Creation Records founder/Guardian music scribe Alan McGee thinks that Bon Jovi should be among New Jersey’s musical/cultural ambassadors to the world. Well, Bon Jovi is better than The Sopranos, by which I mean Bon Jovi has given us more emotional/historical signposts to cling to than Tony et al. But Bon Jovi is hardly the emblematic New Jersey band of the ’80s, let alone the one that should continue to represent the state into the new millennium. Because the greatest New Jersey bands of the last few decades have worked in an idiom laid down by the quartet that made art from the Garden State’s late 20th-century ability to turn anything into junk food: the Misfits.
The greatest evisceration of New Jersey came in the form of Luc Sante’s essay “In A Garden State,” reprinted in his essential collection Kill All Your Darlings. But while Sante nailed every one of New Jersey’s faults — a low-com-denom black hole that compresses all culture into easy-to-swallow baubles, a theme-park-cum-sitcom vision of suburbia that hides its urban poor behind a screen of faux-wood picket fences, et cetera — he did so without much sympathy for those born there without options. The idea, seemingly, being that anyone with any artistic drive or something to contribute to the melting pot needs to escape, like, yesterday.
Unfortunately, for a good number of my neighbors and similar families across the state, that’s not an option. And that’s why the Misfits are the ultimate New Jersey band. Because they discovered that if you’re living in an inescapable situation, and if the pop-cultural detritus of previous decades is ineradicable, if it’s the air you breathe and your only own potential building block, you better find ways to make it sing anew. And if you can’t do that, at least make it loud and unavoidable.
New Jersey is a state where “cultural heritage” is architecture out of a Sherwood Schwartz sitcom surviving another wave of strip malls. Its neighbors, Philadelphia and New York, are built around artifacts from pre-colonial times. “History” in New Jersey begins with the chrome-plated modernism of the 1950s, seemingly the last time the state received a much-needed infusion of The Future. Nowhere else in the country has so thoroughly paved its untamed past. Judging by the flat, two-story topography that’s indistinguishable from town to town, New Jersey was never wilderness. It was a parking lot in waiting.
There are four Dunkin’ Donuts within walking distance of my house, and no bookstores. This is freedom of choice in New Jersey. Even before the economy was wheeled into the terminal ward, the newspapers here dangled only a handful of classified-section carrots in front of a growing number of unemployed. Taxes make home ownership a game of self-strangulation in monthly installments, even for the middle class. (Whatever that means now.) Burlington, where my checks are currently addressed, has to be one of the most segregated cities I’ve ever known; it’s literally split down the middle, with the moderately privileged warily eyeing the working poor corralled on the east side.
Bruce Springsteen wants to aggrandize this statewide, neon-ringed cage into something befitting Oscar-worthy drama. (Or even the kitchen-sink, Mike Leigh sort of affair on his better albums.) Bon Jovi is happy to render it as straight-faced soap opera, Tommy and Gina united in futile love against a system that views them as so many ants. The Misfits, crawling like Mad Max villains over the state’s plastic and plaster scrap heap, say fuck that. If the ship is going down, then drink up as the waters consume you. If all you’ve got is schlock, then make shlock so fierce it shuts up the naysayers and gives fist-pumping succor to the likeminded.
The subjects of the best Misfit songs are pure New Jersey. Is there a better ambivalent celebration of the state’s chosen anesthetic than “TV Casualty”? In “Mommy Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?” alone, there’s an entire adolescence spent reading about frustrated factory boys recently laid off and straight-A students with no future save middle management. So they ice their whole family. Or someone else’s. Because they couldn’t find a hangar-sized liquor store to sell them Cisco.
Of course if the tunes were delivered as dryly as that, they’d be “message songs” of the most deadening sort. The Misfits’ genius is rooting their shock horror material in lives lived in the most ersatz state of the union. You suspect the John F. Kennedy assassination was pulp fiction in New Jersey only hours after it happened, another exploitation bloodbath for the drive-in. The bargain-basement horror vibe is years spent in front of UHF stations where middle-aged managers in pancake makeup introduced Vincent Price films on Sunday mornings. The zombies in Misfits songs are horrific brain eaters, sure, but they’re also dudes who might be distracted enough by something shiny in a convenience story so that you could make your escape. The Misfits recognize the thrilling ridiculousness of a movie monster panacea when day-to-day living is horror enough.
And there’s the sound of the band. Cheap and harassing, as if they were in a race with every other regional punk act to devise the world’s most obnoxious hi-hat sound. The classic Misfits records are not well-produced in any sense of the word. They’d leave audiophiles clinging to their 24 karat Dire Straits reissues. You never forget it’s a sound born from necessity rather than invention. (As the higher-fidelity but utterly bloodless recordings the band made in the ’90s attest.) But the rusty guitar tone and scrap yard drumming do their best approximation of old-school rock’n’roll, sped up ’til near incomprehensible. And it’s perfect.
Listening to the Misfits, you suspect the ’60s never took root in New Jersey. That there was no psychedelic vanguard or folkie underground, whatever the truth might be. (Perhaps Newark had the biggest beatnik enclave this side of wherever Dobie Gillis took place.) Listening to the Misfits, you’d think there were sock-hop soundtracks and then the most intractable garage bands this side of Detroit and then stoned sludge ignited by Sabbath and then punk giving voice to the alienated in the state already claimed by the dispossessed. The Misfits including those whoa-oh-a-oh harmonies may be proof that New Jersey just smooshed the Ronettes into the Stooges because they were both release valves for the disenfranchised, that they were both replicable sounds for the marginally competent living between the Delaware River and the Lincoln Tunnel with something to express.
Maybe it’s not healthy to celebrate the geographic/cultural/economic conditions that limit you. But the truth is that the dead zone of the modern suburb is all quite a few Americans will know in their lifetime. Should we just roll over and accept that the cities to our north and south are the real deal, the artistic hot zones, and we might as well learn how to master that deep-fat fryer in lieu of making an impact? Or should we chip away at the stagnant awfulness until we uncover something worth celebrating, and remold those limitations into a vocabulary that might shame any band operating in a more artistically fecund environment?
When you listen to the Misfits, you might hear energetic old-school punk with a kitschy veneer, and nothing more. When I listen to the Misfits, I hear a band born into the well-mapped constraints of post-World War II America, a land of easily reproduced z-grade entertainment designed to distract you from that bone-rattling feeling of no hope, a country that we still live in and that’s just getting worse as people gorge on sugar-coated garbage that says shut up, swallow, and ask no questions.
Here is where I risk finger pointing and guffaws. Because it’s not as if I think the Misfits are anything more than entertainment. Maybe even shoddy entertainment when judged by a generation that’s grown up with ProTools pruning and a diamondique spritz of hyper-compression. I’m not saying that a band, whose debut album is 31 years old, has any chance of getting us through a collapse that’s likely to leave us hoarding canned goods and fearing warheads from countries who would have left us rolling our eyes two decades ago. I’m far past the point of think music can affect change except on an individual to individual level whose effect is nearly impossible to gauge.
All I’m saying is that New Jersey is emblematic of a culture that’s given up on progression. Historical or cultural or technological. We’re cannibalizing the 20th century, the last time it looked like we might mean shit. Meanwhile, all around us, despite our president’s best intentions to finally usher us into that hoary old multicultural marketplace of ideas, where we’re no more clever than anyone who surrounds us at the U.N., we are reinforcing our isolation by reaffirming ideals passe by the Gulf of Tonkin, as the kids chafe and strain for a future that’s already here but denied them.
So, you know, fuck it. If we’re being lapped by the world, then yes, let’s reassemble our broken-down culture Rauschenberg/Kieholz style. Let’s do it with flair, a certain punch and howl, that makes the necrotic atmosphere something like tolerable. Let’s hug the junk like planks from a sunken ship. Protest may be impossible, but let’s pretend the garbage is liberating. That we’ll keep on eating the junk you’ve left for us until it’s nutritious. That America may be dead in the water but we’ve got one thing to say: It doesn’t matter much to us as long as it’s dead.
The problem, as always, is what to do once the last rites are administered and the funeral home is called.
McGee on music: Why Bon Jovi are mythic New Jersey artists [Guardian]
[Pic via Last Days of Man On Earth]
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