Westbury High School – Teen Age Wasteland
Somewhere toward the end of Junior High or first year of High School I met Bruce Rogers. I guess we were both about 16 at the time. Bruce and I would become inseparable friends. Due to constant confrontations in the Butch Wax Wars, I had longish brown hair. Bruce’s hair was longish sandy blonde. His dad was a sea captain (literally) and gone a lot of the time, leaving Bruce and his mother Doris holding fort in an apartment off of Bellfort Street.
I guess Bruce and I became friends because we were sort of mutual outcasts more comfortable with reading Rimbaud or Poe and smoking in the boys’ room and listening to Jim Morrison & The Doors rather than dealing with High School. Bruce was crazier than I was (if that were possible). I just got in trouble. Bruce got hurt. He was always banged up or broken here or there because of some foolish adventure. He also played guitar and piano. I slipped out of the swing-jazz kid-combo and Bruce and I formed a rock ‘n roll unit with Vic Griffis on bass and somebody else on rhythm guitar. We invented all kinds of weird stuff and referred to each other as “Putemous and Jocko”. Wrote silly songs like one called “Jack the Wurlitzer Man” dedicated to my drum teacher Jack Dudney and his studio-neighbor the piano teacher whom Jack and I constantly perturbed with our loud drums.
It wasn’t that Bruce and I were experimenting with anything especially dangerous out by the bleachers after school, but we co-wrote a song called “Big Guy In Your Heart”. The Beatles-esque chorus went.
“Mary, I wanna be big. I wanna be big.
The big guy in your heart.
Mary wanna, Mary wanna,
The big guy in your heaaaart.”
Lets be honest adults about this almost 50 years later, shall we people? We’re talking 1968 or so here. Half the football jocks and a couple of the ROTC Cadets smoked pot – usually at clandestine parties that my friends threw or at Saturday night “hops” at the city’s Bayland Park Recreation Center where my band played fairly often. Bruce was more of a drinker than I was – which may help explain why he was bruised or sprained or broken so often. He had an older brother that “got him stuff.” Remember also, this was Houston Texas in the suburbs. Beer was everywhere and the evening cocktail hour was a daily neighborhood ritual for everybody’s parents. The favorite teen-vintage wine smuggle at parties or at Bayland Park or on “the hill” at Hermann Park was Boone’s Farm Apple Wine or Passion Pink Ripple. Nasty sweet stuff that always made me puke. So I just smoked a bit and drank RC Cola or Mountain Dew soda. I had also been hanging around with jazz musicians since I was 10. Dad used to take me to jam sessions at the Musicians’ Union Hall. I think he was an “inactive” or “associate” member.
The Musicians’ Union Hall was a big building that had a big ballroom that was separated between the “private club” and the public area by a low wrought-iron fence type of thing. Houston, at the time, didn’t have public bars. It was BYOB unless one was member of a “private club”. The jam sessions were fundraisers for the local Musicians’ Union scholarship fund – and even if you were a union member afforded membership to the “private club” you had to chip in a couple of bucks for scholarship at the door to get into the jams. Minors were not allowed in “private clubs”, so dad would always sit with some other guys inside the rail and I would sit outside the rail at an adjacent kids’ table with a lot of others whose musically-oriented dads were doing the same deal. I got to hear lots of good music by Bobby Doyle (who later played with Blood Sweat and Tears and Joe Henderson during the David Clayton Thomas period). Lots of sidemen from BB King and even Louis Armstrong bands showed up at the Houston jams to help raise money for the scholarship fund. While my dad did not attend occasional departures, us kids often heard a few dads say “Can you watch my kid for a bit, we’re going outside to meet with Mary Jane.”
Jack Dudney (my drum teacher) played the Union Hall jams on occasion and some young kid named Kenny Rogers occasionally played stand-up bass. I remember one incredible sax player named Jimmy Ford. Dad would lean over to me across the cheesey half-fence and tell me “Jimmy is good, but he’s probably messed up.” Jimmy was a junkie. He played like an angel in heat, but it took two guys to escort him onto the stage and one to turn the pages for him while he played the charts. Dad and I would listen to the music and then go home to suburbia.
Bruce Rogers and I also rewrote the lyrics to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” one year and we went caroling. We wandered around knocking on people’s doors and when they answered we would sing:
“We wish you a Mahavishnu,
We wish you a Mahavishnu,
We wish you a Mahavishnu and a Hare Krishna.
Good tie-dyes we bring to you and your kin!
We wish you a Mahavishnu and a Hare Krishna.
I still like to sing that little song around Christmas every year.
My first year at Westbury High, I had an English Composition class with the teacher who was also the debate and drama coach. She gave us an assignment one time to write a poem, so I wrote a poem and read it aloud in class. It wasn’t like “I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree”. More along the lines of “I have seen the best minds of my generation starving, hysterical, naked…” and contained “some language”.
After I read my poem the teacher said she wanted me to report to her after school. I figured I was probably in deep brown over the “language” in my poem, but I dutifully showed up as ordered.
“That was an interesting poem”, she said.
“Thank you, ma’am”, I replied.
She opened a desk drawer and I figured I was gonna get whacked with a ruler or something because of the language in my poem, but instead she pulled out a little book. She handed the book to me and said “Put this in your back pocket and carry it off campus. Don’t even look at it until you are off-campus. They could fire me for giving it to you. And I would like for you to consider joining the Debate and Drama Club”.
I tucked the little book in my pocket and covered it with my shirt tail, was grateful that I didn’t get whacked with a ruler and walked off-campus before I looked at the little book. It was a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind”. I read most of it walking home from school. It eventually opened doors for me to read more Ferlinghetti, more Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder and T.S. Eliot and ee cummings and Dylan Thomas and William Bake. I also enjoyed (and do to this day) prose by Poe and Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain and even William Faulkner. I still have that little book around – somewhere in the clutter of a lifetime.
I went back to school the next day and joined the Debate and Drama Club.
Debate and Drama was a god-send! I guess the school district figured debate and drama geeks were going to wash-out at sports anyway, so we had the elective of dropping Phys Ed in favor of Debate and Drama class. I was out of Coach Wilson’s grasp, safe and smart in Debate Class!!!!
I did pretty well in Debate Class. Won some regional UIL awards for Debate and Extemporaneous Speaking and Poetry Interpretation. I started tapping out my own poems on the Remington typewriter at home and showing them around at school, which eventually made me a sort of cause celebrite’ among the other intelligent outcasts at school.
My debate partner, Mike Leigh, and I would go to tournaments and set up our table including a pre-prepared canteen of mint coffee – which was really coffee dosed with surreptitiously acquired crème de menthe. The tourney judges never caught on to our sophisticated imbibement, but we were well known for the creativity of our arguments as debates went late into the day.
I made lots of outcast friends (eventually), Jacque B. and Robin & Dixie Z. and Jeff S. and Mike H. and Barbara B. and Cindy Sue and Chris T. We would hang out after class and talk about poetry and philosophy and other such stuff.
My Dad was pretty open-minded about my literary and intellectual interests. I remember there came a time that I mentioned I wanted to read “Das Kapital” and the “Communist Manifesto”. Dad bought me copies of both books at the University of Houston bookstore and brought them home. He dumped them on my bed rather unceremoniously and announced “go ahead and read them, but don’t believe a word – its all bullshit”. So, I read them and then dug a little deeper and eventually discovered that I liked Trotsky better than Marx and Lenin. I still like Trotsky better than – say – I.S. Hayakawa or Ayn Rand.
Bruce Rogers, our band and I played a few music gigs around town. We got hired to do one for the Houston School Library Clubs – a convention for the kids who were interested and active volunteers in city and school libraries. Admittedly, we thought it was a tad uncool to do a dance-gig for a bunch of librarians, but damn those kids could party! Besides, they agreed to pay us. We brought in a keyboard player and rocked the ballroom for 45 minutes of our one-hour set. Coming up to the end, we launched into a version of “She’s Not There” by the Zombies and went to town. Before we (or anyone else) knew what was happening, “She’s Not There” had flown itself into a jam that eventually lasted about 40 minutes in and of itself. Everybody got a solo. Lead guitar and keyboard and rhythm guitar and bass and drums – everybody got an extended solo. The only rule in that jam turned out to be that when Bruce sang “Let me tell you about the way she looks, the way she acts and the color of her hair”, somebody launched a new solo or a duet with another of the players. Twenty minutes after our scheduled “close time”, the adult chaperones and organizers literally unplugged our amps while we were still playing and a roomful of sweaty dancing kid-librarians howled their disapproval of the sudden shutdown.
Shortly after that, Bruce Rogers’ Dad (whom we referred to in his absence as “Captain Ahab”) returned to shore for good and his family moved further away to a house in Bellaire. Bruce quit the band. I hooked up with a bass player from my homeroom named Jim Spector. Jim knew a keyboard player named Mick White and he joined up with us. Jim and Mick and I were all trained in jazz and classical music. Mick preferred to play an electric harpsichord that lent a really neat eerie sound to our core rhythm section. We played together for several years in an eclectic psychedelic rock via jazz band variously called “Madstone” and occasionally “Little Mickey and the Potatos”. Heavily rock-influenced by Frank Zappa, the Fugs and local legends “Bruiser Barton and the Dry Heaves” – not to mention our neighbors and acquaintances who performed as the “Thirteenth Floor Elevators” and “ZZ Top”. Jim and Mick and I played together for several years – our trio was the core of a constantly changing unit and we would bring in other pieces for different gigs. We would bring other pieces – guitars, bass sometimes but Mickey usually carried the bass on an assortment of keyboards. We had different personnel on practically every gig we played. We even went so far as to outfit a flute player patched through a wah-wah pedal and a violinist patched through primitive synthesizer at times. We practiced the hell out of the side players to get them up on our style and playlist before each gig. It was very “Mothers of Invention-ish”. Nobody “conducted” per se, but Jim and Mick and I got so tight that eventually we could just look at each other and nod when somebody was going to take a flier on a solo and then follow each other back into the song.
Eventually there was some something I didn’t know about until years after the band disintegrated. There was something about something between Jim and Mick and one or the other of their wives / girlfriends. I was clueless at the time, but the band shattered and Jim and Mick went totally incommunicado. I still am unclear about who was doing what with whom, but I still miss Jim and Mick both sometimes.
Meanwhile, back at the raunch during High School, I suddenly discovered I had lots of female friends. Some were school-friends. Some were “band ladies”. I liked the school-friends better because they knew I was interested in poetry and intellectual stuff. Our “encounters” always had some depth. Either way, there were reasonably frequent “benefits”.
A bunch of us guys used to congregate after school for coffee and a pastry at Westbury Square or a nearby Shipley Do-Nuts shop. Their sign, not mine. They named the place “Shipley Do-Nuts”. We guys talked about important stuff at these salons – cars and girls and girls and cars and cars and girls. So one day we were sitting at Shipley’s and a somewhat rotund friend mused with some sorrow, “This place reminds of the girls at our school – they are all a bunch of Shapely Do-Nots.” I did not reply as I could not relate to his specific predicament.
Band ladies were a different story from the school girlfriends. There is a strange algorithm of attractions amongst band ladies. The lead guitarists, singers and bandleaders always seem to be pursued by gold-diggers. Rhythm guitarists seem to attract nice albeit kind of mousey chicks. Bassists get good and true salt-of-the-earth girls. Drummers attract all of the crazy bitches. I was a drummer. We crash and smash and sweat our asses off onstage and seem to attract women who crash and bash and smash their way through relationships.
Maybe that is how I came to be so fond of the women who were willing to take time to understand that I appreciated poetry and philosophy and classical art and Zen Buddhism. They took the time to get to know me rather than just crashing, bashing and smashing into the sack. I have also always had a somewhat reclusive streak even when I was performing. Actually, playing drums (always at the back of the band) was really a way I could “hide on stage” – separated from the crowd. I was always protected by and well behind the proscenium arch. Same thing with debate presentations and interp readings and speeches and poetry readings. For all I appeared to be in the front of everything, I was really hiding behind the relative safety of that proscenium arch.
There were a few retrospectively amusing adventures with the band ladies – but we will deal with those later.
Also during those High School years, Robin Z. made me a “flag shirt”. It was a totally cool western-cut pattern that had a big blue yoke with white hand-cut stars, a red and white striped body, long red & white striped sleeves and big blue cuffs with hand-appliqued white stars on the blue fields. I loved it – and it got me into a lot of trouble.
I wore it to school one day – wearing a tie-died sleeveless tee shirt underneath. One of the teachers really objected to my flag-shirt. Never mind that the whole thing looked obviously handmade and appliquéd rather than a real U.S. flag cut up and desecrated, my German language teacher, Frau Kreider, objected to the entire concept. She threw me out of class.
“You go get a different shirt,” she demanded “and I don’t care if it’s a smelly gym shirt!”
I stripped off the flag shirt, delivered it to my locker and went back to German class in my tie-died tee. Between classes, I was walking the halls and the Dean of Men, Mr. Fred Pepper spotted me wearing my tie-dyed sleeveless tee. Sleeveless tees were not dress code — and Mr. Pepper demanded “You got get a different shirt. I don’t care if you have to go home to get it , but you won’t be prancing through my halls in a sleeveless shirt”.
So I went to my locker and put the flag shirt back on. Predictably, Frau Kreider spotted me later in the day (once again wearing my flag shirt), snatched me up and marched me to Mr. Pepper’s office for being insubordinate and possibly a communist. They had some big discussion and I was eventually required to go get my plain white tee-shirt that smelled of “teen spirit” from gym class and wear it over my sleeveless tie-dye instead of the flag shirt for the rest of the day. That was a big hit among the other rebels and hellions because plain tees were not “dress code” either and no one could believe I was under orders to finish out the day wearing my stinky gym shirt. I was “just following orders”.
Frau Kreider is an interesting diversion at this point. She and Fred Pepper and Coach Wilson were always up my ass about irrelevant something or other – to the point that I started feeling like High School was interfering with my education. I think I got off on the wrong foot early in Frau Kreider’s class when she teamed up duos to write and present short skits (in German) for the class. My partner and I wrote up this little cops-and-robbers bit during which one of my key lines was “Stop or I’ll shoot” followed by a Keystone Cops chase around the classroom. The verb “shoot” in German is “schießen” (pronounced shee-zen). I inadvertently wrote and said “scheißen” (pronounced shy-zen). Frau Kreider hit the roof during our skit and marched me immediately to Mr. Pepper’s office for “intentionally using profanity in her classroom!” Apparently — intending to say “stop or I’ll shoot” — I had actually said “stop or I’ll shit”.
I also got thrown out of a Jimi Hendrix concert and a showing of the movie “Easy Rider” over the flag shirt. At the end of the Hendrix concert, Jimi played “The Star Spangled Banner” and I ebulliently stood up and thrust my right fist into the air. Ushers and a cop gathered me up and escorted me out of the Houston Coliseum with the cop explaining “Kid, we don’t need a damned riot here”.
End of the “Easy Rider” movie – where Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson get shotgunned by rednecks — I stood up in the theater in my flag shirt and hollered “you motherfuckers!” Maybe they threw me out of the theater for shouting “motherfuckers” in public, but the flag shirt probably didn’t help maters.
The flag shirt eventually disappeared. Mom said something about it getting hung up and torn up in a malfunction of the clothes dryer.
The Butch Wax War continued. My hair wasn’t long long. It was kind of California-surf, Kerouac beatnik long. Block-cut in the back right at the collar. I started wearing my sideburns trimmed sharp at the base of the ear lobes. Radical!!!!!!!
Westbury High School got really weird about “dress code” and one day they gathered up all the guys and marched us into the gym. They made us all kneel on the floor and the coaches came around with rulers and measured everybody’s hairline at the back of the neck. If your hair was less than an inch above the collar line, they threw you out of school until you got a haircut. Max Wilson approached me that day with a look of malevolent glee in his eyes and — just as he went to measure my hair — I leaned my head forward. I measured right at an inch above the collar line and didn’t get thrown out of school. Coach Wilson was visibly displeased.
They also gathered up all the girls in the girls’ gym and measured their dress hemlines to the knee. Girls whose hemlines were three inches or more above the knee got thrown out of school.
When they threw out the boys and girls who didn’t “measure down” to their standards, a lot of us who passed the hair and skirt tests walked out as well. That was the first “protest demonstration” I ever took part in. I walked out. We all just stood at the front of the school – making a human wall between the building and the castaways (the “children left behind”) as they waited for pissed off parents to come pick them up. Enough of us walked out that it essentially shut the school down for the rest of the day. There was no forthcoming retribution – and never again did a Houston High School pull that sort of stupid stunt.
After that, the girls all started wearing skirts that they could roll at the waistline to shorten at the hemline and roll back down if challenged — or they wore ankle-length “granny dresses”. The alleged “school” then got weird about girls’ granny dresses and boys wearing long-sleeved shirts. The gals that wore “granny dresses” and the guys who wore long-sleeved shirts (like me – because they covered up the rheumatic fever scars on my arms) were constantly harassed because the school administrators thought we might be hiding drugs or needle tracks under long cloth. Most of my female friends went to wearing granny dresses. We couldn’t win for losing. Constant dress-code “warnings” aggravated my “Butch Wax War” at home.
Almost 50 years later, I still usually wear long-sleeved shirts — even in the hot summertime. Overall, I tan good – but scar tissue stays fish-belly white and I am not a fan of fleshy polka-dots as a fashion statement.
1969 and 1970 got really weird as the war in Vietnam ramped up and the draft system that fed it got more corrupt in feeding the process of delivering young male cannon fodder. I couldn’t help but notice at the time. I was 17 going to 18 and it was my ass they were putting on the line. I didn’t much like that fact. At home, the Butch Wax War got worse because of my anti-draft thing. I didn’t want to live past 30, but damn it, I did want to live to see 30.