The X Gang is a group of punks led by the scarred, silent, and mostly unreadable Christopher X. His best friend, Kurt Blank, is a hulking and talented punk guitarist living in the closet. Sisters Patti and Betty Upchuck form the core of the feminist Punk Rock Virgins band, and are the closest to X and Kurt. Assorted hangers-on and young upstarts fill out the X Gang’s orbit: the Hot Nasties, the Social Blemishes, and even the legendary Joe Strummer of the Clash. Together, they’ve all but taken over Gary’s, an old biker bar. Then over one dark weekend, a bloody crime nearly brings it all to an end.
Based on real events, Warren Kinsella tells the story of the X Gang’s punk lives — the community hall gigs, the antiracism rallies, the fanzines and poetry and art, and what happened after the brutal murders of two of their friends.
About the Author
Warren Kinsella is an author, musician, lawyer, and political consultant. His previous books include Recipe for Hate, book one in the X Gang series, the national bestsellers Web of Hate and Party Favours, Unholy Alliances, and Fury’s Hour: A (Sort-of) Punk Manifesto. Warren plays bass in a punk rock group called SFH and runs the popular blog The War Room. He lives in Toronto.
Read an Excerpt
X entered Gary's from the front, off Brown Street, like always. Many of us preferred to come and go through the door to the alleyway, because we were nervous about the regulars. It was also a good way to avoid paying a cover, if there was one. But X preferred to use the front.
X, my best friend, was like that.
On the heavy, reinforced black doors, below the number 13, a prehistoric sign had been screwed into place at eye level: "NO COLORS, NO KNIVES." For a few years there, Gary's had been a biker bar — mainly Outlaws, but some other gangs, too. Before punk arrived on the Portland scene, the bikers had filled the basement tavern every night. They'd chug cheap, watered-down draft in the long, narrow part of the bar. And, where it opened up at the other end, near the stage, they'd hate-stare any country-and-western or cover band stupid enough to agree to play. If they were really pissed off, they'd throw beer glasses at the stage.
None of us ever argued about the bikers' claim to Gary's. It was their place, no question. But toward the end of the '70s, they were getting arrested a lot more than they used to. As Portland grew, and as it imported more yuppie douchebags from New York and Boston or wherever, tolerance for the Outlaws basically disappeared. A few blocks away, at City Hall, our idiot mayor had decreed that Gary's attracted the sort of customers who didn't fit into the "new Portland." So the police started cracking down and most of the bikers started to move on. The hookers and junkies, too.
Gary's owner was pretty unhappy at the thought of redecorating the place to attract a new crop of patrons, mainly because he was a cheap bastard. But he also knew that no self-preserving, upwardly mobile, Ivy League couple would ever come near Gary's: it was a temple of filth. It was the church of dirt. Which kind of made us love it even more.
Dirt and dust and grime were everywhere. There was the ancient carpet that stretched from the front doors to the cracked tile on the dance floor. No one could make out the pattern anymore because it was so fucking dirty. There were these mismatched metal chairs with torn strips of vinyl-covered padding on the seats. The tiny round tables were covered with stained, orange cloths. There were frames containing ghostly paintings of plants and cowboys on the walls, decades of dust and cigarette smoke stuck to the cracked glass. A few yellowish light bulbs hung from what was left of the fixtures overhead. And there was the air itself, always reeking of cigarette smoke and dust and sweat and piss.
It was awesome.
Earlier in 1978, Gary's owners had read in the local paper, the Portland Press Herald, that those of us in various local punk bands were putting on our own shows in veterans' halls and community centers around the city. We were attracting hundreds of kids by word of mouth alone, the article said. The arch-conservative paper hated us, of course, but Gary's owners decided to let us book bands a couple nights a week. Maybe they'd turn a profit on beer sales, they figured.
And they sure did. The bikers didn't like the change, at first. But, eventually, they were sort of amused by us — these skinny, acne-scarred kids with weird clothes and dyed hair. We punks were misfits, like the bikers were, but we were also completely different. In the early days of the Portland scene, the punks were mostly Maine College of Art students, gays and lesbians, cross-dressers, poets, nonconformists, anarchists, socialists, the socially awkward, the overweight, the alienated, the angry, the underage, and assorted other urban outcasts. The factions that made up the local subculture were diverse, but somehow we all got along back in those days.
So the bikers stayed up near the front doors, and we punks were stuck at the back, hanging out around the stage and the subterranean alleyway exit. We left each other alone, sticking to our side of Gary's demilitarized zone.
Gary's owner — who rarely, if ever, enforced drinking age limits — was happy because our friends liked to drink almost as much as the bikers. Soon enough, then, our bands were on stage every night of the week except Sundays, when every bar was still required by Maine law to be closed. The Portland punk scene got a hub. It started to grow.
X, thou art Christopher.
He moved through the mass of hulking bikers, completely unfazed. Some of them looked up and glared. They had heard about X, and a lot of them didn't like him much. Unlike the other scrawny suburban kids, who seemed to cower whenever they were nearby, X was completely disinterested in them. To the other punks, the bikers were menacing, intimidating. But not to my buddy, X. And the bikers took notice.
Under one arm, X had a few copies of the New Musical Express — the super-hard-to-get British tabloid that had promoted the punk rock revolution first — along with a couple of notebooks. Under the other arm, he cradled some LPs, likely borrowed, by bands most people had never heard of. But it was him — his pale face, his blank expression, his total indifference to everything around him — that stood out. X was an outsider, even to the outsiders who made up the Portland scene. He was a misfit among the misfits.
X sat down with us, up near Gary's tiny stage, where the Hot Nasties had played earlier — and where the Punk Rock Virgins were still playing, but had just gone on a break.
X had called some of us that day, saying that he had some big news. He moved a couple glasses of draft out of the way and dumped the LPs, the notebooks, and the copies of the New Musical Express on the center of the table.
"Where's Jimmy?" he asked.
I pointed at Gary's rear door, toward the alleyway. "I think he's moving the van to the side, so nobody swipes everything again." I punched X in his leather-jacketed arm. I was a bit loaded. "Now buy me a beer, fag."
I could tell what he was thinking: Fag? Really?
X looked at me for a moment, an eyebrow up, then shook his head. He got up and went over to the bar to buy a couple of drafts for me and an RC Cola for himself. He returned to the table and pointed at the newer-looking copy of the New Musical Express. "Take a look," he said, expressionless. "The Nasties are in it."
Conversation stopped. We lunged at the magazines.
The Hot Nasties, as it turned out, had beaten everyone else in Portland at making a record, which was a pretty fucking big deal. They were one of the first punk bands in New England to do that. It had been Jimmy who'd pushed them into putting it together. The band recorded the four songs over three weekends at a garage converted into a mini-studio in Bayside. The two hippies who owned the place had never seen or heard anything like it before. They were totally disgusted.
The Nasties, however, were totally ecstatic with the results of the recording session. They came out of it with four original songs: "I Am a Confused Teenager," "The Secret of Immortality," "The October of Seven Oh," and "The Invasion of the Tribbles." Jimmy and Sam were big Star Trek fans, and they stuck references to the old TV show in a lot of their songs — along with plenty of other references to junk culture, because we loved junk culture. Serial killers, The Flintstones, AMC Pacers.
The good stuff.
The Hot Nasties didn't have a recording contract; in 1978, no Portland punk bands did. So they put out the EP on their own made-up label, Martian Martian Records, taking the name from a Jonathan Richman song. The band members designed the sleeve. The cover had one of my photos of the Nasties, smiling outside Gary's one night, clutching some smashed-to-pieces guitars and drums from a particularly demented gig. We glued the sleeves together late one drunken night at Sam's parents' place in Parkside, and then X — pretending to be their manager — sent a couple copies off to the New Musical Express, which along with Creem magazine and Melody Maker, were all we generally read, pretty much.
Someone — incredibly, unbelievably — had noticed. Buried within the pages of the NME, there was a section called "New and Noteworthy." In there, in a single paragraph, titled "Portland Punk Pressing," a writer with the initials CSM had written: "If you can't locate Portland, Maine, on a map, fret not. We can't either. But if tuneful, snappy punk rock still matters in late '78, then the four lads in the Hot Nasties may well succeed in getting their portside hometown better known. The quartet is Sam Shiller, lead guitar; Luke Macdonald, rhythm guitar; Eddie Igglesden on skins; and bassist and lead screamer, Jimmy Cleary. Their debut EP, issued on their own label, crackles with Buzzcockian wit and snottiness, and is therefore worth a spin. Available through money order only, The Invasion of the Tribbles EP argues convincingly that punk — at least on the other side of the pond — ain't dead yet. A quid will get it winging its way to you. Check it out."
Holy shit. HOLY SHIT!
A thumbs-up from the New Musical Express: it was like getting a great review from God. We all stared at the review, speechless. Without warning, Luke jumped up on his chair and let out a Tarzan scream, beating his chest. He hollered: "I love you, X! I fucking love you! When we are famous rock stars, I will let you visit my mansion!"
We all laughed and read and reread the review. A few others started to wander over to see what was going on.
When X had told the Nasties that he'd sent their EP to the NME, none of them thought that it would ever get noticed. The magazine paid attention to the Clash and the Sex Pistols and other big British bands — not a band like the Hot Nasties, in Outer Buttfuck, New England, U.S.A. But X told me he thought the record was really good, like the Ramones. So he mailed it off with a cover letter that had somehow caught the attention of Charles fucking Shaar Murray at the fucking New Musical Express, for fuck sakes. Still hollering that he was going to be famous, Luke wrapped his arms around X, who was trying to resist smiling. X didn't ever smile.
None of us could believe it; it was like a dream. As they looked at the article over Luke's shoulder, the three members of the Virgins were similarly blown away. Gary's veteran waitress, Koby, not so much. "That's nice," she said. "Who wants another round?"
So we ordered a round to celebrate, and X asked again where Jimmy was. "He should have been back by now, actually," Sam said, pulling some keys out of his jacket. "Shit! I just remembered I forgot to give him these."
Sam and Luke got up and headed up the stairs to the rear door of Gary's. A burst of cold air swept in, so a regular named Marky pulled the door shut behind them.
Seconds later, BANG! BANG! BANG!
Someone started hitting the door so hard, it seemed like it was going to buckle.
BANG! BANG! BANG!
X looked at me and we both got up and jogged over and opened the door. On the other side, Sam had no color in his face; he was a ghost, tears streaming down his face. Behind him in the gloom, Luke was puking.
"X! No no no!" Sam hollered, frantic, his voice breaking. He stumbled inside, down Gary's back stairs. "It's Jimmy!"
The headquarters for the Portland Police Department was really only a few blocks west of Gary's, on Middle Street, but the cops took what seemed like a fucking eternity to arrive. Trouble at or near Gary's — even murders there — were not ever high on the priority list for the city's police force.
So, by the time the cops arrived, every single biker except two had vanished. One guy was passed out on one of the filthy tables, snoring, and there was one other who worked at Gary's part-time, providing security. Most nights, this meant throwing drunks out onto Brown Street or whacking the violent ones in the alleyway with an old pool cue that had a metal rod running through it. His name was Mike. Nobody knew his last name, and nobodyd ever asked for it. Mike didn't ride with anyone in particular, and he was rumored to live in a cramped room two floors up in the same old brick building where Gary's was located. He was big, bearded, and brawny, but we all liked him because he didn't let any of the bikers push us around. You might say he was even a bit of a friend to the punks. He always wore jeans, a sleeveless jean jacket, and sometimes a T-shirt with FTW inscribed on it: FUCK THE WORLD.
Mike squinted at the bar area. Most of the punks had taken off, too. He sighed. Business was about to take a big downturn; Gary's would be shut down for a while, maybe for good. He looked at the members of the Nasties and the Virgins, all still in the bar, along with me and a half-dozen other punks from other bands. Some of the girls were crying. Some were shaking, or had their arms around each other. We looked like what we were, I guess: a bunch of skinny suburban kids barely old enough to drink. He felt sorry for us, I think.
The bartender on duty and Koby were moving between the tables, clearing away overflowing ashtrays and abandoned glasses of draft. They also looked grim, knowing that tonight might be their last shift at Gary's for a while.
I looked at X as he stood, rigid as a mic stand, midway between the door to the alleyway and Mike the bouncer. He seemed to be in a daze. X was kind of a leader to the rest of us, but at that moment, his face was as white as the sheet I'm typing this on. I had never seen him like that before.
"How well did you know him?" Mike quietly asked X. "What was his name?"
X looked at Mike and started to speak, but no sound came out.
Mike pointed at a chair. "Sit down, kid," he said. "The cops'll be here soon enough. They'll have plenty of questions."
About five minutes later, we heard the first patrol car finally arrive, skidding to a halt outside the front door, sirens blaring. Two young-looking constables swaggered into the bar and down the stairs. Mike led them past us to the alleyway door. It wasn't long before one constable came racing back through the bar and out the front doors.
The other stayed outside with Mike, and I thought about the two of them staring up at Jimmy, nailed into the porous old redbrick wall of Gary's back alley wall, his black brothel creepers two feet off the ground.
"Holy God," we heard the cop saying. "Holy God, I've never seen anything like this before."
"Ditto," Mike growled, just as X and I appeared in the doorway.
"You can't come out here, guys," the cop said, trying to sound in control. He cleared his throat, nervous. "You shouldn't come out here, anyway. It's not a good thing to see."
X nodded, but stayed where he was. "He was our friend," he said, his voice flat.
"What's his name?" the cop asked.
"Jimmy," I said. "Jimmy Cleary. ... Is anyone gonna call his parents?"
"We're waiting for the detectives. They're on their way."
By midnight, Gary's was swarming with a dozen police. I think it was the first time I was actually relieved to see the cops.
The uniformed ones were interviewing the bands and the bar staff. Some were out in the alleyway, trying to keep warm just outside the fluttering yellow caution tape and the Nasties' van. And some — the two lead detectives, in plainclothes — were sitting at tables with X and Mike the bouncer. Earlier, they'd spoken with me along with Sam Shiller and Luke Macdonald.
I watched and tried to remember what was going on, which was what I usually did.
I'm a journal-keeper. It keeps me sane. Sort of.
I looked down at the business card the detective had handed me. Terry Murphy, it said. Detective, Portland Police Department, plus a post office box and a phone number. His partner, Detective Savoie, was a table over, interviewing Mike and looking super pissed off.
Detective Murphy carefully watched as X turned over the business card in his hands, head down. Murphy spoke really quietly, almost in a whisper, like he had with me, but I could still hear him. He was going over the evening's events for the billionth time. "So, you and Kurt immediately went out there when you saw the reaction of the other two guys in the band, is that right, Chris?"
Everyone knew X didn't ever, ever like being called Chris; he actually didn't like being addressed by any name. "It's too intimate," he told me one time, a bit irritated, when I asked him about it. "The Koreans have it right. Don't use someone's given name." But that's another story.
This time, X didn't bother to correct Murphy. Instead, he just nodded. "Yeah, Kurt and I went out and we saw Jimmy" He sounded weary. "We tried to get him down, but we couldn't. We checked if he was breathing, but he wasn't. His skin was cold when we touched it ..." He stopped, clearing his throat. Listening to him, I started to cry again. X didn't. He never cried, as far as I knew.
Excerpted from "Recipe for Hate"
Copyright © 2017 Warren Kinsella.
Excerpted by permission of Dundurn Press.
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