Tuesday, July 21, 2009
THE WRITING PART OF TBB. We've mentioned Boz Baker before. He was the 'new journalist' who dared to infiltrate Punk City in 1980. He's reputedly the author of Zack. It's far more likely that he's the author of this:
A Flourish of Razors
by Boz Baker
RRRRRRRRRRooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!!! Omigod, I’m thinking, feeling this Harley noise under my all too soft and thoroughly unprepared butt, I’m going to die, right here on South Street, before I get word one of this Great American Cultural Movement on paper. Screeeeeech!!!! Oh Jesus! Did I say Cultural Movement? Did I even think it? No, this is nothing less than cultural war, and that’s kultural with a K, the way almost everything’s spelled with a K by the punk bands of Philadelphia. K for kayo and K for kill and, now that I mention it, K for kamikaze, like this feeling I’m having right now on the back of a deathbound chopper that’s being piloted by an honest to God madman who calls himself Johnny Dodge. And then we’re perpendicular to the ground and the Harley wheel is pawing the air — I’m staring straight ahead at a baby blue heaven that has preempted my horizon and all thoughts of such minutiae as the connotative difference between cultural with a c and kultural with a k — and Johnny is wailing like a banshee above me, a frozen mountain climber dangling from a chrome precipice of handlebars, my hands clawing and digging into his almost nonexistent gut, and I have this sudden instantaneous revelation, lasting no more than the split second of motionlessness at the apogee of our wheelie, of what this punk thing is all about and why I haven’t been able to get the hang of it till now.
But maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Folding the motorcycle back into the vivid niche it occupies in my braincase, I return to the day a week or so before when I first arrived on South Street, where I had come in search of an entity known as the Shuteye Train, rumors of which had circulated as far north as my home in Boston. Not that I believed all — or more accurately, what little — I had heard. Rumors have a way of becoming stretched and diffused the farther they get from their source, and who in his right mind would believe that the first big assault on the literary establishment in Lord only knows how long would be launched by a handful of semi-literate, semi-human semi-conductor fiends who dressed like punk rockers and behaved like Hell’s Angels. I, for one, didn’t, but I was interested in the environment that could give rise to such a story and perhaps a little hopeful that there was at least a kernel of truth in all the talk, particularly with regard to the Shuteye Train, a name which had figured prominently in the trickle of lies and whispers that came my way.
The Shuteye Train, it was said, wrote vicious stories live on stage, then went out and made them come true. I heard that they were maniacs, that they were murderers, that they lived in hiding, somewhere between half a step and a step and a half ahead of the law. So one dull Friday, I put on my old leather jacket, flew down to Philadelphia, and took a cab from the airport to South Street.
I emerge on the corner of Sixth and South at six minutes past six. It’s raining, it’s late in August, the street smells of boiled macadam — so empty of cars and people that it seems less a thoroughfare than a greasy gray mirror of urban decline. Squatting along its edges, the buildings of South Street are arrangements of tired old brick, restrained only by habit from dissolving into their own reflections.
The lurid signs of the bars and eateries — across the street “The Slaughtered Pig” spills its intestines in hot pink bas relief — don’t relieve the decrepitude but accentuate it, like orange hair on a crone.
Fatigue steals over me. I’m getting bald and fat and the leather jacket of my youth has become a dank corset around my paunch. Why did I undertake this wild goose chase? So what if there are punk writers in Philadelphia? How can it possibly matter?
Two teenage girls strut by me, chewing gum, giving me the onceover. SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! Their jaws close on juicyfruit with the sound of gunfire, and it seems impossible that any renaissance of literature could come from the young people of Ameria. Cheap perfume, and they’re wearing jeans so tight there’s not the slightest chance they could ever sit down at a keyboard to begin the reshaping of our perceptions and philosophies.
But over my head there’s a denture-gray theater marquee that spells “Razor Cafe” in mostly unbroken letters, and lured by the promise of “LIVEGRIND: ALICE HATE & THE FETAL CIRCUS,” I give five dollars to the glowering shrike in whiteface behind the ticket window.
“You’re early,” he berates me. “Show starts at eight.”
What the hell would I do till then? “Can’t I go in now?”
“Now is the only time that matters,” he replies, showing me the yellow stumps of his teeth. “Go on in.”
I pass through swinging doors that still wear a bleached advertisement for Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels.”
The lobby is deserted but for two caped figures wearing fiberglass helmets designed in the Bronze Age. The nosepieces are long and scarred, the eyes separate bubbles of dark plastic. I can feel rather than see them scanning my flabby midriff for weapons.
They mumble at one another. I hear a rustle of cape, the hiss of hidden steel.
I hold out my ticket and am waved through by a gauntleted hand. Is it just my imagination or was that glove armored with shards of green circuit board? I don’t dare look back.
More swinging doors. Beginning to wonder what I’ve let myself in for, I take a deep breath and make my entrance into the social headquarters of Punk City, the only place I’ve ever been where the reality surpassed the rumors.
Big dogs, little dogs, not a purebred among them, but it seemed that a majority of them turned and examined me when I arrived. I had a quick sense of intelligent scrutiny, and then they turned away. I wasn’t as interesting as what was happening on stage.
There, two punks dressed all in black were connecting computer CRTs, processor boxes, and keyboards with reels of cable. The dogs found it more fascinating than I did, but here I thought was an opportunity to start my research.
I made my way down the aisle, which had been preserved even to the flowered carpet, and tried to ignore the low growls of disapproval in the audience.
The bigger of the two roadies (as I thought of them) was turned roughly in my direction and it was to him I spoke.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Can you tell me if one of the bands that’s performing tonight will be the Shuteye Train?”
Both punks stopped what they were doing and faced me.
“Whatsit?” the big one asked with an edge in his voice.
“The Shuteye Train,” I repeated.
Silence. They looked at each other then back at me.
“I’d like to meet them. Interview them.”
There must have been a signal. But I never saw it. The next thing I knew, about twelve snarling dogs had their teeth sunk into various parts of my clothing, and something large, heavy and hard came down on top of my skull.
The lights flashed once inside my brain and went out.
“How would you like your throat cut, boomer?”
Suddenly I’m puzzling mightily over a question that has acquired in the space of a watch tick a transcendent importance in my perspective on life.
Knock of knees, Saharification of mouth, a freezing whiteness of vision. How did I come to be no more than a tissue of too too vincible flesh wrapped around a hundred mile an hour heart?
“I asked you a question. I’m waiting for the answer.”
My inquisitor is young and blond and presumably human inside the jet black brahma skin that hides his vitals, although the finger he holds against my neck is made of blue-white steel, the same exact color I notice — for I am in a noticing mood — of the unwarm irises of his eyes.
“I’m Boz Baker, the writer.”
Who said that? Certainly not I, I of the hammering heart and cold, choking throat. An offensive remark, a preposterous remark to make to such an animal. WHO SAID THAT GODDAMMIT? THIS IS NOT TIME FOR COMEDY. BOZ BAKER’S LIFE IS ON THE LINE HERE!
Is that a smile? Please, God, let that be a friendly smile, not just some pre-homicidal twitch of oscular nerves. I’ll do anything. I’ll donate all my royalties to charity. I’ll save the whales in person. I’ll —
“We’re writers too.”
Is that so? How wonderful, how absolutely fantastic, how very pleased I am to meet them, fellow practitioners of the world’s loneliest and noblest profession...
A tidal wave of ingratiating drivel I am powerless to withhold drenches the room. We are all of us drowning in my terrified effusions of bonhomie, and I have a brief bright vision of tomorrow’s headline — YOUNGSTERS FAWNED TO DEATH BY YELLOW WRITER — while the knife gloriously folds itself up and slides away into its lair. Deprived of its immediate source of inspiration, my mouth mercifully ceases its yammering and gulps, fishlike, at the glass of water proffered by my erstwhile executioner.
With my head clears of both pain and fear, I realize that the chair I’m tied to is close to the same location in the theater where the lights went out on me. Oddly, the dogs have been banished from the room, replaced by an increasing number of ‘roadies’ who are performing intricate operations on stagelights, computer cables, and banks of CRTs. A punk stoops behind my chair to untie the ropes, and introductions are being exchanged among the five of us now seated at the table.
“My name is Johnny Dodge,” says the blond terrorist who has scared five years off the lifespan of my heart. “And these are the other members of the 440s, my band... Header McCoy... and the Pack brothers... Sixpack and Fastpack.”
With my hands free, I shake theirs enthusiastically, smile idiotically.
“I apologize,” says Johnny Dodge, “for any discomfort we have caused you.” Although his accent is American and somehow rural, he speaks English like a foreigner, as though he had learned every word he used in a textbook. “It is exceedingly perilous for visitors in Punk City to ask questions about and demand interviews with the Shuteye Train. If I were you, I would refrain from doing so again. There are many of us who believe it’s safer to attack at once than wait for an ambush.”
Yes, yes, yes, yes, absolutely. More drivel from Boz, more relaxing body language from the 440s, who seem sympathetic to the whim which has brought me to South Street in search of a story to write. I feel as if uncontroversial pleasantries are called for, but I have no idea what they might consist of.
Johnny Dodge comes to the rescue. Without a knife in his hand, he is engaging, even charming. His hair is the color of irradiated wheat, but with the exception of this and his outlandish attire, he seems less punk than hick, as if he had wandered from some remote farmland into an alien lifestyle that had captured him by its sheer differentness.
“I’m from Jersey,” he says by way of explaining his pacific disposition. “I’d sooner talk than fight, unless I don’t like someone’s manner enough to exchange words with them. Violence can be final and fatal. To me it’s the last option, not the first.
The other 440s agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. It transpires that the entire band is from New Jersey, although not all from the same locale. Johnny is from a small town in the barrens called Pineville. The Pack brothers are from Camden — no word on whether they were christened ‘Six’ and ‘Fast’ by their mother — and header McCoy is from Cape May. When I confide that I once had an aunt who summered there, he rubs his mohawk speculatively and decides that any aunt of mine would probably have been too classy to have known his folks.
But what about all this, I find myself wondering. No expert on punk, I had nevertheless felt fairly sure about classifying it as an urban phenomenon, an unnatural outgrowth of the tight, mean world of the city. I had spent a month or two in Philadelphia, some years ago, and it was that experience which had given me a context in which to view punk writing a (possibly) credible cultural occurrence. I remembered the brick and black wastes of West Philadelphia, where middle-class educational aspirations collided with the asphalt taste of ghetto anger and deprivation: there had been a pinball parlor next door to the theater that showed foreign films, and it was an absurdist reality that as sidewalk critics made their points about Bergman and Wertmuller after the late show, their mental gymnastics were mocked and mimicked by the DING-A-LING-A-LING-A-LING-A-LING of pinballs scoring pointless points for the truly lost, who lacked the means to measure the enormity of their despair. This was the image that had come to me when I first heard of St. Nuke and the other razor-toting leatherboys who called themselves punk writers. Punks, I had thought, might be the voices of these voiceless undefended masses, and in their prose we might come to feel the texture of concrete walls, the rage of a city’s imprisoned soul.
Now, talking with Johnny Dodge & the 440s, I knew that I was wrong, and at one and the same time I felt guilt for having formed such preconceptions and resentment at Johnny for having trampled my vanity by invalidating them.
“Great to meet you,” I told him, hoping I’d said nothing to offend.
Johnny extended his hand, and I shook it gratefully.
“If you’re going to be here for a few days, maybe we’ll meet again,” he told me.
“That’s be great. Great!”
As he walked away toward the stage, Header McCoy lingered, appearing slightly uncertain in the absence of his leader, but at last he sat down again and leaned toward me to speak in a whisper.
“Be careful, Mr. Baker,” he said. “Johnny Dodge is the best and the kindest of us. But don’t be fooled. If anyone but him had walked in while you were laid out on the floor, you might be dead by now. Punk City does not take kindly to reporters and other people who ask questions. You are Johnny’s guest now, which is the best possible luck for you. Everyone will treat you politely for that reason, but you must be still be careful not to make enemies through careless words or actions. You may order alcohol at the bar, but do not offer it to anyone who is not already drinking. Members of bands do not drink, and it is a terrible insult to imply that they might. And do not mention the Shuteye Train again, to anyone, because it is not just impolite but highly dangerous to do so. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I told him while my mind was telling me no, no, no. It was becoming clear that I understood nothing. Nothing but the clear and irrefutable fact that — despite any and all risks — Boz Baker was going to need some drinks to get through the remainder of this evening.
“It’s like this on Tuesday and Friday nights,” he lisps between sips of iced coffee. “The boomers, they been coming here since spring, and Willie, who owns the joint, worked a deal with the bands to charge admission and split the graves. Mosty, it’s a live-and-let-live situation that helps us with the BB, but there’s tork situations sometimes too. Once some boomer couple came in dressed like punks, trying to, you know, get in for free, and Slash Frazzle splashed the zeezer good.”
“What about the other nights?” I ask.
“Word gets around,” replies Jonathan with a smile that shows gray and black teeth rotting in his gums. “The boomers, they learn not to come around except on the right nights.”
I would ask why they come at all, but I’m not sure Jonathan would like the question. Too, I already have a sense of what the answer might be. There is a beat here, a pounding sense of excitement, the suspicion that anything at all might happen and probably has or will, and even the coziest of the upper middle class professionals seated here and there about the Razor Cafe must experience the call of the wild on occasion. The way Jonathan talks about the bands creates the strong impression that the best of the punks may actually possess that ‘star’ quality which, from time immemorial, has transformed the lowest of dives into the most exalted pinnacles of entertainment.
And I know that I will be learning more very shortly, because the show is about to begin. A scabrous emcee has mounted the stage and is hectoring the “boomers” in the audience with practiced style. “You wanna die tonight?” he shrieks, licking his blackened lips. “You think we aren’t gonna git you some of these nights, you dumb zeezers? Well maybe not tonight. But we’re warning you... some night you’ll wish you never came, never did anything so blind bone stupid as coming to the Razor Cafe to see — “ and his voice suddenly jumped a full octave and a double-digit span of decibels, “ — JOHNNY DODGE & THE 440S... RIPP STARR & THE CELEBRITIES... AND ALICE HATE & THE FETAL CIRCUS!!!”
And now the Razor Cafe is rocked by screams, whistles, stomping feet, and a mounting crescendo of anticipation that tightens my groin and squeezes a sharp flat smile onto my lips. I feel in my knotted intestines that I am in it now for real. Boz Baker has come to Punkfictionland and just maybe will never be quite the same again.
Gulping my drink (a hideous looking margarita with a jeering, oversized umbrella protruding from the beer mug in which drink is served at the Razor Cafe), I roll my increasingly soft focus eyes toward the stage, where my pal Johnny Dodge has just been announced. The black burlap curtain rises, and there he is, a shocking presence which pierces my entrails from more than fifty feet away. His clothes are the same, his hair is the same, and even his grin bears some slight resemblance to the one he flashed at me. But otherwise, this is a different Johnny Dodge. This one is all predator, an attacking animal unconstrained by such archaisms as tenderness, tolerance, or mercy. He leans into the crowd, his eyes glittering with opaque fury, and launches into a story, inside the caterwauling of recorded engine roars.
“I want to say one thing,” he begins, and his voice is as dry as the rasp of a snake.
And then the 440s chime in behind him, a hoarse collective croak. “Lay some rubber, get away. 440s go, boomers stay.”
“I just want to say one thing,” Johnny repeats. “ Some night you’ll be out walking...” and I realize that there is a new undercurrent to the sound, a synchronized whisper of which every punk in the audience is a part, a human echo chamber for Johnny Dodge which makes of his voice a sea, a deep gray sea whose breakers intend to break you against the shore. I am convinced there is no recording technology on earth which could capture or reproduce such a timbre — sharp and hard as obsidian, soft and surrounding as a drowning wave.
Among the punks, only Jonathan Pus is a nonparticipant in the performance. He is giving me a running commentary on the essentials of punk writer performances. There is computer hardware galore, big black processor boxes with cable-connected keyboards and CRTs, as well as mysterious hybrid devices that though equipped with keyboards and screens, embody the erotic shapes and knock-your-eye-out colors of heavy-metal Stratocasters. Somewhere amid the intertwining yards of cable, there is a potent sound system doling out the guttural revs of an old-fashioned big-bore V-8. And next to Johnny, standing tall on the stage apron, is a giant screen that flashes chilling color images in jagged counterpoint to the words of the story. A photo of Johnny’s 440 appears and reappears in such nanosecond brevity that it has the force of a dream, which can scarcely be remembered but for its terrifying emotional impact.
“...and you’ll be standing there, all alone in the dark,” comes the promise of Johnny Dodge, “not knowing why 440 cubes are firing right at you. But why won’t matter. Not at all.”
Jonathan is explaining that this story has become a kind of standard, composed long months ago, and that Johnny and his boys are merely performing tonight, not engaging in the true punk excitement known as the livegrind, in which the band members write their stories in real time, pouring words at high speed into the processors that edit and collate them into a single stark stream of prose for display on the tube and simultaneous delivery by the lead narratist. It is only during the livegrind, Jonathan says, that one can appreciate the power and appeal of punk input devices such as the “ax” or parallaxophone, the “mace” or macrophone, and the “gun” or stereotypewriter. To satisfy an audience of boomers, though, the mere performance is enough, a way to make some quick “graves” that can be reinvested in new gear and gocode.
“Lay some rubber, make your play,” scream Johnny’s backups, “440s go, boomers pay.”
“And I only got one thing to say,” sneers Johnny, and for all my racing heartbeats, I wonder if this is true. Johnny’s story is a death threat, no more, no less, and it is not the words but the feeling that hammers its message home. It may well be that punk writing is a farce, a recycled stew of hostile punk music lyrics, but the passion that propels it from heart to keyboard to audience is as real as the trembling of my hands, which no amount of liquid anesthetic can calm.
Not that I don’t give it my best shot. Into the wee hours of the night, Boz quaffs and imbibes and chug-a-lugs as much of the 90-proof courage as he can summon to the table, and the remaining acts on the bill become a red, screaming blur. Johnny Dodge flips the bird to the audience and disappears, only to be replaced by a vision armored in the name Alice Hate. Too drunk to follow the lines, Boz hangs across the table with open mouth, feeling the physical assault of lyrics created by what has to be the most beautiful punk writer in the world.
Swimming in booze, my brain succumbs to the emotional magnifying glass of alcohol, and I know that I am in love. No, not love but LUST, in full Roman capitals, the kind that tents the toga and drags you from your eating couch across the marble floor, panting and drooling and dying for just one chance to JUMP HER BONES IN FRONT OF ALL THESE PEOPLE ‘CAUSE AFTER ALL WHO GIVES A SINGLE SOLITARY DAMN WHEN SHE IS SO THOROUGHLY THERE BEFORE YOU. And they don’t make them like this anymore, or at least I thought they didn’t, this kind of perfect erotic symphony of down, dirty, and arrogant femaleness that rakes the room with blazing eyes and transmits her siren call to every man with the merest, subtlest twitch of leathered thighs and brazen naked breasts.
And if this is punk, I’m thinking with what’s left of my sousified mind, then I am punk and have always been punk since before I was born. This vision, this magnetic Lorelei, has entirely filled me with such Alice Hatefulness that I am rapt, hanging on her every word, not one word of which I hear.
The audience, too, is captured — no, subjugated — content to be crushed in her contemptuous hand, unwilling to let her go no matter how or why she screams out her abuse, and minutes after her leopard skinned body and bride of Frankenstein coiffeur have vanished from the stage, the Razor Cafe quivers under the beat of feet and the bray of drunks demanding “Alice! Alice! Alice! We want Alice!”
But then it’s time — if time exists in this vortex of unchained catharsis, where Boz nods and reels in his chair like a whipped fighter trying to keep from being sucked down into the canvas — for the man who is introduced as the Star of Punk City, that is, Ripp Starr, lead narratist and mace man of Ripp Starr and the Celebrities.
Boz tries to focus, glimpses a tall broad-shouldered shape, but the shape and the words that it utters dissolve almost immediately into a twisting smear of riotous red light. The world is tipping over, it occurs to Boz, sloughing into a chaos so complete that even the laws of physics are crumpling like plastic straws inside the fist of God. And with this semi-revelation, Boz knows, in the last lighted remnant of his brain, that he must leave the Razor Cafe at once. Thanks be to Jonathan, who takes no liberties with his hands as he helps Boz stagger to the door, steadies the slack body as it pukes its guts out on South Street, and holds the door for the cab which has been bribed into Punk City by the promise of one hundred dollars cash for the ride uptown.
“Come back,” says Jonathan. “I’ll show you more.”
He was as good as his word. The next morning, though, I was as good as dead.
I awaken in a suite at the Latham Hotel, confronted by convincing evidence that my body has been destroyed by debauchery. Swollen to four times its normal size, weighing six hundred pounds, despite the fact that it has become hollow as a dead tree, it retains only one of its former powers — the ability to hurt. Oh God, I’m sorry, I’ll never do that again, you cannot know how terribly, truly, completely sorry I...
And then the phone goes off like a shrill land mine. It is Jonathan, explaining that he had investigated my travel documents so that he could send me to the right hotel, was I feeling all right now, would I like to meet him for lunch at the Rattery, he’d like to show me around Punk City.
Oh God. “Okay, Jonathan. I’ll meet you in an hour.”
What I want is sleep, a gallon of ice water to sip from, an icepack for my head, a nurse to bathe my brow. I have become too old for youthful binges. My clothes don’t fit; they were made for someone else, for whoever it was that entered the razor cafe last night in a fit of insanity, and they hang like sacks about the torso of the ragged husk that is now compelled to continue its interrupted tour of Punkfictionland.
I didn’t doubt it. I also didn’t eat the chili but rather expended my energies on exploring the new condition of consciousness I had fallen into. Still soaked in alcohol, my brain was numb as a novocained limb. It struggled with the simplest of tasks. There was a measurable delay between hearing and understanding, and time had somehow become discontinuous, seconds rolling silkily into minutes of unresponsive silence, then crowding into an irritating pileup that gave me the sense of too much happening at once. The Rattery was a prolonged streak of smelly young people, hard cheap punk clothes embroidered with circuit boards, abysmal food, and a general clamor of coarse, shouted conversations that are almost impossible for any outsider to understand. It is clear from my conversations with Jonathan that the punk lingo – called The Tung - is not their native dialect, but a deliberate invention designed to distance them from the world at large.
As I listen, I can recognize root words, but the punks have Cuisinarted all the rules governing prefixes and suffixes, so that the most familiar sounding word — its front and back diced, chopped, pureed, or sliced into a lexicographer’s nightmare — becomes a paradox, a mystery wrapped in maybe meanings that just might make some crazy kind of sense, although maybe not too, and there’s the teasing nastiness of it, the suspicion that it all collapses in the end to a single droll joke of nonconversation, carried out with nonwords that serve as mere provocations, stripped of every connotation and association that might tie its users to a world they loathe.
And there is something else about this language, some feature that is not a feature but a void, a blind spot that defies detection until...
“Jonathan,” I bark, too loudly for my eggshell cranium.
“Yo,” he smiles.
“Dirty words,” I whisper triumphantly. “Why aren’t there any dirty words?”
And suddenly it’s open sesame time at the Rattery. I have noticed something, and it proves to be a key, perhaps one of many, into the punks’ growing mythology about themselves. There is a story behind this observation of mine, and it seems that Jonathan now believes I’ve earned the right to hear it.
“There was a time, not so long ago,” Jonathan begins, and I feel like a child tucked in bed, thrilling all over with the soothing once upon a time sensation that has come over me so unexpectedly inside this greasy dive full of angry costumed children.
The tale starts with a handsome punk prince called St. Nuke, who was one of the first punk writers, one of the elect who seized on the promise of that first fateful collaboration between my friend Johnny Dodge and a “bitter” called the Sandman. St. Nuke had been a hopeful punk rocker, but he had already figured out that punk music was not enough. (Not enough what, I wonder in my aching head. Not enough hostility? Not enough noise?) And so he had organized a punk writer band called St. Nuke & the Minutemen. (Way back when, Jonathan makes clear, rolling his eyes back into the misty past of nearly double-digit months ago.) The Minutemen were good, a hell-rig band for sure, but all of them got “Jersified” in the great Winter War, all except St. Nuke that is, who was badly wounded in the ambush of his band by the Duke.
When the war was over and the biker gangs had been driven from Punk City, St. Nuke had become a feared streetfighter who was also an outspoken advocate for peace among punks. But it seemed that nothing could stop the punk writer bands from clashing in the streets, where according to Jonathan, they drew blood and lots of it over such earthshaking points of controversy as whether or not punk stories always had to end with the death of a boomer.
“It was ultralaughability time,” Jonathan concedes, with fights breaking out everywhere, so much so that the Punk City Shriek had a running front page report on the major torks that had occurred since the last issue. The situation was so bad that St. Nuke called together a bunch of lead narratists to share his concern that Punk City would be closed down if the torks couldn’t be controlled.
And it was also St. Nuke who came up with the idea of the weekly “debates,” in which the entire punk writer community could voice its disagreements and resolve them through a formal rite involving both rhetoric and single combat. The narratists grumbled and balked; they disapproved, it seems, of democracy and rule by the majority. But St. Nuke persisted, explaining that the debate was not a democratic process at all, as they would see if they tried it.
The first debate was held in the New Market courtyard, which had closed its doors as a business months before, and more than a thousand punks, dressed to the hilt in their colors and torkjacks, crowded into the brick plaza, exchanging confident looks to let one another know that they were ready for combat when the meeting inevitably broke down into violence. St. Nuke stood on a rough stage that he had had built, presiding from a stone podium with a “sacred hammer” (which Jonathan absolutely refused to explain further). He banged the hammer on the podium for order, and the bricks echoed its brutal beat repeatedly until silence finally reigned. He declared the debate open and explained that any band could put forward any proposition about anything as long as its designated champion was prepared to engage in single combat with anyone who disagreed.
A near riot ensued. Angry voices denounced the debate as “mocracy,” and it was with difficulty that St. Nuke managed to speak again. He vowed to prove that the debate was not democratic. Challenged to do so, he finally had his audience where he wanted it.
“I propose,” he said in a loud voice, “that punk pieces got no pornications or senities. At all.”
“Bullshit!” came the automatic reply, hundreds of fists upraised and shaking.
St. Nuke argued that the zeezer writers used so much pornication and senities that they were a kind of rule of modern writing. And, of course, everyone on South Street knew that punk writing had to break all the rules. Then he declared his intention to defend his proposition against all comers in single combat until there was no one left to oppose him.
It was, according to Jonathan, a dramatic and uneasy moment. There were murmurs as individual bands tried to decide how to respond. There may have been some movement toward the street, but it came to a halt when Max Murder of the Nasticators stepped forward to accept St. Nuke’s challenge.
As I waited to hear the climax, Jonathan suddenly interrupted himself and stood up from the table. “You got to glim it,” he said. “No good just to ear it. You got to glim the Metalkort.”
The motion activates the flow of blood to my brain, and I am — as punks of all sizes and descriptions stare unabashedly at me and my guide — mulling the pragmatic underside of the tale Jonathan has been spinning. How might a clever and ruthless tactician seize power in an anarchic vacuum such as the one that existed in Punk City after the Winter War? Tyrants of the past have tended to employ alliances, pulling together a nucleus of ambitious functionaries who, in exchange for promises of future power, will simply begin issuing orders and punishing all who disobey. Undertaken swiftly and viciously enough, such a maneuver can establish an unassailable power base before any opposing faction becomes strong enough to mount a serious challenge. Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler all used variations of this tactic, which offers as its only disadvantage the need for a protracted second phase in which the most able allies in the power grab are done in, usually one at a time. Thus did Caesar dispense with the triumvirate and Hitler with Ernst Roehm and Hindenberg.
It was unlikely that St. Nuke cared very much, if at all, about the amount of obscenity in punk writing. In establishing the forum of the debate and a virtually unthinkable initial proposition, however, he had hit upon a bold and cunning strategy for seizing complete personal power at once, without complicating and compromising alliances. If successful, he would have created, in a single stroke, both a form of government and an authority so absolute that punk writer fears about “mocracy” would be laughable indeed. I thought I was beginning to discern the shape of the force that had molded the punk writers into the intimidating force they now represented. And then we arrived at the Metalkort.
The heart of the area known as Punk City lay in the short broad strip of street formed by the junction of Headhouse Square and South Street. Old and once imposing buildings look down on this antique square, whose centerpiece is a colonial arcade in which long-dead merchants once hawked their wares. A more recent capitalist had tried to convert the large brick buildings on the eastern edge of Headhouse into a pricey Galleria-style mall by adding modern steel and glass architecture behind the colonial facade and paving the area thus enclosed with several thousand square yards of herringbone brick.
Now the dreams of Galleria prosperity are dead, and the modern steel and glass — devoid of shoppers, boutique signs, and designer window displays — looks cold and militaristic, like some East German party headquarters. And at the center of the herringbone courtyard stands an atavistic addition of the punks — a grass and granite dagger, or so it seems, the handle formed by steps descending underground, the blade by a pointed wedge of grass and dirt, and the crosspiece by a dais and podium made of stone.
I am gawking. Jonathan points: “We call it the Blade. It’s where the debates are resolved.”
Having not yet laid eyes on St. Nuke, I am nevertheless seeing him, a lone figure on that rude, low platform, daring his potential thousand or more opponents to fight him to the death on that narrow strip of green. All thoughts of European power politics dissolve; I am being hurled into some warp of pagan, Celtic tribalism.
Jonathan is speaking, recounting the fantastic events which have become to him a commonplace milestone of his past.
“St. Nuke descended from the dais there, and walked around to stand in front of it, there.”
Of course. Standing there — where Jonathan had indicated — St. Nuke would have his back to a stout wall shaped like an arched tombstone. An eloquent symbolic statement, without words, of a man prepared to die without retreating.
“Max Murder entered there, at the far point of the Blade, walking at first, but with the crowd behind him, he launched himself without warning into a charge. You see how it was?”
O sweet Jesus, I do see. And I can hear, too — hear the punks urging Max Murder on to terminate this threat to their beloved lawlessness, this presumption that one among them was above them, armored in some kind of right.
“Max was big,” says Jonathan in a near whisper, as if in the retelling he is himself seeing a dimension of the scene which has eluded him till now. “Awful big. And strong as an ox. He had a long scriver in his right hand, and a boxcutting knife in his left. Whichever one St. Nuke reacted to, Max would strike with the other. He meant for the fight to be finished with that one charge.”
And it was. St. Nuke waited, holding his hammer at his side, refusing to lift it in self-protection. Max Murder hesitated, deprived of his cue, deciding which of his weapons to use. He decided on the scriver, too late. As he was drawing it backward for the puncturing coup de grace, St. Nuke at last moved the hammer, not to cock it, but to bring it up — in a short, underhand punch to the bottom of Max Murder’s jaw, breaking his neck with a crack that shut up the crowd as if their combined voices were a vessel made of glass, glass shattered by the snapping neck of their champion.
St. Nuke waved at the nearest punks in the crowd to drag Max Murder’s body from the Blade.
“Next,” he bawled, and Gruesome Gasher, also of the Nasticators, stepped in to face him.
Jonathan, still whispering, tells me, “It went on all afternoon and all evening. St. Nuke was wounded half a dozen times, and the ground beneath his boots was spotted with blood. He fought thirty-two times, and he won each bout. Seven died.”
Three times, I learned, Johnny Dodge had interceded, pleaded with St. Nuke to let him stand in and fight the rest, but St. Nuke refused every time.”
“And then?” I ask.
“And then...” Jonathan is reluctant. There is something I’m not supposed to know.
“And then?” I try again. “Come on, Jonathan, you can’t tell me this much and not the rest. You can’t.”
Jonathan looks at me. “If I tell you and you tell someone else, I swear I’ll kill you before they kill me.”
I gulp, aware that he means it. “Yes,” I agree, “but tell me.”
“And then,” says Jonathan, his voice no more audible than a rustle of paper, “the four of them arrived, just at sunset, and the one of them who speaks for all said that if St. Nuke fell in defense of the proposition, they — the four of them — would take his place.”
“That settled it?”
“Yes. The proposition was carried. By voice vote. It became the law.”
“But who were ‘the four’?”
Jonathan wags a finger at me. “I didn’t tell you this,” he informs me. “The Shuteye Train.”
“I need a drink,” I told Jonathan, aware that my grip on reality was sliding out of my hands into a chaotic jumble of riddles. Eventually it slid away into a too bright afternoon at the bottom end of South Street, where the decaying blocks of commercial buildings suddenly merge into the gracious colonial brickwork of Society Hill. I am walking carefully, putting my stone feet down with care, one after the other, and Jonathan is talking, talking.
“I publish the paper,” he is telling me, afraid I have forgotten this vital fact from the evening before. “We do reviews, we cover what’s happening in Punk City, and we do a lot of classifieds. Bands looking for an axman. Freelance Dbasers advertising custom work. Bands that are breaking up looking to sell used guns and maces. Bands starting up that are looking for low end graffitizers. Lot of glimmers too. I do the glim for a lot of bands myself. Took a mail-order course, and I peak out at 1,000 words a minute.”
Tuning in from a great distance, I ask a question: “You mean you read books and explain them to the bands?”
“Yeah,” nods Jonathan. “You don’t think we’re complete zeezers do you? It’s for the BB.”
“The Boomer Bible,” he explains, still trying to be patient with me.
Yeah. Of course. Absolutely. Whatever that is. Do I even want to know about something called ‘The Boomer Bible’? Maybe later. “Do you think we could sit down for a while, Jonathan? I’m whipped.”
He looks up South Street, and I follow his eyes from one garish hand-painted sign to another, seeking a respite from the omnipresence of punk. But it is not to be had, not on South Street. Gross drawings stud the signs like jet-age gargoyles, obliterating any possible figurative element from such names as the Dead Fish, Gutshooters, the Dry Hump, and the Whoreshop. It is clear that St. Nuke’s proposition applies only to words, not images. Between the scarred building facades, I can hear the battering echo of Wendy O and the Plasmatics. The music is as hard and featureless as the bricks of the Metalkort.
“That’s KWO Radio,” Jonathan informs me with pride. “It’s a underground station, unlicensed you know, and you can only get it in Punk City. I do a show for KWO every Tuesday night called The Classic Writers.”
“And who are the classic writers?” I ask, steering Jonathan toward the Headhouse side of the square, where I have spotted a low brick wall adjacent to the Arcade. It looks perfect to me, out of earshot of KWO and out of eyesore of South Street.
“I don’t have to tell you,” replies Jonathan.
“Well, people do have different opinions about what’s classic and what isn’t.” I sit down on the wall. Nearby, on the median that divides most of Headhouse Square in half, a dwarf scuttles about drawing pictures in chalk on the concrete, oblivious to the jingle of coins in his begging box as passersby reward his industry, if not his art.
About ten yards from the dwarf, on the opposite sidewalk, a tall black magician is performing for a handful of female punks. He is, I notice with surprise, quite good. In fact, as I watch him pull buckets of live flowers from his top hat, damned good.
“Who’s that?” I ask Jonathan, who is still pondering my question about the classics.
“Mr. Magic,” he says. “He’s a magician.”
Do tell, I think waspishly. Just because he wears a tailcoat and a top hat and does tricks with flowers and doves and scarves, I couldn’t possibly have figured out that he’s a magician without Jonathan’s identification. Unless...
“What do you mean, a magician?”
“Have you ever seen your ka?” asks Jonathan with sudden intensity.
“What’s a ka?”
“Guess not then. Would you like to do some blue?”
Blue? Exotic drugs are all I need in my current condition. I thought I had heard most if not all the street names for drugs, but it is clear that Punk City has its own argot for everything else, so why not drugs? I begin to frame my polite refusal, but Jonathan has already left my side to conduct a transaction with the black man and soon returns with something concealed in a handkerchief.
Turning away from the street, he shows me what he has acquired — a test tube vial full of pale blue liquid.
“You just drink it,” he tells me.
Sure. You just drink it and then you freak out all over the street in broad daylight. “No. Thank you very much, Jonathan, but no.”
Jonathan laughs pleasantly. “It won’t hurt you. It’ll make you feel better. Never had anything better for a hangover.”
Of all the millions of words available in the English language, how could this young man possibly have known the only seven that had the power to change my sodden, aching mind? I hold my breath, say a silent prayer to the gods who protect foolish writers, and swallow the contents of the vial in a single gulp.
“Like to see the Bitterbox?” said Jonathan.
“Sure,” I told him, feeling the first flecks of blue spume spattering across my vision.
We crossed the street. I felt a tendril of fear, a fear that someone would run around the corner and cut my throat. Boz is no stranger to fear. He has felt the whump whump of his heart keep time with the stertorous start of a chopper about to take off from the last helipad in Saigon. The badlands of panic were all around. People in suits and uniforms held out their arms to the pilot beseeching him with white warped faces that made them look like bodies-in-waiting. But Boz walked to the chopper, one foot in front of the other, protected by the power of his own prophecy that this day would inevitably arrive — and by faith that he would be allowed to see it recede into the past from the height of his perception.
No stranger to fear, but then why does Headhouse feel so suddenly like a war zone, and no way out? A shell will scream across the rooftops and do murder with jagged scraps of steel. A truckful of pre-teen commandos will screech to a stop on the cobbles and spray bloody holes in the surface of reality. I can see my face, blown loose from my skull, floating like a jellyfish in the gutter in front of the Bitterbox. Its expression is empty, leaking the last of its terror into the blue blue sky.
Get hold of yourself, old man. You’ve had some blue, some screaming asshole wonder drug for whatever it is that ails Punk City. It will pass. It will pass and take the fear with it. Jonathan and I are entering the Bitterbox, the high tech heart of the kingdom of St. Nuke. No room for dirty deadly dreams in the realm of the silicon god. And then, mercifully, the blue rush abates, and I am enabled to walk calmly at Jonathan’s side, fervently hoping it will not return.
And now behold the awesome splendor of punk writer bands at work. Stripped of its milk processing equipment long ago, the Cream King Dairy Building resembles nothing so much as a tremendous warehouse made of brick and concrete. Afternoon sun streams in through the anachronistic mullioned windows and mingles, like a slumming angel, with the harsh fluorescence of a hundred jury-rigged lamps the punks have hung from the high ceiling. In this weird white-yellow light, the scene that confronts my eyes is frankly unreal. It is impossible to take a step without treading on the cables that cover the floor with a thousand yards of spaghetti. And just above the fluorescent lamps, there is a similar jumbled network of orange power cables looped through lamp stanchions, supported here and there by rotted fishermen’s nets, and otherwise suspended in frozen chaos above our heads. To stand in the Bitterbox is to feel like a fly trapped between two great spider webs, a sensation so vivid that it leads to a kind of vertigo, and it takes constant effort to remember that there is a concrete floor beneath your feet and not just empty air.
Besides, there is a spider, a giant graceless gray arachnid – with huge blue tanks for eyes - occupying the very center of the web, connected by thick clumps of cable to smaller processors in every part of the Bitterbox.
“The mainframe,” breathes Jonathan.
“Nice,” I tell him, for want of anything more intelligent to say.
“Quiet,” he warns me urgently. “It’s a BB session. Allabody’s bereadying to datafy the masterfile.”
“Excuse me?” I whisper.
Allabody is a lot of people, maybe three or four hundred punks grumbling and scowling and blinking at CRTs, torkgloved hands gently playing the keyboards of their input devices. The dry chittery sound of all those thousands of keys under punk fingertips merges to create a loud, continuous buzz, not unlike the throbbing monotone of insects in a field of tall grass.
And why did they have to wear their torkmasks in here? The heat alone should have been sufficient to cool their ardor for concealment, but nine out of every ten faces were covered at least from forehead to mouth by the gargoyle creations that gave the bands their identity. The smell of rank human sweat was almost intolerable, and so I knew that they were suffering for their vanity, but since that smell was the most human element of the scene before me, I clung to it as a familiar and earthy reminder that the punks were not the robots they so resembled.
We were still standing near the entrance, and both of us were startled by a sudden crash as the double doors swung open and a corps of about two dozen punks began filing past us toward the mainframe.
“Uh oh,” said Jonathan.
“What?” I asked, feeling the hairs rise on the back of my neck.
“It’s closer to the megagrind than I thought. The demortals are here.”
“What?” I repeated, now fully aware that a second wave of blue is washing over me, filling my bowels with a churning froth of terror. Jonathan puts his hand on my shoulder and identifies the “demortals” of Punk City as they stride past us without a glance.
At last I am going to see the face of St.
And here he comes. There’s a punk-praetorian guard around him as he marches into the Bitterbox. His minions are the Epissiles, dressed in black with white collars and bristling with arms, including the first guns I have seen in Punk City. The main man is like the nucleus of a cell, a lone figure inside the lozenge of his protectors, dressed in the fabled blue coat of St. Nuke and the blue mask – or is it? – of his official face. As they pass me, I am assailed with the smell of what? Old paper? Ancient rot? No. By God, it’s the familiar, still old aroma of library. Jesus. Who and what is this man? In a trice he is gone. He outdistances the guards and mounts immediately up a circular staircase to his seat at the center of the spider, high above the throngs of clicking punk writers. He has his own stage atop the masses, and it encompasses enough room before his keyboard to enable him to remove that blue coat and his weapons and hang them them on a hook, stripping him to the waist.
Jesus, again. Look at that upper torso. I’ve been in veterans hospitals galore, and I have never in my life seen so many scars, so startling, so obviously alive in their continuing pain. But he is not showing off. It’s hot in here. And he is 'bereadying' himself for the work. His platform – I’m loath to say ‘throne’ because its base is iron grate and his workspace features as humble a keyboard as anyone else – has a railing over which he leans to scrutinize all that is occurring below. His eyes, invisible inside that ravaged blue face, take all of us in. Then the unthinkable happens. He notices ME.
“We have a visitor,” he announces. The
voice is a kind of squawk,
hoarse and powered by effort rather than native volume. Like the rest
of him, even his voicebox is damaged. Lord, how is this man even alive?
He’s looking at me. He points. That long scarred white white arm, strong but channelled with wounds whose flesh never filled back in.
“MISTER Boz Baker. The voice of the Boomers. To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?”
It’s a whisper and a bark. How does he do that? I want to run away. To be noticed by this man is to die, of that I’m convinced.
I begin my answer. I have words in mind. I’m in a royal court. I'm no fool. I know what to say and how to say it. But no words escape my mouth.
“Speak up, MISTER Baker.”
There is no more typing. I stare at the vats of blue liquid, at the knot of heavily armed Epissiles grouped underneath the platform of the king, which is what he is, let’s face it. And I try to speak up.
“I have come to pay tribute to the punks of Punk City,” I say. “The newest, the only new voices in American literature.”
Jonathan Pus edges away from me. Not a good sign.
St. Nuke contemplates me from his high-tech perch. For a year that lasted probably fifteen seconds.
“Detain him,” he said at last. “Arrest him. He’s Jack Kerouac with an education. Nothing to interest us. And we certainly don’t need him writing” – and it’s impossible to convey the amount of hateful revulsion his gasping shout packed into this word – “about us.”
Without being aware of the instincts at work, I knelt on the concrete floor. Terror, submission, acceptance of what would come.
St. Nuke cocked his painful head. “MISTER Baker. You will get your opportunity to report. But only on our terms. Do not fear for your life. Fear for your ka.”
And then they hauled me away. The actual sentence would come later. But I took him at his word. He was not going to kill me. I was in. Inside Punk City. With my eyes and ears and nose and brain intact. With any luck I’d get a glimpse of the Shuteye Train. But what if they were more frightening than St. Nuke? I hated to think of it, so I stopped thinking about everything.You can discount Frank Frelinger all you want, but he's the one who located this Boz Baker manuscript behind the radiator in his estranged wife's apartment. I'm just saying.