God Bless the Circle Jerks
by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue
1986. I’m in the back seat of a 1970s Dodge or Chevy making out with my girlfriend, whose brother is driving. I am 17 and still in high school. The driver is 19 and works as a mechanic, keeps the old cars running that he acquires through his job. His sister, underneath me, is 17, too. The driver cruises back roads with their woods choked by strands of barbed wire and red signs reading “POSTED,” a dusting of snow. It would not be unusual for a deer to leap out of this and charge the car and kill us all, but the driver doesn’t care. He floors the pedal and crosses the center line to pass the car in front of him just as a hill tops, so no visibility. He tears back onto the right side of the road with inches to spare to avoid a car coming the other direction. A split-second glimpse of the terrified eyes of the woman driving the station wagon coming the other way. Can’t hear her horn honking over our music.
“Could you maybe slow down,” I shout over the power chords.
“I’m only doing sixty, man,” the driver shouts back. Trees whip by in a white and brown blur, a black-dyed shock of his dirty blond hair hanging over his eyes as he twists his lanky body to glance in my direction.
“It’s going to be okay,” says his girlfriend, smirking from the passenger seat as she eyes me like an eight-year-old girl eyes an even younger child, or a puppy, or a horse. She has a strong, husky voice and does not need to shout. She is in her late teens and has copper-colored hair in full-bodied curls that reach down to her shoulders, wears a black felt coat and stylish beret. “You think we’re moving faster than we are because you’re stoned.” She smells like perfume.
None of the rest of us smells like perfume.
The driver’s sister says, “Shut up,” pulls me down by my collar, sticks her tongue in my mouth. She tastes like the Marlboros both of us chain smoke. She is stick-thin, androgynous, sexually aggressive. She smells of something I can’t quite place, but it is natural and distinct and her brother has it, too.
His girlfriend is right about my being stoned. In fact, she’s the only one in the car who is not. We just picked her up after leaving a cluttered one-room shack at the edge of a reservoir occupied by a bleary-eyed red-haired scowler with sharks’ teeth threaded on a thong around his neck who talks like he’s perpetually holding in bong hits. He lives there free as the keeper of the dam and gets high all day while his girlfriend cleans motel rooms. His loud, coughing brother comes over to the shack with a twelve pack of Meister Brau and gets high, too. The scowler was best friends with the driver in high school, where they were the only two who liked Dead Kennedys. They once sat on skateboards and rode them down the side of the 1200 foot mountain that looms over town by way of a road with sharp, sudden curves and vehicular traffic. They made it out alive. The driver asked the scowler along on our ride, but he told me he’d known that the scowler wouldn’t come. The scowler hates everyone. The only way to see him is to go to the shack.
The driver, his girlfriend, his sister, and I are now looking for beer that we are too young to buy. It is quickly getting on towards Saturday night. We are all thrown forward as the driver hits a stoplight. His sister says, “Jesus,” as she and I roll. We are at a crossroads with a time-warp of a gas station and black and white signs indicating numbered routes. Fifteen minutes more, it means, before we hit town. Maybe ten at this speed. I know it by the landmarks, but time passes strangely. The back of this car is like a never-ending limbo. It’s my second time stoned, though I’ve smoked pot more than twice; the first time I smoked it and really got high was in the back of this same car along these same roads. A song by Dead Kennedys called “Ill In The Head” was playing on the stereo–“In a desperate mind, little gardens grow”–and I kept thinking the high-end guitar line was being played on bagpipes by a row of somber frogs dressed in Scottish kilts and tams. I could barely stand up to get out of the car that day. Before that, I’d smoked pot with various friends and never felt a thing. I had asked a known burnout in my gym class about this, a guy with wavy blond hair and AC/DC T-shirts with dark-colored sleeves that weren’t made to reach all the way to your wrists, and he glanced all paranoid from side to side, then gave me a look like I was a fool for even asking.
A couple weeks later, it was frogs playing bagpipes.
My mind keeps wandering. I taste those Marlboros and feel that girl’s tongue thrash inside my mouth like a mass of moving flesh of indeterminate identity, not sure whether it’s mine or hers. It’s a tongue, it’s a tumor, it’s something I was eating. Blasting out of a speaker right next to where our heads mash awkwardly together is an album called “Wonderful” by a band called the Circle Jerks.
In a time before downloads, when things like music can only be accessed over the commercially dominated public airwaves and in tactile formats (as records, cassette tapes, and compact discs), there is a clear distinction between “mainstream” music and music like the Circle Jerks. The Circle Jerks belong to an anti-authoritarian, non-conformist movement with a do-it-yourself ethic by which releases are self-produced, tours are self-funded, and songs are original. The movement, called “hardcore,” is ideologically hard to pin down. It is anarchic, fascistic, pacifist, violent, intellectual, or anti-intellectual depending who you talk to. It is referred to by reporters as “conservative” and “neo-Nazi;” the former describes some accurately, the latter very few. My friends and I are anti-establishment and leaning toward the left. We are definitely not Nazis. It is to the credit of a non-conformist movement that its members can’t agree on what they believe, though much of the fragmentation is factional, rather than individual. Individualist punks and “unified” skinheads fall under the same umbrella; they do not always share the space well. There is physical in-fighting. Many hardcores are teen-aged boys with the same aggressive urges that would have brought others to high school sports. There is the tribalized violence that existed in cities like New York long before hardcore that has worked its way into the scene in some locales. There is also the opportunity to create, to define one’s identity as one sees fit, to have one’s voice heard by peers with no outside interference. The aesthetic of hardcore is not elitist and allows for and encourages creativity, activism, and a moral compass to be developed in those who see the movement’s core spirit and understand it.
The Circle Jerks carry this spirit to the many with a clever sensibility and a style all their own. “Wonderful” is not their cleverest album, but it is their first on a label with wider distribution than previous albums and is the one you can get in cassette form at chain stores in malls in redneck college backwater towns like ours. It is the band’s fourth LP. It plays constantly on the tape deck of my girlfriend’s brother’s car, looping back to the beginning every time the album ends. Keith Morris’s vocals vacillate between throat-tearing yells–you can almost feel the spittle–and subdued, baleful crooning. You can’t mistake that voice. The band is as hard to pin down ideologically as hardcore itself. The sarcastic cynicism of the album’s title track–the words “GIVE YOUR BROTHER A SMILE” sarcastically assault with a deluge of said spittle–contrasts starkly with track 8 “The Crowd’s” sincere humanistic chorus of “all the world must live here.” “American Heavy Metal Weekend” sounds like heavy metal, as does a lot of this album, yet it appears to be making fun. The jauntily ominous “Karma Stew” (“Not proud of your past/You’ve burned a few/Now you’re cooking/You’re a stew”) is about what happens when you place personal gain ahead of how you treat people. “Mrs. Jones” is about the wages of parental neglect and has the funniest line on the album, which refers to borrowing a rake.
They are funny fucking guys.
They do not take themselves too seriously, though they have a lot to say.
The Circle Jerks’ cleverest album is their third, “Golden Shower of Hits.” Musically, it is their last that sounds like straight-ahead punk. It has one song under a minute long and many under two. The lyrics weigh in on a wide array of subjects with wisdom, intelligence, and keen observation. “In Your Eyes” tells of the death of a romance with the blameless closing statement of, “No one’s at fault ’cause no one’s wrong.” “When the Shit Hits the Fan” warns what will happen if we continue to abuse the welfare system. “Red Blanket Room” tells the story of a psych ward full of attempted suicides by gleefully bellowing, “I ate drano/Wha’d you do?/He shot junk/She drank glue/How ’bout you?” “Coup d’Etat” describes bloody revolution in its real-world form to an audience full of armchair anarchists. This, to me, is hilarious, as is the very existence of a vein-popping pissed off song about junk mail, as is the album’s title and longest track, a medley of old pop songs performed with musical savvy and belching irreverence. “Product of My Environment,” though, might say it all about the band’s varied viewpoints and eclectic choice of subjects, as well as Morris’s own deceptively simple style of lyrics. “Overheard drunks sitting in bars…” They just look and listen and tell it like it is. They do so very well. They make me want to thrash around and bop my head and break things. They make me want to do so with a smile on my face.
They comprise the perfect soundtrack for 1986.
We never find our beer that night, but a few days later we go to a party at an apartment complex in Middletown, a depressed, tiny city that is all about abandoned factories, ghetto transplants, and mallrat culture. When we arrive at the front door, the woman who answers says, “Sweetie, some more of your dirt bags are here.” The party is thrown by a girl my age who lives with her mother and belongs to a family that wears way too much makeup, the boys as well as the girls. There is plenty of beer there. Things get blurry. I puke on the girl’s bed and we make a ton of noise. The girl’s mother kicks her out onto the street.
God bless the Circle Jerks.
– The Acolyte