On the way out the door to work the other day, I kissed my wife goodbye and got a static shock on the lip. I wrote an inpromtu pop-punk chorus about it, sang in a nasaly voice like the guy from New Found Glory, “Wear your cardigan sweater, baby, I wanna static cling to you.”
When Shandi rolled her eyes at the idea of my starting a pop-punk band, I said, “Hey, pop-punk’s coming back hard.”
The statement hung in the air. It was something I hadn’t thought about before, but the instant I said it, I knew it was true. It was in the zeitgiest, popping up like a mole infestation in my Facebook news feed. People who went metal nine years ago and tried to deny that they had ever bought Take off Your Pants and Jacket were ready to lace up their Chuck Taylors now that they had all had kids of their own and started going to church again. Pop-punk was coming back hard.
Shandi groaned. She said, “Yeah, but that doesn’t make it good.”
The first band Tuesday night was named after a word font. The Anderson Stingrays. We had come out to the Bug Jar to see The Queers again, this time in another city, frozen to the bottom of Lake Ontario. This was the first punk show we’d been to since moving to Rochester last September. It felt like it had been as long since we’d seen the sun. I’d spent six months getting familiar with the bus service and the heavy clouds that droop over the city’s spooky, Gotham-esque skyline. Rounding out the bill were Masked Intruder and Teenage Bottle Rocket, both hot new pop-punk bands that I had never heard of, even though they’ve been around for years.
Shandi went with the intent of swagging Joe Queer with a pedal from the guitar effects company she works for. I went because I’d been working as a grocery store dishwasher for three months and had yet to have a conversation with anyone, because I was putting up the wall of silence with everyone who tried to speak to me, because The Queers at Bernies, Columbus Ohio, in 2000, was the first real punk show I ever went to, and I was hoping that reconnecting with some part of that experience could give me an emotional foothold, something to catch myself on in my slide toward becoming a bitter, resentful old man.
The first thought in my mind as Anderson Stingray took the stage was, these guys really aren’t trying to impress anybody. They were wearing baggy pants with cuffs at the bottoms that scraped along the floor of the stage behind their Converse All-Stars. The band wore flannel and glasses and rocked the stage with the intensity of your uncle filling in on bass at the church barbecue. Their music was better than their stage presence. They played the kind of bubblegum punk where every song sounds like the Ramones version of a Beach Boys song. They sang about GTOs and high school. Shandi commented that she couldn’t stand watching thirty year-olds sing songs about being teenagers, but I likedtheir stuff. It was upbeat, easy to dance to. I started skanking to a song called I Don’t Wanna be a Vampire.
They played a song by The Huntingtons, a band I was familiar with from listening to Tooth and Nail Records compilations when I was seventeen. When the set ended, I talked to the bass player about Christian punk from the nineties. It seems to me that, whatever I might have said when I was a Christian teenagaer listening to The Supertones, bands like Five Iron Frenzy and MxPx led a lot more Christian kids into punk rock than they ever led punk rockers to the Lord.
The bass player said, “Oh yeah, man, no doubt about it.”
Then I couldn’t think of anything else to talk about, so I shuffled off without remembering to get the guy’s name. I headed toward the front door to smoke rolled cigarettes in the cold, marveling at my ability to have an excruciatingly awkward interaction every time, wherever I am at.
Masked Intruder came on next, our chance to see what strikes the ear as an anarchronism: an up-and-coming, young pop-punk band. We missed the first half of their set because we were in the parking lot with a woman Shandi met in the restroom and her two friends, smoking weed in an SUV. With everyone in the van fumbling for a lighter, Shandi took one from her purse.
“Here, this one’s mine. It says USA on the side.”
The guy in the front seat who knows way more lyrics to Queers songs than I do said, “Cool. The USA’s cool.”
And then the guy across the back seat from us, said, “Well, the USA’ll be all right once we get rid of our president.”
This set off a largely incoherent conversation in which one person after another started to voice some opinion about politics but was immediately shouted over by someone else. I felt like I could almost remember a time in my life when I enjoyed getting into political arguments with people and wondered when it was that life got so crappy.
Eventually, the guy in the backseat said, “Pardon my racism, but it’s that he keeps giving all our money to these lazy niggers.”
I said, “Fuck that shit.”
I was across the car from the guy, trying to remember my training from my canvassing job last fall and maintain eye contact while I constructed my argument. Pardon my racism? Are you serious? I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Fuck that shit,” again to buy time.
Shandi was sitting between us. She diffused the situation, telling him not to be racist and telling me not to fight. We stayed off politics while we finished the pipe and headed back to the show.
I was left wanting to finish the argument. So for any other weed smoking, Obama hating, frustrated white thirty year-olds who might be reading this: It’s one thing to sit back and listen to you rehash the talking points from Fox News about how Obama’s bad for small business. You should know better. You were an adult when the George Bush destroyed the economy with tax breaks and deregulation and you should damn well know better, but I can let it slide. But the people you’re looking down on, I see them everyday, and they’re taking the bus to work just like I am. So if you think you’re better than them, then you think you’re better than me, too. All your racist argument does is split the workers against themselves for the thousandth time on the basis of race, this time so we can fight each other for the leftovers when the billionaires are done picking what remains of civil society to the bone. When you say nigger in a car full of white people you’re asking me to throw in my lot with the Klan and the slaveholders, the cops and the lynch mobs, and take my place in a five century long history of racist oppression. And you can stuff that shit in your backpack and fuck right off.
We pressed into the crowd to watch the last half of Masked Intruder’s set. The Intruders dressed all in black, each member wearing a different colored ski mask that matched his Chucks. The stage show was incredibly energetic, considering that the entire band had their faces covered in wool ski masks and the show was half over. The singer wore glasses under his mask, which made him seem nerdy. This is going to sound sarcastic, but the singer’s glasses made the whole band considerably more likable.
The band played pop-punk. They did it without irony or subterfuge. They didn’t try to dress it up as rockabilly or play a few upstrokes and call it ska. The band played pop-punk proudly and without fear. One wondered whether they would have had such courage without their masks to hide behind. Could they have stood before us and made such unself-conscious love to the aging corpse of pop-punk if we could see their faces and know who they were?
About two rows of people in front of us, the mosh pit kids were shoving each other around. I felt like jumping in, but I was carrying my backpack stuffed with my big Carhart, Shandi’s winter coat, and down in the bottom, an Amp Drive distortion pedal from Holowon Industries. So I stood there, bobbing my head, looking like a trout.
After a short break, The Queers took the stage and instantly made everything we had seen so far that night seem chintzy and weak. They wasted no time setting up. Joe Queer plugged in, let a chord rip through his speaker and said, “Hey, we’re The Queers, and we’re the best motherfuckin pop-punk band in the world.”
I was immediately swept into the mosh pit that engulfed the room the second the music started. It seemed spontaneous, like a weather phenomenon. When you play this music in a crowded room, the people pressed into the pit start to pogo and shove each other naturally, the same way high pressure systems and low pressure systems collide and cause tornadoes. Before I knew it, I was holding on to my gigantic, overstuffed backpack as the tidal motion of the crowd swept me from one side of the stage to the other.
As Joe mentioned in his introduction, The Queers play pop-punk, but not that kind of pop-punk. They started playing their brand of Ramones-styled bubblegum pop songs back in 1981, and released their first album on Lookout! Records in 1993, years before pop-punk became a sub-genre unto itself, with its characteristic riffs and phrasings that set it apart, its own genetic markers that make every band sound the same. Because they came along earlier, they don’t share the same genetic markers. They don’t belong to the same species as the later wave of bands that rode the Warped Tour busses out of California to overrun America and dominate the movie soundtrack of every teen rom-com from the year 2000 to 2005.
They had an effortless command of the stage and a loud, infectious sound that demanded dancing. Stumbling through the pit, clutching the strap of my backpack, I was lifted out of the frigid, garbage-strewn city, away from the hopeless desolation of middle age and transported back to that first Queers show, thirteen years ago. Back then, I was too young to drink and I passed most of the night shuffling around the Bernie’s crowd with my hands in the pockets of my knock-off JNCOs while my friend, Ratboy, a year younger than me, guzzled beer out of pitchers and had the time of his life. I didn’t even start to have any fun until I made it into the mosh pit. I pushed my way to the stage and felt the passion of the crowd surround me, cover me with sweat and beer stink.
This show felt like that one, all those years ago. I discovered again how participating in the show qualitatelively changes its content, makes it something it wasn’t before and couldn’t be without your help. When you’re in the pit, you become a part of the show. Standing around on the outskirts, you just dodge elbows and smell farts. It’s only when you join in that punk rock realizes its potential.
Halfway through the set, Shandi shouted into my ear between songs. She said, “I can’t wait till they play Punk Rock Girls.” And just as the words left her mouth, they broke into Punk Rock Girls. It was perfect.
The headliner for the night was Teenage Bottle Rocket. I assume that they are the future of pop-punk. Maybe they have kind of a dumb name, but they have a dope-ass logo, and that counts for a TON. I don’t know what they sound like. We missed their set because we were in the back alley drinking a forty ouncer with some of the local squatter punks. I wanted to try to meet people, since we’re still new in town. So we reached out, and I guess it turned out ok. Even though we missed the band, a repatriated Rochesterian full of stories about his life as an illegal alien in Canada gave us some idea of what local bands and venues we should check out, information that I swiftly forgot.
We ate a 2 am dinner of cheese and eggs when we got home, and drank plenty of water so we weren’t too hung over the next morning. I had an emotional hangover, though. I woke up feeling like I had made a fool of myself the night before. My memory of the night seemed to be a great rock and roll show floating in a sea of uncomfortable moments. And even during the show, I was carrying my backpack in the mosh pit, probably bopping innocent thirty-year-olds in the nose all the while like an arsehole. It seemed that the ability of a rock show to deliver a momentary experience of transcedance was as strong as ever, but that my ability to hang on to that transcendance and not revile myself in the morning had withered horribly.
It had been an awesome show, a great night, but I still found a way to feel bad about it. I can’t wait for the inevitable pop-cultural resurgence of emo in a couple years. Because I really used to hate on emo; I never really gave it a chance. But I think I might like it better, now that I’m older.