Our Last Gig: Packed like Sardines

Albert Licano photo

As we skirt across the webbed span of the Gerald Desmond bridge, an industrial glow emanates from below.
Terminal Island pulses with the churn of commerce, harsh sodium lighting showcasing an evershifting city of shipping containers.
I gaze down at those boxes stacked eight or nine tall for endless blocks.
They sit in purgatory, a moment of stillness between the churning black Pacific and the stinking miles of highways ahead.
Waiting to be plucked by the cranes hunting from above, fattened grubs helpless to the cruel whims of a hungry mantis.

I have to wonder what lies within those corrugated steel walls.
Worthless trinkets made by starving children?
Medicines delayed by customs, while a young man dies surrounded by family?
Perhaps huddled within are humans, ready to emerge blinking in the sunlight, the opportunity or destruction of the American ideal on their minds.

It’s a chilled Friday night in the South Bay, an area that has always held a mysterious shroud over its industrial bent.
The legendary Dancing Waters, sure.

But we recall earlier riotous nights on that side of the Vincent Thomas:
There we are after a drunken gig at the Minutemen’s private space in 1981, when we lost the keys to the van and were stranded at 3 am.
A vigilante troop of cholos sweep the darkened streets of punk trash, breaking my nose and tearing off a side view mirror for good measure.

The Cove in Hermosa 1982, when one industrious punk notices a working firehose coiled innocently against the wall.
And like Chekhov’s gun introduced in Act One, said hose was surely unfurled and unleashed by night’s end.
The geysers flooding the lobby a glorious fountain of crimson and azure, colored by the police cars surrounding the building.

But we hope no such water damage or bodily injury awaits us at the Sardine complex tonight.
It is a tight friendly crew, our boys in Spider once again joining us along with youthful ragers Love Equal Death from up yonder Ukiah way.

Love Equal Death

The Sardine, It’s a very cool space.
Neighborhood bar up front, decent sized gig space in back.
And a lovely little courtyard just beyond that, where people smoke and chat.
They sprawl along picnic tables like divorced dads waiting for the end of soccer practice, dreading the inevitable conversation with the ex through gritted teeth.

Lorrie Smith photo

After Love=Death slays with their high energy melodic take, our Spider men take stage and do their thing.

Albert Licano live photos

The lads are energized tonight, Hector bounding about the stage, pointing out the targets of rage that only he sees hidden in the dark rafters of the club.

It is the finest set I’ve seen them play, though I dare not mention that when we pass them offloading the stage as we set up.
Can’t have them getting too high tone on us, yeh?
“That second song from the end,” I ask Karl while he packs up his pedal board. “Is it supposed to sound like that or was that a fuckup?”

Lorrie Smith photo

I see Randy from the legendary Alley Cats slinking around the perimeter of the courtyard looking the world like a wizened spectral vision.
I say hello and we chat about band stuff for a bit, and I am relieved he doesn’t warn me of two more holiday spirits that shall me visit me on this night.

I notice my old pal Marcus standing by the stage, and I haul him up to do the band introduction.
A former Buddhist monk, he agrees with a serene nod when I ask him to start us out with a brief chant.
Om Mani Padme Hum, he sings, Om Mani Padme….
And then we climb upon the stage one more time, one more Friday night sending out our own mantra into the ether.

No lobbies are flooded tonight, no cartilage bruised.
We launch the music skyward, in hopes of transmission, contact, engagement.

A mile away, the port hums its own chant of concern.
A battle call of grinding gears, a song of its cargo, of the treasures and terrors that lay in wait.

A Day in the Park

I’d been up in these hills before, so I knew what to expect.
Up Santiago Canyon, past my beloved Saddleback Park, the crown jewel of So Ca motocross now shuttered and relegated to landfill.
Irvine Lake shimmers to the left, and as we enter Oak Canyon I start to track the dwindling cell coverage on my phone.
The bars dropping off like the weakened pulse of a hospice patient, vital signs growing fainter until finally flat-lined.
Sweet merciful death.

I put my neutered phone back in my pocket, and I suddenly realize just how much we’ve all become reliant on these goddamned rectangles of silicon and glass.
As we follow their directions along routes we already know, as we allow them to strip beloved phone numbers from memory and reduce human interaction to emoji, so there goes our soul.

It is liberating, a day out without impersonal connection.
Textless, we all make plans to meet up by certain gnarled Oak if we happen to get lost, and I am transported to youth.
The luxury of two hours away from the parents at Disneyland: a child of ten rewarded for a sparkling report card, with only the sole duty to meet at Sleeping Beauty’s castle right after lunch

We park in the dusty back lot, directed by signage identifying us as either Troop 606 Boy Scout or Punk.
And I ask you this: Can’t we be both?

It’s a grand day out, a promised rainstorm holding off until the Punk in the Park fest can wrap up under a bright full moon.
Inside the gates it is a massive play space, beer gardens slinging free sips of crafted beers, a cigar lounge over here, art gallery over there.
The crowd is giddy, kids running into the hugs of friends met by surprise.
A clutch of trees shade families of punkers two or three generations deep.
And here, here comes the Manic Hispanic cart, passing out fruity paletas to the laughing grandkids.

I briefly wonder if we took the wrong turn and had indeed stumbled upon a jamboree of jolly scouts.

We stop by to see our pals at the Steady Brewing booth where they are passing out samples of the new-yes- CH3 lager.
People down the tiny cups like mental patients tossing back daily medications.
I watch people sipping at samples, and I ask how it is. They give it the thumbs up.
“It’s good,” one punkette tells me. “It’s better than the FEAR beer, but not as flavorful as the Damned.”

There is a brief moment of vertigo then, as I consider our band branded upon beverage.
Compared to our heroes through not song catalog but by brewing temperature and alcohol content.
But who am I to question this new day of lifestyle symbiosis?
A guy walks by in a Pennywise flannel, smoking a Shattered Faith cigar.

The lads in Pulley have to get out early so we are switched to their later time slot.
Backstage we are also gifted their trailer.
They wave off my grateful apologies from the tent next door as Nick plops down on the couch.

He’s a fuckin madman, our man Nick.
Just off a ten day tour with Final Conflict in Japan, then straight to the dragstrip for a gathering of the Gassers.
I wonder if he is delirious with jetlag and V8 deaf, but he is ready to play, chipper as can be.
When he leans in close to show me the new billet drum pedal he got in Tokyo I can smell burnt rubber and bonito flakes.
I know it’s gonna be just fine.

Friends and family have been welcomed backstage, and it soon takes on the flavor of a backyard barbecue.
We are introduced to kids of the kids we grew up with, and push our grown children before us in return.
Proof of life, sheepish reminders of our nihilistic vows to never grow old.

I ask my daughter which shirt to wear on stage.
She rolls her eyes and reaches for the bottle of vodka I smuggled in my guitar case for her, my sole paternal duty done for the day.

We get up on stage just as the sun dips below the hills, a happy bonus to winding the clocks back an hour the night before,
The timing is military tight, and just as Voodoo Glowskulls finish on the other stage we are given the signal to jump.
We launch into Indian Summer then, guitars ringing out true into the cooling night air.
And here comes the crowd migrating toward us, like parched Serengeti cats toward the watering hole.

It’s only a thirty minute set, so there’s hardly time for the usual banter and confusion onstage.
But it is Kimm’s birthday, of all things, and we take a sweet moment to wish him well as our kids bring out a cake.
He blows out the candles as I surprise him with the opening riffs of Last Time I Drank, a song that soured us for a generation of punkers.
But now it takes on a renewed, celebratory ring.
And when an honest to god circle pit starts to swirl up a cloud of dust I turn to Kimm and think I see a wee teardrop form in the corner of his eye.
Happiness or embarrassment, I’ll never know.

It gets cold, it gets dark.
Lights sparkle along the trees as couples smooch in the shadows, dudes barf in the bushes.

We do our last sweep of the dressing room, swipe all the Redbulls and Cornchips we can carry from the abandoned trailers.
As we head out of the Canyon we are all silent, each of us already reliving the day past.
The lights of Orange County come into view below us, a vast bowl of twinkling lights stretching to the horizon.

Suddenly everyone’s phones start chiming and buzzing, for we have re-entered the coverage zone.
My leg tingles with phone vibration, text after text, social media notifications.
Notifying me of things I have no need to know.

I surrender a quick look at the newsfeed, and a certain red hatted madman has threatened a return campaign
A terrifying election looms in just hours, the fucking Astros take the series, the planet burns and weeps.

And I turn back then, back toward the blackness of the hills, toward a day among family and friends.
And I long to be up there still:
Surrounded; Unconnected.