781.66 Rock music

Man, I am so late posting this piece, from my cyber friend Nathan, who sends me cool CDs and stuff. Nathan, sorry it took so long and thanks for your patience!

Ok, punk, yes, I was a punk. At the time you wouldn’t look at me twice. I didn’t have a leather jacket with punk band logos painted all over it, I didn’t have a Mohawk or shaved head; I did sport a rat-tail for a few years, but I didn’t wear anything or do anything “extraordinary” to make people look and identify me with the punk scene. This was high school, 1983; I walked the halls with hundreds of my peers, yet I felt so out of place I wanted to literally be absorbed by the hallway walls and get from class to class undetected. Although I wasn’t a nerd by any stretch of the imagination, I wasn’t one of the more popular kids either; I had a few friends, but part of me was so alienated with seemingly everyone else in the entire school. I couldn’t fathom what they talked about; the parties, the drinking, the pot smoking, “cruising” around with heavy-metal champions of the time such as Ozzy or Iron Maiden blaring from your car speakers. There were after school sports, school activities like fund drives or carnivals; but I just wanted to get home every day after school and not think about it until the following morning. But what was the disconnection? I felt naïve, like everyone else had so much going on, was so much more mature than I was. They smoked, they drank, did drugs, things I didn’t view as particularly entertaining or “cool.”
Why doesn’t he want tons of friends
Says he’s bored when we hang around

-Dead Kennedys

Of course, at the time I didn’t realize this is what *every* teenager thinks about him or herself, and the friends, the activities, the wanting to be accepted and a “part of the group” is a way to deal with the awkwardness. Some fit right in, and they had a genuinely good time during their school years; the jocks, the freaks, the chess club. And some didn’t – and I certainly fit into that latter category.

However, things changed a bit when I befriended a senior who was in band with Maine (we both played the drums). He was nice, I think his name was Keith, and he was spinning tales about bands like the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag; super-fast music that told the masses to fuck off. At the time I was really into New Wave, and enjoyed the antics of groups like DEVO (who I also “got” as far as what they were trying to accomplish through their music and antics) and Wall of Voodoo. I also loved Jimi Hendrix and I was always amazed that a guy who could play with his *teeth* could be shot down and ridiculed by my percussion partner. I was intrigued. I bought a copy of the Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables LP and prepared for the sonic assault. What I heard was not quite as fast and furious as Keith had described. The lyrics were incredible, the music was catchy, and there was an insert with all of this gruesome artwork culled from newspaper articles and pasted together to resemble some sort of black and white nightmare. These images by Winston Smith along with the Kennedys smirking in the background created a cold, cruel reality that whirled around my head and somehow boosted my moral. I was hooked; in my mind, I lived that same type of cold and scary reality every day in school. All the kids, they would turn into government puppets, sports jocks, macho policemen, mailbox looters, they loved to pick on people and act tough – the music gave voice to my own fears and disgust at the actions of my contemporaries.

It seems so unreal to me
So much hate and so much pity
I can’t take another day –
It’s such a bore,
It gets me really sore…..
– Dead Kennedys
I pursued more records. Plastic Surgery Disasters was next; and wow, it had an entire book of Winston Smith artwork, I took it school and showed all my friends.

Keith graduated that year, but he told me about a college radio station that played punk rock on Friday nights. I tuned in and started my quest to find the bands I heard on the radio, I taped the shows and frequented the used records section of my local indie record shop. I painted my notebooks with LP covers. One year it was Black Flag’s My War, the next it was Government Issue. I had a pair of Chuck Connors high tops with the DK logo painted in where the star usually goes. I got an olive-green trench coat from Sunny’s Surplus and copied the Scream painting onto the back complete with billowing mushroom cloud from Winston Smith. Lastly, I made my own homage to Winston Smith by submitting my own collage clipped from off-beat newspaper headlines, and disturbing AP photos surrounded by a hand-drawn dead soldier border

Finally I started going to shows. There were a few clubs around that had all ages shows, and I either got a friend of mine to go with me, or more often than not, I actually went to these shows myself. Now this was quite an accomplishment for me. I’d drive out to these seedy parts of town late at night and park my hand-me-down Ford station wagon on some dimly lit parking lot for the night. But once I was inside the club, I felt so comfortable, everyone was friendly, they said “hello.” You could walk up to the bands who were selling merchandise before the show and talk to them. I asked the lead singer of DRI if that was really his dad’s voice featured on their song Mad Man (it was). I just soaked it all in, the crazy outfits, the Mohawks, and the incredible energy unleashed by the bands and the crowd once the music started. I never had a problem at the shows, and never witnessed the skin-head violence that would later plague the music scene here in Baltimore.

One thing that really strikes me now is that we were just a bunch of kids doing this. 16-17 years old, no money, no dependable transportation, living at home; yet there was the music, there were the shows, the ‘zines – quite an accomplishment.

I saw the final tour given by the Dead Kennedys, winning tickets from the college radio station that Keith clued me in to a few years back (Towson U’s WCVT 89.7). My Dad drove me and a friend down to Washington, DC so we could catch the bands. It got so late in the evening that my Dad made us leave before the Kennedys were finished their set – but it’s a night I’ll never forget. The huge hall was packed and people leapt from the balconies into the crowds below. Years later I would actually find a video tape of this very show and finally be able to see the whole thing.

I still enjoy this music today; matter of fact, I still have those audio tapes made from weeks of gathering music during Friday night’s “Pandora’s Box.” I have my notebook paintings, and I still have my jacket. And of course I still have all those LP’s. These are my fond memories of the high school years; the time I found a sort of “musical salve” to waylay my very-real fears of social ineptitude, mob mentality, unquestioned authority, and selfish attitudes.

I’m now 40 years old, and punk is still very much a part of me, and I’m glad to have been a part of it. Punk reinforced an my attitude of wanting to know the truth, of not settling for just anything and everything that you’re told, and for standing up for what you as an individual believe in no matter how popular or unpopular those ideas might be.

781.66 Rock music

A couple months ago, a nice young man named Nathan, who reviews music at a site called Weirdo Music, got in touch with me about writing about my experiences with Government Issue. That was 25 years ago. Maybe in another 25, I’ll have enough critical distance to give that subject the fair treatment it deserves. Or I’ll be able to sort out all the thoughts I have about those years in some sort of coherent fashion. Something like that.

Nathan and I did decide, however, that it would be cool to take a look at the whole punk thing from the point of view of those of us who aren’t household names. At least I think that’s what we decided. I haven’t talked to Nathan in a while, so it could be that I’ve bolluxed the whole thing up. But anyway, I asked a friend named Chris to kick the whole thing off with 500 words on “What Punk Means to Me.” And I think she did a damn fine job. Herewith are those 500 words:

What Punk Means to Me

1979 was when I discovered punk, so I was really “post-punk” in my tastes. That didn’t matter. It still had plenty of meaning for me. My first punk album was the first Pretenders album. It was extremely raw and important. I was so sick of mainstream rock; I knew all the words, the drum breaks, the boredom. Punk was like a big surprise party that went on and on. But it was more than that: it was an eye opener and gave me a reason to think there was hope for the future, through personal growth without the need to always be nice to people; “nice” meaning being a perfect girl that didn’t talk about the shit going on in the world and pretending everything would be okay if we just kept smiling.

Through punk, confrontation was encouraged: confrontation of injustice, mediocrity, apathy, phoniness and prudishness, to name a few. Punk also encouraged (and still does) individuality, self-exploration, and self-identification by urging you not to look to others to give your life meaning or to give you the ways to define yourself. Screw keeping up with the Joneses!

There was no need to be afraid of “standing out.” Being different was a goal. Clothing was very do-it-yourself (DIY): buy a pocket T, dip liberally in bleach, or add a safety pin here and there. All those trendy people now might not realize that piercing eyebrows and other areas started as a DIY thing in the 70s (I pierced my second earring holes myself).

I was very shy and insecure before I got into punk, new wave, goth, what have you. It came into my life just as I graduated from high school. I definitely could have used the mindset during high school. The songs themselves ran the gamut, with many different instruments, more synthesizer, amazing vocal styles from operatic to guttural crooning. Mostly they were much shorter than the arena-rock tributes. What a relief that was to me. You could be enraged, amazed, saddened and amused then happy after 10 minutes of listening to the radio. So often, you’d hear several new songs a day. I feel there was no other time in music history like it.

Every day, there were new bands coming on the scene. WBCN in Boston was actually really good and played new stuff from inside the US and tons from Europe. I wrote all the names of the bands that I knew of on my bedroom wall (the wallpaper sucked anyway)!

It’s funny, but every generation thinks their rebellion was the best (since the 50s, I suppose, with the beginning of recorded rock), and I am no exception. I truly feel that if it weren’t for the punk/new wave rebellion, I probably would not be here today. Life was just too stifling and dead-ended (and would have been literally) if I hadn’t had that outlet, and especially the opportunity to be me without apology.

Looks like two more entertainment venues here in Maynard have hit the chopping block. First, the Sit ‘n’ Bull Pub closed its doors last year, though Ted still owns the place and hasn’t given up on it just yet. A few weeks ago, CD Willy’s called it quits. The sign in the window has “50% off” crossed out and “75% off” in its place. They’l be out of here at the end of the month. And the other day, I saw a “For Rent” sign in the window of I thought that guy had a pretty good business plan—buy guitars off eBay, recondition them and sell them up. Except that probably no one’s buying guitars right now.

My wife and I were at Linens ‘n’ Things this afternoon. I mostly stood around and looked like a useless idiot, but I did pay very close attention to the piped-in music, punctuated by the frequent “I need a price check on salt-and-pepper shakers” or whatever. It gave me a really cool idea for a t-shirt, and I’m not going to tell you what it is.

April 1984. The University of Maryland kicked me out about a year ago. I dropped out of Montgomery College a month ago.

My 20th birthday is on the 14th. I have a blowout. A band plays in my living room. My friend disappears. I find him a little while later in my sister’s old bed with some girl he met from work. I pull them out of the bed. I think she splits. He spends the rest of the evening on the microphone, until my parents come downstairs and ask him to stop.

The girl I was seeing at the time brings her main man, which bums me out. He gives me a Skör bar as a present. The card that goes with it says, “I hope you ‘Skör’ tonight.” I didn’t, but I had a good time anyway. Somebody smashed a guitar on the living room rug. I was picking pieces of it out of the fiber for several weeks.

Later that month, I join Government Issue. I play my first show with them in Georgetown. I think it was the Hall of Nations, in May. A few weeks later we do a short tour up through Connecticut.

Dates and places are hazy, but I remember sleeping in a van in the Bowery in 90-degree heat; hanging out at somebody’s squat in Alphabet City where there was no electricity and some of the stairs were missing; and playing and recording at CBGBs. That week or so we spent in New York is a story in itself.

Then on to Connecticut. I remember doing an interview with some guy named Spazz Jeff, who had a fanzine. We all tried to be funny, but I don’t think it really worked, at least not on my end. I was an arrogant little shit back then, or at least I could be at times.

We crashed at the home of one of the guys in the Vatican Commandos, who really, really wanted us to know how the band got its name. I think it must have been Jim Spadaccini. He’s the earnest-looking guy in the photo on this page. As I recall, our host was very genial, but also very serious. As I recall, none of us were especially interested in that story, but if I had known at the time that Moby was in that band, I might have been impressed, because, you see, I was a snob.

I also remember some squat, beefy guy talking to me outside a show about how his band was getting a reputation as the best speed-metal band in Connecticut. The guy was so goofy—and real—that I couldn’t help but like him.

Seems like the two big, new things of 1984 were microwaves and MTV. Not that either of them were new; that’s just when I first started noticing them. As it turns out, microwave technology had been commercially available for more than 30 years before people started talking about “nuking” their food. I though new Coke came out in 1984, but Wikipedia says it was 1985.

I found these old notes I wrote while working on my undergraduate English thesis in 1992. I had forgotten that Milan Kundera talked about wanting to return the novel to its wilder and woollier days. At the time, I had no idea what Kundera was talking about, but after seeing all these online courses advertising about how to write novels, or short stories, or mysteries, etc., etc., I can relate. I tried writing short stories. Joined an online group. Felt like I was back at my old nine-to-five job.

I read one Writer’s Digest book, by Orson Scott Card, about characterization, and hated it. Then I read a sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card, Memories of Earth, and hated that, too. I’m going to write pretty much whatever I want, and you can call it whatever you want. Maybe if I ever get something published, you can say, “I’m not buying that crap.” That’s fine with me. I’m like Johnny Ramone; I don’t care if it sells or not. (He said that in a documentary about working with Phil Spector; I just don’t have the cite for it now. He makes similar comments in this interview.)

The Ramones were nothing if not primitive, at least at first. They probably would have horrified Kundera, but they and he were reaching for the same thing—art that doesn’t let convention get in the way of feelings. I feel like I’ve been too caught up in trying to observe all the rules of story structure, and somewhere along the way I forgot how to express myself.

I’m still going through my old notebooks; I think that what I wrote before I checked the manuals reads better than what I’ve written since then.

In my conversations late last month with my thesis advisor, he suggested it might be prudent for me to reduce my scope from all fiction written in the last 400 years, beginning with Shakespeare, down to just the fiction written in, say, the last 10 to 20 years by just one author, Milan Kundera. He also suggested I change my subtopic from the almost limitless terrain of “confusion” to one or two that would be more germane to Kundera. He suggested postmodernism. Two of postmodernism’s attendant features, he said, are dislocation and fragmentation: if one feels oneself out of the mainstream in this century, it’s because there is no mainstream any longer. I’m going to try to find out what factors—be they cultural, technological, culinary, whatever—led to the extinction of the mainstream. Perhaps the mainstream itself caused its destruction. Thus, we are now living in pockets of reality, in varying degrees of isolation from and interaction with each other.

The way Kundera approaches it, post-modernism seems to be kind of a reactionary movement. He says he wants to return the novel to the more primitive, experimental state in which it existed before the rules of writing a novel became codified and formalized, in the time of Rabelais and Diderot, Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy.

Of course, then Kundera goes and writes something called The Art of the Novel. I guess we all feel like we have to explain ourselves.

I finally got my tapes organized and found a tape I had copied exactly one year ago, with the intention of sending it off to a nice kid back in D.C. I have one blank tape and lots of old cassettes I want to copy and send his way. I guess you have to order cassettes off Amazon these days. One day I will figure out the whole tape/LP-to-mp3 mystery.

Other stuff I now know I have, due to the miracle of organization:

1. Submensas Love You — good pop punk from Damon Norko, this weird guy who used to walk around College Park with a sign safety-pinned to his coat that said “Poems 4 Sale.” The first three songs are awesome. I taped over the rest with a really great African music show on WPFW.

2. A Government Issue show from September 1985 at WYCB Music Hall (now the 9:30 Club). Not our best show, but it has its moments.

3. J.S. & the Cupids — a side project me and Stabb did in ’84 or ’85 with Steve Hansgen. All covers. This is a rehearsal of six or so songs. Following that is a killer Julian Cope concert, which I think Stabb taped off the radio.

4. Lots of tapes from WMBR: punk rock on the Late Risers Club; good obscure pop on Lost and Found; classic mento, ska and rocksteady on Bovine Ska & Rocksteady. Similar stuff from other Boston college stations.

5. Other ‘PFW shows: the Bama Hour; African Rhythms w/Prof. Kofi Kissi Dompere (whose tagline is “Oh, YES!”); Africa Speaks; Oldies House Party.

6. A tape one of my old roommates in the mid-80s left behind when he moved out. I call it “Weird Shit from Radio Free Long Island.”

7. A tape from WHFS of a short-lived show called “Real Rockin’ Metal.”

8. Other stuff. I will catalog it all in an Excel file or something one of these days.

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