Maybe failure is just a minor misstep on the road to glorious redemption. But that’s not how it felt to me. First came the full face-plant—whomp—and then came the lingering burning sensation. I believe it’s called “shame.”
If you’ve ever lived through a recession, you know the feeling. Getting laid off isn’t the worst of it. A bad economy tears through entire industries like a tornado, and sometimes there’s just no safe place to take cover. There’s no shame in getting dropkicked by a flailing company.
No, I’m talking about the moment, right after the layoff, when you’re struck by a terrible realization: There’s something you forgot at the office. This time it’s not your laptop to take work home, or your toothbrush for another business trip. You won’t be needing those now. What you’re missing is something you lost track of long ago—yourself.
My moment of shame happened on the crowded commute home, as I stared into my cardboard box of cubicle relics. I’d spent nine months interviewing artists and curating shows for an online art gallery, before the recession hit. Then people were less concerned with filling their walls than keeping a roof over their heads. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, until I looked into my cardboard-box abyss and found neon cover art glaring right at me: the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks.
It was one of the last CDs I still owned, and it was scratched and slipping out of its broken plastic case. I’d already worn out Never Mind the Bollocks on vinyl and cassette, because once you’ve heard it, you have no excuse to ever lose your nerve. That album is ear-splitting, white-hot audacity—exactly what I needed to leave small-town Indiana to study hieroglyphics in Egypt, make posters in India, teach writing in China, and spend my life savings on a one-way ticket to San Francisco to be closer to City Lights Books.
Now the Sex Pistols confronted me with a shameful realization. I’d been using this touchstone of truth, this milestone of loudness, as white noise to drown out the industrial buzz of a warehouse-loft open office. I’d forgotten the whole point of punk.
So I spent my unemployment checks at City Lights and sundry record shops, and I began my retraining. I listened closely while reading the sages of punk: Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Marcus Gray, John Savage. Between the pages of Savage’s book England’s Dreaming, I found something I thought I’d lost: my nerve.
Savage tells the story of a Sex Pistols gig on June 4, 1976, at the seemingly innocent hour of 7:30 p.m. The venue was the modestly named Lesser Free Trade Hall, in the moldy English manufacturing town of Manchester. Tickets cost only £0.50, but advance sales were abysmal. If a tree fell in the middle of a forest, it would probably make more sound than the Sex Pistols’ shoddily photocopied concert flyers, gently drifting into Manchester gutters.
But onstage, the Pistols were pure noise. Watching found footage of the show, it’s hard to believe Neil Sedaka, Barry Manilow, and Captain & Tennille had top-40 hits that same week—or that one-hit-wonder Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight” put them one hit ahead of the Pistols, who never had a single break the top 100 on U.S. charts. With one molar-rattling feedback screech from Steve Jones’s amp, all that was irrelevant. Forget string sections and echo effects and advertising-jingle harmonies—the Pistols sound like a rupture in the time-space continuum.
Jones’s guitar chords erupt like engines firing for takeoff. The Pistols show no trace of stage fright, or any other reasonable fear. What if guitar strings break, what if the crowd spits at them, what if record deals are lost and tour dates canceled, what if the band is threatened by rogue Christmas carolers? All of these things actually happened to the Pistols, repeatedly. But in Manchester, they throw back their heads and dig in their heels. Doom is no cause for alarm for the Pistols—it would be far worse to succeed at mediocrity, at stasis, at delusional certainty. “There’s no future in England’s drrrrreaming…” Johnny Rotten snarls defiantly, as though his life depends on it. As though everyone’s lives depend on it.
Look at the crowd to gauge their reaction, and that’s when you notice: There were only about 40 people in the audience that night. Almost no one was there to witness the demolition of 1970s pop music.
Almost. Before the dust settled over Manchester, those three-odd dozen audience members formed landmark indie labels and bands that would define ’80s alternative music: Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Buzzcocks, The Fall. That night, they didn’t know what they’d seen, or what they were about to do. They only knew there was no going back to mindless manufacturing, daily mediocrity, and the odd, one-off Afternoon Delight.
I was born too late to witness that night in Manchester. But decades later, the Pistols’ unholy roar recalibrated my inner ear, like a curative tinnitus. At full blast, the sound made my ears hot, but the burn of shame was gone. And after the last chord ended, there it was: the reverberating hum of possibility.
I took off my headphones and started writing again. Only this time, I meant it.