While working the $1 LP table at the WFMU Record Fair this past weekend, I occasionally browsed through the boxes, hoping to find something awesome, or hilarious, or awesomely hilarious. I believed I’d discovered an example of the latter when I stumbled upon a ludicrously designed record sleeve. It featured a cluttered ink illustration involving Satan and skateboards and blunts, with a needlessly complicated script tsomewhere in the Venn intersection of Ed Hardy, Bones Brigade, and bowling shirt. The sheer number of needless embellishments suggested the artist had a deep phobia of white space.
The album was a punk comp from a SoCal label dating to the late 1990s. Most of the band names didn’t ring a bell, except for two. One was a group an old roommate used to toss on his stereo from time to time, much to my chagrin. The other was a name I hadn’t thought of in years. Or had tried not to think about for years, because I associate it with one of the more profound, soul-crushingly disappointments of my life. It was a very early 20s kind of disappointment, dating to a time when I did not have a firm grasp of life or what aspects of it were truly important. However, the feeling still stings.
Many eons ago, in my increasingly distant college days, I decided to form a band. I recruited my brother and other friends from my upstate hometown to fulfill my vision of Black Flag meets the Stax/Volt box set meets early, bitter Elvis Costello. When asked, I said the kind of music we played was Hardcore Soul. In truth, the results were a lot closer to the former than the latter, and you would have had to dig very deep to hear real evidence of those aforementioned influences, but the pairing of hardcore and soul was too great to pass up once I’d thought of it. Anyone who had pointed out that I should have written Ian Svenonius a royalty check for all the points I cribbed from Nation of Ulysses would not have been wrong.
I wrote most of the songs on bass, because I still didn’t have the chops or dexterity to play guitar (and barely do now), while leaning heavily on my drummer to devise appropriate beats, a task he was quite good at.* I also decided that I would be the frontman and sing all the songs, if only because they were mine. To know if I was any good at this, you’d have to ask observers. I do know that I enjoyed doing it immensely. I was always uncomfortable in my own skin, unable to assert myself, but while onstage, I was able to adopt a self confident persona that was impossible for me to pull off elsewhere. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but writing was solitary, the very definition of delayed gratification. When I played a show, or even just practiced, I could immediately demonstrate my firm belief that this band was the greatest goddamn thing ever.
* The band’s singular claim to fame is being sampled in a Le Tigre song, but the truth is, it’s not the full band being sampled. Just a thundering beat from our seven inch, because our drummer was that good. He’d later go on to play for one of my favorite bands, the criminally ignored Life Detecting Coffins.
I named the band Record Ignite!, after a weird little shop I found during one of my trips to The Bronx.** It had clearly been a music store at one time, but had given up the ghost and halfheartedly converted to a bodega. It still possessed one sad cabinet full of cassettes, falling on each other like a failed domino sequence. The name of the store–probably chosen by someone whose familiarity with English was passing at best–sounded much more dangerous than it probably intended to be, which is why I loved it. I added the exclamation point to further emphasize the broken English weirdness of it all. (Those who pointed out similar punctuation in Wham! received dirty looks.)
** While a student at NYU and spending far too much time alone, one of my solitary pastimes was to get on the subway, disembark at a random station, and wander around a neighborhood I’d never been to before. Somehow, I was never murdered.
What I wanted to express in the band was probably best summed up by the opening lyrics to the first song I wrote for it, a collection of clichés turned on their head called “The Agony and the Irony.”
I am the one making mountains out of molehills
I am the one who is crying when the milk spills
Please don’t try to understand my rage
But my heart is in the right place: behind my rib cage
Ask me what I wanted from this band, and I wouldn’t have known what to say. I was too enamored of the Fugazi ethos to think of fame and riches. I believe all I really wanted was all I wanted my whole life up to that point: To be cool. To be in a place where the things I loved were not weird, but awesome, and to be surrounded by people who felt the same way. I was sure there was some wonderful place full of like-minded souls–if not a physical place, then some spiritual plane that could be achieved–and all I needed to do was make some Great Art, and I would be invited in.
We recorded a 7 inch in a whirlwind 48 hour session (a few details on that here). I was extremely proud of it. I still am, really. I no longer have the outsized hubris over what such a thing could possibly achieve. I am now painfully aware of how much living I had yet to do; at the time, I thought I’d been down some rough roads, and I suppose I had, but I had no idea how many more lay ahead. Still, I love this thing for what it is.
I’ve attempted to digitize the 7″ with the tools at my disposal. If it sounds extra lo-fi, that may be the limitation of my equipment more than the actual mix. But I figured, better to post it here in some form than none at all, so you can get an idea of what I was so wrapped up in and decide just how hubristic my dreams of glory/coolness were. (Click the back cover below to embiggen it for track listings and other outdated info.)
Every now and then, Record Ignite! would manage to get a show in the city, usually at ABC No Rio, though we once somehow wormed our way onto a bill at the Charleston in Williamsburg with the Mooney Suzuki. (I assure you that once upon a time, all those words meant something.) But for the most part, we played near my hometown, with a very small group of like-minded bands (under a very loose idea of a record label called Town Hall) until it became very difficult to do so. I don’t know if there’s a place out there that’s totally rock and roll about kids putting on their own punk shows, but my town certainly wasn’t.
We built a stage in our guitarist’s garage and would put on insanely fun shows there that went on into the wee hours. They remain some of the most blissfully joyous, stupid fun I’ve enjoyed in my life. I recall playing a show to a packed room, taking the mic from the stand after I broke a few strings, and abandoning the bass. In between verses, I zipped the mic out over the crowd like I was tossing them a life preserver. It hung there for a split second, then I quickly yanked it back in and grabbed the mic safely in my other hand. I had never done that before. I had never seen someone do that before. I had no idea what possessed me to do it, but I did it, and it felt amazing.
That image comes back to me often, this odd suspended feeling of being completely in a moment and not having a thought for anything else in the world. I’d had happier times in my life, but they were few and far between.
Then, word got around, and not in a good way. Before long, despite the fact that this garage utopia was in a somewhat remote location without too many neighbors within earshot, cops inevitably showed up to address “noise complaints.” Attempts to rent local community centers and Knights of Columbus halls went about as well as you might think. We’d find a seemingly welcoming space, get to play one show there, and never be allowed back again. After a typically tense show at a volunteer firehouse (under the harsh, watchful eye of many former and current FDNY folk), the powers that be refused to let us put on another show, going so far as to plaster their message board on the main drag of town with the all-caps directive/promise NO MORE BAND NIGHTS.
This is why we figured, hey, why not go on tour? Just like James Joyce and Jerry Lewis had to go to France to work and be appreciated, we too would ply our trade in what we assumed would be more rewarding cultural climes. We joined forces with another band from our clique, whose drummer was also my dorm roommate and seemed to know everybody worth knowing in punk/hardcore circles. With his ability to book and network (a skill I lacked as badly then as I do now), I figured this tour would launch us into the stratosphere.
How, exactly? I never thought that part out. I just thought that, surely, our music would SO impress the Eastern seaboard that fame would follow. I mean, we had a 7 inch out and everything! A Biblical interpretation of Get In The Van had convinced me that all we needed to do was just Work Really Hard and the rest would follow. We chipped in to get a cargo van and loosely outfitted it with a small berth over the space for the gear that could sleep two in a pinch. Everyone else not driving would tough it out on the hard van bed, because that’s what bands did, I thought.
This Horatio-Alger-by-way-of-Henry-Rollins philosophy sidestepped two important facts: 1) Black Flag might have been legendary, but they attained that status while enduring insane levels of privation and abuse; and 2) we weren’t in the same league as Black Flag. We were barely playing the same sport. I thought I was prepared to suffer, and I was, but being ignored had never crossed my mind.
Throughout the tour, we took a very serious interest in the idea of omens, particularly music related. If we set off for our next destination, and we managed to find something good to listen to on the radio (the van had no cassette or CD player), then that would be good luck. If we couldn’t find any decent music on the radio, that was bad luck. If we managed to find a good song but it faded out in the middle, that was the worst. Meanwhile, right in front of our eyes were other, more obvious omens, and all of them were harbingers of doom.
Our first stop was in DC, which I found exciting due to my spiritual connection to Dischord Records. I was so overjoyed to be in Ian Mackaye’s bailiwick that it didn’t occur to me there might not be a huge crowd for a 5pm show at a basement club. When we arrived, certain band members made good on their pledges to shave their heads. I sat my guitarist down in front of a recycling bin and got to work with a set of clippers. Mid-haircut, the blade flew off into the bin. I had to very delicately locate the missing piece among a fearsome array of broken beer bottles. After searching for far too long and nearly maiming myself, the missing piece refused to reattach itself. My guitarist had a truly horrifying, mental patient style ‘do for several days. Attendance at the show was in the single digits.
Our next show in Virginia Beach was canceled. We were offered a slot on an open mic night. We declined, and instead wandered down the touristy avenues, looking at kitschy junk. As we passed by one of many horrible, date-rapey white hat bars, I heard a disturbingly familiar low rumble coming from inside. I stopped in my tracks. It was the opening bassline to “Waiting Room,” and the white hats were borderline moshing to it. I felt instantly ill.
We didn’t get another show until we reached Greensboro, NC, where we played on the front lawn of a shambling punk rock house (possibly a squat), in front of a small skate ramp. It would’ve been pretty cool, if anyone had showed up other than the house’s residents, and even their interest was passing at best, as they wandered in and out of the house during our sets. (That explains why they didn’t bother to flyer for a show they ostensibly organized.) That night, noting the shabby condition of the house, some tourmates opted to sleep in the van. I opted for a rickety couch inside and awoke to find I’d been attacked by bugs who were real dicks, because they only bit me between my toes, thus making scratching the bites difficult and walking extremely painful.
In Charleston, SC, another show canceled. So once again, we found ourselves wandering around a beach town, feeling dejected. A local girl happened upon us and, indicating our collective shaved heads, asked, “Y’all Skins?”
I replied, “No, we’re Shirts.”
As usual, my idea of wit got me nowhere. My guitarist was particularly mad, hoping a more friendly approach might have landed someone a companion for the evening. I was unwilling to pretend to be a skinhead for any reason. We screamed at each other for a while. I stormed off to walk the beach all by myself, and quickly realized that walking the beach by yourself by the light of a full moon is something a crazy person does. I wasn’t entirely sure I wasn’t a crazy person. In those days, willpower seemed the only thing separating me from a complete mental breakdown, and I was running low on that. Tensions were running pretty high, as it was already dawning on everyone all at once that this was probably a huge mistake.
So we were not in the best state of mind when we drove into Atlanta, and our mood did not improve when we found it impossible to locate the site of our next gig. All we had was an address and the name of the place: C-11. We drove along the industrial outskirts of the city, along the road where C-11 was supposed to be, but we couldn’t find many address numbers. Nothing even remotely resembled a place where you’d go to hear music. All we saw were warehouses and truck depots and lumber yards.
We made a stop at a Taco Bell, partially to eat, partially to clear our heads. Our meal was interrupted by a very angry woman who insisted this particular Taco Bell had sold crack to her brother, and who demanded to “talk to the highest motherfuckin’ authority in Taco motherfuckin’ Bell!” We finished our burritos in the van.
When we hit the road again, we finally figured out why we couldn’t find C-11. It wasn’t a stand-alone venue, but one section of a huge village-like U-Haul storage facility. As we drove into this little shantytown of garages, we saw people barbecuing outside their “houses,” drinking beers, blasting music, playing frisbee. It was the Fourth of July. Suddenly, we remembered this. Just seeing people have fun was, in a sad, distant way, uplifting. The gloom cleared for a moment.
When we got to C-11, we found it was an airplane-hangar-sized warehouse, with a huge halfpipe in it, and an overall vibe that said this was a cool place full of cool people. We hadn’t seen one of those in a very long time. It was exactly the kind of place I imagined playing in when this tour was still a naive fantasy. But what really got me is that in the front room, there was a large shrine (and shrine was the only word for it) dedicated to Minutemen guitarist/singer D. Boon. A large picture of the man, with representative quotes, and a testimonial from his bandmate and best friend, Mike Watt.
This was, by far, the best omen yet. Finding the Minutemen when I was in high school led to an almost religious epiphany. Finding other people who’d actually heard of the Minutemen and similar bands made me feel like I wasn’t a complete monster. I was one of those people who invested a great deal in D. Boon’s line Our band could be your life… Now I’d found a shrine dedicated to the singular genius responsible for it all. I felt like we’d locked eyes, me and this benevolent bearded Buddha. It was like being spoken to by my spirit animal. This was a sign. Things would be good from now on.
A philosophical question: If you’re in a truly hopeless situation, would you rather maintain false hope or a resigned sense of doom? I say the latter. False hope might be better than none, but that’s only if you can sustain it, if you can keep up the illusion and delay the rude intrusion of reality forever. Because once it’s gone, you’re like Wile E. Coyote realizing he’s walked off the edge of a cliff and has been planting his feet on nothing for several steps, and all that’s left is the fall.
Because all the D. Boon shrine did was set me up for a profound let down. The show at C-11 was not sparsely attended, as our few shows had been thus far. But no one was there to see us, and they seemed to make a point of this. The audience was sizeable, but scattered around the very large space, talking to one another, skateboarding, talking, generally fucking around and paying us no mind.
That was disappointing enough, as was seeing our tourmates (who I thought were great) get a similar reaction. But what really crushed me, what really sent me over the edge, was seeing the headliner. Standing there in C-11, still stinging with shame over being ignored, I thought they were terrible. They were way too metal to my ears, with Cookie Monster vocals and guitar wankery that made my stomach churn. To me, metal was the absolute antithesis of everything I loved. I loved punk and soul and R&B and garage, all music of immediate, visceral reaction, of gonads, of the best kind of madness. Metal was the music of people who were mad in all the wrong ways. Metal had no low end! How could you make music without bass, you Philistines?!
This band being not very good would have meant very little, except that the crowd at C-11 fucking loved them. The D. Boon shrine had made me think that no matter who came here, they would be my crowd. If they didn’t like what I had to offer, that was fine. But they couldn’t like these guys, right? Right?! I AM ON D. BOON’S SIDE! I AM HONORING HIS MEMORY, NOT THESE SCHMUCKS! But the sad fact was, this awful band ruled the day, and there wasn’t a god damn thing I could do about it.
In the process, I realized that I was really just the asocial, clueless nerd insisting that he deserved to be class president more than the star quarterback or the head cheerleader. More often than not, merit does matter, and in any case, who says you merit more than they do anyway? They have fans. You have a 7 inch. It was one of those profound moments when you feel the universe has finally taken notice of you, and it has done so simply to say You haven’t the slightest idea how fucking stupid you and your dreams are.
I lasted 10 minutes into the headliner’s band before I wanted to eat a glock. I wandered past them in a depressed, lurching haze, out the back door of the venue, and into an alleyway separating one bank of warehouses from another. Someone was fixing his bike, welding a frame back together, the sparks of his blowtorch bouncing off the concrete before dying. I could see faint trails of holiday fireworks in the sky, though we were far, far away from whatever downtown location was doing the celebration.
Two kids who looked a little younger than me were slumped on the pavement near our van. They recognized me from playing earlier and said they liked my band. It was the first time anyone had said this to me on tour. It was the first time strangers had acknowledged me in any fashion during the tour (unless you count the girl in Charleston who was on the prowl for skinheads). The kids told me they’d traveled all the way from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a drive of three hours and change. Why? Just to see a show. They didn’t even know who was playing, but they’d been to C-11 before and figured there’d be something good going on there, and hell, it wasn’t like anything was worth sticking around for in Tuscaloosa on a holiday weekend.
I went into our van and produced a couple of seven inches; my band’s, our tourmates’, and another vinyl release our little label had put out. So far, we’d sold exactly zero copies of any of them, so I had little fear of running low on stock when I handed the seven inches over. Hope that was worth your trip, I said. They were very kind and appreciative. I wish I could say I did it out of the goodness of my heart. Truth be told, it was more for me than for them. I needed them to take these seven inches, to think that this tour wasn’t one studiously turned back after another.
I’d done most of the driving on the tour so far. For the next leg, I insisted on getting the “bed” in the back. Nobody argued with me. Traffic out of Atlanta was brutal, standstill for hours. The inside of the van was humid and miserable. It was no worse than it had been all tour, but this was the first time I really felt it. In the sleeping berth, I was inches from the ceiling, and I felt my breath condense before me.
I tried to go to sleep with all my might, desperately trying to get to some place where it all of this would recede from the front of my brain for a while, but I kept getting distracted by the view out of the back windows, where I saw fireworks bursting in the distance, far behind us.