La Bamba

My parents left me home with a babysitter once as a kid and she put on the movie La Bamba – remember that one? Lou Diamond Phillips plays chicano rock and roll star Ritchie Valens who gets famous based on his lovely ballad Donna in which he just says Oh Donna over and over and over again (this must be where I learned my songwriting skills a la Leave Me Alone). I didn’t get it as a kid but this was controversial because Donna was GASP a white woman and Ritchie was GASP latino.

I do not remember at all why I loved this movie so much but I did so my parents eventually bought me the cassette tape. For a period of probably six years, they had to buy a new VHS and cassette tape every six months because I’d literally wear them out from use.

I also loved the tragic irony of La Bamba. There’s an entire plot point in the movie about how Ritchie is irrationally afraid of flying in airplanes. His manager makes it possible for him to travel only by bus and he gets a good career going, the song La Bamba is so quintessentially ROCK AND ROLL. It just wails. Even though I couldn’t understand or sing the lyrics as I didn’t speak Spanish, I always felt like the song was speaking to me. I sang along in non-words so much that my parents would make me put on headphones and lock myself in the basement as to not disturb the whole house.

House does a pretty fucking awesome punk style version of this song now and it makes me so very happy. I never learned Spanish, I still don’t know what the song is about and I’m quite certain I’m not singing it correctly when I do perform it. But I FEEL it.

Feelings can transcend language.

Odd Jobs

Of course, this lifestyle must be maintained financially and I’m not prepared to buy a bunch of business casual attire and send out resumes and beg for work. I just have no interest in it yet. So I do whatever I can find (as long as there’s no time commitment) and do that to scrape by. Most recently I’ve been doing a fair amount of work as a carpet cleaner in Mobile, AL for a small business in town. It’s pretty boring but I get to put on headphones and turn my brain off for hours at a time. It’s actually somewhat cathartic.

I spend a few hours a week as a dog-walker too. This is the best possible side job and if I could do it full time, I would do it forever and ever. Basically I have an app on my phone, and when people need somebody to go tend to or walk their dog, they ping me (like Uber) and it includes instructions to get into their house and instructions about the pet. If I’m free, I accept the ping and head over. There’s something entirely fascinating about being inside the home of somebody I’ve not met before. Not in a creepy way, but it’s interesting to observe the lives of strangers (with consent of course).  Plus then I get to hang out with a dog for an hour or two and walk around the city, stop at parks, chat with other dog-owners/walkers.

For a few hours a week I teach piano at a music school in my neighborhood. I’m not great at piano, but I’m better than the five and seven year olds I teach. It’s fun to hang out with kids who are just learning about music and learning how valuable it can be in their lives. I like to imagine that I’m laying the groundwork for them to give a shit about music and someday in the future they’ll hear the song that moves them.

And finally, I was dishes at my buddy’s diner. This is the literal worst side job I do. The feeling of wet food on my fingers is abhorrent! I can’t even talk about it. I just can’t say no to my friend and he just keeps asking. I’m doomed by my inability to say no!

Gay Punks

Punk rock is pretty down with gay shit. I mean, the whole point of punk is pretty anti-establishment so I never felt like I had to conform to anything as far as sexual or gender-normative behavior. That said, I’m pretty masculine in pretty much every sense of it. It’s just that, I am attracted to and have sex and romance exclusively with men.

This has never been an issue for me as far as how I identified, it was never an issue for my parents who very kindly and patiently let me come out in my way and then said, “yes, we know dear” and it was never an issue for my bandmates who have less groupie competition this way. Just kidding, we don’t have groupies. They’re both into women, I’m into men. We’re so modern! And punk rock is just supposed to break barriers.

My gay punk rock uniform is black skinny jeans, black t-shirt, and black loafers. Anything else is excessive. Gretchen and Derek somehow still get away with dressing like 90’s style goths which is great, they share clothes and make-up and accessories. Somehow though, we still manage to look fairly professional on stage. I think image matters. I think our image says, “image doesn’t matter.” I appreciate the dichotomy.

We do get asked to do a fair number of queer punk festivals and stuff, but we tend to say no. We’re definitely open about how we identify, we don’t lie or hide anything about our behaviors or habits, but we also don’t feel like it’s valuable for us as individuals or as a band to identify musically as anything besides punk rock.

Everything is too categorized and compartmentalized now. And I don’t really want to fit into any compartments. Punk rock is not about fitting into the punk rock box. Being gay is not about fitting into the gay box. Being brown is not about fitting into the brown box.

Our First Song

Our first song was literally called LEAVE ME ALONE. I can’t think of any more appropriate punk rock song for three curmudgeonly teenagers to write and play, with conviction and no sense of irony. What does any teenager want more than to be left alone? For me there was nothing more important than gaining autonomy and finding ways to express myself.

The words were, “Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone” ad nauseum. Ok sure, it’s not “how many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man” but it has its merit! I’m still pretty proud of that song. It took us one minute to write it, we played it once, and we were a fucking band! We were House!

We still are. I’m really proud of that. We each have a gift – besides just our gift of musical appreciation – we have a gift of loyalty to one another, to our music, and to leaving one another alone when necessary. It’s not easy to find friends who will leave you alone when you need it!

I supposed we had some punk rock inspiration in Henry Rollins and Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, but we really tried to shy away from mainstream punk acts like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. Part of it was the desire to avoid mainstream altogether and part of it was a conscious attempt to be more learned in our tastes.

My parents have come to see us perform and looking out across the crowd and seeing them, clearly uncomfortable but faking it, made me very very proud!

My Band Though

So I love The Rolling Stones, I love Bob Dylan. I guess I love “classic rock” although to call either of these acts “classic rock” is pretty lazy. So how did I end up in a punk rock band called House?

I met some dudes at my arts high school and we started jamming in my parents basement when they were away. House seemed to be the most appropriate band name based on our practice space. Plus, this was before the “house music” movement so now it’s a fun little bit of irony.

I guess growing up a gay, brown child of immigrants in Alabama resulted in my having some anger issues and punk rock was a really effective way for me to channel my anger without breaking any laws. Screaming into a microphone feels really good when you need to vent. On the contrary, if I’m working – whether that means cleaning carpets, washing dishes, or temping at a CPA office – listening to the invigorating Rolling Stones, calming Dylan or silly Beatles is an escape and inspiration for my own music.

I began to realize around the age of 17 that maybe “gifted” was conservative-school code for gay. I didn’t fit into any of the social norms, I didn’t have many male friends, I spent most of my time alone lost in thoughts, I dressed differently than my classmates, and I had different interests.  While my male classmates talked about rocket ships, sports and trains and my female classmates talked about princesses, dance routines and Ace of Base I mostly sat by myself thinking about fast-forwarding through school.

My dear parents cared and took me out of school. The moment I arrived at the new school and noticed boys and girls mingling, talking about mostly the same things, and subscribing to individuation, I felt home. I met Derek in my study hall and when I noticed him drumming his pens against his desk, I asked if he wanted to jam sometime – on a whim as I’d never “jammed” before. He got his friend Gretchen involved because she was learning the guitar. We became a three-piece. And mind you, this was pre-White Stripes. Maybe? But a three-piece works, regardless!

Why Blowin’ in the Wind?

For my seventh birthday, my uncle bought me a cassette tape of Peter, Paul & Mary – a glorified Minnesota-based Bob Dylan cover band in suspenders and prairie skirts. I was obsessed with it. It was accompanied by six or seven other tapes (Grass Roots, maybe?) but this was the only one that really worked for me. I literally wore out that tape and my parents had to replace it.

The main reason was the song Blowin in the Wind. I was mad about the idea that a song could be a series of questions, no answers, but still somehow it sounded resolute to me. My parents didn’t think much of it – kids always obsess over things. Most parents these days want to murder the movie and soundtrack Frozen. But for me, it was Blowin in the Wind.

I would ask my parents questions from the song and they’d dance around finding a way not to answer. That’s kind of the point of the song, right? Leave it to Bob Dylan to present you with a list of questions that have no answers and still somehow providing comfort.

My dad learned a couple of weeks after my uncle’s wedding, in which I was a ring bearer in a teeny linen suit we had bought at a flea market in Mexico, that Peter, Paul & Mary were coming to Orchestra Hall in Mobile, AL. That was my first concert ever, and I wore a teeny linen suit. I was the most well-dressed person at the concert.

It wasn’t until I was 19 years old, driving myself home from a particularly difficult break-up, that I even realized Bob Dylan was a magician. Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, the most moving break-up song I’ve heard still to this day, came on the radio and a million things happened in my brain at once. I pulled into a Target, bought the Best of Bob Dylan CD and sat in the parking lot listening to the entire thing.

That’s when I realized that Blowin in the Wind was a Dylan song. And thus began what can only be called an obsession with the man. Freewheelin’ was the first album I bought by the guy and I truly believe my entire life changed when I first heard it.

What an embarrassing degree of hyperbole!

Why Gimme Shelter?

I wasn’t alive during the Viet Nam era but I understand this song to be a product of this violent time in world history. The world was getting bigger every day as more and more information became readily available to regular people, and still it seemed to feel like the world was closing in. War was happening on the other side of the world but streaming into our consciousness through the television while the hippies got stoned and started cults instead of paying attention.

Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.

How were these people not paying attention? They weren’t the ones being raped, murdered, shot. Just like now it’s very easy for all of you white Americans to pretend the pending Trump presidency isn’t a highly dangerous and world-changing event. It’s not changing your world, is it? Yet.

This song kicks in with a solid ominous Keith Richards guitar solo, some vocal wooooooos, percussion and finally Mick Jaggar wailing on the harmonica.  It builds like a storm, seemingly into a pop song, until Jaggar reminds us that a storm is threatening, and without shelter, we fade away.

And then, after that first verse, in comes Merry Clayton with some of the most profoundly frightening, warning, worrisome vocals I’ve ever heard.  For what it’s worth, a pregnant Ms. Clayton was summoned out of bed around midnight the night of the recording, did a few takes, and returned home where she suffered a miscarriage. It may be more folklore than reality, but there is much speculation that Ms. Clayton’s extreme vocalization (at about 2:59) may have contributed to this tragedy. Or maybe she just realized so much about the reality of the world while screaming out these lyrics, that she willed herself to miscarry? Or maybe it was happenstance.

We listened to this song in my FOURTH GRADE music theory class. I think they just called it that to be a little pretentious and the only reason this song was chosen was because we played with the percussion fish in class that day – in retrospect this is likely not even the instrument Jimmy Miller is playing in the song. But I was smitten. I knew from the first riff on the harmonica that I would never be the same.

I listened to this song at home in my room for hours every day trying to hit Mary Clayton’s vocal range, I failed at it for years, but it felt good to try. My parents both worked for a couple of hours after I returned home from school so I could just wail my heart out in my room. I had no voice to talk to people for what felt like years because I used it screaming into my closet at home.

Like I said, I failed. But I did learn the limitations of my own voice and I discovered what I was meant to do with it, and that was front a band. I pretty much exhausted the Rolling Stones catalog by the time I got to high school and had moved onto the more lyrically interesting but equally as vocally unique Bob Dylan.

So there it is. And now I have this blog because I needed a place to vent about the particulars of being in a small-time band, to avoid talking about doing odd jobs like carpet cleaning, and to tell you all about new music I’m finding and what it means to me!