Good punk rock should pummel you like a panic attack – forcing your glands to scream adrenaline, bringing a sour sweat and a manic itch to the skin. It should make the walls of your lungs feel like they’re collapsing in on themselves, the way the whole world seems to collapse periodically and only the gritty beauty of a three-chord, blue-collar, cigarettes-and-whiskey punk rock song can smooth the jagged edges of your miserable life into a pretty glow like bar lights seen through the snow. Hence the therapeutic value of a punk rock show—the noise, the heat of strangers’ bodies and the songs so essential, boiling all the panic to the surface so you can bleed and scream it out.
I used to like the shows best in the summer. The baking sun and humidity made Chicago a crucible of gleaming steel and blistering blacktop. My anxiety simmered and bubbled on the subway cars that shot through the arteries beneath the cement of the city’s flesh. The days were long and serpentine, my hours empty with unemployment. A sweet thin lassitude had me glued to the apartment floor most days, with my books and records. I was lonely in the sticky clutch of the hours, lonely for the friction of a stranger’s flesh, so I went to Subterranean. I’m sure I went with someone—a girl who bought us forties that we drank in her apartment. She was a blur; the musk of cigarettes in her hair and damp skin beneath my fingers as we made out on the rush-hour train full of home-bound workers.
Regardless, I was alone, as one can always be alone in the heart of the Midwest’s largest city, itself alone in the mid-continental stretch of the yellow plains of farmland and gray Rustbelt towns. It’s a kind of lonesomeness that ripples through your soul. This great quiet surges up your legs from the earth itself, with its great reserve of patience. In those moments everything is clear and sharp to the point of pain, and the edges of the world and your vision scream when they rub together. I don’t know how such spiritual voids can exist when people live so close together, but I know they do, and I know the only time I’ve ever felt the gaps bridged, a feeling of camaraderie and belonging amongst the city’s faceless strangers, is at the shows, in the tiny clubs and basements.
Whoever the girl was, she was lost in the faces that began to solidify around the lip of the stage as the first few bands barreled through their sets. The pit began to pick up when Teenage Bottlerocket took the stage. The bass bobbed through the whine of blasted-out guitars and a hot dangerous throbbing began in my ears, like blood waiting to burst from a blister. I wondered which form of measurement would take me furthest from this night – a million miles or a million years. Distance or time, which alienates us most, allows the frustration of the present to dissolve into painless blue obscurity?
The last of the short, fast songs ended on a whiplash note that snapped through the pit. There was a high sweet whining in my ears and a taste and aluminum clinging to my tongue that turned my stomach and set my palms perspiring and heart racing. Aluminum, I had come to recognize, was the taste of panic. That summer I had begun to wonder if every element on the periodic table had a corresponding emotion. If only I had majored in some practical science I could identify them and through some strange alchemy invent an antidote for each—a gold pill to quell jealousy, a barium solution to conquer fear, an infusion of manganese and cadmium to take the bite off the blues of winter and the tension of summer. I had no science: only a superstition that dwelt in the instincts of the flesh which told me the only cure for the acid flavor of aluminum on my tongue was fresh air.
The buzzing lull between sets descended. Tousled men in black and denim lugged amps and instruments on and off the tiny stage, arms and gear swimming in the glow of Christmas lights. As hardcore music pumped from the sound system, the kids, the ones still young enough to pump their fists and scream along to every song, began to crowd the edge of the stage where I had planted myself in anticipation of the headlining band. I suddenly did not care if I saw them or not; my panic dissolves all other emotions and urges. I pushed my way forward against the current of bodies.
The bar at the back of the club was visible through the thinning crowd. Black and white linoleum squares beneath my feet were bright with the goblin glow of the black lights. It looked like the devil’s chess set and we, the scrappy vibrant clutch of assorted punk kids, the rooks and pawns. The club was on the second of three floors in this building perched on the intersection of Damen, North and Milwaukee. There was another bar on the first floor, and bathrooms and a balcony on the third. I had to pee badly, which only irritated the panic that was fluttering razor-tipped wings in my chest, but I was not going to make it up that dark tangle of a staircase to the bathrooms. So I followed the Christmas lights that bordered the room along the floor and plunged with them, down the stairs, to the promise of breathable air.
A door on the left at the bottom of the stairs opened onto the first floor bar. Soft yellow lighting gleamed through the door, mirrors and glasses glinting along the back of the bar. Here the sounds of the kids and the bands upstairs were but a dull thrumming in the walls. It was the sort of place you went to drink when you were too old for the punk shows, when the sea of thrashing kids in the pit reminded you that you were pushing 40 and your wife would be angry if you stayed out too late because it was your turn to get up with the baby in the morning, but still you hoped the glitz and glamour of Wicker Park would imbue you with a phantom blush of youth, or at least a shimmer of hipness. I wondered if the kids upstairs hated the adults downstairs, called them jaded, were afraid they’d be just like them in another five years, and if the people down in the bar hated the kids upstairs with the bitterness of lost youth. Probably both groups were largely apathetic. Maybe that more than anything bound them together.
Neon and night gaped through the open double doors. Two bouncers, wearing identical black jeans and t-shirts, paused to watch me as I clomped down the stairs in a riot of stomping boots and swirling skirts. The tall one with the olive complexion and plump baby face gave me a grin.
“Goin’ so soon? The Lawrence Arms are about to go on,” he said. The second bouncer who, with his constipated grimace and troll’s bark, had earlier drawn big black X’s across the backs of my hands, only scowled.
I ignored them and flew out into the night like a crow from a dark roost.
“Well, alright. Have a good night, baby,” the baby-faced bouncer chuckled. “And be careful out there.”
On the butt-littered sidewalk I hitched in great moist lung-fulls of air and stood there shaking and gasping. Gradually the anxious aluminum sting on my tongue began to effervesce into the tastes of a summer night in Chicago—the sooty breath of car exhaust, the sour odor of groaning steel and packed bodies from the El overhead, the smell of beer and strangers’ sweat from the show, and the faraway fresh smell of the lake, an oddly rural sensation here in the clutch and tangle of the Midwestern heart-city. As the tastes of the city night flooded through me, I realized they were the only thing I’d come to identify as the opposite of aluminum, the tastes of calm.
I leaned against the metal railing that separated the elevated sidewalk from the rushing intersection and I waited for magic to happen. Not the sort of magic where a battle formation of unicorns come marching south down Milwaukee, or you begin to see amber auras the color of a 40 ounce of malt liquor glowing around the forms of the bums lounging at the Damen bus stop. Just the sort of magic where you feel yourself melt into the city, into the neon lights of clubs and bars and the vibrant throngs of people, so like magnificent nocturnal birds in this corner of the city, dancing the peacock strut of youth.
One of the first things I learned about being a Chicagoan is that you have to give yourself over to the city, to its hells and beauties, its tangled stories and desperate people, if you want the key to survival, or at least understanding. I knew if I could just lose myself in the traffic and the night breeze and the sound of the train, I’d be alright. My breathing would return to normal and the metallic sweat running down the open back of my sundress would dry and my hands relax their death grip on the rusty railing.
I waited for the girl to come find me, waited to be taken home and put to bed like the last whiskey shade of night before the dawn. Home to my record player on the bare boards of my living room floor, where the records spin a dull rhythm against the days, collapse and inflate, wreck and rebuild, narrating the panic of existence.