DAVID BOWIE has an honorary degree.” That’s the latest from my son, Flannery, lead singer for the Flypaper Cartel, Swamp King of the downstairs bathroom and our own Tommy Lasorda of Xbox “All-Star Baseball 2005.”
This is one of his refrains as we discuss which colleges he should apply to in between his band gigs, cross-country meets, mock trial cases and homework. This is his senior year at Marshall High School in Los Angeles.
The whole band thing was supposed to be a lark. As a sophomore, he said: “Martin started a band. I’m the lead. We’re auditioning to get into a battle of the bands. We’re singing ‘Kharma Chameleon.’ ”
“Boy George ... I saw him at the makeup counter at Harrods in 1983.”
Unimpressed, he said, “We’re calling ourselves the Flypaper Cartel.”
The Flypaper Cartel made the cut to perform at the Greek Theatre as part of Marshall’s “Bach, Rock and Shakespeare” night. The band didn’t win with the celebrity judges, but it was the crowd favorite. Deafening screams. Flannery was glammed out in frosty eye shadow, frills, curls. When he strolled on stage, my father whispered, “Whoa.”
They began to get gigs: Marshall Palooza, Betty Plasencia Elementary School Arts Festival, Atwater and Tujunga birthday parties and then the Sunset Junction Street Festival in Silver Lake. Flannery told people the band was opening for the New York Dolls, neglecting to mention the eight hours between sets and the different stages.
Trouble began brewing last spring, with the next battle of the bands approaching. Flypaper Cartel bickered over artistic choices, who owed who for fish tacos. They chose “Tiny Dancer,” but it wasn’t right. More dissent. Mr. Finn, their mentor at Marshall, threatened to yank them from the lineup for bad behavior with a “Last year you guys had something special” warning. Finally, they picked Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” and an original, “Drugstore Cowboy.”
I sat in the crowd on the night of “Bach, Rock and Shakespeare II” and hoped they wouldn’t fail. The lights dimmed, the girls screamed and the band members took their places. The glam look gone, Flannery was channeling Robert Plant and David Bowie. They won first place. They made up. Next stop, the Warped Tour in Long Beach.
Most of the Flypaper Cartel wear braces, and only the bass player has a driver’s license. I drove to Long Beach. Crack of dawn. Van of boys. Flannery warned me that one of the band members might need to get high to combat stage fright and induce creativity (“Not me, Mom!”) but if it happened, I was to say nothing.
Do I tell the kid’s parents, I wondered, but then I learned another parent already had. The reaction? “Better pot than cigarettes.” Does Einstein’s theory of relativity apply?
At the Warped Tour, I cut out fliers, but I felt silly passing them out, so I didn’t. Besides, what would I say? “Come see my son’s band?” Somehow, it doesn’t have the same cachet as “I’m with the band,” so I found willing kids (all right, girls) to do it for me. I learned the difference between emo and ska, and when I made a joke about this newfound knowledge, Flannery said, “It’s not something to brag about.”
The Flypaper Cartel’s next gig was in Tujunga, and Flannery said, “You don’t need to drive, Mom. Orson” -- the bass player -- “could drive our van.”
“But that’s our van. Our family car.”
“But you won’t have to drive. You can stay home. Chill.”
“Orson is 17.”
“He’s been driving a year! Look, you’re going to have to let go sometime. We have gigs in Humboldt, San Francisco this winter. Kirk is our new manager.”
“Yeah, so can Orson drive the van?”
We went round and round. And round. Flannery’s father drove the van.
The Flypaper Cartel’s latest gig was at a club in Silver Lake on a Sunday night at midnight. No one under 21 admitted, so the boys had to wait in the parking lot before they went on stage. I met two other band members’ mothers there at 11:30. Which was a good thing: We were a third of the house. But the Flypaper Cartel played like the place was packed.
In the parking lot as the boys loaded amps, the bouncer said: “Too bad the booking chick wasn’t here to see you guys. You sounded good.”
So what will it be? College? Rock stardom? Flannery was the boy who once upon a time wouldn’t leave the house without a derby hat, cape, cane and a mascara mustache. He gave himself a reverse mohawk at preschool and glued the blond hair to his arms to turn into the Wolf Man. He always carried an extra set of vampire teeth. He wrapped himself in paper towels and hid in a cardboard sarcophagus to feel like a mummy. He memorized every Elvis song and demanded to see Graceland at age 6.
Yes, he’s applying for colleges soon (we can only hope). In the meantime, the next gig is somewhere on Pico near La Brea. I’m driving.
KERRY MADDEN’s latest book is “Gentle’s Holler” (Viking, 2005).