Ninth grade is not the easiest time in the average boy’s life. I say this just in case there is any above-average boy out there for whom ninth grade was spectacular. Suddenly, everything goes on your permanent record and your transcript, your voice is cracking, your skin is erupting, your body’s doing whatever it wants and never in the right proportion. I literally remember at 13 years old saying to myself, “this life thing is getting hard, but it’s got to get easier”—sucker!
That being said, it was tolerable for me. I wasn’t the most popular, but I had friends; which is why I’ll never understand why I wanted to participate in the annual lip-syncing concert assembly at school. I didn’t have any particular talents I wanted to display (later to be illustrated). I don’t remember a yearning for the limelight. I didn’t have a message I wanted to share. I just signed up for it—I guess I thought it sounded fun.
Because I didn’t want to drag any of my equally awkward friends onstage with me (or maybe because they refused; I honestly don’t remember) I was on my own—a frightful predicament in ninth grade. Thinking through my favorites of the few solo artists from the 50s and 60s—the music phase I was going through at the time—I lit upon Jerry Lee Lewis and his hit, “Great Balls of Fire.” This was a great selection for a lip-sync concert: a song that would get the audience out of its seat and hopefully obscure the performer’s lack of whatever makes a great lip-sync performance.
The fact that I didn’t have a recording of “Great Balls of Fire” didn’t deter me because I knew someone who did: the radio station. I called to request the song and then sat down next to the radio with my tape recorder queued up: play, record, and pause buttons all at once. Three songs later I flexed my fingers. Six songs later I got up for a snack. About an hour and half after I requested the song (and about 20 minutes after I had forgotten about it), it started, without an intro. I was half-expecting my own voice making the request, but I would have settled for, “And now, from Jerry Lee Lewis, “Great Balls of Fire.” I missed the intro chords and ended up with a song that started “click, click , static, click . . . attle my brain.” Don’t ever trust a radio station to be efficient.
Undaunted, I decided I would queue the tape to where the song started, at “. . . attle my brain.” Then, in the concert, when the mistake blared over the auditorium speakers, I would give an appropriately indignant scowl in the direction of the sound technician, then I would good-spiritedly turn my attention to the task at hand—it would naturally be assumed that it was the sound guy’s fault for ruining my otherwise spotless lip-sync. Maybe he’d get punched in the shoulder.
The night before the concert, I prepared my costume. This is an appropriate time to reveal that I had never seen a picture of Jerry Lee Lewis, much less watched him perform. I had no knowledge of the explosion of unkempt, curly blond hair, the gaudy sport coats, the bright colors, or the chair-tipping, keyboard-pounding style. So I wore black shoes, black pants, a white shirt, a bow-tie made of construction paper, and I pinned up the front corners or my dad’s black suit coat inside it trying to turn it into a dinner jacket with tails. That no one else in my family had seen Jerry Lee perform goes without saying. Or, if they had, they didn’t like me enough to inform me of the colossal error I was making.
At the concert the next day, I stood off-stage next to Mr. Johnson, listening to his evaluation of this or that student’s “stage presence” while he operated the curtain. Boy, would I show him stage presence! I don’t think I felt as nervous as I should have.
My turn came, I walked out to the piano, gave my “tails” a little flick as I sat on the bench (praying the safety pins would hold), and waited for the middle of the first line to start. Evidently, the sound guy had dutifully rewound and queued up the tape at the beginning. So as the speakers reported “click, click , static, click . . . attle my brain” my indignant look toward the sound booth was not entirely pretended. I kept my head down and played like a concert pianist, maybe stiffer.
I don’t remember if anyone clapped. I vaguely remember people congratulating me later in the halls, more on doing the deed than on its merit. I distinctly remember a glowing review on the walk home from a girl who “liked” me, whose affection I didn’t reciprocate.
I wasn’t embarrassed at the time. I knew it didn’t bring down the house and I had a fuzzy sense that it was kind of dumb, but I didn’t run home crying. The embarrassment came over the years, mostly when I first saw a clip of Jerry Lee perform. I think part of it is my chagrin at what a great show I could have put on. If only I had the chance to do it all again.