I learned about sex in a laundromat. The setting wasn’t my idea. It was my mother’s, who had brought me along on washday to break the news. I was eight and my first thought was, “Big deal. I’d rather play with the Hot Wheels.”
Ronny Miller, on the other hand, was the first kid in school to latch onto sex. While the rest of us got our thrills in saying an occasional “shit” or “asshole,” Ronny was well onto “fuck,” “cunt” and “pussy.” He would drop straight-faced lines like “Would you ask Ann to let me borrow her cunt” and we would ask, not knowing, and she would answer, not knowing, “I don’t have one.” And Ronny would double up in hysterics.
But then Ronny Miller always did carry himself like he knew The Big Secret. One hot afternoon a couple of us accepted an invitation to go swimming over at the Miller house. It had the only pool in the neighborhood. Once inside his room, while we were changing into our swimsuits, Ronny finally unveiled his treasure. “Wanna see something?” he boasted.
“What?” I asked.
“What kind of pictures?”
Relishing the ritual, Ronny smoothly pulled out a well-thumbed cache of pulp sheets, thinly disguised as marriage manuals. He flipped me a copy of Sexual Customs through the Ages by Somebody, Ph.D.
I immediately realized that the sex act was like nothing I had imagined. Somehow I had assumed it was a kind of medical transaction – like getting your tonsils checked – that took place in the bathroom or a doctor’s office. But this was something totally different. It looked extremely uncomfortable. It looked . . . boring. My reaction was not unlike the other three guys in the room. “Big deal. Let’s go swimming.”
By fifth grade, things had become more interesting. Through eavesdropping on my older sister, Cindy, I was clued in to the wide world of Making Out. When she and her girlfriends locked themselves in her room to listen to Gary Lewis records and gossip about the kissing merits of their dates, I was right there listening at the door. They would chat in shrill tones for hours, belittling everyone from Billy Ragatz – the hot rodder down the street – to basketball star Dave Anderson with fantastically juicy stories of clumsy groping. (“… So he leans over and kisses me, right? With his rubbery fish lips, right? I almost had a cow. But what could I do? So he finishes, right? And he has the corn-ball stupidity to say, ‘Did you feel it too?’ I almost said ‘What? Your fish lips? …'”)
This was more like it. All of a sudden, sex was no longer weird pictures under Ronny Miller’s bed. It was intrigue. They only caught me eavesdropping once. Cindy opened the door unexpectedly and I fell inside. After that, I stuck with listening in on the extension phone.
There was one guy who my sister and her friends never ran down. Big Jim Randall, the Indio High School Rajahs’ star halfback, “a real bitchin’ fox.” Scheming on Randall was mysteriously futile, though. Sure, he returned their awe-struck glances in the hallways but he never dated any of the girls. Some rumors had him just being too shy. Others had him secretly married to a 35-year-old woman in L.A. No question; Big Jim Randall was an enigma.
I answered the phone the afternoon he called my sister.
“Hullo. Can I talk to Cindy?” The voice was low, almost hollow.
“It’s Jim Randall.”
I immediately realized the Major Historical Importance of this call. Not telling her who it was, I called Cindy to the phone. She picked up the receiver in the next room.
“Okay, I got it. Hang up, Cameron.” There was no way I wasn’t staying on the line for this. I made a clicking noise with my tongue. It worked.
“Hi Jim.” Her nonchalance was amazing. “What’s going on?”
“Well, I was trying to find you at lunch yesterday. You weren’t around.”
“I was in detention with Mr. Copeland.”
“Oh … no wonder.” His thoughts seemed to take an extremely long time to crystallize. “Wow.”
“I’m sorry I missed you,” Cindy helped.
“Me, too … listen, I just wanted to know if you felt like going to the Sun-Air tonight.”
Asking a girl to the Sun-Air Drive-In on a Saturday night was about as overt as euphemisms for Making Out got. Cindy balked.
“Gee, Jim, I don’t know. I don’t think my parents will let me.”
Silence. “That’s a drag. Why don’t you tell ’em you’re going someplace else. Like the library or something.”
“Well … o-kay.”
“And I’ll pick you up there around seven.”
“Okay . . .”
Being an unusually bratty younger brother, I discreetly hung up and ran into the living room to let my parents in on the scenario. When Cindy came in to tell them about her library plans for the evening, they responded by grounding her for two months. About a year after that my sister finally spoke to me again.
My mother also devised a method for cutting down on Cindy’s future make-out activity. She would wait up for her to return home from a date, then closely inspect the lips and declare, “You’ve been kissing.” This invariably ended in Cindy shrieking, “Leave me alone, you can’t tell anything,” and storming into her room, where she studied her own lips in amazement. “How can she tell???” To this day, my mother still won’t admit to the bluff. “I can tell,” she says.
For years, kissing was a complete mystery to me. First of all, wouldn’t the two noses get in the way? Second, what’s all this about using your tongue? Not until my seventh grade graduation party did I finally figure out the procedure. Deciding it was as good a chance as any to learn, I joined in on the customary kissing game, Spin the Bottle. When it came Sally Brown’s turn to spin, I prayed that the bottle would stop in front of me. What better recipient of my first serious smooch than the girl I’d had a crush on for the entire school year. Seconds later, staring down the nozzle of a 7-Up bottle, the sudden realization struck me. I had no idea how to kiss. And I was about to make a fool in front of not only everybody else but the girl of my dreams. I would have given anybody anything to be anyplace else.
As it turns out, my first real kiss wasn’t such a terrible flop. A bit awkward, yes, but not a disaster. I had made it through on instinct. And I thought she may even have liked it. I made up my mind to call her the next day and ask her to the movies. This was it. The Big L.
The next day:
“Brown household, Sally speaking.”
“Hi, Sally …”
“Hi! I was just sitting here waiting for you to call.”
“You know who this is?”
This was too incredible. “I just thought I’d call and say ‘hi,’ see what you’re gonna do this summer.”
“Hold it,” Sally cut in. “Who is this?”
“Oh. Wow. I’m sorry. I thought you were somebody else. I thought you were my boyfriend there for a second.”
“I thought you were Ronny.”
Somehow I knew what she was going to say. “Yeah, Ronny Miller. You know him?”
Our family moved out of Indio the next year and I began going to an all-boys Catholic high school in Riverside, California. Every other Friday night there were mixer dances in the gym with the neighboring all-girls school. The boys would first collect on the football field to sneak a few beers and wait until 9:30, when it was fashionably late enough to enter. The idea, of course, was that you weren’t supposed to look too eager. You weren’t supposed to act like you were aching to get inside that small gym with 300 girls who hadn’t seen boys in two weeks.
After we were all inside and the live band swung into the first of their usual five “Proud Mary”s a night, the proceedings were always the same. Everyone paired off and climbed into the bleachers for a couple quick hours of teen lust. The real secret, though, was to climb under the bleachers, prudently. It was the only way to avoid, at the height of second-base passion, squinting into a chaperone’s flashlight.
Transferring to a coed Catholic high school in San Diego for ninth grade, I soon discovered that just being a warm male body wasn’t enough anymore. This was a city whose youth were still locked into a beach-blanket time warp: You had to be a surfer. Faced with the depressing realities that I didn’t have blond hair and couldn’t tan anyway, I had to find my niche. I began writing for the school newspaper. Twenty articles and several months later, I realized nobody read the school newspaper. So much for that.
I took my work to a staff meeting of a local underground paper, The San Diego Door, and was given a post in their music department. My first assignment was to go backstage and interview a fairly well-known San Francisco group that was opening for Fleetwood Mac that Friday night.
I decided to casually ask Karen Wilson, unquestionably the most sought-after girl in school, if she wanted to come along. She agreed. This was an ingenious power play of sexual politicizing. One date with Karen Wilson would prove that being a hodad wasn’t the only way to succeed with San Diego girls.
We showed up backstage shortly after the group’s set and their road manager took us to the dressing room, where the band was surrounded by friends and hangers-on. I set up my tape recorder and started asking questions. A few minutes into the interview, a rugged looking blond roadie in his mid-twenties walked into the room and began herding the extraneous people outside. “C’mon, let’s go, the boys are trying to do an interview.” He approached Karen. Their eyes met. “You don’t have a sticker,” he said. “Come with me and I’ll get you the right pass.” I didn’t see Karen Wilson until Spanish class the following Monday morning. I played it cool, nonetheless. “What did you think of the rest of the concert?”
She giggled. “I didn’t see the rest of the concert.”
But I never worried about being branded a loser, for the assumption was that anybody even remotely connected with rock & roll enjoyed the sordid attentions of a world of mascara-smeared groupies. As I got more and more into rock journalism, even my parents sat me down for lectures. “Cameron, we don’t expect you to ignore normal desires. Just please be careful about getting any … diseases.” It was difficult to explain to them that, on a groupie’s priority scale, an interviewer of third-bill acts for an underground paper had to be somewhere between gospel singers and Sunday morning disc jockeys.
My first real confrontation came at 15. I was on the road with Lee Michaels for a few days and one night after a show I found myself in a hotel room with Lee, his drummer and about ten Seattle regulars. Everyone was quietly staring at The Midnight Special, no one saying much. After a while I turned to say something to Lee. He wasn’t there. Neither was his drummer. I turned back to the television set; Steely Dan was playing “Do It Again.” One of the girls leaned forward and shut the set off. “Wanna get seduced?” she asked, probably out of boredom. I laughed nervously. “I think I wanna watch Steely Dan.” Trudging back to my room, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had blown an opportunity that might take some time in presenting itself again. Ah well.
Not long after that, I was in L.A. to interview Rick Wakeman, then of Yes. Photographer Neal Preston, my best friend, and I were playing pool in the Beverly Hilton bar and waiting for Rick to join us. I was leaning down for a shot.
“Oh, I forgot.” Neal snapped his fingers. “Remember Josie Wade?”
“Sure.” Josie Wade was the attractive divorcee mother of a girl we both knew.
“She likes you. She wants you to call her up.” Neal pressed her scribbled phone number into my pocket.
“C’mon.” I was doing my best at pretending to concentrate on my pool game. “Willya let me play?”
“Don’t believe me then,” Neal shrugged. “You really should give her a call, though.” He laughed and fished out of his bag a promotional picture of Keith Reid holding a silver platter. “Josie’s right there for you, on a silver platter. Just like Keith Reid.”
I lost the game as quickly as possible. “You’d tell me anything to win,” I grumbled. “Gimme a dime, I gotta use the bathroom.” I left the bar and looked for the nearest pay phone.