It’s a certifiably beautiful day out there today. The air’s got that seasonal feeling of promise, with moms pushing their kids in strollers and the secretaries coming up the hill with their yoga mats strung over their shoulders like quivers—all welcome sights after a wet and crappy winter that left me feeling 70 years old. It’s walking weather for sure, and if it didn’t mean chewing up vacation time I’d just split, head up Second Street towards the ballpark and head from there over to North Beach or somewhere. Anyways…
Alex Chilton’s death was a fucking blow. It called up a few memories, the happiest one being a solo concert he gave at the Noe Valley Ministry, where he disarmed the crowd by singing a bunch of children’s songs. There was also a night in the late ’80s where I was recovering from a breakup, and sat up drinking and listening to “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” over and over—probably not the best cure for a heartbreak, but it felt right at the time. It also reminded me of some stuff that happened around ’77 or ’78. I was taking some classes at UH, basically for shits and giggles, and part of the crowd I wound up running around with included a few guys who had a punk band called AK-47. (Trust me, the name was at least a tad less obvious at the time, and besides, their main rivals were called fucking Legionnaire’s Disease.) AK-47 didn’t have a lot of songs in their repertoire but they did achieve a certain notoriety with one of their numbers.
The Houston Police Department was in the news a lot at the time because it had a bad habit of giving a home to every psychotic redneck who could fill out a job application. These guys hadn’t been any fun in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when they’d pull longhairs over for bullshit infractions and then tear their cars apart looking for dope (even simple possession was still a felony, so it was no damn joke when the cherries popped up in your rearview mirror), and naturally they had an even bigger hard-on for minorities, a handful of whom they more or less blatantly murdered in about an 18-month span. It took a while for the stray brutality complaints and lawsuits to come together in a pattern, and the case that opened a lot of eyes was Joe Campos Torres. Torres was a troublemaker who’d been making a scene in a bar when the cops took him away; by the time they got to the lockup, he’d been beaten so badly that the desk sergeant ordered the arresting officers to take him to the hospital; instead, they took him to a dark corner of Buffalo Bayou and pushed him into the water with his hands cuffed behind his back—the body was found there two days later. (In another case a cop killed a young black man for turning towards him with the ever-popular “dark object” in his hand; but the object turned out to be a Bible and the kid turned out to be retarded.) The HPD didn’t even have an internal affairs division at the time, but it did dream up a spiffy new slogan to change the dynamics of things and pull the Silent Majority into the fray. And it worked: the slogan—“The Badge Means You Care”—found an immediate home in the hearts and minds of yahoos everywhere.
I’m telling you, you couldn’t go anywhere in Houston then without seeing those words, either on TV, a poster, a billboard or (the most popular venue) a bumper sticker, to the point where the crimes they were meant to gloss over nearly became less offensive than the slogan’s stomach-turning ubiquity, and it was at this point that AK-47 conjured up an angry little ditty entitled “The Badge Means You Suck”. It was a pretty good song, and the band cut it as a single which got some airplay on the college stations. Mostly, though, they used it to cap off their sets at the Paradise Lounge, a cavernous hall on South Main which served as a Filipino restaurant by day and then, inexplicably, was converted into a punk club at night. (The Mabuhay made me do a double-take once I moved out here.) The owners were a middle-aged and very straight Filipino couple, nice people, and how in the world they decided to open a punk club, or even knew that Houston had a punk scene, I’ll never know.
I was never a real punk, of course. I liked plenty of the music and the vibe, and some of the most interesting people I knew at the time were being pulled into its circle, but I’ve always had this thing where I was never cool enough to be fully accepted by cool people while I never looked straight enough to be accepted in the straight world. (When I flew back from Austin last time, I had to share a tiny three-seat row with two MBA types who took one look at me, then looked at each other, and immediately fell into a gregarious and utterly exclusive two-man conversation that stretched from Denver to SF.) So I kind of stood out from the rest of the Paradise crowd, and this woman, the bartender, who was a little afraid of her own patrons, turned to me to ease her mind, and asked me to work as the club bouncer in return for free drinks. Big Mistake. First, I wasn’t solid enough back then to bounce a rabbit. Second, I was going through a breakup then, too, and I was trying to smother the pain with my tried-and-sometimes-true blend of booze and smart-ass quips, a combination which effectively made me the one true asshole in the entire place, to the point where the single best way I could’ve done my job would’ve been to throw myself onto the street. Instead I just drank the Filipinos’ booze, practically by the gallon, while hitting futilely on the women and doling out drunken hostility to everybody else. I still remember the alarmed look that Mrs. What’s-her-name gave me over the bar one night, while I was shooting my mouth off with a glass of her rum in my hand.
Agh, it was fun while it lasted. AK-47 played there practically every weekend, and they always finished their set with “The Badge Means You Suck”. For a few days there was a kerfuffle over it in the Houston media (which replaced the “uck” in “Suck” with hyphens), with everyone pulling their longest faces because such a noble sentiment had been so badly trampled by such godless uncouth so-and-so’s. The cops caught wind of it quickly enough, and one night they came crashing in during the song and shooed everyone home early. They only did that once, though, so between their gigs at the Paradise and hanging out at the warehouse where they held their rehearsals, I got way too familiar with AK-47’s set list. The band’s leader was their bass player, a skinny, sharp-eyed guy named Harry who, like most of the people I knew at the time, had come out of UH’s English department. Harry was an okay guy, a little stuck on himself maybe, and maybe a little pretentious (sometime I’ll tell you about his other band), and maybe he was a complete horn-dog who I envied and hated because he was brimming with confidence and successful with women—he used to twitch his narrow black moustache at them—whereas I only had my nervous drunken writer routine to fall back on.
Anyway…Now I’m back to hearing the guitars from “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” in my head. I swear, that little fucker…