December 11, 2016

Some Dumb Thoughts About Dead Dumbness


Over the last year or so, Morgan and I have been expanding the record collection considerably. Don’t know what got into us, exactly, maybe the increasing frustration of trying to watch movies led to a subconscious shift from the visual to the aural. Although there is a good deal of common interest and overlap in much of what we’re picking up (from be bop and Big Bands to a sudden and vast expansion of the Pere Ubu library), for her part Morgan has been experimenting with more contemporary obscurities, while I’ve been giving in to what may or may not be mere cheap and ugly nostalgia. Lord knows with rare exception I have precious little patience for anything being produced today.

            Toward that end, and over three decades after it breathed its last as anything viable, meaningful or relevant, I’ve been returning to the early punk of my disreputable youth, but with a few twists. Along with replacing things I only had on vinyl (like that first Die Kreuzen album and that live Sid Vicious solo record), I’ve also been picking up things that I never bothered to pick up back when. Sadly, I’m learning that a number of fundamental compilation albums from the day, like Noise from Nowhere, The Blasting Concept, and God’s Favorite Dog were never reissued. Contrary to the general perception, Eighties hardcore really did offer a wide spectrum of styles and approaches to what might have been a central snotty idea. Although I admit I still get a charge out of the crash and burn of it all, it’s not exactly rekindling those golden and filthy energetic fires of my late teens. Listening to it with older ears all this long time on, I’m realizing how goddamned silly it all was. But that counts too. Let me offer an extended example.

            Southern California’s Bad Religion released their first album in 1982. It was fine, if undeniably generic considering their local peers at the time included singular and inimitable outfits like Black Flag, The Minutemen, Circle Jerks and X. They knew how to play their instruments (not always a plus) and wrote deadly earnest songs about religion, the government, the suburbs and the nature of contemporary civilization. Boy, were they ever earnest! Although I’d heard a couple of their songs on the local college radio station and didn’t mind them, I never bothered to pick up the album. There was too much else out there to worry about the generic crap.

            Shortly after that first album, things got complicated. There were major changes in the band’s lineup, and their second album was a stab at progressive rock which everyone hated and which quickly vanished. Realizing their mistake, they returned to their original Southern California hardcore formula, releasing an EP and another album before vanishing for several years. Then in 1988, a good year or two after punk collapsed in on itself and turned to dust, Bad Religion’s original lineup reformed and they put out another good and deeply earnest album about politics and religion and nuclear war and stuff. Too bad for them Reagan was on his way out of the White House and the Moral Majority didn’t have the clout it once did, otherwise this new record might’ve really had something to say.

            Ironic thing is, it was right around that time the major labels began sniffing around punk’s corpse trying to find something they could easily co-opt. And whaddya know, they got lucky. Nirvana and Pearl Jam sold bajillions of records to dull-eyed mainstream kids, got played on the radio, and became stadium acts. Sensing there was money to be made with this whole “punk” thing, they followed up soon thereafter with safe and non-threatening pretty-boy teenybopper simulacra like Green Day and Rancid, who offended no one and likewise played to sold out stadiums. Although know-nothing critics at the time reflexively compared the latter to the Ramones, doddering old punks at the time like me knew Green Day and Rancid and their ilk were in fact slavishly aping Bad Religion, who themselves were still around, but not playing stadiums. Everyone made lots of money, except those poor aging slobs in Bad Religion. However, in the early Nineties the new breed of soft, non-threatening teenybopper “punks”—these kids who could pick up all their hair dye and spiked leather bands and fashionably pre-ripped jeans at expensive chain boutiques in the local mall—latched on, hailing Bad Religion as the greatest thing since sink casserole.

            As a quick aside, I always found the label “Nineties Punk” a real rib-tickler. I mean, what did these kids have to be pissed off about at the time? Clinton? Fact is they weren’t pissed off about anything—it was all about fashion and pre-packaged style, and these new acts on major labels had about as much to say as the latest crop of boy bands. But that’s just an aside.

            This is all going someplace, trust me.

            Okay, although I heard a couple of their songs on the radio and saw their albums in record store bins back when punk still seemed relevant to me, I never picked up anything Bad Religion put out. Kept telling myself I probably should, but never got around to it. After, say, the mid-Eighties I never thought about them much, having moved on to other things like Slim Gaillard, The Residents, The Mentors and David E. Williams.

            Then in 1992, a friend named Larry stopped by my apartment in Park Slope. My first wife had just split a couple of days earlier, so we decided it was time to crack a couple of bottles of Wild Turkey. When he showed up, he handed me a homemade cassette containing Bad Religion’s 1982 and 1988 albums. I listened to it, and it brought back memories in all its generic splendor. If ever I found myself in the mood for some old generic LA hardcore about religion and politics and shit (which happened every couple of months) I found myself popping in Larry’s tape.

            The same hankering hit me a couple of weeks back, but then I remembered I no longer had a device that could play cassettes. Still stubbornly refusing to listen to music for free on the computer, I picked up both albums on disc.

            Alright now, another brief detour.

            Reading online reviews (a habit I studiously try to avoid), it was clear that over the years and among dumb people, Bad Religion had earned themselves the reputation of being the real intellectuals of the L.A. punk scene. We’ll ignore for a second that “L.A. punk intellectuals” is an hilarious contradiction in terms. The reason cited for the moniker was that the lead singer-songwriter had received his Ph.D. and had a very large vocabulary. You encountered words in Bad Religion songs you didn’t encounter in other hardcore numbers. Words like “jurisprudence,” “ectoplasmic” and “logarithmic.”

            Well good for them, I thought. Every notable band in the scene had a certain individual personality. Black Flag focused on psychological torment and rage. The Dead Kennedys were liberal sociopolitical satirists. Feederz were always calling for violent Situationist revolution. Killdozer told darkly comic Midwestern Gothic tales. Minor Threat told everyone how to behave properly. And Bad Religion were big earnest smartypants with lots of book-learning. Yes, good for them.

            Listening to these songs now, however, and listening closely, I noted something interesting. Yes they indeed used big words like “logarithmic,” but almost without fail used them, um, incorrectly. The singer, earnest and serious as he obviously was, may have had a lot of big words at his disposal, things he heard in grad school seminars, but he simply had no idea what they, you know, meant, given they make no sense in his songs’ contexts. But I guess it was enough to fool the dumb kids. Funnier still given their highbrow literary reputation, their songs often contained lines of sparkling illiteracy like:

They both want to travel to the land of competition

Southern California will destroy them,

And they won’t be the best, they’ll be the poseurs who dress

Like the plastic idiots who they compete.

            Um, pardon? Now, okay, “compete,” see, in simple grammatical terms, requires . . . oh, fuck it. At least when The Mentors rhymed “herpes” with “Slurpees,” or better still rhymed words with themselves, they did so knowingly and without pretention.

            For my money, when looking for the real intellectuals of the L.A. punk scene (not counting The Mentors’ El Duce), I’ll always go for Angry Samoans. Most of the members of the band went on to get their doctorates as well and are now teaching at assorted universities, but they had the good and common decency to write songs like “My Old Man’s a Fatso” and “They Saved Hitler’s Cock.”

            Must admit I am liking these Bad Religion records though, as hilarious and silly and earnest as they are. Really funny and telling thing is, one night I put one on while Morgan was in the other room, and when she walked in she paused and asked, “My god, why in the hell are you listening to Green Day?”


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