May 25, 2011

Salad Days

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When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I sang in a hardcore band.

Like thousands of other basement bands across the country at the time, we spent our days skateboarding, building launch ramps in our driveways, and working up new ways to express our dissatisfaction with the world. Plenty of stuff pissed us off. This was 1986, after all, the high Reagan era. The U.S. was always invading some country I had never heard of, and the threat of nuclear war seemed very real. I wasn’t happy at home, either: I didn’t get along with my parents, and they didn’t get along with each other. Plus, I lived in the suburbs of Detroit, which even then had a feral, end-of-days feel. That year, there were nearly 400 arsons in a three-day period. I remember sitting in front of the TV on Halloween night, watching the city burn.

Heavy music helped. I had spent the previous few years listening to the most aggressive metal bands I could find, spinning Motorhead and Venom albums on a cruddy turntable in my bedroom. Hardcore, the bastard child of punk and metal, was a revelation, faster and harder than anything that had come before. The primal-scream quality of bands like Black Flag and Negative Approach—Greg Ginn’s serrated guitar lines, John Brannon’s tortured howl–mirrored my own rage. The music also politicized me, a formative experience that I somehow forgot until, decades later, it dawned on me that punk helped explain why I hadn’t become, say, a banker.

But while the politics were important, it was punk’s DIY aspect that really inspired me. Intention and spirit were all; musical skill was essentially beside the point. Noticing that lots of punk bands sucked, my friends and I thought, “Hey, we could suck like that, too!” And so the band was born. After a bit of debate, we chose the most hardcore moniker we could conjure: Moral Decay, a name of which I’m both inordinately proud and sort of embarrassed to say that I came up with. As it turned out, there was a far more legit band from California out there by the same name, but we didn’t have Google to tell us about it.

So for much of 1986, we spent our Saturdays in a basement in Birmingham, Michigan, in a neighborhood of wizened oak trees and stately colonials. We wrote and practiced songs, recording them in one or two takes on a four-track mixer, then surfaced to make sandwiches and drink Cokes in the kitchen. I screamed through an underpowered microphone, imagining myself another Henry Rollins but sounding way less tough. Two guys switched off playing distorted, warp-speed bass lines on a keyboard; another played guitar but was generally lost in the mix. The people who really held the songs together were the drummer, who even at 14 was a preternaturally gifted musician, and the lead guitarist, who regularly grafted surprisingly catchy riffs onto our otherwise monochromatic compositions. These guys were important because everything we did tended toward entropy. Most of our songs ended in chaos, collapsing in on themselves as people cursed and pounded on walls and threw things across the room.

And then there were the lyrics. To call them sophomoric is to insult sophomores the world over. “BBQ Cat.” “Let’s Mug Someone.” “Kill Your Neighbors.” Lots of songs about skating. A few random, comically nasty swipes at other, allegedly less-cool kids (sample lyric: “You suck!”). And beneath all that silliness, a flicker of seriousness. “Turn on the News” was a muddled attempt at media criticism, inspired by a seething dislike for a Kent Brockman-esque local TV anchorman. “Cats in trees and dancing bears / Chase away your fears and soothe your cares / At home you won’t feel all the hate / Turn on the news / Don’t be late.” Mostly, though, it was dumber stuff on our minds, propelled by double-bass drumming and driving guitars.

Our ambition, if not our skill level, was pretty much boundless. We recorded a few tapes that we sold via MaximumRockNRoll, the Bay Area punk bible. I whipped up an ad featuring a zombie cut out of Fangoria and big, Impact-style letters screaming our name. It sold surprisingly well. For a while, I had a bunch of hardcore pen pals, from Colorado and California, Germany and Japan. At least a few people, it seemed, actually liked the music.

We never really made it out of the basement, though. I was the only one in the group who actually liked hardcore, and the rest of the band got bored with always playing as fast as possible. Our last recording session featured a shambolic cover of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes,” and an oddly catchy take on the ’70s-sleazy theme song to the Barney Miller show. There was one final blast of fury, too, entitled “Dicks.” That was our swan song.

Winter came, and we drifted apart, each of us more interested in hanging out with girls or drinking beer than making marginal music that few would ever hear. As the years passed, most of us lost our copies of the Moral Decay demo. I left mine at an ex’s house in Ann Arbor, a casualty of my last-chopper-out-of-Saigon exit from the relationship. I lost touch with the scene. When I did make it out to the occasional show, I noticed that, like me, a lot of people in the crowd were starting to go gray.

Recently, one of the keyboard players mailed me a copy of that decades-old tape, transferred to CD. I blushed when I put it on for the first time, even though I was alone. I tried to place all the feelings: sadness and nostalgia, pride and self-consciousness. But mostly wonder: I couldn’t believe how young I sounded. TC mark

Chris Smith

He has worked in the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus, and the US. A Detroiter by upbringing and a San Franciscan …

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