g’ra asim: on jawbreaker and his pop punk awakening

August 15, 2019
343 Picks

Like many Jawbreaker fans young and old across the globe, I exulted at the 2017 announcement that drummer Adam Pfahler, singer/guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach, and bassist Chris Bauermeister were reuniting and performing at that fall’s Riot Fest, and the release of Don’t Break Down: A Film About Jawbreaker was an absolutely thrilling bonus.

Before the film premiered in my city, a white acquaintance from undergrad messaged me from her seat in the theater to congratulate me on appearing in the film. There was a montage of fan cover videos in the documentary, she said, and she recognized my face and voice from her familiarity with my own band, babygotbacktalk. My knee-jerk reaction was to presume she’d mistaken some other (conspicuously studly) Black punk for me. I’d certainly performed my share of Jawbreaker songs, including a few performances that inhabited the deep recesses of the web, but I didn’t imagine anyone had bothered to track one of those decidedly non-viral clips down.

I wouldn’t actually get to see Don’t Break Down myself until two years later, when the documentary saw release on digital platforms last week. The previous summer I’d read Ronen Givony’s excellent 33 ⅓ series tome on Jawbreaker’s magnum opus 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, and Don’t Break Down is the perfect supplement to Givony’s searching deep dive. Watching a grainy clip of myself performing a solo acoustic cover of “Save Your Generation” as a coda to the story of one of my favorite bands was a surreal actualization of punk rock’s fundamentally participatory ethos. The core tenet of the DIY paradigm is that the “y” can refer to anyone with the moxie, muse, and mania to make their own contribution to the canon. If you believe the high flown rhetoric about this tradition–and let’s face it, it’s so much more fun if you do – in punk’s Platonic ideal, band and fan are interchangeable entities, drawn together in a mutually constitutive feedback loop. Being creatively activated by Jawbreaker, recording an homage to them and then seeing a snippet of my own spin on their song absorbed into a definitive telling of their tale was like fulfilling the genre’s original promise in the most energizing fashion.

This reminder of my place in the circle pit of life – and the approach of babygotbacktalk’s AFROPUNK Brooklyn debut later this month – made me reflect on the formative role that bands like Jawbreaker have played in the symbiosis between myself and this louche but loveable subculture. My awakening to punk rock coincided with the dawn of the digital era, but its presence on the nascent Internet comprised a relatively small and incestuous outpost on the vast unsettled frontier. I would slog through the handful of punk-affiliated Geocities pages squinting at their garish fonts and primitive layouts for hours, but it wasn’t long before I’d exhausted the shallow well. At that time a fully immersive punk experience could still only be found in record shops, VFW halls and suburban basements.

This limitation came with some amenities. When alternative music had a narrower digital canvas to work with, artists naturally made more judicious use of material culture. Physical releases, as opposed to the Spotify playlists and lyric videos of today, were only some of the key tangible artifacts. It was not uncommon to send a self-addressed stamped envelope to an obscure record label states away in the hope of being sent a xeroxed catalog of t-shirts, vinyl records, pins and patches in exchange. Whether you ordered any of the cataloged merch or just scanned the pages to marvel at the array of countercultural style accessories available to those with heftier allowances, preserving snail mail correspondence from an actual punk record label was a means of codifying your allegiance. Even with more mainstream acts, careful perusals of liner notes and lyric sheets rewarded the shrewd living room exegete with subtle nods — and thus, gateways — to other likeminded bands. Gingerly pulling the insert from the maddeningly fragile jewel case always felt like unspooling a treasure map.

Radio at the turn of the century was an uninspiring grab bag of treacly Lou Perlman confections and knuckleheaded rap-metal, so when my haphazard nightly dial-tuning landed on Eve 6’s “Promise,” I felt like the winner of one of those supermarket claw video games. I was instantly hooked by the recipe of crunchy power chords, emotive baritone vocals and dexterous wordplay that lurched from subtle to baroque and back again. It was a formula I’d later learn Eve 6 had nicked from their lesser-known godfathers. The direct catalyst of my Jawbreaker fandom was a track called “Friend of Mine” on Eve 6’s 2003 album It’s All In Your Head. Desperate to convince a floundering pal not to shuffle off this mortal coil, the song’s narrator pleads: “Remember that Blake said to make sure you wake and help save your generation.” I’d registered passing mentions of the then-disbanded Jawbreaker in the pages of Alternative Press, but this more cryptic namedrop hit different. The implication seemed to be that Jawbreaker enjoyed a status beyond the ones enshrined in Michael Azzerad’s seminal chronicle of the early ’90s DIY scene, Our Band Could Be Your Life; this band could save it. I tracked down a copy of Dear You, the band’s polarizing swan song, and it delivered on the advertised salvation.

It was fitting that I stumbled upon Jawbreaker as a consequence of a diligent teenage hermeneutic project, given that their own music is intricate and richly layered in such a way as to reward the same kind of interpretive patience. Combining emotional depth and intellectual sophistication with the unpretentiousness of visceral, hard-hitting, power trio arrangements, Jawbreaker made pop punk for the thinking person sound as intuitive a pairing as milk and cookies. Raised by a writing professor father and a theater maker mother, the vast disparity between the values my art geek parents instilled in me and those of the broader culture was a major source of the alienation that drew me to punk. I was never into anime or cosplay, and socially I was no more uncouth than the next person, but I fell into the habit of self-describing as a nerd because the more precise label – ”intellectual”– was such a hard sell to a world forever eager to tag Black folks as inferior. Whereas being a tech dork at least held the possibility of one day becoming the employer of everyone cooler than you in high school, art nerdom offered no realistic prospect of vindication. So it blew me away that Blake was celebrated for his darkly poetic, lit-savvy lyrics. In making smart legible as cool, he pulled off no less than a modern miracle.

That most of my relationship with Jawbreaker’s music has taken place more than a decade after they initially disbanded speaks to the intergenerational impact that the band has had. If admiration for Jawbreaker animated Eve 6’s approach to songcraft, then that makes babygotbacktalk something like their descendant once removed. The first time I heard album opener “Save Your Generation” I was seized with the sensation of being counseled by wizened elders. But unlike the unsolicited advice radiating from seemingly all directions during my turbulent teenagehood, the schematic Jawbreaker was offering me was a route to avoiding a nondescript life. I gravitated to the song’s clarion call for direct action, for the forceful rejection of defeatism and jadedness, for choosing clear-eyed engagement over ironic detachment. Actualizing that manifesto led me to pursue my own band, and to remain active in the scene as a fan, booker and music critic.

When Jawbreaker called it quits in 1995, YouTube’s advent was still 10 years away. But the brief mosaic of fan renditions of “Save Your Generation” in Don’t Break Down highlights a throughline linking last century’s underground with the past decade’s upload epoch. Making punk records in the pre-Internet age probably had to feel like writing a message in a bottle and casting it in the ocean, driven not so much by the conviction that the message would reach a recipient but by the deep awareness that the act of creating and dispatching the message nourished something tender and indispensable in the sender. I can’t speak for the masses of acoustic guitar-toting dreamers crooning into laptop microphones, but my own YouTube transmissions were compelled by similar motives.

When babygotbacktalk takes the stage at AFROPUNK Brooklyn later this month, I’m looking forward to sharing that same sustenance with listeners close enough to see and touch. And with a much better microphone this time.

Get your tickets to AFROPUNK Brooklyn now!