Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Pervert and The Church, by Matthew Payne

By Matthew Payne

Landmarks: High school english classes; geek status; student-teacher relations; budding musicianship; Television’s Marquee Moon; Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard; Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden; The Church’s Heyday, Of Skins & Heart, The Blurred Crusade, and Séance.

There were two life-changing experiences in my youth, neither entirely negative nor positive, that both alienated me from others and gave me a clearer vision into the artifice of word and sound. Both occurred between my late teens and my early twenties.

The first epiphany was in high school in the early 80’s. Mr. Baiato was my English teacher. He was, and still is, one of the most paradoxical teachers I ever had; equally reviled and a favorite. He was middle-aged, with moustache and excessive body hair save for his monk’s halo. While he wasn’t in bad shape physically, his too-tight-for-his-age pants and varsity-bowling jacket hinted at his true psyche. He gesticulated almost violently, and would occasionally be "spraying it when saying it," as he spoke (the huge moustache perpetually moist like a car-wash brush). He was passionate about teaching, and about the universe of the short story. He taught me everything I really needed to know to get through my college entrance exams and the subsquent literature and short-story writing classes. He taught me the basics of different writing voices (personal - omniscient), plot structure (intro-conflict-climax-resolution), and most importantly, character transformation (do characters stay the same, or are they changed at the end of the story?).

In his class we read Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” William Faulkner’s "Barn Burning," J. D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery," John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men; we watched a televised version of Sam Shepherd’s play, True West (with performances by Gary Sinise and John Malkovich), and read—last but not least—Flannery O’Connor’s "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

More than any other assignment, Flannery O’Connor’s masterpiece was ‘the great divider’ amongst my classmates. Most students thought it was stupid; why was the villain getting away with murder? Even kids who were smarter than me were either confused or just indifferent towards it. I seemed to be the only one in the class who understood its moral ambiguities. Even more upsetting was my B-plus grade on my report for it. I knew this story; I understood the unfairness of life, even as a middle-class suburban kid. I could even sympathize with the main character’s distaste for murder while he and his psychotic gang dispose of the "all-American" family in order to eat and survive. Why didn’t I get at least an A-minus?
Later I found out that my teacher only gave out one A per class per semester, and it was always to a girl; the one girl who would give him ‘undivided attention.’ She would always stay after class (or school) to ask questions, to help with ‘things,’ and work on all of the extra-credit projects. Mr. Baiato always invaded her space and smiled deeply into her eyes that, to him, were hollow vessels needing to be filled. Barb was that one girl in my class. She was pretty in that girl-next-door sort of way; a brunette with not a lot of makeup, with glasses that made her more womanly than nerdy, and she always wore a t-shirt and dark blue jeans, which I loved. She was not rich or stuck-up, and she always was kind and courteous to me, even talking to me without worrying about my band-geek status. Her ‘A-potential’ in that class helped me ignore Mr. Baiato’s weird behavior towards her and his preferential grading in her favor. I was too enraptured with Baiato’s teaching material and Barb’s nearby seating to really see beyond the veil.

After the semester was over, I decided to go over to Barb’s house and ask her on a very informal date to a school function, and maybe something to eat afterwards. Her house was full of crocheted and large-knit quilts, and smelled just a little of mildew. Her mother was forcing a smile on me so hard I knew that she was one of those Christian-types who really hated you but didn’t want God to see her vitriol. When I got to Barb’s room, she seemed a little despondent. I asked her if she was going to take another semester with Mr. Baiato. She looked at me disgustedly and said that other "A-potential" students from this semester were not taking his class again; that some had even requested to be placed in another class for the duration of the semester, and one girl, along with her parents, had talked to the school board. It seems that Mr. Baiato had cornered this one girl in the Audio-Visual Closet and touched her inappropriately. Apparently, he had been disciplined, but due to his tenure, he would be staying on, though he would be on probation. This was the early 80’s, and chauvinism still ruled the school board. Barb, of course, believed none of it. She couldn’t comprehend that the best teacher she ever had—a teacher she "loved"—was the infamous talk of the town.

I didn’t want to tell her Mr. Baiato was a twisted pervert going through a mid-life crisis (For more Nabokov-ian insight, listen to Cheap Trick’s "Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School”). I did tell her that I thought that he was a great teacher too, and that at least we’d still be taking his class next semester. At this point, she started to cry a little, and said that her parents heard the rumors and forbade her to take next semester’s course. My parents were generally clueless and going through too many of their own marital woes to pay attention to outside scandal, but I promised her I’d let her borrow my reading materials if she wanted to, just like a chivalrous dork. She thought it was sweet of me. Mumbling, thinking it was my last chance, I asked her out. She smiled, kind of like her mom, and said, “Sorry, but you’re not a Mormon, and you’re not much of a good Christian anyway [no wonder she never wore shorts, not even in gym class!], no offense.”

This, of course, only fanned my post-pubescent flames even harder, as my dream, like many of boys my age, was to free the virgin princess from parental clutches, just like any good rock n’ roll kid should. But I just stood there, for a few moments, shaking in my defeat and the realization that like any good fantasy, it should just stay where it is. I uttered my garbled see-you-next-semester and fled the moldy Tabernacle as quick as I could. Why was my heretic-but-honest heart not good enough for her? And to think: I was "cuckolded" by my mentor, an ex-greaser with his marriage on the rocks. This was one of many incidents that led me to believe I had to leave sweet suburbia as fast as I could, even if things actually got better.
They couldn’t really get that much better, could they?

* * *

Another epiphany came in college, between 1988-89, my sophomore year. I had just broken up with my first love and had all the time in the world for my male friends. My roommate Bill and I were the only ones amongst our friends who wanted to break out of our still-limited musical tastes. We had checked out Television’s brilliant Marquee Moon, Talk Talk’s commercially-flopped /critically-lauded Spirit of Eden, and fulfilled our junk-food curiosities with Sweet’s Desolation Boulevard, cheesing out to the album tracks beside the 70’s hits "Fox on the Run" and "Ballroom Blitz".

At some point I remembered a band that Phil—my high school friend and band-mate—had shared with me. I pulled out The Church’s Heyday and was reeducated in rock n’ roll. Their Australian brand of psychedelia was more than tambourines, sitars and back-masked vocals. Marty Wilson-Piper and Peter Koppes’ twin Rickenbacker 12-string jangle was Byrds-like, but dark and truly atmospheric. Drummer Richard Ploog didn’t rush his drum patterns, and his spacious beats created an even vaster sonic landscape. Steve Kilbey’s punk snarl and Bob Dylan-esque lyrics were way too sophisticated for my inexperienced ears; he, like Elvis Costello at his best, could speak of love and history simultaneously. Songs like "Columbus" and "Roman," though relatively short, felt hypnotic and infinitely suspending. From the dark humor and string-section of "Youth Worshipper" to the manic trumpet and guitar squalls of "Tantalized", I was, well, very much so.

Bill told me that there were some new Church songs he had heard on the radio, and said that they were coming to town. I hadn’t heard any of them, but was convinced I needed to make a pilgrimage. We convinced our other friends to go; we wondered if this strange band would be enticing for these wine-cooler chugging suburban kids weaned on over-produced trash pop like Def Leppard (like I could talk, a fan of Sweet). But Tom Verlaine of the aforementioned Television was opening, and I couldn’t resist.

Follinger Auditorium was dark and the sweet stink of marijuana permeated the mid-sized hall. I had only recently been initiated into the world of illicit drugs by some of my occasional music-jamming buddies, but I was sober due to the lack of desire to join the drinking crowd I was with. Eventually Tom Verlaine came on, New York-style; skinny with a beret and brandishing an electric guitar. I wasn’t too excited by his new (old?) solo material, but his Television covers ("Marquee Moon," "Venus," "Friction," and "See No Evil") were inspired and perhaps more revealing without a band. He seemed a little impatient, like an exiled Prince of Punk, and exited without basking in any of the applause.

Then a mild haze of fog began to envelope the stage. While the ganja smell and fog machine were a little cliché, I’d take it any day over the laser-light stupidity and over-filtered vocal mic’s of the Def Leppard show I admittedly gone to with the Crew. Slowly, The Church took the stage; quietly, looking a little angry or maybe just too stoned. A slow crescendo built into one of their new expansive masterpieces, "Destination." Its dynamic fluctuations made me feel high, even though I barely finished one of those Bartles & James headaches-in-a-bottle. Next came the beautiful "Under The Milky Way," the song that would make them immortal. Next, the tough, rocking "North, South, East and West," Wilson-Piper’s elevating "Spark," and the truly snaking "Reptile" got the crowd moving. Koppes’ "A New Season" shimmered. After a few of the best tunes from Heyday, the band went straight into their other immortal single, "The Unguarded Moment," from Of Skins and Heart, as well as "When You Were Mine" from The Blurred Crusade and the vicious "Electric Lash" from Séance. For the finale, Verlaine came back on stage to play on "Hotel Womb." The three guitarists gently assaulted me until I was enclosed in true oceanic waves of delay, chorus, and distortion. And they wouldn’t stop, even when the song was long over, they just kept up the sonic tsunami.

By this time, our Crew’s wine-cooler buzz had long worn off and they, along with Bill, headed for the exits, spouting inanities like "Couldn’t they just play a few more hits instead of this hippie shit?" and "That was good except for this selfish jerking-off." I didn’t even bother with a reply; because the Crew was soon to be immersed in grad school, followed by career jobs and the obligatory two-and-a-half kids in the suburbs.

As for me, I was staring straight into the face of endless food-service jobs; I saw myself attempting to explain to others that my love of music was more a vocation than a hobby; and the possibility that future musical endeavors would leave me as merely a footnote-of-the-footnotes of rock n’ roll history. Yet this show convinced me that the treasures of sound I had discovered would give me more happiness than any job promotion. Sure, these friends went on to real-life respectability; but Bill never did try to write his own music or join an original band, even though he wasn’t content playing in cover bands. Though I can barely write my own music today {I disagree—Ed.}, I still feel that the archaeological finds of that night have sustained my musical explorations. Even in my most sober moments, I can remember the high I felt from that evening.

Matthew Payne is a wage-slave living out his rock n’ roll dream in the bands Yam, Starkiller, and Supernaughty. He is a constant reviewer and contributor to Fantastic Planet’s Prescience. He lives and writes and plays in Seattle, Washington.

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