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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Hard-Core Idealists : Pennywise, a South Bay punk rock band, finds success with a thrashing style and uplifting lyrics.

January 05, 1995|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Punk rock has been on the attack ever since Johnny Rotten started sneering about anarchy, no future, and how the queen ain't no human being.

Born in opposition and suckled on bile, most punk bands come naturally to mockery, ire and scorn. Like good guard dogs, they are inclined by breeding to greet whatever comes their way with a snarl and a show of fangs.

Playing like a tuneful chain-saw, the South Bay beach cities band Pennywise has established solid credentials and impressive sales tallies on the hard-core punk scene, where the body-slamming aficionados like their music fast and frenzied.

But in its message, the band is more like Ben Franklin than Johnny Rotten, dispensing earnest words of advice that are less concerned with tearing down enemies than with inspiring fans to find a positive, self-reliant path through life.

It's hardly a primrose path. The songs on Pennywise's two albums confront the souring of Southern California life ("Homesick"), the hatred and mindlessness unleashed in the 1992 riots ("City Is Burning") and the anguish of seeking, but not finding, the key to a meaningful life ("Nothing").

But at every turn, singer Jim Lindberg, who shares the task of writing lyrics with bassist Jason Thirsk, can be heard urging listeners to stay alert and engaged with life, to think independently, and to avoid despair.

Consider Pennywise's advice to a morose slacker in "Give And Get," from the 1993 album "Unknown Road":

\o7 Get with the program, there are so many fun options

Waiting outside your front door.

Think of what you have, not what you don't

'Cause in the end there's no one who really gives a (expletive) any more.

What you give is what you get

And what you've been giving, you've been getting.\f7

Lindberg, Thirsk, guitarist Fletcher Dragee and drummer Byron McMackin became punk fans in the early '80s after listening to the hard-core rantings of such home-grown South Bay bands as Black Flag and the Circle Jerks.

Speaking in a phone interview from his house in Manhattan Beach, Lindberg, at 29 the oldest member, said he sees the value in punk bands that instinctively tear down targets rather than trumpeting positive ideals.

"I think both approaches have merit and they both have their place," he said. Pennywise's decision to accentuate the positive "relates to the type of people we are. The band was originally called P.M.A., which stands for Positive Mental Attitude," he said.

"To some it can sound pedantic, as if we were preaching to people. Although we're an easy target for cynics, I don't think there are enough bands out there on the positive tip."

The beach cities' surf scene has much to do with the postive energy that flows through the band's music. Lindberg and Dragee are die-hard surfers who grew up riding the waves off Hermosa and Manhattan beaches, and Lindberg believes both members channel their creative energy from surfing into music.

"You're out there in nature and you get amped up for other creative outlets," he said.

Pennywise named itself after the demon dressed as a clown in Stephen King's story "It." But the band members weren't trying to garb themselves in commonplace horror-rock trappings.

"It's more of a metaphor," said Lindberg. "The clown in the book would turn into whatever scared you the most. In order to eventually kill the entity that was Pennywise, they had to confront their fears.

"A lot of the hate in people is based in fear and jealousy. For us, it was a great metaphor for the band: here's a band that's loud and scary and full of what sounds like venom, but it's bringing you a change, something to bring yourself up, instead of something loud and scary, and that's all it is."

Lindberg, who went to Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach with Dragee and Thirsk, joined Pennywise in 1989, about the same time he received his bachelor's degree in English at UCLA. He cites Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as influences on his thinking; Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken"' is credited as the inspiration for the title song on "Unknown Road."

At the same time, Lindberg cites the influence of Bad Religion, the long-running Los Angeles punk band known for its melodic hard-core style and didactic lyrics.

"People say we were heavily influenced by them, and it's true to an extent," Lindberg said. "I'd never heard a punk band with lyrics like that that are kind of heady. You'd have fast, pulsing rhythms with lyrics that are pretty thought-provoking. (Bad Religion's) lyrics opened my eyes as much as any literary hero."

*

It all sounds high-minded, but nothing is clean and simple with such a contradictory and volatile art form as punk rock.

Lindberg says that Pennywise, for all its positive preaching, became a magnet for some of punk's worst demons as it gained popularity after the release of its self-titled 1991 debut album.

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