X entered Gary’s from the front, off Brown Street, like
always. Many of us preferred to come and go through
the door to the alleyway, because we were nervous about
the regulars. It was also a good way to avoid paying a
cover, if there was one. But X preferred to use the front.
X, my best friend, was like that.
On the heavy, reinforced black doors, below the
number 13, a prehistoric sign had been screwed into
place at eye level: “NO COLORS, NO KNIVES.” For a
few years there, Gary’s had been a biker bar — mainly
Outlaws, but some other gangs, too. Before punk arrived
on the Portland scene, the bikers had filled
the basement tavern every night. They’d chug cheap,
watered-down draft in the long, narrow part of the bar.
And, where it opened up at the other end, near the
stage, they’d hate-stare any country-and-western or
cover band stupid enough to agree to play. If they were
really pissed off, they’d throw beer glasses at the stage.
None of us ever argued about the bikers’ claim to
Gary’s. It was their place, no question. But toward the
end of the ’70s, they were getting arrested a lot more
than they used to. As Portland grew, and as it imported
more yuppie douchebags from New York and
Boston or wherever, tolerance for the Outlaws basically
disappeared. A few blocks away, at City Hall, our
idiot mayor had decreed that Gary’s attracted the sort
of customers who didn’t fit into the “new Portland.” So
the police started cracking down and most of the bikers
started to move on. The hookers and junkies, too.
Gary’s owner was pretty unhappy at the thought of redecorating
the place to attract a new crop of patrons, mainly
because he was a cheap bastard. But he also knew that no
self-preserving, upwardly mobile, Ivy League couple would
ever come near Gary’s: it was a temple of filth. It was the
church of dirt. Which kind of made us love it even more.
Dirt and dust and grime were everywhere. There was
the ancient carpet that stretched from the front doors
to the cracked tile on the dance floor. No one could
make out the pattern anymore because it was so fucking
dirty. There were these mismatched metal chairs with
torn strips of vinyl-covered padding on the seats. The
tiny round tables were covered with stained, orange
cloths. There were frames containing ghostly paintings
of plants and cowboys on the walls, decades of dust and
cigarette smoke stuck to the cracked glass. A few yellowish
light bulbs hung from what was left of the fixtures
overhead. And there was the air itself, always reeking of
cigarette smoke and dust and sweat and piss. It was awesome.
Earlier in 1978, Gary’s owners had read in the local
paper, the Portland Press Herald, that those of us in
various local punk bands were putting on our own
shows in veterans’ halls and community centers around
the city. We were attracting hundreds of kids by word
of mouth alone, the article said. The arch-conservative
paper hated us, of course, but Gary’s owners decided to
let us book bands a couple nights a week. Maybe they’d
turn a profit on beer sales, they figured.
And they sure did. The bikers didn’t like the change,
at first. But, eventually, they were sort of amused by us
— these skinny, acne-scarred kids with weird clothes
and dyed hair. We punks were misfits, like the bikers
were, but we were also completely different. In the
early days of the Portland scene, the punks were mostly
Maine College of Art students, gays and lesbians,
cross-dressers, poets, nonconformists, anarchists,
socialists, the socially awkward, the overweight, the
alienated, the angry, the underage, and assorted other
urban outcasts. The factions that made up the local
subculture were diverse, but somehow we all got along
back in those days.
So the bikers stayed up near the front doors, and we
punks were stuck at the back, hanging out around the stage
and the subterranean alleyway exit. We left each other
alone, sticking to our side of Gary’s demilitarized zone.
Gary’s owner — who rarely, if ever, enforced drinking
age limits — was happy because our friends liked
to drink almost as much as the bikers. Soon enough, then, our bands were on stage every night of the week
except Sundays, when every bar was still required by
Maine law to be closed. The Portland punk scene got a
hub. It started to grow. Christopher X! X, thou art Christopher.
He moved through the mass of hulking bikers, completely
unfazed. Some of them looked up and glared.
They had heard about X, and a lot of them didn’t like
him much. Unlike the other scrawny suburban kids,
who seemed to cower whenever they were nearby, X was
completely disinterested in them. To the other punks,
the bikers were menacing, intimidating. But not to my
buddy, X. And the bikers took notice.
Under one arm, X had a few copies of the New
Musical Express — the super-hard -to-get British tabloid
that had promoted the punk rock revolution first —
along with a couple of notebooks. Under the other
arm, he cradled some LPs, likely borrowed, by bands
most people had never heard of. But it was him — his
pale face, his blank expression, his total indifference to
everything around him — that stood out. X was an outsider,
even to the outsiders who made up the Portland
scene. He was a misfit among the misfits.
X sat down with us, up near Gary’s tiny stage,
where the Hot Nasties had played earlier — and where
the Punk Rock Virgins were still playing, but had just
gone on a break.
X had called some of us that day, saying that he had
some big news. He moved a couple glasses of draft out of the way and dumped the LPs, the notebooks, and
the copies of the New Musical Express on the center
of the table.
“Where’s Jimmy?” he asked.
I pointed at Gary’s rear door, toward the alleyway. “I
think he’s moving the van to the side, so nobody swipes
everything again.” I punched X in his leather-jacketed
arm. I was a bit loaded. “Now buy me a beer, fag.”
I could tell what he was thinking: Fag? Really?
X looked at me for a moment, an eyebrow up, then
shook his head. He got up and went over to the bar to buy
a couple of draft s for me and an RC Cola for himself. He
returned to the table and pointed at the newer-looking
copy of the New Musical Express. “Take a look,” he said,
expressionless. “The Nasties are in it.”
Conversation stopped. We lunged at the magazines.
The Hot Nasties, as it turned out, had beaten everyone
else in Portland at making a record, which was a
pretty fucking big deal. They were one of the first punk
bands in New England to do that. It had been Jimmy
who’d pushed them into putting it together. The band
recorded the four songs over three weekends at a garage
converted into a mini-studio in Bayside. The two
hippies who owned the place had never seen or heard
anything like it before. They were totally disgusted.
The Nasties, however, were totally ecstatic with the
results of the recording session. They came out of it with
four original songs: “I Am a Confused Teenager,” “Th e
Secret of Immortality,” “The October of Seven Oh,” and
“The Invasion of the Tribbles.” Jimmy and Sam were big Star Trek fans, and they stuck references to the old TV
show in a lot of their songs — along with plenty of other
references to junk culture, because we loved junk culture.
Serial killers, The Flintstones, AMC Pacers. The good stuff.
The Hot Nasties didn’t have a recording contract;
in 1978, no Portland punk bands did. So they put out
the EP on their own made-up label, Martian Martian
Records, taking the name from a Jonathan Richman
song. The band members designed the sleeve. The
cover had one of my photos of the Nasties, smiling
outside Gary’s one night, clutching some smashed-topieces
guitars and drums from a particularly demented
gig. We glued the sleeves together late one drunken
night at Sam’s parents’ place in Parkside, and then X —
pretending to be their manager — sent a couple copies
off to the New Musical Express, which along with
Creem magazine and Melody Maker, were all we generally
read, pretty much.
Someone — incredibly, unbelievably — had noticed.
Buried within the pages of the NME, there was
a section called “New and Noteworthy.” In there, in a
single paragraph, titled “Portland Punk Pressing,”
a writer with the initials CSM had written: “If you
can’t locate Portland, Maine, on a map, fret not. We
can’t either. But if tuneful, snappy punk rock still matters
in late ’78, then the four lads in the Hot Nasties
may well succeed in getting their portside hometown
better known. The quartet is Sam Shiller, lead guitar;
Luke Macdonald, rhythm guitar; Eddie Igglesden on skins; and bassist and lead screamer, Jimmy Cleary.
Their debut EP, issued on their own label, crackles with
Buzzcockian wit and snottiness, and is therefore worth a
spin. Available through money order only, The Invasion
of the Tribbles EP argues convincingly that punk —
at least on the other side of the pond — ain’t dead yet. A
quid will get it winging its way to you. Check it out.” Holy shit. HOLY SHIT!
A thumbs-up from the New Musical Express: it was
like getting a great review from God. We all stared at the
review, speechless. Without warning, Luke jumped up on
his chair and let out a Tarzan scream, beating his chest.
He hollered: “I love you, X! I fucking love you! When we
are famous rock stars, I will let you visit my mansion!”
We all laughed and read and reread the review. A few
others started to wander over to see what was going on.
When X had told the Nasties that he’d sent their EP
to the NME, none of them thought that it would ever get
noticed. The magazine paid attention to the Clash and
the Sex Pistols and other big British bands — not a band
like the Hot Nasties, in Outer Buttfuck, New England,
U.S.A. But X told me he thought the record was really
good, like the Ramones. So he mailed it off with a cover
letter that had somehow caught the attention of Charles
fucking Shaar Murray at the fucking New Musical
Express, for fuck sakes. Still hollering that he was going
to be famous, Luke wrapped his arms around X, who
was trying to resist smiling. X didn’t ever smile.