Monday, February 20, 2012

Power Chord

Strip the veneers away and music only gives you one of two things: a place to cradle your pain or a place to celebrate your joy. That's it. Pleasure or pain. Music is humanity's most fickle of inventions, its quiet, dark room or its temple to ecstasy, and they so often are the same place. Remember getting your heart broken and the songs you listened to and it will tell you a little about dealing with pain. Remember the best memories and the songs which accompanied them and you will know a little more about what it takes to be happy.

It's a strange thing, our mind. It can be our worst enemy and it can give us our greatest triumphs. Sometimes it does what it does with clarity, a clockwork device, a simple and to-the-point instrument. Other times it comes at us obliquely, a devious and subtle little imp. Dreams are said to be subtle attempts to persuade us from the sub-conscience, to enact our will when waking by guiding our vision while asleep, tiny and vague soldier making war on our consciousness. Music is the same: it is a dream we enter willingly, with forethought, with purpose, and in it we come to happiness or overcome pain, vibrating, smashing, uncontrolled.

I have found that I will be singing or humming a song I have heard only once, maybe just repeating a phrase or lyric because I only know that little bit. Later, I will buy it or borrow it and find out that it says exactly what I need it to at that moment in my life, Occam's razor cutting through the fecal landscape of the little lies I tell myself.

The day I heard Minor Threat - Out of Step I was in a buddy's car heading to the skate park. A girl I really liked had just shit on my heart and I couldn't focus on anything and I was going to go skate hard and forget. The song came on part way through and was followed by some GBH tune or something, so I really only heard a tiny part of it. I skated that day until my elbows looked like ground chuck and I was drenched in sweat. I got a ride home and collapsed on my bed, sleeping until the next morning, something like thirteen hours.

When I did finally get up I found myself singing "Out of step, with the wo-orld" over and over while I pillaged the refrigerator. While I chewed the fuel I found, it cycled through my brain, oscillating and reverberating. I finally called Dave and asked him for a recording of it so he taped it for me. I listened to it about twenty-five times in a row. It quite literally changed my life.

I bought the record the very next time I was in the record shop around the corner and never looked back. Hardcore became part of me, incorporated its intensity, its power, into my personality and, in turn, I became part of it during its brief and furious course. It was the way I banged out the moments of pain as well as being the wrench of my happiness. It was a violent, red flood in the corners, a coursing current of electric emotion on the basement steps, stomping, biting, flailing, and shoving my furious love and pain and rage and fear and sorrow, vision in the fog, a living part of the burning chaos in my head.

Jinx stands in front of the speakers in his basement, heavy boots sticking to the floor, shirtless, sweating, eyes burning, and the first note rings and hammers him in the neck, pulling up his foot almost against his will. He stamps down on the hard concrete, body coiled, arms pumping, a hurricane in Doc Martens. The speakers thump and crack and protest, waves of clear joy exploding from their paper cones, pushing him in the face one way, pulling him by the scrotum to another, all the fear and violence flying off his limbs in the form of sweat. He is alone, in the space of his mind, hurtling, a comet, picking up debris on the way, losing the material that weighs him down. Alive.
The first lyrics scream out at him I'm gonna knock it down Any way I can I'm gonna scream I'm gonna yell I don't want to have to use my hands reeling, flailing, a lone rioter, teeth gritted, the chorus pulls somehow even more out, energy, hatred, love, the current of the mind IT'S LIKE SCREAMING AT A WALL SOMEDAY IT'S GONNA FALL. And the pain blissfully is rendered.

Friday, February 17, 2012

GI Joe, Vomiting, Cones

As a teenager, my room was a strange, eclectic disaster. Like a lot of lower-middle class families, new furniture was not something we could afford to buy. I had a dresser that I had from the age of 6 or so, the bed was my Step-mom's bed from college, and one of my lamps was a pirate ship, of all things. To most kids, this would have been the source of many frustrations and whining about wanting more grown-up furniture, I'm sixteen, Dad, not four, why can't I have a new dresser, I saw one on Miami vice that was real cool, this sucks, you don't even care...In our house, the answer to this petty, childish self-absorption was pretty simple: get a damn job. But I was not your average kid (nor were most of my friends) and I didn't really care about getting a new Camaro or the latest fashion, much less a slick new dresser. I was a Punk-rock kid, a do-it-yourself deviant, a destroyer and a creator of my own environment.

I cut up hundreds of magazines and newspapers, pasting mashed up layers to the wall: a picture of Jon Bon Jovi with giant lemur eyes cut from a biology text stuck on his face, ransom style cut-out letters spelling the words "I LIKE VOMITING AND LONG WALKS ON THE BEACH" pasted over a photo of Christie Brinkley, a pair of squids replacing Jesse Helm's hands, Black Flag bars spray painted directly on the wall surrounded by show fliers, a Barbie head nailed to the wall. I had glued a couple of dozen GI Joe arms and legs all over the lampshade of my pirate lamp, transforming it into an electrified, nightmarish sea urchin. It was the nightmare of a person stuck somewhere between boyhood and the stark, frightening prospect of adulthood.

It was also the essence of Punk ethos, the ratty fabric of chaos, the blurred scenery of the Hardcore mind. It was unintentionally reflective of the turmoil and pain and violence of a teenager's angst, an imposition of my will on my environment. It was, as so many of the bullshit, pop-psychiatric parent's guides of the era will tell you, my expression of the changes I was experiencing. But really, I just liked it. It looked cool and it freaked "normal" people out.

Punk is doing for yourself, no mater what that may be. Don't have a Minor Threat shirt? Make one. Your leather jacket looks too shiny for your tastes? Tie it to your bumper. Don't have any money for expensive hair-care products? Elmer's Glue is just fine. The Punk just did it, whatever it was. He made do with what he could scrounge up. She improvised, never caring about a label name or a designer.

Like my redecorating efforts, Punk bands had to do it themselves, as well. Make their own records, often establishing their own record labels, and promote their own music using whatever resources they could find for free, that could be stolen or borrowed or recycled. It was an industry run by the artists, an insane bunch of parent's worst fears, a time-bomb of financial disaster. But then, the flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long and most of the DIY labels imploded or faded away after only a few short years. They were uncompromising and idealistic and naive. But they had BALLS and they made some of the most honest, intense, and fantastic music that the world ever had to cover its ears to avoid hearing. They didn't need a damn job, just effort.

The station-wagon pulled away from a somewhat dilapidated suburban ranch house, stuffed to dangerous levels with wild eyed youths. It rolled through a stop sign and turned east, picking up speed, an economy caravan, a spray painted conveyance decorated with the feverish howls of teenage insanity. It squeals to a stop in the middle of a highway on-ramp, ejecting a skinny, blue-haired kid who grabs a pair of traffic cones and heaves them into the back. With a few cautionary glances up and down the road, he leaps into the open rear door to some muffled laughter and a couple of indistinct shouts. The driver check his mirror and stamps on the accelerator, lurching forward, headlamps shining out like spotlights, searching the darkness for anything.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Graffiti, Hurricanes, Bruises

Memory is a funny thing. I am never sure if an event remembered actually happened the way I recall it or not. I can recall in excellent detail the inside of the 9:30 Club, down to some of the graffiti on the walls, the way the stage came out at a crazy angle, the tile in the hall. Still, though, the shows I saw there are murky and fuzzy, car accidents of music, felt rather than precisely rendered. But such is the lens of adolescence and young adulthood.

The shows I remember best are those that really seemed to pull the hate and rage out of me and leave it flying off into nothingness, a hurricane force leveling everything in its path but leaving me standing quietly in the eye. Release. And that kind of power leaves the mind shocked, unable to understand the volatility latent in its soft confines, the raw emotion. To recognize that immense and uncontrolled power is a frightening proposition; it takes a strong individual to really deal with it, to acknowledge that they are a bomb in boots, a shotgun one finger-squeeze from explosion.

I listen to lyrics when I am at home, in my basement, at rest. Then I can absorb them and understand them and let them tell me their story. At a show it's all emotion undressed. I always took the time to read lyrics so that I could comprehend what the musicians were portraying in a particular song. Many times it spoke directly to me and garnered that little head nod, that agreement, the conversation with a peer. Sometimes it left me wondering if the writer really believed them, if it was a sham, a mask. It is the difference between Minor Threat and The Misfits.

The Descendants always seemed to hit me right in the fleshiest part of my brain. There was such an amazing honesty in their lyrics, a celebration of the writer's flaws, dealing with them head-on, no fear. But their shows: pure adrenalin and release and speed. It was a perfect combination of the things I would never say to myself (but secretly thought) and the raw rage I needed to unload.

I saw them in '85 or '86 at the 9:30, a show I remember as a hazy climb up some crooked staircase only to tumble down, bruised but smiling, punching the demons in the neck on the way down, reptilian and explosive. I don't remember who I was with, the date, where I was living at the time, the color of my mohawk, or the set list. But that memory is so vivid, so real to me, I will likely go to the old-folks home still smiling when it surfaces. That show was one that gave me something back and was worth the ticket price, the sweat and the bruises, worth twenty times what I paid for it or the record.

I can only hope my kids have something that slaps them and sticks like that. They need their own blurry memories in this world.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Express Delivery, Catalyst, Cabbies

I am a patient boy
I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait
My time is water down a drain

Everybody's movin'
Everybody's movin'
Everything is moving
Moving, moving, moving

Please don't leave me to remain
In the waiting room

MacKaye. "Waiting Room" Lyrics. 13 Songs  Dischord, 1989 

I took a job as a courier in late '89 to make ends meet. Where they met was never clear, I was always in a state of flux, never really pausing to look forward or back, riding hard toward the same undefined destination always, a bullet with no target.

It was so easy to throw myself into the pedals, with every teeth-gritting, rage powered revolution pushing down on some blackness, forgetting briefly the visions of my (it was assumed) eventual destruction, hurtling through the flashing sea of metal, lights, and fumes. I actually found it much harder to get off the bike and ride the elevator with some lady from Suite 1009 or the the really good-smelling guy from Big Law Office, trusting the cables and pulleys, fighting the calf cramps, thinking...well, just thinking.

I ate virtually nothing then. I didn't really do any drugs as most of them made me feel serious paranoia and usually resulted in a freak out of some kind (some of those were LEGENDARY, but do not bear relating now) but I drank a fair amount. I had just gotten back to DC from parts unspecified, feeling at home again, recognizing the maelstrom, feeling it, glad to know this Devil. There was a girl, as usual, who didn't really know me, though we had been together for a year or so. She was a good person, probably, but I didn't really take the time to figure that out, I had to know what she could do for me, how long she would last before she left; I, self absorbed, a fractured and fragile egoist.

A life is destined for tragedy if it is left unexamined, to wind down a path into the fog, a careless misuse of the magic of evolution. So we look for something to grab hold of, something to ignite our passion, to wriggle (often uncomfortably) in our minds, demanding attention.  Music has that power. It is a palpable thing, a force, a motor. It is a thing to which we have to lend no meaning, it gathers in the mind and grows and we do not understand it's source. Maybe it is tied to the rhythms of the electrical pulses between our synapses, some chemical reaction brought about by a process, a catalyst, unknown to us. Any way you look at it, it has power.

Hardcore appealed to some part of my mind, some convoluted fold of brain matter, that needed to move, to scream, to unload. It swam in the reptilian and mammalian parts, in Broca's area and in the medulla, taking over, releasing: a vicious, a primal force, a motor of adolescence.

Not that I even considered such philosophical bullshit at the time. I was a teenager, a flesh golem, fighting against unseen forces, wrestling unnamed demons. I wanted to fight, to fuck, to destroy, no time for thinking, if you think, you hurt, you burn faster and the whole process just succumbs to inertia.

As long as I was moving, hurtling down Vermont Ave., the thinking could not waylay me; I could not afford to be introspective, the cabbies would kill me. I was always gathering speed, never recharging, life and philosophy would chain me down otherwise. The wheels rolled, the rhythm never faltered, always fast, always screaming. Because if the wheels stopped spinning, the music would stop, inertia would win, the cabbies would pounce.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Zombies, New Wave, the Fashionable Punk

Return of the Living Dead released in 1985. Being a big fan of zombies, Jo and I got tickets and saw it at a seedy little strip-mall theater in Southern Maryland. It was fantastic; we laughed and cheered and stood on our seats with every gruesome spray of arterial essence, every absurd and hilarious death.

What was not to like about zombies for a Punk? The perfect analogy for 80s society: mindless consumerism, perpetual dashing after nebulous goals, a lack of self-examination, just the relentless drive for self-aggrandizement. The heroes struggle to escape being consumed and integrated into this animal world, still possessed of the cloak of humanity, violently striking against the seemingly inevitable tide, unbowed. And in this particular vision of the zombie doom the director had inserted leather clad, be-mohawked "punks", deviant through and through, like cockroaches post-nuclear Armageddon, one of the few surviving beings of this apocalypse. Looking back at this more than 25 years later, of course, these "punks" were nothing more than comic relief, a sort of nod at the pathetic youth of the day, clowns in leather and studs.

Fittingly, T.S.O.L. is prominently featured on the soundtrack, all Friday night hair and Monday evening attitude, safe punk rock, the masses can handle this, clean up the guitars, give them new amps, let's make a buck on this revolution. This is how Hollywood sees the punks, how they can digest them without ending up with ulcers, no sickening glances in the tarnished mirror held by Black Flag or Bad Brains or Black Market Baby, just a superficial tease of the hair, a liberal hand with the mascara.

The movie industry never got it, any more than the record industry did. The record industry abandoned the punks the very second "New Wave" lumbered out of the slime left by The Clash and the Sex Pistols and delivered it's first romantic and tearful ballad, something introspective and self-pitying, skinny and pale and languid. Don't worry parents, no more horrifically fast rhythms, no more primal screams, just pop-y, can't-wait-to-kill-myself-this-world-is-too-hard English fops.

It is snowing, nature trying to hide humanity, cold, quiet. The '74 Malibu Classic station-wagon eases out onto Hwy. 301, a massive spray-painted ark, two laughing fuchsia haired punks in the front seat, talking about the movie, smoking, hoping the dove comes back with something better than an olive branch. The apocalypse they hope to harken is a new beginning, a chance for humanity to triumph over it's own self-made undeath.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Demos, The Scene, The Total Package

I remember buying my first demo at a punk show. The Volcano Suns were in town, sometime in '86 or so, with two opening bands, the names of which are lost in the fumes of many bottles of Rush and rivers of sweat. One of the now anonymous bands was selling cassettes at the show (at the Complex, mayhaps?) and as I happened to have change leftover from Little Tavern, I bought one. It wasn't particularly good quality, neither by recording standards nor in content, but I bought it anyway (and played it, rarely) to support "the scene". It was an investment in something I cared about, a way to screw the record industry, and a poorly plastic-wrapped middle finger aimed at AUTHORITY, all for three dollars. The art was a mimeographed drawing of something unpleasant, a child being mauled by a circus bear or something, which had been painstakingly cut from a larger piece of cheap paper, conjuring images of heavily-mascaraed girls toiling away in the bass player's parents' garage surrounded by thick clouds of clove smoke, a suitably morose English New Wave song crackling out from cheap boom-box speakers, torn fishnets and combat boots, fashionably listless.

The scene. It was all of the bands that ever sloppily hacked at a guitar neck and screamed into a mic, sticky-floored dive bars festooned with a decoupage of thirty-thousand flyers, the several hundred (or dozen) teenagers in heavy boots, the thrift store, half a dozen record shops, the bondage boutique, an odd restaurant or two, and anywhere mayhem might coalesce. It was the seedy neighborhood across town from the record industry where talent scouts stared straight ahead when driving through to meet their immaculately quaffed clients, just there off of Russ Meyer Blvd., down the street from the Independent Publishers. It was not an exclusionary system, it was openly hostile, go ahead, see if you can survive the denizens of DIY St., you fat bastards, we are lean here, we smell your engineers' fear, you are too weak to make an honest record, we will use your fat rolls of money to clean the rat shit off the floors of our clubs, we don't even drive here, we have burned all the cars, you are not in L.A., you festering pustule on Rolling Stone's scrotum, you bubble-gum pop assclown.

And sometimes, even a blind squirrel finds a nut. Maybe it starts a business in a basement on 4th St., maybe it steals a copy machine and makes a free 'zine, maybe it just shares the nut with it's friends. Any way it goes, the music fan wins, has plenty for the cold winter months, and maybe has enough left over after Little Tavern for another nut.