Authors: Joe Layden Ace Frehley John Ostrosky
Jeanette was a year younger than me, and we were from different worlds. I was of German descent and lived in the Bronx. She was an Italian girl from Westchester. Jeanette’s grandfather, Joseph Trerotola, was an impressive man who served as vice president of the Teamsters Union; Joe T. was a powerful guy who could shut down JFK Airport with one phone call, and played golf with President Nixon and Jimmy Hoffa. He was not a man you wanted to piss off. Jeanette’s father also worked for the Teamsters, as an organizer. Jeanette’s grandfather and father lived in the Bronx for some time before moving to Westchester, so you’d think we might have connected on some level. But we didn’t. Not in the beginning, anyway. They disapproved of me at first, and wondered why I didn’t have a car and was unemployed. I told her dad one evening that I was going to be a successful rock star, but he just laughed and shook his head. Whatever the case, the last thing they wanted was for their daughter to fall in love with an unemployed musician from the Bronx, but there was no keeping us apart. Jeanette ignored her parents’ wishes and our relationship became more and more serious.
In the beginning, Jeanette was a positive influence on me. (I don’t know that I can honestly say the reverse is also true.) A solid student whose family encouraged education, Jeanette enrolled at Pace University’s Westchester campus shortly after we began dating. And within a couple of months she had convinced me that dropping out was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
“You know,” she said one day, “you really ought to go back to school and get your diploma.”
“Why? What do they know about being in a band or playing guitar? I’ll learn more out here, on my own.”
Jeanette didn’t pressure me, but instead systematically broke down my defenses, poked holes in whatever argument I might have presented. Basically she said I was too smart a guy to be walking around without at least a high school degree. She was right, and if I’m completely honest, I’ll admit that I was somewhat embarrassed about being viewed as a dropout (or, worse, someone who had flunked out). So I went back to school, taking classes at Roosevelt in the evening while working various jobs during the day and gigging on weekends. Since I was only a few credits short of a degree, it wasn’t long before I had graduated. I went over to Roosevelt one afternoon, picked up my diploma, and then put in a call to my bass player Gene, who lived near Arthur Avenue, in the Italian section of the Bronx. Along with another friend named Neil, Gene and I had formed a short-lived band called King Kong (believe it or not, I had a bass player named Gene back in high school… who knew?).
“Hey, man, I’m a high school graduate!” I said to Gene.
“Good for you.” He didn’t seem terribly excited.
“Are you free? We have to celebrate.”
“Now you’re talking.”
First thing we did was buy two bottles of Mad Dog—MD 20/20, one of the all-time great (meaning horrible but effective) bum wines. The “MD” actually stood for Mogen David, the distiller of this fine brew; “20/20” represented its potency (20 percent alcohol) and the number of ounces in the bottle. Mad Dog was, and still is, cheap, strong wine (although the alcohol content of present-day MD is a saner 13 percent). Horrific stuff, but a sure and quick buzz. Very popular at the time. We also picked up a six-pack of Colt 45, just to make sure the job was well done, and then fished a couple of empty boxes out of the trash near a post office on Fordham Road. The boxes were clean and adorned with stamps, and our plan was to put the beer and Mad Dog inside, and then smuggle the package into a local movie theater. If anyone asked, we’d say we were going to the post office after the movie.
“I don’t think we’re gonna get away with this,” Gene said.
“Ah, bullshit,” I said, examining the package. “Looks official enough. I don’t think anyone will say a word.”
They didn’t. Gene and I bought our tickets and strolled casually through the lobby, even stopping to pick up some popcorn along the way. Then we went into the theater and took a couple of seats near the front. We cracked open the Mad Dog, popped a couple of cans of Colt 45, and started celebrating my newly minted academic credentials. Before long we were getting pretty loose—putting our feet up on the seats in front of us, tossing popcorn at the screen, carrying on a running dialogue with the movie, rolling empty beer cans down the aisle. This naturally had the effect of drawing attention our way, and pretty soon one of the ushers was standing over us, flashlight in hand.
“Gentlemen, you’ll have to keep it down or I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
I laughed, tossed a handful of popcorn in his face.
“Fuck off, man.”
The usher scurried away. Poor kid was just trying to do his job, and here we were, a couple of loud-mouthed drunks making his life miserable. On the long list of atonements I’ve made (or should have made) over the years, this one is probably near the bottom. I mean, there was no long-term damage. But still… the kid deserved better.
He came back a few moments later, again told us to lower our voices or face expulsion. This time I didn’t say a word. Instead I jumped out of my seat, curled my hand into a fist, and clocked the kid right on the jaw.
“What the hell?” he said, rolling toward the screen. His flashlight cracked against a seat and went dark, but in the flickering shadow of the film I could see his hat turned sideways on his head. And I could see something else.
The kid was crying.
He scrambled to his feet and ran toward the lobby, shouting “Somebody call the cops!” as he bolted through the doors at the rear of the theater.
I looked around the theater. Everyone was staring at us. Then I turned to Gene.
“What do you think?”
“I think we should get the fuck out of here,” he said. “I don’t feel like getting arrested tonight.”
We bolted for the nearest exit door at the front of the theater, adjacent to the screen, and sprinted down an alleyway before heading back to my place, which was only about five blocks away. Budding alcoholic that I was, I was careful to grab the Mad Dog and Colt 45 before we made our exit, which allowed us to spend the remainder of the evening getting loaded in my room. It wasn’t until about an hour later that I realized I was missing something.
“Can you believe this?” I said to Gene.
“I left my fucking diploma at the theater.”
Gene started to laugh—a stupid, amused, drunken cackle.
“Oh, well. Guess you’re still a dropout, man.”
Now I was pissed—in more ways than one. Drunk, yeah, but also really angry about having lost my diploma, and about the whole embarrassing situation. I was supposed to be meeting Jeanette the following night, and I’d planned to show her my diploma. Silly as it might sound, I was kind of proud that I’d actually gone back to school and finished the job. And I knew she’d be proud of me for having done it. The diploma was merely a piece of paper, yes, but it represented something. And now I’d lost it.
Or maybe not.
“Come on,” I said to Gene. “We’re going back.”
He looked at me like I was nuts.
“To the theater. I have to find my diploma.”
“Oh, you gotta be trippin’, man.”
By the time we got back, the building was dark and the front doors locked. This was one of those elegant old theaters, with heavy, oak-frame
doors and brass handles. I pulled at the door for a moment to see if I could pop the lock. No chance. Gene was about to give up, figuring reasonably that we’d used up our allotment of stupid behavior for the day. Just as he began to walk away, however, I spotted a garbage can on the sidewalk. And not one of those cheap plastic kinds, either. A good old-fashioned metal canister, about three and a half feet high, two feet in diameter.
I could hear Gene laughing as I heaved the pail through the front door, sending shards of glass in all directions. For some reason there was a delay before the theater’s security alarm kicked in, just enough time for me to sprint into the place and begin rummaging for my diploma. I combed through the seats located in the general vicinity of where we had been sitting (or where I thought we had been sitting—Mad Dog wreaks havoc on the memory), but I could find nothing at all.
And then the alarms began to sound.
“Come on!” Gene shouted from the lobby. “Let’s hit the road!”
“Fuck! I can’t find it!”
I ran back out the front door, slipping on a pile of broken glass and slicing my hand open in the process. Then I scrambled to my feet and sprinted away. As Gene and I rounded a corner, I could see a pair of cop cars pulling up in front of the theater, sirens wailing, lights flashing.
Too tired and drunk to talk, I smiled at Gene, even as we kept running. We ended up back at my place completely exhausted, and I had to wake up my mom to help clean out and bandage my hand (since I was too loaded to do it myself).
The following day, I went down to Roosevelt and picked up a replacement diploma. They wanted to know what had happened to the original.
“It was destroyed in a freak accident at the theater,” I said.
Which was the truth… sort of.
ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?
July 17, 1970
In the wake of Woodstock, the entire music business
was gripped with what could best be described as Festival Fever. Multi-act shows, sometimes lasting a few hours, stretching out over days, were all the rage. This being the height of the Vietnam War, themes of brotherhood and peace typically were attached to the proceedings, to give the whole thing an air of nobility. Really, though, it was the music that mattered.
That and the drugs.
And the sex.
The summer of 1969 had been a blast. I got into the hippie scene in a major way: drank a lot of wine, smoked a lot of pot, had sex with a half-dozen different girls. Everything was loose and easy and relatively safe. By the following summer, though, things seemed to have changed a bit. I noticed some of my friends had modified their habits when it
came to dealing with mind-altering substances. Instead of just lighting up a joint, they’d drop some acid. A few had even started shooting dope. Heroin, frankly, scared the shit out of me. Always did. Even at the height of my drug use I stayed away from heroin, partly because I didn’t like needles, but also because I honestly thought it might kill me. As for LSD, well, that was spooky shit as well. Probably had something to do with my bad glue trip and the scary psychosis that went along with it. I knew enough about acid to know that it could really fuck with your mind, and not just in the short term. I noticed that with some of my friends, if they had a couple of bad trips, the effects could linger for months, either in the form of flashbacks or depression. Then they’d start taking downers to ease the stress and anxiety that came with residual psychosis, or whatever you want to call it. All that mattered to me was this: if you dropped too much acid (and who the hell was to say how much was too much?) you had a reasonable chance of ending up in the nuthouse.
I didn’t need that risk—my psychological state was fragile enough, as the U.S. Army had determined when I was classified 1-Y following a psychiatric evaluation at Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn. That got me out of the draft, which was all well and good, but it certainly left some lingering doubts about my mental health.
So I never took LSD. Not intentionally, anyway. I may have been dosed a couple of times, however. I remember once in high school, for example, this kid named Alex who used to walk the hallways with a goofy smile on his face. A little heavy, with a bulbous nose and a face forever flushed red, he reminded me of Santa Claus. Handed out treats like St. Nick, as well.
“Try this, man,” he said one day, offering me a joint.
“What is it?”
“Panama Red. Awesome shit.”
I smoked it that afternoon with my friend Keith, and we tripped in a major way. I’m talking Day-Glo colors and kaleidoscopic visions. I don’t know for sure if it was laced with acid, but if not, it was the strongest,
strangest pot I’ve ever smoked. I didn’t like the effect, and had no desire to seek it out intentionally. I didn’t want to lose control. Two guys in one of my bands, Neil and John, tripped regularly. Me? I preferred alcohol. That I could handle (or so I rationalized). I knew that I was going to have a career in music someday, and I wanted a better life for myself. I saw guys tripping on acid, incapacitated months down the road, and it didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t think it was worth taking something with the chance I could end up with permanent brain damage or incapacitating mental illness (the irony, of course, is that eventually I wound up with both, despite abstaining from heroin and acid). It wasn’t worth rolling the dice when I wanted to accomplish bigger things.
For better or worse, naïvely or not, that was my line in the sand.
Instinctively, I realized I had to remain clearheaded enough to take advantage of whatever opportunities came my way. There is a reason I chose the persona of the Spaceman when I joined KISS: I believe wholeheartedly in cosmic intervention; everything happens for a reason.