We were never very good, and it never really mattered. Eight high school guys in a band. Guitar, piano, sax, bass, and drums. Three of us didn’t even play an instrument, just stood around singing, “Shoo-bop, shoo-bop.” We went by nicknames—“Rico,” “Greaso,” “Ace”—and we played dances, sock hops, even a local TV show once, singing songs older than we were, wearing hairstyles that were before our time. We practiced in my parents’ basement, and we named ourselves after the stuff kids rolled into their 1950s crew cuts.
Some say adolescence is a time for angst, but eight buddies in a band will help you fight that. My teenage years were spent greasing up, tuning up, and cracking up. All I really remember from high school is laughter.
Maybe that’s why, decades later, when I was approaching my 50th birthday and my wife insisted that I do “something special,” I felt a rush of ennui. I’ve always been a reluctant grown-up. I have no interest in suit-and-tie affairs, a few raised wine glasses, everyone so…mature.
“Well, what do you want?” she said.
The truth? I wanted my old basement back.
And so began the best birthday I ever had. It started with seven phone calls and seven anxious responses. “You’re kidding?” “Heck, yes.” “Count me in.” It continued with a visit to my old neighborhood in South Jersey and a request to the McCutcheon family, who now live in my old house.
“Would you mind,” our drummer Marc “Rosey” Rosenthal asked, “if we borrowed your basement for a day? Oh…and could we clear out your furniture?”
Incredibly, they said, “OK.”
Old song lists were dug out. Instruments were brought in. And finally, on a beautiful Saturday in May, one car after another pulled up to a familiar house. Out stepped Howard, Victor, David, Marc, Sandy, Mark, Perry, and me.
For the first time in 34 years, we were all together.
“Look at you!” “Ayyy!” “Man, you got old!” Although some of us were now physicians or businessmen, we were back to teenaged insults the moment we laid eyes on each other. We rumbled down the steps to the low-ceilinged basement of my youth. We ran the familiar grease through our hair, donned sunglasses, rolled up our sleeves. We plugged in and tuned up.
We were never very good, and we weren’t good now. We had less hair. Wider stomachs. Occasionally, we had to pull out glasses to read the lyrics. And it was pretty obvious that “Action Jackson,” our guitar player, was not going to do the flying full-leg split he used to do on “Splish Splash.” He’s a doctor now. He knows better.
But if you love music—and we loved that music—it is always inside you. So, when my piano started plinking and Rosey’s drums began banging and Sandy “The Kid” began plucking his bass, I can’t explain it, it all came back. At our ages, we can’t remember where we left our car keys, but we can still remember who sang what on “Silhouettes.” We played only for ourselves and a few family members. A private basement concert. And we laughed until our ribs threatened to snap.
Now, our band’s best memories were never of excellence (we didn’t have much) but rather of screw-ups and shenanigans. Like the day we played on a beach and got attacked by bumblebees. Or the night when we pulled off a highway ramp and ran across the top of Big D’s car. Or the gig where we sang “Sixteen Candles” and, when we got to the part about “Blow out the candles,” one of us hit a light switch to darken the room—and all the power went out.
At best, such stories are cute to others. But they are priceless to us. So we told them again, for the thousandth time. And we cracked ourselves up. We sang “Teenager in Love,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Great Balls of Fire.” We did nearly 30 songs, many from memory. And when we finished, we didn’t wash the grease from our hair. Instead, looking like Sha Na Na’s retirement party, we piled into our cars and drove to the local diner where we used to stuff into booths late at night and punch songs on the jukebox. We ordered cheese steaks and fries (the salmon and grilled veggies of adult life were put on hold), and the laughs went on for hours.
Stephen King once wrote, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.” That pretty much sums up my Lucky Tiger Grease Stick pals. It was nearly midnight before anyone heaved a sigh or looked at his watch.
It was the best birthday of my life. And the kicker is, the whole thing made me feel younger, not older. After all, every good memory is a notch on your life belt, and every happy song you sang is still somewhere inside you, if only in the “twiddle-lee-dee” backups on “Rockin’ Robin.”
I love my bandmates. I missed them all those years. And I came to realize something as we hugged goodbye in the parking lot and promised another reunion.
We were never very good, but we were always good for each other.
And we always will be.