DS Interview: Boston punk scene veteran Craig Lewis

We’re going to start something a little new and different here at Dying Scene. In an effort to bring you more voices from the ground floor of the punk community, we’re launching a new, occasional feature called “Dispatches From the Scene.” (Note: That name may change…hell, it may have changed by the time you read this.)  Along the way, the goal will be to bring you behind-the-scenes looks at some important venues and noteworthy people that make our local scenes what they are.

First out of the gate is Craig Lewis. Craig has been a fixture in the Boston punk and hardcore scenes for the better part of the last thirty years. Through the grapevine, I learned of Craig’s story and was instantly intrigued. The group homes…hardcore shows…mental health treatment…and on and on and on. Craig and I met for coffee and traded emails for a while.

You can read the results below. If you’re interested, check out Craig’s sites Better Days Recovery and Punks In Recovery, and be sure to spread the word!

 

Craig Lewis – photo credit to Max Braverman

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): You’ve obviously been a fixture in the Boston punk and hardcore scenes for essentially as long as there have been Boston punk and hardcore scenes, so let’s start at the beginning. If you can remember, what was your first real introduction into the scene?

Craig  Lewis: My first exposure to the punk scene was in the mid 1980’s when WTBS was showing ‘Another State of Mind’ on the Night Flight program. I must have seen it a dozen times before I took any real steps toward being part of any scene. Also, during these years, 1984-1988, my friend Danny and I were really into metal and anything hard and heavy but we didn’t really know the difference between metal or hardcore or punk. We knew who the Misfits were as well but we were 11 and 12 years old and didn’t understand anything about the punk scene. In 1987 when Metallica released the Garage Days Re-Revisted tape we really got into all the songs especially the Misfits covers! Also in 1987, we (especially me) began writing letters all over the world and getting metal and punk fanzines in the mail (I still have a bunch of them in my collection) and this was my gateway toward knowing much more about the scene.

In April of 1988, I was put into a mental hospital and on my first day there I met a real punk rocker; a woman who was 18 (I was 14) and she was cool and let me borrow tapes by the Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks and Black Flag, to name a few. At that time in my life, I felt incredibly powerless and had very little recourse to strike back against the injustices I was experiencing and I knew that if I dressed more like a punk rocker, then that would piss my parents off; so I did it. I spent most of the rest of my adolescence living in group homes, finally becoming free when I turned 18. I went to my first show in November of 1989 and saw Nuclear Assault with Wrecking Crew from Boston. This experience changed my life and I knew that punk rock was for me. For all of these years, my life was dysfunctional and I experienced a lot of really bad stuff. It wasn’t easy being part of the scene especially as my mental health was poor and I sometimes, or often, said and did things that made people not want be around me or be my friend. Thankfully, I survived those rough and tumble years and I am still a punk rocker today. Oi!

On a related note, can you recall the first real watershed moment concerning the punk scene for you?  That first moment where it was like light dawning on marble head and you knew that this was not just ‘a’ scene but ‘your’ scene?

Yes I recall this moment vividly. At my first show with Nuclear Assault and Wrecking Crew, somehow, and I don’t remember how, I got to go backstage at the club the show was at, The Paradise Rock Club in Boston. I was this weird 15 year old kid who willingly thrust himself into what at the time seemed to be a scary and intimidating unknown world of gnarly dudes with tattoos and denim jackets who were drinking beers and smoking pot. Then while the bands were playing, I was at the edge of the pit with people slamdancing all around me and I knew that this was the place for me. At this point in my life, I did not really know what a scene was so whatever it was that I was experiencing; I knew it was mine.

I then immersed myself in the hardcore, punk and metal scenes as much as I could and got involved in every way that was possible for me. For the first time, I really felt accepted as part of something of value and substance and it didn’t matter that I was a freak misfit kid living in a group home. I was a punk or hardcore kid or metalhead or more realistically a mixture of all three and this scene, whatever it was and however good or bad it was, it was my safe place to be me and my home.

Thinking back over the years, who are some of your favorite bands to have come from the Boston scene, or at least the New England scene?

Oh wow! This is a great and fun question for me to answer!!! Some of my favorite Boston area bands from throughout all my years in the scene here include Disrupt, World War, Coleman, The Bruisers, War of Words, Cancerous Growth, Fat Day, Sasquatch, Ulcer, Wrecking Crew, Chicken Chest and the Birdboys, Slimy Cunt and the Fistfucks, Wargasm, Sam Black Church, SS Decontrol, Temporary Insanity, Maelstrom, Deformed Conscience, Opposition, The McVeigh’s, Only Living Witness, The Pist, PTL Klub, STP and so many others the list could go on for miles.

You’ve also been self-publishing the Upheaval fanzine for close to twenty years now. You devote a lot of attention to punk and hardcore bands from around the world, not just from our neck of the woods. How did this first become a passion of yours?

Upheaval Fanzine first came out in 1995. I have always been obsessed with bands from around the world, writing to them via fanzine reviews. I also ordered lots of fanzines, first mostly metal, then hardcore punk and I was always drawn to the worldwide nature of the scenes. As a teenager, living in restrictive environments I often had little connection to the outside world so connecting with bands, fanzines and pen pals allowed me to feel a bit of meaning and purpose and gave me something personal that was mine. Even as I lived in group homes and that life really sucked, being able to connect through the mail was a great way to remain hopeful. Every day I ran to the mailbox to find out what came for me that day. Hopefully it was a package of tapes from Chile or a fanzine from Sweden and this excitement and hopefulness kept me going on a daily basis.

I do devote a lot of attention to bands from around the world in Upheaval Fanzine. I love international music and the different types of bands from the many different countries excite me. Nowadays there are punk bands from all over world from Suriname to Burma to Uzbekistan to Morocco! I love supporting bands who might not be as well known to people in Boston so that my peers can check them out and so that those bands can be heard by anyone who gets an issue and chooses to go ahead and do a google search to check out the band. I continue to be obsessed with international bands and the next issue of Upheaval (#16 should be out in early 2014) will certainly satisfy any international punk freaks cravings; it will absolutely satisfy mine.

With the demise of The Rat and the continuing gentrification impacting much of Boston and the surrounding areas, the local scene is, by no mistake, not what it used to be. Any thoughts on what else may have led to the change or on the local scene in general now?

Surely the loss of The Rat was a sharp blow to the punk scene in Boston although I was not a big fan of the place. Certainly the massive gentrification of the city of Boston has also had a damaging impact on the quality of the local scene. With the advent of the internet and its ever increasing dominance over how we communicate, much of the personality of the punk scene and the commitment to keep it thriving has dissipated. This has brought about incredible degrees of apathy that has had a detrimental impact on the scene. Also, the internet has made punk rock easy to do and this reality has stripped much of the integrity from the scene that it once had. Ultimately, and this may be an unpopular opinion however I think many people are simply lazy and complacent and just don’t care.

Switching gears a little (okay, a lot), you’ve been increasingly involved in the local mental health community over the past handful of years. In as much or as little detail as you feel comfortable with, do you care to share how this came to pass?

Sure, this a great question and I am happy to share. In the mid 2000’s, after a lifetime of mental health issues, addiction, trauma, dysfunction and abject unhappiness and dissatisfaction with life, I began a process of starting to get my life under control. I got a great therapist in 2005 who validated me and helped me learn that I could get my mental health and life struggles more in control. Then I enrolled in classes where I would learn how to become a peer mental health counselor. I also took an exam to become a Certified Peer Specialist which by passing bestowed upon me legitimacy to work in the mental health profession. I then did a 300 hour internship at a mental health rehabilitation center in Jamaica Plain, MA, which is part of Boston. I loved being an intern and I learned so much about this sort of work. I was committed to my success and to finally have a meaningful role in the world as well as a paying job. I finished my internship and got a job at a group home. Unfortunately, as I had lived in several group homes as a teenager, this job was not a good fit for me. I then began volunteering at a local peer recovery center and was then able to apply for a job at the program I am currently working at. I have been here almost 4 years, the longest I have ever held a job and I love what I do very much. I have the distinct honor of helping those like myself, people who struggle with their mental health, addiction and trauma, learn ways to manage their lives in a way that can bring increased happiness, wellness and stability.

Now as I have published a book which is titled ‘Better Days – A Mental Health Recovery Workbook’, I am having more opportunities to be out in the community, speaking about mental health recovery and wellness as well as sharing my experiences with people. As I am a natural public speaker and also an extrovert, except when I am not, haha, the transition for me toward becoming active in the local mental health community was a simple one. I truly believe that we can experience more control over ourselves and our lives and live in happier and healthier ways. I feel compelled to spread this message far and wide and that is what I am doing, and having a ton of fun doing it, as a side benefit.

It seems, then, that it’s no mystery why you gravitated toward the punk rock scene. Have you encountered a lot of other people with diagnosed mental health issues in the scene?

Yes indeed, the punk scene has been a safe haven for me, for better or for worse. Without any question, being a punk rocker and surrounded by people like me has had its benefits. There have also been some negatives. I value the degree of acceptance that I have experienced in the punk scene. One thing I wish was different is that it would have been helpful for me to have felt more supported in taking care of my mental health needs. I feel that often I was nurtured by my peers to be self-destructive and often I acted against my own best interests. Thankfully, I have learned as a result of my experiences, great and helpful life lessons that benefit me greatly in the here and now, facilitating for me to live the life I want and need to lead.

Certainly I have encountered countless people in the punk scene who have mental health and addictions issues. Many of my peers deal with their struggles by using drugs or alcohol; I get this as it is what I did for over a decade, before I got a handle on my life. The reality as I see it, is that alcohol and drugs will not make things better for a person and in fact in may contribute to their suffering, pain and struggles. Also, many of my peers have been treated badly or abused by the mental health system and I can appreciate that some of these people are disillusioned and as a result unwilling to deal with the system; I get this as well and can relate very personally. My hope is that by speaking about my experiences and how I got my life back on track, that others will benefit from knowing my story and what I went through. I want my peers to know that life can get better and we can find value, purpose and meaning in our lives and perhaps live happier, healthier and more stable lives.

Now that you have undergone (and continue to undergo) a fairly dramatic change in becoming a ‘professional,’ working on this side of the field (editor’s note: I work in the substance abuse/mental health counseling field in the Boston area), what has been the response from some of the people in the scene? Is there a certain population that looks negatively at your new lifestyle? At the same time, do you get people reaching out to you or using you as a positive role model?

Another great question!!!! Yes I now am working professionally as a mental health provider, as strange as it feels to say that! I have been overwhelming embraced as a change-agent by my peers in the punk scene. This has been a wonderful experience for me, that is, having my peers known me as a publicly sick person and publicly getting well and being and staying well. I have purposely gone through my recovery process publicly and in the open. What better way is there to build integrity than by exhibiting action and results? Also, I feel strongly that it is my duty, or my purpose, to be open about my experiences and ongoing struggle with remaining well, so that those peers of mine, in the punk scene and beyond, can benefit from knowing my struggle. I feel that if I am able to prove that people like us can get better and experience improvements in our lives that are the result of taking pro-active steps, then it is vital to model this for others.

There are some people who won’t give me a chance however I don’t waste any of my time trying to convince people who are determined to misunderstand me to think differently. I cannot control them and what they do and think however what I do know is that people who treat me in this way are in one way or another, unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives. I am no stranger to being alienated by others and I know as I improve my life with each day lived and having an increasingly positive impact on my peers and the world around me; those who are unable to give me a chance are not my problem, it is theirs.

Yes, I do have many people reaching out to me for support and guidance. I receive emails on a regular basis and I do my best to be supportive to the person contacting me. However, I unfortunately do not have enough time to give each person the response that I feel they deserve. This results in a longbacklog of emails for me however I do try to get back to people when I can, even if it takes a while. Also, I am not sure if I am considered a role model however I do know that many people have thanked me for showing that getting control over our lives and our struggle is possible. Perhaps by knowing my story and hearing me speak; seeds are being planted that are hopefully resulting in empowerment and inspiration in the lives of those who may need to have this happen the most.

In addition to the Upheaval ‘zine, you’ve also published a recovery workbook and are working on an autobiography. Though the latter two are obviously more formal in nature, did you draw from your DIY writing and publishing experiences while putting them together?

Yes ‘Better Days – A Mental Health Recovery Workbook’ is available now and I am very proud of it. When I began working on the content for ‘Better Days’ it was a new experience for me. Likewise, publishing a book is a lot different than doing a cut and paste fanzine at Kinko’s. However, I have developed a love for writing over my many years of doing Upheaval Fanzine and all the correspondence I took part in. Perhaps I have a knack for being a good writer but I will leave that up to the readers to decide for themselves what they think. I can confidently say however that my experience in promoting my fanzine throughout the punk community has provided me with crucial experience in how to get the word out about my books and speaking projects.

Joking of course, but is there a fear that as the punk community finds recovery from dual diagnosis issues, it’ll lose its edge and turn into a bubblegum pop community?

Haha, I am not worried about this happening anytime soon. I think that when we get a handle on our lives and learn how to deal with the difficulties we face, and having those difficulties transform into our strengths, then space is the limit. I embrace my experiences, all of them, for they made me me and without every last experience, good, bad and horrendous, I would not be here today, alive, successful and well, and being able to make a difference in the world today.

Any last comments for Dying Scene’s readers?

I would like to thank Jason for having the idea of doing this interview with me and for making it a reality. Also big thanks to DyingScene.com for including this interview on their website. I appreciate every opportunity to speak about the work I am doing and the reality of the probability that we can get a handle on the parts of our life that we hope to improve. I am living proof that a person can go through hell, be labeled “mentally ill”, be a habitual drug user, live a chronically dysfunctional life and all while being a punk rocker, and still create out of those ashes, a life of quality, happiness and satisfaction. If I can do this, then anyone can do this. I believe in the probability of recovery, and I believe in all of you who are reading this interview.

I truly hope you will check out the ‘Better Days – A Mental Health Recovery Workbook’ if you feel that it may be something that will benefit you and I also hope you will check out ‘You’re Crazy’ Volume 1, once it is published in January. Take good care everyone and up the punx!



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