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.

Sound and Story: 4

Saturday night at the end of March in Central Pennsylvania.  It’s not quite spring.  Winter has not yet released the world from its frigid, skeletal fingers, but the days grow steadily longer, warmer.  When you step outside, can feel the earth beginning to thaw beneath your feet, even through the thick soles of your boots.  Winters back then, even the concrete felt harder in the winter.  Later, when the sun goes down at night, you feel less fearful that it might never return, plunging your tiny corner of the world into abyssal darkness.    

Jimmy and I were at home, looking for something to do when word spread through a few of our friends about a party at some townhouse up in York.  A friend of a friend, word of mouth type situation.  The minor details, like who the house belonged to, who would be at the party, if the hosts would be hospitable to a crew of punk rockers from the sticks, or how we might even get to York faded into background noise as the siren song of free beer and maybe even some free weed filled our ears.  The possibility of a night’s escape was enough to bring us out of hibernation early.  It had been a long winter.  Cold.  Lonely in a sense, but filled with friends, too.  Stumbling through classes during the day, taking half hearted notes, counting down the minutes until the last bell rang.  Dreading the bus ride home, always thinking, “If I can just make it until 3:00, then I will be safe.  At home.  In my room.”  Always living for the weekends, which were for walking aimlessly around Shrewsbury, smoking dirt weed out of a bent soda can; scorching aluminum with safety pin sized holes poked in the indentation, searing our lungs.  Getting too high and getting chased out of the McDonalds by jocks, only to lose them in the cemetery. 

Someone got directions to the party.  We gathered a crew to make the 30-minute drive north.  Four teenage outcasts, and two early twentysomethings that were too old to be hanging with kids.  They would drive and buy more beer when we inevitably needed it.  The driver was a young, (but seemingly ancient to me at 15), man recently discharged from a stint in the navy.  The rumor was that his parents made him enlist in an effort to get their son off smack.  His younger brother lived down the street from my mother and I, one of the kids who I dreaded riding the bus home with every day, always threatening to set my hair on fire.  Luckily, he wouldn’t be at the party tonight.  Mary, Jess, Jimmy and I crammed into the backseat with the two older kids up front, driving and navigating respectively. 

I sat quiet in the back of the car smashed between Jimmy and Jess, settling into a cloud of cigarette smoke and laughter, trying to recede into the leather jacket my mother gave me as a gift.  It was too big, but she hoped I would grow into it.  I would like to think I wore it well, but I have few pictures of myself in it.  I watched the countryside speed by and tried not to think about how I might be out of my league.  An air of intoxicant hungry excitement filled the car.  I assumed the kid driving us back home was going to get fucked up too.  Driving drunk, on these fucking roads, tonight suddenly had the makings of an afterschool special. 

The party was nothing much to speak of.  A sparse living room with two black sofas facing one another and a coffee table covered with empties and ashtrays between them.  Someone collected money, and our ride and his navigator went on a beer run.  We made small talk with the other kids while we waited.  Someone passed a joint around.  The room filled with the pungent haze of weed and everyone eased into glassy eyed, toothy smiles.  The beer procurers returned with a 40 oz each for them, and two six packs of Zima.  Fucking Zima.  Mary, Jimmy, Jess and I got two bottles each.  It tasted like rancid 7UP, but just boozy enough to get us fucked up along with the joint we had smoked while we waited.

The party wound down in a shambling, stumbling blur of mumbled, “Hey nice meeting you,” and “thanks for having us over’s,” and empty bottles clinking on the table and in the trash.  I walked upstairs to take a piss before we got back in the car for the drive to Southern York County.  I didn’t know what time it was, but I knew my mother would be asleep.  I looked at myself in the mirror and tried not to think about getting back into the car.  Telling myself it was a twenty-minute drive, tops.  We would make it home.  This dude would drop Jess and Mary off at Jess’ house.  He’d drop Jimmy and I off at my house, and him and the other kid would go off to do whatever they were going to do for the rest of the night, and we would all wake up safe, if not a little hungover in the morning. 

In the car, Jess pulled a dubbed cassette copy of Misfits Collection I out of her leather jacket and handed it towards the front seat. 

“Hey, do you mind putting this in?” 

“Uh, Sure.” 

I bought a copy of Misfits Collection I on a trip to some fading mall across the border in Maryland with Jess back in January.  I liked the Misfits already, and would have grabbed probably any record I could find, but the harsh, blown out yellow and black Crimson Ghost skull adorned only with the word “Misfits” drew me in regardless.  This was back when the Crimson Ghost logo served as just a little bit more of a beacon for fucked up kids to find each other.  The ominous grinning skull on a black t-shirt, patched on a denim jacket, painted on a leather, a subcultural marker of sorts, long before Jerry Only licensed the fucking thing onto literally everything, (Misfits shower curtains!  Misfits sandals!) draining the logo of its meaning and mystique.  When I got the record home, I liked the way the it sounded in my room, the way the guitars and Glenn Danzig’s menacing croon bounced off the walls of my bedroom at night.  I could imagine I was in a dungeon, or something.  I liked the album so much, I made a copy for Jess, who apparently happened to have it the pocket of her leather two months later. 

I tried not to worry when it took the driver two tries to get the tape in the tape player.  He pulled out of the driveway and drove towards the general direction of the highway, or at least where I thought it was.  The realization that I had no idea where I was furthered my discomfort.  On the stereo, Glenn Danzig howled about death comes ripping up, about wolf’s blood, about teenagers from mars and we don’t care.  The sky was huge and dark, empty feeling above us on the highway. 

Through the haze, I remembered an old interview with the Misfits Forrest found somewhere.  Faded and fuzzed out, no doubt from being xeroxed so many times.  The interviewer asked the band if the rumors they had recorded the Horror Business EP in a haunted house were true.  With his usual blasé arrogance, Glenn replied, “What, you think we didn’t?”[1] The band claimed they recorded in an abandoned mansion along deserted highway somewhere in rural New Jersey.  Glenn told the interviewer how when he was a kid, he’d go driving out there with his friends, past the city lights, bombed out of their brains, passing old military training stables, empty pits filled with water, and abandoned houses.

(According to Wikipedia, the band recorded the EP in New York City, and discovered an unexplained noise while mixing down the recordings, and concocted the haunted house story to explain away the noise when Jerry Only refused to shell out more cash for remixing.)

A gray landscape of post-atomic age nihilism and abandon filled my mind.  Black leather and liquor, dirt weed, thirtysomething miles from Three Mile Island.  Children growing too fast in the shadow of the meltdown.  Chernobyl, Love Canal, Rocky Flats.  Teenagers not from Mars, but raised upon a sighing earth in the age of cataclysm ascendent.    

I gripped the arm rest the whole way home.  Just before the Shrewsbury exit, the driver pulled into the shoulder, taking the exit way too early. 

Jess asked, “Hey man, are you okay to drive?” 

“Yeah, yeah.  I drive on heroin all the time,” he mumbled. 

I woke up hungover on Easter Sunday, with weak gray light coming through the cracks in the blinds.  Forrest called around noon. 

“Hey, Chris bought this fucked up drum set at the Shrewsbury Playground.  Him and I are going to play music today.  We need someone to sing.  Do you wanna?” 

I coughed away from the mouthpiece of my phone, wanting to spare Forrest the sound of my aching lungs attempting to excise last night’s smoke. 

“Yeah, I don’t really know how though.” 

“Don’t worry too much.  I wrote out the chords for a bunch of Misfits and Dead Kennedys songs.  We’re not trying to like, write music or anything yet.  Just want to see what happens.” 

“That’s funny.  I was just listening to The Misfits last night.  We can use my basement if you want.” 

“Cool.  We’ll be by in a few hours.” 

Later that day. Down in the basement, a musty concrete room lit by two bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling.  We lugged Forrest’s guitar and practice amp down the stairs.  Followed by his bass amp, which we plugged a cheap K-Mart microphone into, for me to sing through.  Finally, we set up Chris’ drums, a cheap, sparse kit, he paid $75 for.  The snare head was so destroyed, that it consisted mostly of duct tape.  We excitedly ran through songs we knew, songs we thought we knew for hours.  I shouted myself hoarse, feeling a shift beneath my skin, some subtle movement incrementally away from fruitless nihilism and substance abuse, towards an outlet just a little more constructive. 

Listen, I’m not going to lie and say this band was actually good or anything, because we weren’t.  What we were, was earnest and hopeful.  Kids full of rage and excitement and boundless love for one another, desperate to be heard, desperate to make our mark on a world none of us knew how to see ourselves in, but ultimately refused to leave at the same time. 

Within a few weeks, we dropped The Misfits covers and started trying to write our own songs.  And oh my god, those songs were so bad, and so silly and wonderful and perfect all at once. 

According to Forrest, there is one extant rehearsal tape remaining from this period.  Chris might have another one.  I don’t know.  A few months ago, Forrest found a copy of the tape in a box, and texted me a video recording of the tape as it played in his stereo.  I would post said recording here, were it more than 38 seconds of song fragments, youthful banter, and my awkward teenage voice.  “I am literally watching the tape melt,” Forrest said.  I had a different rehearsal recording, that I wish I still had, with the four or five songs we managed to write.  Unfortunately, I bitterly recorded The Exploited Singles Collection over my copy the following winter after I quit/got kicked out of the band in a teenage prima donna huff just before our first show.  Hey, what can I say?  I was painfullyinsecure and crippled with stage fright.  I missed out.  What I remember Forrest telling me later, was that they lost the hall they rented and all the other bands backed out of the show.  The band ended up playing solo with their new singer to basically every weirdo in town but me in Jimmy’s driveway out in the middle of nowhere where nobody would call a noise complaint. 

Luckily, music is like memory, and I have been blessed with a detailed one.  It gets inside you and takes root, staying with you through good times, bad times, and worse times.  I carry those songs and the songs that inspired them with me to this day.  Always a reminder of the choice between nihilism and creativity, love and hopelessness, friendship and isolation, and ultimately life and death. 

[1] Enough key phrases from this interview stuck with me down the years, that a quick google search allowed me to find it, and I am referencing it here.

The record cover that enticed me from a Sam Goody CD rack when I was 15.