Discover life, impending death, and the power of music in DIE YOUNG WITH ME!
Since a young age, music meant the world to Rob Rufus and his twin brother, Nat. The West Virginia teens made it their mission to show the world that punk wasn’t dead in their corner of the world and their band, Blacklist Royals, quickly gathered up an audience around the world. But just as the success and the big tours started, Rob got some devastating news: He had Stage Four cancer.
Die Young With Me: A Memoir follows Rob post-diagnosis as his life slowly separates from his inseparable twin and he rediscovers himself through unique struggles and of course, the power of music.
Side note: I’m dating myself here, but the early 2000s punk nostalgia in the excerpt is so very real, guys.
We’ve got an exclusive excerpt from Die Young With Me below, followed by a very exciting giveaway! Take a look.
From Die Young with Me by Rob Rufus, published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by Robert H. Rufus. Reprinted with permission.
I heard it before I saw it.
We were standing beneath the marquee of the movie theater, trying to decide where to skate, when I noticed the muffled sound of music—hard rock music—coming from somewhere on the street. Nat heard it too. It was in the air all around us, floating in the heavy purple sky among the smell of rotting fish.
Paul saw the sign—DAVIDSON’S MUSIC—above one of the usually vacant storefronts that lined Fourth Avenue. We’d never had a real record store in Huntington. No one seemed to have much throwaway money in our small little river town, so cassettes and CDs seemed frivolous, and weren’t exactly in high demand. The only time I bought music was at Sears with my parents; or if I ordered by mail from magazine tear-outs. We grabbed our boards and went over to check it out.
There were no customers inside. There were no employees either, as far as I could tell. But there was music. Man, there was music! It came blaring from some hidden stereo. Shelves of vinyl records wrapped the store like a moat—in the middle was an island of CDs, hundreds of them. The walls were covered in posters of rock bands, black-light skulls, pot leaves, bikini wet dreams.
It was rock ’n’ roll in freaky 3-D vision.
The music was too loud for me to speak. The entire store seemed electric, as if the walls themselves were vibrating. I felt, for an instant, like I was vibrating too—like I’d stepped into some sort of conduit, the insides buzzing with raw fucking power.
I’d never been anywhere like this before.
West Virginia summers are brutal. The heat rises up from the south, and by July the Ohio River seems like it’s about to boil over, engulfing our town in the faint smell of catfish. Big fucking whiskered catfish.
In fact, the only thing that smelled worse than the river that summer was us.
We skateboarded downtown every day. The heavy air blew against us as we roared down cement streets like something out of a suburban nightmare. We weaved through cars like psycho-banshees, horrifying drivers, hobos, and adults on their lunch break.
At least that’s what I liked to think. In truth, I doubt our little gang looked like much more than we were—a handful of bored thirteen-year-olds looking for a way to kill time.
The lanky one with the acne was Tyson. He was the smart one, not that it mattered. Peter had the bowl cut, and was the one kid in our group fatter than me. The mean-looking one, the one with the three-inch scar on his forehead, was Paul. Paul lived three streets down from me in a two-room apartment he shared with his disabled mom, adult brother, and nine cats.
Then, of course, there was my twin brother—Nat, my opposite number, my eternal partner in crime. Nat and I weren’t just physically identical—short, chubby, blue-eyed Hitler Youth rejects—we had the exact same interests and opinions about literally everything. In fact, most people didn’t even bother learning our names. They referred to us as one entity—“the twins.”
I never minded too much.
Our crew had banded together sometime during our seventh-grade year—we didn’t have much in common, besides being perpetually uninvited to life. We were on the outside of something, and we knew it. That’s how we found each other. It was as if we’d been wilting on the same damn wall.
So that summer, we took up skateboarding. We took up slacking. We took up rebelling—our small-town version of it, anyway. We started doing all the things that outcasts are supposed to do.
We claimed ownership of the streets and sidewalks of Huntington. We bombed hills, we ollied stairs, we ruined benches and ledges all over town—we skated our way through the heat, as puberty rang from our bodies like a sponge on the sidewalk.
It was exhausting, the heat. It made it hard to enjoy yourself. It was tough to fight the urge to go back home, crank the AC, and watch shitty daytime TV until our parents got home.
By the end of June we were really struggling. We forced ourselves out into the streets. The reign of our skater gang wouldn’t have lasted much longer if it weren’t for that record store opening up.
Davidson’s Music—a home away from home. A stopping point. A destination. A sanctuary from the fiery hell of a sweat-stained Appalachian summer.
Going to the record store became part of our summer routine. We rarely had money to spend on music, but anytime we needed a break from the heat we would haunt the aisles of Davidson’s, flipping through the shrink-wrapped jewel cases with idle intent.
Eventually, employees manifested. There was Chris, a white guy with dreadlocks who was always reading magazines behind the register. The other guy, Egor, was six feet tall, with stringy black hair running down to where his ass should have been. Egor’s face was covered in metal—rings and pins stuck out of his nose, eyebrows, ears, lips, chin, and who knows where else. I don’t know if he actually worked there, but Egor was always around.
We never met anyone by the name of Davidson. It was always just these two guys. I don’t know where they came from, or why. They looked like musicians, but weren’t. They looked like skaters too, but they didn’t skate. Back then, they woulda been called “slackers”—except I couldn’t square that, because I only saw them at work.
To me, they just kinda looked like two guys who didn’t give a fuck.
And that made a big impression on me. These almost slackers seemed like the coolest dudes who’d ever lived in our town. I wanted to read the magazines they were reading, use the slang they were using, wear the clothes they were wearing. I wanted to find out what metal shit they stuck in their face and stick it in my face—these two weirdos were the gatekeepers to something special.
I knew it, even if they never did.
Anytime I had money to spend, I would ask what they were listening to. Chris usually guided me to the cassettes (they were cheaper) and ran through the new releases. He said it was a great year for rock; he called it the summer of loud. Helmet, Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Bush, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine—anything he recommended, I bought. By the time my parents told me that we were going to a family reunion in Richmond, Virginia, over Fourth of July weekend, Nat and I were in the first stages of having a pretty killer music collection.
We packed all of our tapes for the drive. Dad drove slowly, blasting Van Morrison, Jackson Browne, and then Van Morrison again. Nat and I sat in the backseat with the stack of cassettes between us. The headphones of our Walkmen never left our ears.
The reunion was held at our uncle Tony’s house, right outside the Richmond city limits. It was a pretty good time, all in all, and seeing my relatives meant scoring some late-birthday cash.
I spent most of that first day with Mammaw Rufus, who loved to freak us out with overly graphic stories of the insane asylum where she worked as a ward nurse. But by the time evening rolled around, I was feeling pretty damn bored.
The adults sat at the kitchen table drinking Johnnie Walker and playing Rook. Pretty normal Richmond behavior. By ten o’clock the place seemed more like a saloon—shit-talking bourbon yells filled the kitchen. Uncle Carl’s cigarette ash piled on the linoleum floor. Nat and I were just standing around.
We were supposed to sleep in our cousin Anthony’s room, which was directly downstairs, in the basement. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen Anthony— maybe Christmas, four or five years earlier. I was nervous of what he’d think of me. He was only a few years older than us, but when you’re a teenager, a few years is a lifetime.
Except we’d been at the house all day, and I hadn’t seen my cousin once.
Mammaw’s team won the hand—again. Aunt Rose went out for cigarettes, Uncle Tony shuffled the deck, and Dad refilled the drinks.
“Fuck this,” Nat mumbled.
He went down the stairs to the basement. A few seconds later, he was back.
“Dude, you have to see this place.”
I almost fell as he dragged me down the stairs.
The basement looked less like a bedroom and more like a separate apartment. It stretched the width of the entire house, with its own door leading to the carport—offering Anthony a level of freedom that I never knew kids could possess.
Photographs were taped to the walls: class photos, a few pictures of snowboarders, some dark pictures from parties or concerts—I recognized Anthony at once. He had that same Rufus smile and jaw.
More important than the photos of my cousin were all the photos of girls—not foldout centerfolds or Sports Illustrated shit, I mean real girls.
My cousin in a tux, a too-thin blonde with her hands on a pillar beside him. Here—Anthony’s arm around a bikini brunette. More—snapshots of all kinds of girls, wallet-size proof of something. I wondered if he was dating any of them. I wondered if he dated all of them. Maybe he traded the pictures like baseball cards.
“Bones Brigade,” Nat said, behind me.
He was looking at an old-school Powell skateboard deck, nailed above Anthony’s bed. I broke off from the girls and checked out the rest of the room.
There were a few other skateboards—most looked broken—parked against walls or leaning on furniture. Two unmatched bookshelves lined the far wall. They were spray-painted black, and covered in dozens of stickers.
There were no books on the shelves—only music.
The bottom shelves were reserved for vinyl; dog-eared rows of albums ran straight across. On the middle two shelves, CDs were stacked carelessly, many not even in cases. The top shelves held better-organized stacks of tapes, 7″ vinyl, and five cases of unopened blank cassettes.
He had more music than anyone I’d ever met. I wanted to start digging through it but was afraid if I tried, the entire stack would crumble.
I plopped down on the threadbare couch. It faced a big TV with large stereo speakers on each side of it. Nat crouched down below it, where the stereo console was. It had a turntable, four cassette players, and a six-CD changer.
“Who the fuck is our cousin, again?” Nat said.
He sat down beside me and faced the blank screen.
I woke to the sound of a door slamming shut. I’d dozed off at some point in the night. I had no clue what time it was. The drunken jeers from upstairs were replaced with silence.
I rubbed my eyes and looked toward the carport door.
“What up, cuz,” Anthony said. He tossed his keys onto the coffee table in front of me.
My cousin looked different than I remembered. He’d grown into his features, and had an apathetic handsomeness that made me instantly jealous. He unzipped his black leather jacket. Buttons and safety pins ran down the collar. On him, a leather jacket in July made perfect sense.
We gave each other an awkward hug. Anthony smelled like stale beer. He sat down on the coffee table, facing us. We made small talk about the reunion.
I asked him about the girls on the wall. Anthony got lost in each one, going into serious specifics—who did which drugs, who had the best body, which girl was willing to do what (and if so, how she did it). It was goddamn impressive.
Anthony got up and turned on his stereo. The music sounded so distorted that I wondered if a speaker was busted.
“Man,” he said, “there were some serious babes at our show tonight, though. I mean, damn . . . some wild-looking chicks.”
“What kind of show?” Nat asked. “A concert?”
“Yeah, my band played downtown at Alley Kats. I figured my dad told y’all.”
“You’re a musician?” I said.
Anthony laughed. “I didn’t say that. Shit, musicians play clarinet. I said I was in a band.”
“Oh,” I said, clearly confused.
“Yeah, I play bass in a band called Witness. We are kind of like Inquisition mixed with Avail, and a few songs sound more like 7 Seconds. You know, kinda Youth of Today–ish.”
I nodded. Nat nodded. Neither of us had any idea what the fuck he was talking about.
“You guys dig those bands?” he asked us.
I was about to lie, but Nat told him no.
“What about Ann Beretta? Or Crass. Or like, Social D, or the Misfits?” Their names were as unfamiliar and dumb-sounding as the first bands he mentioned.
Again, Nat told him no.
“Shit man,” he said, “don’t you guys listen to punk at all?”
“I dunno.” I shrugged.
Anthony sighed. He stumbled off the table and began rummaging through his records, tossing them out of order onto the floor. Nat and I sat perfectly still.
Anthony held up a record. The cover was a black-and-white photo of four dudes in leather jackets standing against a brick wall. The band name above them was written in neon pink.
“What about the Ramones?” he asked. “There’s no way you’ve never even listened to the Ramones.”
Nat took the album. He inspected it like it was some new technology he wasn’t sure how to use.
“I’ve heard of them,” he said, “I think.”
“Fuck! I thought y’all skated! How can you skate and not listen to punk?”
We didn’t know.
Anthony shook his head and sat back down on the table. He sighed again.
“Well, goddamn, I guess that’s what happens when you live in West Virginia, huh?”
We guessed it was.
The three of us sat silent. The world outside was quiet and sleeping.
“Well,” I said, nervously, “why don’t you fucking play us some.”
“Ha!” Anthony laughed. “There’s that Rufus blood. Fuck yeah!”
He jumped up off the table and went back to the bookshelves. He pulled a cassette tape out of a pile.
“This band’s the shit,” he said. “It’s killer jams for skating.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Unknown Road—by Pennywise.”
He pressed play. He cranked the stereo volume, oblivious to the adults who were sleeping upstairs.
The guitar came in first. It sounded like a chain saw cutting through my ears. Then, all of a sudden, the entire song blasted into the room at full force. I’d never heard drums played so fast—they sounded like someone hitting trash cans with a baseball bat. The song had so much speed that I might have thought it was a joke if my heart wasn’t pounding.
The singer sort of yelled, sort of talked over the music. I couldn’t tell what the words were, but I could tell that he believed them. He sounded too pissed off to care about something as dumb as singing. He just wanted to be heard.
It is hard for me to describe, even now. I’d never heard anything like punk rock before—it was like all the bands I normally listened to, except on overdrive. It was raw. And it was bad, but in the very best way.
“This is awesome!” Nat yelled over the chorus. “This band is fucking awesome!”
I rocked back and forth, not sure what to do. I needed to move. I wanted to skate, Anthony was right—I wanted to go fast.
As the songs sped up, I got more excited. I felt like throwing the coffee table through the fucking TV. I wanted to go fast. I wanted to go down the unknown road.
I couldn’t make out the words, but I felt like I knew what he was yelling about.
We sat in the basement all night. Anthony flipped from cassette to vinyl, CD to CD, then back to tape. He was the DJ of our future, and he was too drunk to know.
I never got off the couch. I bounced on the dead springs like I had the shakes. Nat sat beside me, looking through liner notes. The stereo played on.
The Ramones, the Descendents, the Humpers, Bad Religion, the Misfits, Minor Threat, Strife, Face to Face, TSOL, Screeching Weasel, Rancid, the Clash—all of the songs were high-speed. Every singer sounded angry; even the love songs had an undertone of rage.
Nat and I passed the liner notes back and forth. The bands in the photos looked different from any I’d seen on TV. The Misfits looked like Satan worshippers. The Descendents looked like four-eyed dorks. The guitarist in Poison Idea looked too fat to stand up onstage. God, I thought, some of these bands are even more tragic than me.
Which, of course, made them the coolest bands in the world.
These were musicians I could relate to—I didn’t feel so different from any of these guys. I felt in time with their beat. It connected with me so instantly that it seemed instinctual.
The guitars played the same chords over and over. The drummers pounded—bababababababap!—like madmen. The singers screamed or sneered or whined or mumbled—it all connected with me.
I felt the power in it.
Music like this had the power to change people. It had the power to scare people. I knew that from the start. But it didn’t scare my brother. And it didn’t scare me.
From that first chord, to my last chord, it never scared me.
Up until that night, I’d felt like I was on the outside of my own life. Forever out of step at school, in the neighborhood, even with my own family. But hearing that music, seeing those photos, reading the lyrics—they made it seem okay to be out of place. These bands made it seem cool.
This was it. Even if I didn’t say so, I knew. Now I had something to relate to. I had something to claim, and I had something that was willing to claim me. I finally had a flag to fly under—one perfect and fucked up and black.
We listened to music until four in the morning. Anthony spent those last hours sitting on his knees, surrounded by cellophane and blank tapes. Whenever we really liked a record, he dubbed over a bootleg copy for us.
We didn’t wake up until way past noon.
Anthony drove us into Carytown, a neighborhood on the north end of Richmond, where there were skate shops, bars, tattoo parlors, and record stores. My cousin was hip to it all.
The freaks, the druggies, and the punks were all there in the flesh. We passed a gang of Mohawked kids with neon hair and black T-shirts. I saw a group of tattooed guys sitting on the stoop of a town house smoking cigarettes. Everyone we passed on the street could have walked straight outta Anthony’s record collection.
More weirdos loitered outside of Plan 9 Music. I was careful not to bump any of them as I followed Anthony inside.
Plan 9 was the size of a warehouse. Large windows ran three stories high, giving everything inside a natural glow. There were thousands of records, CDs, tapes, mags, and comic books within my reach. In the back were cases of patches, posters, T-shirts, and buttons. Shit, this place made Davidson’s Music seem like a joke.
I was a silent observer.
Who wore what? Who bought what? Who talked how, and why? I spied on the entire store, picking up what I could.
We pooled our birthday money together, ready to blow it all on stacks of cassettes, black T-shirts, and issues of Alternative Press and Maximum Rocknroll.
We stood at the register behind a long line of record shoppers.
Nat flipped through the magazines, studying them like they were punk rock syllabi. I just studied the checkout girl.
She had tattoos—leopard spots running halfway down her left arm. Her hair and her lips were a matching bright pink. Two silver rings stuck out from her bottom lip, weighing it down in a permanent pout.
The line inched forward. I focused on her lips. When the light reflected off the rings, they looked almost like fangs.
She rang me up and took my money. I couldn’t look away from the vampire lip.
“Solid choices, man,” she said, smiling and handing me my bag.
“Fuck yeah, man,” I squeaked back.
I tripped over myself on the way out the door.
The next morning, we left for home. I dreaded going back. Our friends, our record store, the town itself—everything seemed even smaller now.
I’d had my first taste of counterculture, and it lingered in my mouth. Huntington didn’t even have any culture to counter! I wanted to stay in Richmond. I wanted to be part of this!
But as soon as we pulled out of my uncle’s driveway, the city faded quickly away. I sat in the backseat of the car, watching blurry colors of brick and black blend into a sea of endless green. Trees ebbed and flowed on the mountains around us. The interstate cut through them like a huge cement snake.
Soon, we were back in nowhere.
I looked over at my brother beside me. His headphones were on. His eyes were shut, but he was awake. He was nodding, just barely, with the music. He tapped the empty Brain Drain jewel case on his knee.
He didn’t look depressed. He didn’t mind that we were going home. He didn’t care where we were going. He was already gone
Die Young With Me hits bookshelves on September 20, 2016. You can pre-order it now from Amazon, but you can also for a chance to win the book from The Fandom below!
Due to publisher restrictions, this contest is open to residents of the US & Canada only.