Black Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose.
Pandemic Punk, Teenage Bottlerocket and the last time I had fun.
At around 2:30am on the morning of September 12, 2019, I saw into the future.
I was completing a 127-mile solo drive back to Sun Prairie, having just seen the Greatest Band in the World perform a blistering set to the jam-packed Lyric Room in Green Bay. I was exhausted, but I wasn’t sleepy. I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely. I had a black eye, but I was smiling.
The roads were clear and empty, my music was at a reasonable volume and I had just gotten off the phone with my mother. I was letting her know that I wasn’t going to crash at her house about 20 minutes away, but rather that I was going to make the full drive back home. "Thanks anyway. Love you, bye."
30 seconds later, it happened. My dashboard suddenly went red. The music cut, replaced by a loud tone. My steering wheel buzzed and a message appeared: PRE-COLLISION ASSIST. Confused and terrified, I clenched the wheel and stiffened my arms.
Something bad was about to happen.
Henry Rollins says the following about listening to music:
"There’s protein listening and carbohydrate listening. Protein is when you’re burning. You’re finding new bands and trying to push yourself. You’re listening to bands where you know it’s good, but sometimes it’s tough. You have to drag yourself up to it and put in the time. And on weekends or long plane rides, I go for carbohydrate listening. Carbohydrate listening is all the music I’m familiar with. Comfort food for the ears. So I do five or six days a week protein and about four hours a week carbohydrate."
As I’ve gotten older, this is something I’ve tried to adopt as much as possible with…everything, both as a way to continually discover new things, but also to enjoy what I’ve always loved in tandem. Leave it to ol’ Hank Rollins to make it about exercising (happy 60th, by the way), but I think it’s an apt analogy. You put the work in over the week to better your body and mind, and now it’s time to spoil yourself with a plate of fettuccini Alfredo the size of a manhole cover. Old music is good. New music is good. Music is good, dumbass; take it all in.
Remember when you used to walk through Media Play and fantasize about listening to every CD in the building? With all due respect to the humble record store, streaming makes this fantasy possible, so why wouldn’t you take advantage of it? My protein listening habits are more vast now than they’ve ever been; they’ve allowed me to discover dozens of new bands that I absolutely adore, and I’m proud of that.
…And then there’s those sweet, sweet carbs, baby. Then, now and forever, my carbs are Punk Rock.
Punk cred may indeed be dead, but I’m at a point in my life where I feel I‘ve earned the tiniest of smidges. Since the day I bought Dookie on my 12th birthday, I’ve never strayed too far from the Truth. I’m a 27-year lifer who’s been lucky enough to see a lot and play a lot (my band opened for the Lawrence Arms in 2000! Mustard Plug! Brand New before they got canceled!), and I’ve long ago come to the realization that I’ll never purge Punk Rock from my system. I never want to. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to love this until I’m dead.
Like you, I miss shows, bands and tours that have been put on permanent hold due to the pandemic. I miss them dearly. Not just for me, but for all of my friends in the game who try to make a living this way. It’s the thing I love the most: Piling into a car, driving a hundred miles, hitting a sushi place, hitting the venue, drinking too much, sweating too much, forgetting to wear earplugs and suffering tinnitus and sore knees for the next three days. I love it.
God help me, I do love it so.
At around 6:30pm on the evening of September 11, 2019, I was nearing the end of a 127-mile solo drive to Green Bay. I was exhausted, but I wasn’t sleepy. I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely. The black eye and glimpse into the future were still, respectively, several hours away. I was about to see Teenage Bottlerocket, the Greatest Band in the World, perform a blistering set to the jam-packed Lyric Room.
If Punk Rock is my carbohydrate listening, then Teenage Bottlerocket is a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. A case of Jolt. A snorted rail of Pixy Stix. I can say with all inarguable certainty that Teenage Bottlerocket is not only the greatest band in the world, but the greatest band that has ever existed.
For those unfamiliar with TBR’s work, I shall compare them to the Beatles, a band that they are better than. Drummer Darren Chewka is Ringo. He’s the quiet one. He’s also the newest member, having replaced the late (incredibly great) Brandon Carlisle in 2015. Chewka’s also Canadian, which is neither here nor there but I appreciate. Bassist Miguel Chen is George. The driving spiritual force; the man who drew from rough experiences and hard-partying to become an inner peace-seeking zen master. He’s a yoga instructor (Yoga For Punks) and author of multiple books on personal wellness (The Death of You and I Wanna Be Well).
This leaves us with co-guitarists Ray Carlisle and Kody Templeman, who are clearly Lennon and McCartney. Kody is the KISS-obsessed (‘Bigger Than KISS’), comic book-inhaling (‘Necrocomicon’), horror movie-loving (‘Haunted House’) former Lillingtons frontman who prolifically writes songs about Minecraft (‘They Call Me Steve’), aliens (‘I Got Abducted By A UFO’), Bigfoot (‘I Saw The Apeman’), pizza (‘Too Much La Collina’), guys who headbang too hard (‘Headbanger’) and murdering everyone in a fast food restaurant (‘Blood Bath At Burger King’). Ray (Brandon’s twin brother) is the Ramones-adoring, sometimes-crotchety punker with a soft side, penning lyrics about being a father (‘Everything To Me’), falling in love with a metalhead (‘Nothing Else Matters’) and surviving a zombie apocalypse (‘Dead Saturday’).
I have a Google Assistant next to my bed, but here in the Zeinert Household it’s affectionately known as the ‘Teenage Bottlerocket Machine.’ I have given the Assistant exactly one command and one command only since the day I took it out of the box: “Hey Google, play Teenage Bottlerocket.” This is the only thing I will ever ask of it; I cannot imagine it ever serving any other worthwhile purpose to me. I don’t need to know the temperature, but I do need to hear ‘Creature From The Black Metal Lagoon’ while I’m folding laundry.
…Alright, fine. You’re probably not convinced. If I’m being honest, TBR has been accused of being silly, formulaic Weasel-core (this Hard Times story is a classic), so I’ll concede you this: Teenage Bottlerocket might not be the greatest band ever, but they are my favorite band, and that’s a very important distinction we all make with our tastes in music. For example, I wouldn’t argue that the Parasites are a more important band than say, U2. But I can guarantee you that I’ll listen to Punch Lines a thousand times before I ever come back to Zooropa. That’s just common sense.
It’s bittersweet to have to see your favorite band alone (anyone remember when I did this with Polysics in 2007?), but I made the best of it. Learning to enjoy your own company is paramount to personal evolution, especially when you’re friends with decaying, corpselike posers who have lame babies and even lamer jobs that require them to not be constantly hungover.
I feel I’m maturing gracefully here.
Nothing was going to bring me down, though, as I pulled into the empty parking lot a couple blocks from the venue. Per tradition, I ate dinner at a nearby sushi place, sitting at the end of the empty bar (Green Bay was exceedingly empty that evening). Going to shows alone may suck, but I’ll never not advocate for eating alone. It rules. No small talk, no waiting for someone to glacially trudge through the menu, and you can just up and leave whenever you want.
Energized by a Green Bay Roll on soy paper (how can you not), I started walking toward the club.
A guy stopped me on the street about a half-block away and asked me if I was going to the show. I said yes, and he asked if he could follow me because he was meeting his friends there and didn’t know where it was. I said "sure dude, no problem," but internally I was frustrated that he had already ruined my perfect night of not speaking to a single civilian. I should have just yelled "I was supposed to be a ghost tonight!" That would have ended the conversation plenty quick.
I knew I was my own ride home, so I had to limit myself to just one 32oz. PBR that evening (this is supposed to be a joke, but I understand if you don’t laugh). I had just cracked it open as I was perusing the merch booth, hoping to grab a few goodies and run them to my car before the show started proper. I helped myself to a t-shirt and a copy of The Death of You, walked to my car and got halfway back before I was distracted by an animal shelter that had cats frolicking in the window.
I was planning on hanging with these cats for the next several minutes, when I caught my reflection in the window and noticed I was carrying an open, brick-sized can of beer on North Broadway. No less than two squad cars had passed me by over the last five minutes, and nothing happened. I slunk back in and nobody was the wiser.
Quick question for those who don’t live in Wisconsin: Are 32oz. cans of PBR commonplace where you live? I remember the Menzingers saying that they had never seen them before and they’re from Philadelphia, so I started to wonder if it was just us Midwestern alcoholics. I don’t believe I’ve been to a concert in the last 10 years that didn’t serve them almost exclusively.
After a few fantastic opening bands (Mean Jeans! CLOWNS! JenPop!), I was standing near the bar and a woman asked me if I would watch her drink while she went out for a smoke (unlike me, she remembered how the law works). I obliged, but when she came back in, I couldn’t help but ask her an honest question:
"I’m not trying to be a creep or anything, but weren’t you worried that I was going to do something to your drink?"
"No way. This is a Teenage Bottlerocket show. Everyone’s cool."
And she was right.
Finally, it happened. Over the backdrop of Slayer’s ‘Raining Blood,’ our heroes from Laramie, Wyoming took the stage to a raucous crowd and launched into fan-favorite ‘Skate Or Die.’ Over the next 90 minutes, they slingshotted through dozens of tracks from their 8-album, 21-year career. People lost their minds. It was everything I wanted it to be.
I try not to record too much at shows, but there was one particular moment in the evening where I felt extremely fortunate to be rolling film:
Did you see what happened? Watch it again.
The tall guy in front with the baseball cap takes a sip of his (not even close to empty) Giant PBR and haphazardly throws it over his shoulder, hitting me directly in the right eye. You can see the phone shake and you can even hear me reacting to it. I felt the swelling immediately. Instant black eye. Excellent.
I’m 39 years old, and I sometimes have moments of existential crisis where I worry about becoming the Old Guy at the Punk Show. Is it okay that I still rock out to songs with names like 'Night of the Knuckleheads' and 'The First Time That I Did Acid Was the Last Time That I Did Acid?' Despite working in an office for the last 17 years, is it okay that I don’t know how to buy shoes that aren’t Vans? Even though I see (or saw) bands old and new alike on a regular basis, the audience does naturally skew younger and younger and it’s hard to not notice and get a little self-conscious.
Even though I want to support the scene with my whole heart, it’s often hard to drive myself to some downtown dive at 10pm on a Sunday. I’ve already got my pajamas on, for Christ’s sake. But I try, I really, really try as hard as I can to get out to as many as I can, and I sure as shit will be trying even harder once things are back to normal around here. Nonetheless, perhaps the meme is true: "Punk’s not dead, it just goes to bed at a reasonable hour." Perhaps it becomes too much to ask at times that grown men and women drive themselves 127 miles just to get clocked in the face with a beer. But not me, dude. Not on this night. I was exactly where I wanted to be.
God help me, I do love it so.
I was supposed to see Teenage Bottlerocket again on Easter Sunday 2020. This did not happen due to…you know.
In fact, the 9/11/19 show was one of the last handful of shows I was able to attend before the pandemic shut down Wisconsin proper. If you have attended a live concert at any point between April 2020 and the date of this essay’s publication, I sincerely want you to know you can shove your good time directly up your selfish, irresponsible ass.
We (the good guys) still have a long road ahead of us before we can get back to live Punk Rock. Perhaps there’s an irony to outsiders that these shows won’t resume until they can be put on safely, but to those of us who know, there was never any other option. Under no circumstances are we going to hit each other with beer cans, spit on each other, swim atop a crowd and fall onto broken glass until we know that nobody’s going to get hurt. You either get it or you don’t. It’s going to take time and we’re going to experience more losses, but we’re going to get back there soon. I promise.
There’s a TBR song on their latest album called 'Stupid Song.' The second verse goes like this:
So let me give you some of my advice
When the world ain’t treating you so nice
And all you want to do is kill yourself
Just grab that dusty record off the shelf
And listen to another stupid song
A song that any idiot can sing
A song that isn’t going to let you down
Because it isn’t about anything
Just a song to help you pass the time
While the world is going down the drain
I hope it helps you to forget your pain
You know it’s going to paralyze your brain
It’s just another stupid song
It’s not Leonard Cohen, but it is poetry. Hallelujah.
At around 2:30am on the morning of September 12, 2019, I saw into the future.
I was on my way back to Sun Prairie, having just seen the Greatest Band in the World perform a blistering set to the jam-packed Lyric Room in Green Bay. I was exhausted, but I wasn’t sleepy. I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely. I had a black eye, but I was smiling. It was one of the last fun nights out that I can remember.
My dashboard suddenly went red. The music cut, replaced by a loud tone. My steering wheel buzzed and a message appeared: PRE-COLLISION ASSIST. Confused and terrified, I clenched the wheel and stiffened my arms. Something bad was about to happen.
I looked around. There was nothing. No cars a mile behind me or in front of me. No stalled vehicles in the median. A safe, silent stretch of Highway 41 as far as the eye could see. I hadn’t fallen asleep. I hadn’t drifted outside of my lane. Once my adrenaline went back to normal and I could reassess the situation, I could only surmise that the sensor had gotten confused and malfunctioned. It blinked off and has not done this before or since.
But now, looking back, I know I was wrong. My car was right; something bad was about to happen.
It was just seeing further into the future than I realized.
(Teenage Bottlerocket will be playing a livestream show on Saturday, March 27. Tickets and merch can be purchased at BIGGERTHANKISS.com. Also, it’s not cool to throw beer cans at shows, so maybe don’t do it.)