True Cult

Written for Operation Werewolf by Joshua Buckley

“In opposition to what psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and ‘social workers’ think—in a society, a civilization, like ours, and, especially, like that of the USA—one must in general admit that the rebel, the being who does not adapt, the a-social being, is in fact the sanest man.”—Julius Evola, “Youths, Beats & Right-Wing Anarchists”

I have an early memory of being at a county fair with my parents in the late 1970s; I guess I would have been about five or six years old at the time. I’m sure the fair itself was fun, but the real thing that I remember was seeing a group of bikers passing through the crowd. They were big, burly guys with lots of tattoos, and it was obvious even then that they made a big impression on people. They seemed to generate a mixture of fear and respect that was completely outside of my little-kid range of experience. I thought it was awesome. If they had asked me to run away with them (maybe the club could find some use for a five-year-old prospect), I would have jumped at the opportunity.

Around the same time, my family was making the drive from our house in Connecticut to my grandfather’s place near the New York state line. I remember crossing a bridge in my dad’s gray station-wagon, when he suddenly got agitated and pointed out a bunch of long-hairs hanging out down by the railroad tracks. “Those are druggies!” he exclaimed. Maybe this was supposed to set some kind of example. It did, but probably not the one he had in mind. I said nothing, but in my innermost heart I vowed that I would one day return to see if I, too, could become a druggie. I had no idea what drugs even were, but the long hair looked cool and the druggies must have been pretty amazing guys if they could elicit that kind of reaction from my dad.

When I started elementary school I was already pretty interested in music. Even in the small town where I lived, there were a few kids in the seventh and eighth grades who would wear denim vests with those giant Iron Maiden back patches that were popular at the time. I was still playing with Star Wars figures and reading comic books, so seeing “Eddie” with his bloody axe leering out at me from the back of those crusty jackets seemed both intimidating and alluring. By the time I was in the third or fourth grade, I was buying all the heavy metal I could get my hands on (I had a paper route, so I could pay for my habit). I was the only kid in my class who was listening to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Accept, which also made me feel vaguely superior to my classmates—despite the fact that, by all outward appearances, I was kind of a nerdy kid who didn’t have a lot of friends.

My parents weren’t all that thrilled about my choices in music. The “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s was well underway, and Judas Priest were being sued for causing two teenagers to shoot themselves in the head under the influence of the “subliminal messages” Rob Halford had allegedly hidden in his music. I assured my dad that I just liked the heavy metal “beat” and wasn’t listening to the lyrics, but that was bullshit. I pored over every word on those albums, trying to uncover whatever messages Satan might have encoded there. At the same time, I fantasized about the members of my favorite bands performing infernal rites that would have made the Marquis de Sade blush. The truth, however, was that most of it just seemed to be about partying and chicks (well, maybe not the latter in Judas Priest’s case), two things that I had absolutely zero interest in. I began to suspect that the only Black Masses that were taking place were in the imaginations of the Christian preachers who were burning piles of heavy metal albums on TV.

In the sixth grade I made friends with a kid named Casey who was also a metalhead. Casey’s older brother had a treasure trove of albums stashed in his room, and we would sneak in and listen to them while he was out skateboarding, or getting high, or screwing his girlfriend, or whatever else cool older kids did. Casey’s brother was a big Mercyful Fate fan, and I felt encouraged that King Diamond might actually be a real Satanist. Casey’s brother was also into the Misfits, and I was pretty sure that “Earth A.D.” was the wickedest album I’d ever heard. I played it over and over again, and it felt like demons were flying out of the speakers. I wish I could still summon up that kind of excitement when I listen to music now.

The Misfits were my entrée into punk and hardcore. Glam rock was ruining heavy metal, and black metal wasn’t really around yet, although I was definitely a Venom fan. I couldn’t really figure out what to make of punk. There was no Internet then; you just had to take what information you could get and sort things out on your own. Besides Casey, I didn’t really know anyone else who was getting into the bands that I liked, and the record store near where I lived would stick albums by the B-52s and REM in the same bin with Black Flag and the Germs and call it all “alternative”—whatever that was supposed to mean. A lot of the stuff I was buying just seemed silly and irreverent, like the Angry Samoans and the Meatmen. My dad took away my Meatmen album, because for some reason he thought songs like “Tooling for Anus” and “Crippled Children Suck” were inappropriate for a thirteen-year-old.

What really captured my imagination, though, were the political bands like Crass, the Subhumans, and the Dead Kennedys. (I met Jello Biafra a few years ago, and it may be the only time that I’ve ever felt a little bit star struck.) I had absolutely no context for understanding what any of it was actually about, and, as with my attempts to decode the secret messages I was sure were lying just below the surface of heavy metal albums, I would assiduously study the lyric sheets for clues. What I could tell was that the music was angry, rebellious, and clearly about issues that seemed important. This was what I was looking for, even if the issues were ones I couldn’t really comprehend as a young kid. However, as I started to become a little more aware, I grew disillusioned with punk. The politics was basically just hippie shit set to aggressive music. I didn’t want to hear songs about economic inequality, or evil corporations, or how sinister that doddery old film-actor Ronald Reagan was. Punk really had it in for Ronald Reagan.

As I got to be a teenager, I was angry, alienated, but also vaguely idealistic. I wanted to burn down the world and build a new one. Then some kids I knew through skateboarding played me a third or fourth-generation cassette copy of Skrewdriver’s “Voice of Britain.” It sounded edgy and intense. It was also around the time that skinheads began appearing regularly in the American media. First, they made Oprah Winfrey cry, then they broke Geraldo Rivera’s nose with a chair. To my addled adolescent brain, that seemed a lot more “punk rock” than punk rock. I managed to get into skinhead culture without actually knowing any real skinheads—otherwise, I might have stayed away from it altogether. But in my mind, I imagined that the skins were disciplined political soldiers, ready to march into battle with a corrupt and dying System. Like a lot of those guys, I don’t know that I really hated Black people or Jewish people or gay people so much as I hated everyone and everything. I also liked the idea of belonging to a brotherhood, one that was hated and feared by everyone else. As soon as I turned sixteen, I quit high school and relocated to the city, where I could be a part of an actual crew. There was a pretty big scene where I ended up, and I moved into a house with a bunch of other guys that was basically our headquarters.

Of course, the reality was that most of the skinheads I met were just into drinking shitty beer and beating each other up for no reason—probably not a lot different than gangs of Black kids, or Hispanic kids, or whatever. A lot of them were complete morons. A few of them were smart and interesting people who went on to do smart and interesting things. Some of them were probably genuine psychopaths. I had a roommate who beat his girlfriend to death and got pulled over driving around with her body in the trunk. Another skinhead who stayed with us was a thief who ended up being shot in the back of the head near a militia compound out West. Some of those guys are in prison now, and some of them ended up being normal suburbanite husbands and dads. I spent about three years running in that scene, then drifted away. I was way more into reading than drinking Natty Light, and by the time I was in my early twenties, it seemed like there were a lot more interesting things to do than being a bonehead.

In Christopher Lasch’s famous book The Culture of Narcissism, he talks about how at some point there was a paradigm shift away from thinking that people can change the world, to deciding that every problem is ultimately just a personal problem. In other words, there’s no reason to change this society when we can just change ourselves to adapt to this society. Yet when you consider how many people are on SSRIs, or in some kind of therapy, or self-medicating with booze and pain pills and reality television, wouldn’t it make more sense to conclude that maybe it really is this society that’s fucked up? I wasn’t attracted to punk rock and Satanism and skinheads because I had a bad childhood (I didn’t), or was abused (I wasn’t), or had a “chemical imbalance,” or anything of the sort. I was attracted to these things because this society is weak and hollow and empty, and I never really wanted to be a part of it. I was attracted to anything that seemed angry and antinomian because I wanted to revolt.

It’s easy to point out all the problems with youth subcultures. Most of them are sort of ridiculous, most of them are ultimately dead ends, and none of them are likely to change the world. Movements like punk rock invariably get co-opted by the Establishment (and in reality, even the Sex Pistols started out as a “boy band” deliberately manufactured by the clever fashionista Malcolm McLaren). Subcultures are also clearly a product of the postmodern world, where stable, traditional identities have broken down. But when you’re a kid, the subculture feels more like the true cult. It has its own art, music, tribal markings, and language. It encourages a mentality of “us versus them.” It can be immersive and overpowering. In fact, it is the training ground for the tribal imagination.

Subcultures are also a legitimate response to things that are seriously lacking in modern Western societies. People tend to dismiss teenage angst and alienation as if they are just a hormonal disruption that’s a natural part of “growing up.” I have raised teenagers, and this assessment is partially true. But modernity really is profoundly alienating. Unlike traditional cultures, modernity provides no meaningful sense of belonging, no rites of initiation, and no sense that we have any kind of purpose that transcends our base animalistic appetites. Another aspect of modernity that often gets ignored is just how boring it is. For thousands of years, our evolution has programmed us to hunt in packs and to fight in warrior bands. There is little in our biology that has prepared us to while away our lives in the classroom or in the office cubicle, committing slow, humiliating mind-suicide. The passive consumption of movies and television is no substitute for the type of real adventure that our ancestors experienced. But the mosh pit and the boot party provide some consolation for these lost dimensions of our humanity.

This rotten world may blow itself to bits tomorrow or it may limp along for decades. In any case, there’s probably not a lot that any of us can do to stop its trajectory. However, the lesson that I’ve learned from my travels in the subcultural underground is that we can create our own world—and we can live in it today—regardless of what happens in their world. And unlike the teenage subcultures that are built around music, or fashion, or superficial politics, we can build ours on the solid foundations of tradition, and ritual, of real meaningful human relationships, and under the banner of genuine opposition.