Angry Days and the Devil’s Haircut: Music at the End of History, 1989-1999

By Ben Beard

1.

Driving Chuck to the hospital where his mom works, I blare Sebadoh’s “Gimme Indie Rock” off a mixtape. “Hell, Ben,” Chuck says, putting his hand on the volume knob. “This is the hood, man. Turn that shit down.” I’m 16. Chuck is black, I’m not, we’re friends, and this is the first time I notice that there might be cultural differences between us. I was just driving along; he was worried we’d get shot. 

2. 

Watching the Shawshank Redemption when the Puccini song shocks the faces of the heartbroken and lonely prisoners, hearing beautiful music for the first time in years, and hearing the music through their deprivations, and it’s stunningly beautiful to me, too. I’m 15, in love with movies, but not yet possessing discernment or taste. I don’t notice that film has no women in it at all, save for Tim Robbins’s wife who is killed without any dialogue. I was too young to perceive movies as clusters of more than just story and acting, but also power dynamics and cultural signifiers. I know a little about opera now. It sounds like Maria Callas. 

3.

Listening to Beck’s “Loser” with Chad, driving back from a party out in the country, and we didn’t fit in, the party of hunters and redneck types not quite hostile to us but we weren’t really welcome, and we drove back on the country roads and listened to Beck’s bizarre elocutions over and over, the tar-black outlines of trees crowding out the slate-gray sky. Hearing this song at different ages, belted out by drunks and children, hearing something new each time. Hating “Devil’s Haircut” when it first appeared and now kind of loving it. I always hear Beck with fresh ears. I’m 16. I love Chad and his coterie of oddball friends, these stoner-artists, but our friendships won’t last. They rarely do.

4. 

Jamming to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band on my Walkman, absorbing the feel, the music, on the way to summer camp in North Carolina, loving it, while my mom and aunt can’t hear anything but the lyrics whenever the Beatles are played in public. Not sure of “Mr. Kite” then or now. Something druggy and askew in that song. Something hateable. I’m 12, convinced the Beatles are the defining statement on rock n’ roll, the greatest band in the world, with Aerosmith as a close second. Nowadays I despise Aerosmith, and the only Beatles album I can tolerate is Rubber Soul

5.

Being unable to stop dancing to “Gold Digger” every time I hear it, despite the weird misogyny of its lyrics; the same feeling I get with “Billie Jean,” “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger,” “American Boy,” and “Shook Me All Night Long.” Not proud of this list, but the feet want what the feet want. The Greeks called dancing “Dionysus arriving,” a manifestation of the frenzied god. I’m every age past 22, when I got over my fears of the god of wine, the god of ecstasy. If there’s redemption to be found in the world, it will be found through dance and merriment. 

6.

Feeling a deep soul healing—after years of pining heartbreak—listening to Cher’s “Believe” while playing floor hockey in an Alabama mall. The whole scene a crystallized tableau in my mind, the music speaking to me as I struggled through the exact issues the song immortalizes. I’m 21. I know the song is almost unbearably cheesy but it works; I can feel my soul opening. I’ll always love Cher for this. Four years later, I end up in an elevator with her, she looks amazing, wearing thigh-high lace-up boots with enormous heels, and I want to thank her for the song but I chicken out and just half-smile instead. I’m certain she doesn’t even know I’m there. 

7.

Driving Joe to college with his dad and girlfriend, the landscape of West Virginia stunning but strange, with industrial-scarred mountains dotted with trailer parks and busted out old mill towns. We listen to the tape of the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof of all the fucking things, once on our way there and multiple times on our way back. And Joe’s dad says to me, as the trees and hills and land settles back into my Florida expectations of vast swaths of pine trees and hilly land, that “Sunrise, Sunset” is the truest song he’s ever heard, and that it means more to him now than ever before. We listen to it again in silence. I’m 19, slightly embarrassed by his fatherly kindness but touched too, thinking of my own father who loves the movie, and how we watch it together all the time. 

8.

Cruising with my first boss, Suzanne, in the backroads of Alabama, listening to Cat Stevens, and she breaks up a little with “Father and Son.” We play it two or three times on our way to a poetry book-signing, the author in the backseat, and Suzanne is transfixed by the music, the song is speaking to her in a spell, and the author says, “Can you turn it down? It’s really loud.” I’m 23. Suzanne is near tears, and later tells me, “It goes too fast. All of it. Just too fast.” 

9.

Balancing on the ledge of Pike’s Peak with my cousin Keith, maneuvering the car along the treacherous edge of the road, and Keith plays Hot Water Music’s “Arms Can’t Stretch,” while I film the canyons and distant mountains. We had aspirations then, we just couldn’t name them. I’m 19 or 20. Enough time has passed that I can’t quite remember. A year later in his dorm room, it’s near two in the morning, and he puts the same song on, it’s too loud for the time of night, but he waves this off and we absorb its lyrics, happy. 

10. 

Listening to Sebadoh’s “Together or Alone” with Robert in Jenny’s house, looking at the photos on the front, agreeing that it’s one of the saddest and truest songs ever written, only we didn’t talk like that, not then or now. Sebadoh always being hit or miss for me, songs I love and songs I hate. Sebadoh and Pavement and The Silver Jews and the Beach Boys, too, a band I see at the local Pensacola music festival, and they’re aged and ridiculous in their Hawaiian shirts, and they’re hawking “Kokomo,” that treacly bullshit song that is also a treacherous ear worm, some kind of black magic there. I’m 17, inebriated, and so is Robert, and for years when I think of Jenny or her house or any of my other high school friends it’s this song that I hear in my head. A decade later I realize the Beach Boys are kind of a marvel, with Pet Sounds a highlight of its era. I never listen to Sebadoh anymore.

11.

Chanting “Don’t Know Much” at Aaron Neville with Mike, both of us semi-delirious on grape Mad Dog, and Aaron Neville never sings the song, but he does deliver his version of “Everybody Plays the Fool,” and it’s passable, pleasant, and safe. I’m 18, we’re at the Pensacola music festival again, all of us soon heading off to college, and our unwieldy group splinters into tiny factions, and Mike and I are swaying alone. (And here’s a funny anecdote about Mike. We would play Sim City in the computer lab during our senior year. We discovered it on one of the computers, and we’d sneak in during study hall. We both had cities, it was this fun thing we did together, and then one day mine was destroyed. Mike told me it was a fellow student, and I felt animus and anger towards this other person, it kind of ruined our semi-friendship. I later learn that it was Mike all along, he had destroyed my project and blamed it on someone else. I despise him for this minor subterfuge. Time passes, he comes down with terminal brain cancer, and transforms into a remarkable human, brave and generous. I track his battle with the disease on Facebook, and send him a short message saying I think he’s incredibly brave, and that I’m glad we’re friends. He writes me back an even shorter message, saying I’m a great writer, and it’s so generous of him, this little message, as if he knew I was in a constant struggle with self-doubt.) 

12.

And here I am, distracted by my own memories, setting out to write a short piece about music and instead I’m writing about something else. Loss? Death? Aging? Euphoria? Is all music about memory? 

13. 

Bingeing on Five Iron Frenzy, a kickass Christian ska band, with Chris and Jeff as we drive to St. Petersburg to see our friend Christine. Chris plays it over and over, a band I introduced him to, and by trip’s end, I despise their music. Our second night in St. Petersburg, we sleep in the lounge of Christine’s dorm. She says it’s okay but it isn’t. Jeff drinks too much and runs through the hallways in his boxers, doing high knees and a Joker’s laugh. We settle in to sleep way after midnight, and the campus police roust us around two in the morning, telling us we have to be gone by sunlight. Jeff spends the early morning hours hungover and rushing to the door every time he hears footsteps. We leave at seven, drive a few hours with Five Iron Frenzy in our ears, and get a flat tire. Napping, Chris jumps up and rushes out of the car. “Okay, pop the hood!” he says. Jeff and I laugh and laugh. We change the tire in no time and, grateful to be out of the blistering interstate heat, end up back in Pensacola by early evening. I’m 20, more comfortable in my own skin, learning to leave loneliness and despair behind me. 

14. 

Moshing with upturned elbows to dozens of punk bands, my heart pounding with truculent liberation, dance-fighting to The Descendents’  “I’m the one.” It’s all fuck-yous and get-fucked and anarchy and socialism and I don’t know a goddamn thing about any of it. It was pure feeling. I don’t quite fit in with the burnouts and tattooed malcontents, but I kind of do. It’s Swingin’ Utters and NOFX and Strung Out and Face to Face and Less than Jake, a cross-section of pop punk, skate punk, and ska. I buy into the style up to a point, shaving my head and wearing Vans. I even get into the bruising asceticism, but only in small bursts. I’m 17, saturated with end of history suburban ennui, filled with voiceless anger. I drift in and out of the scene. 

15.

Focusing on the lyrics of “Voices that Care” while the American military destroys the Iraqi military infrastructure. The video is absurd, filled with celebrities like Sally Field and Kevin Costner and Fred Savage. The remake of “Give Peace a Chance” appears at the same time. I prefer the sound of the latter, but my beliefs are simpatico with the former. I don’t realize it, but one of the defining conflicts of my life is forming: my aesthetics and my morals are out of whack. Wilson Phillips releases their monster hit, “Hold on,” this same summer, and all three songs drift out of my boom box while I work on my second novel, Power and Glory, sitting at my tiny little desk in my childhood room. I’m 13 or 14. The novel is terrible. I’m young for my age. I still believe in America’s purities, that war is good, and that God is always on our side. 

16.

Driving to Pensacola Beach with Snoop Dogg blasting through the speakers in Robert’s GMC Jimmy. Snoop is the first rapper I identify with, something piercing yet puckish about his eyes, his rail-thin frame and his half-kidding demeanor. He’s part of the new wave of gangster rap hitting Pensacola, including Tupac and Dre and Body Count, Ice T’s metal band that we all love but half to hide from our parents, and Robert’s Dad caught his tape, and pulled Robert out of school to yell at him about it. Snoop Doggisms sneak into our daily speech, especially endo, gin and juice, and most memorably, “Eat a dick,” the “i” in “dick” dragged out for three syllables. I’m 15, often sunburned, sometimes happy, my heart is still innocent, so I’m still not cursing. Still, I guffaw every time Robert says it. “Eat a diiiick.” “Eat a diiiiaaack.” 

17.

Regretting my Rage Against the Machine phase, my misunderstanding of the band’s message, the sonic damage to my ears. It’s of a piece with my metal phase.  I love Metallica and Pantera but draw the line at Megadeath. Guns N’ Roses still rattle around in there somewhere, but they’re diminishing. Zack de la Rocha’s first band, Inside Out, has one of my favorite songs, “No Spiritual Surrender.” It is a lodestar to my teen years, misguided and misapplied to right-wing political beliefs and the gloomy Old Testament god of fire, until I loosened up and allowed the wilder gods of Pan, Athena, Dionysus, and the rest into my life. I’m 15, on the cusp of a new direction. 

18. 

Missing the bulk of the “alternative” craze, much of it manufactured by MTV, selling a mish mash of styles and genres—Hansen is a buzz clip—as a movement. Punk was the great displacement. I still like Weezer, though, and I’m happy when hair metal comes on the radio, especially Def Leppard, Warrant, and those Ozzy Osbourne ’80s songs. “If I close my eyes forever,” remains a soul-withering song, as haunting a piece of music I can think of. Hating “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life” when it first appears but kind of loving it now, hearing a distillation of the entire plasticine era, the ’90s. Mocking the Toadies but now entranced by the darkness in their songs, the violent obsessions. Trashing SpaceHog both then and now. Dismissing Portishead but finding hard truths in “Invisible Stars,” a precognitive madness, a song that saw the America that was coming, and our inability to stop it. 

19.

Holding back tears while blaring Lagwagon in my Corsica, late at night, slightly drunk, bewildered by college, heartsick, vulnerable, feeling desperate and alone, the halogen glow of the street lamps in the parking lot casting the very air around me in sickly magic. I can’t yet discern anger from heartbreak, one of my abiding weaknesses, and the music no longer angry anyway but aching, forlorn, empty, diseased with grievance. Lagwagon at the time my favorite band. The songs are harming me in unseen ways. “Angry Days” playing another day, I hear it with a friend in the same car and he looks me over and says, “You’re still in them, aren’t you?” “What?” I say. “You’re still living in those angry days.” I’m 18, on the cusp of a new self, still trapped in the self-defeating cycle of perpetual behaviors, ricocheting back and forth from hedonism to asceticism, god-haunted and weary, unsure of everything.


 

Terror in the Flesh: A Snapshot of the ’90s

by Ben Beard

This is the story of two fights, unpunished crimes, dingy high schools, errant punches, the unreliability of memory and a semi-hidden psychopath. It’s also the story of the Florida Panhandle, the 1990s, and the end of my youth.

Memory is tricky, collapsible, untrustworthy, elusive, sometimes misleading, often contradictory. Our brains are as often as not eliding key details, creating narratives, reordering sequences. But one thing I’m certain of: when I was fourteen, I ran into the meanest person I’ve ever met, a teenager who, over the years, has transmogrified into something darker, something out of a fairytale or a myth.

***

Let’s call him Tony.

He was one year older than me, but it felt like a decade. He had olive-toned skin, wavy black hair, a nose a little too small for his face, dark brown eyes, and an inexplicably Welsh last name, despite his Mediterranean features. He could be part Greek or Italian, with a soupcon of French. Whatever his genetics, the result was a disaster. He was volatile, terrifying, rapey. He radiated menace. User of steroids in high school. Possessor of fully formed pectoral muscles.

Me: Tall, gawky, curly-haired, ill-fashioned, friendly, lover of comic books and video games, and still playing with toys at 14. I liked The Beatles, Jellyfish, The Connells, and R.E.M. I was competitive in soccer but gentle in just about everything else.

This was right before grunge exploded, somewhere in early 1992, right before flannel hit, when people wore shirts meant for cold rain and light snow in the sultry heat of Pensacola, the shirts often unbuttoned and dangling open with an alternative-rock band shirt underneath. If you were really cool, it’d be Dinosaur Jr. or Sebadoh. If you wanted to look cool but couldn’t quite fake it, Polvo or Firehose. If you had a little money and really cared what others thought, it might be Archers of Loaf or Pavement. Most kids had Led Zeppelin apparel. The clothes were shares of granola, beige, burgundy, campfire, and sienna. Pants were just extending into the baggy spectrum, on their way to absurd late-’90s decadent flare, culminating in jean skirts for men that never caught on.

We distrusted bright colors. They spoke of ’80s excess, of peacock posturing, of the West Coast, of elsewhere. Everyone wore khaki and beige, horizontal stripes. Even the white t-shirts were faded.

The categories of high school—nerds and jocks and burnouts and cheerleaders and band geeks and so on—were breaking down. It was a ’90s thing. You could be good at sports and good at school and good at music but the one thing you could not do was show that you actually cared. An abiding spirit of irony and detachment saturated everything. The key concept was disengagement. The vibe was apathetic. Striving was lame, trying was worse, and caring for anything was seen as dumb.

Seinfeld, a show that advertised itself as a show about nothing, would in just a couple of years be the top program on TV.

The categories were breaking down. Or maybe they were evolving. We were most of us swimming in least-worst spender mentality—wary of success, distrustful of authority, of money, floating in a post-Cold War opulence that we all interpreted as end-of-history ennui. We didn’t have everything. No one seemed happy. We had cut our teeth on Cold War animus and with the Berlin Wall now a memory a tentative optimism took hold but no one knew what to do with it and we were children, still, and children don’t know what to do with anything.

Tony didn’t fit into the old categories. He was too moody to be a meathead—meatheads hold a revelry in ignorance and violence, there was a joy in the meathead’s assholery, and if you played your part, they’d leave you alone; Dazed and Confused captured them best, with the asshole who proclaims, “I’m here to kick ass and drink beer. And I’m running out of beer.”—but he didn’t brood in any noticeable way. He wasn’t an update of Bender from The Breakfast Club, he didn’t write poetry or listen to The Cure. I don’t know what kind of music he liked, but if I had to guess, I’d say he probably complained about what was on the radio, holding a secret penchant for Celine Dion or the Spin Doctors. He drove a truck, but I don’t remember him being a hunter or into fishing. He didn’t surf, despite living near the beach.

In retrospect, much of him is unknowable.

***

It started with two other sophomores—Sean and Neal—telling me during lunch that they heard I had been talking about their mamas. I said I hadn’t; I was too naive to throw the joke back at them. This was in the cafeteria, one of the unsafe places in the school. (The bathrooms, the locker room, the senior hallway, the quad, and the field behind the school were the others.) Tony walked up and joined in, only unlike Sean and Neal, he was genuinely threatening. He had pectoral muscles and enormous biceps, menacing brown eyes, and a hard, bitter mouth. He asked me again.

“No,” I said.

“I heard you’ve been talking about my mama,” he said again.

I knew I was in trouble. I was still new to the school and didn’t yet have the lay of the land, but my internal alarms were ringing. I repeated myself. Tony wasn’t having it. I tried to shrug him off, move past him back to my table. The gambit worked, or so I thought.

***

I always went out to the quad after I ate, and this day was no exception. Only Tony followed me. Right behind me. And he asked again why I was talking about his mama. I said I hadn’t been. He asked me again, closer this time. I noticed that my friend Cody was nearby, watching and clearly worried. Tony kept coming at me about his mama, while students milled about and pretended to look at the dirt and the sky. We were near the door to the main school, a sandy patch of crabgrass edged with desiccated hydrangeas. He was in my face, and it was all happening so fast all I could think was, what is happening? Why aren’t the adults doing anything? I didn’t look around but sensed the growing audience of onlookers, doing nothing.

He shoved me. I shoved him back. He inhaled, swelling up to double his size, dropping his arms to his sides, preparing to administer a beat-down.

Then Braden—kind, tough, bowl-cutted Braden, a guy I’d known in middle school but was never friends with—stepped in. “Hey,” Braden said. “He’s cool. Let him alone.”

Tony took stock. He wasn’t looking for beef with Braden. “You really weren’t talking about my mama?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Never.”

The bell rang. We entered the school, a mass of lemmings. Cody and I headed for art class.

“Oh my god,” he said. “I would have been shitting myself.”

“Yeah,” I said, my hands not shaking but they might as well have been. I was petrified.

Thus began my relationship with Tony. One of the truly heinous people I’ve ever met.

***

In the after-school specials, the books and the movies, bullies are cowards. I’ve never found this to be true. Yes, most bullies look for easier prey—say, me, at 14—but my pushing Tony back had accomplished nothing.

Tony stalked the hallways. He was a moody motherfucker, often shoving past underclassmen in a puffed-up rage. He dated Janey, a girl uniformly acknowledged as one of the prettiest in the school whose locker was unfortunately next to mine. So Tony was always lurking about. I avoided eye contact, praying that Braden’s protection extended to all four years. Around this time, he head-butted a friend of mine who tried to intercede in their dysfunctional dynamic.

But it was a small school. We ran into each other. One day, after soccer practice, he was skulking around the track, shirtless, strutting around with his ridiculous physique. He pretended to punch me in the chest as I passed by. It was a thing. If you didn’t have pecs, you had a bird. And older kids would extend their middle knuckle and jack you right in your breast bone, saying, “Shut that bird!” It was a weird north Florida thing.

Weirdly, Tony didn’t actually hit me, just pretended to, making disparaging remarks. I moved along, grateful the interaction didn’t last any longer. Also, I was curious: why hadn’t he punched me?

***

Tony was part of a rowdy, dysfunctional, disreputable class. There were pranksters who always took their jokes too far; burnouts rocking the flannel as an advertisement for their weed-smoking; metal-heads pushing the dress code with their wristbands; skaters, smokers, nerds, assholes, geeks, and rednecks. It was a liminal time. They all seemed to hang out together, to tolerate each other, despite the meanness and the irrationality. Tony fit right in. They all seemed damaged. They all seemed off-kilter. They drove trucks and listened to Metallica. They wore Vans and drank cheap beer. They played football and basketball, with the occasional freak drifting into soccer.

The emerging class of skate-punks—most of whom didn’t skate—and the older hunting/fishing/camping crowd—most of whom did hunt and fish—were at loggerheads. They lived in different worlds. The school was a microcosm of the Florida Panhandle, split between the new-old sound of grunge and the old-new sound of country.

***

Grunge broke through with the appearance of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, the Screaming Trees, and Mudhoney, but it was really the first three that formed the locus of the music, and all of them hit through MTV. The bands didn’t have much in common beyond a boozy, angry, fuzzy sound, rock stripped back to its basics. But it wasn’t inevitable. Surf punk a la Jane’s Addiction—singing about heroin and homelessness and the squalid viciousness of the human animal—could have caught on. There were other bands, other trends. Industrial music—a clangy, heavy-metal derived sound—appeared with Nine Inch Nails, Tool (one of the most fascinating bands of the decade), and Circle of Dust.

I hadn’t yet succumbed to the primal angst of punk. I liked P.J. Harvey and the Lemonheads and the Las, a kind of fuzzy, early shoe-gaze alternative music, and was just six months away from Pavement and other slacker rock bands. I was still open to new things. I still listened to the radio, but I was more and more drawn to the underground. So, it seems, was everyone else.

***

Fast forward two years.

After school one day, Peyton and Devon got into a fight after school. I knew them both. We all grew up in the Cordova Park neighborhood, festooning with teenagers during my childhood, too many to name, boys and girls that almost all went to Washington High. The fight was set up ahead of time. I can’t remember what it was about, only that I had a makeup test the same day so I missed it. Half the school showed up to this abandoned field of overgrown grasses, parking their cars in a semicircle on the grass. Fights normally didn’t actually happen this way, and Peyton and Devon probably would have exchanged words but avoided punches.

But Tony and a meathead named Brandon told them in front of everyone that if they didn’t fight each other, then they would both get their asses beat. “We’ll fuck you both up,” Brandon said, with Tony scowling behind him. So Peyton and Devon squared off. It was a warm, sunny day. They each held their fists in front of their faces, like pugilists of old. Everyone stopped talking, giggling. They waited, leaning in, the eyes of half the school peeled, the crowd half-frozen in blood lust reverie.

***

A few quick asides:

Brandon was a pretty horrific person in his own right, thick-necked and ignorant, but also predictable, an old-fashioned redneck. He sported a serious mullet. He had enormous hands. He liked football, fighting, drinking, and fishing. He was a dour and humorless guy. He carried the face and features of a middle-aged man while a junior in high school. He was part of a teenage fight club that met behind the bowling alley by the airport, where the members would fight each other for fun, knocking back beers in a circle of truck headlights. They had a few rules but the point was to pummel each other and practice their brutality. He died a few years back in a fishing accident. Working on his boat, he slipped, hit his head, and fell into the water, where he drowned. The various obituaries said he was beloved.

I’ve known Peyton since I was seven years old. We were good friends, then acquaintances, then good friends again, now all of it swallowed by the crush of time. Peyton was a puckish guy, funny, quick with the pranks. He got bored easily. Once, in a varsity soccer game, he retrieved the ball by the bleachers of the opposing fans. They were heckling him. He pulled his pants down, subtly, and then when he bent over to get the ball, mooned all the parents and siblings of the other team. No one else noticed. He once made a giant rope of rubber bands just to attach it to my friend’s car when we picked him up to go to the movies. Dozens of people yelled out of their car windows on the way, “You have something trailing from the back of your car!” We pulled over and took it off. Peyton didn’t let on that he had put it there.

I was with him when the nation’s news stations broke to O.J. Simpson fleeing down the freeway in his white Bronco. We watched, unsure if we should laugh or hide our eyes, as the white Bronco made its quiet way down the freeway devoid of cars. We knew this was a big deal. We were mesmerized. Here was Simpson, a favorite of mine thanks to The Naked Gun, armed and suicidal and fleeing police. We knew we were watching something significant, even if we weren’t sure why.

I sided with him in his beef with Devon, even if I never understood the conflict. We were all on the soccer team, and I never realized it was heading towards fists.

***

Faced with the threats by Brandon and Tony, Peyton and Devon squared off. Peyton ducked and weaved, like an old-style pugilist, tagging Devon in the face and stomach. Devon landed a glancing blow off Peyton’s head. Peyton kept moving forward. He punched Devon a few more times. He beat Devon up. Devin fell to the ground, signaling the fight was over. Peyton backed up and walked away. His part in the fight was over. He got in his car and left, his retinue close behind.

As Devon started to get up, dust and dirt on his arms and back, shaky on one knee, Tony stepped forward and kicked Devon savagely in the ribs. Devon fell back against the trailer hitch of a truck, and busted his eye. Tony said something nasty, something like, “You fucking pussy.”

Sickened, everyone left, Devon one of the last.

***

I went to a girls’ basketball game the next night. A couple of my friends were playing. I went alone and sat by myself. I cheered a little, enjoying the back and forth. Halfway through the game, Tony dropped down into the seat next to me. I tried to hide my panic.

“’Sup,” he said.

“Hey,” I said, thinking, what the hell is going on?

“Kind of a lame game,” he said.

“Yeah.”

We sat in relative quiet, the gym filled with the echoing bounce of the basketball, the coaches yelling and the cheering parents. I was shitting myself.

“You at the fight?” he asked.

“Naw,” I said. “I had a test.”

“That’s fucked up,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It sucks.”

He leaned back against the bleachers. You’d think we were pals. “I just don’t like pussies, you know? I just don’t like when people are pussies. If there’s a fight, then fight. Do it. Don’t be a pussy.”

“Yeah,” I said, thinking, why are you talking to me?

And I knew he was talking about the kick, but I wasn’t going to bring it up. I reflected everything back at him. The strategy worked.

“I’ll see you around,” he said, then headed off, the normal swagger gone. There was something lonely about his shoulders.

***

A year passed.

I went to a party with Chad, a friend of mine in Tony’s grade. We weren’t there but ten minutes before Tony popped me in the back of the head, an errant punch. I swung around, ready to fight. Chad hustled me out the door. “That was Tony,” he said, aghast. “What the hell are you thinking?”

In a parallel universe, Chad isn’t there. It plays out one of three ways. One: I George McFly his ass with a wild haymaker, breaking his nose. He crumples onto the floor and maybe I kick him a few times while he’s down. Two: I miss or he blocks it, and then he proceeds with the beat-down. Three: we get into it but the other people there break it up.

Chad and I left. He was right, of course. We fucked off, drove around a bit, listening to Beck before eating some hamburgers at Whataburger.

Here’s where memory is tricky. I know this happened, but the hit couldn’t have been very hard, and Tony and I were rarely at the same parties. I don’t know how he saw me as we both got older. I don’t know if he thought I was cocky or meek or reckless or strong or weak or strange, perhaps a little dangerous, too.

I was a bit of all of these things, maybe. I wasn’t a timid wallflower. I once tried to start a fight with a deaf kid in a pickup basketball game. (To be fair, he was a bully himself.) I shoved another kid into the Gulf, out of anger. At a church retreat. I injured multiple people in soccer and at least one for life. A teacher at my high school proclaimed in front of a large group that I had the Devil in me. Even though she wasn’t joking, I laughed.

I possess a hidden face, and it was and is hostile. I wasn’t all good.

***

Tony graduated. He went to college in Alabama. He joined a fraternity. I can’t imagine what his college life was like, the hidden tensions, the resentments, the loneliness. I don’t know if he followed co-eds home in the dark, or studied philosophy, read Kerouac and Hesse, or hit the weights and drank himself into a stupor at frat parties. I don’t know.

I went to college in Alabama, too, far from Tony. I didn’t hear about him for a couple of years, and I didn’t think about him, either. This was the late ’90s. Grunge in the rearview mirror. The dot-com boom. The Clinton impeachment. The pre-9/11 years of minor cultural squabbling, with hip hop beginning its ascendancy.

I heard little updates about him here and there—and the stories are really fucking dark, truly depraved and scary stuff, with Tony running someone over in his car and braining another with a brick—but with each passing day the likelihood that I would ever see him again decreased.

***

My buddy Robert stayed in Pensacola. He got a job as a lineman for the phone company. He rented a small house with a group of friends, right near the oyster bar, just off Bayou Texar. One night he threw a party. Some dickhead started shit with him. They fought. Robert won. But the dickhead wouldn’t leave. He stood in the yard, talking shit and making some threats. Robert was done with him. But the dude wouldn’t leave. Tony was there. God knows why. He grabbed the dude by the hair and said, “Boo-yah bitch!” before kneeing him right in the face, breaking his nose. The dickhead dragged himself to his car, and screamed at Robert and Tony and everyone else through his bloody nose that he’d be back the next night, with a gun, and was going to shoot every fucking one of them.

We weren’t kids anymore. Tony was in his mid-twenties. I had already graduated college and was working my first job in Alabama. The ’90s had ended. The 2000s were here.

***

My wife has taken to practicing extreme empathy. She tries to extend grace to people she dislikes or even loathes, mostly right-wing political figures. “It’s a way of letting go of negative emotions,” she tells me. “The person you hate is unharmed and you are burned up with resentment.”

I’m a nonviolent person. I try to be good. But I cannot forgive Tony. He remains on my not-so-shortlist. I brood. I like holding on to my resentments. I don’t like being a resentful grudge-holder, but I come by it naturally. I’m mostly Scottish, a grouchy, clannish hill people ill-tempered by centuries of haggis, English imperialism, and interminable rain, with only the goddamn screeching bagpipes for succor and comfort. We have this in our very bones.

***

The film critic A.O. Scott writes in a recent essay that, “The things you loved when you were young will never be able to make you young again.” Perhaps this is the way of hate, too. I’ve held on to Tony; I don’t want to let him go. I keep the anger close, and the fear closer. I should have exorcised Tony from my mind a long time ago. I’ve wasted precious time on him that I could have spent living my own life.

Southern Christian Soccer-Punk and Other Unicorns: A Dispatch from the ’90s

by Ben Beard

1.

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. 

2. 

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. 

3.

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. 

4.

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.) 

4.

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. 

5.

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.