“The room, which was situated in the bowels of an old Lower East Side tenement building, was hot and smelled like a hundred people’s sweat, even though it was mid-January.”
My first thought was that the place was a dump; I thought it was perfect. When I walked into the venue, I admired the graffiti plastered all over the cinder block walls. Murals and crude tags and vaguely political scribblings covered every damp and windowless inch. The room, which was situated in the bowels of an old Lower East Side tenement building, was hot and smelled like a hundred people’s sweat, even though it was mid-January. A single light bulb hung from a wire in the ceiling, which illuminated the wall where the club’s name, ABC No Rio, was written in gaffer’s tape.
The cement floor was littered with crushed beer cans, stacks of radical anarcho-punk zines, and droves of kids. I say “kids” both because that’s hardcore vernacular for anyone under thirty and because, at fourteen years old, I was only a few years younger than most of them. Each kid wore, without exception, a black leather jacket, as if they’d gotten a secret, hand-xeroxed memo weeks before the show. Their jackets had big metal studs in them, with canvas patches on the back that read things like “Crass” and “NYXHC.” Some had affixed safety pins or buttons to their lapels or caked their sleeves with thick, glossy paint. I’m not sure why they did this, but I knew it was cool.
These kids, whose memo had also called for black jeans and combat boots, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes and drank cans of cheap beer as they waited for the show to start. The whole scene felt like a movie. Like some big-shot Hollywood producer had rolled in a week before and yelled “no, worse!” and then left them to figure it out.
In that room, where more than a few people had colored mohawks or liberty spikes, my friends Lily, Marcel, and I stood out as the weird ones. Dressed in a Pink Floyd t-shirt and blue jeans, I was what they’d call a “norm”—a non-punk who was there for my first real show.
I’d only been into punk music for about six months at that point, but I took great pride in the fact that, if anyone had asked, I could’ve rattled off my Top Five Favorite Punks Bands of All Time by heart (Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, Minutemen, Black Flag, and X). I could’ve boasted to them that I was, in all honesty, the most punk kid at my high school. I had, after all, routinely violated my Catholic school’s dress code with the length and unkemptness of my hair. I was very hardcore.
Sure, I wasn’t exactly the kind of person you thought of when you thought of punk, like some teenage runaway or a junkie living in C-Squat, but the way I saw it, punk was music for losers of all stripes. In middle school, I’d been an angry kid, which made me a not-very-popular kid, which made me a lonely kid. When I got to high school, I was very much looking for my people. As a result, I gravitated toward weirdos, freaks, and malcontents—you know, good, honest folk. Through those first friends as a teenager, I found punk, and through a tip from one of their friends, we found our way across the Hudson and into that disgusting basement in New York. None of us knew any of the bands on the bill, but happily paid $7 at the door, surprised that the cost to become a rebel was so reasonable. As the first band started setting up, I noticed that the musicians were cursing at each other in almost cartoonishly Cockney accents.
“Yoo ought ta nah how ta set up yer feckin’ guitar, yoo feckin’ wanker,” one yelled. Impressed, I pointed this out to my friends.
“Wow, they came all the way from England for this?” I said. “This place must be a big deal.”
A bald guy with a face full of piercings leaned over and politely explained, “They’re actually from Raleigh. They just pretend to be British as a gag.”
Theatricality, I thought, that’s what I love about punk rock.
I marveled at how they’d set up their equipment on the floor. It made it so the audience was level with them, as if to say, “Hey, we’re all equals here” and not “Hey, there’s no stage at this venue, so we’re just going to set up on the floor.” After a few minutes of light tuning, the singer sneered “Awlright, let’s feckin’ start already.”
It’s important to note that at this point in the show my friends and I were standing near the front of the crowd, so when the drummer lurched into the first song, we had absolutely no idea what hit us. Looking back, I think it was a beer can.
All at once, the crowd erupted. Fists and elbows and shoulders were everywhere. Half-finished Tecates flew through the air and one kid hurled himself off a bass drum, landing on top of the crowd behind me. It was both terrifying and beautiful. It was everything all at once—a complete sensory overload.
There was no goal, but, at the same time, an evident struggle toward something. And yet, the more you struggled, the more you got sucked in; the more you had to surrender to it. It was like trying to fight your way out of quicksand. Each kid acted alone—jumping and dancing with reckless, self-centered abandon—and yet was part of something bigger, this humongous living thing in the middle of the room that decided how things played out. This thing, the show, was the goal. In it, the person and the group existed side by side, creating violence as a natural byproduct of confusion. This must be what it’s all about, I thought: contradiction.
In the middle of all that chaos, the kids in the leather jackets were calm. All around me they flung themselves at each other as hard as they could, jittery and serene and confident. They hunched their backs and jerked their balled fists down toward the ground. Periodically, a clearing would open in the middle of the floor, and they’d add a travel component to this dance, which consisted of stamping their feet in big, exaggerated motions from one point on the circle to another. As this went on, I struggled to keep my head above the sea of bodies. I couldn’t have weighed more than 130 pounds soaking wet, but I threw myself in anyway. I jumped up and down, pogoed, to the spastic rhythm of the band, crashing hard into the leather jackets around me. Things grew more chaotic. Kids catapulted themselves headfirst into the crowd. They careened into each other like bumper cars. They slammed into walls made of other kids, before staggering backwards. Things became completely unhinged. And then, about a minute and a half into all-out war, everything stopped. The song was over.
I lifted myself off the ground and braced for the next song. While I did that, the band ran through their faux-British shtick. “Awlright, this next one’s fer you, Queen Elizabeth,” the singer said, signaling the next catastrophe. The ritual beating happened all over again, only this time, miraculously, I managed to stay upright. A wave of relief poured over me: it was like I’d jumped into the deep end of a pool and discovered I knew how to swim. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a bunch of patches or that I wasn’t drinking or getting a stick-and-poke tattoo. I was a part of this now, Pink Floyd shirt or not. I’d gone to a real hardcore show and would live to talk about it. I was a part of something.
I learned quickly that this enthusiasm might have been a bit premature. Perhaps sensing my newfound confidence, the show suddenly went sideways when, about halfway through the next song, a man leapt from out of nowhere into the middle of the room, fully nude. This naked maniac flung his body into the convulsing mass of people, thrashing back and forth as people struggled to stay away from him. He was, to say the least, intimidating. His greasy hair hung down in dreadlocks of neglect and his body was covered in tattoos and big, blue bruises, suggesting he’d done this sort of thing before. He moved his wiry body through the crowd like a snake, zigzagging and wriggling right for me. The band blasted through what I assume was their longest song and I frantically fought my way through the muck, desperate to avoid this cretin. I eventually got to the front of the crowd, where, as if on cue, the Cockney singer had just removed his last stitch of clothing. Two naked men. I had not prepared for this.
In that moment, I thought that maybe I had read into everything too much before. Maybe the show wasn’t this fragile, living thing. Instead, maybe I’d just paid $7 to get beaten by strangers and have naked men chase me around a basement. Maybe this show wasn’t so bad it was good. Maybe it was just bad.
As the rest of the band played, the singer forced his body into the crowd, joining his friend. The two drew closer and closer to one another until the sudden influx of nakedness threw everything off-balance, causing the show to collapse in on itself. It was a real bad scene and the whole thing died and every kid in every leather jacket got sucked into a big dogpile on the floor. This was it. The headline would read, “Child Suffocates Under Pile of Naked Punks.” What a way to go.
Then, just like before, the song ended. Everyone returned to their positions—including the singer, who quickly threw on a pair of pants—and the show continued. I picked myself up and out of the dogpile, checked to make sure everything was still in its place, and then rejoined the group. And, instead of grinding to a sudden halt—instead of people running the two naked men out of town on a rail—things continued at the same clip they’d been at before. In that dingy basement, with the graffitied walls and the group of Cockney North Carolinians, even public nudity seemed normal. So the crowd and the band went on violently, just like before and things were chaotic and sloppy and drunk, just like before. During that next song, I fell over again and hit the floor hard. I looked up, a bit dazed, and saw a kid with his arm out, offering me an up. I took it, and when I got on my feet noticed two things about the kid who’d pulled me off the ground: he had thick, greasy dreadlocks, and he was wearing pants.