Hello! I’ve been mostly posting poetry here lately. The winter gloom has fucking worn me down, and a few lines at a time have mostly been what I could focus on for the past month or two. I managed to make some progress on a as yet untitled book I’ve been working on about rural punks in the nineties for the past year this weekend, and I’m going to post a segment of it here. I’m not sure if this will make the final draft, but I’m pretty proud of it regardless. Some names were changed to protect the anonymity of those involved in this story.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you for reading.
Take care of yourselves, take care of one another. ❤
We sold weed sometimes too. Weed was never a huge part of my life. I had had a brief infatuation with it that previous winter, but it cooled quickly when some of the kids I smoked up with moved onto shooting dope. Dylan and James smoked it when they could. Skinhead Jimmy smoked sometimes, but mostly liked to drink. I had been sober since spring, taking the lyrics of that Minor Threat cassette Forrest loaned me to heart. I just had no interest in, (and far too many opinionated teenage judgements about) drugs. However, I had no qualms whatsoever about selling weed to Kenny, who lived down the street.
Kenny was one of those dudes who was born to spend his life in Southern York County, loud, entitled, and dumb as all hell. He was the kind of douche who made those “Looney Tunes wearing generic hip hop clothing” t-shirts so popular in small towns in the early 90’s. We had been friends a few years back; back before my dad died, but that might as well have been a lifetime ago. We’d have sleepovers and late night wrestling matches often went on just a tad too long, and ended up with him pushing his ass back against me and breathing heavily until it got awkward. We would never talk about it in the morning. We drifted apart before middle school was even over. The irony of his referring to me as “faggot” when he passed in the hall once we hit ninth grade was secretly delicious.
Faggots or not, we still wanted his money. He would show up at the front door of Dylan’s dad’s house and start pounding on it.
“Dylan! Open up! I wanna buy weed!”
Dylan and I would share a look.
Fucking idiot. He’s going to get us all goddamn busted. Luckily Kenny was never dumb enough to show up knocking the door down on a night when Dylan wasn’t home. The presence of Dylan’s not conspicuous at all Chrysler Cordoba was telling like that.
This particular night, it was just Dylan, Skinhead Jimmy and I watching some long forgotten zombie movie in the living room, waiting for Dylan senior to drink enough cheap wine to pass out. We’d hit the streets and wreak whatever havoc we could after that.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
It was Kenny and his neighbor. They were drunk on rum they had stolen from Kenny’s parents and swaying. They wanted to buy enough weed to go smoke a joint on the baseball field. Kenny shot me a look through the door. I did my best to shoot one back that said: “You talk tough now, motherfucker. I know how much you wanted my cock in your ass just a few short years ago.” I don’t know if it translated. Dylan told them to wait outside and he would go see what he had.
Dylan, Jimmy and I practically raced one another to the kitchen. The act of summoning dimbebag out of kitchen spices to sell to Kenny and his friends was a tried and true routine between Dylan and Jimmy, and one I took much delight in observing. Dylan stepped into his room, and returned with a baggie full of green leaf and some Elmer’s glue, the exact same kind I used to spike up my ‘hawk. Jimmy rifled through the spice cabinet. There it was. Oregano. This would be hilarious. Since time immemorial, many a burnout in this town were known to shuffle through the halls of our high school selling dimebags or oregano. We were not original in this endeavor.
I liked to imagine that none of them took as much malicious amusement in selling bogus weed as we did though. The vein that bulged in the shape of an X in Dylan’s forehead when he laughed was practically jumping out of his skull as he sprinkled some weed on the counter to mix with the oregano in Jimmy’s hand. Jimmy in turn, was giggling viciously and muttering under his breath.
“Fucking idiot. I can’t believe he keeps coming back.” Jimmy said.
I had to cover my mouth for fear of Kenny hearing my laughter outside. I watched with amusement that bordered on amazement as Dylan and Jimmy poured some shake into a baggie and then poured oregano in after it. My amazement turned to sheer awe as I watched them roll some oregano and shake together with Elmer’s Glue, and then jab a stem into the whole semi dried mess in order to make a fairly convincing bud.
Kenny was known to brag to anyone who would listen how fucked up the weed he bought from us always got him. I didn’t know the chemical make up of Elmer’s Glue, but I wondered if he wasn’t getting at least a little buzzed from smoking it. I imagined sticky brown residue filling his lungs and killing his brain cells all at once. I couldn’t convince myself to feel particularly guilty either way. He was after all, such a little asshole.
Dylan and Jimmy took their crafted dimebag back to the front door where Kenny and is friend were waiting eagerly. Kenny was leaning against a post on the front porch for support, eyes half closed and grinning. I hated him in that moment. I hated him for the ease with which he walked the through the world, like it owed him something. I hated him because of the stories I had heard about how he acted around girls at parties. I hated his douchebag swagger, and the way he tried to make his voice sound deeper than it was when he spoke. I hated him for convincingly playing the part of mommy and daddy’s good little Christian boy and then being such a piece of shit as soon as he was out of their sight.
Dylan palmed him the bag of mostly fake weed.
“Ten bucks” He said flatly.
Kenny laughed easily and pulled out his wallet.
“Here you are, my man. My dude here and I sure do appreciate it.” Kenny slurred.
“This shit got me so fucked up last time. Goddamn.”
Kenny’s friend did his best to look hard. I wondered if it was his first drug deal, and he was going off what he had seen in the movies or some shit. I mean, I guess Jimmy with his shaved head, boots and braces was an intimidating sight, but we weren’t in one of those movies these sheltered ass small town white kids were always emulating to try and act hard. That reality would have eaten them alive.
Whatever. We took their money and sent them to smoke their dirt weed, oregano and glue combo at the baseball field. Ten bucks would mostly fill up the Cordoba and we had the satisfaction of ripping off someone we all thought was an asshole. The three of us busted out laughing almost as soon as Dylan shut the door behind him.
The ten dollars we made from poor Kenny took us no farther than driving aimless circles around Shrewsbury all night. It was enough. Dylan and Jimmy in the front seat, and me stretched out in the back. The windows rolled all the way down and the AM summer air mixing with a tape of Subhumans Time Flies, But Aeroplanes Crash EP playing on the stereo. The speakers sounded just fucking awful and perfect all at once.
I thought about Kenny, all those years ago writhing beneath me in his underwear, neither of us ever quite brave enough for what came next. I thought about my boys in the front seat. I loved them both as bravely as I knew how. I loved them both in a way Kenny in all his stumble, swagger and posturing would never understand. Jimmy and Dylan were both laughing freely. Jimmy launched an empty glass bottle carelessly out the window to hear the sound of it smashing on country blacktop receding in the distance.
I imagined all the lights that small town streetlights flickering to the south of us. I imagined those lights leading our way to everywhere else, giving way to the lights of all the cities I couldn’t wait to see. Five miles to the south of us lay the Pennsylvania state line. Another forty miles of rural highway and you were in Baltimore County. Those exit routes counted for something. In that moment I knew all of us would make it out of this place and might even have a chance of growing into the people we always wanted to be.
This tiny, shitty world we were stuck in for at least another few years may cater to Kenny and all the other thoughtless Neanderthals just like him, but tonight we had gotten his money and converted it to just enough gas for a brief respite. With the music and our laughter cascading out the windows and into the summer air, we knew some things they would never know. We went south on main, towards the Getty to turn right on constitution and creep the long way home through New Freedom, the threat of boredom and entropy vanquished for another night.
Hello! I haven’t updated this thing in a while. I’ve been busy working on a project I’m super excited about. I’m going to share a piece of it publicly here for the first time. I’d love feedback if you have time.
The following related stories are from a larger piece I’m working on detailing my time as a miscreant, maladjusted punk rocker in Rural Pennsylvania twenty years ago. I completed this chapter today. This is a first draft. I have done little to no editing work. All names have been redacted to protect the guilty who are no doubt all grown up and embarrassed by what I remember. Enjoy!
Drug Story One:
I can’t remember when the decision to stop smoking weed and drinking was. I think it had been a gradual process as spring bloomed into being that year. We had dabbled that winter, and I had a hard time saying no to things, but over time I think I just discovered straight edge and lost interest. The last sip of alcohol I had was some warm beer we had found stashed in the trunk of the Cordoba the day _____ bought it.
There had been some funny times though. Like when _____’s parents and my mom had all gone out of town on separate trips Valentine’s Day weekend, essentially leaving teenage lunatics in charge of the asylum. ______, ____, ___ and I had spent Friday night mixing “just a bit” from each liquor bottle in my mom’s liquor cabinet getting wasted and talking to my dead dad with a Ouija board, and then _____and ____ had stolen _____’s dad’s car to pick me up and cruise on Saturday night.
I was already drunk when they picked me up. Saturday had just emptily crawled by, filled with nothing much but an early winter sunset and long night to look forward to. _____ had come over to hang out. We decided to get drunk almost as soon as it was dark. We would spend the night at _____’s parent’s house. _____ and _____ planned to stay up all night on acid. I was afraid of doing acid, but they assured me there was more alcohol to be had over there. Good. I was worried about my mom noticing how much we had stolen Friday anyway.
The weekend culminated in us staying up all night on Saturday, all fucked up and laughing at nothing in particular in an empty bathtub. _____ and _____ dropped their acid. I drank southern comfort from straight from the bottle. We listened to The Misfits Collection I all night. Somewhere in the empty wastes of a Southern York County landfill, a video tape of our night may or may not exist. _____had found a camcorder somewhere, and wanted to document our misdeeds for the night.
Near four AM, I crawled down to ____’s basement room to pass out. I was awoken a few hours later by hysterical laughter and moaning. In my stupor, I could not figure out the source of the moaning. When I had fallen asleep, only ____ and ____ were present in the house. How the fuck had an orgy been initiated in the few hours I had been unconscious? I was so confused.
I had passed out with my boots on and everything. I groggily stomped up the stairs to see a hilarious sight: ____ and ____ had raided ____’s parent’s room and found his dad’s VHS collection of pornography. They had a movie on the TV in the living room. The actors were vigorously penetrating one another and moaning fakely for the cameras.
In the neon nocturnal glow of the television, there were ____ and ____, high as shit on acid, and laughing. They were sitting two feet away from the television tops. Messily devouring leftover pizza, they had smeared tomato sauce all over their faces. In with the combination of my blurry vision, and the glow of the television, the sauce eerily resembled blood. The camcorder was set up on a tripod behind them, and they were still filming. The scene was completely surreal.
“Y’all. The sun is going to be up soon. My mom gets home this afternoon. We trashed my house Friday. I need to get home and sober up and clean.” I said.
____ insisted on driving his parent’s car. ____ asked if it wouldn’t be better if he drove, considering he had only been up on acid, not acid and drinking combined. ___ also insisted that he had mostly come down from his trip. ___ wouldn’t hear it.
The sky was beginning to lighten as we crawled down the driveway in the cold. ___ asked one more time if he shouldn’t drive. ____ shrugged it off. I was in the front seat with the camcorder, recording our drive for posterity. Who the fuck is dumb enough to record their crimes anyway?
A four three way stop lay at the bottom of the hill. The street we were on intersected with another street. Ahead of us was a cornfield that lay fallow. ____ showed no signs of slowing down as the intersection barreled towards us.
“____! STOP!” ____ and I both yelled in unison.
He didn’t stop. He plowed through the intersection without even slowing down. As we blew through the stop sign, I looked over at ____ in the driver’s seat. His head was bobbing loosely on his neck like a doll. I wasn’t even sure if the severity of our predicament registered for him.
And I laughed. I laughed and laughed with teenage death urge glee as ____ completely lost control of the car. We launched over a pile of snow pushed to the side of the road by a snowplow from a recent storm. I was still laughing when the car momentarily took flight. All four wheels met the frozen ground of the field, and the car began to spin. I kept laughing when we came to a stop directly between two telephone poles. A few feet to the left or the right would have spelled varying degrees of disaster for all three of us, but we were lucky. The air was still and silent.
____just turned to ____ and said “Okay. Fine. You drive.”
I suppose dying in a drunk driving accident two weeks after my fifteenth birthday is one of a thousand early deaths I could have gone to, but never did. I’d like to think my survival, really the survival of so many of my friends was due to a small amount of self-preservation, and maybe some supernatural guardianship, rather than sheer idiot luck.
Drug Story Two:
The first time I got high. It was that same winter, maybe a few weeks after ____, ____ and I nearly met our doom. ____’s little brother ___ and I are smoking weed in his room. He has crudely constructed a bowl out of a sprite can, using a safety pin to poke holes in the side. To add to the sheer idiocy of this scene, we are using a zippo to ignite our buds. My lungs burn as I inhale copious amounts of weed smoke and butane.
Blowing smoke out the window, I realize I am totally baked. ____ is ecstatic at this. He wants to celebrate by going outside and “walking around”. Even in my state, I know what this will consist of. There is so goddamn little to do in this town, that “walking around” is really just code for walking to the McDonalds a few blocks away and seeing if anyone we know is there.
This walk is precisely what we do. We walk east on Forest Avenue, very slowly and giddily. We cut across Main Street, and behind the churches that line it, and into the cemetery. The walk seems to take forever, and I don’t notice the cold. I do notice that I have to think very hard about order which to put my feet on the ground though.
“Left foot, right foot.” I think hazily.
“Just imagine you are seeing your favorite band right now. It can be anyone.” ____ interrupts my concentration.
We’re nearing the hole in the fence behind the cemetery and I immediately envision myself seeing the Dead Kennedys fifteen years earlier. I imagine myself in the swirling crowd. I imagine the hopeful and angry faces of the punks that came before me. I picture Jello Biafra jumping into the crowd to sing from the fray.
“Dude. We were born too late.” Is all I manage to mutter to Adam.
The scene at McDonalds is totally dead. We run into two casual acquaintances and I can’t follow our conversation. One offers me a bite of her ice cream cone. I decline. I want to leave. The air smells too greasy and it’s stuffy in here. I can’t understand why ___ would want to be inside anything, let alone this paean to homogenized corporate monoculture. None of this translates to anything aside form “Let’s just go home and eat hotpockets” though.
We go outside, and there are some jocks we vaguely know congregated outside of a pick-up truck. They glare at us. We look at them and try and walk past. Right as we get to the hole in the fence, one of them aims a laser pointer at us and yells “We’re gonna shoot you, you fucking faggots!”.
Laser pointers had just began to come into prominence. I hadn’t really seen them outside of movies where they acted as the sights for firearms. It didn’t seem inconceivable that these redneck jocks might have a firearm with them. All of these thoughts seemed to come slowly, and were their urgency seemed amplified by how high we were. Before I knew it, I was ducking through the hole in the fence, and running. Adam followed suit quickly.
We ran across the cemetery, occasionally ducking behind gravestones if we saw headlights crossing Highland Drive. It made sense that the jocks might have jumped into their trucks, made a left on Forest Avenue and another left up Highland if they were truly dedicated to fucking with us (at best) or murdering us (at worst). Most likely, they laughed at the sight of us running away, and went back into McDonalds and ordered shitty food.
That would have been the most rational line of thought. Too bad drugs don’t always make you rational.
We waited until we were sure we didn’t see any headlights coming, and made a beeline for the church on the other side of Highland Avenue. We ran towards the church hall, where I had been to one of my first punk shows a few years earlier. We hid behind a wall for a while, completely convinced that we heard cars full of angry jocks circling the block looking for us.
We then made a break for Main Street. Adam was sure that every car we saw was full of the same illusory, menacing jocks. We made a dash across Main Street, and onto Railroad Avenue. This was a relatively quiet side street. The jocks wouldn’t think to look for us here. Just a block or two to cross, and we’d be on our way towards Forest Avenue, and ___’s house, safe from all jocks, and other unfriendly faces.
Of course, the block we had to cross seemed like it was miles long. We saw headlights creeping up behind us, and dove for the bushes in a field. The car passed without even slowing down. It didn’t matter. It could have been the jocks. It could have been anyone. ____ was breathing heavily next to me. Somehow a single isolated interaction with some assholes in a McDonalds Parking lot had escalated in our minds to the entire town being out to get us, and ____ and I having to cross miles of hostile territory to reach the sanctuary of his house.
We made it to the corner ___ lived on. Finally. The whole ordeal had seemed like it took hours out of our night. There was a light on in the house. It looked like ____’s dad might be up and tooling around downstairs.
“Wait! We can’t go in yet. My dad will realized we’re stoned!”
Fuck. ____ was right. His dad was an old hippie. He’d be able to spot how high we were from across the room. We’d be in deep shit then, for sure. He would call my mom and tell her. She’d never forgive me. We decided our only course of action would be to run across Forest Avenue and hide in the park for a while. We’d wait it out until ____’s dad either fell asleep, or we were just less high. Still convinced the jocks were looking for us, we hid out in the dugout of the baseball field for another hour or so before walking home.
The best part of this story? When we were hiding from cars in an empty field along Railroad Avenue, we were directly across the street from the police station. It was closed, of course, considering it was after nine PM. Had it been open, though… All the cops would have had to do would be to look out their window and they’d see two paranoid idiots with blue hair, high as a goddamn kite, and hiding from cars full of imaginary jocks in the bushes. ____ still had a bag of weed on him. He might have even had our homemade soda can piece too. The cops would have had an easy bust, but they missed it.
Joey, Jessica, and Jess Bird picked me up at my mom’s house on Saturday night to make the drive to York. It’s January, 1996, and I am fourteen years old. I’ll be fifteen in just under two weeks. I am the youngest in the car. Jess Bird just turned sixteen a few months back. Joey and Jessica are older than me. I think they both are maybe nineteen or twenty, twenty-one at the very oldest. It’s the kind of age difference that seems lightyears away when you are a kid. They are both out of high school, and have an apartment somewhere. I’ve never been to it though. It’s mostly where my friends go to do drugs and party, which isn’t so much my thing. Having an apartment of your own still seems so cool to me all the same. I stay quiet in the back of the car, holding hands with Jess Bird. All the sudden, I feel like such a kid and I’m deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing.
Joey’s car is kind of a piece of shit, but it has a tape deck. We listen to someone’s copy of Staring at the Sea: The Singles, the cassette version that had all the B Sides on the other side of the tape. It’s full of all the weird, angular songs that hadn’t made it into the widely known canon of The Cure. A great number of the songs sound like they involved copious drug consumption while they were being written. They sound like they came out of Mr. Smith’s head all wrong, or completely right. They sound especially perfect if you are a weird fourteen year old awakening to the world at exactly the right time, trying so hard to feel all grown up with your steel toed boots, black jeans, and leather jacket.
The club the show is at is awkwardly named “The Fenix”, spelled just like that. I always wondered who chose to spell it that way, and why. I had been hearing about the place for at least the last two years. It’s the place where the cool, older kids go to dance the night away. My friends tell me about sneaking out of their parents’ houses to get rides with older kids to hang out there. We live in a cluster of small towns collectively grouped together and known as Southern York County just under twenty miles south of York proper.
Thinking on it two decades later, the distance seems completely negligible. Gas prices and financial constraints aside, you probably don’t think much about driving twenty miles. You probably just put the address belonging to wherever you are going in your GPS, pick an album on your iPod, and go. Rural Pennsylvania in the mid-nineties, most of us were convinced we were positively the only people in our small towns who know how hard it is to be a weird kid. Finding places like this where we could go and just be weird kids was like finding an oasis in the desert.
We park in a parking lot near the club. Joey spot’s Eddie, his younger sister’s ex-boyfriend. Eddie is getting out of his car with his new, younger girlfriend. Eddie had cheated on Joey’s sister last winter, and they had stayed together but fought brutally all summer long. The bad blood simmered to a boil and ended with Joey and his two younger sisters chasing Eddie out of a house party under threat of violence the night Jess Bird turned sixteen.
Joey is pissed at seeing Eddie and the new girlfriend together, and fumes in the car for a minute. I feel weird about this. Eddie and I aren’t close friends, but I like him. He’s always been friendly with me. He’s also a cool older weirdo.
While this story is about what felt like my first encounter with underground music in a real and definable way, I suppose it wasn’t my first show. I have clear memories of two shows before that, though I think there may be more. My very first time seeing friends play live music was at a rented church hall in Shrewsbury, one of the other tiny boroughs that makes up Southern York County. I went with Forrest and Melanie. These are my two closest friends, and who I spend the vast majority of my time with. We haunt record stores a lot, looking or anything vaguely punk.
This is part of the story, solely because it’s the first time I ever met Eddie. The music itself from that night actually isn’t’ much to write about. It was just friends playing mostly Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and Ramones covers. It’s fun enough, when you’re fourteen, trapped in a small town, there isn’t a single other thing to do, and you feel like you are awakening to an entirely new world.
Four random rednecks end up at the show that night. I am the smallest in my crew of friends, and they single me out. They try and catch me alone whenever they can and shoulder check me muttering “Hey faggot”. They follow that up with challenging me to step outside with them. This is hardly original, and the kind of thing I’m fairly used to at this point. What makes it a defining part of the story though, is this is the first time one of the older kids sticks up for me.
The show is over, almost everyone has left. Parents have come collected their children, and gone home. It’s just Melanie, Forrest, and a few of the older freaks packing up their gear and getting ready to go home. The hicks are waiting at the other end of the parking lot yelling “COME ON, FAGGOT!” Melanie’s mom still isn’t here to take us home. I’m getting a little nervous.
At this point Eddie simply walks across the parking lot and asks them what their problem is. The boys respond that they think I’m gay, and I need a good ass kicking due to this fact. Eddie tells them he might just be gay too. Are they gonna fuck him up as well? The boys respond in the negative, deflate, and get back in their truck to go home.
Back outside The Fenix, Joey waits for Eddie and his girlfriend to turn the corner. As soon as they do, he runs over to Eddie’s car, and pisses all over the driver’s side door. Eddie is kind of my friend, but I don’t really say anything. I guess I don’t like how he treated Joey’s sister either. I also like Joey. He took up for me late this last summer when a different group of rednecks were aiming to “kick my ass” for “being a faggot” at a local carnival. I don’t know who I feel more loyal too. It ends up boiling down to Joey being my ride home, and I’m kind of more scared of him than I am Eddie.
Joey gets back to the car, and we all sort of laugh nervously and walk towards the club. The Fenix is on the second floor of an old building on South Beaver Street in downtown York. You have to walk up steps to get into the club. The line stretches down the stairs. I do my best to not look nervous. I had heard they have a policy of not letting anyone under sixteen in the club. I repeat my mantra of “Nobody will notice you are only fourteen. They will take your five dollars, and let you in.” over and over as we wait in the line.
The ascent up the stairs feels like it takes years. When we finally get to the top of the steps, there is a desk and an older woman is working the door. I believe she was the owner. Everyone called her “Ms. Amanda”. She reminds me of someone’s really nice mom. Not so much my mom, who is at home chain smoking and gradually becoming a despair filled shell of her former self, but somebody’s nice mom. She takes my five dollars, stamps my hand, and welcomes me to the club.
Inside, the club is dimly lit. It smells like cigarette smoke and leather. Everything from floor to ceiling is painted black. There is a bar over in one corner, but as it’s an all ages venue, they only sell soda, and have pitchers of water on the bar. Behind the bar is a mural of a cityscape. The club had been named “Big City” when it first opened sometime in the eighties. I figure the mural is a holdover from those days.
After all the buildup of hearing about this place, and can now scarcely believe I’m inside. I feel like I’ve entered a secret world. There are still butterflies fluttering in my stomach as Jess and I diffuse into the crowd. Punk is still relatively new to me. I have been jumping into the scene with both feet for a year or so, but this is my first bigger show, and my first show at a club.
There was one other show that I remember, previous summer. My big clear memory of it is it was the first time I had ever seen a pit. I had seen kids sort of mosh, or push into one another before, but this shit was gnarly. The kids were wildly throwing themselves into one another with abandon, and I watched fists and boots fly every which way.
Tonight, it feels like every weirdo in greater York County is in this club. The punks are out. The goths are out. I even see a skinhead or two. Having just become a part of the underground scene, I still don’t fully understand the obscure fashion codes that differentiate racist skins from non-racist skins. I know I’m supposed to look for red or white laces on their Doc Martens, but it’s too dark to fully check out someone’s boots, so I just steer clear.
The air feels electric as more of our friends start to show up. The bands aren’t set to play yet. We fill the dance floor waiting. All the music I am in the middle of falling in love with booms over the sound system. This may be a punk show tonight, but the club caters to all the misfits who inhabit the surrounding area. The goth kids fill the dance floor, as the DJ’s taste clearly lean towards the darker side of the underground. Jess and I awkwardly dance while waiting for the bands to play. I don’t really know how to dance. I didn’t then. I think I still don’t.
We smile and laugh, and do our best to converse over the thundering music. Heather just showed up. Her boyfriend and his best friend are there too. They are on acid. I’ve never been on acid. I’ve never been been around anyone on acid. I don’t know how to act. I nod hello and keep my distance, even though I like Heather’s boyfriend. He is so, so cool, and so punk. He has a leather jacket covered in studs and band logos. A few weeks later, he will loan me both my first Crass, and Sisters of Mercy tape. It’s an understatement to say how much both of these bands will change my life.
I don’t drink or do drugs. My older brother has lived a life filled with addiction, and struggling to stay sober. I’ve had it drilled in my head for as long as I can remember that if I slip up, and even try drugs or drink I stand a chance of ending up like him, making endless trips to rehab and back again. I’m terrified of drugs. Almost everyone around me does them. Earlier that summer, while Melanie read the book Philosophy of Punk, she told me about the concept of straight edge.
To my limited, pre-internet understanding, straight edge embodies the rebellion and independence of punk, but includes eschewing mind altering substances into that rebellion. Earlier in that school year, Forrest had loaned me a cassette copy of Minor Threat’s Out of Step EP. Always the frugal record shopper, he had found it at a used record store for a mere $3. This tape is now my favorite record. It’s fast, smart, and to the goddamn point. It’s punks flying in the face of convention, and doing the opposite of what everyone expects of them. I want to be just like that.
I do my best not to resent or judge my friends for their habits, even though sometimes I think it’s dumb. I mean, what else are we supposed to do to kill the boredom in this place? It scares the shit out of me, though. Thinking back on it, I probably had more judgments than I should have. Those will change a few months later, when I decide to spend a few months experimenting with alcohol and weed. That is another story though.
When we’re at home, we mostly spend our time hiding in someone’s room with a towel against the door smoking dirt weed out of homemade aluminum can pipes. Sometimes we steal tiny amounts of beer and liquor from someone’s parents. You know, just enough so we can get almost drunk, but not enough so anyone’s parents notice. We live in a dry county, so it’s really hard to find alcohol anyway. Once we are suitably altered, we walk around the dusty streets of this town, going nowhere, and goddamn fast.
Well, everyone else does. I don’t smoke weed. I’m just here for the company and the walk. It’s better than being alone all the time. I’m going nowhere just as fast though.
Joey, Jessica, and Jess Bird all popped a pill of cheap speed each before we got into the club. I didn’t want to do speed, so I just drank a can of Jolt. I don’t think caffeine is a drug, and I kind of want to fit in, and get wired too, just not in the same way.
The sound system turns down, and the opening band hits their first chord. Jess and I had been dancing so much, that we had barely noticed them set up. The energy in the room instantly shifts and the punks fill the dance floor. A space opens up for a circle pit, and I am swept up in the maelstrom. The bass player is the punkest person I have ever seen. His hair is a wild maze of color and liberty spikes. He is covered in make-up, and just cannot stop moving onstage. The room is electric with dancing punks and weirdos. I am so excited, I find myself completely unable to not move my body.
At one point the music seems to sort of halt in the air for a moment, and the singer belts out a line about feeling crazy. He repeats it over and over again, and I can feel myself lifting up. Years later, I would hear the demo tape that this song was on. It’s pretty bad. It sort of plays like mid-nineties Eddie Vedder school of alternative rock mixed with punk. I think this kind of thing was fairly common in small towns with isolated scenes. A mish mash of lonely kids who want to play music with varying influences get together and form a band. The final recorded product often seems like the clash of influences don’t mix well. This band was no different. Live that night though, with the music pounding in my ears, they were everything.
The second band hits the stage, and the room gets heavier. The music is heavier, darker, and more violent. The singer is bellowing rage like it’s coming from the darkest parts of him. The skinheads start having more of a presence. One of them takes a disliking to me, and swings at me in the pit a few times. I do my best to avoid him, while holding my ground. Joey intercedes, telling him to back off. For a moment it looks like the two of them will come to blows. The skinhead backs down, but glares at me from the other side of the room for the rest of the night.
I am instantly in love, with everything. I feel at home for the first time in my life.
The show is winding down. Jess and I end up on the balcony for the rest of the night. She doesn’t feel well now. The speed is starting to wear off, and she’s crashing. We end up sitting on the floor and I wrap my arms around her, telling her she’s going to be fine. She’ll go home and go to bed, and wake up late tomorrow morning feeling better. Drugs are only temporary. The scary parts don’t last.
I think about saying I love you in that moment. I don’t. Everything always feels so urgent when you’re fourteen. I think it did even more so for me. It’s hard to be objective. I also think I might not have learned how to love anything before I loved Melanie and Forrest. A few months later I would admit to myself that I was in love with Melanie, and that I was in love for the first time in my life. Twenty years later, I look at it through a different lens. Like, given enough time all of our greatest loves, tragedies, and triumphs kind of fade to mere curiosities and closed chapters. Maybe learning to love is a life long process, and one that punk rock falls short in.
Jess and I kiss goodnight, and she gets a different ride home. Another friend promises to take care of her. We break up like a week later
I remember that too clearly too. I put down the phone and sit in my room, breathing heavily. Feeling too much, too hard. I can’t make it all stop. Everything hurting too much isn’t a new sensation for me. I’ve developed coping mechanisms. I pull out a pocket knife I always keep in my pocket and rake it across my upper arm as hard and as fast as I can. The blood seems to pause for a minute before gushing out of my arm. I stare at it blankly, finally able to breathe right. Mental illness and self injury will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I do my best to stop the bleeding, and go outside to the woods near my house to try and calm down. Walking out of my room, I put my headphones on, and put a mixtape in my Walkman. The music is there, just like it always is.
Twenty years later, the music is still there. So are the scars. Somehow, I have yet to cover them with tattoos. I love them both.
That was it. I’ve been going to shows ever since that night. Forrest, Melanie and I spent the next several months trying to go to any punk show in the area we could. I moved to Denver two years later, and got a taste of being involved in punk in a bigger city. I kept at it. I will be thirty five in a few weeks. I’ve never quit punk. It wasn’t my hobby. It wasn’t what I did to kill time before I went to college, or got a real job. It was the first thing I ever really loved. It was the first thing I was just wholeheartedly excited about. My mom accused me of joining a cult. I have lived a life spent in noisy and crowded rooms. Some of it has been hard. A lot of it has been really hard. A lot of it has been so beautiful and filled with immense joy too. I’m proud to say that I do my best to sit with that joy instead of the struggle as I get older.
Venues like The Fenix, and countless others like it, in countless other cities that I have lived in, or passed through are long gone. I couldn’t even keep track of all of the places which have come and gone, been torn down, or turned into luxury boutiques, or otherwise gentrified. Punk, and underground music in general are changing. I blame the internet for making everything hyper accessible. I could also just be feeling older, and things feel routine after twenty years, rather than the coolest secret you have ever been told. I also know that across the world kids are still making music, and carving out a space for themselves in the world. I’m so grateful to them for doing just that.
I still find myself haunting basement shows, house shows, shows at clubs, really anywhere where fucked up, alienated weirdos are making lots of noise. The scene I come from is long gone. Most of my friends from that era have moved on, or have careers, or families. Many of my friends from the eras and cities that came after my time as a teenager in Pennsylvania have moved on and away from punk too. That’s alright with me. I don’t begrudge anyone doing what worked for them. I get why people walk away from punk. I just can’t. I don’t know anything else. I struggle with relating to anything else.
Despite any impressions you may get to the contrary reading this, I don’t think I miss my youth. I don’t know that I wish I could go back and relive it all again, or whatever. They were good years, sure. They were also so hard, and took such a long time get over with. It took such a long time to undo all the ruin from being a teenager, from being in my twenties. I’m still doing that work now.
I do wish I could write a letter to my younger self, and address it January 20th, 1996. If I could, I would even write it on the back of the flyer from that first show at The Fenix on the same date. I kept the flier for at least a decade. Sadly, I think it got lost when a long gone West Denver punk house where much of my stuff was stored was evicted.
Post marked January 20th, 1996.
Dear teenage self,
You are embarking on a path that will define much of the rest of your life. It will change your life forever. It will change it for the better too. This isn’t hyperbole. It is an undeniable fact. Punk rock, and music in general will be there year after year, long after everything else in your life has begun to feel stale, futile, and cheap.
The path you are embarking on will make your life better, but it won’t make it easier. You are going to go deeper and deeper into being at odds with the dominant culture around you. Alienation and isolation will follow you for a long time. You will get respites from these feelings. There will be times when they feel less heavy, and less like they are weighing every atom of your body down, but you are going to feel them a lot, and feel them hard for the rest of your life.
Please use your time. Please make better use of your alone time. Treat it like the hard won ally it is. Don’t try quite so hard to constantly fill every moment with something. Find your time and use it. It’s too easy to fall into distraction and dissociation.
On the flipside of that, take more time with the people you love. Don’t take it for granted. Remember that we’re here for a good time, not a long time. You never know when someone is going to be gone. You are going to learn that lesson again and again, year after year.
Work really hard to be gentle with the people you love. This is the most important thing. It feels so urgent in youth, because you are so convinced that the world is against you. It’s easy to forget as the cynicism of adulthood wears on. It’s a brutal lesson you are going to learn over and over. You will find other alienated, beautiful, and damaged individuals to share your life with. You are drawn together for a reason, be it alienation, trauma, abuse or whatever else. You are going to fuck up and hurt each other, over and over again. Damaged people damaging each other. It’s a vicious cycle. It feels more present in your subcultures. It feels more urgent and tragic, but it probably exists everywhere. Try to be gentler. Try and be more forgiving. Remember that the people you love are bruised just like you.
The ideals and morals you are forming right now are vital. They will frame the rest of your life too. Try not to be quite so merciless when people don’t live up exactly to how you think they should fit into the world, or how you think the world should be. Try to be more forgiving. Try to soften that iron heart you try so hard to cultivate. A lot of people are consistently patient and loving with you. Try and reciprocate that patience and love more often.
Punk rock is teaching you all about surviving, but be sure to make room for thriving too. Bad things can happen when you don’t thrive. Sometimes it looks like addiction. Sometimes it looks like abuse. For you it could look like living for decades in weird, busted houses with undiagnosed mental illnesses and stagnancy. It could look like living in ruins so long that you think it’s all you deserve.
Make plans. I know it’s hard to focus on anything more than day to day survival. I know we all took that “No Future” shit real seriously. Try to think about it a little bit. If you don’t, you could end up being 35 with a mouth full of broken teeth, too many lost friends, a head full of worries and nothing but ten years of dishwashing jobs behind you.
There is something to be said for living outside of convention. It’s so exciting now. You also need to realize that it will inevitably come with doing without certain comforts. This is just a cold hard fact. You are going to have a harder time talking to people who exist outside of the microcosm world you are from. That world is going to get smaller, and fade further into the distance every year. It’s going to look like sometimes feeling embarrassed by your so called lack of achievement.
It’s not the worst life, but punk rock was supposed to be all about living on your own terms. When you focus on survival, you forget how to live. I know you feel like you are all alone. I know you feel like all the odds are just fucking stacked against you, but you got this. There is nobody smarter, or more capable than you.
Finally, and most importantly: Please try and take good care of your body. You only get the one. Please try and not hate it so much. Please don’t spend so long trying to do everything you can to not feel it. When you are in your twenties, please think about how much you want to destroy it, and where that comes from. Try and accept it for the deeply flawed and beautiful vessel that it is. Try not to resent it for it’s desires. Remember that so many other people are bruised just like you.
Do what you want. Be who you are. Take what you will. Use your time.