I often say that music has been and continues to be incredibly important to me. All of the crucial moments in my life have a soundtrack, either what I was listening to before they happened or what I turned to after the fact to help me get through them. Music has been my rock and my salvation. It’s the only thing I could always count on – no matter what. Lots of people say music is important to them, but without a doubt music changed my life. No, fuck that – music saved my life. I can say with full assurance that if it weren’t for discovering a handful of bands in my early teenage years I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I might not even be here today.
I’d always liked music and as early as 3rd grade I can remember recording songs off the radio with my tape deck so that I could listen to them repeatedly, though admittedly those songs were probably just catchy musically but lacking in substance. Getting a “Weird Al” Yankovich tape for my birthday one year got me listening to lyrics. Before that I think I’d just thought of vocals as another musical element, but trying to understand all the references and jokes “Weird Al” was making made me realize the depth of the content that could be there as well. Discovering Run DMC, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy would take that interest in lyrical content to an entirely new level.
But there was still a disconnect in that those people were rock stars. What they were talking about was obviously important to them, which made it interesting to me. And educational on many levels. But there was always a bit of voyeurism because I could tell from their lyrics and photos that these people were from totally different worlds that I was, and lived very different lives. I didn’t know anything about parties or girls or global politics. I moved around a lot so I didn’t have many close friends and my family didn’t have a lot of money. And as a kid too young to get a job, I had even less. Which is probably why discovering punk rock a few years later was so powerful for me. These people were not rock stars. They didn’t have gold chains, fancy cars, airplanes.. they had jack shit. Just like me. And they often talking about how important friends were, which is something I wanted so much to believe in.
My list of “influential” bands would take days to read though (in fact very early version of my old website had a soundtrack section that listed out just a few of them) but the ones that really grabbed me, changed my world view and pointed my in the right direction is probably three. Three bands. I could easily make that ten. Or twenty without much effort. But if I’m honest about it, really honest about what were the watershed moments, which songs really made a earth shattering difference to me, there’s three of them. Of course that those three existed inside of an ecosystem absolutely bursting with awesomeness helped a lot too.
I’ve written before about trying to kill myself when I was very young, and made references to a whole host of things that kept me mopey and depressed for solid chunk of my childhood. I don’t bring that up to get all emo, but to make the point of just how much impact a few kids in garages out in the world putting words that ment something to them to music, and risking humiliation sent them out into the world could have on me.
It was not very long after my second suicide attempt that I spotted this weird record at a neighbor’s house. While most of the other records around had dramatic artwork or photos of the band on the cover, this one had a cat. I was drawn to it right away. He sold me the record and I took it up and put it on my record player, carefully taking out the lyric sheet and sat down to see what this “unfun” business was all about. I put the record on and was instantly drawn in. And then I heard this:
“…The world becomes too cruel to bear, and something in you starts to tear. When nothing seems to be quite worth it, and sleep becomes the only sure thing. I’m here to help you out of it come and see me for a lift. We’re all close to the end, don’t you need a friend?”
I did need a friend.
And hearing this song – for the first time ever I felt like there was hope. That someone out there might actually give a shit. I’m sure I started crying on the spot. I almost have every time I’ve heard it since then because I have to admit that this song more than anything else was a turning point for me. Everything before this was bleak, and everything after it had the chance of not being bleak. I wanted to write to them immediately telling them how much this song ment to me but though some stroke of childhood genius thought better of it and kept that shit to myself. But I’d listen to that album, and that song, probably a thousand times over the next few years. It never got less important to me and if I could only pass on one record to my son, it would be this one. Luckily I can’t imagine a situation where I can only pass on one, so he’s going to get flooded.
Around the same time, Gorilla Biscuits put out their first album. Start Today. While their earlier 7″ had been fun (and I still love it) it had the typical themes and topics of other straight edge hardcore at the time and, while catchy, didn’t really stand out. But the album contained this:
“I can’t recall my first failure, and I’ll forget this one too over time. And if you’ve been let down, it might not be the last time, cheer up, it will hurt much less tomorrow.”
Was I hearing this correctly?
I was 14 when this record came out and this song was the first time I can remember anyone ever telling me that it was OK to make a mistake. That I didn’t have to be perfect. And that things would get better. The spark of hope that had been lit by Jawbreaker just turned into a raging fire that, no matter what has happened to me since, has never gone out.
It’s funny because “embracing failure” is kind of a trendy thing these days in technology and startup world, but I didn’t learn that from a panel at a conference with VC and entrepreneur’s patting themselves on the back. I learned it from this record. I realized that the worst thing that could ever happen was that something I tried wouldn’t work out, and I’d have to try something else – but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It wouldn’t even slow me down. Over the years I’ve seen so many people afraid to try anything, afraid to take a step because they might not pull it off. I used to be like that and if it wasn’t for this record, I might still be.
I don’t mean to suggest that other songs by these bands, or other bands from this era in my life were less important. These were just the cornerstones. And though these bands, through punk rock, I found a family that I never had. I found friends who are as important to me today as they were then. Friends I’ll have till the day I die. I found people who suffered through the same things I did, believed in the same things I did, wrested with the same issues I did. People I fit in with.
Trying to pick a single song by Judge wasn’t as easy as Jawbreaker or Gorilla Biscuits, but they were no less important to me and I could heavily relate to the reoccurring theme of being pulled between what was, and what was expected. Between what you wanted to do and what people wanted you to do. Between what you felt and what people assumed you must feel. That struggle, particularly that of being misunderstood by people around you, even those incredibly close to you, is something that has resonated with me most of my life. Having your actions and motives misunderstood – that’s heavy stuff for the likes of punk rock but there it was laced throughout everything Judge put out. But I think ‘No Apologies’ is the one that sealed it for me.
“It’s so funny, you think I care, about your ideas of right and wrong. I’ve got music, and I’ve got friends, and whether you like it or not this is where I belong.”
I had found a place where I belonged.
And it was everything I ever hoped it would be. I had music and I had friends, what else was there? Nothing else mattered.
In this song, like in so many others, Mike was taking full ownership of himself. He was comfortable with who he was, regardless of what anyone else had to say about it. As a kid who had always been a little fat, a little weird, and constantly stressed about not being what I thought everyone else thought I should be – this was revolutionary.
And more than any other band during that time Judge really wrestled with how they were perceived and what people expected from them. The violence at Judge shows was legendary and, unlike many of their contemporaries they never seemed comfortable with it and that’s actually what led to their break up. Mike just couldn’t stomach the idea that this music, this release, this therapy for him was leading to such a negative situation. But even in the end, when it was all falling apart (punk rock, like any other subculture that grows in popularity had a big problem with people who looked the part but didn’t actually care about any of it), they had hope. If not hope for themselves, hope for the future. And that’s always been something I’ve tried to keep in mind.
‘Cuz there’s a younger kid and he’s just like me and for him i’m gonna fight it, and give him every chance that was given to me, and make sure he’s never silenced.
When I think back, I don’t know what road I was really on before I found these bands and I don’t know where or who I would be today without them. But I know when I say that these bands changed my life, I mean every word of that. And I’m not the only one. I don’t know if they know how important what they did was, but I’ve come across very few people who have had that kind of an impact on others, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been a part of that, and to have had the chance to make that a part of me.