Appalachian Week continues at Via Negativa with a reminiscence from my troubled youth (as opposed to my troubled middle-age).
Naked to his waist, the skinny white kid from Duncansville, Pennylvania doesn’t sing, he scream-vomits. His torso contorts in paroxysms of stylized rage as he gasps for air, hurling each phrase at the sweat-drenched audience:
EVERYTHING’S BEEN DONE
EVERYTHING’S BEEN TRIED
And with that the band kicks in. In front of the makeshift stage – one end of the basement roped off with yellow CAUTION tape – the human maelstrom resumes. Someone scales the speaker stack and leaps off, trusting in the kindness of strangers to keep him from hitting the glass-strewn floor.
We’ve reached the bottle-smashing stage of the evening. At these parties, everyone wears boots for a good reason. By the end of the night, my housemates and I will have an inch or two of shattered glass to sweep up. I watch anxiously from the rear as people swing from the exposed pipes like punk Tarzans.
My friend Bill, hanger-on and roadie, stands against the wall to the left of the stage, a big grin on his face and a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best under one massive arm. This is his second twelve-pack of the evening. He averages seven minutes per can – I’ve timed him. As he finishes each can, he crumples it and tosses it into the mosh pit. Like tossing a cat into the spin cycle – it’s always fun to see what direction it will fly out in.
It’s all good, clean, violent fun. In this particular corner of the punk rock underground, hippies, straight-edgers and metal heads are tolerated; only homophobic rednecks and racist skinheads risk getting their asses kicked. There does exist, however, a sharp but unspoken social division between the kids who grew up in the suburban bubble of State College and those from anywhere outside it – self-confessed hicks from bumfuck nowhere. Most of the former come from comfortable backgrounds; their parents are professionals, and most of them can expect to be the same someday. In their politics as in their musical tastes, they are sophisticated purists.
Not so the hicks. For them, the stakes are much higher. The two punk shows I attended in Altoona had a more desperate and dangerous tone than these friendly basement bashes in State College. People entered the mosh pit expecting to get hurt; there wasn’t any rasta-style pogoing or ironic variations on the tango. If anyone can be said to have – as the punk anthem puts it – “no future,” it would be these kids from the rust belt and the sticks. Good factory jobs are disappearing – not that too many of the folks on stage or in the mosh pit would accept that such a thing could exist in the first place. Meth labs are sprouting up in the more remote hollows where moonshine was once distilled.
These are the rebels, the misfits. Every society has them. The Appalachians, with their history of extreme individualism, seem to have more than their fair share. Contrary to stereotypes, mountain people are among the least likely to attend church of all surveyed groups of Americans. During the Civil War, it was in the mountains that families’ loyalties were most sharply divided.
There’s little sense of regional identity, no cultural pride. These kids profess nothing but scorn for parents and siblings who listen to Hank Williams Jr. and live for Friday night high school football games. They cultivate an exaggerated mimic of their native accent, to the delight of the State College kids for whom rural white culture is an oxymoron. In a moment of levity between songs, the singer raises his arms in a mock Nazi salute and calls out: “To you’ns I say . . . ”
“FUCK YOU’NS!” the locals shout back.
Bill grins at me from the other side of the room, hurls a beer can in my general direction. That means he wants to talk. I elbow my way through the crowd. “Hey, you fucking hippie!” he calls out affectionately. “What’s up, faggot?”
I am allowed to say this only because I know him – not that Bill is ever shy about his homosexual tendencies. And we both enjoy the shocked looks this garners from the politically correct State College kids.
“Fuck any sheep lately?”
“Hell no! I’m too busy with my sister!”
Bill hands me a beer, then motions me to lean in closer. “Chris just bought a huge bag of pot. Come on out to the car right after the show!”
“Is it any good?”
He wrinkles his nose. “Nah, not really. It’s local – just what some guy grew up on Wopsanonnack. You have to smoke a ton of it before you feel anything. But the price was right!”
My housemate Darren comes over, grinning from ear to ear. “Hey, did you see that old guy with the cane? He was great!”
It seems that Darren had been sitting out on the front stoop the other afternoon, enjoying a breakfast beer, when an old fellow walked by and gave him a friendly glance. I guess Darren figures that anyone who can see past the pink mohawk is O.K.
“Hey, where are you going?” he called out.
“Just walkin’ home, son, just walkin’ home.”
“You look like you could use a beer!”
So they sat and talked for an hour or two, Darren said, and the old guy waved his cane about with excitement as he described the fun he used to have when he was Darren’s age – the whiskey he drank, the fights he got into, the hearts he broke. So Darren invited him to stop by the next evening. He had never heard of punk rock, but it sounded like a good time, he said.
He showed up around eleven, just as things were getting going. Darren said the guy stood at the bottom of the cellar steps for a few minutes, taking it all in with a gleam in his eye. Then he leaned his cane against the wall and waded into the mosh pit.
“He isn’t very big, you know – but then, neither am I. He just did whatever I did, bouncing off people and having a good time. His arms were turning around like windmills!”
“Where is he now?” I ask.
“Oh, he said he had to get home. Said his wife was gonna beat his ass, so he might as well get it over with.
“He broke his glasses, though,” Darren adds mournfully. “I offered him some money out of the cover fees, but he wouldn’t take it. He said he thought he should pay us – he’d never seen anything like this!”
The bowl is basic industrial – the kind made from copper pipe fittings. The cannabis is, as advertised, weak. More drunk than stoned, we pledge eternal friendship. What this means is illustrated by reference to some of the State College kids. “That one guy, K., he acts all friendly ‘n ‘at, wants to hang out. But every time he gives you a beer, you know he’s keeping track.”
“Fuck that!” the drummer says. “If you’re friends, that means you don’t keep track! Right, boys?” A chorus of “Hell yeahs!”
I pipe up with the old saw about how you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose. “We do!” Bill says, and he and the bass player proceed to pull snot from each other’s nostrils. I stand corrected.
“Here’s what we say,” Bill informs me. “‘You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, and you can pick your friend’s nose. But you can’t roll your friends up into little balls and flick them against the wall!'”
“Wow, man,” I say, playing the blissed-out stoner for their amusement. “That’s so far out!”
Five in the morning, and nearly time for bed. I’m sitting at the kitchen table listening to the life story of a 17-year-old girl from Huntingdon. L. has blond hair, a classically thin, Appalachian face, pale blue eyes and a perpetually anxious expression. I know her older brother pretty well, but this is the first I’ve had much of a conversation with her.
Tonight she seems especially woebegone. I gather that she has been sleeping with Darren, off and on, but tonight he’s got someone else in there. “I’m really not looking forward to the drive back home,” she says sadly, shooting me a hopeful look.
I know some men find this kind of vulnerability irresistible. Me, I’m fighting the urge to give her a reassuring pat on the head. I murmur something sympathetic, I don’t remember what. But it’s all she needs. Soon I am hearing more than I really want to know about domestic violence, incest, an abortion last year. Her every sentence ends tentatively, a rising intonation inviting agreement, affirmation. “Oh geez,” I say. Or, “Wow.” “Damn.” “Holy shit.” At appropriate junctions I follow up with questions, remembering the lesson my father – a recovered shy person – had taught me: always ask people about themselves.
At six-thirty I walk her to her car; she’s good and sober, as am I. We shake hands. “Hang in there,” I say. Her eyes are a little damp. Only now, some twelve years later, does it occur to me that she may not ever have been listened to quite that way before.
I think she made it. I ran into her once several years later, and she told me she was a sophomore at Penn State, following her brother’s lead. She still seemed pretty clueless, but then I’m not one to talk.
As for the other 17-year-old girl I didn’t sleep with that night – the one who lay passed out on my bed in a pool of her own urine the whole time I was listening to L.’s life story – she died later that year in a drunken accident. Partying in a strange house, she opened what she thought was the door to the bathroom and tumbled down a steep set of cellar stairs, snapping her neck.
A lot of the people I used to party with have died, for some reason. I can’t get over the thought that, in some fundamental way, I failed them. The few people from that scene I still keep up with were all State College kids.
The last I saw Bill, he had grown a mustache and no longer shaved his head. “I hang out at the redneck bars down in ‘Toona town now,” he said. “There’s fights there every night! Bodies go flying, people get knifed – it’s great!”
“You’re as full of bullshit as ever, I see.”
“It’s true! I just stand there and watch, you know, and drink my beer. You can get used to anything.”