For Isaac James Baker, the love of punk rock is never going away. He recently found it again when, at a show on the opposite coast, he accidentally poured a beer on one of his heroes.
[Nominated for The Pushcart Prize]
I was fourteen, sitting shotgun in Paul’s car, drunk on tequila and Mountain Dew, and convinced of one thing: I had to listen to the Dead Kennedy’s song “Moon over Marin” again and again. Paul, who played drums in our band The Jeffersons, was the driver and the only sober one in the car, so technically the music selection was his call. But I had recently developed an insatiable addiction to the Bay Area punks’ album “Plastic Surgery Disasters,” and, being underage and drunk, I was not easily swayed. So we listened to “Moon over Marin” on repeat as we cruised the Chicago streets toward nowhere in particular. The emotive drone of the guitar, the dark and steady bass and drums, the psychotic vibrato of Jello Biafra’s voice, it enthralled me.
The music came from a place I’d never seen and a time before my birth, but it felt raw, authentic, meaningful, everything mainstream music lacked. I mouthed the words of that song as I looked at the window at the late night haze of the city. The song was about the San Francisco Bay area’s beaches and how they’ve been polluted over the years. Having grown up as a surfer on the Jersey Shore in the 80s, disgusting and polluted beaches was something I experienced first-hand.
Another tanker’s hit the rocks
Abandoned to spill out its guts
The sand is laced with sticky glops
O’ Shimmering moonlight sheen upon
The waves and water clogged with oil
White gases steam up from the soil
There will always be a moon over Marin
That night, while listening to that song, something clicked.
In the following years I went to as many punk shows as possible. I learned guitar just enough to play basic four-chord punk and started a band with three of my best friends. Whatever little money I had I spent on punk rock shows, T-shirts and records. I attacked punk music chronologically, starting off with the Ramones, the Clash, the Damned, Crass, later hitting up bands like Social Distortion, Bad Religion, the Adolescents and Youth Brigade. In the mid-90s punk was going through a considerable revival period, and it seemed punk bands of every stripe were popping up in every city. Bands like Rancid, the Unseen, Anti-Flag and the Bouncing Souls were redefining punk for a new generation, and I wanted to be a part of it
These punk bands displayed a tour ethic that made the Dave Matthews Band look like a bunch of wankers. They played gigs anywhere, from decrepit bowling alleys to basement parties to abandoned warehouses, and they lived up to their D.I.Y. ethic by producing their own records, T-shirts, patches and buttons. Sure, bands like Green Day and the Offspring were getting some serious mainstream attention, not to mention cash, but beneath the surface punk was real and alive.
Punk always made sense to me in a way other things didn’t. The speedy crunch of the guitars, the thump of the bass beats, the cymbal crashes, the snotty, raspy lyrics, the 4-4 stomp. But it wasn’t just the music; it was the essence. Punk gave voice to my disgust with the worst aspects of American society: police brutality, corporate greed, corrupt politicians, blind religious faith, racism, sexism, homophobia, censorship. I grew up in an evangelical Christian environment that I neither understood nor wanted any part of. So punk rock became my church.
You know what? The Exploited were right. Punk wasn’t dead in 1981. It wasn’t dead in 1996, and it sure as fuck isn’t dead now.
I moved around a lot during my teens and early 20s, from Jersey to Ukraine to Chicago to Germany to Texas to Philly to Brooklyn to Baltimore to DC. No matter where I went I did my damndest to find other punks to hang with and punk bands to support. After college you’re expected to shelve that teenage angst, get a job and become a so-called productive member of society. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked my ass off full-time since I got out of high school and I’ve wasted away at more bullshit jobs than I care to remember. Like most people in their 20s, I’ve got responsibility and school debt. But the pressures and stresses of life in my 20s didn’t steal my passion for punk. It only strengthened it. As I look warily toward 30 in 2013, I realize I’m no closer to outgrowing punk than I was at 15.
I still work out in old cut-off punk shirts, and every now and then I get a nod or a tap on the shoulder from a guy or girl at the gym. The connection with other punks is immediate and sincere, and it usually leads to trading stories about seeing different bands in different cities, causing trouble, having fun. Many of the random punks I meet are even older than I am, and I listen with jealousy to their stories of seeing Social Distortion play the Whiskey in L.A. back in the early days, or, better yet, watching the Ramones rock CBGBs in the late 70s.
Punk had only been around a few years before cynics and critics were crying, “Punk is dead!” They tried to define punk as something specific to their time and place and dismiss all other expressions as fake. By 1981 Scottish street punks The Exploited had to defend their music by naming their 1981 album “Punk’s Not Dead.”
You know what? The Exploited were right. Punk wasn’t dead in 1981. It wasn’t dead in 1996, and it sure as fuck isn’t dead now. Some of the punk fans I run into speak about punk rock only in the past tense. Maybe they haven’t bought a new album or supported a punk band at a live show in a decade. Maybe they’ve grown to tolerate cops and consumerism. For them, yeah, I guess punk is dead. But punk is alive for the people who live it, and that doesn’t change whether you’re 14, 28 or 50.
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