Punk Rock Opera? Psh! Punk Rock: On Ice!


The Dude’s jetset through seedy Europe reminds me of a personal sojourn scaled down quite a lot - the story of my first and favorite (which isn’t to say most aesthetically satisfying) concert. And while two of its acts, Anti-Flag and Bad Religion, both vie amongst others for Best Band Name, the takeaway here is mostly indicental. Any band - except, say, Train - could’ve been on stage, and the fun would’ve remained.
I was 16, an age that strikes me now as probably too old for a First Concert - but that’s life in western PA: you’re a toddler until your first pregnancy, at which point you become a steel worker. My best friend, a math genius named Casey whose green Mohawk would have been sufficient grounds for suspension if the administration didn’t rely on him to prop up Bush-era test scores, suggested the idea of attending - which seemed hairbrained and unlikely to succeed - at lunch one day. Mom somehow said yes, and on November 12, 2005, Casey’s dad herded the two of us into his ‘89 
Grand Marquis and drove to Belle Vernon - a blue collar town of 1,500 well south of the rural-suburan comfort of the Pittsburgh metro. There, situated equidistant from - no shit - competing Luthern and Baptist churches was a nondescript beige building called The Ice Garden, the chosen venue. It occurred me at some point in this process that The Ice Garden was a funny name for a concert arena - but I was otherwise so taken with the idea of watching Greg Gaffin sing about our American Jesus that I got over it pretty fast. Besides, I was a shitty little kid headed to his first concert; I had no idea.
The parking lot was a gravel pit choked with ripped leather jackets and, uh what?, chicks sporting spiked hair. Everyone was leaned up against dusty sedans drinking (was this legal? there’s no way) beer. I saw a “Boycott Exxon” bumper sticker next to a PA license plate, and gasped.
“Oh my God. So, you’re saying that… liberals live around us? Seriously? Our parents and the guys in these bands aren’t the only ones who don’t vote Republican?”
“I… I guess so. Wow.”
I was suddenly hyper conscious the oversized Dickies hoodie I had on - the closest my wardrobe came to obscenity. No one else was wearing Dickie’s appearal. In fact, a lot of shirts had “Fuck” written on them, or “Nevermind the Bollocks,” which didn’t make any sense at all. What was a bollock? I lowered my head and shuffled gravelwise into The Ice Garden.
Matters started to click when I immediately beheld a cardboard hotdog and pop menu hung above a Formica countertop. The Ice Garden was an ice skating rink that moonlit on weekends as a punk watering hole. The ice - overlayed by those puzzle-piece gym mats you sometimes see in cheap gymnasiums. And at the near goal, a stage erection that locked makeshift into grooves otherwise dug to accommodate the glass icerink boards. I drew this in and tried to figure out why the hell any self-respecting ice rink owner would do such a thing when I heard someone say “Spaz” just to the right of my periphery. I snapped right away to attention. Yep, there he was: Spaz. The chubby blue-haired punk of wild flamboyance whose legendary “house destruction party” back in ‘93 (when I was a spunky 4 year old) shook the stayed Jewish community of Squirrel Hill to its core and inspired the all-time punk party anthem, Anti-Flag’s creatively named “Spaz’s House Destruction Party.”
I ran on a bad ankle to the merch table he was posted up at and spent whatever money my folks coughed up the hour before to buy the cheapest clothing I could find: a $5 rag t shirt depicting a Bush whose vision is obscured by a large dollar bill.
“Spaz! Oh my gosh, you’re working behind the merchandise table! Oh my gosh oh man. Please sign this shirt I just bought.”
“Uh, hi kid,” he whined with his distinct gay nasal tone, “are you suuuuure?”
“Yes oh man, you’re Spaz! There’s a song named after you too!”
“There’s also a song named after a bunch of red balloons, kid.”
“Pleeeeassse??!”
“Okay okay.”
So he signed it with an blue eraser board marker and moved on without further comment to a group of crusts passing around a handle of Jack.
After that orgasm, I wandered down to the ice with Casey and wiggled to a decent locale just to the right of the stage.
First up was Murphy’s Law, a band that to say spoke at length of their touring history with Bad Religion is to undersell the concept of ‘length,’ played a set without incident or flavor.
Then came Pennywise, who played their astonishing ‘Bro Hymn’ seven or eight times between Fuck Bush and Rumsfeld rants, and left politely.
Next came Anti-Flag, fresh off their Trojan Horse triumph, THE TERROR STATE: an album that retains a great deal of existential hardcore punk angst while getting away with pop chord flirtations. They even made the radio (which, in fairness and for the sake of full disclosure, is probably and ultimately the reason I came to know of the band at all). They killed it - in between Fuck Bush and Rumsfeld rants.
Then the show stoppers: Bad Religion, the most consistently consistent (all their songs sound the same, but that one song is so good!) punk band ever. Think the Rolling Stones of punk plus a PhD and minus range and clymdia. Also fresh off a new LP, The Empire Strikes First - a record notable for five perfect songs that (whoa my god) don’t sound the same and nine average ones that do - BR scintillated or went way over all the minds struggling moshwise on the ice with articulate verbal treatises arguing for Fuck Bush and Rumsfeld. Their one song lasted 70 minutes and it blew our heads.
I know you could be a mite annoyed or confused by now: so I met this no name Spaz guy and saw two very good bands perform back to back. Greatest concert ever? Sorry, I forgot to mention that 3/4ths of the way through Pennywise, some limey young prick found himself alone on one of those jigsaw mats and had the clever insight to rip it up and toss it onstage. The rest of us followed his lead. You’ve probably moshed in a pit before your punk rock heroes before. But have you done it on ice?