I felt like part of a freak show. An amazingly brilliant freak show, even if I didn’t exactly fit the part. Yet.
It’s October 1989, sophomore year, and I’m on my way to Hell. As in Hell, Michigan, a tiny town somewhere outside Ann Arbor. This van I’m in is filled with mostly upperclassmen from my Catholic all guys Metro Detroit high school. We’re all part of the Creative Students Organization, or CSO, whose motto “Dare to be different” grabs my inner freak by the ear piercings school won’t let me have. Our aim: to do things you normal kids might not otherwise think of, like how last year’s incarnation hosted a croquet tournament on the school lawn, and like well, going to Hell.
The cacophony of new sounds from the van’s cassette deck challenges my pop sensibilities. “Who’s that? Who’s this? Who is THAT?” I ask John behind the wheel. “Ministry; The Jesus and Mary Chain; Dead Kennedys. Nine Inch Nails,” he answers. My mental notes serve me well when I shell out my penny for a Columbia House Club cassette tape injection.
A composite snapshot: John wears black Chuck Taylors, and long black bangs to die for. Paul’s grey pants are rolled and pegged to show off his shit-kicking black combat boots. He wears a black and white Siouxsie Sioux t-shirt and sunglasses; his poof of curly bangs is flanked by Flock of Seagulls wings. And me, I’m in my stonewashed jean jacket, Michigan sweatshirt, white hi-top sneakers, and a shapeless helmet of wavy brown hair. But maybe I’m the only one who cares about that.
We visit all three buildings in Hell: the gift store slash post office; the Dam Site Inn for pizza and never ending Coke refills; and Edith’s Market & Liquors for whatever bullshit we feel like spending our money on. A nearby park sporting swings and a giant sandbox caps the day as there’s only so much raising to do in Hell, Michigan.
On half days from school, we venture to Royal Oak, in a time when the punk/bro ratio is still in our favor. I both admire and fear the foot high Mohawk spikes in Noir Leather and ogle over an original “Boys Don’t Cry” 45 vinyl single for fifty bucks at Off the Record. Or we go to Fairlane Mall in Dearborn and maybe “laugh at all the shoppers” like how that Dead Milkmen song goes and where I buy my very first Cure poster. Or we eat lunch at the park near school and jeer the track team practice like we’re in fuckin’ Grease or somethin’.
* * * *
January. 1991. The first dance of the new year, Junior year at our sister all girls school a straight shot up I-96, and by now I’ve taken a pre-Eddie Vedder stage dive into all things “alternative.”
From the same gym stage where last year I supporting-star turned as Mayor Shinn in The Music Man, the DJ treats (some of) us with Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole.” Those first beats like rain and nightmares softly tapping at our bedroom windows awaken us; the riff like quick flipping pages of our most rage-filled diaries moves our mostly booted feet and flanneled shoulders. The drums kick into tortured reverberating screams to detonate us.
The crowd disperses to the edges, leaving my friends and I center. They stare at us like slack jawed yokels at a carnival of sorts. But we don’t care. Trent Reznor screams in all his industrial glory, “Head like a hole/black as your soul/I’d rather die than give you control.” Trent, our stand-in 24-year-old older brother, possesses the real world experience we are only now starting to collect. We slam, dudes bashing into each other for the hell of it, releasing small oppressions, and maybe most importantly, freaking the fuck out of the normal kids still creaming over “U Can’t Touch This.”
* * * *
June 1992 and the gym at St. Colette Catholic Church is wet with sweat and leather. Spastic dancing scattered my Urban Outfitters beaded necklace onto the floor, and friends and I crawl on the boot-scuffed tiles like Rock Lobsters rescuing what we can. A month after that Nine Inch Nails freak show, I found my tribe via the dances thrown by the St. Colette youth group, and isn’t it funny that this is my alternative answer, but at least I’m not impaling rabid fans with spiked cuffs in a Christian Death mosh pit. It’s a place where modern rock blocks don’t suffer from mere tokenism; where I can hear four Cure songs in a single night letting my hair code defying Robert Smith rats nest bounce and sway sending streaks of hairspray into my eyes.
Tonight, post-graduation, and I don’t know when I’ll see these guys again, we put our “Bizarre Love Triangle” ritual dance to rest here in front of this DJ in this gym where we lankily hold our arms in front of us and play air keyboards to trilling riffs, and act out as Bernard Sumner sings, “Every time I see you falling, I get down on my knees and pray…” The scattershot beats of the bridge kick in and we clasp our hands together in folded hands prayer. We slice them back and forth across our chests with the rhythm, then toss them over our shoulders with each line’s up beat button. We wait for that final moment where Sumner sings the words that we can’t say.
* * * *
Flash forward: September 2014, weeks away from becoming a freshly minted 40-year-old. I’ve been standing for the last three days, often stuck to the mud, and making my Makers Mark baseball cap work overtime. It’s Riot Fest Chicago, my first destination festival, as back in my day Lollapalooza actually, like, toured, and that first year I shredded to Nine Inch Nails in my daylight aisle seat too exhausted in the end to care about Living Colour.
I’m here for The Cure, but three-day passed it to take full advantage of the adventure, opting out of the VIP lounges and better bathrooms to slum it with the “kids.” A satchel is slung over my shoulders with sunscreen and sanitizer, earplugs and Clif Bars. Not exactly punk rock. There’s something here for all us gathered freaks: from babies with their pierced parents to the 20-something-pushing-30-year-olds old enough to wax nostalgic for their own pop punk fading glory days circa 1999 to moments for us more vintage folk standing in the rain two nights ago waiting for Jane’s Addiction and sharing first year Lollapalooza stories.
Post Patti Smith, the crowd surges pushing me a few “rows” back from the stage barrier and violating my inner organs. It hasn’t been as tight as this, and I know I could find a more chill space further away, but I’ve committed so I’m in it, but man, shoulder slammin’ isn’t as fun anymore, and the music hasn’t even begun.
The Cure on stage, and it’s Sunday I’m in love. I can’t control the chaos around me so I accept and navigate what I’m given even though I’m flanked by two shouty youth I didn’t pay to listen to sing along so badly and so loudly I can barely hear Robert Smith, and I want to elbow them both in the face. Get off my lawn!
The set of darker, more dirgeful songs stops the screamies from singing and I close my eyes in blissful communion with the swirl of all these factions in my tribe. I celebrate my inner eye-lined freak and stick it to the authority figures who’ve served up life’s small oppressions. Like the teacher who sent me and the other non-jocks to the back of the procession line at a classmate’s funeral ‘cause we weren’t cool enough to wear varsity jackets. Or the American immigration officer who in 2008, upon our reentry from Australia, ordered my husband and I to approach separately, rubbing it in that in this great land of ours we are not a “real” family. Or my inner judge calling myself an overall hot freaking mess who sometimes worries that children not related to me see me and instantly think “stranger danger.”
I am still a little really so strange with grey in my beard and constant cardigans, bookishly particular and not normal in an age appropriate way, I’d say. And yeah, that’s me spastic dancing to the B-52’s reunion concert deep cuts, oblivious and literally a little deaf to shouts and stares from the crowd to sit down.
Shout and stare all you want. I don’t care.
Michael A. Van Kerckhove is a Chicago writer originally from Detroit. He is a 2013 graduate of DePaul University’s Master of Arts in Writing & Publishing. His work has appeared in Off the Rocks, The Everyday Gay, Midwestern Gothic, Consequence of Sound, Belt Magazine, Story Club Magazine, Chicago Literati, How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence, Silverbirch Press, and TYA Today. He is active in Chicago’s vibrant live lit scene, and has told stories as part of Guts & Glory, Is This a Thing?, Mortified, Serving the Sentence, You’re Being Ridiculous, and many others. Much more at michaelvankerckhove.com.