by: Kathleen Gullion
A letter arrives with all eight letters of my name stitched into the envelope with red thread. I’ve never seen my name like this, jagged and homemade. I pride myself on my careful cursive, but there’s something in me that likes the frays. Inside is a sheet of lined paper with Lee’s scrawl filling all the white space. Even the margins are full of blurbs that look like lyrics. The next time I see him, I ask him to play them for me. They’re songs by a local band, he says. Houston has local bands? I ask. He laughs and puts on their tape. It sounds like country music without accents, and faster. A washboard keeps the rhythm. Instead of singing, the band members yell and shout in raspy voices. What is this? I ask. The band’s called Rosa, he says. No, what is this? I ask. Folk punk, he says. More like an alien transmission. Through the strange noise I can hear the words from the margins of his letter: and I could fall in love forever, and never come up with an empty hand.
The crumbling white building, surrounded by a moat of smokers, is shaking from the noise within. East Side Social Center is in a part of town I’ve never been to before, a part where there are more liquor stores than houses. Ready for your first show? Lee asks. Duh, I say, pushing open the car door, Let’s go. Be cool be cool be cool, I tell myself as we snake our way through the crowd where clothes are held together by patches, and skin is adorned with piercings and tattoos. I’m wearing all black and a pair of pleather boots. But it’s clear that I’m just plastic to their leather. I hand the door guy a five and his eyes linger on me, then Lee rushes us in. A band called Alimañas is playing tonight. On the other side of the door, we are greeted by a wall of sound. I cover my ears, but the screeching guitar and breakneck drums bleed through. We’re only feet from the band. The guitarist spins in circles as he shreds, and the singer throws himself toward the mic with every line. Rosa’s raspy vocalist sounds angelic compared to his screeching. It’s dark, but I can see the crowd, mostly men, dancing by shoving each other around. Avoiding elbows, I inch around the edge of the crowd to the back where it’s quieter, where the beer is. Want one? Lee asks. I don’t have a fake, I say. Doesn’t matter, he says, tossing me a Tecate from the bar. After a few of the doesn’t-matters, I’m drunk, and I dive into the pit. I shove my hands into a burly man’s biceps, but he doesn’t budge. So instead, I let my body go slack so I can be jostled between the men. It’s like riding a rollercoaster. But then I lose my footing, and I’m eye-level with multiple pairs of steel-toed boots. A pair of strong arms lifts me up, and I’m back on my feet. I look around to find my savior, but all I see is a blur of bodies. But then I see the same thing that happened to me happening to the rest of the crowd: when someone falls, they get picked up. People look out for each other. When the song ends, I skip to the back, head spinning. That was so fun! I say. Lee smiles. You might want to wear pants next time, he says, gesturing to my miniskirt, which has ridden up. I yank it down. Whoops, I say. Hey, can I please have another beer? While he gets me one, I look around and wonder who saw my underwear. There’s a mural on the wall. It’s made of knives and eyes.
To get invited to Tom’s after the show means you are somebody or you know somebody. In my case, it’s because I know Lee. Now, I have the uniform down: a ripped band t-shirt, a frayed denim vest, and a pair of 14-eye steel-toed boots made with vegan leather that looks just like the real thing. Tom’s house is close to East Side, and he lets everyone smoke inside because fuck landlords. People call Tom Papa Punk because at thirty, he’s older than everyone. His house smells like piss and beer, and we sit around drinking 40s and whiskey. Smoke clogs the air. I’m the only girl except Bianca, Tom’s girlfriend. She sits down next to me and says she likes my eyeliner and asks where I got my skirt, and I tell her I don’t remember, because I don’t want to admit my mom bought it for me. Everyone here talks about being poor. I don’t think their mothers buy them things, and I don’t want them to know my mother buys me things. Bianca gets up to go to the kitchen, and I listen to the boys talk, cutting each other off and talking over one another. They talk about their plans for the revolution, how they need to start exercising so they can outrun the bourgeoisie, the cop cars they want to burn, the fights they’ll pick with neo-Nazis. They talk like anything is possible, and I want to hear every word. Then the conversation takes a turn as the boys swap stories about a motorcycle accident, so-and-so’s brother who overdosed, a friend who went to prison. I want to chime in. I try to say, that’s so fucked up, but my comment gets buried under someone else’s. Then they put on Crass and shout along, and the mood picks up. Someone goes for more whiskey. We sink into our seats, boozelogged. After finishing his second 40, Tom sits next to me and puts his hand on my shoulder. His eyes drift toward my cleavage. Then he leans across me and says to Lee, You’re a lucky man, you know that right? I try to say thanks, but my lips are glued together since I’ve barely said a word all night. It doesn’t really matter, because he wasn’t talking to me anyway.
I won’t get off work in time, I’m sorry, Lee’s text reads. I’ve been parked outside East Side for half an hour waiting for him. I consider going home. But I already gave my mom an alibi, so I might as well go in. East Side feels cavernous without him for me to cling to. I find a spot near the back of the crowd. After a few minutes, the first band comes out. Their songs are short and fast, and it sounds like every other line is fuck you. I alternate between nodding my head, tapping my foot, and bouncing my knee. None of it feels natural. The set ends, and people in the crowd chat while the next band sets up. I look around the crowd for anyone I recognize. There’s Christy, Adam’s girlfriend, by the bar. She’s always been nice to me. I walk over to her and say hey. She says hey back. I can’t think of anything else to say. Lee would know—he always has a joke or a rant in his pocket. Maybe beer will help. I ask the bartender for a Tecate. ID, he says. My heart sinks. I feel my pockets and tell him I forgot it, then run to the bathroom and hide until the next band comes out. It’s three men in sweaters and a woman in a short black dress. We are Perfect Pussy from Syracuse, New York, the woman says into the mic. Then the sound bursts. It sounds less like music and more like a competition of who can be the loudest. The vocalist runs back and forth across the stage, her voice distorted by the mic. She sings with her eyes closed. The noise starts to take the shape of a melody. I realize I’m dancing. And not just nodding my head or tapping my foot, but jumping and flailing and bouncing. The first song ends in a flurry and they charge into the next one. The men in sweaters are huddled towards the back of the stage, tearing into their instruments but staying contained, while the vocalist goes free rein on the stage, shouting each line with such vigor it feels as though she’s been holding her tongue her entire life. I realize this is the first time I’ve seen a woman fronting a band at East Side. Finally, a song fades into quiet. The singer opens her eyes. The crowd cheers for an encore. We don’t have any more songs, the singer says, laughing, and they pack up their stuff. The fluorescent lights turn on, and the next band brings out their equipment. I don’t know what to do with my hands, or my feet, or my eyes, or my thoughts, so I leave. On the drive home, I stream their EP on repeat, and when I get back to my parents’ house, the first thing I do is look up the lyrics. Instead of verses and choruses, I find paragraphs that spill revelations. They read like diary entries. I understand why she wanted the vocals distorted when I read the line there’s no room in this world for people who hate men. She’s referring to herself, someone who hates men. To say that to a room full of them, without distortion—that would be terrifying. I wonder for a moment if that line applies to me, but then I keep reading.
Falling in love is the punkest thing you can do, Ryan says and then plays a song on his acoustic guitar that goes all I wanna do is hang out with you. Before Ryan, Galesburg didn’t have a punk scene. But shows happen almost every week now in living rooms like this one. All the furniture is pushed to the side so people can sit on the floor and watch. As he plays, the crowd is respectful and quiet, and in between songs, he reminds us that moshing is not allowed and no racist or homophobic behavior is either. His music sounds more like the Beach Boys than Crass, but he still calls it punk. I guess to him, punk is more about the do-it-yourself ethic and anarchist ideals rather than a specific sound. As he croons, he looks into my roommate’s eyes. She is the ‘you’ he sings to. Over the past few months, I’ve watched him show her the same bands Lee showed me. He finishes his set and we all linger around after to chat. He says he’s been wanting to start a new band with a heavier sound. He looks at me and says, Hey Kathleen, you’re pretty loud—do you want to sing in a punk band? I don’t know how to, I say. It doesn’t matter, he says. The Ramones didn’t know how to play their instruments when they started! I laugh. I’m serious though, he says. I haven’t talked to Lee since he started showing up wasted every time we had plans and tried to sell drugs to my sister. I wonder what he would say if I joined a band. Probably something like, what do y’all rich college kids have to scream about anyway? I can barely sing. What would happen if I open my mouth?
I show up to practice with my first song written in my notebook. Ryan and Matt are already set up in Matt’s basement. Music equipment is balanced on top of the laundry machines, and wires are wrapped around pipes. The only light source is a string of Christmas lights. Ryan and Matt have spent the week jamming together, figuring out our sound. Ryan’s on guitar, and Matt’s on drums. This is Matt’s first time playing drums, so he’s new like me, but unlike me, he can hear measures, he knows what a power chord is. Ready to hear our first song? Ryan asks. Yeah! I say. Matt counts them in with a smile that tells me he’s reveling in getting to be the person who starts the song. The song is fast and loud with no pauses or breaks. One section hurtles into the next. They keep eye contact so they can stay in sync, and occasionally Ryan shouts out instructions to Matt if he gets offbeat. After about a minute, the song ends with a clash of cymbals. Holy shit, I say. That was awesome! Ryan shrugs. We’re still working out some of the kinks, he says, glancing at Matt. Your turn, he says. Show us what you got. Now? I ask. Yeah, just play around, he says, then hands me the microphone and gets back into position with his guitar. The amp screeches. Ryan waves his hands and points to the mic. Don’t let it face the amp! he says. I turn the mic right side up. I take the notebook out of my pocket and flip to my song with the hand that’s not holding the mic. Before I have time to think about how I should deliver the lines, Matt yells 1, 2, 3, 4! and the song starts. I remember the vocalist from Perfect Pussy and how she almost seemed to sing to herself. I start shouting. I’m half paying attention to Ryan and Matt, but most of my attention is on the page in front of me, making sure I’m getting the words out. Shouting takes a lot of energy. I jump up and down just to keep it going. My feet pound into the floor with each word: how can I forgive you?? I can already feel my throat getting sore from the strain when all of the sudden I’m shouting into silence. I stop singing and put my hand over my mouth. Sorry, I say. I guess I’ll have to cut something. Kathleen, Ryan says. That. Was. Fucking. Awesome. Really?! I say. Yeah, dude, that was great, Matt adds. I feel lightheaded. I go upstairs to get water while they tweak something in the chorus. The floor vibrates as I drink.
We decide to call ourselves Genovia Forever like from the movie The Princess Diaries with Anne Hathaway & Julie Andrews & I fill up my notebooks with songs that include lines like my body’s not a temple, it’s just a sack of skin & the best revenge is never seeing you again & at practice I scream them at Matt’s basement walls & no one knows what I am saying & that is okay & Ryan asks Sydney to be our bassist & Ryan starts calling us a queer feminist band now that there are two queer women in it & we write five more songs & in them are all of my confessions kept safe in distortion & five songs is enough for an EP & so we record one in Knox’s radio station & we call it Shut Up & Listen after Lily Moscovitz’s cable show in The Princess Diaries & we book our first show in a church basement in Iowa City & before the show we get into an argument with another band because they made a rape joke & we get them kicked off the bill & I guess we really are a feminist band now & we play our set & I talk too much in between songs & we mess up every single song & it doesn’t matter because people dance anyway & we start playing shows in Galesburg & I get more confident onstage & learn how to make eye contact with the crowd instead of staring at my feet & people listen to me when I shout & they can’t understand what I’m saying through the distortion but they listen
This tour wouldn’t be happening if not for me and Sydney, Ryan says. He’s driving our borrowed minivan, scolding Matt and me as a parent would. Sydney and I booked the whole thing, he says. And you didn’t help. Ryan keeps talking, his voice filling the car. Sydney doesn’t say anything. I don’t understand. I booked our Savannah show. And I offered to help book more, but he turned me down. Matt apologizes, sorry, man, I’ll pull my weight more next time. I grit my teeth. I’m not going to apologize, but I can’t deny him—without his connections to DIY scenes in the southeast US, we wouldn’t be on tour. Afraid of what will come out of my mouth if I open it, I stay silent and stare out the window, watching the rolling hills turn into mountains. Ryan puts on the Good Charlotte CD we thrifted in Bloomington, and Sydney starts a game of cows vs. cemeteries. Cows! Point for us! Matt says to Ryan. Damn it, Sydney says. Oh! Cows! Wait, does that pasture count as one or two points for us? Sydney asks me. I don’t know, I say, picking my cuticles. We pull up to the punk house in Murfreesboro around dinner time. We are greeted by its tenants, a group of rowdy men with piercings in unusual places who chug down beer like water. The other bands arrive one by one, all male, in head-to-toe black and draped in chains, all spit and gnarl. We look like kids compared to them and every time we tell someone, Genovia Forever, like from The Princess Diaries, I feel even more juvenile. The house fills with people who keep getting drunker and drunker until it’s time for the first band, the Exterminators. Their sound is dark and low and sludgy and fast and a pit forms like a whirlpool in the middle of the crowd. It’s like I’m back at East Side, getting tossed between bodies. I’m not in the mood to be pushed around. I slip out of the crowd and stand near the side. Bodies keep crashing into me. I push them away, but they keep crashing. This is what the crowd wants: a band who can incite riots. We can incite foot-tapping, maybe some jumping up and down at best. They’ll boo us off the stage. The Exterminators’ set ends, and we set up in the cramped corner of the room. I fiddle with the microphone cable while I wait for my bandmates to finish. Ryan plugs in his guitar and gives me a thumbs up. I look out at the crowd. The crowd looks back, and I can almost hear them thinking, maybe I’ll skip this set for a smoke break. We’re Genovia Forever, I say. Ok, let’s start. Matt slams the sticks together to start our first song. I scream and yell into the microphone with my eyes closed. I don’t want to see the crowd. I bark out the last word and open my eyes to find the crowd cheering and clapping. We keep going. I jump around and scream lines into the faces of audience members. Do your comrades know you abused me?? They can’t tell what I’m saying, even when I’m inches from them, and it’s exhilarating. They head bang, none the wiser. When we finish our last song, my throat is burning, and I am dripping sweat. I just need some air, I tell my bandmates, and I rush outside into the cool night air. I wipe the sweat from my face and let the silence salve my throbbing eardrums. But then two girls burst from the backdoor, drunk and giddy. Hey! One of them says. That was sooo cool, the other says. Their voices overlap as they tell me how glad they were to finally see a girl at one of these shows. They open a beer to share, passing it back and forth. I ask if they come to shows here a lot, and one of them says, oh, yeah, all the time, and we talk about riot grrrl and bands in Tennessee and leopard print and the world’s largest cedar bucket which is just down the road. The next band starts to play. The basement throbs. Should we go in? One of the girls asks. I shake my head. They won’t miss us.
Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Chicago. Her work has been published by The Esthetic Apostle, F Newsmagazine, and Potluck Magazine. She recently earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is currently at work on a novel.