About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
X, my best friend, was like that.
On the heavy, reinforced black doors, below the number 13, a prehistoric sign had been screwed into place at eye level: “NO COLORS, NO KNIVES.” For a few years there, Gary’s had been a biker bar ― mainly Outlaws, but some other gangs, too. Before punk arrived on the Portland scene, the bikers had filled the basement tavern every night. They’d chug cheap, watered-down draft in the long, narrow part of the bar. And, where it opened up at the other end, near the stage, they’d hate-stare any country-and-western or cover band stupid enough to agree to play. If they were really pissed off, they’d throw beer glasses at the stage.
None of us ever argued about the bikers’ claim to Gary’s. It was their place, no question. But toward the end of the ’70s, they were getting arrested a lot more than they used to. As Portland grew, and as it imported more yuppie douchebags from New York and Boston or wherever, tolerance for the Outlaws basically disappeared. A few blocks away, at City Hall, our idiot mayor had decreed that Gary’s attracted the sort of customers who didn’t fit into the “new Portland.” So the police started cracking down and most of the bikers started to move on. The hookers and junkies, too.
Gary’s owner was pretty unhappy at the thought of redecorating the place to attract a new crop of patrons, mainly because he was a cheap bastard. But he also knew that no self-preserving, upwardly mobile, Ivy League couple would ever come near Gary’s: it was a temple of filth. It was the church of dirt. Which kind of made us love it even more.
Dirt and dust and grime were everywhere. There was the ancient carpet that stretched from the front doors to the cracked tile on the dance floor. No one could make out the pattern anymore because it was so fucking dirty. There were these mismatched metal chairs with torn strips of vinyl-covered padding on the seats. The tiny round tables were covered with stained, orange cloths. There were frames containing ghostly paintings of plants and cowboys on the walls, decades of dust and cigarette smoke stuck to the cracked glass. A few yellowish light bulbs hung from what was left of the fixtures overhead. And there was the air itself, always reeking of cigarette smoke and dust and sweat and piss.
It was awesome.
Earlier in 1978, Gary’s owners had read in the local paper, the Portland Press Herald, that those of us in various local punk bands were putting on our own shows in veterans’ halls and community centers around the city. We were attracting hundreds of kids by word of mouth alone, the article said. The arch-conservative paper hated us, of course, but Gary’s owners decided to let us book bands a couple nights a week. Maybe they’d turn a profit on beer sales, they figured.
And they sure did. The bikers didn’t like the change, at first. But, eventually, they were sort of amused by us ― these skinny, acne-scarred kids with weird clothes and dyed hair. We punks were misfits, like the bikers were, but we were also completely different. In the early days of the Portland scene, the punks were mostly Maine College of Art students, gays and lesbians, cross-dressers, poets, nonconformists, anarchists, socialists, the socially awkward, the overweight, the alienated, the angry, the underage, and assorted other urban outcasts. The factions that made up the local subculture were diverse, but somehow we all got along back in those days.
So the bikers stayed up near the front doors, and we punks were stuck at the back, hanging out around the stage and the subterranean alleyway exit. We left each other alone, sticking to our side of Gary’s demilitarized zone.
Gary’s owner ― who rarely, if ever, enforced drinking age limits ― was happy because our friends liked to drink almost as much as the bikers. Soon enough, then, our bands were on stage every night of the week except Sundays, when every bar was still required by Maine law to be closed. The Portland punk scene got a hub. It started to grow.
X, thou art Christopher.
He moved through the mass of hulking bikers, completely unfazed. Some of them looked up and glared. They had heard about X, and a lot of them didn’t like him much. Unlike the other scrawny suburban kids, who seemed to cower whenever they were nearby, X was completely disinterested in them. To the other punks, the bikers were menacing, intimidating. But not to my buddy, X. And the bikers took notice.
Under one arm, X had a few copies of the New Musical Express ― the super-hard -to-get British tabloid that had promoted the punk rock revolution first ― along with a couple of notebooks. Under the other arm, he cradled some LPs, likely borrowed, by bands most people had never heard of. But it was him ― his pale face, his blank expression, his total indifference to everything around him ― that stood out. X was an outsider, even to the outsiders who made up the Portland scene. He was a misfit among the misfits.
X sat down with us, up near Gary’s tiny stage, where the Hot Nasties had played earlier ― and where the Punk Rock Virgins were still playing, but had just gone on a break.
X had called some of us that day, saying that he had some big news. He moved a couple glasses of draft out of the way and dumped the LPs, the notebooks, and the copies of the New Musical Express on the center of the table.
“Where’s Jimmy?” he asked.
I pointed at Gary’s rear door, toward the alleyway. “I think he’s moving the van to the side, so nobody swipes everything again.” I punched X in his leather-jacketed arm. I was a bit loaded. “Now buy me a beer, fag.”
I could tell what he was thinking: Fag? Really?
X looked at me for a moment, an eyebrow up, then shook his head. He got up and went over to the bar to buy a couple of draft s for me and an RC Cola for himself. He returned to the table and pointed at the newer-looking copy of the New Musical Express. “Take a look,” he said, expressionless. “The Nasties are in it.”
Conversation stopped. We lunged at the magazines.
The Hot Nasties, as it turned out, had beaten everyone else in Portland at making a record, which was a pretty fucking big deal. They were one of the first punk bands in New England to do that. It had been Jimmy who’d pushed them into putting it together. The band recorded the four songs over three weekends at a garage converted into a mini-studio in Bayside. The two hippies who owned the place had never seen or heard anything like it before. They were totally disgusted.
The Nasties, however, were totally ecstatic with the results of the recording session. They came out of it with four original songs: “I Am a Confused Teenager,” “Th e Secret of Immortality,” “The October of Seven Oh,” and “The Invasion of the Tribbles.” Jimmy and Sam were big Star Trek fans, and they stuck references to the old TV show in a lot of their songs ― along with plenty of other references to junk culture, because we loved junk culture. Serial killers, The Flintstones, AMC Pacers.
The good stuff.
The Hot Nasties didn’t have a recording contract; in 1978, no Portland punk bands did. So they put out the EP on their own made-up label, Martian Martian Records, taking the name from a Jonathan Richman song. The band members designed the sleeve. The cover had one of my photos of the Nasties, smiling outside Gary’s one night, clutching some smashed-topieces guitars and drums from a particularly demented gig. We glued the sleeves together late one drunken night at Sam’s parents’ place in Parkside, and then X ― pretending to be their manager ― sent a couple copies off to the New Musical Express, which along with Creem magazine and Melody Maker, were all we generally read, pretty much.
Someone ― incredibly, unbelievably ― had noticed. Buried within the pages of the NME, there was a section called “New and Noteworthy.” In there, in a single paragraph, titled “Portland Punk Pressing,” a writer with the initials CSM had written: “If you can’t locate Portland, Maine, on a map, fret not. We can’t either. But if tuneful, snappy punk rock still matters in late ’78, then the four lads in the Hot Nasties may well succeed in getting their portside hometown better known. The quartet is Sam Shiller, lead guitar; Luke Macdonald, rhythm guitar; Eddie Igglesden on skins; and bassist and lead screamer, Jimmy Cleary. Their debut EP, issued on their own label, crackles with Buzzcockian wit and snottiness, and is therefore worth a spin. Available through money order only, The Invasion of the Tribbles EP argues convincingly that punk ― at least on the other side of the pond ― ain’t dead yet. A quid will get it winging its way to you. Check it out.”
Holy shit. HOLY SHIT!
A thumbs-up from the New Musical Express: it was like getting a great review from God. We all stared at the review, speechless. Without warning, Luke jumped up on his chair and let out a Tarzan scream, beating his chest. He hollered: “I love you, X! I fucking love you! When we are famous rock stars, I will let you visit my mansion!”
We all laughed and read and reread the review. A few others started to wander over to see what was going on.
When X had told the Nasties that he’d sent their EP to the NME, none of them thought that it would ever get noticed. The magazine paid attention to the Clash and the Sex Pistols and other big British bands ― not a band like the Hot Nasties, in Outer Buttfuck, New England, U.S.A. But X told me he thought the record was really good, like the Ramones. So he mailed it off with a cover letter that had somehow caught the attention of Charles fucking Shaar Murray at the fucking New Musical Express, for fuck sakes. Still hollering that he was going to be famous, Luke wrapped his arms around X, who was trying to resist smiling. X didn’t ever smile.