Tales of Old Walla Walla: The Punk Tapes, Vol. 1

In the summer of 1982, I used to spend my weekends hanging out at the Eastgate Mall in Walla Walla, Washington. In those days, the mall had a long indoor concourse (it’s since been filled in). There was a crappy little restaurant with cheap sodas, a record store, a book store, and an area with a rotating selection of video games. It was a good place to get out of the blazing high desert sun. It was also a good place to see and be seen, and as an up and coming punk rocker, I felt it my duty to let the straights know that there were weirdos around, even at the price of getting beat up occasionally.

I was hanging out there one Saturday when I ran into my buddy Brian. We’d met the previous year when we’d both started junior high school. Along with my best friend from grade school, Chris, we were, so far as I knew, the only three punk rockers in town. Brian had acted as sort of a punk rock guru for me. He played me Clash and Sex Pistols records, but he was also into Bowie and Brian Eno. It never occurred to me to ask him how he’d discovered all that stuff. It was enough to know that there was a conduit to the outside world where people just as disaffected as I was were making music and living lives outside the stultifying, Christianized culture of the eastern Washington scablands.

We thumbed through records at the store in the mall for a few minutes, but found nothing there to pique our interest. We decided to head over to Hot Poop, the hippie record store/head shop over on Alder St. We headed off down Wilber Ave., but when we came to the place where it crossed Mill Creek, Brian said, “Come on, there’s someone you should meet,” and headed off into the nondescript, habitrail apartment complex on the south bank.

How strange it is to think of just showing up unannounced now in the world of the cellphone, but that’s what we did. We knocked on the door and were greeted by a tall, gaunt looking kid with short, spiky, auburn dyed hair. He ushered us into the living room and Brian told him who I was.

“Matt,” he said extending his hand. “I was just going to put on some music. I just got this in the mail.” He dropped the needle on the 12” on the record player. The stereo system erupted. It took me a couple of minutes go get my head around things, mostly because he had the volume turned up to an absolutely shocking level. I was afraid that the neighbors or the cops were going to show up at any minute.

“What is this?’ I finally ventured.

“Battalion of Saints,” Matt replied, but didn’t elaborate.

After a few more minutes I pungled up the courage to say, “Can you make me a copy of this?”

***

Battalion of Saints, Fighting Boys (1982)

The tape that Matt eventually made me was the first real punk music that I owned. I gave him a 60 minute cassette and told him to fill it up with whatever. Side one was the Battalion of Saints Fighting Boys 12” that I had heard in his living room, plus some songs from Public Image Ltd.’s First Issue, a pretty strange juxtaposition. Battalion of Saints made sense to me. It was straight ahead and angry. Half the songs were political, and half were basically about serial killers, which was a really fascinating topic for me in those days. Then came P.I.L., which was a little harder for me to digest. I recognized John Lydon’s voice, but I had no idea what he’d done after the Sex Pistols had broken up. I found it grating, but the iconoclasm was really appealing to me.

Public Image Ltd., First Issue (1978)

Crass, Penis Envy (1981)

Side two of the tape was really confusing; a frenetic, angular kind of music that I had never heard before. I later discover that it was Crass, Penis Envy. At that point I hadn’t the faintest idea who Crass were, or that there was an element of punk with that kind of overt, developed political content. It is difficult to convey the effect of hearing “Bata Motel”  on a small town teenager, freighted with all the ideas about girls and sex with which American media culture was (and is) so rich. It opened up a whole different way of thinking for me, although it took me a long time to figure out what it really meant. And of course that was only the beginning. Those songs were like political primer in early 1980s British anarchism, which for a kid in my position might as well have been Martian political theory. I was vaguely dissatisfied and angry about things, but I didn’t quite know what. These people knew what they were angry about. Even if I didn’t believe every word they said, they at least gave me some idea of what the issues really were.

***

Matt turned out to be a really seminal figure, both in my life and in the punk scene in Walla Walla, such as it was. He had moved from Detroit with his mother, I never found out why. She didn’t seem to be exerting a great deal of positive control over Matt, as evidenced by the fact that he had a grave stone stolen from a local cemetery serving as a table in his room and that never seemed to phase her. It also didn’t seem to bother her that their house on Cherokee St., where they moved from the apartment around the time I started high school, was a prime place for us to go to smoke weed when we were cutting school. It did seem to bother her when Matt poached too heavily from her stash, but that was about the only time I ever saw her impose any disciplinary pressure.

I didn’t see Matt all that much during the school year. He had gotten kicked out of the normal school system and was going to the alternative high school. Sometimes he and Brian and I would hang out on the weekends and I would get the benefit of his extensive record collection. I guess the most important fact about Matt was that he had been around a real live punk scene, so he knew what it was about in terms of look and attitude, as well as of music. He was never any sort of godfather figure, but as more punk rockers started to emerge in town, everyone knew that he was a leading face. To hang out with him was sort of like an unofficial initiation into the scene.

By 1984 or so, there started to be actual punk shows in Walla Walla. Bands like Black Flag, Beyond Possession, and the Necros played on their way between shows in Boise or Moscow and Seattle. There was a really great band from Tri-Cities called Diddlysquat who would come down to warm things up (their bass player Nate Mendel went on to be in Christ on a Crutch, Brotherhood, Sunny Day Real Estate, and the Foo Fighters).

What with one thing and another, the house on Cherokee became the preferred spot for after gig parties. Matt’s mom was usually somewhere else (I have no idea where) and although the house was small (it couldn’t have been more than 500 square feet or so) it wasn’t like there were that many of us to begin with.

One summer, I guess it must have been 1985, the New Jersey thrash band Adrenalin O.D. came through on tour. They played a blistering set, although they kept going on about Walla Walla, “the town so nice they named it twice!” Yeah guys, we live here and we’ve only heard that a couple of million times. Anyway, as usual with shows like this, it was a major event, with kids rolling in from as far away as Moses Lake and Yakima (which is a pretty long way). The show was held at the Washington Park Community Center, which was actually the gym from a disused grade school. When I showed up, I ran into Matt sitting on the steps of the school. He seemed distant and his eyes were glassy.

“I dropped acid,” he said, and then laughed in a really disconnected way. I didn’t see much of him during the show. I was in the pit (of course) during Adrenalin O.D.’s set, when I saw him pop up on stage. In true punk rock form, he launched himself in a graceful stage dive. Unfortunately, there were only about ten people in the pit and it became immediately obvious that he was going to clear it by several feet. In an attempt to spare him death or serious injury, another friend of ours tried to catch him as he flew over, but only managed to grab his ankles as he flew by. This had the effect of directing him immediately toward the floor. Hands out in an attempt to fend off the swiftly approaching concrete, Matt’s index finger was the first thing to hit, and it was driven back through the knuckle. The last I saw of him, he was being helped to the door looking dazed.

When the gig ended, I asked someone of the party was going to be at Matt’s place as planned. “Of course, why not?” came the answer. This seemed reasonable to me. When I got there, the place was packed. Matt was sitting on the couch with a blissed out look on his face, next to a pile of half racks of cheap beer. They had taken him to the hospital where they had set his finger and given him something for the pain, strangely enough since he was obviously higher than Georgia pine.

The party was percolating quite nicely until, all of a sudden, Matt’s mom walked in and flipped out. I have never seen a room clear so quickly. There were punk rockers emitting from every door and window of the place. Thinking quickly, I grabbed a half rack and concealed it under my leather jacket as I climbed out the living room window. My pal Derek was right behind me, and we finished off the evening drinking beer in the wooded area behind the Jehova’s Witness Hall in Southgate. The last thing I saw as I left the house was Matt standing dazed in the middle of the room with his mom screaming at him from a distance of about three inches. I remember thinking, “That can’t be pleasant.”

***

In 1986, I moved to Portland to go to college. I had sort of lost touch with Matt by that time, as I had been living in the UK for nearly a year before that. Sometime in the winter of 1986-87, I heard that Matt had committed suicide. In those days, I was too wrapped up in my own self involvement to process this properly, so I got really hammered for about a week and then did my best not to think about it. This piece is a long-winded part of a project of human archaeology, an attempt to dig back through the layers and figure out how I became what I am. And so it is that I think back to that summer day 30 years ago and a serendipitous meeting in a faceless apartment complex, and how easily things could have turned out otherwise.

Magadh

One Response to “Tales of Old Walla Walla: The Punk Tapes, Vol. 1”

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