Salad days

It wasn’t until I saw Bad Brains at Slim’s last year that I realized I had gotten older. These guys, the black rasta-skaters from DC who almost singlehandedly invented hardcore punk, had gotten back together with their original lineup and gone out on tour. As you might expect for a bunch of now-middle aged punks, they were older and a little fatter. But they still played fast and hard, and songs like “Banned in DC” sounded every bit as heavy, 20 years on, as I wanted them to sound.

I wasn’t prepared for the crowd, though, which probably averaged 35 or so in age. There were pockets of younger people in the audience, each of them doing their mohawked, Discharge-patched best to look like they had beamed in from 1985, but most people looked about like me: jeans, black t-shirt, some gray around the temples. And that’s when it hit me: I’m getting old.

Once upon a time, way back in high school, I sang in a hardcore band. Just like thousands of other teenage basement-bands across the country at the time, we spent our days skateboarding, building launch ramps in our driveways, and working up new ways to express our dissatisfaction with the world. This was the Reagan era, after all, and there was plenty to be angry about–the threat of nuclear war, for instance, seemed ever-present back then. And I lived in the suburbs of Detroit, which had a scarred, end-of-days feel to it due to the auto industry’s fall and the crack industry’s rise. Trips downtown were bleak: acres of feral high rises, rubble-strewn yards, even the occasional just-burned house, smoldering away under the winter sun.

I had spent the previous few years listening to the most aggressive metal bands I could find, wearing out the grooves in my Motorhead and Venom lps on a crappy turntable in my bedroom. When I discovered hardcore bands like Black Flag, C.O.C., and the Necros, it was a revelation. Faster and harder than anything that had come before, this was brutal, primal-scream stuff, a rumble you felt in your guts. It opened my eyes. (As it turns out, it also politicized me–a formative experience that I somehow forgot until, decades later, I tried to explain how I ended up a lefty journalist in SF as opposed to, say, a Detroit doctor or Charlotte bank manager. The difference was punk.)

But while the politics were important, it was the DIY aspect of punk that really inspired us. Intention and spirit were all; real musical skill was, in some ways, beside the point. Noticing that lots of punk bands sucked, we naturally thought, “Hey, we could suck like that, too!” And so the band was born. After a bit of debate, we chose the most hardcore moniker we could conjure: Moral Decay–a name that I’m both inordinately proud and sort of embarrassed to say that I came up with. As it turned out, there was a far more legit band from California out there by the same name, but with the Internet just a gleam in some tech wonk’s eye, we didn’t know it.

All through the fall of 1986, we spent our Saturdays in A.’s basement in Birmingham, a neighborhood of sheltering oaks and stately colonials. We wrote and practiced songs, recording them in one or two takes on a four-track, then surfaced to make sandwiches and drink Cokes in the kitchen, descending again to cut a few more minute-long tracks. I screamed through an underpowered microphone, imagining myself another Henry Rollins but sounding way less tough. J. and E. switched off playing distorted, warp-speed bass lines on a keyboard. J. played some guitar and was often lost in the mix entirely. It was A., who even at 14 was an accomplished drummer, and R., who actually knew something about the guitar, who really held the songs together. This was important because everything we did tended toward entropy. Each song ended in chaos, collapsing in on itself as people in the background cursed and threw things across the room.

And then there were the lyrics. To call them sophomoric is to insult sophomores the world over. “BBQ Cat.” “Let’s Mug Someone.” “Kill Your Neighbors.” Lots of songs about skating. A few random, comically mean swipes at other, allegedly less-cool ninth graders (sample lyric: “You suck!”). And buried beneath all that silliness, a budding social conscience. “Turn on the News,” for example, was a muddled attempt at media criticism, inspired by a seething dislike for Detroit’s Ted Baxterish, gadfly-anchorman Bill Bonds, who could have been the inspiration for The Simpsons‘ blowhard reporter Kent Brockman. “Cats in trees and dancing bears/Chase away your fears and soothe your cares/ At home you won’t feel all the hate/Turn on the news/Don’t be late.” But mostly it was dumber stuff on our minds, propelled by double-bass drumming and driving guitar lines.

Our ambition, if not our skill level, was pretty much boundless. We quickly recorded a few tapes that we sold via MaximumRockNRoll, the San Francisco-based punk bible. I whipped up an ad featuring a Dario Argento-esque zombie and big, Impact-style letters (think Lolcat fonts) screaming our name. It sold surprisingly well, and for a while there I had a bunch of hardcore pen pals, from Colorado and California, Germany and Japan. At least a few people, it seemed, actually liked our music.

We never really made it out of the basement, though. I was the only one in the group who actually liked hardcore, and the rest of the band got bored with always playing as fast as possible. Our last recording sessions featured a shambolic cover of New Order’s “Love Vigilantes,” an oddly catchy take on the ’70s-sleazy theme song to the Barney Miller show, and a discoesque original called “Nuclear Destruction.” There was also, as A. reminded me recently, one final blast of fury entitled “Dicks.” That was our swan song.

So winter came, and the band drifted apart, each of us more interested in hanging out with girls or drinking beer than making marginal music that few people would ever hear. As the years passed, most of us lost our copies of the Moral Decay demo. I left my last copy at an ex’s house in Ann Arbor in the 1990s, collateral damage from my last-chopper-out-of-Saigon exit from the relationship.

Out of the blue a few weeks ago, J., one of the keyboard players, got in touch and mailed me a copy of that 22-year-old tape, transferred to CD. I blushed when I put it on for the first time, even though I was by myself. It wasn’t easy to place all the feelings: sadness and nostalgia, pride and self-consciousness. But mostly wonder: I can’t believe how young I sound.