I’ve been thinking about this blog for a while; what’s missing. Of course it is has to be my years going to shows and watching my favorite band, Poison Idea. Music and going to shows has been one of my saving graces. It was a huge part of my life and continually gave me hope and joy. I have always been a lover of music and subscribe to the philosophy that, “there are only two types of music: good and bad,” and although I find good music in all genres, have always gravitated toward metal and punk. I am a child of the 80s after all. As I write and draw from my teenage memories, I am aware of my unique perspective because I teach teens. I live in their world and draw from their energy every day. It is a very empowering position of which I am privileged to be a part and I hope I am able to contribute to their journey a little, “lead from the heart, lead with passion and with a love for what is right.” At this age, life perspective is limited but energy and passion are so unbounded. I remember being this teen surrounded by others with great energy and passion, which usually came through in the form of musical, social and political expression.
With this story, I will strive to share the deep-pit-in-stomach-joyous-ache one gets from a crowd jolting and swaying in mass sweaty unison and hope to describe movement of the heart, pumping oxygen rich blood in time to a driving beat that fills the limbs with life and hope. Fist pumping limbs. I hope to capture the culture of the scene: the energy, passion and urbanity. For these stories are grounded in the happiest of memories, as they are a stories of reconnection, of going to shows and watching my brother on stage.
I first saw Jerry play in late 1979, downtown Portland at the Earth Tavern. He was playing bass for Smegma, opening for the Dead Kennedy’s. For the less familiar, Smegma’s music has been described as, “spirited joyous noise by young people who have yet to experience the frustrations of serious musical study.” They hosted both a matinee [for us youth] and a later show that evening. Mom took me. I love this. I love saying that my mom took me to see the Dead Kennedy’s at age 12 [thank you Mom]. The experience was pretty fucking amazing.
The Earth Tavern was a small venue. Bare wooden walls, blankets hung to absorb the waves of sound energy. There was a good-sized crowd; kids really, 15 to early 20s, but all older than me. Before the show I remember Jello riding a small-wheeled dolly around the room, like we used to in PE class. Up and down bare concrete streams created by people stepping back and parting the waters. I remember my 16-year old brother looking so grown up and cool on stage. He was strapping, you might say menacing, around 6 feet and thick. He was built like a linebacker but instead of a jersey he regularly sported a studded black leather jacket. At this time he had been out on his own for over a year, squatting and occasionally taken in by caring parents of his band friends. I hug my 16-year old son today and think, “holy lord… this kid out on the streets…?” The thought is both terrifying and brings a sadness to this mother’s heart. Breaking free from the shit and grabbing the reins himself must have felt very good to Jerry, and he was doing well. He knew how to land and was enjoying his time in bands and such. Kudos kid!
The Dead Kennedy’s was one of the first hardcore bands that I heard that introduced a politically motivated expression that was angry, aggressive and in-your-face demanding. The intent of the list is to express my gratitude for an inside perspective to an interesting, active, artistic and unique form of expression- my appreciation different than the hardcore kids on the scene, as I was usually a visitor. This was exciting shit to see. During these musically formative years I would get the pleasure of seeing Jerry play with and/or open for DKs, the Wipers, Bad Brains, Black Flag, 7-Seconds, COC, Circle Jerks, Necros, NOFX, TSOL, DOA, and Minutemen to name a few. I did see the Bee Gees too. Take a look at any American Hardcore list.
In order to understand the complete picture, it is important to set the stage. I was a teen during Reagan-Bush era. Because of the constant amount of moving that we did in my youth, I began my teens in Rockwood/Portland, OR, moved to Houston, TX for a stint and then landed on the Oregon coast in Florence for my high school years. My college years were spent in Salem, Eugene and in the greater Portland area. The world was going through strange stuff that I didn’t quite understand but could feel the sentiment. The Eastern Bloc was experiencing an uprising in Nationalism, which supported the end of the Cold War and placed the US firmly in our capitalist power position. The threat of a nuclear confrontation was a constant concern as Reagan tangled with leaders of the Soviet Union and the Middle East. Around the world coups rose and governments fell, adding to an omnipresent sense of unease. The socio-political teeth of the punk rock scene began to bare in certain responses directed at our world leaders, the inequitable distribution of power and resources, and the rising levels of police brutality. Socio-political speech is the salient characteristic of punk rock and it was heard in the lyrics of almost every hardcore album released. The Kennedys’ We’ve Got Bigger Problems Now and Nazi Punks Fuck Off were on heavy rotation during the early 80s. Jello Biafra was campy, theatrical, smart and political. It’s not that I was politically active by any means, I was a teen and too self absorbed, but the feeling of unrest and change was omnipresent and at least I was listening. My day job was an athlete, a choir geek and a student but it was in my nature to gravitate toward the party and music. By fifteen I was a veteran drinker and liked getting high on what ever you had to offer. I would say it was a fair balance.
The hardcore punk scene during 1982 and 1983 was thriving. Hardcore punk rock grew from political-social action, violence and in most sub-genres, a penchant for alcohol and drugs. It was how the youth, more densely represented in the cities, reacted to what was happening in the world. The perspective I bring is one of a young kid, a tiny 5’2” girl standing on the periphery of the action (and on occasion in the middle) watching. I do not have deep knowledge of many of the bands but instead bring a viewpoint as someone who was familiar with the scene.
The Pacific Northwest was an interesting place in the 80s. First of all, you have to understand what Portland was like before the huge shift in culture and demographics. Portland, for the most part was poor, working class and white. We had pockets of diversity, but most areas were pretty segregated. The wealthy lived in a certain area, up on the hill, while downtown housed a growing number of homeless kids. It was a wet concrete industrial town that would ocassionally sparkle clean and green from all of the rain. Portland has always been an incredibly beautiful city. A large surge in homelessness, especially homeless youth, came about during the 80s. White Nationalists abruptly rose to power in the PNW and the neo Nazis were always causing havoc on the scene. The political turmoil and disenfranchised bleakness of the city created a perfect breeding ground for hate recruiters. But the scene also responded. Poison Idea growled, “Listen Nazi, never again!” and in following years Anti Racist Action clubs sprung up in the various schools (one of which I was privileged to be the advisor for in Santa Barbara later in the 90s). Going to a show was always charged. Always waiting for something to happen, either in celebration (someone riding their motor bike through the living room and over the couch at the E13 house in Eugene) or a fight breaking out between the Nazis and the punks at a show (long list). Social structure and norms were perpetually challenged and little punk girls baulked at traditional gender roles and found a safe place to plant roots and flourish. The Portland and Eugene punk rock music scenes were a great place to get an education and shape an eager mind seeking purpose and perspective.
I was most attracted to what the scene had to offer me, a strong athletic female who liked to get high. Punk rock girls are different than other girls. There was no cover of needing to behave and conform but instead the culture gave all latitude to misbehave, and perhaps encouraged it. And so we did, with alcohol, sex, drugs and fucking punk rock music. That is not to say that these were always the best choices for us, but I am writing a success and survival story here so it has a fairly good ending. The description reminds me of my friend, Virginia. She was also new to the school, was two years older than me and liked to see shows. She always drove some awesome car, either a Dodge Dart or a Karmen Ghia (both of which I helped paint), liked music, liked cute boys and liked to drink and party. She was a good fit for me; a natural beauty, about 5’8” with a gorgeous voluptuous body and a great sense of humor. We always had our ears to the ground for shows coming to either Eugene or Portland and would try our best to make it happen.
One of the first shows Virginia and I saw together was the Dead Kennedy’s and Poison Idea at La Bamba’s in downtown Portland in 1983. I’ve written about being crushed against the stage by the masses during the DKs and, after being forced on the stage to save myself by learning to stage dive into the sweaty swarm. Before the show, Virginia and I met up with Jerry and drank. I hadn’t seen him for over a year and the reunion was sweet and highly anticipated. We had written and called as often as we could but it had been a big transition year for both of us. He still sent me mixed tapes regularly which was my cherished connection to both him and the music he perpetually played throughout the house in our youth. In the same manner I try to highlight the great achievements of female scientists in my classroom, Jerry was always certain to send me female artists that I would be sure to listen to over and over again. His latest mixed tape included the Avengers, Vice Squad and X-Ray Specs as well as the Damned, Killing Joke, the Exploited. We got a bite to eat downtown before the show, caught up and got to hang out. We shared our adventures since last seeing each other and tried to connect where we thought Jason had landed. We decided that Jason was still living with Dad in Dallas, TX.
The venue was small with only a handful of young kids roaming around when we first arrived. Virginia and I stood on the periphery, visitors in this place and all. A small group of punk girls, seeing that we had arrived with Jerry, surveyed us up and down and began to talk shit on the sidelines, trying to assess their competition, I suppose. Virginia and I ignored them. A young kid wearing a jacket covered in metal spikes stood a few feet from us, talking to another group of punk girls. He looked dangerous, nearly 6 feet tall, clad in leather and spiked mohawk that stood a foot above his head. Virginia was quick to point out the shiny braces on his teeth saying something to the effect of, “aw, he’s adorable,” and quickly dispelled any misconceptions of threat.
As soon as the band started to check their sound, the room quickly became packed with hot anxious bodies, ready to move. Virginia and I moved close to the front of the stage and tried to avoid the massive pit of sweaty punks at our backs. It reminded me of Devil’s Churn on the Oregon coast, where the waves converge at a focal point and smash into the surrounding rocks with their collective energy, convincing the bystanders to take a step back; I didn’t want to get swept away. The mood was celebratory, the crowd chanting and moving like a perfect hydraulic system where one area of the mass would impose a force and the entire crowd would move in response. The air was static with the free electrons shed from metal strings being strummed in a frantic pace. Kids collided, jumped on stage and sang with Jerry before making skillfully chaotic dives back in to the sea. The music was loud and driving. Tom Pig, who was always very sweet and kind to me, was a big boy but not remarkable and Jerry was young and athletic looking. Young Chris Tense and Dean Johnson drove the frenzied pace with a tight rhythm. This was an awesome band and this was a good place to be. The evening was restorative and soul quenching. Virginia and I stayed with Jerry before heading back to the Oregon coast the next morning.
The first Poison Idea show that I took my husband to was when they opened for COC, Corrosion of Conformity at Pine Street in ’87. COC, of 1987, was a heavy sludge hardcore band that had honestly earned a loyal following. They were fast, angry, political and talented. Think Black Sabbath meets Suicidal Tendencies after a bong hit. The crowd pushed forward as Poison Idea made their way on the stage and I kept Tim close to my back using his 6’5” frame to shield me from the offense. After a few seconds of Jerry’s opening banter, Chris Tense laid down a thick bass line and Slayer Hippy joined with a heavy rolling beat to one of my favorite PI songs, Marked for Life (our band covered this when we played Al’s bar in LA). Immediately, I knew that relying on the security of Tim’s lanky frame was not a solid decision and I needed to get out of the middle of the pit quickly. The floor was packed with punks and Nazis, which usually ended in a crazy fight, and tonight it was steaming hot with a near full moon. I yelled to my then boyfriend, “I think we should get out of here.”
“No, it’s perfect right here,” he responded, like a child not recognizing the imminent danger as he grabs a lollipop from the stranger’s hand.
“In my dream of death,” Jerry growled, “you were there, perfect crime.” One could nearly taste the testosterone in the air as the mass of bodies began to circulate like a frenzy of shark and I was knew what was about to happen. “Take my final breath, noose pulled tight a perfect fit.”
“No, I gotta get out of here,” I yell to my oblivious giant pumping his fist in the air.
“Swallow me up in your mistrust, there’s a monster in my mirror” I turn and bolt for the side leaving Tim standing in the middle of the large circling mass. “Dragging me through hell and misery, I smash the mirror and set me freeeeeeeeee….” and the house came down. This was the most feral pit I had ever experienced (next to Gilman St). The crowd was drunk with youthful abandon and hard liquor and their electricity flowed easily through the mass. I caught a glimpse of Tim in the center of it all, the tall guy getting spun around like stuffed animal in a washing machine. I had to laugh and thought to myself, ‘he’ll figure it out.’
I stayed on the perimeter in my safe zone and took the whole scene in. The place was packed near if not beyond capacity. Jerry stared out into the chaos as if admiring his masterpiece and a huge smile came to his face- fists pumping, bodies whirling in a large circle and beers flying through the air. As always, I searched for the fire escape, imagining the finale when Jerry would blow fire over the heads of the crowd. I caught Tim’s eye and saw that he had gained his footing. He was no longer fighting the current but rather moving in anarchic unison with the mass and was obviously enjoying the dance.
These stories are deep in my heart and plentiful, filled with loved ones, Jerry, Jason, Mary, Tim, Virginia and Mike. It is so hard to explain how such chaotic (bordering on violent) scenes could contribute to my balance and well being, but it is true and I know all who experienced the same will understand completely. I cherish these memories and thank those who contributed and continue to contribute to them. Much love. Kelli K.