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04 January, 2011

Kicked Out of the Scene

Just about the time it became clear that Jimmy Carter would be unseated by a nincompuppet, I discovered punk rock. I'd been listening to new wave bands like the Cars and Elvis Costello, already uncomfortable with the main menu items in late-1970s Virginia: classic rock (yawn), disco (yuck-o), southern fried rock and roll (mojourner man don't need them around, anyhow), country (and western), heavy metal (too churchy, even if in an anti- way), and.... 
and along come some kids with stuff that makes the new wave stuff sound like Lawrence Welk. Just at the point when I am finally realizing that I can rebel. I'd been smart to get good grades, wrestled and run track, but never fit in with the other brains and jocks. Just naming the bands qualified as subversive in the middle-class suburb where I lived: Dead Kennedys, X, Circle Jerks,...

And that was just the nationally successful, commercially available stuff. Soon after getting my driver's license, I started going to local shows, and the music took hold. I hadn't been really sheltered, but the growing awareness that a good man was going down under an onslought of lies and capitalistic voodoo, the adolescent American need for speed, and the potent testosterone cocktail emanating from my nether regions made the driving intensity and rebellious vigor of punk irresistable.

A huge part of this was the existence of live shows. Everyone else was listening to albums and the radio, hearing the same old dhit over and over, able to see bands only rarely and at a distance. I could see five bands for five bucks, and stand right in front. Or, not exactly in front, that being where the slam dancing occured (the pat label 'mosh pit' had not been invented yet); so I merged in and out of the dance, and spent a lot of time in front of the PA stacks. And yes, mom, you were right, my ears are still ringing and my hearing fading.

Punk was still small enough that the big stars played dives and bars. In Richmond (as opposed to DC or New York, where punk scenes had already grown too large for their own good), you could see Black Flag up close and personal. Better yet, you got to see people you knew being the opener, and pre-opener, and penpenultimate opener, and maybe more. So Graven Image and Honor Role and Death Piggy (my personal favorite, from the music to the artwork to the crazed performances), maybe some more, and then the national act, which may or may not have achieved more audience appreciation than the locals.

My record collection reflects this as well. "Normal" kids were unlikely to have anything from local bands. The closest they came was a vague story about Pat Benetar having played in a Richmond piano bar long before she got famous and wore those signature headbands. Richmond punks began pressing vinyl, operating outside what had become by then a well-oiled machine of big labels, nationwide distribution, and FM gatekeeping. No static at all? Fuck that. Hit record, stomp the distortion pedal, and make your own. Freedom.

Though a few dozen people would show for any given concert (more if there was a band famous enough to draw out the volatile mix of occasional Fort Lee misfits and college hipsters), the "scene" was fairly cozy. Not large enough to tolerate factions who could afford not to interact. Not sophisticated and cool and urban enough (or, to get down to the material roots of it all, replete enough with the temporarily rebellious spawn of the beltway establishment) to have set dress codes like in DC. For whatever reason (the VCU art school influence, the more immediate experience with evangelical fascists, the latent insurgent spirit of a land once conqured and occupied?) punks in Richmond dressed all sorts of ways, played all kinds of music, and just played. Freedom.

On the other hand, there did exist an oniony structure in the scene. The skin, the people who maintained some sort of punk-like appearance but were prone to peeling off. The outer rings, wrapped around the same core as everyone else and able to burn their parents' eyes, contributing to the bulk, but not necessarily crucial to it's vitality or visible to it's core. Then the inner circles, generating new bands, organizing shows, introducing everyone else to new bands.

I never reached the center, never played in a band, stayed an outsider among punks. The closest I ever came to that was a single afternoon show where about 3 of us formed the Poi Boy Choir, solely for the purpose of singing the "a-weem a-way" background chorus while Judge Dread played "In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle, the Lion Sleeps Tonight." Poi Boy because we had shaved heads, combat boots, and suspenders, but were not even close to skinheads, whose obsession with Oi (whatever that was) we found worthy of ridicule. In Richmond, you could get by with making fun of skinheads. One time, the DC skinheads came down for a concert, and in between bitching about Richmond's crappy bus system, their leader Lefty (who, inexplicably, was Black and Female) mistook my shaved head for skinheadedness and tried to recuit me by offering me a pair of oxblood doc marten boots (there's that dress code) that she had just acquired through some sort of trade with Dobey, an inner-circle Richmond punk.

Which brings me back to the point. I suppose if I'd wanted to, I could have become part of an inner circle, be it DC skinheads or Richmond punks, but never had the drive. I just wanted to have fun. Ironically, many of the inner circlers got on a kick of "fun is stupid." Like a miniature version of the DC "straight edge" scene (summed up in the Minor Threat lyric "Don't drink/Don't smoke/Don't fuck/At least I can fucking think!"), they would excoriate crowds for slam dancing and mock the less enlightened, the more inebriated. Eventually, they staged a "Kicked Out of the Scene" concert/skit in which all of them were ceremonially kicked out for not conforming to punkness. Do I need to point out the irony that the scene, the inner circle, consisted of these very same people? If you were not kicked out, obviously you were not important enough to have been in.

Those of us unimportant enough to have been kicked out of the scene, to have gotten that stamp of (dis)approval, still had our fun, but I don't think it was too long after that that I left town. Did the Richmond scene ever grow enough to factionalize in any serious way? I dunno. I'm guessing that the inner circle, those illustrious enough to have been kicked out of the scene, have a different take than mine, maybe they saw some cancerous growth, some gangrenous festering lump of violence or mindless conformity that needed top be excised.

When some historian decides to interview aging punks, she is likely to go to the inner circlers. It makes sense, since not only do they have a more expert knowlegde and perspective of the events than I do, but they are the ones whose names appear on records and zines, they are the traceable. But for every one of them, there were a dozen more who never recorded anything; the band does ont work without the audience, no matter how much punk blurred the line and made it possible for more people to leap over. I happened to appear on an album cover (that's me in the stripey shirt, just right and above the flash-glare in the photo above), but unless I keep writing about this, will remain part of the faceless masses of history.

1 comment:

  1. Ahhh, that's the stuff. This lion sleeps well tonight. Thanks, bro-Mo