My parents took me to a porno movie when I was four years old. It was the early ’70s, and porn still played in decent-sized theaters. One sunny California afternoon, we walked into such a theater on Ventura Boulevard near the Topanga Bowl bowling alley. There was a tractor on the screen, and then there was some sort of sex act I was way too young to understand.
I guess my parents started to feel awkward because we left just as it was getting interesting. We never spoke about it again. I’ll never know why they thought it was a good idea to take me there. But it’s one of the only memories I have from when my parents were still married.
My dad was a traveling shoe salesman who was on the road most of the year, so there was barely any difference between how often I saw him before and after my parents split up. He moved into an adults-only apartment building, and I stayed with him every other weekend, but I couldn’t leave the apartment. He played volleyball, drank, and smoked pot with his buddies by the pool, and I sat inside and watched seaweed creatures on Night Gallery.
Those were my weekends with my dad. Years later, when I was in my thirties, he told me he never really wanted to have me over. He worked hard all week and wanted time to himself to party and get laid. I was only “invited” because my mom insisted he spend time with me. It suddenly made sense why he and I had never bonded, and I always held some resentment toward him that never fully dissipated. I was never abused. I was never beaten. I was just neglected. I suppose it could’ve been worse.
I spent most of my childhood at my mother’s apartment in Beverly Hills. In the interest of accuracy, I should point out that there’s Beverly Hills — which is full of mega-mansions and European sports cars —and there’s the Flats of Beverly Hills, a neighborhood south of Wilshire Boulevard that housed all the people who cleaned the mega-mansions and parked the European sports cars.
My mom found work as a manicurist and moved us to the Flats to get me into a good school district and expose me to the upper crust, in the hopes that some class and sophistication would rub off. As it turned out, the affluent parents on the other side of Wilshire welcomed the opportunity for their kids to mingle with the lower class, in the hopes of subliminally suggesting, “Work hard, or you’ll end up being a manicurist!” It was a symbiotic relationship that allowed for a surprising lack of class discrimination. I never felt out of place or looked down upon by any of the other kids because there were no barriers between our stations in life. One night I’d sleep over at a friend’s apartment and four siblings would literally be sharing the same bed, the next night I’d sleep over at a friend’s mansion that had previously hosted the Shah of Iran. It was normal.
I had a friend named Eddie Machtinger who had an elevator in his house. He’d wait until the maid got in and then shut off the power to the whole house, leaving the maid trapped. It’s the kind of prank you can only play when you’re raised in Beverly Hills.
In the summers, I went to camp with kids like Josh Brolin, the Nelson brothers and their sister, Tracy (from the show Square Pegs), and the kid who played Willie from Little House on the Prairie. Strangely enough, it was there, at an upscale mountain ranch nestled in the Sierra Nevadas, that I was first exposed to punk rock.
My parents unintentionally raised me as a musical illiterate. They had a grand total of two record albums: Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights and the soundtrack to Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl. And they didn’t even really listen to those; I think they just had them so they could seem normal when their friends came over. I didn’t even discover the Beatles until I was in college.
The first music I remember getting excited about was the soundtrack to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I caught it on cable when I was in fifth grade, and the next time it aired I held a tape recorder up to the TV speaker and taped the whole thing. I listened to it a hundred times, over and over, and went to see it live several times in Hollywood (and once in St. Louis, randomly enough).
By the time I was twelve my father had remarried, and I had a new baby half-sister, so when I would stay at my dad’s house his seventeen-year-old neighbor would come over to babysit. She would play me Rush and Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath; she turned me on to the idea of just sitting back and listening to music for its own sake. She also poured me my first real drink: Kahlúa and milk. Now that’s a good drink to turn a kid into an alcoholic. Tastes like chocolate milk!
So, anyway, back to the life-changing introduction to punk: Mountain Meadow Ranch in Susanville, California. The summer of 1981. Each week the camp would have a dance, and the DJ (who I later came to know as Joe Escalante from the Vandals) would spin the usual disco fare. But one night he slipped in “Who Killed Bambi?” by the Sex Pistols and “Beat on the Brat” by the Ramones. I don’t know what it was about those songs — maybe it was just because they stood out so starkly among Donna Summer and the Bee Gees — but when I got home at the end of the summer I immediately went to Rhino Records and asked the clerk, “Do you know a song called ‘Beat on the Brat with a Baseball Bat’?”
He chuckled and sold me the first Ramones album on cassette. To be honest, I really only liked three or four of the songs on it. But this “punk” thing was intriguing.
Eddie Machtinger — my elevator saboteur friend — met up with me one night soon after that to go to a movie. Once we were safely out of my mom’s earshot, he said, “You know what? Let’s go see this band play. I heard them — they’re really good.” So instead of taking the bus to Westwood, we took the bus to Hollywood to see Killing Joke at the Whisky a Go-Go.
Having never been to a punk show before, we had no idea what to expect. We showed up way too early and walked in as soon as they opened the doors. We went up to the balcony, ordered fries and Cokes from the bar, and stationed ourselves at a table in the far corner.
As first shows go, this was a weird one. Kommunity FK was the opener, and they were awful, but we stuck it out and waited for the headliner. Killing Joke was like nothing I’d ever heard before — pounding and relentless and loud as fuck. Everyone on the dance floor was slamming into each other. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time; slam dancing had not yet been splattered all over the media, at least not any media I was paying attention.
Eddie wanted to go down into the pit. I said, “I’m not going down there!” But he went down and got into the mix anyway. He had a blast that night. I, on the other hand, was scared shitless. Two skinheads stood directly behind me while Eddie was gone. They were taking drags off their cigarettes and slowly, deliberately blowing smoke down the back of my neck, trying to freak me out. Well, it fucking worked. We were fourteen years old. We were in Hollywood after midnight. We were surrounded by creepy older kids slamming into each other like lunatics. And we stuck out like sore thumbs: I was wearing shorts and a pink Izod polo shirt. (I thought we were going to the movies!)
It was frightening and violent and uncomfortable and bizarre. So, naturally, when Eddie called me the following week and said, “There’s another band playing called X,” I immediately agreed to return to the Whisky. We showed up at the same time, sat at the same table, and placed the same order for fries and Cokes. But this time I hoped to fit in a bit better, so I wore a blue Izod shirt instead and put a safety pin through the little alligator logo.
That was how it began. I started going to shows all the time, picked up what records I could at Rhino, and bought a PiL pin to cover up the little horse on my other polo shirts. Not that I had any idea who or what a “PiL” was. I was a total poser (and was called out as such many times). I just took cues from the people I saw at shows and the older punks at my school. I bought a Buzzcocks shirt but had never heard the Buzzcocks. I bought a Dead Kennedys shirt; never heard Dead Kennedys. The music was almost secondary. I liked watching X, but it was more about the attitude and the craziness of the crowd and how dangerous it all seemed. That’s what kept me coming back. It certainly wasn’t PiL. They were fucking terrible.
Excerpt from NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories by NOFX with Jeff Alulis. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.