The above photo was taken a year ago, right after I got my iPhone and before everything went to shit. It’s a shot of my grandma’s bathroom, an odd choice of subject material but one with a lot of nostalgic weight tied up in it.
The bathroom — the only one in my grandma’s home — was next to my bedroom. This is significant because I could still hear my stereo through the wall, providing my grandmother wasn’t around to make me turn the volume down, and rock out while I washed up and performed by daily grooming rituals.
These became absolutely baroque during my punk days, when I’d spend an hour working on what amounted to an overgrown undercut into an upswept spiky mane with an assortment of fixative products. Dyes were also a big part of the process. I started off with the more outlandish orange and red Clairol kits because they were easily available at the local CVS, but eventually made the leap to Manic Panic after discovering a bondage wear place in Cambridge sold tubs of the pungent product.
(I wanted to go with a sour apple green hue, but the clerk convinced me that magenta would take better with my natural ashy-brassy blonde color. From such minor considerations are personal brands born.)
After a few go-rounds with full tint jobs, I scaled back to just coloring my long forelock. It was less time consuming, easier to do properly, and not nearly as messy to do. I didn’t bother bleaching beforehand, so the stuff would only last a week before I had to reapply it. The ritual remained consistent through the couple of years I kept it up, and I will forever associate that sing and mirror and aggressively yellow paint job with the fermented vegetable reek of the dye and the slightly muffled sounds of the Punk and Disorderly compilation.
I found the tape in the “Misc Hardcore and Metal” slot at the Newbury Comics in Burlington towards the end of 1990. Up until then, “punk” to me equaled the American hardcore scene, the Class of ’77 crowd, and a handful of crossover demi-metal acts such as the Exploited and GBH. Their presence on the compilation (alongside the Dead Kennedys as the token American act) helped seal the deal. The cover photo, featuring a cluster of proper Eighties-style punks, also helped.
The collection was a showcase of the most promising acts of the “UK82″ scene — the crop of bands that emerged after punk’s first wave petered out, and the scene started to codify its look and sound along recognizable lines. The poorly produced sound ranged from tongue in cheek piss takes to anthems of apocalyptic doom, all of it laden with the previous decade’s politics. It was goofy to the point of self-parody, but it resonated with me on multiple levels. I’d drifted through punk in search of a compelling throughline, and here was a perfect one for the taking. The look, the sound, the attitude — all of it synched perfectly with my self-idealization as a punk rocker. It was a cartoon, but a compelling one.
The tape became my roadmap through the peak of my adolescent punk days, both in terms of style and the shape of my growing record collection.
Thanks to the tendency for dodgy labels to tag anything (with male vocals) from that scene as “Oi,” it also resulted in me owning a massive stack of hyper-aggro terrace chants set to three chords and pressed to vinyl. On the other hand, it was also where I discovered the theatrical gothic stirrings of UK Decay, though the full impact wouldn’t manifest until a few years later.
The visit to my old dye-ing ground got me to thinking about Punk and Disorderly again. It was very much an “essential” album, and loomed just as large over my life as Chart Action ’83 or the Blues Brothers soundtrack did. But was I up to revisiting such a potent artifact of those bygone times? The problem with my punk period is that the memories still feel fresh enough to induce a profound sense of embarrassment over the person I was at those days.
I wasn’t a monster, just a sloppy mess who used a cartoon persona to hold myself together. There are specific incidents I regret, but the overall experience was a positive one which led to a decent (as far as I can tell) outcome.
There’s a reason I didn’t pull most of my old Eighties punk records out of storage when I got back into vinyl a couple years ago. It’s not about being too old for that shit, but about not being old enough for the agonizing bits to fade like they’ve done for A Flock of Seagulls or Sam & Dave. I wasn’t sure what kind of box I’d be opening by revisiting Punk and Disorderly, even after I gave in and bought a vinyl copy on eBay.
I’ve worked up the fortitude to give it a couple of spins. It wasn’t as painful as I feared but it wasn’t exactly pleasant, either. At its best, it clearly evokes a particular moment of dedicated reinvention, of becoming something even though I had no idea what that something might be. At its worst, it dredges up the ugly details of that process, carelessly careening from one avoidable disaster to another, utterly oblivious to the damaged caused.
The songs are still pretty great though.