“Where do you go now when you’re only 15?”
— Rancid, “Radio,” off the 1994 album Let’s Go
In the spring of 1995 — March 9 to be exact — I experienced my very first punk show. It was Rancid with the Lunachicks at the Metro in Chicago. I was 15. And in that crowd of about 1,000, I felt like I belonged. I had found my tribe. It was a moment that would transport me on a decades-long excursion, one that finds my punk rock heart still beating now and forever.
For me and many others with bipolar, music is an essential and extremely helpful refuge. It all started for me with punk and as a recovering bipolar addict, I owe this music a salute on my punk rock 25th anniversary. They say “once a punk, always a punk” and it’s true.
A Youth in Revolt
I’ve always felt like a bit of an outcast. As someone who struggles with bipolar and communicates with many others like me, I know it’s a common reflection when looking back in time.
I now realize that I was in fact different from the others. And I was experiencing bouts of depression inside the halls and walls of my Catholic high school. Freshman and sophomore years in particular I did not fit in. I was the quiet kid who had barely any friends. I didn’t belong to a social clique like everyone else. I was a rebel in disguise. Until I found punk rock. Then I let it all hang out.
And while I no longer have rubber-duckie yellow bleached hair, skateboarding sneakers, or a hoodie emblazoned with band logos, it’s a movement that lives inside me. It surrounds me. It grounds me.
The Punk Aesthetic
Punk isn’t just a style of music, it’s a dynamic idea. It’s about grassroots activism and power to the people. It’s about sticking up for the little guy, empowering the youth, lifting up the poor, and welcoming the ostracized.
Punk is inherently anti-establishment. Punk values celebrate that which is abnormal, which was a lot like me. It is also about pointing out hypocrisy in politics and standing up against politicians who wield too much power and influence, and are racist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic.
Everyone is welcome under the umbrella of punk rock. And if you are a musician, they say all you need to play punk is three chords and a bad attitude. Fast and loud is punk at its core.
A Movement Takes Shape
It’s unclear which was exactly the very first punk band. But some say it started at CBGB, a hole-in-the-wall that opened up shop in 1973 and became a rundown relic of gritty old New York when it shuttered its doors due to unaffordable rent in 2006. The Ramones — who had a decidedly saccharine take on the punk formula — were CBGB’s poster boys. In the UK, a burgeoning scene grew with bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols, both of whom injected political lyrics into their fast and loud jams.
I met my best friend from high school at a Sex Pistols show. It was their reunion Filthy Lucre tour in 1996. I also had the opportunity to see The Ramones on their final tour before leader Joey Ramone died.
Chicago’s Underground Punk Scene
But it was the punk underground that truly saved my teenage life. After that Rancid show, I was handed flyers for upcoming gigs at what would become Chicago’s legendary Fireside Bowl. The Fireside Bowl was the CBGB of Chicago. It was a rundown bowling alley in a rough neighborhood with a small stage in the corner. You couldn’t actually bowl there and the ceiling felt like it was going to cave in. It was a smoke-filled room with a beer-soaked carpet. Punks sported colorful mohawks, and silver-studded motorcycle jackets. Every show was $5.
My punk rock friends, several from different schools, teamed up and served as a bedrock for my social life. We hung out at the Fireside every weekend. We were definitely overwhelmingly the minority as there were probably only five or so of us in a school of 1,400. The kids in the suburbs threw keggers. We practically lived at the Fireside and rarely drank or did drugs. We also drove to punk shows all over the city and suburbs of Chicago — from VFW Halls to church basements, to punk houses.
At the Fireside, I saw local Chicago punks like Apocalypse Hoboken, Oblivion, The Bollweevils, and No Empathy. Bigger shows included NOFX, Screeching Weasel, and Face to Face. But it wasn’t just local bands; punk bands from all parts of the country, especially Southern California, have a rich tradition of jamming their gear into a van and going on tour with barely a buck in their pockets. They slept on fellow punks’ floors and played shows throughout the US, living from gig to gig, payday to payday.
A Decline and a Revival
Warped Tour, a festival touting the virtues of punk culture and skateboarding launched in 1995 and ended in 2019. In its last few years, the festival lost its way, booking the likes of Katy Perry, Eminem, Kid Rock, and Incubus. Warped tour was Lollapalooza for the punk crowd. And while it was still relevant, bands played including Bad Religion, Rancid, Buzzocks, Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies, NOFX, Sick of It All, Guttermouth, L7, and Sublime — before frontman Bradley Nowell’s tragic death from a heroin overdose that same year. I went to many a Warped Tour, long before it became a de facto shopping mall for teenagers.
A punk revival would occur in 2012 at Riot Fest, a Chicago music festival that leans punk. Rooted in nostalgia, the fest has featured The Misiits’ first-ever reunion show, Rancid playing their seminal album …And Out Come the Wolves from start to finish, And The Replacements’ first show in 22 years..
Punk Rock Saved My Life
Punk was my escape from the horrific bullying I experienced at St. Ignatius College Prep. As one example, a popular girl came up to me one day and said “Nobody likes you. You don’t belong at this school.”
I needed to escape, and that’s what punk rock did for me. I am a punk rock child of the ’90s. My love affair with punk may have started 25 years ago, but it soldiers on today, even though I mostly listen to indie rock and jazz these days.
Punk was and still is sacred and liturgical to me. The music mollified my depression and made me feel a sense of belonging. Back to punk sage Tim Armstrong of Rancid: “When I got the music, I got a place to go.” And I went wherever punk rock took me. My ethos — developed through the lens of the punk aesthetic — still pulses through my punk rock veins. It is entrenched in every fiber of my being. Fifteen or forty, I’m a punk rocker for life.
And if you are struggling with bipolar depression or have friend who is struggling, crank up the volume.
For more on bipolar, how to find help, and more of my musings on punk rock, pick up my book at Amazon.com. The Bipolar Addict: Drinks, Drugs, Delirium & Why Sober Is the New Cool. Also available in e-book format.