Sean Armstrong was my neighbor in Durango, Colorado, when I was ten years old. He was a tall lanky kid, maybe four years older than me. He had long bleached hair with brown roots that parted down the middle of his head and ran down past his ears; his eyes were sunken in a little, and his shoulders were kind of slouched. Looking back, Sean was one of my first major influences growing up.
I was a strange kid then, very insecure, out of place, dorky and desperate to fit in in any way possible. Sean was older, and I thought he was so fucking cool. He was the funniest guy I knew -- he was outrageously funny. There weren't a lot of kids in my neighborhood, so Sean and I would hang out pretty frequently, riding our bikes around, walking and talking about school, music, whatever. I wanted to be just like him.
This was in the late nineties, when the majority of what you heard on mainstream radio were actual bands. Alternative rock bands like Semisonic, Third Eye Blind, Eagle Eye Cherry, Fastball, Everclear; these bands got constant airplay. The Chili Peppers had just released Californication, which had saturated the radio waves with its title hit, and even more with "Scar Tissue", and "Otherside." Songs like "Absolutely (Story of a Girl)", and "Mambo #5" (fuck that song!) were playing day and night. Whenever I hear any of these songs (and thank God that I don't hear some of them anymore), I am immediately taken back to my old neighborhood in Durango, and I think of Sean. He had an ear for music, and he would explain to me how pretty much every song on the radio was the same. He'd go through the structure, talk about the bridge, and point out how in every song by Everclear, the lead singer would make the same stupid "Yeeaah . . ." This gave me a critical ear for music at a relatively young age, and I found myself dissecting each song that I heard on the radio, studying it, seeing if it was authentic, or just a predictable piece of shit.
Sean played the guitar. He had a nice old Gibson acoustic that he'd bring over to my house, and he'd play songs off of the radio, like "Save Tonight" by Eagle Eye Cherry, and "Californication." It was amazing watching his long skinny fingers move and bar across the guitar neck, in fluid technique, as we sat out on the brick porch of my house in Hermosa Valley. Looking back, Sean was the reason that I began playing guitar. My stepfather had an old Sigma, a Martin knock off, in the basement, so my mother got it out, paid to have it fixed up a little, and I started taking lessons. I learned a lot from Sean; he'd give me some pointers and occasionally we'd jam a little.
I remember sitting outside with him once, he was playing a popular song, and I started singing along with the guitar.
"Whoa," Sean said. "You have a really good voice."
I knew that; I'd been singing for years, classically trained and all that. But Sean complimenting me meant a lot. That was the moment when I thought to myself, "I should play guitar and sing."
. . .
Maybe the most influential thing Sean ever did for me was introduce me to the punk band the Misfits.
I remember it clearly: we were in his room, on the top story of his house, he had a cd in his stereo, next to his television, and he told me: "Listen to this. This is by a band called the Misfits." And he played "Last Caress." I listened to it, and I was struck. I remember thinking: "This is the most beautiful music I've ever heard in my entire life." Listening to Glenn Danzig sing, his dark and glorious voice was like an evil Elvis, a darker and ultra-violent Jim Morrison. I would be able to recognize it immediately for the rest of my life. That was the first time I'd ever heard any kind of punk music. I was maybe eleven years old.
The song spoke of rape and violence. Rape, to me, was a terrifying concept. I had learned what it was only years before, explained to me by friends and my mother. I had been very sheltered as a kid, and anything having to do with sex and violence or even bathroom humor was strictly forbidden. I would become guilt ridden even thinking of such things. But when I heard Danzig bellowing in his illustrious voice about killing babies and raping mothers, and how it didn't matter much to him as long as they were dead and spread, I was completely amazed. It didn't scare me, because the way it was presented, to me, was so beautiful. I couldn't believe what I was hearing; I was in awe -- the power of this driving brutal punk music had suddenly transcended all the taboos in my life. I didn't know that you could just sing about that shit and make it sound so good. I'll never forget that.
The Misfits are still my favorite punk band, slightly ahead of the Dead Kennedys, and even before Bad Brains (blasphemy, I know). The horror-punk sub-genre that they created has never lost its appeal to me. They're like the Ramones, only more badass. While the Ramones wanted to sniff glue and sing punk love songs, the Misfits wanted your skull; they sang about Astro Zombies and the unholy living dead, murder and the macabre, dark and evil subject matter. They were violent, ferocious, and completely unapologetic. Danzig's voice is legendary; and the simplicity of the songs, composed with the structure of 1950's rock and rockabilly, each song is melodic and catchy, short and blasting. I love it.
. . .
Sean moved away when I was thirteen. But I never forgot him.
Close to a decade after hearing my first Misfits song, I saw Sean randomly at Bonnaroo, a monolithic music festival out in the middle of Tennessee. This was the year that Tool played the festival; the Police were there, the White Stripes, the Flaming Lips, a bunch of bands. Sean recognized me, which was amazing because I hadn't seen him in probably eight years, and I had a mohawk and was wearing only board shorts and sunglasses. I was high on acid, too. It was a cool reconnection, brief but serendipitous.
I remember Sean for a lot of reasons; he was a huge influence on me. I'll always remember the first time that I heard "Last Caress."
p.s: The music video for "Last Caress" is as cool as the song itself; which is a tall order.
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