Sex & Cars & Rock & Roll

I entered the Rolling Stone Rock & Roll Bowl on a whim. How'd I do? Just call me Johnny Ca$h.

Before we've had time to fully absorb our fortune, we get more good news. Our runaway regional victory has earned us a trip to the semifinals in Los Angeles (estimated retail value $800), where the field of three teams will be trimmed to two. After that, all that separates us from the gleaming form of a new Ford Mustang (estimated retail value $15,000) is a good showing during spring break in Daytona Beach. In our initial giddiness, we study around the clock, drilling deeper into the rock mother lode than good sense requires A Hawkwind, T'Pau, Sparky Reddick and the Roadmasters. Smokey Robinson's "First I Look at the Purse" takes on the feel of a manifesto.

In any competition, you want to size up the opposition, and there is plenty of opportunity for that the first night in Los Angeles. We're in Beverly Hills, actually, at the Hotel Sofitel Ma Maison, a moderately expensive French establishment where the reservation agents sport authentic accents and the front desk distributes complimentary baguettes each morning. We're staying here for that certain ineffable Continental essence A je ne sais quoi, as it were A and also because of the proximity of the Hard Rock Cafe, the site of the big event. Shortly after we arrive at the hotel, we meet Jami Kelmenson, the US Concepts staffer who is handling Left Coast operations. She introduces us to the rest of the corporate team A representatives of Rolling Stone and Ford, among others A and also to our opponents, San Jose State and Cleveland State. While the San Jose State team (Dawn, Walter, and Thomas) seems like a nice enough group, the Cleveland team worries us slightly. The two female members are eerily silent, and then there's the matter of the mythical status of the team captain's speedy buzzer finger. A number of the contest organizers mention it in admiring tones, and more than twice it's referred to simply as "The Finger." Since we're graduate students, arch tourists in the land of undergrads, we try to keep level heads, but we're secretly shaken. That night in a diner, Will and I talk strategy. Does it make any sense to try for first place, or should we just play to stay out of the cellar? In a close match, should we bet our whole nest egg on the final question? Should we have someone "pay a visit" to The Finger? Should we wear black for the dear-departed Harry Nilsson?

All day Friday and Saturday, while I am touring Los Angeles with my brother Aaron and his girlfriend Catherine, I am visited by a growing sense of dread. Songs on the radio are suddenly, tragically unfamiliar, and at lunch I seize up when I can't remember who sang "Seasons in the Sun." By the time we get to the Hard Rock Cafe, the jitters are Richter-like, and even the glorious chorus of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Hey Tonight," which spills from the house speakers, is nothing but a threat. After marveling at the rock paraphernalia on display A Stephen Stills's car keys, Joey Ramone's comb (almost new!) A Steve and I stare blankly at a black leather jacket worn by Bob Dylan and Kinky Friedman. "I know Kinky, sure," says Steve, "but who's the other guy again?" My friend Harold, who lives in San Diego, has come north for the weekend, and he and his wife Angie sit with Aaron and Catherine at a table front and center. More than twice, I drop by to have them butter me up; in tense times, you can never overestimate the therapeutic value of flattery on demand.

Installed on stage after Mario's introductions, we face the jam-packed restaurant and feel our poise returning. We're grad students, we remind ourselves. We've seen the world. We've tasted adversity. We've outgrown the costliest car insurance brackets. We're competing against greenhorns. How can we lose? After good-luck handshakes with San Jose State and wary glances at The Finger, we crack our knuckles, limber up our rock and roll souls, and set a course for Daytona.

As part of ongoing research into the lives of our sea-dwelling pals, marine biologists have conducted experiments that compare the reflexes of baby squid and adult squid. Here is a brief summary of the results: The babies blazed through their time trials, twitching at the speed of thought. The adults, on the other hand, sat there stumped, blinking their big wide eyes. I mention this study because it may help to explain the stunning early dominance of Cleveland State, the way The Finger has us under his thumb. We're being crushed, beaten worse than the crowd at Altamont, and when the digital lightning does lag, San Jose State picks up the slack. It isn't that we don't know the answers, only that we can't get in the game. "Butterfly, Doodlebug, and Ladybug make up this hip-hop trio," says Mario. "Name the band that released the album Pork Soda. This former Go-Go's guitarist reached the Top 10 only once as a solo artist, with the song 'Rush Hour' off the album Fur." We pound on the buzzer to no avail and stare at the crowd as if we are visiting from another planet. Midway through the round, with the score 140-120-0 (we're the zero), we catch Cleveland State on a technicality: To a question about the Public Image Ltd. frontman, they answer Rotten when they should have said Lydon. Though the judges subtract the points, they won't award them to us. In fact, Mario mocks us openly for our desperation, and though we manage to ring in for a twenty-pointer A "This folk musician translated or extended many songs for other performers, including 'If I Had a Hammer,' 'Guantanamera,' and 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone' (Pete Seeger, for Pete's sake) A we're all but mathematically eliminated from contention. Members of the audience are writhing in empathetic embarrassment, and even my table of faithful fans has stopped cheering. I drift into a private fantasy in which our inevitable defeat is rendered palatable by high production values, fancy Dutch-slant camerawork, and a hipper-than-thou soundtrack. On the cerebral stage, our humiliating performance is shrouded in azure fog, and we drop out of sight with artsy grace, chaperoned by Smashing Pumpkins's "Spaceboy."

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