Notes from the Underworld

Old punks never die- they just smell that way.

Costers is closed and part of my adolescence disappeared. I’m sitting in its cultural replacement which by all accounts is exactly the same but better. It’s brighter, louder, bigger with comfyer seats, two TV screens and a pinball machine. The Costers crowd have made the migration of 100 yards to another underground bar and first impressions are good. Personally it should feel like a fresh start but I cant help but miss the ghosts. Costers was a dark run down shit hole but it had a cobweb of personal history hanging from every corner. My connection to the Birmingham alternative scene it seems was the shared fetish stick of that shit hole. I’m young enough to generate new memories – but too old to invest heavily in this scene.

I’m trying hard not to draw the parallels to cockroaches who scuttle from one hidey-hole to another whenever the light is switched on because I think I owe my weird heritage more than that, but maybe it’s not a cruel or degrading analogy to make, after all the cockroaches is one of the most prolific and robust creatures on the planet that’ll be around after the nuclear bomb hits, thats what they say isn’t it? Cockroaches and lawyers. Maybe it’s not as cruel as I first thought, as long as there is mainstream there will be ‘alternative’, no matter how many times the monoculture tries to absorb it the ‘fuck you’ instinct of youth will reject it.

Despite what we want to believe human behavior is a very narrow and predictable pattern, the train of our thoughts only have the same tracks to run on. As long as were all pushed towards whats right, honest, and deemed decent. There will always be a minority that is innately attracted to the wrong, skewed and left hand path. These people do tend to be the ones already marginalised by normality – the non-sport played boy, the gender rebellious, the morally flexible, depressives, freaks, and angry. Even these dregs, the childishly rebellious, the conformity adverse seek company, rules and structure. So places like this will always have custom and always feel like home.

It’s too bright in here, sleaze is so much better when it’s inferred, dirt more glamorous in the dark and, for the right class of degenerates, it’s more comfortable when people can’t quite make out your features. 5 years ago a place like this would have been full of smoke, every stranger more than 5 yards away becoming Jack the Ripper emerging from a Victorian pea-souper. What we gained in health we lost in atmosphere.

“Mate, do you want a game of pool?” a small skinhead interrupts my train of thought, I say I’m okay thanks and he leaves with a nod.

I’m obviously sitting near a speaker because the vibrations through the table have caused the beer to slowly froth out of the bottle in a firm white foam. The last time I heard the song that is playing was about ten years ago— it is angry and loud but to me speaks of youth and the naked joy of shedding school and finding a family hidden in dark bars.

And the crowd shouts along ‘you can suck my dick and fucking like it’.

The difference in Britain between what we call bars and what we call pubs is more of an idealogical one than something based on layout, music or, some cynics would point out, price. It boils down to this – if your going to hide amongst friends, it’s a pub. If your going to be seen amongst strangers, it’s a bar. Bars are home to scene, pubs house communities.

The music stops because the DJ is at the bar chatting and everybody shouts ‘IAN!’

After a few beers the volume and vibration from the speakers have started to feel like a hot bath, normally when in a pub (or bar) on my I spend my time people watching, and the first thing to do when people watching is figure out the power relationships, the alpha male and queen bitch etc. I’m pretty good too, but in here I can’t see it. Reading body language is a lot easier when people are trying to appear relaxed when compared to actually being relaxed.

On my way out I may eye contact with the skinhead from earlier and he gives me the devil horns hand gesture as a goodbye

The trouble is, a place like this is DNA encoded with its obsolescence. Like a deformed water headed baby kept on life support and doomed by its own genetics. And if this place is to survive then the option ain’t pretty

The next generation of rock music fans have split loyalties. And why shouldn’t they? if saturated by information and options its seems an act of a crazy person to belong to one group. A new study shows that current teens see no problem in belonging to more than one tribe; the signs were all there, raving ballerinas, straight edge punks, and vegan infantry in the army already exist.

The future is grim. when sub-cultures are worn and discarded like fancy dress, places like this will become a theme-park for scene tourists wearing pull on tattoo-sleeves, and foam studs glued to their immaculately made up faces. In a world of empty glamour and style-over-content authenticity is revered but never aspired to.

The true trappings of the ‘alternative’ lifestyle were always the things that permanently marked you as apart from the crowd, tattoos, piercings, and the Mohawk are stylistic signals of civil disobedience. But as the allegiance of any group is going to be split amongst many tribes and tried on for the weekend these symbols will eventually lose their potency. I can’t think of one signifier that started in the subculture that hasn’t at some point been co-opted by the mainstream, faux-hawks, tattoos worn by any passing starlet, even Harrison fucking Ford got his ear pierced.

I see a future where, alongside bars that offer ‘a taste of Latin’ and ’80s theme bars, are built ‘rock dives TM’ where the waitresses wear leather jackets and serve amusingly named cocktails, spray on cobwebs adorn spotless clean wall that are interrupted only by an artful aged band posters, and the music is always well within government safety guidelines.

Or we could be lucky and wiped out by a giant fucking tidal wave.

First published in 2009.

Author: Danny Smith

Danny Smith is a writer and malcontent, Contributing Editor of Paradise Circus.