A Record-breaking Talent Show


Photo Source: John Burns

Lum De Lum De Lai-ai CLAP! CLAP!
Lum De Lum De Lai-ai CLAP! CLCLAPAP!

“Okay, cut it!” John Cummings yanked the needle off the record with a piercing squeal of scratched rubber and rage. “You Miracles ain’t exactly delivering miracles with those hand claps. What’s the matter with you all?”

It was four hours before the start of the New Clinton High School Spring Thing Talent Show, and Smokin’ John and The Clintoneers were not on the same page. John, senior and group leader, couldn’t believe that his four sophomore and junior cohorts were messing up hand claps. On a lip-synch performance. He sat down on George Kraig’s couch, pulled out a Marlboro and stomped out the match in the shag carpet.

George, as John knew he would, flew into a nervous hissy fit at this, screaming, as John knew he would, “You can’t smoke in here! My parents will be home in two and a half hours!”

John mouthed the old routine along with George before lowering the boom.

“First of all, your parents ain’t gonna notice smoke cloud number one, the way they suck ‘em down. Second of all, your mom wouldn’t be able to smell her own ass burning over that cheap-ass five and dime perfume she douses herself with. Third of all, SHUT UP AND GET THOSE HAND CLAPS DOWN!”

John got up, put the needle back on the record, and the Clintoneers sweat through their last hacks at dancing like Smokey’s Miracles to “Mickey’s Monkey” before the show.

They had been getting their moves down for a few weeks. John, George, B.J. Lemay, Mike Rogers and Clint Conway all loved old rock ‘n roll, and they could be found every Saturday afternoon at 4:00 watching American Bandstand and taking notes. They worshiped the Philadelphia sound of Gamble and Huff, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass and the OJays, and the Motown sound of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey & The Miracles. They were white teenagers with greasy, long rock ‘n roll hair, but they wanted to be Negro and dress sharp.

That presented a slight problem in Maine circa 1974. Buying suits meant a trip to Porteous or Sears in Portland, and there wasn’t much soul available off the rack. George, who was known for the occasional idea that was so oddball it almost made sense, tried to get around this by spray painting his powder blue tux black. It was a good idea in theory, but he almost knocked himself out on Krylon fumes in the unventilated garage, and the suit never fully dried out, thus ruining a tux and several good shirts.

They eventually found a slightly mismatched tux ensemble, but there was still the problem of deciding whether to “play” instruments or not. Clint had a new Fender Precision Bass, and B.J. had a snare drum. But George’s only instrument was a 1956 Silvertone guitar that his dad ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog when he was in high school. This was not a brand new Fender or Gibson. The action on the Silvertone was so bad that the strings were several inches off the neck, the neck was bowed, the finish was faded and chipped and, worst of all, one of the pickups dangled out of the body. Sure, it didn’t matter, since they wouldn’t actually be playing. But it stirred quite a fierce debate within the inner circle of the Clintoneers.

John didn’t want anything to do with that mangy guitar. But he also didn’t want to rock the boat too badly, because George’s parents had the best hi-fi of all of them. Knowing that George may walk if he got too hurt now, John stepped away from that argument. The Silvertone was in the show.

They finished their last practice, got dressed and started to pack up. George’s mom had a few of her new records out, and he packed those up along with the Smokey Robinson record. Side One, Track Five. He even put a little note on the record with Scotch tape so the janitor, who was running the record player, would know what to play.

The Clintoneers were scheduled dead last. They sat through bell ringers, cloggers, yodelers and a kid playing the Glockenspiel. As the Glockenspiel act took the stage, George handed the janitor, Mr. Farmer, the record with the note. He nervously blurted out, “Side One, Track Five!”

Mr. Farmer gave George a condescending sneer and said, “Last time we all have to hear your crazy ‘yeah-yeah’ junk music tonight!”

George was already about to vomit from nerves, and this little vote of non-confidence didn’t help much. He grabbed his Silvertone to strap it on, and almost dropped the guitar in the process. John gave George a little smack in the back of the head, and suddenly they were on stage and ready to go.

John mouthed Smokey’s intro, “Alright, is everybody ready?!? Alright, now here we go! Ah-one! Ah-two! Ah-one-two-three-four!” as Principal Torrance introduced them to wild screams. Showtime! Mr. Farmer dropped the needle, and after a second of pause the gym filled up.

With the sounds of The Carpenters.

Side One, Track Five of The Carpenters: “For All We Know.”

The band looked over at Mr. Farmer in shock. He was playing the wrong record! Holy shit!

John had to make up his mind whether he was going to sink or swim. As the sound of Carpenters oboes filled the gym, he looked stage right at Mr. Farmer, and noticed his smirk. Either he knew it was the wrong record and had played it anyway, or he didn’t know and didn’t care. Regardless, they would be dancing to The Carpenters, rather than Smokey Robinson.

He took a glance over at George, to see what how he was handling it. George was visibly terrified, so he didn’t look any different than he would of if Mr. Farmer had played the right record. But now aNOTHER dilemma flashed before John’s eyes: did he really want to ride out his senior year being the pansy boy that sang The Carpenters at the talent show?

SHIT!

The oboes stopped, and the record kept going. John gathered his dignity and tried to channel Dennis Yost from The Classics IV singing “Traces” or Chuck Negron from Three Dog Night singing “Easy To Be Hard”: sensitive, but tough.

Just as he was about to channel his inner Karen Carpenter, John noticed that the house lights were coming up and the gym was emptying out. At that point, he knew it was going to be a train-wreck regardless, so he started mouthing along. Loooooveeeee, look at the two of us….(aHEM, he choked a little bit of embarrassment) straaaangers…in so… he looked back over at Mr. Farmer, who was visibly cackling. After a few seconds John realized he had missed the rest of the verse. Then he looked back over at George.

From the beginning, George was a wreck, but when he realized that he may have accidentally handed over his mom’s Carpenters record along with the Miracles…and maaaybe the note might have slipped off….well, he knew it was going to be a train-wreck regardless. George kind of hated John anyway, so he decided to go with it and ride out the storm under the surface.

Besides, he had his Silvertone to play! After the first verse, as the oboes came back in, George suddenly remembered seeing Jimmy Page playing “Stairway to Heaven” and pointing his Gibson toward the heavens. He suddenly leapt to the front of the stage, yanked his battered old mutt of a guitar toward the sky and started rocking the oboe lines. Laaaaaa (STRUM!) la-la-lah-la-laaaa (Pete Townshend windmill!) la-la-lah-la-laaa (Chuck Berry Duck-walk!) la-la-lah-la-laaaa… Then he looked back over at John.

The gym was nearly deserted by the time John reached Mr. Farmer at the record player, ripped the needle off with a piercing squeal of rubber and rage and started walking back toward George. George could see the look of unrestrained rage, and he knew he was done for.

“YOU DIPSHIT!” John yelled. He broke the Carpenters record in half, threw the pieces over George’s head and socked George in the gut. John walked off and George slid into a fetal position on the stage, gasping for the wind that was no longer in his stomach. George, more mortified than he had ever been in his life, waved to the five people left in the gym, and tried to gasp “I’m alright!” But by that point, nobody cared.

The gym was empty, the Clintoneers had disbanded and the rest of a long, awkward semester lay ahead of them. Mr. Farmer walked over to George, still lying prone on the stage, and said, still cackling, “Told you that was the end of your yeah-yeah junk!” and walked away. Eventually George got up, picked up his guitar and called his mom for a ride.

John walked home. Five miles in the cold he didn’t even feel from the heat of his rage. As he made his way along the quiet stretch of suburban 163, a car passed. The driver rolled down the window to throw out a cigarette butt, which hit John on the chest. The car radio was playing The Carpenters.

Band practice was cancelled the next day.

8 comments
  1. Nice story. When I saw John and George in the opening paragraphs, I thought it would be a Beatles historical fiction, but this was much better.

    • Hah! I didn’t even think of that, Guapola. John Cummings was the birth name of Johnny Ramone, the ultimate nasty prick bandleader. And George, I was thinking of Vern from Stand By Me, but didn’t want to use that name. Must’ve had “If I Needed Someone” stuck in my head.

  2. very nice, brian. i kept picturing a high school scene like in back to the future.

    • With a slightly more violent Marty…

  3. Great story – I almost thought they’d pull it off! It’s just not easy to jive to the Carpenters.

    • Remember the episode where Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for five bucks, and he walks into the Kwikee Mart (after not triggering the motion detector at the door) , breathes all over the ice cream freezer and there’s no trace of his breath since he has no soul? I imagine the same things happening to Richard Carpenter.

  4. Oh, that is just so bad. I kept visualizing it and laughing. Great story to share.

    • Yeah, I don’t see any reunion shows for the Clintoneers. ;)

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