Updated: 6 days ago
"Make the music go bang"
Punk music was my salvation growing up. I followed The Ramones and traveled to their shows with the same passion and devotion that Dead Heads reserved for the Grateful Dead. While kids my age were spray-painting “Clapton is God” on the side of vacant buildings, I belonged to the Church of Joe Strummer. My friends fantasized about Farrah Fawcett, while I daydreamed of poet goddesses Patti Smith and Exene Cervenka — both the complete antithesis of the American pinup girl. My senior quote in my high school yearbook was a few lines from Elvis Costello’s “Goon Squad.”
Punk music was my drug. I fed off and became addicted to its energy, its attitude, its non-conformity and its rawness. I found beauty in its ugliness. I found harmony in its discord. I found truth, somehow, in what I later learned were lies.
It was furious and primal and to me, that was real. There was nothing artificial about it. There was no uber-production to make it slick and glossy. What you heard on vinyl or cassette was exactly what you heard live.
The scene in Buffalo, N.Y. in the early 1980s couldn’t hold a candle, obviously, to what was happening in America’s larger cities. Bands like the Dead Kennedys, the Germs, X, Flipper, Black Flag and the Circle Jerks were exploding in Los Angeles and San Francisco. And in New York City, of course, you had CBGB, which had launched the careers of the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, the Dead Boys and by 1982 was well into its second phase serving as the early launching pad for new bands such as the Beastie Boys and Agnostic Front. Still, and, perhaps, because of its smallness, there was an exciting sense of community surrounding Buffalo’s punk scene — even as an outsider, given that I was in my very early teens and living with my parents in the middle-class suburb of West Seneca just over the city line. There was a spirit, fanned by the do-it-yourself ethos that permeated the punk movement and was epitomized locally by the fanzines that began to circulate around the scene. The artwork on show flyers, T-shirts and that accompanied cassettes and EPs was emphatic. There was something intensely personal about the ability to buy new cassettes directly out of the back of a band’s van following one of their shows. Long before they were writing music for insipid Meg Ryan films, The Goo Goo Dolls were a part of the Buffalo punk scene. (Do a search for the “The Goo Goo Dolls and 1987” on YouTube and you’ll see them performing head-banging and very drunken songs like “I’m Addicted” and “Livin’ In a Hut” — both of them far cries from their softer top 40 hits “Black Balloon” and “Name.”)
When the legendary Buffalo hardcore band The Fems released their classic song, “Go to a Party and Act Like an Asshole,” my life changed. I had never heard anything like it. The music was as urgent as a bomb explosion and the lyrics were as biting and real as they were silly and vulgar. Once my friends and I had scored fake IDs — which, of course, said we were from Canada… where else? — we would pile into my friend B’s Grand Torino on Friday nights and go to The Continental, Buffalo’s premier punk bar. It was there that we discovered The Forgotten Rebels and slam dancing. Never in my life had I ever witnessed anything like the drunken performances of the sneering and smart-alecky Forgotten Rebels’ front man Mickey De Sadist. He was a showman, rock star, standup comic and carnival barker. Forgotten Rebel shows were spectacular train wrecks. The highlight of each show was when they broke into their song “Surfin on Heroin,” which inspired instantaneous mayhem second only to a prison riot. And by the end of each show, De Sadist was usually found slumped, if not altogether laying, on stage, too drunk to stand.
On Saturday’s, my buddy Elmer and I would drive down to Elmwood Avenue to “Home of the Hits,” an old-house turned independent record store near the Buffalo State campus, which offered a great selection of punk music from across America, Canada and England. It was at Home of the Hits where I discovered bands such as Teenage Head, GBH, Husker Du, Hoodoo Gurus, The Exploited and The Damned. And the day I discovered The Jam there it was as if I had found plutonium. My world would never be the same.
It was at Home of the Hits, too, where I would spend all my money on punk T-shirts. One of my prized possessions was a T-shirt with a black and white photo of a drunken Sid Vicious in all his idiocy. And, of course, I will never forget my treasured Dead Kennedys “Holiday in Cambodia” tee, featuring a man breaking a chair over the head of dead person who was hanging from a tree. (I look back on that now and cringe. What made me think wearing that around was OK?)
Punk music made me aware of social issues, such as addiction and poverty. It made me consider government policy. It awakened me to the concepts of political hypocrisy and militarism. But there were times, too, because I was such a true believer, that punk music simply kept me from using my head. Maybe it was because I was impressionable, or maybe, simply, it was because I was very dumb, but I sometimes had trouble recognizing punk’s theater from my own reality. And as a result, I often said and did some really stupid things.
The Ramones sang “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and, so naturally, that’s exactly what I did — completely oblivious to the dangers of huffing.
Through Sham 69, The Pogues and early U2, I became obsessed with Northern Ireland and what’s known as “The Troubles.” Music videos featuring black-and-white video footage of British soldiers having rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown at them by Belfast youths so intrigued me and yet I never bothered to appreciate — or learn — what The Troubles were all about. Still, that did not stop my friend Mooey and me from assembling our own arsenal of Molotov cocktails, which we tossed into vacant shopping plaza parking lots near our neighborhood. The fact that I somehow never managed to set the town ablaze is proof there is a God.
And for some reason still unbeknownst to me — and despite 30 years having passed I admit I am still embarrassed about to this very day — I covered my eyes in black Goth makeup one night, much to the dismay of my very blue-collar father.
“What the hell is that shit on your face?” asked the old man, shaking his head with equal parts shame and disbelief.
“It’s Goth,” I said, hurrying by him and refusing to look him in the eye.
“Are you sure? Because I think it’s stupid.”
“Wipe that shit off your face. You look like a goddamn raccoon.”
My father — who from the day I was born always worked two jobs and eventually started his own contracting business that he worked at six days per week on top of holding down a full-time gig as a printer at The Buffalo News — also didn’t buy into the philosophy I adopted in 1984 after seeing The Clash at the University of Buffalo. The band was promoting a new “Mohawk Revenge” slogan with the tag line “Freedom is More Vital than a Job.” The sentiment was aimed at people like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — both of whom took aim at busting unions and creating an environment in which corporate profits trumped regulations that protected workers. Though my father hated Reagan, what he heard when I proclaimed “Freedom is More Vital than a Job” was his oldest son espousing a bullshit excuse not to work.
“What’s that horseshit?” my father asked when I repeated Joe Strummer’s words.
“It’s Joe Strummer,” I said.
“He sounds like an asshole.”
“Well he’s not. He’s saying that rather than being enslaved by oppressive corporations, you could do more good out in the streets.”
“Yeah, well, I want you working. And if you don’t get a job, then you can go live with Joe Strummer because I’m not running a goddamn flophouse.”
My idiocy not withstanding, punk music played an integral part in shaping my personality. No doubt, some would say that’s been to my detriment. Regardless, the music remains an important part of my life today. I still find wisdom in the lyrics of Joe Strummer, Patti Smith and Elvis Costello. And I am still energized when I hear the start of Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Do It Clean” and the surf-infused bat-cave sound of Dead Kennedy guitarist East Bay Ray’s riff on “Holiday in Cambodia.”
Still, I acknowledge — begrudgingly — that punk music did not change the world, as I believed in my youth that it was destined to do. It did not end corporate rock. Many of my heroes, such as Sid Vicious and Darby Crash, I came to realize were little more than sad-sack drug addicts who, despite being lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time in punk history, ended up dying horribly pathetic lonely and drug-fueled deaths at tremendously young ages. And, much to Joe Strummer’s chagrin, no doubt, due to the demands and needs of my wife and two children, I was forced to give up freedom for a job.
Today, there are very few young bands — save maybe for The Hold Steady and Death Cab for Cutie— which I can tolerate. The Dead Kennedys are touring again — but without legendary front man Jello Biafara, which in punk terms is the equivalent of The Rolling Stones touring without Mick Jagger. And Social Distortion is still around, but it just doesn’t feel the same. There’s no way Mike Ness can still be that angry given that he’s outlived anyone’s expectations — most especially his own. Meanwhile, most of today’s music not only lacks bite, it all seems formulaic: ultra-geeky and far-too passive white-boy nerds with shaggy beards and winter caps ala Fleet Foxes and Avett Brothers who make Cold Play look like Black Sabbath.
Today, all four original Ramones are dead. So, too, is Joe Strummer. Morrissey just looks fat and bloated to me, which considering his vegetarianism is not only ironic but in a weird way, fascinating. And Exene Cervenka — never anyone’s definition of a classic beauty — hasn’t aged well. Last time I saw her she looked like a Poseidon Adventure-era Shelly Winter.
The hard reality that my own punk rock life was officially over came one night a few years ago as I waded into the mosh pit at a Bim Skala Bim/Dropkick Murphy’s show. College-aged kids and young professionals in their 20s hurled themselves into one another, bouncing off bodies and being shoved across the floor. I followed suit, tossing my own 210-pound frame into the pit. I was immediately back in Buffalo in the early 1980s, at the Continental, slamming at a Forgotten Rebels show. It was wonderful. I was in my element… or so I wanted to believe.
But as I bounced into and off my fellow dancers, sweating profusely and shaking my head furiously to the Ska music blaring from the stage as Bim Skala Bim played — I couldn’t help but notice I was old enough to be everyone’s dad. In fact, I was a dad — of two teenage kids who were far closer in age than I was to the others in the mosh pit. My God; I embarrass my kids just by walking too close to them in the mall. Could you imagine their reaction if they saw me moshing with a bunch of kids who, essentially, were young enough to be their older siblings?
I felt pathetic. And sad. I slinked away into the crowd, finding an open area where I could stand off to the side.
Punks get old. With the exception of Iggy Pop, they don’t age well. And, inevitably, they eventually die. Like a great athlete who finally realizes it’s time to walk away from the game, I realized that night that my mosh pit days were over.
Sure, it was okay to continue enjoying the game. But, like an athlete whose time has passed, it was clear to me that I no longer had any place on the field.