We wanted to be U2 or The Police really fucking badly. After all, it was the Live Aid decade and we were suburban white kids with nothing really to be pissed-off about. We were trying our damnedest to “make it big” and we were doing a fine job at it. Fine enough to win a 1986 Battle of the Bands at a suburban northern New Jersey college. Grand Prize was the opening slot for the infamous legends of punk rock, the band that had started it all, The Ramones. They were gods to me—gods clad in black leather. And god sure was an ugly motherfucker!
One thousand rabid Ramones fans packed the ballroom to see the umteenth tour of a band that was already an historical icon. No other band mattered to them – especially a band whose least-effeminate member sported only two earrings, minimal eyeliner, and was mistakenly trying to look masculine by wearing an Aerosmith shirt. When we took the stage they wanted us dead.
Nothing is more memorable than looking out upon a crowd and seeing a sea of middle-fingers thrust forth in greeting to you. Oh, those young faces with angry spit foaming in the corners of their mouths, screaming “You faggots!” hold a special place in my heart. It was only those blessed police barricades at the foot of the stage that kept this mob from pounding us to a fucking bloody pulp with their bare hands and stomping our lifeless meat piles until tender and ready for eatin’. Believing in the spirit of rock n’ roll, we still decided to begin our set.
“Everybody dance!” our keyboardist/singer Wren implored. He was a consummate drama major whose singing idol was Stevie Nicks and he had the many scarves to prove it.
“Come on, dance!” reiterated our singer/bassist Cygone who had freshly broken out the hair bleach in a vain attempt to mimic his hero Sting. He had an uncanny knack for whipping a crowd into frenzy, but at that moment it was the wrong sort of frenzy.
Struggling to remember my guitar parts, but distracted by the strain of the pulsing steel fencing that held back the hungry lions drooling for Christians, I nervously glanced over at my friend, and, in my mind, my newly appointed body guard, Munk. If or when the barricade gave way, he would be there to protect me, right? But his face told me that he wasn’t preparing to tackle and forcefully remove anyone who posed harm to me; he was planning his escape route from the ballroom. I’d never felt so alone.
At the end of our first number, Cygone and Wren huddled together, causing a roar from the crowd, “Homos!” Cygone turned and shouted to me, “Two more!”Miraculously, a thirty-minute set became a nine-minute set. And that was ten minutes too long.
Set at a college campus, this facility was alcohol free. How un-rock n’ roll of us to be thankful that alcohol was not served. We appreciated that alcohol had not been served in bottles. We appreciated that alcohol had not been served in cans. Those bottles and cans would have served as missiles. Missiles aimed at us “Queers!” Alcohol was most assuredly consumed before this crowd had entered the ballroom and they wanted to make sure that they got their hard-earned money’s worth and were at the peak of their buzz when their heroes took the stage. This was hard-earned money received from working their warehouse jobs and other lofty callings. This was hard-earned money from which they received change back after purchasing a twelve-pack. As we slogged through our second song, this rabble reached into their pockets and found their missiles.
This was not change being tossed into a busker’s hat in the subway. These were quarters being launched to take out the eyes of “Pussies!” My focus shifted from worrying about the straining barricade to dodging quarters. Have you ever been hit in the face with quarters?
“Give us all your money!” taunted Cygone as we stumbled into our final song. He seemed to have a little too much faith in that steel barrier between the seething swarm and us. Maybe his dad was an engineer or something.
We abruptly ended the rock n’ roll experience of a lifetime after performing only three of our most finely crafted masterpieces. Anxiously, we scrambled to break down our gear. All of the rack-mounted effects units, midi-controlled samplers, electronic drum triggers and boxes of Aqua Net needed to be quickly and efficiently removed from the stage while not showing panic and while maintaining an air of dignity. This is what I had really finagled my buddy Munk into doing, not to be an impromptu and skinny security agent. I noticed that he had not hopped up on stage to take my pointy-headed guitar from me, nor to power down the smoke machine. My eyes found him shuffling around on his hands and knees collecting the change that had just been intended as buckshot to remove my eyes.
“I’ve got about five bucks here!” shrieked Munk.
After we finished humping our gear haphazardly into a side room, which was doubling as a safe house, we finally got to reflect upon the dream-gig we had just lived out.
“That fucking sucked,” I clearly noted.
After ten minutes of painful self-analyzing and shell-shocked murmuring, feeling like we had just been beat on the head with a baseball bat, the Ramones emerged from god-knows-where, and we were introduced. They were tall—larger than life. It was like they stepped from the pages of some glorious duo tone comic book. Black and blue. Denim and leather. They were born together. They set the spirit free.
“Hey,” garbled Joey (as in, “Gabba Gabba,” I wondered?).
We shook hands, all of us. Hair-sprayed suburban brats clasping the hands of the guys from Queens who started the buzz of punk rock—a music that has molded minds and changed lives. We had just finished performing our songs with heart and soul to an unappreciative and down right murderous audience and we were questioning our musical existence while still shaking from a near-death experience. Two words fell out of the mouth of Joey Ramone. These words made all of the doubt, sadness and fear disappear.
I realize he didn’t see our set. I realize he really didn’t mean it. That didn’t matter. Joey Ramone said to us, to me, “Nice set.”