Let’s put it into perspective people: Forty goddamned years.
Well, 41 and a half, really, if you statistics nerds are going by your Discogs bible. But just as a juiced homerun record is forever scarred by an asterisk, our ruby anniversary was postponed by a pesky little pandemic.
Ronald Reagan was just sworn in (his first term!). We were still communicating through landlines and, get this, letters. The TV had seven channels, save the fuzzy UHF channels that showed those baffling Japanese cartoons. And when the price of gas briefly breached one dollar there was mayhem on the streets. Yes kids, we’ve been around that long!
But, no. Four decades? Could it have been that long ago, 1981, when we first saw that Posh Boy EP on the racks of Zed Records? We bought a copy each, still wary that this was all some sort of elaborate prank. Then Kimm and I stood on the sidewalk and tore at the shrinkwrap, slid black vinyl from sleeve. I held the record up to the sky, proof to the cruel gods that we did exist: We hadmade a record.
When Kimm first proposed this project, I was skeptical. “Do ya know what that would take?” I’d say, my phone on speaker as I worked on my dreadful chip shot from the fringe. “Licensing and remastering, artwork. And to get vinyl pressed nowadays?” You know…..work.
Undaunted, Kimm set forth and did just all those things. Teaming up once again with our pals at Hostage Records, we went about the messy business of stuffing a lifetime into a box.
We hoped to do 40 songs (duh), but even our brief sonic sketches would not fit ten per side. After briefly considering a bloated Sandista-d triple vinyl monstrosity, we settled on 27 charming tracks that nicely showcase them all, the gems and turds alike.
As we listened to the songs leveled and remastered, finally corralled together in one place, we smiled. The early demos, the hardcore zingers, those big haired guitar anthems–they’re all here folks! As the songs scroll past I am taken back to those days in the Cerritos garage. The hours on the highway come back to me; the taste of gas station hot dogs, the smell of another backed up backstage toilet. Each moment precious now, burnished a golden glow by the passage of time.
We decide to do the whole booklet thing too, of course. Pulled boxes from the attic, photo albums from the garage. We gathered around the scanner, ready to render our past to digital code. But the chore took hours longer than necessary, as we would hold up a photo and say, ….remember this? And then we would be back there: at a dive bar in Knoxville, say, or stuck in a ditch outside Calgary, the night wet and our faces young. And then we would be wiping our eyes on our sleeves, our eyes moistened by laughter and regret.
We briefly consider asking some friends, or maybe other musicians or journalists, to contribute a few words. But I could only envision pages of chaste language, politely recalling our glory days. I feared a booklet reading like an obituary, the words underrated and unappreciated popping up again and again. (Code words for unmotivated and second rate.)
Hell, I’ll just write the story myself. And so the 6 page booklet doubled to 12, swelled again to twenty pages, before we stopped ourselves at 28!
After the excruciating production wait, the day finally came: the records were ready.
Kimm and I opened the first box and took out that first record. We could have been those kids, again, standing in front of Zeds, not quite believing just yet. We passed it back and forth, remarking at its weight, the richness of the cover artwork. The smell of recently pressed vinyl, vivid as the electric scent of an oncoming summer storm.
And after tearing at the shrinkwrap, I take out the twinned albums and lay them side by side. The booklet is thick, bulging with victories and heartbreaks, friends aged or gone. But I pause before sliding the records from their sleeves, to hold them above my head, squint at the daylight beaming through the center hole. Not quite ready to sign off on the project, not quite ready to hold that many years in my hands..
The CH3 40 Box Set available in limited edition Purple Splatter Tomorrow! Saturday Jan 14 at the CH3Webstore and at Hostage Records.
We get to the Port damn early, pulling into the backstage parking lot before the morning mist has yet to lift from the harbor. A huge tanker chugs past, like a block long condominium set adrift by a jolting shrug of the San Andreas fault. I pause a moment, guitar case in hand, as we unload. I squint up at the stacks of containers moving past, then down to the waterline where the filthy port water is churned turquoise by the prow of the ship. Propelled forward by submerged violence, I wonder at the sheer horsepower generated within that steel hull. The miracle of fuel re-imagined as power, the massive screws twisting endlessly in battle against distance and time.
Nick got there even earlier, and has already staked out a prime spot near the stage. We have room for not only our pop-up and merch table, but also for Nick’s straight axle gasser, Dethtrap.
It gives our staked space the cool feeling of being back in the pits, of those 1970’s evenings out at Ascot or Orange County International Raceway, where we would race under the lights on the tight MX track while just beyond a chain link fence the garage built cars smoked their tires. The night air perfumed with the acrid sweet funk of melting rubber.
We’ve pulled an early set time, but that’s okay. It’s just a thrill to be back here at a festival, though Tucker went through hell pulling this one off. Through re schedules and band changes, the fest remained a torn flag on the horizon, a beacon to end this nutso Summer. There is still the delicious vibe of chaos going on. But the bands are indeed piling in and the stages have been set, and it looks like against all odds this thing is going to launch. We get up there and do the thing:
We play alright, though it it is always interesting to air our setlist under the midday sun. Forty year old songs of longing and desperation, nocturnal as raccoons. Perhaps they are better suited to the late nights in sweaty nightclubs?
I wander the festival grounds, the vast space starting to fill in with all the people who have sensibly arrived after our set. People come up and apologize for missing us, ask how it was. I assure them it’s all good, though a shame they have missed one of our all time great performances. We walk away from each other, each reassured by the white lie, faces intact.
Familiar faces everywhere, there is a sense of relief in the air. The lines snaking up to the food trucks start growing long, the port a potties start reeking with their astonishing stench. By god, it is a music festival after all!
Back at the merch stand we huddle beneath the pop up, watch as Paul grumpily rejects another potential customer. We don’t have that one in that size he repeats yet again. But most people stop by not to look at our meager selection of T shirts, but at the car. Nick stands by Dethtrap like a proud papa, pulling the pins to tilt forward the hood again and again to show off his build. A mild ’61 Dart repowered and rebuilt to 357 cubic inches of primitive power, 500 horsepower atop a 2900 pound car. It is Southern California. As people stop and look at the car, the sight of it seems to conjure sweet memories of their own late nights in the garage. Huddled over engines or flat backed underneath: a pal’s reassuring hands gripped upon their ankles to pull them out on the dolly, a four speed transmission cradled heavy upon chest, precious as an unexploded ordnance.
My brother JB comes by and I watch as he and Nick talk, and I know he is telling the story of his own ’72 Nova that he built and rebuilt, the most notable marker of his high school life.
And those memories are mine as well. The nights pestering him for a look by shop light at the hulking big block, until he would finally send me to a corner of the garage with valve seating compound and a suction tipped wand to grind down the valve seats on a cracked head. I haven’t thought of such things in decades, but I am instantly back in that Cerritos garage, long before we had the notion to egg carton the walls and turn up the amps. I smell the upturned hubcaps filled with gasoline to soak dirty parts, hear the clatter of tools dropped out of reach and the string of cuss words that followed.
The three stages go non stop and the crowd sweeps back and forth with each changeover. Every set seems a victory against the threat of a shutdown, under broken security lines or viral load. The day gains terrific momentum, like pistons unleashed of gravity, sending propulsion to crankshaft with each miraculous ballet of intake and compression, ignition and exhaust.
The HoeDown lineup features several acts that tend toward rockabilly and sleaze rock, their mirrored audience looking like a generation longing for the days of leaded fuel and cigarette machines at full service gas stations. Pinup dreamboats that look like they should be perched atop the classic rods and the greasy haired rockers who look like they should be underneath in the grease pit.
Back in the pits, another crowd has gathered around the gasser. Marshall, my old pal who spent his career as a Ford mechanic, comes by and looks it over grimly, like a man who’d be happy to never peer at another greasy motor in his retired life. But then Nick opens the hood and Marshall grins, and he goes, aw jeez, what have you done here….and then they are both pointing and talking.
An old punker stops in front of the car. In typical uniform, short pants and Vans, a faded Suicidal Tendencies Tshirt washed thin through the years and stretched tight over expanded waistline. He holds hands with a young boy, and though I first assume it his son, I do a quick calculation and realize he is my age, and therefore that is a grandson.
His eyes come alive with memories of past cars, the sweet torture of working part time jobs and counting a pile of soft bills weekly until he could buy his own ride And then, in the time honored tradition of So Ca Speed, he starts customizing. We take what we love and then immediately want to change it. Faster, and louder.
The boy squints at the gleaming motorwork and tilts his head in wonder. He has looked under a hood but once, that at his Mom’s Mercedes E Class wagon. He discovered only a bland sheath of plastic cowling covering a small city of computers and injectors. He knows only of the sewing machine efficiency of vehicles, bland couches that transport him to soccer practice, silent as a block in solitary.
PopPop points at the motor excitedly, relieved to finally show his grandson these things, to be able to explain how the gas goes from there, and mixes with the air here, and explodes there, and exhaust comes out there.
“That?” he asks in response to his grandson’s whispered question. He squats until his face is level with the child’s. They both point to the chrome contraption crowning the motor. “That’s a carburetor,” he says, as if showing his grandson the last of a near extinct seabird.
And later this night, he will hold his grandson upon his shoulder as the pit rages for Suicidal, and the boy will look wide eyed at the sweet violence, pure as the blue spark that ignites gasoline and propels us onward.
I lay up my second shot on the 18th, total chickenshit move. But between me and the green, now just 145 yards distant, lies a kidney shaped pond of water framed by cattails. What is it about fucking Water? I am suddenly terrified of the shimmering pool as if I am a green skinned sorceress surrounded by winged monkeys. Oh, if it was just terra firma between me and that white flag, I would casually pull the 7 iron and give it a firm but easy swing, confident of ending up somewhere within two putts to end the day. But this innocent water feature seems to have a gravitational pull of a Death Star, sucking balls out of the sky to claim yet another victim for its murky depths. I end up grabbing a a five hybrid and swap out the Pro V1 for a scuffed range ball, acts of desperation that can only ensure failure. And of course-of course!-I take the worst swing of the day, arms disconnected, already looking up before I even make the downswing. The ball shanks 45 degrees off the face of the club, spinning maybe 75 yards before skipping off the surface of the pond twice. The tiny splash it makes before disappearing into the green water echoes like the bitter laugh of a cruel stepfather.
I’ve disrupted a couple of Canadian Geese lounging in the cattails. They honk in protest before taking flight, disgusted by the bad play. And suddenly I am alone in the desert, on the walk of shame to the drop area, and its fucking hot. I wonder at the importance I’ve assigned to hitting a tiny ball around the yellowing fairways in the midday heat, at the silliness of wearing a collared shirt-tucked in– per clubhouse rules. Punk rocker? Me?
The carnival lights of Pappy and Harriets sparkle in the desert night. We all clutch our vaccination cards and smartphone rendered tickets in either hand like unholstered Colts as we walk down the dusty ghost town street of Pioneertown. We are masked as outlaws, bandanas replaced by N95s. Heading for our fated showdown with the motherfuckin’ CircleJerks!
When they announced the dates to their comeback tour–what, for the third goddamned time?–we pledged to be there for night one. For who knows what disaster or plagues those rascal Gods have planned for us in the near future. We may be shuttered yet again by another variant of virus, or chased to the hills by anti vax zombies, who the hell knows? Band tours are announced, rescheduled, then cancelled. But it seemed as though it just might happen, this wonderful gig, though if we were all told to turn and evacuate at the last minute it would not surprise me. But as we finally pass security and get into the gates I see Arab standing stage left and a dozen familiar faces, smiles unmasked, that I allow myself to believe we are going to see the Jerks play once again!
Negative Approach kicks off and the night is suddenly filled with with purging rage. John Brannon up there shouting like the world’s most pissed off guy who has finally reached a human voice on the customer service line, his eyebrows inverted like two crows diving for the same roadkill.
Kimm and I wander around the crowd between bands, but we go only a few yards before we are stopped by an old friend or a fan of the band wanting a photo with us. They see us standing together and take a startled second look, like children running into their third grade teacher in the supermarket. It becomes apparent when we are together we become a different and altogether logical entity, like Bert and Ernie or weiner and bun. His spiky blonde head, my tragic gigantism, together we equal thosedudes from that old band.
We chat with a few more kids who tell us how their parents used to like us, then we decide to separate and walk to different corners of the corral.
As I wait for the band to come on, I am surprised by just how much I really want to see the Jerks play again. They always seemed The Stones compared to Black Flag’s Beatles, or maybe they were beyond all comparison…. The Who? A band that always embraced the ragged edge in urgent blasts of sound, The Circle Jerks remained the true standard bearers of So Ca hardcore, never wavering from the path of good old honest punk, man.
And out front, always Keith Morris. He saunters onstage and welcomes the crowd in his nasally drawl, sounding like your favorite uncle who always asks about your love life as he slips a twenty in your shirt pocket. Approachable to a fault, Keith has always been there for a chat, often helping our own band out with touring logistics or a gifted opening slot. Between his three mega bands and countless offshoots of bug killing monikered projects, he is there in the darkened back of the club, a fan when not on stage. He has become our own punk rock Bill Murray, a beloved elder statesman.
But then the band kicks in and he becomes the snarling frontman of our youth, belting out song after song in the same bark and meter. A sound that conjures up the wild hot nights of the 1980s, transposed to voice the rage of this fucking world and its horrors. A dust cloud rises from the desert floor, and though the venue is all outdoor the temperature of the Earth is suddenly hotter. People raise their goddamned phones, naturally, that natural reaction nowadays to prove they were there. But my faith in mankind is restored when kids start climbing atop each other’s shoulders, launching their bodies across raised hands. Iphones and drinks go flying, dust becomes mud. People start pocketing their precious electronics against the mounting mayhem and have to just watch and listen, be in the moment of this night. Beautiful.
It’s Greg Hetson up there next to Keith, those familiar tight kneed jumps, and all is right in the world. Joey Castillo on the drums is a monster, and good old Zander holding down the bottom, I am starstruck once again that Joe Strummer had this guy on speed dial. Song after song is played, and when Keith announces they are only half way through twenty seven fucking songs on their set list I am forced to find a cup of water and a seat.
I worry about bands going out on tour, amidst viral threat, expected to rage on cue as if they were teens. Keith and Brannon both, having to get out there and pour out their souls and shred their throats nightly. And while it may seem silly, all of us elder gents shouting above the guitar and drum, it only takes that first song to remind us of the value, a reminder that we shall import our meaning to the experience. Whether confessing to a rage that somehow still burns at 60, or trying to get a small ball to disappear into a hole
The band plays Wild in the Street mid set, the crowd goes fucking wild. It is epiphanically charged moment, the punk rock ethos suddenly clear as the stars hanging crystalline above the upraised arms of the Joshua trees. That shared thing that allows us to wear a black and red sock to work, to get horrendous but cheap haircuts. We wear Black Flag T shirts to the supermarket and buy the ugly fruit. Because we know the fruit still tastes just as sweet and it’s only hair, it will grow back, and, hey! The fuck you looking at? Because it’s not that we don’t care,. We just don’t care what you think.
The next day I’m still in the desert, back on the course. After the clubhouse turn I ditch the Travis Matthew polo and put on my sleeveless No Values T shirt. The course is deserted again in the midday heat, and I crank my phone speaker volume. Spotify choosing Circle Jerks songs off some algorithm they suppose will appease me.
I am now on the 18th tee, and I barely notice the pond standing between me and the flag. I see only a mild lawn that I will own like a bitch, the water feature as inconsequential as a puddle of spilled Pabst in the desert dust. From the cupholder in the cart, Keith sings I Wanna Destroy You, and I can’t help but laugh, a maniacal, knowing cackle that sends the geese into flight.
The ball launches pure off the face of my driver, and it disappears into a white expanse of sky. I turn away, not even caring to track its flight, because I destroyed that thing. Punk rocker, me.
I stand at the bar waiting for a Red Bull. It’s past ten o’clock, you see, and I am unused to being up so late.
I stifle a yawn and try to snap back into nightclub mode, for we still have a set to play. For the past glorious 18 months I would usually be tucked in bed by this ungodly hour, playing Golf Clash on my Ipad until it slips, finally, from my loosened grip. Another day ends with a sigh and snore even before the tablet clatters to the ground..
The Daughter is suddenly at my elbow. She has has migrated toward Dad With His Wallet Out, opportunistic as a hyena sidling up to a lioness chewing on the haunch of a downed wildebeest. I sigh, ask the bartender to hold up, and ask what she’d like.
She is apparently fetching a round for her crew as well, and she recites an order of highballs and fruity seltzers that sounds like an incantation to summon fallen Indian warriors: White Claw, Moscow Mule, Seabreeze, Ice Pick……Geronimo! The bar space before me is suddenly cluttered with slim cans and cocktails concocted from cinnamon whiskey and fluorescent mixers. I slide two twenties across the bar, and when the bartender looks down at my cash dubiously, surrender two more bills.
The Daughter has already danced back into the darkened depths of the club with her arms filled with drink, while I shell out my last cash for a suitable tip. But I smile, for I am, at least for a single shining moment, a useful Dad.
Spider is up on stage, and it’s good to see our old pals once again. The room is ruled by youngsters, dancing out of sheer joy and pent up energy. Elbows fly, legs pump. The club adopts the giddy vibe of a dog park, the butt sniffing attendees going crazy and off -leash.
It’s our old bandmate Alf up there on drums, slamming the skins and having a blast. He plays with a renewed energy, and I have to admit it is bittersweet. Like seeing an old flame now thirty pounds lighter and remarried, happily moved on from a hilarious yet doomed relationship.
It occurs to me that Alfie was the first to be a Father, though he is years younger than me or Kimm. He started a family admirably young, and now counts Grandkids among his audience while he sips bronzed beers during his Sunday patio sessions.
I wander to the cordoned off backstage area, where Nick huddles with the other drummers. They warm up their wrists and complain about singers. Steven from Shattered Faith catches us up on his rockstar twins from The Garden, and their plans to play at vast halls on their upcoming Fall tour. I wonder aloud if they perhaps need some aging punk rockers to open the show, or maybe even sell merch. No response.
Bobby shows me photos of his own grandkids on his phone, unable to resist gushing while he talks of their crawling adventures. Punk rockers reduced to big old softies, I tell ya.
I wonder about my own legacy. “Now here’s a record your great grandpa made, waaaay back in the 1980’s,” I imagine a future offspring saying. A toddler chews on the corner of a faded 12″ EP sleeve, my photo on the back: a long dead numbskull grin searches for a trace of dignity in the future “Oh, here we go. Here’s a song grandpa wrote, it’s called Wetspots. It’s about pre cum.”
The Shattered boys hit the stage, and it is always wonderfully jarring to see Branden up there stage right. He appears as if a hologram from their younger selves amongst their graying heads. His slim Thunderesque guitar posing is a cruel reminder of what we all once were. But he stands next to Pop, and Spencer looks over at him with fatherly pride.
As Anthony tunes his bass backstage, he eyes the cans of Modelo floating in the melting ice water. I can tell he is tempted to grab a couple for stage, then hide the rest under seat cushions for after the show. Usual backstage etiquette.
But tomorrow he and Amy will be hosting a party for baby Nova’s first birthday, so he grabs a Monster instead. After taking a sip he makes a face as if he has just tasted the tears of a sad, sad clown. It will be our first time meeting his kiddo as well, having watched her grow up these past twelve months by cell phone photos and emailed video clips, isolated safely while the world went about it’s deadly viral business.
I will watch his baby destroy a birthday cake with her bare hands, have her first astonishing taste of sugared icing. And the world, it will suddenly open up to her, with all its sweet joys and bitter consequences. I resist reminding Anthony that soon he will be Dad With Wallet, but by the time his daughter is drinking age a round of drinks will cost the same as a 12 volt Lithium car battery. And he will pay it, and gladly, if just for the chance to stand next to his Daughter for a moment before she disappears into the night.
We play and it is one of those nights.
The bass drumhead breaks, I forget half the words to forty year old songs. We are off by just that much, a millisecond of groove lost after the long layoff. But Who cares? seems to be the theme of the night, as people are happy to just be out and together. During our third attempt to play You Lie I look over and Alf is up onstage again with us, shouting along to the chorus. He conducts us successfully to the end of it, and I hug him in grateful relief.
When we play Make Me Feel Cheap we bring up Max, Kimm’s son to join us onstage. He stands next to Pop, and the eyes get a little weepy out there on the dancefloor. Max, the spitting fucking image of Kimm at that age, straps on Kimm’s Gold Top and joins in with ease. The crowd loves it, senses how much we love it, and we keep him up there for the set closer of Got a Gun.
With Max up there I have an unnerving sensation in my periphery, that jeweled corner to my left, where for the past forty years I have felt the reassuring presence of Kimm next to me on stage. I see him as a young man, and imagine that I am young once again as well.
But we get to the final choruses, and I find that I am winded. Out of practice, out of shape, I croak along to the final shouts, then finally just step back from the microphone. And it does not matter. The song blasts on, and young Max steps up to the mic and sings my part. I watch as the pit boils and the crowd yells, while a new generation carries on.
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 vudetails 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.
It’s Thursday and we’ve somehow lost two hours of our lives up there.
We hit the terminal running in Minneapolis, determined not to surrender any more of our precious senior years to the Central Time Zone.
Into a rental minivan, onto the 35 West.
Google Maps is set to Glueks downtown.
We hit scan on the FM and it skips along the unfamiliar stations.
Christian Rock gives way to Classic Oldies. NPR, Banda.
Stop at a station dropping the hip hop hits of the 90’s.
We’re down, apparently, with OPP.
We haven’t snacked since a surprisingly decent breakfast pizza at LAX.
Some raw almonds and ginger ale aboard Southwest flight 728, saving ourselves.
For this is a Midwest swing, and we are fully prepared for our dietary pyramid to be reduced to a mere rhombus containing only the two vital food groups: Meat and Cheese.
A gorgeous Indian Summer day is finally giving way to the shadows.
We stroll up First Avenue now, torsos packed with sausage and pretzel.
We pull up to Mortimers and find a nice crowd for a Thursday. Our pals Alisha and Norm kick off the night with their new act UFO TOFU, the kids belting it out like the hardcore Sonny and Cher.
We play and it’s a great set, confusion and noise, feedback screaming out of the unfamiliar borrowed gear between songs. Just how we like it.
The guitar cables are soaked in beer as we roll them up at the end of the night.
We load out into the cool Minneapolis night humming the Mary Tyler Moore theme song, considering the musical greats borne from this city of lake and snow.
The crew at Mortimers reminds us to take our meals that they have graciously kept warm in the kitchen, and we retire to the AirBnB with the luxury of meatballs and braised meats upon sturdy breads.
Halfway to Chicago, but the schedule just cannot justify the 45 minute detour to descend from Waukesha to hit our beloved Mars Cheese Castle.
Not to worry, as there are many palais de fromage along the 94.
We stop at Ehlenbach’s Cheese Chalet to test our lactose tolerance.
They, along with several of the cheese huts we pass, believe the common deer mouse is the prime mascot for their silky wares.
It is an odd campaign, when you think about it: Our product is sure to attract thieving vermin–IT’S JUST THAT GOOD!
It’s just a vat of tailgate spread and some water crackers, thanks, for just across the street is a Culvers, home of the motherfuckin’ Butterburger!
We continue down the highway toward Chicago and its gift of Friday afternoon traffic.
We are insane: We dip fried cheese curds into the Cheddar spread.
We inspect each morsel for the telltale pellet of mouse endorsement, but sadly find none.
Naps at our fave dive, Heart O Chicago (no blood tic tac toe on the mirror this time-boo.)
Then it’s up and toward Liar’s Club and whatever hijinks Herb has in store for the night.
The White Castle on the corner of Ridge sits there like, well, like a castle.
We’re stopped next to it at the light, make jokes about the hideous food, memories of late nights we fell onto the sacks of wee burgers like tweakers upon air conditioning units.
The food is disgusting, we all agree.
We pull through the drive through and order sixteen of them, then avoid looking at each other as we gobble them down.
Shameful, as if eating small sparrows intact.
Oh, Liar’s Club, you goddamn slut of a bar. We love this place.
We walk in to find Herb and the crew have outfitted the stage with bombastic sound gear and lights that make it look like a Ozarks strip club.
Hazardous Youth and our pals Destroy Everything kick it off proper.
It’s loud as fuck in there.
I know the fellas are trying to keep a lid on things, but Herb keeps pushing water glasses of Jameson in their faces, pulling the night further into madness.
We play and it’s a good one, like playing in someone’s basement after sitting in the hot sun drinking beer at a Cubs game.
Pics: Patrick Houdek
Yo, Rod Stewart! Oh no, what the fuck up with your hair?
The girl behind the counter reaches out toward Kimm’s head. What? Lemmee touch it. It’s stiff right? I bet it’s stiff.
She tousles his hair and then turns her attention to Anthony standing beside Kimm.
Alright, alright then. So what you want, you fuckin’ Keanu looking motherfucker?
Our dear mate Roy suggested a trip up to the famed Weiner’s Circle for a late night snack and some verbal abuse.
Anthony immediately falls in love with the place, going back in for yet another char dog and to trade more insults with the crew.
Soon he starts insulting the other customers as well:
“Hey, don’t wait on this ginger motherfucker,” he tells Rhonda behind the counter.
“You shut the fuck up and sit down, I got this,” she says.
Shoreline Drive and it’s Saturday.
We decide to dive into the touristy center of town.
We show Nick the sultry Chicago River, then the parking structure Bob Newhart used to sleep it off after a long lunch with Jerry the pervy dentist.
We hit Harry Caray’s and take pictures with the holy cow.
We act like caffeinated tourists without a trace of shame, the sly benefit of growing older and simply not caring.
If there was a giant foam finger nearby we would put it on.
It’s nap time in the Dodge Caravan as we set cruise control to 78 and hit the 90 East.
Now the sky darkens, clouds pregnant with mysterious moisture.
When the rain comes, it falls in angry sheets.
The Bridgestone Dueler S/Ts plow into the pooled water on the highway, then release hold on the asphalt and hydroplane the length of a shuttered shopping mall.
We drift across two lanes and it is thrilling.
I check the rear view as we regain traction. The lads snore peacefully still, unaware of the miracle of life.
I dip a water cracker into our trusty glovebox cheese spread to celebrate.
Now That’s Class , our home in Cleveland.
Paul stocks a full line of the finest fortified wines;
there are pallets of Olde English 800 in the basement.
A sign behind the bar: Women in their third trimester drink for free!
We pull into the back and smoke from a BBQ envelops us.
We walk headlong into the beefy perfume, then shed gravity and float along like Bugs Bunny enthralled.
Upstairs now to Paul’s living quarters.
He has food for us–sausages, yes.
Also some chimichurried ribeyes, then some local Walleye recently murdered on the banks of Lake Erie.
We eat and head downstairs toward the noise.
Nick has his concerns with the backline, hasn’t played behind the fortress of cinderblock since his teens.
We tell him it’s gonna be fine, it’s Cleveland.
And it is.
We play again, another set, another rendition of these songs let loose into the ether.
We cannot find anything to eat after the show.
We pull into one drive thru after the next, vacant except for the one cursed soul who is sentenced, apparently, to sit there all night and repeat: We’re closed.
Not a worry, as our action man Beenie puts on his CH3 onesie and pulls out his Seen on TV cooking gadgetry.
We eat, we sleep.
Sunday and it’s a bitch downtown.
The Browns have the home opener, on the thrilling verge of their 18th loss.
But we are just across the plaza at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame , of all places.
Our pal SuLee gets into the building gratis, and we wander the halls both disgusted and humbled.
There is a tote board where you can put in your own votes who should be inducted next.
Reggae pioneers 311 have 20,000 votes, plus.
We cannot find New York Dolls or Starz anywhere on the list.
But I stand before Elvis’ shiny gold suit, marvel at how dainty Prince’s lace gloves sit still.
I’m staring at Joe Strummer’s weathered Telecaster, thinking of the sound and sweat.
I drop a CH3 guitar pick to the ground in front of it.
An offering? Perhaps just proof to myself: we were here.
Closest we’ll ever come.
Later at Cleveland Hopkins International, the crowds gather around the bar TVs.
The Browns have chased the Steelers into overtime, and now an interception gives them the chance to win it.
The chance to break the shameful streak that this city has accepted, like all its curses, with humor and booze.
It is this close.
These people can allow themselves, finally, the unspeakable image of victory.
But as we board, a unified groan spreads throughout the terminal.
A blown kick, the game ends in a tie.
They didn’t win, but they have not lost.
We pack into a proper UK cab, 5 of us and gear, and I wait for the driver to kick us out as the TX4 bottoms out its suspension.
But he just nods at the jump seats in the back and smiles.
“Are ya in lads? Looks intimate but it ain’t too long , the ride.”
I get into the front seat and chat with the driver on the short ride to Blackpool North Station
My shoes make an audible smack as I move them on the cab floormats, still sticky from the Empress Ballroom floor. I ask him what he thinks about the punkers on their annual invasion of his town.
“Ah, lovely, you lot,” he says. He makes a right turn onto the left lane, and I grip at the dashboard instinctively, so ingrained my years of being stuck in the right hand lanes of So Ca traffic.
We’re leaving the festival early on Sunday for the show in Leeds. Wintergardens is just filling in now, the campers gearing up for the final day.
I look out the side mirror and watch the Blackpool Tower growing smaller behind us.
I knock on the aluminum fuselage as I step onto VS024.
Nonstop LAX to Heathrow, that hollow bok-bok serves as my ritualistic surrender of all free will as I step from free land onto the totalitarian nation of Modern Air Travel.
The flight attendant’s smile fades as she sees the guitar case in my hand, eyes rolling just a few degrees upward as she takes my trusty Tele from me and stuffs it into the first class closet among the Versace and Gucci.
I am directed to the right, and back, ever back,toward the steerage class of the plane. As I pass, I sneak a glimpse at the Upper class sleeper cocoons where a jolly bunch is already sipping mimosas and changing into pajamas.
And then the walk of shame past the Premium Seats, where that lot are already seated and going through the in-flight menu, savoring every extra perk they can squeeze out of the extra 800 bucks they dropped on this leg of the journey.
The seats get smaller, tighter now, and the low growl of humanity grows in proportion. The horizon draws to an inverse triangular perspective to the very back of the plane, seats packed so tightly together they meld into a singular pinpoint of torture.
I take the seat on the aisle, thankfully bulkhead exit row with no knee crunching seat in front of me. I am first on this island, two empty seats between me and the obround window that shows Los Angeles shimmering through spent jet fuel.
My reverie is shattered as a frazzled woman stops at my row. She squints up at the row number, takes the window seat. She slips off her sensible travel shoes and puts on her Bose noise cancelling headphones, gives a terse nod and smile as I do the same. The unspoken signal of the experienced traveler: I have acknowledged you. However. We shall not communicate again.
Our eyes meet as we glance at the empty seat between us, shrugs of hope exchanged. Our world for the next tenhourfortyminutes has been condensed to mere centimeters of precious territory. And those 16.8 inches of unclaimed land between us would make all the difference, the two armrests allowed without the passive aggressive wrestling match between elbows, a luxurious acre of land to be planted by sweaters and magazines.
Maybe this is a good thing. You know, to appreciate your life out there.
Your immediate world is concentrated now, the very allowance of air upon your skin, the extra ice cube in a plastic cup. Your bodily functions timed to avoid the humiliation of a bowel movement mid Atlantic. Each movement is amplified, the grace of an extra 4 ounces of lukewarm coffee a blessing.
The man who insists on using your headrest as a crutch each time he passes by: I will kill you!
And now the delicious torture of the wait. The seat sits still vacant, as we stare down each approaching passenger. I hold my breath as one after another person passes me on the aisle, shaking their heads that they didn’t have the foresight to drop the extra 80 bucks for an extra legroom seat. A big man pauses at our row and my heart stops. But he only adjusts his poor belt and moves along. I turn to the lady and we share a quick nod of relief.
We are now married in our silent prayers to keep this seat open, this jewel-like empty space between us all the way across the continent.
The boarding has slowed its grumpy parade now, a few stragglers rushing back, blessedly beyond our row. It looks like we may goddamn win this one.
It is exhausting.
But here comes the last of the passengers, and be damned if it isn’t the young Brit couple I wondered at in the TSA line. Imagine, traveling with 2 infant twins! They stop for a moment at the bulkhead seats across from us, already occupied by a couple with a toddler and newborn themselves.
“Dammit Hugh,” says the young lady. “I told you that wasn’t the front row you got. And now what are we gonna do?”
I can tell they are on their way home now, probably after some incredible event–a wedding or the funeral of a rich uncle–that would persuade them to fly half way across the Earth with 2 babies.
The man, all sunburned Anglo cheeks flushed redder still by the 2 drinks he snuck at the lounge, just shakes his head in disgust. “Are you kidding me?” he says to the whole cabin, “Who do we talk to hmm?” I turn my eyes down to The Big Takeover magazine in my lap, though I am wholly invested in this drama. Then to his wife through gritted teeth, “For fuck sake Lisa, just sit down, will ya?”
The babies now squirm in their parents arms, as if they know the ordeal in their immediate future, and the next eighteen years or so beyond that.
“Oh nice.” she says, “why don’t you have another cider, you bastard.”
We are a shameful audience, all thinking it would be awful nice if someone were to give up their seats, yet no one quite willing to make that effort.
The flight attendant comes to them now and offers a row together and they head back further into the bowels of the plane. The doors are shut, and we have won this incredible lottery. I consider how much this means to me, sniff back a tear of relief.
Perhaps the stress of commercial flight has made us this petty, religiously grateful for the smallest of favors.
We start to taxi down the runway, and one of the babies behind me starts screaming, soon joined in piercing harmony by his sister. I switch on the noise cancelling feature and shut myself off from this tragedy, while the attendant snaps shut the curtain dividing us from the Premium Class.
It is a miracle really. We have each resigned ourselves to sitting here, still.
Any sudden freak out or trace of normal human behavior would be penalized with–hell, forget a threat to our safety– an emergency landing far short of our destination.
We have signed this contract in blood: Everybody, be cool.
And then we are all hurdling along the night sky, each of us surviving the minutes that slowly tick toward our final release.
Together in this tube, yet each on our own journey.
I missed the Steve Soto memorials this past weekend, instead riding my motorcycle across the fire-warmed trails of the Mendocino Forest.
Incredibly, the winds shifted in the morning, and there was no sign of smoke.
Just clear blue skies as we leaned deep into the corners of Highway 20, into the Alpine setting surrounding Clear Lake.
Standing on those hills, I thought Steve would approve of being on the road and far from home, his territory after all.
Kimm filled me in on the services and memorial, a proper tribute to Steve.
Once more filling the room with loved ones, friends and fans, packing the club over the guarantee and into backend bonus, just another sold out show for the man who finally missed the downbeat.
I heard Tony mentioned Rock Wives, that common trait of bands to have those two connected characters, usually on board since the start.
Together on stage always, graying through the years yet recognizable immediately within context to the other half.
Inseparable as California Condors, mated for life and destined to fly in formation til one falls tragically to the ground.
I dunno, maybe it’s because it gets so goddamned hard to keep a band rolling after the decades pass. Oh sure, when we were 19 it took only a suggestion of a gig in Nebraska for us to jump in the Blue and White and take off on a 3 week tour.
But you try to book just a simple Saturday gig at Alex’s these days, and you are suddenly in competition with the kids’ morning soccer tournament and the wife’s plan to spend the weekend at Cabazon to comb the outlet mall.
People naturally pass in and out of bands, but you have those two old fucks up front as the constants: grumpy landlords that see new tenants move in all smiles and unassembled IKEA furniture, only to evict them 3 months later for smoking meth in the courtyard.
Some Rock couples seem to truly dislike their mates, Joey suffering under Johnny’s commandeering of the van and guarding the radio dial to only Yankee games and right-wing call in shows.
Yet the awesome power of the music, of the house lights going down then DeeDee’s bark of 1-2-3-4! keeping them united for another night.
Perhaps in those precious moments on stage all the day’s miseries are forgiven, a glimpse into their hopeful teenage hearts just visible through the leather and pain.
I guess the Steve&Joes, your Mick&Keiths, they have the RocknRoll luxury of traveling on different buses, trading Twitter insults with each other from their private islands in Barbados between tours.
They know another tour is coming up, another 65 dates of putting up with that guy, financially connected in a strained ballet of spite and respect. We’re not gonna even touch those incestual couples, (think Ray&Dave, Liam&Noel), whose genetic bond authorizes physical war.
But maybe punkers value their mates more than those jaded millionaires, the bond built in the spit and blood that much stronger for the visceral glue that holds tight.
Tony&Steve, our beloved Jims of The Crowd. Tim&Lars, Stan&Leonard…what of the actual RockWives of Exene&John? How’s that working out for ya?
We used to joke with Tony and Steve that one night we should have a swinging key party, everyone swapping mates to see what kind of ungodly combinations we’d discover.
Tony: Better watch it, what happens when it’s us 2 singers that end up together for the night?
Me: Not a worry. You ever hear of WHAM, mate?
What a rare treat to actually like this person you are connected to then.
You knew Tony and Steve were more than band mates, just as Kimm and I are as likely to be having dinner together with the wives as we are playing to an empty basement in Frankfurt.
We didn’t know it, not at the start, but this thing has always been about the friendships.
I walk into the room and the first thing people ask (well, after, ya know who you look like?) is, where’s Kimm? And he gets the same when he loads in solo.
Sometimes I get annoyed. Hey, what are we, married?
But yeh, we signed up for something long ago, welded in something stronger than paper and law.
Far from home and in a new place, but standing on that black wood that is as familiar as a hometown Main Street.
Another night with that comforting silhouette to stage left.
Both of you perhaps a bit grayer, the right hands moving a little slower across the strings, but known, known.
The night that Joe Strummer died and I was hanging around backstage at House of Blues Anaheim.
This is when Social Distortion would do a run of 10-12 shows right around the holidays, a sort of OC punk advent calendar that everyone seemed to bitch about, yet it sold out every night.
I had cleaned out The Crowd’s dressing room of any remaining beer while they were on stage, the classic dickhead backstage move that I justified with the need to drink in Joe’s honor.
I walked down the hall swinging 2 warm Coronas like piss filled juggling pins, chuckling at the thought of Decker getting off stage to discover only Vitamin Waters left in their green room. I caught sight of Mike Ness through an opened door. He raised an eyebrow and nodded to me, though seemed to rightfully be prepared to run if I came any nearer, lest my drunkenness infect his hard-earned sobriety through sheer osmosis.
Then I saw Steve sitting in another open room, and he waved me over to chat. And that’s how it always was when you saw him, the smile of mouth and eyes, a joke in greeting. All of us, the characters that made up this zenith of So Ca punk, we all recognized the man at the very center. The big guy we all circled, deserving of the very gravitational pull that brought you into his orbit. A welcome.
I plopped down next to him and shook my head. “Ah Soto, what a day.” I was wallowing in my own pity for my hero’s passing, putting on the self-absorbed dramatics any proper drunk knows how to manipulate into just another excuse to have another shot.
“So tell me a story Steve,” I said. “Tell me a Joe story.”
And then he looked to the ceiling and smiled, rolling through that data bank of experiences. A lifetime of this music in every conceivable capacity.
He smiled then and turned to me. “Strummer or Ramone?”
For he did indeed have stories about either Joe. With a Zelig-like ability to be there at all times, he had a story to tell of every gig and musician you knew, and loads more about the ones you did not.
You knew him, or course as Tony’s right hand man on that stage, the mighty foundation of The Adolescents. Laying down the bottom end, yet sailing far above with the sweet high harmonies.
And then there was the stable of acts he held, always on hand to fill a rare open weekend night with a gig: Manic, Karaoke, Riders—etc.
And: tour managing, booking, studio cat.
Steve had excelled, it seemed, in every aspect of the music business: make that the Music Life.
I’m in the studio, struggling with the punch ins: failing yet again to hit a common third. The other guys have gone out for tacos, leaving poor Monroe alone in the booth to roll back time and again as I butcher the background vocals.
Take twelve and I throw up my hands. Jim hits the talkback, but doesn’t say anything. We look at each other, held in the silence, then nod as we both come upon the solution: Call Soto.
And a day later we are in the control room, Steve out alone at the mic. He tells a long story about Gabby, then puts on the cans and spins a finger in the air: roll it.
And then, one pass, boom. He nails the track, then goes back again and lays another harmony on top of that.
We roll through again, and he effortlessly weaves in and out of the track. It’s done, and he takes off the headphones. So one time, me and Stan– this was way out like off the coast of Italy….
A couple years ago we met up in Köln Germany. A cracker for a Monday night gig, The Adolescents and TSOL, MDC and us.
We are all decades removed from those bratty awesome early days, now more concerned with the WiFi password and a tea kettle than pirating beers from each other.
I find a nice cool seat outside as everyone is packing up and Steve comes over to sit with me. We chat between people coming up to talk to Steve, asking him for a selfie or just to shake that hand. My thumbprint is left on a dozen Iphones as I am asked to take their photo together, these people so happy just to be near him. And he is happy too, out here on the road, his home. We talk about the rest of their European tour, though he was out with CJ before this leg, hasn’t been home since Punk Rock Bowling.
“Dude. I don’t know how you do it,” I say. “That travel schedule–sheesh!”
“Yeah, but you guys with the wives and kids– see, I don’t have a dream killer, do I?” And he laughs at the joke, because ever the romantic, he is in love with a girl back home.
He continues to travel, as he always has. To be far away from us yet somehow still close. He saw this life as just that: a dream.