By Jacob Ian DeCoursey
Photo by Chrissy Piper
It was around 7:45 pm when Taylor pulled the car up to an old house somewhere in Washington, DC.
Having spent very little time in the District, I had no idea where I was, but she had spoken fondly of the guy we were picking up. Plus I’d had to piss since leaving Baltimore City, so the side quest was welcome enough.
Taylor and I had pretty much bonded over the band Jawbreaker, she having noticed my Salt Girl shirt during our first meeting at a Mighty Mighty Bosstones show in March of 2014.
Actually, this is inaccurate. Taylor and I likely first became acquainted at a Misfits show one year prior. By that I mean my clenched fist became acquainted with her nose in the mosh pit. Neither of us can be sure, though. All I know is at some point I accidentally backhanded a stranger and she has photos of ending the night with blood on her face. The story is something of an apocrypha between us.
At that time, the band was something of a nostalgia trip through a time in punk rock which may or may not have ever existed. Jawbreaker had been disbanded since 1996, leaving behind only a handful of albums and a growing cult following that craved a reunion yet knew it would never come. Bad blood had driven the band mates apart. Though hostilities had cooled in later years, front-man/lyricist Blake Schwarzenbach had moved on to other projects which–though painful to admit–were the most logical artistic growth from Jawbreaker’s seed.
This is the reunion that was never supposed to happen…
Nonetheless, late Thursday afternoon of March 28th, Year of Our Lord 2019, I found myself careening down a long stretch of blacktop known as Interstate 295.
“This is the reunion that was never supposed to happen.”, I’d said while resisting jumping out of the vehicle to relieve myself on the nearest shrub.
Of course, this wasn’t technically their reunion show. That honor went to their unexpected set at Riot Fest 2017, the press release of which almost knocked me out of my chair at the time. However, to the best of my awareness, this year’s tour with revived ‘90s emo-pop group POGOHand Maryland hardcore natives War on Womenwas the first time the band had played DC in more than two decades.
The Anthem, our final destination, was a mere five miles away. The show started at 8:00pm sharp. DC being a car crash waiting to happen, it would take us 30 minutes to get there. She parallel parked, turned to me and asked, most innocently,
“Mind if I drink whiskey?”
I am always both discomfited and appreciative when close friends ask my permission before making questionable decisions. We both exited the vehicle and she took a swig off screen while I calculated the maximum capacity of a human bladder.
If Fred Rogers and Shaggy Rogers had a baby…
When she had finished, we both made our way up the front porch of a tall, narrow row house. I considered banging on the door, since my teeth were floating at this point, but as my fist lifted from my pocket I heard her start to dial the guy’s number. A distorted voice answered he’d be there in a minute, so we stood and as we waited the wind picked up and the sun set. When the door opened, out stepped a tall, scruffy young man of indeterminate age, wearing black high-water pants and equally inky hair. He slouched toward us as though perpetually cold and began making small talk with Taylor–seemingly resuming a prior conversation in media res. She introduced me and he shook my hand and smiled with unbelievable gentleness. If Fred Rogers and Shaggy Rogers had a baby, it might’ve been this guy.
“Ay man, I’ve had to piss since Baltimore City.”
“Oh, yeah”, he said and motioned to his front door. “Straight up and to the right.”
I hastened into his home, up bare hardwood stairs, thankful for small courtesies from strangers.
These are our bodies which we break…
We arrived at the venue ticket booth at approximately 8:35, just as War on Women was playing. They are Maryland locals known for their aggressive shows and politically-charged lyrics. Crossing through security gates, I saw an attentive crowd was gathered around the stage. Oddly, nobody was moving. All eyes faced forward, all bodies still as stones as the front-woman writhed and whipped herself across their view with enviable passion. Had this been in Baltimore, that would have been a trigger for the hardcore kids to bulrush each other in holy communion: these are our bodies which we break for one-another.
I moved forward to better understand this strange, godless wasteland. One of two venue bars stood at my left.
“I’m getting a drink!”, Taylor yelled.
Shaggy Fred offered to accompany.
“Can you hold my things?”, she asked me, spinning in a semicircle looking for deeper pockets she didn’t have.
“‘Aight”, I said. “I’m gonna keep moving closer to the stage.”
She shot me a look of concern. “Where will you be?”, she asked.
“What?”, I shouted.
“Will you be left of the stage, near the center, or–?”
“Well…”, she paused
“As center as possible!” I pointed straight ahead. “Hey!“, I yelled, then followed up with some cheesy line like, ” We’ll find each other again!” or some crap.
It was enough. Shaggy Fred put his hand on my shoulder like a soldier wishing me luck before a mission. Taylor handed me her stuff: a set of keys and large cell phone. Then they both vanished into the ether.
I pushed ahead.
I began to Snoopy dance alone…
A few more songs played. WoW vocalist, Shawna Potter, announced during a brief refrain, “It’s nice you all can actually hear me!”
Until that point I had never realized, but she was right. Most house sound systems and acoustic setups are not designed for the intense volume produced by hardcore acts. And while this crappy audio enhances the aggressive aesthetic inherent to DIY punk, it does a disservice to bands attempting to project a message.
“We’ve played a lot of venues where you couldn’t understand what I’m saying!”, she said.
Behind me, a white male twenty-something grumbled and groaned to his white male twenty-something buddy. I realized part of the stoniness in the crowd was result of repugnance at the bands ideologies. Had the audio been the usual garbage, maybe they would have been more active, moving with the music. Instead they felt locked in place, prisoners of an attacking nation with dangerous contrarian politics.
What was worse their tension succeeded in making me tense as well, even though I had no real objection to the band’s ideals. (It’s depressing how even in alternative subcultures, group-think can still be a social glue.) It was tempting to elbow my way up to the very front and start skanking until a circle formed. I decided against it. Best case scenario, it would result in a minor push pit that fizzled out as soon as it formed; worst case, all eyes turn on my actions in annoyance and disappointment. Still, never much of a team player, I began to Snoopy dance alone.
Anything for the cause, I guess.
When the band finished and exited the stage, most of the crowd drained toward the bars and restrooms leaving space to move all the way forward.
There I moved. I stood six feet from the stage. I stood a long time, longer than I thought it should have taken for a band to set up. Here and there, tech guys walked on and off stage; diddling guitar knobs and tuners, whacking drums. They shouted primordial exclamations into the mics, exited and left the stage empty for a long gap. Returned. Repeated. I stood on my tiptoes and turned, looking for Taylor’s bright orange hair but saw nothing.
Eyes fell on me from furrowed brows. I faced forward again. In a doomstruck age, the best one can do is hold the older generations hostage. One way to do this is terrify them by declining genetic proliferation.
In some dark corner of my brain, I had hoped my generation might be the ones to do this.
No grandchildren until you gray fools fix the damn ozone layer!
Yet, standing around me were so many button down shirts and groomed haircuts. The blonde in front of me wore dangly earrings, not exactly the safest accessory if bodies start colliding. I couldn’t help but wonder how many were parents, leaving their new babies with a sitter for a night of nostalgic excitement. Would this be their ‘I was cool because I was there’ rant one day? The thought was upsetting somehow. If the assumption was correct, what did that say about them, or us, or me for that matter?
This is what we came here for…
“He-ey”, a familiar voice squeaked behind me through the booming murmur. Taylor jumped out of nowhere. Shaggy Fred was absent. A giant smile painted her face as she looked around.
She asked me if there would be a pit. I honestly didn’t know. I told her we were surrounded by squares, and she agreed.
I pointed at the bearded guy next to me. “He looks like he could maybe punch someone.”
She laughed. “He looks like he could but wouldn’t.”
I opened my mouth to respond but didn’t form the words in time. Just then, the lights dimmed as Blake Schwarzenbach, Chris Bauermeister, and Adam Pfahler walked on stage and took to their respective instruments. After a short intro–a swirling drone of audiomancy–the trio exploded into a familiar cymbal crash and majestic shout:
There was a sun once.
It lit the whole damn sky.
It kept everything…EVERYTHING!…
A bland cheer emitted from the crowd. I barely noticed. This is what we came here for, so help me God! This is what we had hoped for through insurmountable odds. Taylor squealed like a child as all my disenchantment thus far blew away, and I screamed every lyric, fists raised, until my throat turned to sand.
When the song ended, Schwarzenbach addressed us. “Are you a kind of restrained crowd? You seem a little restrained.”
It wasn’t permission, but it was close enough. Soon as the band began “Want,” a fan favorite off their first album. Those who had no intention moved aside as the rest were unrestrained in a joyous spasmodic mound of human experience that grew in intensity with each consecutive song. I handed Taylor her bric-a-brac, knowing I could not be held responsible for their well-being in the moments ahead.
“Save Your Generation” has always held a special meaning for me over any other song in Jawbreaker’s discography. It first appeared on Dear You,the band’s final album before calling quits in 1996. My first exposure to the track, however, was in 2001, in the end credits to an obscure skateboarding video I had gotten on my 13th birthday. One clip stood out the most: a young man attempts to grind a handrail. He fails, tumble-saulting to the concrete. His head smacks against the ground. ‘The things you break’, the lyrics chant in the background, ‘some can be replaced.’ The kid gets back to his feet, hand buried in his mane of curly hair. He’s fine. He’ll try again, and next time maybe succeed. We don’t see him make it, though; we don’t need to see it. ‘A simple rule’, the lyrics continue, ‘everyday be sure you wake.’
This was the opportunity of a lifetime…
I’m approaching 31 years old now. A good chunk of my life is done. I may never get a chance like this again, I thought as the song began. This was the opportunity of a lifetime to do something incredibly stupid.
So I locked my hands on the shoulders of two people I was sandwiched against and heaved, lifting my knees upward until they were nearly eye level. At which point some kind soul grabbed my ass and lifted me airborne.
Now, I’ve crowd-surfed many, many times. In fact, once during a World/Inferno Friendship Society show at The Ottobar. Despite signs on the door warning that ‘such behavior would not be tolerated’, I shoved my way to the stage, climbed over the heads of a dozen or so punkers in three piece suites, stood right next to Jack Terricloth and elbow dropped back into the crowd. All good fun, until I felt a pair of gorilla-thick hands yank me down, lock my arm behind my back and push me out the venue. Moral to the story: as much as there’s a technique to successful execution when body boarding a wave of hands, much of the outcome rests on chance and gravity.
Jump-cut back to present time and I felt myself invert.
When you hit your head, you don’t feel it in your head, not right away. At first, you feel it in your teeth, and then you hear it in your ears, no matter how loud the room around is, as your limp appendages play follow the leader. After all that, your scalp stings.
Upside down, in the dark, people’s legs became a dangerous forest. Groins and ankles pressed and pushed from all angles while my legs slid slowly, slowly downward until I was horizontal on the floor. For a moment, all sense of time was displaced. I admired peoples’ footwear.
I thought about being trampled, what it might be like, those sneakers and boots unknowingly crushing my skull. Yet, there was no fear. It was strange. Despite the very present danger of ending up a red pulp, everything felt just dandy.
If you could save yourself, you could save us all.
Go on live and prove us wrong.
Okay. Well, I was alive so far. If I could make it back up, this would be one more thing I’ll know I can survive. And with that, I felt hands slip under my arms and pull me, one, two, three, back to my feet. Schwarzenbach belted with hoarse passion:
SURVIVAL NEVER GOES OUT OF STYLE!
All we would have were memories…
I fingered the new goose egg just behind a patch where my hair had already been thinning, checking for blood. There was none.
“You alright?”, the bearded, balding hipster who likely saved my life yowled over the music.
I grinned as big as I could and and ran back toward the vortex of bodies.
After an encore comprising a handful of extra songs, the white floodlights faded on. “More, more!”chanted a few stragglers still near the stage, but for the rest of us it was time to go. Two decades of wait and want had brought us all together in this brief point, along with all it signified, and now the experience was over.
Adrenaline still washing our insides, all we would have were memories of having been part of something worth being part of–and what souvenirs we could pick up as evidence. I stood a while feeling both joy and ache at once. Experiencing things can be hard the older I’ve become, even when the doing exceeds all expectations. Chalk it up to the perishable nature of wanting and being. After you’re taken breathless, eventually you’ll have to inhale again. But, nonetheless, I was there when it happened. All my life’s long equation, all the variables, had landed me in Washington, DC to take part in music history. And, in all honesty, the equation would go on, factoring in this and all that came before, small or large, into the great mystery that would surely come after. Like Dr. Manhattan says:
In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.
That was cause for quiet celebration within myself.
Not to mention, it was a damn good performance.
I wanna get a tee shirt…
I had lost track of Taylor again sometime mid-set and hadn’t seen Shaggy Fred since we first arrived. I wandered around the venue looking for her. Bits of trash lay in dark puddles here and there on the gray floor. Dazed stragglers made their way past me toward the exit. I climbed the stairs to the engineer’s cubicle to better scan my surroundings.
My phone buzzed. “Hello?”, I answered. Nothing on the line.
“Hello?”, I said again louder.
“Where are you?”
“What?”, I asked. The crowd had magnetized closer me, their voices blending into a single white noise.
“Where. Are. You?”, she asked louder.
I told her.
“What?”, she responded.
“Where are you?”, I questioned.
“What?”, she said.
“What?”, I said.
“Hollup.”, she said. “I see you.” They suddenly materialized in front of me.
“I hit my head!”, I said.
“Oh, are you alright?”
“Yeah, just hit my head.”, I replied showing her the lump. “I wanna get a tee shirt.”
“Awesome, I wanna get a tee shirt!”
“Alright, let’s get tee shirts.”
“I’ll meet you outside.”,Shaggy Fred said.
“Okay!”, she shouted after him. “We’re getting tee shirts!”
The merch line, if one wished to call it that, was expectedly long. All of us stood shoulder to shoulder, uncertain of what speed or direction the amorphous blob was moving. It didn’t matter much to me. It could take as long as needed.
I took in the moment, the sheen of sweat on people’s brows, the various outfits and skin tones. There were faces both smooth and weathered. Taylor pivoted and asked a stranger in front of her if anyone would mind that she was about to vape in line. It was less so a request as a statement. He shrugged as she exhaled a sweet-scented cloud. He seemed amused and chatted us up while we waited.
I mentioned that Blake and company were working on new music.
His eyes lit up behind coke bottle glasses. “Yeah I heard that too. Hopefully we’ll get some of the unreleased Thorns of Life songs. Those bootlegs were really good.”
I can hang…
After we picked up our shirts, we stepped outside into the mild night. The roads and sidewalks glistened beneath the sodium-vapor glow of street lamps. We began walking back to the garage where we had left her car.
“You guys wanna come back up to my place to hang?”, Shaggy Fred asked.
Taylor looked back at me. “Do you have work in the morning?”
Of course I did, 11am sharp, and it was already past midnight.
“What time?”, she asked.
I remembered Schwarzenbach’s quote before playing “Jet Black”:
One can forget that humanity goes on behind the scenes of our little screens and things that we look at and wind ourselves up with. But it is important to remember that human contact, however fraught and challenging it can be, cannot be replaced yet.
“It’s no problem.”, I told them both. “I can hang for a bit.”
So we three climbed into the vehicle and off we went. On the road, Shaggy Fred asked if I smoked.
Before I could answer, Taylor mentioned that I was ‘straight edge.’
Shaggy Fred in the back seat told me he did drugs but not hard drugs and mostly just weed but it’s cool when people don’t do drugs as long as they’re cool about other people doing drugs but not hard drugs and mostly just weed and that I seemed like a cool guy.
He laughed, and I laughed too. I was going to be exhausted in the morning, but I didn’t care. Music seeped through radio speakers, a playlist comprising of punk, ska, alternative, and more. I sank into my seat and felt the car move fast while ahead roads and intersections wound onward into an inscrutable future.