Music has always been a major part of my life. Thanks to MTV and BET, the 1980s were vibrant: I was as likely to be influenced by the glossy new wave funk of Duran Duran as by the earthy raps of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. It was about a feeling, an impulse, finding a new means of self-expression. It was a time of blind optimism. And though I was gifted in many ways as a child, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish my strengths from my weaknesses. So when I decided, at the age of nine, to start a rock band with two equally non-musical friends, there seemed no reason we wouldn't make it to the top of the charts.
My friend Eric was named our drummer, primarily because his mother bought him a drum set and a guitar and he didn't want to play the guitar. My best friend Andre -- a mild-mannered, yet wildly creative sidekick who embraced all of my ideas as though they were absolutely brilliant quickly filled the guitar spot. As for me, I was the lead singer, air bassist and main songwriter, as identifiable with my groups anticipated success as Lionel Richie was with the Commodores.
We named ourselves Diamond Rock -- after the logo on Eric's drums -- and we would not be denied. Even from our initial rehearsals on Erics back porch, superstardom seemed within our reach. Our greatest musical influence was The Monkees. Andre and I watched countless episodes of their campy, late '60s television show, bought their albums, debated deep musical theories ("I think Mike's guitar playing got better when he took off that stupid wool cap") and studied their lyrics and melodies, hoping that they might inspire some of our own.
Within weeks, I became a hit-writing machine, composing intense tracks like "Who Cares", "Fire", "Mountain Climber", and one of our best-remembered classics, "I Like Ice Cream":
I like ice cream
I like ice cream
I like ice cream
I like the way that it feels on my tongue
I like ice cream
The best thing about the 1980s, at least where we lived, is that it was the last decade in which little kids were allowed to be little kids. Our parents, family and friends encouraged us to use our imagination, even if, in our band's case, imagination was all that we had.
Soon Malcolm and Martin, identical twins who lived down the street from us, wanted to be involved. Andre found a pair of maracas in his basement and gave them one each. Then Benji, a very athletic kid up the block, wanted in, so we made him head of security. We put Chris -- who talked nonstop anyway -- in charge of publicity. Once we began hiring people, things really began to take shape. Strangely, it wasn't our music that made kids in the neighborhood wonder what we were up to: it was the fact that we had an entourage.
As the summer approached and our buzz began to build along the block, I decided that we owed a free concert to the community that had nurtured us. My dad built a small wooden stage, painted it yellow for no apparent reason, and put it in our backyard. On the day of the concert, Andre and Eric lugged the drum set three houses from Eric's backyard to mine. It was a collaborative effort, yet all underneath my clear, advanced and inspired vision.
At six o'clock that evening, I unlatched the gate to my backyard. The first bunch of kids entered. More followed. Then others. The suddenly real prospect of overflowing my backyard began to excite me. I imagined the fire marshal coming to shut us down, being led from my own backyard in handcuffs chanting, "We don't need no! Education!"
At Eric's opening drum solo for "Who Cares", the crowd lost it. Then I, feeding off their energy, charged the stage, launched directly into song:
Who cares if you don't love me?
Who cares if you're above me?
Who cares if you want to shove me?
Who cares if you're lovely?
(Andre supplied his famous vocal guitar riff here)
The audience, some twenty strong, lost their minds. We sang all the friggin' hits: "I've Got It Made", "Shades of Black", "Hey, Hey, Were Diamond Rock," the unstoppable "I Like Ice Cream." It amazed me that a crowd -- and a half-female crowd, at that -- could get so excited over songs that they'd never heard before. We were just that incredible.
I had extra incentive to perform well that day: someone had invited LaKeisha Green to the concert. I had the most spectacular crush on her, though we hadn't been formally introduced. And there she was, in the raucous crowd, watching me command the stage in all my rock star majesty. It was as foolproof a method of impressing chicks as I would ever learn.
The grand finale was "Fire," during which my dad -- at my urging -- ignited several firecrackers during the middle of each chorus, which sent the kids into frenzy. I knew then that the fire marshal would be arriving any minute. Not only was my wire fence bursting at the seams, we were using volatile explosives without a permit. In addition, I was taking a startling risk by allowing fireworks anywhere near my Care Free Curl in the wake of Michael Jackson's Pepsi commercial debacle. But I was unstoppable that day: I even held a Sparkler in my hand during the closing seconds of the song.
After that day, we were legends.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. In less than a week, every other boy in the neighborhood had formed his own group. Most of them were rappers. The most cutthroat assault to our reign came from Andre's older brother, Telly, who not only formed a rap duo, but had the audacity to challenge the untouchable Diamond Rock to a showdown on my front porch. We recruited two pretty girls to judge the contest: Alisha Brown, and the apple of my eye, LaKeisha Green. Ugly girls, we concluded, knew absolutely nothing about music.
Telly's challenge had been given on short notice ("Fool, we can battle right now!"), so there was no time to run back to Eric's house and grab our instruments. And since our concerts success had left us all unbearably arrogant, we didn't feel as though we needed them.
We were beaten senseless. Telly's group had a seamless flow, complete with intricate rhyme schemes and a dazzling chemistry reminiscent of Run-DMC. Without our instruments, I was exposed as a non-singing fraud, possibly because we now had no theatrics to mask our considerable shortcomings. In desperation, I tried to throw in a couple of free styled rap lyrics ("'Cause I'm a mountain climber/ I drink lemon-lime-ah") but it was to no avail. Both of the judges -- LaKeisha (because Telly's rap partner, another kid named Andre, was light-skinned and faintly resembled our hero LL Cool J) and Alisha (because the other Andre was her older brother) -- voted in their favor.
Word of our defeat spread like a virus. All of a sudden, Diamond Rock was overrated and a walking punch line, a bunch of has-beens in the neighborhood that we had just put on the map. Malcolm and Martin stormed out of a rehearsal, never to return ("One maraca! Man, this is stupid!"). Benji took a gig working security for Telly's group. The sessions for our second album, We Will Diamond Rock You, were marred by the tension resulting from a heated dispute between Eric and I. ("How can you say Hulk Hogan is better than Macho Man? You're stupid! I don't want to be your friend anymore!") And then, finally, came my sad and violent spiral into addiction.
Crushed by the pressures of fame, I sought relief in Pixy Sticks -- which often left me too wired to rehearse or write songs that didn't sound like tired knockoffs of "Who Cares." It was horrible. There were dark, pitiful moments when I was so ready for a Pixy fix that I ditched rehearsals altogether and hung out near Tom's Carryout, in search of another hit. It is not something that I am proud of. Those were miserable days.
The groups final deathblow came after I had a dream that we were slated for a 30-city U.S. tour and woke up the next morning believing it was true. My dad had recently bought a brown van with tinted windows, which I interpreted as a sign that he had committed to becoming our driver. It was just as well; we needed to get things moving. The first show was in St. Louis on Wednesday.
"You should probably tell everyone at school that I'll be gone for a month," I told my mother one afternoon, as she prepared to vacuum the living room carpet.
"And why would I do that?" she said.
"Because of our tour. We owe it to our fans."
"Jason, if you bug me one more time about St. Louis. You can't possibly think that your father and I are going to drive you and your friends all the way to Missouri for some make-believe concert. You need to get real."
"But I am real, Mom," I said. "The promoter booked the gig already. This is going to be the biggest tour of the year."
"The promoter booked the gig?" she asked, while frowning as though she wondered if I was really her child. "Where did you learn how to talk like that? I'm not going to talk about this anymore. I am not driving you to St. Louis."
"BUT MAMA, NO! YOU HAVE TO TAKE US TO ST. LOUIS!" I said, as I fell on the floor, screaming and crying. My mom was familiar with my irrational requests and subsequent outbursts. She paid me little attention.
"You can cry till your eyes fall out, but you heard what I said." She sidestepped my flailing body and turned on the vacuum cleaner. The thunderous drone of the Hoover drowned out my wails.
Disturbed by my mother's lack of vision and committed to firing her as our manager, I decided that I no longer wanted to be a part of Diamond Rock. I broke the news to Andre and Eric the next day. They were inconsolable for about three minutes, then we forgot about it -- wrestling was on. The greatest band ever to hail from Freeman Street had suddenly split up, and the question posed by our biggest hit had finally been answered: Nobody cared.
But in this age of comebacks and reinventions, a Diamond Rock reunion is not out of the question. Andre and Eric are both alive and well and still live in Toledo, Ohio. Though I now live in California, Eric and I still talk occasionally. Who cares if neither Andre nor Eric has picked up an instrument in the twenty years since our demise? Neither had picked up an instrument before the band's creation either, did that stop us from selling out my backyard? And this time, as grown men -- free from parental constraints -- we could satisfy a whole new generation of fans that were never blessed to witness the Diamond Rock experience. Anything's possible these days, you really never know.
You just never know.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
11.17.09 @ 5:53p
St. Louis is still waiting!
11.18.09 @ 9:17a
Having completed my sentence as a sometime lyricist for a real rock band most of the members of which had completed their courses of study at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston and actually knew how to play their instruments, I completely understand your fantasies. (Cue: time for the big communal sigh.)