A BRONX TALE
When I was a kid I used to carry around this awful image in my head—a picture of three men tangled awkwardly in high-tension wires, fifty feet in the air, their lifeless bodies crisping in the midday sun.
The horror they endured was shared with me by my father, an electrical engineer who worked, among other places, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, helping with the installation of a new power plant in the 1950s. Carl Frehley was a man of his times. He worked long hours, multiple jobs, did the best he could to provide a home for his wife and kids. Sometimes, on Sunday afternoons after church, he’d pile the whole family into a car and we’d drive north through the Bronx, into Westchester County, and eventually find ourselves on the banks of the Hudson River. Dad would take us on a tour of the West Point campus and grounds, introduce us to people, even take us into the control room of the electrical plant. I’m still not sure how he pulled that one off—getting security clearance for his whole family—but he did.
Dad would walk around, pointing out various sights, explaining the rhythm of his day and the work that he did, sometimes talking in the language of an engineer, a language that might as well have been Latin to me. Work was important, and I guess in some way he just wanted his kids to understand that; he wanted us to see this other part of his life.
One day, as we headed back to the car, my father paused and looked up at the electrical wires above, a net of steel and cable stretching across the autumn sky.
“You know, Paul,” he said, “every day at work, we have a little contest before lunch.”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
A contest? Before lunch?
Sounded like something we might have done at Grace Lutheran, where I went to elementary school in the Bronx.
“We draw straws to see who has to go out and pick up sandwiches for the whole crew. If you get the shortest straw, you’re the delivery boy.”
That was the beginning. From there, my father went on to tell us the story of the day he drew the short straw. While he was out picking up sandwiches, there was a terrible accident back on the job. Someone had accidentally thrown a switch, restoring power to an area where three men were working. Tragically, all three men were electrocuted instantly. When my father returned, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The bodies of his coworkers were being peeled off the high-tension wires.
“Right up there,” he said quietly, looking overhead. “That’s where it happened.”
He paused, put a hand on my shoulder.
“If I hadn’t drawn the short straw that day, I’d have been up there in those wires, and I wouldn’t be here right now.”
I looked at the wires, then at my father. He smiled.
“Sometimes you get lucky.”
Dad would repeat that story from time to time, just often enough to keep the nightmares flowing. That wasn’t his intent, of course—he always related the tale in a whimsical “what if?” tone—but it was the outcome nonetheless. You tell a little kid that his old man was nearly fried to death, and you’re sentencing him to a few years of sweaty, terror-filled nights beneath the sheets. I get his point now, though. You never know what life might bring… or when it might come to a screeching halt.
And it’s best to act accordingly.
The Carl Frehley I knew (and it’s important to note that I didn’t know him all that well) was quiet and reserved, a model of middle-class decorum, maybe because he was so fucking tired all the time. My father was forty-seven years old by the time I came into this world, and I sometimes think he was actually deep into a second life at that point. The son of German and Dutch immigrants, he’d grown up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, finished three years of college, and had to leave school and go to work. Later on he moved to New York and married Esther Hecht, a pretty young girl seventeen years his junior. My mom had been raised on a farm in Norlina, North Carolina. My grandfather was from northern Germany—the island Rügen, to be precise. My grandmother was also German, but I’d always heard whispers of there being some American Indian blood in our family. It was boredom, more than anything else, that brought my mom to New York. Tired of life on the farm, she followed her older sister Ida north and lived with her for a while in Brooklyn.
Dad, meanwhile, came for the work.
There was always a little bit of mystery surrounding my dad, things he never shared; nooks and crannies of his past were always a taboo subject. He married late, started a family late, and settled into a comfortable domestic and professional routine. Every so often, though, there were glimpses of a different man, a different life.
My dad was an awesome bowler, for example. He never talked about being part of a bowling league or even how he learned the game. God knows he only bowled occasionally while I was growing up, but when he did, he nailed it. He had his own ball, his own shoes, and textbook form that helped him throw a couple of perfect games. He was also an amazing pool player, a fact I discovered while still in elementary school, when he taught me how to shoot. Dad could do things with a pool cue that only the pros could do, and when I look back on it now I realize he may have spent some time in a few shady places. He once told me that he had beaten the champion of West Virginia in a game of pool. I guess you have to be pretty good to beat the state champion of any sport.
“Hey, Dad. What’s your high run?” I once asked him while we were shooting pool.
“One forty-nine,” he said, without even looking up.
I must have been only about ten years old at the time, and I didn’t immediately grasp the enormity of that number, but I quickly realized it meant making 149 consecutive shots without missing.
That’s ten fuckin’ racks!
You have to know what you’re doing to polish off that many balls without screwing up. And that little piece of information, coupled with the times I saw him execute trick shots and one-handed shots, made me wonder even more about his elusive past. Perhaps, when he was younger, he lived life in the fast lane and we had much more in common than one might think. Maybe, just maybe, Carl Frehley kicked some ass.
It’s kinda fun to think so, anyway.
I grew up just off Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, not far from the New York Botanical Garden and Bronx Zoo. It was a middle-class neighborhood of mixed ethnic backgrounds, consisting of mostly German, Irish, Jewish, and Italian families. Ours was pretty normal and loving, a fact I came to appreciate even more after I began hanging out with some serious badasses who were always trying to escape their violent and abusive home lives. Conversely, my dad never hit or abused me as a child, but I often wondered how much he really cared about me since we never did anything together one-on-one. Now as I think back, I realize more and more that he loved me, and that he did the best he could under the circumstances.
It’s pretty hard to look at the Frehleys and suggest that my upbringing contributed in any way to my wild and crazy lifestyle and the insanity that was to ensue. Sure, my dad was a workaholic and never home, but there was always food on the table, and we all felt secure. My parents enjoyed a happy and affectionate marriage—I can still see them holding hands as they walked down the street, or kissing when Dad came home from work. They always seemed happy together, and there was very little fighting at home. We had relatives in Brooklyn and North Carolina, all on my mother’s side, but I knew very little about my dad’s side of the family. There were no photo albums or letters, no interesting stories or visits from aunts and uncles. Nothing. I knew he had a brother who had tragically drowned at age eight, but the rest was sketchy at best. When I tried to ask him for more details, my mom would intervene.
“Don’t push your father,” she’d say. “It’s too painful for him.”
So I’d let it go.
People who know me only as the Spaceman probably find this hard to believe, but I was raised in a family that stressed education and religion. My parents also understood the value of the arts and sciences. The way I’m fascinated with computers and guitars, my dad was fascinated with motors and electrical circuits, and he used to build his own batteries in the basement as a child. I know he was very good at what he did because in addition to his work at West Point, he also serviced the elevator motors in the Empire State Building, and was involved in designing the backup ignition system for the Apollo spacecraft for NASA. He had notebooks filled with formulas and sketches, projects he worked on until the wee hours of the morning.
So my parents emphasized learning, and two of their three children got the message. My sister, Nancy, who is eight years my senior, was a straight-A student who went on to get a master’s degree in chemistry; she taught high school chemistry for a while before getting married to start a family. My brother, Charles, was an honors student as well. He studied classical guitar at New York University, where he finished tenth in his class.
Then there was me, Paul Frehley, the youngest of three kids and the black sheep to boot.
In the beginning I enjoyed school and team sports, but as I got older, my social life and music began taking precedence over my studies. I remember coming home with B’s, C’s, and D’s on my report card and hearing my parents complain.
“Why can’t you be more like Charlie and Nancy?”
I’d just throw up my hands. Between bands and girlfriends, who had time to study?
“You’re wasting your life, Paul,” my dad would say, shaking his head.
Once, just to prove a point, I told my parents that I’d study hard for a semester and prove I was just as bright as my brother and sister. And you know what? I got all A’s and B’s on the next report card. (Much later, it was the same sort of “I told you so” attitude that would compel me to challenge the other guys in KISS to an IQ test. Just for the record, I scored highest: 163, which is considered “genius.”) Now, I know I drove my parents crazy, but God had other plans for me. It all stemmed from something I sensed at an early age: the desire to become a rock star and follow my dreams. Crazy as that sounds, I really believed it would happen.
You can partially credit my blind ambition to Mom and Dad! You see, if there was a common thread within our family, it was music. Thanks to the influence of our parents, all the Frehley kids played instruments. My father was an accomplished concert pianist: he could perform Chopin and Mozart effortlessly. My mom played the piano, too, and she enjoyed banging out a few tunes at family gatherings. Charlie and Nancy took piano lessons and performed at recitals as well. They eventually started fooling around with the guitar and formed a folk group, but that was never my cup of tea. From the beginning, I was drawn to rock ’n’ roll and started figuring out songs by the Beatles and the Stones on my brother’s acoustic guitar. One day, by chance, I picked up my friend’s new electric guitar and checked it out. I plugged it in, turned the amp up to ten, and strummed a power chord.
I immediately fell in love. It was a life-changing event! I was only twelve, but I was totally hooked. Within a couple of years I had a Fender Tele and a Marshall amp in my bedroom, and I’d sold my soul to rock ’n’ roll. There was no turning back.
My parents were not entirely unsupportive of my obsession (Dad even bought me my first electric guitar as a Christmas present), probably because it beat the alternative. There were worse vices, worse behavior, as I’d already demonstrated. See, at the same time that I was teaching myself guitar and forming my first band, I was also running with a pretty tough crowd. So while it may be true that the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle nearly killed me as an adult, it’s also true that without music, I might never have made it to adulthood in the first place.
I started hanging out with the toughest guys in the neighborhood when I was still in grammar school, playing poker, drinking, cutting school—generally just looking for trouble. At first I was uncomfortable with some of the things I had to do, but I learned pretty quickly that alcohol made everything a lot easier. I didn’t like to fight, but fearlessness came with a few beers. Talking to girls was sometimes awkward, but with a little buzz I could charm them right out of their pants.
The first drink? I remember it well. Every drinker remembers his first drink, just as vividly as he remembers his first fuck. I was eleven years old and hanging out with my brother and his friend Jeffrey. Jeff’s father had a small cabin on City Island in the Bronx, and we went there one Friday after school. The plan was to do some fishing and hang out. I loved fishing when I was a kid; I still do. And it was on that weekend that I discovered that beer went hand in hand with fishing. Jeff’s dad had left a six-pack of Schaefer beer in the fridge, and we each had a can or two. Not exactly hard-core drinking, but enough to get me comfortably numb. I can remember exactly how it felt, smooth and dry. Pretty soon I felt kind of lightheaded and silly, and I couldn’t stop laughing. Then I passed out. The next thing I remember is waking up in the morning with a slight headache and a dry mouth, but to be honest, I couldn’t wait to do it again.
And I didn’t wait. Not long, anyway.
The following weekend, we ended up going to a party with more beer and girls—older girls! I’d been attracted to girls for a while by now, but this was unexplored territory. Here I was, playing Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven with thirteen-year-olds, but after my first beer, all I can remember is thinking, bring it on!
I’d found girls and alcohol to be a great combination.
The rock ’n’ roll would soon follow.
© 2011 Ace Frehley