Against Me!’s Transitions

So, here we are in a bowling alley,” said Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace to a small, but tightly-packed crowd at the Brooklyn Bowl in Las Vegas. It was the last night of their 2014 summer tour, and the four musicians had an air of exhaustion over them, as one could expect from any band finishing up such an engagement. Despite the weariness evidenced in their occasional breaks, one would not guess from the musical delivery that this band was anything but enthused.

The entire band, including longtime guitarist James Bowman, and relatively new additions Atom Willard and Inge Johansson on drums and bass respectively, filled the thirty-foot stage with enough energy, movement, and intention that not an inch of space felt empty or awkward. Johansson bopped all over as he strummed along, engaging the audience directly during the intro to “Don’t Lose Touch,” while Bowman’s comparatively stationary demeanor balanced out with his slick guitar tones and powerful backing vocals.

Grace in particular owned the stage, swaggering about to lead audience chants and singalongs, reaching out to grab the hands of crowdsurfers, and other times simply losing herself in the beat of a heavy instrumental section.

Laura Jane Grace is a sharp contrast to the person I saw leading Against Me! in October 2008 at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey. Then known as Tom Gabel, the singer publicly came out as transgendered in May, 2012.

The Against Me! that appeared on stage that night in 2008 paralleled the 2014 lineup in energy, intensity, and tight musicianship, but featured a frontman who remained still and rigid during the entire set. From memory, the only time Gabel spoke to the audience in their headlining gig that night was before their last song to thank the opening bands for playing and the fans for singing along.

It’s hard to believe that these are the same people, separated by five years’ time and a monumental revelation about her identity, but it makes perfect sense when looking at the context of Against Me!’s career. Long before Grace made public her gender dysphoria, she wrote about transformations of identity, and reconciling who you were with who you are. Her catalog features clues that she struggled with gender identity long before she went public with it, (“The Ocean”, “Searching for a Former Clarity”) but transitions of all kinds define this band.

Take “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” from 2010’s White Crosses, an anthem depicting the singer’s acceptance that the anarchism of her youth was not sustainable, and just as much of a fad as anything else. Yet, “Was” continues to appear next to “Am” on set lists in 2014. “Baby, I’m An Anarchist” seems to present the story from the other point of view, being the anarchist left behind, as Grace once was.

2007’s New Wave points to the band’s major label debut in lyrics like, “We can control the context of presentation,” (“New Wave”) and yearning for a revolution in mainstream music, “Have I heard this song before? / Did this already happen?” (“Up the Cuts”)

Before the major label leap, Searching for a Former Clarity points to ennui, “You’re not saying anything we haven’t heard before” and deteriorating from sickness, “Your gut’s expanding, your hairline’s receding. / The sores are opening and the cancer’s spreading.” (“Don’t Lose Touch” and “Miami” respectively.)

On …As the Eternal Cowboy, Grace preaches self-criticism about complacency and punk trends (“Cliché Guevara”), and learning that music can be its own reward in the title track of Reinventing Axl Rose.

Any artist with significant output and longevity is bound to have shifting beliefs, so inconsistencies in views may exist in their discography, but the fact that Against Me! continues to celebrate these contradictions alongside each other suggests that Grace is not interested in pretending her past never happened. Instead, the theme is seeing how one’s identity transforms as new beliefs and experiences interweave with the old.

At the Brooklyn Bowl, the band put their embrace of past, present, and future out front and center: opening number “FuckMyLife666” from Transgender Dysphoria Blues transitioned without a breath to “Pints of Guinness Make You Strong,” a song that dates back to one of Against Me!’s earliest releases. 

One can reasonably make the observation that thirty-three-year-old Laura Jane Grace standing on stage in Las Vegas in 2014 is a very different person than twenty-eight-year-old Tom Gabel in New Jersey in 2008, who herself was an evolution of the eighteen-year-old who started playing music in basements in Gainesville, Florida. Physically, emotionally, and politically, the artist has evolved drastically and her music has reflected it. Change creates chaos, and with Against Me! and Grace, the chaos binds it all together.

Originally published on Listen Hear Musik.

Hey, Free Fallin’

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It’s easy when a song like Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” comes on the radio to roll your eyes and think, “What a lame, overplayed song.” As the familiar opening chords strum out, it’s easy to wonder how a song this ordinary, albeit catchy, could persist for so long when Petty has an entire catalog of better songs. It’s easy to realize that even Petty’s better songs are kinda cheesy, in the way that you roll your eyes and smile knowingly when you catch yourself enjoying them.

It could be how reliable the song is. It creates a framework in its opening moments. It tells you straight up, “This is gonna be a sort-of bittersweet song about remembering a girl I left behind to become a rockstar.” It expands on that theme a bit when it gets to the weird verse with the convoluted vampire imagery, but it doesn’t stray too far for comfort.

Maybe it has to do with the melody, how pleasant it is. Each movement of the song adds another simple layer or dynamic. We start with the acoustic guitar and Petty’s unmistakable voice, and some light notes from the bass. Ater the first verse, the drums kick in, the bass gets groovy, and they provide that calm rhythm that drives the thing forward. By the time the first chorus hits and the tambourine layers atop the beat, it’s genuinely hard not to tap your foot or bob your head, or at least make the decision not to. And the verse where the drums break down to that snare roll? Come on, that’s classic.

It’s easy to like a song like “Free Fallin’,” no matter how lame it is. It’s easy to forgive it for that cheesy ass music video. It’s easy to realize, even if you don’t like it, “Okay, I guess it makes sense that this song is so popular.”

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It’s easy to remember when you were a kid, maybe five or six years old, and your mom was in the kitchen listening to “Free Fallin’” and making dinner. You don’t have many memories from this period, and even this one is vague, but you remember the smell of the roast beef, or the meat loaf, whatever it was. You remember the growling in your stomach as you anticipated the meal that awaited you on the other side of an hour. And for some reason, you remember very specifically that the soundtrack was Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”

It’s easy to remember the time you drove a friend home in high school and got on the wrong highway and accidentally ended up in Pennsylvania. The station on your grainy little radio played “Free Fallin’” three times in the three hours it took you to get home. It was easy at the time to swear vengeance on Tom Petty for writing such a contrived piece of crap.

Or when your friends took you to the diner the night you got dumped and “Free Fallin’” was playing when you guys walked in. Or that one bizarre party at the rowing team’s house during your freshman year of college wherein everyone went bananas when “Free Fallin’” came on the radio.

Like it or not, you realize “Free Fallin’” has been a part of your life at every stage thus far. Perhaps not a constant, like your family or your super good friends, but an acquaintance that pops up every now and then. You don’t seek one another out, but when you happen upon each other you smile and say hey, and every interaction is perfectly familiar.

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“No” Punk Time!

Well, it’s 7:54 and I have a feeling my set will not start at 8:00.
The promoter got on the wrong highway. The venue owners are still day drinking. I’m not angry–this is how it goes at a DIY show.

The term is “punk time” and every show insists “NO PUNK TIME” on their Facebook event. The doors will open at 7:30; the music will start at 8:00.

Pictured: upping the punx.

But things happen, you know, like they will in any other situation: the touring band gets stuck in traffic; the headliner’s guitarist slept through an alarm; the kids in the audience are at work, waiting for a ride, or trying to find someone to buy them booze. So, when 8:00 comes around and there are three people in the audience, the promoter inevitably gives in to the pressure of punk time.

Maybe there is a magic hour–5:37am on Wednesdays, 11:07pm on the Monday of long holiday weekends–an hour wherein no discernible reason to start late can exist.

But, you know, adhering to the hypothetical construct of time doesn’t sound very punk.