I go through music biographies like I go through bowls of M&M’s – with both hands, late at night, and with an unhealthy compulsion to consume until there are no more. I only remember bits and pieces of most of them, but the following reasons can help a book stand out:
- Its subject forged a path, literally, that I spent years following (I, Shithead by Joey Shithead and Get In The Van by Henry Rollins remind me that they played all those Podunk U.S. towns well before my bands ever got there).
- The artist rode the vanguard of pop culture (some American drug laws exist solely in response to Keith Richards, as is explained in his book, Life).
- The memoir is a touching love letter to a life well-lived (this is expressed three very different ways in each of the three versions of The Beastie Boys Book – paper, audio, and the movie).
- I am titillated by the band’s unabashed debauchery (see: NOFX Hepatitis Bathtub, Motley Crue The Dirt)
- It scarred me (the best/worst example: Zodiac Mindwarp Fucked By Rock).
- It simply contains great writing (Flea’s flamboyant prose is on par with a Tom Robbins book, and the clever, yet meandering writing in Morrissey’s autobiography was unique enough to get it published under the Penguin Classics imprint despite him not even being 200 years old yet, or dead).
But most of these books stick to the usual formula, similar to how the entire Behind The Music series was essentially the same story with the artists being the only variable (Weird Al’s episode stands as the lone exception). Some bands, however, simply operate outside the norm (whether by design or necessity or ignorance), and the retelling of their stories can’t help but reflect that (again, Weird Al).
I consider Bad Religion to be one of these outlier bands.
They have achieved improbable goals, and largely on their own terms. I’ve always been impressed with the things they achieved as a band, and I’m even more moved by things they’ve accomplished outside the band. But instead of wooing you with those details I’d rather list the following words that I learned from listening to their 1990 album, Against the Grain – words that were somehow wedged into one-and-a-half minute-long Punk Rock blasts:
(and in one single song, which I play below):
Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, and never play Scrabble with Bad Religion.
(While Bad Religion uses big words to express lofty concepts they still keep themselves grounded by allowing guitar solos like this.) (C’mon…do it – listen to ALL 40 seconds of that solo…)
And speaking of books and words and Bad Religion, there is now a biography about them, titled Do What You Want. As a fan of the band I loved it, but I think it is also a great read for people who don’t know the band, for people who wrote the band off after Generator (possibly because of that guitar solo I just mentioned), and for people who think Avril Lavigne invented Skate Punk.
In it I learned a few things, because learning is what one often does when Bad Religion is around. The following is purely trivia for fans of the band so feel free to skip ahead to the part about drugs…
* The reason I felt I could play drums in high school was because I heard Pete Finestone’s playing on Bad Religion’s 1988 release, Suffer, and I thought, “I can do that!” (I couldn’t, but I thought I could.) In Bad Religion’s earliest days Pete was their friend and roadie, so it made sense when the band asked him to replace their recently-departed drummer. With his regular exposure to the band he already knew all of the songs. The only dubious detail with this arrangement was that Pete didn’t play drums. But with the studiousness that Bad Religion is now known for, Pete sat down to learn the drums, and in doing so inadvertently spearheaded an entire genre of drumming. To whit, Apple’s two ubiquitous recording software programs, Garageband and Logic, have a midi “virtual drummer” whose default setting is called “SoCal Drummer” and is basically endless loops of beats that Pete played on the first few Bad Religion records. His driving but formulaic drumming style became so iconic for the band that even accomplished drummers who later replaced him, like Bobby Schayer, carried on the tradition by playing fills like this.
* I always thought of Greg Graffin, the singer with the finger, as the odd man out in Bad Religion. In video interviews he always seems to be questioned separately, their tours revolve around his schedule as a college professor, and he literally lives 3,500 miles away from the rest of the band. Furthermore, while other band members always looked like punkers and “lived the life“ either by playing in other bands or running a record label or incurring drug habits, Graffin was always low-key, clean cut and speaking in the confident, relaxed manner of an academic – nothing remotely what anyone would think when picturing a Punk Rock frontman. So for those reasons I just assumed he was merely “the singer” who came in when needed and left as soon as his job was done. But as the book points out, Graffin is the only member present for every single one of Bad Religion’s thousands of performances, 400+ recorded songs, and 40+ years of being a band.
* Greg Hetson is credited for keeping the band going during its early – and most prolific – years, despite him never being considered a full-fledged member for nearly 10 of his 25 years of playing/writing/recording with them. In fact, a few times during these early days Bad Religion had outright broken up, and “the guy from the Circle Jerks” was the one who made all the phone calls and got them back together again. So, when the world’s most intellectual Punk band was being asked what they did outside the band it was the guy who answered “I play Nintendo” that is hugely responsible for Bad Religion even existing as we know it.
I remember seeing Bad Religion at Gilman on the No Control tour. (To this day it is the biggest pit I’ve ever seen inside those walls. Usually a pit is encased on all sides by non-dancing bystanders, like cereal inside a bowl, but I remember this night the entire club was moving in a clockwise direction around the venue). Because the audience was such a seething, gelatinous mass I didn’t realize how very un-exciting Bad Religion were as a live act until I saw their Along the Way concert video. But then, if that Gilman show taught me anything it was that, as long as Bad Religion wrote energetic music then the crowd could express that energy for them.
Also on that VHS tape was this clip of Graffin speculating on how he and the band might age. As predicted, he did get more bald but I’m glad he weathered the vitriol of the late 90s “sellout” era of Punk Rock and continued playing long enough to prove the neigh-sayers (myself included, to be fair) how relevant and vibrant Bad Religion could continue to be.
I saw them again on the Warped Tour some 15 years later and was unexpectedly riveted to their performance. On drums they had this crazy drummer’s drummer of a kid named Brooks Wackerman, and on lead guitar… was that fucking Brian Baker from fucking Minor Threat?!? With this new blood, and with Hetson’s usual bouncy presence, the band was performing at an energy level heretofore unwitnessed. It was so unexpectedly ferocious and super-charged and intense. At least, I think it was…
… Earlier in the afternoon, my buddy Alex and I were enjoying the all-access passes afforded to us by our falafel-humping pals in Useless ID. While standing side-stage, away from the throngs, something akin to a frisbee soared over the crowd and skidded to a stop at our feet. I looked down and discovered THE MOST ENORMOUS REESE’S PEANUT BUTTER CUP I’D EVER SEEN. It was the size of a personal pizza, and close to two inches thick. Alex and I ate the entire thing in less than five minutes, but as I wadded the wrapper into a ball I noticed – much too late – that the label on the wrapper actually read “REEFER’S PEANUT BUTTER CUP”. (Reefer, with an “F”.)
So who knows if Bad Religion even played that day? But in my mind they did play, and they were awesome.
Like Metallica and The Simpsons, BR have been around so long that they have become cultural icons, a multi-dimensional reference point for people to use when discussing career arcs, artistic dynamics, or popular tastes. This long history also subjects them to inevitable slumps and creative mis-steps.
Sadly, Bad Religion’s 1992 release, Generator, was my personal tipping point (again, that guitar solo). Many of my friends, who were more into bands like False Sacrament and Sleep, had been giving me flack for years for liking a band that was so wordy and catchy. And so when Generator had the gall to add mid-tempo songs to their repertoire I exercised that uniquely teenage self-righteousness that allows a dipshit kid to write off once-great things for being too <insert important-at-the-time but ultimately-totally-irrational and peer-centric excuse here>.
However now, 30 years later, I’ve come across this book which reminded me that Bad Religion are still the same band working on the same goals with the same degree of devotion, albeit evolved from their teenage inception. And now I feel like I just discovered a lost treasure. Imagine unearthing ten new albums from one of your favorite bands… I can now dig into these records while being far removed from the youthful indignation that kept me from them.
All that said, Bad Religion are still not above satire, so…
Listen/Download audio here: