Best Worst Year 10 (Or, Our Band Can Still Be Your Life)

There’s this scene in The Wrestler where Randy the Ram and Cassidy are at the bar and “Round and Round” by Ratt comes on–these two characters reminisce briefly about how the 80’s rocked and the ‘90’s sucked…but what about where they are right now? Dive bar, Jersey, both stuck in careers which peaked along with Stephen Percy and Warren DeMartini’s hair metal masterstroke. Much like the song, they are on a busted loop, unable to grow beyond their decade–trapped in a period best known for Aquanet and spandex.

I wonder if we chose the art which frames our lives or if we are in fact fenced in by our aesthetic choices. I know it’s hard to consider Ratt an artistic decision informing a way of life, but yet, it does when you consider Randy The Ram and Cassidy the stripper. I think music chooses you as much as you choose it.

The first time I heard Minor Threat was at my best friend Walckman’s basement. He had picked up Out of Step on cassette and the angst, the message, and the energy was unlike anything else we had listened to this side of Slayer–instead the demons here were daily struggles we could identify with (granted Seasons In The Abyss could’ve been written about FW Diehl School). The ferocity of vocals and the speed of the songs left us hungry for more. We dove into hardcore, head first, on our way to further moving out on the limb of the weird and awkward in small town central Pennsylvania. It was a secret language–something that only the truly initiated knew. And we were in the thick of it. It was the first time we realized that there was life beyond the radio dial or MTV, and as we were both figuring out or lives as artists, the momentum was caffeine fueled and full of hubris–we didn’t stand a chance.

Last weekend I found myself standing at Space 2640 in Baltimore waiting for Ian MacKaye’s latest project – The Evens – to start. I was surrounded by folks my age and older, and their children…and it’s cool. It’s almost like a punk rock elementary school going on. In many ways, The Evens have picked up where Fugazi’s The Argument left off. The noise and the power might translate in a different way, but it’s very much the same Ian MacKaye–discordant, uncompromising, principled, and ever vigilant to his beliefs. The rhythms still offer a nod to the DC go-go scene as it does to post punkers Wire and The Fall (don’t worry, that reference is for about two people who read this regularly)–funky and angular–unpredictable and propulsive at the same time–often moving on divergent paths in order to get to the same endpoint. They played for about an hour, reverting this converted church back to its sacred roots; a testimonial to the power of punk rock. Afterwards, Ian sold merch by the edge of the stage and I got to be all fanboy (for proof, check out my Instagram feed @whoismisterjim).

But it wasn’t about treading on former glory. There weren’t any Minor Threat or Fugazi covers–this wasn’t an oldies nostalgia tour. There aren’t hits to be played or power ballads or faux cock-rock in between song raps about how awesome it is to be in “(insert city here).” There was just a stage lit with two floor lamps, a PA operated onstage by Ian, and a crowd who has grown up with and not grown out of this artist’s trajectory. I couldn’t get over the charisma of The Even’s performance. This is a band whose power is drawn from the unflinching examination of
the world around us–a band who doesn’t mistake volume for intensity. Here is where punk transcends the uniform–where the label of hardcore or post-punk or anything of that ilk is peeled back to reveal the basic truth of punk: art on your own terms. It’s not about the X’s on your hands or color of your vinyl. No slogans. No ironic t-shirts. Just creating music which challenges you and your audience to think and grow.

Okay, this is my fear when it comes to writing about music I’m so invested in–chances are you are not nearly as geeked over something like The Evens–I get that. Most of my friends know how totally off the deepend I can get about music. It’s the type of obsessive which can only be described by anecdote: In high school the local classic rock radio station BANNED ME FOR LIFE from their Rock 101 trivia contest because I would call in nightly (using different names) and win–the more obscure, the better. Once WZXR got caller ID, I was pretty much fucked. Half the time I didn’t even go up to the station to claim my prize–it was just a compulsion to be first and be right. This motivation still rears its head when it comes to post-closing time Ebay “investments” and arguing the impact of Jay Bennett on Wilco (You cannot seriously tell me that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has been or will ever be topped). Anyway, since you may not be up on The Evens, Fugazi, or Minor Threat, here is a quick, down and dirty Top 5 playlist for your pleasure. It’s an introduction, so before some of you serious geeks get on my wick about how pedestrian “Waiting Room” is–this list is not for you (and you’re wrong):

Minor Threat: “Out of Step,” “I’m Seeing Red,” “Filler,” “I Don’t Wanna Hear It,” “Stepping Stone.”

Fugazi: “Waiting Room,” “Smallpox Champion,” “Styrofoam,” “Reclamation,” “Argument”

The Evens: “Dinner with The President,” “I Do Myself,” “All The Governors,” “Cut from The Cloth,” “Wanted Criminals”

(Better yet, hit your local record store and just order them all on vinyl. If you have to go the mail order route, run–do not walk–to the Dischord Records website and order them all.)

The next night, I drove up to Harrisburg and saw Black Francis at the Abbey Bar–a shoebox of a club. Black Francis (or Frank Black) came out with no backing band and spent the next 90 minutes punishing the audience with walls and waves of feedback and volume. I don’t think I’ve ever heard something so loud come from just one man and one guitar. He barely spoke a “Hello” to the crowd–he didn’t have to–his legendary caustic throat left little for the eardrums to experience beyond pure unadulterated sonic sculptures.

The Black Francis crowd had a different energy than the The Evens show. The crowd was more of a bar crowd–still older–but there was a less interest about hearing what Black was doing now compared to the Evens’ crowd. If there weren’t Pixies songs played tonight, there might have been more than a few beers tossed onto stage. But think about it–the Pixies were a part of that wave of college rock acts (along with Sonic Youth, Husker Du, and The Replacements) who signed to major labels and helped pave the way for Nirvana and the alternative nation. As part of that bridge, there is a level of success which becomes a line of demarcation which separates them from a band like Fugazi. How do we measure the difference in such successes depends on how many all ages shows you’ve gone to or if your favorite MTV VJ was Kennedy instead of Matt Pinfield. The bottom line is this–these were bands who were challenging their audiences and fighting against the corporate rock likes of Bad English and Dokken.

Unlike The Evens show, Black played songs from his entire output–both solo and with The Pixies. These songs didn’t feel like cash grabs at a glory days gone by–the songs were re- imagined to fit the places Black currently inhabit. Nothing about the songs felt tired or recycled. They were familiar enough for us to lose our shit but never pandering or overpopulating his set. He didn’t end on “Where is My Mind,” which he could’ve totally done and had the audience eating out of his Fender Jaguar, rather, he ended by bringing his opening act Reid Paley up for a duet they penned. This final number was so loud it started clear cutting the front rows–I was getting dizzy from the noise–I never knew you could actually be fully aware of the exact moment you went deaf.

Don’t get me wrong–there is nothing like going batshit crazy for “Shout at The Devil” on a Friday night after an inspiring night with the Irish professors of pints and shots. It has its place and music can’t always be about marshalled discontent towards the world around us–when would we get around to listening to Parliament? What I will say is that the music which matters most to me is created by artists who have continued their own journey throughout their career. Black Francis, Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Paul Westerberg, Bob Mould–these are musicians who aren’t stuck in 1988, 1995, or 2001. When I pull out an LP to spin from any of these artists, I am as inclined to listen to what they are releasing now as I am to spin their back catalog. Can you say that about Whitesnake? Motley Crue? The Spin Doctors? I feel lucky that the music which speaks to me continues its conversation rather than rehashes old memories. As I return to the page, I can only hope I have that much to say so much further down the road.

Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He is currently working on a Pixies/Breeders/Frank Black mixtape. Recommend your favorite track to him on Twitter: @whoismisterjim.

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