Somewhere in all the alienation and ennui of modernity and adulthood, I lost the magic of solitude. In the age of pandemic, it clings to me with a sense of claustrophobia, sticking to me like a film of sweat on my skin that I can never quite wash clean. The house, the city, the country, the world are suffocating. I search in desperation for the moments and quiet places where I can catch my breath.
1988, Friday nights home alone, in my bedroom with the radio on, huddled beneath a blanket fort with my action figures or my books. The scholastic bookfair edition, dumbed down, violence and sexuality toned down, edition of Dracula, with a drawing of an open grave, spider crawling across a wooden casket with a skeletal, vampiric hand was my favorite.
Power 96, weekend Power Mix live DJ sets coming from the clock radio on the dresser, yellow streetlight sneaking through the slats in the shutters. I felt at home in the night, even back then. At the most ease underneath my skin with nobody else around. My parents watched TV and smoked cigarettes in the living room, maybe Dateline or 20/20, until it was time for bed. I set the sleep timer on the radio for an hour. My mother tucked me into bed, always leaving the door open just a crack with the hall light on. I would lay awake, listening to the radio, watching the light through the shutters, the shadows dance across the floor when a breeze caught the tree outside my window. Late night DJs to keep me company, the solace of sound to lull me to sleep.
A boombox with a strap, I carried the radio with me Saturday mornings, off to the park beneath the powerlines before the world woke up. The Powerlines, all the kids called the park, a mile long, double figure 8 bike path cut through big open fields ensconced on all sides by suburbs. A concrete and high-tension wire canyon cut through South Florida swamp land. The omnipresent hum of electricity above, transmission towers stretching across the horizon, as far as the eye could see, into infinity. Tropical parrots made their nests in the crossbeams, their calls occasionally cutting through the constant hum.
I rode the loop slowly, a copy of Vital Idol dubbed from a neighbor’s older sister in my boombox. While White Wedding seemed so brooding and scary (Gimme a break! I was 7!), and Dancing with Myself to this day remains one of the first songs I ever connected to on an emotional level, AND, I will admit to having come up with a dance routine for Hot in the City, which I performed for my parents, on the kitchen counter, clad only in a pair of blue jeans and a tiny blue denim jacket with no shirt on underneath (I’ve always wondered what kind of nervous post-bedtime conversations between my parents that inspired). The remix of Catch My Fall at the end of the album was my favorite song, and continues to be a song I love to this day.
The song hit, Sitting in an empty playground, watching big, ominous South Florida skylines, wondering where the powerlines ended, imagining the electricity buzzing above me carried to some vast urban elsewhere. A place where gritty city lights never turn out for the night, and there is always a current of excitement in the air. Where there is always music playing and everyone looks cool, leaning against a wall, possibly going nowhere.
A storm rolled off the ocean from the west. Thunder rumbled. Lightning flashed in the distance. Always a sign that it was time to head home. As if on cue, a transformer exploded on one of the lines across the lake. A flash and a bang, the houses just beneath it went dark. The wind picked up, and I heard sirens in the distance. I put one foot in front of the other and pedaled home.
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. Amebix – The 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.
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.
You were not the first person I ever loved
Even though I always say how
Love is just another word people say
Spoken too lightly, spoken too often, and too soon
Love is just a word that I cannot bring myself to say
But I loved you, and how when you walked into a room
All the pressure would drop right out of
My stomach and into a pile of nerves on the floor
Just like the pressure drop in the air filling this town
The moment before a summer storm
You once told me something like I was ice water roaring
Down a mountain, and you were my gorge
I wish I had told you how you were the downpour
Drenching my years of dry rot and drought
How you were every tender moment
I forced myself to do without
You loved me as you found me, overdosing on darkness
Choking on the very moment when forever came crashing in
When all hell came home to call
Loosing every last demon, pushing through tired skin
Pressing lifeless lips to taste anxiety’s biter kiss
In all that years after this one:
I will mourn neither one of us learning a thing
About how to be gentle, or how to keep loving
When all the weight of distrust and trauma
Sets in, and leaden absences send us sinking
All hands on deck, straight to the bottom
It’s a short story, with a dismal ending
The same tired tale told again and again
Growing even more worn with each telling
Written on repeat, until the ink runs out of our pens
Longing for how we could have been everything
Instead of all this time wasted
Lives short lived, and far too full of bitterness
Our years spent in silent regret
Because we never learned a thing about gentleness
And filled our listless lives with beautiful broken things instead