The following is a draft excerpt from my novel in progress, Housebreaking the Muse. In this passage I present my protagonist, Ray Burke, through the eyes Ubu Reformé, one of the novel’s narrative entities. Ubu pays a visit on a more youthful Burke in “them punk rock days o’ yore” when Burke headed up an outfit called April 25.
A young man pulsating in the ecstasy of life, unbridled and in his element, the Burke commanding the stage at Nutty Ned’s struck me as something of a stranger, a flesh-and-blood bearing little resemblance to the one who brought yours truly into being. Yes, I noticed the crude physical resemblance lurking in features yet to betray a decade lived hand to mouth. But the spark and sense of mission confounded me. Stepping to the mic, looking like a haggard but defiant poilu overtaken by the collapsing front, Burke raised hand to brow as if scanning the horizon for lead units of Rupprecht’s II Bavarian Corps. He burned under the gaze of 300 eyeballs and tapped the energy of the loud, excited mob. To the extent he could feel love, he felt it in that moment for all of them, for the convocation they all had joined that night, for the coming together of the loners and freaks and misfits and rockers. He shook his head in staged disgust and said, “I have never in all my life, seen such a collection of yobbos.” Howls and cheers and curses and catcalls and even applause: Burke absorbed them all in evident delight. He nodded and grinned his genuine respect, not only for the audience, which had done its part all night, but for the happy and wonderful absurdity of the moment. When the uproar calmed he said, “OK! OK! This is what you get!” Right on cue, Joey D. counted off four rapid clicks and the Aprils let loose the thunder: a grinding, overdriven, swerving four-chord assault on Sham 69’s “Rip Off.” Those along the back wall, the true aficionados, stuck fingers in their ears to filter out the white noise and tune into the music. The maniacs at the front, those in the so-called “mosh pit,” jumped up and down pogo style or simply shoved the person closest to them. At the very center of the pit, about half a dozen hardcore Punks circled in a menacing, arms-swinging kind of dance they called “skanking.” Instigators lolling at the bar and along the side wall anointed the melee with beer from their plastic cups, some even threw the cups for good measure, but no one in the center of the storm seemed to notice or care. Somehow, at the chorus break, everyone managed to collect themselves in time to shout, firsts raised, Sham 69’s aggrieved chant:
It’s just a fake!
Make no mistake!
A rip off for you
but a Rolls for them!
The whole bit of turgid and delightful nastiness lasted one minute and forty-eight seconds and exacted a few bruises and black eyes, a couple chipped teeth, and numerous minor cuts and abrasions. One song and already what Burked liked to call the “swamp gas from hell” filled the room–the fug of a hundred and fifty sweaty, heaving Punk Rockers colliding in a joyfully pugnacious scrum. Juicy and thick enough to taste, the troposphere inside Ned’s attached itself to everyone, an evocative musk of spent yeast, aged parmigiano-reggiano, the backyard oil drum in which were burned the autumn leaves of childhood, and a bluefish carcass in the beak of a hungry gull on Lecount Hollow Beach, Wellfleet, Massachusetts. It embedded itself in Burke’s clothing, it would not come out in the wash, and because of that he loved it.
Burke leaned out over the crazies closest to the stage and inhaled with hambone extravagance. “The room is fragrant, my friends,” he declaimed. “The stars have guided us here tonight to perfume the universe.” The rest of the Aprils took a breather and mugged behind Burke’s back, a schtick they’d evolved around the lyrical asides Burke loved to drop into the program. “The great orbs of Alpha Centauri hover orange in our poisoned sky, cruise parallel and mute, and invite our gaze to the East.” I found amusing the respect and attention the audience offered Burke in his moment of improvisatory sermonizing. The young Punks inclined themselves, mopey and intent on hearing what the manic scarecrow in rolled up jeans and Doc Martens had to say.
Burke raised his hand and struck his best televangelist pose which, because of the guitar, evoked Elvis Presley more than Jimmy Swaggart. But, of course, Elvis was a preacher too. “The East is mystery. The East is the very thing we cannot attain yet work so hard to capture, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those in the ad hoc parish played adequate choir to Burke’s preacher. Some shouted their agreement. Some struggled to focus their attention. Some wondered what the hell this guy was rambling on about and why wasn’t the band playing another song? Some became transfixed by the grotesques into which Gary contorted his face, now and then working it into an animated horror of gargoyle agony.
“In this valley they call the Happy Valley, do we have happiness?” asked Burke. Joey D. began a low drum roll. “I said,” Burke repeated into the faces of the confused, “Do … we … have … happiness?”
Catching on, the faces, more or less in unison, yelled, “No!” Joey charged the roll with a bit more insurrection, inched the volume up, up.
“Damn right we don’t.” Cymbal crash, then back to drum roll.
Detaching the mic from the stand, Burke got down on one knee at the foot of the stage and sized up the youngsters there with a soft, imploring gaze. They grimaced back at him with hardcore zeal, but Burke refused to tell them their days were numbered. He refused to concede Punk Rock had already become the latest plaything of popular culture, that even Zeta Psi fraternity was putting up fliers promoting a monthly “Punk Party.” He did not tell them Punk Rock was about to become a warmed-over update of Maynard G. Krebs, the cuddly scatterbrained beatnik of TV’s “Dobie Gillis.” He didn’t call it a night and usher everyone home with the old constabulary refrain: “Break it up folks. Show’s over.” No, Burke soldiered on in the highest dudgeon he could muster.
“Friends, there is no happiness in Happy Valley. There is no happiness in Keystone County. There is no happiness in the god damned Commonwealth. No happiness in these here You-Knighted States of Amurica.” Burke paused here, perhaps to let his words bake themselves into the minds of his listeners, then stood up and clipped the mic back onto the stand. Joey D., riding the dynamics of Burke’s sermon, dropkicked his routine drum roll into a low-key but rollicking solo, a somnambulant Krupa laying down the rhythm of his dreams. Like charmed cobras, the kids rolled their hips to Joey’s beat.
“Friends,” said Burke, “the cylindrical birds of eternal night lie ready in their subterranean caves to unleash an apocalyptic fire-ah! The maniacs have been left in charge of the coo coo’s nest-ah! Soma is on sale at your local shopping mall-ah–at deep fucking discount prices! The UniMart has hotdogs two for a dollar!” Blaine, detached, upright, almost elegant in pose and gesture, began to tremolo pick a low, open E–the equivalent of a drum roll on bass. The kids felt it in their guts. Joey kept his thunk-a-chunk Krupa gambol staggering right along overtop of it, moment by moment elaborating his rhythm into a sophisticated frenzy.
Burke continued: “Let the broken poets of the piss-stained convalescent homes coin a word for all that, but do not call it ‘happiness.’ Let the Bonzos hammer that shit into an alchemy of patriotic bluster-ah. They can have it!” Grinning Gary the Ginger Gargoyle began to riff and noodle on an open E chord as the Aprils built to a crescendo, Burke amping up his hip preacher word jazz with the camp gyrations of the religious ecstatic: “Let us wallow with porcine delight in the mud hole of civilization-ah. Let us nose dive into the end times with an awesome thunder. Friends, I beseech you: count your meager blessings and clasp the arm of thine neighbor–like the good Roman soldiers you are–and throw each other to the dogs of night.” Burke dropped to his knee, feigning spiritual exhaustion, and the rest of the Aprils kicked into The Sex Pistols’ “No Feelings.”
Ned’s churned, boots and fists aloft, in the holy slam dance of the righteous and pissed off.