At the Gates of Hell
They’ve renovated the Gates of Hell since the last time I was here, some four years ago. Now when you come in the front door—the glass broken, replaced with stained, graffiti-covered plywood with a dangling steel pull-ring—there’s a bigger living room than there used to be, full of filthy couches and grubby lay-z-boys broken in the recline position.
I get here late enough that the place is already packed. Crust punks are sprawled out on the couches, gathered in groups against the walls, and pushing their way to and fro through the crowd. A few dogs follow them, trailing ropes. It’s the dogs here that always bother me—given how little care they’re willing to give themselves, I worry crusties (gutterpunks, scumpunks, squeegee kids, oogles: whatever you prefer to call them) don’t seem capable of taking responsibility for the animals they adopt. My friend Renée, whom I meet as I come in, agrees with me.
“I bet they don’t get walked very much,” she says sadly. I concur, adding the deafening music and air thick with cigarette smoke can’t be good for them either. After all, the Gates of Hell does not comply with city regulations banning smoking, assumedly because they’re not going to bow to what The Man tells them to do. You expect an unhealthy atmosphere coming out here, though. As always, the air is choked with smoke, accented by the smell of cheap beer, dirty hair, armpit, and because it’s raining, a hint of wet dog.
A fellow with a rat on his shoulder ducks in through the plywood door, removing a rain-drenched hood. He’s a friend of a friend. I comment that his is a nice-looking rat and he says, “Put out your hand: you can hold him.” I do; the rat lithely ascends my arm, circles my neck, and finds a comfortable spot in the shoulder of my sweatshirt. His small body is warm and his fur is soft: he’s like a tiny cat, except for the leathery tail, and I can feel him breathing. The cavorting dogs are on the other side of my head, so I try to shield the rat from their view, though the guy tells me not to worry, saying, “Some dogs are cool with him.” We talk for a while, the rat relaxing on my shoulder, then determine it’s time to move into the closely packed crowd.
They’ve been having shows again at the Gates of Hell for the past two years—at least, shows that outsiders might have heard about. Whoever lived here three years ago spread the word they’d stopped putting bands on due to hassles from police. However, a friend tells me, they never really quit having gigs—just stopped advertising, knowing enough of the east-end punks would find out anyway.
The Gates of Hell is a former shop of some variety turned into a kind of loft in which various rooms, big and small, surround a larger central chamber where bands can play and practice. It’s part of a sort of krusty komplex nearly a half a block long, consisting of squalid lofts, storefronts, and apartments inhabited by a legion of punks. The most well-known loft, the Loud House, is next to the Gates of Hell and connected by a doorway. Though they haven’t had shows there in a while, a lot of people still think of the entire krusty komplex as being “The Loud House.”
The first time I visited the Gates of Hell, in 2002, the bands played in a centre room with concrete walls and plywood floors. Halfway through the evening’s six-band bill, the floor was already slick with beer and spit and whatever else makes plywood slippery; many in the crowd were making it worse by shaking quart-bottles of Black Label and spraying their friends. By the end of the night, crusties confounded by PCP or just bull-doses of alcohol were staggering around to the lightning throb of headliners (Saskatchewan’s superlative thrash band Destined For Assimilation [D.F.A.]), slipping in the half-inch of beer on the floor, falling on one another, being pulled to their feet, and falling over again. One short-haired guy in his mid-30s, shirtless beneath his patched and studded denim vest, came careening across the room, tripped, and slid on his belly with surprising force headfirst into the rim of the bass drum. Then he lay still. His friends lurched forward and hoisted him upright; he looked perplexedly at them for a moment, then some spark ignited in his blank eyes and, raising his fist in time with the charging music, he rejoined the fray.
Later still that night a small mob besieged the singer of one of the earlier bands, who were from Vancouver. During that band’s set, the singer bowed to the demands of a group of shouting women in the crowd and admitted onstage to having raped one of their friends. (Years after the fact, a friend told me he had heard second-hand that the accuser had later recanted and said publicly that singer had not, in fact, raped her. Because I did not hear this from the woman herself or anyone closely connected with her, I had doubts. I frankly have no way to determine which parts of the story beyond those I witnessed myself were true. The whole situation was and remains totally mystifying.) As I was leaving, the group had the singer loosely surrounded and, joined by other members of the crowd, were debating what to do with him. One person asked, perhaps rhetorically, why they shouldn’t just take him to the river and drown him. The members of D.F.A., who were staying at my house, insisted I get in their van and we left without seeing the issue resolved. Years later someone showed me the singer's Myspace page, whose existence attested only that the mob ultimately decided against drowning.
I find my way through the crowd in the changed layout of the space, looking for the inside room where the bands play. Between the front and the show space, there’s an antechamber that’s both a hall and someone’s bedroom: by the door there’s a chest-height loft bed, its linens in a twisted pile. Next to it there hangs a defiled mannequin and some piles of assorted crap. Beside one of these someone’s set up a distro table and punks are pensively flipping through records, many of which are black and feature white images of atrocity and/or drawings of skulls (some depicted with punk hairstyles, some without). Graffiti covers the walls of the room—band names, vaguely intentioned messages, and in-jokes between friends. At the end of the hall is a door with a large sign on it reading “RAT POISON IN THIS ROOM!! NO DOGS, EVER!!” Just before that, there’s a carpet-and-foam-covered door into the show-space.
Beyond it stands a guy who looks like Neil, the sad hippie on British sitcom The Young Ones. He’s got long, bluish dreadlocks and is wearing a shirt featuring a circle-slash through a swastika, stating a position that—like being opposed to child molestation or tainted food—most feel is a basic prerequisite to humanity. The line takes a long time because every person who passes him has to listen, as they pay, to him complain about how he wasn’t supposed to be working the show, someone else was organizing it, they asked him at the last minute if he could help and he said he would, but only if he didn’t have to do the door, and now here he is, doing the door.
I finally get to the front of the line and ask how much it is. He says it’s five bucks and I say, “Priced to move!” But he only looks at me a second with confusion, then says, “Well, it’s two out of town bands, right? And gas is cheaper these days, but it’s still pretty expensive. Gotta support the out of town bands.” I nod in lieu of explaining that $5 is pretty cheap for a five-band show, especially since five-band crust punk shows have remained $5 since I went to my first in 1993, when $5 was just less than you’d make working an hour at minimum wage. (Now you can practically get two crust shows for an hour of flipping burgers!)
Inside, I take up a position near the front of the stage but away from the centre, hoping to avoid getting badly knocked or sprayed with beer. I’m holding onto my jacket, in part because I’m never sure it won’t get stolen, and otherwise because leaving it somewhere is an invitation to have it puked on, or to have beer spilled on it, or for it to improbably pick up an infestation of fleas, bedbugs, or, god knows, fire ants or something. Nathan, a friend, more bravely leaves his bag, though not before conferring with me as to the place to best avoid vomit.
“Put it high,” I suggest. “People are going to puke straight ahead or down; nobody really pukes up.” He puts it on top of a pile of crates and I leave my umbrella with it, but even with jacket in hand, I’m sweating already, watching the band set up.
In contrast to the filth and neglect throughout the Gates of Hell, there’s at a few thousand dollars’ worth of musical and sound equipment on stage. Beyond that, the room is a wretched shithole. Soiled mattresses of different sizes are lined against the back wall to baffle the noise, while the side walls are covered either in foam insulation or graffiti, some of it just insults and other bits advertising promising acts like the Dead Hookers. It actually makes the eponymous Loud House next door look classy by comparison with its all-black walls decorated with large white images of skulls wearing German army helmets. Two spotlights, on either side of the stage, dangle woozily from loops of wire that don’t look like they’ll hold. These lights are plugged into open outlets half-way up the wall and pointed at the ceiling, which is a sheet of transparent plastic holding in layers of yellow insulation. The surface of the plastic is mottled with pocks of dried sputum and fresher amber droplets of beer. Above the stage, someone has spray-painted THE GATES OF HELL in red across the wall. They’ve continued onto the wall on the other side, adding BURN THE RICH in similar-sized letters near the ceiling. Farther down they’ve appended BLUDGEONED, which I learn is the name of the band belonging to the sad door guy, who lives here and runs the space.
The guiding emotion of this particular brand of hardcore punk is utter hopelessness from which one may be distracted only by the most extreme inebriation and chaos. The bands sing about atrocity, war, slaughter, injustice, oppression, evil, etc., but do so from a position wherein it’s impossible to do anything at all about it. There are lax nods to the idea of revolution from time to time, as most here would identify as “anarchist,” but only to the moment of revolution when punks fighting cops in the street actually win for once—not to the months of gruelling decision-making by consensus on issues like replacing capitalism with advanced barter, establishing a system of mediation for solving disputes to replace courts and police, and the rest of what would follow an anarchist revolution. It’s hard to write really ripping songs about that stuff.
Surveying the gathering crowd, I notice that the Gates of Hell punks are, now more than ever, sporting primarily dreadlocks—usually in the form of the dread-mullet, a combination of close-cropped hair with a few dreads sprouting like udon noodles from the back. Some have longer locks, a few have long hair or shaved heads, and a handful have traditional punk cuts like mohawks or spikes, but really, there isn’t much variation. No one, for example, has jolly pigtails; there’s nothing bouffant and nothing carefully combed that hasn’t been combed into a point. Many sport hairdos that bespeak time and effort, but only the time and effort to make the statement—in accordance with tradition—that one doesn’t care.
Likewise, most in the crowd wear identical crust punk uniforms: black jeans covered in black band patches; black band t-shirts featuring images of atrocity and/or drawings of skulls; black ballcaps with black patches sewn on the front; and black denim vests with several hundred studs covering collar, shoulders, flanks, etc., and patches in between. Inevitably featuring images of atrocity and/or drawings of skulls, these patches seem chosen to advertise the obscurity of one’s tastes. A few people endorse bands popular by crust standards, like Sweden’s Totalitär and Wolfbrigade and Australia’s Pisschrïst, but most opt instead for groups that only those committed to a life of crust would have heard of. That is, except for Discharge: throughout the room, logos of British hardcore/metal band Discharge are everywhere, on patches, on t-shirts, and painted on the backs of leather jackets. If the crowd was naked, god forbid, I’m sure there’d be a plenty of Discharge tattoos as well. Gates of Hell/Loud House punks wear Discharge paraphernalia the way Italian Catholics wear crucifixes—no one would ever doubt they believed, but true faith demands a constant display of devotion.
Most here come to hear d-beat bands—that is, bands that play the driving, non-melodic hardcore punk with insistent double-downbeat drumming pioneered by Discharge in the late ’70s. The fashion and décor are also in line with Discharge’s view of the world—a monochrome apocalyptic nihilism that assumes that either capitalism or nuclear war is going to destroy humanity very shortly, and there’s nothing to be done except to get wasted and live in filth, listening to music reminding one of the necessity of doing so by underlining the inevitability of the coming end.
The two chief attractions to this life, as far as I can tell, are a supposed total severance from the “conformity” of “the mainstream,” and the freedom that comes from living very, very cheaply. At various points when I was younger, I considered making choices that might have found me living in some variation of the Gates of Hell. Imagine: freeing myself from the tyranny of work by finding a room that cost $75 a month, decorating it with whatever furniture I found in the street, and eating from the vast bounty of unspoiled food squandered in supermarket dumpsters! Imagine not having to pay to be alive anymore! Imagine cheating the system by simply dropping out of it!
The other attraction to the lifestyle is that being “punk” is about separating one’s self from the evils of consumer society, and being extremely punk means doing so extremely. The more fashion has taken up the aesthetic of punk over past years, and the more pop-punk bands have found their way to mainstream fame, the farther crust punks have pulled into the obscurity of fanaticism. Few punk lifestyles are more extreme than those lived around the Gates of Hell and the Loud House. Surprisingly, many who live and congregate here are into their 30s and 40s: some are missing teeth, and while others’ tattoos have gone blue and smudged with age. Old enough that I wonder why they haven’t been struck by the contradictions and failings of this lifestyle, they are, in both senses of the term, lifers: they’ve committed themselves to this life, sure, but it’s hard to imagine them being able to escape from it now. Or, as a couple have said to me, they do recognize the structural failings of crust punk, but they can’t see an alternative they find less ethically conflicting, so they’re stuck with it.
What brings people here, and keeps them here, is the emotional draw of the lifestyle. A small minority of people actually feel it, but some years ago I was one of them. Product of an erratically hostile divorce, bullied by peers (and, occasionally, teachers) throughout my childhood, disquietingly aware of the global rush of the 1980s toward environmental or nuclear holocaust, my circumstances and upbringing made me a perfect candidate for punk rock. Kids with such a background who discover the lifeboat of punk cling to it desperately, and I was no exception. In my adolescence, punk rock and our culture made sense of the evil of the world for me and provided a position from which I felt empowered enough to stand up for myself and respond to it.
To me and many others, the music, mindset, and community were a stupendous revelation: we were all astonished, after years of isolation, to discover a whole scene full of people like us and places we could congregate together. Naturally that congregation carried with it an almost religious sensation of salvation. We had been saved, after all. The rooms of punkhouses like the Gates of Hell were virtually consecrated: there, we were aligned with hopeless weirdos all over the world finally escaping from the devastating bullshit of normal life, refusing and resisting it together and somehow building something new and better.
So, for a while, as a teenager and into my twenties, I took pleasure in ugliness and filth. I was done pretending that the there was a future, that the end wasn’t coming, that personal hygiene and grooming weren’t symbolic of our consumer selfishness in the face of imminent annihilation. Or something. And I felt as though my natural revolutionary state was to be among the punks, an allegiance to which I clung even as it seemed increasingly that most of what many punks wanted to do was get trashed.
The majority of the crowd at shows—comprising, for better or worse, “punk” as I experienced it—didn’t seem like they were drawing the same deep inspiration from the music at all times to fuel the active resistance I’d always believed punk was supposed to represent. They wanted to get shitty (really shitty—punks aren’t believers in moderation), hear some bands, and socialize. To some extent, they wanted to do so in an atmosphere that perpetually reminded them of the brutal truths of existence—bombs, war, slaughter, injustice, oppression, evil, etc.—expressed in images of atrocity and/or drawings of skulls. Yet in the absence of some serious challenge to those brutal truths, punk’s statement seemed to diminish to the same thesis argued at nightclubs, taverns, and sports bars the world over: “Shit’s fucked up: let’s get wasted.”
The medium by which the Gates of Hell expresses that statement is different, however. Despite the clammy sorrow of a sports bar or nightclub, those places at least play upon some kind of novelty. The central premise of the Gates of Hell is regurgitation, literal and cultural—it shapes itself in the image of what’s come before, the futureless boozing-rioting-barfing edifice of chaos that defines punk for some, but which mainly consists of intoxicated people maybe breaking the law a bit—while accomplishing almost nothing. That would be fine for a nightclub, except that some of us who arrive at places like the Gates of Hell in search of social revolution discover instead a scene that offers no solutions at all beyond the continual restatement of the alienation that brought us all there in the first place. And most of us don’t even live there full-time.
Reaffirmed often enough in an atmosphere otherwise devoid of thoughtfulness, that alienation begins to decompose into its constituent elements of loneliness and despair, which become all the more acute the more the punk catechism of “no future” stretches farther into the unanticipated, and surprisingly degrading, future. Yet as the future’s end becomes more remote, punk’s true believers have shifted focus to underline instead the agony of “normality,” imagining the mechanistic hollow lives of the masses that long for the mercy of a mushroom cloud that will never come. If the future won’t end soon, then at least the veneer of normality is susceptible to the aesthetic attack from those willing to live in squalor even more miserable than the sadness of normality—a misery made worthwhile by the promise, never quite fully achieved, of total freedom. This tortured desperation, then, is what the crust punk lifestyle expresses loudest and most overwhelmingly to me, and what prevented me from ever giving myself completely over to it. My own despair is claustrophobic enough, but living inside someone else’s hopelessness—particularly that of the Gates of Hell crusties—is totally suffocating.
Transient, dirty, and hopeless, a lot of crusties here borrow their aesthetic, whether on purpose or by accident, from the film Mad Max, living as though that film’s apocalypse has already happened. My friend Simon once reported seeing, at a Loud House show, a one-armed punk he described as a “road-warrior crusty” wearing a prosthetic arm he’d embedded with studs “as though through sleeves of an actual jacket,” which he’d remove and swing around “mace-like” when the crowd really got going. It’s hard to imagine this scene being profiled in the New York Times Sunday Styles section.
Which is the point. Part of the draw of music like that at the Gates of Hell is that “normal” people will never want to hear it. Yet even the desire of the Gates of Hell punks to embrace that which the mainstream could never love has failed—one of the past two years’ most vaunted acts in the music press has been Toronto’s Fucked Up (recent winner of the 2009 Polaris Prize!), a hardcore band that’s carved its own style within the genre, and who played several packed shows at the Loud House over the years. One can imagine the Loud House punks disgustedly watching last year’s buzz-video of Fucked Up trashing a bathroom while performing on MTV, or, later in the same week, performing a Ramones cover with Moby. Certainly, some would be quick to brand Fucked Up (or, as they were called by MTV, F’d Up) “sell-outs,” but what I suspect would offend them most would be the realization that even the extremity of the Loud House isn’t inviolable—that forging a lifestyle so repellent it repulses marketability is far more difficult than it seems.
Unmentioned in discussions of groups like Fucked Up “selling out” is the notion that bands who pursue financial gain might do so because the underground—and particularly the extreme underground—can’t sustain them economically, yet all the same requires large financial investment. Many can’t break even on tour, instead sinking hundreds or thousands of dollars into the endeavour. Making music and touring without the support of adequately paying gigs therefore becomes an astonishingly expensive hobby when one factors in the cost of equipment, upkeep, a van, gas for the van, monthly rent on a practice space, etc.—making punk touring precisely the sort of bourgeois pastime to which crusty punks like to imagine themselves in opposition.
The complexities of that issue don’t come up in discussion, the same way the complexities of other issues like “burning the rich” (and doing what with their money?), “ending all war” (how?), and “smashing capitalism” (replacing it with what?) don’t get thoroughly discussed. After all, these slogans exist simply to attest wealth, war, and capitalism are harmful, but not to say anything much about the nature of the harm they do. In the same way, crust punk, as it appears at the Gates of Hell and elsewhere, exists just to express rejection—rejection of what’s perceived as mainstream, as conformity, as whatever now constitutes the world beyond the aural, aesthetic, and olfactory fortification that punks have built against “normality.”
There is no exploration of these adversaries, little interest in what normal people do or why they do it, and still less consideration of how life among crust punks might mirror, in its own way, the precise structures and problems of the society the punks oppose. These subjects never come up because many assume them to be solved already: normal people are robots controlled by the media and corporate interests, punks have pulled the wool from their eyes to see that capitalism and war are the enemy, and revolution and rioting is the solution, which, if they happen, we’ll figure out the logistics of when we get there. Until then: more rejection.
“Fuck, fuck, fuckin’ asshole, fuck, shit,” slurs the singer of the first band, by means of a mic check. A couple of his friends give him the finger, and the gesture seems as empty as his cursing. Almost every experience I’ve had of the Gates of Hell and the Loud House has been empty of wit and humour, save maybe the time Martin, the singer of ripping Toronto hardcore band Career Suicide, offended the crowd during their set by remarking, “Can we get a body count up here?” as several lolling, blue-lipped punks were dragged out of the bathroom and into the street to wait for an ambulance. For the most part, the shows here are free of humour. As the band launches into their set, the guitarist announces, “This song’s about dicks!” which is as close as we’ll come to funny. Then it’s d-beat, as promised, only sloppier, with the lead singer grumping hoarsely over two guitarists playing the same power chords and a drummer (wearing sunglasses) going through his paces. Someone tells me the name of the band and I instantly forget it, the same way I’ll forget the band itself. D-beat can be done better or worse, but it never amounts to more than what it aspires to be. Simon once told me that in developing an affinity for d-beat he’d cauterized his tastes, which is, in a sense, true—to devote yourself to such a repetitive and atonal branch of hardcore, you have to forego subtlety. But you also have to be willing to be bored, since d-beat by definition doesn’t do anything new.
By the end of the first song, the room has filled up. A considerable contingent of punks has stumbled in, king-cans of beer loosely in hand, dim eyes half-closed and mouths hanging half-open. Enjoying the music, they shake their fists at the band (the Gates of Hell’s most popular dance move) and knock into one another, spilling beer. Once it’s clear that the crowd’s beginning to get excitable, a blue-haired guy pulls himself up onto an amp and half-heartedly stage-dives into an area where there aren’t enough people to catch him; those beneath struggle to toss him backward onto the crowd behind and he ends up tilting headfirst into the floor. But it’s OK, he’s up and knocking around again soon enough, just in time for some other guy to make the same desultory leap off the amp and land it more successfully, only to be carried around by five or six people for a second before being deposited on the ground.
I watch one of the carriers, a smaller guy with short dreads. He’s got one of these vests just covered in shiny studs: little round nubs over the shoulders, pyramids on the back and flank, stars and pointier studs to accentuate the edges. It must have taken hours to put them all on; I try to imagine him spending the evening on a dirty sofa, in front of a stereo blasting In Darkness, You Feel No Regrets by Wolfbrigade (or a TV playing a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond), pliers in one hand, bag of studs in the other, slowly crimping them on one by one in a careful pattern as though doing a home-ec project. It’s easy enough to picture—I’ve been there myself, have studded articles of clothing and sewn patches onto my shorts and hooded sweatshirts. There’s a strange tenderness in the moment between a punk and his or her favourite patched hoodie. But now he’s thrashing around the floor in his vest, colliding into friends with his shoulders. They’re drunk or dusted or high on whatever, and seem to be enjoying themselves, but I’m bored of the crowd and the band.
I’ve often wondered how many here really enjoy this music. I have more extreme tastes than most people I know and appreciate a certain sound in raging hardcore—namely the swift-and-loose variety, influenced by bands from the early ’80s like Detroit’s pissed-off but succinct Negative Approach, or Portland’s ferociously nihilistic Poison Idea. That’s why I bother coming here from time to time: bands that sound like what I like are more likely to play this sort of venue than elsewhere. But the crowd at the Gates of Hell goes for music often even more aggressive than I like it: while I can enjoy shouted vocals, they often prefer singers scream themselves hoarse, or grunt, or make that croaking barf popular in death metal. Likewise, I’m partial to fast drumming, but they’re far more open to the hydraulic noise of “blast beats,” drumming so fast it comes out in solid sheets with no apparent rhythm. This has no musical value to me, but many things I listen to don’t sound like music to a lot more people.
The d-beat band, whose name I’ve forgotten, goes on longer than it should, leaving me shifting my weight from leg to leg to keep my feet from falling asleep. When the set’s finally over, I talk with friends about tonight’s headliners, three bands from Texas. It turns out that the one I wanted to see, the difficult-to-pronounce but promising Deskonocidos, who play lo-fi garage-punk at hardcore speed—and in Spanish!—got turned away at the border because one of them had a criminal record. There are two other Texan bands but I’m not as interested in them. Nathan assures me I’ll like the next group of locals, who are not d-beat, but just angry hardcore.
Then we talk about how unlikely it is that a revolving door of hundreds of strung-out punks have lived in the lofts and apartments of this building for ten years, rebuilding and rewiring it, shooting heroin and snorting PCP, heating apartments with open ovens in the winter, and the place has never caught fire. I lived in my last cheap apartment for a year and it caught fire twice: what kind of justice is that? People have OD’d here, and maybe some have died; one guy got killed out front staggering into traffic after a show, but no one liked him. I gather he was the long-haired Neanderthal with fierce, dead eyes who I once interrupted smoking crack outside a show by trying to give him a flyer for another show. He just stared at me, wordless, with an expression of homicidal rage, until I moved along. I didn’t like him either.
The people that fall into this lifestyle don’t generally come from the wealthy families against whom their detractors accuse them of rebelling. For the most part, the people I’ve known who’ve ended up living like this come from terrible families, many of them reporting physical and/or sexual abuse. (A member of a well-known Montréal punk band has the word “abuse” tattooed on his penis. No one does that for a laugh.) If you want to escape from “normality” so badly that you’re willing to live in filth, with rats and roaches, drunk or strung out, allowing your teeth to give way, it’s probably a sign those representing “normality” did something pretty bad to you from which you’ll do anything to distance yourself. It’s true that the apartments upstairs from the Gates of Hell/Loud House can be nice enough—people can clean them up, paint the walls, pin up show fliers and movie posters, bring in some plants and books to put on shelves made of discarded bricks and wood and it’s home, suddenly—but to make a home amidst the noise and waste and misery nonetheless signals a genuine desire for escape that goes beyond any form of twisted vanity.
It’s a strange kind of escape, though: it casts itself as the ultimate rebellion, the apex of nonconformity, yet necessitates that people know what a punk is and what a punk belongs to. People on the street, agents of normality, see punks and recognize them as “punks,” and punks encourage that by adopting the traditional dress and hair and attitude of punks to make the game easier, because they want to be seen and understood as they understand punks to be. For the most part, they are. No one expects, at the Gates of Hell, to see someone wearing only a bathrobe, or a speedo, or a sweat-sock on their head: that would be formless, unscripted non-conformity that’d indicate madness. The uniformity of this lifestyle says, “Follow these rules so that we can present a united front of nonconformity against the forces of normality,” and it makes a bit of sense, but not really enough, especially given crust punk’s lip service to anarchy.
The second local band, Ilégal, gets started, and Nathan’s right: I like them. They’re short-hairs, which I sheepishly admit makes them easier to like, and they play fast, pissed off hardcore powered by a boyish, blond drummer with a perfectly erect back. Someone tells me that he used to be the drummer for the Finnish band Selfish, who I can’t remember if I saw or not, but that he moved here. I wonder why he’d do that, why he’d leave Scandinavia for this life. Anyway, it’s our gain, because he plays fast and hard, better than most drummers in the city. The band’s sloppy, but I’m into, snapping my body and my head like a whip in time as the crowd gets rougher and crashes into me a bit. There’s more stage-diving and the jumpers get caught and handed around. When the band is good, I don’t care that I’m surrounded by blank-eyed fuckups who could barely talk to me even if they wanted to. Earlier, Renée, a transplant from Newfoundland, cocked her head at the crowd and said, “This is what I always imagined punk shows in Montréal would be like before I moved here.”
“You mean you wanted to hang out with people like this?” I asked.
“I don’t want to hang out with them,” she said. “I mean, I never talk to them, and they don’t talk to me. But the shows are pretty crazy.”
They are, and when the band is good and going I feel impermeable to the filth and hopelessness of this life, or I flirt with it, charmed by nihilism and chaos and letting it win me over for while when I don’t care if I get showered with beer or puke and there’s only that moment of bristling extremity. I’m there again, so charged up with the rage of the music and the unruly energy of the crowd that I could almost float above it all.
But then the band plays too long again, and I lose interest. The sad dreadlocked door guy realizes the spotlights are pointed too close to the plastic sheeting holding back the insulation and he gets irritably nervous about fire. Climbing, cursing, up the amps while the band starts another song, he unplugs one light to leave us in near-darkness, and plugs in a large fan in its place. The breeze is welcome.
The band’s last song is a cover I can’t make out. Introducing it, the guitarist—the same as for the last band—says, “This song is for those fuckin’ pigs at the border, the fuckin’ fascist border cops! Fuck them all!” Someone told me earlier that some of the members of Ilégal were in the country illegally—hence the band name—but this is assumedly also a reference to the people who’d kept the Deskonocidos from coming up because some member had been convicted of driving drunk (an offence I happen to think is brutally at odds with anarchy’s demand of personal responsibility, but whatever).
The crowd knows the number and sings along, fists in the air, as I recognize I’ve had enough, that no matter how tight and angry the last two bands are, they won’t divest me of the feeling of aching futility at which I always arrive here. That uniform, alien hopelessness encircles me again and begins to tighten about me. I look around the room hoping that someone else is feeling it too, but the room is crashing into itself, or hanging back with half-lidded eyes, or talking among itself about nothing. I’m pretty sure I’m alone in whatever this is. When the last song’s over, I take my as-yet-un-puked-on umbrella off the pile of crates in the bedroom/antechamber, squeeze my way through the drunken crowd in the front room, and begin the long walk home in the rain.