How I Became a High School Dropout

(Warning: harsh language, drug use.)

Painted Black

At the end of the summer of 1980, my girlfriend Anna left for college, I turned 17, I began my junior year, got glasses, read Catcher in the Rye, assumed my post as Editorial Page Editor on the Lance, and badly sprained my ankle playing soccer. And I was at war with myself, total war.

As September cooled into October, a gloom began to settle over me that I couldn’t shake. I don’t know if it was clinical depression; it might have been. After spraining my ankle I was done with soccer, and any sports for the time being. I began to slack at school. My introspective tendencies were at their worst. As far as I could tell, it was all brought on by the pangs of Anna’s absence. I was overcome by negative feelings about myself and life in general. Smoking dope and drinking didn’t help.I was tired and, as always, walked around with a knot in stomach over school.

You know I’d give you everything I’ve got
for a little peace of mind
-John Lennon
I’m So Tired

Over the summer, my friendship with Mark and Troy grew stronger. In September, Mark, Troy and Dave Larson (my co-editor) had talked about traveling together in Europe, and as soon as they were all done with school was the perfect time for them to do it. Of course they didn’t have the money, so they would have to figure out a way to save as much money (and as quickly) as possible. One night, Dave came to my house and we walked through Bonner Park. He was very troubled. He asked if could confide in me, if I could keep a secret. Mark and Troy had come up with a scheme to make a lot of money fast: growing pot. A lot of pot. Dave found this very troubling, and needed  to get it off his chest. I suggested he decide if he was in or out, and let the other two do what they wanted. He told them he was out.

Shortly after that, about the end of the month, Mark and Troy proposed the Alliance: the three of us, backing a growing operation to fund a trip to Europe. I did not like the business plan, but the Europe trip – well, that was something I had dreamed of since I was 10 years old. I loved the idea. After arguing with them about my objections, I was in. As soon as I did, I began to mentally persecute myself over the decision. I was overcome with self-contempt for agreeing to help grow and sell drugs, mostly because I knew my motivation for opting in was easy money. In other words, I was guilty of one of the worst sins there was: greed.

I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black
-Jagger & Richards
Paint It Black

That wasn’t the only problem. Mark was graduated, and Troy was going to finish early, at midyear, by taking correspondence courses. But I was not going to be done with school for 20 months. I don’t remember who first suggested it, but when I started getting F’s, not just on my work, but on my report card, I felt I had dug myself into a hole I could not dig out of. I truly believed this. And unless I gave up the parties, drugs and alcohol, I was probably right. I began to think about dropping out of school. In so short a time, my way of thinking about my future had been derailed by a half-baked pipe-dream.  No, I was not thinking clearly. And no, far from giving up drugs, I was branching out.  That fall, I took mescaline, the hallucinogen found in peyote, and tried Quaalude, the drug du jour.

Boy, did I feel rotten. I felt so damn lonesome.
-JD Salinger
Catcher in the Rye

I did this in the apartment Mark and Troy rented in Missoula. To get it they asked me for the remaining $300 I had earned in the summer. The apartment served two purposes: it allowed Mark to move out from his grandparents’ house and Troy to move out from his folks’, and it was to be the home of our growing operation, a scheme that began to fail before it ever got underway. For the few months they had it, it became my second home.

Meanwhile, my energies and creativity were focused on the Lance, where Dave and I edited the editorial page, and I continued drawing cartoons and writing my humor column, Nowhere Man. One night in early October, I worked late with other staffers on paste-up. Getting home about 11, I went up to my room and was listening to music, when the phone rang downstairs. I raced to answer it, as Dad and Jane were asleep, and It was Jeff Morgan on the other end.

“Some asshole  just murdered John Lennon,” sounding dismay mixed with anger.

“What?!”

“Some goddamn lunatic shot him on the street. He’s dead.”

“My God.”

To me and some of my friends, this was a cause of sadness and anger. Another death that waved a black flag before us. A warning, a revelation or perhaps a remembrance. I don’t know.

Bad news news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
-Don McLean
American Pie

The real fallout was a sense of disillusionment. Lennon symbolized much of what I had grown up with and had taken as my own attitudes and convictions over the last year. Within the counterculture vision I found a promise – of personal and social evolution – that I was desperately grasping for, but which I was already beginning to doubt as empty and impossible. It pointed to a deeper struggle I was lamely putting up: an illusory light, losing its struggle against a very real darkness. You might stand for such a vision, but skulking around the corner is a lunatic with a gun. There’s always one of those, isn’t there?

With my emotional and academic life in a seemingly irreversible tailspin, dropping out and moving away started looking to me to me like an escape hatch – and I wanted to escape. I was one decision away from making my problems go away.

In February I made the decision.

* * *

I realize that my problems were not very apparent to those around me. I was gregarious, always seeking the company of my friends, and never solitude. At those times, I generally aimed to be the life of the party, which often led to me just making a fool of myself without knowing it. On the outside, I was all laughs and good times. On the inside, my thoughts were serious and dark. I wondered what I really was, if my ideals meant anything, if life and the world and my dreams had any value or meaning.

In the fall I first listened to The Wall from beginning to end. It was a disturbing experience for me, a view of life as so unbearable in its losses and oppression and torments that alienation is inescapable and isolation the only recourse. At this time I first caught a glimpse of something that was just a plain horror to me: the notion that we were alone in the universe. No God, no ultimate meaning or purpose, no reality beyond the material and physical, no soul, no eternal: nothing. Just this life and then the grave, lived on whatever terms we could arrive at by our own wits.

The prospect that this was the truth, that this was the fact of our existence that science, reason, and philosophy presented us with – the fact that I must face, and must embrace –  it knotted my stomach and made my blood run cold. I did not accept it. I wasn’t ready.

If you should go skating
On the thin ice of modern life
Dragging behind you the silent reproach
Of a million tear-stained eyes
Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet.
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice.
-Roger Waters
The Thin Ice

This was running silently in the background to my declining grades and plans of escape, and did so for most of the next two years.

* * *

Maybe then I’ll fade away

When Troy, Mark and I formed the Alliance, we had one aim: save enough money for a trip to Europe. When the pot-growing plan fell apart, they began to talk about moving out of Missoula to a big city where we could make more money. We talked about Boston. I had to decide if I was willing to drop out of high school half-way through my junior year. I couldn’t see myself ever getting back on a good academic footing. And if I couldn’t, why stay in school, especially if there was the prospect of adventure and travel?

Of course, this meant telling my parents. Not asking. Telling. Not letting myself be talked out of it. The memory of the upset and anxiety I caused them is something I don’t even like to recall enough to write about it. But I did tell them, Dad and Jane in person and Mom over the phone. Legally, I was old enough to leave school, but going forward in life as a dropout did not offer a lot of promise. They were worried about me and my future.

I told my teachers, too. A couple of them smiled and got a far-away look, remembering their own freedom road days of 1969, and found little to say in objection to my plan. I remember speaking to Kermit Edmonds, who was never my teacher but was greatly respected by me and most of the students. I told him I still planned on going to college some day. He said that when I got there I would have an invaluable advantage over my classmates: life experience, an education of a completely different but indispensable kind. Boy, was he right.

So I did it. On Friday, February 13, 1981, I walked out of Hellgate High School, walked away from our friends, from my classmates, from the Lance, from the great teachers I was lucky enough to have there. As we planned to leave Missoula, life seemed a little more hopeful, and I felt a little less despair. I think that is because I was switching things up, making something happen, and it didn’t seem like circumstances were running over me as much.

Of course, I didn’t realize in any meaningful way all that I was walking away from. And not the least idea of what I was walking into.

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school days with steve albini. part two.

#2: Motorcycles = Broken Body Parts.

Continuing my account of four things I learned through my short high school friendship with Steve Albini, I come to #2, which does not require much explanation. Steve rode a motorcycle. During his senior year (’79 -’80), Steve got creamed on his motorcycle by a larger motor vehicle. Steve’s leg got snapped like a pretzel. Come to think of it, his legs were pretzels. The straight kind, you know, like Mr. Salty.

Never, since I saw him in his hip-to-heel cast, and heard his account of the accident, have I wanted to own a motorcycle or ride on one going more than 15 miles per hour. That’s just how it is.

Lesson learned. Thanks, Steve.

It actually may have not been his only injury-accident on a bike, but my memory of that is fuzzy now. At least one account of Steve’s high school days says that he taught himself the bass guitar while he was incapacitated. I don’t recall that myself, but it does make a nice segue into #3, which is all about music and life.

#3: Do it Yourself, Why Don’t You.

In Dallas, 1983

In March of 1983, I was living in Oklahoma City, and took a bus up to Chicago. I went up because Troy Deckert was getting married. Mark Hayes was living in Chicago as well, and at the time was staying with Steve. I don’t remember where I slept at night, but it seems we spent considerable time at Steve’s apartment. Steve was in his third year at Northwestern. I recall that when I first got there Steve was out of town.

When he returned he breezed into the apartment, explaining that he, “Just came from Madison, where I got my hair cut by a Neo-Nazi.”

I hadn’t seen him in two and a half years.Time was flying. Steve was flying. He was energetic, enthusiastic, apparently happier than he had been in Missoula. He seemed to have a lot of irons in the fire.

When he got there it was the first time the four of us had been together since December of 1980 in Missoula. That, I may as well add here, is when and where The John Lennon Story fits in.

It was my junior year at Hellgate High School, and I was struggling, academically and personally. One of the things I felt I had going for me was my work on the Lance, where I had Steve’s old position of Editorials Editor. In December, the murder of John Lennon was a real blow to me and several of my friends. We did not talk about it much, mostly I suppose, because we didn’t know what to say. I know I didn’t. It just sucked.

Steve came home to Missoula that week. I ran into him Saturday night at a “New Wave Festival” at the University, and asked him if he would write a guest column for the Lance. I thought it would be funny to see people’s reaction to its appearance when they thought they were finally rid of him for good. He balked at the idea. I pressed him and he relented.

The piece he turned in I felt compelled to publish, but I was the one who was cheesed off by it. There were two reasons. One: the thrust of the column was, “John Lennon is dead and I don’t care.” Two: he included an account of me asking him to write it that had me sounding like a complete dork. If Steve truly did not care what people thought of him, then I was his total opposite. I cared desperately what people thought, and I had pretty thin skin, too. I didn’t stop to think that nobody’s opinion of me would be formed by what he wrote. Some people would have considered it an honor to be called a “notorious hippie” in the same piece that said John Lennon was better off dead. But I felt the column had made of a fool of me, and it hurt my feelings because, even though we weren’t close, I considered Steve a friend – with good reason. At the same time I realized how ridiculous it would seem for me to vent my anger for the same period of time I felt it. I expressed my anger to my friends, who laughed it off, then kept it to myself. It seems to me now that it was Steve’s last chance to give high school the finger. I just happened to be standing in view.

There’s a story our friend Deb Scherer tells, who also served on the Lance. She had a distinctive way of dressing. It was eclectic, it was funky, it was her own. Steve was giving her a hard time about it. This from the guy who came to school in his deliberately shredded pretzel-pants and similarly abused t-shirt on which he had painted in fire-engine red: “DIE!” Deb finally said to him, “I don’t care what you think of the way I dress!,” to which he replied, “Good, you shouldn’t!” Some of the things Steve did and said were undoubtedly expressed with this conviction in mind. Considerable vexation throughout the English-speaking world over the last 30 years could certainly have been avoided if others had shared it.

Matter Magazine, 1983

So, in 1983, that had been the last time I had seen or spoken with Steve. I was over it, but in the intervening years a lot had happened. Steve had heard that I had gone off into the Weirdlands and become a born-again Christian. Even more disconcerting, Troy, who was a closer friend to Steve, had come to Chicago the previous summer and done the same. I suppose you can imagine how completely insane some of our friends thought it was that we would both, at the same time, hundreds of miles apart, come to Jesus. Every time I saw one of my old friends, I expected to be “dealt a ration,” as we used to say. I expected the biggest ration of all to be dealt by Steve. I was waiting for it.

Steve showed me his apartment. The highlight of the tour, from Steve’s viewpoint, was in the kitchen, where he showed me Archie, a really huge and thankfully deceased cockroach. I’ve got to hand it to Steve Albini. Not only did he afford Archie the respect and honor he deserved, but he had enough taste and culture to preserve him for others to enjoy. As I admired the enormous blattoid, Steve said,”So Dehner, why Jesus?”

I was expecting something quite different, so the question caught me off guard, and I fumbled for something to say that would make sense. Actually, it was great question. It was perfectly respectful, and I should have been able to give a coherent answer. But what can I say? It had been nine months. I was nineteen years old. So I said something like, “Because He’s real. I have no doubt that He is…” Something like that.

Historic Reenactment: Not actually Archie.

“Huh.” He shrugged. And that was it. People who don’t know Steve might think, on account of his sometimes, um, forthright way of expressing his views in public, that he’d have given me or Troy a hard time. But regardless of what he might have thought, he had nothing mean or derogatory to say to me. Live and let live seemed more his style. He let a Nazi cut his hair. He let a Jesus freak see his cockroach.

Then Steve showed me a unfurnished bedroom, that had only some musical gear, his electric bass, his drummer Roland, and a box or two of 45rpm EPs.

“This is our record,” he said, pulling one out. “Here, have one.”

It was Big Black’s first record, Lungs. And it wasn’t really “our record,” it was his record. He made it.

No, I mean: he made the record.

He wrote, played and sang (“i’m a steelworker, i kill what I eat”). He engineered, recorded and mixed. He took the photos and created the cover artwork and logo. Wrote the liner notes. Polymerized the vinyl compound with his own chemistry set and hand-etched the grooves in the disk (Actually, I think he might have hired this part out.). Packaged and delivered the records to local stores — with party favors enclosed for the lucky customers, so that opening your Big Black LP was the musical equivalent of Cracker Jacks (if you wouldn’t mind finding a bloody kleenex as your ‘toy surprise’).

The point, that I’ve taken so long to get to, is that he didn’t ask anyone’s permission to make a record, and he didn’t wait for – or even pursue, as far as I know – a recording contract, either. He didn’t have someone looking over his shoulder telling him what he could or couldn’t say. He just made the thing himself. And he told anyone reading the insert to go make their own record, too. It was simply unacceptable to him that he would relinquish the control and freedom to make the music he wanted, and get ripped off in the process.

Using this approach, Steve pretty much made his musical career on his own terms. Further, he inspired others to do the same. This same spirit came to drive not only independent music, but indy film making as well, and made the Internet the ultimate democratized medium.

When I was struggling to make films in the 80s and 90s Steve’s literally homemade record pointed to the possibility of not only by-passing media gate-keepers, but also kicking down the gates. One of the things we talked about in August was the collapse of the recording industry as we’ve known it, and something much better (in Steve’s view) replacing it.

On Lungs, Steve had a friend named John Bohnen play the sax on one of the songs, and gave Mark credit for “more yells on dead billy.” He did everything else. Big Black was about to become a band, and this record helped put it together. But before Big Black was a band, even before Big Black was just Steve and some instruments – there was Just Ducky.

Next: #3 Part 2 – Just Ducky 
part one.   part three.   part four.

From the ‘liner notes’ insert. For the record, ‘Lungs’ was made in 1982, not ’81, as has been mistakenly reported.