Life. Do we really know how much it's worth, how much it can be? If we do, we sure don't seem to act that way. In fact, judging by the way we abuse the world, animals, other humans and ourselves, life is pretty cheap. As the days fly by, life for so many of us becomes a deadening process of "just getting by," going through the motions, "doing what's done." We let society's poisons -- tobacco, beer, pot, junk food, TV, etc. -- tranquilize us as our lives, our dreams slowly bleed away. We live, work, consume, conform, and ultimately die . . . too numb, too scared to ever really ask "why?"
More than anything else, punk rock is about saying "no" to this world's lies and stupidity, and saying "yes" to the life, the world that can be. Punk helped me to find the courage to look deep inside myself to discover who I am, what my life should be. It inspires me still, to slowly and painfully struggle toward my visions . . . dreams I'm trying to make real . . . Ideals are as real and as close to me as my heartbeat, pushing the lifeblood through my veins. -- Mark Andersen, from his personal writings
POSEURS, SO MANY POSEURS, CRAMMING INTO D.C. SPACE, with their ripped denim shorts and their black T-shirts and their black Chuck Taylors, trying to look really cool, trying to look punk and everything, when practically anyone can tell they put so much effort into it. And their cigarette smoke. It's all over the place, the space, there's no other word for it, this underground club on the corner of Seventh and E streets NW that's not really a club at all -- in his hair, in his eyes, in his clothes. And their beer. Pitchers of beer, they're carrying them in every five minutes it seems. Mark Andersen doesn't say anything, doesn't do anything really, just sort of stands there in the doorway and scrunches his face in this look of solemn disapproval. All these poseurs, all these unrepentant druggers and drinkers -- probably unrepentant meat-eaters too. Don't they understand?
This isn't punk, this isn't what punk is all about. This isn't the only way. There's another way, a better way. Positive punking, the Positive Force way. Yes. Positive Force understands. If only this were a Positive Force event -- they could come to it, they could see the energy and hear the messages, they could take home the literature, and maybe then they could understand. Yes.
They could come to a meeting at the Positive Force group house and sit on the floor with other teenagers and post-teenagers and see that punk is about possibilities, beautiful infinite possibilities, and not at all about violence and decadence and apathy and stuff. They could see Jenny Toomey organizing the group for a benefit for the homeless or something -- and raising about $2,000 in the process -- and experience that glowing rush of putting on a show with meaning. They could maybe discover a renewed faith in the power of punk, and maybe a new purpose to their lives, just as Kristen Thompson did. Kristen, she understands. She came to her first Positive Force event two years ago, joined the group the very next day and eventually took a room in the house. Same with Larry Keats. And Eric Fuertado. And Jim Miller. Brad Sigal too. They understand. The Positive Force house is more than a place to live -- it's a house for their ideals, their passions, their punkness. Yes. Positive Force understands.
A girl -- woman -- walks by with her blue hair all asymmetrical and a cigarette going, and Andersen waves his hand, shooing away the smoke. He scrunches some more. Poseurs. They don't understand, they just don't understand.
He wasn't going to come tonight -- Claire, his girlfriend, didn't want to, she's not too into the punk scene -- but she gave him her Indigo Girls T-shirt because he didn't have anything else to wear, and here he is, inside the space wearing this, like, mainstream-group T-shirt, and suffering a little because of it, and suffering all these poseurs and their drinking and drugging because, well, because it's the Holy Rollers, and if you know anything at all about punk, you know that they are one of the brave new hopes, a band with thunder and conviction, and not at all into rocking out and signing off with thus-and-such a major label. And to see them up there on stage, singing to the unconverted, spreading the word -- it just means so much to him. He wouldn't miss them for anything.
"Welcome back, Holy Rollerrrrrrrs!"
He's smack up against the doorway, inching back, back, trying to stay as far from the smoke as possible, but the Holy Rollers blast into their first song and he's practically all the way inside. Jim Miller, he's here, diddling around the sound board, turning it up full, as usual, and the speakers are cracking and the music is so loud your teeth hurt and your stomach begins to rumble a bit. Andersen is prepared, as usual, with bits of a crumpled napkin he crams into his ears that reduce the noise level to suitably deafening.
The band is jamming with meaning, doing "Skin Deep," this song about racism. It's amazing. Andersen is mouthing the words, and standing in place, not even moving, his eyes half-closed, then he starts to jerk to the noise. His body goes left, right, left, swiveling, left, right, left. And it's as if he's summoned by some higher power, something awesome and unutterable. The sound comes down, this torrent of guitar and wails, and his eyes shut tighter and his head tilts back, as if to take it all in. The awesome and unutterable power of it! His straight blond hair is flopping, and his glasses are moving down, he's getting into it, and his face, his farm-fresh pink, cereal-box face, is going all red and sweaty.
He looks around the room. Jenny's here, and Eric and Larry and Kristen, they are all here, Positive Forcers going all red and sweaty. And for a while there, Andersen is feeling so spiritually connected, everybody gathered together under one roof, swaying to the sounds and repeating the refrains -- a com- munity -- no, a congregation!
Yes. A congregation of peace and principle and purpose! Yes.
And then Jenny Toomey gets up to speak toward the end of the set, some really important words about the Community for Creative Nonviolence, and how really important it is to get
this petition signed to get Initiative 17 on the ballot this coming election.
"They really need our help," she is saying, "and if we can just get 20,000 names, it would be really amazing, and . . ."
And then this girl -- woman -- wearing Chucks and this huge smirk pokes her head into the doorway and, out loud, right while Jenny's talking, says:
"Are they taking a brief pause?"
She says it with all the sarcasm of the smart-alecky kid at church sliding into her seat after avoiding the service by hiding in the bathroom, only to find the sermon's just started.
Mark Andersen turns to her with this priestly glare, but by then she's already disappeared.
SOME COP SLAPPED A $30 TICKET ON SEAN Knight's newly purchased, tofu-colored VW bus, which itself cost only $50, and the whole thing makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
"I don't believe this," Sean Knight says. Larry Keats stands in the living room of the two-story, wood-frame Positive Force group house on North Eighth Street in Arlington and clears a path for him. "I just had it parked outside on the street, and I get a ticket because I don't have my registration yet. I just bought the damn thing the other day."
Larry curses and Sean continues. "It's like that time I was coming out of the Metro down here, and I had long hair, and this cop stops me and he says, 'Where're you going? Where're you going?' Just because I had long hair."
"We should start popping these cops off," Larry says.
Sean almost laughs at this, one of Larry's typically half- jesting attempts at brotherly, Positive Force understanding. Almost.
"Why don't they give tickets to people with expensive-looking cars who can pay for them? Why don't they give tickets to BMWs and Mercedes? Huh? Why?"
Unbelievable! They don't understand, they just don't understand. No one understands: It's a struggle, every day, just living the life. Live the life! Live the life! Live the life! -- it's a struggle, every day . . . the punk community on the one hand, with its bits of apathy and irreverence still . . . and society in general on the other, the insidious, unrepentant, meat-eating, consumption-hungry, oppression-powered society.
It's a struggle, definitely. But it's beautiful too, in a way.
Larry hasn't worked in a year and a half, and although he just got this job for 15 hours a week at the food co-op in Arlington where Sean works, he isn't too psyched about that either. "Whatever," he says. He spends his days dressed all in black, eating dry toast or popcorn, and jamming for half-hour stretches at a time on his white electric guitar, alone in his room, where no one bothers him and he can be himself.
Which is the thing. Everyone does pretty much whatever he-she wants and no one brings anyone down with all these doubts and pressures and stuff. Everyone's enthusiastic about everyone else. Which is not to say that there aren't rounds of intense self-questioning and argument -- there are, lots of them, like the one that went on for practically an hour about the morality of keeping paper towels in the house, which some people thought was sort of a, well, lame concern before they were sharply reminded that the personal is the political is the spiritual. Everything is connected.
Jenny has just come in, and then her friend Gary from London with the shaved head and the triangular tuft of peroxide-blond hair sticking out front, and then Kristen's friends, Sonya and Kim, from California. The downstairs is in this constant state of coming or going. People are always hanging out. People are always crashing. In just the last year, punks from around the globe, from Germany, the Soviet Union, France, have come to the PF house for a little relaxation and revolution -- "We're sort of the punk rock hotel for the world, really," Jenny says. On Saturdays, meeting Saturdays, the downstairs is sometimes exploding with people, all these Positive Forcers -- there are, at any one time, as many as 40 of them, though one can't be sure exactly, flagging passions and such -- camped out in the living room, barefoot and earnest, volleying the details of the monthly PF benefit, planning wheat-pasting runs and plotting more good works, more, more.
It doesn't have to be Saturday, though; it can get pretty electric and fierce downstairs anytime really -- it even looks electric and fierce downstairs. It's, like, an underground society or something, what with all those fliers and leaflets about the homeless and AIDS and acid rain papering the walls in a mosaic of crimson and fuchsia and purple and olive and sienna, and all those records and tapes all over, including "Christ -- the Album" by Crass, and all those treatises on vegetarianism and media monopoly and capitalism, including The Marx-Engels Reader, and the furniture just appropriated from thrift stores and nothing matching and it's all just so subversive.
Brad Sigal has come in, and suddenly the room is packed -- even Eric's here! And this little forum starts up about the history of Western civilization and stuff. And everybody's into it. All this energy filling the room, it's just amazing, this vortex of ideas and debate and self-questioning at 3 o'clock in the afternoon in the middle of the work week. A real, honest-to-God community! Drawing on each other, loving, nurturing, supporting one another.
"We do have the luxury to sit around and talk about these things," Brad is saying. "A lot of people don't have the time or luxury to sit around and think about being oppressed."
And not only talk and think it, but -- this is so amazing -- feel it too. Brad has this long brown hair that he curls behind his ears with his fingers, and he favors T-shirts that mean something -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or anything with the Dead Kennedys. And when he gets really intense, like right now, his bushy eyebrows bunch so tight the hair dips down to the bridge of his nose. His idea of the ultimate group house used to be himself and John Lennon and Neil Young and Bob Dylan, but that was practically two, three years ago, before PF. "I'd cringe now," he says. "They're all white males." His new, improved, ultimate group house is himself and Angela Davis and Alice Walker and Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass and Jesse Jackson.
Being so contrary, that's the main thing right there. Contrariness for the sake of being contrary. That's the fun. Challenging people's expectations, throwing these really cool curves at them. Embracing nothing. Centuries and centuries of thought and culture and manners and mores? Dismiss it all. It's so . . . empowering that way.
"Like, for example -- Shakespeare?" says Kristen, with her maroonish lampshade of hair and her cute little habit of ending her statements with questions. She's 22 years old, pale and freckled and passionate. "If you read 'Romeo and Juliet,' you get only this heterosexual depiction of love."
Which is not a total "dis" on the Bard, as Brad -- lover of street talk, lover of the hard, angry edge of the three-letter "dis," so much more meaningful and explicit than the more conventional and culturally dead "disrespect" -- is quick to offer.
Just why not, oh, "Romeo and Julio"?
And why is Shakespeare, this bourgeois European white male, held up? Why not, say, Maya Angelou?
"She is so awesome," Jenny says, and runs off, barefoot, to silkscreen T-shirts for an upcoming PF benefit.
Jenny Toomey invests everything she says or does with enthusiasm, every little thing. Something so simple as taking out the trash, say, becomes an italicized, exclamation-pointed project. Taking out the trash! She is just burning energy all the time. Words tumble out of her mouth, vague rhetorical phrases and activistspeak and teentalk, blurring, slurring together, there is just sooooo much to do so much she wants to do so much to fight for and work for it's incredible it's amazing: this, like, verbal be-bop.
She has just graduated from Georgetown, which she is not exactly proud of, given her recent university trial and all. What happened was the student newspaper, which is completely financed by the school, had printed an April Fool's issue with this picture of a girl falling out of her swimsuit, and the caption, the caption said something to the effect that, well, sure it's sexist, but so what? So she rounded up her activist friends on campus, and when the next edition came out the following week, they snatched every available copy. It was so empowering. Stole all the papers and held them for ransom. The administration naturally tried to cop this very strict tone, this very authoritarian, prosecution-for-theft stance. Theft! They just didn't understand. They were sanctioning this blatant and offensive sexism, right on campus. Nobody understood: The student body was calling her a terrorist. Can you believe it? Terrorist! The administration threatened to keep her from graduating, and there was a trial the week before commencement exercises. Finally she just got her dad involved, he's a trial attorney in Georgetown, and there was this settlement: a fine, plus a bunch of hours of community service, which she happens to do anyway and -- how convenient, really.
Her parents are so awesome that way. Her dad also wrote this $1,000 check for a PF benefit in March -- half the down payment, it was amazing -- and even came to the show in his bow tie and suit and all. Her mom came too.
Not that they're too psyched about this Positive Force stuff. Her dad wants her to go to grad school next year, and she wants to wait two years, at least, and it's already getting to be this really big thing. So in the meantime, she's working at his law firm for the summer and putting away lots and lots of money -- all for the future, of course. Definitely.
ALMOST NOBODY'S PARENTS ARE TOO PSYCHED. MARK Andersen's family, Montana cattle ranchers, just sort of shake their heads and chalk it up to a black sheep sort of thing that their son calls meat "putrid" and cannot dredge up the memory of whole fields of his father's cows being slaughtered when he was young without going all weepy. His older brother, a born-again Christian, thinks he's gone to hell, passing up a promising career in politics, a master's degree from George Washington, to picket against McDonald's and stage benefits for a bunch of punk kids, and living as he does in that infernal crawl space with no bed, even.
Ah, but it's beautiful, really.
"The ascetic punk purity of it," Mark says, ducking his head now as he steps gingerly around his room in the basement.
L-shaped and dark, with posters of the Clash and the Sex Pistols dominating the walls, a mattress thrown in the middle of the wood floor, a huge pipe leaking from above, and a dehumidifier always going to neutralize the mustiness, his room may be messy and depressing, but it serves its purpose. It says something in its conscious rejection of order and materialism. It says something. Nobody, not even Claire, exactly understands the ascetic punk purity of it all, and he fears he may soon have to come above ground, but there's a kind of spiritual power or something to the place. Somehow. Down the narrow walkway of bookcases there's this picture, glowing, all by itself, in the dingy light . . . El Greco's "Christ Cleansing the Temple," and right beside it, right up against it, a calligraphic copy of a punk song -- Embrace's "No More Pain," written during the height of Revolution Summer in 1985, when punk underwent this major reform, this renaissance, really, a sort of spiritual and communal rebirth: "No more lying down/ We've got to speak and move/ No more righteousness/ Everything is far too wrong . . ."
Mark Andersen recites the words, and the emotion swells in his voice, and closing your eyes for a moment you picture some prophet up on a dais, with his white hair blown back and his large hands cutting huge arcs in the air.
"It's a song," Mark Andersen says, "about the need to purge ourselves and get our asses moving."
He still remembers the sense of trembling power he felt that day in 1977 when, as a 17-year-old kid, he picked up this 'zine in a record store in Sheridan County, Mont., and discovered the Clash. And then running out and getting the album, and hearing the sound and the message coming at him with such an explosion of energy. He suddenly felt connected to something for the first time in his life, something larger than himself, something outside himself. He saw so many previously unseen possibilities suddenly opened up to him, a total epiphany, it was amazing. Nothing was the same again; he forgot completely about wanting to be Sheridan's postmaster and devoted his life to living the ideals described in the songs.
He was filled with the words, with the power and the passions of the music, and he could hardly contain his excitement. At the University of Montana, he wrote an essay for a class entitled "Jesus Was a Commie Punk." Spirituality and punk -- was there any difference, really? To him they were forever united, inseparable, each uplifting the other. Punk was spirituality. Spirituality was punk. His parents had blasted his break from the church. But organized religion seemed so lame by comparison. He had discovered a new church -- "New Church," by Lords of the New Church, it was even a punk song! There were, there had to be, others who shared his thrill of discovery.
He came to Washington for graduate school in 1985, and with the help of a friend, Kevin Matsen, started a group house dedicated to living the punk ideal, living the life. It was Revolution Summer, punk was splintering -- on the one side, the decadents and their massive drinking and drugging and violence, their stage-diving and slam-dancing, their escapist ethic, and on the other side, the reformationists, who believed punk had lost its center, its basic moral center, and wanted to save the community and promote peace and love through clean living and good works. The reformationists were winning out. It was beautiful.
Freedom but with responsibility, subversion but with social consciousness, Mark Andersen preached. There was a better way.
Then he would come home from a show and just cringe. He felt like such a hypocrite. Here he was talking all this stuff about change and idealism, and Positive Force -- his house, his model house -- wasn't even a part of the solution. It was part of the problem. Anarchists for housemates who wanted nothing to do with society, didn't care about making a difference. Kevin eventually just bugged out after this kind of nasty, philosophical split, and Mark kept on going, alone, more determined than ever, and staging benefits to spread the word. He stood up at shows, and between songs he spoke of commitment and a new community and -- again -- freedom but with responsibility, and subversion but with social consciousness, all in that earnest, flat tone of his, the passion just dripping.
And suddenly it seemed -- it was amazing -- all these punks came flocking to him, to be a part of Positive Force.
What had happened to him, Mark Andersen soon realized, had happened to lots and lots of others like him.
All these brothers and sisters:
Brother Larry Keats, who hated his life from the day he first had to put on that awful gray school uniform at Bishop O'Connell and vowed never to be a good Catholic, drinking so much beer they called him "Six-Pack" his freshman year at U-Va., and getting messed up as a junior on this drug overdose: "I was really wondering if I was gonna end up in St. Elizabeths or something -- then I discovered punk." It completely changed his life, listening to Flipper, No Trend, X -- who could forget X, playing guitars with butter knives and screws? -- and learning you could be cool without getting wasted all the time. He came to Washington in 1987, looking for a job and looking for a home -- a spiritual home. He saw Mark at some benefit, and found what he needed. He ate one last baloney sandwich on a January afternoon and joined PF that night.
Sister Kristen Thompson watched the Sex Pistols on TV one day at her home in Toronto, and listening to her mom's complaints about these cartoonish, long-haired English kids intruding on her ironing time, right then and there knew that they were really cool -- and that punk was all of a sudden this force in her life. She went to college, got involved, then came to Washington after graduation to get more involved. She was working for NOW during the day and going to shows at night. Seeing Mark up there at a Fugazi benefit two years ago, talking about community and punking and a better way, she says, "I found what I'd been looking for my whole life."
ALL SOULS' UNITARIAN CHURCH IS bustling with black T-shirts. A group of punks sitting in a circle in the church hall looking up and watching a band called geek on stage, jamming for the Women's Festival, for Positive Force. Punks in a church! It's subversive, it's spiritual, all at the same time. Punks outside, on the steps, just hanging, talking bands and shows and stuff.
It's beautiful, all of it. But the church also happens to be, well, half empty. Mark Andersen is moving around, dressed all in black -- a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals T-shirt and jeans -- and feeling good and feeling the energy, but looking around, he can't help wondering: Where is everybody? Positive Force is out in force, Jenny and Larry and Sean and Eric and Kristen and Brad, they are all here. He finds them easily, which is the problem. Where is everybody? The whole idea, the whole Positive Force idea, was not to put on shows for themselves. The whole idea was not to put on shows, even. A Positive Force show is not a show, not really. It's a consciousness-raiser, a soul uplift. Just look around, all this energy and enlightenment under the same roof. As Jenny and the rest of geek tear into "Hemingway's Shotgun" on stage, Kristen and some other PFers are standing by the door, manning the literature table. They smile, they welcome. Hi, how are you? Positive Force understands, they seem to say. Yes. Here, please take one. Leaflets, brochures, pamphlets. The three long, rectangular tables are smothered with them. Take one, please:
"A Saga of Shame: Racial Discrimination and the Death Penalty."
"Nuclear Power? Consider the Alternatives."
"Gillette: Poison Pens, Deadly Deodorants."
"Metro D.C. Coalition for Choice: Keep Abortion Safe and Legal!"
"The Whitman-Walker Clinic Food Bank."
There's a newsletter to clarify their position on slam-dancing: "Positive Force encourages people to dance and otherwise partake in the music in ways that show respect both for the space and for each other . . . It is true that at certain Positive Force shows in the past year we have found it necessary to speak out or even physically intervene in situations we thought were out of hand. It's probably true that our actions at those times could have been better thought out. For that we apologize . . ."
There's even the Positive Force booklet "You Can Do It!," "compiled with loving care by various Positive Force members and compatriates across the country . . ." Jenny Toomey has a section on "How to Start a Group," Jim Miller one on "Holding a Benefit." It begins with a sort of essay Mark Andersen wrote himself, "Things You Can Do":
"Change starts in our own lives, within the hearts and minds of each of us. Although the changes wrought by our actions may seem small and insignificant, they are not. All changes begin with the decision of an individual human being like you or me. And if each of us took on our responsibility to change ourselves and our world for the better, who knows what would be possible? Just about anything, I suspect.
"Yes, I know you might be thinking: 'Well, of course that's true -- but not everyone is going to change . . . so why should I? It's not worth the trouble . . .' Well, yes, you're right -- not everyone will change. But you are not responsible for everyone -- you're responsible for yourself and your actions. We all have to answer to our own conscience. Is this really the world you want to have?
"If it's not, if your conscience tells you that you need to play a role in changing things, well, what should you do? I can't answer that question for you -- but I will share some ideas with you that I try to apply in my own life . . ."
So much to offer, so much good.
So -- where is everybody?
Not that there isn't a little bit of literature all crumpled up in trash cans after shows. Not that everyone who picks up something will read it, even. It is still important. It is there. If Positive Force can reach just one person, get through to one punk drifting without purpose, make him/her understand, then that will be . . . no, it will not be enough. It will not be enough. The community depends on newcomers, new converts, new kids.
Kids? No, he was not thinking kids. He was not thinking kids. Punk is supposed to be about blurring the lines, destroying labels. Kids? Nobody is kids. Hierachy shmierarchy. And still, somehow, it does exist here, a punk hierachy. It is coming down to that. He's 31. Sean and Larry
are 28. Jenny and Kristen and Eric are in their early to mid-twenties. As punks go, they are old and getting older. Revolution Summer? That was, like, five years ago.
A new generation has sprung up, high school punks, punks just starting college. They may be positive punking, but they don't go making a big deal out of it or anything. They may eat meat, they may drink, they may get high or whatever. Or they may not. It's no . . . big . . . deal. That's the thing. They're not about saying what they are, by saying what they're not. They hang out a lot at the Safari Club, a big go-go spot at the edge of Shaw, listen more to hard-core bands, music that's faster, and harder. The music, man! They don't have all these fliers and leaflets and stuff waiting on tables at the door. No speeches, no literature, nothing.
They listen to Fugazi, of course. Definitely. Everybody's listening to Fugazi. When Positive Force has Fugazi playing a benefit -- Fugazi, the coolest, most awesome rocking righteous underground band in the city, in the world, even -- when Fugazi is playing a benefit, everyone's there, young, old, everyone's into it. But how long can it stay that way? How long can Positive Force keep milking its Fugazi connection?
More afternoon coffeehouse concerts at d.c. space, Jenny Toomey keeps telling him. More coffeehouses means more shows, which means more new bands, which means more chances to bring in new people.
He grows old, he grows old. There's no getting around it. Could it be -- no, he can't even think about it, can't even begin to think about it. If he has suddenly become what he has spent his whole life trying to escape -- no, no, it's just too scary a concept.
Better to think about the dream. Yes, the dream. His dream for the future of Positive Force. It's beautiful, really. Positive Force, the birth of a new generation. Everybody's together, this loving, nurturing, spiritually connected community, raising children together, sharing life together, living the life together. Yes. And Positive Force just growing and growing. And getting bigger and bigger. And older and --
No. They will not get older, they will not.
But they are, they are, every day.
Brad's leaving the PF house to live with his girlfriend at GW. Larry's going off to grad school at Ohio State. Jenny's going to Seattle to "write and think and reflect" -- who knows how long she'll stay? Eric might be going back to school. Sean too.
After all this, after all this talk of revolution and community and living the life -- just a group of good friends, hanging for a while?
The new church? The spirituality of punk?
Where is everybody? Larry! Jenny! Eric! Sean! Brad! Kristen! Don't they
Todd Kliman is a freelance writer in Washington.