Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Dirtiest Players In The Game...

I used to joke that there should be a punk rock starter pack for kids to buy at record stores. It would contain the first Ramones album, Sex Pistols ' Never Mind The Bollocks', the Minor Threat Complete Discography album, Misfits Collection I and 'The First Four Years by Black Flag. I'm sorta surprised that Hot Topic never got so clever as to actually market something like that (or maybe they did - I wouldn't know). Point is that the collective commonality of these albums are a  shared general influence and inspiration for most all of us.

I had opportunity to see 'Flag' recently and it was predictably great. As most of my Facebook friends are all too aware, I also quite enjoyed the Greg Ginn version of 'Black Flag'. I have very little interest in the drama behind both, I'm just that weirdo that has liked everything Black flag ever did, from 'Nervous Breakdown' to side two of 'My War' to 'The Process Of Weeding Out' and even 'What The...' I have liked all of it. I can't think of any other band I can say that about.

Back in 2003 I saw Rollins Band on their tour playing all Black Flag songs. Keith Morris sang the first dozen or so songs before tagging out to Rollins. It was a killer set, his band killed it and I had a blast. I figured that was about as close I would ever get to seeing that shit. So when Ginn's 'Black Flag' came thru town a couple of years ago, I was pretty stoked. Clayton and I went and checked it out. I thought it was cool - Ginn picked up where he had left off in 1986 and didn't miss a step. To borrow a Rollins-ism - his playing and presence was killer. He had added a theremin to his rig and it gave another dimension of spazzoid freak-out noise to his staccato blasts of atonal jazzbo riffage. I mean what's not to like?
Evidently for most, a lot.

I mean I get it - people want 'Damaged'. I love that record too, I really do. However I don't subscribe to the notion that 'Flag' is somehow "better" or more "sincere" than 'Black Flag'. People seem to jump to that conclusion simply because Flag plays it as expected; straight by the book. Greg Ginn never played anything as expected. So when you really think about it, as fans we get the best of both worlds - what Rollins called the "tactile Ginn thing" and the "Nietzsche-ian Dukowski thing". Both versions are excellent in their own respective way. But again, I love it all, yall.

Anyways, I came away feeling really inspired. I've been trying to puzzle together my random ideas into some sort of workable structure for new songs. I've seemingly tapped into some lost reserve of aggro that I must've bottled away in my psyche when I was 17. The trick is to use it wisely, as the feeling isn't plentiful nor is it cheap. I'm gonna be 45 very soon, and I've gotta time every punch for maximum impact. Jeff has mastered this art. Older, wiser, meaner...

We recently made a return to The Milestone, a fabled venue over in Charlotte's seedy west side. For the uninitiated, it is the proverbial dive bar; a grim, graffiti covered building literally collapsing under its own weight. Its the kind of place seemingly more hospitable to rodents and roaches than to bands. Yet it has stood for over forty years offering an eclectic array of underground and independent music. The Milestone Club has been a vital staple in the patchwork of DIY booking routes that has brought bands such as the Go-Go's, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, REM, Nirvana to its tiny stage. ANTiSEEN played its second ever show there in the fall of 1983, and the club soon became 'home base' as the band rarely played elsewhere in the city for the first ten years of its existence. 'ANTiSEEN' and 'Milestone Club' are virtually synonymous to many old guard folks.
I first saw ANTiSEEN at the Milestone Club in 1989. I was seventeen and just discovering punk rock. I had already heard "EP Royalty" and was pretty excited, but in no way was I prepared for what I was to witness. I remember being struck by how menacing they all looked. Unlike the punk rock fashion victims I had known with their spiked hair and studded leather jackets, ANTiSEEN looked more like construction workers or outlaw bikers. Opening the set with the anthem "Destructo Rock", I watched with equal parts fear and awe as Jeff Clayton beat himself in the face with his microphone and aimlessly threw himself into the crowd. He wasn't stage-diving (the stage is barely a foot high); he was... exorcising. I didn't know what to make of it. He landed at my feet at one point, and I was sure he was going to come up swinging if I touched him.

I came away that night with a totally new way of seeing everything. Before that I had been quite content with whatever I heard on radio or saw on MTV. Suddenly I was aware of an entirely different approach to doing things, that there was more to music than the millionaire end-game practiced by mainstream culture. I was already cynical and disillusioned, I just needed a catalyst. ANTiSEEN was a blasting cap and reference point; ground zero.

I never looked back.
I spent about every weekend at the Milestone for about the next two or three years - often by myself, sitting off to the back watching whatever band happened to be playing. I contributed to the copious graffiti that envelops the building while endless nameless forgotten bands plowed away.. power pop, punk rock, roots, post-punk, avant-noise, etc.. etc...  Mostly I was hoping to discover another band that exhilarated me the same way ANTiSEEN had. No such luck, I always had to wait until they played again.

Eventually I had bands of my own; each one debuting at the Milestone, each one being "banned" from the Milestone.  One show ended with firetrucks and police cars lined around the building. Another ended with a terse "we won't have you back" and a five dollar payout after the club deducted expenses for damage. Once I was given the opportunity to introduce ANTiSEEN and made the most of it by baiting skinheads and inciting their anger so severely that the band had to back their van against the stage door entrance to get me safely out of the building. Another time I was able to perform in spite of my standing banishment, however was greeted by a handwritten sign hastily tapped to monitor moments before I took stage reading "YOU BREAK - YOU BUY". I once took the stage to join the Beatdowns in their cover of one of my songs which climaxed with toppled drums and flying chairs taking out the stage lights. And to boot - my own daughter just recently made her debut with her own band here as well. I was unable to attend, but am sure proud to have had a second generation Ward to perform here.

So, yeah. I have some history at the Milestone.

As time and eras change and pass, I find myself increasingly alienated. The music and attitudes of the bands that perform here now is not something I relate to or share, so I never come here anymore. Returning to this club is bittersweet. The last time I was here was only a few weeks after Joe died. Hellstomper came thru town and we all shared a pretty special night of rock and roll and remembrance. Walking into the Milestone now raises the hair on my neck a bit. Frankly, I never thought I'd have reason to return to this place. I walk around the room somewhat surprised at the advanced state of decay. The place was never very nice to begin with, but whatever weird vibrant energy it once had has long since been muted. There is risk that the Milestone will soon close and an effort has been mounted to save it. Personally I feel its cultural legacy should qualify it as a designated Historical Landmark. Time will only tell.

We are met by the current owner, Jonathan Hughes. Jonathan is a very amiable and good natured guy. I am ashamed to admit that I have not made myself the most friendly or approachable person towards Jonathan in the past. Nonetheless he receives me with his usual warm welcome, commenting and complimenting my daughter's set from the week prior. I am very humbled by this unsolicited gesture. It speaks a great deal about his personal character.

I return home quickly to change. I generally wear the same thing on stage: black shirt and blue jeans. Fumbling thru my drawer I spy my Joe Young Memorial shirt. I wore it at the closing of Tremont Music Hall and decide to wear it for our return to the Milestone. I grab another shirt to change into for after the show and also a towel. I already know its gonna be hot.

By the time I return to the club the opening bands have already started. Walking thru the parking lot I encounter former A-SEEN members John Bowman and Phil Keller as well as my buddy Eddie Ford of Self Made Monsters. Jimmy Repo walks past, stopping to say 'hello'. Another old friend, Nate Wilkinson, appears and we spend a few minutes catching up and reminiscing. We met at this club as teenagers, and its always great to see him.

I eventually make my way around to the stage door and am met by our roadie, Brandon. He's already busy helping set up. The heat hits me as soon as I enter. I have wisely brought along a large cup of ice cold Gatorade. I ready my gear, setting up my pedals and tuning my guitars. We have dug out one of the old stage banners from back in the day. It has the bands logo hand painted in big white letters on red canvas (we call it "Big Red") and can be seen in the background of the 'Southern Hostility' album cover. It's pretty cool to see it hanging above the Milestone stage once more. I see more old friends including Jason Griscom. Jason made the movie "Come Get Some" and used to travel with the band selling merch. My son Cody is here, too. He has rooted himself right up front, eager for some slam dance action. It is already proving to be a kinda special night.

We open the set with "Rumours", a song frome the very first record. ANTiSEEN hasn't played this song in more than thirty years. We know its a bit obscure, but that's part of the fun. We follow thru with a set of old favorites such as "Trapped In Dixie" and "Animals, Eat 'Em" and "NC Royalty" while peppering in new material like "Let The Working Man Rest A Little Bit" and "LO-FI". Jeff's scrub board is adorned with the image of our late friend Mr. Bandana, which gets a big cheer when he holds it up. The heat is intense and sweat pours  off me and across my guitar making it somewhat difficult to play, but I don't mind. I am pacing myself but try to lean into the songs despite the heat. The crowd is right there with us at every step - they never let up and neither do we.

We finally close the set with an encore of "Destructo Rock". I was adamant that we play this song, and play it last. "D-Rock" was the very first song I saw ANTiSEEN play live, here on this stage at this club. Jeff intros it as our "alma mater" but its practically my DNA. If this club is at risk to close, it is not outside the realm of possibility that this show could be our last here. I wanted my last memory to be mirror the first. "Destructo Rock".

It's now been two years since I've joined the band. Two years of service, drafted under difficult and tragic circumstance in a most unenviable way. I still suffer brief moments of self-doubt. The tremendous amount of support I've received has been a real and valued asset. The fan base of this band is like a secret international army comprised of a varied and complex crosshatching of disparate personalities; from pop-punk to crust punks, indie rockers to rockabillies, metalheads to skinheads, stoners to spazzoids, gay to straight, black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, young, old and probably a few interplanetary visitors based on what I've personally seen. And I've seen them all, trust me. ANTiSEEN are the ultimate outsiders band. All allegiances and agendas are forgotten when brought together with a simple, singular united trait that I share and have shared for over twenty-five years: We're all fans.

I noticed this almost straight away back when I first started to come see the band. There was no internet then, only flyers and word of mouth. And the people would come from all over; suburbia and beyond. From the far reaches of outlying towns and further out in rural wastelands, they would come. Unlike other shows I'd go to, there was no hanging out in the parking lot, there was no picking up on girls, there was no sulking at the bar. The pockets of different social orders and cliques might awkwardly and cautiously intermingle, but this wasn't a "scene". There was only the band. And the band was everything, nothing else mattered.

Later as I began to travel with the band as a "roadie" and merch man, I'd see this repeated in other cities. People would approach the boys with tales of how far they travelled, what their music meant, how it inspired them. A kid once admitted it was his first time seeing the band, yet remarked that they must be important. "All the old school people are here," he said. "These guys barely come out to shows unless its something big." A cult cult band, A-SEEN collectors poached and protected their records and augmented the collections with flyers, stickers, t-shirts and even old dog-eared fanzines they would proudly display and request to have signed. I once saw a guy in Oklahoma City arrive with literally every record they ever put out, and watched with a certain pride and amazement when Jeff and Joe sat down and signed every one.

I've had the good fortune to be involved in what I believe to be one of the best incarnations this band has ever had. The comradery and chemistry of this line-up has been driven by an eagerness and motivation that we almost trip ourselves on own energy. Sometimes at practice, I watch Jeff and see his delivery sometimes rivaling an actual performance. It's inspiring to see he is not jaded or bored, even as we studiously hammer out old standards for the umpteenth thousandth time. New material seem to erupt in bursts of inspiration; the new song  "LO-FI" came together rapidly one afternoon after I aimlessly played an off-the-cuff riff and Jeff quickly penciled up lyrics. We are clearly moving with an unstoppable forward momentum, almost as if its a brand new band. And in a certain obvious sense, it is. But make no mistake - we are still ANTiSEEN...

The dirtiest players in the game...