A rollicking account of a paralyzed Gen Xer coming of age in the oft-times sordid Hollywood rock scene of the 1980’s
Pops must’ve climbed into his van right after hanging up, because he was at my door within the hour. He didn’t bring the much-needed firearm, instead suggesting I flee and move in with him. It was obvious that getting the fuck away from that neighborhood, freebasing cocaine, and imminent threat was in my best interest. So after some cursory resistance, like forty seconds, I relented. He got busy loading and we were on the road by nightfall.
Even though Lebanon is the only Arab country without a desert, I often wonder if we got Bedouin in the family and was not surprised at all to find Pops lived in yet another location. The new pad, in Santa Ana near South Coast Plaza, was a newer single-story sitting on a corner lot. One thing made my new living arrangement quite enjoyable – Hassan and Omar were at the fun kindergarten-ish age. It was a blast playing with them, watching Dukes of Hazzard and reading nightly bedtime stories. Still not a fan of Barbara, I kept it to myself to maintain the peace. And as an unintended consequence, we actually got along great.
Being friendly with Barbara had a lot of benefits. Besides the complete lack of stress and tension between us, she’d often ride me around town in her kick-ass, red 1965 Mustang, windows down, enjoying top-forty hits as cool spring coastal air ruffled my mullet. During one afternoon cruise, I heard a very happy surprise: heavy metal on AM radio. It was Def Leppard’s “Photograph.” Sure, the song was commercial, but up until that day, I never would’ve believed Def Leppard would or could be played on a pop station. The music world had changed, and I just heard the proof. My initial excitement wore off once the song hit heavy rotation, but it didn’t stop me from acquiring Pyromania. Then, when Quiet Riot became the next metal band getting heavy pop radio play, I obediently banged my head as my folks worried about my Metal Health.
With no rent, while also receiving monthly SSI checks, combined with proceeds from the sale of my E&J power wheelchair, I soon bankrolled enough to buy a car. The eleven-year-old cars of my youth were far sweeter than modern junk. I scored a 1972 Pontiac Grand Ville convertible, with a 454 big-block engine that produced tons of asphalt-searing torque, for only six hundred seventy-five bucks.
Burning my left knuckles raw while changing my new baby’s spark plugs made me realize I could not feel hot or cold in my hand. With all the prodding, poking, and sharp pins at Rancho Hospital, you would think they’d have checked for something important like that. I never did get a left foot gas or steering knob as my license required, and I’ve always just driven a normal car with my left foot. Is that a movie about a handicap dude driving illegally? I don’t understand why they even call us handicapped. We’re not very handy, and I rarely wear a hat. POW! Don’t forget to tip your servers.
After getting stabbed, I never went back to physical therapy at White Memorial, nor gathered up three grand to buy myself a leg brace. But after I told Pops of my physical progress, he built me some sweet parallel bars out of plywood and 2 x 2s. I’d stand or do knee bends, and got stronger by the week. At my next Rancho clinic, to my great delight, that awesomely perfect, pint-sized, perky, and pretty PT, Jan, had transferred over to pediatric spinal injury. I cannot convey to you how awesome this woman was! When I told her about taking a few steps at White Memorial and my new parallel bars, she suggested some exercises to do at home. And at my next clinic, she’d reevaluate. It was all on me, so I began living a semi-normal, focused life of daily exercise, hanging around the house, and fighting the urge to smoke coke.
One afternoon, Pops came in super pissed off about getting a handicap spot ticket at work, when his restaurant was closed and the lot empty. I suggested we go to court and commit perjury by claiming I was with him and the placard was in clear view on the dash. He declined, but won in court because the restaurant’s lot was private property and not properly posted. Disabled spaces were a new thing in those days, meaning that there were far fewer of them, but they were almost always available for those folks who were actually disabled. Nowadays, there is an ocean of disabled spaces, and it takes forever to find one. I have a paraplegic buddy, Jim, and whenever he sees old folks, obese chain smokers, or anyone else who doesn’t require an extra-wide parking spot to fully open their door for equipment removal, he yells, “There’s a picture of a dude in a wheelchair on that sign!”
The Pontiac allowed me to hit L.A. a few days a week, to hang with Mike and show off mad driving skills learned from watching Jim Rockford while shredding the very same streets captured on the small-screen. At Pops’ urging, I signed up for summer classes at Orange Coast College, but rarely made it to school. Instead, I stayed out late clubbing, drinking, smoking, snorting, and whoring in Hollywood.
After a few months of being mobile, one afternoon at breakfast, Pops inquired about my life’s future plans. Early on after my accident, I had accepted that I would never be on stage as a performer, yet still felt an insatiable passion for music. I needed to be part of that world. Making music videos seemed like the most fun and creative outlet still available, with the highest number of dancing girls involved. When I told of my desire to make music videos, or any career in the music business, Pops said I needed a more “realistic goal.”
Because he still held sway over my brainwaves, I went to Rancho and met with Susan, a very pretty vocational rehabilitation counselor. Upon hearing of my vocational goal, she said, “Music videos are a fad, just like video games.” But to get a better understanding of my abilities, she suggested I undergo a two-week vocational evaluation at “The Workshop.”
Coincidently, my lawyer was in the process of arranging vocational testing to determine my abilities and future earning potential. But at Rancho, it was free. So I signed up. The Workshop was where all of Rancho’s wheelchairs were cleaned and repaired. First, I’d break them down into pieces, making it easier to scrub all the gimp crud from them. Once clean, I reassembled some, with new parts replacing old if need be, while the rest remained as parts in the boneyard.
As a hater of traffic and early-morning waking, I relocated to Downey, right across Imperial Highway from where I did my spinal injury stint. The vocational rehab housing was called Casa Consuelo, and I had a two-hundred-square-foot private room with a bed, tables, sink, and mirror. We had a community shower, as well as a cafeteria providing three free meals a day, plus a fridge stocked with plenty of snacks, milk, and juice. Theoretically, my living accommodations were a hundred bucks a month, but there was no collection mechanism. Meaning, if I didn’t voluntarily go to cash services to pay my invoice, I merely owed a hundred bucks more the next month. I keep meaning to go over there and settle my account.
A fresh crop of PT/OT intern girls from all over America were delivered fresh to Casa’s second floor every four weeks. Them lovely ladies were cute, sweet, smart, and not biased against a disability. Not all girls dig vegetables. I enjoyed several four-week romances. My go-to outing was the drive-in movie’s cheap entertainment, where we could bring our own food, beer, and weed. I was often getting busy or trying to get something (nothing), so didn’t see most of a lot of movies at the Lakewood Drive-In. One evening, after missing large swaths of the first two picture shows, a movie called Scarface played. Because I’m a Pacino fan and dug the original film, I zipped up and watched from the very beginning. I sat slack-jawed in awe of the bloodletting and mountainous piles of cocaine, as well as the inspiring rags-to-riches American Dream of Cuban drug lord, Tony. I told anyone that would listen, “You got to see Scarface,” and, “Let’s get some blow.”
At The Workshop, my “two-week evaluation” morphed into six weeks of slave labor while I still awaited that fabled evaluation to begin. All us crippled comrades often bitched amongst ourselves as we slow-rolled our work. But back home at Casa, an unlikely buddy, Kurt, saw it differently. Even though we were into entirely different dance scenes, he was an avid reader and drinking buddy. We’d talk literature, get hammered, and I’d seek his wise counsel about shit. So when I bitched and moaned about the bullshit slave-driving Workshop, Kurt hit me with some of the best advice ever. “You’re being evaluated every minute. Play their game and play to win.”
It was like a nuclear fucking lightbulb blew up over my shaggy head. In a fit of drunken epiphany, I blurted out, “I’ll show those motherfuckers.”
The next morning, right from the get-go, I charged full speed ahead. Instead of the usual one chair, I completed five wheelchairs, then about the same the next day, but only three the day after. That was all they had. I went to the supervisor and requested more chairs, and he asked, “What happened to all those chairs that were in cue?”
Up until that moment, no one had noticed me busting ass. After I explained they were all done and gone, he went to check my truthfulness. He then stood on the empty floor space, where a dozen wheelchairs had been parked, double-checking my worksheet. After a moment of head scratching, he decided to let me go home early. I had worked myself out of a job.
The next day, they kept me busy heat stamping “Property of Los Angeles County Hospital” decals onto surgical scrubs. After trying a few different techniques, I got going at a pretty good clip, then flew through the huge stacks they left me with. I ran out of stuff to stamp an hour before quitting time. When I told my boss the work was completed, he said, “Impossible.” Either way, it was Friday and I went home early.
On Monday, I arrived right on time, also a new habit of mine, and was told, “I don’t know how you did it, but those scrubs should have taken you a week.”
I had become the talk of the vocational rehab slave-drivers. A few overpaid, yet under-qualified civil servants wanted to see the heat stamp savant in action, all the while timing it. Ready, set, there I went. Stopwatch ticked away while notes were furiously scribbled. They put a halt to my exhibition after fifteen minutes – for an amazing completion rate of a hundred sixty units per hour. More than double the previous record. The best outcome was they couldn’t let me do anymore heat stamping or wheelchairs, because they didn’t want to run out of make-work for the other gimps.
Within days, they actually began evaluating my memory, motor skills, math, reading comprehension, cognitive skills, and critical thinking. When not blowing their minds, I got special treatment at The Workshop, to basically become my supervisor’s personal assistant and joke teller. I did a bunch of cake jobs, like engraving signs for county buildings or wrenching on power chairs. Whenever they gave me a new task, I tackled it like it was a competition and set out to best my unworthy opponents. At first, I was just “playing their game,” but I really dug kicking everyone’s ass. Outworking fuckers be fun. That’s my attitude to this day. If I decide to take on something, I’m going to kick all ya’ll’s motherfucking asses. Bitch!
When the results of my “two-week evaluation” came in, my vocational counselor, Susan, sounded quite stunned as she told me, “You did very well, Rached. Your scores indicate that you would probably be successful as an engineer.”
I busted her chops. “Bu-bu-but, I don’t really want to drive a train for the rest of my life.” Once she realized I was joking, she quit explaining the different types of engineering degrees. To keep my bargain accommodations at Casa, I agreed to take classes at Cerritos Community College and let Voc Rehab pay for the whole shebang. Even though I firmly believe one should do their best when doing a job, if you can get out of imposed bullshit, go for it. So I quit going after two days of classes. With no one keeping a close eye on me, I rock ‘n’ rolled all night long and slept in till free lunchtime.
Every summer, downtown, an amazing food and music festival, the “L.A. Street Scene,” showcased the diverse arts and culture of L.A.’s unique populace. The day before my three-year neck break anniversary, I went there solo and got my first ever taste of Thai food, beef satay, which was life-changing. I then bounced from stage to stage, watching bands while consuming mass quantities of buds, beer, and bourbon. Up until that hot summer day, all I thought I knew about the headliner, Three Dog Night, was their drummer, Floyd, lived next door when I was four, and his sister was beautiful. Shortly after Mayor Tom Bradley introduced the band, they proceeded to play hit after smash hit; and then a few more iconic hits. I don’t know if I witnessed an above-average show or if they were a spectacular live band, but Three Dog Night set the stage on fire with an epic performance that easily makes it into my top ten shows.
A few weeks later, a friend and me sat in my car, burning a doobie while listening to the radio. When the DJ mentioned that evening’s sold-out Police concert at Hollywood Park, I suggested we banzai the gig. My buddy was hesitant, disbelieving of our ability to get in. I’m not one of those “I wish I could see_______, fans.” If you are not at the venue, you’ll for sure not see the show. After my persuasive philosophy speech, a hell-ride to Inglewood, and forty bucks each to a scalper, we arrived to our seats just as The Police hit the stage. It sucked. The Police were so good and popular, fans remained standing the entire show. From my chair, I miss a lot of the best shows or exciting plays during sporting events, because people are compelled to their feet. I can’t recall ever watching the Dodgers bat in the bottom of the ninth inning of a close game.
Pyrrhus hired a new bass player, Rick Mars, a cool, Hawaiian, Rudy-Sarzo-looking dude. They no longer jammed in Mike’s backyard, due to a fed-up neighbor who filed suit to shut the noise down. The guys began rehearsing at an hourly space on Gower, right across the street from Paramount Pictures Studio, near Melrose and the most excellent Astro Burgers drive-thru. The studio was great, acoustically and aesthetically, with the very powerful PA allowing Mike to be heard above Tracii’s 10 fixation. Even though Mike remained pretentiously stiff, I liked the power, range, and tone of his maturing voice. Robbie had scrimped and saved enough to score a new Tama double bass kit, which I never liked as much as his previously pounded-upon Ludwig kit.
With their slick jam space, a cool new bass player, and shows booked in local clubs, it felt like those guys had taken the leap from high school garage band to professionals. I happily helped them lug gear around to gigs at Gazzarri’s, Cathay de Grande, or wherever there was a stage, in the back of my truck – cleverly disguised as a 1972 Pontiac convertible.
The never-ending tension between Mike and Tracii sometimes made me think that Mike was going to haul off and punch Tracii in the face. Many times, Mike was just being unreasonable, but there was one issue that I was 100 percent on Mike’s side about. Tracii demanded Mike bleach his hair blond or be fired. Considering he was the best-looking dude in the band, it would have been a goofy move. When I first met Tracii, he was a dirty blond, pizza-faced, brace-wearing shredder – lover of Jimmy Page and Randy Rhoads – but by mid-1983, he wanted to do the Mötley Crüe thing and had dyed his hair black to prove it. Rick’s hair was already black, so Tracii kept bugging Robbie to dye his hair and then make Mike be the blond singer.
None of that mattered, because by fall, Rick had quit Pyrrhus to join a band called Rose. During the hiatus, me, Tracii, Mike, and several friends went camping at Lake Hughes. The guys were excited about hiring a kick-ass Danish bass player, Ole Beich, who once played in Mercyful Fate. To celebrate, they built a way-too-big bonfire and then kept dousing it with some sort of accelerant while chanting mumbo jumbo about Pyrrhus at the head-high flames licking up at the darkness. We spent our night drinking, smoking, and singing along with Tracii’s acoustic guitar stylings. “Happy trails to you. Until we meet again…”
By the fall, I was heading to Hollywood at least once a week. My Casa roommate, Tim, who had cracked his coconut on the grille of an oncoming van while riding his bicycle, woke from his coma ready to party. Every week, he received a decent-sized disability check and then sought to blow it on booze and buds, which the Pyrrhus boys and me were more than happy to help him with.
Ole and me had hit it off right away. Maybe it was the case of beer usually found on my lap, but he’d perk up whenever he saw me, shouting, “Raz, cool!” He was a great-looking, tall, thin, long-blond-haired Nordic god, almost a decade older than us. Most importantly, Ole was a monster bass player who steadily drove songs straight ahead as Robbie pounded away in lock step.
I bought a cassette deck and equalizer as a Christmas present for my true love, the Pontiac. I then went on a mission to get me a tattoo with the leftover cash, but had no idea where a tattoo parlor was. Back then, tattoo joints were few and far between. Mainly due to the fact that only badasses got inked, and there aren’t that many badasses. I got soul, and believing myself super bad, I called Ma to ask if she knew the whereabouts of a tattoo parlor, and she said, “Aw, Rached, don’t get a tattoo. You’ll be scarred for life.”
Once I assured her a friend of mine wanted to know, she told me about Sunset Tattoo, across the street from the “Riot House” on Sunset Boulevard. I liquored up and went to pick one off the wall, then proceeded to wince like a pussy as the electric needle inked a flaming skull beneath my thin skin. When it was all said and done, I had to start cutting the sleeves off all my T-shirts. Ma was extremely disappointed upon seeing my ink, and asked, “Why didn’t you get one that said Mom?”
The night before New Year’s Eve, Mike and me went to see Dio’s Holy Diver tour at the Long Beach Arena. We even got there in time to catch the opening acts, Y&T and Dokken. During the mid-80s, those two bands opened up for many arena headliners in my town. I thought Y&T was great, but was always thoroughly bored by Dokken. But fuck the opening acts, because Dio absolutely blew my mind. Everything clicked – the music, the band, the theatrics, and stage set all combined with Ronnie James Dio’s soulful foghorn and commanding stage presence made this one of my all-time favorite rock ‘n’ roll shows. I really dug Long Beach Arena, too. It had everything going for it – great acoustics and disabled seating semi-close to the stage. With the next row in front of us some twenty feet below, it meant if the rock was great enough to keep fans on their feet, they could not block my view.