[Originally published 1996 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
Obsession is underrated. (And you can quote me on that.) It's also at the bedrock of pop music, bien entendu: Every jingle you can't get out of your head, every single that tops the charts and embodies the urban soundscape like contour lines on a topographic map, every singer whose voice, words, delivery draw you in like a penitent at a mass wedding are expressing the same elemental power. Between life and madness lies... obsession.
And, unfortunately for people's preconceptions, some of us find ourselves obsessed with men, which isn't all that remarkable for urban fags, but some of those men sing and strum and act as demigods in rock & roll bands. You know, with those big brutish guitars and that crazed wide-eyed beast wailing away on those drums, which are probably topped with human skin anyway. You would be more likely to cut me slack for confessing to being a closet fan of, I dunno, fiddlers or something than admitting that I like rock. Roll, too.
This is a perennial theme in Queer in Your Ear, as columns passim have noted. I have the same emotional and physiological reactions to strong basslines and a chugging rhythm section and tight union between vocalist and musician as anyone. But also unfortunately for preconceptions, I have a mind (in some ways, it's all I've got) and insist on some emblem of intelligence in my rock music. Intelligence, though, in dance music? (Intelligence in "Pump Up the Jam"?) No, not necessarily. Yes, I like both. And more. They're matter/antimatter combinations, I know. Don't bother reminding me. This, however, is the 20th century in microcosm – there is no such thing as monolithic identity.
So we shouldn't be surprised that there exists in this big wide world a man named Greg Graffin who has spent half his life subjecting the cilia of his inner ear to permanent lawnmoweresque damage by churning out socially-engaged, high-level punk-rock songs. Yes, punk, as in those kids you see on the street with their quaint little Mohawks and 99-eyehole Doc Marten boots, brats who were waking their moms up twice a night for breastfeeding when S. Vicious was out mainlining. Yes, it's an ossified subgenre; so is zydeco. So is rap. (And you can quote me on that.) But this is not a Paris runway and originality for originality's sake is as wildly overrated as obsession is under-. Lateral progression is meaningful. Doing the same thing well – just as well – counts for something in the face of monolithic entrenched multigenerational mediocrity, viz. les Rolling Stones.
Greg Graffin: A burly he-man of a name, a name to sink your teeth in, grunt, and shake back and forth like a dog with a bone. He shreds, this Greg. Not the slopes, though a man of his sophistication simply has to be able to ski. No, what he shreds is his voice. It's not just the cilia that got clobbered. Grrreg serves up the most gloriously damaged and gravelly and distressed vocals you've ever heard. Listening to him is like hearing a boring ol' singer (not Stone Temple Pilots, shurely?!) modulated through a dentist's drill.
I don't care about Marlene Dietrich, so shut up already. I know grrlz can have gravelly voices. Some may find those voices sexy. That's their problem. Hand me a man fronting a punk band while pebbles gurgle in his voxbox and I'll be his fan. Or slave. Hand me Greg Graffin and I'll feel react tad differently: I'll be awed as much by his dead fucking smart and recherché lyrics as his manful vocal delivery, which he can't help anyway. But he can help his songs, and none of them are stupid, OK? Most are anything but. Some are showstoppers. I'm not going to sit here and tell you what they're about. Go listen, or watch the captioned videos. Expect sophistication. Expect unexpected sophistication.
Perhaps Greg was inevitable. He is destiny manifest. Sooner or later, history would serve up a man perpetually nearing his Ph.D. in vertebrate biology who also happens to pilot a 16-year-strong punk-rock quintet. (And he and his cohorts, typing randomly, will eventually produce King Lear.) He'll demand that you think for yourselves, even if that sounds trite and passé. He will defect from the indie label that sheltered him for more than a decade, Epitaph, to the mighty Time-Warner juggernaut and prompt accusations of selling out.
And he'll grow larger than life. Yes, like David Lee Roth, who's a runt, but bodily stature isn't what I'm talking about here. Well, all right. I am. I confess: Who upstairs was listening when they built this man Gr.Gr. 6-foot-2 and gave him a peaches-and-cream complexion? And a smile, which he hoards like a drop of water in the Mojave, that can pulverize a heart at ten paces? (Endearing rabbity upper incisors. Again, Mother Nature smiled.) And what's with the repertoire of facial expressions and tics and gestures and flailings? Why do they work so well? They're not even remotely akin to schtick, unlike his between-song banter. But you develop a hide of cynicism in this business, and we all change onstage. Man, beast, whatever.
Why do his adoring fans – and I mean of all stripes – adore him? Is Greg Graffin actually beautiful, or merely charismatic? Either will attract a flock. Either will attract me, but neither is enough to keep me. I need firing neurons between the ears as well as within them. Gr.Gr. gives more. With Greg, I may be a lifer.
The reason why is a risky one to state: Emotion. Plural, even. A man who looks like him and sounds like him and, fuck it all, writes like him has a direct conduit to my heart. And mind. And body, though rather less of that than you with your gutter mind might think. I wobble, ebb, and flow in the ripples of Bad Religion's rock machine. If they performed instrumental-only versions of their songs they'd still work and I'd still play 'em, once.
He's been working under my skin, this Greg, for years. The band has fatally flawed taste in video directors, but it's true nonetheless that the seizure-inducing "Atomic Garden" and the unduly literal sepiatoned "Amerikanski Jesus" fused the aural and the visual memorably, if not felicitously. And I never bought their albums until they defected to Atlantic (which is not selling out, kids – a contract is a contract is a contract). I played the records. I liked them. They were good, in the most banal sense of the word, and of course they were more. I loved the man's voice, I respected his mind. I wanted to see more of him. But: I wasn't prepared for the stunning mismatch between song and video in "Struck a Nerve," which, while depicting fictional persons and events whose resemblance to actual events and persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental, all too horribly sums up the despair and disaffection some of us struggle with – while subjecting us to the most vapid and scattershot visual calques this side of high-school "videography" class. Ack!
I don't pretend to understand the Man Himself. I barely know him. Met him only once, with a shooter fluttering shutter buttons and a publicist keeping watch. And noise in the hallway and interruptions and a muddying of what was shaping up to be a connection. (I'm not shy. You can read the interview. Go ahead.) But I have to say I was floored to hear that this behemoth of a song, this comet colliding with planet Earth, was inspired by the birth of Greg's son. A boy, just like him. I usher new lives into the world every week, though mine are simple words on paper and screen. Sometimes I'm filled with pride of accomplishment; those times I can't exactly tell you where a story came from, or who was really at the controls while my fingers were inducing RSI in my forearms from typing so jeezly fast to keep up with my thoughts. I am not always in control, and thus writing is, at its best, a miracle. (That's why I still do it, even now, with my professional career going tits-up. That's why you're reading this now.) It's a lot to deal with, and ultimately it's ephemeral. Ultimately what I bring into the world means nothing. (My friend Ian Stephens, a musician/poet/essayist, died in March. Does anyone remember what he wrote? Or sang? Or performed? Don't buy the conventional wisdom that artworks constitute immortality. It ain't necessarily so.)
Ushering your own flesh and blood into the world can only be all the more intense. That's an understatement. How that overachievement, which sappy popular sentiment has more or less pegged exactly right, could yield the bitterly true-to-life melancholia of "Struck a Nerve" escapes me. I have to understand this, though I doubt I will.As if I didn't have enough Bad Religion details to obsess over. (And I've got to be careful with that song: Like absinthe or radiation or Tories, it's best to limit exposure.) Gr.Gr.'s explanation, which can now exclusively be revealed, tells us ... what?
I'm concerned for what my children see in the world. Melancholia is a natural reaction to so much of what is out there. Most artists ignore the darkness and concentrate on the light. Maybe I'm just a different kind of artist. I think the only way to see the light is by understanding and not fearing the shadows!
Of course, this is the perfect excuse to keep talking to Greg, isn't it? And there's nothing I'd like more. He's 31, I'm 31. Maybe I want to be like him when I grow up.