Let Them Eat Twinkies
“It’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t.” -Butthole Surfers
We jammed together for the occasional moments of clarity. For the most part we sucked, but occasionally we struck a chord that made it all worth it. Since I was still learning the ropes, I had to focus so hard on my guitar that I lost sight of everything else around me. But once I got the hang of a riff, I was able to step back and hear the music as a whole.
The first time this happened, I literally left my body. It was at a practice space in Capp Street Studios in San Francisco. I saw myself from the outside—slouched over, unkempt hair in my eyes, hammering out power chords without even consciously thinking about it. Deerdra was laying down the bass line and Maxine was buckled over screaming. Nikki pounded out the beat and gave me an all-knowing wink without skipping a beat. As the saying goes, we were making beautiful music together.
At first we called ourselves Diminished Capacity. It had an ominous ring to it even though initially I didn’t know what it meant—the Twinkie defense incident was before my time. Nikki, on the other hand, was a seasoned veteran. She was originally from the Midwest but moved to San Francisco circa 1978—the year Dan White shot Harvey Milk and mayor Moscone, and then pleaded innocent by reason of diminished capacity brought on by a junk food binge (a slice of Bay Area history captured in the Dead Kennedys’ rendition of “I Fought the Law.”) To put things further into perspective, it was also right about the time of the so-called Kool-aid massacre (whose ringleader, Jim Jones, left San Francisco to start this doomed Jonestown cult). Nikki was even fortunate enough to have seen the Sex Pistols last show at the Winterland.
Now it was 1984. Nikki’s top shelf of her bookcase was still decorated with Twinkies that had been there since 1978. This unhealthy obsession with Twinkies didn’t stem entirely from the Dan White double-murder or a short-lived iconic fad, so much as survivalist paranoia and a morbid fascination with the Twinkie shelf life. Nikki was saving the Twinkies for a rainy day when all hell would break loose and there was nothing else preserved to eat. She also kept a loaded gun under her bed—an unsettling combination, but undeniably hardcore.
In stark contrast to Nikki’s lack of make-up and anti-fashion sensibilities was her partner Maxine. Maxine couldn’t really sing, but could scream like she was puking her lungs out. She was the most stylish and visibly punked out in the band, sporting a 2-foot manicured Mohawk, a plethora of piercings and elaborate make-up that bordered on ghoulish face-paint. She rarely smiled for fear of cracking her façade. But Maxine was able to clean up nicely if she had to. When her parents came to town, she simply removed her piercings and put on a scarf and sunglasses to pull off the Catherine Deneuve look.
We were a bit irregular in filling the bass position—the only person who showed up with any measure of consistency was Deerdra. Like most bass players, she was quiet and complicated. Deerdra was not a lesbian, but was bi- or undecided—whatever complimented her image at the time, which was primarily modeled around the dumpy all-black bag-lady look of Exene Cervenka or Ally Sheady in the Breakfast Club. The only reason they even tolerated me (a straight guy) was because I was still a 16-year old virgin with no discernible interest in getting into any of their pants. Being in a band with lesbians definitely didn’t do much for my punk machismo, and it was hard to get anyone to take us seriously. Other punkers assumed we were new wave like the Go-Go’s, so we had to go the extra distance to be hardcore.
I first met Nikki at a Rock Against Reagan concert staged in the parking lot of the democratic national convention in the summer of 1984. There was a slew of opening bands, the most memorable being DRI in their first bay area appearance. They took the stage wearing blue pin-stripe suits and conservative haircuts. The crowd didn’t know what to make of them. Without warning, they unleashed a blistering firestorm of 20 songs in less than 20 minutes, with not a single word of commentary or explanation in between. The crowd didn’t even have time to react. We all just stood in awe. Then the Dead Kennedys took the stage sporting KKK hoods. They swaggered into a lounge version of Califorina Ubber Alles, the tension building until Jello removed his white hood to reveal an underlying Ronald Reagan mask and announced that it was 1984. This was enough to ignite the crowd into a frenzy—seeing a possessed Reagan throwing a tantrum all over the stage and into the audience was enough to instill Orwellian paranoia into the God-fearing and cynics alike. He screamed so convincingly in first person plural that we believed every word of it. Not that they would get wind of it inside the convention center, but us outcasts in the parking lot were sure we were making a difference.
When the Dead Kennedys finished playing, Jello reeled off a cause and the address of some courthouse. A movement was afoot—we became one marching organism teeming with hatred and a nebulous thirst for justice. Crowds scared me, but the inertia of the moment had too much potential to risk going against the grain. We paused only to throw bottles at Bank of America or other notable corporate landmarks. It was another dragged out lucid moment where I was urgently self-aware but didn’t know how I got there or why. When the crowd rounded a corner near the courthouse, we were greeted by a row of cops mounted on horseback. We faced off for a minute and then they rushed at us with mace and billy clubs, inciting a muddled stampede. Half the people ran and half the people held their ground. I was stuck in fight or flight limbo, not knowing which direction to turn. In the ensuing chaos, I got trampled and kicked in the head by a big black boot. Then a hand immediately reached down to pull me up.
This was how I met Nikki. She pulled me out of the way. A cop in riot gear approached us and asked us if we wanted to get arrested. He was very polite and accommodating. He told us if we stepped back up on the curb he wouldn’t arrest us, otherwise we would spend the night in jail—the choice was ours. They were already cuffing other punkers in disposable plastic ties and dragging them off to a bus. It was a Sunday evening and I had class the next day, not to mention some unfinished homework assignments. One thing I prided myself on was never missing class. I stepped back up on the curb and so did Nikki. She mumbled something about how getting arrested was so predictable and trendy these days. Everyone else let themselves get arrested including my high school friends that I came to the show with.
After watching everyone get arrested, Nikki and I went to Clown Alley on Columbus avenue to get some French fries. This was my first experience at Clown Alley. I had been tempted before by the iconic sign in all its Vegas grandeur, but always considered it to be an uncool capitalistic cog in the system. Nikki justified it as an absurd mockery of corporate America—so uncool that it was cool. Nikki doused her French fries with mayonnaise and I went along with it. I told her I was learning guitar. She was a drummer. We exchanged phone numbers. Since my ride home got arrested, I was about to get on the bus to go back home when Nikki offered to give me a ride on her motorcycle. I was a bit embarrassed for her to see where I lived in the suburbs of Foster City, but how could I turn down a ride on the back of a motorcycle with a punked-out woman old enough to be my mother? I warned her that I lived in the suburbs in case this was beyond her jurisdiction or principles. When I told her Foster City was built on a landfill that used to be the San Francisco bay, her ears perked. When I reluctantly told her I lived with my brother who owned a construction company, wore sleeveless T-shirts and listened to Huey Lewis and Bruce Springsteen, she demanded to come inside and meet him for herself even though it was past midnight.
My brother was up with a few other friends drinking beer and watching TV. Since I had never brought home a normal looking girl before and since I dyed my hair and dressed funny, my brother and his friends always assumed I was gay. They were pleasantly surprised that I was bringing home a relatively normal looking woman—even if she was older and not that feminine. My brother noticed the gash in my forehead but didn’t question it—he just threw a dirty shirt at me and told me to clean up my act. Little was known about AIDS at this time except that it was contagious and you could get it from queers and punkers alike—so my brother and his entourage kept their distance, which was fine by me. My brother was a good substitute for my father, but didn’t make much of a mother. When I saw Nikki to the door, she took a final look around and said, “I can’t believe you are living where the bay used to be.” Sometimes I needed an outsider to point these things out.
It ended up my two friends from school were released right after they were booked, so they were able to make it to class the next day and brag about how the cops beat them up. They were the only other punkers in my high school. It was during a time when all the other kids were listening to Purple Rain, ZZ Top or Ratt. The alternative kids thought they were cutting edge by listening to Cyndi Lauper or the Thompson Twins, and you were really rebellious if you listened to Billy Idol. The names of our favorite bands were cryptic insider acronyms like GBH, MDC, TSOL and DOA. We wrote them all over our clothing and Pee-Chee folders. We also punked out the athlete archetypes on our standard-issue Pee-Chees—we gave the tennis player and the skier Mohawks, tattoos and nose-rings, and we turned the relay runners into knife-wielding skinheads.
When my US history teacher saw “Diminished Capacity” stenciled on my Pee-Chee, he embarrassed me in front of the whole class by using it as a reference point to launch into a lecture about the whole Dan White Twinkie incident and how it prompted California legislators to pass a law in 1982 abolishing the use of diminished capacity as a legitimate defense. Then he used my Dead Kennedys shirt to parachute into a lecture about Jello Biafra and his somewhat successful bid to be mayor of San Francisco. As my teacher derisively pointed out, Jello’s campaign highlights included erecting statues of Dan White, making clown suits mandatory for all businessmen and banning cars within the city limits. According to our teacher, the only thing Jello’s campaign accomplished was that it prompted a resolution stating that you had to run for office under your Christian name. These exposés definitely captured the class’s interest, but I was mortified that he singled me out as a whipping boy for his ulterior motives and that the truth behind diminished capacity had been revealed.
The next day I talked Nikki into changing our name to something more innocuous and less vulnerable like Unkel Fester. But that nomer didn’t stick and eventually we deemed ourselves Clown Alley. Not that we ever needed a name—we never did play any gigs—it just felt like we had to give a trademark to what was happening to us as we were certain it was original.
After we went to shows or practiced on weekend nights, I would crash on Nikki and Maxine’s couch in the city. Without me asking, Nikki debriefed me on the physical logistics of being a lesbian. Over Nescafé and Count Chocula she confessed that Maxine’s fist wasn’t big enough to satisfy her anymore. All I could do was listen. Nikki was a bottomless well that couldn’t be filled. Her insatiable appetite was fueled by drugs. I could deal with the pot, or even occasional coke, but the heroin got to be a drag. There were many times I would take the bus all the way up from Foster City lugging my guitar only to have her flake on me. Sometimes she took a break to vomit and was able to come back and keep drumming, but rarely to her potential. Other times, she would throw in the towel altogether using the excuse that she needed to cop a rest. At one particular Suicidal Tendencies show in Berkeley it was not just her—it seemed I was the only one in the place that wasn’t all fucked up. The whole batch of heroin was bad. Everyone was sick and puking including the band, so they ended up having to cut their set short.
Maxine rarely went with us on these outings as she thought I was too young or not cool enough. Her reasons for being into the scene were motivated by fashion. She had an older set of friends, many of whom worked for labels or in “the industry.” Was there a green tint of spite that kept Maxine from hanging with us? Perhaps. Nikki frequently roughhoused with me like I was her younger brother whereas she rarely displayed any public affection toward Maxine. She routinely joked that one day they were going to tie me up and “pop my maraschino cherry”. But she always meant this in a figurative way, and always said “we.” Nikki would vent incessantly to me about what an anal poseur Maxine was. In Maxine’s absence from rehearsals, which were becoming more and more frequent, Nikki would ad-lib telling and bitter lyrics about their relationship. The only cover we ever did was a hardcore version of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” at Nikki’s insistence. The more Maxine wasn’t around, the more self-abusive Nikki got, which made for some of her best drumming.
It got to the point where there was so much underlying drama that we stopped playing altogether—at least under the flag of Clown Alley. Maxine was “getting serious about life” and wanted a band that would launch her career. She said that she was getting too old for us. She hired “real” musicians and had the nerve to take the name Clown Alley with her. Nikki and I kept jamming together with various other people but we didn’t need to call ourselves anything anymore.
Nikki was somewhat fine with their inevitable breakup as it was mutual, but when she received an invitation to Maxine’s wedding a few months later she flipped her lid. According to the lace-trimmed invitation, Maxine was to be wed at her parent’s estate in the wine country to an old boyfriend from her private school. On the enclosed R.S.V.P. all Nikki wrote was, “yes, we have no bananas.”
The way I saw it, we were all suffering our own teething pains. Maxine had resorted back to an old pair of shoes that perhaps fit her better. Nikki’s shoes were worn out and she was too stubborn to replace them. My feet were blistered because my shoes were still being worn in. I tried to rationalize this to Nikki, but she was trapped in the moment.
With my help, Nikki shaved her hair off with a Bic razor and no shaving cream. We nicked her head up pretty good, but this was the subconscious intent. She left her armpits unshaven. Then she undressed in front of me without giving me a chance to leave the room. She put on army boots, ripped jeans and a wife-beater with no bra. Then I held on for dear life as we flew through the streets of San Francisco on her motorcycle. As usual we parked near Clown Alley so we would be able to make a quick getaway after our post-show French fries with mayonnaise. The streets of the financial district were littered with calendar and appointment book pages, so it must have been around the first days of 1985. Each scrap of paper revealed a brief insight into the daily lives of others. Nikki read random samples to re-enforce what idiots people were for having jobs. We ignored the sleezy solicitations of the strip joint doormen on Broadway and made our way to the Mabuhay Gardens—a Philippine restaurant gone punk club. Although she didn’t usually drink, Nikki decided she was going to get hammered. Her only requirement was that the drinks had umbrellas in them. Since my right hand was inked with a discriminating red X, I wasn’t allowed in the sectioned off bar with her. By the time the second band came on, Nikki emerged to be the undisputed queen of the mosh pit. She thrashed and kicked in a manic fury. She almost got into a fight with a skinhead girl that mistook her for a comrade and apologized for accidentally kicking Maxine on a stage dive. “You presumptuous bitch,” laughed Nikki as she snapped the skinhead’s suspenders into her tits. “Just because I have a shaved head doesn’t mean I’m a skinhead.” Nikki retreated to the bar to reload her guns with umbrella’d drinks.
Then the Butthole Surfers took the stage. They weren’t hardcore, but the Butthole Surfers didn’t really fit in anywhere else so they were adopted by the punk scene. This was before they sold out and resorted to having strippers clad only in green spray paint to entertain the crowd. The singer Gibby held up a newspaper headline stating that Dan White was freed from prison that day. “As we play tonight,” Gibby announced, “Dan White walks amongst us.”
Then the band members brought out tray upon tray of Twinkies and preceded to throw them into the audience. Within minutes, the interior of the Mabuhay Gardens was covered with Twinkie funk—crumbs of golden sponge cake and artificially flavored vanilla. Nikki caught a Twinkie mid-air and mashed it into my face. I picked up some remnants off the floor and mashed her back. It was a free-for-all. This was yet another one of those detached-yet-lucid moments—a decisive instant fueled by a subconscious resonant frequency where no outcome would come as a surprise.
In a quiet refrain of “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave,” Nikki grabbed me by both ears and said, “no matter what happens, I just want you to know that I love you,” and then added a trailing “man” as an afterthought.
“You’re drunk,” I said, wiping Twinkie jism from eye.
“So? That doesn’t change anything.”
“Why? All of a sudden?”
“Because. You are you. And who knows what we are capable of if we bottle it inside.”
Then Nikki gave me a long teeth-gnashing kiss that might have been longer or more sincere had we both not hysterically burst out laughing.
This really didn’t change anything between us—things were already running their course. We both knew there was no spark, but you couldn’t blame us for trying. Even though there was no romantic flame, some sort of perverse rendering of a relay torch was passed between us. And less than a year after being released from prison, Dan White ended up quietly committing suicide in his estranged wife’s garage. Despite all the manifestations of rage and protest that touched on everyone in the bay area during those years, justice was served out in its inevitable way—all for the price of a few Twinkies.