Greetings from an eerie-sweet place

(In 1994 I became the second singer for a band I would later name Exhaust. For five years we outlasted anything TOO detrimental to stop us and that taught me more than the 16 scattered years I spent locked up in classrooms and study halls. I was confronted with human nature and what to expect, and not expect out of life, learning far more than I did from the thousands of dollars my family threw at UAB. I’ve ripped up at least a dozen tries at documenting those memories on paper; I could never seem to get it right. Adventures were tortured, hysterical, endless…

Every minute mattered. And I wouldn’t trade a moment in Exhaust for anything. This is for Andrew… Brannon… sigh and you too Mike.)

Go west. We showed up in the shadows of Los Angeles late. Weeknight. I’d booked the next few shows and spirits were high among the four of us, despite disasters in Flagstaff, Phoenix and New Orleans. Texas, actually, had been kind to us, but I think we’d just gotten lucky.

Renee was just a voice on the phone, one of many Andrew and I called on our list of strangers sprawled across the map, Gainesville to Portland. Pleading with the voices to book an Exhaust show, find us a roof to sleep under and maybe, just maybe, a few bucks for gas. Hat tricks were few and far between. Shudder to Think stayed in the cassette player, and their off-center queer punk lyrics reminded us to play what you want and damn the rest.

There was a lot of non-verbal eye-contact communication behind her back when we met Renee. She was pretty in a punk rock way, with self-torn clothing and intentionally over-bleached hair, fishnets under shorts. She couldn’t help the freckles but they worked on her. You don’t envision a dominatrix in Venice Beach having freckles but… this one did.

Calling the four boys of Exhaust na├»ve is an understatement. Andrew and I stumbled out of Birmingham’s public school system, while Brannon and Mike graduated on the other side of Red Mountain. On the road our greatest weakness was also our greatest weapon: absolute ignorance to… well, everything. Optimism and self-deprecating humor pushed us past the big setbacks. The breakdowns, the lack of funds, the violence...

We just shrugged when our California shows began falling through, content with sleeping on the floor of her above-garage flat. Enigma was on the radio, and they didn’t tell us anything discernable; but we’d been sleeping on the side of the road and in rat-trap hotels. Meaningless music felt good.

The four of us wide-eyed everything in Venice Beach. The terrible LA traffic that led to the narrow-alleyed streets that led to her dungeon, or more specifically, her place of employment. Retro torture devices were everywhere. Cages, whips and a handcuff pinwheel. The early July heat was put to rest by the Pacific winds, something I was not used to. We walked the handful of blocks to the boardwalk, a place that, to date, had only existed for me in cinema fiction and early 80’s punk rock history. Xanadu, The Jazz Singer, or Colors. Suicidal Tendencies and Beowulf. A huge wall mural of Jim Morrison, Venice’s adopted son, went up in ’91 to stand watch over petty drug buys and purse snatches. The ocean water was California frozen, and burned through my skin. (One of those moments that I mentioned in the beginning)

“White trash is a racist term” Renee said on the way to LA’s seediest porn stores, lecturing me on the pitfalls of my, and the band’s, extremely self-destructive perceptions. We made out in the peep show booths, her in fishnets under self-torn clothing, me in a beat up Liberty Caps’ t-shirt and camo shorts. I remember leaning against the velvet-curtained wall, as far from the real world as I could ever be (The jury’s still out on that one). Jawbreaker came on the radio as we drove back through the black skies and stars of Los Angeles to above-the-garage, and they reiterated that “it gets loneliest at night…”

Our shows under Renee’s wing were perfect examples of Exhaust’s severely poor grip on punk rock reality. A gay rights festival. A block party hosted by drug dealing gangsters (actually, one of our best shows). At another questionable venue, the lead singer of Wish for Eden, a Christian punk outfit, stood in front of the stage, stone drunk, and begged us to take him along on our “way to the top”. The Exhaust response was simply more non-verbal eye-contact communication amongst ourselves, mid-set. Renee’s current boyfriend, and a selection of the Mexican gang he was a part of, waited in the parking lot. Texas, it seemed, wouldn’t be the only time that luck was on our side.

Leaving Renee behind, en route to the Pacific Northwest, was confusing. She’d big sistered us and screwed us up in the same breaths, with poor show after no show after poor show. Brannon went to Shades Valley for Christ’s sake! And here we were getting teary-eyed over a dominatrix in the suburban shadows of LA. She let Mike borrow Rollins’ book “Get in the Van”, an irony too tough to swallow even then.

A year and a month later had not been enough days for us to learn our lesson as we ventured back through Renee’s waters yet again. The shows continued their trend of being disasters or non-existent, only this time we’d been sentenced to sleep outside of her apartment, in the van, in east LA, thanks to a new boyfriend and the history Renee and I had of making out in a porn store peep show booth. A wide-eyed black man woke us at 4am, beating on the side of the van, more confused than us on our intentions. A brief confrontation between he and I resulted in him returning with a cocked and loaded gun, crossing the street, eyes straight ahead, a vigilante/lunatic with a purpose. We fled quickly to fight another day, luck again intervening. And I swore that I’d never speak to Renee again.

Years later I checked an old email address and found a dated plea from Renee wanting the Rollins’ book returned. She was writing a column for Maximum Rock n Roll and Exhaust’s five year run had ended, leaving me to bartend and scheme other ways to waste resources and time. I wrote her back telling her that Mike, now too, was on my list of people I never planned on speaking to again. I added that, in his defense, Mike was currently nine-to-fiving his life away as a bank teller and probably needed that book a lot more than she did. Not all of us can be one of Venice Beach’s adopted sons and daughters.

(The last few pages of this story would read that Exhaust ended the same way it began. Wave after wave of confusion carefully masked by 800 pounds of self-deprecating humor. No one, and I mean no one, was more abusive to Exhaust than Exhaust. But every minute, extraordinary, meant something.
At least it did to me.)

Untraceable. Untranslatable. I can’t explain all I ever wanted to do.” - Fugazi


Hey Dad, we wear air masks in fires now

Janey, the runaway American dream cannot just be about survival. Not anymore. It has to be a sincere effort/push/fight to make things better. Make your life better. Make life better. An 8-and-half-year-old’s reasons for getting out of bed every morning are so different than a torn up 35-year-old’s. So angel lets do it. Lets run away. Tonight. America is plastered across this world and surely, SURELY, we can find a fire station that will hire on one lost soul. Yes, we can open another restaurant, and yes, when you're older, you can hostess there if you want.

Coming up I never wanted kids, but situations have a way of finding you. You're mother and I used to fight like caged dogs, the frustration of it all being too much for a naive southern hardcore kid and a temperamental Yankee. I was bartending when your mom went into labor, and I reeked of beer and bleach when I first met you that night. Of course I cried, you were four weeks early and only weighed five pounds. For all my size and tattoos I’m still pretty emo.

East Lake was a meat grinder for teenagers in 1988. Packs of wolves roamed directionless at all hours, cheap cases of beer bought on Oporto-Madrid Boulevard in the backseat, an ounce of pot in the glove box next to brass knuckles. For a solid year the underage hookup for alcohol was a young black woman that worked the 3-11 shift at Conoco. Early one Tuesday night a 13-year-old wandered out of the woods and shot her in the head for a gang initiation. The store never re-opened and for the next three years I watched the weeds grow through the asphalt and over the gas pumps, until the bulldozers finally came to bury a hurt memory.

In ‘02 you were two-years-old and living in Pensacola; I was worthless, in my late twenties with a dead-end job and no future. I’d work until 3am in Southside and drive all night to see you, falling asleep on your mom’s bed and holding your hand thru the crib bars… Headaches and worries of what you’ll think of me if I don’t make things better. Did you know that I opened the Black Market Bar just to impress you? You wanted a restaurant and the Speakeasy didn’t have a kitchen. Silly I know, but I do better on no sleep and cheap coffee anyway. You’re a hell of an influence, kiddo.

In ’07 I wrote a book no one will ever read in a Vestavia library, waiting on you to get out of 1st grade. I bit back tears from your excitement to see me every day, the way your brown eyes lit up... I kindof stand out in the midst of Vestavia soccer moms and Mercedes Mini-vans, which made the walk back to the library that much more fun. We raced across the schoolyard and bounced story ideas off each other, yours always better than mine, at least more marketable…

Your grandparents let go of my reigns after one of my many close calls with self-destruction. Nights were endless or empty, often times both. Someone, lit-up on… something, would mumble, “Isn’t there a witch buried in Bass Cemetery?” and the cars were running. The train tracks grinding parallel to the headstones were impossibly eerie, but we never found any ghosts or witches’ graves. The older kids would make the trek to Mad Dog, way out in the woods of Hoover, home to devil–worshippers, runaway abductions, and animal sacrifices (allegedly). Traci Bishop, disintegrated on Busch beer and handfuls of pills, showed me an arsenal he’d put together for his one-man assault on Satan’s children. Guns scare me now just as bad as they did back then, even more so in the hands of drunken idiots.

East Lake was over run with white trash punks, skate rats and southern-fried hippies, (two of which categorized your dad) the frustration of it all being too much for directionless kids with muscle cars and motorcycles. The neighborhood taught me fear and survival, scarring me on illegal substances, violence, and going to parties. We were Outsiders and outcasts and out of our minds simultaneously, running from wolves and howling like wolves at the same time.

Janey, I’m still hiding from the wolves.

Only now I’ve traded East Lake for the outskirts of West End.
This man just now… his son waited in the parking lot for Engine 14, his grandson waiting in the car, both crying because they already knew. The hotel rented by the day, the hour, the week or year, depending on how far of a slide you were on.
Inside, one bed was covered in garbage, stacks and sacks, the other a sheetless stained mattress of cigarette burns, sweat stains and food condiments. He was dead on the floor between the two, blood staining his face a brown red crust.
I touched his skin for vitals and it was cold freezing. “Why die here?” echoed over and over in my mind. Behind a grocery store in a cardboard box would have had more dignity. Not that it matters where I do it, but I really don’t care to go out buried under garbage in a $75-a-week hotel room, not unless it’s on fire.

So Janey lets run away and you never grow up. The rest of the world is waiting with its scams and grifts to get some sort of foothold in you, or on this planet, or in their own self-worth. But, at 8-and-a-half, and as long as you have someone to protect you, then you’re bases are covered. And for you I’ll tear down the skies, a war against God.

But please…
Don’t outgrow me. Don’t start thinking I’m dumb, or outdated, or overprotective, even though it’s all true. You broke my heart once rollerskating with two of your girlfriends instead of skating with me, then won it back when you bragged to our waitress that I’d ripped back the windshield of an overturned SUV. Keep in mind that underneath this exterior of testosterone, intentional scars, and shaved-head grimace, I’m still pretty emo.

At 8-and-a-half, you can just stare out the window and selectively pick out the good in things. Don’t grow up jaded, bitter at what you think someone else owes you, or what you think life owes you. When I’m with you I try to accept the amazing in this world, picturing how it looks through your eyes.
Please don’t ever grow up, because I’m in no hurry for you to see the world through mine.

So pack a bag and we’ll leave tonight, no set destination. We could follow the footsteps of Andi in Pensacola and jump a cargo train to anywhere, but the “square” I’ve turned into might insist on a somewhat safer passage. We’ll leave behind my anchors, collected from years of trying the same thing over and over just to get by.
Just to survive.
Surviving is not enough, Janey.
You have to make things better for yourself.
Re-define the word “impossible”.

Bring a notebook for my sentences and another for your drawings. Bring books to read and re-read and trade for more books. Wear Converse hi-tops so I’ll never forget East Lake and the kids it chewed up. Worn out soles burning up on pavement. No more stolen graveyard bones, 33-year-old grandmothers, or drug dealing bikers.
Janey, that’s the runaway American dream. Birmingham to Seattle, Key West to California.

Along the way I’ll need you to remind me that life is, and can be, beautiful.
And you’ll need me to protect you from the wolves.

“I can’t seem to scream these words loud enough, or hard enough. Somebody say my name so I know I’m alive.” – Feeling Left Out

Don’t act like your family’s a joke” – Drive-by Truckers.