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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.
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.
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.
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.
know, Paul," he said, "every day at work, we have a little
contest before lunch."
had no idea what he was talking about.
contest? Before lunch?
like something we might have done at Grace Lutheran, where I went to
elementary school in the Bronx.
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."
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.
up there," he said quietly, looking overhead. "That's where
paused, put a hand on my shoulder.
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."
looked at the wires, then at my father. He smiled.
you get lucky."
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.
it's best to act accordingly.
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.
meanwhile, came for the work.
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.
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.
Dad. What's your high run?" I once asked him while we were
forty-nine," he said, without even looking up.
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.
ten fuckin' racks!
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
kinda fun to think so, anyway.
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.
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.
push your father," she'd say. "It's too painful for him."
I'd let it go.
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.
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.
there was me, Paul Frehley, the youngest of three kids and the black
sheep to boot.
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.
can't you be more like Charlie and Nancy?"
just throw up my hands. Between bands and girlfriends, who had time
wasting your life, Paul," my dad would say, shaking his head.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
I didn't wait. Not long, anyway.
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!
found girls and alcohol to be a great combination.