Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Tarot Card of Hardcore Punk.

A few notes about my first big punk show in 1983.
(In memory of Ricky Kulwicki) 

The first Black Flag record I bought was the Jealous Again ep at the mall. I must have picked up and put down the record several times during the course of a summer. I had known only a couple of Black Flag songs from a cassette tape Jimmy’s cousin had given him. The real reason why I hesitated buying the album was that it only had five songs on it, but somehow I couldn’t stop thinking about the artwork on the front and back cover. There was something devious about it that went beyond the obvious imagery; it touched on a different level of consciousness, like the artist was making a comment that even complex ideas and thoughts such as violence can be easily deflated with a couple of simple words. The front side showed an illustration of two busty cheerleader cowgirls with pistols parading in a sort of a slam dancing motion against a bright yellow background. The flipside is a continuation with one of the girls holding a freshly fired pistol in her hand while her jock lover in his letter jacket is gasping on his knees after being shot just above the eyes. She says to him “Before you die…tell me that you’ll always love me.” It was the caption that really put the hook in me. A couple of years later in high school when I started taking art classes it dawned on me that perhaps the album cover was a nod to and a parody of one of many Roy Lichtenstein’s damsels in distress paintings.  

I played the Jealous Again ep to death on my parent’s laminated Formica console stereo in the living room. It was a real process to slip on a disc, records were easily scratched and grooves severely worn by its’ uneven plastic turntable. When my parents were out of the house on bowling league nights, I’d bring down that record and the handful of other albums I that Jimmy and I collectively owned from my bedroom and crank the volume. The best part of the ritual would be sitting in the swivel chair spinning and rocking back and forth to which I eventually wore out the bearings.

One evening I decided to sit at the kitchen table and compose a letter to the band since they had an address on the back of the album. To my surprise I received two pieces of mail from them, one was a hand-written letter from Rosetta on the back of a flier stating that band was out on tour and the other was a folded flier with tour dates. I got super stoked when I saw that the band was coming to the Mercury Cafe at the end of the month. I found the Yellow Pages and looked up the number to the Mercury and took a marker and scrawled it on the back of the Jealous Again album cover. I called the cafe and the person on the other end of the line said the date was cancelled and that it might be moved to later in the fall. The band never did make up the date.

First piece of mail from Black Flag. 
The following spring I found out from a couple of the high school punks that Black Flag was coming to town, to the Rainbow Music Hall. This would be my first big punk show and getting permission from my dad would be like winning the lottery. I had to sell it in away he’d let me go. The good news was that it would be Sunday matinee and that I would go along with Jimmy. Sadly, Jimmy’s dad reneged last minute and I had to scramble to find another friend from school. Donny was a newly punk converts who only lived a couple of blocks away, he got the green light from his folks. We got into the car and my dad laid out the ground rules of when and where he would pick us up and told us “there better not be dope or alcohol at the show.” We assured him there wasn’t.

We dressed in what we thought was our punk best, little did we know we came across like punks on parade complete with thin wrap-around pink “punk” sun glasses. We waited in line and paid our six dollars and hung around the lobby. Thinking that we had to “up” our coolness, we spotted a cigarette machine in the corner collectively thinking “what could be more punk than smoking?” We put our change together and slipped it into the coin slot and pulled on the Marlboro socket with no luck. We tried a couple of others only to get lucky on a pack of Kool menthols. Since neither of us smoked we assumed all cigarettes were the same. We opened the pack, pulling out a stick and each putting one in our mouth only to figure out that one essential component was missing, a light. We must have looked inane wandering the lobby asking other punks for matches or a lighter. One chick with torn stockings in a skirt, wearing a leather jacket over a leopard print shirt with dyed pink hair offered us a light. She figured we could return the favor by bumming one of our smokes only to decline once she found out they were Kools.

The first band was about to go on and we rushed into the hall to find orderly rows of folding chairs. I asked Donny how were suppose to slam dance? I guess whoever booked the show thought it was going to be some sort of Captain and Tennille concert. We found empty seats near the front and sat down just as the Blitz Girls went on. In my opinion and speaking for the majority of the audience, having them open was a terrible idea. The band played away at their lame set of new wave songs while dodging food and cups between heckles from the crowd.

The Frantix were next. The restless crowd had enough of the folding chairs and when the band broke into their first song people stopped being polite and the scene on the dance floor became a free for all. Flying chairs went in every imaginable direction; Donny and I definitely ducked a couple of times with some near collisions. Punks were recklessly dancing in the newly created pit, slamming and tripping over the mangled seats. Most chairs were thrown under the stage or off into the sidelines. The band relentlessly cranked through their discordant brand of punk belting out tunes like Face Reality and My Dad’s a Fuckin’ Alcoholic. They set the tone for the afternoon and Black Flag would righteously finish it.

I remember seeing a girl and her younger brother taking a Polaroid in the lobby.
Unknown to me at the time, Black Flag’s roadies had a pseudo cock-rock Van Halen wannabe band whose mission was to piss-off as many punk rockers as possible in their fifteen or so minute time slot. They called themselves Nig Heist-the name alone was offensive. The band both aesthetically and musically was the antithesis of what we thought punk stood for. Imagine four guys on stage in quasi arena rock clothing wearing long hair wigs, provoking the crowd with a diatribe of insults picking on various audience members and playing blatantly sexist songs like Woman Driver and Put My Love Into Your Mouth. After the first couple of ditties most of us got it and went along with the joke such as flipping them off, yelling obscenities or throwing empty cups on stage. The band fed off the crowd’s tension like gasoline on flames; they brazenly begged for it. Truth of the matter was that Nig Heist constituted as nice break from the seriousness of what embodied punk and a reminder that contemporary hard rock bands embraced this sort of nonsense. They were purely mocking and taking the ethos of rock stardom to the extreme. Yeah, rock music was saturated with a heavy dose of sexism in both behavior and attitude and sadly most fans condoned it by ignoring it. When Nig Heist pulled through town again a little over a year later with Black Flag their gimmick became more refined and biting, really reaching for the jugular. Long-time Denver promoter Barry Fey would have the band arrested for their lewd stage antics. After the set, Fey got on stage and what seemed like an apology said something to the effect of: you’ll never see shit like this on my stage again.” More about this incident in a future post. 

The Minutemen were next and I was vaguely familiar with their latest album, What Makes A Man Start Fires from hearing a couple of songs on the radio. Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs was my favorite song of theirs at the time. Sadly, my appreciation for the band’s unique style and sound didn’t develop until a couple years later when my scope of punk expanded. I mostly remember them firing off one frenetic tune after another while bouncing around on stage and just like that their set was finished.

When Black Flag hit the stage it was like the end of the world. They had stacks of menacing amps with their bars logo painted on them. Greg Ginn flipped the switch on his see thru guitar and Chuck Dukowski and Dez Cadena added to the massive cluster of feedback and noise to drench the room. Henry Rollins came on stage and the band broke into the wall of sound. The songs were packed full of power, rage and energy. Henry looked crazed with cuts all over his body; he mentioned something about getting them in Chicago a couple of nights before in his book Get In The Van. Donny and I thought they were heroin marks, what did we know about drugs, what else would make a man act so crazy and intense on stage? We lived inside a bubble and didn’t know anything about Henry’s beginnings in the 

Washington DC scene with all the straight edge stuff. The man was high on adrenalin seeking to annihilate anything that stood in his path. One thing for certain, the pit was a monster and as much as we talked about going into it, we were easily weeded out after a couple of fruitless attempts, which was mainly being tossed around like a rag doll. We lost our “punk” sunglasses and cigarettes while others lost shoes and items of clothing. The floor between songs looked like a sweaty battlefield littered with ripped and broken Salvation Army items. Henry was really down on the stage divers, speaking about a girl who got her eye knocked out from some dude at one of their shows. Getting kicked in the face with a combat boot wasn’t much fun or having older wannabe jocks under the guise of punk climb up on your back trying to jump up on stage. Black Flag was indeed the soundtrack to the anarchy that raged in the pit that afternoon.

My dad wasn’t coming to pick us up until six. By then the bands had already loaded out and the empty parking was a sea of empty cans of cheap beer, broken bottles and fast food wrappers. Donny and I walked across the street to McDonalds and spotted the vocalist for the Frantix, I took out my torn ticket stub which was a photocopied Tarot Card (The Death card with a skeleton numbered XIII) printed on yellow paper, and asked him to sign it. It caught him off guard; he had to borrow a pen from one of the cashiers and was a little hesitant on signing it. When we left I told him that I like the T.V.O.D. song and walked outside just as the sun was disappearing into the Rockies. When I got home I called Jimmy and told all about the show but more importantly we were going to immediately start a band.

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