How Punk Rock Saved My Life

I found punk rock right when I needed it. My parents had just gotten divorced, and my mother, sister, and I had moved from West LA to Pasadena in November of my fifth-grade year.

I was so nervous the first day of my new school that I sauntered down to the bus stop, promptly threw up in the bushes, walked back to the house, and begged my mom to let me stay home. She complied, but the next day I faced a bus full of strangers.

Fortunately my mother had found out that her real-estate agent’s son was a fifth-grader on the same bus. As eyes bore through me, I focused on the only kid sitting alone and said, hopefully, “Are you Matt?”

“No, I’m Rob,” the bespectacled stranger replied, but he seemed glad to have someone fill the seat. He appeared as confused as I was; he’d just moved from North Carolina to California and was also new to the school.

Rob and I became fast friends. Some days I’d get off the bus at his house; some days he’d disembark at mine. We both got used skateboards and started listening to K-ROQ, the local alternative music station. Rob and I craved acceptance but also knew we were too proud to pander to the “cool crowd.” So we naturally eschewed all that characterized them: Journey and Van Halen; long, feathery hair; hooded surf ponchos, Vans shoes. Instead we found punk rock.

What drew me to punk was not the fashion nor the speed of the music but rather its confident attitude that the alienated could collectively form a tribe. Even though I looked and spoke like a normal middle-class kid, I was angry inside: pissed that my parents had gotten divorced; pissed that I had to come home to an empty house while my mom worked; pissed that my mom and my older sister were arguing so often that the knobs on both their bedroom doors were loose from all the slamming; pissed that I’d had to say goodbye to all my friends and come to a new school where the coolest kid was a boy nicknamed “Chingi” who liked to start his morning by hitting me across the side of my head with an open palm as he walked down the bus’s aisle.

And so my radicalization against the man began. Rob and I listened to songs that derided conformity and celebrated the unique. We favored the “straight edge” bands who rejected drugs, alcohol, and racism. We’d hop our skateboards and cruise down to the record shop, where we’d scour the used bin for good vinyl. When I got home, I’d finish my homework (still the good boy; it’s my nature), close the door, and blare my punk. I sang along with Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye when he screamed, “I can’t keep up! I can’t keep up! I can’t keep up! I’m out of step with the world!” And I remember goosebumps rising as I sang along with 7 Seconds:

“Hey it’s 1984, With a glimpse of what’s in store,
It looks like things are up to us.
No talk, just action in the streets,
That’s what it’s gonna take,
No calm youth in the U.S.A.

It’s summertime, American riot!
I can’t complain, unless I try it!
The heat is here, a teenage warning!
To those who fear, here’s your warning!

The songs were like anthems to our disaffected souls. By eighth grade, we were doing what we could to signal our membership to the tribe: Rob started sporting t-shirts with President Reagan’s face crossed out in red, and I was sporting a buzz cut and wearing flannel. I relished it when two six graders giggled in disbelief at how naked my scalp looked under my razor-shorn hair.

Somehow Rob and I convinced one of our parents to drop our skinny asses at LA’s Olympic Auditorium, a dirty downtown joint famous for its raucous punk shows. I remember feeling nauseous as we waited in line for tickets, hoping there was a “chicken exit” like I’d sometimes seen at amusement parks beside particularly scary rides. The aggression of the scene, so energizing in music and lyric, scared the shit out of me in person.

When I think about conquering fears, walking through those doors that night was a seminal one. Finding the mosh pit was a close second. I had never slam-danced before, let alone really danced at all, but there I was, all 98 pounds of me, twisting and turning my way around an emptied-out circle where daring young punks did rounds, bumping into each other forcefully until they’d had their fill. From afar, it may have looked like 100 angry kids who’d lost their minds, chaotically flinging themselves at each other, but inside there was a strange grace and a code of honor strictly followed: you didn’t intentionally try to hurt anybody, and if someone fell to the ground you immediately picked them up. I think I understood punk viscerally that night; we were all trying to release our frustration so that it didn’t implode in our guts or explode through our fists, and we needed the music and our brethren to help us do this.

Now that I am a father, I’m faced with helping Rio find his own methods of transmutation. He gets angry, often, because he’s a little firecracker, and he sometimes doesn’t know what to do with his strong feelings. At times, he’s lashed out physically, and this has landed him in trouble. Other times he has said hurtful words. I try to show him ways to release the frustration in non-destructive ways, because the last thing I want him to do with his emotions is to swallow them whole, letting them fester and ferment into the bitter juices of resentment.I’ve already started teaching him how to “rock out.” These days, I score it a success when he stomps into his room, turns in the doorway to face the house, and screams, “Sheeeessshhh!”

A few weekends ago, I myself was feeling hot, frustrated, and hemmed in. I got some good cold beer, took off my shirt, and started pulling out some of my favorite punk-rock music. I held an imaginary guitar across my chest and stood before an invisible microphone. I went on to perform my own hour-long show, to no one in particular (although Annie told me later that she peeked in and smiled once in a while.) Though the songs were almost thirty years old, I still knew every damn lyric, every damn guitar lick, almost like they were inside me. As the beer disappeared and my arm went up and down in strums and the sweat broke out in rivulets, I felt like a teenager again — now out in the open instead of behind closed doors; now in my own home instead of in my mother’s; now raising my own son who faces his own angst and the conundrum of finding ways to release it  — but I swear I felt a live wire between me and the long line of those who sing loud and thrash hard rather than swallow deep and steep in silence.

The Hearth

The wood stove

With the onset of winter, I’m focused on tending the fire. We have a big wood stove that heats up most of the house, and so I’ve been procuring loads of timber, keeping it neatly stacked, using a maul and hatchet to chop the logs into an array of sizes, and, most importantly, starting a fire and keeping it warm through the night.

There’s something about the heat from a wood stove that makes a forced-air system almost like plastic next to silk; the warmth from the fire crawls up from under you and licks your very skin.

I’m so obsessed with my self-appointed duty of heating the house manually that I sometimes forget to actually look at the fire — I tend to keep the stove’s doors closed to maximize efficiency. Thankfully Annie regularly opens them so she can gaze at the yellow and orange flames dancing across the oak. Something about watching a fire narrows my world, drawing attention inward and away from whatever wilderness my mind was racing through.

Rio is already prone to this effect; last night, I found the kid we secretly call “Flash” (as in blur) sitting perfectly still by himself in front of the fire, gaze intent.

This got me thinking about a backpacking trip to Yosemite that my high-school sophomore class went on for a week one winter. On the last night, after we’d traversed mountains and survived the snow and ice, the counselors lit a bonfire and asked each of us to grab a stick. They then told us to take turns throwing the piece into the fire and saying something about the trip. Most of us probably rolled our eyes, and the session began with fairly standard “I learned a lot” platitudes. But about a third of the way in, one of my classmates began talking about the hard time she’d been going through at home, and she began to cry. The next girl related a painful story from her life, and she too started to weep. Before long, we were all in tears, sharing our truest truths.

I’m not sure the teachers and counselors had ever witnessed anything like this. There was so much pain among us, and, amazingly, we were letting it burn.

Our class was always a little different after that. While the juniors above us and freshmen below us were plagued by persistent cliques and schisms, our class exhibited an unusual harmony that every teacher I knew commented on. We weren’t all friends or anything saccharine, but we had seen each other at our most exposed, and we never forgot the dirty beauty of that. We “let our scars fall in love,” as the poet Galway Kinnell puts it.

I am certain, after all these years, that each one of us remembers that night: the time we shared the secret of our frailty; the time we unveiled everything and felt free.