SNUB 2 by Rob Labelle (originally published in Fishpiss Magazine)
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Trop Fort Pour Le Système
Thin, pale and twenty-two, my slightly flared jeans longer than my worn-down Earth Shoes, I helped my friend Scotty struggle into 364 St. Paul street with my Fender Bandmaster atop his Peavey bass stack. Our first show in front of people. The first time we'd ventured out of Scotty's older brother's woodworking shop. Ventured away from the little game we'd found in imported British magazines and 7-inch singles with picture sleeves. Scotty had dramatically stenciled "1978" onto one of his father's ties. Somehow just stating the year like that had subversive flavor. Our drummer-leader, Tracey, had a more complete look that actually cost money. Doc Martens, Ramones-style BLJ (Black Leather Jacket) splatter-decorated with tastefully small band badges. He was older than us. Though the number was never really defined, Scotty had alluded to something near the figure thirty, a distant abstraction that we couldn't really grasp. I don't know if it was my own comparative youth, the fact I still lived at home, or some sort of inbred conservatism, but the best I could come up with on the fashion front was hand-painting "Normals" -our band's name, in red across a blue T-shirt. Tracey seemed relieved if not excited by it and encouraged me to wear my new accessory on stage. At least it would force me to lose my plaid seventies work shirt.
The room was an empty storefront rented by a mild-mannered studenty type who looked more sloppy than punk. But even this, at the time, meant something. Anything that wasn't overtly granola was vaguely exciting. We played after the "Punkatariat Poets." I was surprised at the aggression of the audience towards this spoken word stuff. It was totally new to me and I was willing to just watch it even if I didn't like it. But the people that had crowded into the place were suddenly ignited into a screaming and spitting frenzy. It came so out of nowhere it seemed scripted. "Fuck you," they shouted good naturedly. Someone threw a beer. It then dawned on me what these kids were doing. They were acting out what they'd heard punk was, what the TV reports were (something similar to what I was). But here they could be those nasty, swearing, spitting, bottle-throwing kids shown in clips on the news. It was something like a very contained sports riot, except from what I could tell, they weren't, at that point, even drunk. It was a sober riot.
Just before it was our turn to go on, I was so nervous I had to run to the filthy can to divulge myself of butterflies. Somehow, though, I thought we'd fare better. Didn't we have the punk rock these kids were craving? We'd be the first anybody'd seen of it in Montreal -at least homegrown. I hit the first chords of "Security Measures" and I think I broke two strings. We did the song anyway, cause that's what you had to do (so we'd heard). Then, when our sad little noise ended, Scotty asked some guy in one of the other bands -a real rock band called "Danger," to lend us his guitar. "Nobody plays my axe," he said. That was the first time I'd heard that expression and although I understood what it was, as I stood there looking out at the small, greasy crowd that was shouting obscenities at me, I pictured this sharp weapon in my hands. The random obscenities turned into a chant: "Go back to the garage!" We continued bravely with a couple more of our "originals," sounding more original than ever with my remaining strings out of tune, and Scotty opting for a steady throb on the E string instead of following the tune. We looked at each other on the little stage, our eyes like saucers opened up from fear and bewilderment -good targets for flying glass. Tracey, meanwhile, seemed pissed off, the appropriate reaction, his greater maturity coming through. Finally he threw down his sticks and the show was over. Leaving the stage meant walking straight into the crowd from under the gel-free lights to join our tormentors. The crowd kind of opened up for us for a moment, then swallowed us up, and just as quickly, ignored us.
One kid did came up to me, telling me we were great. "I was screaming fuck off right at the top of my lungs!" He had T.E.V. stenciled onto a heavy leather coat (his father's, as I would later find out). "The Electric Vomit," he said. I smiled and shook my head as if this were good news but inside I felt as if I'd just unwillingly joined some criminal sect. As if I'd given the wrong impression and now had bound myself to a life that would include rolling around in broken glass and peeing in public places.
Slightly overweight, pale and forty-two, I'd just gotten out of a five-hour car ride through fog and rain and was helping Rick cart my filthy Jazz Chorus up rickety stairs to a bar in Jonquière. Either four years playing with a computer mouse or two hours a week of free weights at the Y had left me with a tendonitis that sent shock waves up my arm whenever I exerted the slightest effort. "Just a sec; just a sec," I said but he couldn't hear me. He was too excited to see what was inside.
At eight-thirty, "Club Harlem" was already jammed with Jonquière's lost children. Even the ones behind the bar couldn't have been more than seventeen. I went directly to the can, took off my après-ski style sweater (which I had thought looked techno), my Adidas Equipment T-shirt, and put on my one prize: the sole remaining, full-color-but-now-faded, official American Devices T-shirt. Rick seeing me come out, called me over to model it for the organizer, the local CEGEP student president, also in his teens. "C'est à moi Ha!," Rick said, poking my belly as if I was the Pillsbury Doughboy. I didn't giggle. The organizer informed us that we'd been hired to "faire chocké" an apathetic student council. By throwing away $500 on us, it may wake them up to really doing some good with student funds.
We mulled this news over to ourselves at the table we'd found in a corner of the bar. "Gonna get some fresh Jonquière ass," Chris said, and this became the evening's cheering rallying cry. Anytime any of the fresh-faced, stumbling-drunk, failed anarchists so much as glanced at Jackie or I, we'd nudge one another and say something like "there goes some wired-on-mescaline-working-her-way-through-school-at-the-local-Tim-Horton's-freshly-baked Jonquière ass and that's nothing to sniff at." Then we'd cackle to ourselves in our corner. The wired girl actually did come over to us and sat at our table with an empty glass that we filled. We couldn't understand a word she said and all this leaning in close to catch a word prompted a boyfriend to appear by her side. Chris couldn't understand him either but finally deciphered a question. It was about me. "Il doit pratiquer des sports, lui. Quels sports pratique-t-il?" "Badminton et tabletop hockey," I said, pumping myself up. This seemed to revive somewhat the lucidity of the wired girl. "Es-tu marié? As-tu des enfants?" I wasn't sure whether or not this was an insult so I just stared without answering. Some kind of fucked-up intuition prompted her to say, "J'ai un oncle à Montréal qui est gai. Il est artiste."
Our turn on stage came up early -just after an opening local band of at least six or seven people who passed around and kept dropping the microphone, doing what seemed like one long rendition of Johnny B. Goode. When they finished it seemed as if most of them refused to leave the stage, opting instead to "bien arranger" our equipment. "We need special treatment," I heard Rick say to one of them, who smiled and waved as if Rick was joking. Probably, like us, it was a language thing and he just didn't understand.
I have played many, many bad shows over the years but the sound on that night seemed to take on a life and drama of its own. It was a kind of howling wind, a tornado in which recognizable things would momentarily emerge and then, just as quickly, get swallowed up again. We'd stop and then, as if unable to help ourselves, we'd be dragged into the next song and the horrible noise, the howling wind would start up again. During one of these brief breaks I addressed the audience in shaky Quebecois. "On est trop fort pour le système!" It was supposed to be a kind of public service announcement but it came out more as a cry for help.
If the night can be compared to a Hitchcock film, our time on stage was like one sustained moment of psychological crisis when the soundtrack surges and takes over. Staring out into the audience, I felt like Tippi Hedron in The Birds or Jimmy Stewart about to keel out of an abandoned bell tower. The faces in front were like the ghosts of those kids twenty years ago, not screaming and yelling now, but just swaying from side to side. They were dancing.
© 2000, Rob Labelle
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