I was a 70's punk rocker.
Now, in middle-age, I look back and wonder - Who was that skinny kid? The one in the photo taken in girlfriend Tessa's bedroom, where she dressed him up in a skinny tie and tight-pegged pants tapering to a pair of high-heeled Beatle boots, christening him "the hottest trick in Noe Valley."
Was he: An aspiring writer and journalist? A wayward, college-educated youth in search of himself? A promiscuous lothario prowling the corners of the punk underground in search of casual sex, so easy to come by in the free-wheeling San Francisco of the 70’s? All of the above?
Whoever he was, I envy his freedom, his sex appeal, his cynical, smart-ass sense of humor and – most of all – his head of wavy blue-black hair.
Random memories come back in fits and starts: the first time I got laid... a girlfriend’s hairless transvestite roommate who turned tricks in the Tenderloin... the time I interviewed Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedy’s when he ran for mayor of San Francisco. (He got 3 and half percent of the vote!)
What was and could have been
I could have stayed in Texas after college, journalism degree in hand, and moved to an isolated hick town to pursue an inglorious career as a newspaper journalist (would I have earned a Pulitzer for my insightful profiles of west Texas cowboys and cattle ranchers?). But I was rescued from that fate when my friend Jim called one day and convinced me that California was the place to be and punk rock living was the life for me.
Actually, I was the one to decide that punk rock living was the life for me. I had been involved in the tiny punk scene in Austin as a pathetic dilletante. When I moved to San Francisco, I pursued the hard core punk lifestyle with dedicated abandon.
Jim wanted to move to San Francisco to pursue the “gay lifestyle” villified to great extent by televangelists and former beauty queens of the day, a life consisting largely of pounding disco and equally pounding sex. He didn’t think much of my punk rock aspirations, preferring the corporate life by day and the life of anonymous anal intercourse by night. My punk rock endeavors were, presumably, not on par with his sex club exploits.
In the beginning
My new life as a punk rocker began in the sketchy Mission district of San Francisco. The Mission cholos found us inviting targets in our weird clothing and crazy-color hair. Since our anger was all feigned attitude and pretense, we were basically defenseless wimps.
First, I was mugged after I had been in The City for a month or two. I was walking east down 24th Street back to my Mission District apartment after midnight on a Sunday, perfectly straight, not stoned or drunk. The street was dimly lit and, I thought, deserted ? except for five chicano youths who knew an easy mark when they saw one. They crossed to my side of the street around Harrison, surrounded me, then made me look down. They asked me for my my wallet, which I gave them without hesitation. I handed it to one of them who opened it up, took out the five or six dollars it held, and handed it back to me. Then they left, as suddenly and silently as they came.
A few weeks later, my two roommates and I were out on a Friday night to get some beer at a local convenience store. A large latino male wearing a dishwasher's uniform approached us in a seemingly friendly fashion and began speaking in Spanish. He was obviously drunk. He put his arms around me and one of my roommates in an apparent gesture of comaraderie. The next thing we knew, crack! He banged our heads together like two walnuts, then took a swing at my other roommate, catching him square on the cheek with a wide haymaker. From across the street, a female voice called out with concern, "Jose, Jose." Jose, fortunately for us, heeded the call and staggered away without inflicting further harm on me and my beer-seeking roommates.
I quickly realized that I wasn't having a bad week or two, but that this was how things went for punk rockers in the Mission. The last straw came when someone threw a beer bottle at me and called me "freak of the week" for wearing a peppermint striped jacket. Not wanting to tempt fate, I high-tailed it Noe Valley. White, bland and safe Noe Valley.
I wound up serving cappuccinos and carrot cake to overprivileged yuppies at the Acme Metal Spinning Works Cafe on 24th street, staffed from fore to aft with spiky-headed punk rockers, one of whom became a legend on the local punk scene. Bruce Loose fronted Flipper, a band that inspired Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. (Their logo was a large line-drawn fish baring big, jagged teeth.) Bruce resembled a cancer patient after ten rounds of chemo and had the disposition of a prison guard - making him very cool. He liked to wear a button that announced, simply: I don't like you either.
We punks clashed with the shag-cut inhabitants of Noe Valley, upstanding liberals all, who somehow restrained themselves from overt displays of revulsion in our presence. We hated each other, but maintained an uneasy truce because we needed their tip money and they needed us to refrain from urinating in their cappuccino's and carrot cake.
If speed kills, brain cells are the casualties, so I don’t remember a lot about my six months at the Acme Metal Spinning Works Cafe. There was a lesbian who looked like she could take on a gang of longshoreman, a 19 year-old punk who every week or two dyed each half of his head a different day glo color, and a leather-clad speed freak named Stannous Flouride who tied up his girlfriends, stuck vibrators in their private parts and lashed them with cat-o-nine tails. Stan worked in the Acme kitchen and I can still remember him threatening me with a meat knife for taking his girlfriend into the bathroom to have sex.
And I remember for sure that it was 1979, an era before AIDS and conservatives ruined sex and politics. We punks basked in the afterglow of the sixties while simultaneously reviling it for dramatic effect. We blasted hippies, openly offending them with our buzz cuts, our disheveled crazy-color hair, our fifties retro fashion and black leather motorcycle jackets, chains and safety pins. We violated their delicate Joanie Mitchell sensibilities with hard, slashing noise and anarchistic bravado.
The Acme Metal Spinning Works Cafe was the locus of punk-meets-the-real-world. But no punk liked to work in the real world, and most worked in it as little as possible. Many found a way to scam a subsistence living from SSI or some other government program.
“Mental illness” was a common affliction of punk rockers. It served as an excuse for state-sponsored handouts to procure a few square feet of space in the bowels of San Francisco’s as-yet unyuppified warehouse district. For example, my best friend Curtis Gray claimed a dire mental condition that rendered him incapable of work, enabling him to receive the tidy sum of $321 a month plus foodstamps. It was enough to afford a generous closet in a warehouse, its wood and brick infrastructure laid bare and unfinished panels of sheetrock providing a semblance of privacy. (Amazing how a pair of shaved eyebrows and a weak, emaciated physique can elicit bureaucratic sympathy.)
My 56-year-old roommate Blanche lived on SSI because she had to and, although she resented punks who gamed the welfare system to avoid work, she thought being into punk rock was great. “Who’s to judge?” she’d say with cheerful nonchalance when asked whether I was wasting my precious youth on a life of sex, drugs and antisocial behavior. I considered her perspective: she had a son who had been a juvenile delinquent and, at the age of 35, was now a lawless biker and president of the San Jose Chapter of the Hell's Angels. By comparison, I was a boy scout (albeit a weird one).
The day I moved into her two-bedroom railroad flat on the second floor of a gray, weather-beaten building on Noe Street, I found Blanche watching a breaking news story on her black and white TV set. She sat attentively in a darkened living room, a gray flicker illuminating her face as it transmuted into a series of expressions, all showing various degrees of revulsion and disapproval.
Her long, silver hair tied into a bun reminded me of my Italian grandmother. Her face, which usually bore a cheerful smile, was etched nonetheless with traces of painful emotion, the way dry earth is left marked by rivulets after long, hard rains. Blanche Bontempi’s last name means “good times” in Italian, an irony lost on those who did not know her well.
When I moved in with Blanche, owning not much more than some mismatched secondhand clothes and a collection of New Wave records, her youngest son Doug had just been arrested in a federal drug bust that captured many Hell’s Angels, among them the Bay Area's notorious Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland chapter. She sat glued to the TV while events of the arrest, a large and dramatic bust involving scores of federal agents and San Francisco police, played across the screen.
Blanche, it turned out, was not only grandmotherly friend to punk rockers but also bitchin' biker mom who rode regularly on the back of her son's Harley, touring California in a phalanx of Hell's Angels as it growled its way down the state's highways and byways. I envisioned her shiny hair streaming behind her like a comet trail as she crouched on the back of a big black Hog, cruising in a gleaming squadron of two wheeled machinery that left behind it wailings of death and destruction.
Hell's Angels, Blanche would insist with willful naivete, were a misunderstood bunch - a group of friendly motorcycle enthusiasts villified by society for their non-conformist ways (just like us punk rockers). Those racketeering charges, drug and gun-running convictions that put her son Doug away for 5 years in Lompoc? Mention those and the Hell's Angel in Blanche would rise up and that big Bontempi smile quickly turn to an angry, malevalent sneer.
I departed Noe Valley after Blanche kicked me out to make room for the girlfriend of an incarcerated Hell's Angel. Unable to share her boyfriend's federal jail cell, Maria moved in with Blanche to commiserate with her over the legal injustices being inflicted on their loved ones.
Rather than relocate to a warehouse partitioned with sheet rock and plywood, a la Curtis Gray, I chose to burnish my punk credentials instead by moving to an inner-city flat that overlooked the illicit activities of drug dealers and male prostitutes in the seedy Tenderloin neighborhood. The daily presence of these marginal inhabitants reminded me of the extent to which I was humiliating myself to be a punk. I had reduced myself to the level of the most disenfranchised denizens of the street.
Also reminding me of my lowly status in life: my ongoing association with friend and recipient of undeserved government largesse, Curtis Gray. Dirty Curty, as girlfriend Tessa liked to call him, was a punk rock philosopher and ne'er do well from Palo Alto, California. Smart and disgruntled, Curtis felt that what little work he was qualified for was beneath his dignity. He had dropped out of high school. He spoke with a slight lisp and thought himself lacking in physical endowments, which he was. He looked misshapen and troll-like, pidgeon-toed, with a pock-marked and off-center face.
I met Curtis at the Acme Cafe where he worked as a janitor until his bad attitude got him fired. (All the punks were eventually fired. So much for hippie peace and love.) With his eyebrows shaved bare and his head topped with a spiny outcropping of bleach-blonde bristles, Curtis seemed overtly obnoxious and weird. Further contact with him confirmed this impression. He was perpetually negative and critical toward all things and people. Ironically, his pessimistic character earned him only the resentment of his hardcore comrades. Go figure.
I liked Curtis despite his obvious personal deficiencies because he could be insightful and funny. Although he rarely said anything nice, he brought a politico-philosophical perspective to punk rock that transcended the purely hedonistic impulses that motivated most punks. You see, there were some who thought that punk was a radical political movement whose cry of anarchy was for more than just dramatic effect.
When I still lived with Blanche, Curtis and I would hang out in my Noe Valley apartment and wax philosophical while listening to hours of ear-smashing noise. "Punk rock challenges the separation between audience and performer," Curtis would propound, his funny lisp an odd counterpoint to the sneer in his voice. He would stand there playing air guitar, punctuating his hand movements with sudden thrusts of the head. "The audience and the band are a continuum, part of the same activity, not two separate things."
I would nod affirmatively, awed by his intuitive wisdom. I did not know a more authentic punk than Curtis. Me: a priviliged white kid from an upper middle-class suburb looking for a walk on the wild side. Dirty Curty: an underprivileged white kid from a lower middle-class family and a born an outcast; overwrought cynicism came naturally to him, the way a viscious snarl comes naturally to a junkyard dog.
I particularly liked Curtis' judgments about people who didn't like rock'n'roll music. "I hate people who don't like rock'n'roll," he'd say, his face contorting into a sour grimace. "They have no soul." I imagined him condemning the non-rock'n'roll lovers of the world to an eternal hell of ear-splitting Ramones and Sex Pistols songs.
But it was on left-wing politics that he waxed most eloquent, his voice rife with indignation. "It's not fair for those who come along first to take ownership of everything and then make everyone else who comes along later run around serving them," he would say in solidarity with the exploited working class.
Too bad that Dirty Curty and his punk rock attitude, however insightful and politically correct, rubbed many people the wrong way. Alas, most of my peers just couldn't handle a real punk.
And now, for the sex
No reminscence from San Francisco of the 70's, punk rock or otherwise, would be complete without sex. Lots of sex. With Tessa from Long Island, Crazy Mary, Roxanne the junky, Christine the occasional junky, the prostitute who sang in a punk band, the lesbian who sang in punk band, Stannous Flouride's 19 year-old LA hottie, the 17 year-old, the 32 year-old, the petite French girl, the girlfriend of the bass player for the Dead Kennedy's, the girls whose name I cannot recall because I was too high... Dr. Kinsey must turn over in his grave, a glow of embarassment ruddying his face, whenever he contemplates the sexual debauchery that was San Francisco in the 70's.
Consider: A shy Italian-American boy from the sheltered suburbs, son of devout Catholic parents, comes to the Big City from deep in the heart of Texas with a combined sexual history of two women and three encounters with an object other than his own hand and suddenly finds that he is attractive to women. It came as a complete surprise. And San Francisco, it turns out, was a garden of sexual delights - one-night stands, orgies, flings, menage-a-trois - and I was a butterfly set out to sample the nectar from every pretty flower in the garden.
In this age of puritanism and fear, guys organize themselves into packs to go "sarging" or "gaming" in search of the pleasures of a woman. They devise clever lines of repartee, rehearse whole monologues to perfection, and carefully groom every facet of their physical appearance, from hair to shoe, in an attempt to be attractive and hip. As the social environment has become increasingly conservative and women more witholding, horny males have resorted to sophisticated connivances to wend their way between thighs of a woman.
Nothing of the kind was necessary in the San Francisco of the 70's. Women felt no reluctance about asking men to sleep with them. That is usually how it worked for me. My theory is that once every millenium or two, something happens at the cosmological level, some strange alignment of the heavens that compels women and men to sync up and let their cravings for carnal gratification have sway over their minds and hearts. The last time this happened might have been sometime during the Roman empire, with Bacchanal's and large scale orgies.
I hope I am reincarnated at the age of 18 when the same alignment of cosmic forces takes place again.
The 70's, as has been historicially noted, segued rather abruptly into the 80's, a morbid and reactionary decade. During the 80's I aged out of the punk rock scene the way an orphan ages out of foster care, finding himself facing the real world alone and clueless.
In the 80's the world consisted of realities like AIDs, fundamentalist fascism, Reagonomics, Republicans, and, for me, the onset of adulthood, a crippling disease with no cure. The punk rock scene was dying and all my friends were dying, or moving away, mostly to New York or L.A., to pursue careers in the art world or continue their drug habits in new environs.
I was left behind to contemplate unpleasant reality the way a Zen monk ponders an unfathomable koan. I became determined to leave punk rock behind and abandon my few remaining punk rock friends to their SSI checks, drugs and cynicisim, with a blind faith that moving into the brave new world of adult responsibilities - making money, having a career, a relationship (with a capital R) and all the normal things a life is supposed to consist in - was the best thing to do.
Today, I stare down the barrel of my 50's and face mortality with a Bug's Bunny-like sense of cinematic closure - th-th-that's all folks. You saw the previews and the main feature and now it's time to check that you have all your belongings and trundle on home to... what?
With the full weight of adulthood upon me, I live a life animated by things other than three-chord rock'n'roll and unbridled promiscuity. Gone are the wild clothes, thick blue-black hair, and skinny ties, replaced by thinning gray-black hair, office yuppie-wear, and a non-descript laptop slung across my shoulder.
That kid of 1979 couldn't have conceived of being the ancient age of 50, let alone have had a clue as to what he would be doing should he live so long. He wouldn't have been able to appreciate the value of pouring his heart and soul into a career as a writer or of becoming a fundraiser for a non-profit that produces a youth program for inner-city kids.
Don't get me wrong, I haven't totally capitulated to the bourgeois norms I so revile(d). I'm not married (been there, done that), and don't have 2.3 kids or live in the suburbs, although I do my share of corporate ass-kissing. I retain my punk rock heart while adapting to the realities of adulthood in a world that doesn't resemble the wild-hearted 70's in the least. After all, that's what it means to be a punk – to survive in the world on your own terms regardless of the challenges.
A song by the Clash or the Dead Kennedy's can still get a rise out of me and I always feel comfortable in the underground haunts of slackers and sundry other hipster types in neighborhoods like the lower Haight or the Mission. Not a day goes by that I don't yearn for the care-free days of my punk rock youth, especially when feeling the ennui of middle-age or being overwhelmed by work or volunteer responsibilities. But that sentiment lasts only as long as it takes to realize that being a 50-something punk-rocker-at-heart ain't so bad after all. I still love rock'n'roll, so I've still got soul. Punk rock is dead – long live punk rock.