Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
I was 40 years old when I discovered punk. Off all the absurd places on You-Tube. It was Sunday morning before I taught Sunday school and I picked up my kids from there mom for church, and I was looking for the Bad Religion song News From the Front. Because I wanted to use the lyrics in a story I was writhing, and I stumbled across Reach for the Sky and Winners and Losers, by Social Distortion. Sure I heard their more commercial hits, Ball and Chain and I Was Wrong on the radio, but till then never rally tied the songs to any one band.
I was hooked on the powerful lyrics and dynamic guitar riffs. As I went to get my children for church for the first time I really wanted to se a band live.
Nearly a year later that almost thrown out there idea of. “Hey these guys would be cool to see live.” Had transformed into a green rectangle shaped green ticket, for Social D at the Ventura Theater.
It is my first concert. I mean my very first concert. Oh, I have been to classical music concerts, and twenty years ago at the Ventura Theater, my mom’s friend Paul Sanchez opened for Ricky Skaggs. And well I went there to see Paul, I kind of tuned Ricky boy out, after Paul’s set. But this was my first rock n’ roll concert.
I didn’t want to go home after work before I went to the concert, so I wore what I thought could get away wearing as a phone company supervisor and still have some punk ethos. A green un-collared tee shirt with three buttons faded blue jeans and Nikes. As the clock counted down to 5:30, I was getting apprehensive about the whole shebang.
Part of it was concern that I was going to get a broken nose and or a snapped neck in the mosh pit. My fiend Sandy told me that off all the mosh pits she’d ever been in, the only one that she didn’t come back sore from was Flogging Molly. (Apparently Irish punks are a kinder gentler type of punk.) Well you say just don’t go into the pit. Well I hadn’t gone this far with it to just to chicken out now. But the truth was I wasn’t worried about GBH to my person. My fears ran deeper and were as primal as the human desire to prevent pain and injury. Rejection.
No matter how successful I may be at work. No matter how many friends I might have. No matter how may people might tell me that I do a good job as a father or how happy my children seem. Some where deep down I will always be that social awkward, different, brilliant beyond his peers, high school nerd who never seemed to blend in and even when he was loved was never quite accepted.
How was I going to blend in with hard core punks and be anything than the middle aged tubby hair thinning at the temples poser that well I am?
As I got into my Jeep Cherokee, I was faced with two choices I could turn north and head in to Ventura, to explore the world so different from mine it made my stomach queasy. It would I felt put my life and life style on trial from people who had experienced more than I had. Or I could turn south. Head back to the Nard, and spend the night in my safe, familiar yet lonely apartment.
The car turned towards Down Town Ventura, maybe on its own will..
So that I didn’t get jumped and mugged the $23.75 that happened to be in my wallet. I decided that I would adopt the persona of a tough nihilistic punk. Surely my fellow punks would accept me if I acted the part.
My friend form work, Rob, was a veteran of many Social D concerts, had given me some advice. Eat a good diner and get some ear plugs. Taking his word to heart I stopped over at Home Town Buffett, feeling that it would be the perfect place, with it’s self made soft tacos, raspberry jell-o, small portion cheese cake and Norman Rockwell prints on the wall, to prefect my new aggressive, devil may care punk attitude.
As an obese man cut in line in front of me to get some garlic butter. I growled in my head. “Hold on two tons, you just cut in front of an angry punk whose about to go Mount Vesuvius on you. So unless you want me to gut you with my metallic spork, get to the back of the line.” In reality my voice said something more like “Excuse me sir.” Obviously my Mr. Tough Guy person was doomed to fail. And I was going to get eaten alive by the real punks.
I then headed off to Wal-Mart’s hunting/gun section, to purchase ear plugs. I was both amazed and applaed how many gun accruements one can buy in the Oxnard Wal-Mart. My choices in ear plugs how ever were limited to bright orange ones. They were for hunters, obviously some one in marketing at Reminington though. “And see because they are neon orange some drunk deer hunter will say. “Tar-nation deers don’t wear neon orange ear plugs, well that there must be Bubha, better not soot him.” But it also just screamed “Geek at a concert.” Fear of bleeding eardrums won out and I took them to the counter.
So as I hit the 101, I began to wonder, was I doing this because I thought that since I grew up the resident goody-goody did I think I had miss something never going to a concert, or doing the other things all high schoolers took as a right of passage, was I trying to make up for something that I thought maybe I was entitled to but never had as a youth. Or did I just want to hear Cold Feelings and She’s a Knock Out live?
The second one maybe scared me more than the first option. What if this wasn’t some twenty year old delayed act of youthful rebellion? What if in the great grand scheme of things today really was only Friday?
They say that the Majestic Ventura Theater is haunted. That a stage hand in the 40’s died here, he was supposed to have fallen to his death and his spirit never left the place. As a historian I know that there is no historical evidence that anyone died that way here. But one look around the place and you realize why this place is rumored to be haunted. With its art deco interior and 1920’s architecture, you realize it is defiantly haunted by history if not actual specters.
I decided on Rod’s advice to move around go up and down from the balcony, check out the venue. I figure if I am a moving target I am less a target.
I was surprised when a surprised female voice calls out my name.
It is Laura, my first manager from the phone company. I am amazed she remembers me. With my scruffy beard and glasses I don’t look like I did twelve years ago. She and her husband are here down from Santa Barbara. She asks me who I am with. I tell her that I will meet Rob and Joanna from work.
Though never stated she seems surprised I am here alone. She left the phone company before my ex-wife left me. I can’t tell her I am divorced. No I won’t tell her. She remembers me as a young expectant father. The one who lived for his family. I can’t bring myself to talk about what happened later on.
Laura and Don, her husband invite me to join her. I say I will try catch them later, the last thing I want to be tonight is a third wheel.
I next find Joanna form work. She is here with her brother and son. This is the woman who shared her Nacho’s with my daughter on work’s bowling night. She is moving with the music from the warm up act. She tells me about the concerts that she has gone to and how the music touches her soul.
The crowd seems to double in size. No one sits down. We are standing in the area closest to the stage that sill has chairs. Between us and the stage is the pit. Where the truly hard core are. We are as close to it and not be in it as we can be.
Across the aisle form me is a pretty twenty-ish brunette in a turquoise crop top. She turns her head and looks at me from head to toes, gives me a slight shrug and a million dollar smile.
Did she just check me out? Women don’t check me out. Least of all, not good looking ones. But she did, she had to turn her neck to see me. She was looking right at me. And didn’t seem disgusted or feel an over riding desire to tell security to try to remove the slumming nerd.
I don’t think I am handsome. In fact secretly I think I am ugly. But for a moment, between drums beats this girl, who I would have nothing in common with other than wanting to hear a few good jams seemed to challenge my whole self concept for the better. All the invisible voices that I think tell me how unattractive I am are vaporized by a pair of soft brown eyes.
Of course I don’t go over and talk to the girl in the turquoise top. She intimidates me with her beauty. Besides a good self esteem boosting illusion should never be destroyed with the cold ugly truth of reality.
Then in the pit I see Rob my friend form work and Davey Crocket/Marlin Perkins/Rob Serling to the world of punk.. He invites me from the floor to the pit.
As the second warm up band takes the stage, Rob introduces me to his friends.
“These are my beautiful people.” He tells me.
“And I am your ugly friend.” I joke.
“No, you are beautiful in your own way. But most of these people are clean now and had to go through hell to get there.” He explains.
I know that last weekend Rob celebrated his birthday, but also his 13th year of sobriety. I was always the squeaky clean goody goody two shoes. I never once used drugs, I never smoked, I never took a sip of alcohol and I guess like most others like me, deep down I always wondered if I had missed something. But the way that Rob, said the word hell, I knew I hadn’t missed anything but pain and sorrow.
One of Rob’s friends, a large, bearded bald man with a body of full of tattoos was in front. Some one offered him a beer, he turned it down with a joke.
Though I know that I, was only looking at the minuscule tip of an ice burg, I sensed slightly what he had gone through. And the giant imposing tattooed man became beautiful to me too.
Another 100 people swelled the pit. The most precious of human peeves, personal space was gone.
An Asian girl wearing what can only be described as a highly modified catholic School girls outfit came behind me and placed her hands on my shoulders and rest momentarily against my back, until she found the person she was looking for and left her perch.
Rob gave me a quick self defense lesson on how to protect myself in the pit. How to push off when pushed and to keep my arms bent at the elbow and tight to my body.
The entire pit began to move like a great oscillating wave. Bodies both male and female pushing against each other, reminding me of a single beating heart.
The people were here to worship in the Church of Rock and tonight the reverend is going to be Mike Ness. “People in the 50’s saw Frank Sinatra as the epitome of cool.” Rob explained to me. “Well for our generation that cool title has been transferred to Mike Ness.”
As he takes the stage, I can see what Rob means. Ness has this I am cool but not cool you can’t hang with me, swagger. He is this self described hybrid of Sid Vicious and Hank Williams Sr. A late 70’s punk who found commercial success in rock a billy.
The pit becomes what Rob calls controlled chaos.
A girl in a blue tee shirt takes a hit and goes down. She has a wrist band that says she is old enough to but alcohol. To me that indicates that she is either celebrating her 21st birth day or she has a good fake ID.
In what my friend “Eawie” once referred to as “Paladin like sensibility.” I take a position next to a large security guard/bouncer who is monitoring the pit, to act like a break water between her and the throng. I am pushed back like a stone on the beach. But I do not fall.
Is she aware that a total stranger has appointed himself her protector? I doubt it. If she is aware then she doesn’t show.
Rob is I think mildly surprised that I know all the words for Reach for the Sky. Maybe I am not the big poser I think I am.
As the band plays on Rob says “You need to go into the pit!”
What? I thought I was in the pit. I am sorry I was under the impression that this was the pit? How can this not be the pit?
Rob explains that we are in the pit. But now it is time to venture into THE PIT. The maelstrom at the center of this hurricane of humanity.
So following Rob’s lead and a few of his beautiful people behind me like World War Two wingmen I venture in to the throbbing epicenter that is THE PIT.
It’s what can only be described as a full combat conga line.
Big biker types check me a few times in the chest. But the hits are more like part of an initiation rather than an attack.
The Reverend Mike, gives a sermon, between the rock a billy hymns, that are the band’s repertoire It is surprisingly close to something I would say in Sunday school. That you can’t take physical things with you when you are gone, so it is more important to have integrity than stuff. That if you want to do something you love. Then love that thing with all your heart.
It is past midnight and the crowd in the pit has thinned a little.
The girl in the blue turquoise top is standing next to me now. She appears at my side like some nubile ninja. I didn’t even see her approach. She gives me another one of her soft smiles as she lets herself be pushed into me. The crown is thinner now. She collides with my body because she wants to, not because she is forced to.
Like all of us in the pit her body is covered with sweat. She shines in a silvery glow under the stage lights. As her body rubs up against me, her sweat clings to my body like a fingerprint or maybe a lingering kiss.
At the end of the song, she then gives me another Mona Lisa smile and moves up to the next group of people.
I could follow her. Talk to her. But I don’t. How does one talk to phantom? Or a dream? I am sure that the mystery is better than the reality.
The next time I look up she is gone. I will never see her again, I suppose.
Maybe she is the real the ghost of the Ventura Theater.
After the band leaves the stage and the crowd begins to leaves, I take the first and only real painful blow to my chest. A roadie throws out several of the drummer’s sticks. One clatters at feet. Some punk (and I don’t mean punk rocker.) checks me with his elbow as he dives for it.
Out side leaning on a Ventura PD cruiser several of the beautiful people ask me if I enjoyed myself?
“I did.” I answer honestly.
As I drove home I thought of all the things Rob and his posse had to fight to get back to where they are now. How they fight their personal demons each day. I respect them and have nothing but admiration for them. They are truly beautiful. Yet I also have a renewed appreciation for the safe shelter that was my youth. The nagging fear that maybe I have lost out some how being the person I was is gone.
It is six minutes before one in the morning when I reach my apartment. I wonder to myself, dose everything have to be an object lesson? No I realize everything CAN be an object lesson.