When I was 10, my parents packed my kid sister and me into the Hornet Sportabout and moved to California to open a little restaurant near SDSU and raise a family in the sunshine.
I didn't take to the new place too well, but I tried. I got a skateboard, puka shells and a bus pass. After school, I worked in my parents' sandwich joint, at first in the kitchen slicing lemons (and learning from the Filipino dishwasher how to juggle them) and, by junior high, clearing tables and sweeping the floor.
The restaurant had wooden stools instead of chairs because that's all my parents could afford. Another cost-cutting measure was to barter with other merchants in the tiny strip mall, like trading lunch-break sandwiches for family hair care with a fast-talking, cokey stylist named Mike, a recent Back East transplant himself, who worked at the salon next door.
One day in the Summer of 1978, Mike was trimming—or just as likely, feathering—my long brown hair, and listening to a cassette tape he'd brought with him from New York, when a song came on that sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. It captivated me. An uninhibited woman shouted, “Yeah, you know her / Come on and rip her to shreds!” The noisy band behind her played aggressively simple rock 'n' roll. It was different from the music on the radio. I asked him what it was.
“This is new wave! Punk rock! It's what they listen to in New York, man. You like it? I'll turn it up.”
“Where can I get music like this?”
“Off the Record. Up on El Cajon Boulevard.”
I had weekly money to burn, no expenses and young parents who didn't save a lot and didn't require it of me. I could afford to ride the new wave—but I'd have to do it on a skateboard.
That magical trip under the blazing sun to Off the Record was nothing more than an insignificant half-mile up busy College Avenue, but it may as well have been the Yellow Brick Road; it definitely led to Emerald City.
Springsteen live cranked at full volume inside. The walls were record covers, the ceiling T-shirts, every image and band name a private universe. The mad-scientist older guys behind the counter seemed passionate and approachable, nothing like the stereotypical music-snob clerks of High Fidelity.
“I'm looking for new-wave punk-rock music,” I said. This was no conflation of genres: At that point in the pop timeline, anything with do-it-yourself attitude got lumped together as part of some loosely defined emerging revolt against everything pretentious or staid. Nobody much cared what the music was called because almost nobody knew it existed.
Larry and Rich, the Off the Record guys, were more than willing to help a 13-year-old spend his $50 on new sounds. Turns out they were regulars at my parents' place, which was quickly gaining a following in the area thanks to my mother's cooking, my father's adherence to the philosophy of treating people well, Chicago-sized portions and a thrilling new table arcade game called “Pong.”
I remember the albums.
The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Undertones, Los Plugz, X, The Dead Kennedys: It's a challenge to type the names now without being overwhelmed by what it felt like to gingerly slide a disc onto the spindle of the portable player and let it spin—to lay there on my bedroom floor in headphones, trying to decipher the cryptic cover art and mind-bending sounds stirring me toward some uncertain danger I felt simultaneously afraid of and ready for.
Only the coincidentally San Diego-centric movie Almost Famous, in one of its many overtly sentimental scenes, where the aspiring teen journalist discovers the power of his older sister's record collection, has ever come close to capturing in film the adolescent fetishization of records that shook the misfit children of the 20th century to the core like no mp3 file ever could.
The music so overwhelmed any information about it that the bands seemed like they might be out to get you.
At Off the Record, I soon discovered flyers for local shows. I bought an “X” pin, stuck it over the alligator on my shirt and convinced my father to drive me to Downtown's seedy warehouse district, where the force and volume of the bands in person at the Skeleton Club was terrifying and liberating and made me jump up and down with the handful of weird older kids who frequented the dingy hall. My father dropped me off but also secretly parked the car around the corner, poked his head into the club to see what I was up to and chat with the promoters at the door about looking out for his son in there.
At my next appointment with Mike, I bravely instructed him to cut my hair in a short, choppy style like the musicians on the album jackets.
When I returned to school in the fall of 1978, I still had few peers, but now I stood out: a freak, an outsider, a weirdo—but not a “punk rocker.”
Not until a year later had the normal kids learned an apt label for me courtesy of nightly news scare segments that told them I was part of an apocalyptic youth conspiracy out to destroy the world.
But by then I didn't care what they called me or whether they threw beer cans at me from their pickup trucks or waited for me on my neighbors' lawn to teach me how wrong I was for choosing a toxic persona. I didn't care because I had my own band and a cute, punk-rock girlfriend named Dana.
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