Two months ago I was pretty sure that my career in rock music or whatever was coming to an end. Dérive hasn’t played any shows this year (but we are playing in Pittsburgh next month) and we’re slowly writing a new album. Anyway, Dérive isn’t done just yet but for all intents and purposes it really isn’t anyone’s major project anymore and coming to terms with that throughout 2018 has been really hard for me. I started that band really in the fall of 2011, my first semester of undergrad and writing and performing with that name has shaped the majority of musical identity for the better part of seven years now. The weird shift from one group to another has me thinking a lot about my musical history and reflecting on certain things, especially the news, and that’s why I want to talk about NOFX.
If you’re reading this and don’t know who I’m talking about, NOFX is one of the most commercially successful punk bands of all time. They’ve been putting out records since the mid 80s and at least for me, everything they released from 1992 (White Trash, Two Heebs, and a Bean) through 2003 (War On Errorism) is 100% worth listening to. When I was in middle and high school NOFX were one of the bands that really defined the way I thought about punk music, at least aesthetically. They could be serious when they wanted to be and they could usually make me laugh too. They definitely took their jokes too far every now and then (we’re going to get to that in a bit) but it always seemed okay to me.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how cool NOFX actually are. I loved their band but I guess I regarded them as this punk band that just made it big and that was the end of it. But NOFX actually has a lot of cultural importance and in some ways I think they should be talked about in the same way that we talk about Fugazi as this fiercely independent minded outfit. Or at least they were at one point.
But here’s what I mean. Fat Mike, the bands vocalist and bassist, owns and operates the label Fat Wreck Chords. It’s not just that it’s a cool indie label, but the records that they funded in the 90’s literally defined a certain generation of punk music. The Fat sound (along with Epitaph - actually a whole essay should really be devoted to why Mr. Brett is one of the most influential people in rock music but anyway) really helped to create the subculture we associate with 90’s skateboarding and Warped Tour. Fat is actually still putting out a lot of cool music and even though I take some issue with how Mike has taken bands off the label for “not being punk enough” I have a lot of respect for a really well curated catalog of music. Not to mention the Fat Music compilation series still holds up as six or seven really strongly curated snapshots of a particular music scene.
But more than that I didn’t realize how important it is that NOFX operates under their own label like that. I never really thought of Fat as an indie label in the same that I do Dischord until one night on the Punknews.org forum, Jeff Rosenstock, of all people, in response to someone saying something about how there would never be another Fugazi, posted something to the effect of, “How about NOFX? They own and operate their own label and next to Bad Religion they’re one of the only mainstream punk acts that operates independently.”
On top of everything, Fat Mike’s opposition to George Bush and the War on Terror was among the strongest, at least in terms of other musicians. He started the group Punk Voter, which spread information about how to register to vote. They were even registering voters at concerts. I’m sure I could find the exact number somewhere but I know Punk Voter registered voters in the thousands. Of course Bush won again anyway but seeing a band take some serious direct action instead of just saying how great it would be if everyone would vote was a really formative experience for me.
All of this is to say that NOFX for a long time represented what I think a punk band should be. They really represented a certain spirit of the philosophy of punk rock that I ascribe to. They were making really great music and working to inspire direct social change.
But last month NOFX began to deal with the fall out of some truly despicable remarks they made while playing a concert in Las Vegas. It happened like this. Eric Melvin said, “I guess you only get shot in Vegas if you’re a country band,” referring to the mass shooting at a country music festival late last year. Fat Mike replied, “At least they were country fans and not punk rock fans.” In response the band was dropped from their own touring festival, the Punk In Drublic tour and their entire upcoming US tour was cancelled by the venues.
I don’t want to talk about why what they said was wrong, because it’s obvious. That wasn’t a joke, it was just idiocy. I don’t want to talk about whether or not the reaction to a band that has based the past ten years of its career on dumb and offensive jokes is too much or not. I actually want to talk about Fat Mike’s response to the criticism and specifically how one hashtag he used on Instagram sums up the past few decades of his career in punk music.
First came the official band apology:
“There’s no place here to backpedal. What NOFX said in Vegas was shameful. We crossed the line of civility. We can’t write songs about how people in this world need to be more decent, when we were clearly being indecent. Las Vegas has always been a welcoming city to our band, and to make light of the tragedy that occurred there was egregious. All members of the band would like to sincerely apologize to anyone who experienced loss from the Vegas shooting 8 months ago, and to anyone who was at our show who lost a loved one or a friend, or who had to witness the incredibly senseless violence that night. We were asked why we didn’t release an immediate apology. Well, we didn’t feel that we could write a sincere apology without reflecting on the actual damage we had done. No press agent was gonna write this for us. That’s why we have struggled with this for the past few days. We didn’t plan or intend on saying anything so insensitive. It was off the cuff, but just as hurtful. We won’t blame it on drugs or alcohol or Ambien. That’s too easy. NOFX said it, and we own it. We made a tasteless joke. But to be clear, NOFX does not condone violence against ANY group of people, period!”
The simple fact of the matter starts with that everyone is liable to say something stupid. No one is perfect and in 2018 it’s more than likely that our mistakes are going to get caught on video. Of course there have been lots of caught on tape moments that you can’t come back from. But a smart performer today needs to know that this can totally happen because we’re all humans but we also need to know how to concede. If NOFX had apologized and kept their mouths shut for a few weeks everything would have been fine. This isn’t to say that what they said wasn’t awful. It was really awful. There’s nothing funny about a mass shooting and contrary to what everyone on a message board says, acknowledging that this kind of thing isn’t funny doesn’t you’re too P.C. or that punk rock is too safe. Acknowledging it is just part of being a decent person.
BUT THEN on June 21st he wrote, “fatmikedude Fuck it! I’m not supposed to talk about it, but because of the comments we made in Las Vegas... every NOFX show has been cancelled in the US. We did not drop off the shows.... we were told that NOFX is not welcome to play ANY big venue in the United States. No joke! NOFX has effectively been banned in our own country. This is not our choice, but it is our reality. We are very sorry to our fans, especially the ones in Austin. For now, we are playing in Europe, Mexico, and Canada. The Punk in Drublic Festival is still happening in Europe and other continents. I’m trying my best to bring it back to the US but a lot of people don’t want it to happen. It fuckin sucks! We made a mistake, we apologized, and we gotta suffer the consequences. Maybe it ain’t fair, but whoever said life was. We are just very thankful that our fans are being so supportive. Thanks to all of you!!!!! See y’all in Slovenia tomorrow! #punkindrublicinternational #whendidpunkrockbecomesosafe #IhatednotbeinginOhio”
The most frustrating part about this is that 15 years ago NOFX was ready to permanently seal their legacy as one of the most outstanding bands in the genre. They were ten or so albums deep and all of them were pretty amazing. They had achieved mainstream success on their own terms and were doing a lot of really cool political work. (HEY SIDE NOTE BUT THE DECLINE IS STILL THE BEST NOFX RELEASE) But after The War On Errorism came out they just … stopped. All of a sudden every album and most of the songs became focused on jokes about sex, wordplay, referencing all of the famous punk musicians they’re friends with. Their shows devolved into Mike making fun of his audience and neglecting to focus on actually playing the music.
What irked me the most about his post was not his childish complaining about the cancellation of his American shows. It was the hashtag “whendidpunkrockbecomesosafe.” That was the hook lyric from the song “Separation of Church and Skate,” and despite me feeling like the song’s message was boring and plodding, it’s one of the better NOFX songs. The song is centered around Fat Mike complaining that since punk shows aren’t violent and the fashion has changed, it’s also become neutered and safe. He even reminds us that he knows Fletcher from Pennywise! Actually here’s the lyrics:
Lost in a sea of combat boots,
flush the bouncers with wasted youth
When did punk rock become so safe?
When did the scene become a joke?
The kids who used to live for beer and speed
now want their fries and coke
Cursing and flipping birds are not allowed,
in fact let's keep noise levels down
Must separate the church and skate!
Why don't we put pads on the kids?
Helmets, head gear and mouth pieces!
Then we could pad the floor and walls,
put cameras inside bathroom stalls
We make sure only nice bands play,
make every show a matinee
Teach kids to be all they can be,
and we could sing my country tis of thee
sweet land of liberty
When did punk rock become so safe?
I know it wasn't Duane or Fletcher,
Who put up the barricades
Like a stake in the heart,
Somehow we got driven apart
I want conflict! I want dissent!
I want the scene to represent...
Our hatred of authority,
our fight against complacency
stop singing songs about girls and love!
You killed the owl! You freed the dove!
confrontation and politics...
Replaced with harmonies and shticks
When did punk rock become so tame?
These fucking bands all sound the same
We want our fights we want our thugs!
We want our burns we want our drugs!
where is the violent apathy?!
These fucking records are rated G!
When did punk rock become so safe?!
There’s another message in the song about complacency but I’m not convinced Mike knows it’s there. I’ve honestly come to view this song as Mike admitting that he’s too old to understand how culture is changing. And what’s really sad is that the whole ‘when did punk rock become so safe’ thing is something that permeates DIY music. Anytime I’ve asked people at my shows not to mosh because I don’t want anyone getting hurt it’s almost always met with the argument, “It’s just punk rock man!” HUGE EYE ROLLS OVER HERE. What NOFX did is help to strengthen a dangerous mentality about music and the punk rock sub culture. Mike claims he wants to be surprised and inspired by punk music again but what he actually wants is to go to a Black Flag show in 1981 and get into a fight.
And for the record, War on Errorism came out the same year as Burn, Piano Island, Burn, The Ugly Organ, Sing The Sorrow, The Resignation, De-Loused in the Comatorium, Bigger Cages Longer Chains, Plague Soundscapes, AND The Whole Tooth and Nothing But The Tooth so this whole shtick about records being too boring or rated G can honestly kiss my fucking ass.
There a few bands that have just been around for so long that their current career just focuses on reminding everyone of the great records they used to make. Almost nobody goes to see The Rolling Stones for the newest album they put out. They go to see them because they want to hear Gimme Shelter or Satisfaction. Pennywise has fallen into the same career cycle. They’ve been making the same album for 30 years and their shows are primarily based on reminding people that they’ve been around since ‘the good old days’ or whatever they want to call it. The only reason Bad Religion isn’t totally a useless legacy act is that Greg Graffin still has important and interesting things to say.
NOFX broke my heart because they could’ve been the best band in the world but they've gotten so caught up in their self mythology and a blind dedication to preserving a conservative definition of a musical style that they've forgotten how to do the work they initially set out to do. They could’ve kept doing what they were doing and everything would have been great. Instead they chose the legacy act route and with each new record and each new offensive joke they become a caricature of a caricature of a caricature.