by Preston Jones
The Punk Rocker with a Ph.D.
By the early 1980s, Southern California was well on its way to becoming the asphalted calamity it now is, and I remember talking with friends about the disappearing fields and orange groves as we hiked foothill trails late at night, with Rush or Led Zeppelin or Peter Gabriel (or Devo, U2, or the Christian "new wave" band Undercover) blasting from a portable cassette player.
Our valley, the San Bernardino one, had never been counted among So Cal's hip sections. The valley of the "Valley Girl" craze (c. 1982)—which, like, permanently altered casual American speech—sprouted in the distant ravines of San Fernando. And while San Bernardino was too much of a backwater for us to be up on the lesser known fashions afoot nearer to L.A.—and especially in The Valley—we heard from to time about the emerging punk rock "scene."
As one would expect, most of the bands that fed that scene came and went—where, if anywhere, are Jody Foster's Army, the Dead Kennedys, Agent Orange, the Minutemen, and China White? But one of those bands, Bad Religion, lives still. As I write this, its frontman, Greg Graffin, is sick at home with pneumonia. He tells me that this is the price he's paying for doing seven west coast concerts without a day's rest. Even atheists, it turns out, need a Sabbath.
Graffin, now in his late thirties, is working on BR's next record, (due in the summer), and he sports a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology acquired last August at Cornell.
It was in the Carter era that Graffin migrated to The Valley from Wisconsin with his mother. According to lore, he started Bad Religion at the age of 15 in response to the mediocrity and brainlessness of late-Cold War suburbia. And as BR became one of the best known (and certainly the most enduring) of the Southland's punk bands, Graffin helped to create a distinct subculture centered on mini-music festivals, angst-ridden song lyrics, skateboarding, complaining, bucking authority, and enjoyment of free speech and capitalist-created wealth.
In the relevant literature (such as it is), BR's music is invariably called "catchy," "hook-filled," and "melody-driven." The band's relentless, hard-edged pace evokes the adjectives "sizzling," "hurtling," "blasting," "rapid-fire," and "breathless." Stranger than Fiction, the only BR record since 1990 to which the steadfastly obtuse Rolling Stone gave more than three stars on a five-star scale (it got 3.5), rips through 15 songs in 39 minutes. Graffin and company are known for plowing through 30 tunes in 75-minute sets. And in the clichéd language of pop-culture journalism, Graffin's message is called "socially conscious"—whatever that means.
But it's obvious that Graffin's lyrics are brighter than the pop music norm—which, on first glance, isn't saying much. And while his observations are sometimes banal ("What the world needs now is some answers to our problems"), sometimes abstruse ("The billions of tiny pinhole embers fade into a morning sky filled with poignant morose wonder"), they often impress with their restless, probing intelligence.
Graffin's 1994 songs, "Television" and "21st Century Digital Boy," along with "I Love My Computer" (2000), do a good job of describing—and mocking—the electronic stupefaction that pervades American life. "Supersonic" (2002) comments on the frenetic pace of American modernity. "American Jesus" (1993) takes a helpful shot at civil religion. "Mediocre Minds" (1998) is the theme song in my honors Western Civ class. And insofar as promoting skepticism toward what someone has called the "government-media complex" is concerned, Graffin's "State of the End of the Millennium Address" (also 1998) gets more done in 2.5 minutes than the editorial pages of The Nation manage to accomplish in years. "Neighbors," he begins, posing as a government humanoid, "nobody loves you like we do."
Graffin's "Punk Manifesto"—his effort to define a movement that most of us associate with slam dancing and nose rings—is easily found on the Internet. It's also difficult to follow, perhaps because it's brilliant, perhaps because it's full of circular thinking and non sequiturs. Schoolboy skeptics and community college geniuses would probably opt for the former theory; I opt for the latter and offer this sentence as proof: "PUNK IS: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions." Huh?
Still, it's refreshing when a punk singer does something other than curse his parents, dote on reproductive organs and beer, and scream the "f" word into microphones (though, admittedly, Graffin doesn't fear expletives.)
All of this is to say that Graffin has a brain. In his doctoral dissertation, "Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist World-View: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology," he concludes that there's "no conflict between evolutionary theory and religion on the one important condition that religion is essentially atheistic." One of his beliefs (and he is a man of deep faith), which must have helped him to arrive at his findings, is that naturalism is set to become a new and influential religion. Naturalism "is satisfying," Graffin told me, "because it is a teacher. Naturalism teaches one of the most important things in the world: there is only this life—so live wonderfully and meaningfully." And one of the keys to a wonderful and meaningful existence is living free of delusions, which all "bad religions"—traditional churches, political dogmas, conformist social codes—trade in.
Perhaps paradoxically, Graffin denies the existence of free will, though he acknowledges, citing Richard Dawkins, that the delusion of free will is so pervasive one might as well live with it. Or, as E. O. Wilson, whom Graffin recommended I read, puts it in Consilience (1998): "Because the individual mind cannot be fully known and predicted, the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will." (Graffin also suggested I read Julian Huxley. In turn, I recommended that he read Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, or see the BBC production of it, which is the closest thing to cinematic literature I know of. I also suggested the four Gospels, since, at the least, a rudimentary biblical literacy is—or should be—basic to education in a civilization shaped so considerably by the Christian and Jewish scriptures. Graffin agreed that this was a worthwhile point.)
So Graffin himself may not really be a moral free agent, but he nevertheless appears to be his own man. It's refreshing that he writes and records the kind of music he likes, regardless of fashion. He acknowledges that BR has a certain "sound" that fans expect to hear (while not yet out of his teens, he learned that wild experimentation can be treacherous); but he doesn't play to the hit charts and he doesn't want to be a "celebrity."
Graffin the semi-well known musician played all the instruments on his super-mellow solo album, American Lesion. Graffin the regular guy takes out his aggression in the hockey rink ("I sometimes get in fights during the game, but off the ice it's back to normal"). He has two kids. He now lives in upstate New York. So far as I can tell from personal experience, he's a pretty cool guy—partly ferocious, partly genteel in the manner of a thoughtful person committed to ideas. He and I agree that serious disagreement over serious matters is preferable to a politically correct blandness.
And Graffin is now called a "founding father" of American punk rock. As a matter of course, his and the other band members' advanced years draw media attention. Graffin's "humor was light as he joked about not yet having to wear adult diapers onstage," writes Michael Coyle in the Orange County Register.
But Graffin isn't yet in danger of joining the ranks of Mick Jagger, Aerosmith, and the rest of the grim and wrinkled warriors who won't stand down—a few more records, a few more tours, and that, I suspect, will be enough—nor does he appear to be going the way of Sid Vicious. Perhaps in time he'll prove that even punk rockers can retire.
Preston Jones, a contributing editor to Books & Culture, teaches at John Brown University.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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