I grew up in Southern California suburbia in the 1970s. It was an ideal place to be a kid. I was sheltered from the worst of life but not insulated from reality. There was always something to do, and the weather was always good. I had good schools to go to. And the neighborhood was full of kids, so I always had someone to play with when I ran out the door to find adventure. We had glorious dirt clod wars, made bombs, created entire Tonka truck empires, dug pits, and everything else that was fun.
Like most little kids, I was fascinated by the big kids. Starting at about seven or eight years older than me, they were gods of suburbia: large, loud, rough, authoritative, and frightening. They had long hair, and the older ones rode dirt bikes. They listened to crazy heavy metal music. They knew all the bad words, always had fireworks, wore cool surf clothes, and were big and tan and imposing.
The most impressive part about the Big Kids was that they were all apparently insane. For example, they’d get up on the roof of someone’s house with the heavy metal music blasting and scream at the sky repeatedly. In the middle of the night they would ride their dirt bikes up and down the street in nothing but swim shorts, also screaming at the sky. One time, some of the Big Kids stole another little kid’s bike and leaned it against the tree in front of their house. When he showed up to get it, they shot him a bunch of times with a BB Gun from their window while he sobbed and writhed and ran. I watched from my own window across the street, fascinated and terrified.
The death rate for Big Kids amazed me. The next door neighbors lost two of them, the family three doors down lost one, and I can remember three more just from our street during my childhood. Two others ended up permanently and severely handicapped.
The society of Big Kids was very masculine. The Big Kid girls were mousy and wide-eyed, long hair parted in the center. They were nice to me but totally alien in their teenage world. I remember one girl in particular who had an entirely purple bedroom: carpet, bedspread, walls, even a fuzzy purple toilet seat cover. I was at their house with my parents once staring in awe at her purple den. One of the Big Girls died too.
Not all of them were rough tough crazies. Two of the Big Kids I remember mostly for their cars. One was a paraplegic older brother of a friend’s. He had a ’60s Mustang California Special modified with hand controls that was the coolest thing ever, and he gave me a ride in it so I could see how it worked. Another guy had a VW bug full of CBC radio equipment and drove around talking to people in the bug, which I found ultimately awesome. And three identical tow-headed surfer boys down the street were in a locally famous rock band, and I got to watch them practice in their garage. They were rock gods, and one of them had a Van Halen sticker on his VW squareback.
The Big Kids’ music was dark and scary and fascinating itself. I remember looking at the window display in a Licorice Pizza record store for Blue Öyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune, all weird imagery and craziness, and wondering what it was all about. The screaming sex noises of Led Zeppelin and Van Halen confused and attracted me. To this day my reaction to 70s heavy metal and hard rock is a flashback to those kids with their long hair and work shirts and corduroy pants with the comb stuck in back, howling along to Alice Cooper or something.
Since I was a sheltered little kid, I was unaware of what bound together the big kid craziness, the screaming on rooftops, the shirtless midnight motorcycle rides, the caterwauling music, and the deaths. They were of course all high on hard drugs, mostly heroin and hallucinogens, and drunk. All the time. Of the two kids next door, one died in a DUI motorcycle crash and the other OD’d on heroin and died in the snow in the mountains. The kid at the end of the street flipped his VW fastback on the S-curves under the influence. The girl who died had mixed her heroin wrong that day. Of the Big Kids who died on my street, only one that I remember didn’t die from drink or drugs; he got cancer. All of these things I found out years later.
Looking back on it, those kids were generationally doomed. They were all born within a couple of years of 1960 probably, and hit their adolescence just when the 1970s drugs ‘n’ sex culture was at full blast. At 14 it’s not easy to handle free-flowing hard drugs, no-consequences sex, and pop culture that celebrates total hedonism. Like me, they felt safe and insulated in suburbia. But they’d let in an assortment of incubi and succubi they couldn’t resist.
Victoria Williams wrote a great song for them, because she was one of the Big Kids. It’s called “Summer of Drugs”. When I hear that song I think about those stoner surfer kids shooting up and blasting their 70s rock, and dying.
We were too young to be hippies
We missed out on the love
Born to be teens in the late 70s
In the summer of drugs…