The Fastbacks : My Letters The Fastbacks were introduced to me by a penpal. I can’t help but think that the lyrical content was greatly inspired by songwriter Kim Warnick’s very similar experiences to mine, writing letters to strangers. The song is on 1991’s “The Answer is You” Double 7″ release. The picture you’ll see as the still image on the youtube video is actually a poster that came with the record. I still have this 7″ and that poster. It marked one of the only times I actually got something that I asked for on my Christmas List, and I still remember leaving very detailed instructions on that list of how to get to The Web of Sound record store in Lancaster, Pa, and what exactly to say to Bill, the owner, to procure it. I must’ve called Bill a dozen times begging him to hold it for me. I think it was like $20, which was just way out of my price range at 15. Click the link and enjoy.
If you were into punk rock in the early 90’s, chances are pretty high that you had one or several pen pals going at a time. It was entirely out of necessity that we found one another. During a time when John Hughs was the only outlet on offer to relate some of our teenaged angst to, and John Waters, our only visual guide to even beginning to understand how to circumnavigate the entrails of our twisted and embryonic desires concerning our sexual identities (which we undoubtedly were forced to obscure from our families), we were prisoners of someone else’s device. Interred and tortured, we formed an underground network of inmates, building a system of support that we couldn’t find anywhere else.
Whether you were a writer or not, sending letters across oceans, or even to the next county, was a means by which to amass a collective base of outcast weirdos just like you. As it turns out, a lot of us from that time have ended up latching onto one another as mates for life. The contents of what we sent via the United States Postal Service were often as comical, grotesque, beautiful, seminal, creative and life-changing as it gets. I’ve received (or sent) human hair, semen, dead flowers, suicide notes, manifestos, teeth, extracted stitches, worn contact lenses, lip-sticked and perfumed pages, fanzines, photographs, money, escape plans, promises, marriage proposals, drugs, books, maps, potions, sex toys, poetry, blood, tears…the list is endless. There were clearly lots of factors dictating what went out to whom, but the staples were (unarguably first and foremost) the mixtape, followed by photographs, then ‘zines/flyers. The mixtape was a letter in and of itself in the sense that it communicated what our young minds still could not. We often conveyed our feelings towards one another through our painstakingly torturous song selection process. The pressure to create a Masterpiece of Cool (don’t even get me started on the cover collages) was exhilarating and converging on pedantic. The photographs allowed us to spy on parallel universes near and far. We’d likely write back excitedly asking about the pins on each others’ jackets or complimenting the military fatigues the person was wearing (which were quite in vogue at that time). And we’d flirt, but it was still mostly in an innocent and sweet way. The ‘zines were really what meshed it all together for us and shifted our thinking towards bigger prospects. The fact that we could create our own media was something so new and powerful at the time. It gave us our own voices and safe spaces to be as idiosyncratic as we wished. And we had a lot of fucking weird shit to say.
We typically found our penpals in one of two ways; By going to shows or in the classifieds of ‘zines. I collected my pen pals in both ways, but I always found the ‘zine route to be the most intriguing. My go-to’s were Punk Planet, Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, Book Your Own Fucking Life, and Propaganda (to satisfy my goth girl obsession). There were always listings in the back for people seeking pen pals. You’d just write a short blurb about yourself, include your address, then stalk your mailman. Typical listings might sound like this: “Save me from this midwest hell! Send me NYC hardcore flyers and pictures of pretty punk girls!!!”. “Early 30’s, intellectual, gothic woman seeking teenaged girls to mentor, write poetry for, and hopefully meet for intimate encounters.” “Boise sucks! Come pick me up let’s skank!”
My pen reached far and wide but it stayed close to home as well. One from the latter mentioned scenario happened to land a letter in my box just last week. It’s been years since we’ve corresponded on these terms. It was instantaneously familiar. When I eyed the unmistakeable font of his hand, my mind raced back to more than twenty years ago, sneaking clove cigs on the balcony of my parent’s farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, eyeing the mailbox, and waiting for that adrenaline rush of the daily delivery. I could actually still smell the potpourri spray that my stepmother used all over the house. We lived on a Pike and I still hear my dad saying “Don’t get dead”. That was his way of telling us to not get too close to the road while playing. My favorite thing about that house was the antique chiffarobe that sat in the oddly shaped and tiled vestibule just inside that balcony door where I smoked my cigarettes. All of this…just from seeing his handwriting again. The power of words…of nostaligia…of punk rock.
That’s Q up there, who’s letter sits next to me now, and who inspired me to resurrect multiple photos of penpals-past for this blog idea. In this photo, he’s playing his first show with a band called Leapfrog (we met at one of these shows). It was on December 4th, 1993, at 50 W.Jackson St. in York, Pa. It’s not my memory that serves me this accuracy. It’s Q. He wrote it on the back of this photo that he mailed to me with a letter about 25 years ago. The fact that his design was archival (I greatly lacked the forethought for such things), and something that he said in his recent letter to me, really got me thinking… He said that I definitely chose the path labeled “punk rock” and that he took a more vanilla approach, often thwarting poser accusations because of it. My recent blog entries have forced him to ask the question of why we choose the paths that we do. His reckoning of that led me to question what’s so “punk” about some things and not others.
His distinctions of our two separate paths resonated with me so deeply because, at the time when we met, Q was as “punk” as they came, in my mind, and he still is. Half of us didn’t even know that punk fashion was a thing yet, or what it really meant to “Smash The State”, or had even managed to get out of our parents’ houses yet. It was what we were doing inside of these confines that defined punk rock for me and made me personally identify with it. Q was paving his own way, creating a hard niche in the DIY lifestyle that would become synonymous with our generation. He went on to make ‘zines, put out records, and curate and run a DIY show space in Pittsburgh for years known as the Mr.Roboto Project. Hearing someone so resourceful and instrumental question their place in the scene, and in their community, reminded me of why we all ended up here together in the first place; our own skewed perceptions of ourselves and the fact that we are our own worst enemies.
Having outside views. Taking action. Feeling uncomfortable in our own skin. Choosing the path of most resistance in almost all cases because it’s the right thing to do. Creating our own realities. A refusal to acquiesce. Becoming autodidactic. Questioning everything. Having a clear vision that this who we’ve always been and who we always will be. This is my idea of why we chose this lifestyle some call “punk”. I don’t care if you ever had a mohawk, ended up in the ER due to choking on your own vomit, watched GG Allin run pantless through NYC on the eve of his unsurprising overdose, or have every STIFF Records release ever pressed. That’s not what makes anyone “punk”. For a lot of us, it was just par for the course. But, also for a lot of us, we were befallen with the clarity, early on, that we could change the fucking world with our views. I was, unfortunately, not of the latter contention. I knew we could create change but I couldn’t seem to engage in the execution of it. Situations that I chose for myself, I feel, vastly inhibited me from what I could really offer to the world. I’m fortunate to have made it out the other side, though wounded and weary, to heal, share, and learn. If it weren’t for the penpals that I had growing up, I was liable to think that my struggles were exclusive. In retrospect, the underlying reassurance that I wasn’t alone is probably what saved my life back then. So, without further ado…meet some of the players.
Jason and I met during a school exchange program, my freshman year, in North Carolina. Our trip was delayed there due to a massive snowstorm during which Jason and I listened to Cure songs over the phone together and wrote creepy poetry for each other. Pretty goth. We started exchanging letters when I returned home to PA. I got a collect call from a pay phone one day not long after that. It was Jason telling me that he was on his way up to rescue me. I knew that this was definitely a bad idea. He showed up on my doorstep the next day and my dad wouldn’t even let him inside. He slept on a dirt road near my house for the next three days before finally accepting that his plan didn’t extend much further than making it to PA. I mean, we were kids. Although an escape from our stifling existences was romantic and appealing, it was also highly unrealistic.
Stacie and Laurie were the first openly queer women that I reached out to and made connections with. I had absolutely no women in my life to talk about sexuality with, other than my girlfriend at the time, who I had to keep secret from my family and friends. We would later be discovered and I would be denounced and shunned by my family in a way that would have a very lasting and harmful impact on my ability to embrace my sexuality as an adult, but I had these women to talk me off the ledge. I learned about polyamory and pansexuality from them, two important positions that I would ultimately attach myself to. In some ways, we were figuring out these things together. Essentially, we were giving and getting the much-needed fulfillment of female support regarding issues that we knew were not common and not openly talked about.
Spaz was exactly that. He was an anomaly of human nature to me, a man who identified as straight, and who was really into foot worship and loved to dress in drag. He opened up my eyes to the possibility of being able to blur gender lines regardless of sexual preference. He showed me the beauty of unapologetically being no one other than your true self. He never did drugs or drank, but he had the referred energy of someone who did. In this photo, I am definitely riding high, and we are play-acting why it must be so great to be a cheerleader. We are also listening to the song “Barie Girl”, by Aqua, on repeat. I remember all of this because we (or maybe just me?) had a creative notion that we weren’t qualified to know how the other half lived unless we tried to live as them, if only for a night, and only if narcotics were involved for my part. This was the only time that Spaz and I actually met during our 6 or 7 year correspondence. This photo was sent to me by a penpal called Kevin Person. He’s the one who introduced me to The Fastbacks. He was my first legitimate penpal crush and he still holds a certain sweetness that the others don’t because of that. We met twice in life, once when I was 14, and then again at 19. Both times were sadly inopportune. I never really got to act on my crush, and I guess I sorta wish that we could still kiss at least once someday. Kevin was the master of the mixtape. Interspersed with his own band’s songs were cheeky inserts by The Replacements (who he also introduced me to) and King Missile. The song Detachable Penis is more heartwarming to me than it probably should be because of Kevin. The Replacement’s On The Bus was the first song I ever heard by them because it was on one of Kevin’s mixtapes. I thought he had written it which is partially what led to my one-sided love affair with him. I wasn’t disappointed when I learned the truth.
There was, of course, lots of room for inappropriate antics in those days. The above was written (in jest) on the back of a photo from one of my dearest friends to this day. If you were around the Bucks County area at all in the 90’s, you may remember Captain Pecker and The Party Wreckers. Davy Danger, aka Eric Todd, aka my “big brother”, was a confidant and guardian of sorts for me. We spent countless reckless nights together in NYC and Philly. We followed the Dictators around like loyal disciples for years. Eric always kept me safe and he was actually the one to move me out of my parents’ house at 16. I remember exactly what I was wearing that day for some reason. I remember slamming the trunk to my Camaro after putting the last box in, standing at the end of my driveway, and looking up at him. My hand lay glued to the car, because moving it meant that I was really going. This was really happening. I was scared, and I knew that he knew that. But we didn’t talk about it. We made some stupid jokes and then drove off into the great wide open that would become my life. I felt safe enough to do it because of him.
I had the courage to do a lot because of my relationships that were forged in ink and music with these people. I miss that time and place, but it still lives inside of me. And, Q, it was a great letter that you just sent to me. My reply is close behind these words. I’m still waiting for a special delivery to include with the package because we both know that that’s the way it’s done. The excitement of what’s inside the box is a feeling we don’t get to have much anymore. Bring back the 90’s…