My 20th Anniversary of Punk (or “You Can Do Whatever You Want, Man”)
This story eventually has an old woman on the #147 bus on an indescribably cold day in Calgary, telling me to turn my music down. Be kind to her when she gets here. Forgive her, she knows not what she does.
It was the February of 1997. It was cold. It was always cold. “Cold” doesn't indicate a temperature in Canada, it means that a ghost lives inside your body without your permission from November until March. It grabs hold of every breath you take in and holds onto it, scraping it down your throat. Cold is a creature, a phantasm, not a reading on a thermometer.
That was the Winter that I had heard something amazing at Shawn's house. Backstory: my parents were extremely conservative Christians, and kept a close watch on whatever music came into the house. Nothing secular (except, oddly, Roy Orbison). They read the lyrics to every tape that came into the house. So all my music was Christian music, and Roy Orbison. But I found a loophole. I used to take cassette tapes of Christian artists like Michael W. Smith and DC Talk, and Shawn would let me use his tape-to-tape recorder to record “real” music over the Christian music so I could sneak it back into my house, and my parents would be none the wiser. You had to put a bit of Scotch tape over the little divot on the top of the tape in order to record over something, but once that tape was off, the evidence was gone. I was copying over the Christian tapes that I was allowed to have at home with music from Shawn's tapes which my parents would have literally burned (demon music!) and they had no idea. It was an amazing hustle, totally illegal, obviously, but the only way to get my hands on actual music. Even the radio was a no go at our house. But Shawn’s parents didn't give a shit what he listened to, so the selection was good. Shawn introduced me to Nirvana and Soundgarden, all the Seattle stuff, the Pixies, Radiohead, Iggy Pop, Jane's Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins...everything that everyone else already knew about, I learned from dubbed copies made in Shawn's garage that Winter. But in February of 1997, I heard something unlike I had anything I had ever heard before, something that changed my life the way that people talk about their salvation: Dookie.
Punk music, man. Fucking punk music. Fuck this, fuck that, fuck you, fuck me, fuck everything, add three chords, and serve with a twist of lemon. I couldn't get enough. I listened to nothing but Dookie on my little off-brand Walkman on repeat for three days, not an exaggeration, copied onto a tape that said Jars Of Clay because “mom and dad would never understand” [for the younger generation, that's a reference to a song called “Coming Clean” off of Dookie]. At some point, Shawn must have told his older brother, Chris, about me and Greenday, because Chris called me after school one day. He had never called me before and never called me again. That day, all he said was, “come over. Bring some tapes.”
God bless him. He brought out a stack to the garage that I will never forget: more Greenday (old Greenday, the really cheap sounding Greenday), the Dead Milkmen, The Clash, the Ramones, the Offspring, the Desendents, Rancid (and Op Ivy, obviously), NOFX, Sublime. I couldn't copy them fast enough. It was baptism.
In my room it was months, it was beautiful months with the volume on my Walkman turned down to 1 or 2 just in case mom or dad or my brother or sister came into my room and I had to quickly hide my sin. The only time I could listen as loud as I wanted was on the bus. I was free. I would roll the volume up to 10 and sit in the back corner of the bus and just listen. I'd ride the bus loop twice if I could, if I wasn't late for my part-time job, just to listen to ...And Out Come The Wolves one more time. It was my church. It was as free as a 15 year old can be: sitting on a bus rolling through a frozen city, slowly doing permanent damage to their hearing, having Tim Armstrong shouting “Destination unknown! Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby Soho!” at them. Armstrong was fucking terrible then, he's still terrible today. It was perfect.
Before Spring had a chance to breakthrough, I found my favorite, and it’s still my favorite today: Social Distortion. White Heat, White Light, White Trash had just come out, and I listened to that tape so often that it actually snapped in my Walkman one day. If I recall correctly, it was the only time a tape ever did that to me. The very next day I was at Shawn's making a new copy from his brother's tapes. I memorized every lyric, every guitar line, every melody, every time the drums switched to the ride cymbal, every bass run, everything. To me that album was the Gospel of St Michael of Ness. Now, I was 15 at the time. Mike Ness was 34. It was a lot of years before I understood everything on that album. It was a long time before I had to look myself in the face and say, “I was wrong,” or hold a friend and say, “that's the way that it goes when you're down here with the rest of us.” But it stuck with me.
And now this is where the lady on the #147 bus on the bitterly cold day comes in. I was in the back row of the bus, Walkman up to 10, little cheap headphones grinding as hard as they could to “Down On The World Again,” and this poor woman wandered the entire length of the moving bus, snapped her fingers in my face, pulled the headphones off my ears, and barked, “turn that awful so-called music down, young man, you're bothering everyone on the bus.” I froze. I didn’t know how to react.
So I punched her.
No, obviously I didn't punch her. I was 15, she must’ve been 60. One must not punch their elders. Some nature vs nurture (being raised a conservative Christian) kicked in before my flight vs flight could, and I just said, “whatever man,” in my toughest mid-pubescent voice, turned the volume down to 5, got off at the next stop, turned it back up to 10, and sat on a park bench listening until my Walkman literally froze and stopped working.
It’s amazing the things you remember.
Fast forward to 2017. My friend Dan, who lives in Pittsburgh, texts me: “Social D in Pburgh on 8/3. Thurs night. $36. Take a day off and go with me.” I texted back, “Obv” and bought a ticket online, I took a day off work, I drove to Pittsburgh, and we went to see Social Distortion. It was the first time I had ever seen them, despite 20 years of White Heat, White Light, White Trash rattling around in my brain. We got just the right amount of drunk before the show (3 beers), shouted along with every song like a couple of goons (which we were), and the whole time I kept thinking about that kid 20 years ago slowly freezing to death and going deaf just to listen to this. I wish I could have gone back and sat next to me on that bench and told myself, “fuck, kid, it's worth it, I promise. Not just for today in the freezing cold, not just for when you finally see this band in 20 years, but for every day between then and now, every time you put on that album or any album, every time you catch yourself singing 'there's got to be a heaven because I've already done my time in hell,' it's all worth it. This will all help. Also, good call on not punching that lady. We don't need that on our record.”
During the encore, while the band chugged through the breakdown of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire,” Mike Ness, (who is now 55), grabbed 5 or 6 kids, all ages 12 or 13, from the audience and brought them up onto the stage (because people who listen to Social D now have kids old enough to take to punk shows), and asked each kid into the mic their name and what they wanted to do when they grew up. One kid said teacher, one said pharmacist, one said singer, and no matter what the kid said, Mike said, “fuck yeah, cool, you can do whatever you want, man.” Then he got the kids in a circle around him and said into the mic, “if you do good in school, you can do whatever you want, man. Believe in yourself. And don't believe everything in those history books.” It was the same message he was giving me 20 years ago, and even though I didn’t really get it then, it stuck with me, and I get it now. I guess that’s the story of my life.
Punk music is fucking important, man. You can do whatever you want.
Note: since 1997, I have purchased every single album I ever dubbed from Shawn or Chris, because stealing music makes you a shitty person. Mostly I buy them on vinyl because I'm a hipster dick.