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.

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