Scribble Scholar Was Here

Notes of a Vandal Academic

Images: Andra Hilde
Andrew, the owner of No Division skate shop, was X-ing out the backs of people’s hands with a Sharpie to show they had paid and could re-enter. He drew an anarchy “A” on my left hand and a dick on my right and said, “That’ll getcha backstage.” Below the vinyl banners advertising Black Label and ANTIHERO sat a drum kit flanked by PAs, facing out from the back wall toward the storefront. The tube television, battered couches, and legless chairs where we usually watched skate videos on rainy days provided a makeshift barricade for the instruments and equipment. Everyone with a tattoo or facial piercing in the tri-state area seemed to be in attendance, including grown men with receding hairlines and dismayingly obvious Pete Wentz obsessions. Still, the delusion I was cool for being one of the youngest people there has become harder to maintain in retrospect. I wore a triple-row pyramid-studded belt and wristband, both from Hot Topic, as well as a Nixon “Rocker” watch: the standard Poser Starter Pack.

Scrawny but not stupid, I took cover behind some display cases with the shop employees when the second band went on and the mosh pit attained critical mass. There, I beheld the configuration I would see repeated at every punk show I would ever attend, the almost-atomic shape and movement of mosh pits. A dense semi-circle of pogo-ers and immovable, bouncer-type guys form an arc around the nucleus, the stage, while the more energetic jostle within the crowd, ricocheting in spirograph patterns. Every so often, the integrity of the perimeter will breach, and a grimy Rudie will whip free like a solar flare, only to immediately return to the molten center.

A lanky tall blonde, early twenties, careened from the pit, dizzy but catching himself a few steps from the skate deck display wall, less than ten feet from where I stood. He was a dead ringer for a young Johnny Rotten, but turned crust punker, complete with stick ‘n’ poke tattoos and random haggard dreads. When not facing the stage that night, I had been gawking at him, as I had done every time we happened to be in the same place. Once, from a safe distance so he wouldn’t notice, I had followed him around the food court at the Huntington mall. Through a saucer-sized hole in the center of his shirt, I could see a black X on his back: “STAB HERE.” What had appeared to be dimples were pock-ish craters, scars from DIY cheek piercings I later realized. At the time, I was ill-equipped to understand, let alone explain, many of his most striking features. One of his stick ‘n’ pokes was the Black Flag logo, but at thirteen, I just thought, “That’s gotta be the dumbest tattoo I’ve ever seen. Four solid bars?”

After regaining some composure following his ejection from the pit, Crusty Johnny glanced at the wall, where rows of nails used to hang skateboard decks protruded at eye level. Without the slightest hesitation or wince, he yanked one free, and pierced his septum. There was no blood. No trace of regret or pain in his face. He could have been replacing a jostled hat. Ah! That’s where I put that thing! he could have been thinking. I looked to my friends, but they just nodded to the bass line. Someone had stumbled from the pit and punctured his nose with a nail without so much as a quick flame sterilization using a Bic and no one even seemed to notice. A new part of me stirred that I have since wrestled to articulate, something close to what Nicholas Rombes describes in his entry for the Germs in A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974–1982:

“Listening to the Germs for the first time was like being let in on a dark secret.
You wanted to turn away, and yet…
It was that ‘and yet’ that separated you from many of your friends.”

Recently, while reminiscing about our earliest exposures to punk with a tattooed, ex-roadie friend of mine, I laughed zestfully during the story about Crusty Johnny and his skewered schnoz, assuming the guy that just queued up Electric Wizard’s Dopethrown would be able to relate. Instead, he jokingly asked if I had PTSD from seeing that at such a young age. I told him the reason I loved punk rock from the very beginning was because, as an experience, it was over before you even knew what the hell just happened. Like the show at No Division. Crusty Johnny got thrown from the pit again, shattering the storefront window. The cops came. The shop kids got a cup and started taking donations to replace it. Andrew had already promised all the money from the door to the touring bands. He never held a punk show there again.

* * *

My high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Lewis, perfected my favorite teaching persona. While the kids in Spanish learned to flamenco, she drilled us with equal parts conjugation and one-upping of the Most Depraved and Debaucherous of the Roman Empire. We sidetracked half a class period translating “It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” Once, when she caught me shaking the Wu-Tang hands as a friend waved a doodle which read “Requiēscēbat In Pace ODB,” she just sighed and corrected his confusion of the indicative imperfect and subjunctive present tense.

Studying Latin yielded exactly what I had hoped for, an augmented vocabulary. But the dusty language of lawyers, scientists, and clergy stayed put within my school work for only so long. At roughly the same time, sixteen years old or so, I won second place at state Latin convention for “Mottoes and Abbreviations” and began spray painting the flood wall, parking garages, street signs, electrical boxes, and occasional freight trains with stencils, tags, or throws of my new name, [SIC]. Meaning roughly, “it was thus,” sic alerts a reader that a source has been precisely transcribed to preserve the original document’s integrity. In contemporary English usage, however, it is often intended as a tool of comic ridicule, drawing attention to the cited source’s typographical, grammatical, or logical mistakes. How I smirked. Three letters, tucked away in italics, yet capable of re-contextualizing the very tone in which a reference is evoked and read. Deployed artfully, with pithy intent, sic jabs—a snarky, backhanded whisper, “Get a load of this guy.” At sixteen, I welcomed it as a deviation from the stuffy politeness of academic writing. In ways that I did not yet fully appreciate, sic gave me license to be book-smart and still be a little shit.

* * *

After exiting the Dollar General parking lot, nearly all the way across downtown to our destination, I drove alongside the trains. Growing up in Ashland, I didn’t mind the view of much of the Ohio River was eclipsed by steel mills and oil refineries, because industrial wastelands mean trains, and trains mean freight graffiti. The tumult of whatever punk band we were punishing our eardrums with that week, probably the Dead Boys, rattled from my car speakers. I don’t remember talking much as we approached the boat docks parking lot. Maybe someone, all of us, had second thoughts, but no one spoke up so we each assumed an exterior appropriate for the mission, equal parts nonchalance and hardened-criminal experience (that we didn’t have).

I parked at the end of the lot, near the 12th and 13th Street bridges that connect Ashland to Ohio and West Virginia. We walked a few hundred yards in between the river-side of the flood wall and the train tracks, past the mobile Fire Department training simulator, and arrived at a relatively secluded portion of the floodwall, almost equidistant between the boat docks and the Cinemark/Town Center Mall. We were reckless, sloppy. Instead of getting up and scramming, we loitered for ten minutes doing throwies (a really long time if you know what you’re doing with spray paint) until some kid whose dad owned the farm supply store on the city-side of the wall spotted us.

When I drove home, fingernails still speckled but hands scoured, there was a cruiser in the driveway. Maybe I should have looped the cul-de-sac, parked my car on a random street and gone to one of the small patches of hilly woods in the neighborhood, or the park, but it would have been utterly pointless. Waiting out the cop so I could talk to my parents privately first might have exacerbated things anyway. I parked and walked in hoping to seem just the right amount of curious: “Hey did you all know there’s a cop car here?”

Sometimes, when I was skating downtown, a cop might have threatened a ticket and called my parents only to get an earful for bothering them at work because their son was pushing a piece of wood around a parking lot. While friends got grounded for merely dyeing their hair or talking back, I had interpreted my parents’ unspoken restrictions as “Don’t do anything (too) stupid.” I knew this vandalism business was different, but still assumed I’d only get a light scolding. Instead, after the cop read my first Miranda Rights while sitting at our living room coffee table, in front of my parents, mom steamed up slow when he mentioned the location of my crime: the floodwall, where the city had recently commissioned murals near the boat docks as part of a riverfront beautification project for Ashland’s sesquicentennial, one of few events in our conservative little town that I remember genuinely exciting my mom, art lover and doodler extraordinaire.

I expected my dad would get doubly pissed as a lawyer, but after the cop left, he turned the game back on in the other room and left me alone with mom’s stare. I threw a plea bargain together on the fly, admitting my vandalism, but appealing for clemency based on our shared love of public art. I emphasized that the graffiti was at least a half mile away from the boat docks murals, far down on the city-length floodwall, a spot picked because we didn’t think anyone would even notice. (When my friend fessed up, his older brother just laughed at him: “That’s like spray painting a rock and burying it.”) I thought about telling my mom we used Dollar General paint, further evincing the fact we didn’t take this graffiti or its location particularly seriously, but I finally managed to shut the hell up. That was the only time I was ever grounded—something I felt my mom didn’t know how to administer, punishing her youngest. She resolved herself to her most powerful weapon, silent disappointment, refusing to answer three days later when I got the guts to ask, “What exactly from? How long?”

* * *

The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” means something much more complicated to me (I feel I understand the song even though I have never shot heroin) because I remember listening to it while effectively held against my will in the backseat of a friend’s SUV, after he and another friend riding shotgun admitted to snorting some dope before we hit the road from Lexington for Bonnaroo 2008. Coursing and weaving through what seemed like continuous interstate construction sites, I remember pleading with them to allow me or another sober friend to drive, but they refused to pull over. The only respite came when they started blaring The Velvet Underground & Nico, and this knowing, this-music-is-about-us sneer crossed their faces. Stuck in that careening deathtrap, I allowed myself to experience the moment with a come-what-may attitude. It was infectious, this romantic mythos of drugs and rock and roll. I have no doubt many would have cut these irresponsible people out of their lives forever as soon as they could exit the vehicle. Others might have called the police, or staged an intervention. But at the time, I simply accepted that that was what those two friends were like. We spent the weekend together in a tent, got drunk and stoned while watching Willie Nelson, B.B. King, and others play to thousands on a Tennessee farm where, five days out of the year, pushers walk the avenues between tents, quietly repeating the festy speak for various drugs: headies for weed, pharmies for pills, yayo for coke, horse for either K or H (you can always tell by the guy selling). These friends were reckless but never stole anything from me—good friends, just junkies—until one hanged himself and the other overdosed.

* * *

By the time I got introduced to the music of Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains in graduate school, Pat the Bunny, AKA Johnny Hobo, had already gone to rehab and announced via his website that he would never play another Johnny Hobo song, or even sell recordings of his pre-rehab music. Some part of me empathized with Pat’s decision, but another disgusting vestige within me almost scoffed: “Pussy.” Out of shame, I hesitate to repeat this slur, but I feel it is the most honest representation of the flitting, but no less vile thoughts that plague me and so many other punks as we attempt to sort out what this whole being punk thing means. When I attempt to emotionally and logically backtrack through my use of this lewd pejorative, I find no easy explanations. I could go on, at length, flagellating myself with the righteously fed-up language of queer theory—perhaps I should—but my (deeply regrettable) punk usage of “pussy,” it should be noted, does not precisely align with the term’s more commonly intended meaning, i.e. a person who does not sufficiently perform (physically, sexually, linguistically) some monolithic version of masculinity. I am in no way claiming the term is somehow less offensive in certain arenas, but merely clarifying that, so far as I can tell, when someone in certain pockets of the punk community calls someone a “pussy,” usually the intention is to label the other a sell-out, a poser, or just generally inauthentic—not punk.

I have never, even for a moment, viewed Pat the Bunny as a sell-out or a poser, but a powerful undercurrent of glorified self-destruction courses through punk so pervasively that his phoenix-like rebirth seemed an abomination. I identified with the punk persona of Johnny Hobo because his songs valorized and mourned the reckless, itinerant life of the punk-drifter addict. That’s the tender but dark emotion embedded within my selfish disappointment that Pat got clean: I had put enough junkie friends in the ground that eventually, addiction itself had become nostalgic, and so, Pat’s drug-related material became hopelessly connected to the most searing friendships I had known. What’s much more sinister though—what genuinely scares me—is that some part of me wanted Johnny Hobo to die. For punk.

After listening to enough of it, anyone will eventually realize that along with all that anger, there is something deeply sad and scared in the racket, something wounded, dangerous not for its power but because it is desperate. As a culture and worldview, punk revels in its own futility, exalting martyrs like Sid and GG and Kurt, those too-fast-to-live, those that seem to feel too much and consequently obliterate themselves in a barrage of drugs and violence rather than continue to live in a culture they despise. Of course I would never wish a drug-related death upon an artist struggling with addiction just because it would make for a better story. And yet.


Clay Shields

Clay Shields received an M.A. from the University of Kentucky and now all he wants to do is deface it. His writing has appeared in STORY Magazine and Rabbit Catastrophe Review. He has crooked middle fingers and is allergic to bee stings.

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