Monday, March 5, 2018

BEING JAPANESE: North Carolina Post-Punk [1986]

Text by Jim Downs / FFanzeen fanzine, 1986
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

This column was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #14, dated 1986. It was written by musician, photographer and friend Jim Downs. Though I met Jim in New York in 1981 by sheer coincidence, l we had been having a pen-palish relationship about his band from Boone, NC, called Gangrene (no relation to the Boston hardcore group with a similar name). We were good buddies for years after that, though eventually, as things often do, we have lost touch. Would love to hear from you, Jim! Meanwhile, this column is a fun mix of band life and, well, “real” life. – RBF, 2018

“Hello Benjamin.”
“Jim, how are you? I haven’t heard from you in so long. Where are you, in New York?”
“Well, no. I’m here in Boone. See, I broke my collarbone in three places.”
“Good Grief…”
“Yeah, so I really can’t do anyting. I was going crazy just sitting in my apparmtnet and watching TV, so I decided to come down here for a vacation.”
* * *
“Attention passengers. Piedmont Flight No. 114 to Greensboro, North Carolina, will now begin its pre-boarding procedures. Any persons needing assistance in boarding or with small children, should go to the gate at this time.”
* * *
So it starts, “Escape From New York 2.” I grab my camera case and go toward the gate. In front of me is an old lady with a walker. She has on a blue house dress, Ace bandages around her calves, and pure white Brillo Pad hair. A flock of flight attendants cluster around her in order to catch her if she falls. I, on the other hand, am dressed in black, with black hair, looking like I’ve just gotten off stage with the Stranglers. The only sign that I need “assistance” is the dirty white sling my arm is in.

“Would you like me to help you with that bag?” The attendant smiles and extends his arm. I feel like I’m in a commercial. “Uh, sure, I guess.” As we walk towards the door, I see the other passengers eyeing me and the sling. “A scam,” they’re thinking, “but I’ll use it next time.”

We preboarders and escorts head down toward the plane. Progress is slow, the old lady and the walker are having trouble with the ramp. She keeps trying to pitch forward over the top of the walker and onto the ramp. If she succeeds in doing this, she and I will be able to trade notes on how bad our collarbones hurt.

Slowly, slowly the door of the plane gets closer. I take shuffling steps to avoid knocking the lady over and, as I walk, I make moaning noises as my shoulder starts to hurt again. I really want to sit down and rest, but instead of the ol’ subway rush hour push-em-out-of-the-way, I shuffle along as quietly as I can. After all, the attendants wouldn’t like it, and there’s more of them than there are of me. Only 10 more feet… 8… 6…
* * *
“…So, Benjamin, how’s the music coming along? Do you have a band?”
“Oh, yes, it’s called Discord. We have drums, guitar, me playing bass, and a percussionist.”
“He’s from the West Coast. He has congas, timbales.”
“And the music?”
“Well, it’s hard to describe. Sort of loud and different, like Bauhaus and Scrapping Foetus Off the Wheel, but different. You know, we’re playing on campus tomorrow night at this club called Happys.”
“It’s where those cover bands play. But there’s a festival that I helped organize of local original bands. They’ll be 3 bands each night. We’ll be playing last, tomorrow.”
“Sounds good. How much is admission?”
“Uh, you see, you can’t get with without being a student, and you have to have an ID. I know, I’ll tell them you’re this reporter from New York…”
* * *
I’m standing in a large room about a block square, with a low ceiling. It used to be a supermarket before the university bought it and turned it into a recreation hall. Mom would buy groceries while I would beg and plead for comic books and cereals with prizes inside.

I’m wearing a suit. People are saying, “Look at the reporter from New York.” People who know me are going, “Look at Jimmy Downs with the broken collarbone.” I took off the sling (it didn’t go with the suit, and besides, I need both arms to take pictures), but word has gotten around to all my old friends about the accident.

The crowd is quite – err – diverse. It’s a strange mixture of flower dresses, beards and long hair, Izod shirts and tan slacks, teased mops of hair a la the Cure and Sig Sig Sputnik, and an occasional white Rastafarian. I’m impressed. It’s like the set for a high school B-movie. The different factions lend a surreal air about the whole event. It’s almost as though it’s a theme event: “Come as Your Favorite Lifestyle.” Sort of the Village People of ’86.

All along I’m thinking, “I’m not really in my home town.” I remember all too clearly just a few short years ago the abuse my old band would get from the frats. Just because of the music we played and the clothes we wore. But now, M-TV has changed all that. It’s cool to be “different.” In a town where there are pickup trucks with shotgun racks, there are replicas of Robert Smith (of the Cure), but with a Southern drawl. And these guys are playing their own music and people love it. Too many times in the past, people have asked sincerely for “Freebird” and “Stairway to Heaven” while you were trying to break some new ground. On the other hand, those insincere screams for the above mentioned songs just meant you stunk.

The bands came on stage, played, and left, and while they were all good, the one that impressed me the most was Discord. Not from the fact that I knew one of the members, but that they really were original. You couldn’t say that they sounded like Bauhaus or the Cure or the Clash; they sounded like themselves. The fact that sounds like that could come from Boone, North Carolina, is strange enough, but that you could hear it live in this town is stronger still.

“I’m not really in my home town.”
* * *
“I can’t believe that you were in Gangrene with Benjamin.” Colby is sitting across the table from me, eating pizza. “And that you’re from New York, too.”

He had an amused and puzzled expression on his face.

“Well, reality is stranger than fiction. But why do you say that?”
“Uh, you just don’t look like it.”

I glance across the table at Benjamin. In his blond mop he has braided two strands of hair, and with his sharp features and French accent, he looks dangerous. I, on the other hand, with my sling, look like someone was dangerous with me.

“You see, Colby, it’s not how you look, it’s how you play and feel. Most of the bands I know look pretty normal, although the hair is getting longer.”

What I’m not telling him is that this is making me feel old. The combination of the town changing, my shoulder hurting, being in Gangrene “back when,” and seeing bands in a room full of college kids makes me feel old. Benjamin and I naturally spend time talking about “back when”: back when people would walk out of the shows; back when people would yell at us; back when we got thrown out of our rehearsal space. I feel older by the second.
* * *

“So, Jim, when are you going back to New York?”
“Tomorrow, Benjamin. It was great to come back, but I don’t fit in this town anymore. It’s changed, but not enough. I’m too used to the freedom in New York. To be able to do what I want. I’m a tourist this time around.”

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