The band had started on a lark. Me, Schmidty, and Kevin were sitting around listening to The Cars one night in Kev’s apartment, the second story of a house on Lafayette he rented with this pothead named Toolie Delane. It was 1985 Milwaukee, and we were fans of The Cars but not fanatics. We were in agreement that Ric Ocasek was a cool guy–the ugly, skinny dude with a badass voice who didn’t take himself too seriously–and the band’s sound was something original, blending old-time guitar rock with the new synthesized sound rousting up the charts. We were cracking our way through a second twelve-pack when Schmidty told us about a flier he’d seen at Record Mania for an air band competition that weekend down at Liquor Lyles–a ten dollar entrance fee but a cash prize of two hundred for the winner, and a small kitty for runner up depending on the entrance number. I’d met Schmidty working in the dorm cafeteria the year before at UW-M when we were freshmen still living on campus, and I was impressed he was able to hit on the girls in line while wearing a hairnet. He explained that all we had to do was get up there and air guitar through a song, and we’d walk out with cash in our pockets.
“So no actual singing? No instruments?” Kev said.
Schmidty shook his head. “Just free cash.”
Kev took a nervous drink of beer. “Cause I can’t sing worth shit.”
“Not a problem. All you got to do is pretend to play, pretend to sing, and then watch the chicks rush the stage.”
Social-wise, I had been in a slump for some time and would have agreed to anything on a Saturday night. My girlfriend, Katie, had broken up with me two and a half months earlier. We were high school sweethearts determined to give it a go at college, and we’d lasted through freshmen year by the skin of our teeth, reuniting at home for the summer–her working again at the Dairy Queen while I helped by dad out at the golf course. It was like old times, like being back in high school, but beginning of sophomore year it became apparent I was the only one who saw that as a good thing. Riding around that summer in a caged-in golf cart, getting pelted by errant driving range balls, was a life I could have lived forever if it meant Katie by my side.
We decided at six-one, a hundred-and-thirty-five pounds, I should be Ric Ocasek. Even now, telling the story twenty-some years later, the couple at the table nod their heads, seeing the resemblance. I’m not as skinny as I used to be, but I still have the long anemic look of a man who isn’t that fond of food. That night in Kev’s apartment, we cleared away the coffee table and kicked the empty cans to the side. Toolie was home by now, sitting on the couch, his knees splayed and a roach in his hand. I stood a foot or so in front of Schmidty and Kev and tried my best to remember how Ocasek moved from the countless hours I’d spent on a beanbag chair in front of MTV, drowning my sorrows over Katie. Lucky for me, Ric Ocasek was too cool for a lot of dancing, and I mainly stood there, my hand in the air wrapped around a spatula.
Toolie nodded his head to the song, and at the end held up his lighter, the flame lit. “Awesome,” he said and we took his favor to heart. The next afternoon Schmidty called to tell us he’d fronted the money himself for the entrance fee, he had that much faith after one practice.
By Thursday I’d begun to imagine the humiliation of getting up there and fake-singing a song in front of a live audience. I’d bombed out on a presentation on Thoreau in my Early American Lit class and didn’t think I could handle more of that humiliation–the heart palpitations, the sweaty back, how the girl in the front row who looked critically at everyone contorted her face in pity. I asked Schmidty and Kev over beers that night if they thought we should practice. “You need to practice this?”Schmidty said and held his right arm crooked at the elbow strumming at his belt buckle, the left hand pushing strings pointlessly in the air. “You don’t think you can get up and wing that?”
– originally published in Wag’s Revue