BY JOEY SWEENEY
When you’re young, just a few years older can seem a world-away older, and when I was 19, the Rodman Street kids were 23 and stood like dark slightly-eldergods in my imagination. Things that seemed just on the precipice for me seemed, and probably were, di rigeur for them, so close yet so far away from my ken: They live downtown! They smoke and have sex! They go to shows! They play shows! They have band practice… right out on the street!
This more or less was (and honestly kind of remains) my When I’m A City Adult checklist, and on Rodman Street in the very early 1990s, the block was rockin’ with them daily. And their existence, for me, bordered on jealous obsession. Something had whipped loose in these kids that 12 years of Catholic school (and 4 more to go, at the time, if you can even believe such a thing) had not yet done so for me. (I’m pleased to report that, at 43, I think it finally has.) They lived, in hovels, on the 1300 block of Rodman, steps from UArts and a whole other 13th Street I don’t think you can really quite imagine today, one house sloping in to the other and God knows what all mess of junkies shooting up outside, sex trade, pure homeless mayhem.
This is the moment I’m taken back to, with a powerful bong ripple in the time-space continuum, when I look at Toni Farina’s phots of the Rodman Street kids. I almost feel like I should be embarrassed by the towering menace I felt from what today read to me as just a bunch of scruffy art kids, doing their own thing. But then, they were dead tough, total fucking badasses who intimidated me so bad by their very aesthetic pose that I wrote a song called “Losers From Rodman Street,” painting them as strange social vipers who wanted nothing so much as to remove my girlfriend from me. I actually did this, and put it out on a record.
They thought it was adorable.
And in as strong a case as I’ve ever seen of Philly’s neighborhood-strong DNA asserting itself (even in Center City, where even today, people don’t speak to their neighbors), the Rodman Street kids, would have BBQs and rock shows out on the street, like a Fishtown block party but for disaffected late-‘80s youths who smoked like fish and drank like chimneys and who identified deeply, in a way that may have been unique in the world among their small circle of 50 people or so, with the howling, scraping, primal record label Amphetamine Reptile.
AmRep bands — and what was for that moment a whole diaspora of screech-laden scrape-rock — set the tone for a microcosmic lifestyle or religion whose church was most definitely the Khyber Pass Pub. Farina has pictures of that scene, too, and they’re just as evocative as these. Perhaps even more so. That larger scene of the Khyber, its staff, its regulars, the people in the bands that played there, continues to reverberate through the city, having set the tone for its cultural reinvention, in a way that I’m not sure has ever been truly acknowledged.
You know all those articles you see in your Facebook feed about “the last generation before the Internet, blah, blah, blah?” Well, this is the last generation of cool young people in Philadelphia before the Internet. They went on to start their own businesses, travel the world, create things, and even be so bold as to continue doing nothing. (In the ‘90s, that was a whole thing unto itself, the elevation and advancement of nothing. They even made a TV show about it.) And I like to think that, in the absence of the tribe everyone has now, the Internet, the Rodman Street kids were spurred on by the wind at your back that comes from finding a community early on in your life. And that was so much harder to do in Philly then.
These photos — especially this one group photo — show what an island of misfit toys Philly once was. It was better then. I mean, God help you if you wanted a decent taco, but yeah. It was.