In 1991, for the first and last time in my life, I grew out my hair.
I had my reasons. At the start of the year, the Gulf War was still on. My mom—whose brother Charlie had been sent to Vietnam, only to return irreparably fucked—was terrified that George Bush would revive the draft. I was 18 at the time, fresh meat for conscription, and I caught her contagious fear. Throughout high school, I’d sported your typical Tony Hawk-style haircut: shaved around the sides, flopped over on the top. My decision to boycott Great Clips—yes, I got my punk haircuts in a strip mall, to the great amusement of the stylists—had nothing to do with avoiding a potential draft. I wasn’t that naïve. But I did see parades of crew-cutted soldiers on the news every night, and I knew I didn’t want to tempt fate by deliberately looking like one.
A shaved head was the regulation hardcore look of the ’80s. As bald-scalped Eugene—one of the punk interviewees in 1981’s The Decline Of Western Civilization—points out in the film, “Short hair, it’s the clean-cut American look. It’s cool.” Mockery drips from his lips. That sense of bitter irony had become diluted a decade later, in the same way that punk itself had become splintered and conflicted. If you had a shaved head and looked vaguely punk, you were probably trying to be a skinhead—or, in some other way, itching for a fight. But I had my own deep-seated reason. When I was an elementary school kid in Florida in the early ’80s, a shaved head didn’t mean you were punk. It meant you had lice.
There was a less profound reason, though, why I decided to grow out my Tony Hawk mop-top in ’91. I’d fallen in love with this shaggy new music called grunge.
My longhaired friend John worked at the same warehouse as I did, and in 1990 he’d turned me onto a bunch of filthy-sounding bands: Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and a particularly catchy outfit called Nirvana. They were all from Seattle, and they were all associated with a label called Sub Pop. Living in Denver, though, we had a Sub Pop band of our own: The Fluid, who had released a split single with Nirvana on Sub Pop in January of ’91. Along with all the punk, post-punk, and various other types of gloriously weird music I was still discovering at the time, I’d become obsessed with The Stooges and The MC5—and in various ways, these new Sub Pop bands tapped into that heavy, dirty, proto-punk sound. When I saw The Fluid play a pair of sweaty, jaw-dropping shows in Denver in 1991, I was hooked. This wasn’t punk in the conventional sense. These fuckers had long hair. Then again, so did Henry Rollins, back when he was in Black Flag. Emboldened by exciting groups like The Fluid—and urged by John, who assured me that cool scene girls would be into me if I ditched my high-school hairdo—I decided to let my freak flag fly, or at least flutter.
Paradoxically, Fugazi had become my favorite band. Veterans of the ’80s hardcore scene, the members of the outspoken-yet-cryptic band had crisp, short haircuts—and that severe, even austere aesthetic informed the title of group’s 1991 album, Steady Diet Of Nothing (taken from a routine by the iconoclastic comic Bill Hicks, who was just rising to prominence at the time). Within the admittedly narrow realm of underground rock, Fugazi epitomized anti-grunge. (Coincidentally, the group had issued a single on Sub Pop in 1989, the only official release Fugazi would ever allow on a label other than its own, Dischord.) Co-leader Ian MacKaye had unintentionally founded the substance-shunning straightedge movement a decade earlier with his pioneering group Minor Threat, and that image persisted, even though he’d disowned straightedge long before. Grunge, on the other hand, was clearly fueled by beer, weed, and who knew what else. Hell, some of those guys even looked like they might be strung out on heroin or some shit.
Fugazi wasn’t reacting against grunge, though. Based in Washington, D.C.—within spitting distance of where the men in power called the shots of the Gulf War—Fugazi had more to say about the abuse of power, patriotism, and propaganda emanating from their hometown. And it did so not polemically, but poetically. “America is just a word / But I use it,” MacKaye barks in “Stacks,” one of Steady Diet’s most tense, lacerating tracks. Then, as if stuck in a helpless loop of meta-rhetoric, he and singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto chant, “Language keeps me / Locked and repeating.” And on the sinuous “Long Division,” he uses a math-book double entendre to illustrate how those in power had schemed to polarize America, singing, “I’m not your villain / Not your adversary / I’m not your reason to crack and divide.”
Although George Bush declared the Gulf War over at the end of February ’91, the cracking and dividing that Fugazi railed against was still happening—in music. In my myopic, long-hair/short-hair debate back then, it’s probably no coincidence that I compared MacKaye to Rollins. The two had been childhood friends in D.C., when the former was in Minor Threat and the latter fronted another Dischord band, State Of Alert. Rollins joined Black Flag and moved to the West Coast in 1981, succumbing quickly to that scene’s more substance-fueled catharsis. In 1991, while Fugazi explored angles of hardcore that few knew existed, Rollins fronted Rollins Band, a metal-flavored outfit about as subtle as its name. He and MacKaye had started in the same place, but they’d already cracked and divided, which became startlingly clear when I saw Rollins Band in the summer of ’91. The concert: an almost unimaginably ambitious new alternative-music spectacle called Lollapalooza.
Viewed broadly, Rollins Band and Fugazi didn’t have radically different approaches circa ’91. Both used wide shifts in dynamics, nerve-shredding crescendos, and loping grooves that bordered on dub and funk. But when I saw Rollins Band on August 25, 1991, the group seemed like a joke. Rollins looked like a muscle-bound Fame reject, and his panther-like stage moves were more goofy than intense. It didn’t help that his spoken-word albums—and live show, which I also caught that year—had taken on the tone of half-assed observational comedy. Fugazi had effectively channeled Bill Hicks’ postmodern unease and heightened sensitivity to hypocrisy; Rollins was funny when he didn’t want to be, and unfunny when he did.
But what really weirded me out about the inaugural Lollapalooza wasn’t Rollins Band; it was the crowd. The term “alternative rock” was already being used, and I loved alt-rock bands like R.E.M. and The Cure. I also liked Jane’s Addiction, whose frontman, Perry Farrell, created Lollapalooza. But something had happened in the mere 18 months since I’d dropped out of high school: Alternative music had gotten huge. I didn’t own a TV then—not by choice, but because I was a poor kid working in a warehouse who spent all his spare time listening to records—and the upsurge of Jane’s Addiction and its ilk had passed me by.
When I saw some of my old Northglenn High classmates in line at Lollapalooza—ones who had made fun of me for my Tony Hawk hair—it hit me that the link between “punk” and “alternative” was no longer as strong as I’d thought it was. Maybe it never had been. Maybe I’d simply read too much significance into alt-rock’s roots in post-punk. The rest of the lineup that day confirmed my creeping misgivings. Body Count and Violent Femmes sounded great, but the energy and response to their sets seemed no different than when I’d seen Duran Duran when I was 14. And when the one truly transgressive band of the day—Butthole Surfers—took the stage, no one seemed to care.
Lollapalooza confounded the fuck out of me. There had been, I realized afterward, not a single punk band on the bill. Yet some of the best music that year was stuff I’d plucked from the punk/hardcore bin at Wax Trax, the indie record store that had served Denver’s Capitol Hill since the ’70s. I’d started shopping there in the ’80s, taking the hour-long bus ride from the suburbs, dodging blocks of derelicts, looking like a clueless dweeb in my faded jean jacket with “Buzzcocks” stenciled in neon marker on the back. By ’91 I lived five blocks from Wax Trax—I might as well have lived there, because I certainly gave it more money each month than I gave my landlord.
Fugazi’s Steady Diet Of Nothing was only the tip of the iceberg, punk-wise, of what I purchased from the shop that year. Everything from the All-like pop-punk of Big Drill Car’s Batch to the anthemic thunk of Strong Reaction—the first full-length by ex-Naked Raygun outfit Pegboy—blew me away. They all underlined how distinct this stuff was from the slick, stadium-ready sounds of alt-rock.
One of the best punk bands of ’91 came from Fugazi’s hometown, was on Fugazi’s record label, and even featured James Canty, little brother of Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty, on the kit: Nation Of Ulysses. The quintet’s debut album, 13-Point Program To Destroy America, might as well have been called 13-Point Program To Destroy Everything. Where Fugazi sought to expose the sinister inner workings of political rhetoric, NOU wanted to use it against itself. Hell, it wanted to use punk against itself—its uniforms, its nostalgia, its Sex Pistols-bred agitprop saber-rattling.
Navigating the album’s mix of soulful garage rock and jazzy post-hardcore wasn’t easy. There was no precedent for it. Gang Of Four and Minutemen had been subversive, but not like this. Lead singer Ian Svenonius and his bandmates—coiffed and dressed like some long-lost West Side Story street gang spruced up with The Warriors’ ultra-violence chic—crooned chaotically over crooked riffs and dissonant bursts of strangled noise. The band didn’t last long, releasing just one more full-length before imploding in 1992. How could it have been otherwise? Most of its members would go on to memorable projects, including The Make-Up, The Fucking Champs, and Ted Leo And The Pharmacists, and NOU would influence a slew of bands (both great and lousy) by millennium’s end. Not even its fashion-conscious image could overshadow the shock of Svenonius’ mock-revolutionary revolution.
On par with Nation Of Ulysses, but on its own wavelength entirely, was New York’s Born Against, whose sloppy, prankish rabble-rousing cleverly hid some of the most powerful and innovative hardcore since Black Flag’s Damaged heyday. The similarity in titles between Nation Of Ulysses’ and Born Against’s 1991 albums—13-Point Program To Destroy America and Nine Patriotic Hymns For Children—is coincidental, but it’s interesting because NOU and Born Against would be mashed together (with a few extra ingredients) a few years later by Refused on The Shape Of Punk To Come. There’s something arty and disjointed about Born Against, though, that could never be fully replicated or co-opted—and Nine Patriotic Hymns stands as a jagged monument to what a bunch of angry, pissed-off, too-smart kids could cook up when given enough raw fuel.
New York hardcore still smelled of mothballs in 1991, with most of the stalwart acts of the ’80s such as Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, and Sick Of It All in studio stasis; Sheer Terror releasing its punch-drunk, knuckleheaded Ugly And Proud; and up-and-coming bands like Shelter still finding their legs. More progressive and intriguing than the stereotypical NYHC bruisers of the time (Shelter notwithstanding) was Citizens Arrest. Original lead screamer Ted Leo—yes, that Ted Leo—had left the group by the time 1991’s Colossus came out, but it doesn’t lack for his absence. Brooding and righteous, the album is a monstrously anguished howl in the face inhumanity. That singer Daryl Kahan is currently in the notable death-metal bands Disma and Funebrarum isn’t surprising; even back in ’91, his seething darkness bled all over the place.
Citizens Arrest could veer toward bleakness, but Colossus sounds like “Cherry Pie” compared to Those Who Fear Tomorrow. The debut full-length by Cleveland’s Integrity—a group with a generic tough-guy-HC name but that sounded far stranger, as if both embracing and mocking the idea of hardcore integrity—is a strong statement of intent (or discontent, as the case may be). Mastermind Dwid Hellion took the heaviness and negativity of East Coast hardcore, gave it a dose of flyover-state rage, and laced his songs with the creepy, dislocated spoken-word samples that would come to typify power-violence and grindcore. Integrity was neither of those—it was (and is) a genre unto itself, with Hellion sporadically poking his head back up to release a dud or a masterpiece, depending the foulness of his mood. Few, though, have matched Those Who Fear Tomorrow for pure, roiling bile.
Straddling the ’80s and ’90s, the loosely defined subgenre of crust chugged along while the more palatable and/or commercial punk and hardcore bands began to dip their toes in the mainstream. Man Is The Bastard’s guttural, no-fi debut from 1991, Sum Of The Men, either spazzed subhumanly or ground along like a cruddy glacier, gouging out a trail of mangled angst. Crust wasn’t all about glumness and misanthropy, though; sometimes it was about gleefulness and misanthropy. The Bay Area bands Blatz and Filth released a split EP titled The Shit Split in ’91 on the fledgling label Lookout! Records, and its bratty, bone-snapping attack perfectly counterbalanced the pop-leaning acts—like Green Day—that Lookout! was beginning to champion. And with Blatz, the overlapping, fuck-harmony screeches of singers Anna Joy and Annie Lalania foresaw the riot grrrl revolution that was just around the corner.
Another band on Lookout!’s roster, Operation Ivy, had broken up in 1989, the same year it released its lone album, Energy. As such, it doesn’t technically belong in a discussion of ’90s punk—except that the album’s 1991 reissue on CD (with bonus tracks) as Operation Ivy catapulted the group from cult favorite to one of the most influential and inspirational punk outfits of all time.
It’s interesting that, with the rise of CD as the primary format for music in the ’90s, many punk and hardcore bands weren’t fully discovered until years after their vinyl LPs were released—and in many cases, years after they disbanded. For instance, Fuel’s fantastic, Fugazi-indebted album from 1990, Monuments To Excess, became much better known in 1995 when it was rereleased as part of a Fuel discography CD; the same can be said of the groundbreaking emo outfit Cap’n Jazz, whose posthumous, double-CD collection Analphabetapolothology gave the burgeoning emo scene something to rally around in 1998, after years of trying to track down obscure, out-of-print Cap’n Jazz vinyl.
When it came to Operation Ivy, the same thing happened, only it was the rise of Third Wave ska—and what would come to be called ska-core—that coincided with the release of Operation Ivy. That reverence would only grow as the group’s offshoot, Rancid, began its ascent to the top of punk Olympus in 1993. Regardless of its place in history, OPIV’s music holds up; Operation Ivy is a spark of punk furor and fervor (plus plenty of Clash-esque songwriting chops) that’s transcended both its decade and the ska-core trend that would wear out its welcome by the time 2000 rolled around.
Like the Denver-based Sub Pop band I loved so much, The Fluid, Screeching Weasel was an anomaly for its label. Lookout! Records specialized in Bay Area bands like Operation Ivy, Blatz, Filth, and Green Day; Screeching Weasel was from suburban Chicago. Not only that, it was already established by 1991, with two full-lengths issued on Chicago labels. But Lookout! took a chance on Screeching Weasel, which led to a long and fruitful relationship beginning with My Brain Hurts. The album was a breakthrough for the snotty, blindingly fast outfit. It was still snotty and blindingly fast, but the production was beefier, the hooks grabbier, and on the album’s standout track, “The Science Of Myth,” frontman Ben Weasel—an opinionated loudmouth who consistently scoffed at intellectualism—got downright brainy. In a freshman-philosophy-textbook kind of way, sure, but for pop-punk in ’91, it was a revelation.
Weasel morphed from mildly obnoxious to downright infamous in 2011, when he verbally assaulted one woman and punched another onstage during SXSW. In a lesser way, though, he first gained infamy way back in 1987. As a columnist for Maximumrocknroll, the long-standing punk zine that became the bible (or at least diary) of punk and hardcore for much of the ’80s and ’90s, he wrote a scathing essay—more like a foaming-at-the-mouth rant—that addressed what he saw as “a big problem in today’s alternative music.” In a nutshell, he thought bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements sounded more like washed-up classic rock than fresh, vital punk. This was four years before Nirvana’s breakthrough and the unequivocal dominance of alternative rock, which threw the whole definition of the word “alternative” into doubt.
As shortsighted and close-minded as Weasel’s essay reads in retrospect, he made some canny predictions. “SONIC YOUTH & HUSKER DU [sic] will be the YES & REO SPEEDWAGON” of the ’90s, he wrote. While that statement didn’t exactly come true, the essence of it did. Curiously, he also named Green River among the perpetrators of this nouveau-classic rock disguised as alternative music—and Green River was the band that would soon beget Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. To its credit, Sonic Youth reprinted Weasel’s essay in full in the liner notes of the its 1987 EP Master=Dik. Read into the title what you will.
Sonic Youth figures prominently in the 1993 documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke. The film remains an evocative snapshot of the schism that had happened between punk ethos and alt-rock fame-grasping that hung in the air in ’91. As with Fugazi’s “Long Division,” the title is a double entendre: “Break” can mean either “get popular” or, as Fugazi sang in “Long Division,” “crack and divide.” That dual meaning is more than wordplay. A month after I saw the first Lollapalooza—and left feeling underwhelmed and a few degrees out of phase with my generation—I saw a concert by two of the other groups that would later be featured in The Year Punk Broke: Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana. It was the summer before Nevermind came out, so Nirvana opened. (The warm-up act: The Jesus Lizard, whose horrifically savage set gave me the first glimpse of a performer’s cock onstage; I wouldn’t see Lux Interior’s junk until I caught The Cramps the following year.)
The show was the caliber of incredible I’ve only witnessed a few times in my life. I’d missed Nirvana a few months earlier, because it had played a 21-and-over bar. Here I got the full experience—and by “full,” I mean probably 10 songs in 30 minutes. My favorite Nirvana song at the time—okay, it still is—was from a single I’d just bought, “Sliver.” Simple and stupid, it’s probably the punkest song Nirvana ever wrote. During “Sliver,” I waved my shoulder-length hair around like all the other dudes in the audience with shoulder-length hair. Nirvana could have played longer, I’m sure, but Kurt Cobain finalized his short set by hold his squealing, feeding-back guitar over his head and letting it drop off the stage. Later, during Dinosaur Jr.’s transcendent set, I crowd-surfed—not realizing that every kid and his grandma would soon crowd-surf across the nation on a tsunami of Nirvana-and-Dinosaur Jr. wannabes.
Two months later, Nevermind hit. I vividly remember working my warehouse job that winter, with the ubiquitous rock station blaring, the one that all warehouses are required to blast at top volume all day long. The DJ held a call-in contest—a virtual battle of the bands—between Nirvana and Mötley Crüe. The latter hadn’t had released an album in two years, and hair-metal fatigue had settled over the country. Track for track, the DJ played one band, then the other, allowing listeners to cast their ballot for which was better. Nirvana won in a landslide.
By the end of ’91, I’d purchased a pair of hair clippers. They probably sat in the bathroom of my shitty little basement apartment for two weeks before I worked up the nerve to use them. Then one morning, I leaned over the sink, held up my wavy, dark-blond locks, flipped the switch, and took the buzzing teeth to my head.
When I was done, I threw my pitifully wispy handful of grunge-hair into the garbage and ran my hand over my stubbly scalp. Did this mean I was suddenly going to stop openly loving Nirvana or Dinosaur Jr. or Sonic Youth? No fucking way. But I was at a polarized age, and those were polarized times. The echoes of the Gulf War still lingered. A presidential election was on the way—the first I’d be able to vote in. Like the radio listeners asked to choose between Mötley Crüe and Nirvana, I felt I needed to take a side. So I did.
As I looked at my bony new head in the mirror, I realized nature had already chosen for me. At the tender age of 19, I was pretty sure I was going bald.
Fear Of 1992: Ronald Reagan was the bogeyman of ’80s punk—but with the defeat of George Bush by Bill Clinton in 1992, the specter of Reaganism seemed to finally lift. Alternative rock had also been elected as the hot, new youth movement of the ’90s. With no enemies left, what was a punk to do? Next month in Fear Of A Punk Decade, we’ll look at Face To Face’s aching sincerity, Crimpshrine’s slovenly euphoria, Neurosis’ departure into the cosmos, New Bomb Turks’ guzzling of the garage-punk punch, and the fragmentary format of the 7-inch single—not to mention how NOFX, a seemingly washed-up group from the ’80s, resurrected itself with a tongue-in-cheek (yet eerily prophetic) plea for radio play.