It all started in 1976 or 1977. I can’t be sure. But I’m positive that it was one of those years. I lean toward ‘76 because that was a shit year for me and KISS kind of saved my ass.
Between 1974 and 1975, my parents moved me from public school to a private Christian (aka Church of Christ, which we were not) school. I went from knowing most of the people I’d enter junior high with, to only vaguely recognizing anyone.
I entered junior high, 7th grade, in 1976. And yes, I was overweight and shy.
My first memory, after exiting my mother’s car and moving across a great sea of older, complete strangers, is being stopped mid-open-area by some older kids. Maybe they were 8th grade, maybe 9th. I have no idea. I only remember them saying that I needed to be initiated. I dropped my arms to to my side and waited. The biggest kid in the group then put his fist to my chest, pulled it back, and hit me as hard as he could.
But the thing is, his fist twisted downward or sideways and didn’t make a solid connection. I could see it in his eyes. He knew it and I knew it. It was immediately a decisive moment for us both. I chose to stay silent. He gave me an out. It hurt him far more than it hurt me, but his friends didn’t see it that way. What they saw was one of the toughest kids in school punch a 7th grader in the chest, the 7th grader not move, and the tough kid reel in pain. He walked away, shaking it off, saying “You’re okay, kid. You’re cool.” Everyone looked at me like I was from Mars, but no one fucked with me for about two months.
Prior to and during this time, my mom went to the grocery store every Friday evening. And for several months, I had to go too. While she was shopping, I spent my time reading every rock magazine I could get my hands on. I’d become enamored with KISS, even though I’d only heard the single Rock ‘N Roll All Night. I found the entire concept fascinating and could not get enough of them. I didn’t own any albums or 45s, but I was a fan. During the first few months of 7th grade, I spent countless hours every Friday reading about every band I could, but mainly KISS.
In 7th grade, everyone took PE, physical education. It was gruesome. Forty minutes of brutal, physical aggression followed by 5 minutes of horror in the shower, and ending with 5 minutes of savage towel snapping, merciless humiliation and bloodletting.
8th and 9th grade band members didn’t have to take PE. For 7th graders, there was no escape.
I had one particular aggressor, whom we’ll call The Dick, simply because (1) he was a dick and (2) he doesn’t deserve more credit than this. The Dick had a friend, whom we’ll call The Balls, who followed him around, thick or thin, connected at the hip, and was pretty much without effect outside of his association with The Dick.
The Dick hounded me mercilessly. He was continually cornering me, slapping my face, punching me, ridiculing me, you name it. I’ve always been a man of peace, so I refused to give him the pleasure.
Plus, I was scared shitless. Every time The Dick came at me, The Balls was right there, staring me down. Daring me. Just waiting for the chance to do some damage.
It was PE. It was my personal Amersfoort as I awaited the liberation of 8th grade band and no more PE.
One day, as I filtered into the gym, The Balls passed in front of me, running. He jumped and slapped the upper door frame as he entered the gym, singing I wanna rock ‘n roll all night, and party every day.
And something clicked inside me. I knew the band: KISS. And if The Balls liked the song, maybe we could find some common ground. And if we found a common ground, maybe I could escape the hell of PE.
This was the hope of a dying man. The Dick and The Balls continued to pound me mercilessly. Eventually, somehow, my father found out what was going on. Over the course of an evening, he taught me some offensive maneuvers. They mainly consisted of getting the drop on The Dick and breaking his nose. The moves gave me some measure of confidence, and the next day …
I failed. The gym had a board with peg holes mounted to the wall. The bottom two peg holes were filled with wooden pegs. The idea was that you’d take a peg in each hand, then by moving the pegs into a subsequently higher hole, you’d climb to the top of the board.
We were running a giant circle round the gym when The Dick ran past and slapped me on the head. The next time around, I jumped and grabbed a peg. As The Dick passed, he saw what I was carrying, turned in front of me, and stopped. I stopped. We faced off. To paraphrase:
Dick: Come on, let's go. Me: Bring it on, man. Dick: Do it. Swing. Me: Give me a reason, let's do this. Dick: Are you gonna do something? Me: I'm waiting on you. Come on.
All this time, The Balls was bouncing behind The Dick, just waiting for a chance to pounce. Then the coach showed up, broke us up, and we went our separate ways.
I don’t recall The Dick or The Balls ever mollesting me again.
But they did show up when I was in 8th grade. Early in the year, they stopped me in the lunch room one day, as I was heading to my table to eat. I don’t remember it all, but conversation went something like this:
Dick: So, I hear you like KISS. Me: Yeah. Dick: Well, let's see what you know, okay?. Gonna give you a little test, and see if you're all they say. Me: Okay. Dick: Everyone thinks Gene is the singer, but who's the real lead singer? Me: Paul Stanley. Dick (looking impressed): Yeah, I guess you know your shit.
Then he slapped me on the shoulder and slipped out of my life. I don’t remember seeing The Dick or The Balls again.
But I do remember walking away victorious. And I’m convinced, had I answered incorrectly, The Dick would’ve knocked the tray out of my hand and life would’ve unfolded very differently for me.
From that point forward, it seemed that everyone in school thought I knew all there was to know about rock music. Hell, at one point the band director stopped me in the hall to ask about Alice Cooper’s comeback album, From The Inside. I’d only heard the single, How You Gonna See Me Now, at that point, but I gave him a very lucid opinion of what I thought of the album’s potential. I remember saying something like It’s an important album for Cooper, but it doesn’t matter. Cooper will always be around.
Big words for a scared wimp of an 8th grader.
But from then on, I dug deep into rock. I wanted to know the unknowable, the details the common man did not know. I read and listened and bought and searched every detail I could find. Because the more I knew, it seemed, the more I was accepted.
And for a 12 year old kid, that was everything.