I believe that all best friends have secret code words. For my best friend Mary and me, there are two words guaranteed to send us into convulsions of laughter —“Sex Boat.”
Mary and I met in July 1984, at Classic Rock Night at a nightclub east of Pittsburgh, PA. We had a lot in common. Even though Mary was 20, pale and blonde, with teased hair and heavy makeup and I was 27, dark-skinned with a Jheri curl and no makeup, we were sisters under the skin. We were both from working class families; her father had been a steelworker and mine had been a coal miner. We were both lapsed Catholic girls who grew up with low self-esteem. But together, we were invincible.
We started to go on adventures together. In March 1986, we planned a weeklong musical road trip. We were driving from Pittsburgh to Largo, Maryland to see The Firm at the Capitol Centre and then going to Cleveland, Ohio to see Black Sabbath at Public Hall. Days before leaving, we talked about the trip. Wouldn’t it be exciting if we could meet Jimmy Page, the legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist who was co-founder of The Firm, or even Tony Franklin, the cute young bassist? What if we ran into Glenn Hughes, the Voice of Rock, who was debuting as the new lead singer of Black Sabbath, in the elevator of the Bond Court Hotel? We giggled and imagined meeting rock stars. Music and musicians made life worth living.
We left Pittsburgh early on the morning of March 19, taking scenic Route 40 instead of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. We spent the five-hour drive listening to music and talking about our lives. I could talk to Mary about anything and everything, and she felt the same. We stayed at a motel near the venue, so we got to the Capitol Centre early. As usual before a show, we were giddy with anticipation. We saw The Firm on their first tour the year before, and we wondered if this year’s show would be even better. The band lived up to their new album; it was obvious that the four musicians “Mean Business.”
We spent the next day touring Washington, DC, visiting the Air and Space Museum, Arlington Cemetery, the National Gallery and the Vietnam Memorial. The Air and Space Museum had a makeshift memorial to the recent tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The eternal flame at the Kennedy gravesite made us sad and pensive.
But we had another concert to go to tomorrow! On our way back to the motel from Washington, we passed the marquee for a drive-in movie. The marquee announced that night’s feature, Sex Boat. We deduced that it was an X-rated movie, a pornographic take-off of Love Boat. But the only thing I could think about was the lunchtime sandwich I usually got from the deli across the street from my job — a tuna boat. We spent most of the trip to Cleveland making jokes about sailing with rock stars and lunch menus.
At the Bond Court, we were on the lookout for Glenn Hughes. We saw the Black Sabbath drummer in the lobby and knew immediately we were at the right place. Unfortunately, the concert was not. The acoustics were so poor in the hall that we left before the end of the concert. We were so disappointed not to be able to clearly hear Glenn, who is one of the best vocalists in rock. We spent the rest of the evening in our room, ordering room service, listening to music, and making more “Sex Boat” jokes. Around midnight, we decided to go downstairs to the hotel bar.
We got on the elevator and pushed the button to the lobby. After a few floors, the elevator stopped and several men got on. One of them was tall, with long brown hair, wearing a long black leather coat. It was Glenn Hughes. We jumped off the elevator at the lobby, but the bar was one floor below. We screamed and grinned at each other. “Sex Boat!” we yelled in unison. Mary ran down the stairs to the bar, almost knocking Glenn over.
But after the initial shock, we played it cool. We sat with the band and ordered drinks. Mary went back to our room to get an album she had brought and Glenn graciously signed the copy of his first solo record. He was polite and friendly, while the other band members glared at us. After sitting for about 30 minutes, we left. We weren’t interested in anything beyond meeting musicians in public places. But we couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. Our dream had come true! Anything was possible! On the way back to Pittsburgh, we talked about the upcoming Pittsburgh show. Maybe we would see Glenn again. He treated us like friends, not fans. Not only was he a great singer, he was a great guy.
A few days later, Glenn left the group. We sold our tickets for the Pittsburgh show. There was no reason to go if Glenn wouldn’t be there. We never saw him again. But we did see two more Firm shows during that tour. The band broke up before making a third album. But we continued to use our new phrase as a secret term to denote a good-looking guy.
Mary is now in her mid-forties and I am in my mid-fifties. Her hair is shorter and she wears less make-up. My hair is naturally curly now and sprinkled with grey. She lives in Pittsburgh and I have lived in California for twenty-five years. But deep down inside, we are still the same star struck best friends who took road trips to rock concerts. We are still invincible when we are together. Mary and I have never forgotten the excitement we felt when those elevator doors opened in 1986 and our fantasy became reality. All I have to do is mention those magical words and the years melt away. ‘Sex Boat” will always represent rock and roll, handsome musicians, and the belief that dreams can come true.