Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reflections, The Scots are Coming, Little Tavern

In 1985, I could easily ignore the massive edifices of government crowding me as I rode my bicycle down Constitution Ave. Granite federalist-style facades, tattooed with phrases reflecting their importance, great, stout temples to Democracy, the living manifestations of rebellion against tyranny. Washington, DC is the very epitome of a struggle for freedom, an unshackling, even the names of the avenues are the whispering ghosts of revolution and sedition. But to my sixteen-year-old senses it is just more big fucking buildings that are filled with people who don't understand, who don't see the bicyclist with the fuchsia mohawk and homemade Fear shirt weaving through traffic, riding off the terrors of adolescence, a revolution of one. As I turn onto 17th St., I wonder what Thomas Jefferson or John Adams or Thomas Paine would make of the Punks, crackheads, gang violence and the apathy of the post-60s youth. I bunny-hop the curb, cutting through West Potomac park, evading the vendors' trucks lining the curb, a Pakistani man waving a Lincoln Memorial shirt, shouting "symbol of A-mer-eee-ka!" in preposterously accented English leaps back from my advance, startled tourists gaping in my wake. I ride to the Pool and, sitting on the concrete retaining wall, I stare into the placid water, my reflection staring up at me, the water warping my my expression into one of cartoonish, raised-eyebrow inquisitiveness as though wondering whether the Founders could have imagined me, in my tattered Van's and bleached jeans and unnaturally colored hair, staring into the great mirror of democracy a few hundred yards west of the Capitol. A very fat woman in shorts and American flag tank top asks me in a flat, mid-western accent if she can have her picture taken with me as her two teen-aged daughters roll their eyes and sigh "Mom!", embarrassed and a little freaked out by the weirdo in front of them. I stare at her for a minute and say, "This isn't fucking London." Her husband immediately becomes engrossed in reading his Map of Tourist Places while she backs slowly away, herding her daughters along as from a suddenly snarling dog.

The Exploited were playing that night (a show that would become their live record, "Live at the Whitehouse", the cover of which, oddly, depicts the Capitol), the flame to the Punk moths that night. More F St. chaos, a finger to the eye of Washington politics, unnoticed by all but these young pariahs, congregation of the other side of the decade, gathering for the sermon of violence and rebellion, an anti-kaleidoscope, stark realism and sedition under white light, no hiding in lyrical abstraction. But the voice was different that night, a voice from Great Britain, where DC bands struggled for some ridiculous "legitimacy", only the Brits know Punk, own it, all snottiness and Real Revolution, Sid and Wattie and Rotten, the triumvirate of Punkitude, this DC Punk thing is not a threat. Even Dischord had to find a British press, but still we were true to our sound, the pulsing angry beat, our thing, we speak to our audience not the government, we concern ourselves with each other, we are personal, I against I. This is not fucking London.

The station wagon is a comfortable place to sleep after a show, drop off Jo and Billy and Danny, hunker down, wait for dawn, for the clearing away of the show-glow, time to worry about the next meal and gas money and cigarettes, it would be nice to have some meat, Little Tavern, daylight and a friend's couch, maybe a call to Chris, find a place to stay for a few days, some mischief. The wagon speeds down the Whitehurst, the marshmallow American made suspension bouncing across the expansion joints, "...In the city there's a thousand things I want to say to you, but when I approach you, you make me look a fool...", a sound of young lust from the back seat, to Rosslyn and beyond.

Back soon, reader.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Count, Action Heroes, Cold Rides

Before the widespread use of cable television in DC, there were 5 basic stations available: the three big network affiliates, the public broadcasting network, and WDCA - Channel 20. WDCA was at least a few rungs above public access TV, but maybe a few rungs below the Big Three in terms of quality of equipment and talent. Mostly. Mostly, that is, with the notable exception of everyone's favorite perverted political pundit and vampire, Count Gore de Vol. Creature Feature starring the aforementioned blood-sucker, aired late night Saturdays in the late 70s and, after a five year hiatus, from 84 to 87. The Count would present such illustrious films as "Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism", "Corridor of Blood", and "Zombies of Mora Tao" (the latter title firmly cemented my deep and abiding fondness for zombies AND pirates) to an audience of mostly happily terrified children, potheads, and insomniacs, all the while attempting to get his little vampire in the cave of some scantily clad model with too much makeup and some preposterous Gothic outfit. His Hallowe'en specials were legendary: huge-breasted be-costumed models, cheap rubber-chicken jokes, political jibes for the beltway crowd, the television equivalent of Circus Peanuts, you know they are awful but you can't stop eating, a strange and tacky flower in the otherwise carefully tended arboretum.

Television held very little that could occupy Punks. The action heroes were steadfast supporters of the status quo, fighting the good fight, wronged little old ladies menaced by mustachioed gangsters, poorly dressed unshaven B-grade actors in stylized programs, long Hollywood stares into the camera accompanied by a pithy line or two, absolute drivel, cheap electronic Rock & Roll over unimaginative dialog. We would hunker down in the basement rooms of our friends, homemade Black Flag posters, worn skate decks, the cheap cassette player distorting, no conversation, no introspection, readiness unlabeled and unnamed, X Men comics, headless GI Joes, spray paint and Beta tapes of the Young Ones, "...New York's all right if you like tuberculosis, New York's all right if you like art and jazz...", the musicians we listen to are not our heroes, never were anyone's heroes, they don't want to be famous, they are the slashers in the film not the coeds, a riot without purpose or aim, unmotivated abdicative rulers, a force of nature.

A few Punks stand around the station-wagon, hands in pockets, it's cold, staring at the shattered glass of the rear windscreen, cursing the rednecks or wiggers or other nefarious assholes responsible, quick hits on the cigarettes, shivers, UK Subs were good, man, yeah that was intense, we are gonna freeze, those assholes are real dicks, we gotta get to Dave's, a cop car drives by, oblivious to the crime, the driver punches up a middle finger at the back of the patrol car and slaps the handcuffs hanging from the rear-view mirror, easing out onto V St., picking up speed, a laugh from the back as a beer bottle smashes on the asphalt, the Beltway looms ahead, potholes and orange drums, the tinny speakers screaming with the the awkward rhythm of rebellion.

As always, until next time.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Circles, Shoes, Revolution

People frequently lament the perils of driving in DC. I don't know why, as it is perhaps the simplest of cities in the world to navigate. It is a grid, letters North to South, numbers East to West, a planned city, planned by an apparent obsessive-compulsive, a Frenchman, offended and repulsed by the organic, fractal cities of Europe, the disorder, forcing a conformity of purpose on the inhabitants, a funneling of the masses toward the Capitol, the buildings squat and muscular. Many visitors complain about the Circles, however, in tones usually reserved for something unwholesome, unnatural, an abomination before God, those Circles, they force me to drive around them, it should not be, we could be here forever, hypnotized, hamsters on a wheel, passed by taxi drivers with bemused smiles, bike-messengers with dreadlocks, and civil servants. No matter how precisely I direct them, non-natives seem to always get lost, stopping at a convenient pay phone to ring for rescue, come down here, we have abandoned the car, it may still be ringing around DuPont Circle, we are frightened, screw our belongings, just get us to the safety of your strange, basement apartments, you Colombian hobbits, living underground, we know what you Godless heathens have done, we saw that you have sacrificed J St., gave it over to some alternate dimension, some sort of Druidic ritual, it has vanished, not even Dan Brown can find it, HELP US, all is lost, you fuckers, why would you do this to us.

In the late 50s in DC, when my Dad was in high school, he worked for a shoe store, which, as any Washingtonian knows, meant that he worked on F St., as by official decree of the City Officials, all shoe stores must be crammed into two blocks of said street. You could not throw an alpaca on F St. without hitting (and seriously annoying) three shoe salesmen. Thirty years later, I would find myself on that same block with a couple of dozen others, milling about a small, unassuming door compressed between two storefronts, a few dollars in my pocket, boots on, examining the decoupage of fliers on the lamp posts, a constancy of perception, sounds and smells from the gathered leather-and-denim around me, unfiltered, unexamined, nearly thirty more years before it all comes into focus. We were all skinny then, but wiry, full of frustrations, "...Face front, you got the future, shining like a a piece of gold, but I swear as we get closer, it looks more like a lump of coal...", our self-made troubles like prophecy, passers-by have all read the book, give wide berth, our speech is clipped, nearly accent-less, but the words are foreign, the language of those who have seen through the high school cliques, through the dirty panes to the electronic future, William Gibson's bastards, every science-nerd I knew had a Dead Kennedys record or Minor Threat, we will be the Information Age's seed, impregnating the future with the same screw-the-system-we-can-do-it-all-ourselves that begat the indy labels, hackers, pirates, Information Libertarians, self-educated crafters of an unintentional revolution.

More to follow.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Skinheads, Doormen, and Gay Bars

In the film No Way Out, Kevin Costner runs up an escalator from the subway platform and weaves through shoppers in a Mall, eventually bursting through some glass and steel doors onto Wisconsin Ave., half a block south of M St. To the average viewer, this was one of the more exciting and suspenseful scenes in the movie; to any Washingtonian, this was complete bullshit. There is no subway stop in Georgetown. Closest you can get is Foggy Bottom, then you would have to grab a bus to M St. DC's Metro System is one of the strangest, albeit remarkably clean, public transit systems in the country. It shuts down at midnight during the week, the steel caterpillars vomiting out their passengers and retreating to the fetid safety of the darkness below the city, not to be seen again until just before dawn, when they emerge to devour neatly clad attorneys and politicos who perform their weekly pilgrimage to the halls of power, up and down escalators in Metro Center, a million harried Kevin Costners, only seeing Federal Plaza or Farragut West by the light of day, never hearing the city exhale, a sigh that becomes a growl, a sound like boot laces slipping through eyelets, a gathering of momentum, a kinetic wind blowing through the cherry blossoms.

The station-wagon comes to rest on H St., a four thousand pound rhinoceros, a National Bohemian can for a horn, symbols in matte paint covering it's skin, who drives that piece of shit?, speed freaks, my dear, speed freaks, cross the street, ignore the skinny, crazed nightmares getting out, forget that you saw them slip down an alley, or memorize the location for the inevitable police inquiries, sweet Jesus don't let them smell us. Punk shows were rarely held in convenient, easy to locate places. The owners of those places see the great, churning flesh machine on the dance floor, the screamed, indiscernible words, and No Fucking Thank You, they will destroy the place, drink nothing but water, we won't make a dime, they all have sharpie Xs, mark of the Beast of  No Bar Tab, send for a Zepplin cover band, it is Thirsty Thursday, two-for-one tequila shots, bring in the college girls, more baseball caps, revenue.

The alley is teeming, bald heads and braces, torn jeans and battered leather, Elmer's Glue spikes, pressing toward a bar-stool occupied by a bored looking twenty-something with a flashlight and a sharpie. He pauses and examines IDs, but some kids just come up and poke out their fist, waist level, back of the hand up, accepting the mark, two strokes across the fist, the mark of almost there, funneled down the hall, the sticky floor, no "have fun", no recognition, this is the norm, bored apathy, this happens twice a week, never any lack of pimply kids, it will be LOUD, the sweat will flow, a proving ground, a den, a chapel. The doormen are universal here, they don't look threatening, earning a bit of pocket money, sometimes they become fans but mostly they wear their Bauhaus shirt, sitting, aloof, it's all been done, you are not new, I will outlive this.

The bald heads huddle in groups, the band is backstage, a few mohawks bob through the Doc Martens, no one cares, Skinheads are idle, looking forward to the adrenaline, at rest. To the uninitiated, this word, Skinhead, is foul, it oozes a stench, it is a word used to describe stock footage from a riot in London, but these Skins are strange, one, a woman, a black woman, stands with her hands in her pockets, her braces forming a looping W across her rear, she is deferred to, an American Flag shirt with Oi! printed over the stripes, blue laces, jeering the peace punks. The show begins, there is a revving, a generator starts, the drums are muffled, the space goes all sweaty and intense, these young men (mostly) are showing their grit, telling the world about their angst through a dance, ballet gone feral, a chaotic ritual. The bartender is a woman, working hard, strong triceps bulging, she is nice but firm, she is biding her time somewhat, her money crowd will wait, the Punks and Skins will shuffle out by 10, her friends will arrive then, the dance music will play, the lights flash, rhythmic, distracting, the whole thing will metamorphose, Skinheads fade into lesbians, the only place a lot of these punk bands can play, the only tolerant ownership, a back-alley gay bar, no one even blinks.

And now the kids head home, the show is over, the subway is still running, it's early, Rockville and Manassas kids ride home, the station-wagon lurches into traffic, " say it's the crossroads, the place we meet, all I'm seeing is a dead-end street...", speeding toward DuPont Cir., beer or vodka, friends will laugh, the lights will stay on, the music echoes, but the caterpillar will sleep.

Until next time. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Moon Isn't Big Enough

By the time John Lennon died, the hippies were either hunkered down in the woods somewhere smoking weed or finishing law school in an effort to change the world from the "inside". Their Peace, Love & Acid vibe was derided by everyone from Ronald Reagan to Jello Biafra as self-indulgent, bohemian childishness. They were changing not because of societal pressures, but because their heroes had been exposed as charlatans, snake oil salesmen disguising LSD induced psychosis as enlightenment. Syphilitic hedonists who, at the end of the day, were nothing more than nihilists in tie-dyes, contemptible cowards hiding from life, hookah at the ready. Rock & Roll had become a caricature: amplified guitars amplifying the sex and the drugs, forget philosophy, fuck Peace & Love, it doesn't get us high and it doesn't get us any tail, throw some half-dressed sluts on the stage! fire! sparks! pot smoke! cue the sexy muscle car film! LIGHTS, more LIGHTS, fucking blind them all, call out the Emperor, more Christians to the lions, TO THE COLISEUM! Keith Moon's vomit soaked ghost hovered above them, smiling benignly, raising Jim Morrison's arm in victory like boxers, winners of the belt of Dionysus, pathetic corpses. Of course, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, were already there, along with too many others to name. Some of them, like the Clash, were trying to change the paradigm, but others, like the Pistols were empty constructs, crass for the sake of publicity and fame, suckling at the teat but spitting on it at the same time, more snake oil, but they didn't even know it, so complete were the blinders of fame and heroin. In Washington, DC, though, something...odd was happening. Not to imply that it was the only place in the country, but the examples there are perhaps the most striking. A band of black music rebels, a kid in his parents basement, and the local high school kids were doing something, something new, something...well, pure. They made their own records, they distributed them, they managed themselves, they played everywhere, high school gyms, convention centers, tiny basement clubs, they had their own thoughts, their own morality, they were there for all to see, not an iota of make up, pyrotechnics, or flashy guitar riffs, just energy, pure and untamed, lightning and sweat. And they knew us. They were living our lives, they were in our heads, they were us, sulking, angst-ridden, moody, adolescent golems, slaves to our hormones, no challenges, no learning to hunt or handle a spear, no tribe, suburbanites who didn't even know there was anything to miss, hearts of lions, lives of sheep.
Whatever else might have been going on, it spread. The area around DC from '80 to '87 or so was alive, a giant, teeming algae bloom on the ocean of youth, shaved heads and blue hair, leather and flannel, boots and Chuck Taylors, unintentional raggedness, proud lower middle class, reasonably educated, tough kids. Tough mentally, tough-hearted, lean, sweaty kids, with too-big feet, lurching on a dance floor that twenty years earlier would have been filled with twisting, well-dressed folk, unaware that their children would be the Horsemen of melody's Apocalypse.
The Music had not died, thank you very much Don McLean, it had shed unnecessary pretense, eschewed twisting, poetic metaphor for plain, 20 point type, threw out the sinuous five minute, masturbatory guitar solo in favor of fast, stripped down, punch in the throat rhythm, impossibly fast, beautifully aggressive noise. Who really gives a shit what the Walrus means, when you get right down to it? Screw the Pinball Wizard, he's shriveled and impotent anyway, I want a tribal chant, a rain dance, I want my whole body to convulse, the carbon atoms speeding through space, a musical super-collider, hurtling me toward unknown levels of intensity for three minutes, nothing more, the rest is self-aggrandizing bullshit anyway. "...And I don't wanna listen to it, You don't wanna dance to it, We don't wanna hear it, Rock & Roll bullshit...."
But as often is the case, the critics arrived, punker than thou, we know what is good, what is bad, we are ARTISTS, for fuck's sake, we KNOW, you are suburban trash, Andy Warhol in hundred dollar leather pants and fire engine red manic-panic hair, the Corcoran set, "I was at CBGBs for the Jim Carroll show", music fascists, DEFINERS, reading Kierkegaard but not understanding it, carrying a copy of the Village Voice, bringing the New York art vomit vibe to F St., no one is interesting, you bore me all. And a lot of us believed them. We started to replace S.O.A. with Billy Bragg, threw out the Youth Brigade records, and bought The Smiths at Tower Fucking Records, for chrissakes, we are older now, we have learned, we are in our TWENTIES now. Punk is dead.

But that is FAR from the end of the story, my friends. Because it refused to die. It became City of the Living Punk, the zombie effect, we will eat your brains, we will consume you before you even have a chance to cannibalize your own. Fuck New York. We are DC.

I leave you here, for now. More to follow.

A Punk Rock Dad Looks Back

In 1984, contrary to Orwell's dire predictions, the world seemed ripe for a youthful revolution of proportions unseen, even by the standards of the 1960s. I was 15. The rock and roll phenomenon had splintered into a dozen fragments, carrying our musical shards to the limits of imagination. There were metalheads, hippies, new-wavers, roots-rockers, rockabillys, goths, rudeboys, too many cliques to list, all plummeting headlong into the future, careless, unyielding, full of arrogance and the bitter yet intoxicating feeling that we had all been duped but we knew it and we could fight, gouge out it's eyes and piss on it's shoes. We were like the first people out of Eden, still scratching at the places in our minds newly filled with the knowledge that we were no longer innocent, like the scar that still itches now and again from a long healed wound. We would devour the world and the other travelers with it, these splinters speeding along beside us, parallel, with the same destination but a totally different energy, competitors for the ultimate goal, whatever the fuck that was. We could win it. We would win it. The game will conclude in the Great Game Show Studio: a ramshackle concrete bunker, painted with crude symbols; a crass, uncultured, middle finger of a building, retched up from the absolute garbage pile left to us by the hippies who burned like a peace & love incense but didn't stick around to clean up the ashes. And we liked it that way. The peace & love generation begat the Fuck You generation. We were our own mythology. Our music was an exercise in violence. Our shows were like  flesh generators, churning out a high-pitched crazed energy, and we would point at others in our pack and say "That dude is the real deal. He really doesn't give a shit."
A '74 Malibu Classic Station-wagon hurtled down Indian Head Highway. The driver, a sociopathic, violent-tempered eighteen-year-old named Jinx, steered the titanic hunk of metal toward Washington, DC, the cassette player blaring "....And we see, all around, Media telling us what to believe, We carry on laughing.....", good British punk rock, putrid anthems. The passengers were varied: a Native American, a Korean American, a German/Irish mongrel, a Scot, all matte and jaded, black leather and homemade shirts, huffing White Out, sipping Mickey's Big Mouths, blotting out adolescence, screaming yet silent, a Church Youth Group gone horribly wrong, deviant, wild-eyed, green-blue-orange-haired, gritting their mental teeth, ignorant and happy, after a fashion. There would be a Show, some drinking, some fighting, music, mayhem, sex, drugs, drama as only adolescents can produce, their appearance and demeanor a big loogie in society's soup. These were the children of the '80s.

More to follow. Stay with me.