Not too many people have been able to accurately capture Midwestern desolation in music, film, or any medium for that matter. Some people have come close- Harmony Korine’s “Gummo”, while surrealist and batshit crazy, felt so crushing and ruined that it got the FEELING right. Plenty of punk bands vent about it, faves like Off With Their Heads and Banner Pilot come to mind instantaneously, and they definitely understand the emotion attached to the long winters and growing up in a place that feels isolated from everything but surrounded by it too. For me though, and I’m perfectly aware that this may be obvious to some that are reading this, it’s “Darkness on Edge of Town” by Bruce Springsteen. It’s the one album that paints the perfect picture in my head of what those small, quiet moments felt like when I was a kid growing up in the Midwest. The endless expanse of cornfields, like some agricultural fever dream run wild. Factory whistles as a wake up call, and the pollution spewing from the soybean processing factories enveloping everything in a smell my soul will never wash away. You could even see a brown ring around the town I grew up in on some days as you drove in, and what a perfect metaphor that would turn out to be, at least for me. You see, the thing a lot of people don’t talk about (or don’t process the way I do) is that the vast expanse of fields can close in on you, and it becomes as suffocating as it must be to find yourself locked inside a coffin. I wrote a song once called “Fields” and though it was an instrumental song, it was about the sound of rain falling on a cornfield serving as a metaphor for the realization you might end up living and dying in the same place that choked the life out of you every day, with the rain serving to wash away the pain into some kind of mourning or acceptance. I was lucky, I got the fuck out of there, but these are feelings I will never shake. Those same plains in their vastness, to some a symbol of the American heartland and natural bounty, also come to teach a person like me some very harsh lessons about the nature of society, commerce, and where we stand with our fellow man. Day in and day out, surrounded by land tilled and planted for commercial purposes, it’s right in front of your face- even the land we walk on is a product to be bought and sold. Nothing isn’t owned by someone, nothing is pure, nothing true of intended purpose. Every square inch of this planet has been commercialized, and before long you start to realize that the same applies to us. It’s beaten into your brain at an early age that between the farms, the factories, and the fields-life is not to be lived, we are here to work, to serve. The void of hope this imparts upon your spirit is so crushing that, almost 20 years on, it still feels visceral and real. I’m honestly shocked sometimes that I can properly manage myself in the world coming from such a bleak worldview but it’s also imparted a toughness of spirit, probably from living through that shit, that keeps my edges sharp enough to cut through the noise.
If you really want to get the full desolation experience, try ALSO being “different”. Since I didn’t have a father around I was raised by my mother and even at an early age I was a lot less “boyish” that the other kids. I was more sensitive, quieter, and I was sick a lot so I was never into the usual suspects of sports, more sports, and finally sports. Books, painting, and good old fashioned imagining shit in the sandbox was pretty much my deal, and the other boys picked up on this like sharks to blood. I also ended up with a con-artist stepfather who had a nasty habit of getting us kicked out of houses so we moved around a lot, but in the same fucking town every time, so pretty much everyone had our number. When I was six I even had to share a bed with my mother for a year cause he put us up in a fucking 2 bedroom apartment and my older sister got the other room (he was usually with his mistress so it was just us 3), so dysfunction was everywhere. We were poor, I was weird, and “they” didn’t want any part of it. So I learned what it felt like to get the shit beaten out of me at a startlingly young age, cause it happened a lot. A kid fucked me up bad enough in the 3rd grade to break my collar bone (this would happen again in a few years, also as a result of bullying) and I was laid up for a couple weeks, ever reminded of the source of my injury. It happened again, and again, and again, and instead of being a happy kid I was slowly cultivating a sadness that would feel inescapable for the rest of my life- even now in my 30’s, the shit is there. The thing was though, I was also a fucking super cute little blond boy so I would occasionally catch the interest of girls, which would give me a fleeting glimpse into the magical world of the kids NOT getting punched in the face for sport, but that would be short lived. Once I hit 8th grade and decided to pick up a guitar, dye my newly long hair, and wear eyeliner to school it was pretty much over with. I was always into music, my mother blessed me with a DEEP love of all kinds of music. My first love was Cyndi Lauper and ‘Time After Time” holds the most special place in my black heart because A) it’s fucking phenomenal and B) my earliest memories are my mother holding me and dancing with me to that song over and over again at my 3 year old request. From there it was Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Loretta Lynn- just endless amounts of classic, formative shit played through one of those old console record players that doubled as a fucking living room fixture. Then, cause it was the 80’s, this bullied little kid developed a deep affection for big-ass arena rock, fucking hair metal, whatever you call it. Neon guitars, pyro firing from everywhere, pure schlock wonderment, and I remember hopping around the living room strumming a tennis racket doing my best C.C. Fuckin’ DeVille and I was gonna BE a rock star one day. The love was deep, but none was deeper than when I started hearing rumblings from the underground. Punk rock, yes yes YES- this was something slightly frightening to my young sensibilities but I stuck a mental pin in it. Then the bomb went off. Home sick from school for the millionth time that year, dropped off at my grandma’s house cause my mom had to work a shift in the middle school lunchroom that helped us scrape by, I was watching MTV (it was a channel on television that played music videos and yes this IS bitter sarcasm) when they played Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time. Without that singular moment you would not be reading this right now, I would not be married to the woman I am married to, and my children would not exist in this world. It shattered everything I thought I knew, it spoke DIRECTLY to my beaten and misunderstood heart, and it told me that I wasn’t alone. It showed me that I could rise above the desolation and maybe even be something one day. It was electric, it was life-changing, and it meant that I was gonna take a real hard left turn and I was gonna show these fucking people that I didn’t give a FUCK what they thought about me. I was the full package- eyeliner, ratty clothes, hair in my face, fuck the world, punk rock- and I was like 12. If you think the other kids didn’t understand me before, they sure as shit didn’t understand me now. In fact, I was essentially perceived as a threat that needed to be eliminated and the way they decided to show me this was through unrelenting bullying, taunting, and ostracizing and they tried REAL hard to get their point across. There were other “weirdos” around but they all still had the benefit of going to the same school for more than five minutes so they had their own little tribes and I was forever the outsider. I was also naive as fuck so I wasn’t in on a lot of the jokes, the slang, and the drugs so I tended to be the butt of the jokes most of the time. Fucking assholes. Even the places I thought I might fit I was the outcast, and it got dark- real dark.
I got beaten up more times than I can count for being gay, and as you can tell given that I’m writing this on a website I share with my wife, I’m not gay. I’ll fight to the death for the LGBTQ community but at best I am only a supporter because, again, I’m not gay. Everyone I looked up to though, from David Bowie to Kurt Cobain to the New York Dolls was though, at least in some capacity. I also wasn’t the kind of kid to always have a girl on my arm, and given that I even wore a dress to school once in defiance of my unwarranted gay-bashing, I ended up being the kid that got the shit beat out of him by homophobic and small minded farm-town meatheads. It was my fucking lot I guess. It happened so much that I spent a brief time questioning what the fuck I even was myself. You get things beaten into you enough and you start to wonder if it’s true. That wasn’t my journey though, but my lack of ignorance led me to what I now know was nearly my end. At a party one night with a guy I would barely call a friend, and a party someone like me absolutely should NOT have been at by the way, some of the fucking brain-dead morons started telling gay jokes. I sat disgusted and my friend thought it would be super punk-rock to french kiss me in front of everyone for a laugh. You probably won’t be shocked to learn that laughter was NOT the result of the unprovoked lip-lock, and the room went silent. Silent as death, silent as the black void of space, you would’t hear a pin drop because the sound of fleas fucking would be louder. He knew these guys so he got a pass, they shrugged him off but me? I was the little “faggot” kid that everyone wanted out of the picture and I felt the eyes burning through my skin all at once and it was, to this day, one of the most final and terrifying feelings I’ve ever had. I remember looking at my “friend” and saying “WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO THAT FOR?” and he replied with “But you’re not homophobic!” to which I replied “I’M NOT, BUT IS THIS ROOM FULL OF REDNECKS THE PROPER PLACE TO MAKE THAT DECLARATION??” (might not be verbatim but close). At that moment, a couple of the guys lunged at me, but luckily there was a dude there who didn’t want to watch me get murdered and he shoved me out to my friend’s car and said “Stay the fuck in there unless you want to fucking die”. Dude really might have saved my life that day, and I can’t even fucking remember who he was (it’s a choice of about 4-5 possible people so whoever you were, thanks.). The entire house poured out the front door and started throwing things at the car, yelling “We’re going to kill you faggot!” and trying to get me out any way they could. The good samaritan somehow managed to calm the mob and I remember him saying “just let them leave and he’ll never come back”. Fucking right I won’t, and that’s exactly what happened. My “friend” jumped into his car and we drove off and my fate in my hometown was sealed from there. I was done.
The path I want down after that night wasn’t altogether special, or unique, outside of the fact that it was me experiencing it vs. anyone else. The bullying got worse, I found drugs, and pretty much retreated into myself and music. Nothing else mattered, drugs dulled the pain and music took my mind to anywhere but where I was. Pretty textbook shit. The thing is though, it was such a vastly different time than it is now. There was still this pervading sense that if you were a blue-haired kid with a guitar you were gonna “make it”, get a record deal, and forever escape the desolation of your blue-collar, factory town nightmare childhood and achieve the adoration and love of a world that once said “no thanks” to you. What ended up being MY particular problem, in hindsight, was that the drugs became much more of a focal point than the work of actually TRYING to make it as a musician (and I quit school at 16 cause even the fucking TEACHERS didn’t want me around, so “normal” jobs besides pumping gas were pretty much out too) and I essentially spent the better part of a decade or so self-medicating and seeing how much shit I could get into my system on a daily basis. I was a walking cry for help, in a place that wasn’t listening. I even threw in a couple half-hearted suicide attempts and I dabbled in cutting for a while too- again, walking cry for help. Eventually, I became so erratic and lost that I had pretty much exhausted all friendships, good will, and hope in that fucking town and I left. I left town in an Oldsmobile 88 with no windows (they’d been smashed out by someone who didn’t like naked punk rockers spitting at them) in the middle of a torrential thunderstorm, drunk, with barely more than a leather jacket, a boom box with a Misfits tape in it, and a few bucks. Also, standing water in the car, fucking hell. I came down here to Atlanta and even that wasn’t enough. I fucked around and pissed way another respectable amount of time until I was 25 and found my way into broadcasting school, a radio job, managing/playing in bands, and what I thought would be “making it”. Fucking didn’t last though and yet again- years followed of a long and destructive relationship, living in guest rooms, quitting bands, heartbreak, confusion, and a near complete lack of direction or hope. I’ve realized that for most of my life I have had almost NO FUCKING CLUE what I was doing. None whatsoever, I was a walking product of the damage that was done to me by my father’s abandonment, the years of bullying, and the effect of all that darn self-medication. There were times I felt like I’d never find my way, or my place, or an end to the feeling that I just wasn’t supposed to have been born.
So how in the hell did I end up here? Married to someone who loves me in spite of all the baggage my soul carries, father of two children I will fight to the death to protect, and a fully functioning member of this fucked-up society. Here’s the deal- all of the horrors you’ve just read about? All that desolation and darkness? That shit is like a fucking forge, the scars I carry tempered in the steel of hard truths, injustices beaten into me formed into conditioning through to a deeply seeded resolve to be myself and live on. See, none of this shit killed me. I might have crosses to bear, sure. Anxiety and depression that probably should have been dealt with at a very early age got left alone and made worse through all of …that. I struggle with mental health, I fight with shitty self image, and I’m nearly constantly at war with the voice inside of me that says “You’ll never be more than the thing that nobody wants”. Sometimes every day is a battle, but I suit up and I fight the motherfucker. I fight it head on and I fight it hard, because I am NOT destined to be unwanted. I AM worthy of love and acceptance. I AM NOT a beaten up product of other people’s rage and ignorance. I AM NOT worthless. Much to the dismay of those that would have wished me dead I have managed to rise up out of their Pall Mall ashes and crawl my way back to life. I refuse to give them the satisfaction of knowing they got me, not then and not fucking now. All of the shit I endured has filled me with a rocket-fueled version of that Midwestern “heart-on-the sleeve bleak” world view and I am the person I am because I lived through it. I am the husband I am, the father I am, and the person capable of love and tolerance that I am because I have seen the darkness. I have seen the end, I have seen the triumph of ignorance and it is ugly. I will not be the product of that ugliness but the willful and defiant byproduct of its misfortune. Fuck anyone who doesn’t like it, I’m alive and well and they didn’t win.
Granted, Bruce Springsteen in all of his working-man’s honesty has never touched on shit QUITE this raw, or maybe I skipped that record- but still. The fields, and the factories, and the long dirt roads bury themselves deep into your soul if you’re a certain kind of person. The Midwest reminds me of the Wood of Suicides from Dante’s “Inferno”. It’s the area of hell where the suicides go, entwined into trees of thorns and only able to utter a sound when it is a scream of agony. I lived through a childhood and a life that felt like exactly that. So terrified of the next atrocity that I retreated into myself, the only sound I could make being a scream, an open D chord, or a cry to the sky asking for someone to hear me. Nobody did, but I made it anyway. I made it out of that awful darkness into a light like no other. I don’t have all this shit figured out, but I keep fighting and I keep living because every little thing I do is a victory and a loud FUCK YOU to every fist that ever flew at my face. If you are out there and you understand, or maybe YOU feel alone like I did- you are not. You are stronger than you know and I am right there next to you. My soul is fighting with you all, every single person this world has said “no thanks” to is my blood. You are a warrior, you are wanted, and you WILL get through it. I’m no expert in psychiatry, I don’t have all the answers, but I am here and I can listen. Reach out, cause I’m always happy to tell somebody that I have lived through it too. This world is cold, and this world can be harsh, but love fucking wins. It will always win and the bastards will never take love away from us. So let’s show them all what love looks like, let’s live as “loudly us” as possible, and then maybe we can all help that unwanted kid in the cornfield inside us sleep a little better tonight in whatever dark heart land they live in.
“You can rearrange my face but you can’t rearrange my mind”- Propagandhi/”Who Will Help Me Bake This Bread”
https://propagandhi.com– Punk rock activism will never sound better.
www.cybersmile.org – Somewhere to start.