“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”– Terry Pratchett
Punk, beyond all other things and despite its thornier nature, is ultimately a hopeful genre. We scream so loud–rail against the woes of the world both personal and public–with the intention of calling attention to these issues and, in our targeted rage, changing them for the better. Punk is quite often, surprisingly enough, the conscience of society. That nagging third-party voice that screams at you not to do what you know you shouldn’t. To do better. To be better. And furthermore that to act otherwise is not only shameful, but unacceptable.
The Distillers, for all their wrath and glory, hooks and screams, and almost instantly legendary stature, were one of the best and brightest examples of this in their heyday. Brody Dalle’s powerful sneer and incisive lyrics, backed by one of the tightest bands intrumentally who managed to cut their crushing heaviness with an unassailable eye for melody and hooks, ascended quite quickly in the pantheon of punk, releasing their best record, Coral Fang, on a major label and to critical acclaim before quickly dissolving.
Well the band reunited last week, playing their first show in nearly 15 years in San Diego before setting their sites on the Observatory. And it was just as I imagined since I was twelve years old and began listening to this band. Dangerous. Powerful. Full of rage and rapture. It was honestly one of the best concert-going experiences of my life and tightest shows I’d ever seen. The songs came screaming back from my youth sounding exactly as I remembered them.
All but one.
Before playing the first song off of their sophomore effort, Sing Sing Death House, Ms. Dalle, not big on talking to begin with at the show, took a moment with the crowd.
“This song is for everyone that feels or has ever felt alone. Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t hurt others. There is help out there. This song is for you.”
For a frontwoman who’s image is so closely tied to exuding this dangerous aura, showing that kind of vulnerability was utterly unexpected. Then they launched into “Sick of It All.”
Or at least…most of them did.
Noticiably reticent and affected was Dalle herself, who had visible difficulty uttering the pwerful (and horrible) lyrics to one of her most empathetic and sadly prescient songs. Punk may be a hopeful genre, but its one that is conversely mired in hopelessness. As if by calling out the nihilistic tendencies in all of us or at root in society it can act as a crucible to forge a deeper strength. “Sick of it All,” sits right up there with some of the most horrible, wrath-filled songs. In it the Distillers call out both society at large for being the great disappointment it is, and the inner turmoil that twists into a outwardly-focused hate on the part of young, disaffected and ostracized teens.
I went to school today with an oozi
There’s this kid he teased me so i shot em in the face
All the worlds light won’t ease my pain
It won’t cease im diseased will you hang me please
I’m a nihilist raised on violence
What do i do im american youth
All my life ive lived in silence
Im gonna snap I’ll get you back
Im a girl
I’m only 13
My body rots
Cause i won’t fucking eat
Im a silent star on a b-roll
Im a mirror fucking image of no control
Give me the award i conquered food again
What else is better in life than to purge my pain
If i cut, i won’t look like that
If i cut if i cut i won’t feel like this shit
When it was written, Columbine was no distant memory, but recent history. Then Dalle and co went away, trusting, as we all do, that the world would move on and improve. Change.
And the band did. Dalle did. Dalle ushered in several lives into this world, as well as a couple critically-acclaimed solo efforts that went largely under-appreciated.
But the world didn’t change.
Parkland was the 208th act of domestic terrorism in the form of a mass shooting since Columbine and nothing worthwhile has been done on the part of our lawmakers.
Dalle is almost 40, a mother, and a gifted and empathetic artist. There is certainly no way she thought when she was almost only a teenager and writing bile-dripping wrathful lyrics that the world would change so little by the time she, herself would usher in lives at risk from the very issues she railed against, that so little would have changed. To see feelings–true, overwhelming feelings, so consume her and move her to the point that she was rendered unable to utter her own lyrics was a powerful, if small and perhaps overlooked, occurrence that made the night all that more cherished and incredible.
The Distillers have been gone a long time, and they have changed, but to have them back feels better and more important than ever.