January 10, 2019
I know the first time I saw David Dickens I was both frightened and liberated. I was a 16-year-old kid trying to figure out “punk rock” in 1980 Georgia. I knew what punk looked like long before I knew what it sounded like from reading Creem Magazine in the late 1970s. There were no internet streams of music or satellite radio. If you didn’t have a friend who had an older brother or sister who had somehow had gotten their hands on a Ramones album from some far-off big city record store, you were SOL. But I knew punk looked wild and David Dickens was a punk.
In 1980 I was 16 with a drivers license. On the weekends I would tell my mom I was going to the midnight movie. Often I did. It was Rock n Roll High School on Fridays and The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Saturdays and I know David was often there, screaming “Where’s your fucking neck?” at the screen. Most of those weekends, I would head to the punk rock clubs with my fake ID. (Sorry, Mom.) The Metroplex on Luckie Street, The Bistro on West Peachtree, and 688 on Spring Street. They seemed like a million miles away from my subdivision in Stone Mountain. And Dave was there, all in black, blonde mohawk, and snarl. He looked just like the punks in Creem. I didn’t have to go to London. 688 was close enough.
David worked the door at a lot of those clubs and instantly identified me as a fellow misfit, part of the diaspora of suburban refugees looking for escape from Southern hypocrisy and fueled by the energy of the guitar and bass drum. In the suburbs, people married their high school sweethearts and raced into the doldrums of adulthood. Here there was space to be your true self. In your free space. It was a subterranean world of anarchist bohemian spirits, set free in a little corner of the Deep South. And David always let me in the door, no matter how fake my ID was. “Come on in, kid,” he’d say, his cigarette hanging out of his mouth, looking like he just walked out of a frame of Taxi Driver.
By the time I was 19, his scene was my scene. I was practically living at 688, crashing on couches in Pershing Point, Atlanta’s short-lived East Village, and occupying space with punk artists at the Blue Rat Gallery. By then, David’s intimidating persona had given way to a kind of Catcher in the Rye character, benevolently keeping the scene in line and true to its ethos, occasionally corralling renegade punks like Billy Asshole and Malibu back into the fray. As a budding mod socialist and non-drinker, I had many after hours debates with him about the benefits of Marxism verses anarchism, with some four-piece band bashing in the background. Me in my Air Force parka, he with a ton of hardware clanging on his body. He was super-smart (not a dumb punk) so I was forced to raise my pee-wee game.
David died a couple of days ago in his sleep. His heart just stopped. Apparently he’d had heart troubles and a recent gall bladder removal. As the word spread on Facebook, the heart of the scene stopped as well. Many of us had reconnected with the David through social media and he was still a warrior for freedom, ready to debate liberals and conservatives. I was glad to have him back in my world. The night before he went to bed for the last time, he posted a picture of a rich man trying to enter his grave with bags of cash, writing, “Like the man said … there’s a reason you never see a hearse pullin’ a U-Haul.” Maybe he knew.
The news hit me harder than I expected. I found myself sobbing. Not because we were such close friends. It was because I never got to thank him. His persona was larger than life and as soon as I saw him, I knew I didn’t have to go to London or CBGB’s to find my tribe, it was right there. He could’ve looked at a little suburban punk wannabe like me and said, “Fuck off, you poser!” But instead, he said, “Come on in, kid.” I’m sure he died having no idea what an influence he had on so many of us misfits. He gave us permission to follow our unformed bliss and not be afraid to pay attention to our internal compasses.
In 1977, George Harrison recorded a great song called “Pure Smokey” because he didn’t want to die without thanking Smokey Robinson for his wonderful music. George is gone and Smokey Robinson is still touring (and producing a Motown-based cartoon my kid loves) and knows how the George felt. I never got to say that to David. “David you gave me permission to be me. Thank you.”
As I get older, the rate of friends and comrades passing away will only increase. It’s time to start saying, “thank you.” David Dickens, thank you for letting me in.