Who Cares? American Hardcore Punk Hits Middle Age
In retaliation for the theft of my underwear and French literature, I am assisting in the spread of broken glass across Oakland’s interstate system.
It is a silly form of rebellion but it’s the one I’m left with after the superficial robbery of the tour van that shuttled myself and the members of Buffalo’s least cheery and most musically progressive hardcore band, Gas Chamber. Half-looted and tasked to persevere in the face of uncaring punk rock peers, unknown thugs and indifferent cops, I laughed like a maniac as each bump in the highway sprinkled smashed window glass.
At 34, I set out on tour as an unnecessary roadie for my friends’ band to see how hardcore punk rock, itself around the middle-age mark, had kept relevant, changed and run in circles. Hardcore punk has been packaged with a promise of blunt political and social expectations, something only seen with great musical force in the overly celebrated hippies of the ‘60s or the under-empowered rappers of the ‘80s. It is a genre with a multiverse of subgenres, all which will propel hundreds of unrecognizable bands to play your town and every other in the U.S. throughout the summer. It is music that eats its old and primarily rewards staid templates. And it can be a backdrop for lifelong friendships and a few remaining, daring challenges.
The Seattle show is held at a quasi-legal music loft where a half-dozen people also live. It seemed a measure of defiance in one of the wealthier cities of America’s New Gilded Age, where people are pushed to visible encampments under highways and other locals are worried whether any fringe artists and creators can afford to stay. This show loft is carefully run by its residents, as so many of their contemporaries have moved to the sticks if they are at all still involved.
By proxy of being present at hardcore shows in your mid-30s, you’re able to quickly spot your diminishing pool of peers. Gas Chamber features four friends of mine, men in their 30s: Patrick, the bassist and vocalist who helped arrange this tour; David, a prolific guitarist; Jerry, the pounding drummer; and Craig, who screams and makes noise from homemade electronics. They are on tour to support Terveet Kadet, a good-natured fast punk band from Finland with members and roadies well older than our posse. A show with international bands and other sonic pioneers like Iron Lung means I will not be the oldest person at this show. There are more of the 30-plus crowd at these shows now than I remember 10 or 15 years ago, when my 30-year-old friends seemed old.
In line to buy albums was a surprise acquaintance, Sam Wicks. In his mid-30s and deceptively smart in a dumb haircut and quick smile, Wicks is one of those people at every show. Indeed, he had just driven 39 hours from Bradenton, Florida to Berkeley, California to see Brainoil, a third-tier hardcore band made more relevant by the separation of time. Wicks also spoke with the openness of someone who had just gone through “400 hours of dialectal therapy,” which helped him through a savage relationship. I do not care to know directly what this amount of therapy entailed though I am happy he’s once again relieved enough to get out, wear a dumb haircut and smile during his many favorite bands.
He’s living on hunk of land in Vachon owned by Lauren, in her early 40s. She is a butcher now and gave us pastrami for the road. Road pastrami holds up best when eaten immediately. Lauren used to serve as a tour nanny for Nevada and Washington bands. Nowadays, she is clear that she “… does … not …” go to many shows or stay up past 10 p.m. It is too loud to ask about the potential impact of nightfall on pastrami. During the show, Bradford, an artsy, theater friend in his 30s came out and teased about the punk men made cute in their “outfits.” His husband, Grant, had a mohawk in high school though they’re both more prone to see Xiu Xiu live or listen to Space Lady at home. As an outsider, Grant enjoyed the effort and, like so much that has kept regulars coming to shows, the camaraderie.
Mid-20s and younger made up for much of the show’s population, a scene largely repeated throughout the 10-day tour. A few nerdy young men debated what to call the band they had started while standing in line to buy tour T-shirts. They went from an X-Men reference down to “School” because “one-word band names are pretty cool.” In a lazy circle pit for the last band, one late-teen woman dressed head-to-toe in black crusty garb was punched by another late-teen woman in a purple jumper. They were escorted out and as they made it outside, were arm-in-arm and talked as they made their way up the street.
The next day, my peers talked about playing through potential nerve damage and scraped throats. Some have healthcare and others hope for the best from tea. In a cubicle farm across the window from my hotel, I saw a tattooed, bearded man with a subtle bald spot. He typed and typed and typed, his desk surrounded by black-and-white, scraggly-fonted band bric-a-brac.
“Their generation was about to make a dramatic shift: substituting the tragedy of death with the more general humiliation of old age.” – Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles
In Portland, we load into a club with strict hand-stamping policies and quite possibly 20 people running the show. Three of those denim-clad, scraggly haired show organizers discuss the location of the club’s light bulbs, as one has burned out above the merch table, behind which I spend most of my night. A trip to a storage room later, one of the punks swaps in the new light bulb from a chair as the other two passively supervise.
For Portland, I hardly left the freshly lit merch table. I saw a few hundred people but hardly any weirdos. The singer for the openers occasionally spoke in Spanish, a break from his aggressively proficient backing band. The next band drowned out any intrigue and the entire crowd with an improperly programmed fog machine. Gas Chamber plowed through a few tracks, their interwoven and prog-latticed set on its way when subjected to emasculating electrical malfunctions. As they scratched their heads over a fix, the Portland Punk Ministry of Light bulb Replacement, Show Organization and Hops Futures butted in. There’s a more popular spiky haired band yet to play, you see. We don’t have time for you to find another amp, that is. Dave gruffly stopped their set and the Finns came on for a round of still-finding-their-bearings tunes. The crowd yelled a thing or two, the whole show indifferent at this point.
On a Monday in any city, maybe one should expect minimal response, no matter the musical style. But this is supposed to be the thing in Portland, right? The unexpected topper of Internet municipal listicles. Midsized enough to carry the irony of a comedy show poking fun at it. Cultural contributions from The Wipers and “The Simpsons” to a basketball team with more nicknames than titles. And, for the past 10 years, it’s been a crust punk and hardcore catch-drain. John Hanson moved here with a passel of other 30-somethings from Milwaukee to a comparable economy, but without the “stress” of winter. Supported by odd jobs and not a snow shovel in sight, Hanson had a vacationer’s reasoning to settle in Portland: “It’s easy.”
This seems a great set-up for many punkers (though the number of punkers won’t be known unless Rock the Vote gets “Music Genre of Choice” on Census forms). What happens in five more years, when babies comes and trust funds go? When the lure of even better weather (Austin) or great challenges (Braddock, Pa.) pull the hardcore trendsetters away? Given its size and history, there’s no question Portland will survive as a city. But will its punker population have made a true dent? Or, if they do, what happens then these rebels have to hold the role of The Man?
I talked with another transplant, Ellie Piper, whom I befriended when we both lived in Milwaukee. A former heavy metal DJ, the final stages of academia have her more prone now to nights at literary readings. Not that she had Iron Maiden patches on a tweed jacket. She said there’s less that draws her out, in terms of interesting hardcore acts, in the U.S. anyway. She’s tinkered in Cuba for years with an unfinished project, an encapsulation of how punks there fight for a voice and the electricity to power practice amps. There, it’s varied, folksy and no easy task. They care, she said.
The show wrapped up well before midnight. Old punks finished their meals and another can of Rainier. Younger punks posed and texted in a slow graze outside from their specially cordoned area in the clean, well-lit club. It wasn’t that I expected the privation of Applegate and Scott in their path down the raging Columbia. But a random flare – an isolated, unexpected denim jacket backpatch, for instance – would’ve shaken a forming stereotype of Portland.
In Olympia, where I stayed a few days earlier with a friend, there were no shortage of all-black get-ups, of diners that blared Gang of Four and Discharge. In a brief time there, though, I found evidence of lefty political stirrers, drifters drinking near graffiti, transgender bathrooms, a death rock bar owned by a guy known as The Dark Dentist. Signs of a city on the move toward something new and unknown, somewhere uncomfortable and interesting. Not a place resigned to a retirement community for people to punch out belt studs as they split the atom of subgenre after subgenre.
Surely I’ve simplified this all, I thought, back from a bathroom break on my sentinel-like merchandise hawking duties. I left that duty to Jared, another 30-something émigré from Milwaukee, who was now dazed and without all our merchandise. The rest of the band took the merchandise and other items, like a bag of baked goods given to Pat by his stepbrother. Pat, pissed from the partial set and unacquainted with the denim-jacketed man in my stead holding his baked goods, punched him in the face. Jared, while not excited to get punched in the face, over bread or otherwise, was calm after we talked it over. However, the Portland Punk Ministry of Light bulb Replacement, Show Organization and Hops Futures, broke into a subcommittee, which voted quickly on a milquetoast escort outside for Pat and his bread.
At an artsy former Buffalonian’s home to crash that night, Pat and I talked it over until a serious situation was diffused and even silly. A stranger (Jerid) was grabby with Pat’s bread bag, dog piling on his understandable feeling the town had it in for him and his band. Pat cashed in what he later promised was his tour chip – this band’s system of measurement for personal requests or activities – on “one, sudden, violent outburst.” Emotions, distinct and clear, have always been among Pat’s finer traits. Apologetically, I texted Jerid the next morning and wished him luck on finding music or whatever he seeks in Portland. “Thanks bro! No worries.” I offer this as a submission to the formal minutes of the Portland Punk Ministry of Scene Grievances, Bakery Misunderstandings and Boxing Licensure.
Sacramento & Las Vegas
The van was hacked by cyber-thugs and e-vandals. This seemed a plausible answer, we said, for the number of food wrappers and the multiplying speed with which Jerry drove us through the mountain passes. This was a common problem and a sad state of American-made minivans today, we thought, a few of us faster than normal from that separation of daily routines into the reasonable mania of a vacation.
So was the mindset as we pulled into Sacramento, where the show was held in the basement of a three-story home with a visible seam split in the kitchen and a vegetarian potluck in the backyard. With nerves, Joshua Cox, just over 20, said he has dreams to buy this house and hold shows into his old age. His more present investment was the release of a cassette tape of his friend’s band. They sound like Noothgrush, Cox said. Then he named 50 bands that sound like Noothgrush. At 19, Paige was plenty poked through and printed on with piercings and tattoos. Half the year, she is in an RV with her older boyfriend and dogs, to camp, sell crafts and perform at sideshows. They’d fit in at a tattoo parlor or in the back of a house show, but Paige said she’s gotten sideways looks while traveling just once, from an elderly couple in Montana. Sacramento is cool but she preferred the ability to come back again and again.
The construction site remnants in an unfinished basement billowed from a floorboard when kids moved a lot during Gas Chamber and the opening ragers, none of which sounded like Noothgrush. The main event, Terveet Kadet, was the main draw for a man who referred to himself as Ground Chuck. A self-defined “street artist” in his late 40s, Ground Chuck spent the early part of the show listening to an ‘80s compilation he bought as a kid that featured one of Terveet Kadet’s first tunes. Ground Chuck bobbed up and down on his own outside like a kid, and unlike a man with the pockmarks and tooth gaps of a life entirely removed from childhood. He was here to see Terveet Kadet and “fulfill a dream.”
Between bands, Lory, in her mid-40s, made sure chili bowls were filled and beers were in the hands of visitors and friends. A den mother dressed more like a social worker than a miscreant, Lory was in the basement to bang her head to every band. “It’s a community here, we’re checking on each other,” she said.
The next day, in Las Vegas, America’s imaginary metropolis, we are given a rundown on everything from professional heavy metal drums stage lighting to the importance of water by Chops. Chops was a stout man in gym shorts and a brash confidence atypical for a person with an encompassing, purple growth over half his face. Chops runs this club and a music production service advertised in a decal on his car’s tinted windows. Hardcore and punk aren’t his thing, not professional enough, though the young kids who put together the show are grateful to go through any lessons on water or heavy metal drum stage lighting to be able to have somewhere to play.
David walked with me through a dichotomy of Western U.S. zoning schizophrenia in this commercial corridor – from Chops’ place, past a swinger’s club and busy Episcopalian storefront church, to an award-winning Thai restaurant. He vocalized the artistic tensions between what he wants to express and to which audiences. Not snobby, he is tired, left to sporadically sing for his soup and watch hundreds of other musicians of lame intentions and low talent turn it into their livelihood. David said he sees no end to day jobs and unfamiliar equipment. The moments of reaching “The Moment” of ethereal freedom on stage have increased between tolls. He laughed at the idea of having these shows booked as “The Degradation Tour.”
A mostly engaged crowd stuck through the epileptic light show and a sound system meticulously abused by Chops’ club workers. A local grindcore band churned through 40-second songs. Terveet Kadet got some of the spiky haired kids to flail in circular dances. Gas Chamber weren’t resigned to let sound specifics remove all their energy. As David attempted to fix a faulty foot pedal, a fog machine released a single puff, to block his view yet clarify his point on “degradation.” They borrowed and patched and forged ahead.
In an adjacent diner, Pops, a failed city alderman candidate, and his septuagenarian wife serve overpriced Pabst and spent an inordinate amount of time on refilling mustard dispensers. They shook their heads in disbelief during the live music and later talked in a conspiring manner with Chops.
We stayed at an old friends’ house. Kevin Wilcox, a Rochester, N.Y.-native in his 30s, has “made the choice” to work a well-paying radiation testing job in Vegas to support his cheery wife, Geri, and their 2-year old cherub son, Colm. Kevin shared whiskey and a remarkable story about tracking down a stepsister’s family in Romania. He put away Colm’s Avengers toys and hung up a child’s jean-jacket, adorned in patches for The Ramones and dad’s old garage rock band. Kevin has no active bands but nothing’s missing, Black Flag and Adverts posters have their place in his small family’s home.
And Kevin does me a parting favor. Outside of one show, I was half-jokingly accused of “looking like” an undercover cop by one punk. In the all-ages space of another show, I was the lone person in a group invited to smoke crack by one deadbeat in Vancouver. Such are the vibes you put out in a discount rack Nordstrom’s jacket and brown McGregor slacks. To immerse myself, I borrowed pins, patches and spikes Kevin picked from an old shoebox. If not a sociological experiment, we’ll at least have an arts and crafts project for the van.
On the next day’s drive from Vegas to California, I’m vetoed on a vote to take band pictures at an abandoned, fluorescent roadside water park. We stop for gas at a ruddy highway outpost where a pay toilet appeared to provide a substantial portion of the regional economy. This was due in small part to the tweaker who sat in front of the gas station’s ATM as his iPod charged. A reduced man in a puffy Chicago Bulls jacket shuffled from near the trashcans around the pumps to the Dumpster behind the station. We are nowhere but in someone’s daily America. Stickers on the 76 station sign read “Relsa Sloby” so that’s what we called this place. The wanderer in the Bulls jacket wandered to the other, cleaner gas station up the street. There were light, out-of-order pops of gunfire from the hills in the distance as we drove away.
David fielded texts from a friend and minor idol, the singer for a classic early ‘90s powerviolence-style band whom he befriended on a recent, mutual project. The guy, in his late 40s, is coming out of hard times and latched onto the normalcy of movies and a federal job. He was standoffish in their first exchanges because he wasn’t sure who had texted him, which “David” this was. Communication cleared up, he sent a flurry of explanatory and apologetic sentences. “Maybe I’ll try to come out and be 25 again,” he said to David in one of the last messages. He doesn’t show.
You can be a professional punk in Hollywood. This was explained in a roundabout manner by Russ Mackay, a ball of hungover energy and the very hospitable host to eight near-strangers. Mackay, in his late 30s, has booked hardcore bands as a profession, toured with Danzig and runs a radio show operated by one of the guys from Cypress Hill.
“You’ll even see me in the slampit at the show,” Mackay said with an earnestness that cut the legs from how dumb that sentence may normally sound.
One of the Finns handed me a breakfast Budweiser. We played basketball in a front yard court lined with a barbed wire fence and a front door that was constantly ajar. This home was claimed to be the former home of Ma Kettle and municipal leaders. It had a bygone charm, though facades were covered with Slayer posters and a backyard city skyline view was blighted by fast-food arches. In a front yard chair, a man named Shoe had passed out. A 50s-something man in denim overalls was one of a handful of characters to come looking for Mackay. The two detailed the crime scene outside from the night before where the denim man’s erratic ex-girlfriend attacked cops with apparent immunity to pepper spray, though not chokeholds.
Notions of time lost on me, I piece together our night before. Parked up the street from the show place in Long Beach, the roadies for the Finnish band, Heraldo and Rachel, combed their phones for a place for us to crash or a flimsy deal at a chain motel. Pat and I went with the Finns for a different perspective from the Gas Chamber tour van, which we had begun to think had been hacked purely based on the volume of empty snack wrappers. We bonded over wine and straight vodka, reliant on a few spotty translations to make sure jokes and stories could make the rounds. We witnessed a guy carrying a pizza delivery box get picked up mid-stride by a Lexus with tinted windows. Eventually, we drove under a blood moon to L.A. and fell down to sleep wherever we could find. This, I realized, must be why I did not notice I had passed out in animal waste in what I thought to be an overlooked, spacious corner of a weathered wooden floor. “Man, Justin, I think you slept in dog shit,” Heraldo declared the morning after.
Down a shirt and a peg, we spent the afternoon as tourists on Hollywood Boulevard. The two dreadlocked Finns, Jukki and Aki, paused for selfies at about every star from Spielberg to Godzilla. We ran into apparent music royalty – Mika, the former drummer for H.I.M., whom only the Finns recognized outside a Victoria’s Secret. Jukki, Terveet Kadet’s early 30s roadie and good-natured hype man, told me over a beer at the Hard Rock Café that Mika was a friend in their scene who ended up being a rockstar. We went to the beach for a bracing, ceremonial walk in the ocean. Pat and I talked about old friends and current homes. He kept calling me “Taco Tim” based on nothing that I could determine and it had me in a fit of laughter.
Onward to the show, we passed L.A. street names I recognized from rap songs. On the front of the club, the words “Hall for Rent” were painted over to suspiciously read as “Hell for Rent.” A bubbly Hispanic guy rode up on a bicycle to David and others lined up outside and announced, “white people, welcome to Mexico!” I realized, a bit embarrassed, that this is the first widely attended show I had been to where wiry, white, 23-year-old dudes were not the majority. L.A had around 250 people with a range of melanin and a near-even split of males-to-females.
Rosa Gonzalez wore a black denim skirt a size too small and had the word “AZTEC” tattooed across her throat. The 22-year-old was one of the first people to the show and drank Steel Reserve from a straw all night. Out of jail from an unspecified crime earlier this year, she spoke in-depth about her enchantment with fading cultures and languages. It was Lapland, most of all, where she wanted to go and live even. She glowed as she grilled the five Finns about the Sami people.“If I can learn Finnish and learn in Lapland, I can learn it all,” she said.
Arturo, a Mexican guy in his 50s, showed Jerry and David footage of the show. He’s a “death metal freak” and films bands five nights a week, any genre, sold on the side to the degree it’s become a part-time job. Rito, 42, told a story about bad dudes he was on tour with in the early ‘90s who resorted to badgering kids to score drugs in Ohio and who ditched a vehicle in the desert in Nevada. Now, Rito has his own kids, bills to pay and sticks closer to home. “I had to, what do they call it, mature,” Rito joked.
Prior to Terveet Kadet’s well-received set, I caught Lana, the 57-year-old singer, in the midst of stretches and something like meditation. Lana works for the post office and, like most of our touring group, used earned work vacation hours toward this trip. The founder of the band 30 years ago and only remaining original member, they had to abandon their first planned U.S. tour in the mid-1980s due to passport and visa issues. They have never approached anything close to hit records; they’re not one of the top punk draws or anything in line to play commercial punk outlets like Warped Tour. The band is a means to share time with new friends, he told me. At a buffet in Las Vegas, the introverted Lana had a dizzy spell that was rebuffed with a few cups of Coca Cola. Overall, the band is good for his health, as his doctor said the grunts and growls on stage double as asthma relief. “About me, [my co-workers] think I made it to America so it’s tour buses, big tours,” he said. His face turned to a squinty smile. “In reality, it is a bit different.”
Packed up after a lively, full show, we walked passed Rosa. She stumbled and threatened people who came into her orbit and all I felt I could do was hope she got to wherever the hell she wanted to be and soon.
San Francisco, Oakland & San Jose
“If this is my song [inserts fart noises], how can I keep from singing it?” –Maria Bamford
Oakland by day was funky and receptive. A matinee show with a mixed bag of bands left off the bigger bill at a festival that night, Gas Chamber turned any possible frustration into their most singular and holistic show of the tour. It helped that there was so much support from friends, all with more gray in their beards than the last time any of us played here in different bands a decade ago. David beamed in good company and representative sound. Jerry talked with a few locals and didn’t mind that I put a Tom Cruise 8×10 on the merch table.
That night, Terveet Kadet played another arm of the so-called festival at a club with multiple stages in a shadowy warehouse district. Tickets were more than $20 for a lineup that read like a “who’s that” list of charged fashion punks. Inside, merch tables were largely clothing retailers and exclusive, expensive records from people who had mastered the capitalism side of vinyl long before Record Store Day. There were no booths with petitions, PETA videos or communist newspapers. A couple of chords into the first, main-stage band and there were M80s tossed into the crowd and then a fistfight that gelled into a lumpy, leathery mob. The lead singer and gig organizer warned that if people wanted to see the bands from Finland later on in the show, they had to “go outside.” A masterstroke of logic roundly ignored.
Ninety minutes after we entered, Jerry rushed in to tell us the van windows were smashed. Upon further inspection, most of our suitcases had been taken stolen through the busted van windows. Personally, that meant I was out a couple of changes of clothes (none of them caked in dog feces, though that could have helped with some of the socks); a Houellebecq novel; an audio recorder; my journal; a few notes for this article; and all my sundries. Oddly, they left behind my phone charger, as well as Pat’s bag of bathroom items. The crooks didn’t touch the records nor a noise-making box made by David which could be mistaken for a bomb. Craig lost a bag of art tools. Jerry had the band money on him. Most of the equipment was in Terveet Kadet’s van, 100 feet around a corner and unscathed.
Other vehicles on the block were missing windows and had items spilled into the street. A neighbor out to smoke a bowl explained that it happened with regularity, the work of a nearby gang. We split up to survey the shady area near the club. I found a photocopier/fax machine broken apart outside of the door of one car and a person named Jessica’s Alcoholics Anonymous readings and writing dumped out next to another vehicle. There was no sign of our luggage. We had not been there when it happened, which possibly avoided true danger. We were not going through a personal crisis as this happened. We didn’t even lose a photocopier/fax machine.
Across the street in parking lot, 100 or so punks had created Dante’s third ring of The Inferno. Of the many kids who came from places far and wide—and some who stayed in the high-end hotel up the street and paid for pints with American Express cards—no one had saw or heard a thing from the smash-and-grabs.
“Sucks,” one mohawked kid blurted with all the mis-wired perception of a cheeseburger eaten in a mall candle store.
There was at least one police officer in Oakland and through a bank-teller window he made sure we had the correct form to fill out, should our items turn up. There was also one pen. Budget cuts, I assumed, as if the pen budget had pushed that tough city over the brink. When it was my turn with The Oakland Pen, I filled out the form for a sense of relief. That we weren’t shot, or trapped in one of the far worse scenarios happening at that moment somewhere in Oakland. I was relieved it probably had nothing to do with the punks, no matter how dumb those particular punks had been. Every year, bands on tour flip vans or get DWIs and these awful fates, too, we missed. I was relieved to be around my friends in a time of doubt, people I had met long ago basically because of music but whose attention and compassion had far surpassed sound. Then, Jerry and I raced to get to the car rental office before they closed at midnight, breadcrumbs of glass chards left behind in Oakland for anyone in that city who bothered enough to start to care.
With the frantic energy and subsequent communal humor of the incident worn away, we decompressed with beers at an old friend’s house in San Francisco.
The next morning held the warmth of spring. I pondered what I needed. What clothes even mattered? Couldn’t I roam the streets and allow the sun to soak in a way to figure it all out? If we lived beyond police and crime, past punks and boring expectations of a 34-year old, where would we end up? One small-time, non-violent robbery and I was prepared to start a cult, it seemed. I walked the Mission District and built up a new outward perception based on the deals at Asian variety stores and a well-stocked Goodwill. I reacquainted myself with toothpaste and deodorant. Intent that scant mattered as long as I could laugh. I changed my clothes on the street corner, just shy of complete nudity at an intersection in America’s 14th largest city. This is how people end up snatched up by cults. Or at least the cops.
I came back to San Francisco where our friends and lovely hosts, Jon and Dionne, fed us tasty vegetarian tacos and submerged us in great stories. Robert Collins came by. In his 40s, he works as an events contractor, writes for venerate ‘zine Maximum Rocknroll and lives to expand the possibilities of hardcore music and touring. He explained what it took to set up a tour in Mongolia, and how it involved a press conference and, potentially, music video shoot on the steppes. Like Ellie in Cuba and other tour stories I heard of locals in Serbia and Estonia, Robert showed a glimmer of the awesome power of shared music and expanded horizons. Where it is truly hard to do and dangerous, hardcore punk rock—and any combative art—has transcendent value. Robert compared the nominal amp improvements at a club he recently returned to in Brazil, to the disinterest of any fundamental home fixes declined by the party punks who run a late-night show house in the Bay Area.
“I need you to care a little bit. Just a little bit,” he said about the local punks and people in general.
A short drive that evening and we were in San Jose. We tried to obscure our remaining van items from street view. We unloaded and I walked right over to the bar across the street. They blasted heavy music like Tool and didn’t dress like their fathers or mothers. A human resources manager moonlighting on police line-ups couldn’t differentiate the piercings, tattoos and outfits in this room from those at the hardcore show across the street. Cashed, I’m hard-pressed to find a grand difference. As friends mosey over, we talk about promises in music from our respective hardcore and punk scenes from 10, 15, 20 years ago. We made personal changes, in diet, politics, language and location. The active, cultural scenes of hardcore punk’s lifespan—New York in the 70s, D.C. and L.A. in the 80s, Philadelphia and San Francisco in the 90s—constructed their own paths that have left others inclined to attempt to repeat. Bold declarations came and went—Krishna-core? 16th wave ska? —though there never was an album which would enable you to tear it all down, as it turned out. For all of the provocation and protest chants, the music has been a means to carve out space to dare, dumb and with a semblance of control. In an era where ideas are immediately alive, music is generally a disposable collectible. Expansion of sound is left for the endless variables of electronics. Rebels and alternative lifestyles are within reach, regardless of subgenre or hairstyle. Self-involved hardcore singers who preach to the nearly informed sound foolish against real societal capitulations from militarization, ISIS, and calving ice sheets.
In the set for the final show’s opening band, Pig DNA, Cheri held a dagger parallel to her microphone and meandered the front of the crowd anxiously. Not a day older than 21, Cheri wailed over a wall of digital decay and sludgy punk noise. There was a sincerity of youth their contemporaries had missed but a propensity to audibly scare it off before anyone could give it a second thought, much less an after-thought. This rare excitement could be a flicker of hardcore’s final 15 seconds of fame.
In the theft, it turned out we also lost cables imperative to the noise interludes of Gas Chamber’s set. David arranged for a friend, Nelson, in his 40s and the purveyor of a boutique music pedal business, to collaborate more than compensate. The result was the band’s most adventurous set, one where they played off each other more than usual and tapped into an unrehearsed power that connected with a crowd seeing them for the first time.
Mid-show, our row of roadies and merch hawkers were each approached by Hannele, a 19-year-old anthropology freshman. Studious in a bulky T-shirt and made more mousy from braces, she asked the background of the people there, our interests. I turned to her and asked what surprised her and how she felt.
“It’s fast-paced, I guess that’s what surprised me the most. And the guy moshing in the middle.”
She conceded: “I sort of feel awkward.”
Alcatraz & Home
All told, the four guys in Gas Chamber were down about $4,100 for the van and airline tickets, and $1,000 invested up front for shirts and records. The shows paid for gas, Heraldo and Rachel’s roadie fees, and a few hotels. Insurance covered the smashed up rental. Dignity was on a separate tab of the ledger, in the black at the end and probably richer in hygiene without those stolen socks.
After the show, I stayed in San Francisco for work at my day job. Craig, too, hung back, with no concrete reservation to return to western New York. We went to Alcatraz, where the brochure stated plainly that there was “no gas chamber.” At America’s most twisted version of a national park, Chinese art dissident Ai Weiwei had taken over a few floors and cellblocks. In one, the same grate used as an escape route for inmates 50 years ago played the anthemic and sloppy punk greatness of Russian political pariah Pussy Riot.
For Craig, a gifted if not mysterious physical artist, the screaming and noise of Gas Chamber is one of many outlets. I first met him as a death metal kid who skipped his first few weeks of senior high school to go on tour. Now 30, he’s trekked to Poland and scoured the pavement of Philadelphia for whatever pulls him in. He has an enchantment beyond the bounds of age or tangible limits. Later, I hide in my hotel bed with Sportscenter on a loop to reacquaint myself with agreed-upon reality. He sat in a corner with a few tarry artistic plaques untouched by the burglars before he ducked out to meet a total stranger to talk about street art.
For outside perspective, I called Amy McDowell, a sociology professor at University of Mississippi. She “flocked to the freak scene” around Pensacola, Florida in the early ‘90s after a wild show by Tribe 8, who, among other acts of feminist wiles, made men suck a dildo on stage. Although academia has taken up much of the time she had spent in her youth going to shows and running a record store, a solid portion of her studies have involved group mentalities and cultural aspects of Christian and Muslim hardcore scenes. McDowell said she loved the new Sleater-Kinney record and laughed with the perspective of younger punks about the “punk-ness” of that band. The first-year professor said youth culture writ large may be at a loss of history from obsessions with the present via social media and smartphones. McDowell said it’s easy to see the stagnation of traditionally rebellious subcultures like punk rockers amid the “general normalization machine.”
“You follow this formula and if you follow the formula, you can be in a band and people will book your show,” said McDowell, 37. “That’s unfortunate because I don’t see how new people could be attracted to a music scene if it’s not reinventing itself. Music and cultural scenes require that to survive, otherwise they kind of die out.”
More directly connected with the tour, I get emails from Pat and David, both pragmatic and upbeat. On the tour as a whole, David outlined his desire to see an “inaccurate, honest” glimpse of towns far from home—things he shared with me in person months earlier in reflection of their tour of Iceland and Finland. Pat, as always, was articulate and heartfelt: “We are not in any danger of becoming financially successful in a band called Gas Chamber, and even within the D.I.Y. punk scene we are hated by many people for not writing music that is generic or pointless enough … It is time to travel, get away from the monotony of daily life, to meet with people that we care about who are spread out far away from Buffalo, and of course to test ourselves as to whether or not we can play the songs perfectly in unfamiliar surroundings, and with gear that is unfamiliar.”
He summarized: “There are good days among friends where things go well, and days when we are surrounded by enemies that want to attack us.”
Justin Kern is a professional magazine author bio blurb writer. A lifelong amateur musician, he was or still is in bands with names like Solutions, Fudgy, Robot Has Werewolf Hand, They Live, Crappy Dracula 2, The Pissants, and Carl. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and cats.
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