Yesterday I listened to the Bouncing Souls’ ‘True Believers’ and it stopped me dead in my tracks. For the next two and half minutes I was rendered totally useless at my desk by nostalgia. Not the ‘Oh doesn’t this song remind me of that summer when…” kind of nostalgia, but an all-encompassing reaction that gripped me psychologically and emotionally and yanked me back in time. I still can’t believe that a song that I hadn’t thought about in years could have such an overwhelming affect on me. The last time I remember hearing it was live at The Corner over a decade ago, pressed shoulder-to-shoulder in the audience against my then-girlfriend. I remember singing in each other’s arms and a feeling of transcendence that only existed for me in those fleeting moments at punk shows. That otherworldly experience of existing purely in the sound and the energy of the crowd, of unity against division, of camaraderie in adversity – all those lofty ideals that a fifteen-year-old can whole-heartedly give themselves to. The Bouncing Souls closed with that song, and even the backpatch brigade of Melb punx that only turned up at the show because Frenzal Rhomb were supporting seemed to be enjoying themselves. Even if The Bouncing Souls were “faggot oi” as Boobs, a 19-year-old with a foot high green mohawk, had informed me earlier in the day as we drank pre-show beers in Scum Alley – the laneway near the corner of Elizabeth and Flinders street that served as a clubhouse of sorts for Melbourne punks. After the show myself and some friends stopped off and bought Coopers longnecks and casks of goon with ludicrously fake IDs before trudging across Punt Road to a nearby oval to play cricket with the bands. I dropped an easy catch and Lindsey from Frenzal called me a cunt and told me that I could never listen to them again. It was a perfect day.
I’ve always gravitated to ideas and concepts that are abrasive or antagonistic. As a kid growing up in the suburbs the brief reemergence of American-led punk rock that exploded in the mid-’90s with the likes of Operation Ivy, Bad Religion, and the resurgence of classic acts like Social Distortion had everything that I wanted. It was music that was inclusive, largely positive, and would still piss off your parents and teachers. The punk scene that had found a strong root in Melbourne by the early 2000s, partly because of the lax licensing laws (that have since been reversed) that allowed all-age shows at licensed venues. Every Saturday and Sunday packs of outer-suburban kids would meet up in the city and make the pilgrimage to The Arthouse / The Tote / The Green Room / The Barleycorn to watch No Idea / Mach Pelican / Distorted Truth / H-Block 101. It was an era of Ska-B-Qs and Rock and Bowls, of warm beer and back patches, of liberty spikes and unrequited romance. It was teen angst wrapped in a leather jacket, but more than anything it was sincere. There was a compelling truth in the machine gun snares and four-word choruses. The songs that provided the backdrop to that era of my life are laughably naff now, but at the time there was a pure energy to Rancid screaming “When I’ve got the music / I’ve got a place to go,” or Blitz’s cry of “Our mates are diamonds / And we shine like steel,” that I miss.
The majority of us who based our lives around this music were kids who didn’t fit in elsewhere. For me it was a Catholic school whose claim to fame was that they hadn’t lost a weightlifting tournament in two decades; for others it was families who didn’t give a fuck about them, or teenagers who just didn’t give a fuck about themselves. There were kids from every background and nationality that came together at those shows – homeless gutter punks rubbing shoulders with the daughters of millionaires or the sons of famous musicians wasn’t uncommon. Punk didn’t just unite us musically, but provided us with an ideological perspective that helped us forge an identity. There was the music, the aesthetic, and the politics to absorb – there was a litany of historical references to digest, elders to acknowledge, and respect to be won. I credit punk music for fostering a lot of skills that have helped me in my subsequent adult life, the DIY ethic espoused by the music has held me in good stead long after I stopped listening to The Misfits. Often, the people I meet in my career have their roots in the same venues, alleys, and parks that I used frequent as a teenager – even though we’re often reluctant to admit it. Punk taught me how to alter my own clothes, how to paint, and less reputable skills like how many racked bottles of wine you can fit in a leather jacket, or how to panhandle enough change for a few slices of pizza from the $1 joint on Swanston Street. It also came with an intellectual framework, which while reductive was still a useful tool. Punk taught me to question things, to explore them beyond surface level and evaluate them critically.
Of course, there are massive limitations to that kind of thought process. Punk music helped foster the anti-authoritarian mindset that I was already developing, but, like any subculture, its internal codes and ethics aren’t necessarily consistent or even practical. Often, I’ve wished for concepts and ideas to be infallible, because that would make up for the shortcomings that I have as an individual. As an adolescent the idea of having a tried and true blueprint for dealing with the world was undeniably appealing, but it was also impossible. The standards and practices that I strive to hold myself and others to are not the reality of my day-to-day life, and that’s as true now as it was ten years ago. The teachings and culture of punk music are founded in utopian values, and like all utopias – they fall down in practice. While the electric feeling of hearing The Clash’s London Calling in full for the first time at fourteen years old is as true and honest emotion as I’ve ever experienced, it’s not going to change the world. “The future is unwritten,” was Joe Strummer’s mantra, but by the time I first heard that record he had been dead for three years, buried deep in the earth with the final chapter of that book penned and forgotten. My other favourite line from The Clash is from ‘Clampdown’ – “Let fury have the hour, anger can be power / D’you know that you can use it.” Those fifteen words represent the closest I’ve ever come to getting a text tattoo on my body, and I’m still grateful that I never followed through with that urge. The beauty of growing up was discovering the transformative power of art and music on an individual scale. I used to think that the world just needed to listen to understand the truth. Now I can appreciate that the revolution that I was striving for was not on a societal or cultural level, but on a personal one. To (completely) bastardise Minor Threat, my feeling of being out of step with the world was more a reflection of my own values and thought processes than it was an indictment of the cultural milieu. These days I’m deeply distrustful of anyone who subscribes so diligently to a cultural perspective that they champion personal politics over their personalities, and that’s probably the most important lesson that punk music taught me.
Recently I bumped into the girl I was dating at the time of The Bouncing Souls show. When I knew her she was a full-blown punx chick, from the toes in her twelve-up Doc Martens to the tips of her impressively tall liberty spikes. Like most punk girls I knew, she used look compellingly terrifying – bristling leather, tartan, and leopard print. Their was an edge of hard threat that manifested itself in her every move, the promise of either violence or something better. Everything was exaggerated, every aspect of her appearance from makeup to hair was a caricature – an aesthetic based in extremes. Now, she’s hardly recognisable from the girl I knew back then – her hair is its natural colour, the piercings are gone, and her makeup was understated. I’m sure the same could be said of me – my jackets are no longer adorned with pastiches of band patches and I threw out my lace-up boots a long time ago. We started talking, reminiscing about the old shows and old people – swapping news about our lives these days. It turns out she’s getting married in a couple of months, and the reception won’t feature a bridal waltz scored by Leftöver Crack or Pisschrist. A song like ‘True Believers’ was a pledge that we never fulfilled. Sure it was anthemic and formulaic, but there was a beauty in the sincerity with which it offered itself. Listening to it now is nostalgic, but the dynamism isn’t there. The ideals and the aspirations that I used hold dear were too pure, and way more two-dimensional than I could ever be. Still, sometimes I wish that I could go back to the time when everything seemed simple, when the promise was that all the answers could be found in the liner notes of CD cases. To borrow another line from The Bouncing Souls, give me a reason to care and I’ll sing along forever.