I first encountered the music of Olympia, Washington’s Clayface during the summer of 2016. At an early show show at the long since shuttered Obsidian bar to, be precise. The music moved me for sure, but it was more of a gentle sway, and not the kind of elegant goth in black lace with a raven’s nest of hair sway, but just a “Hey, this sad music is pretty alright. I’m fucking old and my back hurts and how come it’s so hard to go anywhere in this town without feeling like a thousand eyes are on you?” sway. In fairness to Clayface, my inability to properly goth-sway had nothing to do their music, and everything to do with the sunlight creeping in through the door. You see, dear darklings, these gloomiest of gloomsters, the heirs to 40 years of darkness and forgotten bedroom recordings with the feeling of a cold grave in autumn (in the best way!) simply had the rotten luck of opening the gig just after the 7:30 door time. ‘Round the Pacific Northwest in the summer, well the sun doesn’t go down until 9:00. We were stuck watching music I would later affectionately come to refer to as “Like if Robert Smith had way less money, and way more genuine misery” while the sun was still up, and goddamn if it wasn’t hard to feel the darkness a little less in the presence of the sun. Creatures of the night don’t stalk the streets during the light of day, and I can all but gurantee you Peter Murphy would throw an absolute prima donna shitfit if Bauhaus had ever been asked to play a gig beneath the burning day-moon.
Somewhere in the years that followed ( I don’t remember when, because so many gray days long since blurred together and I always joked that every year spent in Olympia aged my pretty face twice that.) I came to actually know the music of Clayface and call Jacob a friend. I couldn’t tell you when, but I’m pretty sure I was standing on the back table next to the devil statue at Cryptatropa watching the band absolutely scorch through Sister IsDead, the title track of their sole LP when I just sorta got it. The story behind the record is not mine to tell, but I will say this: Lots of people experience tragedy. Sometimes its hard to not feel like life is just a series of reprieves between the tragedies that define us. I can also say that I know few people who people who have come out the other side of their tragedies making art as painfully honest, vulnerable and beautiful as Sister Is Dead. It remains one of my favorite records to come out of Olympia. A quiet and sadly dignified, criminally overlooked slab of wax sulking in the shadows between your RVIVR’s and your G.L.O.S.S’s and your Wolves In The Throne Room’s.
I was lucky enough to go on tour with Clayface and Harsh R, an equally beloved project making fucked up abyssal noise in the dank and dark venues of Olympia. To this day, I count that week traveling up and down the west coast just at the end of a dry summer, heavy with wildfire smoke lugging heavy ass equipment and boxes of records as the highlight of my 2018, if not the entirety of my time in Olympia. Last spring when I left for an extended absence, my last night in town, I went to see Clayface play and stood at the soundboard next to Avi laughing and crying all at once. Thinking “Goddamn, if this song doesn’t just rip my heart out every time, and I love that Avi is all grins anyway.” A perfect sendoff from a town I loved and hated to drive three thousand miles through the rain into uncertainty. I wore my Clayface shirt the whole drive.
The morning was already hot and dry this July when Jacob and I caught up at a vegan restaurant on Capitol Avenue. I was sad to hear him say he was thinking of retiring the Clayface moniker for something fresher, maybe a little less heavy. I was relieved to hear him say the project already had a name and was beginning to play gigs. Only recordings so far are a nightmarish soundtrack to a short flim made by Jacob. I haven’t seen the film, but after listening to this, I fear the images that might haunt me in my sleep when I inevitably pass out as soon as I’m done typing this mess. The first track is deceptively soothing, drawing the listener in, lulling them to a false sense of rest before the nightmares move in. My first thought was how much this too short of a recording reminded me of the Hellraiser Themes by Coil without sounding derivative. I mean that as a compliment of the highest order. I’d like to think John Balance and Peter Christopherson are smiling from whatever acid-laced glitched out afterlife they inhabit.
It’s nice to go to shows and see gray hair, and crow’s feet and smile lines. It’s a relief to see aging punk rockers still rocking the double studded belt look coupled with their receding hairlines. I don’t know if I was totally aware of what a toll it took on me to go to shows in a city where I would often be fifteen years older than many of the punks in attendance. This especially in a subculture that discards and writes off its elders every generation or so.
Speaking of the new destroying the old, each time I see HIDE perform, Heather Gabel and Seth Sher outdo themselves completely, both sonically and in stage presence and intensity. So much so, that I think back to the first time I saw them in a near empty bar in Seattle with one of my very dearest friends, and how that gig almost seems like a tame folk punk show played in a community garden in comparison to the aural horror and menace they unleashed onBrilloboxtonight. I go to shows in my new city alone a lot, which doesn’t bother me at all.I just hang in the back and read in between bands.I find that the sense of being alone in a crowd helps me concentrate more than I might at home.Tonight, I biked to the show late, with a copy ofHer Body and Other Partiesby Carmen Maria Machado in my backpack.At the show, I read “Inventory” from that collection of short stories while I waited for HIDE to set up.If you haven’t read the story, I’m not going to give you spoilers, if you have, you might have an idea why that particular story felt fitting to read while waiting for HIDE to set up.
Better writers than me have argued that the best music and art holds a mirror up to the culture at large, reflecting its ugliness back to us.In doing so, it forces us to face our failings both subculture wise and as a species. I know this is what drew me to the worlds of punk and goth in the first place and I know this is the argument so many of us used on our parents when they wanted to know why we insisted on listening toDead Kennedys(or really whatever offensive band you loved as an adolescent) loud in our rooms decades ago. “Fuck you, dad! They’re just telling it like it really is!”.I feel like I once sawMarilyn Manson, a far lesser artist than HIDE, and one with a much more contrived presentation and aesthetic make the same argument on Donahue or some similar television show in the 90’s, that he wasn’t telling kids what to do or think, but was just a vessel with which to expose them to the hypocrisy and contradictions of the dominant culture.
Somewhere though, that message became compromised and watered down, and this writer felt likeMarilyn Mansongave suburban kids permission to be shocking and edgy at the mall before going off to college and getting a job. HIDE is holding up a very different mirror to our culture and our collective participation in the both quiet and loud atrocities that take place across the world and at home.When Heather Gabel opened tonight’s show repeating instances of verbal harassment experienced while simply being a woman walking through the world in the coldest and most guttural screams imaginable, you get the feeling she is not only railing against the outside world, but demanding the audience examine what parts of that world they have internalized and brought to this small, smoky room with them.One song blended into the next and the venue fell into brief silence punctuated by the sample of a voice saying “When you depersonalize another person… it seems to make it easier to do things you shouldn’t do.”while Gabel writhed on the floor in front of the audience in mock submission.I couldn’t help but think back to being a child in South Florida in the late 80’s, coming in from playing outside to my mother watching Ted Bundy’s final interview on the night of his execution.I watched a few minutes of the interview with my mother, long enough to watch Ted Bundy blame place the blame for his hatred of women on pornography all while the jackass from Focus On The Family ate it up because it fit his agenda, more than examining our collective hatred of women did.
I can think of few bands I’ve seen in recent memory that take the stage with a more driven intensity than HIDE in the past few years. I don’t really know how to write about the mechanics of creating music, so I don’t really know how to write about it in a lot of ways. I could scarcely begin to understand how Seth Sher creates the noise onstage that he does, but he does so to astonishing effect.I’m going to admit here, that even scarcely an hour after getting home the details of the show are a bit fuzzed out. I spent the entire set standing up front stage left, not even dancing, just standing transfixed, aware that I was witnessing something truly powerful and cathartic, and occasionally pulling out my phone to snap a photo or take a video, more to document how the show made mefeelfor self-reference, than to take any sort of fancy photos.I’m not a good photographer anyway.
I remember when Trump first got elected, some were moved to comment along the lines of “Well at least we will get powerful at and music out of these dark times.”.While acknowledging the privileged nature of that statement (as in, there are a lot of people experiencing these dark times from cages, and a lot of people who might not live to see the end of them), I don’t disagree with that sentiment.The Punk and Industrial scenes were borne of the turbulence and tension of the 70’s and 80’s.While I feel like HIDE’s art stands powerfully on its own, regardless of whether it is being created within the confines of an ascendant fascist state or not, I cannot help but find the synchronicity HIDE’s momentum as artists coupled with the particular cultureal moment we are in to be both terrifying and comforting at once.I just looked at my journals and photographic records and found that my aforementioned dear friend and I first saw HIDE on March 13th, 2017, just two months after Trump’s inauguration, and just a year and a half after thinking we were going to get beaten to death by Nazis together.I distinctly remember returning home to Olympia late that night and sitting beneath a cold winter moon on the shore of the Budd Inlet, promising one another that we would continue our shared resistance to the powers that shape our world, be it through art or activism.We had just witnessed something that powerful.Tonight, at the conclusion of HIDE’s set, the stranger who had been standing next to me snapping photos (no doubt, better than my own!) and I simply turned and acknowledged one another with an exhausted warmth as if to say “Did you fucking see what just happened, and are you okay now?”
I rode my bike home, exhilarated, feeling hopeful for our collective subcultural future, if nothing else.These are vicious times, and HIDE creates art to not to provide comfort in those times, but to encourage the listener to rise up in the face of them.On my ride home, I couldn’t help but think of two very different Industrial and Post-Industrial acts of a bygone era –Death In June, andBoyd Rice’s NON.Both bands have created searing industrial soundscapes and both bands have been dogged by accusations (that this writer happens to agree with, and an immense amount of evidence easily found via google seemingly supports) of fascist and far-right sympathies, if not outright agendsas for much of their careers.In defending themselves, both individuals (I cannot bring myself to refer to Douglas P as a musician) often use the same argument – that they are just utilizing fascist imagery, referencing it in song, and lastly dressing up in its trappings to hold a mirror up to the culture at large, to make the listener uncomfortable, tothink.
After watching HIDE perform tonight, I couldn’t help but think that the music of DI6 and NON could more accurately be described as the artists holding a mirror up to the culture as they wish it to be, one where the might makes right and the strong tread upon the weak, a world where white men get to speak and act with impunity – The very same world HIDE seeks to obliterate.WhereDeath In June, so many of the bands they inspired provide the listener space to fantasize they are the perpetrators of atrocities (If you can make a convincing argument here that the song “Of Runes and Men” is anything other than Douglas P jerking off to the thought of being born 30 years earlier so he could have joined the SS, I will eat that “Sometimes Antisocial, Always Antifascist shirt I wear 8 days a week.*).I couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of relief at a changing of the guard of sorts within the Industrial and dark cultures.In the crowd tonight there was none of the fascist dog whistling sometimes present at Industrial shows of yesteryear.No boys with dumb fashy haircuts.No fucking pseudo SS uniforms.No Totenkampf or Sonnerad patches..Just a bunch of outcasts gathered together in a small room, and two uncompromising musicians, asking, no,demandingthat the audience confront their collective demons and their complicity in the horrors of rape culture and misogyny.
What are we going to do?What are we going to create in the face of such horror?What are we going to do to bring it all crashing down?What are we going to build in the ruins?
*Just kidding.I won’t.Douglas P is a fascist.Period. Point blank.Fuck that guy.
Happy 25th birthday to an album that defined my adolescence and gave voice to my tween angst. I bought this record the day it came out in 1994. My father had died very suddenly just under two months prior, and it was the coldest and snowiest winter Pennsylvania had seen in something like 50 years. The snow kept falling, making a mess of the roads in the rural town where my mother and I lived; cancelling school for days at a time. We lived in a small housing development at the edge of town, and I didn’t have a lot of friends. I found myself alone in the house a lot with my mother spiraling into an abyss of grief from which she would never really crawl out of. I would hang out in my room for countless hours, listening to this album.
I was a lonely and weird kid with not a lot of social skills (this hasn’t necessarily changed) and cheesy and cliché as it sounds, while I had not yet lived enough to fully understand some of the themes and concepts Trent Reznor was exploring in this record, this album did keep me company during a pivotal period when so much of my young life was defined by chaos and isolation. I will always be grateful for that company. I know I’m not alone in this gratitude, considering just how many copies this record has sold. As an adult, I would argue that this speaks more to the loneliness and isolation that we collectively feel as a culture, but at 13 years old I didn’t really quite grasp such concepts. I just knew that I was hurting and lonely a lot, and this record gave voice to that hurt.
I played this album heavily for a few years, all the while immersing myself more fully into the punk and goth subcultures, searching out more obscure bands and ways of being. This record served as a starting point for that immersion though. Everyone talks about the band or record that introduced them to the underground, that made them want to dive in and see what else was down there. For a lot of people my age, it was Nirvana. For me, it was Nine Inch Nails. There was just something so much more honest and real about this band for me, much less silly. Where Kurt Cobain used clumsy metaphors and thinly veiled references to express alienation and pain, Trent Reznor just bluntly put it out there for the world to take or leave. A year later, I would come to associate this mode of expression with punk and hardcore when hearing Black Flag for the first time hit me like a ton of bricks. I see now how The Downward Spiral primed me for the world of punk rock.
Despite moving on, I remained a quiet fan. I listened to the new records with a polite detachment; more connected to nostalgia than anything else, connecting with a song here and there, but nothing quite recaptured the significance of this record. It remains a time and place piece for me. Had I not come across this album when I did, and where I did, I think my entire life would be very different. I’m not always sure if this a good thing or bad thing.
Revisiting this record as a maladjusted adult, I still wince at the rawness and vulnerability of this album – documenting your own descent into self-hating annihilation with but the faintest glimmer of hope for crawling back out at the end of the record. There is a subversive power to all that vulnerability and transparency. I see the influence in my own life and art (ha!) of just sitting with naked pain and transforming it into something so ugly and beautiful all at once.
What a brutal, beautiful, terrifying year. Everyone I love struggled and everyone I love strove to do their best. I don’t really know what else to say. There was tragedy and triumph, and most importantly communities getting stronger. Here’s some of the music I loved this year.
2017 Year End List Mix
Cold Cave – Glory
The Gift – Blank Stare
Converge A Single Tear
King Woman – Hierophant
Falls Of Rauros – White Granite
Outreau – M.D.H.
Clayface – Sister Is Dead
Hide – 91 Lashes
Ritual Veil – All Black
Chelsea Wolfe – 16 Psyche
Bromure – Catacombes
Akatharsia – Groveling Towards Oblivion
Vatican Shadow – They Deserve Death
Ritual Howls – Their Bodies
Nidstang – Ergi
False – Hunger
Cigarettes After Sex – Each Time You Fall In Love
Rixe – Tenter Le Diable
Limp Wrist – Como Vos
Wear You Wounds – Shine
Favorite records, in slight order:
Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper LP – (Profound Lore)
This is actually my favorite LP of 2017. The only reason it didn’t make it on the mix is because the song is massive, clocking in at 83 minutes. If you somehow haven’t heard this, go listen to it. Easily one of the most haunting doom metal records ever recorded.
Cold Cave – Glory (Heartworm)
Cold Cave rarely release a record that’s a miss for me. Glory is no exception. Maybe I’m a fanboy buying into the hype, but goddamnit, this song is just so catchy and Wesley Eisold is one of my favorite lyricists, constantly capturing the foul ennui and alienation of a burning world, but making you want to dance your black heart out as it burns down around you at the same time.
Ritual Veil – Wolf In The Night Tape (Self Released)
Go to Ritual Veil’s bandcamp right now and order a copy of this tape if they have any left. These things went fast. Ritual Veil make you feel like the 80’s and 90’s just never ended I mean this in the best way, because listening to this, I’m transported back to the smoky blacklit clubs of my youth while still feeling like this tape is just so fresh and exciting. You get the feeling this band is headed for big things!
King Woman – Created In The Image of Suffering (Relapse)
I was first introduced to the music of Kristina Esfandiari sometime in 2015 or 16 and have been obsessed ever since. Forlorn, hypnotic, heavy and intense. Created in the Image of Suffering doesn’t let up, even in it’s quieter moments. Somewhere I have a photo of their live date in Olympia. Kristina had just dove into the crowd, wearing a homemade shirt that says “LORENA BOBBIT”, seemingly a message to all the meathead metal bros, not ready to relinquish their stranglehold on the scene.
The Gift – Running around This Town (Time For Action)
I surprised myself with how much Oi! I listened to this year. A friend recommended this, and I grabbed it on a whim. Oi/Punk/Power Pop from France. This record is light and infectious from start to finish. Perfect for listening to on those crushing days when you want to forget the world for a minute and focus on dressing sharp as hell and loving your friends.
Outreau – LP (Une Vie Pour Rien?/Crom Records)/Rixe – Bapteme Du Feu (La Vida Es En Un Mus)
More OI! from France, but this is what you listen to when you want to psych yourself up for throwing rocks at cops and setting Nazis on fire, looking good while doing it. Music for hooligans, by hooligans. Morte Aux Vaches
Clayface – Sister is Dead LP (Total Negativity)
Local to Olympia, I have seen this band a bunch, but didn’t manage to grab a copy of this LP until almost the end of the year. This is the authentically tragic DIY Goth record Robert Smith wishes he could still make. Deeply personal and haunting.
False – Hunger EP (Gilead Media)
I also surprised myself by how little Black Metal I listened to this year. False was a big exception. Crushing, weird, and unlike most of the other metal out there. Best experienced in all their throat shredding live glory.
Hide – Black Flame EP (Joyful Noise)
Having heard Hide’s previous EP, Widdow and I went to see them at sparsely attended show with an odd mix of bands at an upscale bar in Seattle. Indie rock, dream pop, and then HIDE in all their menacing, industrial glory. For forty minutes the bar transformed into a strobe lit, black leather and lace monster. Widdow and I were so inspired that upon returning to Olympia, we swore an oath on the shores of the Puget Sound with the full moon as a witness that we would start playing music together. Maybe we’ll get around to it in 2018.
Limp Wrist – Facades LP (Leguna Armada)
Can you name a better hardcore punk record by a band that is approaching their twentieth anniversary? Me neither. One of the best queer punk bands of all time. If you want to fight about it, I will see you in the pit with all the other sweaty homos.
That’s it for now. I’m sure I forgot a ton of records that I loved. I’m sure I slept on a bunch of records that other people loved. I also loved every single record that made it onto my mix. I guess I just didn’t have it in me to write about every single record, especially considering the fact that I don’t actually know how to write about music. Anyway, the sun is out and I need to take my dog for a walk before the Pacific Northwest is plunged back into gray washed out rainy waste for another four months. Thanks for listening. Thanks for reading. ❤
The things you think of, late at night when the hours have stretched long past the point of no return. You are just trying to calm your mind down You just want to let it all go and surrender to the mercy of sleep.
First and foremost: You are absolutely certain that there have been roughly seven thousand, seven hundred and sixty nights that you have spent just like you are spending this one. That’s twenty-one years. Twenty-one years of sleeplessness and dread coming for you at night. Twenty-one years of late night hours passing in crawling flesh.
If your feel like being honest, or melodramatic (you can’t always tell the difference.) you could call it an even ten thousand. Ten thousand, nine hundred and fifty-seven point twenty-seven. That’s roughly thirty years. You did the math. You remember being six years old watching the crack of light from the hallway in your childhood room, waiting for the radio to lull you to sleep.
“This is Power 96! Greater Miami’s party station giving you greater South Florida’s dance hits all night long.”
The red lights on the clock radio change almost imperceptibly. 2:27, 2:28. It’s a school night, even. You wonder how you will pay attention to you lessons tomorrow. You wonder how all the other people up this late at night are occupying their time. You wonder what the streets of quiet neighborhood are like this late at night. You get a sinking feeling that the clock might as well read 2:28 AM for the rest of your goddamn life.
You think of all the time passed since your childhood room. You think of all the nights, in all the rooms that led to this one. Childhood, childhood’s end, and adolescence and onto the rigors and ruins of adulthood. Each year, you swear is gonna be different. Each year you find yourself right here; in another empty feeling room, late at night holding court with your own ruined nerves.
You think about them. Oh, how you hate thinking about them. Really, you just hate thinking about love. You loathe thinking about anyone you’ve ever thought you loved, or said you loved, convinced yourself you loved. You convince yourself that love is just some bullshit word lesser humans say. Something we say to justify our appetites, or fill our cavernous voids. The thought of being vulnerable right now makes you shudder.
The hours crawl, and you convince yourself you’re so above it all. You find a certain sickness in being soft. You hate yourself only a little bit for letting them in. You marvel at how we reach into each other and sink our teeth into the most tender parts. We get a taste of forever. We sate those hungers. We come and go.
The minutes pass like pouring rain flooding gutters outside the window. You are absolutely sure now, that you have never been loved, and have maybe never loved anyone in return. You know you have been everyone’s favorite maladjusted mutant since the day you rode your skateboard to the cemetery in eighth grade. Rumbling wheels rolling past crumbling civil war graves, she’s standing there beneath the graveyard trees. You make out in the summer breeze. Her mouth tastes like cigarettes and lip smackers. You finish kissing. She makes a joke about your dick, and you skate home.
“My friends will never know.”
“Oh, I know.”
You laugh to yourself as you skate home, because it’s all so fucking hysterical. It’s all so fucking cheap.
You wonder what that girl grew up to be. While you’re at it, you wonder about the boy who called you a faggot every day, but then asked you to suck his dick in the locker room when no one was around. You wonder if they grew up bruised and without hope just like you. You could look them up on facebook if you wanted and make fun of their ugly kids and shitty tattoos. It’s not that late. You remind yourself that you don’t actually care, and when was the last time you went to Pennsylvania anyway? You certainly fucking write about it enough though. Six years in a place that felt like it was too small raised by people who wouldn’t let you stand tall, and motherfuckers wonder how you got so hostile.
Like you could ever stop. You know some things they’ll never know.
The hours crawl behind four walls. You’re spiraling now, remembering it all. You remember every last step and misstep, stumble and fall, all the time hard spent with so little to show at all. You are absolutely sure that the world you knew is gone, and everyone else has moved on. You are absolutely sure that you are still staring out through alien eyes and the world never actually had a place for you at all. The hour is late now, and no one is going to call.
You have now convinced yourself you can’t breathe, even though you can. You worry you might just die in your sleep. This is a familiar and funny dance you’ve danced before. You think of it as a well-known, and much loved song. Coughing black mold out of your lungs and clutching at a lover’s sheets for a bummer of a summer. There’s no lover-comfort offered tonight. You wouldn’t want it anyway. You are alone and you ask for no quarter.
You smile. Finding glory in the rasping pain of being alive. A moment’s certainty creeps in. Maybe death is still stalking you, but you are pretty sure it’s neither heaven or oblivion waiting for you in the sky above. You thank your blessed and still breathing body for pushing through the night. You give thanks for all the nights before this one that could never hope to swallow you whole.
You think about your reckless and not so reckless youth rusted and left long behind. In the morning the light will creep ever so slightly through the blinds. You think about your excuses. You think about your failure to thrive. You think about your failure. You still worry there might be no future, even though you’re living in it. You still think dying young is stupid. You still feel too obstinate to do anything other than die of old age. So you push through, like always. Most of all; you soften and think about love, and how you are luck to have loved and been loved so much.
Or if we truly are in the end times, you could at least go home and die with your friends when the hammer fucking drops and it’s lights out on the world one last time. That doesn’t sound like the worst option either. You always had a feeling you and your one friend were going to die in a hail of bullets together anyway.
You think about the hidden and holy world you inhabit. The world of fucked up noise filling crowded rooms made by mutants bruised and never quite broken, just like you. You decide there’s time for one more song. One more song to calm your nerves before the mercy of sleep, better make it a good one. You flip the record over. In the silenced that fills the air, you wonder if you’ve ever been home at all. The needle drops and a hiss, and the spirit of sound rushing to fill the void.
Of course. You don’t know where else you ever would have gone.
Joey, Jessica, and Jess Bird picked me up at my mom’s house on Saturday night to make the drive to York. It’s January, 1996, and I am fourteen years old. I’ll be fifteen in just under two weeks. I am the youngest in the car. Jess Bird just turned sixteen a few months back. Joey and Jessica are older than me. I think they both are maybe nineteen or twenty, twenty-one at the very oldest. It’s the kind of age difference that seems lightyears away when you are a kid. They are both out of high school, and have an apartment somewhere. I’ve never been to it though. It’s mostly where my friends go to do drugs and party, which isn’t so much my thing. Having an apartment of your own still seems so cool to me all the same. I stay quiet in the back of the car, holding hands with Jess Bird. All the sudden, I feel like such a kid and I’m deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Joey’s car is kind of a piece of shit, but it has a tape deck. We listen to someone’s copy of Staring at the Sea: The Singles, the cassette version that had all the B Sides on the other side of the tape. It’s full of all the weird, angular songs that hadn’t made it into the widely known canon of The Cure. A great number of the songs sound like they involved copious drug consumption while they were being written. They sound like they came out of Mr. Smith’s head all wrong, or completely right. They sound especially perfect if you are a weird fourteen year old awakening to the world at exactly the right time, trying so hard to feel all grown up with your steel toed boots, black jeans, and leather jacket.
The club the show is at is awkwardly named “The Fenix”, spelled just like that. I always wondered who chose to spell it that way, and why. I had been hearing about the place for at least the last two years. It’s the place where the cool, older kids go to dance the night away. My friends tell me about sneaking out of their parents’ houses to get rides with older kids to hang out there. We live in a cluster of small towns collectively grouped together and known as Southern York County just under twenty miles south of York proper.
Thinking on it two decades later, the distance seems completely negligible. Gas prices and financial constraints aside, you probably don’t think much about driving twenty miles. You probably just put the address belonging to wherever you are going in your GPS, pick an album on your iPod, and go. Rural Pennsylvania in the mid-nineties, most of us were convinced we were positively the only people in our small towns who know how hard it is to be a weird kid. Finding places like this where we could go and just be weird kids was like finding an oasis in the desert.
We park in a parking lot near the club. Joey spot’s Eddie, his younger sister’s ex-boyfriend. Eddie is getting out of his car with his new, younger girlfriend. Eddie had cheated on Joey’s sister last winter, and they had stayed together but fought brutally all summer long. The bad blood simmered to a boil and ended with Joey and his two younger sisters chasing Eddie out of a house party under threat of violence the night Jess Bird turned sixteen.
Joey is pissed at seeing Eddie and the new girlfriend together, and fumes in the car for a minute. I feel weird about this. Eddie and I aren’t close friends, but I like him. He’s always been friendly with me. He’s also a cool older weirdo.
While this story is about what felt like my first encounter with underground music in a real and definable way, I suppose it wasn’t my first show. I have clear memories of two shows before that, though I think there may be more. My very first time seeing friends play live music was at a rented church hall in Shrewsbury, one of the other tiny boroughs that makes up Southern York County. I went with Forrest and Melanie. These are my two closest friends, and who I spend the vast majority of my time with. We haunt record stores a lot, looking or anything vaguely punk.
This is part of the story, solely because it’s the first time I ever met Eddie. The music itself from that night actually isn’t’ much to write about. It was just friends playing mostly Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and Ramones covers. It’s fun enough, when you’re fourteen, trapped in a small town, there isn’t a single other thing to do, and you feel like you are awakening to an entirely new world.
Four random rednecks end up at the show that night. I am the smallest in my crew of friends, and they single me out. They try and catch me alone whenever they can and shoulder check me muttering “Hey faggot”. They follow that up with challenging me to step outside with them. This is hardly original, and the kind of thing I’m fairly used to at this point. What makes it a defining part of the story though, is this is the first time one of the older kids sticks up for me.
The show is over, almost everyone has left. Parents have come collected their children, and gone home. It’s just Melanie, Forrest, and a few of the older freaks packing up their gear and getting ready to go home. The hicks are waiting at the other end of the parking lot yelling “COME ON, FAGGOT!” Melanie’s mom still isn’t here to take us home. I’m getting a little nervous.
At this point Eddie simply walks across the parking lot and asks them what their problem is. The boys respond that they think I’m gay, and I need a good ass kicking due to this fact. Eddie tells them he might just be gay too. Are they gonna fuck him up as well? The boys respond in the negative, deflate, and get back in their truck to go home.
Back outside The Fenix, Joey waits for Eddie and his girlfriend to turn the corner. As soon as they do, he runs over to Eddie’s car, and pisses all over the driver’s side door. Eddie is kind of my friend, but I don’t really say anything. I guess I don’t like how he treated Joey’s sister either. I also like Joey. He took up for me late this last summer when a different group of rednecks were aiming to “kick my ass” for “being a faggot” at a local carnival. I don’t know who I feel more loyal too. It ends up boiling down to Joey being my ride home, and I’m kind of more scared of him than I am Eddie.
Joey gets back to the car, and we all sort of laugh nervously and walk towards the club. The Fenix is on the second floor of an old building on South Beaver Street in downtown York. You have to walk up steps to get into the club. The line stretches down the stairs. I do my best to not look nervous. I had heard they have a policy of not letting anyone under sixteen in the club. I repeat my mantra of “Nobody will notice you are only fourteen. They will take your five dollars, and let you in.” over and over as we wait in the line.
The ascent up the stairs feels like it takes years. When we finally get to the top of the steps, there is a desk and an older woman is working the door. I believe she was the owner. Everyone called her “Ms. Amanda”. She reminds me of someone’s really nice mom. Not so much my mom, who is at home chain smoking and gradually becoming a despair filled shell of her former self, but somebody’s nice mom. She takes my five dollars, stamps my hand, and welcomes me to the club.
Inside, the club is dimly lit. It smells like cigarette smoke and leather. Everything from floor to ceiling is painted black. There is a bar over in one corner, but as it’s an all ages venue, they only sell soda, and have pitchers of water on the bar. Behind the bar is a mural of a cityscape. The club had been named “Big City” when it first opened sometime in the eighties. I figure the mural is a holdover from those days.
After all the buildup of hearing about this place, and can now scarcely believe I’m inside. I feel like I’ve entered a secret world. There are still butterflies fluttering in my stomach as Jess and I diffuse into the crowd. Punk is still relatively new to me. I have been jumping into the scene with both feet for a year or so, but this is my first bigger show, and my first show at a club.
There was one other show that I remember, previous summer. My big clear memory of it is it was the first time I had ever seen a pit. I had seen kids sort of mosh, or push into one another before, but this shit was gnarly. The kids were wildly throwing themselves into one another with abandon, and I watched fists and boots fly every which way.
Tonight, it feels like every weirdo in greater York County is in this club. The punks are out. The goths are out. I even see a skinhead or two. Having just become a part of the underground scene, I still don’t fully understand the obscure fashion codes that differentiate racist skins from non-racist skins. I know I’m supposed to look for red or white laces on their Doc Martens, but it’s too dark to fully check out someone’s boots, so I just steer clear.
The air feels electric as more of our friends start to show up. The bands aren’t set to play yet. We fill the dance floor waiting. All the music I am in the middle of falling in love with booms over the sound system. This may be a punk show tonight, but the club caters to all the misfits who inhabit the surrounding area. The goth kids fill the dance floor, as the DJ’s taste clearly lean towards the darker side of the underground. Jess and I awkwardly dance while waiting for the bands to play. I don’t really know how to dance. I didn’t then. I think I still don’t.
We smile and laugh, and do our best to converse over the thundering music. Heather just showed up. Her boyfriend and his best friend are there too. They are on acid. I’ve never been on acid. I’ve never been been around anyone on acid. I don’t know how to act. I nod hello and keep my distance, even though I like Heather’s boyfriend. He is so, so cool, and so punk. He has a leather jacket covered in studs and band logos. A few weeks later, he will loan me both my first Crass, and Sisters of Mercy tape. It’s an understatement to say how much both of these bands will change my life.
I don’t drink or do drugs. My older brother has lived a life filled with addiction, and struggling to stay sober. I’ve had it drilled in my head for as long as I can remember that if I slip up, and even try drugs or drink I stand a chance of ending up like him, making endless trips to rehab and back again. I’m terrified of drugs. Almost everyone around me does them. Earlier that summer, while Melanie read the book Philosophy of Punk, she told me about the concept of straight edge.
To my limited, pre-internet understanding, straight edge embodies the rebellion and independence of punk, but includes eschewing mind altering substances into that rebellion. Earlier in that school year, Forrest had loaned me a cassette copy of Minor Threat’s Out of Step EP. Always the frugal record shopper, he had found it at a used record store for a mere $3. This tape is now my favorite record. It’s fast, smart, and to the goddamn point. It’s punks flying in the face of convention, and doing the opposite of what everyone expects of them. I want to be just like that.
I do my best not to resent or judge my friends for their habits, even though sometimes I think it’s dumb. I mean, what else are we supposed to do to kill the boredom in this place? It scares the shit out of me, though. Thinking back on it, I probably had more judgments than I should have. Those will change a few months later, when I decide to spend a few months experimenting with alcohol and weed. That is another story though.
When we’re at home, we mostly spend our time hiding in someone’s room with a towel against the door smoking dirt weed out of homemade aluminum can pipes. Sometimes we steal tiny amounts of beer and liquor from someone’s parents. You know, just enough so we can get almost drunk, but not enough so anyone’s parents notice. We live in a dry county, so it’s really hard to find alcohol anyway. Once we are suitably altered, we walk around the dusty streets of this town, going nowhere, and goddamn fast.
Well, everyone else does. I don’t smoke weed. I’m just here for the company and the walk. It’s better than being alone all the time. I’m going nowhere just as fast though.
Joey, Jessica, and Jess Bird all popped a pill of cheap speed each before we got into the club. I didn’t want to do speed, so I just drank a can of Jolt. I don’t think caffeine is a drug, and I kind of want to fit in, and get wired too, just not in the same way.
The sound system turns down, and the opening band hits their first chord. Jess and I had been dancing so much, that we had barely noticed them set up. The energy in the room instantly shifts and the punks fill the dance floor. A space opens up for a circle pit, and I am swept up in the maelstrom. The bass player is the punkest person I have ever seen. His hair is a wild maze of color and liberty spikes. He is covered in make-up, and just cannot stop moving onstage. The room is electric with dancing punks and weirdos. I am so excited, I find myself completely unable to not move my body.
At one point the music seems to sort of halt in the air for a moment, and the singer belts out a line about feeling crazy. He repeats it over and over again, and I can feel myself lifting up. Years later, I would hear the demo tape that this song was on. It’s pretty bad. It sort of plays like mid-nineties Eddie Vedder school of alternative rock mixed with punk. I think this kind of thing was fairly common in small towns with isolated scenes. A mish mash of lonely kids who want to play music with varying influences get together and form a band. The final recorded product often seems like the clash of influences don’t mix well. This band was no different. Live that night though, with the music pounding in my ears, they were everything.
The second band hits the stage, and the room gets heavier. The music is heavier, darker, and more violent. The singer is bellowing rage like it’s coming from the darkest parts of him. The skinheads start having more of a presence. One of them takes a disliking to me, and swings at me in the pit a few times. I do my best to avoid him, while holding my ground. Joey intercedes, telling him to back off. For a moment it looks like the two of them will come to blows. The skinhead backs down, but glares at me from the other side of the room for the rest of the night.
I am instantly in love, with everything. I feel at home for the first time in my life.
The show is winding down. Jess and I end up on the balcony for the rest of the night. She doesn’t feel well now. The speed is starting to wear off, and she’s crashing. We end up sitting on the floor and I wrap my arms around her, telling her she’s going to be fine. She’ll go home and go to bed, and wake up late tomorrow morning feeling better. Drugs are only temporary. The scary parts don’t last.
I think about saying I love you in that moment. I don’t. Everything always feels so urgent when you’re fourteen. I think it did even more so for me. It’s hard to be objective. I also think I might not have learned how to love anything before I loved Melanie and Forrest. A few months later I would admit to myself that I was in love with Melanie, and that I was in love for the first time in my life. Twenty years later, I look at it through a different lens. Like, given enough time all of our greatest loves, tragedies, and triumphs kind of fade to mere curiosities and closed chapters. Maybe learning to love is a life long process, and one that punk rock falls short in.
Jess and I kiss goodnight, and she gets a different ride home. Another friend promises to take care of her. We break up like a week later
I remember that too clearly too. I put down the phone and sit in my room, breathing heavily. Feeling too much, too hard. I can’t make it all stop. Everything hurting too much isn’t a new sensation for me. I’ve developed coping mechanisms. I pull out a pocket knife I always keep in my pocket and rake it across my upper arm as hard and as fast as I can. The blood seems to pause for a minute before gushing out of my arm. I stare at it blankly, finally able to breathe right. Mental illness and self injury will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I do my best to stop the bleeding, and go outside to the woods near my house to try and calm down. Walking out of my room, I put my headphones on, and put a mixtape in my Walkman. The music is there, just like it always is.
Twenty years later, the music is still there. So are the scars. Somehow, I have yet to cover them with tattoos. I love them both.
That was it. I’ve been going to shows ever since that night. Forrest, Melanie and I spent the next several months trying to go to any punk show in the area we could. I moved to Denver two years later, and got a taste of being involved in punk in a bigger city. I kept at it. I will be thirty five in a few weeks. I’ve never quit punk. It wasn’t my hobby. It wasn’t what I did to kill time before I went to college, or got a real job. It was the first thing I ever really loved. It was the first thing I was just wholeheartedly excited about. My mom accused me of joining a cult. I have lived a life spent in noisy and crowded rooms. Some of it has been hard. A lot of it has been really hard. A lot of it has been so beautiful and filled with immense joy too. I’m proud to say that I do my best to sit with that joy instead of the struggle as I get older.
Venues like The Fenix, and countless others like it, in countless other cities that I have lived in, or passed through are long gone. I couldn’t even keep track of all of the places which have come and gone, been torn down, or turned into luxury boutiques, or otherwise gentrified. Punk, and underground music in general are changing. I blame the internet for making everything hyper accessible. I could also just be feeling older, and things feel routine after twenty years, rather than the coolest secret you have ever been told. I also know that across the world kids are still making music, and carving out a space for themselves in the world. I’m so grateful to them for doing just that.
I still find myself haunting basement shows, house shows, shows at clubs, really anywhere where fucked up, alienated weirdos are making lots of noise. The scene I come from is long gone. Most of my friends from that era have moved on, or have careers, or families. Many of my friends from the eras and cities that came after my time as a teenager in Pennsylvania have moved on and away from punk too. That’s alright with me. I don’t begrudge anyone doing what worked for them. I get why people walk away from punk. I just can’t. I don’t know anything else. I struggle with relating to anything else.
Despite any impressions you may get to the contrary reading this, I don’t think I miss my youth. I don’t know that I wish I could go back and relive it all again, or whatever. They were good years, sure. They were also so hard, and took such a long time get over with. It took such a long time to undo all the ruin from being a teenager, from being in my twenties. I’m still doing that work now.
I do wish I could write a letter to my younger self, and address it January 20th, 1996. If I could, I would even write it on the back of the flyer from that first show at The Fenix on the same date. I kept the flier for at least a decade. Sadly, I think it got lost when a long gone West Denver punk house where much of my stuff was stored was evicted.
Post marked January 20th, 1996.
Dear teenage self,
You are embarking on a path that will define much of the rest of your life. It will change your life forever. It will change it for the better too. This isn’t hyperbole. It is an undeniable fact. Punk rock, and music in general will be there year after year, long after everything else in your life has begun to feel stale, futile, and cheap.
The path you are embarking on will make your life better, but it won’t make it easier. You are going to go deeper and deeper into being at odds with the dominant culture around you. Alienation and isolation will follow you for a long time. You will get respites from these feelings. There will be times when they feel less heavy, and less like they are weighing every atom of your body down, but you are going to feel them a lot, and feel them hard for the rest of your life.
Please use your time. Please make better use of your alone time. Treat it like the hard won ally it is. Don’t try quite so hard to constantly fill every moment with something. Find your time and use it. It’s too easy to fall into distraction and dissociation.
On the flipside of that, take more time with the people you love. Don’t take it for granted. Remember that we’re here for a good time, not a long time. You never know when someone is going to be gone. You are going to learn that lesson again and again, year after year.
Work really hard to be gentle with the people you love. This is the most important thing. It feels so urgent in youth, because you are so convinced that the world is against you. It’s easy to forget as the cynicism of adulthood wears on. It’s a brutal lesson you are going to learn over and over. You will find other alienated, beautiful, and damaged individuals to share your life with. You are drawn together for a reason, be it alienation, trauma, abuse or whatever else. You are going to fuck up and hurt each other, over and over again. Damaged people damaging each other. It’s a vicious cycle. It feels more present in your subcultures. It feels more urgent and tragic, but it probably exists everywhere. Try to be gentler. Try and be more forgiving. Remember that the people you love are bruised just like you.
The ideals and morals you are forming right now are vital. They will frame the rest of your life too. Try not to be quite so merciless when people don’t live up exactly to how you think they should fit into the world, or how you think the world should be. Try to be more forgiving. Try to soften that iron heart you try so hard to cultivate. A lot of people are consistently patient and loving with you. Try and reciprocate that patience and love more often.
Punk rock is teaching you all about surviving, but be sure to make room for thriving too. Bad things can happen when you don’t thrive. Sometimes it looks like addiction. Sometimes it looks like abuse. For you it could look like living for decades in weird, busted houses with undiagnosed mental illnesses and stagnancy. It could look like living in ruins so long that you think it’s all you deserve.
Make plans. I know it’s hard to focus on anything more than day to day survival. I know we all took that “No Future” shit real seriously. Try to think about it a little bit. If you don’t, you could end up being 35 with a mouth full of broken teeth, too many lost friends, a head full of worries and nothing but ten years of dishwashing jobs behind you.
There is something to be said for living outside of convention. It’s so exciting now. You also need to realize that it will inevitably come with doing without certain comforts. This is just a cold hard fact. You are going to have a harder time talking to people who exist outside of the microcosm world you are from. That world is going to get smaller, and fade further into the distance every year. It’s going to look like sometimes feeling embarrassed by your so called lack of achievement.
It’s not the worst life, but punk rock was supposed to be all about living on your own terms. When you focus on survival, you forget how to live. I know you feel like you are all alone. I know you feel like all the odds are just fucking stacked against you, but you got this. There is nobody smarter, or more capable than you.
Finally, and most importantly: Please try and take good care of your body. You only get the one. Please try and not hate it so much. Please don’t spend so long trying to do everything you can to not feel it. When you are in your twenties, please think about how much you want to destroy it, and where that comes from. Try and accept it for the deeply flawed and beautiful vessel that it is. Try not to resent it for it’s desires. Remember that so many other people are bruised just like you.
Do what you want. Be who you are. Take what you will. Use your time.