“No, Spiardi. I bought myself a ring that’s too big.” This is how Miss S.T. sarcastically answered when I asked if her boyfriend bought her the yarn-wrapped ring she was sporting on her finger. It had never occurred to me that the fuzzy bands worn by the A-list girls began their lives as one-size-fits-all pieces of cheap metal, purchased by hormone-raging boys to give to their pubescent paramours. The crafty lasses wrapped their tokens of love with angora yarn to obtain the proper fit, thus creating one of the most sought after status symbols of junior high school life: the mohair “going-steady” ring.
I watched with deep-green envy as those lucky girls stroked their soft, pink rabbit-hair rings with delicate fingers that had never touched dishwater. Once, during a particularly mind numbing film strip on the formation of Western Pennsylvania’s rich coal beds, Miss E.C. performed a sacred ritual rarely witnessed by those of us outside the secret society of pom-pom-and-baton sisters: she removed the worn, water-damaged fur from her ring – exposing its naked copper-plated body for all to see – and lovingly rewrapped it to full-fluff perfection! The process was done with such care and precision. Why, it was almost like watching a gifted surgeon graft skin.
Alas, I was to spend my middle school days with naked fingers, dreaming of the day my crush objects would know I existed. Dreaming of the day I’d be able to proudly scrawl D.S. + J.V. = Forever on the cover of my David Bowie notebook, instead of on the inside pages. I longed for the day when I, like the dating girls, would need to conceal my sucker-bites with Maybelline makeup.
Well, by my sophomore year, I decided that Dusty Springfield was right: You won’t get him, thinkin’ and a-prayin’, wishin’ and a-hopin. So, I decided to just give up. I vowed to heed the advice of the feminists – Eleanor Roosevelt, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan – and live my life as an independent lady. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” the Australian writer/activist Irina Dunn once said. And, by golly, that would be my new slogan. But, no sooner had I decided to live a life of total self-reliance, then something very unusual happened: I met a boy who liked me. And my new I Am Woman lifestyle would be put on hold – at least for a few months.
In January of 1975, I went with some friends to a basketball game at a rival high school. As I sat in the bleachers, wearing my widest-leg jeans and my cherished white leather jacket with blue stitching, a tall, handsome boy with ebony eyes, sleek dark hair and perfect posture began to talk to me. Dave knew absolutely nothing about my low popularity rating, my average socio-economic background, my shaky scholastic standing, my klutziness in gym class, or my non-involvement in extra-curricular activities like drinking and getting high. All of the make-or-break factors that mattered so much in my high school didn’t mean diddly to Dave. He liked me just as I was.
Now, at the age of 15 – for the first time in my life – a boy was asking me for my phone number. And he put it to good use, calling me every night around 7 pm from the privacy of the phone booth on main street of his tiny one-traffic-light town. Each time the operator said, “please deposit another quarter,” I held my breath, wondering if Dave would be able to squeeze out another coin. And he always did. This was his cigarette money, mind you, but he managed to hold on to just enough chump change to make his nightly calls to me. Now, instead of quoting Dusty Springfield, I was quoting the Shangri-Las: When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love, L.U.V.
My grandmother lived in the same town as my new beau, which made for one sweet deal. On Fridays after school I would board the blue and white bus (which I called The Magic Bus) for a 30 minute ride – across the steel-decked “singing” bridge that spanned the sulfur creek, past the identical gray shingled company houses of old coal towns with names like Josephine – arriving eventually in a quiet village named for a Greek poet. Dave and I would spend as much time together as we could, and at 9 pm he would escort me to my grandmother’s house.
We walked the wintry streets hand-in-hand, necked in the icy bleachers of the deserted “Home of the Wildcats” football field, and hung out in the big drugstore, where he showed me magazines with pictures of body builders he hoped to emulate. When I blanched at the vein-popping muscles of his heroes, he assured me that “they look just like normal guys when they’re wearing shirts.”
We had so much in common, Dave and I. When I told him I was taking French in school, he excitedly told me that he, too, was a French student. He said he was inspired to learn the language after seeing a nudie magazine titled Oui. Wow, brawn and brains!
In 1975, Valentine’s Day fell a Friday, which was, of course, Magic Bus day. As I stepped off the ‘ol blue-and-white, Dave quickly approached and handed me a flat brown paper bag. “I think you’ll like this,” he said with a smile. I peered inside the bag and pulled out a record album by a group I had never heard of: Jo Jo Gunne. “My buddy turned me on to this group,” he said. “They’re really different – not like Kiss and Grand Funk Railroad.” What an endorsement! I studied the monochromatic front cover – four long-haired guys sitting cross-legged and contemplative (or stoned) under a stylized neon-tube looking logo.
Just why did Dave buy me a record album as a Valentine’s Day gift? I never discussed my rock-n-roll mania with him; somehow it just didn’t seem feminine. Little did he know that records were my favorite gifts. So, the fact that he had taken the time to choose this rather obscure record just for me meant more than receiving any chintzy, soon-to-tarnish ring or pendant. He wanted to turn me on to a new sound! Now that’s what I call romantic.
The name of the album was “Bite Down Hard,” released in 1973 by a band that chose its name from the title of a 1958 Chuck Berry song: “Joe Joe Gun.” (Rockers are always stealing from Chuck.) Serious music fans will appreciate the fact that the two founding members of Jo Jo Gunne — singer, guitarist, keyboardist Jay Ferguson, and bassist Mark Andes — were once part of an interesting late ’60s band called Spirit. They’re best known for releasing “The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus,” a well-regarded LP that blended rock, jazz and psychedelia. The album’s single, “Mr. Skin,” is an FM radio staple.
Unfortunately, my new Jo Jo Gunne LP was not held in such high esteem by critics. One reviewer said “‘Bite Down Hard'” doesn’t.” But what did it matter? Beauty is in the ear of the listener, and to my ears it was magnificent. From the hard rock opening song, “Reddy Freddy,” to the prog-rock closer, “Rhoda,” I loved them all. And I still play them all.
In the end, of course, the vinyl outlived the relationship. Four months later, on June 4th, Dave decided he could no longer abide by my wishes to remain chaste, and wandered off to seek such services elsewhere. My heart was broken. Now, instead of singing Dusty Springfield or Shangi-La songs, I was singing Peggy Lee’s classic Leiber-Stoller tune: Is that all there is, is that all there is? If that’s all there is to love, then let’s keep dancing.
My first taste of teenage love and heartbreak taught me a valuable lesson: having a boyfriend wasn’t all it was cracked up to be (is anything, really?) I’d have to find other ways to feel a sense of self-worth. When I entered my junior year of high school – free from romantic distractions – I applied myself like never before. I was even chosen as editor of high school newspaper! And, for the first time ever, I took pride in my work. This fish didn’t need a bicycle. Sure, my heart would be broken a few more times. But I’d learned the value of self-reliance. And, as Peggy Lee advised, I kept on dancing – even when I had no partner.
Dave, if you’re out there somewhere reading this, I want you to know that I always give thanks to you on Valentine’s Day: for giving me my first kiss, for the cool album that no one else owns, and most of all, FOR DUMPING ME!!
Here’s a song from “Bite Down Hard,” titled “Take Me Down Easy.” Pretty prophetic, huh?
© Dana Spiardi, Feb 14, 2014