I was president of the arts and letters club in high school. Club IDEA–Ignatians Determined to Express Art. Mostly it involved a variety of dejected kids of varying social capability screwing around with art supplies after school. The most serious thing we did was a cringe-inducing gallery showing coupled with a live performance. My thing was slam poetry, then in its heyday. I loved music more than anything but had zero chops. I hated and envied every guy I met that could actually sing or play an instrument. The live performances were the only time my writing could ever hold a candle to what music did. Otherwise, it was just me sitting alone in my room doing this dumb thing that didn’t make girls like you. There’s a Wells Tower story where someone describes himself as “a bumblebee trying to fuck a marble.” That feeling has always marked my relationship with the written word. Now, it’s the difficulty of it that sets my teeth on edge. Back then it was the privacy of the whole endeavor. For me, Club IDEA was rife with all the pettiness and exhilaration endemic to adolescent desire.
Every club had an adult “chaperone.” If you were club leadership, you had to meet with the chaperone if you wanted to get anything done. It’s hard to imagine anyone kinder or more supportive than Ms. Futerer, our chaperone, in the Development Office. Once I was elected president, I had to make my way up to the offices behind the fourth-floor library. Here’s a photo of that, by the way, because it’s bananas to think that this is where I went to high school.
Tom Molony’s office abutted Ms. Futerer’s. I had to walk passed his desk to get to hers. After my first meeting up there, I saw a messenger bag with a familiar logo on it.
“Is that an Alternative Tentacles bag?”
He turned and cocked his head, “You like punk?”
“That’s a Social Distortion jacket.”
“Can you be here this same time tomorrow?”
“I have this period free.”
I talked last time about how hard it was to find like-minded people let alone people who could introduce you to the music you craved. I’d gone to public school up until the sixth grade. I had problems giving a shit was the consensus, and Catholic school, where they make you give a shit, was the agreed upon solution.
What were my rebuttals? Who knows?
But having to wear a uniform every day and keep my hair short made it hard to sync up with the local punks, one of whom was Dan. He went to Sandburg, which was about a ten-minute walk from my house and across the soccer field from my grade school, Edison. The year before I ended up at Immaculate Conception, a seventh grader at Sandburg hanged herself in her closet. Her little sister found her. We had a whole day about it. It was that summer I started seeing Dan around with his huge mohawk. He looked like he hated life but wasn’t afraid of it. That wasn’t me. I hated life and was terrified out of my mind all the time. I was always wanting someone to shoot me in the face when I was in a stupid situation. My whole life felt like a stupid situation. How could I get what he had? I didn’t even know what music to buy. I still listened to the Green Day CDs I bought at this place called Disc-Go-Round in Chicago. We’d go there after family trips to the dentist. Behind the counter, there was a poster of Mick Jagger wearing a shirt that said, “Who the fuck is Mick Jagger?”
You find the kids you’re looking for. You find a way to fit in. You get a narrative. Punk happened in the late ’70’s. In the 1980’s there was hardcore and what became alternative by the 1990’s. Poseurs and idiots listened to pop-punk. That shit was fake. “Real” punk shirked major labels and roared out of your stereo like napalm. It doesn’t matter how much of it’s true, it matters that you can tell yourself the story the way the story was told to you. And you do. And it works.
But, again, punk was something that happened “out there,” wherever that was. It never came to Elmhurst, Illinois. Except in 1992, when people said Green Day had come to play some all ages venue that got shut down. Or was it the Knights of Columbus out on Vallette? It didn’t matter. There were basement shows, sure. But no one was around to show us the way. Nothing good had happened here and if it did, it left. To where we didn’t know.
You’re gonna die in this town, is what everyone seemed to believe. Especially if they didn’t want to.
When I showed up to Tom Molony’s office the next day he had a stack of around thirty CDs on his desk.
“When do you want these back?”
“Whenever, but don’t lose any.”
I sorted through them. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Bands I’d only ever heard about (The Effigies, Negative Approach, Los Crudos) and bands I’d never heard of (Career Suicide, SS Decontrol, Articles of Faith).
“This is amazing.”
“Start with Raygun.”
I’d heard Naked Raygun. I was so obsessive about music that I made friends with all the dudes in the music department staff at the Borders in Oakbrook. One was a different guy named Tom. He’d talked me into buying Naked Raygun’s Throb Throb when it was remastered. I liked it okay. I don’t remember which album of theirs Molony lent me. Maybe it was Basement Screams.
Raygun is a band I’ve grown to like in adulthood more than I ever did in high school, despite how hard I tried. I was talking with a friend the other day about Chicago punk. Specifically, Raygun and Pegboy, another Molony loaner that will get its own post. I just wanted brutally aggressive music because I had two emotions: fear and anger–and anger is really just fear with a personality. Raygun had, no doubt, a sardonic kind of piss and vinegar, but something else was going on. A lot of these songs were about being broke, the nihilism that comes with drinking, political decay, and a loneliness I hadn’t yet the courage to feel let alone face.
This would all change, of course. I graduated college in 2011, the year of Occupy, and lived on or below the poverty line for several years; in college, my drinking became a problem I couldn’t ignore and I had to make some hard decisions about it; after being poor in north Florida for a few years, I woke up to the realities of our benighted empire; eventually, I agreed to let my loneliness settle into the crooked frame of myself. And that was only after running from it for twenty-seven years. My favorite Raygun record is Understand?
Tom Molony ended what was a long period of searching and confusion about punk, which had become the central focus of my life. Though I never really participated in the scene. After a while, I even stopped going to shows. What I liked was listening to records in my room and queuing up playlists on my iPod when I took the Metra into the city for school. I liked the specificity and the privacy of it. I liked that it was mine. Likely, I was fetishizing a false sense of uniqueness. If I’m feeling charitable, I can also say I didn’t have much else going for me, I thought, so that would have to do. As I pulled further into myself and as music became a more private experience, I craved the punk history even more. That Tom had been a part of the scene, could explain its history, had left the Midwest and lived a life before coming back to Illinois made me feel like I could get out. I didn’t any longer think I was going to die in my hometown. This is a fear that, in college, I found to be rampant among kids who came from the Midwest or the South. It is a fatalism unique to flyover country.
A couple years ago, I left Tallahassee for Berwyn, IL, where my mom now lives. I’d gotten a job writing English Language Arts curriculum. My goal was to move to Vermont, but I needed to get out of the South first. I left Florida like a man on a jailbreak. This was spring of 2014.
Molony and I got dinner down by Damen and Milwaukee. He drove me home and I finally got to tell him how much he’d helped me (there’s a lot more to this that will show up in later entries in The Molony Files). I don’t remember what all was said. I wept. Seeing him was somehow a reminder that I hadn’t been foisted into the world to engage strictly in single-handed combat. There was, continued to be, help.
A week later, I had to track down a copy of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood for the Macbeth unit I was working on. I drove out to Oakbrook, where the Borders used to be, where the Barnes & Noble still is. Back then, a guy with a voice made for radio worked in the music department with Borders Tom. He helped me snatch the Criterion Collection cut of Throne. I said I remember him, asked what happened to Borders Tom. He’d moved to Portland with his girlfriend a few years back.
“You heard from him since?”
“I don’t worry about it.”
So long, see you tomorrow.