Diary of a Fading Rockstar, Part IV: Jimmy Is A Punk Rocker

Written By: Erik Rader

When I was a child (and already formulating my career plans as a future rockstar) I enjoyed my Sunday clothes so much I wanted to wear them all week. Regardless of the unpleasant actuality of the little old church ladies pinching my cheeks while criticizing the length of my hair, it was the source of my very earliest frisson of cool. It had already been made clear to me that rockstars dressed differently than most people – Rick Wakeman of Yes had his sparkling metallic cape; Kiss had their giant boots and Kabuki makeup; Jimi Hendrix looked like a gypsy from another planet; the Stones looked like barbarian princes come to burn the village to the ground; even the inoffensive, loved-by-parents Beatles had the hirsute earth-toned appearance of poets or highwaymen.

None of these fanciful costumes struck me as being a natural fit with my personality; I never wished I could wear my Halloween werewolf costume the rest of the year. My Sunday clothes, however, felt magical and powerful – it was like being a secret agent or spy, my second choice for a career after rockstar.

If I had shown up to school in a tie and blazer, however, I probably would have gotten my ass kicked. I came from a working class neighborhood in Southeast Portland and attended a school with a huge brick smokestack, the kind that looked like a factory; certainly this was no accident, as I suspect that this was the intended destination they were preparing us for. It was bad enough that my liberal intellectual parents allowed me to attend 3rd grade in long hair and paisley blouses, alongside the kids in their crew cuts, T-shirts and stiff Levis; I think they would have let me show up for school in my Sunday clothes and be crucified.

Fortunately for me, we moved to Berkeley just as I was entering fourth grade, and as we all know schoolchildren in Berkeley in the 70’s would have routinely been sent to the principal’s office for looking normal. Unfortunately, we also entered a state of poverty that temporarily forced me to conform to the attire of my peers – in other words, to dress like a child laboring in a Maoist reeducation camp.

In Junior High, something changed. My parents had finally managed to figure out which thrift stores in town were happening, we had all somewhat overcome the trauma of our relocation, and I was starting to formulate my own opinions about what I should wear.

One day, I decided to wear my Sunday clothes to school.

I didn’t get my ass kicked; in fact, several of the boys that used to punch me around for fun exclaimed “Hey, cool clothes, man!” But even more importantly, several of the pretty girls who had ignored me before now said “Hi.” To a thirteen-year-old, this is like your first hit of crack.

Shortly after this, there was a school assembly, at which some of my classmates performed a cover of “Godzilla” by Blue Öyster Cult. They played the opening riff over and over without a bridge, and there didn’t appear to be any vocals. At the time I was singing lead in my church choir, but I didn’t put two and two together. It didn’t occur to me to go up to the nascent musicians and say “What you guys need up there is a front man” – I was still too blown away by the fact that they had somehow got the school authorities to let them play at an assembly, and they hadn’t even learned the bridge. I didn’t know it then, but one of the guitar players would end up in my band.

What they had planted in my mind was the seed of possibility – it was possible for someone my age to get up in front of people and play loud rock music, to somehow sneak behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain and mess with the special effects. What caused that seed to germinate, however, was punk rock. Specifically, the Ramones.

Up until that point the majority of the kids I knew had been cowed by the specter of “musicianship” – everybody was into groups like Rush or Yes that played millions and millions of notes, and had huge multimillion-dollar light shows; it seemed that being in a rock and roll band was as unattainable a fantasy as being a grownup, having your own place, driving a car, getting laid, getting a job. When my brother, his best friend and I discovered the Ramones, we were immediately overcome by the realization that not only could losers like us be in a band – losers like us could be rockstars.

Many years later I would learn that the business associates who called themselves the Ramones and their management very carefully crafted their sound and image concept, but at the time everyone was convinced that they were what they appeared to be: A bunch of hooligans who had probably stolen their instruments, could barely play them, very likely slept in the beer and weed scented garage they rehearsed in, and wrote their songs about sniffing glue and turning tricks on 53rd and 3rd from personal experience.

We’d heard about the “punk rock” that, the newspapers claimed, had been invented somewhere in England and was the purview of Satanists, neo-Nazis and child-rapists; that it consisted of screams and grunts and curses over the atonal bashing of cheap musical instruments; and that punk rockers all had purple lipstick and safety pins through their nostrils. However, the Ramones gave the lie to the squalid hysteria flooding the late 70’s newspapers and television news reports of mainstream America. We knew guys like these Ramones, who skipped class, smoked reefer and sniffed glue, wore motorcycle jackets (some even rode motorcycles), had long greasy hair, set things on fire, liked loud obnoxious music and didn’t give a fuck about anything. They weren’t anything all that exotic; they were already fixtures of our environment. The music they represented had already existed for a long time, but had been so fiercely and religiously ignored by the mainstream that most people imagined it had sprung wholly and instantaneously from Malcolm MacLaren’s forehead.

What very studiously conceived pop art constructs such as the Ramones did was to bring the punk ethos into the consciousness of people like me who would take it to the next level. Not long after the arrival of the Ramones’ first album in 1976, an explosion of bands around the world would revive and revolutionize popular music in a manner that had not happened since the Beatles captured the airwaves over a decade before, spawning ten thousand imitators and arguably recapturing the mystical and anarchic power of rock and roll that had been unleashed by Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and their peers, but had been subsumed by a popular recording industry intent upon rendering rock and roll into a safe, asexual, white-skinned cash cow that wouldn’t frighten aunt Mildred or disturb the neighbors.

After the Beatles, the cycle began again, but the sine wave of revolution and co-optation became shorter and shorter. Thus, we have 4 years between The Day the Music Died (the fateful plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper) and the Beatles’ conquest of American radio with the single “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, the first salvo of the British Invasion; a mere 3 years between Iggy meeting Bowie at Max’s Kansas City in ’71 and the Ramones’ first performance at that same venue in ’74; and between the “death of punk” at the Sex Pistols’ disastrous performance at Winterland in San Francisco in ’78 and the release of “Gangsters” by the Specials on Jerry Dammer’s 2 Tone label, just one year.

We were inspired by the Ramones, but we sure as hell didn’t want to look like them. My inspiration for how to look came instead from the album cover of “Exposure”, the enigmatic and problematic solo release of former prog-rock axeman Robert Fripp. On that cover he was photographed in a dapper, almost conservative blazer, dress shirt and tie, his hair cropped short in Roman fashion. But what really turned all of our heads around 180 degrees was the release that same year of the film “Quadrophenia”, and the appearance at Rasputin’s Records on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley of loosely shrink-wrapped import copies of “In The City” by the Jam.

My friends and I were completely unaware that revival cults of 60’s Mod culture already existed among bored, disaffected former-punk rockers in San Francisco, San Diego, LA, New York, Boston, and several other major American cities; Berkeley had a funny way of being a cultural backwater in those days before the internet made the exchange of information functionally instantaneous. As far as we knew, we were it. In fact, finding out later on that other people were into it kind of spoiled it for us. In the heat of that moment in 1979, when we decided that we were Mods, the feeling that we had finally discovered our revolutionary stylistic niche was undeniable.

Surfing this wave of momentum, rehearsals in my parents’ garage began in earnest. Our hair was all wrong and our outfits were drastically misconceived (there were floral print Vans present, lamentably, for which certain members to this day refuse any apology; I however am fully repentant of my very brief interest in white painter’s pants). But we were playing Who and Ramones covers loud and fast, actually writing stupid three-chord songs that sounded like a cross between the two, and nothing was going to stand in the way of our inevitable world conquest. Expectations and strategies would later have to be amended in the face of brutal reality, but in that incandescent moment, we were far more sure of ourselves than we had any right to be.

This was even better than wearing one’s Sunday clothes to school; this was like making every day Sunday, without the annoying inconvenience of actually having to show up at church and have one’s cheek pinched by the old ladies.

At some point we managed to get hold of a copy of Richard Barnes’ notorious photo essay on mods (Mods!, orig. Eel Pie Publishing, 1979) and from that point onward it was an obsession. When I paid a visit to the guitar player from the band I’d seen at the school assembly back in junior high, intending to recruit him for my project, he had already acquired a dapper pinstriped mohair blazer with a “Maximum R&B” badge. He brought with him a rhythm guitar player who looked like he might have stepped off of a Yardbirds or Small Faces album cover from twenty years previous. A keyboard player I had taken many classes with in school, an unassuming yet bright fellow who had never particularly stuck out much in spite of his freakish tallness, suddenly appeared in a raw silk blazer and inch wide tie.

It seemed as if something was in the air. My horn-playing friends from church youth group, who played in the jazz bands of their respective schools, may have been skeptical about the Who, the Jam, mods, or any rock and roll influences; but they came to us enthusiastically by way of the Specials and their updated suedehead attire. While other bands at school made their statement by ripping the collars out of their T-shirts, we actually had the school GQ pimps calling us out as fellow stylists.

When kids from the suburbs started coming to our shows dressed in off-the-rack mallrat versions of our meticulously crafted looks, we became disillusioned, but then at that point the whole musical direction of the band had spun out on a thousand different tangents anyway. When what we had envisioned initially as a way to stand out from the pack became just another flavor of running with it, we more or less abandoned it. To our chagrin, however, we found ourselves continually pigeonholed, labeled, categorized, and genre-fied in the local press, who seemed hip to where we had been two or three years previously but not in the present.

One local rock journalist of considerable pedigree went so far as to send his son (actually one of our schoolmates) in his place to see us play and report back to him, effectively ghost-writing the review. In a strange sort of way our attempt at grabbing visibility for ourselves rendered us even more invisible than ever – when one becomes the subject of projection, there isn’t even an original subject to ignore any longer.

Fast forward about 20 years, across a gulf of time in which I’d attempted to start seemingly endless bands, or else audition for others; a time during which my “look” became nondescript, my songwriting even more so, and no one who had been witness to my original 15 minutes was anywhere in sight. I had done such an excellent job of erasing myself from my past life that I couldn’t cash a check to the old account – hell, I couldn’t get arrested anywhere. Not only was I light years away from the concept of wearing my Sunday clothes 7 days a week – I didn’t HAVE any Sunday clothes. I had done such a good job of caving inward upon myself that one friend remarked, “Don’t you go and start trying to live your life like a character in a Tom Waits song.” In fact, that was pretty much exactly what I was trying to do.

It simply did not look good.

Then around about 2006 the mood changed for me again. I was noticing that the old styles of music and clothing were coming back into fashion – not that I really cared, it was just sort of interesting, and jogged my memory about some things – and that it wasn’t that hard to find the kind of clothes I used to wear at my nearest local thrift shop. I got my hair cut short, started matching solid color dress shirts to narrow silk ties and four-button jackets, or knit polo shirts to vintage windbreakers. I vowed to absolutely eliminate all pleated pants and baggy jeans forever from my wardrobe, and breathed a sigh of sweet relief. I found myself recalling what I had somehow managed to forget – that dressing a certain way made me feel good, and feeling good was for me a full time job that required full time effort.

Concurrently with my return to a sense of personal dignity, my creativity exploded; I wrote and recorded more music in the space of a couple months than I had in the previous decade; and, as you can see here, the words flowed forth in a shameless cascade, where once I had hidden them under a rock.

For the most part I continue to set myself apart from the mainstream of any subculture, but I no longer shy away from the subtle “secret handshakes” as I call them, or as a fellow Stylist from back in the day refers to them, “a wink of mod”. Meanwhile the young people seem to at last be re-awakening from their long and terrible slumber in the realm of ridiculously baggy clothing – although I still see kids wearing hideous knee-length basketball shorts with sneakers resembling clown shoes. I no longer harbor any hard feelings to inhabitants of the mall culture who may borrow a grace note here or there from mine; after all, imitation is a relatively sincere form of flattery.

I frequently find myself biting my tongue, wanting to walk up to a 19 year old and say “The jacket and pants are great, but what were you thinking with those shoes?” or “Next time let me cut your hair – I could have done a better job than the overpriced idiot who did that to you.” But then I remember what I would have said at 19 if some 43 year old weirdo had come up to me talking such garbage. Instead, I keep quiet and try to teach by example. And encouragingly, dear old friends from high school who might easily be saying “Come on, grow up, you’re not a teenage rockstar any more,” are instead exclaiming “Where have you been!”

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