“Sorry, you guys, it ain’t personal, ya know? It’s just that I hired you to play oldies for sad sack middle-aged workin’ stiffs to drown their sorrows to. Now you got these punk rockers in here tearin’ everything up and shootin’ smack in the bathrooms. I find needles in there every goddamn night now. You’re driving off paying customers with a buncha dirtbags who don’t even buy nothin.’”
Ritchie and Bing looked at each other, then back at Smilin’ Jim.
“So you’re firing us?” asked Ritchie. “Just like that? After we turned your shitty little dive bar into a happenin’ night spot?”
Jim laughed. “Yeah, there’s a lot happenin’ alright. Drugs, sex, fights, property damage. I can’t afford it no more, fellas. Now go on, get outta here.”
He started to shut the door on them when a brown El Camino blasting Michael Jackson’s Beat It out of its open windows rolled up and squeaked to a stop. The cymbals on the drum set in back tinkled like wind chimes.
Ritchie shoved his foot in the door. “I think you need to break the news to Blockhead, personally,” he said.
Jim scowled. “Get your damn foot outta the door you little shit.”
A tall, lean man in a tight jeans, a sleeveless gray Raiders half-shirt and reflective aviator shades stepped out of the car, his shoulder-length Jheri curl glistening in the afternoon sun.
“Hell’s goin’ on out here?”
“Well, we’re fired, that’s prolly the main thing going on out here that you’d be interested in. This man right here says he don’t want no slants or jigs playin’ in his club. Can you believe that? Here we are in the year 1982, and we still can’t—”
Blockhead stormed up the steps and shoved the door open with his shoulder, knocking Jim to the floor.
“Did you say that shit?” he demanded, towering over the fallen fat man, his hands balled into fists.
“No!” shrieked Jim, blocking his face with his arms. “Why the Hell would I say that?”
“Stop it,” said Bing, stepping in and placing a gentle hand of restraint on Block’s shoulder. “He made that up.”
“But we still fired, huh?” asked Block, keeping his eyes trained on the cowering club owner.
“Yeah,” said Bing. “Told us punk rockers are tearing up his place.”
Block lowered his fists and sighed. “Damn it, Ritchie, I almost beat this man’s ass. You know what though? He’s right.”
Jim’s eyes lit up. “See?”
“Man shut your ass up,” Block told him. “Shit, I knew we was gonna lose this fuckin’ gig when we started gettin’ them Warriors-lookin’ cats up in here.”
“You hired Ritchie and the Headlights to play rock ‘n roll,” said Ritchie. “Rock ‘n roll ain’t nice music for nice people, you dig? You shoulda hired somebody else if you wanted some kinda… clean-cut square music, man. Polka band or somethin’.”
“Enough, Ritchie,” said Bing. “Come on, let’s get outta here before this guy calls the cops on us.”
Ritchie pulled a comb out of the back pocket of his jeans and ran it through his slicked-back hair. “Alright. Alright. Just pay us for tonight’s gig and we’ll be on our way.”
Jim laughed. “Pay you? I ain’t gonna pay you if you ain’t playin’.”
Block’s eyebrows shot up. “Come again?”
“I said I am not going to pay you, and you better smarten up and listen to your little oriental friend here. I will call the cops if you don’t leave.”
“We have school to pay for, dude,” said Ritchie. “We turn down gigs all the time because we thought we had a steady one. We coulda played this big party tonight, matter of fact. But I told ‘em no, we’re playing at Smilin’ Jim’s. So now here we are, lugging all this gear around with nobody to play for, and nothing to do but pick our noses. We got bills, man.”
“You little trust fund Caltech brats don’t got no real bills.” He nodded in Blockhead’s direction. “Maybe he does, but you guys…”
Block rushed him again and seized him by either side of his shirt collar. “How come you think I ain’t enrolled in Caltech too? Huh? What, you think I ain’t as smart as this white boy and this Chinaman?”
“Could everybody stop saying words like ‘oriental’ and ‘Chinaman?’ interjected Bing.
Ritchie shot him an annoyed look. “Bing shut up. Jim, give us our money.”
“I told you—”
“Yeah, yeah. If I we don’t play, we don’t get paid. Then let us play, just this one last night.”
Jim sighed. “Sorry boys, I gotta protect my livelihood. Your crowd’s too rowdy for my insurance company.”
Ritchie sighed and turned to his band mates. “Well, we tried our best, but this heartless SOB ain’t gonna help us out, so…”
He crouched down, picked up a chunk of broken sidewalk and hurled it at one of the headlights of Jim’s Lincoln Town car.
“Shit!” said Bingwen as the glass shattered.
Jim popped inside and reappeared moments later wielding a shotgun.
Ritchie, Bing and Block were already in the El Camino, their gear tossed in back.
“Burn rubber!” shouted Ritchie as Block did just that. The El Camino’s screeching tires buried Jim and his shotgun under a thick cloud of noxious black smoke.
“Ha ha!” barked Ritchie, flipping the old man off and hoping he could see it. “Felt good, man.”
Neither of the other two young men were in a jovial mood. Block remained stone-faced, his eyes obscured by his shades. Bing was scowling and, as usual, whining.
“He’s gonna call the cops! Why’d you do that?”
“That fuckin’ Guido ain’t callin’ no damn cops,” spat Block. “Mothafucka be slangin’ that shit.”
“What shit?” asked Bingwen.
Block turned, looked at him, turned back to the road and shook his head.
“We gotta find someplace to play,” said Richie. “We should hit up Club Razer.”
Bing laughed. “That punk rock club? Come on, Ritchie, it’s one thing to have ‘em show up at our gigs to make fun of us, but we don’t fit in in their world. They’d kick our asses. Not to mention all the spitting and slam dancing and drugs and fighting and—”
“Alright, we get it,” said Ritchie, “you’re a pussy. But I think you’re wrong. I think they come see us because we are punk. I mean, not you. You listen to Yes and play Dungeons and Dragons. But they don’t know that.”
“So do you!” Bing protested.
Ritchie shrugged and ran his comb through his hair again. “Yeah, but I’m cool. Seriously though, the Headlights play nothing but ‘50s and ‘60s covers, right? Basic rock ‘n roll. That’s all punk is. Just louder and sloppier.”
“Hell yeah, I’m with it, K,” said Block. “I got some pent-up rage I need to take out on them skins, know what I mean? Mid-term studyin’ is killin’ my ass.”
“I do know what you mean, but I heard you been poundin’ a whole different kinda skins with that chick Debbie you’re studying with.”
Block laughed and the two of them high-fived.
“Speaking of studying, I could use the extra time,” said Bing.
“You could,” said Ritchie. “No one cares about bass anyway.”
“Bass is the backbone of any good band,” argued Bing.
“Settle it, Block,” said Ritchie. “Nobody cares about bass, am I right?”
“Nah, nah, nah man,” said Block. “He’s right. Bass is the backbone. Bass and drums.”
“Name one bass player that I’ll even know what group they’re with,” Ritchie challenged them.
“Bootsy,” said Block.
“Michael Anthony,” said Bingwen. “John Paul Jones. Geddy Lee. Lemmy from Motörhead.”
Ritchie shrugged. “When you’re right, you’re right. I guess we gotta have a bass player.”
“This is a bad idea,” said Bing. “Somebody’s gonna beat us up.”
“Just use your Kung Fu on ‘em, Bing,” said Ritchie, making chopping motions through the air with his hands.
“You know that’s not cool, right?” asked Bing, shoving Ritchie’s shoulder. “Asshole.”
Ritchie rolled his eyes. “Take it easy, I’m just giving you a hard time. I like pushing your buttons, you get so frazzled.”
“By exploiting stereotypes about my ethnicity, yeah. Real funny.”
“What’s wrong with good stereotypes? Block doesn’t mind all the jokes about him having a massive hog. I’m saying you can prolly kick people’s asses with karate. That’s a cool stereotype, man.”
“You said Kung Fu,” Bing shot back. “At least get your martial arts straight.”
Ritchie laughed. “Whatever. Please don’t act like such a candyass around the punk rockers, they’ll eat you alive.”
“They’re going to eat us alive anyway! We don’t belong there!”
Ritchie reached over, grabbed Bing’s T-shirt by the collar and ripped it halfway down the middle.
“Hey!” Bing shoved him and punched him in the arm. “You fucking bastard!”
Ritchie tousled Bing’s hair and slapped him playfully across the face. “Now you do! We need some safety pins and hair gel or something.”
“Man, let’s just go play,” said Block, who was starting to get annoyed by all the bickering. “And settle your asses down, I’m tryin’ to drive over here.”
They rode in silence across town to Club Razer. A few kids who could have been extras in that CHIPS episode about punk rockers leaned against a graffiti-covered, piss-stained building that looked as if it were being held together by paint and random bits of junk stolen from other buildings.
One of the punks, a tall, skinny guy with a red mowhawk, sunglasses, a leather jacket and ripped jeans took a long final drag from his cig and flicked it to the garbage-strewn ground.
He started towards them, the padlock hanging from a chain around his neck swinging to and fro as he walked.
“You dorks take a wrong turn someplace?” he said, loud enough for the others behind him to hear.
“Nah, we wanna play,” said Ritchie.
The punk laughed, turned back to his comrades and threw his hands in the air. “He says they wanna play.”
Some of them laughed, and some of them offered no reaction whatsoever.
He spat on the ground. “What kinda music you play? Toto covers?”
“We play rock n’ roll,” stated Ritchie.
The punk looked them over. “You look like you play with each other’s balls. What’s your band called?”
“Ritchie and the Headlights,” answered Ritchie, hoping Bing didn’t say something geeky, and that Block didn’t jump out of the car and start a fight. “We play ‘50s and ‘60s shit. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Beach Boys, Blue Cheer, the Kinks, Kingsm—”
“Alright, I get it, man. I’ve heard of you guys. My friend JD went and saw you a couple weeks ago, said you were like the Ramones. Name’s Scumdog.”
“I’m Ritchie, and this is Bing, our bassist, and Block, our resident skin basher, both of musical and female varieties.”
Block nodded in acknowledgment, and Bing slinked further down into his seat.
“Well come on in and set up,” said Scumdog. “Lucky for you, we got a slot open tonight. Here’s a tip, though: play your faster material. And play that faster. Break a string or somethin’ just keep playin’.”
“Thanks,” said Ritchie. “Come on boys, you heard the man.”
They got out of the car.
Scumdog snapped his fingers and two teenage boys, one with a black bowler hat and an Agent Orange shirt slashed to shreds, the other with short, spiked green hair in a filthy white tank top ran up to the El Camino and started unloading gear.
They went inside the club, and to the surprise of no one it was a dimly-lit, smoke-filled shithole. Every inch of the place, including the partially-collapsed, water-stained ceiling, was plastered with old show fliers and band logo stickers.
“People are staring at us,” hissed Bing.
“Relax,” said Ritchie, clapping a hand down on his friend’s shoulder. “You’d stare at them if you saw them someplace normal, right? Don’t worry, we’re gonna rock their socks off.”
“See,” said Bing, “when you say things like that, that’s when I get worried that someone is going to kick our asses.”
“Man shut up,” said Block. “Stop bein’ such a crybaby.”
They set up and then hung out at the bar for about thirty minutes, downing beers and chatting with their soon-to-be audience. Many of them Ritchie recognized from Jim’s, and when he told them Jim had kicked them out because he didn’t like punks, some of them got mad.
“Let’s go burn it down!” shouted one, but Scumdog shot him down with a dead serious look.
“Don’t even think something like that,” he said. “Dude’s bad news. He’s connected.”
Bing’s eyebrows shot up. “Connected?”
“Yeah, man. His brother up in Jersey’s like some bigshot mob boss or somethin’, I dunno. Set him up down here with his bar to keep him outta trouble, I guess. Prolly launders money through it.”
“Dude, that’s stupid,” said Eric, a tattooed, chunky twenty-something with greasy, shoulder-length green hair and a Motörhead shirt with the sleeves ripped off. “He‘s been around here forever. Been through like, three or four clubs. Can’t keep ‘em open. He used to own this fuckin’ roller disco that me and Adam used to get kicked out of all the damn time.”
He laughed. “Smilin’ Jim wasn’t so smilin’ whenever I took a shit in the soap dispenser in the bathroom. People pushed down on it, this little thin thing of shit came out, like Play-Doh.”
Ritchie, now thoroughly buzzed, was positively delighted by this anecdote and guffawed so hard he couldn’t breathe.
“That’s fuckin’ gross, dude,” said a bald chick in black leather pants and a Cramps T-shirt.
“Alright come on,” said Scumdog, slapping Ritchie on the leg, “it’s showtime.”
“Whoa, hold on a sec,” said Ritchie. “We still gotta tune up.”
Scumdog threw his head back and laughed. “Tune up! That’s great! Oh, man. Just get up there and kick out the jams, motherfuckers.”
“Oh good Lord,” mumbled Bing.
Scum cut through the rapidly-growing crowd and dashed up the steps to the stage, yanking the mic off the stand. “Hey all you sick fucks!”
The chatter of the audience died down and he waved Ritchie, Bing and Block over.
“First band up tonight is new to Razer, but some of you guys have probably caught ‘em over at Jim’s. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ronnie and the Headlights.”
He handed the mic to Ritchie, who placed it back on the stand and strapped on his guitar. Bing was frantically fiddling with his bass, and Block was doing stretches behind the kit.
“How ya doin’ out there tonight? Are you guys as drunk as I am?”
The crowd cheered, and Ritchie grinned.“One two three four!”
He launched into Shake, Rattle and Roll, and though Bing frowned the entire time because of the increased Tempo, he kept up just fine.
Block, meanwhile, was having the time of his life, if the grin frozen on his face was any indication.
The punks seemed to dig it, demonstrating their approval through pogoing, flailing their arms about and joyfully slamming into one another.
They went straight into Great Balls of Fire after that, with Ritchie hammering away at his guitar in a crunchier, sloppier, reverb-and-feedback-laden approximation of Jerry Lee Lewis’s original piano-driven beat.
The audience loved it, and for the first time in his life, Richard Kryuss felt like a real rock star instead of a computer nerd who dabbled in music.
Johnny B. Goode came next, followed by Long Tall Sally and Buddy Holly’s Rave On.
After Little Richard’s Rip It Up rounded out the set, all three of the Caltech geeks onstage were drenched in perspiration and high on adrenaline.
Even Bing, much to Richie’s delight, had come around.
“I gotta say, Ritchie, you were right. That felt great.”
“Yeah,” Ritchie agreed as they packed up their gear, “I’ve never had that much fun.”
“We kicked ass, dude!” Block exclaimed, bashing his head into his cymbals and cutting loose with a celebratory whoop.
“Hell yeah you did,” said Scumdog. “You guys play here any time.” He handed them each $25.
“A hundred bucks?” said Ritchie.
Scumdog shrugged. “Rent’s expensive and some of these savages always break or steal shit. I barely break even most nights. Welcome to the world of punk rock.”
Block shrugged and stuffed the money in his back pocket. “Thanks, man, we appreciate it.”
Ritchie sighed and nodded. The exhilaration of experience itself far outweighed any potential monetary compensation. It wasn’t about the money. It didn’t even bother him that Scumdog thought his name was “Ronnie.”
“Yeah,” he said, smiling and wiping the sweat from his forehead. “Yeah, we do.”
They stepped offstage, and the same kids who had helped them load in returned to help them load out.
People were slapping them on the back, handing them beers and screaming in their faces, and Ritchie loved every second of it.
They sat out in the El Camino for several minutes, chattering away excitedly about the show.
“I really think we found our sound,” said Ritchie. “These people loved us. Maybe we are punks. Maybe we should be writing originals that sound like ‘50s music but with a more modern style. We could really take off.”
“I don’t want to take off,” said Bing. “I want to graduate from college and work for Apple.”
Ritchie scowled. “Apple? I need you at Krytech, buddy.”
Bing laughed. “Krytech? I’d rather go with the safer bet. You know, the company that actually exists.”
“You’ll see,” said Ritchie. “Krytech’s not only going to revolutionize home computing, it’s going to change the way people live. Like, people, in general. Major paradigm shift is coming, my friend, and I wanna be on the front lines. You know, one day, people will be able to make video calls from portable telephones, to anywhere in the world. People will order things on their computers from home and robots will deliver them.”
“Man cut it out with that robot shit, Ritchie,” said Block. “We just had a real cool experience and now you went and fucked it all up with all that nerd talk.”
“You love my robots and you know it,” said Ritchie. “You’re a geek just like us, buddy, admit it.”
Block laughed. “Yeah, so what?”
“Maybe someday geeks will be cool,” said Bing. “We were cool, tonight.”
“I’m always cool,” said Ritchie, turning up his collar and making guns out of his fingers. “I occupy the hazy void in between the realm of the nerd and the realm of the cool. I keep one foot on either side. So I’m always cool, even though I’m a nerd.”
Bing and Block both burst into a buzzed laughing fit. “Did somebody give you some kind of weird drugs in the club?” teased Bing.
“Laugh it up. One day I’ll be…” he trailed off and held up his right hand.
“Shhh. You see that?” he whispered.
A pair of headlights very slowly crested the hill at the end of the street and creeped towards them.
“Start the car,” said Ritchie.
“Yeah,” said Block, jamming his key into the ignition and turning it.
The El Camino roared to life, and the headlights approaching them picked up speed.
“Come on, Block, go!” Bing implored him.
“Shit, shut up,” Block shot back as the car groaned and lurched away from the curb. They passed the headlights, which belonged to a powder blue ‘78 Coupe DeVille with dark-tinted windows.
Bing filled the car with a heavy sigh of relief. “Looks like they—”
The sight in the rearview of the Caddy making a sharp U-turn and tearing off after them caused his train of thought to careen off its tracks and tumble over the edge of a cliff overlooking an ocean of dread.
All three were looking in the mirror when a white ‘81 Cutlass swooped in and blocked the road in front of them.
“Shit!” screamed Block, slamming down hard on the brakes.
With a loud, grinding squeal they came to an abrupt stop and two very tall, beefy men stepped out of the car. One of them held a baseball bat, which in Ritchie’s estimation was never a good sign.
The Coupe DeVille arrived behind them moments later, and out of it stepped another two men of similar build. Three of them wore tracksuits of varying colors, and one wore a white ribbed tank top tucked into grey slacks, which were held up by red suspenders. His hair was slicked back and he was flipping a toothpick around in his mouth.
“Get the fuck outta the car,” said the one with the bat.
For some reason that even a million years later Ritchie would fail to comprehend, they did as they were told.
“Nice night out, ain’t it?” asked toothpick guy, sauntering towards them with the cocky swagger of a man who didn’t fear much in life. “Say, you kids ain’t seen the little shit stains what smashed out the lights on my cousin Jimmy’s car, have ya?
All three shook their heads.
“Gee,” he said, pacing around them as he spoke, “that’s too bad. Y’see, I thought maybe yous guys was friends or somethin’, seein’ as how you fit their exact description and all. Guess I was mistaken.”
“Guess you were,” said Ritchie, and he heard Bing groan under his breath.
“You,” he said, his voice rising in volume with each word, are a lying… little… fuckstick! Teach ‘em a lesson, Bobby.”
Bat Man, AKA Bobby, apparently, grinned and slinked towards them, tossing the bat back and forth between both hands.
“We’ll pay to fix the light,” Bing pleaded. “Please, don’t—”
“Oh it ain’t about the fuckin’ light,” said Toothpick. “This is about respect.”
Bobby smashed out both lights of the El Camino, and Toothpick jabbed a thick, hairy sausage-like finger in Ritchie’s chest.
“Smarten up, kid. Or next time it’s gonna be your face instead o’ this piece o’ shit.”
Bobby swung the bat several more times, cracking the windshield and shattering both side mirrors. All four of them turned and headed back to their respective cars.
“Hey man that was my car you busted up,” Block called after them, ignoring the sharp kick in the shin from Ritchie that immediately followed his outburst. “Wasn’t even me that broke the damn headlight!
They stopped in their tracks and turned around with a slowness Ritchie found positively agonizing.
“Hey moolie,” said Toothpick, wagging his finger at Block, “shut your fuckin’ trap before you wind up in the hospital with it wired shut, capisce?”
Block glared back at him, fists clenched, but said nothing.
“Matter of fact,” Toothpick went on, “that’s what he wanted. Said you came into his place of business and humiliated him. Told me to beat the black off ya.”
Block clenched his fists even tighter.
Toothpick chuckled and shook his head. “I’m lettin’ you off the hook though, kid. Jimmy had it comin’, the prick. He’s a pussy with a big mouth. You understand though, there had to be repercussions for that kind of disrespect. You punks take it easy.”
They got in their cars and departed, leaving Ritchie, Bing and Block standing alone beneath the dim light of a street lamp darkened by a globe full of dead moths.
A car drove past. A dog barked in the distance. Ritchie cleared his throat. “See? Told ya we were punks.”
That ain’t gonna happen for quite some time, though. Meanwhile, check out Effugium Volumes 1-4 HERE.