If there’s one thing I’ll never forget about being 19, it’s this: It’s an agony I wouldn’t wish on anyone. In addition to the awkwardness and angst that comes with the post-adolescent territory, 19 is an age when many of us are just beginning to grasp the fundamental contradiction of human existence, a joke that will only get less funny as the years go by: The more we think we know, the less we actually know. The end of my own teenage years came in 1992. I was in a perpetual process of desperately asserting myself, overcompensating for a lack of confidence with grand gestures and arrogant proclamations, some of them involving my choice of hairstyle. I didn’t know jack shit. But there was one thing I was certain of, without a doubt, deep in my still-growing bones: No band spoke to me like Jawbreaker.
Up to that point, many bands had tried to speak to me. Some, like The Smiths, succeeded. But I got into The Smiths in 1987, just as the band was breaking up. I took Morrissey’s bookish wit and gallows romanticism to my teenage heart in a way that might have been a bit unhealthy—but still, I never felt as though he and I existed in the same world. Between us there were distances of age, geography, culture, wealth, and, if I may venture an educated guess, level of interest in sex.
Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach, on the other hand, might have been the guy down the block from me. The singer-guitarist of the San Francisco-based punk trio was five years older than me, but so were most of my friends when I was 19. Early in 1992, I bought Jawbreaker’s brand-new EP, Chesterfield King, at my local record store, without having heard a note of the group’s music. Pre-Internet, it was enough for me to read a favorable comparison in a zine like Flipside or Maximum Rocknroll—or see some dude that looked vaguely like me wearing a certain band’s T-shirt—for me to track down a record and spend good money on it, groceries be damned.
When I got home and dropped the needle on Chesterfield King, there was no revelation. In fact, I was unmoved. I’d already heard this type of thing before; a full year earlier, I’d picked up an album called Fill Your Boots by a then-unknown English punk band called Leatherface, mostly because the divider card in the record-store bin described it, in a gratuitous display of umlauts, as “a cross between Hüsker Dü and Motörhead.” In the broadest possible way, so did Jawbreaker. But where Leatherface mixed catchy, super-distorted punk and raspy, growling vocals in a tougher way, Jawbreaker had a slightly stronger crush on pop. Or at least Chesterfield King’s title track did. With lurching guitar hooks and a rush of anthemic melody, “Chesterfield King” immediately snagged me, even as the rest of the EP’s four songs (not counting the cover of Joan Jett’s “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got”) were moodier and less upbeat.
Then I listened while reading the lyrics. Schwarzenbach’s voice is hoarse and grizzled, but there’s a tender weariness underlying his lyrics—the story of a young man, a young woman he loves but is afraid to confront about it, and an old woman he meets outside a 7-Eleven who quizzically puts everything into perspective for him. On paper it seems like a simple tale, but it’s the stuff Raymond Carver stories are made of: a seemingly mundane moment between ordinary people that captures them at the cusp of epiphany. Even at the pitiable age of 19, I’d been this guy—right down to the indecision, the psychic stalemate, the cravenly retreat, and the intrusion of an emotional catalyst that I unconsciously sought or somehow conjured. My own epiphany came as I listened to and read Schwarzenbach’s instantly familiar yet radically literate take on the power of punk rock: This was my new favorite goddamn band. And might very well be for a long, long time.
Growing up with a band is a tricky thing. Sometimes you intimately align with a group’s music, only the group itself is way past its prime, which means you don’t get the chance to age along with it. For me, The Who is such a band. When I fell head over heels with Quadrophenia at age 17, it spoke to me—in spite of being an album written in the ’70s about being a teenager in the ’60s, listened to by a kid in the ’80s. That doesn’t diminish The Who’s greatness, of course. It proves it. Still, I could relate to Pete Townshend even less than I could relate to Morrissey.
Other bands might be your peers, or relatively close, but still seem inaccessible. Pavement is a great example: Slanted & Enchanted utterly captivated me when it came out, and I could have easily pictured myself hanging out with Stephen Malkmus circa 1991, but there isn’t much about Pavement that synchs up with me on a directly emotional level. He and I might have had a good chat about The Fall, but that’s about it. And then, of course, there are the bands that you connect with on all levels—only they implode before ever maturing, leaving your ties to their music in a frozen state of arrested development. I will direct you toward Nirvana.
Jawbreaker, however, aged alongside me. Chesterfield King was the band’s artistic breakthrough; prior to that is a debut album, Unfun, that contains some classics but serves more as a sketch of what the band would become rather than a defining debut. Jawbreaker was a late bloomer. Released later in ’92, after I’d turned 20 and finally taken a symbolic step toward adulthood, the group’s second album, Bivouac, fulfilled Chesterfield King’s promise. Churning and epic, Bivouac is Physical Graffiti compared to the Led Zeppelin I of Unfun. Similarly, I felt swept up in unknown waters as I absorbed Bivouac. Now in my 20s, I groped toward an understanding of what that meant.
Sure enough, by the age of 21 I wound up forming a band that resembled Jawbreaker more than a little. Not long after Schwarzenbach and crew released 1994’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy—a pop-punk masterpiece given chiseled texture by producer Steve Albini—my own humble outfit put out its own 24 Hour-influenced, 7-inch single. The following year, in a convergence of fate, my band opened for Jawbreaker in an indoor skate park in Casper, Wyoming. On the entire drive up from Denver, I was on pins and needles. What would Jawbreaker sound like live? Would they be cool? Or dicks? Would they like my band? The show, it turned out, was no less than exhilarating, and the guys in Jawbreaker were shy, polite, and gracious enough not to wonder why I swiped all their basslines. Later, when they played “Chesterfield King” with 200 kids singing along, I felt a strange pressure in my chest that might have been the click of a circuit being made complete.
From there things got a little, well, unfun. In 1996, after a failed stab at major-label fame that produced a slick yet excellent record, Dear You, Jawbreaker broke up. Soon after, so did my band. And yet, in October of 1998, I found myself sharing a stage with Schwarzenbach again. His new band, Jets To Brazil, played in Denver, and my new band opened for them. This time around, though, my group sounded nothing like his. Then again, we did have something in common: Jets To Brazil was a marked deviation from Jawbreaker’s punkitude, with Schwarzenbach foraying into the janglier and more subtle strains of indie rock. And so was my band, in an entirely different way. I was in my late 20s at the time, and the gravitational pull of 30 was already started to exert itself. It was time to cast off childish things, or at least the remnants of them, and try to find a voice that was subdued and complex, that spoke to the ambiguity I’d come to embrace as state of reality. It was no longer enough to be a punk. I wanted to be a person, with all the fuzzy lines and messy uncertainty that entailed.
The new millennium came and passed. So did 30. Both the world and I survived, albeit with a few more scars. Jets To Brazil likewise maintained. Schwarzenbach followed up the band’s rocky 1998 debut, Orange Rhyming Dictionary, with the refined, stellar Four Cornered Night. After 2002’s Perfecting Loneliness, though, Schwarzenbach seemed to take the disc’s title at face value; as if he’d accomplished all he could as a songwriter, he dissolved the group in 2003 and pursued a career as an English teacher. A couple of years later, the band I was in at the time rolled its van while on tour, trying to make a breakneck run from Reno to Portland in time for our next show. Miraculously, no one died. Atheistic as I am, I took it as a sign that maybe I should focus on something in life other than playing music all the time. Like maybe writing.
I still listen to Jawbreaker on a regular basis. Schwarzenbach’s songs—even the ones he wrote in his early 20s—bear the mark of an old soul. I’m 40 now, and they still speak to me, whereas a lot of the emotional monologues of today’s 20-something songwriters can ring ridiculous in my ears. That’s the problem with growing up with a band: Inevitably, you’ll grow apart. But that’s another thing you come to fully comprehend the older you get: Life is a cyclical bitch. In 2009, just as I’d started writing songs for my first punk band in years, I heard that Schwarzenbach was reviving some of the old Jawbreaker spirit in a scrappy trio called The Thorns Of Life. It didn’t last long—but his subsequent outfit, Forgetters, just released its debut album. Released on the band’s own Too Small To Fail Records, it’s as modest as its label would suggest; lo-fi and wobbly, it’s the sound of a toweringly serious songwriter trying not to take himself quite so seriously. Where Schwarzenbach once labored over every word and chord change with the perfectionism of a clockmaker, here he’s throwing it off the cuff. There are plenty of bright spots, though, where he seems to be tapping into a fresh well of inspiration—even if, on “I’m Not Immune,” he leans, oddly enough, toward Morrissey.
Perhaps not coincidentally, a 20th-anniversary reissue of Bivouac (with Chesterfield King as bonus tracks) also came out this month. It’s as powerful as ever, with songs like “Shield Your Eyes” and the sprawling, funereal title track recalling what emo was capable of, back when the genre was still embryonic, open-ended, and relentlessly innovative and individualistic. Not to mention loud as fuck. I can’t say that I enjoy the new Forgetters album half as much as I do Bivouac. Then again, that would be weird. After all these years of growing up alongside Schwarzenbach’s music, it only makes sense that the parallels would wander apart at some point. Like my memories of my passionate, desperate 19-year-old self, I’ll always have discs like Chesterfield King to remind me of where I’ve been. And, by extension, where I’m going.