My friend M was 31 when she started learning the drums. She had moved to the States, she was tired of her job, she was trudging to work to stare at screens and to agitate petri dishes. It was the dusty grey of early midlife. Then punk rock came in and put the colour back in.
Perhaps you will say that it was overdue. Usually punk rock shows up for teenagers, not for polite biochemists with pantsuits and RRSPs. But when M was in her teens she was emigrating from Iran to Montreal. While her fellow under-agers were moshing at all-ages shows, she was catching up on Paul Simon and The Simpsons. As roommates in our 20s, I remember how we kitchen-danced to Googoosh, the Talking Heads and The Knife. I only realized later how much M's brisk, unswerving choreography would have suited the Clash.
Instead, M found punk – or punk found M – almost a decade later, on the other side of the continent. By the time I heard the news, M was already a regular at Atlanta's dive bars and house shows. She told me that hard-core music, fast and dogged, had made the rest of her life feel like an interlude. She had begun taking drum lessons. When she showed me her practice kit, her grin incandesced through the grainy Skype connection.
A year later, she is the drummer in four bands. This week, I finally got to see her play. It was a Halloween-themed show in a sticker-smeared, third-floor punk club. The black-clad Lef7overs, were the first of five on the bill. A crowd gathered, feedback contorted in the air. Beautifully, improbably, so mightily, my old friend M counted them in.
They ruled. This wasn't pretty music, it wasn't fancy – it was much more an alarm than a music box. The Lef7overs are mostly a tribute act, playing songs by the '90s punk band L7. The original material is sneering and triumphant. The Lef7over versions were blunter, noisier, faster. The singer snarled her resentment, the guitars charged off the road. During their glorious rendition of Shitlist, it felt like someone was going to get hurt.
And I smiled like an idiot through the whole thing. I smiled and bobbed my head and squinted through the smoke at M just killing it, perfectly imperfect, tenacious and loud and full of concentration. Her black hair leapt in the haze. It wasn't just the music or the playing: it was also the audacity of the fact of the music, of the playing. These five women on a stage, making music because they needed to. Not for fame or fortune, not for style points or praise. Purely because it answered something in them. "Why aren't all of us this brave?" I asked myself: daring ourselves to try a thing we haven't tried, and considering, as we master it, that maybe mastery's the least important part.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.