Actual Occurrences: The punk rock island we once knew and loved

[Here’s the deal with this post: I wrote this more than a year ago with intentions of posting it here, then on a whim sent it off to NY Press, who responded that they would love to run it in the 8 Million Stories section. And, after a few follow up emails of reassurance … they never did. So whatever. But while wandering around the Brooklyn waterfront yesterday, we happened to pass by Ted Leo at the promenade, so in this blog’s grand tradition of letting no unpublishable work go unpublished, I decided to pull it up from the graveyard and post it. NOTE: all time-sensitive elements are related to Nov. 2009, just shy of a year since I first moved to Brooklyn.]

I have found the nexus at which punk rock musicians and struggling journalists who’ve written about them collide, and it is TJ’s.

Yesterday at reg in the midst of the inescapable writhing mass-of-humanity shitshow that is a sunny Sunday afternoon at Brooklyn’s favorite grocer, I was ringing up the purchases of a young, groovy looking couple in refreshingly good spirits considering aforementioned shitshow that often causes much grumbling among other customers (note: YOU ARE HERE ALSO TAKING UP SPACE).

The girl looked at my name tag which lists my hometown as “Hilton Head, S.C.” and asked me how long I’ve been in New York, if I came directly from South Carolina, etc.

The guy turned to her and said, “Oh, that’s where we played that show that they said it was like the ‘first punk show’ ever.”

Strange gears began to come alive and click together in my head as an improbable slide of memory pushed in reminding me that, not only had I heard that comparison before, but — hold on a second — I wrote it.

Turns out the guy was Marty “Violence” Key, the bassist for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, who I interviewed last year before their head-explodingly nonsensical (but awesomely embraced by the five punksters on Hilton Head, four of whom worked at the newspaper) appearance at Stages on the island.

It included this:

Question. We did a little bit of research, and we think this may be the first punk show in Hilton Head history.

Answer. I used to go out with someone who lived on Hilton Head. I used to actually go down there a lot and visit her and we’d hang out and see shows in Savannah.

But there was one night where some ska band that I actually knew from New York was playing at like some crazy frat bar, and we went. And I remember her being so freaked out, like, ‘God, this is so weird, there’s actually a band that’s not like the String Cheese Incident or Widespread Panic or something that’s playing here.’

Wow, but I would have figured since then, that since there are kind of ‘punk’ shows everywhere, I’m surprised to hear that I’m the first.

Q. How does that feel?

A. It’s exciting. It’s auspicious. I had no idea.

I stammered an excited confession to Marty that hey! that was me, I interviewed Ted before that show, and how we at the newspaper spent months laughing at how ludicrously out of place the power pop political punk would sound beside the manicured golf courses of sedate Hilton Head, said how their show at the club between a tobacco shop, Harris Teeter and time-share salesroom was the equivalent of the band walking inside an Applebee’s and beginning to thrash out “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.” next to someone’s Quesadilla Tower. I reveled in the anarchic pairing of it as I got ready to leave the always pretty but limitedly exciting Lowcountry for Brooklyn. I even wanted to take the rare action of buying a shirt at the concert but the dollars had to be saved for the months of poverty and couch-surfing that would ensue as I made my way to BK.

“That show was weird, but we had a great time,” Marty said.

Marty said he remembered Ted saying how odd it was that there was this guy from Jersey (me) living in South Carolina doing the interview.

“Wow,” Marty’s wife said, “I guess there are some cool punk people on Hilton Head.”

Before I realized who they were, I had already told the couple I approved of all of their purchases. “I don’t tell people when I disapprove of their purchases, but I make sure to tell people when I approve.” Then had some combo of veggie pasta dinner in the works, complete with Smart Sausage. And my favorite: a six pack of Simpler Times lager. Punk rock.

I told this to Guide editor Jeff Vrabel later and he remarked it was double cool because you always wonder how much these artists retain from the hundreds of shows they do over the years. In the waning days of my Island Packet tenure, we pushed hard for this show, under the auspices that even if no one in Hilton Head had any idea who Ted Leo was, they damn will at least have heard of him by the time the show’s over. We ran four weeks’ worth of buildup for the show, with a different reason each week why you need to see the band, such as this one.

Part of it was the repressed excitement after spending four years living in the live music desert, where the annual Hootie and the Blowfish concert was about the only thing to break the monotony (though they have recently booked Conor Oberst, Loretta Lynn, Social D and Snoop Dogg after I finally left after FOUR YEARS OF SUBLIME COVER BANDS.)

Wednesday was the anniversary of the day I quit my full-time, decent-paying job as a beat reporter at a daily newspaper (covering a news event of national interest) to throw the dice on a move to Brooklyn with little more than gas money and willpower saved up.

Now here we were, crossing paths in Brooklyn again by the random circumstance of the register-assignment system. I’ve got a few steady writing gigs (but not enough to live off) and The Pharmacists just finished recording their new album in Brooklyn, and we both buy vegetarian food from TJ’s and drink Simpler Times beer. One or two of our fellow punks are still at the paper, but they’ve been hit with pay cuts and furloughs. Not punk rock.

They’re playing a show at Bowery in December [2009, and we did go! -Ed.], and you bet we’re planning to go. I think I’ll buy a shirt this time.

BONUS: Ted’s new song, “One Polaroid a Day,” from See Emm Jay:

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2 responses to “Actual Occurrences: The punk rock island we once knew and loved

  1. Yeah, that was definitely one of the top Guide covers while I was there. (Was I there then? Had I left yet? I think I was there.)

    Question: Why does it list your hometown as Hilton Head Island?

  2. You were long gone otherwise you would have been at the show with us. But a good question — and actually, that was the aborted first draft of the lede to this post. I put that there because 1) I’m don’t like people just associating me with Jersey [enter Barry comment] and 2) I figured Hilton Head would lead to more interesting conversations with people than “Beachwood NJ.” And so far I’ve been right.

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