Heartbreak Summer//Heartbreak City

It’s summer in the city
That I love
But could never love enough
Or half as much
As you love it
I sketch the skyline
To memory behind my eyes
Remember the first time
I watched your eyes light up
The night you talked about
How grateful you were for the ways this place
Too root in your bones
And never let go.

There’s a metaphor here, baby
Just below the surface
For sure.

The concrete and the pavement
Soak up the burning sun like a sponge
All that stone laid by hard working men
Absorbs the heat
Reflecting it back
Like an opaque mirror
Drinking every last drop
Of moisture from my skin

I’m all tears and sweat and a heaving chest
Sitting on the Highland Park steps
Doing my best to remember
How to take a breath
Talk my lungs backwards
To the days when inhalations
Came with ease
Without the weight
Of heartache pressing
Down on my chest

I cried (tough) every day
For a week straight
Then I cried for another week after that
Ran every toll between Pittsburgh and Philly
With barely a bite of food in my stomach
Listened to sad songs on repeat
Wondered if leaving wasn’t a mistake
Or some bad dream

The kind I would wake from
Turn over in bed to tell you about
Before dragging myself downstairs
To make your morning coffee
And brew my green tea
Just like any other morning
Lived in this hellish year without end
Except it wasn’t
This last year of dread ran us both ragged
Turning on each other all the way
To the end of the road

I know it was never time wasted
As much as it was time hard spent
With the days so fucking long
And so slow, slow as the despair that encroached
Like dust gathered in the corners and crevices of the room
So much
We could scrub and scrub
Never wipe the grime away
Enough make a clean break
To make the years last
As long as we’d hoped

It’s summer in my new city
Transitory as my time
Doc Marten stomping my way
Through the aching haze of heartache
On these dirty streets may be
We all know my story ends in the mountains, anyway.

The way people drive in Philly…
Relentlessly reckless
I know you would hate it
Someone said:
“It’s like every person on the road
Just smoked meth
And now they have to take a shit”
Two near collisions this week
And I’m already looking
In some quieter direction.

It’s summer in this city
The first one I feel in love with
I’ve been missing you terribly
Save for those quiet moments
Now and forever my own
Where solitude comes as a relief
In my tiny room
With the air conditioner turned low

I wonder what you’re doing
Are eating enough
Drinking enough water
Getting plenty of rest
How do you sleep
Alone, with the windows open
These nights when summer swells
The nighttime air in our room
(I guess it’s your room now)
Around you like a sweating soup

How are you filling the empty
Spaces in the house
That I used to inhabit
Throughout the home we tried
Our noble best to build
Together

I’m lucky I guess
Not having to contend
With vacant rooms in the house
Where tomorrow once lived
I find myself alone, in another city
Thankful for the books stacked
On the pillow next to me
(I still think of them as your pillows)
Like I did
At my bachelor best
Before you came along.

Lonely bedroom bullshit, again.
I can live with it.

It hurts the most at night
Lie awake in bed
Replay our last hours together
After we accepted the end
All that staggering stagnancy
Heartache and bitterness
Finally falling away
Cutting words, quiet now
The unkindness that sundered us
Finally softened
To reveal the bittersweet tragedy
Of missed chances
A story of almost making it.

On the street the next day
A kiss goodbye
Cup your face in my hands
“I love you I love you I love you”
Like a wish
A hope
That those three words could suture the wounds
Left without meaning to
I never meant to hurt you, you know
Just like I know you never meant to hurt me
Hearts so tender taken for granted
On this fucking burning planet
Inattention to detail is one kind of failure
Barbed words rising to be heard are another.

At night I sleep
I pray for an absence of dreams
Or if the universe cannot meet that small mercy
May rest at least off us a path back ruins undone
To hearts beating strong and unbroken.

I hope you
Are remembering to stay hydrated
And that your dinners are always
As delicious as they are filling
That your worries wane with the warming days
Anxiety is a conniving, heartless motherfucker
That you never deserved
Anymore than one of us
Asked for time that forgot how to be gentle.

I hope your dog never gets sick
I hope your time together is as long as it is tender
That the two of you are as blessed
As Hope and I have been
I hope he learns how to play fetch
Please give him a scratch behind the ears for me
If you happen to read this

I hope all the dust and the clutter and depression
clear
I hope you keep loving yourself
And that every job you get pays you well
I’m sorry that I lost myself
Somewhere in the noise of could have beens
Most of all
I wish you well
I wish you the very best.

Sound and Story 5

            K.T.’s mom used to let us party in her house, some non-descript, two story cookie cutter type deal, deep in the suburbs of East Denver.  I would never be able to find it again, even if I wanted to.  When I try and picture the neighborhood, I think it was somewhere near the intersection of Hampden and University, but I’m not sure. 

            Her parents had divorced sometime in the recent past, and K.T.’s mom got the house and she lived there alone with her daughter.  At parties, I imagined I could see empty spaces on the walls and mantles, where family photos had once hung, later to be removed in bitterness.  I was 17, smart beyond my years, but immature all the same.  Black jeans, black boots, with a studded leather jacket and full of strong opinions and naivete.  Observing, but never quite listening.  I still cringe when I think about it sometimes. 

            Most of my friends were under 18, but their boyfriends were older.  I remember thinking something was just a little off there, shuffling awkwardly in the kitchen, watching combat boots and Doc Martens scuff and stomp across the linoleum, the hiss of beers cracking open, cigarette lighters igniting behind hands cupped in front of young faces all around.  A smokey haze filled the kitchen.  Empties lined the counter, discarded where they lay.  Kids gathered together in cliques and whorls, talking shit and laughing, racing each other towards beer bellies and bad teeth. I played the wall, found my refuge in the corner, always wishing to be a part of it all, but feeling alone in a crowd all the same. 

            It was cold outside.  December, the first day of winter break; the very depths of the cold and dark season.  Someone put on a Discharge record, and visions of a nuclear winter engulfing the entire world, save for walls around us filled my mind.  The world outside would go to ash and eternal snow, and we would be in here, partying against the dark; racing towards a self-imposed oblivion all our own 

            “Sometimes K.T.’s brother comes home from college, and her mom comes out of her room, and both of them party with us!” one of the boyfriends in a ratty black hoodie, stained brown with filth and smoke and beer, despite its very suburban origins said, as he cracked open another beer.

            I coughed cigarette smoke. 

            “That’s cool, I guess.” 

            K.T.’s boyfriend called himself “Mikeaholic”, a seemingly ancient at 23 punk rocker, with drooping features and a prematurely alcohol aged face.  He lived down in Colorado Springs, but came up to Denver to party when he could find a ride.  Otherwise, he was just an invisible presence, K.T.’s boyfriend that she got into fights with on the phone late at night when they were both drunk.  One night after everyone had passed out, I heard crying, and found K.T. crying on the stairs.  I offered her the clumsy comfort I was able, and went back to sleep in the basement around the time the sun came up.  I met Mike a few weeks later at a party and he copped an attitude when Annie and I put our Cure or Joy Division records on the stereo. 

            “Fuck this weak shit, put on some crust!” he muttered. 

            “No,” we’d reply flatly, doing our best emulation of elegant gothy spider dancing at 3 AM. 

            I drifted apart from that crew of punk rockers by the time winter ended, with some regret and some relief mixed in.  I just couldn’t keep my big, over opinionated mouth shut about the inherent sketchiness of boys in their 20’s hanging around teenagers and feeding them beer, and how it all seemed just a little predatory.  The last time I ever set foot in K.T.’s house, I somehow missed my ride home from the party as a snowstorm rolled in.  24 hours in the house with K.T. and her mom, watching TV and drinking glass after glass of wine was bleak enough for me.  The roads cleared up, K.T. gave me a ride home, we hugged goodbye and she became a familiar face at shows until I stopped seeing her altogether.  I heard a rumor tawdry rumors here and there, but paid them little mind. 

            I saw Mikeaholic a few years later, when Tragedy played the Monkey Mania warehouse on 21st and Arapahoe, right downtown, on tour for the Vengeance LP.  I had just paid my 5 bucks at the door, and was walking back to the show space, when I caught sight of him, swaying with a tall boy of PBR in his hand, talking shit to one of my friends.  He gesticulated aggressively with his beer, uncurling a finger from the can to point at my friend. 

            “Yeah, you wear those Carhartts, but you don’t work in them.” 

            “Damn,” I thought to myself.  “Mikeaholic may or may not have a point about punk kids from the suburbs appropriating working class attire, but he still looks like he aged 10 years in half that time.” 

            Later when Tragedy played, he ran roughshod through the crowd, sloppily throwing elbows and clotheslining kids.  Time slowed for an instant, and I caught his face; dead eyed, and obliterated, barely aware of his surroundings.  His body crashed into mine, and I caught a whiff of beer soaked sweat and impotent rage.  I ducked a flailing fist and spraying beer and thought, “Fuck this.  I paid 5 dollars for this show too.  This fucker isn’t ruining it for me.”  I caught the hood of Mike’s sweatshirt and drug him back to the warehouse in the dark.  His legs gave out, and he hit the ground.  I kicked him in the stomach and dove back into the pit to watch the rest of Tragedy’s set.  I didn’t see Mike again that night. 

            I saw K.T. one more time, the last summer I lived in Denver, almost 7 years since we had all partied in her mom’s suburban home.  I was at Bar Bar, grabbing a beer after my shift at work one night, seeing if any friends were around before climbing back on my bike to ride through the concrete and glass canyons of downtown, across Broadway to the couch on Lipan Street where I crashed in lieu of having a home of my own. 

            None of my friends were around, but I grabbed a beer all the same.  I glanced up from my half-drained pint glass and saw K.T., in the back room playing pool, flirting with a man who looked old enough to be her father.  An aging yuppie type, graying hair, with liquor rosed cheeks and a slack, slightly empty look on his face.  He put down his cue and ordered another round.  K.T. put her finger seductively on his nose and mouthed what I thought were the words “What a sweetheart” and a look crossed the man’s face like he had just hit the goddamn lottery.  K.T. glanced over towards the bar, and my eyes shot back towards the dregs of my drink.  I don’t know if she remembered me or not.  I finished my beer and rode home. 

            I saw Mikeaholic one more time, a few weeks later, also at Bar Bar.  Ross, and Melissa, and Grant-O-War and I were drinking our way through two-dollar pitchers of PBR when Mikeaholic and a friend sat down at a booth near ours.  The details blur together now, lost to alcohol and time and fading memory.  I do know for a fact that the night ended in a one-sided fight on the corner of 21st and Champa after closing time.  Something about Mikeaholic calling Ross a faggot, and everyone glaring icily at one another as pint glasses emptied and refilled and tempers flared steadily and vision blurred. 

            Out on the sidewalk after last call and closing time came and went, with an invisible line drawn in the sidewalk between Mike and his friend, and us.  Someone slurred something about the inherent oppressiveness of homophobic slurs and a stalemate ensued.  All of the potential combatants swayed and glowered in place, not giving any ground until Mikeaholic swung on ross.  The punch went wild and wide, telegraphed by sheer clumsy inebriation.  Ross ducked the shot as easily as Melissa caught it. 

            Melissa, the toughest punk rock woman I ever knew, easily a girl gang of one, who had once initiated a brawl that ended in her and a few of our friends stomping the living shit out of some frat boys who threw out a racial slur at one of our friends, caught the punch midair, despite it seeming miles away from Ross’ jaw, and twisted Mike’s arm behind his back, and took him to the ground, somehow dragging his friend down with him. 

            She pushed both of their heads into the gutter and growled: “Are you going to apologize to my fucking boyfriend?”

            “Yes,” they both whimpered. 

            Someone told me later that Mikeaholic was so humiliated by that trouncing that he told his friends how he got jumped by “At least ten of those bike punks who live on 11th and Lipan” and how we beat him with our U-locks to the point where he pissed blood for days afterwards.  He had apparently sworn revenge. 

            “Whatever, I’m not really going to be afraid of someone who drinks himself to the point of pissing his pants nearly every night,” Ross laughed. 

            I moved away a few weeks later, driven more by boredom and directionless than any distaste for the city of Denver.  I never saw Mike, or K.T., or many of the names and faces in this story again.  They became passing, detached characters flitting through the cinema of memory, an occasional “I wonder whatever happened to…” An assortment of strange and sordid characters that haunted the landscape of the first city I ever loved, a city I now barely recognize when I pass through it.  The punks who drank, and fought and fucked, and played loud music in the warehouses and the dive bars and the basements all scattered to the wind by gentrification and the weight of age. 

            I heard later that Mike caught the mother of all bad reputations when he goaded a friend into shooting himself during a bad mushroom trip in a warehouse on 21st and Larimer.  The way the story went, the kid was freaking out, spiraling into drug induced paranoia.  “All my friends fucking hate me and I should just die!” he screamed. 

            “Yeah, whatever, just go do it already,” he said. 

            The kid ran off into his room, and then a gunshot.  

            There’s no moral here.  No lofty, sweeping proclamations about sobriety and self-abuse, and generational cycles of addiction and trauma.  I’m tired of talking about romanticized self-annihilation.  I can only expect a reader to be so invested in whatever sad and/or possibly redemptive ending someone named “Mikeaholic” wrote for his story.  He either pulled himself back from the precipice, or he didn’t.  I have no idea.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it a thousand times.  Punk taught us how to survive, but never quite how to thrive.  Wherever Mike, and K.T., and so many other characters that the world could never go easy on, or had opportunities and squandered them at the bottom of a bottle are, I hope they have found whatever passes for thriving in this thresher.   

A stock image of Bar Bar.

Sunday Sound and Story: 2

Spring in Appalachia, humidity and pollen clogging the air.  First ice coffee of the year coursing through my veins.  Open the window over the street wet from last night’s rain.  The sound of tires traversing soaked pavement fades into the background.  I know I should write.  This is literally the perfect environment to write, but I don’t want to.  All my words feel flat and formless beneath the swollen grey sky.  All my motivation slips into the void of sitting on the front steps, watching the day crawl by, waving to an occasional neighbor and fighting that ever-losing battle against picking up my phone one more time. 

I fucking hate that thing. 

I was sixteen, 24 years ago, in an age before cellphones and smartphones, just barely at the dawn of the age of the internet when I heard Amebix for the first time.  Spring.  I remember it was a gloomy Appalachian spring day, just like this one.   

Sure, a lot of better writers than me have written about Amebix, their place in the history of heavy music, how their sound was a nuclear hellfire cyclone mix of Motorhead, Discharge, Crass, and Black Sabbath; bridging a gap between heavy metal and punk, largely inventing crust punk along bands like Hellbastard and Antisect. 

Or I could Write about Rob “The Baron” Miller’s latter-day descent into reprehensible far-right and crypto fascist ideologies, and subsequent social media pillaging by the punk and metal communities.  I could write about how dude’s YouTube history looks like a literal step by step playbook on how YouTube algorithms play an integral part in radicalizing isolated, vulnerable people into fascist movements, but uh…  Better writer’s than myself can talk about that.  In fact, Robert Evans of Behind the Bastards podcast did an excellent episode on just that phenomenon, and I am linking it here.

No.  I’m going to do what I do best, which is tell a random ass story relating to a record and hope someone, somewhere can relate or get something from it. 

So here goes. 

A friend added me to some cheesy nostalgia Facebook group a few weeks ago, for kids who grew up in the Denver punk rock community roughly between the years 1990-2010.  It serves mostly as a digital storage facility for old show fliers, and a way to hear what the dudes who fed your young friends’ beer to get into their pants when you were teenagers are up to now (they’re accountants). 

A few days ago, someone posted a where are they now type post for a friend from the scene, they had lost touch with over twenty years ago.   Someone in the know responded to their query that addiction had sadly taken the life of individual in question some time ago.  I never knew this person.  I relate intimately though, to having lost friends to the void of addiction, and having spent time just at the precipice of that void myself. 

I was 23 years old, the first time I took opiates.  I spent that fall with no place of my own to sleep, bouncing from couch to couch in various West Denver punk houses.  I told myself I was living some punk rock fantasy, a life outside of the system, where I would drift and travel and exist within that very specific, good intentioned, but quasi-parasitic travel-protest culture that existed in North American punk scenes from roughly 1998-2012 (it might still exist actually.  I have no way of knowing.  While I may still be punk, I don’t travel like I used to).  I would leave town to meet up with friends and one mass mobilization or another, and then return home to recover and leave town again.  That was the misguided idea, at least.  The reality was much bleaker:  I feel into a pit of depression and non-function, spending my days wandering around Denver, looking for places to loiter and write in my journal, occasionally filling out job applications, and generally feeling like hell before going to crash on a couch or with my girlfriend.  Undiagnosed and untreated mental illness is a motherfucker.    

I have long since come to recognize the inherent folly and privilege present in this lifestyle, but that’s another conversation too. 

That November, a rotting molar had me at Denver General’s emergency department.  I spent all day filling out paperwork in near blinding pain declaring myself legally homeless and indigent so I could receive care for my tooth.  Just at the end of the day, a tired and overworked dentist looked in my mouth and confirmed my fears.  I had an abscessed molar. I needed an extraction or a root canal.  My choice.  “You’re still young,” he said.  “No reason to get this thing pulled if you don’t have to.  If you can scrounge up the money, maybe consider the dental college.”

He gave me a round of antibiotics, a bottle of Vicodin, and wished me luck. 

“That’s going to hurt less once the antibiotics kick in.  Stay warm out there.  I think it just started to snow.”   

Out in the hallway, I introduced myself to my newfound companions in pill form with a swig of water, and walked out into the chilly West Denver night.  I thought I remembered something about how some friends over on 9th and Lipan were having a party, just a small get together to celebrate another transitory friend leaving town for the winter.  I ambled slowly to the house in the snow, feeling the pain in my jaw recede with the backdrop of the city streets blurring around me and the engine like noise of the city fading from a constant hum of traffic and trains and noise to a distant industrial whisper. 

I ran into a friend outside one of the neighborhood’s many liquor stores. 

“You going to the party?” 

“Yeah.  Slowly.  I just got done at the dentist.  They gave me painkillers.  I think I might be fucked up.” 

“Shit.  Be careful getting there.  I’m just going in to buy a beer.  Wanna wait for me and we’ll walk together?”

“Nah.  I just want to keep walking.  It’s only a few blocks.”

“Cool. See you there.”

I kept walking, relaxing into the relatively new sensation of not feeling well, anything.  When I was younger, I was chronically insecure, hyper-sensitive, always on edge.  My best friend once described me as someone who walked through the world missing a layer of skin.  She wasn’t wrong.  Everything just hurt, and depressed and deprived of creativity, I had little outlet for that pain other than wearing a lot of black and hating everything.  I desperately wanted to have community, but I didn’t know how to calm down enough to relate to anyone.  I can’t know for sure, but based on my hazy recollections, I am pretty sure I was a consummate bummer to hang out at parties with.  After all, nobody really wants to drink with the person who is just going to start crying about nuclear annihilation, vivisection, economic inequality or any myriad of other social ills at the drop of a hat. 

In the house, a small but lively party was in full swing.  A dance party in the kitchen.  Friends passing bottles around in the living room.  Someone passed me a bottle of brown liquor, and I took a swig.  I told myself just one shot.  One swig of sweet rotgut liquor to tuck me in just a little snugger, beneath a blanket of numbness.  The liquor burned all the way down, settling somewhere in my guts before diffusing through my bloodstream, adding to the narcotic haze.  I made my way to the kitchen, leaned against the counter for support and watched the dancing punks through pinpoint pupils.  Someone pulled me into the crowd and I tried not to panic, my legs moving slow motion in feeble attempt to catch the rhythm.  I felt like I was trying to dance to a record played at 33 RPM when everyone around me heard it at 45 RPM. 

My friend from the liquor store grabbed me and settled me back at my spot at the counter.    

“Woah!  They are way too fucked up to try and dance!” 

I ended up leaving the party, walking to a different punk house to crash.  The Ghost Ship (not to be confused with the Oakland warehouse space, and site of a deadly fire in 2016) house on 7th and Santa Fe had a guest bed in their mudroom where I often slept.  A tiny mattress on the floor, with a boombox at the head of the bed.  Walking the few blocks to the house, I could practically feel that velvet-seeming softness calling me. 

Nobody was home at the ghost ship.  I stripped out of my dirty pants and got into bed.  I dug around in my bag and found a tape.  AmebixThe Power Remains.  I had bought the record at Double Entendre records when I was 17, six years before.  All my records were stored in the basement of another punk house until I got back on my feet, but I kept a collection of tapes with me for quiet solitary moments just like this one. 

I put the tape in the tape player, hit play, took another pill to send me drifting, and opened my journal to write document what I was feeling. 

10/24/04

I just ate some more Vicodin and everything feels fuzzy.  I like it and I don’t like it and I get why people get hooked on this shit.  I am having a hard time focusing on anything, but in particular anything related to my wretched heart.  I see it.  I almost feel it, but I fall short in grasping.  I know I am going to save these for those occasions where the desire to be numb is overwhelming.  I don’t know if I want that now, but I have it, so I put on an old Amebix tape to keep me company before I fall asleep. 

I guess I uh, fell asleep.  The entry trails off after that. 

I saw someone refer to Amebix as the “Ultimate music of annihilation” in a zine somewhere in the 90’s, and I don’t disagree.  The music is ugly, hopeless, and tragically beautiful, all at once.  It was music made by people living on the edge and on the fringes of society, often homeless and struggling with addiction.  In the liner notes of The Power Remains, The Baron informed the listener that none of the band were able to get off state welfare during their original run (Oh, I wonder how he feels about such liberal institutions now?).  It was music created by individuals living through the dying days of the Cold War when nuclear annihilation was at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts. 

Down on my little mattress in a West Denver punk house, I don’t know what I dreamt about.  By 2004, apocalyptic climate change had begun to supplant nuclear war in the nightmares of young people.  Perhaps I dreamt of a world burning to death, choked on carbon dioxide with mercury filled oceans rising to swallow cities whole.  I related to the music as a depressed young person grappling with mortality and impending doom.  I relate to it less now as a maladjusted middle-aged adult (who still grapples with morality and a sense of impending doom, just differently, I guess).  I’m thousands of miles away (both literally and figuratively) from the sad skinny kid with a backpack full of tapes and a notebook that I once was, and I’m thankful for that. 

Still, I feel love for the scared and vulnerable person I was when this music first spoke to me.  I feel love for the music, even though I was relieved to be done revisiting this LP, listening to it straight through for the first time in many years, as I wrote this.  I feel love for the community of like minded often hypersensitive and hurting kids I was lucky enough to surround myself with at just the right time.  I feel love for the ways we all grew up and grew apart and grew into different people.  I feel lucky for the ways that addiction never quite managed to hem its way into the empty spaces in my heart.  Maybe I was just lucky.  I really don’t know.  So many of the hallmarks for someone who should struggle with addiction are there for me.  I guess I just managed to stop just before the point of no return, avoiding the sad ending of an overdose, or drinking my way to yellowed skin and a ruined liver. 

Because fuck romanticized self-destruction. 

For the curious, I’m sure Amebix’s discography is available somewhere.  I’m not sure who handles their reissues nowadays given how The Baron has tarnished their legacy with his sad old man flirtations with nationalism and right-wing extremism and subsequent falling out with the former members.  Maybe check reliable crust or anarcho-punk distros if you feel the need to have physical copies of this stuff. 

More on The Baron’s latter day politics here, here, and here