Sometimes my life feels like a dream. I’ve done so much, seen so much. Did all that really happen?
I know it did, but sometimes I just want to think back and make sense of it all.
And so I remember…
A Summer Place
While the budding starlets of Montebello Senior High School strolled effortlessly in their tight skirts and taboo-drenched fashion, I watched as Joey Zagarino criss-crossed and darted across the front lawn straight at me.
Everything about Joey was musical: the cadence of his speech sounded like lyrics to a song; the way he strutted instead of walked; the way the current top ten hits like “The Peppermint Twist” erupted from him as if they were poems. His penetrating manner made him a magnet to anyone lucky enough to know him. He was pure musical energy waiting for a place to explode. At fifteen-years-old and five-foot-ten with dark hair and a powerful build, the girls in school summed him up perfectly when they proclaimed that he “ruled.”
His handsomely crafted face could not hide the fact that he had a raging appetite for the absurd. He had an overwhelming desire to dive into humor. He didn’t laugh—he ROARED. With that simple difference, it was clear that he devoured life, sinking his teeth deeply into everything.
He was Italian by heritage and melodic by nature. Joey had started his first band a year and a half ago—The Upsets—and I had been polishing my “chops” on the drums in the school orchestra so that I could get good enough to play with them. Joey’s current drummer was leaving for new territory—and I was ready to take his place.
Music was everything to me, and I had been at it since age nine, when I first saw Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show. I always thought that Joey and I would be cool as buddies on stage because we were physical opposites. Joey had Italian olive skin and dark hair that countered my Scandinavian pale-green eyes and light-brown hair. One set of my grandparents migrated from Sweden, while the other set were a mix of German and Cherokee Indian. Around school, several kids had started calling me “Fabe” because of a slight resemblance to a rock singer named Fabian; it was the name Rusty that stuck, though, because of my hair.
“Rusty! Hey Johnson-man! Hey!” Joey yelled. He held a Pee Chee folder under his arm, with the words Joey and the Upsets stenciled on the front. On the back was a list of the bands he admired: the Ventures, the Standells, Joey Dee and the Starliters, Booker T. and the MGs, the Champs, Dick Dale and the Deltones, and the Beach Boys.
“Yo, Joey,” I yelled back, still staring at Virgie Rodriquez’s sultry, vamp-like strut.
“Bobby officially left the band last night,” Joey blurted out. He then pointed at me as if he were Uncle Sam on the famous poster demanding military service. “You, Rusty-boy, are the new drummer for Joey and the Upsets.”
“All right!” I shouted. “What’s Bobby going to do now?” I asked, trying to show some concern for the person I was replacing while still relishing my own great luck.
“He’s cool,” Joey said as he sneaked a peek at a skirt that sauntered by. “Said he’s on to bigger things. Some Latin horn band in East L.A.”
A body stepped from the moving crowd comprised mostly of surfers, Latinos, socialites, and jocks. It was the leader of a rival band, Eddie Olmos. His smile could engage anyone around him in an instant. He laughed constantly and was the type of compassionate person that would give of himself if anyone around him needed help. From knowing Eddie over the years in school, I had always secretly thought that he had a gift for sensing things, like he was some kind of a wise soul in a young body. He was a born leader, abounding with charisma and respected widely among the student body and the faculty for his academic chops and athletic ability. Eddie was a walking powerhouse of inspiration and humor looking for a place to perform—exactly like Joey and me.
“Johnson!” Eddie yelled and immediately tucked his books tightly to his side and did his famous James Brown impersonation, yelling “Ouch!” while spinning around in a complete circle causing everyone in the area to scream, “Go, James!” As Eddie shot up out of his performance, he slapped me and Joey on our shoulders. “You made it into the Upsets, Rusty. Joey told me the good news at nutrition class. Totally, totally bitchin’, man. Congratulations.”
Laughing out loud, I said, “I can’t think of any other way to be welcomed than by Eddie ‘James Brown’ Olmos himself.”
“We ought to jam sometime, Eddie,” Joey said. “Putting your James Brown style with surf music would be a first.”
Eddie held his hands up smiling. “Anytime, you two. Name the place and I’ll be there.”
“Is your band gigging this weekend?” I asked.
“Yeah. We’re at the Plush Bunny on Friday and Saturday. Come and sit in, dudes.”
“We’re there,” Joey said. “We’ll do ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ and ‘Wipe Out.’”
“My stage is your stage. See ya there.”
Eddie beamed his thousand-watt smile at his two musician friends and gave a slight bow as he left.
Joey turned back to me, smiling like he’d played “Mr. Peppermint Man” with Dick Dale.
“When do we rehearse?” I asked.
“After school today. Is that cool for you?”
“Boss. Four o’clock. Catch you there.”
I watched as Joey disappeared into the crowd of seemingly well-adjusted kids. As he jumped a three-foot wall to get to his next class, I thought about how much music meant to me. Music always seemed to make my world work—gave it clarity, passion, and drive. By joining Joey’s band today, I’d finally become a paid professional. I now belonged to an elite group of guys who could stand on a stage and belt out music and make everyone feel better.
As I strutted to my next class, I saw my ex-girlfriend Eileen Draus cutting between people in the hallway. Eileen’s beautiful, long, red hair was the crowning glory of a stunning seventeen year old. We had gone steady for two years and, to everyone’s surprise around school, had remained very close friends after we broke up.
“It’s the Princess of the Nile of Montebello-Land, Miss ‘Pinky’ Draus!” I said loudly as I opened my arms to the sky and whirled around in a circle. Eileen laughed. She loved my humorous view of life.
“So I understand that Miss Pinky and Mr. Tony Sarabia are an item these days. The two of you have been seen cruising the Montebello Mart in his hot rod.”
“Listen, wise guy,” Eileen said, “could you ask Bette to ask her friend, Shirley or Cheryl or whatever her name is, to stop giving me such angry looks because you and I used to go steady? I’m a little tired of it.”
I straightened my Sir Guy shirt. “Sure, no problem, pink one.” I suddenly remembered. “Hey, best gal-pal! Wasn’t Shirley or Cheryl at the Bowling Alley last Saturday night when I ran into you?”
Eileen thought for a moment. “Yeah, that’s right. She was there.”
“I’ll take care of it,” I said. “Bette understands we’re friends. She’s extremely cool with it.”
“’Kay,” Eileen said, turning to leave.
“See ya, Pinky,” I said. Not able to resist the thrill of teasing, I yelled after her, “Hey, Pinky! Does Tony have to send his sister to pick you up for dates because your mom doesn’t want you to see one guy all the time like I had to?”
She laughed. “No.”
“Oh, I get it. Your mom didn’t want you hanging out with musicians after all!”
After school, I arrived at Joey’s house on Taylor Avenue. “Set up in the living room,” Joey said. “I’ve got to go out back and get some things. Mike Hoops is here.”
“Ladies and germs, the latest Upset!” Mike said from behind the front door as he tuned his bass guitar.
Ed Winn, tall, athletic, and blond, strolled in from football practice carrying his saxophone case. His dark blue letterman sweater was slung over his arm.
“Hey, Rusty! Way to go, man. From what Joey tells us, you’re going be singing up a storm.”
“Hope I can help out,” I said proudly.
Joey walked back in through the long hall and held some records. He opened the lid of the family hi-fi and hit the on button. “All right, men,” he jokingly barked like a military drill sergeant, “here’s your assignment. Rusty, this is really for you—some of the Ventures stuff we’re playing. Thing is, we’ve got to break you in on our stuff, then learn all the songs you sing, because we can’t keep playing just those instrumentals. They’re bound to drive everyone fuckin’ crazy, if you can dig me, Fabe.”
Joey’s mother appeared at the door wearing a white bath towel around her head, her treatment for her constant headaches.
He jumped straight up at the sound of her voice.
“If you don’t watch that filthy mouth of yours, you’re not going to have any place to rehearse, young man.”
Joey, who had gone white, turned to her. “Ah…Mom! Sorry. Thought you were in the garden. Just a little talk between the guys.”
She shifted her look now to the others. “I hope you boys don’t have a garbage mouth like my son.”
And like that, she was gone.
“Sorry, mom. It won’t happen again!” Joey yelled to the empty door while rolling his eyes. “Okay, Rusty, the first song is ‘Walk, Don’t Run.’ It’s our theme song.”
I smiled broadly. “Oh, yeah. I’m hip to the tune.”
Joey strapped on his guitar and counted it off. In a moment, he, Winn, Mike, and I were inside the song. It sounded good and we knew it.
Evening fell as the rehearsal wound down. I watched as Mike Hoops and Ed Winn drove off. I was filled with dreams of the future. Joey came out of the house to join me and we discussed music and how to take our new venture from gigs to recording stardom. We were going to be big, baby! I just knew it.
“Our sound with you is bitchin’,” Joey said.
“I’m hip, Joey. I feel incredible,” I agreed.
Joey glanced at his watch. “I gotta go in now, man. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Joey looked back over his shoulder while walking. “It’s great to have someone who can sing in the band. We’ll for sure get a record deal now.”
“Hey, you guys.”
Joey and I looked across the driveway toward the house next door. Adele was at her bedroom window with her arms folded on the sill.
“Hi, Adele,” Joey said happily.
“Hi, ’Del,” I beamed.
“Did you hear the new sound with Rusty?” Joey asked his next door neighbor excitedly.
“I sure did. You guys sound like the Ventures with a lead singer. That’s a real first for the Upsets.”
“Thanks, Adele.” Joey grinned proudly.
“Rusty,” Adele cut in, “come over here and sing me something.”
Joey rolled his eyes. “I better go inside now so you two can have a moment by yourself.”
“Joey!” Adele protested. “I see you everyday, but Rusty only sometimes at school.”
“You’re going to be seeing him a lot more now, honey.”
He shook his head at me, playing the rejected fool. “I let the guy into my band and on the first rehearsal he steals my best girl.”
We understood our unpredictable friend’s need for attention. “Don’t encourage him,” I said for Adele’s benefit as she waved Joey off.
“Thanks, Joey. I’ll call you later,” Adele said.
I arrived at Adele’s window sill, looking through the thin screen that separated us. I glanced around her room and saw girl things: stuffed animals, a white ruffled canopy bed, a white desk with schoolbooks opened as if she had been doing homework. A picture of James Darren hung over her desk.
“Guy, Rusty! The band sounds better with you in it.” She glowed when she spoke. Her ivory teeth were shiny against her tanned skin. The theme song for Peyton Place echoed down the hall from her parent’s living room. “How do you guys do it? It’s amazing.”
“’Tis a gift, m’lady. Methinks it comes from the music,” I stretched out my arms, “for the music is the nectar of the gods and it makes us wild and happy.” My zeal from the excitement of my first rehearsal with the band had propelled me into a kind of fearless elation.
And just like that, I stopped emoting. A moment of tranquility fell over each of us and we simply stared at one another. Smiles rose on our lips. The spell was shattered when, from beyond her door, I heard her name called.
She turned and said loudly, “Be right there, mom!” She turned back, as if informing me of a secret code. “Okay, Rusty, every rehearsal you have to come to my window and sing me a song, okay?”
“It’s a deal. See ya.”
I walked across the street and turned to gaze back at the homes, their inside lights now gently glowing out into the evening.
As I got into bed that night, I knew instinctively I’d experienced something profound that was about to change my life. Joey possessed all the qualities of the brother I’d never had. I fell into sleep humming the song “Walk, Don’t Run.”
My mind swirled as I listened to Joey’s excitement over the phone. “Cryin’ in the Rain” by the Everly Brothers played softly in my room from radio station KRLA.
“We got the gig for the Car Club Association this weekend, daddy-o!” Joey was yelling over the phone. “It’s at the Taylor Ranch House this Saturday night, and Eddie Olmos can sing a few songs with us after he gets off work later. We’re going to kill ’em. Twenty-five bucks apiece.”
“And you’re goin’ to sing your balls off, Johnson. Ahooooo!” Joey wailed over the line. I cracked up, listening to Joey’s mother in the background objecting to her son’s language once again.
“Sorry, Ma. Gotta go, daddy-o. Later.” Joey hung up.
When I arrived at The Taylor Ranch House that Saturday night, we immediately got busy dragging in a small truckload of amplifiers, guitars, drums, and a Standell P.A. system. The Upset’s energy seemed to palpitate from each musician as if we were exploding prisms of light bouncing from wall to floor and back again. We began arranging the mountain of equipment with the same care and professionalism as an interior decorator might give a wealthy client. This domain for the next six hours would be our proving ground.
Joey hit a series of chords on his guitar, testing the reverb system. “How’s that sound, Winn?”
Winn was blowing the solo from the song “Night Train,” warming up the sound of his sax. The loud sound echoed and bounced through the room like ricocheting bullets.
“Cool. I dig it,” he yelled.
The hall began to fill up slowly. The energy buzzed on stage with wise-cracking one-liners and the calling out of songs to put on the first set song list.
“Whaddayathink, eight songs or nine for the first set?” Joey asked the group.
“Nine,” Hoops said.
“Cool. Yeah, you’re right. Nine, maybe even ten.”
As the leader of the band, Joey put his white jacket on. He buttoned it while making several corrections on the song list. Then he laid the list on the floor in front of him so he could see what song was next.
Some two hundred members of the Car Club Association of Montebello, Monterey Park, and Whittier with their dates had filed into the hall.
“Five minutes, girls,” Joey said. He strapped on his guitar as he repeatedly revised the song list. “Let’s start with ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ then do ‘Green Onions.’”
Each of us settled at our instruments, catching looks, nods, and waves from people we knew from school and around the city.
“Here we go!” Joey said. He turned back to me. “You wanna welcome everyone and introduce us?”
This last minute idea set wonderfully in my mind. I leaned into the microphone.
“Good evening, Car Club Association cats and chicks, and welcome!”
Several whistles and hollers erupted from the crowd.
“We’re Joey and the Upsets and we’re gonna start with a little ditty by The Ventures called ‘Walk, Don’t Run’!”
Joey counted out loud “1, 2, 3, 4” and the band exploded.
The audience quickly jumped to their feet and the hall was alive with the energy of its young.
My hands drummed with a rhythmic force I realized was driving the entire hall.
Joey’s biting guitar solo brought clapping from the crowd as he hot-dogged it with great zeal. Mike Hoops bent backwards while moving to the song and screamed. Ed Winn’s saxophone completed the band’s sound and helped to drive the crowd further into a musical frenzy. This outrageous display caused the band to laugh along with some of the surfers at the front of the crowd.
“‘Wipe Out’!” Joey shouted and the band blasted into the popular drummer’s song. The song built to a huge finish and the audience cheered. From the front of the crowd, Eddie Olmos suddenly leaped onto the stage.
“‘Walking the Dog’ in C!” he shouted.
Joey roared with laughter, “’Bout time you got here!” as the other members of the band screamed “Go, Eddie!”
Joey counted the song off as human electricity shot through the room. Eddie howled the beginning of the first verse—“BABY, BABY!”—as his body shook and he danced across the stage like a tiger in heat. Just before the first chorus kicked in and the tension built, Eddie flung himself into a twirling three hundred and sixty degree turn and shot down into a full set of splits, instantly causing the turned on audience to scream in excitement. He propelled himself up in perfect timing to land in front of the microphone and sing, “JUST A WALKIN’ THE DOG” as the Upsets all sang in harmony behind him. As Joey blasted his lead guitar solo in the song, Eddie danced over to me and we both bobbed and weaved with our heads together deliriously singing as we performed. Eddie ran to the front of the stage for the closing of the song, microphone in hand, and shouted, “Everyone sing with us!” The echo of four hundred young people singing shook the walls of the Taylor Ranch House and could be heard all the way down to the shopping mall halls of the Montebello Mart.
When the song ended, the audience exploded into wild hysteria.
I jumped from the drums and did a small drum solo on Eddie’s sweaty back. “Bitchin’, Olmos. You slayed ’em, cat!”
Joey said over the microphone, “Mr. Eddie ‘James Brown’ Olmos! We’re gonna take a break.”
We all walked down the stage steps. Joey and I beelined for the stage door so that we could catch a breath of fresh air and hopefully cool off after being on stage for over an hour. We relished the night air and the few moments we had together before we performed our next set. We were silent, but the silence was a self-congratulatory one. We both knew we had something so we didn’t even have to form the words to say it.
The stage door opened and Eddie Olmos walked over to us. We caught our breath looking at the full moon and the assortment of stars laid out for our enjoyment. Joey smiled while he stared into space thoughtfully. He broke the comfortable silence.
“The feeling up there on that stage is untouchable, you guys.”
“Trying to put a name on that feeling, Joey, would be impossible,” Eddie said. “When we’re inside the music—all together, all pumping—it’s like some kind of spiritual something. It’s other world stuff.”
“I’m hip,” Joey said. He lit a smoke and watched the rings float into the air while thinking this over. “Yeah,” he went on. “There’s an amazing moment when your eyes lock on someone staring at you from the audience. It’s like you’re breathing in this moment of connection, soul to soul.”
The dirt and stones of the parking lot crunched under our boots while we made our way back to the stage. An outside light for the parking lot cast a yellowish glow that gave us each a spiritual look. The Car Club Association danced to Joey and the Upsets while the local sheriff drove by every half hour just to check on things and remind the band that they had to stop at 1:00 a.m.
Would this road lead us to stardom? I hoped so. But no matter where this led, I was definitely along for the ride.
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This page contains the first chapter of Walk, Don't Run by Steven Jae Johnson as a sample. This sample has been published with permission from the author and/or publisher of Walk, Don't Run, whoever originally submitted the book for review.