“Wanna see Black Flag?”
When a beautiful goth woman asked me if I wanted to see a show featuring a band I loved, I found myself in nirvana. I was just starting to stretch my wings and become a real boy, and this person was spectacular, far out of my league but not beyond hope. We had hung out casually before, and I was desperately, absolutely sure that she was the one. If only I could somehow speak with her, I knew that my good guyness and wit would help her recognize the truth as well.
As usual, that sort of longing made me stupid…in reality, she was working for a record label (layers and layers of coolness), got tickets to the punk rock show at the last minute, and knew I would be available and interested. This knowledge didn’t prevent me from thinking that the gods had spoken, and I was finally to find true love. I thought that perhaps tonight, this very night, I might work up the courage to make my feelings known.
But the band was Black Flag! I wasn’t quite as big a fan since Henry Rollins had joined them, but still…they were fucking legends. They had toured the midwest before, but I was too young to see them. This was my chance, and I had been invited by the most transcendent woman I had ever been able to work up the courage to talk to. What could possibly go wrong?
Ever-eager as always, I arrived much too early in the punk uniform of the day – combat boots, beat-up jeans, torn-up t-shirt of ironic intent (it was actually my midget football league jersey, sans shoulder pads), and flannel shirt. I had briefly considered going a bit more goth to match her, but the image of being hung by my tie by my friends at the club quickly made me realize that that was a horrible idea. She wasn’t ready, but her apartment smelled and looked exotic – clean, as alien as that was, full of glass surfaces and actual furniture, a couch with the goth standard of strange woven blankets and puff pillows with the names of indie bands on them. She had recently had a graffiti party, and the walls were marked full of interesting and not-so-interesting slogans and drawings of rude boys and girls.
I had been there before, but not in this context, and I was already sweating. Hyper-conscious of not being a perv, I sat on the couch while all kinds of mysterious hairsprays and makeup were applied in the bedroom. I tried to nurse my beer, mostly because I had to make the six pack last the night. I was paying for everything beside the ticket, and that threatened to wipe out my meager refereeing paycheck.
She had peaked out a couple of times, but when she finally appeared she was a vision. Elvis and the Misfits had been alternately playing on her bedroom boombox, but she looked exactly like Siouxsie when she came out, and my vision immediately went into fuzz mode as a surfeit of chemicals laced into my brain. I tried to swallow the beer I had in my mouth but instead sort of spit it up, and she had a chance to go into punk mom mode, offering me a paper towel (who had those in their apartment?) and even wiping some of the beer off my shirt. I had no idea what to do with hands, my feet wouldn’t work, and I just went into smile-and-try-to-look-only-mildly-like-an-idiot mode. I think I pulled that off.
She even had a car, which meant that she drove and I tried to help her find a place to park. Not having a car meant that that concept (parking in a city) was completely foreign to me, so I just making noises and pointing in the hopes that I would vaguely locate a general area where something like parking occurred. We found a spot, parked, and ducked the cold to head in.
Of course, she was immediately recognized, and had to go through the ritual of chaste hugs and kisses that marked us as an early safe sex generation. We had arrived fashionably late, which meant that the first band (A2’s own Destroy All Monsters, who I loved) had finished, and the place was a thousand degrees even in January, resulting in even more sweat from me and a pristine coolness from her.
I was itching to dive into the mosh. Seeing bunches of people I knew already bleeding and scratched-up and thrashing around started my head bobbing, my feet jerking and my arms flailing, but I had to try at least to be calm. I bought the first round of drinks (receiving no checks from the bartender because of the company I was in) and we headed upstairs.
Upstairs? What the fuck? I never went upstairs to these shows; I’m not even sure I knew that there were stairs, and that they went up. Still, I was still in thrall, and there was no place else I could possibly go. She led the way, and I tried to be a gentleman and not stare, without much success. We found a table and sat down.
This was all impossibly adult, and I felt ridiculous. The record label folks kept parading to our table and paying court, and I kept up my idiot smile, feeling like a small child as they talked about people they knew. They weren’t assholes, which was the common narrative about music industry people (even indies) in my circle of trust, and they seemed to both know and genuinely care about the same music that I did. The cognitive dissonance caused by this disjunction was overwhelming, further threatening my overstimulated equilibrium. By this point I had stood up – Black Flag was walking on stage, and I was being magnetically drawn over the railing, possibly fatally. Fortunately, I woke up and stepped back, but by then a couple of my friends below had seen me. They looked up with puzzled expressions, and then start frantically waving me down, assuming, I’m guessing that I had somehow gotten so drunk that I had forgotten concepts like ‘up’ and ‘down’ and, most importantly, ‘mosh’.
I stared at her desperately. She gave a knowing smirk: “you want to go in the pit, don’t you?” I stared back, fetchingly, blankly, begging for the release that would somehow come from getting my nose bashed with a hundred other young dumb asses. She grinned again, took a drag off her cigarette, and sent me on my way.
The advantage to entering the pit from upstairs, I discovered, was that I could plunge in at full speed, wrecking already formed circles and managing to be even more annoying than usual. I was distracted, however, by some commotion near the door of the club, left open despite the frigid temperatures outside to allow at least some air to circulate. A guy not much older than me had wandered in, wearing a light blue three-piece suit, in the hopes I guess of both buying a beer and being entertained.
As he was finding out, this was a mistake. Those closest to him had pulled him into the mosh, and he was getting shoved from one set of arms to another, with shouts of ‘fuck yeah’ and ‘fuck him up’ rising over the music. He looked afraid, and already a couple of near-fights had broken out as those who didn’t think that subjecting a stranger to a pummeling was a very punk rock thing to do clashed with the fascists in the crowd. Because I’m not very smart, I had started to move toward the melee, but all of a sudden the music just stopped (I hadn’t noticed that Rollins hadn’t growled for at least a couple of minutes), and I saw a furrow start to appear, with bodies flying in a style that would later be appropriated by a million Hollywood comic book epics.
I had to see this, so I climbed up onto a pillar and watched. Henry Rollins had somehow parted the red sea that was the mosh pit and had grabbed the guy, causing the aforementioned furrow because he was so short that none of us could see him. For a delirious, impossible second I thought he might actually rip the guy’s head off and use it as a beach ball in the pit-overindulgence in steroids will do that to a person-but instead he picked the guy up, carried him to the bar, theatrically brushed off his clothes, and signaled the bartender for a beer. *We* all knew something was up, because Rollins was straight edge before it existed, but he gave the guy the beer and then stood there, waiting for him to take a swig and I guess recover.
The place was silent, except for Rollins, who was shouting incoherently. Suddenly, he whirled and stomped back to the stage, where he grabbed the mike. The band had no idea what to do, but that didn’t matter: Rollins lectured us for twenty minutes on how un-punk rock that behavior had been, and then announced that the show was over.
That announcement set up a howl, and from my vantage point I could see that folks were pissed. No one was going to challenged Rollins, but the shouting was getting louder, and more frightening, and way more exciting. Just as suddenly, however, the noise stopped. The house lights went on, and the crowd started to break up.
I had no idea what I had just witnessed. Was that truly un-punk rock? As a genre I always felt that we obsessively tried to define ourselves, but I had no idea that our heroes (who insisted that we should not have heroes) felt the same way – I had grown up in the seventies, with rock stars who were dumb as rocks. It truly was a minority who had grabbed the guy, and the mosh looked like it was going to enforce the no-tourists rule and get him out of there, safely if a bit roughly, anyway, but Rollins had taken it upon himself to end the guy’s pain. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t checked on three-piece-suit guy, but he was gone, either through the club’s security people or his own volition. Club-goers were either filtering out or drinking more cheap beer, but the anger, and energy, and potential madness, had dissipated.
My own cloud also must have broken up, because I remembered that I had left a beautiful woman upstairs. I went vaulting up, mostly to ask if she had seen that, now capable of speech that seemed nearly poetic. All I saw at the top was an empty bar stool, with a note addressed to me. My despair abated a touch, and I grabbed the cocktail napkin.
“Darling, I had to leave – I hope you find a ride home. XXOOXX, me.”
I wandered home, breath frosting in front of me, sweat freezing on my skin, curious if this had been the best night of my life, or the worst.