Thursday, March 24, 2011

White Dope on Punk: Chapter 3. Sick to Death

By Greg Kim

My mother came home from the mall and boasted, “Greg! I saw a punk rocker at the mall today. Do you know him?” To most inane but well-intentioned questions like this, I would have replied, “Duh mom, we don’t all know each other,” but the punk scene in Pleasanton was small to nonexistent so her query wasn’t that far-fetched. I asked her to describe what she saw: “Gre-yeg” (my mother has a strong southern accent so she pronounces my name in two syllables), “I don’t know, he had brightly colored pants, a checkered shirt and checkered shoes and funny looking glasses.” Of course this description offended my punk sensibilities. “Jesus Christ, Mom. That’s not punk! Do I dress like that? That’s totally some poseur!” Poseur was a big putdown in the punk scene, a word you didn’t want flung your way. The popular thought was that if you were punk and lived in the suburbs you were automatically a poseur. I lived in the suburbs, so, of course, I projected this same sentiment to everybody who didn’t live up to my punk standards. According to me, this was pretty much everybody. I was punk as fuck. And also, by definition, a poseur.

My sister had paved the way for me to be punk, so my mother didn’t really blink an eye at my brightly colored mohawk and the hardcore music spewing from my room. She let me graffiti my room from floor to ceiling and even found a way to accept that my favorite band at the time was called Millions of Dead Cops (MDC)—she even printed out a huge banner bearing the band’s name at work, every letter encompassing one 8½ x 11 sheet of paper. It was the early 80s and computers were used to print large volumes of documents on dot matrix printers, so this was exceptionally unique. Upon seeing it in my room, people would ask, “Wow, how did she do that?” Followed by, “Man, your mom is cool.”

I put the banner over the graffiti in my room. It was so long that it covered two walls, forming a dogleg between “Dead” and “Cops.”

Pleasanton was exceedingly normal - you could count the number of punks on two hands. There was Andy, Jerry, Sue, Carrie, Jane and that was pretty much it (or at least they were the only ones we knew about). All my sister’s first generation punk friends had moved to the City (aka San Francisco), leaving us to fend for ourselves.

Andy was a year younger than me and looked like a British punk sans the leather jacket and fuck-with-me hair: tall and skinny with pegged jeans, snug T-shirt, black high-tops and a three-row, studded wrist band on his left wrist. His hair was cropped short and naturally brownish blond. Without hair products, his hair puffed up like a Chia Pet. His parents were hardcore Christians so he had to be home every day by 5 pm for dinner, no matter what; therefore, we referred to him as Andy Be-Home-By-Five.

Jerry was a mod and hung out with us because there were even fewer mods than punks in Pleasanton. He was angry, liked to spit and say fuck you. He smoked clove cigarettes, had one of those mod jackets with a Who target on the back, wore rectangular shades like Paul Weller and played a Rickenbacker bass.

Sue was my girlfriend. She wasn’t punk, but was sassy and was what we liked to call a “punk sympathizer” and a budding punk. She liked Peter Gabriel and Todd Rundgren and called them Gabe and Todd, like she knew them. This was a big problem in our relationship. She also wore dirty saddle shoes every day.

Despite being my age and in the same grade, Carrie and Jane were more my sister’s friends. They graduated early and moved to Hayward to be with their working class punk boyfriends who were in Social Unrest, a very popular punk band in the Bay Area.

Even though we were all very different in our outsider status, we were united by circumstance and geography. Only in the suburbs will you see punks hanging out with hippies hanging out with mods hanging out with theater geeks. There were just not enough freaks to go around, so you had to put away your subculture prejudices and stick together.

Like all good punks, me, Jerry and Andy formed a band. I played guitar, Jerry played bass, and Andy sang. We had a rotating door of drummers—punk drummers were in high demand and almost nonexistent within 20 square miles of Pleasanton. We always had to settle for rock or new wave guys that didn’t look the part. Image was very important, no matter what anybody said.

Most rock guys had long hair and idolized Neil Pert from Rush, which wasn’t a good thing. They tended to consider themselves “musician types” and always pushed us to show off our musicianship. One suggested that we played the Peanuts theme song. He didn’t last long.

The new wave guys always thought they knew what punk was, but they didn’t. They wanted to play “modern rock” and incessantly pestered us about adding a keyboard player. They never lasted either.

With both types of drummers, our comments were always the same: , “Play faster, play harder!” We called ourselves Plastic Jesus, eventually renaming ourselves Anti-Social Youth. We figured Anti-Social Youth covered three of the most popular themes in punk rock: anti, social and youth. Why not put them together?

We practiced in my garage until the neighbors complained and then we were forced to move to my sister’s vacant room. With songs like “Reagan Country” (an ode to the president who kept punk rock relevant in the 80s); “Red, White and Dry” (a sexist anthem about the female anatomy), “Sick to Death” (a nihilist ditty about suburban boredom), we planned to record a demo so we could start playing out. Knowing absolutely nothing about recording, we chose the easy and cheap route of a boom box: press record and then stop.

On the day we recorded, we recruited Sue to push play and stop. Robert, my 9-year-old neighbor and big fan of the band, was there too, in his second Anti-Social Youth T-shirt. The first shirt was confiscated by his mom, with the threat of punishment if he continued to hang around us. We encouraged him to wear the shirt and defy his mom. I even offered to keep the shirt for him in my garage, with the garage door unlocked, so he could wear it at any time. He liked this idea and started wearing it to school, stopping by the garage to pick it up every morning.

Finding the right placement for the boom box was hard. In the open room, the condenser microphone was overloading, which resulted in one long sustain of white noise. We weren’t an art band, so we tried many spots in the room until settling on the closet with the door a quarter open.

Sue pressed record and we launched into “Sick to Death,” our unanimously agreed upon best song:

Sick to death of the live I’m living
Life’s troubles just pass you by
I don’t want to see your face
This is where it all begins

The lyrics purposely didn’t rhyme. I felt rhyming was conventional and not punk.

We didn’t have a P.A. so I had to sing directly into the boom box to be heard. After much experimenting, I found the perfect spot was about 18 inches from the microphone. On my knees and leaning down, I shouted at the boom box, while playing guitar. It was not easy and by the end of most songs, I struggled to maintain my position.

The quality of the recording was horrendous—only we could discern the drums, guitar, bass and vocals. To pretty much everybody else, it sounded like pure noise. Even so, we packaged the cassette with a lyric sheet and information about the band and gave it to friends. We recorded three other songs but chose "Sick to Death" to send to the Maximum Rock-n-Roll radio show, which was the punk rock radio show that ran from midnight to 2 am on Sunday nights.

Three weeks later at 1:55 am—the last song of the night—they played our song. Without an introduction, it followed a band from Fairfield, California (an even farther out suburb of San Francisco) called Carnage. I was ecstatic and moved closer to my clock radio. It was the first time—and one of only a handful of times—I heard my music on the radio.

It was loud, distorted and barely recognizable, but I loved it. The blood rushed to my face, from fear, anxiety and excitement. The song stopped, started, slowed down and sped up, as was the custom of many punk songs at the time. For a little over a minute— the length of the song—I was riveted. It ended with dead air. Thinking the song wasn’t over because of so many starts and stops, they let the silence go on for way too long. Finally, a loud, over-produced song screamed from the radio. I recognized it immediately and was mortified. It was a song by Yes called “Don’t Kill the Whales”—possibly one of the worst, most over-indulgent progressive rock songs of all time. When we recorded, I had taken a used cassette from a pile of tapes and didn’t check to see if anything was on it. Obviously, this Yes cassette predated my introduction into punk rock.

They quickly yanked the song and sounds of laughter filled the airwaves. They thought it was funny, not recognizing the song. If they did, it would have been a different story. After all, my punk credentials were on the line, and I knew everybody in the band plus a few friends were listening.

Tim Yohannon, one of the founders of Maximum Rock-n-Roll, came on and said, “That was Anti-Social Youth with “Sick to Death” from Pleasanton, California. It’s happening everywhere, people—even in Pleasanton.” Those few words were what I was waiting for. Acceptance in to the punk scene by the punk authority, I went to bed smiling.

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