Part three of “That Other Guy”

Third installment – enjoy.

*****

            DIY.  These three letters were the shorthand for how most of the hardcore music scenes operated, partly out of serious conviction, partly out of simple necessity.  There were no big labels eager to have bands like ours record for them or tour with their corporate banners hanging behind us.  We were left to fend for ourselves, which inevitably led to a combination of the wildly exciting and the marginally competent – but it was all on our terms, so no complaints.  Do it yourself.  Simple – you don’t like something, make your own way, chart your own course, blaze your own path, and so on.  Within certain scenes, though, you’d find a strange snobbishness.  “You’re too reggae,” some might say about a new group, or “You’re not loud enough.”  Didn’t make sense, really, and yet we were subject to that kind of response early on from some people who had been mainstays in the Fairfax scene.  Our having a black drummer?  Few really commented on it, mostly because Harrison was almost always the best musician in the room, but for some it didn’t fit the hardcore model that they somehow believed was the purest.  Our cover selections?  People spoke up about these, though our up-tempo versions silenced most of them.  Some of them may have even thought we were mocking the groups we were covering – that was probably Gerry’s intent, anyway – so they gave us a free pass.  That we were high school students?  This was our saving grace.  We were still innocents, supposedly unspoiled by the world of corporate music: we deserved our moment in the hardcore indie spotlight, such as it was.

            For the next two weeks, we practiced every day, paying little attention to the academic requirements of our final quarter of high school.  Some of us knew our fates for the fall: X was going to Scranton, a Jesuit college up in Pennsylvania; Harrison was off to Virginia State University, one of the few remaining all-black schools, where he’d received a full-ride for music.  I was still weighing my options: work a year, then go off to school somewhere far, far away, maybe even overseas, or stay local and go to George Mason, right there in Fairfax.  Gerry?  God only knew.  We certainly didn’t; I doubt he did either.

            During our practices, we went back and forth over our songs, trying to decide what our set list should be at the festival.

            “Why not just keep it the same?” Harrison asked, twirling a drum stick with the fingers on his left hand.  “It’s a good set.”

            “Maybe,” X said.  He turned the volume down on his guitar, seeming to weigh his words carefully.  “I’m just thinking there will be a lot of the same people at the festival who saw us play at Knott.”

            “So?  Screw them!” Gerry said.

            “Um . . . what?”  X held his hands out to his sides and examined Gerry as if the guy might need to be checked for rabies or ticks.

            “Any thoughts on what you wanna change?” I asked, more to redirect the conversation than anything.

            “How about switch up one of the covers?”

            “Which one?” Harrison said.

            “Doesn’t matter to me.”

            “What do you want to play instead?” I asked.

            X paused.  “ ‘Run Like Hell’.”

            “You mean Pink Floyd?” Gerry yelled.

            “Uh huh.”

            I stood there, convinced X was doing this just to piss off Gerry.  It was funny, too, because I knew X didn’t like Pink Floyd – actually, he hated them – so proposing one of their songs seemed strange.

            “Play it for us,” Harrison said, curious and moving behind his drum kit.  X did as he was told, turning up the volume on his guitar again, adding an effect or two, and then exploding the room with the song’s opening chords.  Ten seconds later, Harrison was adding the drum part, decidedly different from the one in the original: a little reggae on the verses, sped up on the choruses to a breakneck ska.  Gerry scowled the whole way through.

            X brought it to a close, nodding to Harrison in approval.

            “Well?” they asked in unison, looking squarely at me.

            “Two conditions.”  I crossed my arms.  “We drop ‘More Than a Feeling’.”

            Harrison sighed.  “Okay.”

            “And . . . you sing lead on ‘Run Like Hell’.”  I pointed at X, whose eyes and mouth formed perfect ovals.

            “But I’m not . . .”

            “Your back-up vocals are great,” I interrupted.

            Harrison did a little drum roll and hit the crash cymbal hard.  “Why not, man?”

            X was silent, but his silence was different than Gerry’s; his was all about making a decision, not stewing over some perceived injustice.  He absentmindedly strummed the opening chords of the Floyd song again.  “Okay,” he finally said.

            We practiced that song over and over, adding Gerry on back-up vocals, where he did surprisingly well given his loathing of Pink Floyd.  A week remained before the festival.

            In 1982, all over America the hardcore punk scenes were feeling strained.  There was the unavoidable issue of key figures dying – Gerry’s mentor Sid Vicious early among them, three years prior – but also the overall falling flat of the movement as a whole in the minds of the public.  On other fronts, the long-valued diversity of so many early punk scenes, where bills including The Ramones, Television, and The Talking Heads could exist, or Bad Brains playing down the block from Black Flag, seemed to be losing steam.  So far, our strange covers fit in fine, and Harrison’s presence behind the drum kit, big shaved-headed black guy that he was, didn’t make anyone think twice when we played someone’s basement.  But unbeknownst to us, things already had begun to change.

            Up until we started playing shows, the skinheads who were so ubiquitous in the Fairfax scene were just as their name stated – guys (and some girls) who shaved their heads as close to the skin as you could without bleeding.  It was a statement, of course, like everything else punk, and it boiled down to this basic idea: this is our way, and if you don’t like it, you know where you can get off.  But some movements from across the Atlantic Ocean were making their way around America now, and the skinheads were becoming more than just a bunch of punk kids with no hair and an interest in hardcore music.  There were the Oi boys, among others, declaring their allegiance to a new version of Hitler’s Nazi ideals, lacing up their steel-toed boots and summarily kicking the crap out of anyone who looked different: black, Hispanic, long hair – the list went on.

            That spring, I’d heard about some of these guys but figured we wouldn’t see much of them since we lived near D.C., with its majority black population.  Wrong again.  In fact, some of them had shown up at the Knott show to cheer on a band of their own boys, a trio called The Front, who Lyme Crane edged out for the second spot at the festival.  Apparently, this group of brownshirts had caused a ruckus by not merely jumping into the mosh pit, but mixing it up with the black kids who held sway with their skanking and pogoing.  The neo-Nazi skinheads, or Frontboys, as they called themselves, were escorted out right after their friends’ band played.  We never even saw what happened; we were backstage during the whole thing, and only found out the details from a couple of the guys in Lyme Crane.

*****

            Sid Vicious died on February 2, 1979, the middle of our freshman year of high school.  He’d been a member of the seminal British punk band The Sex Pistols for all of 11 months after replacing their original bassist Glen Matlock (the one who recorded with the group on their only major release, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols), followed by drug problems, prison time at Riker’s Island, a murder charge for the death of his one-time girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and then his own death by heroin overdose.  It was a busy couple of years for the young punk – and this was the guy that Gerry looked up to, idolized it seemed.  It was as if Gerry were oblivious to the central fact of this man’s life: barreling down the track, eyes closed, headed for his own destruction.  Then again, maybe he was well aware of the final chapter of Vicious’s life; maybe he figured his life was already moving down a similar track after he watched his parents’ ugly separation and divorce; maybe he saw something romantic about it all, something that neither Harrison, X, nor I could see.

*****

            The day finally came, and all of us were feeling nervous, packing and re-packing our gear in the van I borrowed from my parents.  Gerry looked like he had that night when his front lawn was littered with someone’s personal belongings (all his dad’s stuff, I found out later): jeans, black boots, black leather jacket, no shirt.

            “It’s gonna be 85 degrees out there, y’know that,” Harrison pointed out gently.

            Gerry grunted.  He looked like he hadn’t slept in a couple days, or eaten.

            X provided quite the counterpoint to Gerry’s disheveled look, wearing a white dress shirt, jet black jeans, a thin, black silk tie, and black dress shoes – and of course, the jet black sunglasses.  Harrison couldn’t believe that either, but just laughed as he repositioned his cymbals one last time.  He wore a white tank top, a pair of gym shorts, and running sneakers.

            “What, you gonna work out?” Gerry asked in a slurred voice, already sneering.

            “Yeah, yeah I am.”

            I gave no thought to my attire that morning and just wore my standard white t-shirt and jeans, with black Chuck Taylors – the same outfit I’d worn to bed the previous night, actually.

            When we arrived at the festival, we noticed half a dozen bands we’d either played with or seen perform in the last six months, all of them looking about as nervous as we felt.  Gerry didn’t make matters better, either, shouting out things like, “This is it, boys, we’re gonna break it huge,” in a horrible British accent.  The rest of us groaned – or I did, anyway, preferring to keep our ambitions modest.  Preferring something else, too: to put Gerry’s pill-popping out of my mind, though I worried I might not be able to do that before the day was through.

            That Other Guy went on third that day, after Lyme Crane and before Paula Paula, which was this all-girl group that had been kicking ass for the last year all over Fairfax.  We were grateful to play before them.  Jim Martin, a local record storeowner who was in charge of the festival, gave all of the bands – nine total – the breakdown before anyone hit the stage:

            “Keep your set to forty minutes.  Seriously, forty.  We will cut you off.  And keep the language clean – last year I got complaints, don’t ask me who from.  Get as much of your gear off the stage when you finish your set as you can.  Okay, that should be everything.  Any questions?”

            “Are kidney punches allowed?” Harrison asked, a mock-serious look on his face.

            “Never mind, no questions.  Go get your crap together.”  He turned to leave, then remembered one more thing.  “Hold up – forgot to tell you that we’ll be recording all of the sets.  Every group will get a tape in a few weeks.”  No one really reacted, though it was a kind gesture on his part; we were all so focused on the possible record deal with IRS that I don’t think anyone had considered we’d get anything else out of playing that day.

            The four of us scattered around the festival grounds, an hour on our hands before we needed to check in backstage and prepare for our set.  I had half a mind to go with Gerry, maybe just to diminish whatever trouble he might get himself into.  Again, though, I played the coward, grabbing a sno-cone and gazing forlornly (and from a safe distance) at Leah Andrews, the lead singer for Paula Paula, who, incidentally, sat in front of me in physics class.

            The set list was nearly the same, with “Run Like Hell” replacing “More Than a Feeling,” and our energy felt good, like it had at the Knott show.  But as soon as we ran onstage, I noticed something was different.  The Frontboys apparently had decided to come to the festival even though their friends wouldn’t be on the bill.  I saw the dozen or so of them edge forward a little each song, finally reaching the lip of the outdoor stage.  Was I the only one of us who saw these brutes?  At first, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but after we finished “Mindbender,” and I was introducing everyone in The Other Guy, the Frontboys’ leader bellowed, “Kike singer, nigger drummer,” two or three times.  Kike? I thought.  So he thinks I’m Jewish with this red hair and fair skin?  I laughed as I recalled the framed picture of Pope John Paul II hanging on the wall at my house (my mom was second-generation Polish).  But I turned my head and could tell Harrison heard the slurs, so I counted off the “One, two, three, four,” to start “Blackout” right away.

            The rest of the show was a tug of war: we played each song, sounding as tight as I think we ever had, then abbreviating the between-songs chatter so we didn’t have to contend with the jackass patrol spouting their fascist nonsense.  “Run Like Hell” worked especially well: no one had ever heard us play it before, and between Harrison’s otherworldy drumming and the one-two punch of X and Gerry’s vocals, I thought we might have hit our high point a few songs too early.

            Unfortunately, the crowd’s enthusiasm did nothing to dampen the Frontboys attempts to heckle us off the stage.  “Yeah, you better run like hell, boy,” the leader shouted, this time pointing at Harrison and emphasizing the word ‘boy’ in case our drummer wasn’t getting the message.  All we could do was move on to “Up on the Roof,” during which I noticed Gerry gyrating all over the stage, then reaching back to the microphone stand just in time to join X on the back-up vocals.  One thing was the same: his moves were herky-jerky and unpredictable, drug-addled as his brain was at that point.  But there was something different, too: he was looking at the Frontboys, apparently aware as I was that these guys held us a grudge from the community center show and had their eye on taking out Harrison for being black and me for being Jewish.  As we repeated the chorus to the old Drifters’ tune, I saw Gerry give them all a menacing stare, one they probably didn’t take seriously because he was so rail thin.  I knew something that they didn’t know, though; I knew that Gerry Rittle was a powder keg that day – and that maybe he always had been.

            We tore through “Courtesy of Me,” X’s face full of his wide smile as he played my circus simple riff, I handclapped and Gerry do-si-doed all over the stage, keeping his menacing glare fixed on the Frontboys.  Slowing it down for “Thank You Friends,” gave us a breather, and each time I sang the word ‘friends’ I smiled and looked at those angry skinheads, at one point holding out my hands as if to welcome their embrace.

            When we finished that song, the Frontboys were uncharacteristically silent, though I could still see the rage etched in their faces.  “That was a Big Star tune, hope you liked it,” I said into the microphone.  “This next one will be our last.  X wrote it” – I glanced over at him, catching his eye – “and it’s called ‘Final Go’.”  Before I could back away from the mike, X lit into his opening riff, blistering the air in a way I’d never heard before.  This is it, he seemed to be saying, no sense in holding back, and the rest of us joined in, building bit by bit to the crescendo.  Gerry sang back-up again, still scowling down at the Frontboys, still skittering around the stage.  Without a shirt, his pale white torso was covered in sweat, his leather jacket sticking to his skin.  As he caterwauled across the stage at one point, nearly bumping me away from behind the mike, I saw one of his open pockets, two black plastic film canisters rolling around, and I felt my stomach churn and my face go cold.

            Then came the close of the song.  X had wanted to do something different when he showed it to us months before.  “We’ll do a coda.”

            “A what?” Gerry asked.

            “It’s like a mini-song tacked onto the end of the main song.”

            “Whatever,” Gerry responded.

            During the coda, we switched keys, from G major to A major, and X and Harrison battled it out with a flurry of solos while Gerry and I attempted to keep some kind of rhythm going.  I felt like we were about to collapse into chaos, the song building and building, X’s lead guitar notes ringing loud as church bells.  Gerry and I dueled with each other like we were members of some cheesy metal band, wielding our instruments like weapons.

            I suppose one thing that artists, musical and otherwise, have to learn is how to keep their audiences wanting more.  That afternoon I thought we’d done a pretty good job, and as Harrison hit his crash cymbals one, two, three times to signal the end of “Final Go,” I thought we had a real shot at that record deal with IRS.  What I didn’t notice during the song’s conclusion was the Frontboys assembled in two groups of six or seven, each one near each end of the stage, ready to do something other than wish us well on our performance.  What I didn’t imagine was that Gerry would leap from the stage at that same moment, bass still strapped to his skinny, sweaty body, aiming for the leader of the Frontboys.  So just when we thought we would hear the final round of applause, bouncers all over the festival area broke the ranks of the fans to separate Gerry from the number one skinhead.  In the process, Gerry’s pill bottles fell out, and less than a minute later, we silently watched him get carted away in a Fairfax County cop car.

            I looked at X, then Harrison, speechless.  So this was it, I thought.

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Published in: on September 5, 2010 at 7:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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