Time to taste what you most fear
Dead Kennedys - “Holiday in Cambodia” (1980)
I had no idea what a nauseating harbinger my high school graduation ceremony would end up being. I was already feeling fucked and farcical, but that one stupid afternoon finally made it all seem truly official.
I’d failed two easy classes. I had zero ambitions beyond rinsing my uniform before my next shift at McDonald’s. And I was still alternately numb and inconsolable from being dumped by the near-perfect girlfriend I’d longed for since the first morning of 10th grade.
I slumped in one of the 600 folding chairs in the gym, swimming in a heinous green acetate gown, forced to endure speech after bullshit speech about how great everything had been and how much greater it was all about to get. By all accounts, the late 80s were really going to be suburban Florida’s oyster.
My gown and I queued up as instructed and began the funereal shuffle toward the stage. Cringing. Maybe it was a clerical error, but, despite my guidance counselor’s grave assurances that my embossed leatherette folder would contain the dreaded blank diploma, after the perpetually-grimacing Principal Pryor shoved my little booby prize into my hand, I peaked inside and saw I’d received the real article. For no good reason, I would apparently be allowed to call myself a high school graduate. Great.
This somehow made the entire day seem even more ridiculous. What the fuck was a rudderless kid who’d failed Music Theory for refusing to write a waltz supposed to do with this cheap piece of cardstock?
I slunk back to my seat, the maddening loop of Elgar faded, and I just stared at the EXIT sign. Just please fucking end this circus already.
But, I’ll never forget it. As Pryor finished gargling his perfunctory horseshit about the unerringly shiny future that awaited us, he grew very serious. He said that he was about to announce that we were graduates, but—BUT—if even one student defied his order by throwing their cap in the air, the entire graduating class would be detained and punished. Seriously.
So, congratulations, men and women of Gulf Comprehensive High School. We’re done with you. Please leave forever, stay out of jail, and try not to put your eye out.
To call the pile of broken empty I accumulated between June of 1985 and July of 1986 my “Gap Year” would be astoundingly over-generous.
Because, at the time, I had no reason to believe my gap would ever end. This magical diploma had no interest in turning into a beanstalk.
The closest thing I found to sanity came from reading long books, writing short songs, and hanging out with my equally fucked and hopeless friends.
But the one thing that made me feel something like alive was punk rock.
Black Flag, The Ramones, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Circle Jerks, X, Meat Puppets, The Replacements, and anything else I could manage to devour from WMNF or my pal, Alan’s, LP collection—this was my blood.
The darkness, the speed, the danger, and the snotty dismissal of anything that felt like a personal or institutional lie were perfect travel companions for the awful walkabout my head had undertaken. I may have been a talentless, directionless pussy with a stupid haircut, but something in all that black, angry velocity made me feel less alone and less useless.
And, for that shitty, stupid, hateful, and endlessly self-pitying annus horribilis, one record was my special sacrament of salvation.
Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables.
It just played and played and played. And, for as long as East Bay Ray twanged in his ocean of reverb and Jello Biafra spoke his confused truth to power, I felt like all the pointlessness might have a point. Maybe.
I still think FFFRV is one of the greatest punk rock records ever made. Period.
And while the lyrics don’t hold the same profundity they did when I despised being 19, all those songs still feel like a tonic.
Yeah, I eventually—inexplicably—got into college, and blah blah blah. But, even 25 years later, this song still feels like meth for my busted-ass brain.
Never saw this particular video until tonight. It’s melodramatic, scary, amateurish, deliberately weird, and more than a little stupid. Exactly like I was.
I love it.
And, truthfully, even now, it makes me a little shaky to calculate how many times a Maxell cassette full of blistering rock ‘n roll made the difference in my life. So, so, so many times.
You will either get this or you won’t. But, if you get it, I’ll bet you really really get it.
Sometimes, somebody plays a guitar, and you suddenly aren’t alone anymore.