I’ll always remember the first teenage dance I went to. Not for any of the reasons that I’d like to remember it for, like meeting a beautiful girl and falling in love, or getting kissed for the first time, or just having a great time dancing and coming home all excited because I realized I had a whole lifetime of dances and parties and friends and falling in love to looking forward to.
Yeah, that would have been nice, but none of that stuff happened. What I do remember was this kind of sticky, hot electricity that was in the air, in my clothing, in the looks that people gave each other. It was June, one of the first really sweltering nights of the too-short Michigan summer, and though I didn’t really understand it just yet, a lot of those edgy feelings whipping around the crowd and off into the blurry darkness could be summed up in a three letter word known as sex.
And I remember one song that the DJ kept playing again and again, maybe every half hour, and each time it came on, the crowd would cheer like they’d been waiting all year just to hear it, and they’d all form into circles and go into this dance routine that was meant to be danced only to that song. It was the Number 1 tune of the day; it was called “The Bristol Stomp.” The beat was straight out of the jungle, and all these years later it still gets my heart pounding.
But none of that stuff is what I really remember my first teenage dance for. What I do remember it for, will always remember it for, is that later that night, while my friends and I were walking home oblivious to the cares of the world, another kid who’d been at the dance was shot to death at a popular teenage hangout on the main drag in town.
I didn’t hear about it right away. News traveled more slowly back then, and most people we knew didn’t sit glued to their television sets waiting for something to happen. But it was a big deal in all the papers the next morning. “Tragic waste of young life,” “Gang warfare turns deadly,” “Youth violence out of control?” All the usual crap headlines and sensationalist stories by overpaid hacks who didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Any kid on the street, including me, could have told them why the guy got shot, but they never asked. They were too busy worrying whether their nice little neighborhood was turning into West Side Story.
Anyway the guy – they kept calling him a kid, but hell, he was 19; I had him figured for an old guy – had been shot for two very simple reasons, both of them avoidable. One, he was in the wrong part of town. Even that he could have pulled off, though, if he hadn’t been so stupid as to have his hair combed the wrong way.
That was what blew it for him, the hair. Probably nobody would have paid him any attention as he sat there eating his hamburgers except you just didn’t see people with greaser hairstyles on that side of town. (For those of you who don’t know your history of hair, that’s where you comb your hair back and up, sometimes with a little “waterfall,” as it was called, cascading down onto your forehead, and then you plaster it with stuff like Brylcreem to make it stay in place. Sort of like the Fonz, only cool, not dorky.)
Even still, he didn’t have to die; it’s only that this guy, the way a lot greasers were, always had to be a smartass. Like when the V-boys walked up and said, “What are you doing around here, greaseball?” he could have played dumb, could have pretended he was from out of town and didn’t know how the game worked, could have said, “Hey, I don’t want any trouble, I’ll just leave.”
But no, he just answered straight out where he was from, told them he’d eat his hamburgers anywhere he damn well pleased, and finished it off with a “V-boys suck my dick.” That’s when the shotgun came out, and almost immediately afterward, whatever brains he might have had exited rather quickly from the rear of his head.
Like I said, the whole thing made quite an impression on me. Of course part of the reason was that I was only 13 at the time, and a little easier to impress. But it was also because I felt, for the first time in my life, like I was part of something bigger than me. I guess it’s a lot like when kids get drafted into the army and sent off to war. They may not want to go, they may not give a fuck who’s killing who or for what reason, but once the bombs and bullets start whizzing past their heads, they get this idea like, “Whoa, something is really happening to me. I might even go down in history!”
I wasn’t old enough yet to be a full-scale footsoldier in this particular gang war, but it was close enough to home for me to feel part of it. Both the guy who’d gotten shot and the guy who’d shot him had been coming home from the same dance I was at. I was a greaser, just like he was. And I thought he was so cool, prepared to die like that for his hairstyle.
Wait a minute, die for a hairstyle? Did I just say that? Sure I did, and I meant it too. At the time, how one combed his or hair was a vital matter, sometimes even a life and death one. In that summer and the one that followed, at least half a dozen kids died for their hairstyles. My own gang beat some poor kid half to death on account of his.
So why am I telling you this now? Was I maybe worried that you didn’t have enough reasons for thinking I was dumb? Or am I preparing to launch my long-threatened campaign against people with stupid-looking haircuts and hoping I can frighten most of you into cleaning up your heads before I have to waste too many walking ratnests?
Well, no, actually I’m trying, as I do all too often in these columns, to Make A Point. Specifically, I’m trying to make a point about people who get all caught up in the supposed importance of some thing or idea until that thing or idea gets distorted enough in their heads that they’re ready to kill or die for it. Haircuts? Flags? Crosses? Hammers and sickles? Whatever; there never seems to have been any shortage of ridiculous things for humans to fight to the death over.
And now there’s a new one, apparently. This whole discussion about who’s punk and who’s a poser, about who’s really indie and DIY and who’s a corporate sellout, has been going on for so long that I guess I assumed it had become just one more thing for people to talk and argue about at gigs, parties, bars, or wherever the leading social lights the punk and pseudo-punk set gather.
I honestly never dreamed it would degenerate into violence, especially not serious violence of the kind that befell Jello Biafra at Gilman Street back in May. A group of – well, I don’t know what else to call them but punk gangbangers – attacked Biafra and beat him up very badly, putting him in the hospital with a broken leg that will require major surgery if he is ever to walk normally again. And his crime? No, it wasn’t his haircut (I had been meaning to speak to him about that), but the fact that some people think he is a “rock star” and a “sellout.”
I’d prefer not to even get into a discussion of what constitutes a “sellout,” first because I don’t think there’s any one answer we could ever agree on, and second because even if there were a set definition of “sellout,” I can’t imagine that it would merit getting your leg broken. But, what if just for purposes of discussion, we could agree that a sellout is someone who does something he or she doesn’t believe in simply in order to make money?
Well first of all, Biafra wouldn’t be a sellout, because whether or not you like the records he puts out, he does. Most of the records his label puts out don’t make a lot of money, because Biafra has, to put it mildly, unusual tastes. He could make tons more money than he does by selling his old Dead Kennedys records to a major label and not putting out any more of the avant-garde and experimental stuff he puts out now. Doesn’t exactly sound like a sellout to me; more like the opposite of one.
Second, even if you’re still convinced Biafra is a sellout (God, I can’t believe I’m having this stupid argument, even if it is only with myself), well, by your standards just about anyone who doesn’t work for free and give away everything he owns is a sellout. So why aren’t you and your friends in the thought police out there beating up all the other sellouts? There must be hundreds of them on your block alone.
Of course we all know the answer to that one. Biafra didn’t get attacked because his crimes, real or imagined, were bigger or more serious than anyone else’s. His getting beaten up was symbolic, just as the kid who got shot in my home town didn’t really die because of his hairstyle, but because of a whole money and power and status-based class system that might look and sound reasonable on paper, but when it starts affecting real lives and real people, is nothing but a cruel load of bullshit.
It’s not easy for me to believe in things. I’m a cynical bastard to start out with, on top of which I’ve led a long life that has consisted largely of a constant series of disillusionments. So on the rare occasions when I do give my allegiance to a cause, I tend to take it pretty seriously.
That was the case with punk. Sure, I could joke about it, make sarcastic comments about it, but for a lot of years, I could look you in the eye and tell you that punk rock music and the values embodied in the punk rock scene were as important as anything I’d ever known.
The maddening thing is, I’d bet those guys who beat up Jello Biafra would say pretty much the same thing if you asked them. Yeah, I’ve heard them called a lot of names, and I’ve called them a few myself, because I like Biafra, have liked him for many years, and it makes me sick to my gut to think of him being so grievously hurt for essentially no reason at all.
But unless those guys who beat him up are just complete lunatics, I imagine they genuinely thought they were helping out the punk scene by doing what they did. And that’s where I run into problems. Or rather, that’s where I get off. If those guys are part of the punk scene, I’m not. If being truly “punk” means violently attacking those whose opinions differ ever so slightly from our own, then I’ll stick to being a poser, thank you.