The last time I saw Against Me! I cried in the crowd. It must have been a tragic sight, me standing alone, screaming lyrics about the WTO and holding hands at the top of my lungs with tears streaming down my face. I was alone and it was for work.
I had agreed to cover a solo Tom Gabel show, though I hadn’t even listened to his EP, and after strumming his way through a few of his middling new songs, he welcomed Kevin on stage for a reunion. Kevin was Against Me!’s original drummer, when they were a duo in Florida recording cassettes and howling with raw throats and giving a shit. Back then, instead of a drum set, Kevin used pickle buckets. I’d only read about the time they spent performing in laundromats, because when I got around to mail ordering Reinventing Axl Rose from No Idea Records, Kevin was gone and Against Me! was a proper punk band. But Tom and Kevin’s ages had “-teen” at the end of them when they wrote the songs that defined my adolescence on the only 7”s that ever mattered to me. Watching them reunite on stage that night years later, away from Florida and away from the family bonds I forged with Crime and Disco Before the Breakdown as our suburban angst soundtrack, I lost my shit. And maybe I was projecting but I could see Tom losing his shit, too, because he wrote these masterpieces and he’d fallen so far.
The first time I heard Against Me!’s new record White Crosses I nearly cried again. I couldn’t because I was on the subway and I like to think I’ve done some growing up in the few years since I fell apart alone at a concert. But my heart started beating fast by the second track, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” because this was the most heinous and offensive and ugly album I had ever heard. I know I am way too old for this “my old favorite band selling out ruined my life” shit and I thought I had come to terms with their decline because it has been so gradual since Searching… and then New Wave, and plus at least we got that nice “Wagon Wheel” cover in the later days. But hearing Gabel sing Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire? all compressed and mastered-the-shit-out-of made me feel physically ill. Do you remember when you were young and all you wanted to do was put out a b-rate 21st Century Breakdown that Butch Vig fucked until it was lifeless with layers of what we’re told rock guitars should sound like? Yeah, me neither.
When I was about 14 and …As the Eternal Cowboy was coming out and a lot of the Gainesville punk purists were pissed because House of Blues is a really big and expensive and corporate venue and what the fuck, Fat Wreck, I mean come on, these disgruntled fans used to quote the band’s old lyrics back at them in an attempt to shame them with their blatant hypocrisy. And we would dance like no one was watching/ With one fist in the air/ Our arenas just basements/ and bookstores across an underground America. But I wanted this band to succeed and I thought everyone should dance together.
Little did I know the withered carcass they could become. Warren, Kevin’s replacement, left the group to sell burritos at home, because, really, how could you even drum behind these layers of oppressive rawk gloss? Don’t they have a machine for that? Make arena rock, fine, and scrub your sins away with merch money, but “the scene got too rigid”? That’s the fucking acknowledgment of where you came from and the infinite schism that exists between your former self and this trash? It’s shallow and it’s glib and I’m irrationally disgusted.
Can you imagine, having your own lyrics quoted back at you? I used to think it was pathetic. White Crosses makes me feel pathetic. And if you care about the songs and words that shaped you at all, read this and try not to feel your face get hot and the backs of your eyes start to burn. Or maybe it’s just me.
I lost the confidence to write a song,
so I found three simple chords and I held them together with my weak voice on an out-of-tune guitar my father gave to me.
May Elvis turn in his grave and Les Paul curse my dirty calloused fingers. May the likes of this song never make one fucking dollar,
leave it for a demo tape to be played until it’s broken
then remembered only for what it was…
That we gave ‘em hell