“El-P, who’s that?”
My friend Michele is over. She is searching through our CDs and looking for songs to download to her iPod.
This is before Spotify and so while sifting through pages of CDs is not as inherently riveting as flipping through vinyl in some dusty store like the one Annie Potts owned in Pretty in Pink, it’s a long way from not making any effort at all.
The effort still involves a modicum of search and by extension the thrill of discovery that comes by stumbling into something you didn’t know was there because you weren’t looking for it in the first place.
“The Cars,” she shouts excitedly, “you have stuff by The Cars.”
Of course I do.
My then four-year old son Myles is quietly watching from across the room. He is entertained by our compulsions, the passion that accompanies the search and the joy we both have when Michele sees something she likes.
He is also entertained by watching adults look like kids when we so often have to act like adults around him.
“Oh, what about X?” Michelle says quizzically sliding out Los Angeles and showing it to me.
“Fuck yes,” I mouth quietly.
“Noooooooooooooooooo,” Myles who loves X screams springing to action and running across the room. “No X.”
And then he takes the X CD out of her hands.
I am on a plane, I am 13-years old, the same age Myles is now and I am flying to Los Angeles, where I am spending the summer with my friend Ricky and his family.
As it is the early 1980s, people are chain-smoking the entire flight. They also serve meals, and not just pretzels or peanuts, but actual meals, and there are actual choices like at a wedding – steak or chicken, even fish. When you are a kid, they sometimes even give you leftovers, and when you are traveling by yourself, they definitely do.
Just months before this, I had celebrated my 13th birthday with a big party. Not a Bar Mitzvah per se, but definitely a celebration. My mother had wanted me to dress-up, and I had wanted marzipan on the cake.
We both got we wanted.
My mom had the caterer make marzipan decorations, and I went to the Oakdale Mall with her to shop for my clothes.
Oakdale Mall was home to Aladdin’s Castle the arcade we went to before going into the movies.
And every other chance we had.
It was a cacophony of flashing lights, beeps and whirrs, car sounds and teen angst, and home to Centipede, Galaga, PAC-Man, Pole Position and any game we now look back on with nostalgia for a decade that everyone claimed they hated when we actually lived in it.
The mall was also home to Hickory Farms where one could buy fancy packaged cheese and sausage long before artisanal shops made this a necessity in places like Brooklyn; GNC, where I bought unwieldy containers of bright orange muscle-building powder that I mixed in with orange juice before school; Anderson-Little, where we shopped for button down Oxfords at the start of the school year; and Fowlers, which passed for a slightly upscale department store, and where we went that day to buy the dressier clothes I would wear to my party.
We bought navy blue slacks; a powder blue dress shirt; a cream-colored blazer comprised of subtle interlocking grids of blue, brown and gray; and a pair of chocolate brown Docksiders.
Along with my ever-present gold chain and Scott Baio feathered haircut I was ready to become a man, or at least eat marzipan and middle-eastern food with my family and friends.
Shortly thereafter, I was also ready to board my flight to L.A.
I was spending the summer away from my family and upstate New York hometown.
I was heading to the beach, the Santa Monica Pier of Three’s Company opening credits fame, and all things West – sun, waves, skateboards, palm trees, girls, hopefully, and Hollywood – and my understanding was that people dressed-up for flights in the same way they did for the theater. It was proper, classy and how things were done.
So I put on my blazer, powder blue dress shirt, slacks and Docksiders and I boarded the plane.
When I stepped off of the plane, the sun beamed down so intensely that the color of the air was a hazy drip of Creamsicle orange and the ground beneath my feet was bleached and filtered through a lens of oozy Marshmallow Fluff.
The rotating Theme Building restaurant at LAX was still in use then, and its flying saucer on legs design promised a mix of adventure and weirdness.
It also seemed to say that the future awaited me, whatever that might be.
“Is that how you dress now?” Ricky asked me in dismay.
He was wearing a faded orange OP surf shirt, long brown corduroy shorts and black and white checkerboard Vans.
I was dressed for Sweeney Todd.
I quickly ditched the clothes, found the beach, and a girl, and discovered Carrie by Stephen King on sale for 25 cents at a garage sale and Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger buried on a shelf in Ricky’s den.
I also found west coast punk – Black Flag, Germs and X, among others.
Well, sort of anyway.
One day I am sifting through the CDs in the punk section at the one-time Tower Records near my office on Wabash below the “L” Tracks. I am new to punk. When people who are my age and who still love punk started loving punk, I was more focused on varsity sports, fitting in and the Doors; followed by inhaling copious amounts of hallucinogens, the Grateful Dead and long, spacey jams. But something had shifted. A desire for noise and punches to the head, vibrating walls and speed, sparse, quick songs that slam and joke, dart into the room and then out again, as the music heads onto the next thing and the next thing and thing after that. No pause, just one musical blow after another is now my thing, and I am consuming all the punk I can, including the band I stumble onto that day, Be Your Own Pet. They are young and angry and funny and fast and I spend the rest of the afternoon listening to their self-titled debut album with equal parts joy, and confusion – how didn’t this sound appeal to me when I was their age, and why does it now?
One day as Ricky and I and whoever else we were with knocked around Venice Beach and its menagerie of roller skaters, Vietnam vets, stoners, surfers, Trustafarians, skin heads, homeless and freaks, someone suggested we see The Decline of Western Civilization by Penelope Spheeris, the documentary on L.A.’s punk scene in the early 1980’s.
It was a scene – the bands, the personalities, the clothes and of course the music – I was not wholly familiar with.
I had been introduced to the Ramones by Adam another friend of ours earlier that year.
The three of us had read the X-Men and the John Carter: Warlord of Mars books together.
Adam had introduced me to both The Basketball Diaries the previous summer, which I had already read at least a dozen times since, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show that past winter, repeatedly shouting “virgin” at me as the lights went down.
His opinion was gold.
But the Ramones didn’t work for me. I didn’t like them, the speed and the noise. I Wanna Be Sedated, maybe, slightly, but the rest of it, I didn’t get it. It wasn’t The Doors. There was no trippy, banging Love Her Madly to be found anywhere – and I dismissed it out of hand.
Now here we were in L.A. during the summer of 1981, watching The Decline of Western Civilization and again, I didn’t get it, except in this case, it was West coast punk, and I really didn’t get that.
Why did anyone like this?
Loud and stupid.
But what was it?
Was it just because it wasn’t pop or rock enough?
Was it a class thing, with all the singers seeming so skuzzy to me?
Yes, maybe, Darby Crash definitely did not speak to me.
Maybe it was because I was not in touch with my anger then, and things were not broken enough for me, or more accurately, whether things were broken or not, I wasn’t going to let myself feel them regardless?
Yes, most definitely that.
Punk was a reality check, and I didn’t need that, and I couldn’t handle that, I needed to escape.
More so, I was trying to be something different than all of that, something cool, and popular, someone who finally fit in, felt popular and hooked-up with cheerleaders, and punk was definitely not the way to get any of that, not in my head anyway.
I hadn’t been able to invite a single girl to my 13th birthday party, and not by choice, or because I didn’t want girls there, they just didn’t exist for me yet, not until this summer anyway, and I didn’t want that any more.
And punk was not going to be the way.
Which might also mean that this might also be the end of this particular origin story, or whatever this is, I was thirteen, and the things I loved – the X-Men and Blade Runner – I loved, and the things I didn’t, I didn’t, and so much of who we are during those formative years stays formed. We may waver, and wonder about that which we love, a love of all things X-Men and science fiction was no way to be popular then either, and I dropped them, but I love those things again, and as fiercely as I did at thirteen.
Punk just wasn’t part of all that. But that changed, all of it.
A dozen years later I walk-into the Artful Dodger Pub on the North Side of Chicago with my soon to be wife and some friends, we get drinks and head towards the dance floor in the back.
People are dancing, happy, but nothing amazing or especially earth shattering is afoot.
And then there is an explosion.
Not literally, not exactly, but the first beats of Sabotage by the Beastie Boys come on, and the joy in the room is suddenly palpable and boundless, a cacophony of people pogoing, arms aloft, smiles wide, heads bobbing, the masses in both perpetual and slow motion all at once, wrapped as they are in strobe lights that are bouncing off of the walls, the ceiling, bending and morphing with them, the beats and all that fucking joy.
I wade into the morass and I never quite come out again.
I have been to the Beat Kitchen in Chicago for readings and fundraisers, once even seeing Alex Kotlowitz read from There Are No Children Here, as he sat on a stool on stage drinking a beer, a single light illuminating him – a sight that seemed just ridiculously cool at the time. One night though, I accompany my brother and my quite pregnant sister-in-law to see Avail, a Northern Virginia punk band whose members she went to high school with and has loosely followed around ever since. This is her crowd, thirty-something one-time furious punks, who now have jobs and marriages and children, and who are holding onto what may have been the best part of adolescence – the punk bands that made everything slightly more okay and bearable. I on the other hand am not familiar with Avail in the slightest and I am feeling overly paternal towards my sister-in-law and her still unborn son as I worry about the loudness that is sure to warp his developing brain and the inevitable mosh pit we will not be able to escape. But then the first chords of Armchair come on, the crowd explodes, the band doesn’t stop moving or sweating for the next 90 minutes and I am transported above the room, lost in my own developing brain, head cranking, my still come to nephew and worries lost to me, and aware, if only briefly that it doesn’t matter who I am, or was, and who is here around me. What matters is being happy, which I am, and it is wonderful.
I suppose at this point it is unnecessary to point out that for most of my life I have been the least punk person I, or you, can imagine with my compulsive need for 9-5 jobs, my long-running obsessions with health insurance, 401(k)s, a stable home and marriage, structure and steady paychecks.
But Sabotage, and Be Your Own Pet, then Avail changed all of that.
I had been dismissive of the Beastie Boys and their idiotic misogyny in high school. But high school was a long time ago, and after listening to Paul’s Boutique, and having my brain further flummoxed, I began to wonder that if I was wrong about them, what else was I wrong about?
As it turns out, the Ramones, totally, the speed and the banging songs now spoke to me.
What once seemed like noise was now thrilling, and inspirational.
I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted my writing to sound and look like this, lean and slamming, a punch to the head accompanied by a laugh.
If I was wrong about the Ramones, who else was I wrong about, Minor Threat for one, wow, fuck.
And if I was wrong about them, well, what else, everything maybe, and so I kept searching, and in doing so, I went way back to The Decline of Western Civilization, and okay, maybe Black Flag wasn’t, and isn’t, going to work me even now, but X, yes, that is love, and why was this?
Again there was the speed; the country vibe; the biting lyrics, the aggression – angry, but controlled, and to be honest, I might have control issues, always did, who knew, not me apparently – but there is also the fact that I’m not longer quite so mellow when it comes to the state of the universe.
It started with the Bush administration, and Iraq, but there are the banks, guns, racism, misogyny, poverty, and so much violence, towards so many people, and I feel it all so intensely now. The world is a fucking mess, and I hate it, and how it makes me feel, and yet, expressing those feelings, and feeling those feelings, can come with some humor, and even a kiss, because there is love too, always love.
And in that way, I have become punk, still arguably the least punk person you know, but angry, and impassioned, and wanting to articulate it.
I’m open to all of the possibilities anyway, and maybe back then, wandering Venice Beach, wanting to get laid, and be cool, I wasn’t open to any of it, couldn’t be, everything was too suppressed, and I wanted it all contained.
But not now, fuck all of that, I’m angry and I’m fan boy, and I want to feel it, which is what punk is to me – feeling something and expressing it, no matter how angry and exposed doing so makes you feel – it just took me until my forties to feel any of that.
Which is why despite Myles protestations and his onetime love all things X, I let my friend Michele borrow my X CD.
I want her to hear The World’s A Mess; It’s In My Kiss, I want her to feel what I feel, and maybe even what Myles already feels, and knows, hope, anger, joy and speed, and the need to not be so fucking shut-off to the world around us.
I want her to be punk, or at least better understand all of the possibilities she’s been missing until now.