“Punk rock saved my life” is kind of a cliche in the punk community. I collect punk quotes, and many are a variation on one widely credited to Mike Ness of Social Distortion: “Punk rock sounded like I felt inside.”
Most punks will tell you this revelation occurred when they were about 14 years old, whether it was hearing the Ramones or the Clash for the first time in the 70s or discovering Green Day in the 90s.
I was more like 50.
The early punk days of the 1970s didn’t quite hit me. I lived in places where my only contact with music was commercial radio and magazines. At age 14, I devoured news about the New York Dolls and other glam rockers, but I seldom heard them, until eventually David Bowie and a few bands like Mott the Hoople pierced commercial radio and TV. I was in college when punk began to bubble into general public consciousness, but I was still tied to commercial radio and to the local scene. Newark, Delaware, was a folk and blues town. George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers were playing locally and starting to hit nationally, and other blues bands and artists like Tom Larsen and Rockett 88 dominated. I was heavily devoted to political concerns (poli sci major, with a journalism concentration), and had discovered the more political end of folk music (and local singer-songwriters in that vein). Commercial radio and my folkie friends mostly made fun of punk. I was exposed to Patti Smith through a friend of a friend, but that was about it.
Meanwhile, my younger brother became a New Waver who dabbled in a bit of punk. He saw the Ramones several times and got the autographs of three of the original four on a paper napkin. (Which disappeared somewhere in my mother’s house, and we were never able to get our hands on it.) Though his tastes ran more to Blondie, the B52s, and Echo and the Bunnymen, he still encountered more punk than I did. He went to lots of shows, which I didn’t do, partly out of finances, partly because my boyfriend (now my husband) and I mostly followed local bands around northern Delaware, and partly because, coming from a small town far away from the action, I’d grown accustomed to thinking that concerts were always “somewhere else” and only people with cars and lots of disposable income (I generally had access to neither) could go. And boys, like my brother. Plus, the few big arena shows I did attend left me cold. I’m grateful I got to see one of my favorite non-punk old-school bands, the Who, in their prime, but the Spectrum seats were lousy and the experience wanting. I recently heard Henry Rollins talk about his teen experiences with big shows, and it resonated. Your heroes were too far away, untouchable. You hoped for some kind of transcendence, based on your love for the records, but you weren’t feeling the love back.
So I entered adult life with a passion for music, but limited access. Again, I read about the Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, Black Flag, and other 1980s punks. There were a few local punk bands, but I never went out to hear them. Then in 1990, the first stirrings began. In those pre-Claritin days, I used to take Benadryl if I had a bad allergy attack, and it would thoroughly knock me out. So one day, my husband and I had to be somewhere after I’d taken one. He was driving my car with the radio on, and I was passed out cold in the passenger seat. Suddenly a guitar riff broke through the fog, and I sat straight up. It was the beginning of Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain,” which became my all-time favorite song. It was a fluke; the Philly radio stations didn’t play them much. Later I discovered a Baltimore station I could pick up in the car in certain places that did. I still associate Social D with driving, since I first heard “Bad Luck,” “Story of My Life” and “I Was Wrong” in the car.
Social D, Green Day, Rancid and a few other punk or punk-influenced bands broke through the radio barrier in the 1990s, especially since Kurt Cobain and the grunge crowd were open about their influences and “modern rock” radio had become an alternative to the ossified classic/crap-rock formats. I was drawn to punk more and more.
In the early aughts, I reached a tipping point. I had once loved my job of over 20 years, but the affair was over. Other factors–a series of family deaths, health issues, a mental breakdown in the mid-90s–played a role. I was restless, and the small amounts of punk I heard made me hungry for more. Then Philly radio god Jim McGuinn unleashed a “punk rock weekend” on Y100, Philly’s premier modern rock station. Jim had previously worked at WDRE, a pioneering alt-rock outfit I only discovered mere months before it folded. Jim and others from that station washed up at Y100, my usual listen at home and in the car. Punk Rock Weekend sealed the deal.
Flash forward to the mid-aughts. I’d gotten out of my job and into a new one I loved–managing editor of an American history journal. It was only part-time, so I had a lot of time on my hands, plus I could listen to the radio on my computer at work because I was usually alone. Y100 had ended in 2005, but Jim and some other hardy DJs had started their own online station, Y-Rock (which eventually evolved into Y-Not Radio). There were two shows devoted just to punk rock, and I ate them up..I won tickets from Jim to see Mike Ness in 2008, and that unleashed something. I realized I COULD go to shows; I was in Philly several times a week for work anyway and seeing Mike even from the balcony of the Trocadero (my husband wouldn’t stand below, closer to the stage) was an experience more like watching George Thorogood or my bar-band friends in 1979 than sitting in nose-bleed seats at the Spectrum. I was hooked for good, and I devoted myself to finding out more about old and current punk music.
That year, 2008, I turned 50, went through a harrowing menopause, lost one-third of my net worth like the rest of America, helped my mother and my best friend through horrific cancer treatments, endured that friend’s eventual murder–and started writing, in fits and starts. For the next two years at least, I clung to my sanity through punk. Since 2011, I’ve seen 130-190 bands a year, mostly punk and mostly from the front row. At first it was a way to get through the day and have something to live for, then it became something to share with new friends (and one old one–she of the Patti Smith album), and now it’s my life.
Arena rock is virtually dead, but other kinds survive and thrive in the margins. To me, rock was never meant to be something made by rich white men in gigantic stadiums (with an exception for Bruce Springsteen); it belongs in what my favorite artist Frank Turner calls “bedrooms, bars, and bunker squats.” It truly is a SCENE, where artists and audience mingle and appreciate one another. I’ve met and even become friends with countless musicians, both living legends and people you’ve never heard of. I’ve talked to Mike Ness, held hands with Iggy Pop, exchanged email with Henry Rollins. I get hugs, and stage shout-outs, and once waved to the entire TLA as the audience yelled my name (at the behest of my favorite Philly band, the late Holy Mess). I met some local punks in a band called Victory Boy and they introduced me to house shows (an important influence on Arboria Park, which I will detail in a later post). I’ve met people of all ages I’m proud to call my friends, people I see at various shows who all have their favorite bands (but in the Venn diagram many coalesce around Frank Turner). I listen to the old-school punk I missed the first time around in the 70s, 80s and 90s who played RIGHT IN MY OWN TOWN all those years when I desperately needed to see them and didn’t know it; didn’t realize they existed or were playing right up the street. I listen to local bands and new bands, folk punk and thrash punk and orgcore and hardcore. It all means something.
I’ll let the Celtic punk Mahones take it from here: