When Paul debuted Punk Noir my immediate thought was of the night those two passions of mine collided.
See, I was a hardcore kid. Punk rock was actually kind of weak in my mind at 15, even though my gateway drugs had been the Ramones and Sex Pistols like everyone else. But after I’d been to my first genuine hardcore show I was hooked. Trouble was, I couldn’t drive yet so my outings to shows were limited by when my friend Dan could drive us. Dan was a bit older and the only other person I knew in my quiet suburban Connecticut town who liked loud music. Dan was a metalhead and he’d taken me to see Slayer, Megadeth and Bad Brains in NYC earlier in the year when I was 15 and I got stopped at the door and not let in because I was too young. I’m still bitter about it. Then again, I didn’t even own a set of earplugs back then so maybe my hearing came out ahead.
But the club where I’d go see hardcore shows was an all ages venue run out of the basement of an art gallery in Stamford, CT. called the Anthrax, because why not?
They made no pretense of turning it into anything but a basement. The floors were concrete, the ceilings head-cracking low and the “stage” was a six inch riser tucked in a corner where the bands would set up and try not to get electrocuted by the PA system.
A big show would be thirty people crammed in and doing their best to slam dance while avoiding the exposed steel beams holding up the floor of the art gallery above.
This is suburban Connecticut in the 1980s. It’s Regan-era conservative in a commuter town with money. They didn’t care for punks. As a result, the Anthrax had an adversarial relationship with the police. Noise complaints, calls of crowds of no good delinquents hanging about were commonplace. But we didn’t care. It was only proof that the system was out to get us. It radicalized us punks like zealots.
I look back at the schedules then and I kick myself for the shows I didn’t make it to. But one day they announced a secret show. A big time band. So big, it was the first time they’d sell advance tickets. And they’d be five dollars, not the usual three bucks at the door. Rumors swirled and before long it was clear the secret was out. Black Flag was coming to town.
For a hardcore kid, this was the Beatles playing at the Cavern Club. Granted, this was late era Black Flag when they all hated each other, the songs got bloated and long and a far cry from the Hermosa beach heyday of the band. But still. It was Black Flag.
I bought my ticket. I secured a ride. I was going. I still didn’t own any earplugs.
When we arrived the parking lot was a zoo. Leather jackets, skateboards, mohawks, spikes. There had to be two hundred kids there. I didn’t know how we were all going to fit into the basement, but I had my ticket and I was psyched.
I stepped inside and the tiny stage was surrounded by a wall of amplifier cabinets. The opening bands were to be Painted Willy and Gone, Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s prog-punk instrumental jam band who might have fulfilled him creatively at the end of Black Flag’s career, but the run-on noodling was painful to hear and more like and Emerson, Lake and Palmer concert than a hardcore show. No worries. Suffer through this self-indulgent crap and soon Henry Rollins would be screaming Rise Above in my face.
Here’s where the Noir comes in. I’d set myself up for one outcome and I was about to be tripped by the fickle foot of fate. I went in with the best of intentions. Don’t we all?
We knew the long history of contention between this notorious band and the police. With dozens of punks spilling out into the street, the cops had plenty to respond to.
The two openers had played. The anticipation had built. Fights broke out. It was a hardcore show, after all. And a Black Flag show on top of that. No big deal. But not to the cops.
It’s hard to argue that the tiny club wasn’t in severe violation of fire code limits. With only one way in or out via steep concrete steps, if anything had gone wrong down there, none of us would have much of a chance. Worth it, though, for a band we all knew was as dangerous as they come. This wasn’t the faux kabuki danger of Kiss. This was a show where you were very likely to come away bloody, and you’d be excited about it.
But alas, before the first chords of My War rang out, the police descended in numbers. Squad cars circled the gravel lot outside the club. They’d arrived expecting trouble. A crowd of angry punks were more than happy to give it to them.
I wasn’t one of them. I stayed on the fringes. I just want to see the show. But as the punks spat on the cops, the cops muscled the punks into handcuffs and the call went out to shut it all down, I knew my dream of seeing one of my favorite bands was dead.
I didn’t know then that this would be their last tour. There was no way to know if the show would have lived up to expectations. All I knew is that it had all come crashing down in a storm of nightsticks, siren whoops and calls to disperse or be arrested.
In many ways, it was the ultimate way to see Black Flag at the time. A disappointment, a little dangerous, cops were involved. Yeah, it seemed about right. I also see it as very noir. I might not have been trying to commit a crime but I was trying to do something dangerous, a little illicit. I’m sure I’d lied to my dad about where I was that night. And then plans went to shit.
As we were driving away I saw Henry Rollins walking along the street toward the club. He must have been getting food or something. He was walking back into the melee of angry cops and angrier punks. There was my Mick Jagger walking to a show that would never happen.
Later, when Henry released his tour diaries from those days in the book Get in the Van, the show didn’t even merit a mention, so commonplace were Flag shows being shut down that it blended in to the larger tour and wasn’t noteworthy enough to write down.
I was crushed when I realized this hugely significant night of my youth wasn’t even diary-worthy by the man who lived it, but it has always been formative for me.
Shortly after, the club moved to a different, larger location in an industrial park where they could be as noisy as they wanted. I got my driver’s license and by the time I left high school I’d seen over 170 bands at the new Anthrax, at CBGB and other NYC clubs like the Pyramid and L’amour. I never did get to see Black Flag. Still have my ticket, unredeemed. If that isn’t Punk Noir, I don’t know what is.
Bio: Eric Beetner has written more than 20 novels, the latest of which is All The Way Down. Ken Bruen has called him “The new maestro of Noir” He co-hosts the Writer Types podcast and lives in Los Angeles. Ericbeetner.com