Tag Archives: steppin’ stone

Salvation Songs, part 5: Steppin’ Stone.

15 Jan

(I’ve been posting less for two reasons. One, I’m working hard on a third draft of my latest novel manuscript. Two, I was doing my writing between 5 and 6 in the morning. But my two daughters now get up, too—I’m writing this one-handed with two little children squirming in my lap.)

The last new tape I ever bought was U2’s Achtung Baby! The first cd I bought was Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. Between these two albums there was a world of discomfort and pain and musical growth. The boy loved U2. The young man dug Pavement.

I entered high school enthralled with progressive, college rock and what is now called Britpop. I liked R.E.M., The Las, early U2, The Soup Dragons, The Stone Roses, and Jellyfish. I also maintained an adoration for power ballads and hair metal until a disparaging comment from Jackson George about a Warrant concert ruined the whole genre, at least in public. I held on to the classic rock thing, still listening to the Beatles and The Doors and so on.

I caught the indie rock/slacker rock bug. I listened to Dinosaur, Jr. and Pavement. I listened to Jane’s Addiction and Mudhoney. I listened to the first wave of grunge, but was already too hip for the next big thing; like all self-respecting musical aficionados, I favored Mother Love Bone to Pearl Jam[1]. I was on my way to an ensconced spot with the slacker crowd, despite year-round soccer and my strict religious household. Two of the coolest slacker kids in the city, Jay Thomas and Ryan Nalley, were my friends.

But then punk hit. A meteor, and the world changed. The simplicity of punk’s rage, the howl of its rancor, the disgust with the material world, the immense discontent—these things spoke to me in a profound way, and delivered a temporary outlet for my darker impulses.

I was a (mostly) sweet and (overly) sensitive kid. Yet I had the same macho self-destructive impulses as other teenage males. Some of my friends fought. Some smashed up mailboxes. Some sublimated their aggression through sports. For me, my anger manifested in the music.

Metallica was serious business when I was in middle school. They had long hair, bleak videos, and crushing music[2]. Guns N Roses were around, too, a segue from the hair metal power pop to garage rock. I had tapes of both, but had to discard Appetite for Destruction because one of my mom’s Christian radio announcers had denounced it in a vituperative and very public speech.

But Metallica’s primary focus was paganism and the terrors of Christianity[3]. Punk was concerned with the social and political. Most punk was squeegeed clean of sex. Punk was pure. It was atonal, discordant, and grating, too, but the essence of it was a counter narrative to the mainstream. I loved it.

And unlike other musical dalliances, punk stayed, a pungent force in my teenage years.

Around 16, I started going to shows at the Nite Owl—they had shows at Sluggo’s too, but I was too young to get in–where I was purged in the pit. The pit wasn’t about hurting other people, although this happened quite a lot. It also wasn’t about being out of control. The only time I saw someone totally out of control was at a music festival; some bizarre proto-goth kid ran and dove into a group of people standing outside the pit. They kicked at him some and then booed him away from the music. The pit wasn’t about dancing, it wasn’t about looking cool, although there was an etiquette, there were expectations as to how you would move. No, the pit was a way to express naked aggression without fighting. In a large mosh pit, you’d get kicked, slapped, punched and head-butted. But you took it with an inner smile.

Ian MacKaye in the crowd; look at the joy.

Ian MacKaye in the crowd; look at the unbridled joy.

This isn’t new. In an earlier generation, most of us would have become soldiers. Or we would have worked on the farm, or done some other manual labor. Or, we would have hung out in pool halls, smoked cheap cigarettes and punched out rival gang members.

Punk allowed me to circumvent some of the more unfortunate musical trends of the nineties, but I missed out on some cool stuff, too. Punk is an invasive plant, like kudzu; it drives out anything that isn’t punk.

I scoured the used record stores for punk tapes. Somehow, the economics of things made punk tapes cool. I went backwards in time. I listened to the Sex Pistols. I listened to The Circle Jerks. I listened to NOFX. I listened to Swingin’ Utters and Avail and Hot Water Music and Face to Face and Lagwagon and Bad Brains and Christian punk[4], too. And I listened to the best tape in my possession, Minor Threat[5].

The best hardcore/punk tape of all time.

The best hardcore/punk tape of all time.

Minor Threat was the punkest of the punk. They advocated straight edge living—no drugs, no alcohol, no caffeine, a spartan existence. Most of the vegans I knew in the ’90s were also straight edge people. They lived with a set of principles more austere than the Old Testament values my mom espoused. I dabbled with straight edge from time to time, and I’m a strict vegetarian now.

The cover was solid blue, of a skinhead sitting down with his shaved head leaning on his black trousers. The album is short, less than 30 minutes for the whole thing. And it is a humdinger, a raucous, virile, primal scream of a punk record. The whole tape is killer, but my favorite track was a cover of a Sex Pistols’ cover of a Monkees’ song. Written by Neil Diamond, no less.

One time I played it so loud I blew out one of my dad’s car speakers. Another time I screamed along with such conviction I damaged my vocal chords. My friends all loved it, too.

Listening to it years later, the song is catchy, hardly punk at all, MacKaye’s immense vocals firing on all cylinders. I don’t need to write about the sound; it speaks for itself.

[1] I’m still a touch embarrassed by the little pockets of snobbery in my former self.

[2] I didn’t see the humor in their work until much later.

[3] The common thread of heavy metal; it’s primary focus is always religious.

[4] I will write on this, later.

[5] I know I’m supposed to like Mackaye’s Fugazi better, but I don’t. Waiting Room belongs on any desert island juke box, however.