I was inside of a pair of large, steel self-storage units. Smoke rose from a barbecue grill outside of the storage units, up to the darkening skies just beginning to shine its stars. There was a loud, headache-inducing noise exploding from a pair of speakers inside. I thought it was music, but I wasn’t going to hedge my bets. There was a tree stump sprouting miraculously from the ground, made of patches of clay, sand, and grass, surrounded with ash and used cigarettes, beer cans and beer bottles. Cars lined the closed units nearby. Normally storage units keep things of yours or someone else’s, things you don’t want, things you can’t get rid of. And I didn’t realize it yet, but I was at my last punk concert.
A young man/boy, whom I had seen earlier sitting alone on a couch under a DIY mantle with chipped wooden boards that serve as this place’s logo—an appropriate piece of decoration for a place inside two large storage containers—sat, diminished, behind a drum kit.
He was thrashing away at the snares, toms, and cymbals, stomping ever-so-violently at the bass drum. A heart is tied to the top of the bass drum, artificially pumping to the rhythm of the bass drum beater. I assumed the heart was fake.
I was sure the man whom I first thought slight and frail earlier was going to break his drum sticks if he weren’t more careful. A woman in fishnet stockings was on the bass, and a long-haired, grungy man was on lead guitar. They both shared vocal duties, although the woman jumped in for harmonies while he sang the lead.
Their singing came from the stomach, from the gut. Their singing was also the musical equivalent of watching paint dry from the heat of a blowtorch—it was aggressively boring. Rising from their bowels, the sounds they made reminded one of a demon belching, but the sounds reminded one of a bad band attempting to imitate that sound, too.
It didn’t matter, though—I couldn’t make out anything they were singing, anyway. During one song, which my friends and I believed to be an anti-folk song, we made out the phrase “FUCK BOB DYLAN” being yelled out by the two, surely eviscerating whatever they had left of their vocal chords. Or at least that’s what we think they were saying. Another song was a repetition of the word “puke,” which reminded me of rapper MC Ride’s delivery on “Hot Head,” and a hook that let the listener know that this puking was a part of a grander “puke party,” whatever that is. That’s what we thought we heard, anyway. We only hoped one of them was right.
Off to the side, in the opening of one of the containers nearest to the band, a flood light sat on the ground and illuminated them—the odd trio who were clawing and banging and screaming on top of a cheap-looking rug in front of 30 or more people inside a steel shipping container—casting a shadow on the corrugated steel of the walls and ceiling. People stood outside, behind the flood light, congregating and drinking, talking about anything but the band trying to sound good. Inside the containers, the people situation was a little different: there was a moshing ball of drunken, writhing people, flinging their bodies around in the middle, and the more casual listeners, like myself, sat on the couch, or stood around the amalgamation of “dancing” punk forms, drinking and observing. Midway through one artist’s performance, a bald man, who had clearly drunk an entire bottle of something behind the bar, crushed the moshing crowd with pushes and shoves. Fairly normal for a mosh, I thought, but a fat bearded man, shirtless, with black Vans, jeans shorts, and an admittedly sweet-looking denim vest toted the bald drunk man out of the ball and into the real world. The large man, I later found out, was the president of the chapter of this particular venue—there were several venues like this one.
They marked my hand with a black Sharpie when my friend and I arrived, letting everyone here know that we were not to be served alcohol, because this was the type of place that seriously worried about rules—the little circles with A’s in the middle, scattered about the place, said as much. So, I didn’t drink, and neither did my friend, although she did stand around with a cigarette in her mouth for most of the night.
A screened, wood-framed barrier that did as much blocking as it possibly could have separated the action from the bar. This was in the first storage container. Here, another couch and an assortment of chairs were lain around. Most of the artists that performed that night stayed in this area, it seemed. I stayed on the other side, with people I knew.
After the performance of a one-man band, whom I particularly liked, requests for songs came from the crowd.
“California Über Alles!” no one rang out.
“I Fought the Law!” said that same no one, too.
“Wagon Wheel!” said most of the moshing ball and the artists in the back room.
Then a strange electric guitar cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s/Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” was played, and I, for one, was pleasantly surprised at how a tame song such as “Wagon Wheel” could sound so sad when sung by a mob of drunk punks.
Though, in all the hectic dancing and yelling and general drunkenness, it was at this moment that I made a realization that many others have made before me, but it was now that it had finally shot into through my skull, as thick as it is, and into my brain: I did not belong here.
In my mind, what was left of the punk community was way more than just the remnants of 2000’s punk pop kids who had no real idea of what earlier punks were—but that’s exactly what it is. Despite the seemingly DIY attitude of the establishment, the experience itself reminded me of “antique” record players one finds in a record store, which are not really retro but give the idea to the non-observant bystander that it is.
Punk music used to be chaotic, or at least it became that way, eventually, before it became tasteful to radio audiences. I identified with that morbid interest in chaos, and I’m sure many early punks did, too. That’s why so many early punks ran with their anarchistic political views in such a proud way—in their clothing, in their words, in their musical indifference toward what was popular. They were revolutionaries of music. They stripped back convention and replaced it with crude and anti-authoritarian idiosyncrasies. It was a counterculture, but more importantly, it was a counterculture that wanted the individual to feel proud of their lifestyle, their fashion, and their differences.
But when the mainstream grabbed ahold of punk and assimilated it into corporate culture, creating “niche” stores to appeal to the masses, that was when it died, or at the very least placed on life support.
Everyone here wore the same denim vests and black Vans and jean shorts and watched the same television shows and had seen the same movies. That’s not the punk culture I thought I knew. I have not lived long enough to know truly what punk was like, but I’ve heard a young Jello Biafra yell with purpose and passion into the mic on a Dead Kennedys record, and I could not hear that purpose and passion here. There were no punks here. This was not underground. This was not a revolution. This was not a counter culture: this was a club. This was a get-together of nonconformists who were all the same “antique” record player.
In the chaos and anarchy it wanted to create, it seemed punk had lost sight of what it wanted to really be, and opportunists grabbed the tamest parts of punk culture and synthesized it into a market-friendly palette cleanser. When the closest thing to punk culture left is noise rap like Death Grips and fusion punk-metal-rap like Show Me the Body, you know you’ve lost the culture war. This is not a slight against these two bands. When your culture only has two examples of what you are, or should be, then your culture is not much of anything anymore.
As I stood, observing the seemingly chaotic ball of flailing arms, jellied legs, and hoarse voices, I realized that this moshing crowd was the last thing punk had going for it—and a drunk bald man, dragged away by a fat dude in a denim vest, revealed just how much it had lost. I left what I thought punk was in that storage unit, just like other people had left so many other thoughts in all the other units lined up beside it. That night I killed the thing I loved. That night I grew up. That night I realized: I’m a bad punk.