Skinheads

“Is he white power?” I asked myself. It was a good question. In northeast Philly, pretty much everyone you’d ever met was a racist. Not formal racists, like Klan members and white power neo nazi skinheads. Just regular ass, run of the mill white people who didn’t want any ethnic minorities around. Jamie was the first person I had ever met who was explicitly NOT a racist. He told me so. When we started playing music together, he had just become friends with this anarchist guru named Tyler who seemed to have changed his life substantially. Jamie had recently become “vegan”, a word I had never heard before. “No animal products”, he said. “What about eggs?”, I’d ask. “Nope.” “What about fish?”, I’d ask. “Nope.”, He’d repeat. “What about honey?”, I’d harass. “Meat eaters are shit coffins!” , he countered. That shut me up. His attitudes toward everything else were also guided by the radical anarchism of the moment. He made racism, sexism, and homophobia seem distinctly uncool.

The whole time I had been becoming a punk, skinheads were always in the background or on the periphery. You’d go to a hardcore show at a VFW and there’d be a handful of skins there. You’d be in Wildwood with your family and see six or seven boardwalk punks and one or two skinheads. Even Penelope Spheeris’ film, Suburbia, a tale about a squat house full of punks in east Los Angeles, had one skinhead member in the crew. Why did punk rockers and skinheads hang out together? As far as I can tell, the only thing the two groups have in common is a love of fast, loud, aggressive music. What I liked about punk rock was its art laden, non conformist quality. Skinheads, in contrast, looked like they were wearing a uniform. I couldn’t really get the connection.

Skinheads had just been big news about a year and a half earlier when they went on the Geraldo Rivera show and got in a fight with the black and jewish panelists and broke Gerry’s nose. They were at, perhaps, an all time high in terms of recognizability. I think this made it attractive to kids that didn’t have a lot of identity or a strong sense of self. Nylon bomber jackets were more popular than ever. It seemed like a lot of skate kids that had flirted with being punks were now adopting some version of a skinhead look. Adding to an already confusing who’s who were the SHARPs. Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice. Like, what the fuck?! How confusing is that? Why even bother? To me, it sounds the same as Jews For Jesus or Hippies For Violence. Totally Incongruous. I know that supposedly the roots of the skinhead thing have nothing to do with being a white fascist. Allegedly it goes back to 70’s England and mods and 2 tone ska and pub rock and scooters and reggae rude boy whatever bullshit you want to site, but whatever. If your codified sub culture needs that much explanation, I don’t even want to know you. Then to make things even more confusing, there were a bunch of skinheads who got in trouble with it and started to let their hair grow but were still involved in some kind of organized bigotry. These creeps even had their own theme song-Secret Agent S.K.I.N. by Murphy’s Law.

That brings us to the music. I always thought that skinheads were into Black Flag and Minor Threat because those bands had bald singers, but I was sorely mistaken. It turned out that skinheads had their own music, like 2 or 3 kinds of their own music. There was “Oi”, which sounded like pub rock, but had lyrics that sought to be unpretentious and called for unity against socialism among the working class. Then there was “street punk”, which was kind of the same thing but with a little second guitar, Judas Priest sound thrown in. The third major type of skinhead music was “hate rock” which was just straight up white power, fascist hardcore music. The biggest selling hate rock band at the time was Screwdriver from Lancashire, England. The second biggest selling hate rock band at that time was Arresting Officers, who happened to be from my neighborhood, lower northeast Philly. What a dubious honor. The band and their auxiliary gang, The Philly Boot Boys, were allegedly something to be afraid of.

I started wearing combat boots in my freshman year of high school. My dad worked for the Philadelphia Parking Authority and every year, they’d give him a uniform allowance in the form of a voucher that he could use at a uniform store (I forget the name) under the el. One year, he got his voucher, but didn’t need anything, so he said I could use it if I wanted. We went down there and I got these killer combat boots with zippers up the insides. You could just lace them up one time and zip in and out of them. They had a steel toe and took a while to break in, but I loved them. We had a shoe polish kit at home and I got pretty fetishistic about getting them to be super shiny all the time because of some shit I had in my head from Sgt. Carter yelling at Gomer Pyle. I started wearing them to school. My school had a pretty strict dress code that called for black dress shoes. A couple of the pervert priests asked me if I thought my footwear was dress code compliant. I’d just shrug and they’d let it go. I liked wearing the boots to school because unlike dress shoes, I could run in them if I had to, and also unlike dress shoes, they had a steel toe so I could turn around and fuck somebody up with ‘em if I had to too.

What I found out from some of the small population of weirdos at my school was that there was a lace code. Like, If you were a communist, You’d wear red laces in your boots, and if you were a nazi, you’d wear green laces. If you wore white laces, you were white power. “Let me guess,” I said, “If I wear yellow laces, does it mean I like golden showers?!?” They just frowned. None of them had seen William Friedkin’s Crusin’, with Al Pacino as a homicide detective undercover in New York’s gay leather scene of the late 70’s, but whatever. So I said fuck all of that, I’m just gonna have black laces in my boots ‘cause I never heard of anything so dumb as having your political beliefs spelled out on your feet so that a very small, super specific group of judgmental fuck faces could identify and categorize you easily.

The next thing I found out about were Dr. Marten’s or “docs”. These were the preferred boots of the subculture. Like, combat boots were great, but if you wanted to be Really Real, you’d go spend(get your parents to shell out) $120 and up for these other, “more punk” shoes. The only thing was, if you got them, you’d have to make sure you didn’t run into The Philly Boot Boys or even worse the infamous A.C.(Atlantic City)Skins, because if you did, the legend was, they felt that only skinheads were “allowed” to wear them and they’d beat the shit out of you and steal your boots, which is so ridiculous and totally ironic because that’s what I was always told would happen if I let myself be surrounded by a gang of black kids; that they’d stomp my head and steal my sneakers.

“Is he white power?” The question hung in the air, in my mind. The truth is I didn’t want to know. Erik was a nice guy. He had a nice family. This whole dressin’ like a skinhead thing was probably just a reaction to his parents, who were hippies. They were nice, intelligent people who talked to you like you were a person. They had a heavy public television vibe and dad had a beard. Lookin like a fascist was probably the only way to be rebellious around there. So I did what I always did at that point in my life. I avoided it. I never asked him if he was a nazi. In fact I stopped calling him altogether. Things had obviously fizzled as far as Kate was concerned, she was totally uninterested in being in a band with us, so I just let it all drop.

A week later I walked into Cintioli’s and bought a used Roland TR-505 drum machine.

 

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