History is not something that happens. It is something that you make.
At Libertyville High School we had a formidable model of renegade behavior — Marlon Brando.
Not the enormously overweight Brando whom I saw a couple of times at my friend Joel Larsen’s house, cooking chicken with Joel’s dad while we played Dungeons & Dragons in the next room. No, I mean the young man from long ago who was expelled from Libertyville High after riding his motorcycle through the halls.
He wasn’t the only notable alumnus from our Illinois school: There was the Dodgers All-Star center fielder Brett Butler; SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell; Phillipa Soo, who originated the role of Eliza Schuyler in “Hamilton”; Maureen Herman, former bassist of Babes in Toyland; Tom Justice, the “Choirboy Bandit” who robbed nearly 30 banks; and my friend Adam Jones, the guitarist for Tool.
But Brando was Brando.
As a Libertyville Wildcat he seems to have been a rebel without a cause. (“Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” his character in “The Wild One” is asked. “Waddya got?” he responds.)
But I didn’t just want to make history, I wanted to make noise.
Within 24 hours of purchasing a Sex Pistols cassette I was in a band. I didn’t know how to play a single chord or even how to tune the guitar, but I now knew I must form a band. I announced at a drama club meeting that a punk band was forming, if you want to be in it raise your hand, no experience required. A number of hands went up (including Adam Jones’s).
There were three bands in my high school and we were the worst. The best band was called Destiny: beautiful men with beautiful hair who played beautiful cover songs that made the beautiful girls swoon at school dances. And then there was Epitaph. They were bad boys and they weren’t about to play any stupid school dances. They would play garage parties with beer, and weed, and when you saw those guys in the hallway you got out of their damn way, because they were covering AC/DC and Black Sabbath.
And then there was my band, the Electric Sheep, the drama club band. We didn’t have the technical ability to play anybody else’s songs, so we were condemned to write our own. Songs like “Human,” “Let’s Get the Party Started” and “Raising Hell” were decades off. At this point it was pure cacophony.
We auditioned for a school variety show and showed enough promise to merit an interview. “The show is in four months — can you guys learn ‘Born to Be Wild?’” we were asked. I knew in my heart that it was unlikely we could learn “Born to Be Wild” in four years, but I said, “Yes, of course! We’ll take the gig.”
Adam and I grimace — we still can’t even tune our guitars.
So the night of the big gig arrived.
In my mind it was a battle of the bands between the Electric Sheep and Destiny. A David and Goliath showdown. Destiny played “Abraham, Martin and John.” Gorgeous. Everyone was swooning.
Next up, we were wheeled out on a riser and began “Born to Be Wild.” The keyboard player came in on the wrong chord. The bass player came in with the wrong note. My guitar, naturally, was out of tune. It was an inauspicious start to my music career.
But I was thinking I have to do something, anything, to turn the tide. I may not know how to play this guitar, I may not know how to tune this guitar, but I have a track and field background … and I can jump like a demon. So when the chorus of the song came, I leap off the riser. I got incredible air and the place went absolutely bananas.
People were losing their minds. I’m jumping and flailing like a madman. The crowd roared. I was inhabited by the holy spirit of rock ’n’ roll, thinking, “I don’t need to know the notes! Tuning be damned! I’ve got rock ’n’ roll in me!”
I like to think young Marlon would have been proud of me.