What is punk if not uncut emotion straight to the listeners mainline? It crashed on the scene injecting aggression back into a softening rock scene in the seventies, and has remained a staple of counterculture circles since. Its message is often short and not-so-sweet, favoring truth and cacophony over convolution and mass-appeal. And its aesthetic is equally as important as the music itself; supporters dress in such a way that suggests (not so subtly) that the mainstream can fuck off and die slowly, for all they care.
That was a nice opener, right? It's also a funny one, though, because anybody that knows me will tell you that I don't know shit about punk, and they're right. The first album that I ever bought was Cake, Comfort Eagle
, after demo'ing it at a Barnes & Noble kiosk. That has got to be the least punk shit that anyone has ever said. I never had a 'question the establishment' phase; I guess that my life in white, middle-class suburbia left nothing to be desired. I shopped at Pac Sun, ate turkey/mayo sandwiches on white bread, and had beach-playdates with my soft-ass friends.
I'm 24 now, and since those Barnes & Noble kiosk days, I've had what you might call a 'spiritual awakening.' It almost happened when I saw Cloud Nothings at Bonnaroo last year, but I wasn't quite ready; I vehemently cursed that goddamned performance and all of the psychopath attendees that almost killed my friends and I. But part of me liked
the raw emotion and lo-fi glory that I witnessed; I just needed some more time to get over the shock.
My good friend and college bandmate had this black Operation Ivy
shirt that he used to wear sometimes when we'd play shows. I always liked it, but I figured it was one of his silly punk bands or whatever, so I wrote it off. Now, picture me, the writer of this piece, two years out of college and eternally depressed that I don't have a real job. I needed something; something to set me on fire; something to cure me of the ineffable malaise that had stained my days with hopelessness. In my desperation, I fired up Spotify and pulled up Mxpx
, another band that I had heard of through the friend with the shirt. I fell in love with the primal chord progressions and unfettered aggression, and decided to dig deeper. I remembered the black t-shirt, typed in "Operation Ivy" in Spotify, and found what I had been seeking.
You see, Op Ivy pioneered ska-punk. So, while they have the rusty chainsaw effect of proper punk, they also have a strung out Cali. vibe. This made their music more approachable for me, since I was already a fan of bands like Sublime. Their songs center around social consciousness, but their sound screams "We don't give a fuck," and that's exactly how I felt at the time. Their one and only studio album, 1989's Energy
, is a a brilliant collection of gritty anthems denouncing the powers that be and highlighting life's small pleasures.
Album opener "Knowledge" really hit home for me. The chorus raucously exclaims, "All I know is that I don't know nothing," taking the words right out of my mouth and capping it off with, "and that's fine!" That's all I needed to hear. I had graduated college, and literally the only thing that I knew for sure -- the only
thing -- was that I didn't know shit. For two years, I wallowed because I thought that I wasn't
fine, but I had been misled! Operation Ivy was telling me that it was fine, and I wasn't going to disagree.
And then there's "Sound System," celebrating the healing power of music and packaged in an up-chuck-heavy skank free-for-all. I was taking refuge in my sound system, listening to this band and deciding that everything was going to be ok. Were they live streaming from 1989 into my headphones? Had they heard my cosmic pleading and come to my aid? Somewhere in between the saxophones, disinterested ska-rapping and sarcastic basslines, I had found my zen.
I'm in a much better place these days, and I attribute a significant portion of that to my acceptance of punk music. This is powerful stuff that we're talking about. Life is all about energy: the energy that you radiate and the energy that you absorb. Sometimes you have to get mad, and sometimes you have to say, "fuck it," but you never have to sit around feeling sorry for yourself.