PAtrick O'NeIL & THe PuNk Rock Memoir "Anarchy In The Circle K" - review by H.
“A friend from art school asked me if I liked punk and the reality is that I never even thought about it, it’s just what I do. It’s about finding your tribe and I had finally found mine.”
I don’t have as keen a memory as Patrick O’Neil, but I’m going to do my best to explain the history of our acquaintance.
I was at some event somewhere that was raising money for something (see, I told you I’m no O’Neil). I remember for sure a really good hardcore band from Mexico blew the roof off the place, and a girl I’d had a falling out with was reading her writing. Now, those details I remember all too well, I’m just not going to share, except to say I didn’t know she was on the bill, and I walked out of the venue when she went up to read because I couldn’t handle seeing her.
This spiky blonde haired dude who looked like he’d been listening to punk rock since before I was born (spoiler: this timeline was confirmed accurate) took the spotlight to tell a story that involved BDSM, intravenous drugs, and other details that had me figuratively clutching my pearls. I mean, why, I never… I’ve enjoyed a drink or two, and my share of jokes with double entendre. But this was less than polite language and recounting of quite the salacious (and illicit!) behavior. It was also very hilarious and performed by a charming storyteller (if I recall correctly, one partner leaves the other mid-act in bondage to venture outside their apartment to score dope… and through misadventure and a comedy of errors, takes longer than expected to return).
Months later, when the aforementioned girl and I would briefly reconcile, and we discussed that past night we hadn’t expect to see each other, we both paused to reflect on “that guy,” the one with the wild story. I came to find out he’s not only an old school punk and accomplished author, but specifically one affiliated with the writers who inspired me and encouraged me to attend the same grad school where he got his MFA. I ended up seeing him at all manner of book fairs and school events (I got my MFA too, eventually!), first being greeted with a handshake upon introduction and my retelling of having first seen him perform, and from there on out him always greeting me with a joyous hug.
And that’s Patrick O’Neil. He makes you feel like you’ve been friends forever, and his writing lets you in with an honesty, vulnerability, and grasp of the big picture that I would characterize not as sentimental but instead as humble and appreciative. He knows he’s done some cool things - he also knows he’s done some bad things. And despite the ups and down, there’s a good and caring person there wanting to be and share his best. You can read about the darkest times in his memoir Gun Needle Spoon, but his latest is about his time as a road manager and is titled Anarchy In The Circle K, published by Punk Hostage Press.
O’Neil sets the stage with his art school beginnings and reputation as a “gentle roadie” on the precipice of 1984 and in the middle of Reagan’s reign. A career in music and on the road, including his presence at the Alternative Tentacles office when the feds raided over H.R. Giger’s “obscene” art for Dead Kennedys’ “Frankenchrist,” hardens him as he deals with heartbreak, heroin addiction, and the era’s infestation of violent neo-Nazi skinheads (including a nasty incident where O’Neil suffers a razor slash to the hand). As I’ve said from my live storytelling experience, O’Neil leaves nothing to the imagination, which I would argue is an essential skill in creative nonfiction - it’s actually the weirdly specific details that readers latch onto and which make eccentric individual stories oddly universal.
“There is something magically depraved about Waffle House.”
There are short anecdotes and small set pieces, like when a band called FOG - “Fear of God!” - smoke up a venue with their fog machine, or when O’Neil and crew bum out humorless punks by playing the awesome then-new debut record of Run DMC, a brief horror story of a strip club bloodbath (the climax and punchline of which I will not reveal here), and a surprising cameo by Mike Ness of Social Distortion that does not exactly end with him as the hero. The weekend that O’Neil and a friend are stranded in a small town, suffering through a contentious relationship with their mechanic, is a compelling short story unto itself.
There are also bits of counterculture history and appearances for older readers to appreciate (the late, great Skatemaster Tate!!) and all readers to learn from (I’m no expert vinyl collector, so I’m always newly learning about bands, and this book led me to listen to Sacramento proto-grunge band Tales of Terror). O’Neil was present for some monumental shows, like the first Lollapalooza tour, and the last Dead Kennedys concert with the original lineup (did you know the openers were Phranc, 7 Seconds, and Mojo Nixon? And the guy who plays Happy on “Sons of Anarchy” and “Mayans MC” worked the show!)
But while I expected fun retrospectives and laments about sex and love on the road, what took me by surprise were some of the deeper dives into O’Neil’s complicated relationships with other men - I can’t even say “friendships,” because DK singer Jello Biafra and O’Neil were most certainly not friends. O’Neil provides a revealing look at the self-righteous and didactic frontman who cares more some nights about lecturing his audience than singing, and is protective about his DIY punk image while still harboring rock star treatment quirks like wearing a smelly parka he insists protects him from illness.
One of the strongest narrative threads is the incestous and troubled dysfunction of Flipper singer Will Shatter and O’Neil, who at various times share girlfriends, housing accommodations, and addictions. Two men who have every reason to despise each other end up allies, and eventually, support for each other’s attempts at sobriety, although only O’Neil survives to tell the tale.
"All of these things took place, in the way Patrick describes, and it’s an absolute miracle that he is still here to write about it."
Anarchy In The Circle K is a memoir of the author’s life, a tribute to the friends lost along the way, and a love letter to the community that made it all possible.
h. is the Meow Meow Pow Pow blog editor, graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles (like Patrick O'Neil!), and spent part of last weekend bailing Richie Ramone out of an awkward social situation. When not blaring old punk records at his small children and declaring "Listen! This is important!", he updates his latest work at HubUnofficial.com.
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