ONLY NOISE: Punk Rock Mom

COLUMNS|Only Noise

“Punk Rock Mom” was a distinction of honor my mother appointed to herself, and though the title mortified me on more than one occasion, she’d well earned it. She was the one helming the two-hour, round trip commute between my hometown of Arlington, Washington and Seattle, where any and all rock concerts worth two hours on the road took place. These gigs often occurred on school nights, no less, but my mom didn’t seem to mind. She’d just as soon climb behind the wheel of her late Subaru Forester (RIP) on a weeknight as she would let me go to school the next day reeking of bar smoke and brandishing the fresh hematomas I’d acquired in the pit the previous night. She didn’t need to prove anything to anyone.

It’s astonishing to think back on those nights and fully absorb how goddamn lucky I was to have parents who not only helped me dye my hair blue, but who were smart enough to run their separate households like meritocracies: get straight A’s, and you can look as funny as you like. Do your homework, and we’ll haul your ass to a seedy bar just under a freeway off ramp on a Tuesday so you can hear music we can’t stand. Except my mom did like the music, or at least pretended to for the sake of Punk Rock Mom point accumulation.

While my dad and stepmom would typically find a nice restaurant to abscond to, or a nearby watering hole to imbibe craft cocktails in as I palled around with drunks n’ punks,  my mom would stay glued to a barstool in the venue. I appreciate why my dad didn’t want to stick around these grimey shows; he would make the long drive just like my mom, but he’s always been more of a fan of melodic music, and I never blamed him for not wanting to stew in a smoky dive while listening to the sonic stylings of Clit 45 or Toxic Narcotic. Ma, on the other hand, was in hog heaven. A woman who coughs up more smoke than a coal refinery and could drink Hemingway under the table (and probably outwit him just as easily), my mom basked in the grit and glory of the go-to punk venue at the time, The Graceland. It was dark, cheap, socked-in with cigarette smoke (these were the glorious, pre-smoking ban days, circa 2003-2005). The Graceland answered with a resounding “yes!” to one of my mom’s most crucial questions: “Is there a bar?”

It never occured to me at the time, but I now suspect that my mom had a much more interesting time in the Graceland bar than I ever did watching the bands. She actually met people, and spoke with them, while I tended to collect more bruises than friends over by the stage. Her bar buddies were often members of the bands I was there to see, and I would simmer with jealousy when I learned she’d gotten quality time with my punk rock heroes. She chatted with Matt from the Hollowpoints, my favorite local band at the time. She had a couple of beers with Mark Stern of Youth Brigade, and learned that he had a three-year-old daughter at the time who was also named Madison. She unveiled this detail with a measure of pride, and told Mark Stern all about her own Madison. I recoiled in horror at the thought of the conversation she must have had with Stern, no doubt assuring him that I was Youth Brigade’s biggest fan (not true) and that she was my “Punk Rock Mom” (pretty true), a title that also graced one of the band’s later singles.

Most kids grow up worrying that at some stage, their parents will embarrass them in front of their friends. I grew up in the unique, opposite position: I was in constant fear that I would never be as cool as my mom. I have been assured by my friends that I never will be. All of the best items in my wardrobe have come from her. The knee-high leather boots, threadbare t-shirts from Muscle Beach, Germany, and Spain, and a pair of Levi’s I can barely squeeze into. I have a train chest overflowing with costume jewelry she no longer wears, and though a small cobalt box nestled inside of it holds her wedding and engagement rings from my parents’ nine-year marriage, it is a single earring in all that metal that most reminds me of her. A brass ear cuff in the shape of a little lizard – well, half of a little lizard. Only the butt and tail of the metal critter was cast, and when you affix the piece to your ear, it looks as though the front of his body is crawling into your ear canal. I feel like this small bauble is a pretty good summation of my mom: small, charming, and pretty; witty, dark and strange. An all-around gem, and a little fucker in the best way.

It is perhaps because I already took all of my mom’s cool clothing and accessories that I haven’t robbed her of her records (yet). Then again, I don’t remember her ever offering them up like she so readily did with her collection of clothes. Because of her humble collection I discovered Wire, the Pretenders, the Specials, the Rolling Stones, General Public, and of course David Bowie. She didn’t have anything by GBH or the Subhumans, but I realize now that my mom was so punk rock, she had every record that influenced my favorite bands as a teenager. Maybe “Proto-Punk Rock Mom” would have been a more apt title.

I look back at pictures of my mom from the ‘70s and ‘80s and wonder if we would have been friends if we grew up across the street from one another, if I could simply bask in her coolness instead of reject it, like I did as a teen. I’d like to think we’d be friends, because if there’s one thing those photos tell me it’s that she had a blast, and considering how good she looked, I suspect few people ever told her “no.” There’s one photo in particular from the mid to late ‘80s that I love. She’s standing in the driveway of my grandma’s house in Huntington Beach, California, with my toddler sister perched on one hip. She’s wearing a straight black sleeveless dress that stops above the knee, and she has a short mop of hair that I have copied three times in my adult life so far. She has a customary cigarette poised between her free fingers, and dark shades, and a long, thin braid of hair stemming from the base of her neck. She looks badass, and yes, even a little punk rock. Recalling that photo today, I decide, yes, we would have been friends. But I like it better this way, with her as my Punk Rock Mom.

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