Friday, February 13, 2015

Punk Roots (Part One of Three)

I've been punk for fucking ever at this point. Well, not exactly. I remember, almost to the day, when I went punk. It was 1988. Or '89. Or '87, or something. I was at my friend Stan's house, and a bunch of punks were hanging out. Punk music was playing. People were being hilarious and drinking beer. There was an axe stuck in the dining room table. Stan had a pet rat that I'd seen him at school with, it was running around in and out of his clothing. We were all scratching things into the table with a knife. I think a Devo VHS was playing. I remember thinking:

"Damn. This is cool."

But... before any of that happened, I was growing up. I was raised in a suburban black hole of progressivism and culture called Virginia Beach. It was exactly the sterile and subdued environment that spawned all those legendary SoCal/Orange County punk bands like Adolescents, Bad Religion, Descendents.... cul-de-sacs, strip malls, malls, parking lots and that just plain soul-sucking blandness and complacency that is the perfect incubator for drug-addicted disaffected pissed off youth. But unlike SoCal which has one of the biggest urban centers in the country nearby, our "suburbs" had nothing "urban" to sub off of -- just military bases, a tiny pocket of culture in Norfolk, and the typical spacey sun-blanched vapid idiocy of "beach life" that exists in every ocean town. It took punk a while to find its way there. In the 70s everyone was into what we now call "classic rock". Bands like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Van Halen, Rush, Aerosmith, and a few others were the backdrop of my youth. I can remember hearing Zeppelin and Sabbath before age 5. I was also very interested in lyrics from an early age. One day my sister and I skipped out of church and sat in the car listening to Black Sabbath (How fucking cool is THAT? Thanks sis!) and Hand of Doom came on. When Ozzy said "Head starts spinning 'round, falls down to the ground" I started laughing, but I knew he wasn't being funny. I had no idea he was talking about heroin abuse, but there was no doubt some heavy shit was going on. More significantly, the amazing irony of listening to the most evil "Devil-worshipping" band on the planet, while skipping church, right next to the church, was not lost on me. I thought it was cool as fuck.

I also seriously spent a considerable amount of time trying to memorize Led Zeppelin lyrics to impress my older siblings and their friends. Zep was everyone's favorite band. It was around 1975; they were on top of the world. My brother had the biggest Led Zeppelin poster ever on his wall. It was his wall. Jimmy page with a double guitar, Bonham smashcrushing his clear amber drums, Robert Plant with his mic cord in mid-twirl... I really was surrounded by rock music from day one.

A huge turning point came when I was 10 years old. My oldest brother came home from college with records by Devo and The B-52's, and some tapes of Gang of Four and the Sex Pistols. My sister got a Cars album that same year which we listened to over and over. This was a new, exciting glimpse into some other shit... I absolutely LOVED the B-52's. I couldn't get enough. Rock Lobster had me in tears laughing. Gang of Four sounded weird to me and the Pistols sounded crazy. I guess I actually nailed that on both counts. Devo was great too, but somehow too heady or rigid for me at age 10. Oh how that changed later. It was 1979 now, and I was becoming aware that the world was pretty much an unfair fucked up place full of liars and war and shit. Three-Mile Island, the "energy crisis" and the Iran hostage thing were all happening. I will never forget the day my dad was watching some Nascar stock car race and I said "Hey dad... if we're having this big oil crisis why are they still having these car races"? He didn't say anything, so I looked away from the TV and turned toward him. He was smiling. It was all the answer I needed.

A little later I started getting into Rush, like, religiously. I stared at their album covers and lyrics while I listened to every song, trying to figure out the drumming and being blown away by Neil Peart's lyrics. I followed their entire story of 2112, an epic saga about a world in the future where music is banned and a young man finds a buried guitar and ends up a fugitive. I was enthralled. Oppression, government corruption, pain, struggle, censorship.... themes I really gravitated toward without even knowing why. Another awesome song of theirs is "The Trees", a story about battling factions of trees in a forest. In the end it all works out:

"So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
'The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light'
Now there's no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe and saw"

After my Rush phase came the Iron Maiden phase. Actually that phase has never stopped! I could not believe how much ass Iron Maiden kicked. Riffs, hooks, solos, lyrics about war and sorcery and evil shit! Hell yes! I explored every little detail of their amazing album art. I bought every 12-inch single I could find too. Best of all, they scared parents even more than Black Sabbath. When I went super punk years later and got rid of a lot of my heavy metal records (single tear rolls down cheek), I still held on to all the Maidens, thank fucking hell for my SANE and RATIONAL decision on that!

Around this same time, new wave blew up and took over the radio.  Something about the year 1980 seemed to change everyone. It was like the Future had arrived. Star Wars was huge, the Space Shuttle was on TV, people had computers and home video games, clocks and watches went digital, and music was changing a lot. Looking back now, it was really a revolution in music, as electronic instruments became more common. I was into it. I didn't stop listening to Maiden, but I sure put em on the back burner for a minute. I got into the Police (drums), Human League, Talking Heads, anything that was popular but not super poppy like Madonna... that wasn't "cool." This led me straight into The Cure, Smiths, New Order, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Yaz, and a bunch of other truly great bands which became known as "progressive" and then "alternative" music. Fucking hilarious how everything has to be named and labeled. As a teenager it was stupid as hell to me, but in my adult years, it kinda makes sense. I mean, it helps organize things: "Hmmm The Smiths.... not punk, not new wave, not hard rock, not pop... this music is not yet defined... how about 'ALTERNATIVE'? Cool, stick it in that file over there." I continued to obsess over lyrics. Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey.... HO-LEE SHIT that motherfucker can write. In actuality every one of those bands had great lyrics, but Morrissey was and still is the reigning, well I guess "king", in lieu of a more androgynous term of reign. And the Cure, wow. I mean, seriously, what kind of teenager doesn't like the Cure?

By this time punk was on my radar but I didn't get it yet. I did see some punk stuff happening around me in jr high. One guy got sent home for coming to school with a mohawk. Yep. Conservative Va Beach. There was a graffiti war going on too, which amounted to "PUNK SUCKS, OZZY RULES" and vice versa. I was firmly on team Ozzy. Punks in jr high were assholes to me, but I mean, we were all just kids. I wasn't ready for punk til later. I feel like I was lucky (or maybe smart?) to wait. If I went punk at 13 or so, like so many do, I probably would've been jaded and disillusioned by 20, as so many are. But once I was in, I knew that was it. The jig was up. I found my home. It was much more based on the people than the music. Metalheads were kinda dicks. Gothy kids were pretentious and, well, depressing. Normies were boring as fuck and had shitty taste in music. But the punks were fun, entertaining, and fucking hilarious. 

Another thing I realized when I hung out with the punks was that they didn't give two shits who I was or what I was into. I was just another person around to add to the mix. No judging, no pretense about anything. I do remember being told by my friend Christi who brought me over to Stan's that someone asked her about me (who's the normal lookin guy?) and she told him I was cool. But that's about it. The preppie/not punk people I hung out with, on the other hand, had a few things to say about the punks if they saw me talking to them in the halls at school. "You know them?" "That guy's gross", "He smells".

So after one day of hanging out with the punks at the punk house, the seed was planted. But I had to kinda ease into the music, I didn't dive straight in.  The first punk band I really listened to, like really listened to, was the Dead Kennedys. It was a cassette of "In God We Trust, Inc.", can't remember where I got it. The B-side was left blank so you could tape whatever you want on it. I thought that was so cool; I had obsessively been making mix tapes for years already, and had taped over tapes before. I thought it was funny to leave the original label on so it would freak people out when the music was something different. The songs "Religious Vomit" and "Dog Bite" really stood out to me. The first punk lyrics of any kind I ever read were:

"All religions make me wanna throw up, all religions make me sick!"

Flashback to skipping church as a kid... oh fuck yes did I relate to this.

In the following 2 years I really binged on new music. Dead Milkmen, Fishbone, Operation Ivy, Ministry, Jane's Addiction, Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, Bad Religion, Public Enemy, Consolidated, Metallica... it was a strange time for music. Punk in my town had sort of morphed into this industrial-dance-rage scene and grunge bands were now rising to the surface. There was also the embarrassing funk-rock thing that Red Hot Chili Peppers (who I loved) started. All these bands were the soundtrack of my last years in Va Beach. I knew the time was coming I had to move away. I knew that the only way I was gonna do anything meaningful with my life was to leave my home town. I was already over 20 years old, I didn't go away to college, and I lived with my parents. Everything pissed me off all the time, from the PMRC to the Gulf War to the stupid classic rock radio that played the same shit they'd played since 1971. I started wearing torn jeans, punk shirts, Converse Chucks and combat boots. I shaved the sides of my head, only a couple inches, but hey, I looked weird enough for Va Beach. I saw my first real punk show, a house show in Norfolk with this band GROG. I circle pitted! I saw many many great bands in those years... GWAR, Fugazi, Sonic Youth, NIN, Dead Milkmen, fIREHOSE, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, L7, Bad Religion, Pixies.... too many more to even list. I blasted OPIV and Bad Religion in my sticker-covered car every single day. My friend circle became almost entirely punks. We pounded Milwaukee's Best and blasted punk tapes on a boom box and trashed whoever's apartment was the current hangout. When our friend Joe started DJing "alternative night" at Friar Tuck's in Norfolk, we hung out there a lot too. 1989-1991 was when I truly "went punk".

I was on my way.

just dave, 2015