In 1968, when Tom Applegate was 14, his family moved from the Chicago suburbs to the West End of Henrico County. Picture a kid — skinny, short attention span, crazy about playing guitar — plopped down in a neighborhood with no sidewalks or record stores.
Kids thought his accent was funny, and he thought the same of theirs. His dad was off traveling for business, and his mother, a humorist who sold jokes to Phyllis Diller, was making speeches for women's groups.
Young Tom had lots of time to think and strum.
At Freeman High School, he made up a petition to change the rule against students wearing blue jeans. "We had to wear pants with belts," Applegate remembers with disgust. He got called to the principal's office, where the principal said he'd "been sent down here from Chicago by the communists to infiltrate the school."
Now that is a punk-rock origin story.
Unlike his older sister and brother, who went on to careers in business and education, and his father, who worked for Reynolds Metals and held multiple doctorates, Applegate dropped out of college to play guitar full-time and become a "gutter man."
He'd go on to start L'Amour with Dave Stover, part of Richmond's first punk wave in 1978, followed by Beex, the legendary metal-punk group fronted by his late wife, Christine Gibson, founded in 1979.
"I was the Keith to her Mick," he says. Beex found regional success in Richmond, New York and the Washington punk scene and opened for Joan Jett but never was signed to a label.
Today, Applegate is a teacher of second-graders in Hopewell. In every sense of the word, he's still a punk rocker.
In his North Side house, he has boxes of old flyers and other Richmond rock ephemera and a thousand stories to go with them.
"I saw Patti Smith 25 times," Applegate says. He was friends with her brother Paul, who lived in Richmond and died suddenly in 1994, and Applegate had met Patti and corresponded with her a couple of times but remained primarily a fan.
In 2007, a few weeks after Gibson's death from breast cancer, a friend called him to go see Smith at the 9:30 Club in Washington. He decided to go, maybe get a sign that everything would be all right for him and his daughter, Maria. That he could move forward after losing his wife and musical partner of 27 years, as well as the closing of the preschool where he had worked.
Midway through the show, Patti stopped her song and announced she needed to pee. Lenny Kaye took over vocals. Applegate's friend tapped on his shoulder and motioned for him to turn around. It was Patti. She hugged him and whispered in his ear, "Everything is going to be OK."
Life hasn't always been perfect for Applegate, but it did turn out OK. He met Linda Burns at a Halloween party in 2008, where he was dressed as Abraham Lincoln and she was a bearded circus lady. She fixed his beard with Spirit gum and touched his face. He felt tingles.
In 2014, he proposed in the most punk-rock way possible, by getting a tattoo on his upper right arm: a heart and the words, "Linda, will you marry me?" She was surprised, he says, laughing.
He also finished his bachelor's degree — 35 years later — at Virginia Commonwealth University and then got his teacher's license. He happily taught second grade in Henrico's East End for eight years.
"Each child is a song," Applegate says. "My job as a teacher is to figure out what key they're playing in and teach them the chords. We just do things and play and sing and dance."
But a new principal didn't appreciate his unorthodox methods, so Applegate got called to the office. The principal didn't call him a communist infiltrator this time, but he needed to stick with the program. Under pressure, he quit three years ago and figured he was retired from teaching, but Linda, who works for the Hopewell school system, got him an interview to teach second grade there.
"They watched me the first year closely in Hopewell," he says. "But it worked. The kids loved me, the parents loved me. The principal said, 'I don't know what you're doing down there, but keep it up.' That's really rare."
In March, Applegate was given an award for incorporating technology into his teaching from the Southside Virginia Regional Technology Consortium. He's so proud, he says he's going to attach a necklace to the plaque so he can wear it around his neck.
And last year, Beach Impediment Records released "Look to the Artist: 1978-1981," a tight, masterfully engineered compilation of archival recordings by L'Amour. It was in the top 10 punk records on Bandcamp. Along with the release, Applegate and Stover have reunited for a couple of shows and may do more. Beex, as it has since its formation, still plays at local clubs periodically, only now Applegate is on vocals.
"I just love rock and roll music," he says. "Playing it is the best thing — ever. It's an honor and a privilege to be able to stand on a rock and roll stage. It's your responsibility to make it rock."
Beex plays June 1 at the Canal Club. $10.