Growing up being a guitar player and being into music, there were really only two types of people you could hang out with: heavy metal dudes and punk rockers. They were the only two groups where the guitar players mattered (back in those days, it was synthesizers and keytars if you wanted to be "popular.").
Popular music, 1986:
The metal guys were better musicians, and actually studied theory and harmony and stuff. They were usually very serious when it came to music, and didn't have a sense of humor. I remember the local metal guys being really mad when 'This Is Spinal Tap' came out, because in their words "It MADE FUN of Rock and Roll!"
Punk rockers, on the other hand, were guys who really couldn't play but wanted to be in bands anyway, to get some modicum of "glory" and of course to get girls. They didn't take anything seriously, for the most part, but there was a lot of posturing and pseudo-political ranting. I didn't fit in with either group, but wound up hanging out with both just by virtue of the fact that I played guitar. I was literally the only guy in Columbia, Missouri who was into rockabilly guitar, so I had to find my friends where I could.
I wanted to be cool, but I just didn't have it in me. Myself and my buddy Mace (who wound up being the bass player in my first band, The Untamed Youth, and who is now my step-brother) used to go see punk rock shows all the time. We were nerds, total losers, and the punk rock shows were where the disaffected youth showed up to bond with other outcasts. The only problem was that Mace and I were such losers that even the outcasts didn't want us.
We saw such bands as The Circle Jerks, D.O.A., The Descendents, Fear, Flipper, Husker Du, JFA (Jodie Foster's Army), MDC (Millions of Dead Cops), Toxic Reasons, TSOL, and a bunch of local bands like Three Legged Dog, Bloody Mess and the Scabs, Lurking Fear, First Bank of Christ, etc.
The bands that I really liked, though, were the most uncool--The Ramones and The Dickies.
Mace and I went to see The Ramones and the Dickies on a double bill at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis in 1986. At the time, both bands were considered total has-beens. The Ramones could still fill the place, but everybody talked about how they were "over" and how their last few albums had sucked. The Dickies were a band from L.A. that had several albums out in the late 1970s, but by 1986 they were not considered a viable band anymore. It didn't matter to me. I loved both the Dickies and the Ramones from the minute that I saw them. Both bands were loud, fast, and STOOPID! No political posturing, just basic rock and roll with lyrics that bordered on the moronic.
Mace and I were so inspired by seeing the Ramones that we made our own movie in high school, that we submitted as our humanities project. Our teacher, Linda Harlan, gave us an "A" not because it was good, but because we had been so ballsy in taking over the entire school to make our silly movie.
Below: Behold the horror of my 1986 senior year Humanities project, "ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL."
Yes, that's our actual high school principal, Dr. Wayne Walker. I still marvel at how we got him to say our stupid lines and have Mace give him the Nazi arm salute. The "Rock and Roll God" was played by our good friend and bad influence Joe Bargmann, who was several years our senior and a wise-cracking smart ass journalism student at the University. Joe got us into more fun and more trouble than we ever would have on our own. Joe loved the Ramones as much as we did. Joe was the Untamed Youth's "secret weapon" for several years until he moved away. The drummer was our good friend "Rabid" Rick Carter, who played in my earliest rockabilly band, The Rockin' Tailfins. "Rabid" Rick had an Elvis museum in his mobile home that included a Red Hot candy (in a picture frame) that he had plucked from in between the seat cushions on one of Elvis' Cadillacs at a museum in Memphis. He swore it had been Elvis' Red Hot.
Note: In the movie, I'm playing my 1967 Gibson ES-335 guitar. You literally could not get LESS punk rock than a Gibson ES-335. I played the same guitar in high school jazz band and our teacher used to ridicule me by calling me "Conway" (as in Conway Twitty) to make fun of my choice of guitar. My punk rock "fashion" statement consisted of a pair of old jeans I had ripped up doing chores in my parents back yard. Mace, of course, wins first place fashion prize with his bi-level haircut and earring--ha ha ha!
The funny thing I remember about all the punk rock shows back in the 1980s was how caveman primal everybody acted. This was before you could google "How to be punk rock" or "Who is cool right now" on your Iphone, so the only way to learn was to hang out and observe, and when the time was right, ask questions. All these outcast high school and college kids would get together in some garage or basement or small club, and just hang out, waiting for someone to do something, or something cool to happen. It was very much like 'Lord of the Flies,' in that there was always some guy who wanted to be the leader, and some guy who wanted to fight him to be the leader. All the girls were so immature it was usually thug-like fighting behavior among the males that impressed them. Even though the punk rock scene was supposed to be about progressive views when it came to racism, it was still pure troglodyte when it came to male-female relations. You were always afraid to talk too much because somebody a few years older than you would always cut you down and make you feel stupid. There were a lot of kids who were into punk music because it was "alternative" and not in the mainstream, but they were really hippies with nowhere else to go. This made for an interesting mix of really aggressive kids who either did speedy drugs or needed Ritalin along with a bunch of stoned hippie punk kids who could barely move. In the corner of the room, leaning against the wall, there stood Mace and myself, completely ostracized from the rest of the ostracized kids.
It may sound like I didn't like the punk rock scene, and I guess that's probably true. I didn't care too much for the "scene," but I dug the music. The music was fast, loud, and dangerous, three things that were desperately needed after all the peaceful, mellow, BORING music of the 1970s.
How I remember the 1970s:
For that reason, punk rock was very important. It was a musical version of sweeping out the cobwebs and starting over again with a clean house. I have since learned to appreciate a lot of music from the 1970s, and I don't really mind hippies that much, they're generally cool people. But at that time, man, we NEEDED punk rock music to get rid of all that peaceful easy mellow patchouli bearded naked incense hippie stuff that had been piling up for the last ten years. So in that sense, yes, I really liked punk rock and what it stood for. But I just wasn't a punk rocker, no matter how hard I tried.
The defining moment of my non-punk-rockness occurred the night that Black Flag came to town.
Black Flag was one of the most legendary and most influential "hardcore" punk rock bands from California. The band formed in 1979 and went through several lead singers before finally finding Henry Rollins as lead vocalist in 1981, and he remained the band's lead singer until they broke up in 1986. Black Flag were one of the most popular, if not the most popular, hardcore punk band of the 1980s. When they came to town, it was a very, very big deal. They were scheduled to play the Blue Note and there were fears of rioting and the show getting shut down. It was scary and dangerous and exciting.
Lead singer Henry Rollins was a muscular, sinewy young dude with an angry look on his face all the time. Even when he smiled he looked pissed off. Some people hated Henry Rollins, some people loved him. Because he was so beautifully sculpted and yet so angry, girls went crazy for the guy, which probably made the dudes hate him even more. He started out with a skinhead look, but by 1986 the whole band was wearing long hair. I thought the long hair look was weak. It was as if the hippies had won! What did I know. Even at 17 years old I was balding, I wasn't going to be able to join the hair-rock club even if I wanted to.
I always wanted to hate Henry Rollins, but I quite enjoy his writing, especially the must-read book "Get In The Van--On The Road With Black Flag." In fact, one quote from the book has always stuck with me, for I had a similar epiphany in my own life. Describing the way he felt before he joined the band, when Black Flag came through Rollins' home town of Washington, D.C:
"They (Black Flag) stayed at Ian's house after the show and left the next morning. I remember watching their van pull away up the street and wanting to be in it. It was amazing to me how they pulled in, played, hung out with the locals and then took off on the next adventure. I had to hurry up and get to work.
"As I walked down the hill toward a long night at the workplace, I started getting depressed. Black Flag was a bunch of guys who were out there winging it and trying to do something with their lives. They had no fixed income and they lived like dogs, but they were living life with a lot more guts than I was by a long shot. I had a steady income and an apartment and money in the bank. But I also had a job where I got yelled at when things didn't go right. I had to be there all the time. I saw the same streets and the same people every day. My job took over a lot of my waking hours.
"After I had hung out with the Flag guys, I saw that there was a lot more out there to be seen and done and I didn't think I was ever going to do any of it. That night at work, everything in my life felt meaningless. I knew that somehow I was blowing it. I had a low level panic attack. I got a glimpse of something that made it impossible to bullshit myself. I wished it didn't open my eyes so much and make me see so clearly.
"I saw my life stretching out in front of me. Same town, same people, same everything. It felt as if I was getting tied down and beaten by life. They had guts. The way they were living went against all the things I had been taught to believe were right. If I had listened to my father, I would have joined the Navy, served and gone into the straight world without a whimper. I'm not putting that down. But it's not the life for everyone."
--Henry Rollins, "Get In The Van--On The Road With Black Flag"
I had many similar experiences going to see bands play at the Blue Note club. I was 17 and working a crappy day job (Henry Rollins worked at Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream, I worked at Mizzou Bar-B-Q--same difference), and I would go to see bands who drove up in their vans, rocked the locals, bedded down a few of our local girls, and partied like it was 1999. The next day their van would pull away and they would be off to have more fun and make more music. I was in high school and working my job, and all I could think about was pulling away in that van with a band of my own.
Mace and I went to see Black Flag play at the Blue Note. Thanks to magic of the internet and obsessed fans, I can tell you exactly what date that was: Tuesday, May 6, 1986. Thanks to the Dementlieu Punk Archive for that!
Richard King and Phil Costello, the owners of the Blue Note, were some adventurous and open-minded dudes. Thinking back now, there's no way I would host punk rock shows at a venue I owned. They were real supporters of the arts, and had everything there from jazz and blues and alternative rock to punk rock and rap. King and Costello had one thing on their side: the original Blue Note on the Business Loop was a real shithole. There wasn't much that could be done to destroy the place. They prepared for the punk rock onslaught by completely emptying the room of chairs and tables and anything else that could be thrown. This made it seem dangerous just upon walking in the door--holy crap! They took out all the chairs and tables! What do you think might HAPPEN tonight? This was exciting!
Mace and I stood against the back wall of the club, our normal place to hang out and observe. The opening band was playing (I forget their name) and the dance floor was deserted. Everybody was waiting for the main attraction--Black Flag!
Henry Rollins walked in during the opening band's set, preening, posing, looking around the room with a big scowl on his face. He stood in the middle of the room, on the empty dance floor, looking disaffected, blank. He removed all his clothes, got butt naked, and then put on his signature gym shorts and tennis shoes, getting ready for the Black Flag show. Mace and I looked at each other and thought one thing about this very public display--"Man, I wish my dick was that big so I could do that!" Looking back at it now, that was a pretty genius way to display your wares to the local ladies.
Black Flag started playing, and this is EXACTLY how I remember that show. This is how everything looked and felt and smelled and tasted. It makes perfect sense, because this video was shot a few weeks before I saw them at the Blue Note:
During this time period, I was really trying to feel out what I should do with my life. I was really into rockabilly, surf, 1960s garage, and other music genres from bygone eras. I felt like the odd man out in the world. There was nobody in Columbia, Missouri that shared my enthusiasm for Jerry Lee Lewis alternate takes and the nuances of the original Chuck Berry and Link Wray guitar styles. I was trying to decide if I should quit being the weirdo "Retro" kid and get into something that was now and new and happening and current. I seriously considered becoming a punk rocker.
I was 17, just about to graduate High School and turn 18 and enter into the next phase of my life. I thought to myself, maybe I should get a punk band together, something that straddles the Ramones and Black Flag and all this stuff with some poppy hooks and catchy melodies....maybe that would be successful? Maybe I should hop on a bandwagon for once, it occurred to me.
The Black Flag show was intense, hot, and loud. I really got caught up in the excitement. Henry Rollins was like a panther on stage, you never knew if he was going to sing or beat the crap out of someone. The mosh pit was insane, about 80 aggressive dudes slam dancing in a giant circle to the music of Black Flag.
For the completely uninitiated (Mom?) who are reading this who don't know what I'm talking about, punk rock dancing started out with innocent little stupid dances like the "pogo" (jumping up and down) into a brutal form of dancing known as "slam dancing." Slam dancing wasn't really dancing, it was just running around in a pit getting out all your agressions on other guys that couldn't get laid. It wasn't really fighting, and there was a code of ethics (you were supposed to help up anybody that fell down), but it sure looked like a bunch of dudes fighting to the untrained eye.
Slam dancing was done in something called "The Mosh Pit" ("Moshing" was another term for slam dancing). The Mosh Pit was where you did NOT want to be at a punk rock show, because if you were just trying to watch the band, you'd get hit by some dude's elbow or fist as they ran around like wild hyenas in the pit. I saw many fragile little females get knocked off their feet by aggro punk rock slam dancers, an uncomfortable memory to this day.
There was an entire episode of "Quincy, M.E." devoted to how old, normal people couldn't understand why these punk rockers would do this to themselves:
Really, though, slam dancing was just a way for young suburban males to take out their aggression in a somewhat approved manner. Since fighting, stealing, murdering, and other ways were frowned upon by parents and authorities, at least a punk rock show offered the opportunity to get in the Mosh Pit and have sweaty, aggressive, latently homo-erotic contact with a bunch of like-minded high energy dudes.
I watched Black Flag and I thought to myself--screw it, I'm getting in the pit. I had always been too chicken to join in. I thought, I'm going whole hog or none! My way has always been to jump into the deep end and see if you drown. Maybe this punk rock thing was for me. I needed to know.
I got in the Mosh Pit and tried to emulate what the other guys were doing. I went around and around in the pit for about 3 minutes and then--WHAM!--some guy hit me upside the head. I was stunned for a second and then I realized that when I got hit in the back of the head, one of my contact lenses had fallen out.
There I was, Henry Rollins screaming like a maniac, the band raging at top volume behind him, and 80 sweaty punk rock guys swarming in a circle around me, most of them wearing combat boots. I was looking down with my one good eye for the better part of 15 seconds looking for my lost contact lens.
15 seconds in a Mosh Pit is approximately 30 years in normal human time. I frantically looked for my contact lens, thinking about how pissed off my parents were going to be when I told them. It occurred to me, how am I gonna drive home, I don't have my glasses! Finally, I realized what a foolish move it was to try and find a tiny contact lens on the floor of a Black Flag mosh pit in a dark club. I broke free of the pit and went back over to where Mace was standing. He laughed at me.
I can't remember if I stayed around for the end of the show, but I do remember driving home. I had to hold one hand over my eye where the contact lens had fallen out so that I could see to drive. The whole time, I was thinking to myself, well, I guess I'm not a punk rocker! I tried. I really did.
Every now and then some young kid will talk about punk bands and I'll throw in, "Yeah, I saw Black Flag in 1986." They are always impressed that I witnessed them with my own eyes. I leave out the part about losing a contact lens in the Mosh Pit.
I decided then and there that I was not a punk rocker. I had to abandon any thoughts of going in the punk direction, and turn my energies back to what I liked--old stuff. Maybe I could't ever sell a million records, but dammit, I was going to be the best "Retro" rocker that I could be. I was going to learn everything about it and play as well as I possibly could and meet as many of my heroes as humanly possible. It was somewhat akin to realizing that I was never going to be a rich farmer with a fertile field and giant mechanized modern farm equipment. Instead, by choosing roots-rock music as my career, it was like taking an old broken down mule and wandering into an unplowed rocky desert field where a garden couldn't be grown. I didn't care, I just got to work with my old mule and I plowed the shit out of that impossibly rocky field. Here I am, 27 years later, and I've pretty much accomplished everything I set out to do. I saw a lot of farmers with fancy equipment go out of business during that time, and I'm still here.
Besides, it was 1986, punk rock was considered over and done with commercially. The tour that I saw Black Flag play was their last tour, and they broke up a few months later. Punk rock was probably a terrible career option, and I made the right decision. I mean, there's no way that my concept of Ramones mixed with Black Flag with poppy hooks and catchy melodies would ever work. That was a stupid idea.
The footnote to this story: Recently I was asked to back up Marky Ramone of the Ramones at the Viva Las Vegas festival. Even though I am old and fat and wear a cowboy hat, I jumped at the chance. Jumping the timeline from the 1986 high school version of "Rock and Roll High School" to this year's performance with with Marky, really, very little has changed. I still love the music. But I'll never be a punk rocker.