition, a tall, skinny high schooler came out onto the stage. He was dressed completely in black with a tophat to match. In his hand was a long wooden cane and his face was made up somewhere between a mime and a clown. His appearance was at once menacing and lighthearted; I was hypnotized. Compared to the mundane and silly costumes of the students that had preceded him, the guy was a total freak show, and I loved it.
Before I could determine what this kid’s deal was, the music started. He flew into such a frenzy at the fast tempo that I was floored even further. He was gyrating about and throwing his hat in the air and twirling his cane and working the crowd like I’d never seen, all the while lip-synching lyrics that were, for the most part, unintelligible to my young ears.
But it didn’t matter that I couldn’t (on a conscious level at least) comprehend the spectacle or the music, because the effect was the same: it totally thrashed me. I didn’t know that I was hearing punk rock for the first time, a veritable portent of my love affair with the genre that would develop in my teenaged years (and carry on into the present). I did know, however, that I wanted to be up on that stage with that music in that costume. I believe that this incident was the first time that I ever began to think about wanting to become a musician and a performer.
The song, as I would learn years later, was “Viva La Revolution” by The Adicts. I believe that witnessing that performance of this song had a profound effect on my young psyche. Punk rock aside, I hold the incident partly to blame for my coulrophilia (love of clowns) and my near obsession with all things circus related. I collect clowns: clown paintings, clown statues, clown dolls, clown everything. This air guitar performance is my earliest memory of anybody in clown makeup. This may be reaching a little bit, but perhaps the revolutionary zeal of the song had some effect on me as well, and may explain my fondness for revolutionary thought and protest songs. And of course, the band name itself is, regrettably, rather fitting when considering other aspects of my personal history.
Am I merely ascribing too much importance to what was in all likelihood a minor occurrence in a minor’s life? Perhaps I am. Hindsight is curious like that, and completely subjective. But for me, today, as I write this, I choose to look back on this memory as something important, something cherished, and something that I can derive my own personal meaning from.
I don’t know who that kid was and I probably never will, although I think I prefer it that way. He was merely a fleeting, ephemeral Prometheus that bestowed upon me punk rock, clowns, performance art, and revolutionary fervor all at once– even if I didn’t realize it then, and even if it didn’t actually go down like that. Memories, after all, are only as memorable as what you make of them.
I think I’d like to meet that kid now and shake his hand, but only if he were wearing a top hat, made up like a clown, twirling a cane, and whistling “Viva La Revolucion.” As that seems rather unlikely, I suppose this will have to do: