A few years ago, I was involved with a non-profit compilation project called Punk Rock Saved My Ass, a collection of stories by a collection of writers who each told in a chapter how that theme rang true for them. It was a tough job to condense it to a single chapter, an idea that most of the contributers could have turned into an entire book. With Last One To Die, Michael Essington did exactly that.
Here's the thing with Michael Essington you should know before you go into Last One To Die: his story is not remarkable.
A white kid grows up in L.A. and gets into punk rock. He's into the scene for a few years, going to some great shows by some pretty legendary bands. He has scuffles and fights for being in punk rock. He starts a few bands that don't go anywhere.
Eventually, the punk kid grows up. He gets married. He has kids. He goes into graphic design. He talks about the good old days and takes his son to McDonald's on the weekends. That's about it. It's a story that a ton of grown up punks have.
But saying that the story is unremarkable isn't saying it's uninteresting.
It's the telling of this story that carries the beauty in Last One To Die. In a series of nonlinear vignettes, Essington spins the story of his life in a way that's one part beat poet, one part punk rock spoken word and three parts tales told by a really good friend over beers way too late on a work night.
Stories bounce from conversations he had with his father as an adult to his experiences as a teen, to him as a child and back to present day seamlessly in a way that the phrase "and that reminds me, did I ever tell you about..." would fit nicely, but isn't needed and isn't used.
Sometimes you find yourself laughing along, overwhelmed with the absurdity of life, as when Essington talks about being confronted by a large group of junkies turned evangelists late one night, who were fully prepared to fight him in order to spread their word of love. Other times you'll be shaking your head in sympathetic consternation, like when he relates how friends can change over the years. Sometimes it's all too easy to get sucked into the conversational feel of the whole story. At these times, audibly uttering phrases like "I hear ya, man" are not without merit.
He relates thoughts about the transitions of the punk scene from early to present day, and I agree that it has its goods and bads. He takes it from his early days, finding appeal in the likes of Black Flag and Bad Religion, summing t all up in a way that rings true for many who grew up with punk:
I had enough of an unbalanced life that I sat up and took notice when punk hit the scene. Black Flag and Bad Religion said things I couldn’t. When I couldn’t spike my hair, or was forbidden from getting earrings, or taken to a shrink because I liked punk, Henry Rollins screamed for me. When I’d skateboard home from school and a truckload of losers would hurl beer cans, Greg Graffin would scream “F**k” as loud as he could for me.
Divided into four sections, Essington starts out talking about friends and family, and then life in general. The third section, "Music," finds him digging deeper into his experiences with punk rock, telling stories of the characters he hung with, and his musical loves, including interviews, reviews of classic shows he's been to, and essentially the sort of thing that completes a picture of Essington by showing, not telling.
He talks of getting a letter from Henry Rollins, and catching an early spoken word performance. He reminisces about old shows from 7Seconds and Suicidal Tendencies. And he reprints interviews from such varied folks as Dogtown legend Jay Adams, Eric Leach of Symbol Six, Rikk Agnew of Adolescents and Christian Death and Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records, and each interview is laden with this admirable level of humble respect. The interviews, like the remainder of the writing, is done out of love for the scene, and its credibility is unquestionable.
And he doesn't grab hold of the autobiographer's right to make him the person he wants to be. By recounting his experiences with complete honesty, not avoiding some darker times or some dabbles with rap that may make him appear less punk than he may have wanted, his depiction of himself is sincere, believable and completely likable.
Perhaps the worst part of the book is that it's such an easy read. And by that I don't mean simplistic in a Dick and Jane way, I mean that the book just flows. It's a joy to pick up and read, moving a casually as a conversation. And like that conversation that goes so well, it's too easy to carry it too late into the night, leaving you dragging the next day, but in a way that feels like it was utterly worth it.