young and hopeless
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2003-02-03 03:54:41 (UTC)

bad religion essay

written by greg graffen himself

About two weeks ago I received a letter from a punker who
said he used to be a fan of Bad Religion. Used to be, that
is, until we let him down by releasing our last two albums
which didn't fit his definition of punk. There weren't any
songs against the establishment, he claimed (which isn't
true by the way), so how can you call it Bad Religion?
Indeed how can you guys call yourself punk? He went on to
imply that we don't know anything about what punk is because
we are so out of it. He was clearly angry, and intolerant of
what our recent music actually had to say.He believed that
the sanctity of the punk establishment had been infringed on
somehow by our last two albums (but he also noted that our
previous seven albums weren't guilty of such treason).

The very same day I ran into someone on the street in the
town where I live and he recognized me as the singer of Bad
Religion. Like the guy who sent me the letter, he too was a
punker, but he wasn't angry or judgmental. We talked for a
short while and he spoke about how increasingly these days
young people in general are hostile to strangers, and don't
want to listen to anyone but their own comfortable circle of
friends. And about how people seem to be motivated these
days by some unseen force to be closed minded. His open
desire for opinion, and his focus on relevant issues were
refreshing and it made me remember all the great things
about the punkers I grew up with and still interact with
today: open-minded, inclusive, unpretentious and not
presumptuous, and willing to confront the people or
institutions that seemed unfair or unjust. Instead of being
concerned with establishing an institution within which we
could exclude others (which, sadly, is what many punkers
really want), we were interested in including people who
felt estranged by, or disillusioned with their social

In that one day I experienced some of the best things about
punk, the traits exhibited by the kid on the street, and the
worst things about punk: the negative, self-righteous,
dogmatic thinking of the kid who wrote the letter. Both of
them were self-acknowledged punkers yet they were from
almost opposite ideological poles. For 16 years now I have
been a member of this strange sub-culture, and I have come
to realize that there are both liberal and conservative
wings of it. In that sense it is a microcosm of society in
general. It is an inane task to try and define punk
universally. Its meaning is fuzzied everywhere by contextual
circumstance. A 16 year-old girl from an affluent religious
family who consistently shows up to church on Sunday with
her green mohawk and Fuck Jesus shirt is punk. But so is a
42 year old biology professor who claims that Charles
Darwin's ideas were wrong. Neither person has ever heard of,
nor met, one another, nor hung out together at the same
underground club. And yet their challenge to established
institutions and revulsion to dogmatic thinking links them
spiritually. Whether this is genetic or learned is unknown.
But I too feel a kinship with everyone who shares these
traits. I don't feel allied with those who are exclusive,
elitist, and who think that their way of life is a model for
how others should live theirs. My philosophy was instilled
by the open minded thinking of my parents of course, but
also through the turmoil I experienced growing up. While I
realize many kids had it harder than me, I have found that a
lot of people who call themselves punks had similar experiences.

In 1976, At the age of 11 I moved with my mom and brother to
the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. Like millions of
other victims of divorce in the 1970s I had to deal with the
fact that my father was now living far away (in Racine,
Wisconsin) and I would not get to see him as much as most
other kids see theirs. This pain was compounded by the
bewildering alienation I felt as a Wisconsin boy at Junior
High School in the Los Angeles unified school district. I
had entered a landscape unlike anything I experienced in my
11 years of life. I had dark brown fluffy, wavy hair,
unfeatherable, impossible to mold into the cool
rock-and-roll hairdos of the 1970s that were so popular. I
wore velour kids shirts from K-Mart, and corduroys and
because they were less expensive than jeans and we didn't
have a lot of money. I had cheap shoes, usually also from
K-Mart or Payless, always worn out, with goofy logos that
emulated the real popular brands that all the other kids wore.

I rode a Sears 10-speed that was heavy, sluggish, and
couldn't jump or skid. I had a powder blue, plastic
skateboard with noisy, open-bearing wheels, totally unfit
for the skateboard parks that were so popular in southern
California. I had never been to the beach in my life, and
thought of it as a place to go swimming, not as a symbol for
a way of life. People asked me dude! you party? I
thought of our annual kids new year's parties back home in
Racine. We stayed up past midnight and ate ice cream and
soda, but other than those I didn't have much experience
throwing parties. It took me about six months to realize
that party was a synonym of getting high.

I saw fellow 7th graders come to class with squinty eyes and
euphoric smiles reeking of pot smoke (at first I didn't know
what that smokey odor was). Fellow classmates in shop-class
had secretive projects that they brought out only when the
teacher, Mr. Feers, took his cigarette break. Their works
consisted of salvaged polyurethane cylinders, sealed at the
bottom, sanded smooth around the top, and a few 1/4 inch
holes quickly forged on the drill-press. I was bewildered
when one of them asked me: dude!....check out my bong, isn't
it bitchin? Not only did I not know what a bong was....I
didn't understand the adjective he used to describe it, nor
why he was hiding it.

All I knew was that there was some weird secret about all
this, and I was not one of those who were welcome to the
information. Kids moved up the social ladder by revealing
their knowledge of rock and roll culture and sharing their
covert collections of black beauties, Quaaludes, and joints.
If you partook in their offers, you were one of them, a
trusted confidant. If you were afraid to partake, you were a
second-class loser. In other words, if you went along with
the flow, unquestioning and complacent, you were accepted
and rewarded with social status. If you questioned the norm,
or went against the grain in any way, you were in for a
rocky ride down the social ladder.

I shriveled under this pressure. Unable to compete yet
unwilling to shut down, I came to be friends with a
particular class of people who were labeled geeks, nerds,
kooks, dorks, wimps, and pussies (or wussies if you combine
these last two). We hung out together and did creative
things after school, but the greatest alleviation of my
suffering came from music. We had an old spinet piano that I
would bang on and sing songs I learned by ear. I desired to
gain a musical identity just like my peers at school, but I
wasn't inspired by the bands that formed the fabric of this
burn-out drug culture: Led Zeppelin, Rush, Kiss, Journey,
Foreigner, Styx, Ted Nugent, Bad Company, Lynard Skynard
among many others. Luckily, by the time I was 14, I had
discovered a radio show on Saturday and Sunday nights that
showcased local bands from L.A. I discovered the station
because it was the only one in L.A. that played Todd
Rundgren from time to time. My friend in Wisconsin and I had
grown to love Todd and Utopia because they were melodic
rock, but somewhat beneath the mainstream of popular music.
Those characteristics still appeal to me today, and often
guide my preferences for other bands.

I cannot overstate the importance of that radio show in the
development of my musical personality. It was called Rodney
on the Roq (on station KROQ) and it proved that there was an
entire community of people right there in the same city that
used music to share their alienation and confusion about the
culture around them. It also proved that you didn't have to
be a virtuoso or signed to a major record label in order to
be played over the airwaves. The actual recordings were not
slick high-budget productions. Often times Rodney would
simply play demo tapes, or acetate pressings (limited-use
vinyl singles or e.p.s). It was gloriously vulgar, and
inspiring in its simplicity.

I wanted to be part of this community of musicians. The
music was heartfelt and desperate. It spoke of the suffering
that comes from the pressure to conform, and the burden that
is placed on us by those in power, and the celebration of
belonging to a community of powerless misfits. Yet it was
delivered by such a variety of bands, from different
backgrounds. I went punk at 15. I cut my wavy hair very
short, dyed it pitch black, and made my own t-shirts. I was
creative enough and over the years I had experimented with
songwriting on the piano along with my friends playing pots
and pans and using cheap tape recorders. We were determined
to send in a tape to Rodney on the Roq. But before any of
that could materialize, I was introduced by a fellow wussie
to the guys who would become Bad Religion. By the end of
that same year, 1980, I had made my first record and Rodney
played it. Usually this would make anyone a hero at his high
school, a veritable recording artist as a classmate! But my
high-school peers were violently opposed to this new
evolving subculture. It was not the kind of music that
glorified sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. It wasn't mellow
and it didn't inspire people to get wasted. I was seen as an
enemy of their way of life. There were three of us at the
school who were punkers. And all three of us at one time or
another were physically beaten by people at school who
attacked us only because of our musical preference.

This scared me and at the same time made me feel powerful.
It made me realize how frail most of the conformists really
were, how easily they could be pushed to the point where
they lose control. I found great solace in the community of
other punkers from different schools, all with similar
stories of oppression and abuse. My house became a hang-out
and our garage became a rehearsal space (my mom was lenient,
but also always at work, so there was no adult
intervention). I began to feel like there was a way to deal
with the disillusion of my cultural surroundings. But it was
through questioning and challenging, not conforming and

This stance probably made me more insightful about human
social interaction, and a better critic; but it also made me
more cynical, and less understanding of those close to me
who weren't punk, and therefore it definitely retarded my
ability to have intimate relationships. We punkers were
linked by what we thought was a deeper cause, our desire to
overcome societal pressure. It was a tacit assumption that
we all had the same feelings, because we were all treated
similarly by our society. The emphasis was always on the
collective turmoil of our group and not on individual
personal issues (there were a lot more songs about us, our,
and we than about I, mine, and me). Maybe this is why so
many of my friends got hooked on hard drugs, and some killed
themselves. My punk friends did not practice understanding,
we only exhibited toleration.

This shortcoming naturally extended to the sexes. I just
assumed that girls were equals on every level. They dressed
similarly, had similar hairstyles, and even slam-danced with
us boys. Their suffering was our suffering, it seemed to me.
I never thought that maybe they saw the punk scene from a
unique perspective. Women's issues were not on our
discussion agenda. Both sexes were too busy being stalwart,
and tough. It was wonderfully equal, and I was proud of my
egalitarian view of the sexes. Unfortunately, it was also an
excuse not to address differences between the sexes. To this
day, I am great at being tolerant with women's expressions,
but bad at understanding their needs. And the time with my
male friends is spent talking about mundane issues or
worldly problems, not personal desires or feelings. This has
interfered with numerous close friendships, and it has
undermined my ability to be a good husband.

I decided to go to college. I anticipated that it would be a
place where dissenting voices were recognized and applauded.
This romantic vision appealed to me. I loved playing in my
band and contributing to the challenge of mainstream music,
but I also wanted more. I felt an urge to question more of
society than just the music scene and people's fashions. I
figured that I could play in the band on weekends and
vacations, and I could write about the relevant issues I was
discussing at the university.

But I realize now, in retrospect, that the university was as
replete with the pressure to conform as my high school
was.Students were rewarded for thinking like the professor.
Only rarely did the professors try to educe original ideas
from the students. More often we were rewarded for
regurgitating the same rhetoric on tests that they professed
in the lectures, which were more like state-of-the-union
addresses in any given discipline.

Although I was lucky enough to find three wonderful and
inspiring faculty advisors who praised my originality and
made me feel smarter than I probably am, I was saddened that
there were so few like them. I became acutely aware that the
usual university experience for most students was one of
indoctrination into the prescriptive thinking of a
privileged society. It was a recipe for what was acceptable
to society. And nowhere in that socialization process did
they provide a troubleshooting guide to deal with
alternative ways of thinking.

As a result, my undergraduate G.P.A. was only slightly
better than average. But thanks to my advisors strong
recommendations and insistence that I had original research
ideas, I was able to continue and receive a Master of
Science degree in Geology. I went on to a Ph.D. program too.
Both of my higher-degree programs have taught me that the
way to succeed in our society is to walk that fragile line
between understanding the dogma that is inherent in the
prevailing ideology and showing the people in power that you
have your own ideas too but are not willing to infringe on
their tolerance.&Originality has a low tolerance threshold.
Over the last year and one-half I have been privileged
enough to travel with more than most people do in a
life-time. As I became more worldly, I realized that at
every level of society and culture there are teachings that
dictate how people are supposed to behave, and that in some
way or another control people's freedom to express
themselves and live happy lives. I feel that it is the gift
of being human to be able to challenge and confront those
tenets, and share new ways to evoke originality from others.
I'm glad that I'm not an animal.

Today, I have a more sophisticated view of my social
surroundings.I have children, I own a house, I have
insurance, I make financial decisions. My insight into the
world comes from disparate sources: geology, organismic
biology, music, travel, and fatherhood. This plurality
insures my individuality. And learning to be an individual
was the best gift I got from growing up punk. I am conscious
of stereotypes, and try not to fit them. No geologist I have
met is also knowledgeable about the music business and
likewise no musician I know understands earth history like I
do. I am proud of this unpredictable uniqueness.

Strangely, punk is quickly becoming mainstream. Last year,
more people bought punk rock records, tapes, CDS, t-shirts,
stickers, and show tickets, than ever before. As in any
capitalistic situation, the punk market is experiencing a
focal shift away from the original intent of the art (or
product) toward the creation of a credo or indoctrination
surrounding the marketing of the product. Why else would
entire music labels market themselves as punk labels?
Because they are selling fashion and building a sub-cultural
retinue instead of promoting honesty and creativity of its
artists. This is a sad state of affairs in the music
industry that occurs at the independent-label level as well
as in the majors. Therefore, it is no wonder that there are
a bunch of punk police out there monitoring whether bands
like ours fit the stereotype, and match their dogmatic view
of acceptability. They exhibit the same behavior as the
academic clones who graduate by the thousands each spring,
ready to discriminate against others who challenge their
learned ideology. The letter I received two weeks ago from
that disgruntled fan was sadly reminiscent of the
persecution I felt in high school from the stoners.It is
also a shining example of how easy it is to follow the party
line and advocate unoriginal, thoughtless sentiments, which
in turn motivates me all the more to provoke.