Live: Pennywise and the Circle Jerks, Too Old for This Shit
Me Grimlock kick butt
Pennywise + Circle Jerks
October 19, 2006
Of all the mid-90s California punk bands that achieved something resembling fame during the post-Green Day boom, Pennywise was always the most dependable. Rancid started fucking around with ska as soon as anyone noticed they existed, and they kept playing with other genres after that. NOFX told lots of jokes and sometimes did awful fake-lounge cover songs. When they got a decent album budget, the Offspring jumped headlong into bubblegum. But Pennywise always sounded exactly like Bad Religion, or at least like Bad Religion sounded after they got done dicking around with keyboards and before Greg Graffin decided to memorize a thesaurus. Pennywise was melodic California hardcore through and through: fast drums, big vocal hooks, crunchy riffs, bro-down singalong choruses, absolutely nothing else. That fundamentalist rigor sometimes produced great results; I wore out my shoplifted cassette copy of Unknown Road through constant replay. And there was always something weirdly exotic about the band; they didn't look anything like punks, or at least not the punks I knew in Baltimore. They just looked like average fired-up California fratboys who loved punk music but never saw the point of the clothes or the image. They wore board-shorts and baseball caps, and guitarist Fletcher Dragge looked sort of like Kevin Nash. And they're still doing all that stuff. They're eight albums deep into their career, and their new stuff sounds exactly like their old stuff except not quite as good. They've had brushes with death and with commercial success, and they're still churning out the same album every two years, soldiering on. There's something heroic about that sort of persistence, but there's also something weird. They're all grown men, and you have to wonder if it ever gets old playing "Bro Hymn" to drunk moshpits every night.
Apparently not. Last night at Warsaw, frontman Jim Lindberg was so drunk he could barely stand up, and he looked like someone who gets that drunk every night and never stops enjoying it. Being drunk has always been a big part of Pennywise's thing; Loveline made a late-90s running joke out of the time Dragge cornered Dr. Drew and intentionally puked on him. And there was a lot of slurred talk last night. Two songs in, they were debating proper drinking form discussing what drink someone should bring them (Dragge: "Jameson? That's a fucking woman's drink!"). And Lindberg at least had the wherewithal to realize that something of local significance was happening tonight: "I say if the fucking mets win, we just go fucking terrorize in the streets of Brooklyn tonight!" (He's not from New York.) But that sort of extreme drunkenness didn't do much for the band aesthetically. Soaring vocal hooks don't soar so much when the singer can't get them out properly. And the venue wasn't helping much. Warsaw is cavernous, and it was only about half-full last night, with the smallest crowd I've ever seen in there. All the echo in the room rendered the band's lightspeed pummel flat and lifeless. None of that stopped the knuckleheads in the crowd from wilding the fuck out and maintaining a constant circle-pit throughout the night, blatantly ignoring the No Moshing sign at the ticket desk. Even with all that, the band kept telling everyone to get in the pit, and maybe that's what inspired some dude to dump a glass of what I can only hope was water on my head at the beginning of their "Blitzkrieg Bop" cover. (They also covered a Misfits song and, seriously, "Fight for Your Right to Party.") But the set only came to life on the last song, the eternally rousing dedication-to-dead-friends "Bro Hymn," which is the sort of anthem that makes drunk people in the crowd leap the stage barricade, grab the mic and sing along, which is what about half the crowd did at the end of the set. Two minutes later, the Mets lost.
Pennywise is still pounding this stuff out, but they don't exactly make grown-folks music. But neither do openers the Circle Jerks, a band formed the year I was born, and they're still plugging away at it for reasons I can't even begin to comprehend. When I was in high school, the Circle Jerks were my favorite of the class-of-81 LA punk bands, mostly because their stuff sounded more like 90s punk than anyone else's. They trafficked in short, interchangeably catchy bursts of nasal sarcasm, and they never got remotely arty. During their Decline of Western Civilization scenes, the crowd was slamdancing in ways that didn't look too different from the slamdancing I was doing in church-hall basements; they weren't yelling oblique insults at Kickboy Face or waiting for Darby Crash to pick up the mic. They made sense to me.
But last night's set didn't make much sense. Keith Morris looks nothing like he did when he was writing the songs that his band was playing. His face is full of grizzled resignation, not babyish anger, and his dreads reach down past his back. Other than guitarist Greg Hetson, who at least jumps around, all the band's members play their songs calmly with their feet planted; it's hard to imagine these guys as kids spazzing out the way the songs demand. Sometimes, Morris was openly dismissive of the audience: "Where did you get the Black Flag shirt? Is there a Hot Topic here?" At the beginning of the set, Morris promised "about 22 songs," and I'm pretty sure they delivered, but nobody needs to hear 22 Circle Jerks songs played back-to-back. The songs are still great, and I still got a Pavlovian rush when I heard the opening guitars from "Back Against the Wall." But there was still something deeply depressing in seeing a group of old professionals making their living playing songs they wrote when they were children. Keith Morris has been making music for roughly the same amount of time as Vince Gill, who I saw earlier this week. The big difference between them: Gill still looks like he enjoys making music.