If I were to say the name Amityville to you, what would your initial reaction be? If, like me, you are of a certain vintage then your first reaction would probably be to associate the name of that Long Island, New York village with the grisly murder that happened there in 1974. The main reason that any of us know of this small place at all is because of the book written by Jay Anson called The Amityville Horror. This book was turned into a movie of the same name that gave audiences the impression that the murders committed there were done in the name of Satan. Furthermore, both the book and the movie claimed that the house in which the murders took place remained haunted or, more specifically, under demonic possession. In the decade leading up to the release of the Amityville Horror movie in 1979, America was well-versed in the phenomenon of Satanism due to movies such as Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, The Exorcist in 1973, The Omen in 1976 and literally dozens and dozens of other films possessing varying degrees of cinematic merit. In this environment, the threat of falling prey to satanic cults was made to seem very real. It was also at this time that many people who may have been predisposed to joining satanic cults began viewing the Amityville house where the murders took place as a sacred spot worthy of a pilgrimage. One such person who made the trek to Amityville was a teenage boy named Ricky Kasso Jr.
Ricky Kasso Jr. was a teenage boy who grew up in Northport, New York. All through his childhood, Kasso exhibited behaviour that his parents viewed as being psychotic. Several times they begged the authorities to place their son in psychiatric hospitals for his own safety. Because the process associated with involuntarily incarcerating someone in jail or in a psychiatric hospital is a long and involved one, Ricky Kasso Jr. was left to freely roam around his community. Kasso ended up becoming addicted to drugs and was known around Northport as The Acid King. Soon Kasso began having fantasies about being in contact with Satan. In such a state of mind, he and his friends traveled thirty minutes to the west and visited the Amityville Horror house where they engaged in some rituals that the authorities were later to declare as being satanic. Not long after his visit to Amityville, Ricky Kasso Jr. violently murdered one of his teenage drug-using friends in a wooded area on the edge of Northport. Two weeks later, when police were informed of the murder via an anonymous tip, Ricky Kasso Jr. was arrested. In news photos of the arrest, Kasso was photographed wearing an AC/DC t-shirt. This is noteworthy because it sparked a wave of public hysteria that linked Heavy Metal music with satanic cult activity. In an instant, all Heavy Metal music was viewed as harbouring hidden messages, and Heavy Metal rockers were charged with leading the satanic trend in America. Those fans who happened to innocently enjoy Heavy Metal music and who wore band-related clothing also came under suspicion of being in league with the Devil.
At the time that the Kasso Jr. killing took place, Brendan B. Brown was ten years old. He lived in Northport, too. In fact, his home was not far from where the murder victim had been found. Brendan B. Brown came from a stable home and was as far removed from being considered satanic as one could be. What he mostly felt like was the biggest nerd in the world. More than that, he felt socially invisible. Brendan B. Brown was like so many teen and pre-teen children in that he never felt like he fit in at school. He wasn’t a jock or a fighter or a cool kid or even a class clown. He was just a quiet kid who blended in and disappeared and who also happened to be a fan of the Heavy Metal band Iron Maiden. Up until the Ricky Kasso Jr. murder, Brendan B. Brown had been able to publicly show his support for his favourite band by wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts to school. But once the murder became front page news, he and all other t-shirt wearing Metal fans became guilty by association.
As Brown left his teenage years and entered his twenties, he formed a band of his own with his brother and a few friends. They called themselves Wheatus. For one of the tracks on their self-titled debut album, Brown wrote a song about his experiences in high school in Northport. The name of this song was “Teenage Dirtbag”. In a world where one-hit wonders abound, “Teenage Dirtbag” has gone on to become one of the biggest-selling singles in history with sales of over five million worldwide. It is a super cute-sounding song that tells the universal story of what it felt like to be a social outsider in school. All that Brown’s song character wants is to be noticed by a girl he likes and to be able to display his love of Iron Maiden in public. The arc of the story told in this song is such that a welcome yet surprising conclusion occurs at the end. Many critics compare “Teenage Dirtbag” with classic tunes such as “Lola” by The Kinks, “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen and even “Love Story” by Taylor Swift. The title “Teenage Dirtbag” comes from a derisive phrase that was used to describe the killer Ricky Kasso Jr., as well as those who dressed like him, even if they hadn’t the slightest violent intention in the world.
In the years that followed the uproar over the Kasso Jr. murder, the topic of music censorship became a political football. It was quite common to see legislative hearings in Washington where the topic of the need to censor the lyrical content of music was fiercely debated along political lines. One of the consequences of these hearings was the implementation of a sticker system that would be overseen by the music industry. In this system, any album or CD that contained lyrics that possessed profanity or suggestive lyrical content in any manner would have a warning sticker attached to the front so that parents could monitor what their children were buying at a glance. For what it is worth, my view has always been that censorship is a very slippery slope to start down. I have no wish to live in a country, province or town where I have to submit my views for approval before I can air them in public. If anything I say on my blog becomes so threatening or inflammatory that I break an existing law, then by all means contact the authorities and we will see what comes of it. For now, I will always stand on the side of freedom of expression. It is easy to ruin the reputations of individuals and communities simply because of how others rush to judgment without having a full grasp of the facts. Brendan B. Brown felt judged by others as being a teenage dirtbag simply because he wore an Iron Maiden t-shirt. I would like to think that Amityville, New York is actually a beautiful little place in reality. However, it will be forever linked with a grisly multiple murder and rumours of satanic activity. Far too frequently we allow ourselves to tar others with accusations that are as damaging to their reputation as they are inaccurate in the first place..
I will end this post with a version of this story that is told from an entirely different perspective. Just the other day my youngest daughter came into the living room and turned on the TV. Having finished her homework, she was looking for something to do. She ended up tuning into Netflix and selected a documentary about the band One Direction. My daughter is a huge Harry Styles fan, so watching a documentary about how he got his start in the music business was right up her alley. I remained in the living room with her and together we watched the documentary unfold. From what I saw on screen, Harry Styles and the rest of members of the boy band One Direction all seem like nice young men. Everyone was clean cut and polite. The five guys all seemed to get along for the most part. All in all, it was a very family-friendly documentary. The format that the documentary used was to follow the band during one of their tours. As a result, there were segments of behind-the-scenes shenanigans interspersed with one-on-one interviews, as well as segments showing the band in concert. All of a sudden about two-thirds of the way through the documentary, the band was shown on stage as they began to sing a song that I recognized but had trouble placing for a moment because it wasn’t a One Direction song. The song they were covering was “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus. I have to admit that this boy band did a fabulous job with the song. In interviews after the song segment ended, there were conversations about how hard it was for them to fit in when they were all so musically and artistically inclined. As it turned out, even superstars in the making like Harry Styles had moments as a teenager when he felt like an outsider. The universal appeal of a song like “Teenage Dirtbag” covers all manner of people in all manner of places. For my daughter, her introduction to “Teenage Dirtbag” couldn’t have been more wholesome and positive. She is lucky.
The link to the video for the song “Teenage Dirtbag” as sung by One Direction can be found here.
The link to a video for the song “Teenage Dirtbag” as performed by buskers on a sidewalk in Dublin can be found here.
The link to the official website for Wheatus can be found here.
The link to the trailer to the movie The Amityville Horror can be found here.
The link to the video about the background of the song “Teenage Dirtbag” (which includes information of the Ricky Kasso Jr. murder and subsequent political fallout against Heavy Metal music) can be found here.
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