Klaatu (L-R: John Woloschuk, Terry Draper & Dee Long), 1979
Jukebox of Regrets
by Van Halen Kurtz
This is the band that kept me alive during the bleakest moments of my life.
...Nothing quite accompanies the instigation of a truly prodigious error as does the sense of absolute righteousness when embarking, blunderingly, upon it. That uncanny, undeniable trajectory of wrongness is almost always mated with the impulsive imperviousness of feeling exquisitely correct. And that is the impelling force which seduces a person into making a terrible move, such as spoiling a life, with such unredeemable vigor, with such unmitigated passion. Then, only then, the years trickle by in a blind race, an insensate free fall, and one day, a person may sense a glaring barrenness, an acute insolvency, a receipt due for all the telephone calls that failed to harmonize.
Rewind to the summer of 1976. Bicentennial coins, Bud man, Frampton Comes Alive, bong hits. I turned 16. I "got back together" with my girlfriend from the previous summer, Katie, who, was a year younger and wore Abba clogs. She attempted to surrender her virginity to me for my "birthday present" but, as fate and biology decreed, an evening's worth of mutual fumbling about produced only inert embarrassment for us both. Perhaps me, a bit more saliently, since in those days it was, to all appearances, all about male agency. Not that my pride of masculinity sustained much injury in such a tentative interaction; like many boys of that generation and demographic, I had precious little evincible masculinity to begin with, thus to injure. Looking back on that period of time, and what seemed common enough task avoidance amongst my peers, I would conclude one of the more pronounced effects that made the use of marijuana so habitually comforting, was its influence in diminishing the sex drive in general. Certainly, it was less taxing, less stressful, listening to Dark Side of the Moon in pillowed halos of opiated bliss than, say, mowing lawns or deep-frying fries to support the far more onerous habit of car ownership, the acquisition of which acquiring girls was presumably predicated upon. Girls, me and my comrades rather subconsciously suspected with a deep unease, emblemized and embodied the gateway plunge to the scariest experience known on earth: adulthood.
So, Katie's invitation, her proffered gift, however momentarily vivifying, and its subsequent abeyance, was soon enough ameliorated by less visceral, but wholly more tangible, pleasures. In my case, it was the discovery of a compelling album called Klaatu. The second I heard side one playing in the local head shop, I knew I had found my Beatle fix to beat the methadone drip I desperately had nourished upon with the thin elixir of Natural Gas. Calling occupants indeed.
Not that Katie didn't do her damnest to be the best possible suburban girlfriend, as if either of us had any idea what that personality aggregate entailed. But, certainly, dutifully, she sat on my bed smoking Virginia Slims and nodded her shag hairdo appreciatively, if not a bit stiffly, to the prefabricated warblings of Klaatu's tale of Alfred Beach's wind machine, replete with Hofner bass, tack piano, second-call strings and morse code. If Katie had a problem, it wasn't necessarily her Abba clogs or her shag hairdo, or the bare-faced fact she had been intemperately attracted to me, chasing after me, always on the phone, always at the door, for the last two years, without receiving much of anything other than the most cursory encouragement from me; her problem was me, only me, not appreciating her. Katie, simply and lamentably, wasn't Cindy -- and Cindy was the apple of my eye, the dream girl with the sun-kissed blonde locks and utopian lips, who had me, however unintentionally, under an unearthly, Endymionian spell for the same last two years. Cindy was the girl I idolized, enraptured, when listening to the Beatles; she was the "Dear Prudence," the elusive inhabitant of my unutterable considerations and my most unobtainable fantasies. She was the finger upon which to place the ring, in another time and another land. Katie was just the girl who actually chose me, chose to sit upon my bed, summer after summer, dutifully attempting to conjure forth my affections, however enshrouded in a fog of pot hebetude, poetic velleities and corresponding enervations. If this metaphor isn't obvious enough, allow me to amplify. Katie was Klaatu.
It started all so unassumingly. Someone I knew, not very well, knew, not very well, some girl in the neighborhood. It was the ‘70's so we were probably high on a joint, and maybe a warm beer, not much more, and it was raining in the summertime, and she giggled when I said something temporaneously "clever," something evanescently "Lennonesque." It was as effortless as the piano chords warming up "For You Girl" -- a serendipitous déjà vu steeped in illimitable listenings to Pink Floyd's "Summer '68" and, being exceedingly charitable here, the Beach Boys' "Surf's Up" -- and, soon enough, it was our first date, a movie at the mall (she wore a dress; I combed my hair), and, in between little happy splashes of rain (again), a little kiss at her door. Her first. It was 1974, or something. I don't remember the details all that closely. I don't even have any idea what color eyes Katie had. All I really can put in place is she was dove-shaped, and determined.
I was always breaking it off. There were forever new distractions and ever stronger dreams. I was probably the only kid in all of St. Louis county who bought Wish You Were Here the week it came out; the Badfinger one. Or, without a doubt or embarrassment, the only kid in all of St. Louis county learning the guitar solo to Yoko Ono's "Woman Power." Which is to admit I continued my orbit around the Beatle supernova with the tenacity of supernal gravity, and devotion. And as stubborn as nocturnal moths, so was Katie regarding her inexplicable desire for me, whoever I was in her unrecognized eyes. I would deliver the undesired news, she would acknowledge it with a tremble and a pout, and she would proceed to wait it out, in her wicker furniture bedroom with 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" playing on the radio, in high school corridors where her resilient little heart picked up tempo whenever a certain long-haired boy with John Lennon spectacles walked by, carrying an Epiphone copy of a Fender Telecaster. And, sure as clouds blossom with moisture after a spell, he would concede with a grimace and a blush the "Dear Prudence" remained as inexorably out of reach as a cloud, and so would jot out a quick poem on yellow legal and hand it to the one girl in the school who could, and did, treasure such a gesture. The wife is patient, the wife is understanding, even if she is only 14 years old and has no idea in her head why any of these human algorithms of courtship concordats seem so vitally paramount at that age.
Now, how does it happen so rapidly, it is the summer of 1977. I have already begun to make some of the mistakes in life that would color my life, irredeemably, as a mistaken one. Unfinished so early as it were, and it was. How does it happen so rapidly? So casually. Broken home, Dolby sound, an easy accessibility of recreational drugs, and the recreational time that seemed, at the time, so unquantified, so infinite. A puff of smoke, a needle drop, and life unrolled in tidy little 20-minute increments. "We're Off You Know." Like dandelion seeds airborne in parking lots. By the time Klaatu's second album, Hope, was released, they were getting promoted as the "mystery Beatles" by a record label too foolish, or short-sighted, to remember, or care, how Rolling Stone received the (career-terminating) band-identity hoax perpetrated by Terry Knight (Faith indeed) a few years prior, and, even more fatally, the Carpenters, of all possible acts, were preparing their version, which charted (solely on programming momentum), of "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," just the sort of association a celestial prog concept album band needs right at the moment the disco barbarians, now amalgamated as cellophane Lord Byrons, rushed the corroding gates of the Me Decade. And me? Having graduated only in poetry-penning and, more ostensibly (if not alarmingly), LSD consumption by the age of 18, I was, after as many years of indifferent pampering, shown the door with the firm suggestion that perhaps joining the "peacetime" military would solve "all family matters" in one lazy, albeit definite, stroke of the pen.
It was exactly at this moment (don't blink) that Klaatu could have saved themselves. They didn't, or perhaps they couldn't. The constant refrain of their subsequent interviews was, essentially, they did not want to play the media game (man), they wanted the music to do the speaking. As leader John Woloschuk told Future Life mag, "You tend to listen to someone more if you don't imagine them in disco outfits and frizzy hair." Quite a ridiculous notion, granted. Having subsequently made a few recordings myself, I cannot fathom anyone being able to resist the altogether natural human urge to sign one's work, to want to receive credit for a completed artistic accomplishment. And Hope, whatever its miscellaneous failings, is an accomplishment, and, considering its various allegiances to pop pomp, most especially "Bohemian Rhapsody," was discernibly Klaatu enough to debunk the unholy charges soon facing the band. Yes, fair weather friends and countrymen, the Beatles are permitted the luxury of a good hoaxing, but not mortals, not sub-Olympians, not Canadians so uncharismatic-looking they were dissuaded from releasing any bio photos until the firing squad requested the requisite paperwork. And what sort of buffoon would actually (dis)believe their ears upon receipt of "The Loneliest of Creatures"? If Jeff Lynne could be said to have mined a hit run by making John Lennon sing Paul McCartney songs, then what of John Woloschuk missing it by miles in his determination to have Paul McCartney sing John Lennon songs? It's not hard to fathom -- McCartney songs have the emotional catharsis people want on their car dashboards, on their prom dance floors, and in their high school secrets.
Most people, anyway. Beer drinkers listened to songs about screwing and stoners listened to Yes solo albums. Then, there were girls, who had America, Fleetwood Mac and a million love songs that I cannot possibly document this moment because I most likely snapped them all off the radio within the first two beats of their melodramatic intros. I certainly don't remember too many dudes getting horny to, or mushy over, the Alan Parsons Project. The point I presume. And I had Hope, which I considered even more existentially significant than maybe Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Works Volume One. But none of those superficial trivialities deterred Katie, who had since traded in her Abba clogs for something less conspicuous, less memorable, but, assuredly, more rational, far more fleet.
Before I went into the Navy (the other, more manly, branches rejecting me for flat feet), she returned to me. I don't remember the sequence of events, all I recollect with clear accuracy is now she had a car (a possession and activity that had not occupied my adolescent energies, such as they were, any more than sexual relations), and a rebounded enthusiasm for furthering our intermittent affiliation. She had changed in one particularly signal way, and that was her previously oppilating virginity had been dispatched by more experienced ministrations than I had been able, or willing (it might be considered), to provide the summer prior. But her hormones were anything but quelled or assuaged; seemingly, this specimen of female instrumentality was put on the planet earth for the sole, quintessential, unalterable purpose of mating with me, for reasons that remain to me forever locked, ineffably recondite. Maybe it all was a lot more basic than what my imagination craved, maybe it was nothing more complicated or cosmic (I word I still employed in those days) than some tendentious chick running down her options to get out of her parent's house as alacritously and effacaciously as possible. And, seeing how I had already been awarded my shipping papers (even in advance of actually earning them, per completion of job training, yet to come) which were, unbelievably and rare enough, base duty in Italy, hitting the lottery basically, Katie might well have calculated a brisk little military wedding under duress of a brisk little pre-shipping-out nookie, unprotected as everything else in my tender existence had been at that point in life, was halfway decent strategy, and not-bad odds.
It says a lot about the era, and my generation that, had I been the one behind the wheel and had Katie been the one bombed out on blotter in the passenger seat, as we sped off to the "cool special green by the pond," what transpired out there that obfuscated August evening might have been quite credibly classified as chemical date rape -- but, since the she was driving and the he was tripping, it was nothing more than a good time, alright. So I got lucky, and I even remember almost 5 seconds of the whole occurrence. It was Katie whispering, "you make love like a poet," and, including secret wishes consummated in dreams, it remains, more than half a century on, the single sweetest utterance I have ever heard.
The author, "President of the Creative Writing Club," HS yearbook 1976.
Not that I appreciated it much come daybreak sobriety, over a glazed doughnut on the side of the highway, struggling down a queasy anoetic apprehension, and a malevolently corroborating stomach ache, that adulthood had perhaps eventually got me into its lock. The initial thrill of matedness didn't last much longer than a multi-colored tablet or a double concept album. With the second hand on the meter running out at double-time, I swerved before the final turnstile. A week or two later, I broke it off with Katie (again; how many times around by then?), who took the announcement quietly and stoically, as if not altogether surprised or even especially nonplussed, and, minutes to go before I would get placed on that big jet airliner, mixed drinks provided gratis by the U.S. government, I sped off to the front door porch of Cindy's parent's home and declared, theatrically and conclusively, my perpetually reanimating love for and to her, the "Dear Prudence" who had seized my unquenchably besotted heart all those years ago, in 7th grade, when everything in the universe, or at least the schoolyard playground, was still prismatic and pure. She wished me well "overseas," with certifiable decorum and not just a little celerity. I got to boot camp hallucinating on my last tab of purple sunshine; it was the day Elvis died and I couldn't shake the thought that wasn't probably the most optimistic of presagements.
Meanwhile, back in the home town, the U.S. government was working my file. My career choice was "Radioman," the morse code transmitters of naval communications, and, in order to perform this putatively sensitive function, the (peace time, cold war) formality of an official security clearance was required, and, indeed, uniformed agents of national security were sent into the field to dispatch my character suitability for the task of being entrusted with the relaying of secrets, top or otherwise. After receiving confirmation from my parents that I was not a communist or some such, they looked a little further into the some such with, as everyone knew, my "high school girlfriend," who was conveniently located in the same neighborhood and just as conveniently willing to provide a few personal details about me. Such as my prodigious intake of hallucinogenic drugs. Emphasis on prodigious. Perhaps less emphasis on my brazen knavery in dumping the dear lass a mere two weeks after having my "way" with her. And that, clean as a whistle, was that -- I was decommissioned. Screwed. Quite a ridiculous notion, granted. But, shortly after, there I stood at painfully tart attention in front of my commanding officer's battleship of a desk, hearing him inform me that my classification had been revoked, my stationing had been reassigned, and that I, meaning the remainder of my very long enlistment in the service (almost a decade's worth of military obligations) had been redesignated. To the Philippines, the ghetto of the South Pacific, to serve on an oiler (the fleet's mobile gas station), with a mop bucket and a sheet of sandpaper as the engines of my newly appointed profession. Although the technical title of bosun's mate (recruit) might carry with it a certain dash of 18th century nautical panache, by all account, in the 20th century, it was the lowest possible gig on the high seas. And, as I was the softest, dreamiest, most poetic boy imaginable in such rough quarters and company, it wasn't long before I received my particularly individualized classification and appellation: the ship's bitch.
Elsewhere, under ostensibly fairer, if not equally uncertain skies, Klaatu had become aware of the unambiguous, clinical facts and figures pertaining to their future, and ambitions. Hope tanked, and their intrepidity in hiring the London Symphony Orchestra for the basic tracks had now produced the dreaded opposite of a hit, which was a monstrous debt to their employer and landlord, Capitol Records, which (as anyone recalling the earlier Bloodrock saga [which I recounted for PSF a decade ago]) is hardly known for sustained altruistic aesthetic sponsorship. The "mystery Beatle" gimmick quickly enough degenerated into the woefully predictable debacle of market backlash, with Rolling Stone in their familiar spokesperson role, hotly screaming for a proper bloodletting. Under these less than edifying and innervating circumstances, our erstwhile heroes Messrs Woloschuk, Long & Draper prepared their third album, Sir Army Suit, the title of which I humbly submit succinctly predicates their chosen approach to the "direction" conundrum upon they were now charged. Instead of branching further into the modernish proggish muse evinced upon sections of Hope, the parts that resembled, say, Supertramp's Even In The Quietest Moments... (itself a successful enough commodity in those decomposing days of prog credibility), Klaatu took a step backward to their first LP, which had (after all) been their money-maker (but only due to the hype, lads), and, in a career decision that would, from that moment on, determine the viability and continuance of their professional existence, they pushed the Beatle button, even deeper. It hardly seems believable now, but it is as true as the "malaise" which slowly spread out across America in those insecure empty days and frivolous boogie nights, Klaatu, and no one else (not even Todd Rundren on designer damage), wrote and recorded a song that sounds just as apoplectically inane as anyone would easily deduce from a glance at its misbegotten title: "Mister Manson."
I don't know how the obscure little cassette made its tenuous trajectory from stateside cutout rack to the South Pacific PX where I spied it incredulously amongst copies of Natural High and Supernature, except maybe Sir Army Suit sounds sort of patriotic, but dork that I was, I loved the damned album. Even if Klaatu reminded me, with an occult tactility, of Katie, who had not just a little something to do with my standing at that particular PX counter at that particular moment in time, and pronouncedly delighted precious little else in my misrouted life other than a quavering SOS from another miscalculated sentience, time and fate. All of which was unfortunate, I believe. A man such as me, then still a silly boy, in such dire conditions, longs to harbor hope, and needs to feed his heart. The promise of something that is another. There I was, spinning Klaatu's sappy Top 40-wannabe "Cherie" repeatedly in the west of hours (as I forwent what parsimonious few hours of sleep the Navy bestowed, staying up after lights out, every other day for an entire year, just to pursue my most tenacious poetic inclinations) and pining for a vivifying, befitting face to accompany such lovelorn couplets as "You're the highlight of my invention, tell me whether I sink or swim," and, seeing how my "Dear [but definitely departed] Prudence" had no use for an unremediated chump such as I, had it not been for the exasperating fact that it was Katie who so exertionlessly caused me such major perditions (as if I exercised no culpability in such absurd events), I would have most likely dreamed and poemed about, to and for her every moment of my hideous 1978, my calamitously premature adulthood, now so sourly underway. After all, it was she who permeated and possessed the ultimate contiguity of another person's providence. Mine. And I was, without a doubt, the loneliest creature in the universe. Which was, it seems entirely plausible, if not altogether likely, Katie would have concurred, was just what I deserved. While I evaded the act of impregnating her, I did not evade the contact making my karma (as the term was unironically invoked back then) conceivable. If Katie and I "had a relationship," and it would be disingenuous to deny, it was, and within only a few dozen months, already as intricately bedeviled, as ambivalently labyrinthian as the one I shared with my parents. Not family exactly, Katie nevertheless inhabited a similarly quid dative consanguinity.
It should go without saying, or much ado, that Sir Army Suit, a far more economical production than Hope, sank like a stone without so much as a ripple. Rolling Stone gave it, and the band, the fatal heave-ho. Which would have been a manly, and swift enough, vanquishment, had it not been for the remaining balance of Klaatu's record contract. Meanwhile, I became increasingly and deeply confronted by my own problems which were reaching such a critical impasse that the quotidian application of my midnight headphones eventually failed to ameliorate my anxieties. The first crude threats to my life were issued, individually and conspiratorially, by tattooed recruits, youthful roughs, but, alas, by soon following, they were more frequently, and presumably more puissantly, declared by considerably older, more sinister, men, even a few with quite a few ranking stripes emblazoned upon their arms. In short, I was informed that, upon completion of shore leave in the States, and upon crossing the historically and geographically portentous equatorial line, where the prying eyes and banal moralities of Jimmy Carter's ephemeral and effete law of land were rendered laughably inutile under dire cover of silence and darkness, I would be unceremoniously deposited into the deep without so much as a dozen bubbles' worth of evidence remaining. An hours' worth of mimeographed paperwork, followed by a form telegram would legally suffice to conclude the tale.
So I watched, waited, then late one night took a breath, and walked off the ship, ostensibly to enjoy the pleasures of the San Francisco harbor for twelve hours' worth of remaining shore leave, and disappeared from sight -- for decades. That decision, that act, that exigency would pervade the rest of my life. I never drove a car, for example; I always knew it would be through the DMV that I would most likely have been apprehended. I moved frequently from town to town, living in many different regions of the country; as my mother attested periodically over the years, the military sent agents out into the field, following a trail of most recent known addresses, to catch and arrest me. All of my various ensuing literary and music endeavors would be published under a variety of pseudonyms -- and so forth, not to mention times, such as IRS filings and job applications, I experienced, and lived with, the deliriums of acute fear. For an entire subsequent adulthood. It is uncanny to consider the influence one hasty move made under the emotional toil of youthful duress wrought upon all the rest of days. Katie's move, and mine.
Perhaps that is why I have always so keenly felt a narrative kinship with rock bands, particularly those comprised of young men barely out of high school, whose entire careers and identities become determined by a few testosterone, marijuana-inflected flash judgments -- which song to follow up the first single, what tempo to use, what stomp box to plug in; here today and gone later today, don't look back, just ask The Knack.
And so, returning to Mssrs Woloschuk, Long & Draper, their decision to squeeze out more Beatle plasma for Sir Army Suit just at the minute The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton finally broke the heart on the "greatest romance of the 20th century" was beyond the grave. And what a shame perhaps, too, for listening to Woloschuk's Bbm6 to F6 twist at the end of "A Routine Day," with its capping line referencing Greek mythology, it is plausible such a pretentious songwriter might have flourished, in a Billy Joel sort of key, given appropriate guidance and encouragement. Then there's the intransigence in which Klaatu retained their anonymity once the hype hoax began to implode. Or the complicity. Why else would Capitol have permitted a band the unprecedentedly singular liberty to forgo press and touring unless the whole she-bang was a prefabricated con? So, come 1980, our lads found themselves in the hideously undignified situation of being Monkeed in L.A., as Hall & Oates' producer Chris Bond assembled a quickie ("rockin'") Klaatu LP, primarily performed by the Section/Toto/Tom Scott axis and, sadistically, with which Klaatu was supposed to tour, before the A&R department decided to cashier the whole deal a couple of weeks following release. Wish you were here. The piteous product was entitled Endangered Species, and contained the dehydrated new wave clone "Sell Out, Sell Out" as if such subtle gestures constituted droll or "edgy" in the day and age of "Radio Radio." I most humbly submit their unpleasant end is satisfactorily explained. Losing me, there was no one in the universe left.
There was actually another, a fifth, Klaatu album, Magentalane, which came out in '81, but it was released only in Canada, and given a quickie tour up North, none of which galvanized palpable public acclaim. Then they vaporized. Year of the cat. Woloshuck initiated a career in accounting, and stayed put. Myself, I never even knew of the LP, but by that time I was already listening to the likes of Jad Fair, when I wasn't promulgating my own sonic tantrums. And, Katie? I do remember seeing her once, a brief surprise glimpse in a neighborhood tavern, right around the time my first record came out, and, as she did not notice me in my Goodwill Foster Grants, I at first welcomed what I perceived to be my anonymity. Then it occurred to me, seeing her, femininity strained with pink shoulder pads, slurping beer with some Izod mannequin, nodding their moussed locks in time to a Duran Duran MTV and making with the astrological chat, that it was she who was anonymous. A customer in an interminable line. And, as time unwound, that seemingly was so. I heard it told decades after, she worked as a telephone operator, stayed in St. Louis a lifetime, never married, and gained a lot of weight. Not much else. Waiting on the pier 'til Charon comes; her, not me. I had married the publisher of Noisy Paper, recorded the Philosophic Collage EP, opened for Jad Fair, played Yoko Ono covers at CBGB's, made beautiful little girls, proxied for Terry Knight on Dutch public TV, changed my gender (and back again), wrote for PSF ten years (and counting) and settled on a hippie commune. I had to smile a little as I recognized that it was the combination of my military misfortune and its ensuing need for an underground existence I had apprenticed the very bohemian life I idolized as a teen but probably never would have pursued had more conventional seductions availed me, so Katie's disequilibriate role in forming my narrative found its idiosyncratic honor, while she had, for her vigor and passion, engendered only a future full of routine days, a history of missed opportunities and, perhaps, a jukebox full of regrets.
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