Survival never goes out of style
Two unforgettable evenings with '90s counterculture heroes Jawbeaker
With one foot in the past, guitarist and vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach steps forward on stage and announces, “Hi. We’re Jawbreaker from the future.”
When Jawbreaker released its major label debut “Dear You” in 1995, its jagged compositions and cacophonic distortion were broadly met with deaf ears and question-mark faces. Aside from the silent indifference of its major label overlords, their former fans in the punk scene only responded with accusations of “selling out.” Left in the abyss of abandonment, the band eventually dissolved in the summer of 1996.
Over time, that once-whispered album has gained long-overdue appreciation from the music scene. So much so that in recent years, after the wounds healed, it has compelled the band to reunite and tour – which explains how I found myself at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium with tickets to see the band for two nights in April.
On the first night before I head in, the glowing digital marquee promoting the lineup has one burned out screen, creating a gap in the band’s poster. Maybe this marquee has been in this state for a while now, but I smile sympathetically at the way misfortunes follow this band during its peaks.
When I discovered Jawbreaker in the early 2000s, it had a mythical, controversial status within the punk scene. My heart magnetically connects to those artists who break identity and boundaries, even if it means going down in flames. So when I found out “Dear You” was the record hated by dogmatic punks, I instantly sought it out. In 2004, the band’s drummer, Adam Pfahler, was able to reissue the album on his own label, and I devoured it for days, obsessing over the songwriting. Eventually, I would dive into the back catalog which was just as rich, but “Dear You” became the one etched into my chest.
As much as the band devotes its time gazing into the void of suffering, the first show started off with some more optimistic songs. “The Boat Dreams on The Hill,” off 1994’s “24 Hour Revenge Therapy,” tells the story of a derelict boat yearning for a sense of purpose, “missing fishy flutter on its rudder.” And backed by Chris Bauermeister’s buoyant basslines, the sing-along chorus has everyone shouting back: “I wanna be a boat / I wanna learn to swim / Then I’ll learn to float / Then begin again.” In the crowd we throw our hands in the air, reaching for every noisy note like the anchor the band has always been for us.
With barely a moment to breathe, the band began the brooding palm mutes that start “Save Your Generation,” the opening track to “Dear You.” Speaking of anchors, this song is one that has always been life support for me. In the first verse, Blake sings, “There’s a million open windows / I’m passing these open windows / Keep passing these open windows” – a life-affirming refrain taken from John Irving’s novel “The Hotel New Hampshire.”
The palm mutes build to a moment of silence where lonely guitar chords are strummed, followed by a quick drum fill before they dive into the propulsive chorus. I’m overwhelmed with painful joy at this point. “If you could save yourself, you could save us all / Your leap of faith could be a well-timed smile / Survival never goes out of style.” As I sing these lyrics, I think of friends no longer around and how I wish they were still here to experience this bliss. Josie, Sondra, John – there are too many headstones to recount. Would they have lived longer if we sang these words a little louder? I’ll never have the answer, but I feel like if I shout harder tonight, chanting those words back to the stage, maybe for a moment I can bring them back.
Speaking of friends to hold on to, my friend Dylan joined me for the second show. Though he’s planted roots in Colorado now, Dylan grew up in Jawbreaker’s stomping grounds of the Bay Area. The band keeps him tethered to that home, to that particular lifetime. And it makes me think of what American poet Hanif Abdurraqib once said when reflecting on live music: “People are experiencing one thing simultaneously, but approaching it with a unique set of feelings.” But regardless of what memories are dizzying up the heads and hearts of everyone in the crowd, we all equally roar with joy when the band begins the second night with “Boxcar,” from “24 Hour Revenge Therapy.” The song’s a playful middle finger to the dogmatism of punk rock. Youthful rebellion comes to life as we sing.
I recall a summer night in 2003 sitting in my bedroom reading the latest issue of Punk Planet. There was an article by Chicago writer Jessica Hopper titled, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” Years before even more disturbing actions would be called out, Hopper was reckoning with the rampant misogyny within the punk and emo subculture. During the righteous rage directed at bands adorning the walls of Hot Topic and the lineups of the Warped Tour, she also highlighted a handful of redeeming bands – one of which was Jawbreaker, writing: “In Jawbreaker songs, women had leverage, life spirit and agency. Sometimes the women were friends or a sister, not always a girl to be bedded or dumped. They were unidealized, realistic characters.”
A song like “Accident Prone,” which the band played both nights, encapsulates Hopper’s statement. It’s an epic six-minute journey through grief and isolation with poetic and nuanced lyrics that break the traditional male gaze, allowing the listener, regardless of identity, to connect it to their distress. There’s live footage of the musician Julien Baker covering this song on piano. As much as I adore getting lost in the earthquake guitars of the band’s original recording, there are many days (and many nights) when I have Baker’s piano cover on repeat. There’s no turning back when Julien sings, “I learned your name without words / I used my eyes and not my hands.”
After the last song on the last night, when our hopes for another encore are dashed by the blinding lights, it takes a while for the spell to break. Dylan and I follow the crowd outside, leaving the womb-warmth of the venue. We are orphans again under a starless night. As we search for food, I realize that, given how graceful the band’s raw music and message have aged, this is more than nostalgia.
Jawbreaker’s a band to feel good about growing old with. And yet as thrilling as this experience has been, more eventful things lie ahead. My co-conspirator, Jamie, and I are working on exciting things, and Dylan’s embarking on a new life journey. Maybe Jawbreaker is from the future and they’ve blessed us. Poets of the night we all are, I take a bite of midnight pizza, and I look forward to the promise of Saturday’s sunrise.