Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Punk Rock Weekend, Part Two

And now, on with the tales from the road:

After the Damned show was over, we partook in one of the longstanding traditions of punk show evenings: 2:00 AM breakfast at whatever 24-hour place happens to be accessible. In Friday's case, it was the I-HOP. By about 5:00 AM as I lay in my hotel room bed, I realized that, perhaps, at age 42, an evening of beer drinking followed by steak and eggs, pancakes and black coffee is no longer as nifty a combination as it may have been twenty years ago. As they say, live and learn.

We hit the road by 11:00 AM the next morning, heading out to PS's house just west of Harrisburg, PA - about a three-hour trip. Our plan was to stop there, make some sandwiches or something for dinner, and leave from there to Baltimore, about an hour and forty-five minutes south. We'd drive back the same night and save a second hotel fare. First, though, another punk show travel tradition: a record store run. The Record Collector in Bordentown, NJ, is a funky little shop nestled within a residential area. In business for 20 years, they still stock more vinyl than CDs. With shelves of used LPs, record covers adorning the walls, and the couple who has owned the shop these past two decades running the register and scurrying about helping customers find things, this is no "music and electronics boutique" like you might find in the mall. This is a real honest-to-goodness record store, the way they were meant to be. Browsing is a little difficult, because the albums are not in bins that you flip through but rather on shelves, library style, with spines facing you, and the CDs are scattered about the store on racks and in piles with no easily discernible system of organization. By chance, we happened to show up on a day when Bordentown was having a local street fair that reminded me of Virgil, TX's Celebration of Specialness from the movie True Stories, so there were people milling about, streets blocked off, and all sorts of activities adding to the confusion. I was able to find Tubeway Army's 1978 EP, which I've been looking for for some time, so the record run was not in vain.

On the road again, I found myself nodding off in the back seat for much of the trip back to PA. I was told that I somehow managed to sleep essentially sitting up, with head bent over like a marionette with a broken string. If nothing else, it meant I didn't snore, which was a blessing to others in the car. Believe me, after a lifetime of sinus issues, I can saw some logs!

The overall laziness continued throughout the afternoon. PS took a power nap upon arrival at his house, as he was our driver for the entire trip; his wife had been snoozing in the passenger seat during the ride as well. We refueled with some sandwiches, and by 6:45 we were back on the road to Baltimore.

The Saturday night show was going to be a very different musical experience. Whereas The Damned have evolved over 30+ years from slash-n-bang punk rock to gothic psychedelia, The Business have never strayed from their straight-ahead Oi! sound. The Damned brought out punks, new wavers, and goths; The Business would bring out the skinheads. With four opening bands, this show was almost a mini Oi!-fest, and experience shows that, at times, the skinhead crowd brings along with it the unfortunate extremists, both racist and violent. This would not be the case in Baltimore, however - this was a crowd who was there to have a good time and nothing more. I thankfully saw no indication of a racist element in attendance, and not a single fight broke out the entire evening. It made for an enjoyable show indeed.

The Ottobar is a fairly cramped little hole-in-the-wall on a corner of North Howard Street. As one friend described it, it looks as though it came straight from the cover of The Exploited's Troops of Tomorrow album. In a rundown neighborhood, with a crumbling-macadam parking lot and surrounded by cyclone fence grown over with weeds, situated among probably vacant buildings colored with graffiti, it's not the most inviting venue. It suits the purpose, though, and I have seen a couple of bands there.

We missed the first band, but arrived in time to see The Dead End Boys deliver a high-energy set that had the crowd shouting along as one, and saw the mosh pit going almost constantly. They were followed by Iron Cross, a very tight band who picked up right where The Dead End Boys left off and kept the surge of energy going in the crowd.

The Dead End Boys

Iron Cross

As Iron Cross finished up, I headed to the bar for a beer. As I pushed through the crowd to the bar, I saw a figure that stood out in stark contrast to the skinheads and punks milling about. This was an older gentleman, dressed very well, and drinking from what looked like a cognac glass. He looked very familiar, and I did that quick scan of my memory banks we all do when we think we know someone. Then it struck me. I went back to my friends and told them, "I think John Waters is here." At first I doubted my own identification of Waters, but then I thought, well, we are in Baltimore. We headed back to the bar to verify, and sure enough, there sat John Waters. Of course, there were people beginning to flock to him and shake his hand and tell him how much of a fan they were. While he was not impolite to anyone, his demeanor made it clear he wasn't thrilled. He was there with someone and trying to carry on a conversation, and the interruptions were obviously intrusive. For that reason, we decided not to be one more interruption, and didn't go over to him. Before the next band hit the stage, he was gone.

The next band was Flatfoot 56, a Chicago-based band who I enjoyed so much I bought both of their CDs at the concession table. Their hyper-speed street punk was given a unique twist thanks to one member of the band who alternately played either bagpipes or mandolin. Never saw anyone play a set of bagpipes so fast in all my life! These were fun-loving punks, a little goofy but boy could they play. They closed with a faster-than-you-can-imagine cover of "Amazing Grace" that had the whole place singing (chanting?) along.

Flatfoot 56 - punk rock with bagpipes!

By the time the headliners came on, it was a wonder anyone had any energy left - but they did, and more, and The Business delivered. Mickey Fitz is looking his years, but he lead his band through a set that was made up mostly of classics like "Smash the Discos", "Loud, Proud and Punk" and "Harry May", but they also did the title track to their current Mean Girl EP. They played about a 45 minute set, and then brought the members of the other bands onstage for a huge sing-along on the final two songs of the night, ending with "Drinking and Driving" with the whole club singing along. All in all a fun show.

The Business

Everyone onstage for the finale.

We were back on the road and back in PA by about 2:30 that morning, and took Sunday as a lazy day to meander back to Lancaster. It made for one of the better weekends of the year so far, and put me in a great frame of mind.

It's interesting to me to see the differences between today's punk kids and the way we were twenty years ago. For one thing, it amazed me to see a number of girls getting into the mosh pit Saturday night and holding their own with the burliest skinheads. Seldom if ever did the girls get into the pit back in the day. Nowadays, the kids have to contend with us old heads at the shows. Twenty years ago, we eyed anyone at the show who looked to be over 25 with great suspicion; the kids today are - dare I say - downright polite and respectful to the 40+ crowd. Perhaps we were not as progressive back then as the kids are today. Oh, some things never change: every show has "That Guy" - the person who has had more than a little too much to drink and has begun to act like a royal ass, either getting into fights or just acting stupidly. The kids still fall into their cliques, with punks hanging with punks, goths with goths, skinheads with skinheads, and to say that there is never any trouble between groups would be hideously naive. Still, it makes me smile to see that two decades later, a punk show is still pretty much the same thing as a punk show was when I was that age.

Next up on the concert horizon for me? X is coming to Baltimore in a few weeks; in August Blondie and The Donnas are touring with, of all people, Pat Benatar. So, there will be more stories from the road. I'd love to hear some of your road stories as well - share some of your favorite recent concert road trips in the comments, won't you?

The kids in the pit.

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