Singer Jim Lindberg's return to Pennywise for its 25th anniversary… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
Here’s a sign that a punk band is out of touch: When its fortysomething guitarist stands before a sold-out crowd of four thousand mostly white, beefy dudes, and rails against the one thing he hates the most — using a violent homophobic slur to do so.
Granted, Pennywise’s Fletcher Dragge was trying to rip on his heavy metal-listening high school nemeses, and the rest of the band cringed and mumbled “Not cool” while Dragge tried to walk it back. “I didn’t mean [that slur] in a homosexual way,” he stammered. "Some of my best friends are homosexuals." Naturally.
The band’s sold-out Palladium set Friday night should have been a triumphant 25th anniversary show for the stalwart Hermosa Beach hard-core quartet, especially as it heralded the return of its longtime lead singer Jim Lindberg. But Dragge’s ugly slip revealed something long-festering in SoCal punk, and in Pennywise’s anthems to brawny individualism in particular. It’s that one bro’s mantra of “I got my way of life, and I won't back down or apologize” (as one Pennywise lyric goes) is another bro’s signal to beat the crap out of people who are different from them.
Pennywise formed in 1988, after a regional split occurred in punk. In New York and England, bands discovered disco and art theory, yielding a rich “post-punk” scene. D.C.’s hard-core acts were infused with the city’s black “Go-Go” music and were often politically and ethically radical.
Maybe it was the surf and skate culture or all the oppressive sunlight, but SoCal hard-core turned to uncut male aggression. This made for some riveting music, like Black Flag’s vein-popping nihilism and Circle Jerks’ bawdy ferocity. But watch Penelope Spheeris’ punk documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization” and you’ll see an L.A. scene upended by suburban male punk bands lashing out at Hollywood’s fashion-conscious, female-friendly acts like X and The Bags.
Pennywise is the endpoint of that evolutionary strain. For 25 years, their sound has barely deviated — galloping double-time drums, meticulously thrashy minor-key guitar riffs, and Lindberg’s rousing calls for doing what you want, whenever you want. Three generations of teenage boys have understandably responded to that message, and the band remains meat-and-potatoes fare on KROQ with sinewy singles like “Alien” and “F- Authority”
But Pennywise can be sensitive. Lindberg wrote a heartfelt book about punk rock and fatherhood, and the band’s perennial closer “Bro Hymn” is a genuine ode to their late bassist Jason Matthew Thirsk. But any onetime-adolescent fan who forgot about Pennywise for a few years might have left their career-spanning Palladium show wondering: Were Pennywise always such crypto-libertarian thugs?
The band played well on Friday. Early singles like “Unknown Road” and a cover of Circle Jerks’ “I Don’t Care” rewarded the punk rock lifers with kids in tow, and Dragge’s guitar prowess hasn’t lost a step in decades (ironically, his chugging leads owe a lot to early Metallica). Lindberg’s return after a 2010 departure made the Palladium show feel like a staple L.A. hard-core band reasserting its influence on decades of Warped Tour regulars.
But perhaps Dragge’s slur highlighted a violent self-regard that’s been with Pennywise all along. This is a guy, after all, who once got so drunk as a guest on “Loveline” that he chased host Dr. Drew around the studio trying to throw up on him, and on another appearance barricaded the exits and claimed he had a hand grenade.
When the band projected a tacky (and, given recent events, wholly inappropriate) image of a giant assault rifle with the slogan “The government should be afraid of the people” during the single “My Own Country,” Ted Nugent could have walked onstage and felt entirely at home singing Sovereign Citizen slogans like “Unending quest for power, taxes that make us slaves …. I am my own country, United States Confederate of Me.”
People say dumb stuff onstage all the time, but Dragge’s crack might have lifted the curtain on a talented band that nonetheless embodies many of the worst impulses in L.A. punk. If Pennywise still feels “Abused, confused … afraid, deranged” like they do in their song “Alien,” it must mean those people on the receiving end of Dragge's slurs are winning.