Indie rock raconteur Chris Campion-one of the few patients ever to escape from Bellevue's locked ward-recalls his band's tumultuous ride, his plummet into addiction, and the strange road back to sobriety
Chronicling more than twenty years in the life of a Long Island kid who became a hardcore fixture of Manhattan's indie rock scene, Escape from Bellevue is a coming-of-age tale like no other. As the lead singer of New York-based indie rock band Knockout Drops, Campion got a taste of fame (but, alas, no fortune) on a wild ride that lasted from the early 1980s through the 1990s.
Escape from Bellevue puts the spotlight on the collective psychosis of twenty years spent in a rolling bacchanal. Just as the Knockout Drops reached the height of their success, Campion began his downward spiral. After finally coming to grips with his addictions, Campion molded his songs and stories into a sold-out off-Broadway musical. Now, presenting these tales in a memoir of madness and redemption, Campion once again proves to possess the creative genius of a die-hard front man.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Table of Contents
Chapter One - Livers with Feet
Chapter Two - Vicious Freaks
Chapter Three - Not a Rebel
Chapter Four - Meet the Drops
Chapter Five - Vanillanova
Chapter Six - Unemployable
Chapter Seven - “Christened by a Crackhead”
Chapter Eight - Relationships and Rodeo Clowns
Chapter Nine - Maverick Records Doesn’tLike Beer Bellies
Chapter Ten - Always a Bridesmaid
Chapter Eleven - “I Call Him Dribbly”
Chapter Twelve - Freeze Dried and Born Again(in the Bar)
Chapter Thirteen - The Sleepkins Diet
Chapter Fourteen - Escape from Bellevue
Chapter Fifteen - The Triangle Trade of Misery
Chapter Sixteen - “Blackout, Baby”
About the Author
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Campion, Christopher John.
Excape from Bellevue : a dive bar odyssey / by Christopher John Campion.
eISBN : 978-1-101-02453-9
1. Campion, Christopher John. 2. Singers—New York (State)—New York—Biography.
3. Alcoholics—New York (State)—New York—Biography. 4. Dramatists, American—Biography.
5. Nightlife—New York (State)—New York. 6. New York (N.Y.)—Biography. I.Title.
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This book is dedicated to
Mom, Dad, Bobby, Kevin, Donna, Eileen, and Billy,
whose faith, love, humor, and music
have shaped my life.
We are the Campions,
A Note to the Reader
Though the events that take place in this book are real and lifted directly from my life, I’ve had to, in certain cases, change the names of people and places or create fictional or composite characters to supplant real ones in order to protect the anonymity of the innocent and not so innocent (namely my felonious friends). Also, I’m reporting on a very foggy time in my life so if I got anything wrong by way of time lines and facts, I apologize.What you need to know is that I was in Bellevue three times, the second of these incarcerations I escaped, and I have thankfully emerged from it all with enough of my marbles intact to tell you this story. Of this I’ll swear on a stack of Stones records. In this current climate of “memoir witch hunts,” I think it’s important to say that. In other words, I’m asking you to read this book, have a good time, and don’t bust my balls....
“The only people for me are the mad ones. The ones who are mad to love, mad to talk, mad to be saved; the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
Standing in the wings, I could hear the crowd getting louder and louder and some drunken leather lung yelling out, “C’mon, Drops, get out here!” Then above the noise they began singing, “You’re a dropout . . .”—the chorus to one of our staple tunes, “The Dropout Song.”
The scene was the Paradise Rock Club in Boston and it was the fall of 1992. The Knockout Drops were playing behind our very first EP, The Burning Bush Chronicles, and on the bill with us was my brother’s band, The Bogmen, who were about to be signed by Arista Records and were already huge in Boston.
They’d circulated our cassette to all of their fans and started a brushfire of anticipation for this Paradise show, as well as a few others we had scheduled in the area. There were no Web sites back then so if you were an unsigned band (in our case from NYC), you never knew if your stuff was catching on until you got to a place. Needless to say, we were all excited to play the show—all but me, that is.
I had a scorching sore throat that had reduced my voice to a whisper and my heroic intake of cocktails and cocaine wasn’t helping matters. My brother Bill, lead singer of The Bogmen, came over to me and, seeing my look of helpless desperation, offered a solution. “Here,” he said, “drink some of this Thai stick tea. It’ll dilate your larynx and you’ll be singing like a birdie, trust me.” There were potent stems of marijuana floating in this cup so I was a tad reluctant. I generally didn’t smoke weed before I went on because it made me a little spacey, and I liked to chat up the crowd in between songs; a blow-and-booze combo was my preferred gasoline (the PB & J of all long-distance revelers) but this seemed harmless enough. It was tea, for chrissakes.
He put a little honey in it so it tasted pretty good, and I quickly downed a cup. I grabbed another and started warming up my voice a bit, and before long, I was singing “Fat Bottomed Girls” just like Freddie Mercury and leading everyone backstage through choruses of it, every so often going for refills of the tea. True to my brother’s word the potion had worked. I don’t think I had sounded this good . . . ever! I figured the more of it I drank, the better my voice, right? I also thought that because it was tea, it wouldn’t really get me that high since it was diluted with water, which shows you that I’m no Bill Nye, the Science Guy. In fact, the stuff goes right into your bloodstream with about three times the THC level—so not only does it get you stoned faster, it’s far more potent—information that would have been useful at the time.
As I was milling about, I felt an ominous transformation occurring. I was morphing in my head from a Jaggeresque cock-of-the-walk to a cowering little kindergartener. What the hell was happening? I had gotten paranoid from strong weed before so I knew that feeling, but this? This was something different. It was as if my brain had released panzer divisions of self-doubt and fear into my system and the tanks of inner hysteria relentlessly kept coming. I wanted my mommy. Goddamn it, I wanted my mommy RIGHT NOW!
Then the stage manager came running over to me, visibly upset. He was a red-faced, red-haired, pure Boston Irish heat-miser-looking guy named Patrick, and in his wicked New England accent he barked, “The band is on, where the hell have you been?” I couldn’t talk at all at this point ’cause I was tripping hard. I thought any answer I gave would sound like I was speaking in tongues—and in my head, I was. After a few seconds he realized he wasn’t gonna get a reply and had to cajole me into moving: “We got six hundred screaming kids out there; get your ass onstage!”
I gingerly walked out to an eruption of applause, as the band launched into “The Dropout Song.” I could feel my rib cage being vibrated by its thunderous beat and swirling, distorted guitar line. I stood behind the center mic with a lone spotlight on me—lathered in beads of flop sweat, eyes darting back and forth—a statue of fear. They kept playing and I did nothing. I couldn’t remember the words to my own song so I started spitting some low-volume gibberish into the mic.
The room was rattling with everyone jumping up and down in unison. Finally Phil, my bass player, came over and yelled above the music, “What the hell is wrong with you?” None of those guys were privy to my little backstage tea experiment. I squinted back at him and uttered a line that will forever go down in Knockout Drops history. “I dunno, man. . . . I feel like everyone is staring at me.” I’ll never forget the laugh that came out of him when he said, “They are! You’re onstage or haven’t you noticed that? Now start singing, asshole; we can discuss your nervous breakdown later.”
Side stage, there was a guy named Smitty hanging out and dancing. He’d popped me up with some key hits earlier in the evening, so I ran over there and shook him down. You know Smitty. He’s the guy with the brown hair, nervous smile, and shifty eyes with perpetual sweat gathering over his upper lip. He seems normal to you upon first glance but then you look again and realize that he’s jacked out of his mind. There’s a Smitty at every show.
He lovingly packed my beak full of blow, and I took a huge pull out of the bottle of Jameson’s that was on top of one of the big speakers—ahhhhhhhhh, warm, fuzzy, and familiar . . . MOTHER’S MILK! Cocaine was always a maintenance drug for me, but booze was the great love of my life. Everything’s gonna be all right. There’s nothing Jameson’s can’t get me through, I thought.
I was right. It went on to be one of the greatest shows we ever did. There would be many more nights to come, on bigger stages and in front of more people, where Jameson’s would derail me, but this time it had my back. I thought it always would. I was wrong. Well, it did for a bit and then it didn’t. You’ll be hearing about all that in just a little while.
Have you ever been to Bellevue? You really should go. It’s lovely this time of year. Between 1998 and 2000, I was there three times—so I’ll be taking you there three times. I call these “The Wonder Years” ’cause I’m still wondering, “What the fuck happened?”
Don’t worry, I’m not here to hijack you for some “shock and awe” journey of what it’s like to be a down-and-dirty drunk. We’ve all heard that twice-told yarn, and I’m as tired of it as you are. It just so happens that I was a down-and-dirty drunk, but don’t be confused. This is not a cautionary tale of woe or eventual triumph, but rather it’s a story about the tireless pursuit of a dream and a desperate quest for faith. In other words, it’s about growing up.
Livers with Feet
I threw up at my first Holy Communion. This was the first in a lifetime series of public pukings. I apologize if I get a bit misty-eyed, but who doesn’t get sentimental about their first time, right? Unlike the installments that followed, this did not come about as a result of bludgeoning myself, repeatedly, with the happy stick. This episode was brought on by the wonder and fear of a loving, yet invading, God.
For some people this might be a traumatic and paralyzing memory, but not me. Don’t get me wrong—it was an unfuckinbearable humiliation while it was happening, but I’ve found in this life that any dreary experience that makes for a funny story afterward is usually worth it. Laughter defangs trauma. Of course, that little chestnut is coming from a guy who found himself in the psych ward at Bellevue three times within a two-year span (two and a half if you count my escape), so you might not want to be getting your credos from me just yet. Another reason I wasn’t indelibly scarred by this unfortunate event is that I’m pretty much unembarrassable. Believe it or not, that’s a skill. It’s also a good way to be if you’re going to grow up and navigate the world in a seismic stupor. It’s all in the training.
I remember waking up early that spring morning in 1975, and my stomach felt like it had an undertow in it. Something just wasn’t right. There are six of us in my folks’ Irish Catholic brood: my three brothers, two sisters, and myself. At nine years old I’d already experienced the twenty-four-hour flu bug blowing through the house a few times so I knew what that was. The last go-round we all got it at the same time, turning the house into one giant vomitorium, everybody in their pajamas for two days with pots next to their beds, groaning. I’m kind of diggin’ the Dickensian image of that but don’t be misled, I’m from Huntington, Long Island. We got through that epidemic like every other family on the block by eating dry cereal, drinking ginger ale, and doing Mad Libs. This was the pre-video game era of the seventies when your only shot at bedridden amusement came home from the stationery store.
Anyway, my stomach was churning, making these slushy, watery sounds, and I got an image in my head of watching the sudsy clothes through the washing machine window, which I found hypnotically soothing. I pictured the mashed potatoes in my stomach from last night’s dinner doing the same thing, and this picture was yielding an entirely different feeling, but I wasn’t sure if it was the flu thing just yet. I thought maybe I was just nervous because this was the day I was gonna receive Jesus for the first time.
After Mom and I had gotten through saying my prayers the previous evening (an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be, for you Catholics following at home), she’d leaned in, kissed my forehead, and said, “Try to get some sleep ’cause tomorrow’s a big day. You’ll be receiving Jesus for the first time and that means he’ll be alive in you.” Then she gently left the room, reaching her hand around the doorway to click off the light.
I lay there in the dark, staring at the ceiling, pondering her statement: “He’ll be alive in you.” What did that mean? Was I gonna transform into something different now? What if I didn’t like it? Clearly I was having some control issues with my incoming tenant, God. My mind was off the rails, racing. I fixated on this one spot on the ceiling where the paint was chipped off and looked like a whale, just trying to wrap my head around the concept. Then my oldest brother Bobby’s shadowy figure appeared on the roof outside my window, and signaling me with the “shhh” finger over his lips, he motioned for me to quietly open it.
A couple of months before this I had been having a recurring nightmare that a murderer was climbing through my window in the middle of the night trying to stab me to death. About three times a week I’d dream that a rabid psychopath resembling Chuck Connors (the guy who played the Rifleman) was easing my window open and putting a knife to my throat. On the show The Rifleman, he was a good guy, but he had this cockeyed sort of evil look to him that had me convinced he was a violent fuckin’ weirdo in real life. My older brothers and I would watch those old reruns, but I never once voiced my opinion about it.
In the dream I’d see his spastic eyes rise to just above my mattress, and as he was about to swipe the hot blade under my chin, I’d come to in a full gallop, en route to my parents’ bedroom. Mom would let me climb into bed with them, but Dad wasn’t too keen on the idea, saying, “Listen, it was just a dream and you have to learn how to sleep through the night on your own after something like this. You don’t wanna grow up and be some kind of pansy, do you?” “Bob, he’s trembling; just let him lay down in here for a while,” Mom would say. To which he’d reply, “C’mon, Pat, we’re not raising Little Lord Fauntleroy here,” and deposit me back in my bed.
The rest of the night would be spent eyes wide-open, staring at the whale above my head imagining I was riding him through deep ocean swells, or looking at all the teams’ mascots on my NBA bed-sheets, trying to memorize them and stave off the terror. The latter would usually work and I’d fall asleep somewhere in the middle when I got to around the Milwaukee Bucks. I didn’t resent my dad for being a hardass about it. I didn’t wanna be a pussy either, but I couldn’t prevent that dream from coming back even after I stopped watching Rifleman reruns.
After one of these harrowing ’mares I was in their room and the dream had been so vivid it rendered me practically catatonic. To get me to return to my own bed, Dad tried using a little child psychology, appealing to my nine-year-old machismo. I was wearing these Buffalo Bills pajamas with the number 32 on them that Mom had gotten me because O. J. Simpson was my favorite NFL running back. I used to weave through the furniture in the living room at top speed, an orange nerf football tucked under my arm, in those pajamas pretending I was O. J., ripping off one of his patented long open-field runs.
My dad saw the Bills’ insignia on my shirt and said, “You’ve got to sleep in your own bed, buddy. You know, I’ll bet the Juice has nightmares sometimes.” I looked up surprised and said, “He does?” “Sure, we all do at one time or another, but you gotta be brave and not give into them ’cause they can’t hurt you if they’re not real, right? I’ll tell ya one thing, I’d be willing to bet that the Juice isn’t running into his mother’s bed every time he has a nightmare about a guy with a knife.” No, I suppose he didn’t.
The nightmares kept happening and they were contemplating sending me to a child shrink—which, of course, my dad was very much against—but then one night my mom busted Bobby coming through my window and the mystery was solved. He’d been sneaking in and out of my window a couple of times a week for months. The next day Dad cut down the tree next to the window, and lo and behold, the nightmares stopped. Every once in a while he’d still sneak in by shimmying up the drainpipe instead, tapping on the window for me to let him in.
So on my Communion eve, there he was again, crouched and off kilter in my window, desperately waving me over. Bobby was seventeen and had just come from some keg party down the street where his band, The Old #7, was playing. He was their shaggy singer. Earlier that evening I’d heard them do a cover of the Grateful Dead tune “Bertha” from my windowsill. I sat quietly with my chin resting on the tops of my hands, listening to my brother’s voice rise above the overly distorted guitars and buoyant party chatter of a hundred drunken teenagers. I heard it faintly through the breeze and the rustle of the swaying evergreens, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the giggles of errant chicks cutting through our yard to get back to the party, igniting a romantic spring trance in me. I wanted to be under the moon at that kegger too! I was gonna try and sneak out for a peak but thought better of it knowing I had my Communion the next day.
I’d heard Bobby come up the stairs earlier as I was lying there, not sleeping, but I guess he’d slid in, said good night to the folks, and snuck back out.
His hair was light brown and longish—straggly, wavy, and a little in his eyes, which were deep blue. He himself kind of looked like Jesus. He reeked that night of the usual things. His jean jacket still had the outside emanating from it: cold air, pot smoke, and beer, with a little charcoal twinge to it too. It all whooshed off him, coming through the window, as he steadied himself using his hand on the top of my head to guide his feet through, then slid his other hand onto my shoulder to ensure himself a soft landing, almost taking us both down. “Shit, that was close. Thanks,” he said, huffing and puffing. I scurried back into bed.
While I had him, knowing he’d been getting Communion for years, I asked, “Hey, Bobby, what does Mom mean that tomorrow Jesus will be alive in me?” “Didn’t anyone explain this to you yet—like in CCD or something?” he asked. CCD was a weekly after-school religion class that Catholic kids going to public school attended in people’s private homes. The teachers volunteered through the church and to this day I don’t know what those letters meant—back then they meant juice and cookies in some smiley church lady’s weird-smelling living room.
“I guess not, or maybe I just wasn’t listening. Do you know?” I asked, sitting up attentively. “Well,” he said, taking a moment to formulate his answer, “it means that tomorrow for the first time you’ll be eating his flesh. Now go to sleep, you little dick, you’ll wake Mom and Dad.” And as quickly as he came in, he left.
That may have been when my stomach started to quake. Tender moment, I admit, but I still think he could’ve put it better. I mean, I wouldn’t have expected him to go into a lecture on the difference between tran- and consubstantiation, but a little more explanation than “you’ll be eating his flesh” might’ve helped.
I had a sleepless night wrestling with this new theology and a few of life’s other imponderables. If Jesus is the son of God and Jesus is God, then why didn’t God send him down here right away when he made the world to get it all off on the right foot instead of making dinosaurs? Aren’t dinosaurs really just monsters? Why did God put monsters here first (still a good question)? Are there cavemen in heaven? There can’t be ’cause they lived before Jesus, right? What happened to all the people that lived before Jesus? Did they get to go to heaven or were they just training dummies for God?
These were the things that were firing through my head, and one question led to another and another and another till I saw the sun put a shadow on my wall. That’s the first time I ever witnessed a daybreak (another first of many). I fell asleep for about ten minutes and woke up nauseous as hell to the sound of Mom calling for me to wake up and get ready.
Dad did his usual drill sergeant routine, rousting everybody, getting them into the station wagon for church. “Hey, Eil, how long does it take for you to eat a bowl of cereal?” he said pointedly to my sister Eileen, who is three years older than me and had been the last Campion to make her Communion. She was sitting at the kitchen table staring intensely at the back of the cereal box, slowly spooning it into her mouth. “You shouldn’t be eating that so close to Communion anyway. . . . Nothing for an hour before, remember?” “Oh yeah,” she said. “Why not again?” He paused, obviously not having a ready-made answer. “ ’Cause Jesus doesn’t feel like sharing your stomach with your Cocoa Puffs.” Then he grabbed the bowl and tossed it in the sink.
Whenever my dad encountered a kid question he couldn’t answer or when he just plain didn’t feel like giving an involved response, he’d make something up. One time we were all watching the movie Jesus of Nazareth around Easter and I asked him, “Dad, what’s Jesus’s last name?” and without diverting his eyes from the screen, he said, “O’Leary.”
The drive down to the church felt like a runaway toboggan ride, which wasn’t helping me any. We were late as usual, so to make up time Dad kept it pegged the whole way, crossing the double yellow line and weaving through the slow-moving cars of the suburban streets. Everyone we rocketed past had the same look of surprised horror on his face. “Bob, please,” Mom said, urging him to slow down. “Pat, we’re late . . . I know what I’m doing.” Then to avoid the light on the corner he used his special shortcut through the A&P parking lot across from Saint Pat’s Church.
We screeched past the supermarket with Dad accelerating over the speed bump, causing the tailgate to drag for about ten feet and make the mellifluous sound that only a metal bumper on concrete can make, paralyzing some little old lady behind her shopping cart directly in front of us. Dad veered to her right, singeing her house-coat, then smiled and waved to her as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired. We all turned quickly to have a look through the back windshield and saw her, discombobulated and dumbfounded, readjusting her bonnet that the car had blown to the side of her head, her cart full of packages slowly rolling away. “Bob, what are you trying to do? Get us all killed in front of the church?” Mom screamed, draping both her arms around my four-year-old little brother, Billy, who was on her lap, under her seat belt. “What? I saw her,” he said, looking sheepishly into the rearview to see if she was all right. She was. I wasn’t.
Dad parked the car while we went inside, and Mom tried to find a pew where the family could all fit. This was never an easy task. She shuffled us back and forth a couple of times, up and down the center aisle, peering around till we were all thoroughly embarrassed from being on display in our un-cool good clothes. (I was a pretty unhappy camper in a pair of desert boots and a sport coat, lemme tell ya.) Then my sister Donna, who was fourteen, asked, “Mom, can’t we just spread out this time? Look, there’s three spots right here.” “No, we’re gonna sit altogether as a family,” Mom snapped back. Donna tugged on Mom’s arm and whispered urgently, “We can go three here and there’s room for the rest over there.” “I said no.” “But everyone’s looking at us,” Donna said, mortified by the ninth-grade social ramifications. “Good, let ’em look . . . I don’t mind . . . I think we’re all lookin’ pretty good today,” Mom said, picking a piece of lint off of Billy’s mini maroon blazer, embarrassing Donna further with her total disregard for volume.
She found an open pew toward the back and everyone crammed in. I went to sit down with them and she said, “No, no, hon, you sit up there with the other Communion kids,” which I did, but because I was late I had to sit in the last row of them where the kids ran into the rest of the congregation.
I sat down and focused all my attention on this big dome skylight above the altar to take my mind off my queasy stomach. When I was five, I used to look up at that thing and think that it was specifically designed for God to drop in—that it was his designated entrance. It was enormous and beautiful, round with stained glass, and threw down these magnificently colored beams of light. It looked like God’s porthole or, better still, a porthole to God. I tried to keep my eyes on it to get my mind off the ugliness that was happening inside me. One of the other kids saw how peaked I looked and said, “Wow, are you all right? Should we tell your mom?” I couldn’t manage words so I just shook my head no, exhaled, and continued fighting it off. I had to make my Communion.
Right as the priest called all the kids to form an orderly line up to the altar for their first Eucharist experience, I felt it coming on. I got about halfway down the row, turned, and barfed all over this cranky bald guy’s plaid pants.
He was the nervous, overprotective father of the girl next to me. It’s always been my theory that the pattern of his pink and kelly green Haggar menswear (straight outta the Johnny Miller collection) triggered my puking mechanism.
He let out this high-pitched scream, as the unwanted wave began sopping him. It was such a ladylike sound that I think everybody in the church thought it was his wife who had caught the splash, but when he started hopping around like Lee Trevino being electrocuted by lightning on the tenth fairway, with a lake-size stain of regurgitated milk and Cap’n Crunch shrapnel covering his crotch, everyone knew it was he who’d been hit.
If I could show you the guy right now, you’d love the fact that I vomited on him—he was so puke-on-able. He had horn-rim glasses, combative little eyes, and a tensed-up face—the kind of person that turns you down for a loan at the bank and you just know it’s his favorite part of the job. I like to think God acted through me that day, using me as his infirmed instrument of justice.
Needless to say, mass hysteria ensued at Saint Patrick’s Church in Huntington that day. Kids were frantically trampling one another, desperate to get out of the pew. Parents were instructing their children to run for safety and shield their Sunday best from the tsunami of sick boy! “Get out of his way, Paulie, we’re going to a restaurant after this,” Mrs. Aruliano urged her young son.
I remember hearing these kinds of things and thinking that they were acting just like the panicky little Japanese people I saw on the four-thirty movie when they encountered Godzilla, only this time I was Godzilla!!! I didn’t wanna be Godzilla. I just wanted my Jesus wafer like everybody else, goddammit, but I couldn’t stop heaving. As you well know, once that succession of awfulness starts, it ain’t stoppin’ till the tank is empty.
I didn’t have any better ideas on where to turn so I just kept letting it fly in the same direction.Why wipe out a whole new area full of innocent people? That’s when the guy with the womanly scream really started to freak out. “Turn the other way . . . turn the other way . . . Somebody get him to a toilet, he’s ruining the whole ceremony,” he shrieked so everyone in the overly packed church could hear him.
Then a cloud of Old Spice aftershave descended from behind me, and I felt two strong hands hook under my armpits. All of a sudden I was airborne, as if in the bucket of a payloader, my chin on my chest, still ralphing on myself. The lady-screamer yelled at my dad, “It’s about time, get him out of here!” I dangled there from Dad’s hands, my eyes crossed, throw-up coiling off my chin. He looked at the lady-screamer with complete contempt and said, “Easy, pal, or I’ll have to hold him over you till he finishes.”
He cleaned me up in the bathroom in back of the church, which was behind this gigantic, ornately carved wooden door that Dad had to pull hard to get open. I imagined that the door was meant to remind the priests that they were holy even as they were squattin’ one out. In fact, I even recall thinking, Maybe this is where the expression holy shit comes from.
Dad had a far-off look in his eyes and started cracking up as he wiped me down with wet paper towels. In between chuckles he said, “You’re bringing back some not-so-fond memories for me right now.
You’re not gonna believe this but I threw up at my first Communion too.” I looked at him suspiciously. “Really?” “Yeah, all over a guy’s suit just like you but mine was a very nice man. You picked a better target.” He gestured with his head in the direction of the girly-screamer. “If they’re not so fond, then why are you laughing?” I asked him. “Well, ’cause when you’re older even your not-so-fond ones become fond ones. Time has a way of doing that.” He smiled that smile parents give kids when they tell them something they know one day will come back and mean something to them. I guess that time for me is right now, eh?
Then he looked past my shoulder and said, “I can see from here that the line is nearing the end. We gotta get you out there. Can you make it?” he asked, his voice going up like a coach’s, trying to inspire. “Yeah, but we better go quick,” I replied, not feeling that confident. “C’mon . . . let’s go . . . twenty-three skidoo. It’ll all be over in a flash and we’ll have you in the car and on the way home in no time, you’ll see,” he said as he grabbed my hand and whisked me up the center aisle to the high altar.
All eyes were upon me as my dad pulled on my arm, hurrying me to the front of the church. Some of the kids had that “it’s the return of the monster” expression going while the adults just looked on with pity. I didn’t fuckin’ like that at all. “Who the hell do you think you’re pitying?” I wanted to say. “I’ll puke you all the way back to your car, asshole.” Even at nine I had a pretty big ego and a fairly foul mouth to go with it, but mostly in my head. We weren’t allowed to curse at home.
There was no one left on line as I approached Father McGiever, who was standing there holding out the host with more than just a worried look on his face. My dad stopped short of him and gave me a little push. “Go get ’em.”
Nowadays most Catholics receive the Communion host in their hands but back then there was only one way and that was to stick out your tongue and the priest would gently lay it on there. He looked down at me, his red, ruddy face full of fear, his ceremonial vestiges rustling, his hand trembling as he rose the Eucharist up high and in an ominous tone authoritatively addressed me with, “BODY OF CHRIST.” I mumbled Amen, opened my mouth, and stuck out my tongue, petrified of the geyser within. Father McGiever lowered his hand to rest “the living God” down on my tongue, and as he drew nearer with it I felt it coming again. It was definitely on its way. “Oh no, it’s coming up and I can’t stop it,” I said to myself, terrified for the worst. I decided to petition the big fellah right then and there. It was my only shot. “Oh no . . . no . . . God, make it stop, please? . . . C’mon, haven’t I suffered enough? . . . Hasn’t everyone suffered enough? . . . Oh no . . . no . . . oh no . . . please stop this, would ya? . . . GOD, DO YOU HATE MEEEEEEEEE???”
Father McGiever delicately placed the wafer on my tongue with surgical focus, knowing the slightest fumble on his part could trigger an eruption. Our eyes then locked, mine full of terror, his full of more terror, as I stood there motionless with my mouth still open and the little white disc perched at the end of my outstretched tongue. Then with the surging force of a tidal wave, out it came, “AHH-HHHHHHHT.” Father McGiever smiled and said, “Amen indeed, Christopher.”
It was only a burp. God heard my prayer. I was a believer.
After my puke-a-thon at the church, it was back to our house for a big celebration. This was a family gathering, and for a Communion no less, but that didn’t really matter because by three P.M. the place was so filled up with smoke and loud, slurring voices that walking in you’d probably think you were standing in the middle of an OTB. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an alcoholic in my family, so pretty much all of our parties looked like that. I don’t have a perverse sense of pride over that or anything but I don’t say it with any shame either, that’s for shit sure. It is what it is. Anatomically speaking, we’re all livers with feet.
Growing up Campion, we were always busy doing one of three things: getting ready for, cleaning up from, or idling smack dab in the middle of a raging party. This time our house was being stampeded by my relatives from Woodside, Queens, where Mom and Dad and all my extended family are from. This bunch are true salt-of-the-earth types with natural conversation volumes that would blow out your eardrum if you mistakenly leaned in too close while one of ’em was telling you a story.
I always loved when they came to the house because they all had cadences like insult comics, none more than my cousin Georgie, their ringleader, whose speech fell somewhere between Rodney Danger-field and Jackie Gleason. Georgie is Dad’s nephew and is about twenty years older than me, so he always seemed like more of an uncle.
He was this hilariously cocky fuck, the oldest of three brothers (my cousins Bobby and Tommy), a good-looking guy with dirty-blond hair—greasy, parted on the side—brown eyes, and a dark complexion. He’d been an all-city athlete who once played high school basketball against Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), a story I’d make him tell me every time I saw him. Georgie was kind of like a Woodside version of John Wayne—just replace the six-gun with a broom handle for stickball.
Huntington is mostly a middle-class suburb (with some poorer and richer parts) but in terms of space and average income, it’s a far cry from my parents’ humble outer-borough beginnings. The Woodside crew had a playful contempt for this and would bust my dad’s balls to no end about how he’d gone suburban soft. “Hey, Uncle Bob, do you take tea at three around here or what? I’m standin’ here at ten after three wit my saucer ready and no tea . . . what gives? I guess I’ll have to break with convention and just have a beer then, but I don’t want any of yas givin’ me a dirty look, cuz, hey, I tried,” my cousin Tommy said, waving around one of Mom’s good china teacups. Tommy was a short, stocky guy with a glorious beer gut who looked like De Niro playing the older Jake La Motta at the end of Raging Bull.
Dad was able to move the family out of Woodside and into Huntington when my older brothers and sisters were little after graduating from St. Johns on the GI Bill (following his naval service in Korea). He rose up IBM’s corporate ladder as a top salesman in the sixties, and started his own company in the mid-seventies that bought, sold, and leased mainframe computers.
We lived in a big white Georgian Colonial on a hill with columns in front of it on a full acre of property, which may have given the Woodsiders the illusion that we had money. The truth of it was that Dad did well, but there were a lot of us. It was your average middle-class upbringing, but in a bigger house.
The party was in full swing now with my parents’ Louis Prima records hissing and popping through the stereo, one of those old behemoth wooden jobbies where the equalizer-amplifier and speakers were built right into it, with a compartment on the far left for vinyl storage. It was a spectacular piece of furniture that took up half the living room wall. Georgie’s wife, Patti, was tiring of the older generation’s tunes so she snuck over and clicked the humungous metal knob from stereo to radio and on came “The Hustle.” She started dancing to it and grabbed my hand. “C’mon, Communion boy, it’s time for you to learn how to dance.”
As she was guiding me through the steps it came around to the chorus and we both yelled out, “Do the hustle!” when Georgie burst in and grabbed my forearm. “What’re you tryin’ to do to this kid?” he said. “Didn’t you see him wipe out half the Catholic population at Saint Pat’s earlier? He’s sick!” “He’s okay now. That was just nerves, I checked him out. Whatta you know anyway? . . . I’m the nurse,” she said, continuing to smile at the ceiling and dance, honoring the apex of her buzz. “Yeah, okay, have another highball, Florence Nightingale, and while you’re at it, find another victim. I need him for a second.”
Georgie pulled me into the middle of the party in front of everyone and handed me a gift. “What is it?” I asked him. “A good way to find out would be to open it, dummkopf. It’s a gift from Patti and me for your Communion. Now I was explaining to your mom, here in the family room before, that we all know you’re evil now. We’ve had our suspicions for some time but today confirmed it, what with that display of rejecting God so vehemently back at the church . . . doing a three-sixty with your head like the chick from The Exorcist and helicoptering puke all over the congregation . . . embarrassing us all . . . well, mostly yourself really . . . giving new meaning to the word pew . . . pee . . . uuuu,” he said, closing his nostrils with his fingers. “But I decided that none of that matters and that you should get a present anyway.” “Georgie!” Mom said, laughing with everyone but glaring at him. “Now, don’t get me wrong. I was proud as hell watching the kid walk outta there with his head held high and throw-up on his shirt. It takes a real man to do something like that,” he said to Mom, backing off his jokey assault. “Really?” I said. “No, not really. It was disgusting. Now, open the damn gift already,” he said impatiently.
I ripped off the paper and there staring back at me was a shiny, new, AM/FM, Panasonic pocket transistor radio. “WHOA, COOL!” I said excitedly. “You got your AM and FM on there. AM for the Knicks and Rangers and FM for rock ’n’ roll,” he instructed. I hugged him and Patti. “Thanks a lot!”
He then pulled me into the pantry on the sly. “I also gotcha one of these,” and he pulled out the little white earpiece attachment. “I know how your mom makes you go to bed before the games are over, so now if you hook this thing to your ear under the covers you can listen to the rest of it and she won’t hear a thing. If she catches you with it, just say you found it in the box, not that you got it from me, okay?”
That little radio transported me to so many new places. I loved it so much, from its metallic smell to its flickering little red indicator light that I would look at on top of my dresser in the still of the night, as if it were suspended in midair. It acted as a lighthouse in my childhood world, guiding me into the harbor of new things. To this day I re-create that phenomenon by finding a low-budget station, turning off the lights, and leaving the radio on when I want the world to go away. Fuck the Internet, gimme the radio.
I would hide under the covers in my room with that earpiece wedged between my head and the pillow, listening to Marv Albert call Knick games—“Earl the Pearl drives the lane . . . he shoots . . . HE SCORES!”—or Bill “the Big Whistle” Chadwick doing play-by-play for the Rangers—“Guy Lafleur brings it into the Rangers zone . . . shottttttttttt . . . SAVE!”
I remember staring out the windows of Huntington Elementary, sitting in Mrs. Bergheim’s third-grade class, exhausted after staying up to listen to the Islanders-Flyers playoff game. “Chris Campion!” she yelled, startling me outta my sleepy daydream. I looked up at her, lost. “I asked you a question. Can you answer it, please?” “Um . . . I dunno . . . three?” I said, taking a stab. “I asked you if there was room for all of us up there on Mars with you.” “I know,” I said. “And I told you I can take three.” “Go to the principal’s office and tell Mr. Good not to send you back till you can prove that you can be in this class. And clean yourself up . . . run a comb through your hair or something. Whaddya have—a night job?” she hollered, pointing toward the door. Mrs. Bergheim was a cranky old bat but a great teacher, with a funny sense of humor.
My adrenaline would be running so high from listening to these games (that and the fear of getting caught) that I would have to click it over to FM and listen to music to ramp myself down. Deejays like Dennis Elsas and Tony Pig would spin new releases from Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Kinks, and talk about them with encyclopedic knowledge that I would lap up, committing all the little factoids about the artists to memory.
On Sunday nights I’d listen to the King Biscuit Flower Hour, which broadcasted live concerts of all the biggest bands, and if I could keep my eyes open, that segued right into Dr. Demento, who did wacky comedy routines and audio send-ups. I really loved that show because it was all adult content and it felt like I’d snuck into the back of an R-rated movie.
They were all great but my favorite of these radio guys was Scottso Muni from 102.7 WNEW-FM. He had this low, grumbling tobacco-ravaged voice that would come through the speakers and just put you in the booth with him. I’d picture the city lights shining through the window off his face, cigarette smoke billowing up into a groovy lamp, as he interviewed newfound heroes like John Lennon and Pete Townshend. Unlike other deejays he seemed to know all these rock stars (on a personal and friendly level) and really made you feel like you were hanging with them listening to their conversation. He was definitely the audio Yoda of my formative rock ’n’ roll years—a beacon for any budding insomniac.
On the day that Georgie gave me that radio the Stones had just come out with a greatest hits compilation and were pushing “Angie” as a single. Every station played it over and over and I couldn’t get enough of it. I knew every word by sundown, thusly beginning a lifelong love affair with the Rolling Stones. Scottso might’ve been my Yoda, but the Stones were my demigods.
I loved everything about them: their uncompromising attitude, the unkemptness of Mick’s and Keith’s appearance that suggested a total disregard for personal hygiene (what kid wouldn’t respect that?), the fact that my dad hated them, everything. I completely freaked for their music. I responded to the unabashedly irreverent lyrics in songs like “Live with Me,” “Stray Cat Blues,” and “Midnight Rambler,” without yet knowing their full meaning. There was something uniquely filthy and fiercely bold in their playing that brought it all home for me. Scottso spun these album tracks because, unlike today’s deejays, he had the freedom to play whatever he wanted. The deejays weren’t entirely controlled by the bottom-feeding, scumbag beast we know as the corporate rock machine today.
Every time I heard a Stones song I’d grab a hairbrush, put it up to my mouth, find the closest mirror, and start singing into it, like I was Mick fronting the band. Every once in a while my mom or someone else would walk in and catch me, but I didn’t care. I felt it in my marrow.
Mick and the boys provided my earliest inspiration, but it was my oldest brother Bobby’s band, The Old #7, that delivered the second-life sentencing, bite. Around this time my brother Kevin nicknamed Bobby Throb, short for heartthrob, thanks to all the girls he was getting from singing in the band. Later on he and many others also took to calling him Hollywood Bob, but we’ll just stick with Throb for now.
They’d rehearse in our garage, which sat about 150 feet away from the house, a perfect space to jam out and crank up. It also meant that they could have people down there partying and watching them practice without my parents knowing. Every day I’d come home from school and they’d be there, drinking beers with a gaggle of stoned teenage girls in Indian skirts twirling in front of them, as they rocked out an Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd song.
This was during the whole Southern rock craze that swept Huntington in the mid- to late-seventies. These guys were from Long Island but dressed like they were from El Paso,Texas, in cowboy boots and hats, wearing bandanas around their necks and shit. I liked some of that stuff when they played it, but I was way more into The Who, The Dead, and of course, the Stones.
The scene was what I was really digging. I could see that live music really got people off. It got me going and I was only a little kid. These girls were going crazy during every tune and the band was only practicing! What do they do at the real gigs? I thought, while I bumped butts with these beautiful gals and sprouted an involuntary little boner in my green Toughskins.
The guys in the band became like my own personal rock stars. My brother was the lead singer. You had Dad Nud (the “ud” pronounced “ood” as in wood) on rhythm guitar and vocals, Paul Dykes banging on the drums, and rounding it out was Stumpy Restin shredding the world’s loudest lead guitar.
They were kinda striking to look at too. Dad Nud stood at 6 feet 5 and was sort of a handsome-looking Frankenstein with a booming voice, Throb was 6 feet 2, and Stumpy was 5 feet 5, so they sloped downward from one side of the stage to the other. When looking at them you’d almost wish they had a midget to play accordion or something to complete the geometry of the thing, ceiling to floor. They all had long brown hair except Stumpy; his was long and blond but would ’fro up like one of the Brady kids.
Every Saturday night, Old #7 would play in the garage and have a little party down there, which made for an interesting juxtaposition to my parents’ soirees that would be going on simultaneously in the house. Talk about your two different worlds.
My parents’ parties looked like something out of an Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie—with martinis going, people on love seats chatting away, and light music wafting in the backround. There were lots of sideburns, plaids, and snazzy blazers with elbow patches; the men all smelling of Vitalis and Marlboro Reds; the women, my friends’ mothers, unrecognizable in their caked-on blue eye shadow.
Billy was only four so he’d be fast asleep. Donna and Kevin were high school age so they’d be down at the garage partying with the band, and Eileen and I would be up in my parents’ bedroom, stuck watching Carol Burnett. We loved The Carol Burnett Show, but being surrounded by party noises on all sides made it feel like jail.
We would wait for the precise moment when the voices got a little louder downstairs and the music got turned up to make our move. When the big band stuff, like the Dorsey Brothers, hit the turntable, that was our cue to go.
First, we’d shoot out to the landing on the stairs and spy through the spindles to get a good glimpse of where the party was at (in terms of people’s drunkenness). Once the adults were good and tanked our neighbor, Mrs. Posillico, a talented natural musician who could play anything by ear, would get on the piano and they would all start singing standards. When they started bellowing “Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey” (which my dad always took the lead on), that’s when we knew we could nick down to the garage without fear of getting caught. Once they began singing, there was no stopping them. They were like crackheads for the sound of their own voices and the memories that these songs brought them. The sentimentality would be at such a high level in the room that, even if we did get snagged coming back in, there’d be no reprisal, just hugs and encouragement to sing along if we knew the words.
We would watch as our living room detached like an Apollo capsule into this other dimension. It was always fascinating to see the change in people. Shy people like Mrs. Markham, who was near mute and sidled next to her husband when the night began, would be up on the piano belting and hiking up her skirt. I’d think to myself, God, music and booze really go together, and of course they do. I defy you to find a better marriage. Why do you think karaoke bars clean up so much? Two beers deep and any idiot thinks he can sing. I guess like most marriages you take the good with the bad.
In the garage, the scene was in some ways comparable because everyone was too ruined to know their own name but that’s where the similarities ended.
The pot smoke would hit our noses midway on the walk over, like a big-toe dip in the water. Then Eileen and I would follow it down through the large open doors of the garage. The big backdrop behind the drum kit was a shot of the front of a Jack Daniel’s bottle (hence the name Old #7). There’d be floor lights shining up at the band as they plowed through some high-octane number like the Dead’s “One More Saturday Night” with an enthusiastic, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd packed in.
It was like having a speakeasy on your own property, only no one spoke easy. It was louder than hell in there. There’d be fifty to a hundred people hanging out in and around the garage, passing bowls, and filling up beers at the keg hidden behind our lawnmower (like that was good enough camouflage for a parental raid).
There was a single-room apartment above the garage that was supposedly the maid’s quarters around the time the house was built in 1907, but it had long since been out of use. My folks told Throb he and his friends could fix it up and use it as a sort of clubhouse. He took that ball and ran amok with it. Within a week it looked like an opium den-hippie fuck palace, equipped with multiple lava lamps and pink shag carpeting. It also served as a flophouse for all his wayward teen fuckup friends who’d been bounced from their houses, and he had no shortage of them.
When you walked in, the first thing you saw was a poster that read STONED AGAIN with a cartoon drawing of a guy going through the different stages of stoned-dom, starting in the first frame with his head in his hands and elbows on the table, then his face progressively melting till the last square where there was nothing but a pair of empty hands and a puddle between them. That kinda says it all in a nutshell, don’tcha think? My best friend, Monk, and I would stow away in a little crawl space and watch my brothers Bobby and Kevin and their various girlfriends get high and make out.
One day we were in there spying and Throb was diligently trying to unsnap this girl’s bra. We had the little cabinet door cracked open as Throb played Beat the Clock, his chin on the girl’s shoulder, facing us, the young lady turned the other way, as he desperately tried to crack the code on the brassiere before she changed her mind and said forget it. (Every guy knows he has about sixty seconds before the buzzer of possible disqualification.) As he kept struggling, Monk was bubbling over with impatience—this being our potential first look at live mammaries—and without realizing it, he said out loud, “C’mon already!” The girl screamed, “Oh my God, is there someone in there?” With that Throb and Kevin marched us out onto the roof and launched us fifteen feet down into this big leaf pile. Then they threw big buckets of water on our heads as they all stood up there laughing, watching us trying to get up, falling back down and spitting leaves out of our mouths. “Stay outta here, LITTLE DICKS! Next time you go off the side with no leaves.”
Looking back, Throb was a genius. He had created a situation where he was Bill Graham, Mick Jagger, and Hugh Hefner all rolled into one. He was the promoter, lead singer, and owner of this twenty-four-hour bacchanal and he didn’t even have to leave his own doorstep.
I was just a little jock kid running around watchin’ all of this and never had any ideas about actively taking part in it, but I certainly enjoyed surfing the chaos. It would be a little while yet before I had my first beer, toke, snort, or titty touch but the party bait had already been dangled, and when the time came, having seen what I’d seen, I bit down on that chum as hard as I could. The umbrella rig of drugs and booze would drag me through the seven seas and back again but it was the music that really held me spellbound.
It was a siren that lured me outta my childhood, perhaps a bit early (I started playing in bars when I was sixteen) and into a world of freaks and felons. Jesus partied with tax collectors, thieves, and whores so I was comfortable with it.
When you tell people you wanna be a rock star when you grow up, they usually give you the same look you might get if you said you wanted to be center fielder of the Yankees or president of the United States. Nobody tries to quell your enthusiasm but you’re immediately tagged a dreamer. Then you get a little older and you’re seen by certain people as a loser with delusions of grandeur. Then when you’re older than that, say around thirty, just a loser. I never felt like that. One reason is that The Knockout Drops always had a die-hard following and the affirmation from that kept me going, but the other is that I had tangible evidence that it could be done. Our new next-door neighbor arrived in the summer of ’78. He was a real rock star. No shit.