There are many songs that define a person’s ascendance to teen and early-adulthood hell. But in my scrawled notebook of personal history, there is only one song written in the space marked “Death of My Youth.”
Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” hit the streets in 1980, at the beginning of my seventh-grade year. I was living with my single mother and my older sister in a neighborhood that was going downhill. I remember Novas roaring by our tiny house in the late weekday afternoons, howling with Led Zeppelin, and after they were gone, my friends and I would catch a whiff of the pungent, lingering pot smoke—something we recognized but had never tasted.
On school days, we were bused to “the black part of town,” where we attended a middle school that taught only seventh grade—meaning, it was a middle school without the older students to slap you on the back of your head as you passed them in the halls. Being 12 years old and filled with an attitude that we would long for in adulthood, we rooled the scool.
Combs in back pockets that had recently parted feathered bangs; notes passed discussing who was going skating on Friday night. On our books we had cut-to-size brown paper bags stretched out tight and attached to the inside cover with loads of tape; and on the crisp brown paper we engaged in graffiti contests to see who could scrawl the most band names ever.
It was a great time for music. AC/DC and REO Speedwagon, among others, released albums that defined at least two months of our existence. But somewhere on every book cover, written with an easy flourish, one would find “Queen.” They were at their height of popularity, exploding with Freddie Mercury’s peacock, operatic flamboyance (something any hyper(sensitive) seventh-grader could appreciate), not to mention his soaring, slippery vocals to undeniably catchy melodies, and a spectacular guitar solo guaranteed in just about every song.
And along came their new tune on radio airwaves, which sounded different and seductive and freaking badass with the bass line driving it: bada BUMP BUMP BUMP, badump bump bump ba-BUMP; bada BUMP BUMP BUMP, badump bump bump ba-BUMP.
It seemed to epitomize how we felt (or wanted to feel) as we walked down school halls. It had thrust, abandon, sex appeal that could only be found in the years ahead as we graduated to eighth, ninth, the heights of high school.
BUMP BUMP BUMP, badump bump bump ba-BUMP; BUMP BUMP BUMP, badump bump bump ba-BUMP.
We loved it before Freddie uttered the first word. We loved it before it had been released. We somehow wrote it, though bassist John Deacon gets the credit. And Freddie knew how to sing the lyrics with a Broadway criminal’s innuendo:
“Ooooh … let’s go …
Steve walks warily down the street, with the brim pulled way down low.
Ain’t no sound but the sound of his feet, machine guns ready to go.
Are you ready, hey, are you ready for this? Are you hanging on the edge of your seat? Out of the doorway the bullets rip, to the sound of the beat, yeeaaah.
(BUMP BUMP BUMP)
Another one bites the dust."
When we discovered it was a song about some sort of gang gunfight and ambush, about Steve or somebody, anybody, looking to mow down some mofos, we were smitten.
I remember seventh grade as an extremely physical year: Puberty was spreading like a bad case of poison ivy, and at our school the blacks didn’t like the whites invading their territory. There was constant tension in the halls, and it all added up to collective aggression. We all longed to machine-gun somebody. Figuratively, of course.
I got in three fights that year. One took place during recess with a black guy named Duane. He hit me twice before I realized he had swung. Fight over. The other two fights happened at my bus stop against my best friend Alan. We got into it before school and one of my punches left a welt under his eye that lasted for the entire school day. He was humiliated. Then, after school, he kicked my ass, literally and figuratively. Score settled.
There were others that rode my bus: Packy, who was large and athletic and mean and claimed an overwhelming knowledge of psychedelic drugs, fed to him (the drugs and/or the information) by his abusive big brothers; Sean, a small guy with moppy blond hair and brutal wit that earned him the role of “bus comedian”; and Jack, another best friend, who “went with” my girlfriend, and I his, every time we would break off with them.
Sean and Packy would sit at the back of the bus on the ride to and from school each day. Sean would snipe at people and Packy would threaten to beat them up if they got smart in return. Me and Jack and Alan sat in the back-middle, not wanting to garner any attention but also wanting to seem somewhat cool.
Ever pass by a school bus of seventh-graders? Total anarchy, every day. I remember clearly one ride home from school. We had been locked up in our red-brick prison all day. The bus was our outlet—a time to scream and sit sideways on seats and make the bus driver yell at us. This particular afternoon, Sean had brought his ghetto blaster. He popped in his Queen tape, loaded to “Another One Bites the Dust.” He pressed play:
Bada-BUMP BUMP BUMP, badump bump bump ba- BUMP; bada-BUMP BUMP BUMP, badump bump bump ba-BUMP.
It is a glorious sight, this memory now: The entire bus seems to bounce and rattle to the beat down the road; and inside, miniaturized adult passengers bob and sing along with Freddie.
It is as if we were all riding in back! Sitting on the tops of the seats! Showing total disregard for safety! Look at that guy hanging out the window! He’s gonna meet a tall sign one day with the side of his head! But right now, he’s shouting at those poor saps on the corner! Nerds! You are not on THIS bus! We rock!
Then, we reach the very important middle climax of the song: the slow buildup to that spectacular sound effect. You know the one? It’s sort of like a snake hissing and shaking his rattling tail at you—like he’s saying, “I’m gonna bite your neck, then kick your ass!”
Everyone readies for it, here it comes, here it is: We mimic it, all of us (or maybe just an overenthusiastic lot of us), in unison, waving one hand back and forth in the air, as if that helps sell it, as if we are playing some sort of snake-tail instrument:
The bus vibrates to this shared salute to Queen, King of Bands! Badass! We are all badass!
But the rest of the song is lost in the commotion of a heavy debate: Everyone, it seems, has his or her own way of doing the Weeesh-sheshe-sheeesh thing, and every interpretation is wrong to everyone else.
“That’s not how it goes,” Packy says to Sean. “It goes wweeesshheeeshesheeesheesheee.”
“What the fuck was that?” Sean says. “Was that even a sound? It goes weeesh-sheshe-sheeesh-sheshe-sheesh-sheshe-sheeesh-sheshe-sheeeeeeeeesh.”
Sean’s is definitely better. Packy searches the bus audience and finds me. “Hey, don’t I do it the right way?” he asks.
Excited that Packy is putting an arm metaphorically around my shoulder and not kicking my ass, I say, “Yeah. Like, weesheeeesheeesaheeeeeesheee-aah.” My version is pathetic.
Packy makes a funny face. He says, “That’s not how it goes. It goes wweeesshheeeshesheeesheeshee.”
“You’re stoned!” says Sean, an observation that is a compliment to Packy, but it also indicates that he is wrong. “Weeesh-sheshe-sheeesh-sheshe-sheesh-sheshe-sheeesh-sheshe-sheeeeeeeeesh.”
He really does do it well; everyone seems to agree.
The song ends. We wait for the rewind so we can hear it again. Somewhere up ahead, an ambush awaits us. But we’ll strut right into it.
In the immortal words of Queen:
“And another one gone, and another one gone, and another one bites the dust.
Hey, I’m gonna getchoo, too, another bites the dust ……… Shootout!"