Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Andrew Martin about his writing process.
“Naw, you don’t have to worry about me,” Thomas said, after his mother had finished her characteristically perfunctory warning to us about drugs, alcohol, and rough-looking types. “Paul thinks he’s cool now, though.”
“Paul, when did this happen?” Mrs. Rickley said.
She wasn’t a hip mom, exactly, but she got points for not caring particularly about what her children or their friends got up to.
She was a physics professor at Princeton and had consistently made it clear that she did not need this shit.
“I just woke up one morning wearing Ray-Bans,” I said. “I guess it was for an album-cover shoot, and it kind of spiraled out from there.”
“He’s trying to impress girls now,” Thomas said.
“Oh, God forbid, Thomas,” his mom said. “Maybe you should try to impress a girl. After your hair grows back. And don’t be a smart-ass, Paul.”
Thomas had surprised me with a freshly Bic’d skull and a three-piece suit when I arrived at his house a few hours before the concert. His light-blond hair and pale skin had already rendered him a solid candidate for the Hitler Youth; now he looked like genuine trouble, or at least troubled. The new look was an homage to one of the bands we were going to see, Execution of Babyface, whose members each rocked the “shaved head/natty threads” combo. EOB fans were notoriously violent, even for hardcore kids, and Thomas and I, best friends and cultural comrades since we were 10 years old, had spent a lot of time on message boards reading (probably?) untrue rumors about coordinated windmill-fist phalanxes and secret seven-inches given only to “executioners” who could present the band with a tooth, or teeth, knocked free during a show. It was all a bit scary and conspiratorial for punk rock, and even at that early stage, it was much more Thomas’s scene than mine. But I did enjoy the music, or was at least fascinated by it. It was pulverizing and ultrafast and punctuated by terrifying screams. EOB’s lyrics were inspired by Guy Debord, John Ashbery poems, and Kevin Smith movies, though you generally couldn’t catch them in real time. It was a substantial leap from the Punk 101 I’d absorbed from a rudimentary website run by a Russian autodidact, which was filled with long paeans to the brilliance of London Calling, Zen Arcade, and the brief, collected works of Rites of Spring. I’d just turned 16.
Mrs. Rickley pulled up to the venue, which turned out to be a wide single-story building off Route 35, a quiet highway in South Amboy, wherever that was. Before I learned to drive, I never had any idea of my location in space—it seemed impossible to pay attention to something like that from a back seat, so I never tried. There were only a couple of years between my learning to drive and the rise of the talking navigation machines, which reduced the world to their glowing screens and precise, incorrectly pronounced instructions. In other words: Is it any wonder that I still have no idea where I am?
“All right, guys, I’ll be back for you at midnight,” Mrs. Rickley said. “Be ready. For every minute you’re late I’m going to—what? Dock your allowance? Do you have an allowance?”
“Sure, we’ll come out when the show’s over,” Thomas said.
“I know Paul heard what I said.”
“Yeah, we’ll definitely meet you out here when the show’s finished,” I said.
“Paul, do not be an asshole to me. I’ll see you here at 12.”
She drove off and we walked the length of a long line of people waiting to get inside. It looked to be maybe one-third EOB guys—all guys—trying not to look self-conscious in their suits; one-third old-school punks in the usual leather, plaid bondage pants, and assorted paraphernalia; and one-third shaggy-haired, emo-adjacent kids in black T-shirts and jeans, like me. We finally found the end of the line, wrapped all the way around the back of the building.
“Doors were at seven and it’s 8:15, so I sure fucking hope we’re not missing Class of ’36,” Thomas said.
“It shouldn’t be that hard to get people in,” I said.
A raccoon-eyed girl in a leather jacket turned around.
“Some EOB jackass threw a smoke bomb before anyone even went on,” she said. “So everybody had to leave and come back in. And now they’re doing, like, cavity searches, I guess.”
“Fucking fascists,” Thomas said, though the security response sounded reasonable enough to me. He took a Swiss Army knife out of the breast pocket of his suit jacket and contemplated it.
“Why did you bring that?” I said.
“Open stuff,” he mumbled. He crouched down next to a shrub on the side of the building and clawed at the mulch below, then dropped his knife in the hole and covered it back up.
“Like 50 people just watched you do that,” I said.
“Punk is trust,” he said.
We inched forward. I wished I had a cigarette—wished I smoked cigarettes. This was what they had been designed for, looking cool while waiting for things. Word was you could buy them, no questions asked, at the kiosk in Palmer Square as long as you were sure that no one from school was around. Though he’d never said it, my guess was that cigarettes were even lower in Thomas’s moral hierarchy than alcohol or drugs or sex because the pose-to-effect ratio was so high. Per Minor Threat: I. JUST. THOUGHT. IT. LOOKED COOL.
Thomas shadowboxed next to me.
“What—is—the—holdup?” he said, punctuating the last word with a knockout punch.
“Class of ’36 kind of sucks anyway,” I said. They were, again per the internet, third-tier Rancid knockoffs, with lots of “oi oi oi”s and rousing shit about the Spanish Civil War.
“They’re better than standing around looking at a closed fucking auto-parts shop,” Thomas said.
A couple of minutes later, a chant went up in the crowd: “EOB. LET US IN. EOB. TEAR IT DOWN. EOB. FUCK YOUR LIFE.” Despite the infamy of the band, and the implied threat of the chanted lyrics, this didn’t strike me as a crowd that was going to start a riot, at least not right away. But the recitation gained force, and, as sudden as the opening of a traffic bottleneck when the wrecked car is finally towed, we started moving swiftly toward the door.
“Finally, collective action,” the Mohawked guy ahead of us said. He dropped his cigarette and pulverized it into a smear of tobacco with a heavy black boot.
“All right, dude,” Thomas said. “Things might get crazy in there, so we’ve gotta have each other’s backs. If we see one of us getting in trouble, we’re gonna step up, right?”
“Don’t do something stupid,” I said. “You’re not that big.”
The old anxiety bubbled in me, less fear than anticipation. I wanted, then and always, to have the best night of my life, to do whatever thing would change me forever. Everything I read and listened to insisted that all was building toward catharsis. There could be no complete self without eruption, revelation, and the possibility of total defeat, however unlikely.
At the door, the fat white bouncer gave me a cursory pat-down—pockets, belly, chest, go—but he held Thomas back and made him take off his jacket and vest, lift up his shirt, even stick out his tongue.
“Profiling sons of bitches,” Thomas muttered.
“’Scuse me, son?” the bouncer said.
“You’re doing a very good and thorough job.”
At the ID table, I received the black X’s in Sharpie on the backs of my hands. Thomas had apparently already drawn red ones on his, a frequent-enough occurrence, I guess, that the ID guy simply waved him on, eye roll very much implied.
Class of ’36 was in the middle of a song when we got into the main room, the one with the chorus that went “Whoa-ahuh-uh-oh, we’re taking it!” Maybe 50 people were jumping in place or standing with their arms crossed in front of the stage, occasionally shoving the skinny kids who were doing the stumbling-and-swaying-while-being-overcome-with-feeling thing. Save it for your subgenre, guys. Most of the EOB and hardcore-looking guys were stalking around away from the stage, looming over the merch table and wandering along the walls giving fist bumps to confederates. The bar was being used as a convenient leaning post by large, bearded dudes in hooded sweatshirts, most of whom were drinking water out of clear-plastic cups, if they were drinking anything. Over the course of the night, I saw people swigging out of flasks and label-less plastic bottles and discreetly hitting one-hitters, but I didn’t see a single person buy a drink at the bar.
The merch table had a copy of the original Babyface EP on vinyl, which came out before the band was forced to change its name, because of a cease-and-desist order from Arista Records. (As if consumers would somehow mistake a violent, surrealist hardcore band for the smooth-singing R&B guy, but whatever.) I wanted to buy it, but didn’t know what I’d do with it during the show.
“How many of those do you have?” I shouted.
“Extremely limited, dude,” the merch guy shouted back. He was good at his job.
I sighed and bought it for 10 bucks, put it under my arm, and went looking for Thomas. I spotted him near the wall to the left of the stage, glaring furiously at the band.
“You were right, they fucking suck,” Thomas said.
“They’re actually better than I thought they’d be,” I said. I did think that, but mostly I wanted to contradict him.
He turned his attention to me. “I already have that,” he said, nodding at the record.
“You never see it around, so I figured I should grab it,” I said.
“Right, because rarity is an accurate proxy for significance.”
“I’m with capitalism on that one, yeah.”
Thomas turned his attention back to the stage. “It’s gonna get all fucked up in the pit.”
I put the record on the floor, leaning it against the wall, my carelessness intended as a further misguided rebuke to Thomas, and walked away into the thickening crowd.
“I want to thank all you motherfuckers for keeping it real and keeping real punk the fuck alive,” the lead singer of Class of ’36 said. “This is our last song, it’s about not giving a fuck whether you live or die. Everybody stay safe tonight, look out for each other.”
They started into “Suicide Mission,” and people surged forward, shoving and skanking and, in a few cases, wildly swinging their fists. A skinny guy with a buzz cut made eye contact and gave me a frantic, bobbing thumbs-up. I gave him one back.
“Up, up!” he shouted. He lifted one foot off the ground and pressed his hand into my shoulder. I didn’t understand that he wanted to crowd-surf until he tried to plant his foot in the middle of my leg, at which point I bent down and let him use my thigh for leverage. He stomped down on me and dug his fingers deeper into my shoulder and remained poised in that precarious state until a girl in a tank top crouched under his other foot and hoisted him up onto the heads of the people in front of us, who put their arms up and passed him forward. The guy lay on his back, aloft, and pumped his fist slightly out of time with the lyrics of the chorus:
“I said CHELSEA, I’m not coming back, the smoke is coming in and we’re under attack. It’s a SUICIDE MISSION, there’s no turning back, the flames are getting high and the walls are turning black …”
A girl rocking tattoo sleeves with a flowered sundress clambered up onstage, saluted the audience, then went stiff and fell face-first into the pit. She was caught and passed back through the crowd. A pair of hands egregiously grabbed her breasts, prompting her to kick her heavy boots—hard—at the heads of the people holding her legs, which caused the bottom half of her body to abruptly drop to the floor. Somebody—quite possibly the guy who’d groped her in the first place—lifted her up by the armpits and stood her upright, at which point she immediately resumed head-banging and charged back toward the stage.
When the band finished, the PA played “Search and Destroy” at half the volume of the live set and people drifted toward the edges of the room. I spotted Thomas sitting against the wall in the spot where I’d left him. He had his hands to his temples and he was staring at his lap. Oh, was the lame-ass opening band too loud for him? There were still two more to go before the band he wanted to see.
I left him alone and drifted out a side door to the smoking area, a small concrete patio enclosed by a genuine red-velvet rope. Most of the smokers looked much older than me, but a round-faced girl with pink streaks in her hair looked about my age, and open to solicitation.
“Nice to see a Cure shirt in the mix,” I said.
“Wanted to remind the emo kids,” she said. “Boys, just don’t.”
“Word,” I said. Under my hoodie, I was wearing the Get Up Kids T-shirt with the brass knuckles on it, which was funny, in theory, because the Get Up Kids were extremely sensitive. “I know this is awful, but is there any chance I could trouble you for a cigarette?”
“Sigh,” she said. “Start ’em young, I guess.”
She offered me a cigarette and a lighter. It was a Parliament, and I turned it end over end a couple of times to make sure I didn’t light the filter. Then I flicked the lighter repeatedly, failing to create a flame. I shook it and cupped my hand around it and tried again. Nothing.
“Windy,” I said, though it wasn’t.
“Here,” she said, and took the lighter. I put the cigarette in my mouth and she held the fire to it.
“Inhale, man, inhale!” she said. I did, and started coughing when the smoke hit my lungs.
“Oh man, you do not smoke,” she said.
“I just haven’t in a while,” I said.
“It’s okay, dude. Gotta start somewhere. Who are you here to see?”
“My buddy’s super into EOB. I don’t know the other bands that much.”
“Oh, Fall to Shadows is next. They’re all right, but if you’re into more melodic stuff, I think you’ll dig Secret Keepers. They’re on second to last. I can see that Get Up Kids shirt peeking out there, no worries.”
“You are one on whom nothing is lost,” I said. I’d read about Henry James recently because a girl I thought I liked had told me that The Portrait of a Lady was her favorite novel. I’d taken The Golden Bowl out of the library, but it might as well have been in German for all the sense I could make of it.
“Fuck yeah, dude,” she said. “And I’m Karen, thanks for asking. Kind of a scene queen.”
“Paul,” I said. “Straight-up wannabe.”
“It’s a glamorous life, for sure.”
The cigarette was going down easier now, though it still felt pretty terrible, and was making me light-headed.
“Is this Babyface stuff really as nuts as everyone says it is?” I said.
“I mean, it’s definitely violent,” Karen said. “As a member of the fairer sex, I prefer not to get in the middle of it, but it’s not much worse than the usual dumb hardcore shit. Unless you piss off one of the idiots. You shouldn’t wear your glasses.”
“I’m pretty blind without them.”
“Exactly. You wanna go in?”
She flicked her lit cigarette an impressive distance into the street. I dropped mine on the ground and put it out with my heel, then picked it up and tossed it underhand over the velvet rope.
“Aw, newbie,” Karen said.
“How old are you?” I said.
“Sixteen. Well, in a couple months. See you inside.”
I waited a polite 10 seconds and then followed her. A big crowd had gathered for the next band, and I didn’t see Thomas among them, or against the wall. My record was still there, though, looking intact. Maybe punk was trust. Raw Power had gotten to “I Need Somebody,” which meant that a band had to be coming on soon; surely it was bad form to let an entire album play between sets? I saw the guy who’d crowd-surfed off me and he gave me a curt nod. Then the lights went down and the crowd pushed forward. I let the people go around me and stood in front of the line of burly, self-appointed enforcers. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw that Thomas was among them, almost right behind me, arms crossed, feet set.
“I thought you’d abandoned me,” I said.
“Naw, man, that nostalgic shit just gives me a headache,” he said. “I’m straight now, though. Smoking is bad for you.”
“Yeah, it makes you feel like shit, too,” I said.
Thomas looked highly energized, so much so that I was a little suspicious. Surely he hadn’t … done anything, substance-wise? There was no way to ask without pissing him off, and I liked him better like this, whatever the cause. We watched the set from a defensive position in the back of the scrum, shoving flailing kids back into the pit and helping fallen girls and large men alike off the increasingly slippery floor. Fall to Shadows weren’t bad, despite their unfortunate nu-metal vibe and the fact that I wasn’t at all sure what they were on about. (“I lament (?) you from my—[shaking? shaven?]—chest [____], WAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”) When they finished, we ambled to the bar like victorious athletes and gulped water.
Thomas spent the keyboard-heavy, sparsely attended Secret Keepers set bobbing on his toes and opening and closing his fists while I bopped along too, semi-bored. Seconds after they finished—“You guys are fucking awesome, EOB is up next, everybody be safe out there”—the men in suits started pressing forward, pushing us up to the front of the stage.
“Are you cool with this?” Thomas said.
“We’re here, right?” I said.
We were surrounded by pinstripes and solemn, shiny heads. Some of the suit jackets had been decked out with punk stuff—metal studs, anarchy-symbol pocket handkerchiefs—but most were anonymous, which, as intended, just made them more intimidating. A roadie in a suit came onstage.
“CHECKKKKKKKKKKK!” he screamed, neck veins bulging. He pointed upward. Louder. “CHECKCHECKCHECK CHECKKKKKKKKKKKKKK.” He pointed upward again. “CHECK MOTHERFUCKING CHECK,” he screamed. “CHECK DIEEEEEEEEEEEEEE DIE DIE.” This got big cheers.
Then, without further warning, the band was onstage, hurriedly plugging cords into guitars. We were right up against the metal barrier in front of the stage, and I felt hands pressing into my back and shoulders, urging me to create space where there was none.
“All right, motherfuckers, you know who the fuck we are,” the lead singer said. “We don’t want nobody getting killed tonight. But if there’s, uh, a little damage along the way, who’s to say we won’t be a little stronger for it? This is ‘Variation on a Spectacle,’ let’s go.”
The band crashed into the song with double-time drums and chest-shaking bass and some unpredictable, processed shrieks that must have been emanating from a guitar. The room disappeared into darkness interrupted by toxic-green strobe flashes. Thomas spun away from me and into the pit. Someone to my right gave me a hard shove in the lower back and I stumbled toward the melee of thrashing people. I kept my hands in front of me and hip-checked a guy into the open floor. Hell yes. For about five seconds, I felt the pure exhilaration promised by a thousand Greil Marcus columns. Then I turned and caught an elbow in the face, the pain so blunt and clarifying that it didn’t register as pain, just pure heat. My glasses went flying and my vision was reduced to glowing red spots underlaid by a sick green. I heard a crack, followed by the fatal crunch of lens underfoot. The pummeling music paused, because all of EOB’s songs were about 90 seconds long.
“Glasses!” I called out. “Anybody see glasses?”
A blurry someone handed me some bent plastic.
“They’re pretty fucked, bro,” he said. “And your face is bleeding.”
Somebody grabbed my shoulder. Thomas, blurry.
“Who did this?” he shouted.
“Nobody,” I said. “It was just random.”
“Nothing is random, dude,” he said.
The music returned, faster and louder than before, and I ducked behind the sweatshirt mafia by the bar. I touched my finger to my eyebrow and it came away wet. Not great. I held the broken glasses up to my face. One of the lenses was still intact, so I pressed it to my eye socket and moved back toward the main thrashing mass, trying to fulfill my pledge to keep an eye (if only an eye—cute, buddy) on Thomas. I held my watch an inch from the usable lens. It was 10 minutes until midnight.
I watched Thomas, in his ridiculous suit, beautiful and stupid, swinging his arms crazily through the air with great speed and no attempt at coordination. He clocked a large, bald devotee in the nose; the guy stumbled away, then turned and rushed at him, launching into Thomas with a linebacker tackle. Thomas’s limbs jerked like a wounded insect’s under the guy, who held him down with both hands. I dropped my broken glasses and rushed toward them, hearing, when I got close, the stream of their obscenities beneath the music. I gave the blurry antagonist a shove, and he didn’t move, didn’t even seem to acknowledge that I’d touched him, and though I hadn’t put everything I had into it, this seemed like an ominous sign. I grabbed blindly at him again, getting ahold of the collar of his jacket, and felt it tear under my hands. Now this indistinct mass of person turned, unlocked himself from Thomas, and stood over me. He shouted something in my direction. I covered my sweat-wet face, trying to shield myself from whatever was going to happen next. I felt his hand on my shoulder, heard more indistinct shouting through the music. Then it clarified:
“Dude, you’re fucking bleeding everywhere,” the guy said. “I’d beat the shit out of you, if that’s what you’re into, but you’re covered in blood.”
I held my hands out in front of me—the guy, whatever his other shortcomings, was right about the blood. It seemed to be running freely down my face. The shadowy outline of Thomas had materialized, and though I couldn’t see him, I sensed concern.
“Okay, buddy,” he said, or something like that, and steered me past the big guys to the bar. I pressed a pile of napkins to my head and held it there. In my mind’s eye, I marveled at my stoicism, which I guess indicated how detached I was, a result, I supposed, of my lack of sight and the knock to the head and the dehydration and the minor blood loss. It wasn’t, Thomas declared, squinting above my eye, a deep cut. I leaned against the bar, letting the music deafen me as he dabbed.
(By the time we started wearing earplugs, in our late 20s, it was too late to turn back the significant hearing loss we’d incurred, Thomas’s much worse than mine due to the daily sonic pummeling of the bands that he led during the years I was in college and law school. When Republic of Suffering, his most successful touring concern, came to D.C. during my clerkship year, we stayed up deep into the night in my apartment, catching up. Though by then he’d modified his policy of strict abstinence, Thomas probably drank one beer for every three of mine, and I was, and still am, impressed and puzzled by the fact that he hadn’t taken to booze or drugs as a default response to life’s typical setbacks. At 4 a.m. I heard a faint pounding on my front door. It was the guy from the next apartment over, a muscled young political aide with perpetually wet hair. We were, he said, shouting at the top of our lungs. Didn’t we know it was four in the morning? He had to be up in an hour. We were sorry. When I spoke to Thomas in a quieter voice, I saw in his eyes the effort required to follow along. His responses grew terse and general, like those of someone responding tentatively to questions in a foreign language, and we soon gave up and went to bed.)
“Do you mind if I get back in there?” Thomas said with a longing glance toward the pit.
“Yeah, no,” I said. “I mean, of course. Get me a tooth.”
He vanished and my head started to throb, which, at that moment, I found preferable to the alien light-headedness I’d been experiencing. I hadn’t quite realized until then that every one of Execution of Babyface’s songs was exactly the same. With that revelation came an unlikely surge in desire to join their thick-skulled brotherhood.
“Oof, dude,” said a familiar female voice next to me.
“You caused this,” I said.
“Aw, let mama kiss it,” Karen said.
I waved her away, though I didn’t think she was serious.
“I can’t see shit,” I said.
“Bald guys playing instruments. Bald guys punching each other. You’re not missing much.”
“At least the music’s good.”
“They’re a little math-y, don’t you think? Not a lot of human stuff.”
“The lyrics are actually …”
“Yeah, right, I know. But it’s kind of a waste.”
We let the music hit us.
“It’s funny that you can’t see,” Karen said, very close to my ear. I was worried that she really might kiss me. Then, wetly, nearly inside my head: “You’re just some fucking tourist, aren’t you?”
I tried to focus on her.
“Maybe,” I said. “So?”
“Just giving you shit,” she said. “Everybody’s a tourist. Except Sid Vicious. Kill Devotion’s playing in two weeks at Hamilton Street. Come hang out. Your face is still bleeding.”
The maelstrom of noise started up again and she drifted away from me. Up on the edge of the stage, I could just make out something that I assumed was the lead singer of EOB, bent over, screaming.
“And you,” he bellowed. “Thank you for your book and yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeear. Something happened in the GARAGE, and I owe it for the BLOOD!”
“Traffic!” the crowd responded.
“Those lines are by the only real American poet,” the singer said. “There will be no encore, go home and kill yourselves, good night.”
Thomas led me back to the wall to retrieve my record, still standing where I’d left it. I pulled it out of the sleeve. It had broken in two, one chunk significantly larger than the other. I handed the smaller piece to Thomas. We walked outside, and the October air turned our sweat cold immediately. Thomas was shivering but trying not to show it.
“Do you see your mom?” I said. I was no help in spotting her, of course, and was worried that even no-worries Mrs. R would be freaked out by my grisly appearance. It was well past midnight.
“Naw,” Thomas said, scanning the parking lot.
Apparently, we were being taught a lesson about coming out late—because we’d made her wait half an hour, she was going to make us wait for as long as she deemed fit. Which of course, like most parental punishments, just wasted more of her own time. We found Thomas’s knife—it had been dug up or accidentally unearthed somehow, but was basically where he’d left it—and I watched while he flipped it in the air unsheathed and mostly failed to catch it. His mother pulled up around 1 a.m., by which point only a few conspiratorial EOB diehards were left in the parking lot to keep us company.
“Oh, Jesus, Paul,” she said when she saw me through the rolled-down passenger window. I imagine she’d planned to deliver some kind of wisecrack, something along the lines of “Not much fun waiting, is it?” Now, instead, she got out of the car and hurried toward me.
“What happened to you?” she said. I’d never seen her so actively concerned. “Paul, you need stitches.”
“It’s not that deep,” I said.
“How would you know?” she said, which was fair. “I can’t give you back to your parents looking like this.”
“I think it’s an improvement, actually,” Thomas muttered to me when we were in the back seat. “Somebody literally knocked that stupid look off your face.”
I said nothing. I’d resigned myself to silence in protest of being taken to the hospital for necessary medical attention.
As it happened, I did not need stitches. Stitches, the doctor said, were optional at that point, cosmetic. After much debate with my parents, who were, despite my objections, summoned to the Raritan Bay Medical Center in the middle of the night, I chose to keep the scar. It was a stupid decision. I was afraid of the needle, sure. But I also thought that preserving the evidence of the wound might keep me from turning my youth into cheap nostalgia. As if a scar, of all things, were capable of that.
This story is an excerpt from Andrew Martin’s upcoming story collection, Cool for America.