Old-Time Bad Religion…Newfound Urgency

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Old-Time Bad Religion…Newfound Urgency

To celebrate both their 32nd (!) year together, and their new Billboard Top 20 (!) album True North, Bad Religion is on a break-neck tour of the United States and Europe that continues through July.

The band played the last show of the tour‘s primary North American leg at the Hollywood Palladium Thursday, April 18th before jetting to Europe for some festival dates. They return to the US for four dates in the Southwest U.S., then head back for a full-fledged European tour.

I Want to Conquer the World

When Bad Religion take the stage at the Palladium, they do so with confidence and exuberance (they are, after all, entertainers), but also with a dose of humility. The drummer clicks into “Past is Dead” and Greg Graffin launches into biting lyrics about instant gratification and intellectual poverty at a machine-gun pace. Graffin, balding in a polo shirt, stands on the edge of the stage, a wireless mic gripped tightly in his right hand.

Original member Jay Bentley, who joined the band when he was just 17, anchors the rhythm section on bass. Powered by punk veterans Brian Baker (Minor Threat) and Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) on guitar, the band propulsively roars through classic hits like “21st Century Digital Boy,” “I Want to Conquer the World,” “Los Angeles is Burning” (natch), and “Infected” while the audience gleefully chants along. (Brett Gurewitz, founder of both Bad Religion and seminal punk label Epitaph, is still a member and co-songwriter, but no longer tours with the band.)

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Never ones for nostalgic sentimentality, the band plays an urgent version of “We’re Only Gonna Die,” as if staking a claim not only on the present, but the future. However, before launching into an encore version of “Fuck Armegeddon… This is Hell,” Graffin takes a deep breath and assesses the 30-year history of the band, noting “This is the first song we ever wrote.” The audience is sweat-soaked and ecstatic. Graffin chants melodically through the lyrics, his left hand turned up to the sky as if asking “Can you believe this is still going on?”

Wait a minute…this band formed in 1980; how is this still going on?

Past Is Dead

When Pete Townshend famously proclaimed (via Roger Daltry) “I hope I die before I get old,” on The Who’s explosive 1965 single “My Generation,” it was not just a rebellious, shocking, and snotty generational demarcation; it was the distillation of the entire rock-n-roll condition. A mantra. An anthem. A roadmap. It is a sentiment that has echoed throughout the rock cannon: “live fast, die young,” “please kill me,” “no future,” “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” For so many — Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and Janet and Jimi and Jim Morrison and Marc Bolan and Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain and on and on and on — it’s become a romanticized and self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rock is rebellious. Rock is a young person’s art form. Its essence is intense and ephemeral and cannot possibly be sustained over time.  That which makes it beautiful also ensures its premature destruction. To become bloated, fat and old — like Elvis — is to betray the core precepts of rock and roll.

Nowhere is this “fierce urgency of now” ethos more doctrinaire than in punk rock. You didn’t have to look long at Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators, Dee Dee Ramone, or G.G. Allin to quickly surmise that these guys aren’t going to be around for very long. A nightly regimen of slam dancing, spitting, stage-diving and smack is hardly the most direct path to the local retirement home (…how is Iggy Pop still alive?)

If rock is a young man’s game, punk rock is a very young man’s game. Over time, rage fades, tempos slow and hairlines recede. But those who don’t die young must face a burning existential dilemma — how does one stay true to punk rock principles as they age?

Because maybe the distrust of authority, the sense of spiritual angst and cynicism that fuel your punk rock adolescence remain long after the ringing in your ears ends. Indeed, as East Bay punk stalwarts Rancid point out, “The music execution and the talk of revolution, it bleeds in me.” You can’t just turn it off when you throw on a suit or strap in a child’s car seat.

But can you be a true punk in your 30s, 40s and even 50s? Or asked another way — can the same traits that defined your youth sustain you later in life? Can these seemingly self-destructive traits not only help you survive, but adapt to a new environment and thrive? Sounds like a question for an evolutionary biologist as much as an aging punk rocker.

Fortunately, the guy standing onstage in front of us at the Palladium, Greg Graffin, is BOTH an evolutionary biologist (he has a Ph.D from Cornell and is a professor at UCLA) and a punk rocker of great experience (not to mention a certified punk scholar who famously published a widely-respected Punk Manifesto in 2002). And, based on the onstage “lecture” we’re witnessing, the answer to this existential dilemma is abundantly clear: done right, the urgency of punk and youth can indeed be timeless.

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New Dark Ages

Which brings us back to the current tour, where adrenaline-fueled anthems continue to be dispensed at a breakneck pace — 29 songs in 80 minutes: “Sinister Rouge,” “No Direction,” “American Jesus.”

The band truly seems to feel lucky to still be doing this after 30 long years, and it shows. It still feels real, and it still feels essential, because Bad Religion is still on a mission — a mission that is as vital now as it was in the 80s, when every West Coast punker was screaming some version of “Fuck Reagan” over sixteenth notes in two-minute increments.

But the political and consumerist excesses of the Reagan 80s seem almost quaint by today’s standards, and very few if any new artists are stepping into the role of musical activist. After all, who needs anarchy and anger as an energy when you’re blissed-out on MDMA at an all-night EDM party? But while hipster musicians were ironically appropriating 80s fashion and retro 80s Casio-tone beats, the U.S.  Supreme Court was busy putting 80s notions of crony capitalism and corporatization on steroids in the Citizens United case. That highly controversial decision 5 – 4 decision opened the floodgates of paid corporate political influence by declaring that money is speech and corporations are people.

Bad Religion soldiers on because they have to. So long as injustices continue–like the U.S. Supreme Court relying on indifference and apathy to advance a corporate agenda at the expense of democracy and the individual–Bad Religion will be there to call it out. Or, as Johnny Cash once famously proclaimed when asked why he always wore black, “I wear it for the poor and beaten down/living on the hopeless, hungry side of town… until the world’s a brighter place/I’m the Man in Black.”

On “Robin Hood In Reverse” off of True North, the band directs its rage at a plutocrat who tries to con Jesus Christ into forsaking the impoverished precariot nderclass, and assails the Supreme Court as “the nine in black who all went berserk” in the Citizens United case. Echoing the sentiment that they “won’t get fooled again,” while referencing that famous Sham 69 punk anthem “When the Kids are United,” a wizened Graffin declares “Citizens United, I was excited/(When the kids are united, they can never be divided)/but that was yesterday, there’s a brand new Sham today.” This cynical sentiment continues on other cuts off the new album including “Land of Endless Greed,” “Hello Cruel World,” “Department of False Hope” and most notably “Fuck You.”

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Sometimes the Easiest Thing to Do…

The band encores with four songs, and end with “Department of False Hope.” But the moment of the night, the moment that sums up the past, present and future of Bad Religion — and their aging punk rock fan base — is “Fuck You,” the defiant anthem off their new record. It is a simple and timeless punk sentiment, so much so that we can’t believe it took the band 32 years to write it. But beneath its adolescent middle finger to authority (“Just say fuck you/an homage to/your bad attitude”), there lies a wiser, deeper reservoir of emotional depth (“You can even get cerebral if you want to/make a radical assessment that sticks like glue”). But lest you think that Bad Religion has become overly reflective in their middle age, they don’t ponder too long before returning to the adolescent joy that still brings them out onstage night after night— “sometimes just a word/is the most satisfying sound/sometimes… the easiest thing to do/is say fuck you!”

With those words still echoing through the hall, the band walks offstage … and into the future.

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Photos: Erica Bruce / March 22, 2013 at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club

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