Don’t Pull the Plug! Punk’s Not Dead! …yet.
When the realization hit that I had NO idea what punk rock was, it came with a significant amount of sphincter-puckering, soul consuming terror as well. Up until then, I thought that the funny haircuts made bands like Duran Duran part of the genre and, having had the misfortune of airing such silliness aloud in front of a couple of older coworkers who knew better, I found myself invited to a concert in a seedy Detroit venue called Harpo’s to see the Dead Kennedys. It was about halfway through the Crucifucks’ opening act, as members of the audience were scaling the seven foot high stage to run over and spit viscous phlegm into the face of singer Doc Dart before somersaulting back into the crowd below, that I knew that I was going to see things that night that I would never find in any Simple Minds video.
I was fourteen years old and I felt like I landed in the Mad Max cinematic universe. Virtually everyone around me was awash in mohawks, leather, flannel, denim and steel. They were also heavily tattooed, pierced in all the wrong places and prone to unprovoked outbursts of profanity laden outrage seemingly born of an unholy mix of Tourette’s syndrome and some variant of PCP psychosis.
Fights seemed to erupt every twenty minutes or so, often provoked by one of the roving bands of skinheads who fleshed out through the crowd while passing out political literature to people who often tended to violently disagree with their views. Though being gay was still practically a stoning offence in the Motor City in 1985, it was also the first time I had ever seen people who were not in any way ashamed of their sexuality and could beat you into seeing things their way if you attempted to make them so. Not that the homosexuals were any more (or less) violent than anyone else around me. I did notice that below me, on the main floor just below the stage, was where most of the fighting seemed to erupt. In fact, it appeared that a brawl seemed to break out nearly every time the music started so I made a mental note to avoid that area when I moved in closer to get a better view of the main act when they took the stage a little later.
Once the saliva-drenched Crucifucks departed the stage, I worked my way up front as close to the where the band would be playing as I could while keeping myself well clear of the ever-present brawl center stage. When East Bay Ray stepped out and belted out his very first chord though, the ENTIRE ground floor broke out into a horrendous fight and I found myself right in the middle of it. Terrified and impossibly outmatched, I bolted back for the relative safety of the venue’s upper tiers, but the melee acted like a riptide and the harder I fought against the current, the further away from safety it dragged me. Eventually, it gave me up, spitting me out into one of the more timid sections of the crowd, battered, winded, bruised, and a little bloodied, and completely reborn.
The fight was not nearly as bad as it looked. The truth was that it actually was not really even a fight at all. It was slam-dancing and what I had escaped would eventually come to be more widely known as a mosh pit. It also happened to be a lot of fun and once I had caught me breath, I jumped right back in. In fact, I jumped all in and went from aspiring preppy to orange-haired fixture of my mother’s nightmares pretty much overnight, adopting a sense of fashion that, though it was far too tame to even blip on the radar of the places I hung out in, caused her so much distress that there are nearly no family pictures of me at all from this time period and it is probably the main reason I have never participated in a “Throwback Thursday” on Facebook.
I am sure that the guys who invited me to that concert lived to regret it. They were all about five years older than I was and though I looked much older than I was at the time, I was still a fourteen year old kid, a tagalong making a nuisance of himself trying to always be in places he really should not be. It was not until I was thrown out of the Damned concert for being under-aged that I gained some serious punk scene street cred. I spent more than three hours trying to break back into St. Andrews Hall and during that time got wasted with the Yemeni parking lot attendant, nearly got my clock cleaned by the bouncers while trying to bum rush the front entrance, got into another minor scuffle with some young skinhead larvae and had to flee from the cops as a result, was propositioned by a heroin addled prostitute and argued religion with a very creepy street preacher who I am fairly certain dabbled in serial murder during his off hours.
Eventually, a huge brawl between the bouncers and the skinheads spilled out of the back door just as I passing by, and seeing my opening, I ran right through the fracas, past the open door and up the stairs, emerging right into the mosh pit before colliding head-to-head with the guy I rode there with. I heard about thirty seconds worth of The Damned’s “Love Song” while my buddy congratulated me, then the lights went on and I heard Dave Vanian scream, “You’ve been great Detroit! Good Night!” I missed the concert, but made the scene. After that, I had to recount the story a few times and occasionally even got the “Hey, Dude! Tell these guys about the time you broke into the Damned concert!” treatment.
After that, I was devoted to the punk community, getting from it all my needs that I could not get from my peers in high school like exposure to radical political theories, booze, close encounters with seven-headed psilocybin sea serpents that rise out of goldfish bowls and, the hugest draw of all for a young high school boy: wildly unstable, inhibition-lacking, fetish-inclined young women who, having no idea that I was only fifteen, made a man out of me while I unwittingly made felonious candidates for the State of Michigan’s offender’s registry out of them.
More than three decades later, this was the world I found myself introducing my seventeen-year-old daughter to. Now, I can see how people could condemn me for this, exposing a high school girl to an environment that, during my heyday, was replete with street pharmaceuticals, recreational violence and semi-public acts of sexual deviancy, but hey, when faced with the options of Justin Bieber or the Dead Kennedys, well, the choice is an obvious no brainer. My daughter loves the music, has owned a “Holiday in Cambodia” t-shirt since middle school and is very politically minded. The Dead Kennedys are the perfect concert for her and, unlike my parents, I knew better than to ever turn her loose in a place like that unsupervised. Don’t get me wrong, my daughter has NEVER given me the slightest reason not to trust her judgement so I had few qualms about what I was exposing her to and considering how we have aged, I was pretty sure she would see more potentially offensive entertainment during a Sunday matinee showing of Deadpool 2.
While seeing the Dead Kennedys for the first time was, for me, an almost religious experience, for my daughter with her millennial sensibilities, it was just some sort of minor oddity, sort of like trying to watch a squirrel monkey copulating with a tennis ball. I mean, there really is no debating the entertainment value of something like that but it kind of comes up short of enough substance to build life philosophy around. I might add that I was in no way disappointed in her not finding deeper meaning within the punk scene like I did either. The fact was I was now looking at it in much the same way she was, with mild amusement. Don’t get me wrong, the band was excellent especially considering that half of the band is now pushing 60 while the band’s founder, Klaus Flouride, is damn near 70. They were aging particularly well. Most of their audience however, was not.
Most things tend to change and punk is no exception. While it was undoubtedly the defining feature of my gloriously misspent youth, I grew out of it. Scanning the crowd at the Dead Kennedys concert, I could see I was not alone. You could pick out a few dozen people who, like me, grew up, moved on, and grew into bigger and better things. Punk become a part of our past. It certainly helped mold us into who we became today, broadening our horizons and eventually making us better people. To use the parlance of the mid-1980s though, it was pretty clear that we had “sold out”.
No doubt, there was a surprisingly large contingent of the audience however that had not. They held true to the movement. They remained in a constant state of rebellion. They never conformed to societal norms and now, descending down the sunset side of their half-century mark they lived just as they had three decades before. Except they did not look very well. There were years of substance abuse etched into their faces. It was obvious they had not been eating well either while time and cigarette smoke both took their toll on these poor souls’ appearances. Most of these older punks had gone skinhead too though no longer driven there by the corrupt hyperbole of white supremacy, but by nature’s scourge of male pattern baldness. These were people who had not prospered, people who were left behind by life and it was likely many were using punk as the rationale to help convince themselves that their plights were a voluntary sacrifice, a protest against whatever variant of capitalist consumerism they stood in opposition to. It was clear even back in the day though that many of these people were outcasts long before punk had entered their lives.
But at least they made it this far. I am guessing that many of us that were at that last concert in 1985 did not. Back then, the Dead Kennedys played before about 2,000 Motor City punks. In 2018, they played a place called Small’s in the enclave of Hamtramck which could probably hold about 300 people at best. This is no knock on the venue as Small’s can host a wildly energetic yet intimate show that was reminiscent of our old haunts at Greystone or at the Hungry Brain that were the cornerstone of the scene we had known. I was hearing of untimely deaths even back in the eighties so I can only imagine that the lethal trends that took punk’s musicians carved a swathe through its fans as well.
For those that were left though, Hardcore’s survivors can still do it justice. The first opener, Gay Black Republicans, put on a solid show but it was apparent that the aging audience was saving its energy for acts further down the bill. Once Jack Grisham and TSOL took the stage though, the mosh pit opened up and maintained its freneticism for a solid thirteen minutes, which was basically all the time it took for the band to play its first album in its entirety. What can I say? Punk songs are short.
I admit to getting caught up in the moment and running out into the mosh pit myself and it was here where I noticed one of the biggest changes in punk etiquette. In the 1980’s when you rushed into the pit, you did so with arms outstretched, taking as many people into it with you as you could, whether they wanted to go or not. And you did this while screaming, “#@$%ING WANKEEEEEEEERRRRRSSSSS!!!” This time though, you kind of walked there with arms tucked in down in front of you while saying, “Excuse me. Sorry about that. Oh! Was that your foot? My bad. Excuse me. Sorry…Ouch! No it was my fault. I wasn’t looking and ran right into your Mohawk. Sorry.” Then, once you reached the pit and felt your knee pop, your shoulder muscle pull and catch an elbow in the jaw, you wonder what the hell you think you’re doing and let your stamina be driven by panic-born adrenaline while you look for a way out. At that point your language is reduced to nothing other than a run-on stream of profanity until you find yourself completely unable to catch your breath. I am probably being generous trying to claim that I was in that pit for 30 seconds but I am not exaggerating at all by saying I could not get my breathing under enough control to speak a single coherent sentence until the Dead Kennedys took the stage.
And that’s when the punk I came to know and love raised its glorious head. The mosh pit grew to consume nearly the entire venue and we found ourselves, even standing near the very back wall, fighting to keep containing it forward toward the stage. Jello Biafra was no longer fronting the band, which having just found this out on the way there, greatly disappointed me but I actually found Skip Greer to be a truly worthy replacement. He sounded like Jello, moved like Jello and projected himself like Jello, but lacked the trademark pretentiousness that made Biafra somewhat of a prima donna. He ripped through all of the classics such as “Police Truck”, “Too Drunk to Fuck” and “California Uber Alles” and even threw out new stuff that did not seem to suck at all.
I had another go at the moshing during the Dead Kennedys, albeit an accidental one. Finding myself on the edge of the pit, a link in human chain pushing to keep the moshing contained, I saw a brightly-mohawked beast of a man charging for us at full speed. Now, there was no way to brace yourself defensively for that kind of onslaught. You have to go on offense. Knowing your bell is about to be rung, the only thing you can really do is throw yourself into the collision head on and hope to be able to ring someone’s bell back. I knew what I had to do. It appeared that the mohawked beast I was aiming for knew what I had to do too and changed direction at the last second.
With Newton’s First Law of Motion now biting me in the ass even harder than it did back when Mr. Yates failed me on it in seventh grade, I stumbled two steps too far forward into the pit and was swept away by a violent wave of un-choreographed mayhem, as if hit by some speeding slam-dancing freight train. Off balance and too overweight to correct my trajectory like the mohawked beast did, I appeared to have lost all control over where I was headed and found myself completely at the mercy of the mob, ricocheting off of 300-pound shaved misfits and bowling over anything that did not at least weigh in at 10 stone. My legs struggled to keep me upright, keenly aware that falling over at this age could realistically result in one of those broken hips that I was far too young for.
I made several attempts to get out but finally had to resort to the dick move that the mohawked beast had attempted that got me out there. I had to seek out a weak link in the wall and charge it. The target I settled on was wise to it though and parted before I made impact, resulting in a softer landing and allowed me to stop before taking out a gentleman behind a walker. I then checked my Fitbit (because, you know, how punk is that?!?) and saw my heart rate was screaming at 144 bpm, putting me in literal coronary territory. I was out for good this time. I gasped and wheezed my way along the back wall until I caught up to my buddy and daughter.
Without me there, the human wall separating my little girl from the slam dancing vortex had thinned a little too much and I saw her with her forearms pressed hard into the back of the guy in front of her, pushing him forward to keep the mosh-men from spilling over into her space and sweeping her away like it had me. It looked like she was in some medieval movie, trying to heroically hold the old wooden gate to a poorly defended Saxon village closed as marauding mobs of Vikings used battering rams to try to break it down. Her position looked precarious and her efforts futile.
Despite the fact that it still felt as if my pump was flirting with the idea of exploding in my chest, I tapped my daughter on the shoulder and motioned for her to seek a safer position behind my buddy and I but flashing a wry grin that betrayed an uncharacteristic hint of mischief, she blew me off with a shoulder shrug while mouthing the words, “Nahhh. I’m good.” She then buckled under the impact of yet another errant malcontent and, smiling wider, threw all her weight into pushing the trespasser back to where he came from. I think my heart fluttered with pride but it was hard to tell if it was that or if it was just giving out from the strain.
So did the Kennedys gain another convert? I doubt it. My daughter loved it and had a great time, but I do not see her seeking out these types of shows on her own. There were a few younger people there carrying on the torch, but not nearly enough to offset those that would probably not be around to witness the band if they ever decided to pass through Detroit again. Among those of us who embraced it in the ‘80s though, punk’s decline could not really be contested, but we would loathe to call it dead just yet.
Even if we are secretly hoping someone finds a way to kill it before that bitch eventually kills us.