We were building theater sets in high school so you already know how much awkwardness was in the air. I was not in charge. I was never in charge and that was a good thing. While working on the sets we’d play some sort of obnoxious music over the theater sound system, ostensibly to entertain us, but really just to impress the others around us. I never chose the music and that was a good thing. This time, it was John choosing. Occasionally, he hosted a show on the local college radio station so he usually won the obscurity contest. This time he chose the Dead Kennedys, specifically a mix tape he’d made of his favorite Dead Kennedys songs. The first song was “Too Drunk to Fuck”, but, beyond the title, that song didn’t have much of an impact.
Imagine, if you will, a high school auditorium, populated by a group of rejects playing “Too Drunk to Fuck.” It’s not like we knew much about sex beyond a bit of awkwardness and how really impossible it was to find a person to join us in any sex act. We didn’t know much about being drunk and even less about the effects of alcohol on arousal. In fact, we might have welcomed that arousal dampening effect. No, “Too Drunk to Fuck” didn’t have much to say to us.
The song that really stuck with me was “Terminal Preppie.” That will always be my first real punk song. I’d heard some Sex Pistols song and a few songs by the Ramones, but it was just background noise heard in passing. “Terminal Preppie” was my real initiation. From that opening bass line to the frantic guitar/drum entrance a moment later, I was hooked. I knew how to act. I knew what to do. I just had to let myself feel and act on the rawness and energy, something a teenage boy is really good at. Ten seconds later Jello Biafra enters, voice dripping with sarcasm about how truly “privileged” he was. I knew nothing about being a rich kid. I wasn’t sure what a preppie was, but I knew enough to be jealous of entitlement, the people who had it, and how much easier their life seemed to be. I knew what he was singing about without literally understanding much. All that in a mere 18 seconds.
But then the second part of the verse starts with Biafra, drum, bass, and guitar all in a strict staccato trading lines with a saxophone. A saxophone! The only band instrument crazier than a saxophone was the trombone and I was a trombone player in junior high. I could still feel the stigma. This was a punk song and there was a band-reject instrument playing in it.
By time the chorus got around, it didn’t even matter. I had it memorized before it was halfway over. How many times do you sing “terminal?” Who cares! You just do it. Exactly 90 second after it began, it was over and I felt different. I didn’t become a punk fan. I learned a punk attitude. I didn’t have to do things the way they were always done. Not everything had to be beautiful and amazing. It just had to be real and personal.
My first punk song: 90 seconds of aimless testosterone-fueled rebellion.