A Punk Rock Summer in Cowboy Territory
by Aaron Heil
“Movies” – Alien Ant Farm
Immediate, crunchy guitar riffs and percussive shots of energy struck through my ears as I passed the golf course where my first day of work began in ten minutes. The Boss had not arrived yet, so I turned right at the corner as I listened to Alien Ant Farm’s Anthology. I needed a peppy, optimistic song running through my veins, like “Movies” which exudes more optimism than any other break-up song I know. It described, in pop culture language, a new beginning. Plus, I really needed the work before I went back to college. My resume only had volunteer hours at a museum and one job at an amusement park. When The Boss hired me at the golf course, I treated myself to a treasure hunt at Goodwill and dug up Anthology. I woke up that morning pumped beyond sleepiness, but I found a locked front gate. I did laps around the block until The Boss opened up.
“Don’t get here so early,” The Boss said.
“Avant Gardener” – Courtney Barnett
This song melts right off the bat and so did that summer. June, July, and August collapsed into one indeterminate puddle, studded with occasional storms. Barnett’s deadpan, nearly androgynous voice binds the ambling music to lyrics like a routine. Every day began with the tee boxes – white for beginners, blue for intermediate, and red for advanced players – that always needed new positions to avoid leaving permanent holes in the grass. After the tee boxes, I trimmed the grass around the trees with a weed whacker. We maintenance guys ran in slow motion as the golfers moved around us over the fairways. For lunch and fuel refills, I checked in at the Shed. The Shed, an island of shade in an ocean of heat contained, the mowers. A chalkboard inside dictated who mowed what when. Life on a golf course revolves around grass growth.
“That’s My Kind of Night” – Luke Bryan
Country music filled the Shed. I hated the country music released in my lifetime. It bleeds into every crevice of Kansas radio, and increasingly it features beats that either snap listeners into line or club them over the head with noise. However, the distorted amps appeal to rock fans. Also, anyone can dance to it. “Anyone” includes nerds like me and my friends, who heard it every single time we coughed up five bucks at the door of Dirty Dawgs in Aggieville. No Wildcat has a real K-State experience until they pay to enter a crowded honky-tonk to swing dance with a real, live stranger of the desired gender. We wore plaid button-downs to pass ourselves off as cowboys. Girls love Luke Bryan, I thought, as I led wallflowers to the dance floor. Temporarily, we lost ourselves as track after track of the same accents and metaphors repeatedly numbed our thoughts. Then, in Wichita, when I ate lunch with a bunch of middle-aged men, the same beats thrummed through the air that played while I tried (unsuccessfully) to meet girls. The Boss never changed the radio station. Also, he wore a button-down shirt and a cowboy hat to work every single day.
“Candlelight” – Relient K
“Redo Hole Six, the white boxes fell out,” The Boss said. “The trees look shaggy, too.”
By now, I had the lay of the course so I bounced like yarn mallets on a glockenspiel. I grooved over to serene Hole Six with the verdant elm trees located just over a stream of a water hazard. With no golfers in sight, my lips radiated songs from Forget and Not Slow Down in tribute to seclusion. Relient K’s Matthew Thiessen isolated himself to Winchester, Tennessee to write the album. Dixieland mellowed out his band’s bright pop-punk into a chill, entrancing alternative rock. By “Candlelight,” I daydreamed about girls, dancing, and my brother’s wedding one summer away where I hoped I might dance with a girl to this song, since after all he introduced me to Relient K –
“Owwwaaaaagh!” I screamed. Fire pulsed from my thumb to my palm. The weed whacker slowed down to a whine as it fell from my grip. Some bright yellow insect flew back into the elms. I grew dizzy as I stared at my purple thumb. In the Shed, I drank water and texted my brother who teaches college-level biology. At his advice, I looked for a splinter. I pulled the stinger out of my thumb, drank more water, and limped back to Hole Six.
“Walkampf” – Die Toten Hosen
I had sand in my boots and a bottle of pesticide in my hand as I checked bunkers for the nests of cicada killer wasps. Cicada killers don’t attack humans, but The Boss said they bother the customers and I had a feud with Order Hymenoptera. “Walkampf,” an ode to Sisyphean efforts, by Die Toten Hosen became my marching song. Before I left on summer break, I listened to lots of German punk. I had four semesters of German completed when I decided to study abroad. See Berlin’s island of museums, I told myself. Professors, admissions counselors, and the film EuroTrip assured me about it’s ease. So I completed my application alongside a Catholic engineer who wanted to see Dublin’s churches and an anthropology major who had Australia on his bucket list. The study abroad office rejected us all, but I did not realize this until April or so. Of all the German songs I listened to, nothing zipped about my skull more than “Walkampf’s” unique punk/surf rock mashup. It’s resilient, catchy and stupidly peppy. I tried not to smile at the absurdity of pushing a whale back in the ocean alone as I squirted pesticide into the little wasp burrows.
“Streets of Bakersfield” – Buck Owens
“Do you ever listen to American music?” Dad affected a heavy drawl and smirked at my copy of Forget and Not Slow Down. I laughed. We drove my truck down a dusty red highway in Oklahoma. We did not listen to Relient K or, even after I told him about “Walkampf,” Die Toten Hosen. Instead, the quiet guitar introduction to “Streets of Bakersfield” snuck in through my dad’s preferred country music station. We headed toward Oklahoma City, where he and Mom worked Monday through Thursday before they commuted back to Wichita on the weekend. We carried furniture in the bed of my pickup for their apartment. When my dad drove, I could always listen to country music because Dad liked the classics. When Buck Owens cut “Streets of Bakersfield,” he had a perfect country music voice: broken-in like a faithful jacket but not comically mournful. My parents and I meadered with the tune around Oklahoma City one weekend before they accompanied me back to Wichita, and dropped me off at our empty house where I lived that summer.
“The Gutterati?” – The Fratellis
I needed a hobby for weeknights. I indulged a notion to write genre-bending fantasy stories filled with homages to Western movies. I had cranked Costello Music when I needed to get homework done at school. No song on the album uses the everpresent footloose tempo better than “The Gutterati?” which always has that question mark in the title. The sheer, sleep-defying enthusiasm kept me up all night to produce last-minute papers. During the summer, I turned it on at home. I had rounds of shooter video games to play, fantasy-Western stories to rewrite, and chores. After I let the dishes pile up, I set “The Gutterati?” on in the background. Plates crashed into soapy water as the dirty guitar chords snowballed into the refrain and I scatted frantic lyrics in a mock-Scottish accent into the broom that doubled as my guitar. And then I went to sleep, usually in front of the television, too exhausted the finish any of my stories.
“Psychobilly Freakout” – The Reverend Horton Heat
“Hallelujah,” I said when the chalkboard had “Bunkers” scribbled next to my name.
“You sure you can do it?” The Boss said, like he had a bronc for me to break.
I clambered up the tractor-like rake machine. I guided it like a new red pony out to the bunker. Into the sand, I drove in circles caught in the jangling vortex of a hollow-bodied guitar solo. With the pull of a lever, the metal rake in the back dropped. Gnarly roots gathered up behind me like the repeated growled lyrics in the background of “Freakout.” I gathered speed and drove in circles around the bunker. The gears clinked and shifted. The roots snatched at the tines of my rake. I left a bunker full of lines in the sand and had to start all over. A well raked bunker is smooth. Every grain blends together the way punk and country music do after wrassling around “Freakout” with a cartoonish, yet melodic, sort of clamor. I cranked the wheel around and around, spinning in a square-dance, until I had it smooth. Then I rolled back to the Shed where I hosed the rake machine down.
“Drunk on a Plane” – Dierks Bentley
The cowboys at the radio station played this song in the drowsy morning. The groggy opening riff sidles in with all the charm of a stray cat. On the mornings when it rained, anyone who still came to work on time cleaned the Shed. Those who didn’t stayed into the afternoon and mowed when the rain had passed. The Boss resented needing rain. The morning storm and the song had slow, idiotic starts: brusk tapping and some mumbling about a woman. We broke out the mops and powered up the wet vac. The water crept in as the tempo picked up. I snickered at the song. Of all the country songs written about getting drunk, Mr. Bentley had a new spin. My Boss glared out the window at the rain. But by the end, “Drunk on a Plane” roars and so did the storm on our metal roof as I tried to keep quietly busy with an unabashed grin. When I returned to college for the fall semester, a visiting British student joined our friend group. On his obligatory Dirty Dawgs visit, he broke into tremendous guffaws at “Drunk on a Plane.” Then, everyone did. We had a good time that night, but soon we found other bars to frequent or just broke out the board games. We had played cowboys for long enough.
“Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus” – Titus Andronicus
For a song about destruction, this has the bounciest hook ever. After I turned in my two week notice, I ran from that job with a farmer’s tan, solid abdominal muscles, and a bleached beard sprouting from sun-blasted cheeks. I spent the next month running, lifting weights, writing, gaming, and it all piled up in images as colorful as comic books and thick as traffic. I had solid dreams a plenty for the upcoming new year, that overlapped and leapfrogged each other like the words, words, words of my favorite Titus Andronicus track. The jubilant riffs seemed eternal, although some I knew they would eventually wind down and recede along with the abs and the suntan in the winter months before the next summer.
About the Author:
Aaron Heil grew up in Wichita, Kansas. He travels cowboy territory in a truck filled sour gummy worms and coffee cups. He has work appearing/forthcoming in Mad Scientist Journal, Cold Creek Review, The Write Launch, and Touchstone Magazine. He regularly writes about science fiction books for The Game of Nerds.