Why you should care
Because if Mom stands with you, who could stand against you?
Getting ready to see a band you want to see — like really want to see — in the early stages of musical enthusiasm is not unlike getting up early on Christmas morning. There’s a giddy wildness, approaching hysteria, as the day draws near. You’re geeking out to the music of whichever band you’re about to see, skimping on stuff you’d ordinarily spend money on so that you have enough for a ticket. In the early ’80s in New York City, with a lot of significant stuff coming through the clubs, it meant getting primed like you were going to the prom.
“You want to come with me to see Killing Joke?” I asked my girlfriend. The likelihood that her very strict parents, who had no inkling that she even had a boyfriend, would let her go see a dark, disturbing band, which would later be directly linked to industrial rock like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry, was close to zero. But I had to ask even if the answer was no. It was indeed “no.”
I’d been going to shows alone since 1977, when my musical tastes took a turn toward punk and it got harder and harder to deliver on a friendly promise to “have a nice night out.” Bands like the Ramones, the Plasmatics, James Chance and a dozen other edge-walkers delivered on the anything-could-happen promise by being dirty, transgressive and, in the case of Chance, likely to attack the audience for being “fucking sponges.”
All of which sort of amused my mother and my stepfather, who, truth be told, had given me my first punk rock record: Eddie and the Hot Rods’ Teenage Depression. That was my gateway drug. And an appropriate one too as, by 1981, my parents were getting an overdue divorce, and things were trending that way for me and my girlfriend. Breaking up was in the air just as the good times promised by disco had curdled and things had gotten a touch meaner.
My mother could hang and was a good running buddy.
As my mother watched me get ready, she offered, out of the blue, “I’ll go with you if you’re not going with anyone.”
If you’re expecting that I rolled my eyes and whined, “Maaaaaa …,” you’d be wrong. My mother had had me right after college and was only 22 years older than me. She was routinely confused for my sister, and not always my older sister. She could hang and was a good running buddy, so I was game.
We made our way to to the Ritz, in lower Manhattan. It was much more corporate than the East Village’s downmarket CBGB and much less disco-y than the Peppermint Lounge or Danceteria. It was an almost-perfect place to see Killing Joke, whose first album had been released just the year before, in 1980. Tickets were $20 — pricey for the time — but anticipation ran roughshod over any cash concerns, and as we made our way up the steep marble staircase the inimitable smell of club wafted down to greet us — part cologne and perfume, cigarettes and beer.
The club sound thundered and when we crested the top of the stairs we saw the place was packed. The opening bands? A blur. I told Mom all I knew about the band, how it was started by the part-Bengali Jaz Coleman, who was routinely described by the music press as a madman. Catnip to a kid like me. Mom nodded attentively and then excused herself to use the restroom, while I jockeyed for a spot on the floor that would let us see the whole stage.
As I stood there, waiting, I saw a crew of bouncers move in formation across the dance floor. They were edgy, the kind of bouncers you see at major venues. By which I mean barbell boys. On his way past me, one of the bouncers clipped my shoulder. It felt like it was on purpose. I wasn’t sure, but I was pretty sure.
The racial politics surrounding this type of music was weird back then. No one was quite sure which way the transgression was supposed to cut, and with Sid Vicious sporting swastikas and the Disco Sucks movement still in full swing, seeing me as an outsider wasn’t surprising. So I turned my head toward the bouncer, just to see.
And when I did he was back in my face.
“You got a fucking problem?” he said.
“You bumped into me?”
“I said, ‘You got a fucking problem?’”
“And I said, ‘You bumped into me!’” No sooner had I said that then he fired a right cross at my left eye. I had already started to duck to the right and his punch caught me right above the left eyebrow, leaving me free to come up with my right, which was then yanked behind my back by another bouncer, who had come up behind me. Pinning both arms behind me, they carried me off the floor, my feet dragging. The marble staircase loomed in front of us and I saw my immediate future. It involved 40 stairs, broken teeth and the groans of onlookers.
I didn’t struggle. It wouldn’t have helped. And then, from among the crowd, emerged my mom. She was expecting to see a lot but seeing me getting my ass kicked was something no mother needs to see.
“Wait, wait, wait … there’s my mom,” I told the bouncers.
A pause. They couldn’t tell if I was bullshitting them to forestall the staircase party or not. They looked, and my mother stood there, looking nervous but firm. And just like that they let me go, before disappearing into the crowd, shouting, “Get the fuck out!” as they went.
Later, my mom noted that she hadn’t been that nervous but was instead curious. “You had the weirdest kind of glow around you,” she said. ”You seemed almost happy. What was going through your head then?”
“Everything,” I said, “but mostly how if I had to miss seeing Killing Joke this was probably the way to do it.”