City Lights

ferlinghetti1965_c Tomorrow will be the last stop on my book tour. I’m going to the famed City Lights Books in San Francisco. It’s kind of a big deal for me. When I was in high school, one of my teachers turned me on to the Beats, starting with Gregory Corso, but moving on to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I’m pretty excited about reading at the place where that literary movement began.

The reading is at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, June 29, 2016.

A bookseller at City Lights asked me five questions for their blog. As far as I can tell, he didn’t use my interview. Since it’s written and I still have it, I’ve pasted the interview below. I hope to see you in San Francisco.

Five Questions for Sean Carswell

If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?  If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

I’ve been to City Lights several times. I go there almost every time I go to San Francisco. My most memorable visit had to be about ten years ago.

I’d designed a book cover for Bucky Sinister’s poetry collection Whiskey & Robots. I thought of the cover as an homage to the City Lights Pocket Poets series. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters saw the cover as borderline copyright infringement. They sent to nicest cease-and-desist letter to the publisher for whom I designed the cover. I talked to Nancy and we smoothed things out. A few months later, I was in City Lights and saw a half dozen copies of Whiskey & Robots in the poetry shelves, cover out.

That was such a classy move by City Lights.

If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

I actually put one together for Largehearted Boy.

What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

The first novel I really loved was Sounder by William H. Armstrong. I read it several times when I was in second grade. I remember that we couldn’t renew books at the school library, so I’d check the book out, read it, return it, and wait the allotted time until I could check it out and read it again. I read it so many times that my brother, who’d seen the Disney adaptation of the book, took to yelling, “Sounder, come here, boy” a la Paul Winfield every time he saw me. That convinced me to find a new book.

If you didn’t have your current job, what might you do?

Become a bookseller at City Lights.

Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi). 

I’ll just talk about books. I’d bring Herman Melville’s Typee. That way, if there were cannibals on the island, I’d have a guidebook for how to live with them. I’d bring Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, because I’ve been meaning to read it. I’d probably have time to do so on a desert island. If I liked it enough, I’d be inspired to build a raft and float home, just so I could read the other books in the series.

In case I didn’t like it, I’d bring Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. I’d sit on the shores of that island and keep reading that gigantic novel until it made perfect sense to me. That would keep me occupied for a decade or two.

California Cities and the Tour So Far

I’m seventy-percent through my book tour. All the flights and rental cars and hotel rooms are now in the past. The final three readings–San Diego (6/21), Los Angeles (6/23), and San Francisco (6/29)–are an easy drive from my centrally-located Southern California home. I figured this would be a good time to pause and reflect on my adventures.

The readings started in Brooklyn, at Greenlight Books.

Tour 2016_Brooklyn Sandwich Board

It was right around the corner from Spike Lee’s studios. I stopped by to see if he wanted to adapt my short story collection into a film. He didn’t answer the door when I knocked, so I just stood outside yelling, “Boomerang is a great movie! People need to recognize!”

Tour 2016_Spike Lee Studios

My next reading was in a suburb of Philadelphia. I went into the city before the reading and visited the Rodin museum. It gave me a lot to think about.

Tour 2016_The Thinker

I felt like my next couple of readings really blew the roof off of things.

Tour 2016_Mill Museum

Minneapolis inspired people to get naked and dance in the streets.

Tour 2016_Dancing Statue

Some of the hotels I’ve stayed in have been pretty cool. The one in Seattle featured all the latest in high-fidelity stereo sound. I had a little trouble getting the record to play, though.

Tour 2016_Old Stereo System

Portland was cool, but I got into an argument with this fat guy on the street. I was like, “What do you mean it’s absurd to write a short story collection about writers and their metaphysical ukuleles?”

Tour 2016_Sea Lion Sculpture

Now, I’m down to the last three: Warwick’s Books in La Jolla at 7:30 on Tuesday, Book Soup in West Hollywood at 7:00 on Thursday, and City Lights Books in San Francisco at 7:00 a week from Wednesday. Come out and see me.

Tour 2016_Reading at Powells

Pacific Northwest

The tour continues. Wednesday, June 15 I’ll be reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest, WA. I’ll be joined by Seattle area writers Samantha Updegrave and Kristen Millares Young. If you’re in the area, come out and see me. If you’re not but you know someone who is, send them this Facebook invitation.

The next night, Thursday, June 16, I’m reading at Powell’s Books. The reading is at their Hawthorne location. Razorcake contributor Keith Rosson will join me. If all goes well, my Ig Publishing tour mate, Ron Tanner, will be there, too.

Now here’s a picture of some chairs that I saw along a bay in the Puget Sound. Below that is a piece I wrote about being on tour in Seattle in 2008.

Chairs on Whidbey Island

Seattle

In Seattle, one of the local weeklies had a blurb about my reading at Elliott Bay Book Company. The weekly said that my new book was about a “bartender [who] goes on a road trip of self-discover.”

The book is absolutely not about that.

I happened to be standing on the Seattle waterfront when I read the weekly, a bit south of the famous fish market but still surrounded by a tourist district that I’d taken a wrong turn into. I paused for a second to remember a time when the independent weeklies that you found in every city used to actually be independent and actually cover events in those cities. In the next second, I wondered what happened to this imaginary bartender’s “y” on his road trip of self-discover.

I wandered as far away as I could from this little tourist district, gradually forgetting that stupid little blurb and remembering, still, that this was my nineteenth and final city on the summer tour I did to promote Train Wreck Girl, and, while it hadn’t been the road trip to self-discover that the Seattle Weekly billed it as, I had seen some things crisscrossing this continent.

Calling Twin Cities

I’ll be in Minneapolis this week, reading at Magers and Quinn on Friday night (June 3, 7:00). Bizarro author, Razorcake contributor, and part-time drag queen MP Johnson will read with me. I’ve never had a dull event in Minneapolis. Hopefully, this one will be as fun as readings in the past. Here’s a link to the bookstore’s events page.

Scroll below the picture to get a Replacements song in your head and read a vignette I wrote about reading in Minneapolis in 2008.

MPLS Skyway

Take the Skyway, high above that busy little one way.

Minneapolis

After I finished my reading at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis, the God Damn Doo Wop Band took the stage. And, by “stage,” I mean the empty area in front of the chairs in the backyard of Arise. It was one of those perfect Minneapolis days that apparently don’t happen all that often but seem to happen every time I’m there. It was sunny, temperatures in the low eighties, an even cooler breeze. The sun was starting to set behind the bookstore. The band sat on a low wall.

The God Damn Doo Wop Band: three women who know how to spend their money on boots and tattoos and hair dye, who, more importantly, know how to sing doo wop songs. They launched into three-part-harmonies about boy troubles. On the one hand, they seemed like an authentic throwback to the Staten Island doo wop of the fifties. On the other hand, it was something totally fresh and original.

One of the band members is named Annie. She used to be in the Soviettes. She didn’t wear boots. Her Vans were worn through just above the big toe. As she sang, her big toe popped out of the hole in her shoe. A little red toenail kept the beat.

A Tour of Self-Discover

sean_illo_47_by_brad_beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #47 by Brad Beshaw

7. Seattle

In Seattle, one of the local weeklies had a blurb about my reading at Elliott Bay Book Company. The weekly said that my new book was about a “bartender [who] goes on a road trip of self-discover.”

The book is absolutely not about that.

I happened to be standing on the Seattle waterfront when I read the weekly, a bit south of the famous fish market but still surrounded by a tourist district that I’d taken a wrong turn into. I paused for a second to remember a time when the independent weeklies that you found in every city used to actually be independent and actually cover events in those cities. In the next second, I wondered what happened to this imaginary bartender’s “y” on his road trip of self-discover.

I wandered as far away as I could from this little tourist district, gradually forgetting that stupid little blurb and remembering, still, that this was my nineteenth and final city on the summer tour I did to promote Train Wreck Girl, and, while it hadn’t been the road trip to self-discover that the Seattle Weekly billed it as, I had seen some things crisscrossing this continent.

 

  1. The Dells

There’s a region of Wisconsin called the Dells. On the way back from my reading in Minneapolis, I stopped in a gas station a little west of the Dells. Someone had written on the bathroom wall, “For a good time stop at Dolls in the Dells and ask for Ticia. She is a whore and will fuck you for money.”

A few minutes later, I rode through the Dells and saw Dolls. I didn’t stop in. I did think for a while about the guy who wrote that note on the bathroom wall. I wondered what inspired him to do it. Did he have a good time with Ticia? Was it such a good time that he had to tell everyone about it? Recommend it to all his friends, or anyone taking a piss for that matter? Was Ticia an ex-girlfriend who the scribe was looking to get back at? Is bathroom graffiti an effective way for a scorned man to strike back? Was Ticia really Tricia and our scribe just a bad speller? Questions like that kept popping up into my head as I rode across rural Wisconsin.

I applauded the scribe’s clarity. He’d taken the time to point out that Ticia was a whore who would fuck you for money, as opposed to a whore who may give it away for free, but would require you to have more game than just strolling up to her and saying, “I read about you on the bathroom wall.”

After a while, I let my tour mates in on all my meditations on Ticia and the scribe. They indulged me, helped me speculate as to who this guy was who penned this note above the urinal, even told stories of graffiti they’d ruminated about. I thought, is this how I pick my friends? Those who won’t say, “Dude, you’re thinking way too much about this shit.”

 

  1. Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, it is not unheard of for someone to steal a manhole cover.

Go there. Get into town too late to do anything but sleep for the night. Wake up, eat a home-style breakfast at a hipster diner. Wander around the old city. See the site where the Constitution was signed. Pass Ben Franklin’s grave. Read the historical markers about the slaves who escaped to Philadelphia: the first free city they reached coming up from the south. Go to a gallery featuring “underrepresented” artists and take your time with the paintings. Then, when the afternoon has made itself comfortable and a thunderstorm lingers above the city, listen to Danielle. She’ll tell you the story about sitting right where she’s sitting now, looking out of that window right there, and seeing a guy on a bike wrestle with a manhole cover, stuffing it haphazardly into his duffel bag, peddling away, the manhole cover ripping through the duffel bag, and the sound of police sirens growing louder.

If you do this, then you too can watch the rain falling on the city and wonder what the scene must be like when someone shows up at a scrap metal yard with a manhole cover to sell. What story does he come up with when the metal yard guy asks him, “You didn’t steal this, did you?”

The possibilities seem endless.

 

  1. Oxford

We stopped in a gas station tucked in the foothills between Atlanta and Birmingham, more just to stop driving for a while than to actually get anything. I wandered through the aisles of the gas station and paused at a sign that read, “Goodies and BC Powder behind the counter. Ask the cashier.” The condoms were displayed next to the sign. I stood there for a while and thought about the shoplifting patterns of this town.

After Carla, A.J., and I bought stuff we didn’t really need, we loitered in front of the store. I said, “They have the condoms in the aisles where anyone can shoplift them, and the headache powder behind the counter where no one can. You know what that tells me? It tells me that people around here get drunk, have unprotected sex, and then steal aspirin when they’re hungover.”

Carla said, “Shit. You didn’t know that about Alabama already?”

A.J. told us a story about touring with the Kings of Nothing, a nine-piece punk band. He’d get so sick of sitting in that tour van that he’d learned how to waste twenty or thirty minutes in a convenience store. When he got done with the story, he lit a cigarette. The three of us stood around while he smoked. Everyone who walked into the store looked hungover and fucked to me.

A.J. finished his smoke and we got back into the car, twenty or thirty minutes after we’d first stopped. I was learning stuff all the time.

 

  1. Cleveland

I’d never seen them at my readings before. I’m used to reading to punk rockers and hipsters in their twenties and thirties. But with this tour, I stumbled into readings with a different crowd. At Mac’s Backs in Cleveland, fully half of the audience was composed of gray-haired women in their sixties. One of them was a nun. I didn’t know she was a nun until after the reading, which seems like such a wasted opportunity to me because I know so many Catholic jokes.

My reading at the Cocoa Beach Library brought out a second crowd of sexagenarians. This made more sense to me because it was a reading in a library in a community with a large population of retirees. I still wasn’t sure why they chose to come out and listen to me, though.

As it turned out, sexagenarians rounded out the audience at most of the readings I did to support Train Wreck Girl. They laughed at the times that I hoped they would. They bought books. One even showed up with a dog-eared copy of the novel and had me sign it to her, then talked to me about the ending.

Now, you may be thinking, wait a second. Aren’t you supposed to be a punk rock guy? Aren’t you one of the founders of this here punk rock zine? What’s going on here?

I may be thinking the same thing.

 

  1. Minneapolis

After I finished my reading at Arise Bookstore in Minneapolis, the God Damn Doo Wop Band took the stage. And, by “stage,” I mean the empty area in front of the chairs in the backyard of Arise. It was one of those perfect Minneapolis days that apparently don’t happen all that often but seem to happen every time I’m there. It was sunny, temperatures in the low eighties, an even cooler breeze. The sun was starting to set behind the bookstore. The band sat on a low wall.

The God Damn Doo Wop Band: three women who know how to spend their money on boots and tattoos and hair dye, who, more importantly, know how to sing doo wop songs. They launched into three-part-harmonies about boy troubles. On the one hand, they seemed like an authentic throwback to the Staten Island doo wop of the fifties. On the other hand, it was something totally fresh and original.

One of the band members is named Annie. She used to be in the Soviettes. She didn’t wear boots. Her Vans were worn through just above the big toe. As she sang, her big toe popped out of the hole in her shoe. A little red toenail kept the beat.

 

  1. Atlanta

Above the urinal in The Highlander in midtown Atlanta, someone has written, “Jesus Hates Bald Pussy.”

I did not know that.

Author’s note: This is the fifteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #47.  For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.

The Road to Rock’n’roll

 

Illustration from Razorcake #38 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #38 by Brad Beshaw

I was cooking lunch when Joe Strummer’s publicist called. Todd answered the phone. I kept grating cheese for quesadillas. This was in the early days of Razorcake, when Todd and I each did half of magazine from the apartment we shared, when we were working on our fifth issue and still defining what the magazine would be. I didn’t pay attention to the call. I buttered a couple of tortillas, lay one on a frying pan, sprinkled grated cheese on it, and lay the other tortilla on top of it. This was also the days when any and all money we earned went back into putting out this magazine, back when I still considered Top Ramen food and would actually eat it. Quesadillas were a bit of a luxury.

Todd got off the phone just as I finished cooking. He said, “That was Joe Strummer’s publicist. She said she heard a rumor that we were going to interview him and put him on the cover of the next issue?”

“Was she calling from 1978?” I asked.

We both laughed.

The band on the cover of that issue: Super Chinchilla Rescue Mission.

 

My joke was had less to do with Joe Strummer and more to do with all the publicists who would call and try to play stupid publicist tricks on us. I was and am a Joe Strummer fan. I thought long and hard about that interview. Part of me wanted to do it. The second Clash album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, is the perfect punk rock album. It’s high energy, full of catchy melodies, has a nice mix of personal and political lyrics and the political lyrics are complex explorations of enduring issues like cultural imperialism rather than politics that come with an expiration date. The trade off of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones vocals are perfect. And, unlike every other Clash album, every song is great. There’s not one low point between “Safe European Home” and “All the Young Punks.” I got the album when I was still young enough to believe that punk rock could save the world. It still sounds great to my old and jaded ears. I’ve played that record so many times that the vinyl seems somehow thinner, more flimsy, like I can only play it another couple of dozen times before I wear completely through it. Still, it gets a lot of spins even now. I listened to it this morning.

In a sense, every album I buy now is a futile attempt to recapture that feeling I got when I first set the needle down on that record.

So I asked myself again and again, “Do you want to interview the creative force behind the perfect punk rock album?” And I always came up with the same answer.

No.

Did I want to meet him? Absolutely. Was he a hero of mine? Of course. He still is. Did I want to bask in the glow of brilliance? Yes. But did I want to waste his time with a bunch of questions about something he’d done twenty-odd years ago? Questions that have already been asked a million times, that he’s answered and that I read the answers to? No. The truth of the matter was, I had no interest in his new project, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. I’d heard it was “world music.” One of the songs on the vinyl version of that album is seventeen minutes long. I wanted nothing to do with that. I didn’t even give the disc a spin when it arrived in the review pile. I had no interest. After some of those horrible songs on the Clash’s Sandinista, after living through a couple of decades of “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “Rock the Casbah” on high rotation everywhere, I felt like I was done with Joe Strummer. Sure, he’d written great songs since Give ‘Em Enough Rope. There are even great songs on Sandinista. And I loved him the in the movie Midnight Train. But world music? Come on.

 

After Joe Strummer died, we did run a feature on him in Razorcake. I didn’t write anything about him then because I felt like Eric Rife—who did write the feature—said everything I wanted to say. He said it beautifully. I did the layout for that article. I sat at the computer in my apartment playing every piece of Clash music I had, right down to a bootleg copy of the Clash at the U.S. festival. I photoshopped pictures of Joe Strummer, I moved layout elements back and forth. I read and reread Eric’s words. I spent more time on that layout than I did on any other layout for Razorcake. I don’t know why.

 

A few months later, I was in a coffee house in Cincinnati. It was at the end of a short book tour I was doing. There was a record store above the coffee shop. I milled around there for a minute and got to talking to the owner. He knew Razorcake. We chatted about the Joe Strummer feature. He said, “I have the new Mescaleros album. Just came in. Wanna hear it?”

I didn’t, really, but I said, “Sure.” Just to be polite.

He played the first song. “Coma Girl.” I thought, wow! This is a song I’ve been wanting to hear for twenty years. Holy shit. I made a huge mistake.

 

Shortly before Joe Strummer died, filmmaker Dick Rude went on the Mescaleros’ final tour and made a documentary on it, Let’s Rock Again. The documentary has been out for a couple of years, but I didn’t get around to watching it until recently. There’s one scene in the middle of the movie when Joe Strummer is in Atlantic City. He’s scheduled to do a show that night. He goes to a rock’n’roll radio station in hopes of promoting his show. He goes to the telephone outside the station and he talks to the D.J. Only Joe Strummer’s half of the conversation is audible, but the tenor of the conversation is clear the third time he says his name to the D.J. The D.J. clearly has no idea whom he’s talking to. Finally, Joe Strummer says, “I used to be in a band called the Clash.” Suddenly, everything changes. The D.J. is beaming. He welcomes Joe Strummer up. He tells Joe Strummer that the station is three songs away from playing a Clash song.

In the next cut, we see Joe Strummer in a radio station that serves as a metaphor for everything that ruins rock’n’roll now. There isn’t one piece of actual music around: no compact discs, no records, not even cassettes. All the songs are programmed into a computer. Behind the D.J., the afternoon’s playlist beams on a computer monitor. It’s the same playlist on every computer monitor in every rock’n’roll station nationwide. And there’s Joe Strummer sitting on the other side of The Booth That Ruins Rock’n’roll. He’s singing back up along with “Rock the Casbah.” He’s got a withering smile on his face. The sides of his mouth twitch and he does an admirable job of keeping his chin up. But, really, do any of us need to hear “Rock the Casbah” again? Especially when we compare it to all the great songs that the Clash recorded? And what could possibly be going through Joe Strummer’s mind? Does it break his heart to know that this is his legacy to most of the world? Or does it just break my heart?

 

Several times in the movie, it’s made clear that Joe Strummer has gone from superstardom to obscurity. He mentions that the first Mescaleros album, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, didn’t break even. Hellcat Records actually lost money on it. He says that his goal with Global A Go-Go is simply to break even. “There’s more music in us,” he says. He just wants to cut one more album. We know now that he did. Sort of. The album, Streetcore, was never really completed, but it was completed enough to be released. The song “Coma Girl” is on that album.

 

Toward the end of the film, Joe Strummer gets redemption.

Both the D.J. in The Booth That Ruins Rock’n’roll and a really rude D.J. at KROQ have played a song off of Global A Go-Go (the last album Joe Strummer released in his lifetime). The cuts of the movie alternate between the two radio stations. The Mescaleros song “Johnny Appleseed” plays. Joe Strummer jumps around the booths, completely stoked. For a second, it’s easy to confuse this fifty year-old man with an eighteen year-old kid. He bangs his fists against the wall in perfect rhythm with the song. He shouts out, “We’ve got a toe-tapper here.” He opens the door and yells down the hall, “It’s a toe-tapper.”

Not a hit. Not a gold record. A toe-tapper.

And suddenly this becomes Joe Strummer’s legacy to the world: he shows us how to still be cool when you go from hero to zero. Or, more poignantly, how to understand that hero and zero are irrelevant. That what really matters is your art. He promotes an album, he tours, he does everything he can to generate press not so that he can be a star again, not to reclaim his former glory or to cash in one more time—hell, there’s barely a nod to the Clash days in the movie—but because he’s got more music in him.

 

And what about me? Do I regret never having interviewed Joe Strummer, not helping him out when he was a zero? Not even listening to his last three albums until after he was dead? Not really. An interview in Razorcake, even putting his mug on the cover of that magazine, wouldn’t have changed his life at all. The Mescaleros toured with The Who, their records were played on KROQ, every major weekly in the country wrote articles about them. People knew about them. One more interview in a fanzine that went out to four thousand people wouldn’t have made any difference.

By not meeting him, though, I think I got something better. I got to know him only through his art. Only through what he chose to give of himself. And that means more to me.

See, after that reading in Cincinnati—for which there was a big crowd, sure, but a crowd who seemed suddenly surprised that they had come to a reading and not just to a coffee house—I stayed the night in a punk house. The next morning, my tourmate Jennifer Whiteford and I hopped a Greyhound from Cincinnati to Chicago. The bathroom of the Greyhound had not been cleaned for six or seven thousand years. The smell permeated everything. It hit you as soon as you set foot on the bus. The only open seats for Jennifer and me were in the back, right by the bathroom. We spent four hours breathing this air. Imagine sitting in an ancient port-a-john and someone is outside, shaking the walls enough to make sure the odor never dissipates. That’s what that bus ride was like. We performed that night in Chicago. Six people showed up. I sold one book.

After the reading, I went to a bar with the guy who set up the reading. He bought the first round and I bought the second. The round I bought cost more than the book I’d sold. He apologized for the turnout, for the local papers and weeklies that had ignored the press releases and promo books I’d sent them. He lamented the state of literature today. I answered with a withered smile. The same smile I recognized on Joe Strummer’s face years later, when I watched Let’s Rock Again and saw him in The Booth That Ruins Rock’n’roll. Seeing that smile made me feel like a kindred spirit. I think I knew exactly how he felt right then. It’s a feeling I know well. In that smile, it’s clear to me exactly why Joe Strummer did what he did with his life and why I do what I do with mine. For a second, it felt like one of my heroes had come back from the grave, like he gave me a hug and said, “Man, everything’s cool.”

 

Author’s note: This is the ninth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #38.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

Beer and Lying in High Society

Tony from the Adolescents (photo by Todd Taylor)

Tony from the Adolescents (photo by Todd Taylor)

There I was, bombed out of my trick, blathering something into a microphone about porn stars and premature ejaculation and people with carrots up their asses. It was one of those beautifully ugly moments when I felt like a fool and an imposter and a guy on top of the world. And the bizarre thing was, I was supposed to be there. I was one of the opening acts for X.

Now, your first question, or at least the first question everyone I tell the story to asks is, “X? The X?” The answer is, yes, the X from Los Angeles. The band that we all saw giving each other bad tattoos and talking like they were the king shits in Decline of Western Civilization. The X who did “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” and “White Girl” and “Sex and Dying in High Society.” Exene Cervenka. John Doe. Billy Zoom. DJ Bonebreak. That X.

If you know me, then your second question is, “But dude, you’re not in a band. What the fuck were you doing opening for X?”

Therein lies our story.

 

A few weeks earlier, I’d opened up for Tony from the Adolescents, but in a different context. Someone had started a new spoken word series over in West Hollywood, and they were inviting a bunch of old LA punk rockers to do spoken word performances. Tony seemed like a no-brainer choice to grace that stage. And Tony, being the good guy he is, shared the stage with a couple of local writers: me and Jim “Money” Ruland. The whole night was a pretty cool setup. It was a nice bar with a cool little stage and a few free drinks for the folks who were reading. I got a chance to get up on that stage and tell a story and sell a couple of books. Ruland got a chance to do the same. Everyone seemed to laugh at the times when I hoped they would. We all had fun. And, as a topper for the evening, we all got to listen to Tony tell us a bunch of rad stories not only from the heyday of early LA punk rock, but right up to the present day. It was cool to see how Tony patched the two scenes together, cool to see one of the LA punk pioneers show how the underground keeps going and keeps growing. Tony ended it up with a story about something that had happened to him while his band was touring with Electric Frankenstein, and his story was so sad and hopeful that it damn near broke my heart.

It was my kind of night.

Afterwards, Tony seemed pretty excited. He said to Ruland and me, “I’d like to get you guys in on the Beatfest that’s coming up in a couple of weeks. Would you be interested?”

“Sure,” I said, having no idea what I was agreeing to.

When I got home, I played the Adolescents blue album for the ten thousandth time and looked into what Beatfest was. From what I gathered, it was a grouping of LA bands and writers that would take place on two stages over the course of three nights. The big stage featured acts like Dee Dee Ramone, Steve Earle, and X. The smaller stage featured a bunch of writers who you’ve probably never heard of, and a bunch of people who you have heard of, but who probably aren’t writers, all of whom were doing some form of spoken word. I figured that Ruland and I would get ten minutes each on the small stage, and that was good enough for me. I quit looking into Beatfest and turned up the stereo.

A few days later, Tony called Ruland. As it turned out, Tony had tried to get us onto the small stage, but he wasn’t able to. No worries, though. He got us onto the big stage for the Friday night show, instead. Ruland and I would go on after the Starvations and before the Adz. X would headline. We’d have five minutes each to read something. “Would that be cool?” Tony asked.

“That sounds great,” Ruland said, because he was lying out his fucking ass.

The thing is, what Jim knew and what I knew was that only one thing flies on the stage of a punk rock show, and that’s a punk rock band. I’ve been to thousands of shows over the course of decades and I’ve seen people try all kinds of shit between bands at shows. I’ve seen someone try to show an independent film, and I’ve seen that movie screen get splattered in beer. I’ve seen the makeshift punk stand up act who had to re-write his material so that his whole comedy routine is nothing more than dealing with hecklers. I’ve seen spoken word acts get it the worst. I’ve come to respect that the time between bands at a punk show as a sacred time: a fifteen minute break for punkers to piss and buy beer and say, “Man, those guys sucked live,” and do whatever else it is that recharges them. So if we took the stage between the Starvations and the ADZ and tried to read short stories, we’d get heckled and booed and otherwise humiliated.

But there was another thing, and it was this: Tony from the Adolescents offered this opportunity to us. I can’t speak for Jim here, but I feel like, when someone puts something out into this world that’s so close to perfect – like that Adolescents blue album – and then they ask you to do something, you owe them. And it goes deeper than that. The first time I spoke to Tony, he’d called up Razorcake HQ with some questions for Todd. Since Todd wasn’t around, I answered Tony’s questions and then asked him about a hundred questions about the Adolescents and the Adz and about that crappy move SLC Punk using the Adolescents’ song “Amoeba.” Tony was patient and chatted about all that stuff with me. It was one of those cool moments when I couldn’t be star struck by the singer of a band that meant so much to me because the singer of that band refused to act like a star. And now he was giving me the opportunity to showcase my writing to hundreds of people at an X show. How could I say no?

So Jim and I had to figure out how we were gonna handle this situation. First, we did what Ruland and I do when left to our own devices: we hung out, listened to music, and drank a whole lot of beer. When the first twelve-pack ran out, we bought more. We drank until a nice haze settled in. Somewhere during that haze, I told Ruland about this weird package I’d gotten in the mail from a friend of mine, Jason Willis.

Jason works in an internet porn company, and the company he used to work for had bought out another porn company, and therefore, they got that other company’s office supplies. So while Jason and his co-workers were raiding this defunct company’s offices, Jason came across a box of letters that guys had written to women in porn. The letters were seriously depraved. The guys genuinely thought that, if you simply write a good enough letter to a porn star, she will have sex with you. So they wrote their love letters. And the porn stars never opened them. They left them in a box in an office. No one touched the box until Jason came across it. At which point, Jason and his friends got a good laugh at these guys’ expense. Actually, everyone who read the letters seemed to go through the same stages: for the first dozen letters, they laughed at the guys who wrote the letters; for the next dozen letters, they sympathized – or pitied, even – the letter writers, as in, “Holy shit, this poor fucker is a thirty-five-year-old virgin who thinks he can have sex with a porn actress. How bad must his life suck?”; and, after another dozen letters, they go back to laughing, as in, “Dude, it’s his own fault he’s a thirty-five-year-old virgin. If he can’t figure out that dirty words written to a porn star aren’t gonna solve his problems, then I can have a guilt-free laugh at his expense.”

The next morning, I emerged from the drunken haze to realize that the letters to porn stars were my key to getting through this opening gig for X. The letters would slide me into that nice gray area where there are exceptions to rules, where you realize that the one thing besides punk rock that will fly at a punk rock show is a dirty joke. So I made up a story about how, when we started Razorcake, we rented a PO Box that used to belong to a porno magazine, and we got all these crazy letters to porn stars. I picked out my favorite letters: the one where the guy asks the German porn star for her opinions on the reunification of Germany; the one where the guy in prison talks about how, when he gets out, he’ll take the porn star horseback riding on the shores of Marina del Rey (which, as far as I can tell, has no “shores,” because it’s a fucking marina, not a beach); the one about the middle aged virgin who’s saving himself for the right porn star; the one that discusses how perfectly the photographer caught the picture just as Chloe’s tongue was about to touch Claire’s asshole, but before the tongue actually touched; and, of course, the one about the guy with the carrot in his ass (and no, he wasn’t the Rhythm Chicken). My plan was to tell my story and have Jim read the letters in between my discussion of the stages of reading the letters.

I called Jim with my plan. He liked it. We decided to meet up at his apartment and practice reading the piece. We did meet up at his apartment. We drank beer and listened to music. When the first twelve-pack ran out, we bought more. Somewhere in the haze of the second twelve-pack, we decided that a.) we didn’t need any fucking practice and b.) we should stop fooling ourselves and just buy a case to begin with.

 

Before too long, Beatfest came around, and ready or not, Ruland and I packed up and headed out to it. Another fellow Razorcaker, Bradley Williams, lived across the street from the venue, so we left early, headed out to Hollywood, and met up with Bradley. We drank more beer and told stories with Bradley and, shortly before it was time for us to head to the show, Bradley put on his own show for us. He pulled out his washtub bass, which is a broomstick stuck into a round metal washtub, with a cord tied to the top of the broom stick and the edge of the tub. Bradley put on a pair of gardening gloves so the cord wouldn’t tear up his fingers, and ripped through a song on the washtub bass. It was too good. We made Bradley play another. And another. It just felt right. The beer was cold. The songs sounded good. We cheered Bradley on until finally he said, “I can’t play no more. My hands are tore up.”

That meant it was time to go to the show.

 

Tony seemed glad to see Ruland and me. He showed us around the backstage area, which was strangely free of beer, which didn’t matter because I had one in my hand anyway. He walked us by the room where the members of X were. There was a huge sign on the outside of the door that told anyone and everyone to not disturb the band. It seemed excessive, seeing as how there was no one backstage to except Ruland, Tony, and me, and we were more than content to just disturb each other.

After a few minutes, the Starvations wrapped up their set and it was time for Ruland and me. A big curtain closed at the front of the stage. The Starvations started breaking down behind the curtain. The Adz waited to set up their equipment. The sound guy pulled two microphones out in front of the curtain and told us to do our thing. Tony introduced us. I stepped up to the mic. It was weird. The stage was six feet high. Bouncers stood in front of me, poised to protect me from any stage divers or teeny boppers who wanted to storm the stage. As if that would happen. Literally hundreds of people milled around in front of me. I pulled my story out from my back pocket. I was so nervous and had had so much to drink that I couldn’t read the words on the paper. No worries, though, because this always happens to me when I get up on a stage to do a reading, so I memorized my story in advance. I laid in on my bullshit about how these letters had mysteriously appeared in my PO Box. As I paused, Jim read about the premature ejaculators and the marina cowboys. The crowd actually stopped to listen. Not the whole crowd, but a lot of them. Literally hundreds of them. They laughed at all the dick and ass jokes. It was pretty sweet: one of those moments when I was somewhere between a fool and king. Ruland seemed to dig it, too.

After we finished up, the Adz played a pretty fucking awesome set, and then it was time for X. Now, I’m like you. I have X’s Los Angeles album. I have Wild Gift. I’ve listened to them hundreds, if not thousands of times. There was a point in my life when those albums were my soundtrack. The songs from those albums bring back all the feelings from the times when I couldn’t hear them enough. I listen to them and feel years melt away and remember faces and things that I never think about anymore. I reserve those songs for special times when I want to feel like I’m back in some long forgotten era, hanging out with all the people I’ve long since lost touch with. So seeing X play was a pretty special thing for me. Until X took the stage, that is.

They started with one of their hits. I think it may have even been “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline.” It was one of my favorites, but they played it a beat too slowly, and it wasn’t a fast song to begin with. Exene twirled and spun around like she wanted to be some kind of punk rock Stevie Nicks. Clearly she didn’t realize what a contradiction it is to be a punk rock Stevie Nicks. Billy Zoom took his cool guitar pose from twenty years earlier, but not like he was kid who thought he was cool. Like he was an aging comedian performing a Billy Zoom satire. I started drinking faster.

Four songs into the show, X played “We’re Desperate.” I watched John Doe sing out that he was desperate, and I should get used to it. And I thought, dude, I know that you’ve been in over forty movies and have a recurring role on a TV show. You’re not desperate. You’re fucking loaded. Tickets for that very show were something like thirty bucks, and X was getting almost all that money. And, at that moment, I felt like it wasn’t just John Doe. It was all of the members of X who were ruining their own music for me. They were destroying songs I used to love. They were so far removed from the passion that inspired their songs that they sounded like their own worst cover band. I would’ve rather heard a current band like the Selby Tigers play an X song than hear X limp through their own tunes. It just seemed so fake.

And I realized that I wasn’t really one to talk. After all, I’d faked my way through a spoken word act. I skipped out on any attempts at honesty or depth and went for the cheap joke. What I’d done had been far less severe than becoming my own worse cover band, which is what X seemed to be doing to themselves. Still, it made me realize that everyone becomes a bit of an imposter and everyone sells himself a little short when he gets on the stage.

I walked out of the show before listening to X butcher another of their old tunes, thinking about Bradley’s washtub bass and about Tony’s Electric Frankenstien tour story and all the tales that Ruland and I swapped as we swilled our way through twelve packs, because that’s the stuff of real life. That’s the shit that means something. And all this business on a big stage with hundreds of fans: that’s just a diversion.

 

Author’s note: This is the eighth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #20.  For more information about the collection, read this post.