In the spring of 1981 things were going great. Punk rock was enjoying a kind of revival. Just a few months before it kinda seemed like things were coming to a close. The clubs were closing up, and the records had slowed to a trickle, and what was coming out of England wasn’t really “punk” anymore. Bands like the Specials, the Cure, Wire, Magazine, Japan, the Au Pairs, Pere Ubu, and the Jam were popular, and topping the UK charts, but they weren’t punk. Things were shifting, becoming much more interesting, but nothing had really happened yet, so I was just waiting, and trying to keep my affection for David Sylvian’s eye shadow a secret as long as I could.
It was DOA who coined the phrase “Hardcore” and the suburban kids from Los Angeles who embraced it. A whole new wave of punk rock arrived, and it was built like a drunken jock. It wasn’t snotty, or self-destructive at first, it looked healthy, and athletic, stupid and bleached. It was thick, and loud, and it rode a skateboard. I wasn’t inspired by the Adolescents, or the Circle Jerks like I had been totally moved by Negative Trend, or the Sex Pistols. This new thing seemed to stem from the wealth and well being of the middle class, and while I could relate to their pent up frustrations, and really did enjoy the new burst of energy they brought with them, I was not gonna slam dance, and you just can’t ride a skateboard in your jack boots. I folded my arms in contempt and waited for something to happen.
The only thing that happened was that more of these bleached hair types arrived. They drank beer, and did stage dives. The music got faster and faster and more literal. They sang about society, and the bourgeoisie. They sang about what they knew. It was high school now, not art school anymore. But how was I gonna get out? How could I change? There was nothing to do but ride the wave through the sewar, out the drain pipe and let it all fall down to the bottom of the canyon with everyone else. I didn’t have anything but complaints and bitterness to protect myself, so there was really no use trying to fight it.
One afternoon we were hanging around in front of Rasputin’s Rock Store, back then record shops were divided between “rock” and “soul,” sometimes it was sectioned, but Rasputin’s had this idea that if they did whole stores dedicated to each genre they might better sell records to people by creating an environment more appropriate to the audience. So if you wanted a Marvin Gaye record, you went to the soul store, and if you wanted a Judas Priest album, you went to the rock store. We hung out in front of the rock store mostly. That afternoon we were down a little, toward the corner of Durant and Telegraph, just spitting and fucking around. Nothing was happening.
This was pretty typical. Being together was what we did. Just hanging around, throwing stuff and getting into trouble. We weren’t particularly good friends, and didn’t even know each other’s last names most of the time, but we knew one another’s faces, and we hung out together. We were a crew. I was bored. I wanted something new, someone special, anything but this. The girls all started running down to the corner. Me and Victor and the rest of the guys stood there watching them go. They were talking with some kid on a moped. He was wearing a huge green army jacket, and he looked familiar. So we all walked to the corner together to see what the girls were so excited about.
Mike Bowen was sitting on a Lambretta scooter, wearing a parka, and a suit. His hair was down, smooth, and he looked clean and happy. Everyone gathered around his bike, and admired it. He looked a little bashful, but you could really see how happy he was. I stayed back, I didn’t approach him. Mike and I went way back, and we were not friends. So I hung back and watched my friends all grin and smile and laugh with him. Mike had been a beautiful punk. He was brave, wearing skin tight black and neon pink leopard print jeans, ad stuff like that. Those kind of clothes always looked good on little skinny guys. I was huge, so I had to be really careful what I wore. I was also more of a uniform type, and not much of a fashion adventurist. So I kind of refined my look day to day, and never really took huge leaps. But mike was a great punk. He was smart and sharp. He sang for a band, and people seemed to really like him. Naturally I hated him. He had everything that I wanted. There was nothing else to do but hate his guts.
But I had always hated Mike’s guts. He didn’t appear out of nowhere, we went to elementary school together. We were never in the same class, but we knew all the same people, and walked to school together. He stole my friend Chris from me, and tried to steal my friend Andy, and Adam too. He didn’t like me either. Maybe it was because we were both greasy haired, down jacket wearing losers with no friends. Maybe. But I’d never liked him.
Standing there watching my friends admire him, asking all kinds of questions about his Italian motor scooter, and new outfit, I remembered how I’d tried to kick his ass back in middle school. It was raining lightly. One of those California winters where the sun is out, and it looks like its cold, so you bundle up against it, but it turns out to be warm, and you spend the whole day sweating in your coat, wishing you hadn’t worn it. It’s decent protection against the rain, and since you can’t carry an umbrella, you’re just kinda screwed. The slippery mud of the field was exposed, and the patches of grass had been pushed aside for the footprints of football players running three wide through the rainy swamp of our school’s back field. The grass was still brown from summer, only little sprouts of green had begun to grow at the base of these awkward clumps of golden stalks, bend and dirty from being trampled as the athletes ran the quarter mile, acting like men, looking forward to life. I was soaked through, my long shiny hair was like spaghetti flapping against my face. I took another swing at the little guy in front of me. He ducked out of the way an my arm moved over where his head had been. We were out in the middle of the field, between classes, soaking wet. I was trying to beat down Mike Bowen, but all I could hear was the rain.
I don’t remember how it started. I really don’t know what happened. We were never friends, in fact, I guess I figured that this dorky little kid with the dark green down jacket was part of the reason I didn’t actually have any friends. I’m just guessing, because I was a kid, and when you’re a kid you don’t really know why you’re doing what you do. You just do it. Mike Bowen lived on the opposing hill from me, he lived near some kids I liked, and hung out with sometimes. He would always take my friends off by themselves, and when they came back, no one liked me anymore. I’m not really saying he had it out for me, or that even what I perceived was true, but that’s how it felt, and I’d had enough of it. Mike was a short, skinny little kid, his hair was always greasy and disgusting. He had a severe bowl cut, and never took his jacket off. In a lot of ways he was a short, and even skinnier reflection of me. He was a perfect mirror of my self esteem. I had to kick his ass. There was no doubt about it.
I hit him in the face, I shoved him to the ground, I flung my fists at him screaming things like “Fuck you!” and “You’re a fucking loser, you little geek!” but Mike didn’t break. He took it, without fighting back. He slipped and fell into the mud, but would get right back up and look into my eyes. I swung at him again with both fists. I couldn’t break him. In my desperate little heart, he had to break, I had to crush him somehow. This kid was below me. Someone had to be below me. I couldn’t possibly be the bottom feeder I felt like, and if I could just break this silent, miserable kid, then everyone would see it. But his dark eyes just peered back at me with contempt as he got up from the mud, over and over again.
After about fifteen minutes of futility, I shoved him to the ground and stood over him. “Stay down!” I shouted through the rain. “Just fucking stay down you little faggot!” I was treating him the way I had been treated. I didn’t have any language to express this outwardly, or internally. If someone had said to me something like “Listen kid, you have been abused. People, for whatever reason, have singled you out and beaten you down. Don’t you realize that they’re just afraid? Can’t you see that the hatred they express is really just a reflection of the hatred they feel for themselves? Can’t you see that you are doing the same thing? Why don’t you stop fighting. Why don’t you forgive these poor fuckers, and let it go? Just drop it. Let it out of you, and heal kid. Heal.” I most certainly would have turned my fury on to the speaker. The words would not have rung true. It simply was how it was, and in that moment Mike Bowen had to stay down on the ground. If he didn’t then it would prove that I was the loser I suspected I was.
There I was, towering over Mike Bowen, making a case for myself. It was useless, and not at all satisfying. Mike peered up at me as if to say, “Are you done?” I shoved my muddy fists into my jacket pockets and ran off the field, up the concrete steps, and out through the parking lot. School wasn’t over yet, but I was. I was going home. Fuck this stupid place.
And now, there he was, dazzling my friends again with his snappy suit, expensive scooter, and a new hairdo.
I didn’t realize it at the time, I don’t suppose we ever really notice the moment when it comes, but this was what I’d been waiting for. Change was here, and someone was demonstrating that it was possible. There was something more than this, and all you had to do was cut your hair, and change your clothes. I didn’t do anything right away, fact is things got a lot worse before they got any better. But eventually I discovered that the fear I lived with all the time, the rift between what I did all day, and what I wanted to be doing would close up. It wasn’t going to be a unanimous decision. I could tell. When Mike Bowen rode away on his scooter, my friends laughed and talked shit about him. They’d been so charming, and seemed to really be happy for him and his change, but the moment he was out of sight they were deriding him, and laughing about what a trendy he turned out to be. They called him a Mod. I had no idea what a Mod was, but it looked really good to me. It looked like freedom. It looked exciting. I wanted some of that.
I wanted some change.