Like Burned Out Bulbs on a Ferris Wheel: A Christian Punk Show on Halloween, 2000

A Christian Punk Show on Halloween, 2000.

On Halloween, I met up with Shawn and Alex at the Kokomo so we could all go to a punk rock show. Nancy and Mack were there, looking goth-er than ever. Neither Alex or Shawn had a costume on, but I did. I was Nancy Spungen, of course. I had been wanting to dress up as her since 1997. I had a bleach blonde wig and, you know, a slutty outfit.

“Who are you?” Alex asked me. “Courtney Love?”
“No!”
“Who?”
“I’ll give you a hint,” and I slipped into my most high-pitched nasal voice and quoted Sid and Nancy: “Sidney! I look like fuckin’ Stevie Nicks in hippie clothes!”

Alex gave me some Tootsie Rolls and a black jelly bracelet, and we waited around for a little while, just drinking coffee, until some kids that Shawn was bringing with us arrived.

The two boys showed up after a bit. They were a couple of probably fifteen or sixteen-year-old gutter punk kids. I respected them because they were authentic – they weren’t just some suburban kids pretending to be gutter punks.

“Dude, why do you have a Crass logo on your leather jacket?” one of them asked me.
“Don’t make fun of her,” Shawn said.
“No, it’s okay. I know you think that Crass were vegetarians, and they were for the most part, but they weren’t totally strict about it. They wore leather Doc Martens sometimes. I know because I just read Penny Rimbaud’s autobiography.”

It was true. I had just read My Revolting Life by Penny Rimbaud (stolen it from Barnes & Noble because I couldn’t afford to buy it), and it had inspired me. I was in such a stuck place in my life. Penny Rimbaud showed me that it didn’t have to be that way – that I could live outside of the model my parents and society had created for me. His book showed me that I could do what I dreamed of doing in life. It also showed me that a group of people I really respected weren’t perfect – that I could fuck up sometimes and still do great things.

What Shawn had failed to tell Alex and me about the punk show we were going to was that it was Christian punk show. Not Christian punk like MxPx – “We’re on a Xian label but we mostly just write songs about girls and soda anyway.” Christian punk like “I am going to scream a lot. About Christ.” Eek. I’m very uncomfortable around dogmatic Christians because I spent a lot of time for a couple years around a friend who always told me I was going to hell.

I’ve never been dogmatic. I just don’t have it in me. Part of it has to do with being raised in a Unitarian Universalist church, where I grew up learning about all different kinds of religions, and I think the more you know about all different beliefs, the harder it is to be dogmatic about your own. People can believe whatever they want to. I just hate it when they try to force it on me.

We first realized we were at a Christian punk show in between songs during the first set. The first band was called Headnoise, and I thought they were pretty amazing musically. Very loud and fast but with great hooks, and the lead singer’s mohawk was so fucking tall and bright red and perfect. Then I noticed all the anti-choice stickers on their equipment, and in between songs they kept reading scripture. I started looking around at that point and realized that the three of us were some of the few people without crosses and Jesus fish patches sewn on their clothes. At the end of their set, they had the audience pray with them. I bowed my head because I wanted to be respectful, but I thought I was going to vomit. The words from the Patti Smith version of “Gloria” kept running through my head: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Seeing everyone there being so brainwashed, it was the first time I think I was ever genuinely scared on Halloween.

Not to mention, I was a little bummed out. I had been thinking how hot the bass player was – he had spiky black hair and a padlock on a chain around his neck, kind of like Sid Vicious, and after all I was Nancy Spungen that night – but I decided it would be useless to flirt with him. He’d probably try to convert me, and there’s no way in hell he’d have premarital sex if he was so fucking Christian.

The whole shindig was put together by JPUSA – Jesus People USA, usually called “Japooza.” Japooza just sounds like some sort of touring concert festival, to me. JPUSA takes kids that were living on the streets as junkies and alcoholics, and lets them stay there in exchange for doing odd jobs around the place like cooking and cleaning. And they also convince them that it’s only by the grace of Jesus that they got through their hard times.

The place where the show was being put on reminded me of an elementary school classroom, really. The whole environment was very sterile and clean, too clean. A punk show is supposed to have a floor sticky with beer and sweat and spit. It’s supposed to be dim and smoky and crowded. This place was brightly lit with the sickly green-yellow of fluorescent lighting. A very rough gray carpet covered the floor. It smelled like antiseptic.

“How depressing,” I thought, “all the life had been sucked out of it.”
“Shawn,” I said, after Headnoise had finished their set, “why didn’t you tell us it was a Christian punk show?”
“I didn’t think you’d come if I did.”

He was right. I wouldn’t have come. As it was, I wanted to leave, but Shawn was my way back to Evanston, and he wanted to stick around. A friend of his was there, this skinhead that he hadn’t seen in years. He was one of the former street-kids rescued by Japooza. He had red hair and smiled a lot, and he didn’t try to convert any of us, not even Shawn.

Why do Christian punks freak me out so bad? Why do I think it’s a contradiction? Because, to me, punk is supposed to be about finding your own way: it’s about doing what feels right to you. How can you form your own beliefs when you have to follow the tenets of a religion that, for the most part, serves the needs of wealthy, straight, white men? How can you go your own way and be your own person when you have to do what it says in a book that was written thousands of years ago? I’m not saying that punks can’t be spiritual, or that they can’t believe in God, but being part of an organized religion (especially being fundamentalist about it) seems like a contradiction in terms.

To escape the suffocating atmosphere for a while, Alex and I went outside to smoke. Two boys, John (a skinhead, with the ever-present cuffed jeans) and Bryce (a punker, with a Subhumans t-shirt) who I had seen inside earlier, walked up to me. They had gotten kicked out for drinking. We started talking about how lame the show was. “Hey,” Bryce said to me, “you have a Crass logo on your jacket. You drink, right?”

“Hell yes!” I said, and he handed me a big bottle of Coca-Cola, which just happened to have lots of whiskey in it. Bottoms up. They offered some to Alex, too, but she turned it down.

He assumed I drank because I had a Crass logo on my jacket. Because being into Crass (or the Subhumans, as his shirt showed that he was), automatically aligns you with some sort of subculture-within-a-subculture. Like, oh, you dig those bands? You must be an “original ’77-style punk rocker,” or you must be a crusty punk! It’s funny because those are two extremely political bands and a lot of those ’77-style punks are so apathetic. They just like to drink and smoke and generally cause trouble. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I kept drinking with Bryce and John and a couple friends of theirs. One of them was a huge skinhead with a scar on his forehead. When he stood in front of me, he blocked all the street lamp’s light. The members of Headnoise came outside for a while and gave us all t-shirts. The design was a spiky-haired punk on the front, looking all content and smiling. The back said “Headnoise” and had a message about God. As if free shirts would sway us over to their beliefs, or something.

The guitar player sat down on the dirty sidewalk, across from me. He had so many tattoos on his arms that I couldn’t even make out what they were of. He had messy, dark hair and a day’s worth of stubble on his face. He looked like any punk rocker you’d see walking down the street, actually, if you didn’t pay attention to all the Jesus-related stuff. I took a swig from the Coke bottle, and flicked my cigarette onto the sidewalk. The guitar player ran a hand through his hair and said:

“Man, I used to be way into drinking and drugs and stuff, and I was suicidal. Jesus is the only way past all that.”

I wanted to say – “Man, what about Buddha? Couldn’t he help you past all that?” But I was drunk, my head felt blurry, and I didn’t feel like getting into an argument. So I just said: “Uh. . . yeah.”

Bryce and John were sitting next to me at that point, looking at me with smirks on their faces like – “What kind of bullshit is he going to try to sell us?”

“So, dude,” Bryce said, trying to egg the guitar player on, “don’t you think it’s kind of a contradiction to be a Christian punk?”

“Well,” the guitar player said – obviously he had answered this question many times before – “There’s nowhere in the Bible where it says you can’t have tattoos and piercings, so it’s not a contradiction to be a Christian punk.” I wanted to laugh – as if tattoos and piercings and mohawks are all punk is about. John and Bryce and I all just nodded.

“Besides, I loved all those old-school bands, like Crass and the Subhumans, but the guys in those bands are hypocrites! They don’t live what they sing about! Dick from the Subhumans? He eats at McDonald’s sometimes!”

So now he was trying to attack our heroes, tell us that they weren’t perfect, because maybe then we’d see that Christian punk really wasn’t as hypocritical as we thought it was. At least no more hypocritical than anyone else. It was a dirty trick. The Subhumans are strongly anti-corporate, and them eating at McDonald’s would make them liars, because McDonald’s is one of the biggest, most evil corporations of all. I wanted to ask the guitar player how he knew this, but I didn’t figure it was worth it. So instead I just said: “Uh. . .yeah.”

Shawn had joined us outside for a smoke, and after the guitar player finally left me alone, I started talking to him. My head started itching, so I took my wig off. “Thank God,” said Shawn, “that thing was freaking me out. You looked way too much like Nancy.”

We went back inside for a little while. This band called Zao was playing, and not only were they a Christian band, but they were really bad hardcore. Alex and I went back outside. John and Bryce had run across the street to the liquor store to get some more whiskey and Coke, and then I drank with them some more. I ran out of cigarettes, and John rolled me some with the Top he had. I smoked them, burning my throat, looking around at all the torn-up buildings and broken glass in that neighborhood, looking up at the almost full Halloween moon. It was chilly that night, but I was drunk enough that I didn’t notice.

Bryce was making a film for a school project, and he got me on tape, bitching about how much I hated Northwestern. John told me about the band he and Bryce were in with some other guy.

“We need a bass player, though,” John said.

“I can play bass!” I said excitedly, and so he asked me for my phone number and said he’d call me about being in the band.

Eventually, Shawn came outside, and I said goodbye to John and Bryce and we went to Burger King. I had just felt a little sad at the prospect that Dick Lucas might eat at McDonald’s, and here I was eating at Burger King. I guess if I’m not perfect, I can’t expect my heroes to be. But I was starving, and I had spent my last five bucks on the show, so Shawn bought me a fish sandwich and then proceeded to talk about how gross it was that I was eating fish.

“Fish tastes like pussy!” he yelled, much to the shock of all the other customers in Burger King.

In his car that night, as he was taking Alex and me back to the red line, he said: “Hey, Jessica, be careful. I know John seemed nice, but he just wants to make you his oi! toy.”

“Well, thanks for looking out for me Shawn, but I think I can take care of myself. Besides, I wasn’t planning on sleeping with him.”

But I was thinking: “He’s being protective of me! He’s being protective of me! That must mean he likes me, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t care who I fucked around with.”