Making Up with Punk Rock

This summer, as I spend most of my time working furiously on my novel, I will be reposting some of my favorite pieces.

About this piece, when I told her a version of this story, Alice Bag, said, “You really broke up with punk rock didn’t you.” I realized then that I ought to write it down. This piece was originally published  July 16, 2016 on my PM Press blog

In 1998, I broke up with punk rock. It was not a good boyfriend. It liked fucking me, but it wouldn’t introduce me to its mom, worried she’d notice that I wasn’t just punk rock, but that I was something else too, something/someone it didn’t quite understand. I feared I had aged out too. Standing around at 924 Gilman hurt my feet, the cold, hard cement floor. All the young people, seeming to get younger, as I got older didn’t bother me. I quite like young people. I gave birth to one, and I teach at a community college.

I broke up with punk rock, but it appears I’m back, having never really left at all. Still, I feel I have some explaining to do.

For me, punk rock was always about participation. I starting listening to punk at thirteen, was in a band, Bitch Fight, by the age of fifteen, and in 1987, by the age of seventeen, I had moved to San Francisco with Bitch Fight, and we began playing shows with bands like MDC, Operation Ivy, Frightwig, and Crimpshrine. When Bitch Fight broke up a year and a half later, I did a stint in Kamala and the Karnivores, and started Spitboy. After Spitboy broke up in 1997, Karin (guitar), Dominique (bass guitar), and I stayed together, and formed Instant Girl, a band we knew that would be short lived because Dominique was headed to Yale to study architecture. No longer hungry to continue participating in this way, I figured I should finish school too, and I got myself accepted, and a large scholarship, to Mills College. I wanted to study creative writing and English. My feet hurt from standing around on cement in my job of fifteen years as a preschool, and Gilman, and my back from hauling around drums all those years. My band days were over, and I was fine with that. I had said a lot through the band, made a contribution, traveled the world. I wanted to study. I wanted to write. I got married too – I felt like traitor, but I was happy.

Punk rock has a way of making you feel like a traitor when you decide to grow up a little, go to college, get married. At least it did back then, but after years of dating men in the scene who liked to pretend they didn’t have families, didn’t come from somewhere, let alone introduce me to their parents, I married a Mexican. I had finally been true to myself.

Photo by Ilona Sturm

For about ten years, when I was in my thirties, nursing my son, going to graduate school, I hardly ever mentioned to anyone that I had been in a band that traveled the US, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.  A band that put out records, did radio interviews, and for fanzines, a band that got fan mail. I didn’t want to be another boring adult talking about her glory days. Everyone wants to be rock star. Everyone wants to write a book too, but as a wise professor once said, you can’t, especially the later, standing around at parties talking about it. The cool thing about punk rock is that you actually start a band by standing around talking about it. That’s how bands start. Someone says let’s start a band, you think of some cool names, you decide who’s going to play what, you learn to play your instrument if you don’t know how already, and you write your first song. It’s what attracts people to punk rock in the first place – you don’t need to go to Mills College or Yale to do it.

While some people get into punk rock because they just want to fuck shit up, many of us call punk home because of its access to radical politics and people who hold them, people who question authority, people who question their own thoughts, people who read books, and attend demonstrations, and now discuss white privilege, people who don’t believe we should give up our basic privacy rights to protect ourselves from actual, or  so-called terrorism, people who aren’t afraid to call themselves feminists. And it’s         for all these things that I’m back, lending my voice, participating, now, in the best way I know how. 

Claming It: What I Learned From Punk Rock Anthropologist Aaron Cometbus — Con Safos

ImageAaron Elliott, Mr. Cometbus, told me that that my band Bitch Fight should stop saying we were from San Francisco and say we were from Tuolumne instead. I was eighteen and Aaron Elliott, the drummer of Crimpshine  and East Bay scenester was my boyfriend. Aaron was the rare guy who thought it was cool to date a girl drummer, someone like him, but not, all at the same time. I was taken with his long-armed, pointy-kneed, awkward drumming style, full lips, and bleach blond hair, and I let him pursue me until I was ready to break up with the mysterious, oft-distant, stage-hand boyfriend who said he was Italian, even though his mom and sister looked distinctly Mexican. Aaron liked my brown skin and thought it was cool that I was from a small town, a fact that Bitch Fight hoped to put behind us, and we weren’t really from Tuolumne once Elka Zolot jointed the band.

I had moved to San Francisco  from Tuolumne in 1987, just two weeks after I graduated, left town with my band mates Nicole Lopez and Sue Ann Carney, seeking to make a name for the band we started in high school and to attend City College. The band, Bitch Fight, was appropriately named for our constant bickering, petty jealousies, and our gender, as there were not many women playing punk rock, and we knew that, and felt it was worth pointing out.

Having grown up in Berkeley, Aaron Elliot had a sort of a romantic or idealized notion of what it meant to grow up in small town, and he never tried  to understand why the Tuolumne Bitch Fight girls didn’t want to claim it. He was right that it made us different,  made us who we were even, but there were plenty of things he did not understand. He definitely did not understand, and I didn’t know how to explain to him what it was like to be a minority, a person of color in a small town, a place that had tried to grind me down.

Sure, Aaron was different too, nerdy, awkward, and punk rock, but the punk rock part, that was just an attitude, ripped jeans, and weird shit tied to his wrists, things he could take off. And his attitude represented a major flaw common in the Bay Area punk scene. People of color in punk were often viewed as the white versions of who we really were. My last name was Gonzales, but I didn’t speak with an accent, the black kids in the scene didn’t act “ghetto,” and” scenesters like Eric Yee  didn’t substitute an ‘L’ sound for an ‘R’ sound, all facts that were commented on with the following “compliment” — you’re the whitest Mexican/Black guy/Asian that I’ve ever met (shout out to Kendon Smith).

And while I wasn’t at all able to articulate my feelings, my annoyance with Aaron’s opinion about what I should claim and how, I did know that growing up brown in a sea of whiteness, on welfare, being poor, the instability, and the shame, that it was all still too close. But I get it now, what Aaron meant about thinking Nicole, Sue, and I should claim Tuolumne even though he never tried  to understand why we didn’t want to.

But Aaron Elliot’s directive about what I should claim, no matter how misdirected and naive it was at the time is something I never forgot. Long after I stopped reading his love letters, hoping to run into him somewhere unexpectedly, listening to Crimpshrine, and long after playing drums and writing lyrics for Spitboy and Instant-Girl, touring Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the United States twice, going back to college, getting married, and having a son, Aaron’s ideas about my small town made some sense to me.

Ten years after Instant-Girl, Spitboy’s offshoot band, played its last show, and once settled into my tenure track teaching position, I wrote two personal essays about growing up in Tuolumne. I wrote “Blondes Have More Fun,” and “Queen of Chlorine” and then Aaron’s words came to me. He had wanted Bitch Fight to claim Tuolumne, and we never did, but there I was writing a somewhat humorous memoir about the most painful, trying, and agonizing years of my life, and the town I sort of pretended I wasn’t from for so long — there I was claiming it.