Fast Times – Philadelphia Inquirer (1981)

He Went Back to High School to Study Life in the Fast Lane

When Cameron Crowe was 16 and a senior in a Southern California high school, he was supposed to take a history final. But he told the teacher he couldn’t take the test; he had to go on the road with Led Zeppelin, the rock ‘n’ roll group.

Crowe was not a fan planning to gawk at the group’s every move. No, he was assigned to write about the band as part of his job as a contributing editor to Rolling Stone.

The history final was never taken and the high school diploma never received—Crowe was too busy writing about the top rock ‘n’ roll performers. The lack of a diploma does not concern Crowe, who is now 24. He says he received a $15,000 advance on his first book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story, which was published last week. He has just completed the screenplay for it, and Universal intends to make it into a movie.

At the age of 24, with a book and screenplay under his belt already, Crowe might be expected to be impressed with himself. He is not. At first meeting, he is an immediately likable young man, who is still surprised and flattered that national publications like Esquire and the New York Times Magazine want to print his work. Small and slight, with a baby face and peach fuzz instead of a beard, he looks much younger than he is. And it was those physical characteristics, as well as his desire to capture a teenage experience he had earlier missed, that helped him write his book.

The book is Crowe’s chronicle of a senior class in a California high school. Crowe enrolled in the school as a senior transfer student and through first-hand experience, eavesdropping, and interviews after graduation, he traced the lives of several students portrayed in Fast Times.

“My mother, who is a teacher, and I drove around southern California and picked what we thought would be a typical middle-class school,” Crowe said the other morning in his room at New York’s St. Regis, the final stop of a month-long book tour.

“I approached the principal with the idea. You see, for years I was told to report on rock ‘n’ roll music and the appeal of it to ‘the kids.’ So I wanted to see what ‘the kids’ were up to these days,” Crowe said. “The principal was skeptical and asked me what I had written. When I told him my last article had been on Kris Kristofferson, . . . his eyes lit up. It turned out he loved the guy.

“I told him some stories about Kristofferson, and afterwards, he agreed to let me attend his school,” he said.

But wait. Back up. Just how did a 16-year-old begin writing for Rolling Stone in the first place?

When he was 15, his sister worked for an underground newspaper in San Diego. “One day, she took me to the office, where I told the editor that I wanted to write,” Crowe said. “They gave me a Rita Coolidge record to review. That led to me writing record reviews for them.

“After doing that for a while, I went to the headquarters of Rolling Stone, which was still in San Francisco, and introduced myself to Ben Fong-Torres (an editor) and showed him my clips and said I wanted to write for the magazine. Surprisingly, he gave me an assignment, which was an interview with Richie Furay, a member of Poco.”

Crowe said that his arrival at Rolling Stone was perfectly timed. The editors, he said, were looking for someone to report on rock ‘n’ roll bands that appealed to teenagers, which at that point included Black Sabbath and other “heavy metal” groups.

“So I spent a few years, when I should have been graduating high school and going to college, traveling around the country with groups like the Allman Brothers,” he said. “And while I was doing all this traveling, my parents kept telling me that I was missing a wonderful and important part of my life. Finally, in the summer of 1979, I realized they were right. I missed high school and college and wanted a chance to experience it.”

And so Cameron Crowe, contributing editor of Rolling Stone, became Dave Cameron, high school senior. What Dave Cameron discovered was that many teenagers lived in the fast lane when it came to sex and drinking. Drugs, he found out, were not very popular. “I went through my drug phase in junior high,” many seniors told him.

Crowe kept mental notes of events he saw, and talked into a small tape recorder as soon as he was alone. On his first day at school, he walked into a journalism classroom where he met Linda Barrett, one of the school’s most popular girls. She befriended the bewildered Crowe, and introduced him to the teachers and students who make up the book.

And what did he learn of the youth of today?

“They’re conservative,” Crowe said, without hesitation. “They’re Reagan children. It’s scary.”

For legal reasons, his publisher, Simon and Schuster, insisted that the name of the school be changed, as well as all the names of the people he met there, some of whom went through humiliating experiences, often sexually related. “I told Linda Barrett who I was and what I was doing three months before graduation,” said Crowe, who did not date any of his classmates. “She loved the idea and thought it would be exciting to see her experiences in print.”

So, apparently, did the other seniors, once they were told of Crowe’s plan. Crowe conceded that teenagers today do not read much, but he is hopeful that they may soon see a movie based on his book.

A spokesman for Universal said yesterday that a director has been selected and that the film on Ridgemont High will be called Fast Times.

Crowe did not receive a high school diploma from the school he calls Ridgemont—he wasn’t graded while he was there—and he still hasn’t made it to college. He probably won’t do either for some time now, because he wants to turn his attention to his next project, a biography of Neil Young, the singer-songwriter.

“I’ve moved out of my parents’ home again and into a ‘house on stilts’ in the Hollywood Hills,” Crowe said. “I think what I learned in all this was to relax and what kind of adult I didn’t want to be. Looking at some of those conservative kids, I realized I never want to be a businessman and stop rocking and rolling.”

Courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer – Kevin L. Goldman – September 29, 1981