It all began with a fuck. What doesn’t? I fucked the wrong person; I fucked up the right one; somebody played me a song. It changed my whole life, that song. That’s why I later went to so much trouble to find the guy who wrote and sang it. His name was Jim Cassady, or at least that’s what he called himself. His real name was Eddie Brown, but he’d changed it in tribute to Jim Morrison and Neal Cassady. I’d never heard of either one before I discovered punk rock. I grew up in a small city in North Carolina where I’d never known a single soul who listened to the Doors or read Jack Kerouac. I was a jock—a varsity pitcher and All-District linebacker who dressed like a preppie and hung out at frat parties. Even in high school I was hanging out at frat parties. My girlfriend was a cheerleader. My parents were diehard Republicans. Life was good. I hated my life. Nothing ever happened in North Carolina in those days, the early eighties. I used to pray for something to happen, and I’d stopped believing in God at fourteen.
Then one night I heard a song by Jim’s band, Rule of Thumb, and thought, “My God, somebody out there gets it. Somebody out there feels just like I do.” I started listening to other songs by Rule of Thumb, as well as songs by other punk bands, and shaved off my hair and dyed the stubble blue. I slashed up my clothes and put them back together with safety pins. I bought a used Fender Mustang and taught myself to play it. I was the second punk rocker that town had ever seen, so it goes without saying I got a lot of shit, but I used to fantasize that Jim Cassady could somehow see me and was looking on with approval. I knew he’d been through similar things. I’d read a zine interview he gave in 1979 in which he talked about his love of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground back when most of the world was ignoring them. He was a strange kid who was constantly getting slapped around at school, and one of his worst tormenters was his longtime classmate Buddy Lavrakis, with whom he later founded Rule of Thumb. They bumped into each other on the Sunset Strip in the summer of ’75, when Jim was home from college, and, realizing they like some of the same music, started jamming with Buddy’s younger brother Gary on drums. They were almost certainly the first punk band on the West Coast, and, as such, no one knew what to make of them. It wasn’t till punk took off two years later that they started playing regularly around Los Angeles, and even then they were never that popular. Jim’s literacy may have been part of the problem. He also wrote poetry (he’d majored in English at UC Berkeley), and his lyrics were filled with grim forebodings of a mechanized world gone mad.
But I liked that about him. He made me want to learn things. He opened my mind. In that interview, for instance, he talked about the Romantic poets and their relevance to rock & roll; popular music as protest art; the Beat and hippie influence on punk. The last he cited as the inspiration behind his adopted name: he was demonstrating the line of continuity. Then, toward the end of the interview, he was asked where he saw himself in the years ahead, and here I’ll quote directly, since it’s interesting in light of what became of him. “Oh,” he said,
I don’t know. I always thought when the band broke up I’d get more into writing, but now I’m not so sure. Nobody reads anymore. You’d have to go back twenty years to find the last truly relevant writer. And right now there’s no danger of the band breaking up, even though I’m starting to wonder if we’re ever going to get played on the radio. But that’s OK. I figure all we have to do is reach a few kids that aren’t robots and, if they keep spreading the message and multiplying, my work is done.
In fact, by the time I read those words, his work pretty much was done. But he did manage to reach a few kids who weren’t robots, and one of them was a fifteen-year-old squirt named Bernard Mash, or, as I called him, Peewee.
Peewee was originally from Brooklyn, but he’d been sent to live with his sister in North Carolina after accidentally-on-purpose burning down part of his last school. That was only the latest incident in a tragicomic history of academic disaster, yet he was easily the most brilliant person I ever knew. It was unbelievable, the shit that kid could say. At fifteen he’d soaked up more knowledge than most people twice and three times his age, and he’d ramble through it in breathless monologues, veering from subject to subject like a house-trapped sparrow trying to find an open window: it’s here, it’s there, it’s in the kitchen, it’s in the attic now. I met him shortly before I disgraced myself by beating up a former friend who’d spread gossip about me fucking around on my girlfriend. She was a sensitive girl who was so upset she tried to kill herself, and I almost killed the guy I held responsible, and, two months shy of graduation, I was kicked out of school as well as my house. It’s a long, painful story, and I’ll tell it eventually, but for now this is all that matters: in the aftermath I started hanging around with Peewee, who was the first punk rocker that town had ever seen. He was the one who turned me on to Rule of Thumb. He made me tapes and showed me zines; he loaned me half of what I needed to buy my first guitar. He’d recently bought a guitar of his own, and he was always saying we should start a band, but to me that was almost beside the point. I was trying to emulate Johnny Ramone and Steve Jones and ROT’s Buddy Lavrakis, and didn’t care if it was in public or private. I just wanted my hands to produce those same brazen sounds.
One Thursday night in November ’81, I was about to hit the sack when Peewee came pounding on my door. It seemed he’d just gotten off the phone with his friend Terrence in New York, and guess who was playing at CBGB’s the following night? Go on and guess. I said, “No!”
“Yes! This time tomorrow night Rule of Thumb is going to be onstage at CBGB’s, and we’re going to be there!”
But I couldn’t go. I had to wake up in a few hours to work my house-painting job, and my boss was always reluctant to let me have a day off. I said as much to Peewee, who said, “Jason, are you out of your fucking mind? This is Rule of Thumb we’re talking about! You can always find another job, but this may be the only chance you ever get to see this band! Now go call your boss and tell him you have to have the day off, and if he still says you’ve got to come in, then tell him you fucking quit!”
So I did. I called my boss and said I was sick—I was practically dying, I was so sick—and he said, “Well, Jason, you know I can’t spare you.” I said, “Okay, I quit, bye,” and hung up, and Peewee said, “Yes! Jason, I am so fucking proud of you! Now let’s smoke some hash and get some sleep. We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.” We left in the morning while it was still dark, and I tore up that highway; I drove like a felon trying to beat a roadblock at the Virginia border. That was as far north as I’d ever been. I’d been as far south as Myrtle Beach. And we raced through Washington, and we mowed through Maryland, and we passed through Delaware in all the time it would take a parched drunk to polish off a six-pack; and for much of the way we blasted tapes of ROT while Peewee bounced in his seat going, “They’d better play some old stuff! If they don’t play ‘Banished,’ I’m going to tear that place to pieces!” The sun was almost gone by the time we reached the city. We parked in the Village, where Peewee’s friend Terrence Haggerty was waiting to meet us. He’d come equipped. He led us straight to a Greek coffee shop and back to the bathroom to snort some coke—the first time I’d ever done that. He’d also brought a bottle of Jameson’s, and we walked around the Village, getting good and fucked up, till we came to the Bleecker Street Cinema and Peewee looked up to see that his all-time favorite movie, Taxi Driver, was playing on a double bill with his second all-time favorite, Mean Streets. He went berserk when he saw that marquee. We had to go in; we just had to.
But Terrence wasn’t interested. He’d seen both movies many times. Peewee said, “Well, Jason never has! I’ve been telling him about these movies since the day we met, and the one time we come to the city they’re playing together! It’s synchro-fucking-nicity!”
“Yeah, but I haven’t seen you in months. Let’s hang out, man! I don’t want to see some goddamn movie!”
Terrence had grown up with Peewee, so he should have known that resistance was futile. They bickered till Peewee finally exploded and said, “Just leave, you shanty-Irish bitch! We’ll see you later at the show!”
So Terrence took off, never to be seen again that night, and Peewee and I watched half of each movie and grabbed a cab to CBGB’s, where the doorman took one look at Peewee’s fake ID and refused to admit him. That was strange, as I later learned. There wasn’t much carding in New York in those days. Still, for whatever reason, the guy wouldn’t bend, refusing even to accept a bribe. As for me, I was eighteen—the legal drinking age till the Reagan Administration bumped it up a few years later—so I could easily have gone in by myself. Yet I couldn’t. How could I see Rule of Thumb without Peewee? He’d never let me hear the end of it. Besides, I couldn’t enjoy the show—not like this.
And so we both remained outside, trying to catch the music over midnight traffic cannonballing down the Bowery. We couldn’t hear much, yet, somehow, I wasn’t that disappointed. I was in New York City and standing by the door of CBGB’s! Who knew how many famous people had stood in this very spot? And all the people who passed us seemed like such characters—bikers and bums and bag ladies and hipsters (who were clearly identifiable as such, with their Beatle boots and bandanna headbands and black leather jackets)—and, for this moment, I was here among them. Even the pavement beneath my feet struck me as special. It was New York pavement, and I’d taken to the city the second I’d seen its horizon rising through my bug-splattered windshield. And now at night, a part of the city, I loved it that much more.
The show ended, or so we gathered from the little we could overhear. We’d been looking around for ROT’s van, thinking it must be parked nearby, but we saw no vans, or at least no vans with California license plates. Still, Peewee said we’d probably get a chance to meet Jim if he we kept hanging around, and, sure enough, covered in sweat, he walked outside and lit a cigarette. He looked nothing like I thought he would. In all the photos I’d seen he came across like James Dean’s slightly older brother; but in person he had a moon-shaped face, longish hair streaked with premature gray, and teeth that looked like they hadn’t been on friendly terms with a toothbrush in a good two years. Peewee, bold as ever, ran right up to him and said, “Hey, Jim! We drove all the way from North Carolina to see your ass, and that pig-fucking doorman wouldn’t let us in!” And Jim said, “Wow, I’m…really…flattered…” That was how he spoke. He had a whispery, spaced-out, spooky voice, and all his sentences were…broken up…like…this… I’d certainly imagined him sounding very different. Nor, as I’d expected, was he especially eloquent.
On the other hand, Peewee did most of the talking. He wanted to discuss the implications of some of Jim’s lyrics. Was sex really going to be supplanted by technology, like he’d sung in “Artificial Pussy”? And did he really think, as the lyrics of “Lockstep” suggested, that the human race was headed for a day when cultural differences would no longer exist, replaced with a bland monolith along the lines of the American middle class? You have to understand that nobody was talking that way in 1981, or at least nobody I’d ever met, and this kid was barely sixteen and drunk and drugged to boot. Even Jim looked like a lightweight next to Peewee. He could hardly find answers to half his questions, and when he did it came out like: “Well, that song…it’s sort of a…warning…like you find in…science fiction…” To which I remember Peewee responding: “Jesus Christ, Jim, what the fuck are you talking about? Science fiction? That shit’s for geeks!” He kept referring to him as “Jim,” like he’d known his whole life, and me—I barely said a single word, I was so beside myself. I was standing three feet away from Jim Cassady! And, no, he wasn’t exactly impressive with his spaced-out voice and fucked-up teeth—in fact, the whole time we spoke, he kept playing with one, like he was either trying to work it out or work it back into place—but he was still Jim Cassady, and to me that was better than being God. At one point he asked if we had our own band, and Peewee said, “No, but I want to start one. Would you please tell my friend Jason we should start a band? He’ll listen to you, Jim.”
And by God, that motherfucker—my hero, God Himself—he stopped fucking with his tooth long enough to look directly at me and say, “I really…think you should…start a…band…Jason…” He said my name and everything. That was right around the time Buddy Lavrakis walked out. He was big and blond and dressed like Jim in a plaid flannel shirt, and to meet him was almost as mind-blowing as to meet Jim, though he barely said two words to us. He took Jim aside with an air of emergency, and, after they’d whispered for a couple of minutes, they walked inside and didn’t come back.
Still, not for the first time and not for the last, Jim Cassady had changed my life: for the next few hours I walked the streets with Peewee, all the way from CBGB’s to 59th Street and back down Broadway, plotting out the future. We decided we’d pack up our stuff as soon as we returned to North Carolina and move to New York, where we’d live with Peewee’s parents—or at least he would—till we got a place of our own. (Of course we had yet to ask, and when I met his parents the next day, I could tell they were both afraid of him.) We bandied about band names and settled on the Widowmakers, which is what we called ourselves for the next year and a half; and we also talked about how big we wanted to be, as if we had full say in the matter, and decided rock stardom wasn’t for us. No, that was for dumbfucks. We just wanted to be an East Coast version of Rule of Thumb, a cult band with fans as cool we were. And I guess, in the smallest of ways, we finally got our wish.