There are times that I experience, quite literally “hardcore withdrawal”. The muscles tenses and the body sickens, the stomach bloats and the mind swims in an all-consuming mental, physical and spiritual craving for HEAVINESS. My most acute and agonizing episodes have been brought on by immersion in the wimpy music tastes of others. Now, I realize I’m an outlier for my taste in aggressive sounds, but outlier or no, it’s a very lonely sensation to be the only one in the group who appreciates a good death growl or double-time punk stomp. Sometimes after a long car trip with friends or time spent drifting with un-heavy friends or lovers at music festivals, I would find myself sneaking into a bathroom or a closet, or commandeering an unattended laptop to thrash out silently to “New Millennium Cyanide Christ” or “Panasonic Youth”. More than just listening to canned sounds, I needed the physical sensation of heaviness, to see it made in concert and to react in the freest of speech, namely, slamdancing.
In Chicago, I had redress. There were ample opportunities to commune with my heavy brethren at hardcore and metal shows across city, across seasons. Some of my fondest memories are of being ground to sweaty dust in the mosh pits at Dillinger Escape Plan, Refused, Meshuggah, Metz, Lightning Bolt and others. There was another element to this activity – I almost always went to these shows alone. I had few heavy friends in Chicago, but it was alright. There was a sort of defiance in eschewing the standard gatherings and niceties to bathe in the violent abrasion and rapturous sweat with like-minded city dwellers.
Then I moved to Rhode Island. Not Providence, Rhode Island either, but a town at the southwest corner, on the Connecticut border. The last few months comprise the worst spell of hardcore withdrawal I’ve experienced yet.
There are a couple of problems at work here. Firstly, though I have friends in Providence, I just don’t know anyone in the town I live in. I have been going out to the bars alone – with an abysmal success rate in socializing. But this is another issue for another post – what about the hardcore?
I try to alternate my lonely pints at the bar with concert-going, which used to be at least a pseudo-social activity for me. Heavy Metal dorks and Hardcore kids are usually pretty easy to talk to. When you’ve burrowed that far into such an obscure area of culture, there’s a certain current that binds you. Everyone is already wearing their favorite band shirts, craving the chance to nerd out aloud about their favorite bands and concerts. I always enjoyed making small talk before the shows – what concerts you have been to recently, whether you have seen the band before, whether you play an instrument or in a band yourself, yadda, yadda. You know, shop talk.
But in nearby New London, the closest place to find a bona fide “concert” – one that isn’t a troubadour obsequiously playing covers or some corny middle-aged folk band feeding pabulum to an oblivious barroom – I have run up against a culture of insiders and familiars. No longer is there that feeling of pilgrimage from all corners, the holy gathering to the dark obelisk of tattooed and longhaired pilgrims, the headbangers and moshers and invisible orange-holders. No, it’s the same faces, the same archetypes. Friends of the band, significant others, regulars and posses.
I experienced this on Friday, when I ventured out to New London to check out Productive Member and Sadplant. Both were advertised as “punk”, and to be fair, they were. I had tempered my expectations, but I was still disappointed to find the crowd listless and underwhelming. Everybody knew everybody and nobody seemed excited. When I spoke to the guitarist of Productive Member, Chris, He asked me why I had come out. “Punk rock” was my answer. I felt the same unspoken vibe I felt the last time I was at a New London concert – that I was expected to know someone connected to the bands. Things didn’t get much better once the music started. Most people didn’t even stand up for the bands. Obviously, there was no mosh pit.
This was a far cry from the raw electricity that accompanied the best shows in Chicago – everyone jostling to get as close to the stage as humanly possible, and sometimes getting on it. To whit, when I saw Dillinger Escape Plan, they initiated their set with disorienting electronic noise, followed by the firing of disorienting strobe lights and smoke machines as a howling, thrashing Greg Puciato cannonballed into the crowd – the instrumentalists stomping out an electrifying, lurching cacophony behind him.
The lead singer of Productive Member, though her voice was a comely shout-screech, had her lyrics spread out on the floor of the stage. The band’s between-song banter revealed a certain, somewhat off-putting lack of self-confidence. Between songs, a skinhead brought up and took a shot with Chris. “That’s not really what I needed right now” Chris muttered. I shook my head at the faux-pas. “That’s exactly what you needed right now!” shouted back a voice from the venue. The stakes couldn’t have been lower.
Still, something stirred within me. During Productive Member’s set my jaw and face began to clench and contort involuntarily as that good heavy grimace set in. There were fleeting but tangible moments of raw punk momentum that made me want to jump up and down, to bash into my fellow man. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t happening in that venue with that crowd.
Productive Member were indebted to the 80’s – raw and angry and direct. Chris had told me that they had only been a band since September, and to be fair it showed. There were a number of rhythmic hiccups (the drummer’s foot sometimes seemed to be playing a different song than his fast, expert hands), but this is perfectly acceptable in Punk Rock.
Sadplant meanwhile, were indebted to the 90’s – The bill was a tale of two decades. “The Plant” were in great synergy, their chemistry polished and their delivery tight. Unfortunately, they were indebted to the 90’s, with whoa-a-ohs and harmony vocals, skateboarding songs and California vibes. The white, dreadlocked guitarist-vocalist mentioned between songs that he was 45, a discomfiting detail, though he looked youthful and trim for his age. During the show he shouted out his dad, an ancient-looking man who had been standing, somewhat strangely, behind and to the right of me.
The bands played, the crowd clapped politely and the evening was over, for me at least. I had made no inroads with the gathered punks (skinheads among them, the non-racist variety I assume, oxblood Doc Martens polished to head-kicking shine). There was no afterglow. In my past life I had often drifted, sweat-soaked and bruised, to the Chicago El, happily ignorant of social codes, wishing I could get back to the service that had just ended, the physical worship and rapture only recently dispersed, charged particles still releasing their heat to atmosphere.
I’ve met a lot of people from small towns. Many of them used the phrase “there’s nothing there” and described the lengths they had to drive in order to get any taste of big city culture – of anything happening and wild, including the modern day touring carnivals that national recording artists represent. I’m really starting to understand that, the pain of it. At music festivals, I have been pleasantly surprised to find myself involved in unexpected mosh pits and general pushing and shoving at performances as AraabMuzik, MIA, Lil B, Arcade Fire, Odd Future, N.E.R.D. and others. What a bizarre phenomenon, that there would be such an abundance of music-related energy and physical trust that total strangers would begin crashing into each other, and weirder still, that this activity would somehow cause a net increase the audience’s enjoyment of the show. I didn’t know then, smiling and careening, that several months later, I would find myself at a punk rock show in New London Connecticut, lonely and sipping PBR, feet rooted to the ground, wishing that one of the small-town thirty-somethings in the crowd would just come over and give me a shove.