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.

For My Mother and Desmond Dekker

Sixteen years old
Doing my chores
On a summer afternoon
With the window opened
Out over the rolling hills
Of Southern York County
Desmond Dekker sings to me
On the stereo for company
I can hear the world waiting
In the soundwaves
Making their way down the street
Reaching escape velocity
On their way out out
Of my lonely little town
I will make it out one day too

Scrape the dried Elmer’s glue
Off the sink with a smile
Check the stiffness of my hair
In the mirror for the tenth time
Spiked towards the sky
Like a middle finger aimed at every sideways eye

My mother sticks her head in the door
“Oh! I like this song!
I remember when it was on the radio”
Back when I was young
She hums along
With a rare smile
Cracking across her face
Remembering a life
Thirty years gone

All the sudden
My mother is no longer
The narcissistic monster
Living as a prisoner
To her suffering
Tethered to this decrepit house
Raising a selfish afterbirth
Already racing for a world
With no room for her in it

I see you as you were, momma
Young and full of hope once
Summer of ’68 in the desert
With the radio on
A glint of moonlight
Catching in your smile
Your broken home caught
In the reflection of
A rearview mirror
With good things on the road
Ahead of you

Raised ducking for cover
Seeking shelter from gathering clouds
And the chill winds
Blowing ill from a cold war
Summer of ’68
With power’s proxies catching a spark
From fires lit before you were ever born
Your older brothers
Jump from from iron birds
And into the firestorm
With not a reason why
But to do and stay alive
One took a bullet
To the thigh
And never quite got right
The other made it home
And never talked about
The War Again in his life

You grew.

Into the mother
I once knew
Tiny and sometimes cruel, filling the world
Smart and sharp
With a quick wit
And the bitterness lingering
Below the surface to match it

You taught me well
How to stand up for myself
To everyone save
For you
You taught me to lock
All the doors at night
Hide my heart
Hide my light

I see you there sometimes
Out there in the shadows
Lonely and uncertain
Where I am sixteen years old, steel-toes
Stomping up the stairs
To the sound of Desmond on the Stereo
Singing for every mouth to be fed
And waiting for the war’s end
Where all our noble failures born
From the best of intentions are forgiven

I see you now, in the lateness of the hour
The mother who
Did the best she could
With the mess and neglect
And violence
She was given
Spent a life running
Looking for the calm
After the storm
Looking for her son
Without seeing the one she bore

I will meet you there
When sun finally breaks through the thunderheads
Where Desmond Dekker is always singing
For every mouth to be fed
Holy forgiveness
And every war’s end

Desmond Dekker