Sweaty summer nights in badly ventilated rooms, loud music filling your chest cavity. The bone-splitting ballet of the mosh pit. Standing so close to the stage that members of the band sweat on you. Chatting up new friends between sets. Crowding around the stage door or the entrance to the recording studio for a glimpse of your heroes. Picking up a folded-and-stapled fanzine at the merch table to find new bands and venues. Philadelphia native Nancy Barile has written a valentine to the pre-internet punk scene with her new memoir, I’m Not Holding Your Coat: My Bruises-and-All Memoir of Punk Rock Rebellion.
As a fan, and eventually a critic and a promoter, of hardcore music and the community that rose up around it, Barile depicts the dopamine high of searching grimy record stores for her new favorite singles; she also shows readers the bank-account-emptying despair that came from booking overseas bands for punk festivals at VFW halls. I’m Not Holding Your Coat is a deeply poignant read, not only for its look at an era long passed but also for what we’ve missed from live music and in-person community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A young rebel
Organized rebellion came easily to Barile. She recalls her sixth-grade “act of defiance” at St. Titus School in Norristown, Pennsylvania, responding to the cruelty of the authoritarian teachers and administrators by circulating a petition to allow students permission to enter the school building before classes started.
“I worked that playground like a Vietnam war protestor,” Barile writes of her community organizing technique. While her petition initially drew holy outrage from the principal of the school, who ordered her to “offer up your discomfort from the elements to God!”, she eventually learned that the administration would allow students inside the building after the morning drop-off. “Rebellion had tasted good,” she says. “I had fought the man and won.”
The sweet flavor of rebellion, combined with the communities that flourished around music in the 1970s, sustained Barile in her postgraduate life. She met friends and allies through the Philly music scene who either helped her realize her dreams in concrete ways or just opened her up to new ways of seeing the world. Even a task that seems pedestrian in real life, like lining up for concert tickets, becomes a social event.
“I saw so many cool, interesting, and eccentric people in those lines: photographers, writers, musicians, models, and a few high school kids from other suburban towns,” she writes. A chance encounter with Patti Brett leads to a story about the Sigma Kids, a group of teenage David Bowie fans who held vigil outside the Sigma Sound studios for a glimpse of their hero. While Barile never met Bowie, seeing how small the gap between artist and fan can be informed her eventual work on the scene.
Places on the scene
“I needed to participate and give something back,” she writes. “I was pissed that I had zero musical talent, but I knew there had to be a way I could contribute.” Writing reviews for fanzines helped Barile find her place on the scene, and her presence and passion and understanding for the music led her to the Sadistic Exploits, a multiracial punk quartet that she managed for a time.
The names of venues and important music locations in the tri-state area weave through I’m Not Holding Your Coat like a metallic thread in a pair of tartan pants. Some venues—like the Hot Club and Omni in Philly, City Gardens and Emerald City in New Jersey, and CBGB in New York—barely stayed open past the turn of the millennium, if they stayed open that long. Others, like the Tower Theater and Patti Brett’s bar Doobies, have remained empty for the past year, waiting out the end of a global pandemic.
If seeing the names of the venues sends a wave of nostalgia through readers, Barile’s descriptions of seeing shows offers a Proustian rush. Looking back on a show her friends booked at the Elks Center in Philadelphia, she recalls “When I walked into the dark, cavernous room with its huge, medieval windows and heard the eerie, pulsating boom of Bauhaus, I was overwhelmed. The band and the venue merged into a creepy, dark, visceral experience.” She would eventually follow in her friends’ footsteps by booking a series of Punk Fests at the venue.
From wheatpaste to Facebook
The music scene today would be almost unrecognizable to a fanzine editor and promoter in 1982. Even before COVID forced the closure of venues, many of the administrative tasks Barile conducted over the phone or in-person now take place online. (With the overseas long-distance phone rates of a dollar a minute, one can almost imagine the relief she’d feel at the advent of email.) The unpleasant task of wheatpasting flyers has given way to Facebook invites. Even the feuds have been outsourced to social media. A series of pranks Barile played on promoter Bobby Startup after he booked a British band she had initially scheduled for a Punk Fest would probably be a tweet war if it happened today.
Nothing replicates the power of live music, though Barile’s thoughtful observations about the scene come close. She writes about the “magnetic pull” that live bands have on her, and the “current coursing through my body and my brain” when she sees an early Bad Brains show. Zoom shows and Instagram Live broadcasts can capture the spontaneity of live music at a club, but the chat window is no replacement for spending time with your friends at a show.
The full sensory experience of live music is one of the greatest losses of our current pandemic, and one of the things most at risk in our current economic climate. In I’m Not Holding Your Coat, Barile shows the life-changing qualities of live music and a healthy arts community. As the pandemic comes closer to being under control, may we look to her ingenuity and resourcefulness as we reboot the local arts scene.
Image description: The cover of I’m Not Holding Your Coat. It has a black-and-white photograph of a white woman with short, shaggy hair on a city street. She’s wearing a black jacket with several zippers. She’s facing the camera as if stopping to turn toward the viewer. The book title and author, Nancy Barile, appear in bold black and yellow text.
What, When, Where
I’m Not Holding Your Coat: My Bruises-and-All Memoir of Punk Rock Rebellion. By Nancy Barile. Brooklyn: Bazillion Points, January 28, 2021. 192 pages, softcover; $14.95. Get it from bookshop.org.