I cried today when I heard The Decline. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to me, but the first time in a long time. It’s rare that music makes me cry simply for the emotion within it. I was impressed, even moved, last Sunday when I sat in the same room with an orchestra playing The Planets, but today, I cried.
The Decline is a record released in 1999 on Fat Wreck Chords, chiefly known to me for releasing all the pop-punk that assailed America’s ears for most of the 90s. Bands I wouldn’t even imagine listening to – Mustard Plug, Lagwagon, those type of groups. Fat is the enterprise of one Fat Mike, a guy I know very little about, other than that he seems to have done a pretty good job of parlaying sound into a living for himself. Probably Fat has some interns and a few full-time employees. Good for them. It’s hard work making a living off of selling music. I know. I’ve tried and failed. Maybe in the future I’ll try again. I’d certainly like to.
Another enterprise of Fat Mike is a band he’s in, NOFX. Now from what I’ve gathered, they play music that’s really fast and tight, with hooky melodies that you can sing along to and “uncompromising” political lyrical content. Also they seem to write clever, intelligent lyrics. This is based on my having heard their song “Please Play This Song on the Radio” – as I recall, it had lots of swears and a caustically sardonic attitude towards the shill that is corporate radio. And it was fast and tight, with a hooky melody that you could sing along to.
So yeah, I’m not really a fan.
In 1999, I owned and operated a record store. It was a business I loved all the way down to the core of my being. Everything I had I put into that store – including lots and lots and lots of money. I’m still paying off the last of what I couldn’t pay at the time, seven years later. It was beautiful. Ask anyone that knew the place, they’ll tell you it was transcendently, serenely beautiful.
I had seen this business through tough times since buying it two years before. Under my management, the situation had declined steadily until, in late 1998, I made the decision to move the store from its high-profile, high-rent location in a trendy neighborhood with lots of record stores to an empty storefront about two miles up the street in a totally uncool neighborhood with no foot traffic – to save money. Bad decision, at least for business. The new space was a third the cost but still not worth the money for the kind of store I was trying to run. It was between a barbershop and a funeral parlor, and across from this huge, somber church that had a funeral every Monday – so I’d start the week by watching folks load a stiff into a hearse.
One regular in my store, the new location, was this nice guy named Tom who lived across the street (not in the church but a few doors down). He had been a customer before the move and was really psyched that my store had shown up across from where he lived. He even knew my band and had seen us play a few times and actually called himself a fan. Also he liked all kinds of other cool stuff that you wouldn’t expect some random dude to be into. Great guy. So he’d come in and talk to me, look around at my CDs and records, buy some stuff sometimes, whatever – I had a fair number of people that would do that; not enough to turn a profit, but enough to keep my life interesting. One day he brought in a couple of new CDs for me to borrow and check out, you know, just being friendly. One was Nigga Please by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and the other was The Decline by NOFX. I was a Wu-Tang fan at the time and, well, I already told you everything I know about NOFX.
I don’t think I ever listened to the ODB.
That evening, after I closed the shop, as was my custom, I turned out the lights, took a few minutes to wind down before going home, and threw on a record – this time, of course, it was the NOFX.
I’ve always prided myself on being open to anything, musically speaking; I figure if those musicians bother to put the time and effort into making a record a certain way, there must be some point they’re trying to get across – I mean otherwise they’d be doing something else and the record wouldn’t be sitting there in front of me, right? So I believe it’s always worthwhile to listen to a record, no matter what it is – even if I don’t like the music or respect the musicians, there’s always something to learn. I feel I almost owe it to the record.
The song went on and on.
I wasn’t paying attention to how much time had passed. I was pretty into it on that first listen. I don’t really remember what else I was into at the time, but I’ve always dug music that’s fast and tight and takes unpredictable turns, subverting expectations and pulling that rug out – you know, the consciousness-stream rug. So this did that, and it had a nice sheen of expensive production that filled up the room with big bass and loud guitar. The extra touches were appropriate and not overstated, basically limited to some effects on the vocals and a couple of trombones that highlighted the climaxes of the piece. I think I may have even loved it on the first listen. I know I allowed myself to get lost in it, because I remember being surprised when I looked at the track timer and it said 17 something. Just one song on that record, and it clocks in at over 18 minutes. When it was over, I played it again.
The music hooked me, with its competence and confidence, whipping me starboard and aft, constantly ramping me up, expertly building and releasing tension, leading me on a journey. Once I was hooked by the music, as is always my process in growing to love a piece, I had to start listening to the words.
I’m not one for poetry, at least as such. The self-consciousness inherent to the art always takes me out of it. I like my narratives straight-forward, my prose clear. I don’t like being jerked around. Of course, at the same time, I love beauty and I’m willing to go with it if it’s taking me somewhere I want to be. It helps if there’s some music to contextualize the poetry and make it a little more acceptable that they’re saying what they’re saying in the way they’re saying it. Music allows me to forgive the poet for being precious and rhyming his lines.
The lyrics of “The Decline,” as is common in punk, have lots of complaining about whatever’s wrong with the world and not a lot of suggestions about potential solutions. The kind of finger-pointing where people are treated unfairly and killed and raped and whatnot, and it’s all someone else’s fault, and everyone that hears it can feel better about themselves, because of course they aren’t part of the church, or the government, or the NRA, and they aren’t 50 year old white suburbanites that under-pay their Hispanic maids and garbage collectors. In fact, they know all about it, because you know what? Their parents are those people and no way are they ever gonna be like that.
Put more unkindly, it’s reductionist nonsense. These lyrics present situations with a profound emotional impact, and give them as evidence for their case that the ills of the world are everyone’s fault except the listener’s. In the first scenario, a boy kills his brother with a gun, a treasured gift from his father. The next complains about the injustice of drug laws – the hero, Billy, gets sent to jail for seventeen years because he was unlucky enough to get caught with pot in Michigan (“A dime in California? A twenty dollar fine”). He kills himself after a couple months because the prospect of 17 more years of anal rape at the hands of hardened criminals seems worse than death. So these horrors occur, and it’s someone else’s fault, I guess. Not sure whose specifically, but certainly the church is involved.
Well hell man, I’m always up for being angry about stuff. I agree. All that shit totally sucks and I didn’t do any of it. I never shot anyone. I never pre-judge. Fuck those racist assholes that drop all those bombs and kill all those people and have all those attitudes. Telling me I can’t walk down the street with smelly jeans and a nose ring and a bunch of tattoos and ratty ass hair and a dog named Beer and drinkin a 40. Not that I want to do those things, I just want to make sure THEY aren’t telling me I can’t. Assholes.
I don’t really like being jerked around, as I said before, but something about the open naiveté in these little parables got me on board, and I let myself succumb to the righteous anger and feel punky. I was all, take me down that road and rock me while you do it. And they did, those NOFX kids. They gave me straight-up punk anger and assured me it wasn’t my fault. Happy to be here, I said.
On and on and on, huge, just beautiful catchy and big. Once you’re hooked, that’s it man, you’re done.
America Eats Its Young
Around this time the idea had come into my head that it was time to terminate my enterprise. I’d been putting too much of my savings into the store, with no sign or hope of a return, for a few years. Basically I was drawing a salary off my savings, and they were nearly done with.
I faced the music.
I’m a lover of beauty, and I firmly believe it’s an element or force that can redeem a soul. I desperately clung to this beautiful business as a way to make a living and keep my soul intact. My soul is very important to me. Every month I fought the tax people and the distros and everyone who wanted my money; I wasn’t doing anything wrong, playing by the rules, and still the government came in and sucked thousands of dollars out of my bank account (really: they put a “lien” on the account and actually just took the money) on some crap that happened before I even owned the store. I put the word out, bought records and CDs to sell, lost and lost and lost and lost money and still I had to worry about people complaining about me being a rip-off. People would get mad if I offered them too little for their used Bush CDs and I’d have to tell them I already had ten copies in stock and they’d do themselves a favor by tossing that crap in the trash cause no one buys CDs from 1992 in 1998. Unless it’s Nirvana. I wanted to sell music I loved and hipsters just wanted to buy Tom Waits records. I swear I could have changed the name of the store to “Tom Waits Records” and sold nothing but Tom Waits records and I’d still be in business now. If I had a penny for every jerk that came in looking for Swordfishtrombones on vinyl. And the same people always wanted some Nick Drake records after that. Oh yeah, just look in the Original Nick Drake Vinyl section, there’s like ten mint copies of Pink Moon in there. You want a stack of free Big Star records with that? Thanks! Sure, I’d be happy to trade for your scratchy “Hootie and the Blowfish” and “No Doubt” CDs!
Whine whine. I gave up in late 1999, feeling like everyone was surrounding me on the attack and my AK-47 was full of tiny, soft bullets. I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but I figured it wouldn’t be hard to get some job or whatever, with my credentials. Plus it was pre-millennium then, I was all paranoid about all that mystical apocalypse junk, everything coming down and going to hell. I was actually kind of worried about New Year 2000. Giving up my record store added to the end-of-the-world feeling; while it was like throwing off a huge weight, it was also the worst thing that had happened to me at the time.
Goodbye, contented soul. Hello, The Man.
What really hurt me about giving up the store was the implication of its futility as a way to change the world. I had fought and fought, for independence, for what I thought was right, for beauty, and all these leopards and lions and wolves were coming from all directions, conspiring to force me to sell out. I was trading in my sense of smug satisfaction for a chance to be comfortable, to have someone else pay my salary, to get health insurance. Giving in.
Failure, and of course it wasn’t my fault. I continued rocking out to that NOFX song. It became a comfort to me, that Fat Mike singing about exactly who else to blame. America was the root. All my problems came from the fact that Americans are stupid and selfish, and free-market capitalism inevitably squeezes out individual voices in its mad march to war and economic consolidation. “And so we go on with our lives… We know the truth, but prefer lies. Lies are simple, simple is bliss. Why go against tradition when we can admit defeat?”
Descent into the Inferno
So in the epic Italian poem to which I alluded some lines back, this guy shows up and guides me past the beasts. Not me, but the protagonist, Dante, with whom we’re all meant to identify. This savior is Virgil, the olden days poet, and he will be Dante’s, or my, guide, through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually hopping around on planets in Paradise. Virgil, as Dante’s champion, not only functions as himself, but also as a kind of super-ego, idealized version of Dante, the best part of himself, and it’s significant that instead of fighting the beasts or turning back, they end up taking a new path that will eventually lead them through Hell and out the other side of the earth. Apparently, the leopard represents lust, the lion pride, and the she-wolf, avarice a/k/a cupidity (in the Italian, it’s lonza, leone, and lupa – and lonza may be a lynx-like animal or a strange hybrid) 1.
Fat Mike refers to the superego in “The Decline”, as well: “Only moron and genius would fight a losing battle against the superego when giving in is so damn comforting.” Fat Mike’s superego is in fact the United States of America, and the point he drives home over and over in The Decline’s 18 minutes of epic pop-punk, and the point of my essay, that I’m just now getting to, is that, it’s not someone else. It’s us. US. If you live here, you’re one of THEM. US. In the US vs. THEM, you are complicit and that finger’s pointing the wrong direction if it’s aimed anywhere else but back at the finger’s owner. The comfort system we’ve set up for ourselves, that grinds away to keep our homes lighted and our bellies full, exacts an ever-increasing toll on its own foundations, and one day, we’ll be in Hell too!
So, selling out isn’t the solution, it would seem. Or, it is and it isn’t. The way I see it, we should follow the evident wisdom of Dante’s parable, and get past the lust, pride, and avarice that’s forced on us daily by our corrupt system that we’ve built to serve us. I mean, it’s our fault, but it’s not our fault, dig? We’re PEOPLE. People have lust, pride, and avarice. They’re part of our basic, basest makeup. We can’t fight them, so we have to deal with them, or at least find a path that gets us past them. If we want to start hopping around on planets in Paradise, the only way is by going through the lowest pits of Hell first. You’ll go there, whichever path you choose, but you can do it the easy way, with Virgil as your guide, in partnership with your best parts, or you can let the beasts drag you there and maybe never find the way out.
Virgil, as Dante’s guide, is a true superego in that he gives voice to the societal rules of Dante’s time, explaining, for example, why it’s appropriate that all the people who got to Hell by committing suicide have to spend eternity as twisted dry shrubs forever gnawed on by Harpies (Canto XIII), or that those whose crime on earth was sullenness must spend their time immersed in boiling mud (Canto VII). The suicides, see, abhorred their own flesh, so in death they get a cruel, ugly, dry replacement for it, that’s brittle and bleeds black blood. The sullen? They besmirched the beauty of creation with their hating ways and now they’re trapped in the foul mud of their own discontent. The punishment always fits the crime. You always get what you deserve.
The problem we face is that, in the 21st-Century version, the guide is insane. Instead of leading us through the wilderness, and pointing out the perils to avoid and why, say, theft is wrong, the guide eggs us on to our worst instincts every day in a hundred ways. We’re constantly encouraged to be lazy, hateful, ignorant, lustful, disrespectful, deceitful, selfish, and greedy. “Where are all the stupid people from, and how’d they get to be so dumb? Bred on purple mountain range, fed amber waves of grains … Blame it on human nature, man’s destiny, blame it on the greediocracy, the fear of God, the fear of change, the fear of truth.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s not my fault, man, I was led astray.
So wait, what? It’s my fault AND it’s not my fault? Who am I supposed to blame? So many questions and no answers.
“There’s no answers when the questions aren’t ever asked; is anybody learning from the past?” Right. So there’s this dual nature, see, there’s us and there’s US or rather, the USA, which is part of us, but which has its own identity too. So these wrongs, the murders, the wars, the rapes and all, there’s an individual responsible for each of these, and that’s not me, but the part of me that takes its identity from that oversoul, the American in me, that part shares equally in the culpability with everyone else.
Forget the blame game. You want to save the world? Save yourself. You can’t change your nature, and you can’t make anyone else do the right thing. The only part you can alter is your own body and mind. Change yourself, fight to do what’s right in whatever way you can, and you’ve done all you can.
Do it without a guide. The guide has gone insane. There’s no instruction manual.
I think what makes me cry, listening to “The Decline”, is its perfection in pointing the way to salvation. Perhaps unintentionally: I’m not convinced that Fat Mike and his band-mates had such lofty goals in mind when composing the lyrics and the big hooky poptunes that drive the words into my head; but regardless of intent, this record changed my life. Coming into my life when it did, unassumingly, spreading its message of hopelessness and apocalypse, combined with tidally overwhelming arena-rock and a bull-elephant sonic power rendered through modern recording equipment and techniques, it delivered me from the hell I was experiencing and showed me that it was even possible to fight the fight I needed to fight by giving in. Giving in doesn’t have to be giving up.
“The going gets tough, the tough get debt…
“Don’t pay attention, pay the rent.” The only path left open is the one that leads straight into the pit, so process of elimination will lead you there. But now you’re charged with a nobler task. Instead of saving yourself, it’s up to you to save everyone else, too. Stay away from that lynx-like hybrid – it’s empty lust, like ice cream, a moment on the lips, an eternity on the hips. The beasts that want to tear you apart get stronger when they find out you’re doing it for you and not for everyone else. You have to give back. Everything you get must be returned, and only in this way can your debt be paid.
This is a value. It’s called citizenship, and it’s lost, fundamental, and no longer encouraged by those in power or by anyone really. Leaders pay lip service to it, but we don’t understand it or care about it. It means, if you see a storm drain in the street clogged with leaves, and a huge puddle around it turning into a flood, you take a couple minutes and pick up the leaves. You care.
Citizenship doesn’t have borders. This kind of behavior isn’t tied to a flag. If you’re indifferent, you’re denying your responsibility as a human being.
And there’s more. You’ve got a gift, and it’s an insult to all people everywhere if you don’t fight to use that gift. Doesn’t matter how stupid it seems, not doing it will send you to hell faster than anything else. It’ll be your own hell, and no one will be able to visit you there, and you’ll live out your days meaninglessly, and you’ll spread your selfish disease to others near you, and pretty soon we’ll come to where we are – every man for himself.
You’ll never have enough money or sex or power for eternal happiness. You can never have peace if you give in. Swim with the current if you must, but don’t drift; believe what’s driving you. Look inside for your guidance, or know true guidance when you encounter it, and give what you can. It’s your only chance.