Hardcore Zen - Selections
For me it was this: Turning away from an overflowing toilet in a crummy basement bar in the middle of an Ohio winter with a bunch of apes in leather jackets outside shouting in unison as some other ape in a pair of stretch-pants thrashes away at an imitation Les Paul guitar running through a busted Marshall amp. The lights, the noise, the girl by the bar in the sweaty white T-shirt that I can just about see through… All of a sudden I’m struck with the senselessness, the absurdity, the sheer overwhelming weirdness of it all.
What is this place? This existence—the very fact of my being—what is this? Who am I? What is this thing, this body, its ears ringing from the noise, its eyes burning from the smoke, its stomach churning from the pissy-tasting swill that passes for beer?
It all came to a head that night but those have always been the kinds of burning questions that bit into the core of my being since I was old enough to think. Not questions like, “What is the purpose of existence? What is the meaning of life? Where did we come from?”—those were always too indirect for me. Meaning is removed from real existence. Purpose deals with goals, direction, and stuff that’s going to happen in the future. Wherever we came from is over and done. That doesn’t get at it for me. It doesn’t get right at the root of things. I want to know what this is—this place right here, this state of mind right now. What is this?
Or to put it another way: What is truth itself? What is this thing called reality?
Now, after years and years of intense questioning I feel like I have something to say—and more than that, I feel I almost have a duty to say it.
Why should you listen to me? Who the hell am I? Who is this guy who’s claiming he’s gonna give you the skinny on “the truth about reality” as if he’s an authority? No one. No one at all.
The fact is, although I can tell you who I am and what I’ve done, I can’t give you any real reasons why you ought to listen to me. There aren’t any reasons. It’s not about reasons.
For the record, I’ll tell you I’m an ordained Buddhist priest who received Shiho, “Dharma Transmission,” in an ancient line of Buddhist teachers. This is supposedly the symbolic recognition that I have “attained” the same enlightenment as the Buddha did some 2,500 years ago— but if I were you I wouldn’t put too much stock in that kind of thing. Guys who’ve received Dharma Transmission are a dime a dozen here in Japan these days, and there are scores of them in America and Europe as well. Big deal.
Before I was a Buddhist priest I was a part of the early hardcore punk and alternative music scene. I played bass in Zero Defex, an Ohio hardcore punk band whose only significant recorded release was the song “Drop the A-Bomb on Me” on a compilation called P.E.A.C.E/ War. This double album, on which the Dead Kennedys, the Butthole Surfers, MDC, and a host of other hardcore legends appeared, has been reissued numerous times over the past twenty years and because of it our little band is far more well known now than it was when we were playing. I cut a deal with New York’s Midnight Records label and released five albums of Syd Barrett–influenced neo-psychedelia under the band name Dimentia 13 (though on three of those records the “band” consisted of me alone). Those records sold well enough and influenced enough people to earn me the everlasting recognition of my own little footnote in the history of alternative rock—if you own the right coupla books.
As far as earning a living now, I’m in the prestigious line of making B-grade Japanese monster movies. You know the kind: two out-of-work sumo wrestlers dress up in rubber dinosaur costumes and slam the bejeezus out of each other on a scale model of Tokyo made out of balsa wood and model train kits. The company I work for was founded by the late, great Mr. Eiji Tsuburaya, the man who directed the special effects for all of the classic Godzilla movies of the ’50s and ’60s. These days we make a show called Ultraman, which is perhaps the single most popular superhero character throughout half the world—although if you live in the America half, you might never have heard of him.
None of this makes me inherently worth listening to— as I’m sure you’ll be quick to agree. Yet truth is truth. And if words are true, who cares whether the guy who wrote them has Shiho or Divine Inspiration or the power to fly faster than a speeding bullet?
So, if you’re interested in what I have to say, keep reading. If you find something, some little thing that resonates and might do some good in your life, great. If you get to the end of this book (or to the middle, or to page 27 second paragraph down) and think the book is crap, leave it on the subway and forget about it. No problem.
But before you do, ask yourself just one thing:
Who are you?
I’m not talking about your name, your job, or the number of hairs on your butt. Who the hell are you really? And what really is that thing you so confidently call your life?
Gimme Some Truth
“Sometimes the truth hurts. And sometimes it feels real good.”
Nothing is sacred. Doubt—in everything—is absolutely essential. Everything, no matter how great, how fundamental, how beautiful, or important it is, must be questioned.
It’s only when people believe that their beliefs are above questioning, that their beliefs alone are beyond all doubt, that they can be as truly horrible as we all know they can be. Belief is the force behind every evil mankind has ever done. You can’t find one truly evil act in human history that was not based on belief—and the stronger their belief, the more evil human beings can be.
Here’s one of my beliefs: Everything is sacred. Every blade of grass, every cockroach, every speck of dust, every flower, every pool of mud outside a graffiti-splattered warehouse is God. Everything is a worthy object of worship. If you can’t bow down before that putrefying road-kill on I-76, you have no business worshiping leather-bound tomes and marble icons surrounded by stained glass.
And here’s one more: Everything is profane. “Saving the planet”is a waste of time and preserving the environment is a waste of energy. Flowers stink and birdsong is irritating noise.
On the other hand, nothing is sacred and nothing is profane. Not even your sorry ass. If we hold anything sacred above anything else—ever—we’re riding along in the fast-lane to hell. And by “anything” I mean anything—our family, our friends, our country, our God. We cannot hold any of that stuff any more sacred than anything else we encounter in our lives or we’re doomed. I’m not just going for dramatic elocution here. The act of regarding anything at all as more worthy of respect than anything else is the first step down the short and slippery path to the utter annihilation of all mankind.
And what happens if we follow that dangerous path to the end? We’ve had numerous hints that ought to give us a clue. They linger darkly on in our collective memories: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Final Solution, “9-11.” We might even be able to rattle off the dates of these awful events—but the lesson, we haven’t yet absorbed. And until we really learn it, kids will keep getting new dates to memorize for history class.
When you hold something sacred, you try to hold that thing apart from the rest of the universe. But this really can’t be done. Nothing can be separated from everything else. Red is only red because it’s not green or yellow or blue. Heavy metal is heavy metal because it’s not polka or barbershop. Nothing in the universe has any inherent existence apart from everything else. Good is only good when contrasted with evil. You are only you because you’re not everyone else. But this kind of separateness isn’t really how the universe works.
You cannot possibly honor God if you can’t honor every last one of God’s manifestations. Killing someone in God’s name is ridiculous. If we do that, we are killing God and killing truth.
But what is truth? What is God? How can you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, these lofty ideas?
Truth screams at you from billboard cigarette ads. God sings to you in Muzak® versions of Barry Manilow songs. Truth announces itself when you kick away a discarded bottle of Colt 45 Malt Liquor. Truth rains on you from the sky above, and God forms in puddles at your feet. You eat God and excrete truth four hours later. Take a whiff—what a lovely fragrance the truth has! Truth is reality itself. God is reality itself. Enlightenment, by the way, is reality itself. And here it is.
And just FYI: Even if you run and run and run forever you can’t possibly escape reality. You can fervently deny the existence of an Ultimate Truth or of God, but reality is always right there staring you in the face. And you can search and search for enlightenment, but you’ll only ever find reality.
You won’t find enlightenment by eating ‘shrooms or smoking some really primo weed. And enlightenment’s not in books. Not even this one.
Some people think enlightenment is some kind of super-special state without questions or doubts, some kind of absolute faith in your beliefs and the rightness of your perceptions. That’s not enlightenment. In fact, that’s the very worst kind of delusion. And just so we’re clear from the get-go, let me state for the record that I have not “attained enlightenment.” Never have and never will. And yet, there is something, and even though this experience doesn’t change anything at all, it changes everything.
To “know” that what you believe is absolutely 100 percent now-and-forever utterly and completely True is the sickest, most vile, and most foul perversion of everything worthwhile in humanity, of all that is right in the world. Truth can never be found in mere belief. Belief is restricted. Truth is boundless.
Truth doesn’t screw around, and truth doesn’t care about your opinions. It doesn’t care if you believe in it, deny it, or ignore it. It couldn’t care less what religion you are, what country you’re from, what color your skin is, what or who you’ve got between your legs, or how much you’ve got invested in Mutual Funds. None of the trivial junk that concerns most people most of the time matters even one teensy-weensy bit to the truth.
Oh, and one other thing: The truth is not open to negotiation—not by you, not by me, and not by the Leader of the Free World or the Moral Majority. The truth simply is.
The world is in deep shit right now. The only thing that can possibly save us from our own self-induced destruction is direct knowledge of the truth. And I say that without any reservation at all. Mankind cannot survive unless the truth dawns—from within—in each and every one of us. No political solution, bellicose or peaceful, will ever save us. No law. No pact. No treaty. No war.
We have developed the capacity to destroy ourselves and each other utterly and that is never going to go away. All we can do now is develop the capacity to see that we must never use that power—and we must see this not just individually but collectively, as the human race itself, as life itself, and from the very core of our collective being.
The lame-ass “solutions” we hear from political leaders, windbag pontificators, preachers, warmongers, peaceniks, tree-huggers, Bible-thumpers—without the clarity of truth behind them, they’re all meaningless, yammering noise. Trying to understand their twaddle makes about as much sense as trying to interpret the screeching of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music as a subtle treatise on the nature of being.
These talking heads are all trying to take truth and force it into categories of their own design. It’s as if they’re scooping up a bucketful of ocean water and saying that now that they’ve got it neatly in a bucket they totally understand what the sea really is. Right.
Before we can meaningfully talk about any of this, we need to address the real questions: What is all this? Who am I? Who are you? Why are we suffering?
Personally, I’ve never been interested in sugar-coated imitations of truth, sweet little pseudo-truth pills I could take three times a day with meals and a beer chaser. And to me, this seems at best to be what all religions, philosophies, and political views have to offer.
Religions, the supposed institutional repositories of humanity’s understanding of the deeper mysteries of the universe, have never offered anything more to me than sophisticated methods of avoiding the truth, of building elaborate fantasies in place of reality. As far as I’m concerned, religions obscure reality rather than reveal it more clearly. They serve up vapid platitudes in place of answers to the genuine and crucial questions that burn in our guts. Pretty buildings full of vacant-eyed people with freeze-dried brains all pretending to agree with each other that the empty words the guy up front wearing the funny costume says actually mean anything at all let alone anything actually useful—that whole scene never did a lot for me. Religions offer authority figures: Trust the wise people’s learned excretions and you’ll be fine. Uh-huh.
And philosophy, the academically sanctioned state religion of the Western world, isn’t any better. Philosophies offer clever suppositions phrased in five-dollar words. Sure, philosophy can lead to a deep-ass insight or two. Maybe you even have some orgasmically important philosophical thought and bask in its glow as you puff your self-congratulatory cigar and write it up for a journal—but soon enough you look around and the world is still the same old screwed-up mess.
Politics? Politicians can’t solve the problem of how to find their own asses with two hands and a flashlight, let alone figure out anything more complex and subtle.
Fame, fortune, really great sex—maybe those’ll cure all your ills. But beautiful famous people with loads of money are just as confused and miserable as anyone else. Spend your whole life chasing after wealth and power and you end up with nothing more to show for it than bleeding ulcers and a heart condition. You can master tantric yogic poly-orgasmic Wonder Sex but you’re still gonna die alone. There has to be something more.
My own quest for truth began because I knew there had to be some way to see the truth that didn’t involve following all the other cattle to the slaughterhouse. There had to be some way for me to see truth clearly—without relying on anyone else to interpret the world for me. There had to be a way to cut through this mess I was living in. And to see what the hell was going on with this mess I called me.
In my search for something real, I discovered Zen Buddhism. Before I found out what it really was, I’d passed over Buddhism several times. Everything I ever read about Buddhism made me think it was about sitting with my legs all twisted up and vegging out while visions of pretty flowers and fluffy white clouds danced through my mind. Yeah, I figured, like that’s ever gonna solve anything.
It’s a damned shame that so much so-called Buddhist writing seems intended to function like spiritual elevator music. Mix up some lullaby-style writing and a few well-worn Buddhist clichés—or quotes from Yoda (“Let the Force flow through you!”) and David Carradine’s character in Kung Fu (“Patience, Grasshopper!”), if you don’t know any real Buddhist sound-bites—wrap it all up in a serene cover with a ripply-water picture and—Hey! Yer makin’ Buddhism!
I was lucky enough to meet a real Buddhist teacher (and not just a “buddhistic” poseur) at a comparatively young age. I was nineteen at the time and he was thirty-five—a little younger than I am now. The Buddhism he taught me was nothing like any of the religions or philosophies I’d read about up until then; it was something completely different.
The last thing Buddha told his followers before he died was this: “Question authority.” Actually, if you look it up, you might see his last words translated as, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves.” A lot of guys who translated this kind of stuff really got into the King James Bible–sounding language. But the point is, a lamp is something you use to guide yourself in the dark. “Be lamps unto yourselves” means be your own master, be your own lamp. Don’t believe something because your hero, your teacher, or even Buddha himself said it. Look for yourself. See for yourself, with your own eyes. “Be lamps unto yourselves.” It’s another way of saying, “Question authority.”
And here’s something else unique about Zen: While Christianity teaches that man was expelled from the Garden of Eden, Zen teaches that we are living in paradise right now, even amid all the shit that’s going down. This world is the Pure Land. This world is paradise. In fact, this world is better than paradise—but all we can do is piss and moan, and look around for something better.
But it’s not just “Buddhism” or “Zen” that says that. It’s me, right now to you. And I’ll say it again: This world is better than paradise, better than any Utopia you can imagine. I say that in the face of war and starvation and suicide bombings and Orange Terror Alerts. This world is better than Utopia because—and follow this point carefully—you can never live in Utopia. Utopia is always somewhere else. That’s the very definition of Utopia.
Maybe you can go to a paradisiacal island, far away from your boss and your bills and anything else you want, but pretty soon you’ll be complaining that you’ve got sand up your ass, or the snack machine ate your dollar, or hermit crabs stole your thongs. You’ll always find something wrong with wherever you are because it will never quite match your idea of what it “should” be.
You can’t go to paradise. Not now and not after you make your first million. Not after you die. And not if you eat all your peas and are really, really good. Not ever. What you call “you” can never enter the gates of heaven, no matter how convictedly you believe. Heaven and paradise aren’t in your future because you have no future. There is no future for you. There is no future for anyone. There is no future at all. Future is an idea.
You can’t live in paradise—but you are living right here. Make this your paradise or make this your hell. The choice is entirely yours. Really.
So what’s real Zen and how can a person who doesn’t know much about Buddhism separate the real deal from the books about getting blissed-out and having weird acid-trippy experiences that certain sad, misled folk call “enlightenment”? Well, there’s no easy answer to that question. But watch out for that e-word. Don’t expect too much of it. And watch out for the people who tell you they’ve got it and you don’t. And especially watch out for the people who say they can give it to you. The main rule of thumb is to use those critical thinking skills they taught you in school. Whether you have a background in Buddhist “scholarship” is entirely irrelevant. The fact is, it’s hard to find a group of people who misunderstand Buddhism more thoroughly than Buddhist scholars. And often, the more renowned the scholar the more likely he’s got his head firmly wedged in his ass. Question what you read and hear, question deeply and continually. Don’t accept anything because other people believe it, or because it’s expressed prettily or because it’s been around for twenty or two hundred or two thousand years. And by all means, question this, too. But go all the way with your questioning: Question your own conclusions, your own judgments, and your own answers. Look at your own beliefs, your own prejudices, your own opinions—and see them for what they are.
If you don’t do that, the truth can never appear. And if it doesn’t appear in a way that you can personally grasp it without reservation, this whole world hasn’t got a chance in hell.
But if you really thoroughly question everything, if you pursue your questions long enough and honestly enough, there will come a time when truth will wallop you upside the head and you will know.
But let me offer a warning, which like everything else I say, you are totally free to disregard: The truth won’t be what you imagined. It won’t even be close. And you may well wish you hadn’t chased it so long. But once you find it you will never be able to run away from it again, and you will never be able to hide. You’ll have no choice but to face up to it.
“Punk rock is just an excuse for troublemakers who want to mess up the system.”
—Frank “Ponch” Poncharello
(played by Erik Estrada) on CHiPs
When I was fourteen, I asked my parents for a set of drums. Instead, they got me an orange Stella acoustic guitar with a lame little butterfly on the pick-guard—and bang I was on my way to discovering a new source of truth, something far more meaningful, far more real than any religion in the world, namely: rock and roll.
From that time on, rock and roll was my life. But everthing playing on the radio in those days—the mid-to-late ‘70s—was unbelievably lame. I don’t mean that there was a lot of worthless garbage on radio. I mean that every single piece of music you heard on any rock radio station in those days was absolute doggie-do. The most popular bands of the day, corporate rockers like Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Journey, played music that was so bland, so joyless, so unrelentingly, wretchedly awful it was hard to imagine it hadn’t been scientifically designed to induce vomiting— you know, like the stuff the doctors give you to make you puke up the quart Liquid-Plumr® you swallowed when your were four. On a good day, maybe it was elevator music with a backbeat. These days you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’ll admit they liked that stuff. Yet it sold by the truckload back then. Imagine.
The only good music to be found on the radio then was on the oldies stations. I began to believe that all the good rock music that could ever be made had been made by the time I got to kindergarten. But in the fall of 1978, just after I’d started eighth grade I saw DEVO on Saturday Night Live and lo, I knew the gods of rock and roll were not yet dead.
Except for those three years in Africa, I grew up in a town called Wadsworth, Ohio, a suburb of Akron about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland. As you might imagine, cultural trends are, shall we say, slow to hit backwaters like Wadsworth. We didn’t even have cable TV. The only place you could get records was at Ben Franklin’s Five & Ten which carried a selection of about nine different rock titles, maybe.
It wasn’t until I saw DEVO on TV that I had any inkling any good rock still existed, although I’d heard about DEVO before then. The Akron papers had been full of stories of the so-called Akron new wave rock scene. But being underage and unable to drive into the “big city,” I had no means by which to experience it for myself. The fashions certainly looked interesting—but I’d never heard the music. DEVO turned my little head around and gave me a reason to live.
And, wonder of wonders, Ben Franklin’s actually had a copy of their first LP! So I saved up my allowance and bought it—then played it until the grooves wore down. After I got my driver’s license I spent all my time and whatever cash I could scrounge searching for new wave and punk records and magazines. My friend Mike Duffy (one of about four other people in Wadsworth who were into this stuff) and I got together our own new wave band called Mmaxx. Mmaxx played a total of four gigs, consisting of two nerdy dances held by the speech and debate teams at Wadsworth High, a party at my friend Cindy Choi’s house, and one bonus gig. I remember Cindy’s dad rockin’ out to our out-of-tune covers of The Ramones and Gary Numan. He liked us so much he invited us to play at a party he was holding the following weekend for a bunch of his friends from work. That second party was an unqualified disaster— those guys did not take well to their cocktails being spoiled by our brand of noise.
But Mmaxx got one big break. I took our demo tape to the manager of The Bank, the legendary venue in Akron where all the cool new-wave groups had played. The Bank had once been a real bank: there was a giant vault inside as well as the vestiges of teller’s windows and the luxurious lobby that once lured major investors to put their money into what had been, some fifty years earlier, one of America’s fastest-growing cities. To my astonishment we got the gig. But The Bank, as it turned out, was only months away from closing its doors forever. The management had changed several times and the guy who was running the place now would take whoever he could get. Bands had fought like mad to get shows there only a year earlier, and groups who’d played The Bank had gone on to sign lucrative deals with big record labels. Not many people remember it anymore but in the late ‘70s Akron, Ohio, was considered a real hotbed of new trends in music—much like Seattle after Nirvana got big. Talent scouts from New York and Los Angeles had hung out at The Bank looking for the Next Big Thing. But that was last year. This year no one wanted to go near the place.
Alas, our big gig at The Bank was not to be. Mike and I were old men of seventeen and had liberal parents who believed our promises that, although The Bank was a bar, we wouldn’t be drinking. And it was true. Neither of us had any interest in alcohol at that point. We just wanted to rock. Our drummer, Mark, on the other hand was just a wee babe of fifteen. His parents put their foot down. Their son would not be playing drums in a bar at such a tender young age—and that was effectively the end of Mmaxx. We tried to get another drummer, but the only guy in Wadsworth who was even willing to consider the job wanted us to play a few “real rock” numbers of the sad ilk mentioned above. Our punked-up versions of Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll and Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever didn’t cut it with him. So, vaguely reminiscent of my performance on the fake crucifix, our band gave up the ghost.
Sometime late in my senior year of high school, I saw an ad in Scene, Cleveland’s free music paper, saying that the band Zero Defex was auditioning bass players. I’d seen Zero Defex twice at The Bank, each time with a different bass player. They were the hardest, fastest, and loudest of the Akron hardcore punk scene. Hardcore punk took the original philosophy of punk ten steps further: the fast tempos were twice as fast, the simple melodies transformed into shouting, the short haircuts gave way to shaved heads, and energetic pogo-dancing became people running around crashing into each other like dodge-’em cars
And Zero Defex took the hardcore punk further than anyone else on the scene was willing to go. The other bands I’d seen play with them still had identifiable songs, some of which lasted vast durations of two minutes or more. Every Zero Defex song was about fifteen to thirty seconds long and none of them could be distinguished from the others in any meaningful way. A whole Zero Defex set was over and done in the time it took other bands just to tune up.
My God, I thought the first time I’d seen them play, This is it. This is the Real Deal. The hardest thing I’d heard up till then was the Ramones album End of the Century. Seeing Zero Defex was like a religious revelation for me.
Needless to say, I answered the ad (in fact I discovered later I was the only one who answered it) and was directed to band’s rehearsal space, a dilapidated old house in a seedy part of Akron called North Hill. Five or six punk rockers shared the rent at the place, though you could always count on there being twice that number just hanging out on any given day. Two of the residents had kids and so the place had been nicknamed The Mommy Dearest Daycare Center. The place was the foulest, dirtiest, stinkiest house I’d ever set foot in. There was trash all over the floor: cigarette butts, empty beer cans, junk food packages, you name it. There were piles of records in various states of disarray all over the place and a cruddy old record player that never stopped grinding tinny-sounding low-budget punk records out of even tinnier-sounding speakers. On one ripped-up old couch I saw two bald people making out. It took me a minute to work out that one of them was a girl.
I was led down to the basement and handed a sticker-encrusted Fender Musicmaster bass plugged into a nameless amp with a blown speaker. It didn’t even sound like a musical instrument, kinda more like a sumo wrestler with a case of squelchy farts. I played a few scales to warm up. Hearing me do this, the skinhead singer, whose real name was James Friend but who called himself Jimi Imij, said in a disgusted tone, “Oh, a real musician.”
The guitar player, Tommy Strange (aka Tom Seiler), another skinhead,* showed me some of their songs, which I was surprised to learn actually had set chord changes, contrary to their appearance of total randomness—though Tommy wasn’t uncool enough to admit he actually knew the names of any of the chords he was playing. He’d just show me the riffs at full breakneck speed and I was expected to work them out. When I asked him to slow down so I could at least watch what he was doing he shot me a withering glance of disdain. But their stuff was all dirt simple, even easier than the Ramones covers I’d been playing before that. I got the whole set down in an afternoon and I was in.
I gradually learned that in spite of their pose, the hardcores hadn’t just sprung up from the earth fully formed. I’d assumed that drummer Mickey Nelson was the only member who used his real name until I learned he had played bass in a surf group called The Nelsons, one of the last of the first wave of Akron new wave bands and a fairly popular draw a year or so earlier. Like The Ramones, The Nelsons all used the same last name on stage. Mickey’s real last name was Hurray—which sounded more like a made-up name to me than Nelson. Tommy had been in The Bursting Brains, probably northeast Ohio’s first hardcore band. Jimi Imij had played in The V-Nervz, an early punk (though not hardcore) outfit, but was more well known for being one of the people who hung out with German avant-garde musician Klaus Nomi when he’d briefly relocated to Akron to pick up on the scene there in the late ‘70s. (Klaus was back in West Germany at that point, though a bit later he was one of the first celebrities to die of AIDS—which gave Jimi quite a scare.)
I ended up with a punk name too, by the way. I was Brad No Sweat, since I was the only one who didn’t work up a sweat on stage. I guess all punk names can’t be cool. These days, though, I’m just as unlikely to go by No Sweat as by my other fake name, Odo, which I received when I was ordained as a Buddhist priest. My experience with Terry sorta soured me on the whole “spiritual name” thing, so everyone pretty much calls me “Brad” (or in the case of my Japanese friends, Buraddo-san).
The punk scene continued to grow in Akron for about two years. Aside from Zero Defex, notable bands included Starvation Army, The Urban Mutants, and The Agitated. Cleveland bands like The Offbeats, The Guns, and The Dark came down to Akron for gigs too. Zero Defex even got as far afield as exotic Detroit and Toledo. We made the trips in a rusted-out old Dodge van dense-packed with as many guitars, amps, drums, and punk rockers as physically possible. I remember me and Fraser Suicyde, the singer of Starvation Army, getting paranoid about the way the exhaust was flowing into the cab of the van and finding a large rust hole on the side, through which we took turns trying to suck in some comparatively cleaner air. On one of these trips the driver, Andy, brought along a used love doll he’d found in a Dumpster™—every time a car got close to us, Fraser and I crouched down out of view, lifted the love doll up to the back window and made her wave. Boy did we know how to have a good time!
Things started to go bad for Zero Defex about a year later when we got a gig in Dover, Ohio, even more of a backwoods town than Wadsworth—something I’d have scarcely thought possible. While Wadsworth was a fairly conservative burg populated by businessmen who worked in Akron and their families, the proverbial “nice place to raise your kids,” Dover was a true Deliverance-style rural hell-hole full of rednecks in dirty flannel shirts who drove mud-encrusted pickup trucks. Yet somehow a kind of new wave scene had emerged at a bar down there with the unlikely name of The Spanish Ballroom. A band called Johnny Clampett and the Walkers, who played new wave versions of ’50s and ’60s tunes, had established themselves there and used to bring other slightly more adventurous bands from Akron and Kent down to support them. Someone had convinced the bar’s owners that hardcore punk might be worth a try, so Zero Defex and Starvation Army, Akron’s two most popular hardcore bands (meaning we could maybe draw crowds of twenty people on a good night), got booked down there on an off night.
From the moment when we first set foot in that joint, we knew this was not a punk rock crowd. There were about fifteen people inside, most of them slumped listlessly over the long red bar. A dozen or so tables stood empty in the middle of the room. There wasn’t a skinhead or even a Sid Vicious– style razor-cut in sight. No leather jackets, no striped shirts, no skinny ties. These were hardcore people all right— hardcore bikers, truck drivers, and factory workers complete with long hair, scraggly beards, and beer-guts. There were a couple of women with bleached blonde hair done up in giant Farrah Fawcett–style do’s. The bar owner assured us that these were just “the regulars” and they’d clear out in an hour or so and the new wavers would show up.
Cautiously we set up our equipment on what passed for a stage. It wasn’t even a raised platform, just a slightly less cluttered space on the floor between some speaker cabinets that also served as the PA system. We didn’t want to sound-check in front of these guys since they were already starting to froth at the mouth as they eyeballed our assorted mohawks, skinheads, and metal-studded jackets. A few hours passed but the regulars never left. In fact several more of them arrived. Not a single new waver or punk showed up. By 10:30 the bar owner was telling us we’d better get started.
I was the one who looked most like these people, having never cut my shoulder length hair into a more “punky” style or gone in for the punk get-up of a black leather jacket and army boots. So The Eric Nipplehead Project (ENP), a side band I’d put together with the guitarist and drummer from Starvation Army to play instrumental surf tunes, was elected to go on first. We played eight numbers, spanning about fifteen minutes, and it seemed to go fairly well. We had the Batman TV show theme song and Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2 in our set—which these Deliverance guys could sort of relate to. We got heckled a bit, but it was nothing we couldn’t shrug off. I got the feeling some of them almost liked us.
But that was it. ENP was all the normality we collectively had to offer. Next up was Zero Defex. I moved over from guitar, which I played with ENP, to bass, and as soon as skinheads Tommy Strange and Jimi Imij took the floor, it was clear there was going to be trouble. We got successfully through our first song, Drop the A-Bomb on Me—but only because, at eighteen seconds, it was too short for any of the alcohol-addled regulars to react to before it was over. When we launched into Die Before More of This, a guy with a red ZZ-Top beard whipped a wicked-looking hunting knife out of his jeans jacket and sliced Jimi Imij’s mic cord in half.
We didn’t have time to appreciate the irony that the PA system belonged to the bar and not to us before the brawl broke out. Chairs and beer bottles flew and crashed into walls and tables. I ducked into the ladies’ room and hid in a locked stall, scared for my life. Someone ran outside and flagged down a cop and things quieted down. We even got a police escort out of town—probably the only time in the history of hardcore that the cops protected the punks. Mickey, our drummer, went home with a fractured leg, though other injuries were mild. Apparently the bar was known for this kind of behavior. I found out later that my friend Johnny Phlegm’s Greenburst Burns bass had been trashed by one of these same rednecks at the same bar only months before under similar circumstances. Why Zero Defex ever accepted a gig there after that had happened is still a mystery to me. We evidently didn’t do our research.
I didn’t quit the band after that, but that incident took a lot of the drive to continue the movement out of me. Sure I wanted to shake up the complacent contemporary music scene—but I didn’t want to get killed doing it. Zero Defex broke up in the Summer of 1984. By that time punk had already started to turn turgid and conservative. It no longer showed the spirit it had even two years earlier. At first, punks had dressed the way they did to show their individuality. But by 1984 the leather jackets, tight jeans, badges, and short haircuts had turned into a uniform. When I used to show up with long hair and tie-dyed shirts, guys in mohawks would yell at me to cut my hair—just like the rednecks in pickup trucks did when I walked around like that outside. What was the difference? None that I could see.
The punks weren’t real nonconformists—they just had a different standard they thought people should conform to.
In its early days, punk had a lot in common with Zen. It wasn’t just the fetish for shaved heads and black clothes, either. The attitude of not conforming blindly to society is an important aspect of Buddhist teaching. One thing that really endeared me to my current Zen teacher, a guy named Gudo Nishijima, was when I heard him talking about the new styles of dress that were becoming popular in Japan. The bizarre, bright hair dyes, strange-looking makeup, and outlandish clothes teenagers were getting into reminded me of the way my friends had looked fifteen years earlier. These weren’t just imitations of the older punk look (though there was a lot of that too), but a completely new Japanese style. I expected Nishijima, a Buddhist monk in his late seventies, to be critical of them. But he wasn’t. Instead he said these trends were representative of a more realistic outlook he believed was emerging in all of humanity. “They dress the way they want to,” he said, “not because society tells them how to dress. And that is very important.”
Question authority. Question society. Question reality. But you’ve got to take it all the way: Question punk authority. Question punk society. Question your own rules and question your own values. Question Zen society. Question Zen authority. Question other people’s views on reality and question your own.
No matter what authority you submit to—your teacher, your government, even Jesus H. Christ or Gautama Buddha himself—that authority is wrong. It’s wrong because the very concept of authority is already a mistake. Deferring to authority is nothing more than a cowardly shirking of personal responsibility. The more power you grant an authority figure the worse you can behave in his name. That’s why people who take God as their ultimate authority are always capable of the worst humanity has to offer. Zen does not accept anything even resembling that kind of God.
If you aim to tear down authority, doing so honestly means doing so completely. Really tearing down authority means more than just opposing the big government and big business. You need to tear out the very roots of authority. This can never be done through violence of any kind—not ever—because the ultimate authority is your own belief in the very concept of authority. Revolt against that first. You need the courage to take responsibility for your own life and your own actions.
People have taken exception to my equating a noble tradition like Zen Buddhism with a scrappy upstart thing like punk rock. Zen Buddhism is ancient and venerable. Punk is trash. But punk is a cultural movement that was made possible only because of the increased understanding of reality that emerged in the twentieth century, the so-called postmodern worldview. The punks understood that all social institutions and socially approved codes of dress and behavior were a sham. This is one of the first steps to true understanding. It’s unfortunate that not many punks actually followed through to what punk really implied: that all of our values need to be questioned. It’s typical for a minority social movement to throw away the accepted rules of society. But they almost always end up just substituting another set of rules for the ones they’ve challenged.
In spite of their talk about anarchy and “no rules” the punks quickly developed a very rigid set of rules of their own. Anarchy was just a symbol, a cool-looking letter “A” inside a circle. Big deal. Real anarchy has to come from deep within. Real anarchy isn’t immoral or amoral; it’s intensely moral. A pseudo-anarchist spraypaints a letter “A” in a circle on the side of a government building “to make a point.” A true anarchist understands that action in the present moment is what really matters and lives his life accordingly. Painting letters on buildings doesn’t accomplish anything except giving the poor grunts who do the building maintenance some extra work. No one’s going to see that letter “A” and decide to learn more about the philosophy of anarchy.
Questioning society’s values is a great and important thing to do. But that’s easy compared to questioning your own values. Questioning your own values means really questioning yourself, really looking at who and what you believe and who you are.
Who are you?
That’s where Buddhism comes into the picture. Stay tuned.
*Though their heads were shaved and they often called themselves “skinheads” neither Jimi, Tommy, nor any of the other “skins” in the early ’80s Akron scene were the kind of neo-Nazi, right-wing racist skinheads that existed in some other areas. In fact they were almost annoyingly left-wing and decidedly anti-racist.
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© Brad Warner, Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth About Reality (Wisdom Publications, 2003)
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