Healthy Counter Culture
Editor’s Note: This is a bit of a rant, so if you were popular in high school, you might not relate to this.
Every year in High School, we had Mock Elections. The entire student body would thoughtfully consider the entire population of our student body, and determine who was the Friendliest. Had the Best Smile. Had the Best Hair. Had the Best Body. Had the Best Sense of Humor. Was the Smartest. And, several dozen more categories that recognized the best, brightest, and most unique among us. It was a great idea. Except that in my graduating class of 600 students, only about 5% were recognized. Many of this same 5% won several awards, and they seemed to rotate positions year after year. The overwhelming majority of us sat in admiration of the Most Special, as they confidently paraded before us, and accepted their Mock Elections Trophies. There was just one problem. The entire student body would NOT thoughtfully consider the entire population of our student body, and determine who was the most special. There seemed to be a very tiny voter turnout on these elections. Or else the fix was in. Or maybe the dead vote in High School Mock Elections, just like in some Chicago neighborhoods. I really don’t know, but these exercises caused me to raise an eyebrow about the entire process, as only the most popular people were ever recognized. Gee, what a coincidence! Not only are they the most popular, they win all the elections too! Nobody has better eyes, laughs, butts, voices, brains, attitudes or virtues than this same Select among us. Shazzam!
The vast majority of the rest of the student body never really had a shot at any of the awards. Or at least it seemed that way. They were simply another pimply face among the other pimply faces that made up the Great Unrecognized. We weren’t special. We were just there to cheer for the special people. Or for the Jocks. Or the Cheerleaders. Or whatever else required an admiring throng. I found these assemblies very tiresome, and self-serving for a very small minority. My main irritation was that this process was being rolled out as a real cross section of the student body, and it was simply a double down of what the rest of us already knew. We weren’t as good as Them.
So, you can see I still have a thorn in my paw about this whole charade, but it goes deeper. This same kind of Popularity Contest isn’t limited to High School. The most obvious place that I see it operating is at the Academy Awards. Here, the most Beautiful and Talented among us are seated at an event in Hollywood, and it is not a Mock Election by any means. This is deadly serious to these people. Here, we see them in their gowns, tuxedos, and high heels as they walk the red carpet and are seated in the Sanctuary of Entertainment to be considered for Best Actor, Director, and Picture. We need to find out who is the best at pretending to be someone they are not, and who is the best storyteller, and who can make these pretenders look the prettiest. And, again, a huge admiring throng watches from their plain ticky tack boxes across the Heartland.
Just like in High School.
To rebel against this sort of Big “I”, Little “you” attitude, became a part of my core. I am always rooting for the underdog, in every situation, and have no tolerance for bullies. So much so, that if I turn on a game, and one team is losing, I reflexively root for the team that is down. The popular crowd was always suspect to me, and I had no use for their approval or acknowledgement. It was in my senior year that I delivered a clarion call against all such “follow the leader” hero worship. It is here, that I will relate the story of the legendary Punk Band, Refuse (REHF- yoos (as in garbage) with the emphasis on the first syllable)
In my Senior year in High School, I was blessed to be in the company of a group of young men who were all just as fed up and disenfranchised as I was. Some of these guys were actually borderline popular, but they held such positions with disdain and suspicion. Bowman and I became friends in twelfth grade. We were a strange pair, but we were both smart, hilarious, anarchistic, and music freaks. We decided to front a Punk Band in the Groves High School Talent Show. We really didn’t think they would allow us in, but it would be fun to try, and make them tell us why we couldn’t participate. This turned out to be a very, very good idea.
So, I played bass, and Bowman would sing. We needed a guitar, drums, and maybe more . Our first recruit was Bowman’s friend Wade Hanson. He played a Fender Telecaster and could play lead. Sort of. He was kind of popular, but had the right attitude. He was in. Plus, we could practice in his parents’ basement. Anarchists can be pragmatists, it seems. Next, we poached Jeff Bellefleur, who was a smart guy who would go on to become a doctor. He also played bass. So, our band would have two bass players. Talk about rebellious. We needed a drummer, and we found Bill Urich, who is now a lawyer of note in the Detroit area. He was a bratty kind of kid, that had a real bad attitude, but was smart and funny, and we all liked him. And he was a solid drummer. It didn’t hurt that he looked like Mickey Dolenz. Finally, we brought Don Askew on board. He was a guitarist with a heavy metal edge, and he was all show, and wasn’t shy about self-promotion. Our band was complete. Now we needed a name. Bowman spit it out: Refuse. Like Garbage, Refuse. Perfect!
Next we needed some songs. Bowman had penned a song about Mr. Picary, a Math teacher at Groves who was a poster child for disinterested teachers on the tenure track. When a student had a problem, Mr. Picary would peer at them, and retort “I don’t even care if you’re in here or not. Drop the Course!” So, our first song, and only hit, would be Drop the Course. The song was a bizarre mess of mocking words about Picary, school, and disenchanted youthisms. We came up with a hook. We were working the song out in Wade’s basement, and we knew the chorus had to be Drop the Course! X 4. But we couldn’t get it to flow with the rest of the three chord masterpiece we had ripped off from Cheech and Chong’s Alice Bowie. Then, the muse kissed me. I said, “Hey Urich, put 2 hits between every Drop the Course”. We played it through, and it worked, beautifully as a call and answer. Bowman shouted drop the course, then I shouted Drop the course. Drop the Course! Bang Bang! Drop the Course! Bang Bang! Drop the Course ! Bang Bang! Drop the Cooooourse! It was a great hook, and it made the song work. This remains my most significant song writing accomplishment. Our other song was a 2 chord Johnny we called Heinz Baked Beans, that was a flat out rocker that allowed us to do outrageous things onstage. We were ready for the Talent Show tryout. I was pretty sure we would be denied.
At the tryout, all of the potential acts gathered into the Music Room in the E Wing at Groves. The teacher was suspicious of us, but put us on the schedule for the tryout. We were last. One act after another presented lovely vocals, light comedy , piano mastery or magic acts. It was all very proper. And then it was time for Refuse to try out. We plugged in our instruments and took our places. We launched into Drop the Course, and it was what we had prepared. Dinosaur chord crunching and barely intelligible lyrics. We were into it, but nobody else was. It became very awkward as we tried to sell this rebellious punk rock act in a tony suburban school. They were staring at us, and rolling their eyes. Then, something happened.
I had been an outcast for my entire school career. I wasn’t a scholar, and I wasn’t a jock. I had nothing to lose from a completely inappropriate display, nobody cared about me anyway. So for the first time in my life, I didn’t ask permission. This act was a dog and had to be saved, and I was its Daddy. So I took action.
I began to leap around like a complete spastic, while playing my bass. I body bumped Bowman in a savage way and he growled back and started his own nutcase dancing and gyrations. I whipped my 6’3” lanky frame around the room like a brain damaged champanzee. I remember throwing myself across the room and smashing into a table with my head. Everyone started laughing and I kept the momentum up. By now, the rest of the band was following my lead, and we built up a head of steam, chugging along to that Killer chorus: Drop the Course! Drop the Course! Drop the Course! Drop the Coooourse! By now, people understood the reference to Mr. Picary, and they were convulsed with the utter, brilliant, heretical nonsense lurching before them. We were a hit! We were in the Talent Show!
Now that we were in the Talent show, we weren’t content to simply show up. Oh no. We took it upon ourselves to shamelessly promote ourselves. We went to the school dressed up in our Punk Gear, and took pictures in the Library, the Office, the bathrooms, and the halls. We then produced hundreds of black and white flyers that had Refuse scrawled all over them, with pictures of us posing in school locations. Bowman was the mastermind behind the flyers: “Refuse brings Disease. Cleanse yourself at the Talent show!” “Refuse is coming to waste Groves!” There were deliberate misspellings, and clear instruction as to how students could get tickets to this extravaganza. We spray painted T shirts with the Refuse logo and wore them to school. To everyone’s surprise, we sold the show out. This had never happened before. The promoters then decided that since everyone was coming to see us, they would put us on as the last act. This was perfect. The weeks passed by, and anticipation began to grow, as we realized we had sold the show out, and we were expected to actually provide some entertainment. People would stop us in the hall and ask what we were going to do, and we built it up like it was going to be something like a Kiss show on steroids. We began to believe our own hype. We told people to bring bags of marshmallows to the show, for some yet-to-be revealed purpose. The question was: could we deliver?
The night of the talent show arrived. We were ready. The auditorium was packed, thanks to our aggressive, over the top advertisement. Most of the audience was there to see Refuse. We would not disappoint. I played bass in a jazz piece earlier in the show, and had dressed in a black turtleneck and navy corduroys We did well, but as I played, I was very impressed by the size of the crowd, and their eagerness for Refuse. Act after act performed, until it was our turn. The emcee whipped up the crowd and asked if they were ready for Refuse. I could hear all this pandemonium on the other side of the curtain, and I looked around at my band mates. This was too cool. I couldn’t believe I was here. The curtain opened and we launched into Heinz Baked Beans. Our arms were windmilling, Bowman was dressed in his father’s pants, mother’s jacket, war paint, and ridiculously frizzed hair. He was in rare form. I wore a child’s leopard print vest, child’s sunglasses, a Girl Scout Beret and moon boots. We went nuts, as only young men can do. We were unbridled, unleashed, and on the loose. I had “borrowed” my sister Lisa’s guitar (it was practically unplayable anyway), and stuffed it full of marshmallows and foil balls. At our signal, we had a roadie kneel before Bowman, and present the guitar as an offering. Bowman took it and began to play. I then looked at him in obvious mockery over his awful instrument, and he smashed it on the stage like Pete Townsend. Marshmallows and foil exploded out of the guitar. It was perfect! People went nuts We had opened about 50 packages of marshmallows and stuffed them into a large brown paper bag and taped it shut. It sat on the front of the stage. We were totally out of control by now, and it was only a matter of time until that bag got the same treatment as the guitar. We started Drop the Course, and it was mayhem. By now, people were rushing the stage, flinging marshmallows that they had brought along. This whole scene was hilarious, and surreal. It was getting messy very quickly. I then kicked the marshmallow bag as hard as I could, and it erupted. Marshmallows were in the air, underfoot, and became a part of legend. We had wasted the auditorium. Mission accomplished. We finished Drop the Course, the curtain closed, and the Principal went about the task of restoring order.
We were exulting in our performance when he came backstage, red-faced and apoplectic. He made it clear that the auditorium would be cleaned by us by the next afternoon or we would all be expelled. We complied. After all, some of my band mates had real career aspirations, and Punk attitude can definitely be a hindrance on college applications. We rented a carpet steam cleaner, and made it look as good as new. As we milled around cleaning the auditorium, in this glorious aftermath and epilogue, something had to be said that put this whole event into perspective. I believe that task fell to me. As we were cleaning, I turned to Bellefleur. I said, very seriously, that one thing kept going through my mind. He looked at me sincerely, expecting profundity: “What is it?”
I shouted “Drop the Cooooourse!”
And thus, a musician was born, and many boundaries were broken. This excursion into rebellion actually served to validate me on many levels, and served as a statement to the popular crowd that we wouldn’t be ignored. It was good for me, and very therapeutic. But there is one more thing I need to point out.
None of us won any Mock Elections that year. How predictable.