Downtown Las Vegas is cold tonight and we need a place to get warm while we wait for friends. My boyfriend and I decide to duck into our familiar haunt, The Beat, which is a calm beacon amid the crowded hipster havens along East Fremont on a busy Friday night. Every other spot has a long line corralled by a velvet rope and a bouncer. From their open doors spill the same DJ beats more fitting for a Strip nightclub than these venues which started as alternatives to the mainstream. But things are changing. Already edgy downtown Las Vegas isn’t what it used to be.
The Beat is nearly empty. The bouncer is at the bar holding a coffee. He nods to us as we make our way to the back and take a seat on a comfy sofa. There is a band playing, filling the empty space with distorted sound. We order drinks, loosen our scarves and settle in. We are not happy about the cold, the long walk, the lack of parking, our friends making us wait so long. But there is free live music, so we put on brave faces and try to make the most of it.
The lead singer announces it’s time for his ragtag crew to play some Joy Division. No one in the anemic audience stirs, but I sit up and take notice. I have to explain to my younger boyfriend the significance of this moment. He needs a quick history lesson, starting with Joy Division, moving on to New Order, the band formed in the wake of their lead singer Ian Curtis’s suicide, and followed by a brief summary of post-punk, goth, and the emergence of alternative music in the eighties. Things were different back then, I swear to him, not quite believing the way these words feel coming from my mouth. Who is this person I’ve become, on the other side of a generation gap I didn’t realize I had bridged?
And then the haunting synth chords of Love Will Tear Us Apart begin and I’m done talking. I’m transported to another place, my eighties youth, that misunderstood era, when wearing black was a statement, your taste in music could literally define you, swearing allegiance to a band or a genre of music could be an act of rebellion. Music was dangerous. But it also had the power to save you.
In the eighties, before it was possible to download any song by any band in an instant, things were very different. We had to actually discover new things, like explorers. We came upon new bands and songs by chance, or fate. From word of mouth, obscure college radio stations or bootleg cassette tapes passed hand to hand by friends. It created a division between being mainstream and being on the cutting edge. Getting turned onto a band before anyone else was a badge of honor. It took leg work. It required a sense of adventure, the right connections, luck, and chutzpah. It also required courage to flash that badge of honor, to have the balls to go out on a limb as the first, the one who would take a chance and pop that cassette into the tape deck, wear the concert t-shirt of some obscure band. It put you at risk of being labeled a freak, a weirdo, or worst of all, a fag. This was the cruelest label of all for a closeted teen.
The kids who turned me on to bands like Joy Division were used to being taunted and ostracized. They weren’t self-conscious and hungry for approval. They ignored the Top 40 playlist on every radio station and scored bootleg cassettes of post-punk, industrial, and alternative music for us to share.
And they didn’t seem to care what anyone thought about it.
I first met these daring friends before we even started high school through a game called Dungeons & Dragons. Now played by millions throughout the world, at the time it was something of a cultish hobby known almost exclusively to socially awkward teenage boys. It was also horribly misunderstood by much of the American public, accused of being a gateway drug to Satanism and suicide. These outlandish claims unfortunately gained traction throughout the eighties. It made proximity to the game a dangerous prospect, banishing those of us who played it to a special category of social pariah. Dangerous to ourselves and others, akin to being placed on group suicide watch. There were sideways glances, whispers behind our backs. Even bizarre accusations that we had indoctrinated ourselves into a devil-worshipping cult.
So at a certain age I made a decision. I shared a bond with my Dungeons & Dragons companions that would always be there. My best memories were with them. But they belonged to a world that was far removed from the harsh social circles that high school occupied. As we grew into teenagers and the world shifted around us, I felt the pressure to distance myself from them.
They were quirky kids — interesting, different, smart beyond belief. But they were nerds. They didn’t fit in. And they weren’t popular. One had curly red hair and glasses. He was smart and kind and hilariously funny. But that carried no currency once we got to high school. One was talented in every way and had an IQ that was off the charts. But he was scrawny and uninterested in sports, had Jehovah’s Witness parents and evil genius tendencies that creeped other kids out. I didn’t see anything wrong with these friends. They were simply uninterested in being cool or blending in. This put them in conflict with an odd set of strict rules. And as long as I wanted to be on the other side of the nerd divide, I had to play by this set of rules.
I wanted desperately to be accepted so that I could avoid outcast status and the bullying and physical violence that came with it. I had the added burden of being in the closet, a secret that would have carried very real and horrific consequences if it had gotten out. But there was also a part of myself — that I didn’t even realize was there — that enjoyed being popular. And it was an ugly, tenacious thing. It refused to back down, no matter what I had to exchange in return for this new status.
So what if I had to compromise some of the things that made me unique? I didn’t give them all up. It was always a tug of war. I kept some quirks but smoothed others over. It didn’t seem a bad trade off. But there were some things I could never reconcile. I was acutely aware that I was selling my former friends out. And I felt awful, like a betrayal. I swore to myself I would try to find a way to apologize one day. I didn’t realize they wouldn’t care. They wouldn’t need an apology.
I used to spend countless hours making mix tapes that I likened to works of art, juxtaposing songs so that they were almost having conversations with each other. The end result needed to be cohesive, but not predictable. It needed to maintain a comprehensive style, but still contain elements of surprise. It had to make sense as a collection of songs that belonged together, but still have a few twists, a few complications, to make things interesting. I took what I did seriously, and those that listened to the finished product appreciated the effort.
One day I got picked up in front of my house by Matty, my new best friend, one of the popular kids. I popped in a mix tape I had made for our trip to a nearby college town. I told him the names of the bands as they played, strumming air guitar along with the melody. Most of them were new to him. He didn’t care what we listened to as long as we were hanging out and driving around. We always had a good time when it was just the two of us.
The next time he came to pick me up he had two other guys from the football team along for the ride. I played the same cassette. The guys made horrified faces, as if they were witnessing a gory accident. They ridiculed us, said it was fag music, told us to turn the shit off, said, now I know why you two have been hanging out so much. Matty ripped the cassette out and tossed it through the window. They laughed as it skittered along the potholed road behind us and disappeared into the wild grass. I laughed, too. Where’d you get that shitty ass tape anyway? I named one of my old gaming pals, the first one who came to mind. Judas to the end. You still hang with those faggots? It was a long time ago, I said.
So no more listening to the bands I loved.
No more Echo and the Bunnymen, no more Siouxsie and the Banshees, no more Dead Kennedys. That music was for fags.
They’d never heard of any of it. They listened to Guns N’ Roses. They listened to Bon Jovi. They listened to AC/DC. When I was with them, that’s what I listened to. It was the price I paid to fit in, to not be made a target.
It felt great to get invited to parties, to have somewhere to go every weekend, to have the guys who used to push me into lockers and sneer at me now high-five me and feed me drinks, put their arms around my shoulders and whisper secrets in my ear. It felt good to be on the inside looking out. I had performed some sort of intricate voodoo ceremony. I had sacrificed something for this.
No more Smiths, no more Depeche Mode, no more Cure.
No more Sigue Sigue Sputnik, no more Psychedelic Furs, no more Ministry.
No more Joy Division.
And no more Dungeons & Dragons.
The band finishes their song and moves on to the next. My boyfriend grabs my hand and holds it tightly to his chest. No one here pays any attention to two men holding hands. When we walk down East Fremont Street we rarely get a second glance unless it’s from girls in their twenties who make the same wide-eyed pouty faces they might make when they see a cute puppy they want for themselves. We are precious to them, a happy couple, not afraid to show our love, and because of this, they approve. They seem to have some notion that we are superior to the straight men who disappoint them. I smile at them.
The very young crowd at The Beat seems to enjoy the music, but of course they didn’t sit in their bedrooms at night when they were teens and listen to these lyrics until their cassettes wore out, didn’t cling to their few moments alone with these melancholy tunes with the same desperation. I don’t fault them for this. They came late to the party after all. But how odd it is that this music that was so powerful to me, which I had to sacrifice on the altar of survival and self-preservation, which once flew like a flag of rebellion and subversion, now floats in the air as little more than background noise?
The lead guitar guides the band through another set. I recognize every song. More Joy Division, Morrissey, then some Smiths covers. The band is hitting all the right notes tonight. We settle in and wait for our friends. The music and nostalgia wash over me.
If I were the main character in an eighties movie the plot would be predictable. I would learn my lesson before it’s too late, realize it was all a big mistake. If I could just go back to the way things used to be, when my gaming buddies and I were playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement, listening to bootleg mix tapes, when I felt respected for who I was, quirky, different, interesting, not like everyone else. And then I would come out of the closet and they would say, we knew all along, we love you no matter what. Why don’t you play a gay elf paladin, and in our next adventure, you can rescue the elf prince, instead of the princess, cause you’re gay and all, get it?
In real life of course none of that happened. Not enough of the world had changed for a story like that. And I’m not sure how the gaming geeks would have reacted to a coming out. Who knows? Maybe they weren’t the saints I remember them to be through the haze of nostalgia. And then of course there was part of me, a big part of me, that had changed, that was too far gone. It felt good to be popular. It didn’t matter to me that the kids who went from scorning me to inviting me to their houses for parties were blatant hypocrites. Not at first.
There are hidden parts of ourselves that are in conflict with each for a long time unless we pay attention to them. I didn’t think it mattered to me that the kids who once tortured me were now my best friends, that the same kids who used to taunt me for being different now praised me for being interesting, now that I had sanded down my edges. But as time passed, I knew that I was seething with resentment.
The lead singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1980, just before the band was about to make their first American tour. It added to their tragic, mythic allure. When I was in high school I became convinced the only way out of the mess my life had become was to kill myself.
I was in the closet and miserable. Death sometimes seemed like a reasonable option. The music of those who felt the same way resonated with me. Any adult who preached that suicide was not the answer, that it was a permanent solution to a temporary problem, simply wasn’t speaking the same language. Music that embraced darkness and flirted with despair and obliteration spoke to me.
The haunting lyrics and gloomy melodies of the post-punk, pre-alternative music of the eighties, the music that was there for those of us who dared to step out and find it, was vital and necessary for me. Instead of being something that drove me toward suicidal thoughts and depression, it was something that let those thoughts find an expression, let them live and breathe. A pressure valve, a way to know I wasn’t alone in experiencing them.
This sort of music was a lifeline for a kid like me, depressed, closeted, angry and frustrated, living a lie, surrounding myself with popular kids just to escape being tormented by them, all the time pretending to be one of them, when I had abandoned who I was.
I was inspired by this music of rebellion, of anti-establishment sentiment, of screw authority rage. And yet there I was letting these dumb jock conformists take a mix tape of music I loved, a creation I had made which meant something important to me, and toss it out the window like trash, just because I was afraid it identified me as a freak, a weirdo, a fag.
How was I supposed to combat that? How was I supposed to face that day after day and not turn myself into a target? I had to do something to avoid being the lightning rod of their misplaced hostility and aggression.
I had a secret that could destroy me. I was helpless, the slightest chink in my armor, and I was dead.
The band finishes its set for the night and we leave the Beat and walk back out into the cold on East Fremont Street. The music from the clubs competes for attention on the busy sidewalk. Our friends finally arrive. At one club after another we are told there is a steep cover for the men. My boyfriend and I would have to pay twice. Other than that we don’t feel different. It doesn’t feel like discrimination, just the way of things. Men pay to get into lots of clubs in Las Vegas. Usually just on the Strip. Downtown didn’t used to be like this. Apparently now it is.
We ditch East Fremont, where we don’t recognize the pricey tourist traps our familiar spots have become overnight, and head to a new place, where there is no cover charge and the drinks are cheap. The music is better and we are happy to be in from the cold. My boyfriend and I dance together. Several strangers are watching us, smiling.
A group of tourists stop us when we leave at the end of the night, to tell us, you guys look happy. A beefy guy in a Raiders cap says, man I wish my girlfriend looked at me the way your guy looks at you. He looks pretty drunk but still, the sentiment seems sincere, and it’s nice to see some things have changed.
James Joseph Brown’s fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Crate, Desert Companion, Santa Fe Literary Review, Hot Metal Bridge, Connotation Press, Red Rock Review, Canyon Voices, The Whistling Fire, and other publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His website is www.jamesjosephbrown.com.