When a Poison Idea is No Longer Lethal

In downtown Portland, around midnight, at the corner of 3rd and Burnside, the apocalypse is upon us.  OK, not all of us, but maybe for a few hundred souls wearing all manner of inscribed black t-shirts.

In my new book, I tell the story of how in 1993 my late friend John introduced me to the local punk band Poison Idea (PI) on the occasion of their last ever show. Last night, I went to what was billed as the “Last Ever Portland Show” of Poison Idea at the former Mongolian Grill called Dante’s. Jerry A., hair graying, weight down, a waddle now under his chin, the front man of Poison Idea even joked as he took the mike, “Oh hell, we are going to play forever!”  Given that I have now been at 2 last shows, I tend to believe the man. But there is something else going on that even this phoenix-like band won’t be able to escape, a wave of new development is rolling through the heart of the rock scene in Portland. Land will soon be too valuable for punk rock.

I have roamed the downtown rock scene for decades. Last night started with an extended look for parking. Once lousy with surface parking lots and secret places to deposit my car, the neighborhood now requires joining a samba line of cars snaking through an endless confusion of green painted streets and ersatz barriers marking the new territory of bicycles. One can never be absolutely sure just where a car can legally exist. Reassuringly, I didn’t see a bike in those new lanes all night, so assume that whatever is happening with that spaghetti of white lines is a success. I finally found parking a few blocks away. On the way to the club I passed a hulking, half-finished new apartment building rising from an old surface parking lot. Looming over the skinny Ash Street, I am sure it will herald this vibrance I hear so much about. I walked up Ash, careful not to disturb the guy in sleeping bag shooting up, to see what had become of the once mighty and dingy, Ash Street Saloon, a place where I enjoyed shows by friends in bands. It seems the new cheery white painted and sliced up space will become another restaurant. I crossed back over 3rd street and looked through frosted glass at Mothers to see 50. Oblivious to the decline of western civilization, I am sure some of the them will drink unironic cocktails at the new place when it opens.

The first band was playing as I reached the club. Old punk rockers smoke … a lot cigarettes. I have never seen so many people smoking outside of the little club. Between acts, about 1/3 of the crowd poured outside to re-dose their nicotine. There was a time when all that smoke stayed in the clubs. The acts played in the midst of a blue haze and the morning after shows my shower revived the cigarette smell as the water hit my hair. Beer in hand, I happily roamed the merch tables and parked myself near the edge of the stage. I started to recognize faces and uniforms, people who I have seen in and out of shows for decades. Hair now grey or missing, I saw guys in the same leather jackets and punkish vests with hand sewn badges of venues and bands. They bounced from warm greeting to greeting. Then I saw a dapper, younger guy who just made me sad. He had the required badged vest, but it was a fake, something he bought at an upscale, trendy store. Under one arm, in a tiny, black square box, was a sticker knock-off that said, “Ramones.” In another time, before the moderation of age, I am pretty sure he would have been justly beaten up for such an affront. But rounded middles under black t-shirts and essential day jobs have all but eliminated that tribal instinct.

Bathing in my own irony, I bought a lovely “last show” poster from Toody Cole, the queen of all things punk in Portland. She had gavin a benediction at the start of the show that I missed. Long grey hair waving over her red cowboy shirt, with matching pants and boots, every time I saw her, she was smiling. Her smile reminded me to smile. Later, on the sidewalk as I left the show, I saw her and felt compelled to say, “Thank you.” She caught my eye and said, “You bet!” and rushed down the sidewalk followed by what passes for an entourage in Portland.

I caught a couple of songs by the thrashing second act, then decided to walk my poster back to my car. The block was vibrating. Punk rockers milled about. Overpowering clouds of perfume and cologne wafted off of dance club partiers. Women, of all shapes and sizes perched on impossible high heels and squeezed into uncomfortable looking tube-like dresses moved in packs eying young men who had pomaded down every strand of their hair into a tight, well considered, formation. All of them seemed self-consciously sexy, about to engage in the extended, alcohol fueled foreplay of an evening leading to the inevitable hook-ups where they would have to peel away their carefully chosen layers of now perspiration soaked clothes, the tired chosen scents now unable to push back the stench of hours on the dance floor.

I happened upon a man, standing in the street, brushing the coat of a white Great Pyrenees. From a distance, he looked like a guy standing next to a polar bear. I siddled next to a young Black woman admiring the dog. We kept looking at each other, mouths agape, asking, “Have you ever…” “No, me either.” The owner a middle-aged dude, well dressed, with thinning hair and a light black leather jacket, was happy to tell us the dog weighed 220 pounds and was 9 years old. We could see the age of the dog up close, coat a little thin in spots, docile but still charming. I now understood that the man was about to march the dog in a circuit through the night streets. It was something they did together. I know that when I attach my introverted self to my dogs, strangers become instant friends. Carrie Brownstein once walked off a set of Portlandia to say hello to me and my dog Mozy. I get it. Later, I saw him just two blocks further along, surrounded by women, chatting them up, while the giant beast stood in the middle of the circle. I think that dog has done many favors for that dude over the years.

Jerry A. and this variation of the always mutating Poison Idea hit the stage. His enormous friend and lead guitarist, Tom “Pig Champion” died a few years ago. I once chatted with Pig on the sidewalk outside a show that was much delayed because Tom was waiting for “the man.” He needed a fix to do the show. Problem solved; the band roared through a great set. Tonight, Jerry A. was clutching a crumpled set list that he kept looking at over and over during the sound check. He seemed a little lost but then the first bass notes of the opening song blasted out and he was transformed. I have seen this before. Aging rockers come to life as if hit with a lightning bolt when the band cranks it up. I once saw a 70-something Iggy Pop writhe like his 20-year-old self on a wave of throbbing decibels. The same spirit infuses the crowd. Music has the power to strip away years and transport you through time. Two songs in, it was just another PI show. We were along for the ride.

But I was there being almost too self-consciously nostalgic. For me, that band, that scene, is about John. As I often do at shows, I looked up in the rafters for him. Raised my glass and toasted him. Scanned the faces and thought of him.  After a few more songs, I was done. I had had the experience I came out to enjoy. Absorbed in the right dose, melancholy can actually bring you happiness.

My punk rock buddy got sick at the last minute, so I was on my own. I was actually fine with that. I was in my much documented “lone wolf mode.” I could move about the streets, seeing what I wanted, on my time. Leaning against fences and walls, I could quietly absorb the energy of the streets. Junkies stumbled by asking for cash. Homeless people bedded down in the sidewalk in front of the Salvation Army. Uber and Lyft cars came and went. Buskers plied their trade as gawkers surrounded them. For some reason, there was no line at Voodoo Donuts. These days, a donut, what I have always called god’s favorite food, is a rare treat. In the short line in front of me where two couples, achingly suburban, with acne that no fake ID could hide. I got my favorite chocolate coconut donut and walked back across the street to the back of Dante’s.

The east side of the squat building has always been a problem for the owners. From the back corner to the pizza door, the long wall has been a place for drug dealing and crime. I have seen junkies shoot up there and walked up on a fight and stabbing. For a time, the owners ran at pipe along the top of the building that summer and winter dripped water to keep people away.  Now, the solution is a long rail divider that makes a shoulder width path, not wide enough a space for someone to lay down or big enough to comfortably congregate.  It seems a good solution. On the back corner, facing the street is a locked heavy barred door. The band load-in door. Looking through the bars, I had a view of the backs of the bands and a pretty good taste of the music.

Leaning against a tree, I was eating a donut, listening to the band. Two rockers were right next to the door head-banging. One guy mouthed PI lyrics along with Jerry A. I remembered I had in my pocket an unused ticket to the sold-out show. I pull it out, held it between the two guys and said, “Who wants to see the rest of the show inside?” The guy leaning on the door nodded his head to his buddy and said, “He does.”  The other guy saw the ticket, looked at me and kind of squealed. He took the ticket and yelled, “Oh man…Oh man…Oh man!” as he ran down the sidewalk and around the corner to the front door.

I popped the last bite of the donut in my mouth, gave the remaining dude a thumbs up and headed down the street to my car.  My work there was done. After standing for hours, I folded my aching legs into my car. All good things come to an end.

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