In 1987, Saks, Alabama, was an electromagnetic wasteland, too remote to pick up a signal on the TV without cable. For the first time in my life, I had access to MTV’s 120 Minutes and Headbanger’s Ball, as well as shows like Night Flight and Up All Night. On the weekends, I scoured the dial for videos, weird movies or anything with a little T&A. I was flipping through the channels late one Friday when I stumbled on a show with punks sporting mohawks and studded leather jackets. I watched transfixed as the story unfolded. It was some kind of documentary about two punk bands from LA touring across the US and Canada in a school bus covered with anarchic graffiti. At each stop, they played shows in dingy clubs and warehouses, featured in the concert footage with a detailed demonstration on the techniques of slam dancing. There were interviews with kids all across the country. Kids with spiked hair, buzz cuts, mohawks, pierced noses and tons of make-up discussed their local scenes and what it was like to be a punk when the world around them refused to accept their music, their style and their way of life. The movie covered all kinds of punks, from the drunk rowdy types to the straight edge movement in DC. There were even Christian punks. While they were in Canada, the bands stayed at a place called the Calgary Manor, where a bunch of punks lived together. They talked about running away from abusive parents and broken homes to form their own community centered around punk rock. In the backyard was a half-pipe. Bands played in the living room. They made meals and ate together, like one giant family. A family of outcasts… This was the life for me, I thought, immediately overcome with the realization that something else existed out there. A punk rock life was everything I ever wanted: freedom, chaos, style and an aggressive soundtrack.
Inspired my the movie, I amped up my freak style and began to modify my wardrobe. With a marker, I drew an anarchy symbol on a ripped piece of t-shirt. Underneath that, I wrote “F.T.W.” and safety-pinned it to the back of my jean jacket. I drew crazy designs on my arms with a black PaperMate. I painted my fingernails black. I died my hair green with food coloring. I pierced my right ear a second time and inserted a long teardrop pearl earring.
As my transformation continued, I started getting dirty looks in the hallways of Saks High. People averted their eyes. I heard snide comments behind my back.
I was loving every minute of it.
THE RECORD BAR PUNK
At the Record Bar in the Oxford Mall, Clint and I shuffled through the racks of cassettes and whispered over the clicking of plastic. From the moment we entered the store, we were furtively eyeballing the vaguely punk looking clerk behind the counter with a Clash button on his black employee vest.
“I swear, that’s one of the guys I was telling you about,” Clint said. “The band that played at the skating rink a couple weeks ago.”
Before I went back to Birmingham, I was stuck at the Sheltons for a few more days, going out of my skull with boredom. So I decided to give Clint a call. He was psyched to hear from me. His first response was, “b-b-b-b-b-butane!” We had a good laugh remembering the fun we’d had that summer. He suggested we drive down to Oxford and check out the music store at the mall. I had twenty dollars burning a hole in my pocket. All the way there, he told me about a punk band he’d seen perform at the skating rink. They were the most amazing band he had ever seen up close. “In between songs, the band members alternated positions,” Clint said. “Switching from one instrument to the next.”
Now that we were mere feet away from one of the members, I suggested we go talk to him.
Slowly, we crept up behind the guy and stood there for several seconds before Clint cleared his throat and said, “Hey.”
The guy turned around nonchalantly. “How y’all doing?”
“Didn’t I see your band play at the Oxford skating rink?” Clint asked.
“Yeah, that was us. My name’s Brian.” He pointed at his nametag.
We introduced ourselves and shook hands.
“That was an awesome show, man.”
“I can’t believe they let you guys play punk.”
“My friend Dave works at the skating rink,” Brian said. “That’s how we got in. But we were playing Dead Kennedys songs and insulting people, so Dave pulls me over to the side and says we gotta tone down the profanity. Well, the next song we play is ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off!’”
We all laughed.
“Man, after that, we were shut right the fuck down! The crowd was yelling, ‘You suck!’ We grabbed our shit and took off.”
“That’s so awesome!” Clint and I enthused.
“I don’t think they’re gonna invite us back.”
“What’s the name of your band?” I asked.
“That night we were The Whales. We change our name every time we play a show. Not that there are many places to play.”
“I know. Nothing’s going on in this shitass town.”
“You guys always play punk?”
“We do a variety of tunes, some punk, some ska, a little rockabilly. Sometimes all within the same song.”
“Cool. I listen mostly to punk.” I showed him the tapes I’d found, stoked beyond belief to finally have albums by Social Distortion and Minor Threat. I held them tightly in my hand like trophies. “I’ve been dying to find these,” I told the guy. “Every since I saw that movie Another State of Mind. Do you know that one?”
“Yeah. That’s a cool flick. I just ordered those tapes a few weeks ago. I was hoping somebody would find them.”
We talked about punk bands for a while. He recommended some albums, making me swear I’d check out Plastic Surgery Disasters by Dead Kennedys as soon as I had the money. He said it was their most musical album. A classic. I memorized every word he said.
After we’d made our purchases, Clint and I walked down to the Orange Julius. He wanted to know what it was like being in a mental hospital.
“Being locked up… man, it’s all a big joke. They didn’t know what else to do with me, and I guess if they didn’t know what to do with you, they lock you up.”
“When my dad found out what happened to y’all, he was rearing to go beat your dad up and that other guy. I ain’t never seen my dad so pissed off.”
“Everybody knows about it now, huh?”
“Well, yeah. It was in the paper.”
“So are you coming back to Anniston before you leave for LA?”
“Maybe for Christmas. I don’t know what’s happening yet, where I’m going to end up…”
“We should hang out if you’re in town. And hey, man… tell your brother…” Clint paused. “Tell him I said what’s up. Okay?”