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This Music: Pieces on Heavy Metal, Punk Rock & Hardcore by Lewis Dimmick

8 May 2013

“This music” is a collection of personal memoirs and short stories by former Our Gang guitarist Lewis Dimmick, released last month through Wardance Records. The book is an intimate glance into a time and scene that is all but dried up but still exists firmly in the memory of a lot of people. The book also features incredible cover art by accomplished artist and flyer god, Sean Taggart.

Dimmick covers his experience with punk, metal and hardcore in a unique way, often relying on short bursts conversations. We could sit here all day and debate the differences between punk and metal and hardcore, luckily for all of us, Dimmick avoids it and instead offers his own narrative of what it was like to merge in and out of these scenes as a kid growing up in Staten Island.

For some of us, it’s hard to remember those days. When you’re 12 or 13 years old, everything seems rebellious. At that tender young age, I never made the distinction between what was punk and metal, mainly because I didn’t have the patience to find out why it mattered. When you’re frustrated and angry at 13, the world is your oyster, however scary and dangerous it may seem.

I’m convinced that everyone has early memories of social missteps from this age, somewhere between those first great shows you saw and those initial baby steps we all took. The days before you were defined by your taste in clothing or music, before you even realized what “cool” was. Before you tried to fit in with the crowd. Hell, maybe before you even knew there was a crowd. For a lot of people, I think their first and second year in music (or any art form for that matter) sets a lifelong precedence. Ask most people what their favorite band is and usually it’s something from their high school days. It’s the golden time when we allowed others to make an impression on us, before we stood in the corner with crossed arms and felt confident in our own shoes. Sometimes we gloss over those days, forgetting what it was like to be young and naïve, or god forbid, both.

Dimmick hasn’t forgotten what that time period was like, and in this book he explores some of his earliest memories of participating in DIY music. I love the way he writes about himself in this book, I think a lot of people can relate to the way he felt at that time, back when everything about DIY music was absurdly dangerous and seemed so out-of-reach.

Remember what it was like to be the youngest person at a show, surrounded by people three times your age? With all of those strange tattooed people with their smelly dreadlocks? Remember what it felt like to get funny looks from bikers and toothless women named Rat Bite? Some of us got laughed at for our haircuts, and those were the lucky ones. Others got actually got haircuts while being held down and laughed at. Oh, those halcyon days. If any of this rings a bell, I think you might really like Dimmick’s book. Because none of us were born with Cro-Mags tattoos or Minor Threat test pressings, we all had to start somewhere.

The greater metro New York City area had many branches of underground music during the mid-80’s, each was it’s own thriving microcosm of individualism. Defining the loose boundaries of those scenes is a waste of time and energy, there’s plenty of overlap. And really, at the end of the day there’s not really that much difference other than guitar styles and ideology. Dimmick’s story involves several stories about Agnostic Front and Bad Brains, two bands that could easily fit into all three genres and still transcend all of them collectively.

The story of how Dimmick got involved in playing music starts in 1982, at the tender young age of 12. Lewis and his pal Hobi discover a rogue Sex Pistols LP amongst an overflowing record collection of one of their upstairs neighbors, and the stage is set. Then came Iron Maiden and Dead Kennedys, followed by a cavalcade of record albums with skulls and questionable artwork.

In between these stages of rebellion and ripening, his mom takes him to see Iron Maiden. He witnesses a violent fight at CBGB’s during an Adrenalin OD show in 1986. He sees Bad Brains, Reagan Youth and Krakdown at the height of their careers. He waits in line at CB’s all afternoon, only to have Karen check his ID and make him wait outside while she called his mom to verify his age. Dimmick really hones in on what it felt like to be young at that time, all the trials and tribulations, not to mention the embarrassing moments that most of us would rather forget. That’s what makes this book so special.

Lewis also briefly touches on rejection within that scene. At some point in the late 80’s he reaches out to the singer of Side By Side and expresses interest in playing guitar in the band, only to be dismissed because he doesn’t “go off” enough while playing. This incident becomes even more compelling when you consider that the band broke up shortly after this conversation and the singer took off for the merchant marines (or something akin to that) for like twenty years, virtually disappearing from both music and from society. I had to laugh. These are the kind of people you meet when you play punk rock. Timid people with real family problems. Loud buffoons who are secretly artistic and sensitive. Wild eyed jerks with strong personalities and crazy ideas. Most of them are here today, gone tomorrow. They’re either screaming for change or begging for change. It takes real tenacity to keep showing up in the face of all of these folks.

Dimmick writes skillfully and thoughtfully about his band Our Gang, delving into their earliest misadventures while recording and booking shows in New York at that time. I don’t want to give away entire chunks of the book, but suffice to say that most of his stories are well worth reading. There aren’t too many tour journals or memoirs from punk or hardcore bands, but there are plenty from heavy metal. In fact, heavy metal memoirs are all the rage these days. Punk tends to shy away from admitting things on record; metal longs for it and kind of needs it to survive. Especially now that spandex and teased hair has gone long out of style but liberty spikes and bullet belts still look somewhat edgy in comparison.

No matter what genre we’re talking about, it’s all about the juice. In the literary world, only the most depraved tour stories are prized and lauded, often repeated by D-list celebrities on VH1 specials as repeatable, digestible sound bites. For anyone that’s ever wondered why punk and hardcore is underrepresented in the literary sense, it’s simple. Punk and hardcore bands operate on the fringe of society, they have to go to different lengths to achieve their goals. Because, you know, they set up all-ages shows in empty warehouses without the proper paperwork. They sell vegan brownies without a license or food safety precautions in place. Gasp! They make their own fanzines and express their opinions, often in underdeveloped black and white terms. They have house parties with unsupervised skateboarding and underage drinking. The horror!

This theme – this “making it work with whatever materials you have available” (for lack of a better term) is lost on mainstream indie dudes and the current crop of bland piano rock. They’ll never get it, mainly because they don’t have to. Mainstream bands don’t have to suffer the pain of growth if they don’t want to, and most of them don’t have to resort to illegal means to make their art. They already have access to comfortable, air-conditioned venues and have an iPhone filled with contacts and booking agents. They own a working PA system. They have the expendable income that allows them to rent a van for tour, without having to work 11 days straight overtime. They don’t have to siphon gas to get to the next city, because you know, they have Dad’s credit card or they are bankrolled by some entertainment corporation. Good for them, yet how boring. I don’t know anything about this lifestyle. But I almost guarantee you that if you put Coldplay into a rusting beat-up cargo van for six weeks on a national tour without showers and fancy hotels that they would probably come out as better people and better song writers.

This book chronicles these kinds of struggles while Dimmick explains his personal experience with it. Punk and hardcore bands are forced to operate on a different level than their mainstream brethren, and make no mistake – it is a much poorer one with questionable ethics. But that’s one aspect of punk that I love – we don’t need to be validated by VH1 or the New York Times book review (or anyone for that matter) to realize that we’re taking part in something. Punks may act stupid and dress like morons, but at least they have the wisdom to realize that you don’t need money to have fun. You certainly don’t need money to play in a band, although it helps. You don’t really need anything but ambition. Most of the time, you kind of just show up and then things happen. That’s kind of how Our Gang got started. Basically, it sounds like one thing led to another and before they knew what was happening, they were on stage at CB’s in front of a packed audience. But before that can happen, you have to actually show up.

One chapter in the book that I really enjoyed was about Agnostic Front and their LP, “Victim In Pain”. It’s easily my favorite AF record, probably one of the best records of that era and it still stands up today. Dimmick talks about the artwork and how it made an impression on him. There is something universal about being a teenager and being attracted to the seedy underbelly of our world, punctuated by an interest in the occult or horror movies, or in this case, records with gigantic red skinhead demons. What makes us want to be exposed to terrible things at that age? Is it a reaction to puberty? Are we desensitized? What are we trying to find there? Is it something about ourselves or is it a search for suppressed knowledge? There is something in each of us, whatever it is, that set us on collision course to this material. Like a magnet, we are drawn to these records that feature half-naked demon girls or police violence. Let’s be honest, normal people aren’t interested in records that have a “Hitler sleeve” variant, it’s just not socially acceptable by any means. Normal people would not be caught dead wearing a t-shirt that features a naked police man with an extremely large erection. Call it boundary pushing or call it testing limits, it exists and many of us like it. It’s high time we admit to ourselves that we all have personal baggage, and that our baggage is probably the reason why we got interested in The Ramones or Motorhead to begin with. It’s also the reason why some of us spend entire paychecks on records and vintage t-shirts, or whatever vice we prefer.

Something about Agnostic Front and bands that use that kind of heavy symbolism seems attractive to us. Dimmick mentions the original artwork of the record, which features (it has since been altered in subsequent pressings) a Nazi soldier about to execute a man who is perched on the edge of a mass grave. He says, “I wasn’t sure what to make of it…in true punk fashion, the cover was intended to shock and it did.” He then squeezes the record back into the stacks at his local record store but admits that, “the startling image lingered in my brain.” AF are not the first band to use provocative images or fascist symbols like this, (Siouxsie Sioux may have been the first, if you’re keeping track) and they won’t be the last. But keep in mind that before he could even verbalize why it was controversial, he immediately recognized the allure of it’s forbidden appeal.

Dimmick writes about 1986 like it all happened yesterday, and that’s another reason why this is such a good read. There’s no revisionism here, if there is – it doesn’t show. The real shame about this era of New York Hardcore is that it ended with a wimper. For many bands, they couldn’t afford to tour, much less travel from one borough to another. The national touring circuit built up by bands like Black Flag and the Minutemen during the early 80’s hardly sustained itself for long.

I remember seeing Murphy’s Law and Gorilla Biscuits here in Denver a few years back, most of the people in the audience that I talked to felt like they had been gifted, invited to some exclusive supper club. They said things like, “I’ve been waiting 20 years for this.” Imagine that for a second. This guy waited 20 years to mosh to “Cavity Creeps”? That’s too damn long to wait for Murphy’s Law. It’s almost laughable. For god sake’s, Phish and Jack Johnson have criss-crossed the globe on multiple occasions and we can’t get Murphy’s Law west of the Mississippi? What kind of world are we living in?

Dimmick’s band Our Gang falls firmly into that category. Perhaps if their timing or their luck was better they could have written a much different ending to their story. Staten Island and the suburbs of NYC were blossoming with talent at that time. Serpico, CR, Chisel and Garden Variety, just to name a few. There was so much happening, and all of it was taking place on their terms, not on anybody else’s terms. Innovative bands like Our Gang, Absolution and Token Entry never had the chance to tour, and this is the sad truth. It’s even more depressing when you consider that a mere five or six years later, fuckwads like Taking Back Sunday and Fall Out Boy seemed to be coughing up money, enough to buy themselves a small island. Money has always been an issue in underground music, and funding will always be a sore subject for many creative people. Money may be the impetus that drives us to create in the first place, or the single factor that finally makes us give up on creating.

At any rate, there is one theme that transcends all DIY music, no matter what it’s labeled, and it’s not money. Dimmick discusses it in this book in depth. It’s called participation. Punk, hardcore and metal is all built around your participation. Without participation, hardcore is stale. Without fresh blood, heavy metal stagnates. In one of the earliest chapters in his book, Dimmick notes that the moment he felt like he belonged to “the tribe” happened to coincide with the day he and Hobi worked out two songs. Something happened, some change had occurred. They became willing participants. No longer stuck on the sidelines, no longer content to just watch others.

In some ways, DIY music is anathema to so much of how mainstream music works. Mainstream music offers you fancy package tours, expensive seats and hi-definition concerts on Blu-Ray. DIY music offers you nothing and doesn’t guarantee much except for maybe sweat and poor dental hygiene. Instead, it relies on you to define the terms. It beckons you off the couch and makes all kinds of allowances for real, tangible personal growth. It dares you to take part.

I really enjoyed this book and I hope that more people write personal stories about touring and playing music. It’s a lot harder than it looks and probably requires a lot more name changing than you might think. On a personal level, heavy metal memoirs are a let down. Nobody cares that Nikki Sixx sniffed lines of coke and ants with Ozzy because nothing is expected of him. He’s a clown. Motley Crue is all he has, and the whole band is based on an illusion in the first place. He didn’t go back to college to finish his degree. He isn’t going to suddenly become a respectable citizen or a professor. So when he spills the proverbial beans, there are no consequences. Punks and hardcore kids don’t have that luxury. Our narrative is much different and far less comical. Watching some guy get his teeth punched isn’t funny. Tossing a cinderblock through the windshield of a rival band’s van is even less funny. The mythology of punk and hardcore will likely be kept as oral tradition or may take years to come out in print because in these stories, the individual is valued over the collective. In other words, there’s probably several good reasons why bands like Carnivore and Sheer Terror aren’t rushing to finish their memoirs. At any rate, this is one of the better journal-style pieces I have read and I hope we get the chance to read more from him. My only complaint with Dimmick’s book is that it isn’t long enough.

If you want to read more about the author, there’s an in-depth interview with him up on the Village Voice Blog, conducted by fellow Trentonian Tony Rettman that is definitely worth checking out. If you want to read more about the book “This Music” or about Wardance Records and their current projects, check them out on Facebook or at wardancerecords dot com.