This will be the last time I remain silent.
The history of the scene gets skewed in the minds of those piecing it together after the fact when there are exceptions to the tendency described above. It’s perfectly logical to assume that the bands whose CD discographies remain in print to this day, or whose members went on to form other, better known bands, were the most important bands of the time in which they existed. However, this isn’t always the case. All it really indicates is that the later fame of some members makes people curious to hear their earlier work, or maybe even that one particular band ended up on a label that had more money or more sought-after releases than most. Sometimes the bands who get this preferential treatment are the ones who deserve it, while sometimes they are far more elevated in importance retrospectively than they ever were at the time, and it’s only the scene veterans who were around at the time who really know the difference.
It’s with split records that this after-the-fact skewing can become most apparent. The best example of this phenomenon is the Christie Front Drive/Jimmy Eat World split 7 inch. It features one song by each band, was released in some small quantity, somewhere between 1000 and 5000 copies, and fetches ridiculous sums on Ebay. It’s Jimmy Eat World who drives up those prices, and in light of their fame, that statement seems obvious, not even worth saying. However, the reason that everyone cared about that split EP at the time of its release was because of Christie Front Drive. While no one in the mid-90s hardcore scene knew much about Jimmy Eat World, Christie Front Drive were one of the pioneering bands in the redefinition of “emo” as a genre that was occurring at the time. The fact that emo is seen these days as melodic rock music with prettily sung vocals and plenty of pop hooks, instead of hardcore punk music with screamed vocals but more personally oriented lyrics than was normal at the time in hardcore, which is how it sounded when the term was coined, is due to the influence of a few prominent bands from the mid-90s underground hardcore scene. Christie Front Drive were chief among this small group (along with Cap’n Jazz, about whom more later), but are almost completely forgotten now, perhaps due to their strict adherence to a DIY code that many other emo bands abandoned as soon as they could, or perhaps more practically due to the fact that this adherence kept them on small labels with low release quantities even at the height of their fame.
Another split record that demonstrates this skewing tendency on the part of modern listeners is the Friction/Cap’n Jazz split EP. Unlike Jimmy Eat World, who have always been followers rather than leaders where the progression of music is concerned, Cap’n Jazz are more than worthy of the adulation that is often accorded to them. However, in the case of this particular split record (which also fetches high prices on Ebay), it is not their side (a throwaway tune called “Rocky Rococo”) that justifies the price one would have to pay for it. Friction are known to some extent, mostly because vocalist/drummer Bob Nanna went on to front long running emo act Braid. For the most part, though, they are a footnote to the Braid story and nothing more. This isn’t wholly unjustified; Friction’s only full-length, “Blurred In Six”, is good, but it’s not on the level of Braid’s best work by a long shot. The CD version of “Blurred In Six” has come to stand as a discography for Friction, since it contains all of their EPs and comp tracks up to the release of the full length. “Transit” is their only song from after “Blurred In Six”, and is therefore the only Friction song not on the CD. This has effectively made it a forgotten song, even amongst those Braid devotees who’ve gone so far as to hunt down the Friction CD. It can only really be heard these days by the kids shelling out a pretty penny on Ebay, and I would imagine that a lot of them don’t even play that side of the record. More’s the pity.
According to the note accompanying the lyric sheet, written by bassist Scott Broadhurst, “Transit” was written and recorded at a time when the band was in the process of breaking up. There’s no way to tell whether “Transit”’s angst-ridden lyrics are a reference to this breakup, or to something else going on in Bob Nanna’s life; they are obscure at points, and even at their clearest points are only clear in a sense of describing personal emotions, not concrete circumstances surrounding these emotions. Regardless, they hit home. Nanna’s description of the dissolution of a relationship as “a machine, fixing what isn’t broken” brings to mind every time one person thinks everything is fine, only to be confronted by the other person with complaints of irreconcilable problems. These breakups hurt worst of all, or at least that’s been my experience. The music to the song is similar in tone to the lyrics, slower and more melancholy-sounding than Friction’s usual fare, carrying an air of foreboding. Nanna’s drumming is powerful, making up in syncopation what it lacks in fills (presumably because he has to sing while he’s playing these beats). His vocal melodies stick close to the chords played by Broadhurst’s bass, and are double-tracked throughout, creating a call and response effect with many of the lyrics, especially on the chorus. It seems this was necessary in order to get all of the lyrics into the song, but it also adds a lot to the sound of the vocals, the two tracks often harmonizing with each other, one singing a short phrase and holding notes while the other sings a full line overtop of the held note. Andy Knudson, Friction’s only guitarist, does not accept the limitations that some guitarists feel in the rock power trio configuration. Instead of sticking to a primarily rhythmic role, he leaves the basic chords of the song entirely to the bass and constructs complex lead lines that are not solos by any stretch, but are still inventive, snaking in and out of melodic and harmonic holes left by the combination of bass and vocals and adding texture to the song that are surprising coming from a band with so few members.
In the second verse, the lyrics continue with a particularly evocative line: “Boredom twists my hair, but since I’m there, I’ll blank stare, hoping you notice a tear (none there).” On paper, the rhymes elsewhere in the line suggest that the word “tear” here is synonymous with “rip”. Therefore, a listener reading along with the lyric sheet will be surprised by the fact that that word’s homonym, “tear”, in the crying sense, is being used. Not only does it make more sense, it’s more poignant, especially with that small added element of surprise. This line is a perfect description of those moments when one is staying calm, not indicating inner turmoil through outward actions, despite the fact that your insides are churning and you almost wish you’d lose control, just so the other person would know what pain you’re in. With the parenthetical aside “none there”, Nanna laments his own ability to keep control (or is it an inability to release control?), and its role in allowing the person hurting him to escape knowledge of his pain. Of course, the other person always knows how they’re making you feel in situations like that, but when you don’t express it, they can pretend they don’t know, which I suppose helps them sleep better at night.
“Transit” reaches its most intense point at the bridge after the second verse. The entire band comes to a halt for a second as Nanna screams, “Coughing up paint.” The music slams back in on the last word, underscoring the shorter, more declarative lines of the bridge with more dramatic music. It’s still slower and more melancholy in tone than almost anything else Friction ever recorded, as is true for the entire song, but this section has a feel of urgency that is missing elsewhere. It gives the impression of building towards a powerful climax, leading the listener to expect a resolution to the lyrical dilemma presented by the song, as well as the tension created in the music. Instead, we get the opposite; as soon as the bridge ends, the music begins to taper off, guitar and bass notes spaced farther and farther apart as the song is gradually given over to Nanna’s vocals and drums. The lyrics mirror this seeming resignation: “This will occur and reoccur,” Nanna sings, “until one day I have the strength to say…” Here he comes the closest to taking a stand, ending with the line, “This will be the last time I remain silent.” By the time this line begins, both guitar and bass have faded away completely, and by the end of it, the drumming has stopped except for a couple of bass kicks. The line sounds empowering in isolation, when one ignores all that has come before, but this is deceptive. Instead, one must read the context clues in the slowly fading music, and in the lines leading up to this last one. What few chords the guitars play after the bridge have returned to the melancholy tone of earlier in the song, and the fact that the final line is preceded by an assertion, first and foremost, that whatever terrible thing has caused this upwelling of negative emotions “will occur and reoccur.” This isn’t a song of resolve but of resignation. Granted, this resignation is tempered with the hope that someday the narrator will have the strength for something more, but there seems to be no expectation of this strength anytime in the near future.
“Transit” is a song born of the sort of realism many would call pessimism, a frank recognition of faults from a narrator who begins by focusing outwards but ends by turning in on himself, aware that he will have to change before anything else will. This song typifies the sort of emotional expression that was relatively common in the mid-90s underground hardcore scene. At the time it was released, its sentiments really weren’t anything out of the ordinary. Anyone living in a decent-sized city could see a band performing songs like this live in a living room or a basement at least twice a month, more often in the summer when school was out and many bands hit the road for tours. There was passion behind these expressions, one born from sincerity and the relief of many various kids, both in the bands and the audiences, that this form of expression had found acceptance and was indeed being condoned in their peer group. I myself can remember feeling this exact form of relief. I’d felt outcast and misunderstood for so much of my life that the opportunity to communicate honestly with kids like me about feelings I’d never known anyone besides me felt gave me hope for the future I’d never known was possible. It seemed at the time like hardcore was saving my life.
The movement towards emotional honesty in hardcore began with mid-80s hardcore bands like Husker Du and Rites of Spring, and gained momentum in the California scene of the early 90s. The Sacramento band Sinker referred to this new musical movement as "the emotional revolution", and at a time when the tough-guy straight edge bands of the late 80s were giving way to the cartoonish, unintentional self-parody of Vegan Reich and Earth Crisis, this progression towards an emotional openness was a welcome breath of fresh air for the majority of the hardcore scene. For a few years, the number of bands taking part in this scene grew exponentially every year, bringing more and more participants into a movement that, because of its radical interpretation of the DIY ethic, was even smaller in scale than hardcore had been before. There were benefits to the small scale, though, paramount among them a sense of cameraderie that left the hardcore scene closer-knit than it ever had before, even as it shrank. During the mid-90s, this movement’s golden age, hardcore came to be seen by its participants as a genre governed by ethics, not musical style, which is why such disparate bands as the proto-metalcore group Rorschach, the folkish, pastoral Ordination of Aaron, and the abrasive and experimental Antioch Arrow were all seen as part of the same genre.
Ten years later, the underground hardcore scene is very different than it was in the mid-90s. The emotional honesty that was the driving force of the scene at the time has to a great extent died out. Despite the fact that many of the participants in the hardcore scene of the time felt validated by the confessional nature of the music, there were always some involved in the scene who were put off by it. Sam McPheeters of Born Against wrote in his zine "Error" of experiencing trepidation after seeing the band Franklin end a set with their guitarist throwing his guitar into his amp and collapsing into tears onstage. "This does not bode well" is the thought he attributes to himself at the time, writing in 1999, at several years’ remove from the experience he describes. By the time he published this story, the tone of the scene had begun to change, and one was more likely to receive accolades than censure for questioning the legitimacy of such emotional outbursts. Perhaps Sam and others like him were not experiencing the same sorts of emotional upheavals in their daily lives as the majority of the kids who were participating, or perhaps they were just uncomfortable with overt, public displays of these emotions. In the end, it amounted to the same, and their discomfort, no matter how quiet it was kept at the time, sowed seeds of a backlash even at the height of the renaissance in emotional hardcore.
Another factor that spelled doom for this sort of expression within the bounds of hardcore was the nature of the bands that sprang up in the wake of the initial flowering of the genre. As always happens with musical innovation, there soon comes a second generation who, instead of attempting to create something that they don’t already see in the world, seeks to imitate the first generation. This is not necessarily a bad thing; a band with enough talent and inspiration can create a refinement of the sound they’re attempting to recreate that actually improves upon everything that came before them, especially if they’re mixing this new sound with ideas taken from other genres that may not have even registered on the radar of the first generation. This sort of thing happened plenty of times between 1996 and 1999, especially from a purely musical standpoint. Things got a little weirder when the new generation attempted to capture the spirit of the mid-90s hardcore movement. Some who had spent their high school years watching the first generation of bands attempted to recreate the powerful effect their emotional sets could have on an audience, but undermined their own efforts through calculation. It’s just not the same to see a band whose members fall down onstage or collapse into tears at the end of their set when it’s something planned and orchestrated. It might work on the audience the first time, but when you’ve seen a band five times and they’ve cried at the same point in the set every time, one’s disbelief becomes more and more difficult to suspend.
Other bands, featuring members of a more McPheeters-like disposition, turned away from the emotional openness of their predecessors and peers completely. Sometimes they chose to focus their sights in a more political direction, but this kind of songwriting carries its own need for earnest commitment, and it was easier for the average hardcore kid to retreat into irony. The Locust, who featured members of the first generation bands Struggle and Swing Kids, continued to push the music of the scene in innovative directions with their mix of grindcore, disco, and rock n’ roll riffs, but overlaid it all with lyrics that were so much random gibberish. The young Indiana quintet Usurp Synapse mixed The Locust’s quirky grind with the metallic hardcore sound of Canadian bands like Drift and Union of Uranus, but undermined the power of their music with such repugnant releases as "Just Do It!", an EP with a cover graphic of a slashed wrist in the shape of a Nike swoosh and featuring the song "Maybe You Should Kill Yourself." One assumed that the whole thing was a joke, but it was, to say the least, in questionable taste, and certainly wasn’t something anyone would have contributed to the community five years before. Meanwhile, back in California, Swing Kids and Unbroken guitarist Eric Allen committed suicide, turning the liner notes he’d penned for Unbroken’s album "Life Love Regret" eerily prophetic ("My wrists have healed but I don’t know if my times of desperation are over or only beginning..."). This could have opened a dialogue about how much hurt a lot of kids in the scene were feeling, but if it did, that dialogue never reached me.
Instead, emotional honesty in hardcore became less and less prevalent, and the DIY ethic that had held things together so well in past years became fractured as well. Bands that had used the relaxation of strict musical rules on the genre of hardcore to explore more commercially acceptable sounds realized that, with the growth of their sound in commercial directions, they’d opened themselves up to greater opportunities to make money off of their music. It was only a matter of time before one of those bands took the opportunity to sign to a major label. Sure enough, Jimmy Eat World did exactly that, and with the help of Saves the Day and several others, remade the term "emo" in their own image. Soon, emo and hardcore were seen as two different things, and the point where those sounds intersected was rechristened "screamo", despite the fact that the new screamo sounded just like the old emo.
And who really could bring themselves to care? No one had ever really liked the term emo anyway, and if it was the exclusive province of teenage high school kids now, there was no reason to even worry with it. What was troubling, though, was what had come to replace the emotional revolution, both in the hardcore scene and in the underground rock scene in general: irony. In 1999, Palatka released an album entitled "The End of Irony", featuring a liner note essay decrying the infiltration of this concept into the scene. At the time, I must admit, I was a bit fuzzy on what they meant. The word "irony" had not yet become a part of my daily vocabulary. I remembered the scene in "Reality Bites" where Winona Ryder blows a job interview because she’s unable to define irony, only to have Ethan Hawke matter-of-factly explain that irony is when the meaning of a word seems to be the opposite of what it actually means. I couldn’t see how that term applied to what Palatka was talking about: "self-defeating depression broken only by in jokes and holy smoke." What were they even talking about?
I didn’t know how lucky I had it at the time, and neither did Palatka. If there was any real commitment to irony within the scene at the time that album was released, it was nothing compared to how deeply entrenched it is now. Ironic distance is what has become the real problem in modern times. Palatka were totally unprepared for ironic distance, that concept that prevents anything from being taken too seriously because it’s all said with an arched eyebrow, an appearance of wit. If someone says something sincere, they avoid an obvious commitment to it, just in case their statement draws fire. Ironic distance always keeps the option to retreat from an unpopular statement, to pretend that you were just making a deadpan joke. The widespread use of this tactic puts people on their guard, makes everyone afraid to break the status quo and say anything that might seem too revolutionary, too real. Additionally, it starts to feel safer not to put too much stock in anything anyone says, for fear that their irony will fool you, draw you into sincere agreement with something intended to be a joke, and make you a laughingstock along with whatever sentiment you expressed. Palatka used their liner note essay to reference the irony inherent in a loss of ideals that were once upheld proudly by younger kids in a younger scene. They saw this pitfall of the aging process as the worst we had to fear from irony. One wonders what they would think now, when rather than just having to deal with the irony of someone else’s lost ideals, they’d have to confront the fact that someone else’s maintaining of a constant ironic distance can be enough to shame the majority of today’s generation out of ever attempting to have ideals in the first place.
The sincerity that was the hallmark of the hardcore scene 10 years ago has not completely disappeared. However, it has, bizarrely enough, moved closer to the mainstream, as part of the modern emo scene. Today’s version is far from its roots as an outgrowth of hardcore. Instead, it is seen as a teenage fad, something decidedly not to be taken seriously. Many people take the attitude towards emo that Andy Greenwald took in his book "Nothing Feels Good"; that emo is popular with teenagers because teenagers are the only age group in which the dramatic emotional upheavals that emo often documents in song are actually occurring on a day to day basis. The feelings that cause people to connect with emo are therefore viewed as an adolescent phase that people generally grow out of by the time they are settling into adult life.
But is this really the case? For a time in the hardcore scene, the door was open for anyone to express these sorts of feelings. Most often that expression did come from people of high school and college age, but then again, most of the members of the hardcore scene were in that age group to begin with. The older people who were involved with hardcore at the time were just as ready with emotional outpourings as their younger counterparts, and sometimes produced the most enduring art of the period (see the music of Still Life or the writing of Kent McClard for prime examples). Perhaps the need for this emotional outlet is not so much a function of one’s age as one’s relative comfort with the lifestyle of mainstream society in modern America and other first world countries.
There are some who would argue that I’m reading too much into the shift in dynamic, which has occurred both in the underground hardcore scene and the wider world of independent rock music, from wide-eyed emotional sincerity to ironic distance. Like anything else, they’d say, this is just the function of a metaphorical pendulum swinging from one extreme on the spectrum to the other. Irony’s moment in the sun will pass, they’ll say, and the time for an emphasis on sincerity will come around again. There’s probably some truth to this argument, and I would find it much easier to accept if it weren’t for a lingering feeling I can’t shake–a feeling that we’ve lost something. At the time Friction released "Transit", it was easy for a band to achieve recognition and respect through the sort of sincere expression of emotion embodied by that song. At that time, the opportunity was always there to break with mainstream societal convention and say whatever it was they were thinking. Even if people didn’t agree with it, they respected it, and respected the act of putting it out there. Kids who didn’t want to take advantage of this opportunity as it was provided to them by the scene they were involved in didn’t have to, but the vast majority appreciated and made use of this opportunity as it was provided.
Now, with ironic distance having established a firm hold on the discourse of the hardcore and indie scenes as a whole, those who depart from the mainstream in an effort to find a place where they fit in, where their differences are valued and expression of those differences is encouraged, are presented with a daunting atmosphere that doesn’t seem much more inviting than the mainstream they’ve so recently left behind. If their feelings seem more akin to the province of emo, they are marginalized through the predominant view of those feelings as teenaged, immature, something to be grown out of sooner rather than later. In the final analysis, hardcore and indie rock have become mirror images of the emotional tone embodied by mainstream society. Perhaps it’s our own fear of exposure and abandonment by our peers that keeps this unhealthy situation in place; that would certainly be understandable in light of the typical insecurities and lack of self-esteem that lead people to these underground scenes in the first place. But no matter what the reason, we are all a little bit poorer for it.
Sorry it took all week for me to make a new post, but I've been working on this one the whole time. It took a few days of writing for a couple hours a day to finish, and when I say "finish" I mean this is still a rough draft. Hopefully the final version will go on to bigger and better things than just this blog, as I'm really proud of the great majority of this piece. Hope you guys can appreciate it, even in this somewhat-unfinished form. I'm just glad I'm done with it. In fact, I'm gonna go get a pizza to celebrate.