Bad Religion After 30 Years

Saturday night was an evening which I thought might never come.  After years of near-misses, I finally got to see the band that, for me, started it all.  I got to see Bad Religion.  The truth is that good things really do come to those who wait, because I didn’t just see Bad Religion.  I saw Bad Religion on their 30th anniversary tour, on the last show of the tour, on the exact day they were celebrating their anniversary, in the first city they every played outside of Southern California.  It was absolutely the night to see them, particularly for the sentimental value I place on their music and their career.

When I say that Bad Religion “started it all,” what, exactly, do I mean?  Well, it’s true that most of my musical and cultural awakening happened in the context of “alternative” music, as you could still safely call it.  In the days before grunge had sufficiently taken off and the mainstream had co-opted the “alternative” ethos, the general melange of not-very-top-40 music got put under that broad label.  I learned about bands like REM, Depeche Mode, Microchip League, Concrete Blonde, and The Shamen from radio shows playing late on Sunday night on a radio station in Orlando, FL.  I did not, however, really internalize an idea of embracing that music as a part of cultural expression, and the idea of being the willful outsider was never on my mind.  It was just music that was weird and interesting, and I thus spent most of my teenage years completely disengaged with pop culture but also still believing that I was somehow going to eventually achieve the acceptance of my peers.  Of course, the music industry made mincemeat of the alternative big tent, to the point that even that aspect of my identity had lost much meaning, and I honestly stopped really caring about music for a couple of years as a result, and I just became yet another faceless reject in the zoo that was my school and home.  I always carried with me that feeling of being an outsider yet not understanding why I couldn’t just be a little more “normal” and be happy and maybe have some friends.  My sense of disaffection extended into my relationship with my family, for reasons which I will not detail here.  In general, I was socially alone, detached from my family, politically aware and confused by the world, and in general wondering what was so wrong with me that everything around me seemed made for someone else.

The question was always “Am I nuts, or is the world a lot crappier than my teachers and parents promised me when I was younger?”  For a long time, I’d concluded the problem was me.  The first time in my life that I ever considered the other possibility was when I bought a copy of Stranger Than Fiction.  For the first time ever, there were my feelings being spat out at a fevered pitch over driving guitars: “Mother, father / look at your little monster / I’m a hero; I’m a zero / I’m the butt of the worst joke in history.”  I still remember my first reaction to the lead-off song on that album.  Wait…you mean other people feel like this, too? The topics covered a gamut of emotions, all collectively driving home a message I was relieved beyond belief to finally hear– “Nope.  You’re not nuts.  The world is hard.  You have been lied to by your authorities, and they’re still lying to you now.”  I suddenly felt like maybe the place I was in was okay.  Sure, I was the outsider.  That’s because I wasn’t buying into the way things worked.  I’d be an outsider, but I’d have myself, and it wouldn’t last forever, because I’d be leaving that town and most of those people behind.

This was about as seminal a moment in the development of my personality as discovering Paganism.  In the months following my purchase of Stranger than Fiction and The Grey Race, which was released that summer, I stopped seeking the approval of my peers.  I stopped completely being the Good Kid.  I started challenging my authority figures, especially my teachers, when I felt they were doing something wrong.  I became a bit more outrageous, discovering that I was willfully sacrificing acceptance for respect.  I found other punk kids to hang out with, one of which eventually became my girlfriend for much of my senior year of high school.  I found, among them, a common thread with myself.  Most of them were bright but unfocused.  We all had the same rocky feelings about our families.  We all felt the same cold shoulder from our peers.  We all felt frustrated by what we perceived as hypocrisy from our authority figures.  We also all discovered we had each other.  We spent a lot of our time engaged in fairly petty forms of mayhem, punctuated by frequent trips to neighboring towns to see a lot of garage bands.  I really wish I’d stayed in touch with some of those people after I left for college.  I wonder about some of them and worry about others.  They were all good people, and I hope that, wherever they are, they are happy.

To some varying degree or another, I’ve always carried “punk Rhett” with me in my heart.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually realized that that aspect of myself really deserves to come out more.  I’ve often been far to ready to scoff at youthful idealism, but that’s to say nothing of cynical adult passivity.  And so, every couple of years, there’s been a Bad Religion album to remind me.  They’ve always offered an intellectual’s rebellion, challenging the flavor of truth offered by our political, religious, and cultural institutions.  In another life, Greg Graffin would have been a beat poet, tapping his drum as he reminded us that the television news is “only entertainment.”  That has always appealed to me, even if, after 15 albums, they’ve explored most of the musical space available to them.  It’s not really about that.  It’s about remembering what it was like the first time you could admit to yourself that the world around you didn’t make any sense.  That’s why I’ve kept listening, and that’s why I’ve kept wanting to see them live.

For a while, my missing Bad Religion was a yearly event.  There was always a broken-down car, or someone moving, or whatever.  I kept putting it off, and I kept hoping that they’d still be around in a few years.  Then, ultimately, I filed it away in my mind as something I’d just missed, and I actually felt a bit sad about that.  I don’t have a lot of worship for the musicians I support, but that teenage punk in me still wanted to…just once…see the people that had given him a blueprint for a life as an atheist, an anarchist, and a free thinker.  Just one show to see what they look like in person.  Just one time to sing along with a crowd like we used to sing along to Recipe For Hate in the back of my friend’s car.  And then it happened– a coworker stopped by my desk last month and asked if I wanted to get in on a ticket purchase.  Fast forward to last Saturday night, and there I was, right on the edge of the mosh pit, listening to “1000 More Fools” being played live.

What I think I loved most about this show was being there on the band’s 30th birthday.  Bad Religion’s age reflects my own (I’m 31), and as the themes in their music have changed with the years, I’ve also changed and matured and carried that punk seed with me through life.  Hearing each song in the set made me think about who I was and where I was when that song first meant something to me, and as such, it was a moment of feeling very grounded in my own history.  Listening to Bad Religion live was two hours of taking a walk with myself.  What’s more, though, was seeing that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.  With every song they played, you could hear the voices in the audience singing along to.  Every song.  Every word.  Even the wild ones in the mosh pit were singing as they spread mayhem.  I’ve often called Bad Religion “a bunch of protest singers turned punks.”  For those of us there, this was a chance to connect with the soundtrack of our own personal protest, whatever it was, and it felt good to, for a moment in my life, stand in a crowd of people with whom I could share that experience.  I think it represents a moment of communitas I’d yearned for when I was younger and which I glimpsed when I did finally have some friends who were like me.

And now, I’m rambling while I’m at the office.  I’m wearing a tour t-shirt.  It’s a moment of letting punk Rhett be a little more at the surface.  When I was younger, I always wanted a Bad Religion t-shirt, but the band’s name and logo made my father suspicious.  I once inked the band’s logo in my backpack with white-out pen and was forced to remove it.  I promised myself I’d finally own a Bad Religion t-shirt when I saw them live, and I’ve put off owning one for years.  Now I’ve seen them, and I have the t-shirt, and punk Rhett is pleased, and I feel quite happy to let the young rebel in me have his t-shirt.  He’s kept me going all these years, and he’s likely to keep at it for many more.

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