“Punk rock” has been such an entrenched and recurring part of my autobiographical narrative that it only recently occured to me that I had no real recollection why I settled into that subcultural niche.
I remember the “when” well enough: The spring of 1989, health a few months after my mom died. It was a late afternoon going into early evening and I was sitting by my bedroom window watching the sun set through the tangle of trees across the street. Somebody — probably the youngest Lennon kid, who lived in huge house on Main Street — was throwing a party, and the muffled sounds of WFNX echoed across Hammond Square.
I was seventeen, geeky and crippled by extreme habitual shyness. My personal life had not only been upended by my mom’s passing, but every dysfunctional bit of it had passed into public knowledge.
I could handle being a (semi-justified) social outcast. I’d grown used to it since elementary school. I could not handle being an object of pity, no matter how sweet the dividends were.
Goaded by loss and loneliness, hormonal frustration and teenage angst, I decided that I needed to reinvent myself and make a fresh start. My punkification began the next day, when I bought a pair of Chuck Taylors and a cassette copy of the Repo Man soundtrack.
Why did I latch onto a scene that was all but dead at the time and had been long abandoned by the handful of quasi-adopters among my classmates? I’d already gravitated into thrash metal a few months prior, so why didn’t I double down on my intital invenstment there? It’s not like I suddendly stopped listening to Anthrax after I went punk; I didn’t drop that habit until my first semester of college.
My metal friends were okay guys, but they were conservative to a fault — a bunch of blustering badasses who’d shit themselves in panic if a pack of inner city teens came within ten yards of their persons. They also had an insane fixation on technical craftsmanship of the music. How a song made you feel was less important than the types of guitars/amps/effects pedals used or the precision onanism of every guitar bridge or solo.
The punk scene had its own set of problems, but it was different. Punk was political. Punk was liberating. Punk had a sense of humor. The scene’s dormancy fueled the allure, the scarity of information added a aura of terrifying mystery. Keep in mind this was a time when a Sacred Reich fan would tell you with puritanical intensity that London Calling and “New Rose” weren’t “real” music, just a lot of noise and shouting pressed to vinyl.
Punk — especially the hardcore variety — ran on a heady mixture of teen aggression, persecution, and depression. It’s not for nothing that I gravitated to Black Flag in a huge way, or that I cringe with embarrassment when I listen to their material today. Punk was a way opt out, even if such actions were interpreted as “a response to the trauma of losing his mom, poor kid.” (Not really true, but it probably prevented any school administration backlash over my transformation.)
If my intent was to reinvent myself, it was ironic how much of the process had already been set in place. Jeans, combat boots, flannels, t-shirts, and a crew cut — punk merely codified my existing state of fashion. I was rocking the Circle Jerks mascot look well before I’d even listened to the band. (I didn’t start getting freakish with my hair until the end of my senior year in high school when I dyed my buzzcut orange, spiked it up with Vaseline, and set about on a bizarre campaign to wreck as many friendships as possible.)
It’s all very odd — and somewhat sad — to look back on those days and think how such a consistently huge part of my life hinged on an angst-driven whim of my seventeen year old self.
Recommended listening: Like riding a bicycle.