Michael Patrick MacDonald
MPM: Great pic of Dickie (this is when he started dressing good), Dave Smalley (who never dressed this good... don't know what's up with that),
John Sox (of The F.U.s), and Springa.
"Finding my voice made me want to live"
Interview by Tim Broun, Part 2 of 3
PSF: Who were some - you mention some in Easter Rising - a couple of the kids, I guess, who were pals of yours who, at least to me, went on to be something? I guess there was David Springa from SS Decontrol, and who was that singer? Dicky Barrett from Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
MPM: It's funny that you recognize them because I can't mention who they later become because that's not part of the story. I mean the story is just the story.
PSF: But if you read it and you know, you know.
MPM: Yeah, you know who Dicky Barrett is. So Springa was in SS Decontrol - I remember the first time when he was gearing up for his first gig ever. I couldn't believe he was going to be in a band because Springa was just this local character. He was this kid, like me. He was just 2 years older than me. I was really always the youngest, but he seemed like he was the youngest bacause he was little. I remember he was gearing up for his first show at Gallery East with SS Decontrol, and we were both stuck out all night wandering the streets of Boston, waiting for the first train at 5:00 AM. You know the trains shut down in Boston at midnight.
PSF: Were those guys from the same neighborhood as you?
MPM: No. Springa was from Quincy which is a suburb... kind of like Staten Island people that move there think they are moving up in the world (laughter), but it's a move down. Quincy was where people from Southie said they were going to move to if they won the lottery. And now as an adult I know that it's not that big a move up. Actually it's really a step down now because Southie is so gentrified. Anyway, that's another story.
Springa was from Quincy. Just a step up on the same train line, so we would stay out all night, wandering the streets, waiting for the first train me and him. Sometimes we'd go to the Amtrak station because they would put out food for the homeless people and we'd eat the food with the homeless (laughter).
PSF: And you were probably dressing like homeless people!
MPM: Yes, so we fit in! We would just wander all over Boston. He was a wild, fun kid. So who else was from that scene? Choke was in Slapshot. I mention him in one story. He was the one I kind of ditched because he became this angry skinhead and I remember him from having won a new wave fashion contest.
PSF: Oh god... if I'm not mistaken, and i remember correctly, Slapshot - they were more mid kind of mid-80's...
MPM: No, they came about right after SS Decontrol in '81. They were part of the first Boston crew. When SS Decontrol first played, everyone still had hair sticking up, and by like the second or third gig they all started going bald. And then all these other bald people were coming into town from the suburbs, wearing all these plain T-shirt outfits, wanting to get bloody and get the blood all over them. I don't know how it happened... like it happened overnight... like you'd be at Black Flag, which was a punk band, and all these sweaty bald people show up and start punching each other. At first it was like, "What the fuck is this?" You know what I mean? It was weird and a lot of people were friends of mine, but I just didn't get that direction that they were going in.
PSF: It was a little too macho for me. I mean, I loved Minor Threat and a lot of those bands, but when Agnostic Front started in New York, and Cause For Alarm, and bands like that... it was a little too... I don't know quite how to say it. It was a little too macho. It was a little too willfully ignorant for me, naive.
MPM: It was the people you were running from, I thought. A lot of those people had right wing tendancies too, and they were just being extreme. And that could mean fascist, racist or sexist, and that was just fucked up. They had no kind of artistic background to what they were doing at all. No literary background, no artistic background... they didn't know or care about that stuff, and like you say, they were willfully ignorant. And Springa was really from a freaky punk scene. His brother was like one of the first punks in Boston. His oldest brother, Phil 'N Phlash, who was a photographer. Now he lives in Chicago. Phil was like really old school punk and they were just punk freaks and then - Springa was at the centre of this crew that was all really kind of conformist. He didn't really go that direction, but he was singing their songs that they would write. Like "How Much Art Can You Take?" about all the bands that we loved like Mission of Burma and stuff. (Laughter.)
PSF: It's great song title though!
MPM: Actually, if you say it with a Boston accent, "How much aaht can you take?" - (laughter) Springa had a serious Boston accent. "How much Aaaht can you take?" (Laughter)
It's appropriate for some bands. I totally related to it on some level, and then I realized they were talking about most of the bands that I liked. So all that stuff started happening, and who else was?
PSF: When did you start coming to New York?
MPM: A Bad Brains show.
PSF: Specifically to go to a Bad Brains show?
MPM: Yeah, to see the Bad Brains at the A7 club in '81.
PSF: Wow, I never saw them at A7.
MPM: When I tell people that my brother went to see them in college 10 years ago, and even then that was like, "Wow! The Bad Brains are together?", I was shocked, you know? He saw them in a big relatively big place, but he was telling me recently how huge the places are that they play. I mean they probably play at Irving Plaza.
PSF: Well, the last time I saw them was at CBGB's before it closed, so it was at a really uber-packed CBGB's.
PSF: You know the back room at A7 which is now called what?
MPM: Yeah... I don't know realistically how big that was - in my memory it was like this room, but in reality it's probably this apartment which is tiny, or it might be just to that wall (points to a wall in his apartment).
MPM: But when you see photos of it it looks...
MPM: I think it was just to the wall, but the ceiling would be really high, that's the difference. And the stage was barely a stage, you know? They were just in the corner - you've seen those photos of it. That was probably the smallest room I'd ever been in. I remember that because it was like, "Fuck! We're trapped in this box!" - and people are diving off the ceiling, you know?
That room felt dangerous because people were just coming at me from everywhere, but a whole bunch of us went down: Dicky Barrett was there, Springa was there. I was in the SS Decontrol van. Choke from Slapshot, and you probably know of Dave Smalley from Dag Nasty, he went down with us. He was in that Boston period, although he was originally from DC. He was in D.Y.S. in the Boston hardcore days. What happened after Dag Nasty... was that All? Or was that before Dag Nasty?
PSF: That was after...
MPM: I don't know a single Dag Nasty song, or an All song, or do I? At least I have the record. Do you remember the D.Y.S record with monks on it?
PSF: Maybe if I saw it...
MPM: It's like these monks - it's called Brotherhood - it's another homeo-erotic male bonding kinda title. Dicky Barrett drew the cover. He was an artist, he was always drawing cartoons.
PSF: So, not to get into a discussion specifically about Boston Hardcore, but SSD - didn't they fancy themselves straight edge for a little while?
MPM: But it was a big joke and everyone knows this. Everyone talks about it. It was a joke for Springa because he was never straight edge. He was stoned most of his youth, so there was a lot of conflict with Al Barile from what I remember. I wasn't close to him at all.
PSF: He was the guitar player?
MPM: Yeah. He was the muscly bald guy with the guitar. I don't know what the hell he was playing!
PSF: The thing with strings on it! (Laughter)
MPM: I was always at SSDcontrol shows, but I wasn't really paying attention. That's when it really became crazy - people jumping off the stage...
MPM: It was total mayhem, and people wanted to get bloody! Springa was a friend of mine, and Jamie Sciarappa [bass player SSD] also came from the punk scene, pre-hardcore. I'd see him at the Rathskeller, I'd see him in punk bands. But Al was this whole new breed of bald people. He and Springa were always at odds.
I was seriously straight edge you know, and Jamie was too - I never did drugs in that scene because for me I was getting away from the whole drug scene in Southie. So for me, being different and being individual meant making my own decisions around that, but i couldn't put an "X" on my hand: "officially straight edge."
PSF: It was about getting away from labels?
MPM: Yeah, exactly. It was not joining a club, and it seemed like those people were joining a club.
PSF: You mention a couple of experiences in the book with drugs and alcohol.
MPM: Yeah, later.
PSF: You don't have to talk about this if you don't want to, but you got out of your neighbourhood unscathed at least drugs and alcohol-wise, if you know what I mean. Was that...
MPM: Because I was rebelling so hard against the neighbourhood that I came from. And a part of that neighbourhood's identity to me was the addiction, and that's one of the things I was most disgusted about was the drug trade in the neighbourhood. The deaths that were caused by drugs. The overdoses, the alcoholism, the drinking, the craziness on the streets was all drug and alcohol related, and so, like before punk, when we would go out to these discos, we'd hang out in front of the liquor stores, and we'd get an adult to buy us a 6-pack, and we'd all split a 6-pack - three of us, you know?
So I drank a little bit before that, but once I was doing the whole punk thing, I was really making all decisions for myself and had no interest in alcohol or drugs. It wasn't until after my brothers died much later in the punk timeline for me when I'm still hanging out, but my brothers had died and I'm staying home in Southie not fitting in. Trying to get closer to Southie in the aftermath of my brothers' death. Trying to get closer to them by trying to get closer to the place that they loved, and that they lived for. But it wasn't working because I'd been to the outside world. So then I go back to the outside world and hang out with all my friends from the music scene, and that's when I would, I was... when you go through any kind of trauma you numb out. It's a natural defense mechanism, but at some point it stops working, and so that's when people often turn to drugs and alcohol to numb out. So when I would venture out back into the big world, and into the music scene, my friends were involved in drugs, especially speed, and I was like "What the fuck?" at that point.
MPM: Me and friends... I'm the one with the big hair
So much later, in the aftermath of my brother's deaths, like '84/'85, I was hanging out with people who were from the scene, and we'd be just hanging out in their house. I wasn't going to shows much, but we would be hanging out in their house and it would be like a drug scene. We would do speed, and it was kind of devastating the couple of times I did it just because of the crash, and actually I've never done it since. I went through periods of drinking a lot around then. The speed crash was so bad I couldn't deal with it.
Throughout a lot of the late '80's I went through different periods of drinking a lot, but not to the point of waking up on a bench somewhere or anything like that. But I would drink to numb out, and it wasn't until 1990 when my brother was falsely accused of murder, and I'm really pulled home to defend him, and then became an activist, that that no longer became a threat to me either (alcohol) because I just had to keep my wits about me.
One of the things, I know, there are a lot of reasons for being unscathed. One, and I've seen this with other people, some people when they are around it all the time they go more towards it. It's an excuse to go more towards it. Like people who grew up with an alcoholic father, some go towards it, and some are disgusted by it. I know both types of people.
People come from the same places - some that are really drawn to it and some that are really repulsed by it. Either can be unhealthy. If i had been repulsed by it to the point of being like this born again, preacher type, straight edge person then that would be unhealthy, but luckily I never went that route either.
I think another reason for it is that when there is that much chaos going on in your life, you are afraid to give up control. So part of it is being a control freak, being totally in charge and in control of what is going to happen today. Plus it's always like every time someone went off a roof or died... you know, it's that knock on the door, or that phone call. So I'm trained now to always be ready for that knock on the door or the phone call so you know it's a post-traumatic stress response that I think, as long as you are aware of where it's coming from, that it is from trauma.
It can actually be good thing to be in control of it, so that's... I don't know, I've always tried to figure out why that is. Genetically, I should be predisposed to alcohol because my father was an alcoholic... my father who I didn't know. He died drinking in a bar. The only thing I know about him is that he was an alcoholic, so I do have that gene.
Then on my mother's side - my mother's never really drank. If she was playing the accordion, or the guitar, she would have one nip, and she'd be fucked up, you know what I mean? So that's how you knew she doesn't drink.
PSF: She had plenty of personality anyway!
MPM: She didn't need it! And she didn't smoke cigarettes or anything. You know, I'm trying to think of the addiction in my family - a lot of my older siblings. You know, um, yeah... my mother only dated alcoholics so we all have different fathers. The first eight have one father, I have another father, and my two younger brothers, Seamus & Steven, have a third father. But what the three fathers have in common is that they are alcoholics, so we all have half of it in our genes. Of the older siblings, I'd say Kathy was an addict at a young age even though she went off the roof at 18. She was definitely into drugs. Kevin became an alcoholic toward the end of his life, but when he was selling drugs on the street he was never doing them. It was only later that he went off the deep end, drinking, doing coke and stuff. Frankie never, never...
PSF: Frankie was the one boxing and...
MPM: And it's only in the very end he was doing coke a lot. His partners in crime were kinda at the center of that cocaine organization in Southie, so there were always mountains of it in any gathering. He would be around it, and never do it because he was always worried about his body, but in the end, that's one thing I do know about his life - before he made that decision to rob a bank truck is that he was... that year he'd been on coke a lot.
The others? There's not really a lot of addiction in the family. I have one sibling that's actually in AA, which is a good thing. But it's funny, even among the dead ones, it's not really not a lot, but those that died or who were crippled were still crippled because they were holding to that world that was all about the drug trade.
I have always been especially disgusted by coke just because I knew the coke trade so well growing up, and I knew what it had to do with Frankie's death and that whole organization. I never really had to say anything to anybody. People just wouldn't bring it into my home or anything like that. My younger brothers are like that too - they drink but they don't do drugs.
PSF: Your two younger brothers - it sounds like you had probably had a pretty good influence on them. I mean you were really around a lot for their formative years.
MPM: In their early years, yeah, then I disappeared. That's one of the things I really had a lot of guilt over too when I was off saving my life through the underground excursions, and the whole music scene, and all that. I was separating myself not only from the crazy neighbourhood but also from my siblings, and from my younger brothers too. So then I was pulled home again of course when Stephen was in trouble, but there's a stretch of time there where I wasn't around so much, but when they were young... I think I have had - I've been more involved in their lives than any of the other siblings definitely. And they both graduated from college. Both have done really well.
PSF: That's great. So you started coming to New York in the very early 80's then? Where did you hang out? You mentioned A7 (Corner of Avenue A & 7th Street in the East Village).
MPM: Yeah, that whole corner was like the place to go when I got off the bus... of course, you know, walking up and down St Marks Place (laughs) with all the posers. I would come with Boston people, and I was friends with some people who lived in New York who had left Boston - like this painter, her name was Felix. You don't remember her do you?
PSF: I don't, no, just from reading the book.
MPM: She was just this really wild character in Boston. She was always at punk shows but she wasn't like a punk. She was another strange person on that scene, just a really wild painter. She rocked back and forth when she spoke, and was always in another world. Really fun to be around, really smart, an amazing, amazing painter. She actually had a period in New York where she was having a lot of shows at galleries and doing really well. Rene Ricard wrote about her in Art Forum. Her name took off. He made Julian Schnabel big and then Jean Michel Basquiet, and then Felix, she took off but couldn't handle the phoneyness of all that and she just escaped.
So I was at Felix's. She had this makeshift gallery that was just... basically there were paintings on the wall by all of her friends, and this was on the corner of 11th and C. At the time you remember what that was like - a whole different neighbourhood.
MPM: There were gun shots regularly. You remember the lines going around the block for dope, and people passing envelopes through slots? You would see mothers with baby carriages, and the cops were just right there. It was wild. In a lot of ways it was a more out in the open, and crazier than anything going on in Southie, and you'd be terrified to think your 15 year old kid was hanging out there, but for me it was a lot safer than home on the streets of Southie. Because I could walk - I could be in that stuff without getting sucked in, and and for some reason, in Southie it's all so incestuous that you are bound to be sucked in. In New York, you could observe the chaos back then that was going on on the streets and not really be sucked into it.
Anyway, so Felix was there. She would have people sleeping on her floor. She was just really generous and so there were homeless people, there were junkies, there were a lot of well known artists and musicians. Then I'd go to my friend Jill's house, and that was more of a stable home. She lived at Washington Square Park, and was from a kind of bohemian family. Her father worked for PBS. Jill became the lead singer of Luscious Jackson.
PSF: Wasn't she in the original line up of the Beastie Boys too?
MPM: No, that was Kate Schellenbach.
PSF: What's Jill's last name?
MPM: Cunniff. You don't know that when I mentioned Jill in the book that she was in Luscious Jackson. I think I might have said her last name because again I couldn't say, "who later became Luscious Jackson" but basically it was Jill and Gabby.
PSF: Vivien Goldman's really tight with Jill.
MPM: Yes, she's doing a song with her right now i believe. And Jill lives up the street. She has two kids, and Gabby lives down the street that way and she's another one in Luscious Jackson.
PSF: And they were kids you met just hanging out?
MPM: They were about the same age. They were this whole crew of ragamuffin kids that hung out together. What I recognized about them immediately that you could tell just by looking at them was they were into the Slits. You know what I mean? It wasn't like they were copying a certain look but they were like this non-punk rock look. They weren't wearing leather and chains or any of that, they just looked... oh they called themselves moppy studs and that's what they looked like.
PSF: Moppy studs?
MPM: That was like a gang they formed called 'moppy studs.' I think one of the Beastie Boys was part of it. So they were like the females that hung around with the whole Beastie Boy crowd. They all had like really like long raggy hair - Slits-y kind of dreaded hair, and that was before you ever saw white people with dreadlocks, do you remember that? When it was weird to see a white person with dreadlocks?
PSF: Yes. So at this time, with all this amazing creativity and just craziness going on around you, what kind of aspirations did you have?
MPM: Not really, no. I was living just for the moment. It wasn't until people, especially in New York, that you either knew or you were two degrees of separation from, started disappearing and ending up on MTV. And you realized people were going some place. People would be disappearing and were off making demo tapes. Or Felix's paintings were taking off. The Beastie Boys, who you saw in a room 'this big', playing the hard core stuff, I saw them at the A7 a lot, but they actually weren't even as famous as they would become. But that "Cookie Puss" (single) seemed huge. Remember? That it was like, "Woah!" It wasn't even a hit, most people don't know it today. You'd see Madonna around and then all of a sudden she was famous. So around '84/'85, that's when you saw a lot of aspiration going on, and you're like, "Shit, well then what am I going to do?" Basically I didn't know.
That's when I started to wander about, back to school. I had heard a lot of good things about the New School For Social Research, as it was called back then. That they took non-traditional students and I basically at that point had the equivalent of a high school education although I never graduated. I went for an interview with them before I even had a GED and they were like, "We think you should get your GED first." So I was kind of lost, and I went home and then my brothers died - Frankie and Kevin - so there were 2 more deaths and I'm starting to stay at home a lot more. Sometimes (I was) going out to see my old friends from the music scene, but I was really lost in both worlds.
I wasn't fitting in at home because I'd been to the bigger world. I wasn't fitting in the bigger world because nobody knew about bank robberies and things like that. So I was just lost.
That's when I would experiment with some drugs and was drinking a lot more, and really became a wanderer for a few years until 1990 when my little brother was in trouble. That's when everything (clicks fingers) really kicked into gear. He was the younger sibling and all the tragedies that happened before that were to older siblings. I wasn't responsible for them in any way. He was like my own child, you know? It was like my own kid was in trouble, and so I had no choice but to work.
He wasn't dead - he was being falsely accused of murder, and he was alive and needed help. So it wasn't like a done deal. I also wanted to get involved in all the injustices around his case. That's what made me an activist. When that happened, it was like the worst thing that ever happened to me, but it's also one of the best things that happened to me in terms of really becoming self realized.
PSF: It gave you direction.
MPM: Yeah, and I knew what I was passionate about from there on all the issues that had ever impacted my family. From poverty to infant mortality to mental illness to crime, drugs, racism - all those issues became my life long passion. It all came together there. And police misconduct, which was rampant in that case with my own brother, and all these common issues that impacted my family and also this neighborhood in denial. It impacted everyone in that neighbourhood but they were all in denial - even about their own poverty. So I had to go across town to black and latino neighborhoods in order to talk about this stuff, in order to speak out, in order to try to work to change things and laws. I had to do that only in the neighbourhoods where [there were activists] talking about those things. There was still this code of silence in Southie.
See part 3 of the Michael Patrick McDonald interview
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