In the summer before I entered 7th grade, my mother signed me up for a month-long sports camp run by Episcopal High School, the private boarding school just up the street from our home in Alexandria, Va. My dad wasn’t around when I was a kid, and the only sport I had played or demonstrated any interest in was soccer, at which I was terrible. I didn’t follow or comprehend football or baseball or basketball. I basically still don’t. I didn’t want to go.
So I spent a month devoted to alternating trials of softball, basketball, soccer, and lacrosse stuck inside this campus—this was a sleepaway camp—that was profoundly alien to me. I was surrounded by budding young bros, the kind of kids who asked their parents to send them to sports camp, who owned their own lacrosse sticks and baseball gloves. I would lay in the dorm-room cot at night, playing out the 15-minute walk to my home in my head.
The kids didn’t like me. Early on, I brought suspicion and derision on myself by announcing my desire to get a mohawk as soon as my mom would let me—this is in the mid-1980s, when abnormal haircuts still carried the cachet of subversion. (My mother would soon enough call my bluff and offer to take me to the barber to get “a Mohican,” but I didn’t have the balls to follow through.) I tried to explain to them what the haircut was, why it was cool to look like Joe Strummer driving down broadway in the video for “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” They called me a fag.
At the time, my understanding of punk, and my interest in music, didn’t extend much beyond the Clash. I knew them, as one does, from my older brother Matt. He was 8 years ahead of me. When I was 11 or so he sat me down by the record player in the living room and tried to interest me in the Clash, to pass on the tradition or plant a seed. I laughed at him. He had a mohawk at the time. I called him a fag.
But in fifth grade, Jake Thompson showed up as the new kid at Patrick Henry Elementary School. He was brilliant and a little bit off. He was not a normal person. His eyes were weird. I liked him and wanted to impress him. So in the morning as I’m getting ready for school, I’m listening to the Top 40 radio station—DC101 maybe? The Greaseman?—and it so happens that “Rock the Casbah” is in the rotation. I doubt I even realized I was listening to the Clash. But the chorus lodged in my head, and I’m singing it absent-mindedly at school while Jake and I are assigned to work together on some project, and he says, “Oh you like the Clash too?”
Yes. Yes I do.
He peppered me with questions—Mick or Joe? “Safe European Home” or “Black Cadillac?”—and I straight-up faked the answers.
When I got home that day I asked Matt for all of his Clash records and he was gracious enough to give me a second chance at indoctrination, explaining to me about riots, and reggae, and the dole, and socialism. My mom took me to the record store and I bought my first LP, Give ‘Em Enough Rope. I was prepared for Jake’s questions now.
But that was the extent of it for me by the time I found myself marooned at Episcopal that summer. I didn’t know anything more, really, about punk, or about music that wasn’t on the radio.
One morning the campers are assembling for a day-trip to King’s Dominion, an amusement park near Richmond, Va. I shuffled onto the bus, where I had a seat to myself because none of the bros cared to sit with me. A couple of them make some kind of remark about my aspirational mohawk. That catches one of the counselors’ ears.
The counselors were mostly bros, too. College kids. I don’t remember anything at all about the one who talked to me that day. But I remember everything else. He asked me about the mohawk. “You like punk?”
“What bands do you like?”
“I like the Clash,” hanging onto the one thread I had.
“You ever listen to any Hüsker Dü?”
And here he gives me a look of pity. He knew I didn’t fit in there, and now he knew why. “Forget about those guys,” he says. “Listen to this.”
He gives me his walkman, with a tape inside it. It was a store-bought blank tape, with “Hüsker Dü” written on the side in cool college kid handwriting. I could tell this was an artifact, a thing he cared about enough to have dubbed it from a record or another tape—an undertaking at the time.
It sounds crazy now, more than 30 years later, but I remember the layered ferocity of “New Day Rising” ringing in my ears. I remember what it felt like to hear the twinned shrieking, the primal drums, the denatured guitar for the first time. Unless you’re lucky, or really unlucky, you don’t get a lot of moments in your life when you can bring to mind exactly what it felt like to be in your body when something changed. I remember what the soles of my shoes felt like braced against the linoleum hospital room floor on the afternoon my first son was born, and I remember the feeling of my thighs sticking to the green bus seats during that solitary southbound ride on I-95, with the hooting and laughing and singing of all the other campers on the bus drowned out by the din of this awakening in my ears. I remember a feeling of tumblers falling into place, and something unlocking.
The Clash was slick, melodic. It was pro. But this was all fucked up. There were melodies drowning in the noise. It was American and it was angry. And it was given to me by someone who represented a future—a way past and through all these lacrosse-playing kids who didn’t want me there.
I survived camp and bought the first Hüskers record I found in a store—Land Speed Record, found in the imports section as I recall. It turns out Jake’s older brother Frank had a ton of Hüsker Dü. I think I stole his Candy Apple Grey.
To be honest, I was a Bob Mould guy more than a Hart guy. The Mould melodies and angst appealed to me more than Grant Hart’s more purposeful tunes. But they were part of the same machine. On their own, neither ever lived up to what they did together.
Two years after that bus ride, my brother was going to a Baptist college in North Carolina. My mom put me on an Amtrak down there to visit him. He and his girlfriend at the time picked me up in a convertible Cadillac. In my memory, they pick me up at the train station with the top down and hand me a can of beer for the ride back to the dorm. We saw Hüsker Dü play that night at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill. The internet tells me that was February 1987, so maybe the top wasn’t down. Christmas opened—I remember my brother joking, “Everybody loves Christmas!” I always told myself that I saw one of their last shows, but in truth they lasted another 10 months before bottoming out in Columbia, Mo. According the the Daily Tarheel, it wasn’t a good show.
I don’t remember much about it other than how loud it was. Bob Mould seemed enraged. He didn’t move a lot. I could see his eyes very clearly, and he was so angry. He seemed to be staring at me the whole time.