On the Radio (Flashback): Time Bomb

In the mid 1990s I used to work about 45 minutes away from home at a gas station–much to the chagrin of my parents who couldn’t understand why the hell I had to drive 45 minutes to pump gas when there were perfectly good places to pump gas in our home town.  The long and the short of it was: (1) I didn’t want to be caught pumping gas by someone I actually knew and (2) there was a girl involved (the place was owned by her father).

As with most things, the law of unintended consequences had a powerful showing here.This was the glorious year of the Ford LTD Stationwagon.  First of all, since I was young and driving a lot not only did I get into my first fender-bender, run out of gas during a snowstorm and receive my first, second and third traffic citations, but I also got to listen to the radio constantly at a time when alt-rock was king. During many of my long drives into the cold, I heard songs by the band Rancid.

I can’t listen to this song without getting happy now. What the living hell was wrong with me?

As I mentioned a few months back when I was going through my obsessive phase with Palma Violets, I was dismissive of almost everything in second-wave punk for no good reason. Although I grudgingly acknowledged the quality of Green Day (and who didn’t? the radio played us all into submission), Rancid–with its snarling vocals and stripped down sound–seemed easy to mock and easier to dismiss. And yet, when I listen to it now, it seems so much more transgressive, immediate, and authentic (again, whatever that means) than a lot of the other schmaltz I thought was good. (“Wonderwall? What the fuck?)

I think that a good deal of my suspicion of punk’s second sailing has to do with poorly held and even more poorly defined ideas of authenticity and originality. At 16, I thought that such words had meaning and had no concept of things like appropriation, homage, and metamorphosis. Even worse, when it came to a band like Rancid, I was too fucking ignorant to know that two of the members were old-timers from Operation Ivy who had enough cache and real DIY punk character to make the members of Green Day blush. Hell, Rancid never even signed with a mainstream label.

So, I guess the lesson here is that if you’re worried that someone else is a poseur, you should probably check into their bona fides and, even before that, do the whole monkey in the mirror thing and make sure you’re not a complete fake. I’m trying to make amends for this and many other asshole moments in my youth.  Just today I downloaded the album.  My kids are going to be rocking out with safety pins this afternoon.

And what do you think of all this, my brother?

What You Were (Not): Fugazi

“You’ve got your hands over your ears / you’ve got your mouth running on / you’ve got your eyes looking for something / that will never be found” from “Give Me the Cure”

When I was in high school in the overwhelmingly white backwoods region the Family J calls home, learning about music (outside of the few stations we could receive clearly which included double doses of top 40’s, easy listening, Oldies, Country and Classic Rock) was a task that both challenged and defined. Classic Rock came with acid washed jeans and cigarette smoking in elementary school. Country blared from pick-up trucks with gun racks. Most high school students were wired into MTV and/or Rick Dees’ weekly top 40.

Some of us tried to define ourselves against these stand-bys by gravitating towards the obscure (or not).  Why we did this is hard to explain without humility and self-deprecation. The choice to be ‘different’ is made for many reasons—some have it made for them, some accept it as a confirmation of long-felt dislocation, and others (probably me) embrace it because it is attractive. The mundane everydayness of the ‘mainstream’ pales in comparison to the drama of alienation, otherness, and imagined persecution.

So, in the days before the internet, when ‘alternative’ music began to seep into the top 40 and received heavy play on MTV, the new arms race of self-identification centered around obscurity. To be different one had to possess a musical sensibility and style that was unreplicated and that was, even if impossible so, ‘original’. For musical taste, the obscurity aesthetic is a bit of a paradox. Like conforming to non-conformism, espousing an exclusive taste in the obscure is a bit of a shell game. And here’s why: the pose of the obscurist also entails claiming superiority of product over the more popular examples. It is thus not obscurity that is highlighted but the excellence of the ‘original’ individual’s taste (and this works for most art forms as well as palette and eye).

For some, these poses came easier than others. Geography gave some a regular stream of instruction from a local college radio station. Others benefited from older siblings who initiated them into the mysteries of the underground. And, even others were industrious and daring—sneaking out to small gigs in near-by towns, scouring music magazines and hanging out at record stores. I, on the other hand, was the oldest, out in the sticks, with a mother who listened to Neil Diamond and a deaf father. I have an interview I did when I was in elementary school. I listed the Monkees as my favorite band. I liked Weird Al before a significant (and persistent) They Might Be Giants obsession. I was not, by any means, cool.

But that did not keep me from trying to play the game. The band that I advertised to others as the token of my ‘otherness’ and excellence in my darkest poseurship was Fugazi. You couldn’t find Fugazi on the radio or on MTV. Most music stores in the area did not sell Fugazi albums. This band was the ultimate for the bluffer’s pose. I had learned about Fugazi from an older artist-friend who was the epitome of an underground music connoisseur. (He made Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume look like a two-bit hack.) As I learned later, much of his pronouncements were also poses—they were just better than, cleverer than, and most important of all, prior to mine.

Fugazi’s  DIY ethic, anti-capitalist rhetoric and belligerence towards record companies made it, at least in theory, a perfect band for a quasi-idealistic non-conformist during the swan-song of hair bands and at the dawning of neutered rap and hip-hop (before suburban white kids were listening to Gansta Rap). Fugazi, as I learned, wouldn’t market through merchandise (hence the “This is not a Fugazi T-Shirt” t-shirt), charged an egalitarian 5 dollars for all shows and an affordable 5/8 dollars for each album.

Was I never this 'cool'?

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