The three members of Lower Caste Struggle sit hunched around a table, their eyes intense and their fingers fidgety. They scarf down pizza, suck down beer, exhale cigarette smoke, and pontificate about their young lives as punk rockers. Of the three band members, singer-guitarist Peter Yoass (not his real name, let it be known) is the oldest at 21, and he is also the most stereotypical-looking punk of the bunch.
On this day, his mohawk drapes over half his head, his studded leather jacket hides an Exploited T-shirt, and his wrists are adorned with studded bracelets that stretch almost to his elbow. The other two band members, Mike Stickboy and Cory Killduff, are almost clean-cut by comparison: Their hair is shorn close to their heads, and they look like nothing so much as kids cutting class.
In front of them on the cluttered table sits a copy of their Post-Fiend fanzine, a mail-order-only piece of gratis punk propaganda bass player Stickboy writes and distributes out of his Wylie home. This fourth issue is crammed with valuable information on how to make a Molotov cocktail ("The Essentials of Rioting"); a half-angry and half-apologetic letter from Zach Blair of Hagfish, which Stickboy had accused of selling out in a previous issue ("Hagfish Kisses Your Lame Ass"); a tribute to Kurt Cobain titled "Kurt Nobrain" featuring lots of tasteless poetry ("Roses are red/and so is Kurt's head"); something called "A Tribute to Class War"; and reviews of local and national punk recordings in which they refer to one band as "the biggest fucking jerkoff assholes in Dallas."
Post-Fiend reads like part punk manifesto, part paranoid screed, part hysterical bullshit, part Rancid love letter--an amalgam of attitude and politics, all agendas included and discounted on a whim, shocking because it's so up-front but dull because it's been done a thousand times before a long time ago. But such is the lot of the New Punk, the young kid who stumbled across the music of the '70s and discovered a brand new world of politics, rage, empowerment through music, and bad hair styles all over again. For these kids, it's like unleashing the genie from the bottle or opening a time capsule to find nothing has changed.
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Yoass is one of those kids: He was the self-proclaimed "reject" in school, the outsider all the kids "always picked on and made fun of," he says now. But "in seventh grade I got a Dead Kennedys tape, and it really moved me. I started reading about the punk movement and what it's all about. I found out that punk is about changing society, changing the government that is full of schemes, and to basically voice your opinions and make people aware of what's going on."
Seventeen-year-old Lower Caste Struggle drummer Killduff came to punk even more second-hand, through a tape by local hard-core rockers Bad Hair Day. Before he joined Lower Caste Struggle, he explains, he was in a band that was "apathetic, kinda Nirvana," but that was because he had never experienced "real punk."
"I was really sold when I first heard the Bad Hair Day tape," he says. "I realized that I can convey a message in my music instead of just playing. When we play our shows we try not to be just the entertainment for the night. I want people to leave our shows thinking, feeling disturbed, and to go act on something."
With amusement, he tells a story about the time his mother discovered just what he was singing about--you know, revolution and shitty parents and stuff.
"One night I was sleeping, and my mom wakes me up," he recounts. "It's three in the morning, and she asks me, 'Are you a subversive?' She's afraid that one day she'll read about me driving a truckful of dynamite into a building." He laughs.
Punk was dead before Cory Killduff was born.
On January 14, 1978, Johnny Rotten walked off the stage of the Winterland in San Francisco with a sneering farewell: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" With that piss-off kiss-off, the man who wrote the book on punk rock shut it for good. The Antichrist resumed his Christian name, and that was the end of punk rock.
In retrospect, it was inevitable that the Sex Pistols and their spawn should burn up fast like a comet, after they shot to the sky in an angry fireball of anarchy, rage, gob, and a bunch of unforgettable songs. Punk was meant to live fast, die young, and leave a rotten corpse. It wasn't supposed to grow old and toothless and sophisticated, and though "punk" never disappeared from the musical lexicon and actually flourished in the late '70s and early '80s with the commercial success of the Clash, the SST-Los Angeles scene of the early '80s, and the New York City hardcore world of CBGBs, the word "punk" has often been misused as a catchphrase to describe disguised metal, misplaced adolescent hormones, and sloppy musicianship. Terms like "modern rock," "post-punk," "post-modern," "indie-rock," and "alternative" (to what, exactly?) flooded a marketplace feebly trying to disguise music that in most cases was passionless, soulless, derivative, trivial.
But there is a burgeoning generation of young musicians who look back to the early punk heyday with not only fondness and nostalgia, but as something of a model; they embrace the culture of the punks as well as their music, absorbing messages and agendas and speed-riffing through records more than 15 years old. They're American bands who pay homage to the Clash and the Specials (Rancid), the Ramones and the Buzzcocks (Green Day), the Circle Jerks and Sham 69 (Offspring)--multi-million-selling superstars all, who took the underground into the mall, aiming their rage at the government and the suburbs with their odes to apathy and masturbation and loneliness. They whine, they pout, they shout, they shamelessly imitate and sing in English accents, and they have spawned the third (or is that the ninth?) generation of punks in every city in every state.
Slowly and seemingly out of nowhere, Dallas has a vibrant punk scene that has begun to rear its mohawked head. Coming out of garages, small clubs, and all-ages shows at places like the Orbit Room, the Galaxy Club, Bar of Soap, and the Major Theatre, theirs is an angry sound--a noise of discontent and raw, untapped energy, the likes of which hasn't been heard since the days of the Hot KlYb, the Metamorphosis Concert Hall, and the Twilite Room. Played mostly by young kids, it blares out as a reminder that rock can be vital, urgent and in-your-face even as it borders on laughable carbon-copy parody.
The roster of Dallas punk bands seems to grow every day: Bad Hair Day, Riot Squad, Mess, Dead Boy Choir, The Boozers, The Soup, Bowling For Soup, Lower Caste Struggle, X's For Eyes, The Voyeurs, Drag The Lake, Family Values, the Sillies, the Feebs, and Ethyl Merman rank among the most prominent of their lot. Their names appear on show flyers that read more like angry ransom letters, and they attract so many of the kids too young to get into the clubs; often, they're content to play in their suburban garages, purist throwbacks that they are.
The New Punks, like any product of history that has seen its ancestors' actions and learned from the implications, are conflicted about their roles: Some wear the traditional garb and hairstyles, while others sport bargain-bin T-shirts and jeans; some scream about politics, while others are defiantly apolitical; some abhor the pop-punk of Green Day and Offspring and MTV, while others acknowledge the importance of a new audience riding a trend. But they all share a love for the same sound, the same attitude, the same joyful nihilism that once made punk so vital.
"As much as I hate to say it, Green Day kicked down a lot of doors for other punk bands," says Donnie Dick, the 27-year-old singer for Dead Boy Choir. "It opened up the record industry's eyes in that there may be some profitability there. For once in my musical career I feel I've been taken seriously. Before this, no one would give us the time of the day."
The Choir, a self-proclaimed "old-school punk band" in the mold of the Ramones and the Pistols, has existed for more than a decade, originally forming under the name the Secrets. For a while in the early '90s, the band lived in Los Angeles and "did really well there," Dick says, but when they returned to Dallas in 1992, they were "practically ignored."
"We were in the midst of hair-band rock and roll," he says of that time. "We retired for a while playing in our garages and changed our name to Dead Boy Choir two years ago. Most of the songs we play are the same damn songs we used to play years ago. They were not marketable then, but they're marketable now, which is insane."
Unlike, say, Turner Van Blarcum--the thirtysomething mohawked frontman of Ethyl Merman and one-time speed-metal guitarist, whose political rants are so hysterically paranoid they're just hysterically (and intentionally) funny--Donnie Dick is the kind of punk who believes politics, be they social or personal, are at the core of punk.
He subscribes to the belief "you have to be pissed to play punk," that the music is empty unless there's an honest anger contained between the speed riffs, pointing to the Choir's song "Authority Figurehead" as the band's mission statement. Dick explains he wrote it after being thrown in the drunk tank on a DWI charge even though he was sober, blaming it on police officers who took one look at him and decided he was up to no good.
"The police screwed me," he spits. "They let me know that they're the police, and they can fuck with me anytime."
Riot Squad is another band that formed several years ago, disappeared, then resurfaced once punk began to catch on in late '93. But singer Joe Russell (who goes by the name "Joe Blow") insists its resurrection was also a reaction against the so-called "alternative rock" of bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, arena-rock and metal bands masquerading under the guise of punk.
"We got sick and tired of all that stupid alternative stuff like Nirvana and Pearl Jam," Russell says. "It seems that some of these guys used to be into punk, but they started smoking too much dope and mellowed out. We thought about it and decided to get back because we have stuff to say. We're not a political band, but we do show people what we don't like."
Russell's love for punk started when he heard the Circle Jerks' Group Sex at age 12; that album, and the Misfits' Legacy of Brutality, shaped his musical worldview, though he would also borrow heavily from the Damned's occasional gothic imagery. Which is a direct contrast to someone like John Congleton, the 18-year-old singer-guitarist for Bad Hair Day, who was drawn to punk because of its energy--"I think punk is the best way to express myself, to express emotion," he insists--but points to newer bands like Propaghandi and Oblivion as his points of reference.
"People my age are motivated by the new school of punk rock rather than the '77, '78 bands," he explains. "Punk rock is all kinds of things now. It can be creative and still keep the backbone of punk....The difference between old punk and a lot of these new bands is in the attitude. They don't have the rebellious attitude or the sarcasm that you find in old punk. The term is played out too much now, and the fear is gone. Back then it was scary; now, it's like a novelty. It's like, 'Look at that cute mohawk.' I don't really care about the looks or what to wear. I don't dress that way at all."
"The spirit of the '70s is dead," Mike Stickboy says. "It can only live within yourself."
Todd Ayers, the 28-year-old lead singer for the Boozers, is the sort of punk purist critic Chuck Eddy dismisses out of hand in the new Spin Alternative Record Guide. In writing about the Offspring, which he labels the most popular indie-rockers in history, Eddy explains that their cross-market popularity offended "the corny comforting club of phony non-conformists who've long protected punk from the real world." Ayers would sneer at the accusation he's a phony, but staunchly defends his position that music stops being "punk" the moment it transcends its target audience--whatever that might be.
"Once it gets to the point where you hear it on the radio and it's on MTV, punk loses its integrity," he says. "I think punk cannot be in the mainstream because it's supposed to be underground. Otherwise it will be conforming to the corporate crap....There is nothing original in what you see today. Punk was around even in the '20s and '30s. Blues is like punk, in a way. There will always be people who have crappy lives, and they'll write songs about them."
Bad Hair Day opens for Rancid November 7 at Trees.
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