I never set out to be a punk rocker. I’m not sure if anyone does. I never set out to be Johnny Shitbird either. I am SURE that NO ONE sets out with THAT aspiration in life. I really won’t bore you with my childhood, except it was like most everyone else growing up in the lower/middle class East Bay section of The San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s. I was groomed to be a college graduate in engineering, and thus the direction of my childhood education had been decided for me at a very young age. I started learning guitar in late elementary school, so I basically could strum out some campfire crap, but nothing substantial. I was a classically trained pianist, but I gave that shit up when I was 12 when my teacher (who I later found out was a falling over drunk) wouldn’t let me play pop tunes…strictly the classical crap, which by 12 years old I was sick and tired of. Add on 4 hours a week of intense music theory for 3 years (this so traumatized me that I failed Music Theory 101 as a freshman at Cal Poly), and fuck piano (my mom was SOOOOO right – I SOOOOO regret quitting…..kids, if you hate it when your mom’s right, don’t fucking quit playing piano – – it will most likely be one of your mom’s crowning achievements as a mother when you admit 20 years later she was right). I wanted to be a rockstar guitar player.
Up into my early 20s, I had managed to learn some things on a guitar and was better than some dickhead with an acoustic guitar at 6th grade camp singing “This Land is Your Land” around a fucking campfire. I practiced a lot at home by myself, and at that point was just an OK player. I really only played in front of people at lame ass coffee shop jam nights. I heard, “Whoa, an Asian guitar player, that’s weird,” and “You’re really good for an Asian guitar player. Don’t you do math and shit?” A LOT. Sometimes this was in mild jest, but most of the time these people were serious. If you’re a KAD and reading this, you’ve already heard all this crap your whole lives, so I won’t beat it to death…maybe some other blog….maybe. But, for those of you who are not Korean Adoptees, that shit gets really old. What the fuck differentiates an Asian guitarist from a non-Asian one? Yeah, I got slanty eyes and shit and the others don’t, but really what the hell difference does it make, and why point it out in the first place? Furthermore, (remember – “You’re really good for an Asian guitar player….”) why would my slanty eyes dictate I should automatically be a shitty slanty eyed guitar player? WHAT THE FUCK? After hearing that enough times, most people would just mail it in, get a fucking TI-85 graphing calculator, and fucking do math I guess, but not me.
Fast forward to December 2000. For my birthday that year, we were having a house party at my friend Danielle’s house when I decided I finally had the balls to sing and play guitar in front of people. So, I got 3 buddies together to work out a set of cover songs we liked to play that night. I had a buddy, Justin, who liked to get black out drunk at the local bar and call everyone “shitbirds” at the top of his lungs. I thought that was pretty funny and fitting for my little group of friends, and thus “The Shitbirds” became our band name. Well, that was just like doing drugs…what a rush! We struggled through some Ramones, Clash, and others, but THAT was what I wanted to do: play music (this is and will be a whole other blog post, but I’m gonna try to stay on topic here). Unfortunately, the other three guys weren’t really on the same page, so we played a show a year on my birthday for the next 3 years and we’ll come back to The Shitbirds later.
A few years later, I started playing bass for a ska punk band in San Francisco named Mishap. This was the fun I was looking for! Wow, it was almost as if this was why I was put on this earth…(it’s not). We were practicing 3 nights a week, doing shows in between, and during this span, I went on my first multi-day road tour. I realized I was getting to be a pretty damn good bass player. I also realized after a few shows that no one remembered my name (Darren), or at the next shows and so on, so I decided to add my first name and go by Johnny D from that point on. What do you know? Everyone remembered my name from that point on. “Hey, you’re Johnny D from Mishap,” I’d hear from time to time roaming around San Francisco. That was pretty cool. Now, I was in a pretty cool band and was getting recognized. This WAS RAD, although my girlfriend at the time didn’t think so, but hey, screw her! Hahahahhahahhaha. Right, stay on topic here.
Around the same time, The Shitbirds started talking about playing a bit more. There was even a guy who wanted to sing for us and we had started writing our own songs at this point as well. I went out on a date one night and the girl said, “Whoa, you’re in The Shitbirds, they’re my favorite band! Your second record was great!” FUCK. We had only played 4 shows at shitty bars and only played cover songs in front of people….SECOND RECORD? SHIT! The other problem was I had just gotten a really really shitty “The Shitbirds” tattoo when I was blackout drunk at 10am on Venice Beach two weeks before. FUCK! Oh well, we decided then to change the name and from that day forward, we were The Eastbay Shitbirds and 15 years later, we still play shows. The tattoo? Well it was too late for that and to this day, anyone who mentions the band name is wrong I have to tell the story too.
I was really happy because we really started picking up a little momentum at that time. Even though Mishap was still a relevant band and playing shows all the time, I switched up my moniker from Johnny D to Johnny Shitbird….it just rolled off the tongue better than Johnny D. Besides, I bet there have been a ton of Johnny D’s in all kinds of bands, but no Johnny Shitbirds, at least not in the Bay Area punk scene at that time, so Johnny Shitbird it was. Pretty soon, people were spinning all sorts of nicknames off of THAT nickname: Shitty, Birdshit, Shithouse, you get the idea. Shitfoot was a good one, because one time on tour filling in on 2nd guitar for my pals in Dun Bin Had, I kept stepping in dogshit wherever I went, so Shitfoot for those 8 days it was.
The point is, people even stopped calling me Johnny after a while. Shitty, or Shitbird was the most common, and I loved it. Trust me, the looks from strangers walking down the street when someone hollered, “HEY SHITTY! WHAT’S UP SHITBIRD?!” from across the street were worth the name alone. I had unwittingly established a totally “new” identity. My own name, and a reputation (this will most likely require a multi-part blog to explain) to follow it. There was no history behind it except that which had been recently written by me since The Eastbay Shitbirds formed. Even more importantly, I noticed (after a year or so had gone by) no one really said, “Whoa, an Asian guitar player, that’s weird, and you’re really good for an Asian guitar player. Don’t you do math and shit?” anymore. Conversations those days started with, “Fuck you’re a great bass player,” or “Man, thanks for playing. Your band kicks ass! Fuck Emo is right!” My slanty eyes were no longer the focal point of the conversation, shit they weren’t even mentioned at all!!!!
What I came to realize after a time was punks didn’t give two shits about your nationality, the color of your skin, where you were born, who your mom was or any of that shit. Furthermore, the ones who DID care weren’t really punks and weren’t really worth the bones their moral bodies clung to. They cared about who you were as a person, and the TWO things that unified us all…our human intelligence and our music. No longer was I held in by boundaries that dictated who I was SUPPOSED to be. They didn’t give two shits that I hated math and really never wanted to be an engineer.
I can’t tell you how much this changed my life’s direction. Not only had I managed to establish my OWN identity, but I found myself surrounded by a world of people who didn’t give 2 shits that I was Korean. I’ll tell you what, during the last 20 years I’ve crossed the United States with 3 different bands, and even played in a punk band called Malas Palabras (and was featured on the Costa Rican national news channel’s website) in Costa Rica, my experience with the punk rockers in that country were identical to the ones I had in the United States. You know what, I’ll take that back. Punks DO care that I’m Korean. They’ll be the first by my side when confronted by racist, ignorant, assholes who like to run their mouths. Do punks have a reputation for being loudmouthed, drunk, fighting types? Definitely. Is it a bad reputation? In most cases, yes. Is it deserved? Absolutely not. Punks typically fight for things they believe in – anti racism being one of them, and that to me shouldn’t warrant a bad reputation. Is violence bad? Typically, yes, but defending your friends against ignorance and violence directed at them for being a certain nationality shouldn’t be a bad thing at all. Makes me feel right at home, in fact.
Am I telling you with this blog to go out get a guitar, change your name, start getting wasted, and start playing in a punk rock band? Absolutely not. This shit isn’t for just anyone, and definitely not for the faint of heart. I AM telling you punk rock has taught me fighting to belong to something that wants no part of you is no way to live your life. I’m telling your defining your life by allowing events that transpired 20 years ago, to eat at you, will eat at you until there’s nothing left, and your life is over. If you’re not happy, fucking do something about it. YOU should define who you are and the legacy you leave behind, not someone, or some event you had no control over. YOU control your own destiny. Fuck, I sound like a Goddamn motivational tape. But look, I’m Johnny Shitbird, punk rock guitar and bass player. It’s who I am, it makes me happy, and that’s really all I need. Sure, there’s a lot more to me, but that’s how I have chosen to define myself, and not a single soul but myself is responsible for that. And that folks, is what makes me happy, and is the reason why my name and punk rock I will hold dearest to me for the rest of my life.
May 22, 2018
Fremont, California – THE EAST BAY
“What was once rebellion is now clearly just a social sect
But are you just upset because your own social clique has left
Leave when you want because I know that someday I will too
But I won’t burn my bridges and be just another jaded fool
But sometimes every once in a while
Sometimes every once in a while
It’s beautiful I would say, I wouldn’t have it any other way
If I said different it would be a lie
If I said different it would be a lie…”
Jaded – Operation Ivy – 1989