Monday, March 31, 2014

In Defense Of: "Teenage Dirtbag" by Wheatus

This In Defense Of was contributed by Square Zeros' Derek Hawkins.

First things first: if you don’t remember “Teenage Dirtbag” or Wheatus, the band that wrote it, let me refresh your memory:

That’s the one.

Wheatus released “Teenage Dirtbag” in July 2000 as the title track from their debut album, and it got constant play on MTV and the FM rock stations all summer long. It’s a power pop anthem that combines the brattiest, most adolescent aspects of Cheap Trick with a mid-tempo shuffle and some of the mindless experimentalism that marked post-grunge (yes, there’s turntable scratching). Brendan B. Brown’s vocals fall somewhere between Robin Zander at his most nasal and “Sk8er Boi”-era Avril Lavigne, and the song oscillates between gentle acoustic verses and big, driving electric choruses. It appeared on the soundtrack to the 2000 Jason Biggs vehicle Loser, which I know you’ve got in your collection.

The narrative is familiar teeny bopper territory: A high school dork is in love with a popular girl, and all he wants is to listen to Iron Maiden with her, but “she doesn’t know who I am and she doesn’t give a damn about me.” She has a typical jock boyfriend who would beat the shit out of the protagonist if he found out about the poor kid’s crush, but the gun-wielding, IROC-driving alpha-male is oblivious. Prom night rolls around and our hero’s alone, without a date, contemplating how awful life is, when — lo and behold — his muse walks up and presents him with two Iron Maiden tickets. “Come with me Friday, don’t say maybe,” she utters, and the rest is history.

In a different life, I find this song dismissible. It’s the kind of one-hit wonder from my youth that I expect other people my age to ridicule as a relic from a time when the fate of rock n roll was so unclear that labels were signing anyone who seemed cooler than the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.

But that’s just not how I feel. I respect this song, and it boils down to this: I thought Brendan B. Brown was a woman.

::FLASHBACK::  It’s Summer 2000, and I’m working as a lifeguard at the Mt. Vernon Park pool in Alexandria, Virginia. We’ve got a radio in the guard station that we leave tuned to one of the two big D.C. rock stations, 99.1 HFS or DC101. One day we’re sitting around and “Teenage Dirtbag” comes on, and I wonder who this chick is singing. I’m deep in my Misfits phase at this point, so I’m a tough sell on most things that could be considered pop, but there’s something dangerous at play here. A female vocalist singing about her infatuation with another girl — a straight girl — isn’t your garden variety love song. It’s brave. At this point in my adolescence, I’m beginning to ask serious questions about my own sexuality, and I’m learning how to support the first of my friends who have come out, so the story hits home. I’m gripped, and the Iron Maiden reference helps. I think the song is kind of silly, but overall I’m impressed by “Teenage Dirtbag.”

That was how I viewed the song — believing that Brown was a chick — for almost ten years.

A friend exposed the truth about the lead singer’s gender when, predictably, I tried to defend “Teenage Dirtbag” as a victory for LGBTQ issues in mainstream music — the precursor to “Born This Way” and “Same Love,” for example. I don’t know how I missed the video when I was younger, or how I never got into a conversation about Brown’s gender until more than a decade after the song’s release. But it turns out the girl from Wheatus is, in fact, a guy. What I thought was an honest, empowered, courageous song about the pain and anguish a young lesbian must feel when she’s smitten for the first time was actually just sob story by a dude who couldn’t get a date to the dance.

Had I known that on my first listen, I probably wouldn’t be defending “Teenage Dirtbag” here. But first impressions are powerful, and I’ll always choose to look at the song as being told from the point of view of a woman. Everything changes through that lens. The irony is richer, the characters are more compelling, and the message is powerfully subversive. The second verse takes on a particularly chilling new tone that reflects the real violence that LGBTQ kids face every day: “Her boyfriend’s a dick and he brings a gun to school / And he’d simply kick my ass if he knew the truth.” Those lines in that context make “Born This Way” sound tame.

For a while now, I’ve thought it would be great for a woman to do a cover version of “Teenage Dirtbag” and reinterpret the song from that point of view. It was such an obscure hit in retrospect that I figured no one would ever make the effort. Well, my wish came true, and recently at that. Mary Lambert, the singer on Macklemore’s gay rights hymn “Same Love,” covered the song on piano for Billboard’s live performance series in December. Turns out she too mistook Brown’s voice for a woman’s when she first heard “Teenage Dirtbag.”

"I was in high school when I came out," Lambert says in an interview before her performance. "I heard that song and I was floored. I was like, this is a lesbian love song — because I thought it was a woman singing. I was so excited because it captured all those feelings in high school of your first love."

I think her version is wonderful:

So it’s to that extent that I defend “Teenage Dirtbag.” Hokey as the original might seem 14 years later, it’s got staying power. Brendan B. Brown wrote a song that transcends gender and sexuality, earning him a cover by one of pop music’s LGBTQ icons.

You can’t fuck with that.


Previous Entries of "In Defense Of":
Stephen Selman, In Defense Of: Banana Wind by Jimmy Buffett 
Jon Mann, In Defense Of: Foo Fighters 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Square Zeros #13: Louis Ramos with Nova Luz (The Amputees, Mrs. Whitehead)

As a punk rock kid growing up in the D.C. suburbs, I’d often dream about being able to play shows at CBGB, the legendary Lower East Side venue that helped launch The Ramones, The Dead Boys, and so many other bands I loved. In my head, it was a phony-free sanctuary of pure rock n roll, where everyone was there for the music alone, and I could channel the ghosts of my musical idols.

I wish Louis Ramos had been around in those days to tell me about the deer decapitation.

Louis is the frontman for the NYC-based garage punk band The Amputees. They play fast, powerful songs with a tinge of hardcore but enough pop sensibility to draw listeners more dialed into tamer indie rock. Hüsker Dü comparisons come to mind, but I definitely wouldn’t stop there. They recently released a five-song EP called Scream, and they’ve got a full-length in the works now. You can catch them at Don Pedro on April 11.

Louis is also a seasoned veteran of the New York City’s punk and hardcore scenes. Long before he formed The Amputees, he was a regular at CBGB shows and for a while fronted a post-hardcore band called Mrs. Whitehead.

Louis describes a Lower East Side in the 1980s that’s a lot different than anything we know today and a lot different than my naive fantasies as a kid. Bands were violent. People hated each other. There was constant warring between scenes. You could get your ass kicked for looking like you listened to the Misfits. He describes one particularly poisonous day from his youth — July 4th, 1984. For some reason, he says, several bands that were fixtures in the hardcore scene fell apart that afternoon. At one point things got really ugly.

“I remember standing outside CB’s that day,” he said. “And these skinheads rolled up in this pickup truck with a dead deer. And they dragged it out in front of CB’s and proceeded to chop its head off with this big, huge knife, and swing it around afterward.”

Much as people love to romanticize New York’s grittier eras, I think we can all be thankful that we don’t have to worry about skins hacking up a buck outside Shea Stadium.

“There’s a line going from then to now,” Louis said. “But it’s much safer and much more fun.”

Looking for something of an exit from the hardcore scene, Louis ended up getting recruited into a band called Mrs. Whitehead that played a blend of Sonic Youth-inspired noise and My War-era throatiness.

The first cut is “Pigman.” Amputees guitarist Nova Luz, who joined us in the interview, compared it to Black Flag, which is pretty spot-on. Louis improvised the vocals on it.

The second cut is a somewhat poppier number called “Mean Streak.” Louis’s vocals are still unhinged, but you can start to hear how they’d evolve into the more melodic singing he does in The Amputees.

“I was very moved down very pleasant streams by the very nice sounds, and then Louis’s voice came in and it was very aggressive,” Nova said. “And I thought, this is a nice edge.”

Thanks to Louis and Nova for sitting down with Square Zeros. Don’t miss them at Don Pedro on April 11 to give Louis a birthday shout out, and check out their EP, Scream.

Mrs. Whitehead. Forever.


Monday, March 24, 2014

In Defense Of: Banana Wind, Jimmy Buffett

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Stephen Selman, a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and non-margarita-drinker based in Brooklyn. 

The hour is approximately 1 a.m., and I’m rounding the final corner of an interminably long walk through the deep darkness of suburban Mansfield, Massachusetts. My destination: the commuter rail station for the last train back to Boston. The whistle screams at my soul as I catch sight of the train pulling away from the depot — my last chance to get home for another six and a half hours.

The night that ensues makes the top five list for the worst of my life. I’m denied a hotel room for not yet being 21, and none of the dozens of my compatriots present will sign for me, though I have cash in hand. I walk the streets aimlessly, hiding out in a CVS for an hour until I’m finally thrown out. I try to sleep on the platform under some free local newspapers (which is remarkably good insulation should you ever find yourself in need). It’s cold. I struggle to describe the intense darkness of this town. I write a few limericks and poems on the newspapers I shiver beneath.

I don’t find relief until just before dawn, when some extremely kind Honeydew Donuts employees take me in and give me all the donut holes and coffee I can take. Why did I go there, and why did I put myself in that position? Readers, I went to Mansfield, Massachusetts, to see a Jimmy Buffett concert.

Strike up the white boy reggae band. “The guy that does that Margaritaville song and the one about cheeseburgers?” Yes, that guy. Yes, I waded alone into a sea of middle-aged dads behaving badly in the tamest fashion. I did it mostly for nostalgic reasons. I did it because I listened to a certain Jimmy Buffett album every day for at least a month while I helped my father remodel my brother’s bedroom when I was eleven years old. I did it for Banana Wind.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Square Zeros #12: Marisa Cerio (Big Quiet, Murray)

"As the feeling blasted through his heart, he knew nothing could ever be the same. He had a favorite song: a song he could call his own." – "A Hard Day's Pete," Nickelodeon's The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1994)

"I definitely heard [R.E.M.'s] Out of Time when I was 11 or 12, and immediately I knew that was what I wanted." – Marisa Cerio

You know what I like even more than interviewing musicians for Square Zeros? When one of those interviews practically requires me to watch Pete and Pete as research. Among the show's many achievements was introducing a generation of kids to a particularly dreamy form of jangle pop through background music by Polaris, the Apples in Stereo, and Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, among others.

Interviewing singer-guitarist Marisa Cerio of Brooklyn rock and roll outfit Big Quiet made it clear that I wasn't the only affected party. Named after an episode of the children's show, Big Quiet taps into the seemingly built-in nostalgia of that style with the self-assuredness of a band who's found the only sound that matters.

For me, it's always been a beautiful aesthetic, and though it belongs to that moment of the late 80s and early 90s, it always comes out timeless when properly done. By bringing into the conversation her prior band Murray, Marisa showed that she's been doing right by the great American jangle pop tradition from the outset. 

In specifying her style as "American" jangle pop, Marisa pointed particularly to bands like R.E.M. and Pylon as influences. While Marisa's voice might carry a bit more attack on "Lady Lyandria" than a Michael Stipe, it fits perfectly here with the angularity and more forceful vocals of Pylon's Vanessa Briscoe. But, you know, if Pylon wrote a song with a way funnier story behind the title.

On "Ours," the other songwriter in Murray (Marissa) takes lead vocals, so we hear a bit more of Marisa's Peter Buck-influenced guitaring. Though she let us know she wasn't yet playing her dream guitar — Marisa is easily identifiable fronting Big Quiet with her FireGlo Rickenbacker 330 — her tone still cuts through in a manner for which the Ric330 is truly built (Buck, Paul Weller of The Jam, and Pete Townshend of The Who are among its adherents), working with the bass to push the song forward.

Indeed, the conflict between the sweetness of Marisa's tone and Marissa's more dissonant playing brings a darker texture to "Ours" and the track "Bust Out" that their vocal harmonies serve to reinforce. The soft verse vocals and chiming minor-key guitars of the latter perhaps reach for something like The Cure, before rising into a more angular, bass-driven final act.

I want to say that listening to Big Quiet after hearing Murray shows Marisa zeroing in on her favored style, but it's clear that the sound is one that has always been with her. I know we call those early years "impressionable" for a reason, but there's something about these songs that really transports. I didn't ask Marisa what kind of guitar she played in those early years before she snagged her Ric, but in my mind's eye, she's rocking a KrebStar3000 Eviscerator

Check out Big Quiet at Matchless on Friday, March 28 for their Hearts Bleed Radio showcase. For more information on HBR, check out our interview with HBR founder Stephen Perry (SZ #2).


Monday, March 17, 2014

In Defense Of: the Post-Danzig Misfits (1995-2001)

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Alex Wolfgang von Frankenstein, a Brooklyn-based musician, writer, and punk aficionado. 

"I want your skull." "I remember Halloween!" "Whoa, oh oh." These are the sentiments expressed by the seminal, iconic and whatever-other-overused-adjective-you'd-care-to-apply Misfits.

When the band reformed nearly twenty years later, they were still expressing those sentiments, but this time, a ton of people hated them for it. Why? Well, two of the group's semi-original members, the muscle-bound Caiafa brothers (Jerry on bass, Paul on guitar, better known as Jerry Only and Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein) re-formed the band following a lengthy dispute with singer Glenn Danzig (by then well into his Rick Rubin-assisted solo career), and had the temerity to do so with a guy who kind of sounded like Glenn Danzig. His name was Michale Graves, and he later joined the Marines and became an outspoken conservative, but more on that later.

So, to recap: Famous punk band breaks up acrimoniously, re-forms with new singer, and engenders much ill will as a result. The re-formed Misfits (henceforth referred to as "Newfits") are consistently maligned as hangers-on and poseurs, while the “Oldfits” are hallowed; many of their t-shirts are sold at Hot Topic, thus ensuring Danzig will be able to continue to buy Jaguars and large piles of bricks. It's all very neat and tidy.

But actually, it's not.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Square Zeros #11: Chris Tracy (Clean Girls, Shire)

Chris Tracy, in his own way, embodies rock n roll history. As a kid, his first obsession was the pop-minded folk rock of Simon and Garfunkel. Eventually, he broadened his scope by listening to classic rock radio, and by high school he was a full-blown devotee of the likes of Zeppelin, AC/DC, and ZZ Top. Then he discovered punk: "My head exploded," he says, "and nothing was the same (as Drake would say)."

Chris plays guitar and shares vocal duties in the Brooklyn-based noise trio Clean Girls, and this moment in his musical trajectory finds him testing the limits of what you can do with three fuzz pedals and a razor-sharp rhythm section. Clean Girls blends the best aspects of twitchy, discordant rippers like Slint or The Jesus Lizard with the hardcore chops of, say, early Converge. They've released two EPs on 12-inch vinyl in the past year-and-change that nod to '90s Touch And Go Records while establishing a sound that's completely, brutally, their own.

The early songs Chris brought us are from a different world entirely — less Ginn, more Page. In high school, Chris played in a classic rock outfit called Shire (more on the name in a second) with a handful of friends that recorded in one guy's parents' basement in northern Virginia. The first cut is a two-minute cocks-out anthem Chris and his pals wrote on his 16th birthday. Chris plays rhythm guitar, supporting some impressive soloing and a vocalist who pays better homage to Bon Scott than the best dad rock band out there.

Shire, as you probably guessed, is a reference to The Lord Of The Rings, and in this next track the band delivers on its literary-meets-shred core. "Death They Cried" is a Judas Priest-esque ballad about the Battle of Pelennor Fields. If you're not familiar, Chris paints a vivid picture:

Essentially the forces of Mordor had besieged Minas Tirith, which is the capital of Gondor, and things are looking real fucking bleak. Fortunately, in the nick of time King Theoden comes out from under the spell of Grima Wormtongue and the Rohirrim are roused and he gives this really baller speech. The Rohirrim refer to themselves as Eorlingas, so it's like, 'Forth, Eorlingas, ride to death!' And they break the siege and save the city. And there's just like black orc blood everywhere, horses getting chopped up, Nazgûl on fell beasts in the air. It's heavy shit.
Listen for the group battle cry in the middle of the soloing (around 3:07): "Forth, Eorlingas!"

Shortly after recording those tracks and playing a few shows, Chris says he discovered Black Flag, and disputes over whether to cover "Six Pack" or Journey unraveled the band. 

We're certainly grateful Chris spent some time in Middle Earth before moving to Brooklyn.

Catch Clean Girls at Matchless on March 21, check out their EPs here, and listen to them do a new cut and a Shellac cover here. Also, look forward to a music video for "First Day Out," which closes the podcast, and a full-length record in the coming months.

Thanks Chris, thanks Shire. Forth, Eorlingas.


Monday, March 10, 2014

In Defense Of: Goo Goo Dolls

Goo Goo Dolls, not yet looking like someone spilled the worst parts
of the nineties all over them, 1987.
I used to work at a coffee shop that had a trivia board out front where customers could win a discount on their purchase if they answered the question correctly.  My manager took that as an opportunity one day to ask the seemingly innocuous question: "What is the first line of 'Iris' by the Goo Goo Dolls?"

His point wasn't to stump people, or even to bank on them being too embarrassed to answer; his point was to trick people into telling him "I would give up forever to touch you."

It's cringingly straightforward sentiments like this - culled from their enormous, thrice-Grammy-nominated 1998 megahit - that cast a long shadow over the Goo Goo Dolls' reputation.  It doesn't help that in our collective mind's eye their unmistakably raspy singer-guitarist Johnny Rzeznik continues to look like someone spilled the worst parts of the nineties all over him.  I'm a Goo Goo Dolls apologist, and I'll admit that it didn't help their cred to see them perform on a Thanksgiving Day Parade float in 2013. 

What all of this makes it very easy to forget or makes a casual listener unlikely to uncover is the occasionally brilliant first decade of the Goo Goo Dolls' career.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Square Zeros #10: Derek Hawkins and Jon Mann (Sunset Guns, Paper Fleet, Hollow Hills, One Step Forward)

This has gone on long enough.

Derek Hawkins and Jon Mann have grilled nine practicing musicians over the past eight weeks about their earliest musical experiences, chuckling through old recordings, posing far-too-personal questions, and — more than once — asking outright, "What were you thinking when you made this?"

And you've tuned in, perhaps drawn here by interest in the concept, or perhaps because you knew one of the poor souls under the lamp. You've learned the voices, the cadences, perhaps even the musical preferences that define Derek and Jon. Maybe you've wandered over to the Liner Notes and familiarized yourself with their current bands.

But what do you really know about them? They've put together a webcast about the early efforts of current musicians. Great. So in what backward world have they escaped revealing their own first musical efforts until now?

This has gone on long enough.

In Episode #10 of Square Zeros, Derek and Jon — with the help of first interviewee Stephen Selman — dig into each other in an attempt to find out what's beneath their impulse to find out what's beneath other people's music.

Derek brings to the table his high school hardcore band One Step Forward, which — formed under the long shadow of the Washington Monument — drew heavily from the earnestness and personal politics of the Dischord Records pantheon, bombing the suburbs and leaving behind a heavy handful of show flyers and two-minute ragers. As a high-school friend of Derek's, Stephen's ability to describe One Step Forward from outside raises a new and important question the interview format isn't typically able to engage: how were these bands actually received by their audiences?

Jon's interview, however, reveals a dark secret at the very core of Square Zeros. You've been had. Jon didn't play out or record music with a band until he was an adult: it's all been a hoax. Haughtily sitting in judgment of everyone's earliest attempts, he has no embarrassing recordings to attack. Caught with his musical pants down, Jon backed into an impromptu in-studio performance of the first song he ever performed live, complete with an explanation of the bizarre circumstances that found him playing for the first time in front of eight hundred people.


Monday, March 3, 2014

In Defense Of: Standing In The Spotlight, Dee Dee King

You know the scene.

You're in a bar talking music with some friends. Someone cracks wise about whatever musical whipping boy springs into their head: some mediocre or simply unloved musician, or maybe the sort of album that is a universally agreed-upon creative failure that only great musicians get to make, and then only once in their lifetime.

Typically, there's no risk involved in taking that sort of shot, and everyone has an easy laugh. Your friends are your friends for a reason; you share common tastes in cultural matters like music. But this time is different — you hesitate, a line of sweat flashes across your brow, your stomach rises slightly, and you find yourself earnestly defending it. You're not convinced it deserves that sort of easy dismissal.

The reaction from your friends is stunned and immediate. Pretty soon, people outside of your group are being pulled in. Sides are taken; bar stools are scooted out; tables are pulled up; round after round is ordered and put away - and all because you uttered the shocking words, "All I'm saying is, if 'This Love' was written by say, your friend's little brother's band, and not Maroon 5, you wouldn't think it was that bad. You'd say 'Man, little homey's got something there - this is a perfectly solid, inoffensively catchy pop song.' I don't like Adam Levine being People Magazine's 'Sexiest Man Alive,' and you don't like that awful 'She Will Be Loved' song. We're both understandably tired of hearing 'Moves Like Jagger.' But none of that bears on whether 'This Love' is a solid pop song. Which it is. And we should admit it."

Here at In Defense Of, we welcome you, brave and open-minded music defender. It's an old truth that music writers love the underdog, but how often does that risk-taking really extend into music journalism? Alternately, what happens when a terrible, yet popular band creates something with actual artistic merit? In Defense Of is a forum to defend the seemingly indefensible, to take a second listen and form a second opinion.

In our inaugural column, our very own Derek Hawkins descends into the darkest chapter of perhaps his favorite band — The Ramones — to discuss why we need to stop worrying and learn to love Dee Dee King's Standing in the Spotlight.


There are few if any records that punk rock nerds enjoy beating up on more than Standing In The Spotlight by Dee Dee King. The short-lived rap project by Ramones bassist Dee Dee Ramone got panned as a humiliating failure by music critics on its release in 1989, and people still love to ridicule it as one of rock n roll's most extreme identity crises. The usually even-handed Matt Carlson of AllMusic gives it 1.5 stars, saying the album will "go down in the annals of pop culture as one of the worst recordings of all time." The Wikipedia page describes it, without attribution, as "one of the biggest failures in recording history." Former Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau, a Ramones champion, is a little more equitable, but still scathing: "You're not 'the baddest rapper in Whitestone, Queens' — you're 'the worst rapper in Whitestone, Queens.'"

I first heard Standing In The Spotlight back in high school, and I did my fair share of beating up on it, too. As a teenager who stridently believed in the sanctity of both punk rock and hip hop, I was quick to engage in the same type of hyperbole as Dee Dee King's detractors. How could a guy who wrote some of the greatest rock n roll songs of all time produce something so empirically awful?