The Specials

8671220.87I was walking up Market Street, hand-in-hand with my wife, past drug dealers, loud teenagers and tourists, the smell of stale urine and beer wafting from each alleyway that we passed. San Francisco may be a “yuppie” city today, but it still has a rough edge here and there. These edges were much more obvious when I was a youngster, but since then Market Street has been transformed from a sleazy, grindhouse-lined thoroughfare into something more like a tourist-friendly location. The part of the street that my wife and I were walking along lies in a transitional location, sandwiched, on the one side, by venues catering to monied theater-goers and, on the other, by porn palaces advertising free “ladies nights” and lap dances. I kept smelling marijuana as we passed the crowds of well dressed theater goers. I assumed they were not the ones smoking pot, although maybe I was wrong.

As we approached the Warfield Theater, the sight that greeted us provoked a strange sense of comfort in me. The Specials, one of my favorite bands from the early 1980’s, was on the bill and outside of the venue, it looked as if it was 1982 all over again. There was a line of Mod scooters – customized Vespas and Lambrettas – lining the sidewalk, surrounded by a throng of young and not-so-young mods, rockers, skins, punks and two-tones. I felt uncharacteristically happy, swept away into a world from the past. “I should be ashamed of myself,” I thought. “Here I am, a tenured philosophy professor, and all I want to do is to race around on a scooter and hang out with weirdos.” Nonetheless, I can’t deny that scooters, music and socializing were always much more fun than department meetings or faculty dinners. How could any sane person disagree with that?

Once inside the venue, we made our way upstairs. The show was sold-out, and the only available seating was high above the stage in the middle rows of the balcony. It initially struck me as a rather lame arrangement for watching a ska band, but in middle-age I’ve come to realize that I just don’t have the physical stamina to endure the crush and the violence of being in the midst of a dancing crowd anymore. The last time that I waded into such a group, I lost my glasses and was almost knocked unconscious by a whirl of bodies slam-dancing to the Angry Samoans. When I was in my teens, that was exhilarating. Now, in my 40’s, it is just unpleasant.

A two-piece rock group from San Diego called Little Hurricane was on stage as we entered the theater. They seemed like an odd choice as an opening act, but their music and stage presence were interesting and entertaining enough. The female drummer was very deliberate as she pounded out a beat, while the male guitarist/vocalist was full of manic energy. There’s nothing wrong with that; although their music didn’t really set the proper mood as we waited in anticipation of The Specials. I suppose there are very few acts that could live up to such a task. However, I think I would have booked a local, ska/punk band (like the Uptones) to play the role instead.

Once The Specials hit the stage, no one was sitting. From our vantage-point up above, the dance floor appeared as a sea of bodies, heads bouncing up and down in unison to the beat of the 0906021019261185646_v3music. In the balcony, we were all, likewise, on our feet, dancing and swaying to the rythyms, while singing along with all of the familiar lyrics. At points I felt like I was in a trance, which was very close to the truth. My own physical movement and vocal engagement produced a meditative point of focus that became more and more intense as the show went on. Just as monks in monasteries practice prayers and mantras in order to enter a different level of consciousness and touch the Holy, so too did I feel as if I had somehow transcended the mundane, time-bound world around me in order to enter a different reality. Of course, The Special’s version of the “Holy” is an especially nihilistic one, pointed to by lyrics such as those in the song “Do Nothing“:

I’m just living in a life without meaning,

I walk and walk, do nothing.

I’m just living in a life without feeling.

I talk and talk, say nothing.

Nothing ever changed,

Oh no. Nothing ever changed.

My wife said to me during the course of the show, “It’s weird how their music can be so bouncy and happy, while their lyrics can be so sad and depressing.” But this is precisely what has always attracted me to The Specials. The lead singer, Terry, seems perpetually depressed, but with an ironic and angry edge. I identified with this from the first time I heard their music. The band as a whole resists despair, demanding of its audience an upbeat and active orientation toward a crappy world. They jump about and dance on stage, all the while complaining about how stupid people are, how fucked-up the world is, and how miserable life can be. The best solution to our troubles, they seem to be suggesting, is music. Sing out about your misery and through this, you tend to feel a bit better, even if in the end “nothing ever changes.”


Blog2[1]Seeing The Who perform songs from their classic “Mod Opera” Quadrophenia this month was a strangely exciting and yet unsettling experience. As the show ended, I turned to my wife to find her on the verge of tears. “It was like they were saying goodbye forever,” she said, choking on her words. She was right. The entire performance was structured like a loud and dramatic farewell to those who had grown up with this music over the course of their lives. The original members of the band – Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend – are nearly 70 years old at this point, and the fact that they have chosen the soundtrack of Quadrophenia as the subject for their latest tour reflects an awareness on their part that their youth has passed away and that as time marches on, they are also destined to eventually die, just like the other original members of the band, Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Though they did not perform “My Generation,” I was reminded of the lyrics from that song: “Things they do look awful cold. I hope I die before I get old.”

When I was a teenager, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a revival of the mod subculture. But it was sometimes difficult to disentangle the mods from the punks and the skinheads as my peers and I would freely borrow from the differing styles and mix them together in our own unique and original ways. Many of us rode around on scooters (I had a Vespa Rally 200), sometimes in packs, and often getting into trouble along the way. Some of us dressed in suits that were worn with belligerent irony, while others dressed in leather jackets and combat boots. Trench coats and fishtail parkas were also very common, and when paired with chains or spurs or bullet belts, it was impossible to determine the subculture of one’s allegiance. The truth of the matter was that neither I nor my friends were part of the first wave of any subculture. We were second (or third) wave punk-rockers who were influenced by all of the exciting youth movements that had come before us including (but not limited to) hippies, teds, skins, new romantics, metalheads and mods. We were, to put it in a nutshell, weird. We didn’t fit in with anyone else, and so we counted ourselves lucky to have found one another. It was an adventure trying to figure out who we were, and part of this involved borrowing from and combining various fashions as we struggled to express our authentic selves.

I always liked the mod aesthetic, but I was not a fan of The Who until I saw the movie Quadrophenia. When I was in my early teens, I associated The Who with mainstream stadium rock. After all, their music was played on the radio and their albums were top sellers. Why would I be interested in what they had to say? I thought their music was the type that jocks or boring consumer drones would listen to. Give me The Feederz or The Angry Samoans any day! When I saw Quadrophenia, however, there was a message that truly spoke to my alienated and angry nature. From the opening sequence, when the lyric “Can you see the real me?” comes blaring across the soundtrack, to the depressing and yet oh so true ending when Jimmy realizes that everyone, even the coolest of tough guys, ends up having to “lick boots” for his “perks,” the film summed up my teenage angst and told me I was right to feel the way I felt.

Soon, it became a ritual for huge groups of us to ride for hours on our scooters in order to rendezvous with other misfits at midnight showings of Quadrophenia where, together, we would share a feeling of temporary belonging. Amidst the teenage nonsense there was something real that I still spend time now, at the age of 48,  thinking about fondly. Yes, there was a lot of ridiculous posturing, and yes there were teenage dramas and fistfights as we tried to emulate the characters from the film, but there was also a sense of camraderie and meaning. It was because we wanted to be different that this movie spoke to us, and it was because we also shared a desire to be understood that we gathered in a like-minded group.

Eventually, the mod purists withdrew into their own cliques (as did the skinheads and heavy metalers) and that left many of us to identify ourselves primarily as punk rockers; which, to tell the truth, probably always suited me more than any of the other subcultural designations. While The Who’s definition of “mod” as “clean living under difficult circumstances” was something that resonated with me then and now, there was also an elitism about mod purists that turned me off and turned me against the subculture. Clothes and scooters were the most important things to them; and if you didn’t wear the right jacket or have a scooter accessorized with just the right parts, you were worthless in their eyes. I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed by mods and I increasingly made the conscious decision to simply avoid and ignore them. I lost some good friends because of this; but that’s just part of growing up I guess.