Kimm and I head into the club as The Berzerkers start their set.
It is dark and packed, and it all comes back to us in an instant.
That throbbing visceral pulse of bass beneath shrieks of drunken joy, the air thick with humidity, dancing bodies sweating in close proximity.
It all feels so distant yet immediately familiar, like the bitter arguments of parents heard through the drywall of a childhood bedroom.
We are both wearing masks, though we quickly abandon them, as no one in the entire club wears them.
It is less a sign of confidence than we don’t want to be confused as Anti-Vaxxers, or perhaps some other cowardly cult that believes in things such as witch burning or the flatness of the planet.
No, we have come cautiously to this first night back, tentative as monkeys first encountering open flame.
We’ve spent the ride down to San Diego hyperventilating, the truck cabin air perfumed with hand sanitizer.
Oh, we’d been offered some earlier gigs, sure.
Thought of doing one of those streaming shows, those odd sets that are performed on a sterile soundstage, rendering the band tame as a 3 a.m. dog act on the Jerry Lewis telethon.
A drive in show? A fucking podcast?
All of these things seemed just desperate half measures, the rationing of Punk Rock while the atmosphere still teemed with deadly microbe, each of us huddled in our caves around the reassuring glow of Netflix while we waited for GrubHub to make with the Pollo Loco.
We got vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, wore masks until told we were safe, lowered them before putting them back on again.
But it was our old pal Arab who persuaded us to finally make a date with the stage once again, a night to celebrate the astounding Hostage Records compilation album we were invited to join, as well as a benefit for the venerable Casbah club and its staff.
We prepared for the gig grimly, as if for battle.
Taking out the gear stored over the past 16 months since our last gig.
I found the strings on the Rickenbacker corroded to rust, had to consult YouTube to remind myself how to restring the wonky tailpiece.
When I unpacked gig bags left untouched since the Viper room, I found a sweaty T shirt that had moldered into a wad of gray, like a hairball coughed up by a shuddering jungle cat.
We practiced, and during breaks we rushed out to gulp at the sweet night air, so out of shape were we to yelling lyrics over roaring guitars.
Ant flexes his sore digits, his fingerpads unused to the cruel thickness of bass string.
His hands now familiar only to the keyboard tapping of home office and the gentle head cradling of infant Nova.
Nick searches his phone for clues to these songs unplayed for so long, somehow keeping them separate from the setlists of Lower Class Brats or Final Conflict in that file cabinet brain of his.
Kimm and I, we just ask each other the same question yet again: Are we really ready to do this?
The Berzerkers wrap up a quick set, the HB crew killing it with their melodic take on frantic Punk Roll.
Familiar faces start floating up to say hello, and I instinctively back away.
I have become enamored of the 6 foot radius clause, have begun to think it shall remain my own personal no fly zone for the remainder of my days.
But the people come in closer, 2 meters then one, and suddenly I am in within spitting distance of these old pals I have not seen in so long.
I hold out a fist, the expression of combat now turned safe greeting, but it is ignored as my hand is grasped in sweaty handshake.
What’s more, that hand is pulled in body tight, and I am suddenly wrapped in a bro hug, body to body with another living human, the thing we have been taught to regard as a Hefty garbage bag full of germs intent on your destruction.
But I somehow survive the hug, and we pull back amazed, amazed at a night out among friends, each of us wearing a smile that even an N95 mask could not hide.
Love Canal goes on next, Bosco playing guitar as well as singing tonight, Arab serenely holding court over the rowdy night that he arranged.
The band is tight and hot as the dancefloor mutates into pit. I am pushed against the back wall by a windmill-armed skanker, someone throws a can into the lights, sending a spray of fruity seltzer down my shirt.
And suddenly all thought of airborne toxicity vanishes from my thought.
Oh yeah, I think. This is a gig!
The soundman asks the guitars to turn down, someone is hustled the back door, his collar collected in the bouncer’s meaty paw.
These things, the Déjà vu details of a thousand nights before; the smell and sights, the noise and filth.
By God, I’ve missed it.
And I just know if I go into the bathroom, the toilet will be overflowing with piss and unspeakable flotsam.
And it feels alright, ya know?
It is our time to set up on the stage, and I surprise myself by being nervous.
We are here to play a set of songs rehearsed to instinct, some of the tracks dating back forty fucking years.
We have replayed this scene so many times, the hectic exchange of gear on and off stage, the quick hellos between guys rolling and unspooling guitar cables. We will tune and line check, squint down at a printout of a setlist and do it all once again.
But it seems new, and we have to pause while arranging the backline at one point, not able to remember if my amp usually sits stage right, or was it left? (It’s right.)
The soundman cuts the house, and the crowd comes in from the smoking patio. I turn to face them and suddenly realize I am not nervous, but excited.
Honored, really, to get to do this once again, to play for these people who have come out to join us.
And I tell myself to remember this, in the futile hope that I will never take it for granted again.
We play and it is over too quick.
The crowd was great, drunk and happy.
As if they are immune.
Immune to any more bad news.
To the new variants, to the warnings of another drought, to a Western sun bloodied by firesmoke.
For all we know we may go back once again, back to a lockdown.
But for one night at least, we are given the chance to see friends, play some songs, remember what it was like—how it should be.
A guy comes by just as we finish loading.
He introduces himself and says great set, asks if we might take a photo together.
As we say good bye, he holds up a fist, expecting that very least of human contact, knuckle to knuckle.
But I surprise us both by grasping at his hand and then pulling him in, and giving a total stranger a hug.