For this installment, I wanted to talk about my problematic relationship with the punk scene, and how I’ve felt about it / how it’s made me feel over the years. It seems like it’s bound up or interwoven with my mental health in both positive and negative ways.
As something of a preamble, I probably ought to try and talk about my own mental state, though. Prior to moving to Manchester in 1998, I’d already spent several years as a lonely guy, trying with negligible success to navigate the socially retarded wilderness of Barnsley’s broader ‘alternative’ scene. Failing to fit in with the long-hairs who only liked Metallica (and a few other bands favoured by people with one dimensional music tastes) because I didn’t have long hair, and thus couldn’t be considered ‘metal’ (plus, I suppose by virtue of this being of no interest to the heavy metal girls). Failing to fit in with the scruffy Nirvana kids because they all thought they were ace, whereas I was humble – plus I wasn’t into smoking copious amounts of weed, and hey, those idiots were pretty one dimensional too (plus having a basic knowledge of personal hygiene did not assist me here; much I suppose as did not being a shit Nirvana covers band). Having an ongoing flirtation with the more obtuse side of indie rock (Pavement, Sebadoh etc.), which by and large blockaded me from being able to associate with the indie kids because I wasn’t into all that shitty Madchester bollocks or wearing those retro tracky tops that were for some inexplicable reason very popular with people that I assume must surely have owned mirrors – given the undue amount of time they spent in throes of self-admiration – but didn’t know how to use them. It’s no wonder then, that everybody thought I was an alien.
My best mate kind of liked the same shit as me to greater or lesser degrees, but he was more outgoing and self-confident than I was, and had girlfriends, and I was just a spotty fucking loser with no fashion sense or social skills. Which is probably why the second wave of my ongoing war with depression really started to slap me down hard. To find yourself as an outsider amongst the outsiders? Seriously? What the actual fuck? I make no wonder I dug myself into a bottomless pit of despair soundtracked by Therapy?’s Troublegum and The Holy Bible (the Manic Street Preachers record, not the fucking audio book for god-botherers). What can I say? Sometimes you stare into the abyss. Sometimes the abyss stares into you. Sometimes you become the abyss, or become inescapably subsumed into it, and exist in a perpetual state of symbiosis with it.
I still to this day sometimes end up questioning myself hard over whether or not I did anything to deserve any of this. I repeatedly come up empty. Needless to say, primitive forms of anti-depressants from the doctors numbed me. Then the Occupational Therapist at Barnsley Council (indirectly) persuaded me to leave (I was seriously not going to get anywhere working at Barnsley Council anyway, though, as I wasn’t a young, attractive – i.e. had a pulse and was under 25 – woman willing to get into the ‘blowjobs in return for promotions’ game) and I sought my fortune at university in Manchester (3 years after finishing 6th Form College – if I’d gone when I should have done, who knows what would have happened? Another of those wonderful ‘what if’ questions that plague the minds of the eternally dissatisfied and disenfranchised).
One thing that is clear though, is that when you have mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, you can find yourself occupying a strange hinterland. I found with the benefit of hindsight (as many do) that I was fluctuating between feeling like my problems weren’t real as there were people that seemed to be a lot worse off than I was, and the depths of despair. Not much has changed in that regard!
I’ve talked before about my early exposure to punk rock at high school (although I didn’t really realise exactly what it was at the time), and also briefly touched on social acceptance. My first real experience of a “proper” punk scene (Player’s Snooker Club in the Wakefield of yesteryear doesn’t really count, looking back – does it?) came about that fateful September of ’98. Within a couple of days of enrolling, I found myself at the Night & Day Cafe on Oldham Street watching Spy vs. Spy, Burning Airlines and Braid (I know, right? You don’t get those kind of line ups anymore) accompanied by two people that I’d met, but were very soon to decide I wasn’t cool enough to associate with them. Y’know, not ‘punk’ enough or whatever.
Around this time I also found myself at the Star and Garter on a semi-regular basis, watching punk bands of varying stripes (if I’d happened to get a flyer). Saw some stuff. Missed plenty more, though. These were the heady final days of when the Breakfast Club Collective were running the bulk of shows – like before the alleged movers and shakers abandoned Manchester en masse for Leeds. I recall a lot of stuff from the Look Out! Records roster coming through… Also saw Discount (right when that band was falling apart), Against All Authority, Good Clean Fun (twice, around On the Streets…). But I also missed stuff like As Friends Rust and a zillion other things I can’t even remember…
My overarching memory of those early years of my time in Manchester though, is of a kind of acceptance. Realistically though, ignoring how my youthful naivety may have tinted this vignette of memory a shade of lovely rosy pink, it’s more likely that I was largely met with good natured and bemused tolerance. I was young and enthusiastic, but I knew next to nothing. I was a fucking twerp. No question. No wonder people who were in my year at uni who were more in the know than I was used to laugh at me (not always behind my back) for being what was (doubtless) a walking sack of clichés. But hey, not everybody grows up in a place with a punk scene of any kind. No matter how many pieces of the puzzle you get early on, nobody ever completes that shit. Not even your Ian MacKayes or your Henry Rollinses. Most especially not your Frank Turners, though (fuck that guy).
Throughout those first couple of years of Uni (I can now quite clearly see what I refused to admit to myself at the time – ah, hindsight), I was living something of an unconsciously self-enforced chirpy and cheerful lie. Now I can look back and see clearly that I was running in terror from a period of abject misery, in response to which I was seeking my freedom from my emotional and spiritual shackles. This (again with hindsight) involved me trying to seek some kind of balance in a way, by attempting to behave in a way which was the polar opposite of how I was feeling. Still not sure what my logic was there, like. Although I had felt to a limited extent like I was able to truly be myself for the first time, my underlying fears prevented me from fully following through on what or how I actually wanted and needed to be. Fear of being judged. Fear of getting it wrong. Fear of overstepping imagined boundaries. Fear of not being accepted. History dictates, and I’d been brought up to be massively risk averse, so little changes felt really big, and probably led to some incredibly ill-considered choices.
Small wonder then, that I partially threw myself with much gusto into the willing arms of quirky, chipper ska punk and pop punk bands (I’m talking The Queers etc. here). Although I did have many ‘good’ listening habits that built on and spoke more to my true self – i.e. my taste for harder and faster bands was a pre-existing factor that still endures even now, it seems I still willingly let myself become a walking sack of clichés. Looking back, I feel like I’m way beyond cringing. I can literally feel my toes attempting curling the wrong way (not through inbreeding, through embarrassment). I want to turn myself inside out in shame and roll through salt. Again, looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps (probably) this was also a result of what people expected me to be, and thus for a time led to the public perception of me as ‘pop punk Tony’. I can’t help but notice how much it stands at odds with my earlier exposure to this type of music, as well as the core of my music taste at the time. As I mentioned before, I had that initial fear of being who I needed to be. Did that fear ever go away? Not fully… Anyway, blessings be heaped upon those out there that would actually give me the time of day during this period – from you I learned a great deal, both about this punk rock thing and about myself (for better or for worse).
Anyway, as I was (kind of) saying, earlier though, at that time I felt almost accepted for the first time. Even though people saw me as a self-created fucking goon. I also saw that there was always a good mix of people that liked quite different kinds of stuff from across the ‘wider’ punk genre in the same places. People turning out because there was a gig on, and people were interested in seeing relatively underground touring bands. This is before the internet became a thing in the UK that everybody just had. It was rare that people would have an internet connection of any kind at home for some years to come. And when people did eventually get the internet, it was really shitty dial-up. That shit was slow. People today have no idea what it was like to wait minutes for web pages to load. This is before online file sharing was a thing. I’m digressing again, as I am wont to do… I think the point that I’m trying to make is that in some ways things were better before the internet was in people’s houses in a widespread way. To hear new music you had to rely on seeing bands play, or on taping something off somebody that had the record or CD or whatever. There was much more intermixing and tolerance ‘in them days’ is what I think I’m trying to say. But what I’m also trying to say is that I lived in a strange state of fear of really being myself, which led to me for a while becoming who I was expected to be, rather than being a reflection of who or what I really was.
Those very early experiences showed me that people that weren’t much older than I was were putting on gigs. They were organising stuff. Which in part led to me agreeing to start a club night at Jilly’s Rockworld with a guy called Phil, and with our very own Clara. It was a real shambles. Because of the disparate nature of the three of us, it was billed as a punk and non-shit indie night. This was a time when club nights were either Madchester nights (it was shitty and retro then, and continues to be shitty and retro now), dance music or dodgy metal nights ala your Marilyn Manson, Korn and worse. This was also a time when I had my first experience of a backlash. I feel another sidetrack coming on…
There was this guy, right, Colin. He ran this shitty shop, Sabotage Records, that sold those live recordings of gigs on CD (not technically bootlegs – fair play to him, he won a court case on that) and shitty fake T-shirts and hoodies of stuff like the aforementioned shit you’d get at the aforementioned shitty metal nights. Anyway, long story short, he saw a flyer for our club night, which by the way, he never attended, and decided he would start his own (at the Roadhouse) called ‘Last Train to Skasville’, which he wittily taglined with “no shit indie at this night”. Pity everything else about it was fucking shit then, wasn’t it? Another memorable encounter with Colin was when the basement level venue at Manchester University students union (I think Club Academy?) opened, and he somehow ended up being offered to DJ some after show for whatever punk band happened to be playing upstairs that night. Weirdly, the aftershow was going to open at 9pm (around 1 ½ – 2 hours before the final curtain). Anyway, he asked me if I wanted to do it with him, so in the spirit of mending bridges (that he’d burned, not me) I tentatively agreed. However, he then told me I would be doing the bit while nobody was there and he would “do the rest after people turned up” before laughing in my face. Obviously I said I wasn’t doing it. What can I tell you? The guy dressed in basketball kits (for fucksake), thought Sublime were amazing, and loved that shitty band Snot. I have never done any of those three things. My weekly night ran strong for 8 years. His monthly one didn’t – it died on its arse within a year or so. Victory to Tony of Nurgle, and… pathetic as it may be – I will allow myself some small amount of satisfaction.
Colin obviously wasn’t my only critic though. The list of people that decided I wasn’t “punk enough” for whatever reason is probably lengthier than a classic edition of the Yellow Pages, mate. Lee Jones for example. The thing is, I still run into people from those days on the rare occasions I manage to drag myself away from the comfort and safety of home. And these people want to buy me drinks at gigs, some of them were not necessarily kind to me at the time (although many were), but it seems that they had some appreciation of what I was contributing. Those heady Thursday nights of yore provided shenanigans, socialising, a place where long-standing friendships were forged, a networking place where bands were formed and gigs were advertised, and fanzines changed hands. Bewilderingly, I’ve been told numerous times (not by the same person!) that there wouldn’t have been a Manchester scene without me during those years. That’s some flattering accolade that’s being bandied about, there, which might not really be accurate (who knows, really), and it makes me feel a little bit embarrassed, but a little bit proud, too. I’ve got some great memories (and some not so great) of those days. It makes me sad that it will all eventually be forgotten about. Jilly’s Rockworld now being a Tesco Metro, and all.
“Though our glory might fade, our hearts will stay the same. And if everything must change, we’ll still have these chaos days.” (The Down and Outs – Chaos Days, 2005).
The punk scene, the D.I.Y scene, the hardcore scene, the ska scene, the emo scene the blah blah blah sub-genre scene are (in my eyes- or should be) all the same fucking thing when it comes down to it. They are basically to my mind extended social circles where people with a similar mindset come together through the common ground of music and to varying degrees, being a bit of a misfit themselves. It’s about sharing experiences and making links. Throwing off the shackles of your doldrum day-to-day existence through letting loose. Discovering new music. Forming bands that make new music. Arranging skate sessions. Getting into activism if that’s your bag. That type of thing.
I’d like to say that it taught me that from existing as something of an outcast or social pariah on the fringes of society you can become accepted. But sometimes, even now, I just feel like that is utter bullshit. I often still feel like if I turn up to something, that I’m going to end up being judged by a bunch of fucking posers that are actually unwilling to commit to anything apart from the next trend. Fuck you, you fucking losers. You make me sick. You are why I’d rather stay at home than go to shows or gigs or whatever you clowns choose to call these things. Really, from that statement, it’s clear that all I actually crave is acceptance and to be able to learn to be happy with who I am.
From an objective point of view, though, how must these other people that I’ve encountered down the years have felt at the time? Probably struggling to find their way just as much as I was. Covering up their own insecurities by finding fault in others, perhaps. I can’t hand on my heart say that I haven’t been guilty of that very same thing. Perhaps it’s a fundamental facet of human nature? A need to defend yourself by attacking and deriding other people; detracting similar attention that might be directed your way if you aren’t quick enough to act? People of all stripes are guilty of this. Nobody wants to be the bottom feeder, motherfucker. It’s that strange fear of other people that clashes in some way with our fear of making our way through this shitty world alone. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that this is one of the true sources of all conflict (big or small) since time immemorial.
How do we then rise above this morass of societal misery? Can we? Is it possible? How can we have a positive community amidst all this judgement? I’m not sure we can. IF you feel DIFFERENTLY that’s your prerogative. Maybe you feel accepted. But maybe, just maybe, what you fear is losing that sense of acceptance. Just take a step back and think about that for a while.
I don’t want your pity. I couldn’t care less about your judgement. Before you decide “oh, I’m not like that”, just think about how you interact or have interacted with other people. A touch of understanding and basic human kindness goes a long way.