What Is Punk? A Memory.
It was months later that I began to understand exactly where I’d been and near-exactly a year afterwards that I fully “got” my first (and, so far, only) trip to a Dirty Punk Party. Not one to do something half-way, even when I didn’t know it, my baptism fire was the fabled 3-11 house in Morgantown.
However, this didn’t mean anything to me. I had not yet, at 19, been immersed in the wide array of labels and earmarked sub-societies of pop or un-popped culture. Ignorant bliss. I was just visiting an old friend from my high school days when I knew stranger, simpler days and (depressingly) more exotic and exciting people.
My friends in those days were stoners/slackers, in the corduroy and
tye-dye motif. I didn’t know this was to denote their position
in the social strata. My high school had about three categories: Vo-tech
(i.e. hicks), jocks, and these Smells-Like-Teen-Spirit types. The rest
of us floated between them to varying degrees, saturated like the water
between three dissolving bullion cubes.
When I heard the term “punk,” all I knew was my fifty-year-old neighbor’s use of the word as an insult, and a vague idea of someone with a mohawk in a bad eighties flick. Hadn’t that whole thing gone the way of Huey Lewis and the News?
My friend, call her Katrina, was a dear girl who had once made her own full-length, blood-red velvet dress. She was wearing it when I slouched down to her place after work. With her was a British navy man she’d met over the internet and was thinking of moving to Greece with, a Scottish couple, a girl with green hair wearing a lot of fishnets, and Katrina’s father. They were sitting around listening to eighties pop and tugging on long-neck bottles.
This was why I loved her.
She was only at home temporarily. She was going to the “Dirty Punk Party” with the green haired girl (Deanna), and an old girlfriend of mine (Jody). Did I want to go?
Recognizing nothing but the word “Party,” and desperately wanting to wake up in someone else’s house the next morning, I grabbed my pack of fags and walked to her car.
“There will be alcohol, won’t there?” My thoughts flew to the bottle of vodka I kept under the passenger seat of my car “Oh, sure,” she said. So I saved my bottle for another day. In retrospect, the vodka might have helped. I was wearing some cheap sneakers, a pair of old cargo pants, and a T-Shirt that said “Waynestock.” My hair was black, boring, and if it stuck up in any way it was by accident. Hell, Vivian in The Young Ones does fuck-all else but drink vodka. Between the cigarettes and the vodka, I might’ve been able to bribe my way into the hearts of the 3-11 crowd, but it wasn’t to be.
The party enchanted me in a way not dissimilar to how the Star Trek
crew might greet a porno film. I had no fucking clue what I was looking
at, but it was nothing I’d ever seen before: more mohawks than
I could believe still existed; for every guy in fishnets and appropriated
army fatigues, there was someone who looked like they stepped out of
That 70s Show (I hadn’t heard of Elvis Costello, or I would’ve
understood this wasn’t the sign of universal acceptance I took
it for); the lines between “male” and “female were
blurrier than a Magic Eye picture. (One of my first titanic blunders
was actually mistaking a girl for a boy. From the aghast looks passed
around the porch, I knew at that moment things would go poorly.) But
I didn’t know. I was just giddy with revelation.
My Kerouac and Burroughs fetishes were a good start, but I was lacking in two decades of subsequent culture. The keg was tapped dry, and my confidence soon followed.
My attempts at conversation were either missteps or mistakes; my greatest victory was with someone who had arrived early enough to get seriously inebriated and began explaining how God was, in fact, black, like his son Jesus. This was something I could connect with, but eventually he turned to piss of the porch, and promptly fell over. My other great contact with the ‘hawked people was generously handing out Marlboros.
At first I thought it was simply that I was suffering the fate of knowing only three people at a party of fifty whom all knew each other. Looking back though, I see now a (not at all violent, but) persistent exclusion at work. (In truth, I should count myself lucky things didn’t go south at any point, because I would have stood out as quite a juicy target to the kind of punk who gets serious use out of the steel-toe of their hobnailed boots.)
There were several highlights to the otherwise barren horizon of the trip. I’d never actually seen a boiling toilet before. I got to slam around when the band finally showed up about two. Jody set her ex-boyfriend’s shirt on fire and danced around it. I reached a new high score in chain-smoking. I met a person who, months later, would introduce me to Vanguard Party.
But in the end, as I sketched people and hairstyles I’d seen
on the back of an Eat ‘n Park placemat (It always ends at Eat
‘n Park, no matter what), the memorable nuggets didn’t recoup
the prospecting. I accepted the trip as an observational sociological
exercise because my markings were all wrong.
And so what? I ran into a punk-looking person last week who “wouldn’t consider themselves a punk” just like a punk would. They had blue hair and knew enough about “Punk” to agree I was lucky to have been accepted insomuch as I had at 3-11. What does it matter?
At the point of hair-splitting today, we divide and re-divide culture status: Metal heads are different from Industrial Goths. Emo kids look like depressed Elvis Costello, suited Punks can look like angry Elvis Costello. Geeks are not mods, Beatniks are a joke, Folk is dead, Goth is on sale at the mall. Maybe someday we’ll all be individually narrowcasted to the point of individuality with our own Latin names, like biology specimens. (This is an example of the Family COBAIN, Phylum TARINTINO, Species NINTIES-ALTERNATIVE, Type RHCP. We’ll be scaled, weighted, and scientifically categorized to individually.)
Every category we create makes one more wall to acquiesce, one more guard post. Seeing what Punk was cued me into a whole perspective of which I was ignorant. It was the night I left the abstract plane of existence where I though the division was simple: the exotic and the mundane.