Band War: Attempting Armageddon on the Jersey Shore

Written by Andrey Slivka on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.



"Battle of the Bands…Saturday…at
Hooligans…Long Branch, NJ…"      


Oh, really?     


Grow older, and you start
to lose your facility with languages, with idioms you used to take for granted–whole
continents that you used to bestride in your freedom and glory, swaggering in
your boots, grow savage to you, and incomprehensible. They revert, at least
as far as you’re concerned, to their original sullen unchartedness. Maps
grow blank again. Civilizations devolve back to the void, and you gaze at their
wilderness shores with wonder and distrust and envy of their innocence, like
the first scurvy, louse-ridden sailing Portugee, gazing over the gunwale of
his boat at the horrifying nova terra of a fresh continent.


Sat in a bar called Hooligans,
down in the littoral slum of Long Branch, NJ, two weekends ago–Long Branch
is a ways down the shore, a little north of Asbury Park–and knew that (zoom,
just like that, over) I had reverted to a variety of ignorance, that I’d
lost part of my tongue, and my ability to conceptualize certain cultures. It
happens. I’m approaching 30, so I’m right on schedule. It was mid-afternoon,
the shades were pulled, and scrawny kids, touchingly inelegant as only kids
can be, were playing the punk rock for each other. Discrete groups of these
children–they are called "bands," in the idiom of the tribe–assumed
the stage. They played to the afternoon emptiness of this slum-suburban bar.


"Hwwwaaaaagh!"
they sang, and "Bwwwwwwwwurgh!"


They gestured fiercely.


Another thing. You get into
your late 20s, suddenly you’re old enough that your past starts organizing
itself into distinct eras, which is a curse and privilege that never before
has your past had the honor of possessing. The era in my life that corresponds
to the one in which these kids’ lives were now unfolding, in fear and glory,
exists now so far back in my history that I can barely taste the pain of it
anymore. Between bands, staggering around in the cavernous depths of the bar,
my head absolutely killing me, I picked up the freebie newspapers stacked up
near the front. And talk about messages from the Incomprehensible Beyond. I
felt like the fictional Charly, on the downward slope, growing stupider, staring
at the books he used to read and understanding now only vague resonances, only
the broad echoing lonely outlines of things. What I read in the paper was this:
"Deathtöberfest 2000: Sunday, October 8th. From Canada…In Their
Only Area Appearance!!! Century Media Recording Artists…Cryptopsy; From Chicago,
Necropolis Recording Artists Usurper… Coffin Texts…Diabolic…

Featuring Ex-Ripping Corpse Members, Dim Mak…Featuring Original Incantation
Members…Their Farewell Show!! Disciples Of Mockery. Do Not Miss It!!"


With similar nostalgic wonder
and incomprehension must the converted Augustine have scanned the Roman poetry
of his sinful youth.


The bartendress was a towheaded
and openhearted wench.


Blaaaaaaaaaaaaagh,
went some kid from the stage. Huhhhhhhh, moaned another.


Then the noise just as suddenly
stopped. Kids disengaged their equipment, trucked amps offstage in the silence,
whispered together in secret, gentle and possibly innocuous conspiratorial circles.



In which we confront the
limitations of the youthful urge toward extinction:     Zuuuuuuuuuuuuuuung!
shudders the p.a. system, fazing the babyhair along the back of your neck.


Kid down the bar snuffles
with pleasure, lights cigarette, leans back in stool, tucks bare knees up against
the edge of the barwood, drags at a Camel, squints out a stoney grin from under
bleached-blond locks and ballcap, scratches at shoulder, claws at thigh under
baggies, sucks beer foam, snuffles, adjusts balls, rubs snub nose with open
palm.


A line of beer flexes down
into the kid’s glass, blooms into fractals of foam.


"Hey, man…"
he says to me.


Son?


"Why aren’t you
drinking a beeeeeer, man?"


"–"


Bvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv! hum
the speakers.


"Well, yeah,"
he responds. His good-natured face bunches up and his head cocks puppyishly.
"But, like, why aren’t you drinking a beer?"


Up on stage a kid’s
soundchecking his bass, filling Hooligans with fuzzy bottom-end. There’s
still no one here. A band called Red-Eye Flight, which consists of five adolescents
with many of the right things going on (an appropriately scatological sense
of humor, a NOFX cover), had played already by then–I had watched them
from behind the bar and my turkey burger, one of the few spectators in the place,
wanting, like a virus, to morph into more beings than I actually was, out of
respect for these kids’ effort. Effort is always a moving thing to see
in kids–it’s such an act of faith, of optimism that things are actually
worth doing, which isn’t apparent when you’re 16–and now the
equipment was being changed over for the next act, and someone was dicking with
the sound system.



Brrrrrrrrruuuuuuuuuungggggg!



Still, the kid at the bar–he
was 21–was wrong to ask me why I wasn’t drinking. He should have been
quicker to forgive his elders.


"Fuck, dude,"
he told me. "Fuck that. I almost got in two fights last night.
Wait, no–like, three."


You will learn to pace yourself,
son.


"I haven’t even
gone to sleep yet, man."


Someone should write a sociology
of the American littoral Nowhere. A sociology of the lives of kids in shore
towns, whether the huge ocean shores or the arguably more human ones of rivers.
It would be about the bait-and-switch that puts you both in the middle of nowhere
and literally–littorally–at the edge of something, from which point
you’re doomed to the contemplation of expansive vistas, beckoning distances,
of sightlines across water and down rivers, of (psych!) excruciatingly promising
glimpses of Another Way, of some redemptive, terrifying other way that exists
and unfolds beyond your own lame, shitty, tawdry suburban or small-town dispensation–which
dispensation is, in general, after all just another term for the difficult phenomenon
known as youth. Kids stoned on Mississippi riverbanks, for instance, gazing
south at the yellow smudge in the humid sky of St. Louis or Memphis or New Orleans.
Or, analogously, sitting with legs dangling with beers on that old cantilever
bridge upstate in Poughkeepsie–speaking of great littoral slums–gazing
downriver toward the promise of the city, at the other side of those gloomy
Hudson River reaches familiar to barge pilots.


Downtown Long Branch is
damaged. It’s bad-trip town, and you feel its rotten energy and charisma
as soon as you get off the train there, as soon as your body interpolates itself
amidst its geography, adjusts to it. The H-bombed streets with the ramshackle
houses on the tree-lined blocks, empty except for the kid with the pitbull and
the stump-headed mendicant, wandering in his retardation, celebrating what he
proclaims to the heavens as his birthday, lolling on the trashed lawns of the
churches, dodging buses, the sort of stocky retarded man who could beat you
silly, and maybe wants to, because he’s alone, and it’s autumn on
the shore, which is a killing, lonely time on the shore, especially when the
shore is a slum. On Long Branch’s Broadway most everything’s closed
except the five-and-dime and the consignment shops, and some other nowhere shops,
and the immigrants wait for buses on streets flash-frozen in amber at some point
in history, perhaps during the Ford administration. There are empty salons,
places of the sort where you could buy a lousy wig if you had to–if you
had to ride a bus somewhere in secret, at night–and beauty shops that sell
mops and rat poison.


Walk east and within blocks
you hit the huge, depopulated strand, and beyond that there’s the empty
beach, and beyond that the horizon and the autumn sky. Dogs worry the trash
barrels. Like so many other towns I’ve known in this sooty, amber Old America
that spreads secretly out from the Imperial City–in the Hudson Valley,
in Jersey, on Long Island–Long Branch resembles a madman’s experiment,
a testimony to a culture’s weird geographical imperative to marginalize
centers and encenter suburban margins.



Skinny kid up on stage holds
his bass, in baggy jeans and with a bright, pop-eyed face alive under his widened-out
mohawk. Thumps at his overtaxed bass like he was trying to split atoms with
it, which, perhaps, being a child and perhaps an artist, he is in fact attempting
to do. The instrument’s close to the point at which it will shed sparks,
the way he’s going at it–like a child beating on a radiator with a
hammer. These guys–Red-Eye Flight–play the pop punk, the death metal,
the AC/DC riffs, the phallic, inelegant, ultimately lovable let’s-hear-it-for-John-on-the-drums!
Cozy Powell/"Moby Dick" stuff. The bassist peers out from the stage
into the middle distance. I got the impression that you could have wiggled your
fingers in his face–or hit him full-on with a gravel shovel, smack!–and
he would merely have registered the gesture as a neutral phenomenon of reality,
taking no offense. Such is the cost, or the glory, of being immersed in the
brutality of your art.


"Okay everybody, put
your hands together for–"


Polite applause from the
bartendress, from the several dudes sitting at the bar, from the other bands
assembled in front of the stage, waiting to play.


Red-Eye Flight played music–tight
music–what kids can do that I couldn’t do when I was a kid constantly
amazes and moves me–and then the song ended fast, in a crashing halt.


Thuck thuck thuck–a
finger hammered on the mic.


"Can we have a little
more…volume?"


The amplified voice of God
responded from the soundboard: "You can’t go screaming into it and
expect it to–"


Embarrassed: "All right.
Um. Okay… This song’s called ‘Jacob’s Bladder.’"



Bwooonnnnnnnnnnnng.



A muscular, kind-looking,
shorthaired Italian-looking kid in a wifebeater took the stage, joining the
band. He held a microphone near his hip and bopped around to the music, wearing
on his face a sweet smile.


Then, on cue, he doubled
over like he’d been kicked in his stomach, cupped the mic to his mouth
and omitted death-metal effusions:


"SATAN’S MINIONS/THE
CORPSE OF DEATH/CANNIBAL DEMONS/UNTO THEE, DARK MASTER/THE BLACK RESURRECTION."


Though the point is that
with this sort of singing the guy could have been saying anything. "Hrghruw
hrghruw hrghruw hrghruw
"–or perhaps he was singing "La Donna
è mobile."


And then, his work done,
the boy jumped offstage again, reassumed his gentle smile, and seated himself
near the bar with his friends–certainly not one of them was old enough
to drink–while his bandmates fell back into the pop punk like a coin drops
into a slot. Death metal and pop punk–it was as if a Wagnerian storm cloud
had parked itself for about four and a half minutes over Huntington Beach.


What if they had pulled
it off? What if they had effected some new suburban musical syncretism here?
And made some new serpent slither out the Hooligans front door into the bright
light of this slum October–a beast that would undulate down this tweaked
Broadway toward the ocean, consuming as it went, growing exponentially as it
did so, eating the whole town, infrastructure and sewer pipes and all, before
writhing into the ocean to expire, its mission complete?


Instead, Red-Eye Flight
had done fine. They’d played the pop punk, the death metal, the AC/DC riffs,
the phallic, inelegant, ultimately lovable let’s-hear-it-for-John-on-the-drums!
Cozy Powell/"Moby Dick" stuff. They’d performed a campy version
of that Tom Green song about feeling your balls. And it’s certain that
they’ll get a little older. And maybe they’ll become more inclined
to blast a hole in the world, or hurt themselves trying, which is what they
should have it in mind to accomplish. More inclined to attempt that act of world-shaking
will that they have coming to them, as part of their birthright. As part, in
fact, of their duty as youths.


"Let’s hear it
for Red-Eye Flight!" called the guy behind the board.


Sparse clapping riddled
a silence as profound as that autumn sea, in which the worm drowned, down the
street.


The kid at the bar deprived
his beer pitcher of his attention, cupped his hands around his sneering mouth
and delivered a solecistic version of the inevitable:


"Aaaaaaah! You guys
should be called Never Get a Record Label!"


"Haaaaaaaaaaaah,"
laughed his friend.



Actually, I felt like trash.     I’d
awoken that morning with just a couple hours’ sleep after an obscene night–which
is to say, the night of the yearly party at the Puck Bldg., a singular institution
that one is wise to approach with apprehension. Prodigious horrors had emerged,
as they do every year, from the ballroom’s shadows. That party’s like
a video game: a deathmatch played out under high, gloomy ceilings, in the same
way Syphon Filter takes place within its own nightmare architecture. Thousands
of undead haunted the ballroom’s darkling plain, which was punctuated by
signal fires, which may or may not have been nothing more than the coke-reddened
noses of the assistant editors of the magazines.


And there screamed out of
the darkness coke-emptied monsters and other beasts from the depths of the fantasy
gamer’s imagination: rat-faced gnolls; bog gremlins; evil gnomes; skullgons;
teleporting drows; horks; displacer beasts; swarming kobolds; fang slimes; draks;
gulpbeasts; skeletors; wood trolls; manticores; zombies risen from the dead,
bearing in front of them–in some infernal parody of priests bearing in
procession down the aisle the banner of Our Lord–their own gloomy cenotaphs;
stinking, berserking sewer goblins with their carapaces half-rotted off, their
organs exposed, carrying machine guns, wearing bandoliers around their chests,
locking and loading as they howled and chased The Protagonist (armed only with
his broadsword, enchanted shield and stolen Belt of Elf Virtue) out toward Lafayette
St. The only thing missing was torches attached to every column, smoking with
pitch. Bugbears, giant dungeon serpents, lizardflies, all manner of prodigies
and coughings-up from the depths of hell, appear in your line of vision and
swear at you, and tell you to fuck yourself, and riddle you with imprecations–who
are these people?–and you either shmooze or run or fight, a 2-D superhero
leaping and cavorting in so many pixels per inch. I drank shit I thought I’d
long ago sworn off drinking, and talked to the wrong people, and was found at
times in places in which I should not–should not–have been found.
I turned into a mule.


But I awoke after several
hours’ troubled sleep and stumbled toward the subway and Penn Station and
New Jersey Transit early in the morning, needing to void myself, seeking a redemptive
new geography, and to be scoured clean, I guess, by the idea of kids and the
innocent noises they can make. The fact that these kids were making noise on
this afternoon, on this slum block, indicated to me that in some perhaps implicit
way they had mastered a loose-jointed, jangly, fluid way of living in the world,
a way predicated partially upon an acceptance of loud sounds and social imperfection
and dissonance and nowhereness and wrecked shore towns and, above all, human
frailty and weakness, and of the fact that, if you’re alive, you’re
always already on the edges of things. Such would be a generous view of the
world that implies that you can make noise and scream and hammer on guitars
and waste gorgeous afternoons in dark bars in lame towns, and in many ways be
dopey and young and loud, and stay up too late and talk shit and drink too much
and turn into a mule–and that you’ll grow out of it, if you want to,
and if you put some effort into it, and you’ll be able to accept yourself,
and that it’s all right, that with a little faith everything’s going
to be just fine.


I guess what I mean is that
these kids might have represented to me, in an oblique way I myself don’t
fully understand, a model of forgiveness, of forgiveness of yourself and forgiveness
of others, and of faith. And forgiveness, especially, is something I can use
these days.


There were four bands on
the bill that day, and I stayed for two more after the first. The whole affair
represented an eerie experiment in stamina; for that matter, an experiment in
light deprivation. A "No Reentry" sign on the door ensured that. So
there we were, stuck like barnacles in a hold. After three hours I took to rising
from my stool, whether a band was onstage playing or not, and looking longingly
out through the interstice between the shade and the windowframe, just to orient
myself and reaffirm that I, like the morning glory, am mildly phototropic, and,
all things being equal, would rather incline toward the light than not. Throughout
the afternoon the bar filled up little by little. From the original 15 or 20
people who had watched Red-Eye Flight, the number swelled to 40, 50, 60. Because
Saturday night was coming, wasn’t it? It was time to go out, wasn’t
it?


Clean-cut kids started arriving
in groups of two and three. Gals in campus sweatshirts, fellas in Abercrombie
& Fitch t-shirts and baseball caps, everybody hanging out in the back of
the room, a friendly, familiar, extremely sweet high-school tribe. A middle-aged
woman arrived. Someone’s cute toddler bopped around behind the bar.


Meanwhile, a band called
Root Philosophy had claimed the stage. This was the day’s conscious, political
act; if they don’t screw things up for themselves, maybe they’ll take
over the world. The singer was a dark child with hiphop trousers, a cafe au
lait complexion and long black tresses. He fronted, crucified himself, moshed
solo, threw his head back in moody ecstasies, crouched on the stage, turtled,
pulling his head in underneath his hair, obscuring himself under his huge black
overshirt.


"Hi, we’re Root
Philosophy from South Orange," he intoned, "and we’re here to
entertain you. But maybe sometimes you’ll hear the message behind the songs
and we might just enlighten you."


Yo, yo, yo.


"Enlighten me!"
hollered some wiseass.


Man, but the kids backing
this guy could play, though. The guitarist: a shorthaired Asian kid in
glasses–but he could play. The bassist: a shorn-headed skater-looking
kid, nonwhite variety–but he could play. They produced powerful,
moving, moody metallic noodling, above which their Shelleyan vocalist keened
on his Zack de la Rocha trip, darkly preening.


"That was ‘Stupid
Kid,’" he muttered. "This song is ‘Lost.’ The meaning
of the song is–"–lids half closed–"–questioning
the existence of God. Questioning whether he exists. Or if he did exist, where
did he go?"


(Succasunna!)


The guitarist exerted himself
with wah-wah and flanger. Really though–these kids were stupefyingly tight.
Still, their radical arts-kids affectations weren’t quite appropriate for
a weekend Shore afternoon.


"This next song is,
uh…oops…string popped. Oops. That sucks. How many people know how it feels
to lose a string?"


A stagy cry emerged from
the thickening adolescent crowd: "Oh my gawd!"


The brilliant Asian guitarist
changed his string while the singer warbled gothically.


"Hey, break out the
karaoke machine, it’s better," sneered a kid down by the bar. "Heh.
The smoke-a-roachie."


The bar’s stereo kicked
in to fill the silence. Under the circumstances, this was an indication of this
actually quite admirable band’s defeat.


"We ready? Okay, we’re
ready," the singer was finally saying, looking expectedly at his guitarist,
who was now tuning up.


From the crowd: "Heh.
I wish you guys were sweet, but you’re not!"


"Okay, our website–.
We got some tapes. Five bucks–"


Demoralized, I rested my
head on the barwood.


"They should be
free
!" someone screamed.


A lazy fly circulated in
the tenebrum, buzzed the televisions, which flickered with Saturday football,
portals to the world behind the gunwales of our swart and manacled ship.


I stumbled to the bathroom.
Someone had ripped the soap dispenser off the bathroom wall, chucked the air
freshener into the toilet.


•"I got good news,"
a fresh-faced kid announced. It was later now, and a tense, expectant, energy
filled the room, akin to that generous, communal energy that laces the atmosphere
before a sporting event. "I passed my drug test."


Secret C, who are apparently
local favorites, were to play next.


"How’d you do
it?" the fresh-faced kid was asked.


"I peed in a cup."


"How’d you do
it?"


"I peed in a cup."


Ummmm…


"I mean how’d
you pass?"


"Oh." Beat. "I
didn’t have drugs in a while."


Down at the other side of
the bar, my young friend with the bleached hair rose in his stool, towered over
his beer pitcher, and crowed angrily: "C’mon! We need sweetness! ’Cause
everybody’s sucked so far!"


Things were getting a little
weird. The front door kept opening, admitting symphonies of disorienting light,
but also–and this was weirder–incongruous family groups: middle-aged
matrons in sweatsuits and guys in Giants jackets; children in self-conscious
pods; grandmothers redeemed from kitchens and neighbors’ parlors and bingo
halls. Secret C, it seemed, had invited the family. It was quite wonderful.
A fine, low-key intergenerational barbecue slackness informed the bar. Tykes
writhed and cackled on the floor. Old folks stared in silence. Fathers in their
weekend leather jackets, Reeboks and Devils caps gazed benevolently at the suspended
televisions, or into the middle distance, mellow and blissed-out with Saturday
afternoon.


Bass-popping thumped from
the p.a. as Secret C set up. An entourage of young girls milled around vaguely
in the stage area. The energy mounted. A portly round old guy with a shorn head
and huge smile wandered laughing through the crowd, goosing us all up to chant
with him: "J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!"


We screamed, we laughed,
we hawed. We chanted, laughed, moaned, wiped the backs of our hands across our
mouths. And then the stage lights flared up and Secret C, which consists of
five very tight and disciplined and very athletic-looking young fellows, began
to play.


"You guys better be
sweet or you’re gonna get your asses kicked! You better be sweet!"
an incorrigible in the audience screamed, unperturbed that he was surrounded
by the musicians’ extended families.


"J-E-T-S!" Secret
C’s singer chanted in imitation of his audience as his guitarists–one
of whom was phenomenally good–screamed into things. Awwww…


But it was too much. The
shred-guitaring and the biceps and the guitar faces and the adoring great-aunts
in the back of the room–there was an overdetermined, rehearsed seamlessless
to the band’s act, a denial of the interstices and margins in which a kid
can hide. But interstices, margins, secret places are in the end what this sort
of thing–playing this music in some bar in a shitty town on a fine afternoon–is
all about.


Staggered into the street,
where it was early evening in Long Branch, right near the tracks. The sun howled
downward. It seemed advisable to be accounted for by dusk. Walked through residential
streets toward the ocean, and met, near the strand, a hiphop kid with a dog,
lollygagging in the midst of a desolate street.


"I ain’t gonna
hurt you, man," he laughed, pointing to a rain-smeared white clapboard
boardinghouse. "I just live down the way."


I bought the year’s
last slurpee from a boardwalk hut, and headed for the train.


The size of that ocean in
October, though–it’s too much. A kid could set his Marshall stack
up on the boardwalk, with the ocean behind him, its huge energy invisibly supporting
him, propping him up. Could aim his amp heads toward the town’s geographical
center and play one long, scouring chord: on E, say, something big and loose
and resonant. Perched out there on the empty strand with the guitar around his
scrawny chest, his technology behind him–the sea empty, and the sky empty,
and the boardwalk and the town; and the amps are the looming gnomon of the declining
sun. Plays his chord–


And it’s the loudest
thing in the world. The roar diffuses itself, screams against the oblique rays
of evening light. The sound’s killing, and the kid hunches his skinny shoulders
against the force of it. G-forces flex his spine, stagger him forward in his
sneakered feet as if there were at his back the biggest wind in the world. Rivulets
of sand sift down the empty beach toward the waterline, and signage rips from
posts to flip into the sky. Trash barrels whip into orbit and seagulls caught
in the blare flutter into infinity like gum wrappers in a windstorm.


And the town just crumbles
under the noise. Glass busts from the windows, clapboards peel from the bungalows,
roofs fly on oblique sound-borne trajectories up into the stratosphere. Bit
by bit the town’s corrupt architecture’s ripped from its foundations
and blasted outward–outhouses and garages flip down the streets like tumbleweeds,
and even the brick buildings are doomed. Blasted into perdition, and building
stones and cinderblocks whine horizontally through the air under the force–a
world of dust, a horizontal tornado, a cleansing aural wind, a gigantic cleansing
and act of hygiene.


Fuck it. When he’s
done there’s not even rubble left. The whole town’s razed. The virgin
land huddles unto itself, satisfied, waiting for next spring, so that it can
start over from scratch. Fuck it.


In the calm after the storm,
in the razed and purified landscape, liberated dogs celebrate, writhing, exploring
trash heaps.


Or at least that’s
the way it should work; it’s the mythology of the thing.



The author would like to
acknowledge the help of a number of fantasy gaming websites in gathering the
names of the monsters used in this piece.


..