“Thanks, punk!” (For David Dickens)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fascists Fall for Trump, their Nazi Dream Date

August 4, 2017

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The Metroplex was a beautiful abandoned building turned into a thriving punk rock club and the de facto Island of Misfit Toys in the 1980s. I saw shows there by the Dead Kennedys, the Circle Jerks and a million others (including, oddly, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones). I did my first interview with a racist skinhead there 31 years ago this summer. There had been a skinhead brawl at the competing 688 Club that had sent the doorman to the hospital. You can hear the skinhead version of events in the Anti-Heroes’ song, “Disco Riot.”

I had first encountered skinheads when I was student in London in 1982. I hopped on a train in Victoria Station to my internship in a clinic out in suburban Thamesmead. There were three skinheads in the car and me. They were drawing swastikas and National Front logos on the wall. One looked at me and then scrawled, “Kill a mod.” I got off at the next stop. By 1986, racist skinheads were popping up all over America, including the Old Glory Skins in Atlanta. I was 22 and this kid, in boots and braces, was probably 18. I wanted to know what was going on.

“What do you guys really want?” I asked him as we sat on the curb of Marietta Street, the heat too unbearable inside the Metroplex.

“We just want a strong leader who will kick all the fucking mud races out of the county.”

I wonder where that kid is now. I bet he’s happy. He finally got his “strong leader.”

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Much has been written (including by me) about how Donald Trump has used white supremacist tactics, dog whistles, and code words to generate support from the extreme right and white supremacist counter-culture. Remember when he pretended not to know who David Duke was? When he was elected, white nationalist, oh, excuse me, “alt-right” leaders like Richard Spencer raced to Washington to exalt “Hail Trump!” with a stiff-armed salute.

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His campaign to take America back to 1950 (in an interview with CNN he said that was the “again” in his “Make America Great Again” slogan), has only gained momentum. His fascistic rule by tweet undermines the fabric our democracy, including his recent pronouncement that all transgendered people will be kicked out of the U.S. military. His unquestioning flock believe that accusations of racism are just a liberal (Jewish?) plot, spread by the fake (Jewish?) media.

Certainly the people I have been studying for over thirty years have been watching. I don’t go to Klan rallies anymore or bring beer to skinhead parties to get them to talk, but I still hang out with them in their virtual worlds and eavesdrop on their conversations in neo-Nazi discussion groups and the hang-outs in the darkest corners of the web (i.e., Reddit). And boy howdy, do racists love Trump.

The latests clarion call from their fake blonde führer is his plan to limit legal immigration to English-speaking only applicants. Everyone knows this is not about keeping German-only speaking immigrants out of the country. It’s about brown and black people, especially brown people from Latin America. It’s not even a veiled attempt at racism. It’s clear as a bell, and the radical right (and some of the Trump trolls who post on my Facebook page) are loving it. Just try to keep up with this thread on Stormfront, the leading discussion site for white supremacists: STORMFRONT

WhiteHistoryWrightBrosTrump’s “merit based” plan (you know, because the people who pick our food have no merit) would only offer visas to immigrants who have high-paying job offers and speak English better than our Drunk Uncle president. It would end the diversity that comes from the visa lottery and that was making America great long before Trump’s made in China MAGA dunce caps sat on the empty noggins of Bocephus and Betty Lou. It would also drastically restrict  the number of refugees allowed in the country, because, you know, screw that whole America is a “beacon of freedom” thing. If only we had more Nazi rocket scientists who needed sanctuary. The Statue of Liberty was a French (Jewish?) plot.

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These policies are surely the work of right-wing hate groups, like FAIR (the Federation for American Immigration Reform), that have Steve Bannon’s blotchy Caucasian ear and the soul of “more than kinda” racist Stephen Miller. And they are catnip to white supremacists. You thought they went gaga over Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim ban and Attorney General Jeff Sessions praise of the 1924 “Whites Only” immigration act. (That’s the one that caused the 1920s KKK to close up shop because they got what they were marching for.) The Little Hitlers are going ape poo over Trump’s latest plan to make America white again. I know. I lurk in their world of stupidity. And we don’t even have to get into his silencing of the First Lady (First Ladies are to be seen and not heard), or the stomping on transgender rights (“No boot camp for you!”). Fascist forums have threads dedicated to both.  The immigration thing alone has them ginned up like frat boys on pledge night.

Yes, America has a president who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. But Trump won’t get his final solution. He’s clueless at how America works. The guy can’t even speak in complete sentences or keep his lies straight. The Republican congress has blocked him and the courts have blocked him and the diverse patchwork of the American populace will continue to block him. But there will be casualties along the way as the 2017 alt-right versions of those 1980s skinheads believe they’ve got their strong leader. That’s why Americans cannot be silent or still.

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