(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 naïve 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