Brian Grillo: Signs You Don’t Belong in 1970s Suburban Torrance, California, first appeared in DINOSAUR Vol 2, Issue 1, Fall 2015, “The Issue That Fell To Earth.” Part III of Brian’s First Person essay is below.
The same year you turn eighteen, things start to happen at a rapid pace.
Tomata wants independence for you both and sends you into the world with a broken heart – unaware the future holds a lifelong friendship for you both.
You join your first band, and then another. You focus on doing the best you can to hold the room’s attention when you take to the stage. You have your work cut out for you.
Exploring and pushing your boundaries beyond the punk-rock world, you become a regular at Falcon Studios on the bad side of town, founded by former Olympic fencing champion Ralph Falconer in 1929.
He’s gotta be at least eighty years old but looks like a much younger man. He roams the studios dressed in a padded black fencing outfit and carrying a sword. The studio has seen better days.
Some of the great swashbucklers of film – Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Errol Flyn, and Basil Rathbone – once practiced their fencing here. The walls are lined with signed photos of generations of performers. Behind the main building through the small rose garden, a cement pathway with handprints of actors such as Anthony Quinn and John Barrymore leads to a small theater and a larger dance studio.
On weekends you study ballet and gymnastics. Nights when you don’t have band practice or shows, you rent one of the smaller studios for five bucks an hour. Most nights the building is pretty much empty. If you’re lucky, Mr. Falconer strides in and gives you tips on footwork and posture.
One night after dance practice, you head across the street to The Casablanca, a hole-in-the-wall gay Latino bar where a drag revue is taking place. The first performer enters the stage furnished with a chair and a dressing table. He lip-syncs a gut-wrenching, soaked-in-reverb 1950s doo-wop broken-heart ballad while staring into the mirror and taking off his makeup. His back to the audience, bathed in the cobalt blue lights. The room grows silent.
That image sticks with you and serves as a template for future performances.
The puzzle pieces of your short life start to fit together when a friend, Julian Falk, opens a cabaret space, “Olio,” in Silver Lake and hands you a set of door keys, giving you his blessing to stage whatever kind of show you want.
The Grillo Follies are born. You write and choreograph each song, bathing each with saturated swathes of colored light to fit the moods and tempos. With help from Tomata and your fellow arrestee from high school, you construct and paint the sets and costumes. You enlist friends from the nightclubs and even strangers you think might have buried talent as they strut down the boulevard.
Every few months you premiere a new show. Word gets out, and soon people such as Vampira, Tom Waits, even your mom and dad show up.
Some call it luck.
Some call it fate.
No matter how hard you fall,
you land back on your feet.
Between each line you write, a thousand more memories and words jump off the page.
You’ll fall in love, your heart will break, and you’ll fall in love again.
You’ll learn that with time comes wisdom.
You’ll live through a plague and lose too many friends to count. The San Francisco coroner will call you at work and tell you that Tomata’s dead, and the only number in his wallet is yours. You’ll lose your brother and then your mother.
You’ll open shows for those rock heroes you used to read about: The Cramps, Iggy, Buzzcocks, Bush Tetras.
You’ll lose it all, get it back, lose it all again.
You’ll look into the mirror, and each line and scar will bring back a memory.
You’ll look into the mirror and into your eyes – they’ve seen so much and still remain unchanged.
You’ll move far, far away, but you know you’ll never leave.
PART I of “Signs You Don’t Belong” can be found here: https://dinosaurmagintl.com/music/brian-grillo-signs-you-dont-belong/
Brian Grillo, photographed by Jamie Betts, in Los Angeles. jamiebettsphoto.com