by Ben Beard
The last cassette I bought was U2’s Achtung Baby! The first CD I purchased was Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. That’s the true story between 13 and 14, part of my hidden history, the autobiography we all elide and as we age, choose to forget.
I ran with alternative rock for a bit: The Las, R.E.M., Polvo, Dinosaur Jr., Firehose, Primus, Radiohead, The Flaming Lips. In retrospect, the early ’90s was a glorious time for music. Rap was shifting into hip hop. Arena rock was on the wane. Weirdness blossomed.
Grunge hit and I mostly shrugged it off, although I flirted with Soundgarden, owned Pearl Jam’s Ten, and kind of loved Nirvana’s albums, especially Bleach. But grunge didn’t do it for me, not really. I was stalking an angrier, leaner creature and discovered it at just the right time. Punk entered my life around 16, knocked aside my other musical obsessions and brought me into an aggrieved tribe of disaffection and primal rage.
I was raised Southern Baptist and had been saved twice. So my punk anti-establishment manifested in Christian punk, which sounds like an oxymoron but isn’t.
I subscribed to an austere Christianity, more Old Testament than New, where my beliefs were more a restrictive code than a faith in cosmic love. I was a teenager: belligerent, argumentative, edgy, combative, and moody. And it was all augmented by the bellicose music.
I was also a judgmental, don’t-tread-on-me libertarian who listened to NOFX, Lagwagon, Swingin’ Utters, Good Riddance, and other Fat Wreck Chords bands, but also Hot Water Music, Avail, Inquisition, Minor Threat, Bad Brains. I shaved my head. I wore baggy pants, punked-out shirts. I was an early punk adherent. One of my closest friends remained loyal to grunge and rock; we argued incessantly about Alice-in-Chains versus Helmet. That was the ’90s for a lot of people living in the suburban ennui at the end of history: arguing about music while the world shifted from one endless conflict into another.
I was also part of another subculture: I played soccer. I was an athletic child, tall and fast, and I played sports like most boys of my time and place. I tried my hand at basketball and baseball, but soccer appealed to me on some primal level. Goals are so rare in soccer that a single mistake can win or lose a game. Team tactics and talent matter, but everything is boiled down to individual moments. Little things really, really matter.
Soccer in the panhandle of Florida in the early ’90s was a haven for outcasts and freaks. We had surfers and skaters, druggies and burnouts, artists and poets and writers. We had our own patois, a jangly mix of surf, skate, and punk terms: bobe, pidgeon, toose. (Decoding the lexicon would take more space than I have here, but, quickly: bobe meant lame but in an assholish way; pidgeon was the back corner of the goal, and if you hit it with the ball, you rocked the pidgeon; and toose was vaguely vaginal, or a term for the vagina, and sometimes a cutdown, depending on how you used it.) We had our own style: long shorts, bright colors, Copa Mundial shoes, and everything Adidas. The only soccer movie we had was Victory, but the more learned of us also watched Hero: the Story of the 1986 World Cup.
I played on a succession of terrible teams. One season, we not only lost every game but couldn’t field a full team for a single match. I was the best player, not that it meant much. We lost two games by the mercy rule. Back then, if you went down by ten goals, the game ended. I still feel a flush of shame. One player was so inefficient, when he kicked the ball, it always went backwards, defying everyone’s hopes but also the fundamental rules of physics. His name was Harry.
I met my first Muslim, a kid named Tariq, playing soccer. I met my first atheist, too, a kid named Dante. I played with a Scottish kid named Duncan. On one team, we had a girl. Her name was Leah, and she was one of our best players; more than anyone I’ve met, she taught me that women could compete with men in just about every sport, if we brought children up in co-ed athletics. My point: it wasn’t all backwards machismo. As sports go, soccer in the 1990s was relatively enlightened.
Still, most teams consisted of misfits. I was on one team where the coach actively taught us to cheat. In one game, he called me to the sidelines and told me to take out a player’s leg. I nodded, but of course refused; I had seen Karate Kid way too many times to fall into that trap. The same coach filled my bed with ice, in revenge for some prank my roommate Andy pulled.
Andy’s pranks were legendary. In this particular case, he filled a water gun with urine and shot it into the coach’s face. Later that same night, he defecated in a bag and shoved the shit under the coach’s door handles. We were 16, enlightened exemplars of the human race.
We played in tournaments in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee. The players on this particular team were boozy, druggy. One kid smuggled cough syrup and would drink it down until blotto each night in the hotel room. Another always had weed. The bulk of the kids were delinquents. They smoked like chimneys, drank like fish, and stole anything that wasn’t bolted down. I’m sure, if you could locate the data, there were tiny spikes of crime in the police statistics whenever our team came to town. My Christianity kept me on the outside of most of this heinous behavior.
My high school team was worse. God, we were awful, the dregs of a Catholic high school with a few real footballers on the team. The rest were rejects, deplorables, assholes, burnouts. Fights became common. Students started coming to the games to watch them. We played dirty and fouled often. We lost to teams we should have beaten and were wiped out by any organized opposition. (My senior year, we were a formidable team, but that heartbreaking season has no bearing on these formative years.) We relished our bad reputation. Before one game, we played Pantera’s “Fucking Hostile” when the principal, a nun, was in attendance.
That was the end of pre-game music.
Being a punk glued me to soccer and playing soccer reified my punk aesthetics. It was a weird time. The Cold War was over. The end of history had begun. The glorious 1990s. A new era. Of optimism. Of new technologies. A time when the internet was just bubbling up from the nerdhouse 1980s. Despite being the most popular sport in the world, soccer was an outsider thing in the South. Football was the mainstay. Rich kids played tennis and baseball. Volleyball had its devotees. Baseball was still seen as an essential American sport. Soccer was for the freaks.
Christian punk (and ska) was its own thing, but the bands knew how to lay it down: Ghoti Hook, MxPx, Value Pac, The Supertones, Five Iron Frenzy, Hangnail, Squad Five-O, Strongarm, Twothirtyeight, and the Unashamed, among others. Every week I bought new CDs. I went to the Green Shack in Pensacola—an institution in its day, resurrected as Revolver Records—and spent oodles of time and plenty of money. Some were interesting misfires, such as Alice Donut.
Green Day made an appearance, but then got popular and had to go. (I know, I know.) Ditto for Offspring, although I kind of fucking hated them anyway. I admired Fugazi more than liked them. Ditto for Bad Religion. Rancid had its day with me. As did Sick of It All. I had more than one Screeching Weasel CD. Social Distortion was a mainstay. I loved Propagandhi, despite the discomfort I had with their political views (many of which I now believe in).
I went to shows. Mostly at the Nite Owl, but sometimes at Sluggo’s. The crowd was almost all white, mostly male, often drunk or high, disreputable, prematurely tattooed and wafting off white, suburban ennui and pre-college failure. I fit in, but didn’t belong.
One night, I drove two hours to a Christian punk show somewhere in Alabama. The show was in a high school gym. The lineup doesn’t matter. I was only there a few minutes before a teenager with a shaved head meandered over.
“Do you know that Jesus died for your sins?”
“Yep,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
He wanted to keep talking. I didn’t. We stood a few feet apart for a few seconds. He gave a half-smile then wandered off. Our joint misery was over.
Then, the music began.
I left Pensacola for college in Montgomery, Alabama. And, brother, there wasn’t a punk scene in sight. I was an oddity, a too-tall soccer player living in the heart of Dixie, not giving two fucks about the Confederacy or football or hunting or fishing or television either. The Confederate flag was anathema to me. It was poison. Even Southern accents rubbed me the wrong way. I felt trapped in the wrong part of the country.
Soccer began losing its luster, as I discovered books, films. I fell in love with literature reading Babbitt. Despite my bout with introversion, and the suffering brought on by a foolish stab at a long-distance relationship coinciding with periodic bouts of binge-drinking, college was a great intellectual flowering for me. I read Josef Conrad and Herman Melville and Richard Wright and Louise Erdrich. I read Beloved and All the Pretty Horses and Don Quixote and The Epic of Gilgamesh. I read Romantic poetry and 20th-century literature and this, too, was folded into my punk-rock, fuck-you belief system. I was a reader, goddammit, and this set me apart just as much as my dyed hair and angry music.
But the books challenged my fundamentalist belief system, and I began losing my faith. It was painful, necessary. Christian punk faded. I remained a belligerent right-wing asshole, but cracks were appearing here, too. One professor told me no good fiction had ever come out of right-wing politics. Of course, I argued with him. (Like a pretentious douche, I said, “What about T.S. Eliot and ’The Wasteland.’”) He was right. And, on some level, I knew it.
I wanted to be a writer. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who is reading this. But my desire to be a writer was part of my rejection of popular culture. I believed that pop culture was poison, recycled ideas, a dead end. I believed that pop culture deadened our sensibilities, narrowed our possibilities, a machine so vast it encompassed nearly everything forcing us tiny humans into tiny intellectual compartments. Airless. Vapid. And selling a deadly conformity. It warped hearts and ruined minds. Nothing good came out of it.
Literature wounded my religious and political beliefs, but also maimed my passion for soccer. My mind wandered. I sometimes wondered why the time spent conforming to arbitrary rules really signified. What the fuck did a single game, or season, really matter in the greater heat-death of the universe. (I really did think this way.)
At 20, my cousin Keith, my best friend in the world, invited me to drive up to Charlotte to see a show. He lived in Atlanta, and although we were the same age and raised together, he was a lot of things I wasn’t: cool, comfortable in his skin, attractive to girls, clever, witty. Atlanta gave him a wider scene and way more cultural cache. He had his own ascetic Christianity, more cerebral than mine, grounded less in primitive literalism than in a kind of C.S. Lewis intellectualism. He was also into hardcore, punk and metal.
The plan was to stay with David, his childhood friend—who happened to be a friend of mine, too—and head back the next morning. I drove the five hours to Atlanta, then we rode up with a guy whose name I can’t remember, and isn’t really important, anyway.
We hit the road. Took 85 North. Passed the two hundred miles or national forests—the Chattahoochee, Nantahala, Pisgah, and Cherokee. Even my punk-addled brain noticed the endless green. Stupefied by lack of sleep and natural beauty.
The driver blasted hardcore. For four hours. There was a brief moment when metal splintered into all manner of music, and dovetailed with punk to form this odd hybrid: Hatebreed, Earth Crisis, All-Out War, Snapcase. I can’t remember the bands he played, but my ears are still ringing.
I wasn’t crazy about it. I was more into skate punk, punk, post-punk, ska and in the privacy of my own room, new wave. Hardcore was music from the bleak suburbs. It was a hopeless, dreary, disgusted mess. Some of the early bands, The Circle Jerks, Naked Raygun, Dead Kennedys, and The Misfits morphed into other types of music. But by the 1990s, hardcore was something else, driven by screaming vocals, persistent rhythms, and misdirected rage. It had a brief, vicious flare-up and then fractured into speed metal, death metal, heavy metal, emo screamo. There was no beauty in hardcore; this was its chief virtue.
We arrived in Charlotte to see our buddy David. David was and is a big deal in the scene there. He was hardcore as fuck. Body covered in tattoos, fresh black Xs on his hands, a DIY maestro who published ’zines, set up shows, did interviews on television. We were the same age, but he was living the punk dream life, an almost celebrity. My cousin had known him since elementary school. David was straight-edge, vegan, wire-thin. He radiated the underground zeitgeist.
He was married, living in an apartment, with an enormous collection of horror movies. We were simpatico, both movie-mad—the story of another essay—and crazy about books. We bonded. We left his apartment and wandered towards downtown Charlotte. The freaks were on parade. Charlotte’s scene was bigger than Pensacola’s, more diverse. Tattoos were on display. Body mutilation, too; this was the first time I saw the hanging earlobes, the mouth piercings, hallmarks of the freaky deaky ’90s but absent in Alabama.
The show was wild. I spent most of it in the back corner, watching. The dancing was beautiful—in my memory, it resembled windmills and jumping jacks and adapted break dancing—and David was one of the kings. Keith had his moments, too. He was at home.
Later, we all went back to David’s apartment. Everyone was vegan, save for Keith and me. We went on a late-night grocery run, bought vegan cookies and vegan frozen food. Keith bought a jug of chocolate milk. We binged on vegan junk food, sneaking glasses of chocolate milk. A woman with bleached-blond spiked hair yelled out at two in the morning, “All right! Who bought this chocolate milk?” Keith and I raised our hands, chastened and embarrassed. The vegans laughed it off. We were the hayseeds who didn’t belong. One of the dudes there didn’t like me, sussed out my ambiguity over the militant tribalism of the scene, where music and politics and culture and diet and aesthetics merged into an in-group/out-group test. I had failed it, and I read sinister vibes off his bug eyes all night.
We returned home the next morning, exhausted and hungover from the late-night sugar binge. Despite our ears still ringing from the hours of hardcore, we could barely speak over the voluminous attack on our already weakened eardrums. We argued. We bickered. We beefed. The issues were animal rights and racism, police brutality and American history, not so far removed from where we are now. We resolved nothing. Teenagers mind-fucked by ten hours of hardcore and speed metal aren’t exactly in the best frame of mind for understanding, empathy or compromise.
We disembarked at my aunt’s house, said our goodbyes. I never saw the driver again. David, weirdly, became one of my closest friends, despite never living in the same town or city.
I returned to Montgomery, finished my four years of soccer, graduated magna cum laude, got a job right out of college working as an editorial assistant for an independent publisher called Black Belt Press. My future seemed set. I wouldn’t leave the Deep South. I would work for peanuts here and there, write in the evenings, be misunderstood by most of the people I met, carry resentment in my heart and eventually die a failure.
I lost God and punk and soccer all around the same time, although I didn’t really understand how everything was linked. I had compartmentalized my life—a necessity for fundamentalist Christians—and couldn’t connect my aesthetic sensibilities with my moral and religious beliefs. Confused, angry, hurt, wary, abandoned by God but not yet mature enough to be grateful for the absence, I was, in a word, a mess.
The discordant punk fiasco had whittled my musical tastes down to two bands: Hot Water Music and The Clash. Punk is anti-everything, both attitudinally and musically, and it ruined music for me. I lost the ability to discern what was good, what was necessary, and what was beautiful. I began to hate music and at the old age of 22, would tell people I didn’t listen to music, didn’t like it at all. Once I even declared, “I hate music. It’s a waste of time.”
My Christianity slipped into a tame deism and, over time, eroded into spiritual platitudes I didn’t really believe in. I struggled with a godless, strict moral code that sucked the joy out of life and left me an austere hypocrite. I eventually devolved into a vague gnosticism.
I look for God everywhere, but can never find him.
But my musical journey was just beginning. On my first visit to Chicago, on a work trip, I took a bus along Lake Shore Drive, heading downtown, with the expansive lake on my left and the gorgeous parks and ornate buildings on my right. The driver threw on a video. It was a made-for-TV movie, The Temptations. The scene captured the recording of “Papa was a Rolling Stone.” It was my Saul on the road to Damascus moment. Blinders fell off my eyes. I could, for the first time in years, finally see. I was a soul man, always had been, always would be, and the sexy, dance-y beauty had been hiding beneath the shroud of overly politicized faux-anger.
Soul brought joy back into my life. Music was redeemed, and in a way only music fans can understand, so was I. I was reborn.
I was no longer a child. It was time to leave behind childish things.
Ben Beard is a writer and librarian. His new book, The South Never Plays Itself—a history of the South through the movies, and a history of the movies from the point of view of the South—from NewSouth Books, will be available in November 2020.