BERKELEY - You see it all hanging out on a street corner. There’s this guy who's been setting up his vending table across from ours. He's a big, dark-skinned Pakistani guy. He's a pretty nice guy, soft-spoken, congenial and friendly. But at his vending table he's selling a beautifully printed, self-published book entitled "JESUS IS SATAN." The full-color cover illustration shows Jesus on the cross with Satanic horns coming out of his head.
To advertise his book, he has a big sign at his vending table that reads: "JESUS' MOTHER WAS A WHORE!" Well, that gets their attention. The vender hadn't been around for a few months, but he showed up again yesterday with his stand. I noticed that his front teeth had been knocked out. I'm sure there’s a story behind that, but I didn't bother to ask him. Instead I asked him: "What do you get out of doing this?"
"I want to make people think," he explained. That can be a dangerous thing, considering the process that passes for "thinking" in most people's brains. In truth, most people (including me) don't "think." We "regurgitate." Often someone will come up to me and breathlessly explain to me -- in some detail -- their latest theories regarding politics, world affairs, or religion. Usually "their" thoughts are just a regurgitation of something they heard on a very exciting television show. Usually, ten seconds into their spiel, I already can predict exactly where their steamed-up little minds are going. Its like listening to someone tell a 20-minute joke when you've guessed the punchline within the first 10 seconds. Fortunately, all they demand of you, the listener, is the response: "Yes, that certainly is a brilliant and original observation on politics, world affairs, and/or religion, and you are surely a bright and astute fellow." That invariably satisfies them.
Anyway, yesterday, these three teenage black chicks (and very cute I might add) took umbrage with the vendor and his "JESUS IS SATAN" book.
"You're goin' to hell you motherfuckin' punk-ass bitch!" exclaimed one.
"I should kick you motherfuckin' ass right now!" exclaimed another.
"You shouldn't be talking no motherfuckin' shit about Jesus Christ!" exclaimed the other.
The three black chicks stood there, screaming and threatening and having this motherfuckin’ theological discussion for about 20 minutes, until they finally stormed off in a huff.
But I still couldn't help wondering about the vendor’s motives. Was it that he didn't get enough attention as a child, and now he was making up for lost time? And of course, I wondered about my own motives, having spent 30 years pushing my own alleged "thinking" -- much of which flies in the face of the commonly accepted wisdom -- out at the world at large. It is a strange thing: this relationship that all of us lonely, individual souls have with the World Out There.
I was walking down Durant Avenue the other day and there was this gutter punk-looking kid wearing a derby hat, sitting on the sidewalk leaning against a building. As I passed I overheard a pedestrian say to him: "You look really familiar. You're Tim Armstrong of Rancid!"
I looked back over my shoulder and gave Tim a quick look and a smile of recognition. Then I kept walking. I was halfway down Telegraph by the Berkeley Market when I heard him come running after me (you know those punks with their clod-hopping boots, you can hear them from a mile away).
"Hey how you doin'," said Tim. "I haven't seen you in awhile." We stood there on Telegraph for a while making sort of awkward small talk. I shook his hand. "You really did good," I said. "You've come a long ways. I remember that time I was talking to you in that Xerox shop a long time ago, and you were Xeroxing off home-made stickers for your new band. And I thought: 'Another kid in his fucking punk band!' And every time I see your picture on the front page of a magazine I think about that." Tim sort of smiled at the memory, which suddenly seemed a LONG time ago. Another lifetime ago.
"So what are you doin'?" he kept asking me. "You still cartooning? You got any of your stuff on you?" Tim Armstrong is really rare among "performer" types. He's actually genuinely interested in somebody other than himself.
I asked him how he was dealing with "fame” and he sort of shrugged it off with a pained look. "Fame" is such an ironic joke after all, and it’s so different -- so less satisfying, so much more mind fucking -- than most non-famous people would ever believe.
"My Dad's dying. He's 70-years-old," said Tim. "That’s why I'm back in town."
There was always this keen yearning in his eyes. This painful, urgent longing. For something more. And this soulful look of emotional distress. Some people just have an extra charge to them. I'm sure its one of the things that compelled him towards his fame.
Tim Armstrong was always one of those punk kids I dubbed "from the Class of '82." That first wave of Bay Area high school punk kids. And now, the "scene" had come and gone, and he's still living out the whole Punk Rock fantasy. It always meant more to him, somehow. I could always tell. He BELIEVED in "punk." And he had this camaraderie about his fellow punkers. His "people." His "community." I'm sure that’s what I mean to him, as somebody from the ancient past who was part of all that, a long, long time ago. I'm sure he's the spark, the glue, that keeps his band together.
Right before we parted he gave me a big bear hug.
"The legendary Lint," I said. And I walked off down the street, feeling strangely buzzed. Honored even.
It was doubly weird because just the other day I had a bad scene with this homeless ne’er-do-well who stole a bunch of stuff from my vending table and I had to chase him down the street waving a metal chair in the air. And so we have a war going and he's been threatening me and I've been threatening him. And its just weird that on the one hand I have this total loser who comes up to me and degrades me, and calls me a "drunk" and a "bum" and "worthless." While on the other hand I have this internationally famous rock star who runs up to me to hug me and tells me what a great guy I am. Weird. And none of this life makes any sense, does it? Its like being on a movie set where one minute you're in a Three Stooges episode and the next minute you're in a weird futuristic science fiction space epic.
And I thought back to one of the last times I had seen Tim of Rancid. It must have been around 1990. I was at this Xerox shop getting my Twisted Image newsletter printed up. My punk rock friend David worked there and printed up 400 copies for free every month. David was 25, four years before he committed suicide.
Lint (as Tim was known back then) was Xeroxing off crude, homemade stickers of his new band "Rancid." All I could think was "Another fucking high school punk kid with his punk band." Lint kept wanting to talk to me, because I had a column in Maximum Rock ‘n Roll (that crucial fanzine) so I was a Big Man in the little punk rock pond. I had never heard of Lint's previous band, Operation Ivy, let alone his new band Rancid, and even if I had I hardly would have been impressed. I had already interviewed Johnny Rotten, Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, Charles Bukowski, and R. Crumb. So I was hardly impressed by some punk kid who played in a band at Gilman.
David's sexpot girlfriend Katie "What’s that smell" O'Dell was also there that night in that long-gone Xerox shop. She also had a column in Maximum Rock ‘n Roll, so we were Important People on the Scene. This was back when Katie was a 21-year-old stripper at the Lusty Lady -- she had long legs and glassy marble eyes -- what a sex doll she was. She kept wanting to talk to me about my friend Mary Mayhem. She was intensely curious about Mary who was the Mysterious Other Woman in David's life.
So every time Lint tried to talk to me, Katie would sort of butt in and put Lint down, like: "Hey would you butt out, you little nowhere punk kid. Me and Ace are trying to have a very important conversation here!"
Years later, I would think back on that night in the Xerox shop every time I saw Lint's photo on the cover of SPIN or ROLLING STONE or whatever.
What’s weird is how everything can change with every spin on the karmic wheel. On one spin, Lint is this nowhere punk kid and I'm this big hotshot in the Punk Scene. And then, on the next spin, he's this internationally famous rock star, and I'm this homeless bum sleeping in the bushes. And who knows where any of us will be on the next spin of the wheel.###
Ace Backwords is the author of Surviving on the Streets: How to Go Down Without Going Out, available at Amazon.com.