On Twenty Years Spent In Noisy And Crowded Rooms
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.
Twenty long years. Goddamn.