SAVING GRACE: MacDonald’s first real glimpse of life beyond South Boston’s Old Colony housing project was through the tear in the societal fabric made by punk rock.
Many of us like to say that rock and roll saved our lives. In Michael Patrick MacDonald’s case, the common hyperbole may be simple truth. A child of South Boston’s drugs and violence and a survivor of the racial busing riots of the ’70s, MacDonald had already lost two of his nine siblings to poverty and madness before discovering the saving grace of loud, fast, and furious music. He’d lose two more before he made his own escape final.
In his 1999 memoir, All Souls, MacDonald (who now lives in Brooklyn), recounted in almost affectless prose the horrors of the Old Colony housing project, a hellhole of brutal initiations and cockroach-infested kitchens, capped by massive communal denial insisting that Southie was “the best place in the world.” In his new book, Easter Rising, the Irish-American MacDonald revisits some of those memories from the period when Whitey Bulger ran the town, including the frequent “times” MacDonald raised funeral money after too many violent deaths. A livelier, more episodic work than his first, Easter Rising focuses on escape, explaining how the author shed the community’s shared delusion and dodged the downward suck of desperation and drugs. After a long journey, with several stops, MacDonald’s first real glimpse of life beyond Old Colony was through the tear in the societal fabric made by punk rock.
MacDonald may have had a leg up. As Easter Rising opens, he describes himself as an incipient outsider in simple prose that rings out with the seagull-caw accent of South Boston. It’s 1979, and a 13-year-old Michael Patrick MacDonald is already different from his peers. “What are you, a fuckin’ losah?” he hears more than once. MacDonald is the quiet one in a boisterous family — the eighth of 10 kids — and the intellectual who won admission to Boston Latin. Named for a brother, Patrick Michael, who died in infancy before hospitals were required to admit the uninsured, he is an adventurer who vaults subway turnstiles not to get one over on the authorities, but to see Greater Boston. But it is still “the world against Southie and Southie against the world” until his brother Davey jumps off a roof. The suicide of Davey, who’d been hospitalized for schizophrenia, is what fractures this complacency, pushing MacDonald from the community. Although MacDonald’s writing is straightforward — and at times overly conversational — his descriptions of grief and alienation will ring true to any who have experienced them. “I wanted never to forget him, and I was afraid that I could,” says MacDonald at Davey’s graveside. The insular world becomes suffocating and he begins taking long detours home to avoid the neighbors. “After Davey’s death, I couldn’t stand their sudden hush in my presence.”
What MacDonald really can’t stand is his own pain. But as he roams further afield, he runs into punk, which will give that anguish an outlet. At first, the overwrought 13-year-old resists. “Once I’d seen Davey after his jump from the roof, I’d seen ugly enough. I didn’t need to go looking for more.” Until, that is, he witnesses a local black-clad punk-rock fan set upon by Southie toughs, and finds himself thrilled by the punk’s defiance. He follows the music fan into a record store and leaves with a copy of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks. When he plays the record that night, life changes. “Then, in an instant of crashing guitar and a bloodcurdling voice that I could barely understand, the world of Old Colony Project began to crumble around me. Once and for all. It was terrifying and beautiful.” He listens to Johnny Rotten’s snarl and recognizes the sound. “It was as if the voice was my own, and I’d rediscovered it in the rubble around me.”
From this point on, it’s inevitable that MacDonald would find the local scene. He stumbles into a Thayer Street loft party and meets kindred spirits, including scenesters Rita Ratt and Springa. Soon, he’s tuning into college radio and hanging out at record stores. For about half the book, MacDonald’s story chronicles the Boston scene of the early ’80s. He sneaks into Cantones and the Underground and hears Mission of Burma, Unnatural Axe, and LaPeste. He discovers that he can hide in the ceiling of both the Bradford and the Channel and wait there for bigger acts — the Clash, the Buzzcocks — before descending.
For MacDonald, the music becomes more than catharsis. Bands continue his education once he leaves school, teaching him about poetry, art, politics — and himself. “I was amazed . . . that white people from places like Old Colony would be so preoccupied in their songs and interviews with fighting racism,” he writes. “Reading of these kids talking about class made me realize for the first time that I had grown up poor.”