Friday, November 11, 2005
Proud to be punk
An ex-teenager finds that playing an $80 guitar in a thrash band wasn't a bad way to learn about the world.
I was a teenage punk rocker.
I played in a mad, screaming thrash band called Eggbert. I rode a skateboard, wore a leather jacket, got hassled by football players, experimented with drugs, worried my parents, pondered the value of anarchy, raised hell.
That’s right, me, middle-class white guy, professional, father — a punk rocker.
I like to whip that little nugget out to stun people every once in awhile. Its shock value only increases as I mellow toward 40.
But 20 years removed from bashing out tuneless 90-mph rants in biker bars, that piece of my past is not just trivia.
Listen to this: Punk rock changed my life.
You’re picturing the cliches: spiked armbands, mohawks, a safety pin through the lip, what was called “slam dancing” back in the day.
That was all part of it, but punk was more than mere fashion to true believers like me.
Somewhere between hearing the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy for the UK” and grinding out my first distorted chords on an $80 guitar, it became a set of values that still guides me. Though I live a staid life with a schoolmarm wife and two rather preppy little girls, as a professional journalist, I live by those values every day.
Punk rock taught me it was not only OK but imperative to challenge authority and examine society. It gave me the courage to indulge my idealism.
What began as obnoxious defiance matured into a more intelligent questioning of the world and those who hold the power in it.
Angry, sarcastic, high-velocity music was the vehicle. For us, writing three-chord anthems fostered creativity, gave us a means of expression.
You had to do it yourself. Mom and Dad weren’t likely to help you write an obscenity-laced song about the cops who busted you for skateboarding in an empty swimming pool.
And few out-of-town bands were coming through a counterculture backwater such as Roanoke, so if you wanted to stage-dive to a live band, you had to start the band yourself. We taught ourselves to play, wrote songs, booked our own shows, rarely got invited back and never made more than a few bucks.
Oh, there was plenty of downtime. We spent hours dragging on Marlboro Lights while loitering in our thrift store bermudas at the old pump house in South Roanoke, or pulling skateboard tricks off the curling facade of the Poff Federal building while Black Flag or Jody Foster’s Army blared from the Kmart tape player in my ’66 Mustang.
There was a price to being a self-styled misfit. You had to be careful what parties you walked into. More than once we had to make a hairy escape around flannel-clad plowboys with thick necks, narrow minds and a low tolerance for anything that didn’t fit their Lynyrd Skynyrd view of things.
As in every scene, middle-class or even rich kids experimenting with being different were mixed in with some truly troubled outcasts looking for a place to fit in.
There were drugs and alcohol, violence and vulgarity. We did things I regret from the perch of maturity: vandalism, obnoxiousness, stealing plywood from construction sites to build a skateboard half-pipe.
But in our best moments, we found parts of ourselves that never would have surfaced in algebra class or rec league soccer.
From our music — as crude and unskilled as it sometimes was — emerged an awareness of the world, of politics, of human behavior, of injustice. It was idealistic, frustrated and sometimes hopelessly self-absorbed.
We didn’t find many venues for it. Most of us were underage, so bars were a tough sell. They wouldn’t often have you back a second time after witnessing the relative chaos of a hard-core punk show.
We played dives on Williamson Road, even the old Cock and Bull on Franklin Road downtown. Once, we even hauled our gear into the well-appointed South Roanoke basement of David Goode, who later became president and CEO of Norfolk Southern. He was out of town, of course.
Eventually, we gained some legitimacy and booked a series of shows at the Grandin Theatre that featured out-of-town bands willing to play for $75 or $100 — Corrosion of Conformity, Ugly Americans, Frightwig. You posted a few fliers on utility poles and record shop windows, and hundreds of kids would show up.
A few of us even made recordings. Eggbert’s “Dern That Kudzu” was laid down during a single three-hour session in someone’s garage. It sold for $2 a copy and I mailed them as far away as England and Germany.
Entering the punk scene was a gradual process for me. I moved from Devo to The Clash to discovering the more brutal stuff of Fear and the Germs over the course of a few years.
My exit was just as gradual. I started listening to music that was less caustic, more melodic. I got a serious girlfriend (now my wife), and became serious about studying literature. I kept playing guitar and writing songs, but moved away from high velocity and angst.
One fall, I left the leather jacket in the closet and sold all my best punk albums to finance a camping trip out West in 1990.
Others never left it behind like I did. I see them around, and wonder what they think of me now. As something less than a true believer? Or worse, as a poser?
But the music still makes my blood pump, the lyrics still spark the same need to raise hell with the status quo. I really believe I found my way to journalism because it accommodates my old punk values. When we’re at our best, reporters challenge assumptions, scrutinize the establishment, question authority and expose injustice.
I could say something cheesy here, like I’m still a punk at heart. I guess it’s obvious I miss it, and even long for parts of it: the hope, the idealism, the unfettered creativity.
What I mean is, I’m proud of where I came from. I may never wear it again, but that leather jacket is still in my closet.