Once, there was this kid — and this wasn't all that long ago so this might tell you how really stupid kids can be, even today — who tromped into 924 Hilltop punk house in Ohio with a guitar case and a ripped T-shirt and a practiced scowl that he would have just bought from Hot Topic if only they'd sell them, and he declared that he'd sell his soul to the motherfucker who could teach him to rock a bass as well as Sid Vicious.
Of course, just to start Hilltop was the totally wrong place for such an exercise in posing. No booze, no stagediving, no major labels, no songs with the lyrics that include "girl" or "baby" because they're sexist, and the place isn't even open, really, before noon. But Moussaka was there, and he's a funny guy, so he waves the kid in and tells him to take the bass out of the case and take a seat. Moussaka had a little amp, and the kid breaks out this Fender Jazz Bass he must have gotten from his junior high school, and they plug in. Moussaka shows him how to slap a little bit, and pop the strings, and reminds him never to even pretend to strum a bass or everyone will know what's up.
And then Moussaka said, "Okay, we're done here."
"What the hell?" the kid said, "is this a joke?"
"I could ask you the same question," Moussaka said. "Sid sucked shit, sonny." Moussaka is about thirty-two years old, which is a pretty sad age for a non-pederast living in a punk house, so he was trying to sound like a cranky uncle or the kid's Dad. "His bass wasn't even plugged in to the backline at gigs so he wouldn't ruin the show, and it's not like the Sex Pistols were, you know—" he held up his hands and twitched his fingers like quotation marks "'all about the music.'"
The kid started to open his mouth, but Moussaka continued, "He didn't play on the album. Steve Jones did all the bass parts and the guitar too. Sid asked Lemmy from Motörhead for lessons because he started getting embarrassed, even through the haze of smack and Nancy's big titties." The kid blushed at titties and then, his persona melted in a puddle around him, just said, "Thank you for your time, sir," and packed his bass.
But Moussaka wasn't done. While the kid is putting his bass back in his case and trying not to cry, Moussaka dug around for a blank piece of paper and a Sharpie. He wrote on the paper _____'s SOUL, OWNED BY MOUSSAKA O'REILEY AS OF THIS DATE ____. SIGNATURE ____, and actually made the kid fill it out. The kid did, and he had apparently given himself the name of Jack Shit — kids are stupid, remember? Anyway, the kid fills the whole thing out under his punk name, and even signs the words Jack Shit in the sort of careful cursive writing of a kid who goes to a very good junior high and always got extra points for neatness, and now Moussaka has the kid's soul just like that. He pinned the deed or contract or whatever you want to call it to the bulletin board, and it was there for a while. It either got so covered up with other flyers that it had more pushpin holes than paper, or it fell off and slipped behind the bookcase. Or maybe Lucy threw it out. Anyway.
Anyway, imagine the kid. Who knows what brought him to Hilltop, or what the hell was going through his little cough syrup-addled head? A girl, maybe. Or maybe he made a friend who wanted to start a band and the kid really wanted this new friend and so he told the guy he could play bass and then decided to see if he could do a little Robert Johnson sort of thing, meeting a devil at the crossroads (where the Hilltop house happens to be). Or maybe that self-same new friend wasn't one, and he tells the kid that if they want to be pals he should dress like a dipshit and take his junior high jazz band bass down to Hilltop for a bass lesson he'd never forget. For that matter, maybe the kid really learned something: you don't need to be a good musician to be a punk legend. (It actually works against you.) Really, it's the easiest thing in the world, being a punk legend. Two steps are involved.
First, get your name attached to a product of some sort. (It's especially good if the product is somehow anti-consumerist). Then, step two.
Die fucking young.
Spazzy cracked her knuckles and blinked hard three times. The salt in her sweat stung her eyes. She cracked her knuckles and asked, "Get all that?" The planchette was still again, the pen it was carrying tilted off to the side.
"I think so," said Kiki. He grabbed the last piece of paper and flipped through the few pages Spazzy had generated — it was all covered in the purple ink from his pen. Notes.
"How long was I under?"
"God, about three hours!" Kiki declared. Spazzy looked at him closely, so he actually glanced toward the clock radio. "Almost. Two and a half. Almost two." There wasn't much light in the room, Spazzy's, except for the clock radio, and the candles on either side of the side of the lapdesk Spazzy used to operate the planchette, and the indigo of a snowy twilight on the other side of the single window over the bed. "Man, I am tired from all this spirit medium…ism-, uh, ing," said Kiki.
Spazzy held up her arms, hands limp. "Pfft, try riding the planchette by yourself for three hours!"
"Two. Barely two. Not even."
"I must have moved that thing four thousand times. I need protein. I'm going to the kitchen to get a protein bar. Want anything?"
"I got your protein bar right here," Kiki said, smacking his lap with the pages of automatic writing. Then he flopped back on Spazzy's bed, took one of her pillows and placed it over his head. "Just turn on the lights, sweet thing." Spazzy struggled to her feet and left, limping heavily. Kiki laid there, letting his eyes adjust to the new light by slowly pulling the pillow across the top of his face, breathing in the ghost of Spazzy's raspberry shampoo and wondering whether she was a fake-ass, or if she really believed this stuff and if he should too. The writing sure didn't look like Spazzy's — it wasn't as spastic — so that had to mean something, if only some secret crazy subconscious hypnosis was in full effect.
Kiki, being a gigantic homo, was able to do what he pleased in shop class. None of the other kids would partner with him, and the shop teacher — a human hosepipe himself, though deeper in the closet than a roller skate that needs a key — felt bad for Kiki. So what Kiki did was what the planchette had previously instructed. He took apart his bass guitar and replaced the body with a large wooden tackle box, the cover of which was an antique ouija board he and Spazzy had found while thrifting one day. It was thee ouija board, in fact, the one that worked when Spazzy was doing it all by herself. The spirits were not only summoned, they were downright chatty. That's when Kiki had had the idea to drill a hole in the planchette and insert a pen. It was totally old school, and kept the transcribing down to a minimum.
Anyway, the spirits wanted a bass guitar ouija board for the big show, so they were getting one. Kiki even filched a couple of nice brass hinges to better attach the board to the box. It took him almost a week to get the body mods done. The YES NO GOODBYE on the top and bottom of the body made Kiki smile whenever he looked at it.
Unfortunately, the ouija bass sounded like muddy-ass shit. Spazzy frowned and rocked on her feet awkwardly. They were The But I Love Hims. Lady Miss Kiki Extravaganza (aka, Tomas Epstein) on muddy-ass shit-sounding bass. Spazzy Spaghetti Stigmata Yomama (aka Cheryl Shephard) on vocals and garbage can drums. The Tinklebot 9000, Spazzy's pre-programmed keyboard, rounded out their sound.
"Well, now what are we going to do?" asked Kiki.
"What do you mean?"
"I used to have a decent bass? Now this thing sounds like I'm playing in the bathroom stall of a men's station bathroom."
"So what?" Spazzy said, dismissive.
"So? So, thee spirits are guiding us wrong."
"No, they're not", Spazzy said. "Remember, you don't need to be a good musician to be a punk legend. So the bass's new sound is probably just a part of that."
"The spirits also said to die young last time we spoke to them," Kiki said. He shifted the bass from one knee to another and drummed his fingers on the neck. "Should we do that too?"
"Actually, they said that we'd need a record first, or something to sell. A book, maybe? Are either of us going to write a book any time soon?"
Kiki snorted. "Guess not. And as long as my bass sounds like this—" he popped a string and a fuzzy sound, more like a thick rubber band being shot off someone's thumb and hitting a wall, filled Spazzy's mother's basement, "we're not getting a deal with anyone, not even MakeYourOwnCD dot com."
"Good!" Spazzy leaned heavily on her brace and blew Kiki a kiss with her free hand. "Now let's waste our lives practicing in this dank little room."
"Or not practicing," said Kiki, "if we really want to be punk rock legends." Spazzy played a rim-shot.
Hilltop really is atop a hill, so Spazzy's mother had to drive the band in the SUV all the way to the door, which was very embarrassing because SUV's are evil. One time, Spazzy had even slapped a bumper sticker on the car reading I'M KILLING THE PLANET: ASK ME HOW! but her mother made her scrape it off. A bunch of kids on the bowed wrap-around porch even booed the SUv as it pulled up and stopped only when Kiki swung open the wide side doors, dropped onto the dirt driveway and helped Spazzy take the step down from her seat. Then a few of the kids even strolled up to help unload the garbage can and cymbals.
Spazzy's mother called after them as they began climbing the steps up to the porch, "Text me when you're almost done, so I can pick you up right after!"
"How am I supposed to text you in the middle of the set!" Spazzy yelled back. She had to stop and twist around to shout, because talking and walking at once was hard.
"Not the middle, near the end!" said Spazzy's mother.
"That's even worse than the middle," Spazzy said in a normal voice to Kiki, as her mother clearly wasn't listening. The window went up and the SUV eased back down the winding driveway spine of the hill. One guy named Fred went beep beep beep! like the SUV was a fat garbage truck and then winked and zipped inside.
"That wink was for me, I'll have you know," said Kiki.
The gig was in the basement, which was another trial as the steps leading down to it weren't completed as they were in Spazzy's house. The entire flight was just wooden slats, and it took a right angle about halfway down, like a poor man's spiral staircase. Kiki and Spazzy ended up walking back out the front, down those safer steps and then around the house to the backyard to enter through the cellar door. Only six steps, and firm-seeming concrete with a banister screwed into the walls on either side. The equipment went down the rickety steps, and was waiting for Kiki to set it all up.
Moussaka slid off the freezer on which he was sitting and counting receipts to buttonhole Spazzy. "Hey, I know you come here all the time—" Spazzy had only been to Hilltop twice — "but I need to go over the rules one more time." Moussaka raised a finger, "One, no stagediving."
Spazzy rooted herself and lifted her left arm to wiggle her forearm crutch around. "No problem," she said. "Even if you had a stage!"
"Two, no alcohol or drugs. If you're carrying, let me have it."
"I bet," said Spazzy.
"Third, uhm, you're the vocalist, right?" Moussaka said.
"La la la," said Spazzy.
"Well, we already got your lyrics, I think, but I want to remind you: no sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, encouraging of violence, glorification of meat-eating — though if that is your choice, it's fine — and no pro-Nader lyrics."
"That's a new one," Spazzy said. "with Nader."
"No, we always had it. Even when we decided, we did it retroactively. Band who played here and sang pro-Nader or PIRG lyrics were sent letters explaining exactly what's wrong, politically, with him, and they were disinvited back unless they apologized for those lyrics."
"Rock and roll!" said Spazzy.
In the back of the room Kiki spoke into a mic, saying "Test, test, testing, one-two-three" and someone sitting on an old couch on his left said, as someone always must, "Testes, testes. One, two, three!" and someone else who was sitting on the rickety stairs and creating a fire hazard said, "Hike!"
"Hey," sais Spazzy into the mic. "Hi. We're The But I Love Hims. And this is a song." The room was half-full. Overwhelmingly boys, mostly all skinny, except for fat old Moussaka. A couple of girls, who looked about sixteen and dressed like they were about eight, were in the corner under the steps. Then Spazzy raised her sticks and brought them down onto the side of the well-pummeled garbage can and began to scream. Tinklebot 9000 blared Casiotone bossanova and Kiki waited, counting, for his cue. He snapped a string on his ouija guitar and it, and the world, seemed to go wwaaaOOOoooaAAAAooo, pulsing in and out like a bubble in the deep black sea. The boys got up and started almost dancing.
Spazzy sang the lyrics the spirits had directed. There was "Day of the Locust", with its memorable refrain of "It's all just hocus pocus/this place is a locus/of your crimes" and then "Miss Lonelyhearts," about how boys are all worthless bitches for not wanting a girl whose legs may not necessarily spread all the way open, but who can still suck a mean dick. Kiki sang the "mean dick" parts, as he struggled manfully with the deep and fuzzy notes rumbling out of his bass. The boys really danced there, grabbing their crotches and hooting. Even Moussaka got up and stomped a bit.
Sweaty and tired from the dual exertions of caterwaul and drums, Spazzy licked her lips and introduced one more song. "Here's another song. It's about an adult that people used to think was a cool guy, but then he turned out to be a total prick." She smiled. "Don't worry Moose Ca-Ca, it's not about Ralph Nader. This one is called 'Goodbye.'" And The But I Loved Hims hit it hard. The Tinklebot 9000 squeaked and groaned, and Spazzy shrieked about Sid Vicious and fucked-up losers and thick hands around a tender white neck and how the scene ain't worth jack shit and Kiki slapped the shit out his bass, jumping and hooting and kicking out his leg like he was making fun of Van Halen, and in doing so he kicked the crutch and that knocked Spazzy off-balance and the Tinklebot 9000 got knocked off its stand and the garbage can started rolling down the length of the basement, kids running and jumping out of the way and Kiki put his hand right through the ouija board body of his bass right as he got tangled up in the cords leading to an amp and he knocked over a girl whose lemonade spilled and splattered all over Spazzy's bent metal crutch and then there was a huge bloom of sparks and the smell of flaming hair and everything went dark and silent except for a distant wwaaaOOOoooaAAAAooo.
"Nobody move!" said Moussaka. "Everyone stay exactly where you are so you don't trip over one another or fall onto any broken glass or start a fire. It's like freeze tag, kids. Just freeze."
"Tag!" someone called out in the dark, and then there were chuckles.
"You're it!" shouted Spazzy.
"Shut up!" Moussaka barked. "I'm going to find the circuit breaker."
The wwaaaOOOoooaAAAAooo was quiet at first, more felt than heard. But in the dank silence of the Hilltop basement, it began to make itself clear. Everyone could hear it, because nobody could speak or even move. It was a low low groan, like a motor struggling.
It was a motor, Kiki realized. The freezer, on another circuit, was still running, and running hard. Kiki, not even sure what he was doing, but sure wanting to give Moussaka and his rules a little fuck you, started slowly making his way over to it. The kids were quiet and still so it was easy to pick his over their legs and torsos. The freezer, even though it was the horizontal kind, probably had a light in it that goes on, Kiki reasoned. He'd be helping everyone out, including Moussaka.
Kiki opened the freezer door as a solid click echoed in the basement and the lights flicked back on hard. He squinted, blinked, then saw the kid in the freezer all blue and dead, the ghosts of thick fingers purple on his throat.
"Jack Shit," said Kiki. Moussaka came running, swatting a girl aside to get to the freezer "Fuck, you're a murderer!" Kiki shouted. "There's a dead body in here!" Moussaka slammed into Kiki hard, crushing the boy against the wall. Kiki wilted.
"Protect the scene!" shouted Spazzy as she picked up her crutch and swung it over her head. It flew across the room end over end and slammed hard into Moussaka's back. Then the kids swarmed and took him down.
Cheryl's personal email userid is still Spazzy4LifenDeth, but she doesn't rock out anymore. She left Ohio when she went to college, and now she's a vet tech in Berkeley, where it's never as cold as freezers. She likes to ride in her Lark scooter and watch the kids act out and reenact their little rituals and rites of passage on Telegraph Avenue, then she goes home to her own two boys, Johnny and Joey, and let's them listen to whatever music they like, even if it is Greenlandic trip-hop, which is the big thing.
Tomas is only Lady Miss Kiki Extravaganza twice a month, at a bar called Secrets. He's still in Cincinnati, and lives with his mother even though he has more than enough money for a place of his own. Mama keeps Tomas honest. Hold out for love, rather than bring home any scraggly boy who is all elbows and lips and eyes that flutter like little moths after every kiss. He never bought another bass, and would rather lip synch torch songs these days. Tomas is a librarian with a special interest in true crime and photography.
Moussaka O'Reiley is in prison. He has a zine called The Punk Got Punked — two issues have come out in nine years — and works in the shop, twisting together strands of metal to make wire mesh garbage cans for the state. He's been stabbed four times in four separate incidents. His belly looks like a railway map of stitches and scars.
Jack Shit is still dead, and has nobody to talk to anymore. Punk rock legend.