My Fake ID

CMJ New Music Monthly, November 1994
by John Flansburgh

I had a great fake ID. The music I wanted to hear in 1977 was all happening in bars. I was 16 and an immediate convert to punk. Punk rock wasn’t even being remodeled as new wave yet, and the groups that defined it seemed to all be climbing into vans and performing in Boston, a short train ride from my suburban home. The arrival of my fake ID coincided perfectly with the first appearances of Pere Ubu, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

My friend Jimmy had been working as a volunteer at WBCN, then an influential free-form commercial radio station. He soon discovered the Polaroid ID maker in the back of the office. It wasn’t long before we were typing in fake job titles below our 16-year-old faces, trying to figure what job would be big enough to get us into--but not so obviously bogus to get us laughed out of--Boston’s doppleganger of CBGB, the Rat. "Promotions Assistant" was the innocuous title we settled on.

The very first time we went to the Rat, Jimmy and I walked in on a fight. Someone broke a chair and I wondered if the evening was going to end at a pay phone with me mumbling "Dad, let me explain!" Of course I never had to explain, because I never told him, and I was back at the Rat the next week. Our radio ID's would hypnotize bouncers and doormen all over Boston. Not only could we get through the door, half the time we were ushered in as if there was oversight on the guest list. Wicked.

What was most striking about the punk rockers I saw with my fake ID was the singular nature of each band. Beyond the obligatory short haircuts, the ground rules of the first wave of punk seemed pretty wide open. Patti Smith was a poet. Stiv Bators was not. Television improvised. The Ramones did not. Pere Ubu used synthesizers and were tough, and nobody who used synthesizers was tough.

Punk was both larger than life and within everyone's reach. I took the bait, borrowed a really bad guitar and immediately started writing my own songs on the top three strings. Like my musical heroes the Ramones, I too found other people’s songs too hard to figure out.

I soon became a fan of the local scene and was annoyed that good local bands were not being signed up to record deals like their New York counterparts. As always, there was animosity towards major labels, but we worried more about good bands getting screwed than how it would challenge the bands’ intentions or street credibility. Important bands got signed, and punk was important. It seemed a hollow victory for Boston when a pretty exciting live band called the Cars actually did get signed, only to make a record that sounded like Freddy Mercury was doing the backing vocals--and the lyric sheet revealed a grim reality that up until then had been thankfully obscured by bad PA's.

My three years with that fake ID worked pretty good, until I went out of state to college. In Ohio, I found 19-year-olds enjoying "near beer"--a brew with half the alcohol content of regular beer, specially designed to ease the Midwestern youth into a lifetime of drinking. I found I didn’t often need my fake ID, and my mid-70’s shag haircut in the picture was getting embarrassing. There weren’t a lot of great things about the 70’s, but in those last couple of years of the decade--when it was still easy to hitchhike, and you didn’t necessarily hear Crosby, Stills and Nash on the drivers' eight track--that was really living.