Content warning: this piece contains violence, drug use, and coarse language.
Memory is a fleeting thing, rife with inaccuracy. These events are as true as my brain allows. Some names have been changed to protect the ridiculous.
I’m West Broadway-bound on the 19 bus, beer in hand with a bunch more in the backpack. I’m head-to-toe punked out with my Dead Kennedys Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables patch on my cut-off denim vest next to my Black Flag pin and a stain that’s likely blood. We’re gonna have us a party tonight.
Nick’s buddy, D, invited us to hang at his pad with his crust punk crew. Perfect, cause I’m getting sick of these suburban so-called rockers. Grade nine is a drag. I wanna see how the real punks live.
The first thing I notice when I walk in the door is the stench of mould, beer, and dozens of bodies that believe showering somehow supports the government. It’s equally rotten and inviting. I navigate around broken glass and trash, making my way to the basement. I’ve arrived.
The drunken gang vocals of Black Flag’s TV Party blast on the stereo. A couple of dudes bang away at a makeshift drum kit. There’s a mic plugged into an old Sears tube amp in the corner. I pick it up, catch a nasty shock, and drop it to the concrete floor. D spots us from across the room.
“We’re evicted, boys! Fuckin’ slumlords, man,” he says, hocking a loogie on the floor. “Hope you brought something to break shit with.”
So, it’s that kind of party. A skinhead-looking guy puts a crowbar through the wall in the stairwell, ripping it down until there’s a dusty gash seven feet long. A light in the basement’s back corner goes out. I’m witnessing pure chaos. Fists and hammers are punching the place up, someone’s whipped out a guitar, and they’re screaming indistinguishable lyrics — something about smashing the state.
I’m leaning on the wall, listening to D brag about this alt-porn star he hangs out with while I smoke a Peter Jackson we stole from Nick’s dad. I’d be in on the destruction, but I’m more focused on my Lucky Lager. I’m a little overwhelmed by the scene, but I feel alive, man.
The hopper window behind me breaks from the outside. Shards of glass pepper me. I brush them off my shoulder and slice my finger deep. Instinctively, I put my finger in my mouth. It tastes like copper, drywall, and nicotine tar. Time for some fresh air.
Predictably, the police show up. Six cruisers park on the lawn and advance on the crowd. It’s cops vs. punks. Batons are out. People scatter out of the squat house. I watch one officer dig his knee into D’s back, sneaking some rib punches before cuffing him. I’m stunned as they load up their cars with partygoers. Not one cop passes a glance at me. I’m not causing any problems.
Nick and I make our way to catch the last bus back to the burbs. Standing at the stop, I’m filled with adrenaline, cheap beer, and a serious sense of punk rock credibility.
Social Memory Distortion
Well, that happened — I think. Time has a way of twisting images and events beyond recognition. Memory distortion happens to all of us. According to Explained — that Netflix show that dumbs complex concepts down to my level — 50 per cent of memory details change in a year. Each time we remember a memory, we’re remembering the last time we remembered that memory, not the event itself.
This causes elements of our memory to distort as our mind replaces and revises the truth. None of us are immune to this phenomenon.
I’m about 15 years removed from my adolescent era of punk rock debauchery. I remember it as an epic time during which I created a serious happening around my first band, Attire Optional. I’ve always wanted to write about these years, but my recent fascination with memory has led me to question my past life.
Birthday show blowout
Nick, Kevin and I — The Attire Optional power trio — load our amps into the Hemp Rock Café, a Winnipeg Exchange District all-ages music venue where misfit kids like us are free to do as we please. It’s my first crack at booking my own show, and I’m wired with nerves. I’ve got seven bands on the bill, and we’re all setting up gear for the big night.
Someone’s cutting lines of Ritalin on the cymbals. A crowd gathers around like flies on… Ritalin. I don’t partake; I’ve got a show to run. The artists are now sufficiently focused, so we open the doors and the crowd pours in. And what a crowd! It’s about 80 per cent guys dressed in their best punk uniforms and 20 per cent girls with their standard-issue Chelsea cuts, tight jeans, and Doc Martens. I did it. I built it, and they came. I made this happen.
The pre-music party starts in a back lane across from the Burton Cummings Theatre. I’m drinking cheap vodka with a 40-year-old parody-punk troubadour who bought me the liquor. The guys from Deformed by Incest pass a pipe around and drink Wild Irish Rose — seven bucks a bottle. I take a big haul of sweet chiba to calm the nerves.
One of these Chelsea-cut girls comes up to me with a big grin on her face. She gives me a shove and I almost fall backwards. She’s sturdy.
“Punch me in the face,” she says. “Do it. Fuckin’ pussy.”
So, I’m tough. I’m young and I’m punk and I’m crazy. But I’m not punch-a-girl-in-the-face crazy. No way. I just shake my head. I can’t make words happen. We don’t have girls like this in Windsor Park.
She moves on, shoving person after person in the alley until she reaches D.
“Punch me in the face.”
D obliges. The crack of fist on face echoes through the alley. Everyone shuts up, stops, and stares. Chelsea girl barely falters. She smiles a crooked, bloody smile and spits a chicklet on the ground. Holy shit. The punks erupt in applause and return to their bottles.
It wouldn’t be a proper night without a visit from Winnipeg’s finest. A big white Ford Econoline makes a beeline down the alley and cuts me off. I’m forced to give up my liquor. A cop that looks a bit like Metallica’s James Hetfield looks at my ID.
“Kid, you’re 16, today. Do you know where you are?” he says through his handlebar ‘stache. “You’re gonna get killed for your booze out here. This café is a death trap. Get out of here. Go home.”
Freedom! It’s showtime. I’ve got double vision and more adrenaline than I can handle.
I track down Kevin. He’s got mono. He’s been napping on the couch, taking it easy so his spleen doesn’t explode. Nick’s half-conscious, sitting in an abandoned wheelchair out front. People take turns rolling him back and forth across Notre Dame Avenue traffic, howling with laughter. I wrangle the group, and we head down to the dingy basement with one narrow entrance.
Attire Optional hits the stage. We launch into Anti-Flag’s Captain Anarchy, and the place pops off. Dancers hang from the ceiling pipes and rafters, throwing airborne stomps into the pit. It’s all fists and feet as I bite the mic and scream my brains out. Kevin is somehow setting a breakneck tempo despite his disease. Me? I have these people in the palm of my hand, hanging on to every chord and powerful word of rebellion. I look down and see blood splattered all over my guitar — my pickin’ finger is split wide open.
We get off stage, and I know it — this is my life now. What a high. I settle up with the stoner owners of the venue. We brought in nearly $700 at the door. My cut would be more, but I have to fork back some cash to cover damages to the building. A few kids went through walls, and one band left a scorch mark on the floor after burning a Bible during their set. Still, I’m thrilled. I give every last dollar away to the bands that helped make this night awesome.
Around 11 p.m., my dad comes to pick me up. I tell him about how successful my first-ever show was.
“I’m just glad you have a creative outlet to keep you out of trouble,” he says.
I’ve recently learned about several biases that can mess with the way we see the past. One is particularly relevant here: the egocentricity bias.
This bias leads to an inflated sense of importance and causes us to recall past events in a distorted manner. Our minds put us at the centre of our memories, as if the world revolves around us. I remember this night as though I was the star of the show.
After all, I organized the concert. I headlined the night. I escaped the cops in time to play a phenomenal set. I. I. I.
That’s the thing. We’re self-interested beings; we’re our own heroes. Over time, our egos inflate our importance while romanticizing our favourite bits of memory into a narrative that’s larger than life. This same bias casts aside recollection of our shittier actions. It’s likely a self-preservation thing.
After recording my memories to the best of my ability, I sat down with Kevin to fill in the gaps. We laughed at our past antics; he told his version of the story.
Kevin, sober at the time thanks to his mono, remembers walking into the venue’s bathroom to see me sniffing Ritalin off a toilet tank lid. He echoed my memory about the violent energy of the crowd. However, he remembered an instigator. Allegedly, I was so full of drink that I was swinging my guitar’s headstock into nearby faces, pushing and shoving more than I was playing any music. Someone tumbled into our drum kit, and I sent them off stage with a shiner. This was all news to me, but it fills out the portrait of a young, reckless teen.
Psychologist David Elkind studied adolescent egocentrism and coined two key terms: the “imaginary audience” and the “personal fable.” The imaginary audience is the notion that teenagers believe all eyes are on them, and the outside world views them as they view themselves. The personal fable speaks to the fact that teenagers see themselves as unique and invincible. It’s the “no-one-else-has-felt-this-way-before” effect.
I certainly viewed myself as a rock n’ roll hero à la Joe Strummer or Cobain. Naturally, so did the crowd in my self-centered, intoxicated memory. More likely, I was one punk of many, playing to indifferent-at-best teens more interested in partying than starting a revolution. I charged through my youth with testosterone-fueled abandon, feeling like a visionary, acting like a fool.
Crashin’ the Ramada
We stroll into the Ramada Centre like we own the place. We’re Attire Optional, man, the Hemp Café Rockers making waves in the punk scene. There are about 15 bands on the bill, and the theatre seats upwards of 500. It’s a big step up from the dive venue across the street.
There’s some confusion at the door. Apparently, we were never booked to play. Of course, I know that. I’m about to commit the great rock n’ roll swindle. I tell the door guy we spoke to the promoter, and we’re definitely on the bill. Why else would we be here, guitars in hand?
After a few minutes, the door guy comes back. Fine, we can play a 15-minute set. It worked! This is my big break — my ascension to rock stardom. I can’t wait to show off some new material and my punk-as-fuck haircut. I’ve got egg whites and school glue holding the spikes in place.
Kevin and I set up backstage. I have serious nerves coursing through my body. My leg won’t stop shaking as I take my guitar, still crusted with the last gig’s blood, out of its case. I feel dwarfed by the high ceilings. This is my Madison Square Garden.
We’re on stage, plugged in, and ready to do this thing. One problem — no bassist. Where the hell is he? I work too damn hard for people to go AWOL. Everything is riding on this. A hotel manager dressed in an outdated, plush red uniform comes on stage and yanks us off.
There’s Nick, wearing his favourite t-shirt depicting Ronald Reagan eating a baby. He’s looking pretty sheepish. Turns out he got caught smoking up in the bathroom. He’s denying it, and we’re defending him, but it becomes very clear. Show’s over. We gotta get out before this power-drunk porter calls the cops. The very dream I’ve built my life around has been ripped from my grasp.
Gotta release this energy somehow. We prowl around Exchange District back alleys, grieving the injustice that has been done to us. We’re kicking cans and cursing the uptight pricks that ruined our big moment. Do these jerks know who I am? Damn. At least we’ve got liquor and a bong fashioned from a beaker we stole from our grade 10 science lab.
We spend an hour or two drinking and toking before wandering into Towne Cinema 8. We buy tickets for King Kong. We’re the only ones in the theatre, so we break out the bong, fill it up with orange soda, and keep on smoking. That poor ape, thrown into a world where he’s misunderstood. He’ll see no justice, and only in hindsight will his oppressors regret wronging the majestic beast. In my altered state, I strongly relate to this poor animal — this is some good shit.
Kevin remembers this day well. A lot of my memory aligns with his: the ejection incident, the orange soda, and King Kong. However, there’s one big inconsistency and another moment I’d forgotten altogether.
First of all, we were absolutely booked to play this show. Kev believes Nick had set up our performance with the promoter, but likely didn’t confirm the gig beforehand. Odds are this promoter just forgot that we agreed to play the show over Myspace. Somewhere in the process of creating my personal mythology, I made myself the cunning hero that deceived “the man” into letting us play. Classic egocentrism.
Kev says while we were having our little party in the downtown back alley, his mom and sister walked by and caught us red-handed. I’m not sure why they were downtown. Kevin thinks they were out buying him a birthday present. They asked if we were drinking, we showed them our bottle of orange soda, and they bought it.
Why did Kevin remember this close call while I completely forgot it? Emotion. If someone’s angry, overjoyed, shocked, or scared in a moment, their hippocampus kicks into overdrive. Events of high emotion make for vivid recollection.
This close call was likely the peak of emotion Kevin felt that day, while mine was definitely the ejection from the venue. Sure, Kev was mad about that, but he has a more go-with-the-flow attitude than I, and the idea of having his dope habit exposed likely had him shaking in his Chuck Taylors.
In all likelihood, we can’t trust these memories. This was 14 years ago. Somewhere far away, between our very different recollections, lies the truth, but this inflated, inaccurate recollection of our strange coming-of-age stories is all we have.
House show havoc
Word of our year-end graduation kicker has spread far past the invited guests. Soon, there are at least 150 people in the small back yard. Other uninvited guests include OxyContin, dirty press caps, and the folks that sell them. I’m more focused on getting wrecked than putting on a serious performance.
We’re about two years past the Hemp Rock Café days, and the crowd has changed. Gone are the punks and skins. It’s 2007, the peak of the decade’s gangster rap boom. I’m surrounded by my suburban friends. Most of ‘em fall into three categories: the stoners, the gangsters, and the rest. I’ve got friends in all crowds, and they’re all crazier than any Hemp Rock punker I’ve met.
Kevin, Nick, and I have changed our sound and our band name. If you get into the pot enough, aggressive music just doesn’t vibe anymore. We’ve got fog machines, lasers, and a serious will to party.
From my on-stage vantage point, I’ve got eyes on the action. The homeowner’s 50-year-old neighbour comes into the yard to check out the music. He must make the wrong eyes at someone. He catches a fist and hits the pavement, scampering across the boulevard as the host tries to bring the party to order.
I see a kid from a different school getting tuned up bad. No one steps in to stop the aggressor. He’s well known as a guy you simply don’t mess with. If he doesn’t have a gun on him, it’s nearby. He grabs the back of this poor kid’s head and starts smashing his face into the stucco of the house. It’s a bloody display that yields equal cries of concern and screams of encouragement.
I’m sitting atop my buddy’s shoulders, just ripping my best rendition of Van Halen’s Panama. I’m on top of the world in this moment. The chaos no longer rattles me. It’s part of who I am. The police beacons are my stage lights and the degens are my friends.
I hear a familiar whoop whoop — it’s the sound of the police.
It’s time to get out of here. I weave through back yards like an urban commando retreating from combat, running into fellow fugitives along the way. We meet up in a nearby park to continue the party.
This is where I wake up under the morning sky. Everyone’s gone, my head’s pounding, and my knuckles are inexplicably busted. I puke on a play structure and start making my way home. What a night — one for the books. As always, I’m unscathed. Indestructible.
I don’t know where life goes from here. I’m out of school. My teachers say I should pursue writing and stop hanging out with troublemakers. I just know one thing: I am a teenage punk rock legend. No one lives as intensely as I do, and no one will ever forget me.
The graduation party plays out like a movie in my mind, but I now realize I pieced a lot of these moments together from second-hand information. I don’t doubt they happened — far crazier things happened in that last year of high school — but I’m not sure I could have observed all this from stage. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
One thing’s certain: I had a lot of fun putting myself in some very questionable situations. My life of teenage anarchy has gifted me with a lifetime of source material. As inaccurate as these memories are, they are mine.
On the road
It’s 2016, and I’m about to hit the stage in Austin, Texas. I’ve been on tour with The Noble Thiefs for a month, making stops in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Nashville. This is the largest crowd to date. I’m a decade past my life of gutter-punk madness, but my love for performance is more intense than ever.
Oppressive summer heat hangs in the air as the MC introduces us. The back-yard venue is packed with 400 rabid music fans. They’re well warmed up as we hit the stage and get right into our grooviest soul number. I fly around the stage like a punk, but I hit my parts with a feel punk doesn’t possess. Our hard work pays off in these moments. Watching hundreds dance and sway fills me with joy.
After I get off stage and change my sweat-soaked shirt, I’m swarmed by admirers. They didn’t know Canadians could rock like that. In the moment, I forget how to respond to compliments. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I say on repeat. The warmth I receive from these strangers humbles me.
The Thiefs and I walk around the art hub that is Austin, carrying tacos from a nearby food stand. A drunk girl from Louisiana hurls a racial slur toward my singer. A dormant anger rises within me. My punk rock idols taught me better than to put up with this hateful fool. I curse her out, but my rage subsides as quickly as it came. I realize I’ve got nothing to prove to a racist. Nothing to prove to myself. I focus on the good vibes that come from playing good music with good people.
As I drive north toward the Midwest, I play a punk rock song, Transplants’ “Something’s Different”, on the tour-van stereo. I tap my hand on the wheel and keep my eyes on the road ahead.