The meaning of nonsense

If rock bands all sound the same, then why does Jawbox do it?

Over the past four decades, a million rock and roll bands have made a hundred million rock and roll records. Some go on to sell millions of copies; some, a few thousand; most, maybe a few dozen cassettes. If, tomorrow, most of the would-be Neil Youngs and Kurt Cobains and Lou Reeds and Paul Westerbergs and Rickie Lee Joneses of this world disappeared forever into day jobs, no one would notice the difference, not even that pimple-faced kid over there wearing the Melvins T-shirt who's listening to the Fall and carrying around his Kiss Army lunch pail. He's got enough records stockpiled for the duration.

It is the cynical impulse that makes one wonder why, every second of every day, someone is picking up a guitar or a pair of drum sticks or a microphone and deciding he or she should form a rock and roll band when every note has been used in every combination in every song ever written. What in God's name is there left to say? And is there any new way to say it? Answers: nothing, and no.

Rock and roll, and especially "punk," was once a medium of frustration (sexual, political, etc.) and rage; it was the ultimate form of arrogance, bands of incorrigibles screaming words at an audience they were convinced hung on their every word and believed in what they did or didn't stand for. The stage was their soapbox, the instruments their medium, the hormones their message.

But lately, rock music means less and less: as we creep toward the millennium, it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell one band from the next as they all try to become the next This or this year's That. Indie-rock is more inbred than the family in Deliverance, a cross-eyed and feckless moron sprung from the loins of an industry that demands sameness.

J. Robbins, singer and guitarist for Jawbox, knows this. A decade ago, he did not even care for rock and roll, avoiding the popular music his high school friends listened to and sang along with, keeping to himself. It wasn't until a few of those friends began making him compilation tapes filled with the sounds of Joy Division and Wire and other English post-punk bands that he even considered the possibilities of rock and roll, and what it might mean to him. As Robbins recalls now, the music coming from those tapes sounded entirely brand-new to him--"as if it was being completely invented right now," he says, not merely some preserved artifact.

"That whole Punk Rock Year Zero thing really appealed to me," Robbins explains, "that thing of you're tired of having culture presented to you as a menu from which you can buy certain items. You just want to say, 'That's ridiculous. I don't have to buy any of these items.' Who's to say anything I make isn't just as valid? If I want to go make a record with my friend and we're beating on washtubs, it can be just as great a record as Led Zeppelin II.

"I think that was the idea, just that it was this thing that wanted to be entirely new and was completely self-justifying. It was a feeling of empowerment."

Not long after that initial experience, Robbins picked up a bass and joined his first band, the Washington, D.C., hard-core band Government Issue that was often produced by Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye (later of indie-rock overlords Fugazi). But his "addiction to play music"--to make it personal, his own--was not fulfilled as a member of the rhythm section; he wanted to play guitar and sing his own words, and knew that friend Kim Coletta owned a bass. So, in 1989, with the addition of drummer Adam Wade (replaced by Zach Barocas in 1992, the same year guitarist Bill Barbot joined), they formed Jawbox and released their debut eponymous album a year later.

Over the next two years, they would release two more albums--Grippe and Novelty, each an extraordinary work--on MacKaye's Dischord label, the bastion of indie-rockness, hipper than a thousand Sub Pops because the bands on Dischord proudly proclaimed their disdain for major labels. Then, last year, Jawbox did the unthinkable and signed with Atlantic Records, Led Zeppelin's label since the fall of Rome. The promise of more money and more time was irresistible for the band, and Jawbox proved it was incorruptible. The band's For Your Own Special Sweetheart, released this spring, is a massive and devastating record.

Jawbox is a great band not because they're saying or doing anything particularly new, but because what they say and do is filled with tremendous passion and conviction; theirs is a brand of music that tugs at you, gnaws at you, gets inside you. It's at once powerful and beautiful, the combination of a whisper and a scream.

Jawbox is the antithesis of other hip pseudo-indie-rock bands like Superchunk and Pavement, groups that seem to have gotten into rock and roll because they thought it was cool, not because they thought they had anything to say or because they could say it all that interestingly. Pavement and their ilk are hip only to themselves, selfish, concerned with their place in the rock and roll food chain; they're aloof and disdainful, critical and almost mean-spirited, derivative without intent and annoying, so damned above it all. Theirs is pop music played within the quotation marks, rock and roll made by people who probably don't much care for people who make rock and roll.

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