a degenerate’s manifesto: chapters 7 &19

CHAPTER 7: PUNK ROCK

I kept it under my bed next to a He-Man lunchbox and loose collection of dirty magazines. Had my mom stumbled on either of my three treasures, I deduced it would bring an equal amount of discomfort and anxiety, though I could have probably explained away the Hustlers. Had she opened said lunchbox, well the dime bag and cocaine-y piece of glass would have been a little more difficult to justify, though to my mother, probably somewhat less than why I had my father’s 1959 Fender Stratocaster tucked under an old blanket.

The case was pristine. It was a sort of metallic black that shimmered in light, a single peace sign sticker centered on the back. It had two clasps, each with its separate three digit combination lock coded 666 and 420- hey, I never said the man was clever- and between them, a silver engraving with my father’s name and my mother’s (our) phone number on it. The velvet lining inside was soft to the touch. Under the neck was a box for picks, capo, tuner, rolling papers and a lighter, all of which were included. The strap was handmade and smelled like a freshly deadened cow.

I changed the strings every six weeks and kept it free from fingerprints, dust and dirt.

It was the same amber hue as Clara’s eyes.

If God wasn’t dead and we all weren’t alone in the universe, this is the guitar the lord would play.

It was my dad’s, right? Well, was. I found it buried in the garage, wrapped in a potato sack under a pile of old Reader’s Digests. Mom could have pawned it- it was worth a few thousand dollars and we were perpetually broke- but I always suspected she was waiting for dad to come back for it. Maybe he’d grab it after his eighteen minute apology for every dirty rotten thing he ever did to our family but before he signed the check for nine years of missed child support. She hated dad’s guts, but wasn’t about to destroy something he loved just for spite. Or groceries.

Amy caught me playing it one day. I’ll revise that. Amy caught me attempting to play it one day.  I knew exactly six chords and could safely transition between two of them. One day I spent four hours learning how to finger pink the first five bars of a Pink Floyd song the name of which escapes me at the moment. The tablature was hand written on an otherwise empty legal pad stuffed inside the case; it was easy enough to learn as one of my first songs. I didn’t actively pursue this knowledge because… well, fuck Pink Floyd. However the feeling of being able to play notes written by a real musician was something worth chasing. And my dad liked I enough to transcribe the chords, so why not?

The punk chords were easy but I wasn’t good enough to play between them with much speed. I was excited when I found out most Ramones songs were three, four chords you could fret with sometimes only two fingers, but the changes were so tight I could only ever do “Blitzkrieg Bop” at half speed. I had to stop out of respect. I felt like I was letting Joey down. When I saved up paper route money, I got a cheap amp. Suddenly my twangy strumming had feedback, noise, and volume. The first time I played electric, I got an erection.

I wish there was a definitive moment I could point to and say “That’s when I fell in love with punk”. Like a certain song or artist that just did it for me. But the truth is, in my muddled teenage years, I can only recall a period in which I didn’t listen to punk and then a period in which I did nothing but listen to punk. It was right before or right after I found the guitar. I remember constantly discovering new music, new sects and off-shoots of punk rock.

Hardcore punk. Thrash punk. Surf punk. Gaelic punk. Riot grrl punk. Stoner punk. Goth punk. Speed punk. Pop punk. Political Punk. Emo punk. Psyche punk. Folk Punk.

Every little niche brought a dozen new bands, a hundred new songs. I remember when I picked up the first Adolescents record. It was better than a blow job.

There was a beauty in finding all of this new music on my own. A kid named Kevin Darby sat behind us in English class one year. He had been growing out his greasy hair since eighth grade and wore classic rock shirts almost every day. Cream, Sabbath, Rush. If you put out an album between 1967 and 1979, chances are this kid owned one of your shirts. One day we got split into groups to work on a project, and Chris and I were stuck with Darby. He’s wearing a Zeppelin IV long-sleeve, the one with the four symbols. ZOSO, ZOFO, I think. Who gives a shit? Anyway, out of utter boredom and with no intention to put an effort into our Charles Dickens presentation, I asked Darby about it. He went off on a rant about the glorious power of Paige, Plant, Jones and Bonham that lasted a good fifteen minutes before Chris told him to shut the fuck up.

(An aside: I’ll give them credit. “Communication Breakdown” might be the first punk rock song, and their live album with the wicked drum solos goes nice with a joint. But I could do without the Christ-poses and constant clamouring of Zeppelin’s immortality and influence. I mean, no one gives a damn about Steve Soto. And they should.)

Point is, Darby’s older brother was the one guiding his musical tastes. With access to an already deep record collection built by a sibling six years his senior, Darby was able to discover all of his favourite music without much trial and error. I had to go out and buy my records with my meagre paper route money and welfare-influence allowance. Keep in mind this was when CDs were $12.99 and Napster was a long way off, so if you picked up a shitty album (hello, Killdozer’s For Ladies Only) you felt like an idiot.

Olympia had a lot of cool indie record stores, but I was still a good little consumer in my teenage years and usually hit the chains. Easier to shoplift from, and more morally above board. I could afford two or three records a week, five or six if I wore my big hoodie. My favourite songs, albums and bands changed almost every day.

Monday it was The Descendants.

Tuesdays were for Pennywise’s Full Circle.

I celebrated hump day with Anti-Flag’s Die for the Government.

Thursday was the stellar How Could Hell Be Any Worse? by Bad Religion. Fucking best album.

An Iggy and The Stooges retrospect on Friday.

Saturday was beers and Punk in Drublic, or Liberal Animation.

And after church on Sunday, a little Misfits. And maybe The Sonics, but that was mostly for variety’s sake. And I don’t know if it’s just me but even now if I find a new band or an album, I have to share it with people. I got Foley hooked with Black Flag’s song, “Rise Above”. He said it made him want to take a brick and smash a window. And then he went and did that once. Chris said The Sex Pistols were idiots, a claim I adamantly refuted. He liked hip hop and thought he could take Henry Rollins in a fight. Different strokes, I guess.

But that guitar, it’s long gone.

Dad lived on a squalid farm an hour’s drive from town. He had a mobile home that hadn’t been mobile in thirty years on some property that if properly maintained, could probably grow really shitty corn. I had visited “the farm” exactly three times in my life. The first, when I was thirteen and my parents had just split. We roasted hotdogs over a campfire and played horseshoes, looked at the constellations and talked about girls. Entirely sublime Americana bullshit. It was surreal how normal we were despite being utter strangers. I guess I really didn’t want to be.

The second time, still that summer, we did exactly the same things except I woke up alone in the house. After unsuccessfully rummaging for cereal I found my dad leaning against a dilapidated tractor in the barn, shooting heroin between his toes while Led Zeppelin IV blasted from a record player. I wanted to punch Kevin Darby in the teeth. Facetiously I asked what he was doing, and he said it was medicine for his bad back. Four hours later, he drove me home in silence. He didn’t call for four years after that.

The paradigm of having a shitty father is not lost on me. I understand it to be cliché, to be very basic and common and trite. Kid has bad relationship with father, kid rebels, blames father for shortcomings, attempts reconciliation, sorts the difference out over hundreds of hours of therapy or gallons of rye whiskey and has a series of pre-fucked relationships before coming to terms with his daddy issues.

Deep breath.

I knew I hated that motherfucker for how he treated my mom, and catching him shooting up not only underlined all of the nonsense I was privy to when he lived with us but completely justified my hate. It all made sense, quickly and perfectly, but not at all the epiphany one strives for. It felt okay to hate him even if he was my father.  Kind of an implosion you didn’t realize you had until a few days after the fact.

Four years, no phone call, birthday card or Christmas present. It’s the thought that counts, really, especially when you’re a teenage boy with a welfare mother living in the drug capital of the pacific northwest. Some Hot Wheels would have been nice. I was seventeen when I made a third visit to the farm. It was the first time I drove my mother’s car outside of the city. I was immensely proud of my accomplishment, despite being white-knuckled and sweating bullets all up and down the highway. But when I pulled onto the gravel road and saw the faded brown hue of the barn house, the broken-down machinery in exactly the same spot it was the last time I was there, I contemplated turning the car around and never coming back. But I needed that one last moment, the final nail that would cement in my mind who my father was and what role he would play in my life. Plus I needed gas money to get home.

I had planned to sit down and talk to him, to see why he did what he did. Maybe ask why he left. If he had any advice for me. I was toying with my future, thinking about college or what sorts of things I wanted to do after graduation. His advice was welcomed, still valued. I felt I was becoming a man and if he couldn’t, the least I could was make that first step.

Through the window, I could see he was high, laying on the couch watching television. I pounded my first on the door so hard I thought I was going to crack it. He didn’t stir.

I turned around and drove home.

But at least mom was cool. As soon as dad split, she started at a greasy spoon waiting, paid under the table so she could still collect welfare. She made sure we did our homework, we always had food on the table and she never talked poorly about her junkie estranged husband. My sister hated his guts and tried vehemently to bring me to her side. I reserved judgement because I never really knew the guy, and thought he’d always come back and everything would be alright.

Blind faith just doesn’t work, a fact I realized as I made that drive home, tears on my face and cigarettes on my mind.

The rest of my family, the extended aunts, uncles, grandparents, I’ve never really known. Well, I did; you meet them, share dinners, stories and love, but when it gets down to it, they’re just scenery.. You start to wonder how you’re described from across the room when your second cousin asks your other second cousin points and asks who you are.

Grace’s son Danny: eighteen, in the twelfth grade. Likes music, may go to college. Hard worker. Never really had a girlfriend. Nice kid overall. But why does he wear black all the time?

I have a cousin, I suspected just as or even more enveloped in narcotics than I can ever wished to be. I knew he dealt, that he slung weed, pills too, maybe, but not at the level revealed as we shared a joint at a family BBQ when I was in twelfth grade. We sat down behind my aunt’s house, leaning against her above ground pool and lamenting the awkward, boring dinner we were an hour from enjoying. Zach was a year younger than me, a drop out, living off his folks and absolutely drifting. He wore baggy jeans, had a gold chain, and slicked his hair back with oil. The clover tattoo on his right forearm was a nod to our family’s history, a cliché of the worst kind, though something I found myself envying from time to time. He didn’t know who he was nor was he interested in finding out anytime soon. I had a respect for that.

“I tried crack once,” Zach ashed the joint, resting his head against the cool plastic compounded edge of the aquatic chamber. “I thought it was angel dust, like we were free basing, but someone later told me it was crack. I don’t think we did it right.”

I asked him how it felt.

“Like you’re really stoned but motivated. You have an energy. It hits your head hard. I liked it, but that stuff is far too potent for me to invest time in. Crack is no marijuana.”

After barely making it through the supper on some of the most potent pot I had ever had, we made our way back to the pool and stripped down to our boxers for a swim. When Zack reached into his balled up jeans for a small glass tube and bag of brown powder, I wondered if I was about to go down a dark path that was reserved for two years in the future.

“Don’t worry, it’s not crack. Did I tell you that story? Yeah, right, sorry,” He spoke without ever looking me, focused on the ritual and routine of preparing his high. “This is like, pure THC. Butter. Ace. More or less weed but it’s not going to stink up the place and also you’re going to get really messed up. You want a hoot?”

I felt like a junkie, squatting behind a five foot high above-ground pool in my underwear, huffing smoke from a pipe and feeling my lungs cave in as I held the smoke as long as possible because that’s what Zach told me to.

“I can hold it for thirty seconds.” He demonstrated, speaking in faded whispers as if he was trying to impress me. “We’ll do another, maybe a half one for you cause you’re gonna be fucked off that one anyway, and then we’ll jump in the pool. Come up right away and exhale. It’s great.”

I strapped on a discarded pair of diver’s goggles. Chlorine always bothered me more than most. Climbing the rickety plastic ladder and falling five feet into the coldest, dirtiest water ever contained in one spot, it was a struggle, but I made it to the surface, arched my back and blew out the smoke. Two of our cousins, maybe five or six years old, scampered on the deck, begging their mom and our aunt to go in. Zach shook his head and she said no. Maybe there was an understanding there. Maybe my aunt also know how dirty the water was.

After we dried off, we stumbled up to his room in the attic. The stairs were short, steep, and something I knew I’d have trouble with later. His roof was slanted, giving way for only a square of five or six feet by the same length of space in which you could stand up comfortably. He told me he still hit his head on the incline from time to time.

“I like the classic stuff, but something’s happening in hip hop, man.” He had some LPs scattered on his bed, though no record player in sight. Zach pulled out a foot long brown leather case, similar to the one my father had in his car sandwiched between the memory of the one time we went for ice cream in Longview. (I suspect on the way to get drugs. Glass half full, right?)

“Do you like Biggie Smalls?” Zach laughed. “It’s funny, he’s been dead for years but albums keep coming out. Old rhymes, unreleased stuff, cut with new rappers and beats. Fucking crazy that they can do that. Tupac too! You die and you’re music keeps, stays out there, even if you didn’t mean for it. There’s no reason for a new guy like Slim to be rapping with a dead gangster, but somehow, technology makes it okay.”

I saw him working to a point. I assisted, deducing that maybe all of that discarded material wasn’t meant to see the light of day.

“Yeah! It’s kind of like stealing. I mean, sure, someone owns that. As fucked as it sounds that someone else can own your words, Biggie is dead so someone obviously has to control his interests. What was the name of that guy? The guy with the flannel that you like?”

Zach was referring to the Kurt Cobain poster I had on the back of my door. The one where Kurt is crouched on stage, holding his shit-blue left-handed guitar. It’s got that sticker on it that reads something like “There is nothing more beautiful than a rock in a cop’s face”. I bought it for that and that alone, though as we’ll go over later, I did enjoy a few Nirvana tunes.

“Imagine if a few years after he died they cut a new album with new guitars and drums but old vocals and b-side outtakes. Rappers have that happen all the time. They don’t even have to be dead. Mixtapes, right? Rock bands don’t have that, that extra stuff.”

He had a point. There was a charm in the amount of material an emcee could amass. I bumped my head on the roof as I came up from a bump of cocaine.

“See?” Zach chuckled. “Sorry about the roof. Heh, I just noticed, you’re still wearing your goggles. Wait, what was his name?”

It took me a second.

“Yeah, Kurt Cobain. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, he’s in the middle of recording a new album when he died. Would the rest of the band keep recording and use whatever footage they had to finish his part? Like what they did in Superman 2?”

I had no idea what he was talking about. The sugar was caramelizing the insides of my stomach. I was crashing; science, I suppose.

“No. The band would abandon it. But with a rapper, it’s more open. That kind of shit is accepted.”

He did two lines, smacked his head coming up from the second dip but didn’t flinch.

“We should hang out more, Danny. I go in to Olympia most weeks for drops or whatever. I’ll give you my cell number.”

He had a business card. I snickered.

“Cool, man. You want to buy some of that ace shit we smoked earlier?” Zach tossed me a bottle cap wrapped in tinfoil. A dab of brown gel heaped a few millimetres.

“Twenty bucks, friends and family discount.”

I paid my cousin for the drugs and wondered aloud when I’d be summoned to go home.

“It’s funny, when I dropped out, I caught hell. But now that I help out with bills and buy my own clothes and food most weeks, mom doesn’t seem to give a shit. You ever think about selling?”

I equated to my love of getting high to my love of television. Sure I dug it, but I wasn’t about to invest in public broadcasting.

“Sure, I get it. Let me know if you ever change your mind. I can set you up.”

The trajectory of our futures suddenly hit me. I looked at Zach and felt pity. We grew up the same way. Shared family, similar towns, no father, of the same generation. The similarities were there, the differences glaring.

“You know Janey, Uncle Dave’s wife? I got her stoned a month ago and she gave me a hand job.”

I told Zach I heard my mom calling, and I manoeuvred my way down those steep stairs and into the living room. I recall it being jealousy, not an awkward divergence into quasi-inbreeding that led me to leave my cousin with the last two lines of cocaine.

I mean, at least Aunt Janey had really nice tits.

CHAPTER 19: STITCHES

It was a stretch of road just past the perimeter of the airport. There was enough room for five, maybe six vehicles, but for some reason was only ever occupied by a single car. As if passers-by saw the spot was in use and let it be. An unwritten rule, perhaps, like the courtesy flush.

Airplanes always fascinated me. Not so much the act of going one place to another, but rather their omnipresence over the skies heading towards SeaTac. A low flying plane was always warranted a pause, a nod to the clouds to watch it disappear behind trees, buildings, the horizon, whatever.

Wayne’s World brought forth the idea of getting as close to an airplane as possible, to lay on the ground just outside of the fenced-off tarmac and wait for a jet to approach. Foley merely improved the idea by suggesting we do it stoned.

“Have you ever woken up one day, and just felt, you know, different? Like you changed as a person over a period of time, a week, a month, whatever, and all of a sudden you notice it?” Foley took a big inhale. “I mean, sure, everyone learns new things and priorities change and shit, but I‘m talking about something so clear and finite that it‘s just there. Maybe it’s as simple as a realization that you don’t like chili dogs anymore. Or you figure out you’re gay, bisexual, a racist, I don’t know. Something bigger, right? Well I had one of those days the other day, man, but it wasn’t so simple. So cut and dry. I thought about it, and over maybe three, four months, I had become a completely different person. I was complacent, stoned all the time, not giving a fuck if someone was trying to take the piss. I was a drone, Danny. I went through my day to day like a God damn robot. And when I noticed this, when I accepted who I had become, I had to sit and think, ‘Do I really like this person?’ And you know what the answer was? The motherfucking real-as-real-can-get answer? I didn’t. I didn’t like who I had become. I was an asshole. A loser. A degenerate. I smoked weed all the time, at school, at work, drank my money away, fucked anything that would let me. I was just a leech. I did nothing positive. After awhile I started to wonder why I was alive. Days were so boring, so devoid of purpose, I’d have rather been dead. Not suicidal, no way. But I look at Chris, and don’t think this is the fucking answer, but he’s got the right idea. I mean, compared to him and what he’s done, well, fuck. A degree, a wife, and a house and car on the nice side of town. What the hell do I have? Fuck, I’m just fucked. You know?”

He passed the roach. I asked if he had a point.

“My point, you misinformed cunt,” he said, strangely playful, “is that I got to a spot where I could accept who it is I was. I wasn’t happy, but I was. Sort of. I think they call that being content.”

I nodded.

“And looking at you, shit, Danny, what the hell are you doing? You‘re reinventing the process of fucking up. Everything, man, over this girl. You were on a decline before but at least you were getting laid and going to work everyday. Now? You‘re losing it, man.”

 I agreed but for the sake of personal pride, I scoffed.

“Where’s care-free Danny? And not this, ‘I put every drug and toxin in my body and fuck the world’ care-free Danny. I mean the guy who would drive to Portland on a moment’s notice because of a rumour that The Meat Puppets had reformed and were playing a surprise gig downtown? Or the dude who could joke his way out of any situation Chris and his bullshit would get us into without using your fucking fists like some kind of Neanderthal jock. What I’m trying to do here is uncover some basic truths, dude. I just want my friend back.”

There was a sigh. A pause. More than enough time to say something. But I was saved. Saved by the Boeing 747 that was coming down our way. A big one. Rare for the red-eye. I gestured up above, told him to wait for it.

“That’s it? You got nothing? Look, this is straight fucking shit right here, Danny: anyone stepped up to me and said even a quarter of what I just said to you, I’d knock them out. Best friend or not. And yes I see the irony for criticizing your violent streak only a moment ago. But I would. I’d knock them out. ”

The plane was getting close. The sky shook.

“Like, if it’s too much to handle, I get it, but at least acknowledge what I’m saying. I’m trying to be real here.”

Louder still. The landing gear was beginning to lower. I always thought that was cool. Tried to gesture to it, but Foley wouldn’t have it.

“Fine, be a shithead. Ignore me. Ignore me!” Foley tried to shout over the boom of the passing airplane. It roared overhead, a silver tube full of people coming from someplace better. It soon faded, wind dissipating and things returning to the cool calm of a Wednesday morning. Realizing his attempt was futile, Foley rolled off the hood off to dig for a couple of beers in the backseat of the car.

The plane had passed and we reset. At least I felt that way.

“Danny, you’re ten times what I was five years ago. I know you’re using. And you’re drinking more than I’ve ever seen you. Pot’s got you zonked out half the time you’re not high or drunk and stoned and miserable Danny is a real burden.”

I told him I wasn’t using, but appreciated the concern.

“Don’t lie to me.”

Somehow repeating the same words didn’t reassure him.

“You’re not even trying to hide them.”

Foley gestured to the small hole on my right forearm. He had no idea.

“Who’s selling you heroin? I’ll fucking kill them. That may sound rash, like it’s the long way to go, but fuck, Danny, I will. I know you’re quickly becoming a junkie. I know you’re an addict. It makes perfect sense. It’s the next step after morphine. And Amy, shit… Just saying, if I have to put the fear of God into every smack dealer in this shitty city, I will. Cause I love–”

He stopped. I wanted to tell him that he was a terrible detective, that the tiny mark on my arm where heroin would go was actually from a blood test. But how do you say “I am insecure so I got a test to see if my ex’s miscarried child was actually mine,”? There’s no Hallmark card for that one. Foley pressed on-

“Fuck, Danny, fuck.” He put his arm on my shoulder. “There’s help out there, man. Like, phone lines or counselling. It’s all free, too! Danny, Christ!”

Another long pause. I didn’t want to talk.

“Alright. First of all, fuck you! You’re selfish. You’re fucking selfish. Amy left you! She found what she was after, realized it was pre-fucked and ran home to her parents, to her other, better life. Your baby died and she fucking left you. Imagine how she feels. She was the one with the live being inside of her and while I’m not going to wax philosophical on equal rights for parents or whatever the fuck the proper term is I’m trying to think of, but it was more hers than yours. And that fucking chokes me to say it, to hear it, but at the end of the day you gotta press forward. You’re twenty two. Look at you. Do you want a God damn screaming, pissing and shouting-for-tit little baby to drag you down for the next eighteen years? Fuck no! You loved Amy, I’m not going to take anything away from that, but that kid, the kid you didn’t even know about until pieces of it were in the toilet, was nothing more than a line of chain. You saw it, saw her crying, and in one second realized that that would have been the only thing that would keep her around. She was already gone. Amy was a poser. She was slumming because she wanted to piss off her parents. You were the canvass to which she was working out her daddy issues. Sorry dude. But where did she go when she was in trouble? She didn’t stay with you. Didn’t hold you and sob and scream and share the pain. She didn’t give a fuck what you felt. She just packed her shit and left town while you were out destroying yourself. She flaked. Always did, too. You were just too fucking stupefied with her to realize it. And you know this, Danny. Any girl who has ever given you a little attention automatically makes you fall head over heels in love. It’s pathetic. I mean, shit, I can count on one hand the number of women I’ve kissed let alone banged. But my meagre experiences haven’t blinded me and turned me into wax-eyed asshole who goes retarded whenever a girl smiles at me. Grow a pair of balls. Amy is gone and is this is going to open up your world, dude. So have another drink. I’ll condone that if it means being a soppy bitch goes the way of disco. Now let’s get the hell away from this place before another airplane comes in and interrupts me, cause I fucking hate that shit.”

There was a long pause. I asked him what his second point was. He took a deep breath.

“If you die, I fuckin‘ die. That’s the truth. Drink your beer.”

I didn’t look at him. I still think he was waiting to hear something similar from me. I sipped my beer.

“You know what? Fuck it. I’ll walk.”

Foley grabbed the last beer from inside the car, tucking it into his coat. In my peripheral, I could see him turn and pause, staring at me as I stared at the sky. He waited a full minute, then started down the dirt path to the interstate. It was the last time I’d ever see Foley.

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