A Punky Revelation

In the early 80’s I played in a “hardcore punk rock” band. This means our music was super-fast, loud, angry, rebellious, and disinclined to follow mainstream rules. (I realize in retrospect that we were willing to follow a different set of rules, a parallel code informally understood to delineate “authentic” hardcore punk rockers from “posers.”) At the time, I was 17 or 18, and the pop cover bands I had previously worked with seemed so banal and devoid of genuine passion. Making music — if you can call a primal scream executed at 240 beats per minute “music” — that addressed injustice, hopelessness, hopefulness, and the general angst of being an adolescent — seemed thrillingly vital and cathartic. Plus, if the parents hated it, you knew you had to be doing something right.

Our band was called “the Clitboys.” The name was deliberately provocative. None of us knew exactly what it meant, only that it felt deliciously indeterminate and blurry. It was prone to interpretation and misinterpretation, just like the thrashing anthems we wrote. Thanks to the musical aptitude of our drummer, Donnie, and our guitarist, Mike, and the gentle poetry of our chief lyricist (“We don’t play the game! We don’t play the game! Never!”) our songs were recognizable enough that a small California record label that specialized in this sort of thing made an EP of us — this was back in the day of vinyl — and we contributed to several compilation recordings with other Midwestern outfits. After touring much of the Northeast one summer, where we enjoyed college station radio play and made friends with hundreds of other twisted youngsters like ourselves, including the lads that would later go on to be the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, and the Replacements, we returned to our home base in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and shortly thereafter broke up.

I went on to be a writer and a jazz singer. Mike the guitarist opened a sports bar in Colorado. I don’t know what became of the super-talented Don. Several times in college in New York fans who owned our records approached me, but, eventually, the Clitboys became an embarrassing episode from my past, a “period” I went through. If I could have gotten my hands on the recordings, I probably would have tried to burn every copy extant.

Not long ago, a record label that reissues music from that era tracked me down and proposed putting out a retrospective album. I was stunned to think that anyone even remembered our band, let alone liked it. Then I went to the Internet.

Turns out the Clitboys are a minor cult phenomenon, part of a global network of bootleggers, traders, collectors, and hardcore enthusiasts. Not only is our EP in wide circulation, some unreleased stuff from a demo we made in 1982 has been booted and circulates widely. There are even live show tapes out there. And archived interviews we gave to punk magazines, and tee shirts, and concert photos. (Man, was I thin!) Close to 25 years later, new generations of adolescents are discovering our music, and somehow it still speaks to them. I find I’m no longer bashful about my “past life.” I actually feel sort of proud that my teenaged angst has become a tiny footnote to the history of progressive music in the 20th century, that kids in Germany and Japan, Finland and Italy, find solace and inspiration in the words and sounds a trio of Wisconsin kids created in their basements — years before the current crop of listeners was even born.

I might even order a tee shirt.

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