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The First Time I Heard Punk Rock and Hardcore

21 January 2016

the author, spring 1991. too cool for photography, compulsory rat tail as required by New Jersey state law.

I can remember the first time I heard punk rock and hardcore like it was yesterday. Sure, the details are getting fuzzier every year, but I can still recall the situations and the people. These are musical moments that impacted me significantly, and now that I’m old enough to put some distance between these awkward moments and my current self, they seem to have influenced me in ways I didn’t even realize. I have not changed the names in this story because none of these people are innocent.

The first time I heard punk rock was 1987. I was eleven or twelve years old and was living in Ewing, New Jersey. I was enrolled in a summer day camp in a suburb south of Trenton, one a thirty minute drive from our house. Each morning I’d have to traverse my neighborhood to the other side where I would wait for the bus with all the other neighborhood kids near a bank. We would stand there in the side yard of the bank with our headphones on, some of us waiting reluctantly for our daytime adventures to begin. There was a decent amount of older kids who rode this bus, and one of them was this older guy Roger.

Roger was a well built but nerdy guy who towered above each of the kids, he was easily six foot two in junior high. He was kind of a strange dude in that he never said much of anything, but when he did, people listened. He had a younger sister whom I had class with, that’s the only reason I knew him at all. He wore lots of brown and seemed to me like he was trying to dress poorly. He didn’t have much to say to me, but I knew he was into crazy music because he occasionally wore t-shirts with crazy slogans.

Roger confused me. During the winter of 1986/87 we had a snowstorm that lasted all weekend. I happened to look out of my window one afternoon and saw Roger out in the middle of the street. It was snowing hard and there was nobody else outside. I watched him closely, trying to figure out what he was doing. He was standing there wearing skis and holding ski poles in each hand. He must have been freezing his ass off. Suddenly he lost his footing and almost collapsed into a snowbank. I opened my mini-blinds carefully. Roger straightened himself out and began skiing down our street. He picked up speed and began laughing maniacally. I could hear his laughter through our double-paned window like he was in the room with me. I’d never seen anyone skiing in the street before and it struck me as odd. Roger seemed to be living in his own reality.

So anyway, on one fateful morning in summer 1987, Roger saw me standing there on the corner with my headphones on. From out of nowhere, he nodded at me. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant but I nodded back. At that point in my life I was strictly into hard rock and heavy metal. My favorite bands were Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne, the usual suspects for suburban New Jersey. Our giant yellow school bus pulled up and we piled into our seats. A funny thing happened as soon as the bus pulled away from the bank. Roger tapped me on the shoulder. He asked me what I was listening to. We had a brief conversation about music, I explained that Randy Rhoads ruled and how sad it was that he died. Roger looked unimpressed. He took his headphones off from around his neck and handed them to me.

“Here”, Roger said as I put his headphones on. “Check this out.”

I watched Roger hit play on the side of his Walkman and then I heard a raging, cacophonous noise unlike anything I’d ever heard in my life. I adjusted the metal and part of his headphones to fit my head. The sounds that I heard confused my adolescent brain waves.

“What is this?” I asked hesitantly.

Roger smiled from ear to ear. He knew he was putting something wicked into my hands and he loved it.

“That’s the Dead Kennedys.” He said proudly.

The song “Rambozo The Clown” began playing as Roger smiled at me in delight.

Roger took out the tape case from his inside pocket and flashed it. He placed the cassette case into my hands and I turned around and glanced at it in disbelief.

the Sony Walkman, mandatory accessory for any 80s kid.

I checked out the cover art for a minute, it showed the statue of liberty being attacked by tiny cartoon people. It looked like something out of MAD magazine; only the humor was darker and more sinister. The design of the tape looked so crude, it felt like something forbidden. As I opened the tape insert to Bedtime For Democracy, I decided there was definitely something wrong with this band. Where were all the pictures? Where were the gratuitous bikini girls? Why didn’t they have pictures of hairy men in spandex standing next to muscle cars? It made little sense. The artwork seemed to be subversive, so much so that it felt like contraband, something I could get in trouble for having on my person. I quickly handed Roger back the tape case as the song played on.

I turned around to look at Roger and he laughed.

“Just listen to that song.” He suggested.

I took his advice because, well, he was older and wiser and cooler and he had the self-confidence and determination to ski down our street like it was the backcountry of Wyoming.

The song played on and finally, much to my amusement, ended with a whimper. I realized that it was a play on words – that the title was a portmanteau of Rambo the fictional war torn vet played by Sylvester Stallone and Bozo the clown, played by someone I didn’t know because I was far too young for that show. But the thought hit me clearly. I knew these guys were saying something about the duality of American life, something that went far over my head. But at the same time I didn’t reject it as nonsense. I raised an eyebrow or two as I turned around in my seat and handed Roger back his headphones.

“Well”, he chuckled. “Whadda’ya think?”

“I dunno.” I answered as honestly as I could. “That is crazy stuff.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.

I said that probably because I associated punk with nihilism and mental illness at the time. I mean who in their right mind would choose to listen to something like this when Diary Of A Madman existed? It didn’t make sense. Punks were portrayed by the media as drooling lunatics, as dangerous people with safety pins stuck through their eyelids. They were misguided, tragic fools and so naturally that’s how I saw them with my young denim and leather eyes.

I thought about the Dead Kennedys as I sat silently on the bus. I couldn’t understand a single word the singer was saying, it all just sounded like incoherent babble. He sounded like some kind of depraved nerd. The music was played at lightning speed, which to me mean faster than Metallica. My fragile teenage brain couldn’t process irony at the rate of Jello Biafra but I knew there was humor in the music. At the end of the day, I shook my head in disbelief about punk rock.

Roger hadn’t convinced me that punk was good but he had placed a seed of doubt into my mind. A doubt that casted a large shadow on the grave of Randy Rhoads.

I began to notice punk rock more and more all around me. It was all the rage for the older kids, they were all over-dramatic and concerned about Reagonomics and had funny looking haircuts with sharp angles. Punk rock even showed up (occasionally) on television and in our local newspapers in the form of show listings. I would stare at the strange names of these bands and wonder what the fuck was wrong with this people. Sure slam dancing and bullet belts and purple mohawks looked like fun, but the grievous bodily harm and lack of form seemed to suggest there was more to the story. I wasn’t sure what it was.

Keep in mind, in the pre-internet world, you couldn’t just Google something and absorb it. You couldn’t just walk into a mall and purchase the music. You couldn’t just walk up to people and ask them about slam dancing. They would laugh in your face. Punk and hardcore was something you had to discover – something you had to experience for yourself.

I still loved metal but slowly became curious about this punk rock music. After purchasing cassette tapes by the Sex Pistols and The Ramones, I thought I had safely entered the world of punk and passed through some crash course. I even read a few books from the library about early punk rock and assumed that punk was a movement that had ended when I was in diapers. All of the information was so dated, all of the photos were black and white, all the people seemed so childish and hopelessly British.

I was satisfied with the idea that punk was history. And just when I thought I understood punk rock, the rug got pulled out from under me. Suddenly, like a ton of bricks, it hit me. There was punk rock in my state. I saw the graffiti of The Fiendz and The Undead on highway trestles near my dad’s house. Wattie was wrong, punk wasn’t dead. I didn’t know any punk rock kids, but as 1987 turned into 1988, I found them or should I say they found me.

Bedtime For Democracy, the 1986 LP by Dead Kennedys

I heard about hardcore and straight edge on the same day. I can remember the first time I encountered both of those phrases – it was seventh grade and our junior high gym class had recently been split into male and female groups for sex-ed purposes. I took my usual place with the nerds and headbangers in the back rows of the classroom. The back rows of our class were a safe haven in a sea of bullshit, where we could safely discuss comic books and Venom records without being judged or called upon to answer any kind of academic questions.

While the rest of the class spent their semester learning about fallopian tubes and testicles, we exchanged crude artwork of skeletons and drew up elaborate plans for skateboard ramps and bike jumps. One afternoon during a decaying filmstrip from the 70’s about female reproduction, a red notebook was passed through the back row. Scrawled on the cover in black pen were the words Minor Threat and the phrase, “I’ve got straight edge.” The words “straight edge” were carefully placed on top of two crossed daggers. One of them had been drawn with such a heavy hand that it ripped through the vinyl covering and appeared to poke out from the cover. The person responsible for this madness was my friend Neil, who, up until this point had never shown any interest in social movements or music, or really, anything at all.

Neil lived at the outer edge of my neighborhood; we were friendly throughout elementary school and well into junior high. His primary interests in life were skateboarding and engineering, he bragged basically non-stop about the stuff he and his brother had built. At that time, it was hard to tell is if he was completely full of shit or really onto something. Later that day I asked Neil what “I’ve got straight edge.” meant. A bunch of curious dudes had now encircled him during lunch. Neil said that if we really wanted to know what hardcore was, we would have to meet him after school at his house. It was a half-dare, half-challenge, the kind that no seventh grader could refuse. We took him up on the offer.

After school that day, a bunch of us kids walked to Neil’s house after school. Up until that point none of us had actually been inside his house. I can remember walking through his house, which was completely covered in wall-to-wall wood paneling and super dark, you could barely see where you were going in broad daylight. Even the kitchen and bathroom had wood paneling. Suddenly we came to a door in a small utility room and Neil informed us that we were about to enter his garage / workshop, where we were told that his brother would likely be engineering some secretive project.

half the kids in my junior high looked exactly like this: kinda long hair, a try-hard mustache and a Metallica t-shirt

The garage door opened and we instantly recognized two dudes from the local high school, Mark (Neil’s older brother) and Brownie (local asshole extraordinaire). They were both hunched over a metal vice with a skateboard deck in it. As Neil explained our interest in hardcore and straight edge, we stood there in complete silence. There is something about older kids that really threatens younger kids; maybe it’s their freedom, maybe it’s their facial hair.

Surprisingly, Mark wasn’t a dickhead about it and he seemed up for the task. He reached for a stack of vinyl records and began rifling through them. I was amazed that someone had a record player hooked up in their garage, it seemed like the ultimate idea in home stereo use.

Mark picked up a small record and said, “Here it is.” He took the record out of the sleeve and gently placed it onto the old record player. Mark dropped the needle onto the turntable and passed around the sleeve of the record. Eventually the artwork ended up in my hands. It looked like it was photocopied – it big black letters it said Minor Threat. I remember laughing at the guy on the cover because you couldn’t even see his face.

The music filled the garage, it was even crazier than the Dead Kennedys. It was twice as fast and twice as angry. The skinhead guy on the cover was crowding down on some stoop covering his face. The speakers crackled as the guitar got louder and louder. The music was terrible. It was like the most awful noise I’d ever heard in my life. Mark and Neil talked about hardcore and skateboarding and then danced around the ideals of straight edge for a few minutes, I can’t remember exactly how he verbalized it, but it did not sound even remotely interesting. To any of us. The music that accompanied this set of rules was beyond awful to our ears, we were still 100% wrapped up in heavy metal at this time. To me, this Minor Threat band were clowns who didn’t know shit about music and couldn’t even play their instruments. They looked and sounded like all punks did: just degenerate slobs with no talent.

The last thing I can remember about that day is leaving the garage and getting on our bikes to head home. It was the last time any of us feigned interest in straight edge (although we would never actually escape its gravity) and the last time we ever got invited to hang out in Neil and Mark’s secret workshop. The whole way home we kind of made fun of Minor Threat and straight edge. We put up with punk rock but loved metal so it just didn’t make sense. We were trapped so deep in the spell of WASP and Ratt; there was nothing that could break that bond. Yet.

Straight edge didn’t even seen to qualify as a bona fide lifestyle for us (the way it may have for older kids) because we didn’t have a lot of those temptations. After all, it’s incredibly easy for a 14 year old to be straight edge as prescribed by the standards of Minor Threat in 1981. At 14 years old, you couldn’t drink or smoke because you weren’t legally allowed to, although many of us had already discovered a cigarette vending machine inside our local bowling alley. To purchase one pack of smokes, all you had to do was insert thirteen dollars in quarters into the machine when nobody was looking and then pull on a metal rod until the machine gave up it’s cancery prize. Besides, all the cool kids smoked.

In my junior high school we had a smoking area. In 1989 they opened a second smoking areas for seventh and eight grade children. Between classes, seventh graders would be out there smoking unfiltered Camels and crude joints. Smoking seemed pretty cool. The straight edge kids didn’t like smoking, presumably because they cared about their health. They were the kids who wore DARE shirts in all seriousness. This was long before people wore clothing ironically.

Minor Threat EP, the first hardcore record I heard in Neil’s garage

I tried to make sense of straight edge but it didn’t work out in my brain the way it did in those photocopied fanzines with the Peta rabbit on the back cover. The third and final rule of straight edge seemed the most preposterous. “Don’t Fuck” wasn’t even an option, even the sluttiest of the local slutty metal girls wouldn’t touch any of us. Believe me, we tried. Every weekend. But looking back I think it’s kind of interesting that the concept of straight edge was brought to my attention at the same exact time as sex education. As if cosmically, these new principles could somehow guide us through adolescence unscarred.

Somewhat ironically, our first school pregnancy happened that year. An older suave Puerto Rican guy had impregnated a 7th grader. Neil was one of the first people to point this out to us and also provided updates and jokes about her rising belly from a safe distance. It’s hard to remember, but in junior high you absorb a ton of your daily life from your peers. You tend to get involved in the things your friends are involved with; it’s much easier to get exposed to all kinds of new ideas. For some reason, skateboarding was at the heart of most of those ideas. Skating and straight edge seemed to go hand-in-hand, but it’s hard to say if that was actually true or not. Skateboarding isn’t exactly something you could do while drunk or high, so maybe the ends justified the means.

As seventh grade progressed, my friends and I learned about The Misfits and DRI. We saw Brownie skateboarding at Trenton State College on one Saturday afternoon. He came over to us and asked us if we knew who Skrewdriver were.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve dressing like punks if you don’t like Skrewdriver.” Brownie said.

I couldn’t understand why Brownie was such a prick to us younger kids. He seemed to enjoy tormenting us with his quips and his nonsense adages.

Brownie began to sing “When The Boat Comes In” by Skrewdriver, a low-IQ racist hymn by the unremarkable British band. My friends and I stood there and listened to him but didn’t and couldn’t make sense of Brownie. I knew he was an asshole, but I didn’t know he was a casual racist.

It dawned on me that I had heard this simple rhyme in grade school, even before I had heard “Rambozo The Clown” by Dead Kennedys. Suddenly punk didn’t seem so appealing anymore. Standing there, watching Brownie make a fool out of himself (while he looked over his shoulder to see if there were any black people around) was eye opening to say the least. I realized that punks were definitely misguided nihilists just like my father said they were, but now there was an added layer on top of that, a layer that wasn’t present in heavy metal. For the first time in my exposure to music, a certainty ambiguity appeared.

I understood that punks and hardcore kids were different from each other. The notion that each of them held their own insane belief systems was hard to swallow but true. That’s what really separated them from the headbangers. Basically every metalhead I knew was a carbon copy of Cliff Burton – all those dudes wanted to do was play technically proficient guitar, drink beer and get laid. They didn’t have individual characteristics that defined them both socially and politically. There was a nuance to punk rock and hardcore, one that intrigued me and attracted me further into the tribe.

I had a rudimentary understanding of punk rock and hardcore but hadn’t seen any live bands yet. Part of what attracted me to hardcore was it’s stubborn progressive attitude towards all music that came before it. There were these kids that liked Ludichrist and Gorilla Biscuits more than, say, The Beatles, which is laughable. You may ask how that is possible. I could not explain it to you. Some kids saw something inside the “newness” of straight edge; it’s arrival held people’s minds captive. Along with that, the notion of denouncing drugs and booze was very powerful. It didn’t matter if they agreed or not – everyone had an opinion on this radical “new” idea. It was the latest craze. I thought straight edge was a reactionary response to the failure of punk ideology to catch on in mainstream America and to some degree I still feel that way.

As junior high turned into high school, I found myself more on the side of the hardcore and straight edge kids even though I wasn’t straight edge. Maybe because they were more active, their scene was way more participatory. Simply put, they had more going on, more shows, more motivation and more drive to create original works. Punk kids seemed content to rehash old riffs and recycle old clichés. All the punks I knew were depressed clowns, they just wanted to play in cover bands, to dress like British slags, to mimic Sid & Nancy and repeat history. As a young musician, I had no interest in repeating history, I wanted to trailblaze and hardcore was one way to do that.

On the first day of ninth grade, I met a longhaired kid sitting next to me in homeroom. He was wearing a denim jacket and had hair halfway down his back. We started talking about Slayer and the new record by Onslaught, In Search Of Sanity, when I soon realized that he was cooler than he looked. He opened up his jacket and took out two cassettes – 7 Seconds – Walk Together, Rock Together and the self-titled Murphy’s Law tape. I had never heard either band. He asked me if I wanted to borrow them overnight. He smiled with a huge grin as he passed them over to my desk. This guy didn’t look like a hardcore kid, but here he was talking about going to see DRI, surviving wild house shows and dangerous clubs. Punk rock and hardcore became less and less of a secret handshake club and more of an accessible world as I got older, but I never forgot the people and the bands that initiated me.

Meeting new people and hearing different opinions became my way into punk and hardcore. It was a world above and beyond heavy metal, a world where you couldn’t judge people by their skin color or the length of their hair. A place where, unlike Randy Rhodes or Sid Vicious, the musicians were still alive and breathing, where people still tested the boundaries of what was possible. I learned that punk and hardcore weren’t history – they were active movements.

In my twenties I met Brian Baker from Minor Threat and told him my story about hearing his band for the first time in that garage. He laughed and seemed amused. I ended up working with him for six years on the website for his band Dag Nasty and he was a pleasure to work with. He admitted to me one day that he liked Randy Rhoads. That was mindblowing to me. Worlds were colliding.

In 2006 I was working at this record store in Denver and I finally got the chance to meet Jello Biafra. I told him a truncated version of my story about hearing “Rambozo The Clown” on a bus going to camp. As I explained the whole scenario, he just smiled with that crazy grin and seemed proud, like he had completed a mission, like he had infiltrated and corrupted the youth like Socrates had two thousand years ago. That made me like him even more. His lack of decadence and pretense, his willingness to be frank and honest meant more to me than any heavy metal record ever could. Our conversation satisfied me; immediately I was back in grade school, learning from a weirder, cooler, older kid again.