BETWEEN KABUL AND ISTANBUL – I had finished my shower at Zormat and was toweling off when I heard a voice call me to attention. "Is that a Refused tattoo on your back?" It was Staff Sgt. Rannalt Bahr, delivering what functions as a secret password. On his arm, in jagged black lettering, was another: it read, simply, REFUSED.
No one who has seen that tattoo — it’s on the logo of this blog, skillfully superimposed onto my arm in a bit of Photoshop trickery — has figured out that context without explanation. (There’s another explanation that I’m not going to get into.) It seemed like a signal to detail what happened ten years ago when Refused issued its final statement, an album called The Shape Of Punk To Come that changed my life.
Refused spent the first six or so years of its existence as a much-better-than-average Swedish hardcore band. Its record Songs To Fan The Flames Of Discontent was well executed but predictable material, with one very important exception: its opener, "Rather Be Dead." The song builds in intensity, with Dennis, the singer, listing all the disgusting aspects of life that lead him to hand in his resignation letter — "rather be dead than be a part of your traditions," etc. — and then it takes a strange and tender and thrilling turn: he swipes the resignation letter back. "But," he says, "I’d rather be alive." And that’s it, no turning back — you can, in fact, live your life on your own terms, and once you know that, you should. And yet the remainder of Songs To Fan doesn’t quite absorb the lesson, preferring the predictable course of hardcore.
By the spring of 1998, that course had basically run out for me. I was about to leave high school and felt unmoored. For years, I had thrown myself into punk and hardcore with a certain monomania, and for it not to motivate me anymore was awful and frightening and vulnerable. Two friends and I spent the first half of the year planning a two-day, 30-band benefit show held in New Jersey that struck me as my last gasp with the hardcore scene. We pulled it off — not as easy as it sounds, given that two of us were 17 and the third was 20 — with some problems (a thugcore-vs.-crusty near-riot; a stagediver giving Erica Waldorf a concussion; my dear departed friend Matty smashing a florescent light bulb over poor soundman Jon Hiltz’s head) and I didn’t know what to do next with my life.
The two friends and I had three other friends and we all decided to form a band. We had no real idea why. In the circles we traveled in, that was just sort of what you did with your time. Jesse, one of the band’s more forceful and charismatic personalities — his presence verges on legendary — had heard about this new Refused record that could only be purchased as an import. The six of us drove to Curmudgeon Records in Edison, New Jersey, and bought it. By the time I finished hearing The Shape Of Punk To Come — either in Jesse’s van or at Sam’s parents’ house, I can’t remember — really nothing else would do. Refused had fulfilled the promise of "Rather Be Dead" and created the next evolutionary step, just as the album title advertised.
Any description of the music I’d write would be an injustice. If you’ve never heard the record, take this opportunity. The band I formed with my friends became something of a gang — we would turn on each other soon enough — and The Shape Of Punk To Come was our founding text. Each of us, in our own way, was already insufferable (except for guitarist Ben, who is the salt of the earth and tolerated the rest of us for reasons known only to him). The attitude of The Shape Of Punk To Come — contemptful of any compromise; deadly earnest one moment and blackly humorous the next; unapologetically self-important — gave us license to become exponentially more so. Someone actually seig-heiled us during our first performance.
In September, we learned that Refused was coming to the U.S. to support The Shape Of Punk To Come. Sam and myself got into a car with Eric Boehme and Derek Moore and drove eleven hours to Carrboro, North Carolina, where we stayed with our friends in the band Catharsis, who were also putting up Refused. The band would play in a venue at once absurd and appropriate: the basement of the student center of UNC-Greensboro. This was a band that sold out huge venues in Sweden. But there they were, looking like fashion plates — tight black denim and twill, thin sweaters over checkered shirts, hair a tousled, angular mess — before they marched into the basement for a crowd of maybe 40 people. Their performance remains the greatest I have ever seen: Dennis dropping to the floor in full James-Brown splits, the execution of the songs as clean and precise as on an extremely well-produced record. I remember looking at Sam and thinking: we’re on to something with this, after all.
That evening we went back to the house that Matt and Ernie from Catharsis shared and had something of a late-night bull session on politics with Refused. It was kind of tiresome and melodramatic. The band was exhausted and seemed to feel as if it was giving an interview. I didn’t yet know that Refused had already decided to break up. Luckily, I got to see them one more time on the tour, in Philadelphia at the long-shuttered Stalag 13. My most vivid memory of that show came beforehand, when, on stage, David walked behind his drumset and changed into his performance pants, unconcerned with being naked from the waist down in a room full of people. Standing next to me and chatting up a girl was the bassist from Boy Sets Fire (Damon? Darren? Darryl?), who was left speechless at the unexpected sight of David’s dong.
A year later I felt the same restlessness. I wanted to quit my band — I didn’t want to be a musician, I wanted to be a journalist, and the band was getting in my way. But getting out of the band meant straining some of my most important friendships at the time — as I say, it was something of a gang. Sam felt the same way. We talked all night about it in the kitchen of the run-down apartment we shared — our basement was also our practice space — and chose to shut the band down. I didn’t mention it at the time, but the spirit of The Shape Of Punk To Come drove that decision: "So where do we go from here?/ Just about anywhere" and so forth. It’s not strictly accurate to say the rest of my life emerged from that decision, but it’s not inaccurate, either.
Kids are stupid. We invest meaning in frivolous things like records and bands, and we snare ourselves in all manner of intellectual traps while doing so. But the alternative, it should be clear, is worse: a life without passion, without direction, without purpose, without significance. See what I did there? I posited a false choice. Idol worship doesn’t validate the choices you make. But sometimes you can get out of these traps, throwing your leg over the top of the schoolyard fence, through rigor, dedication, courage and the wisdom of your new Party Programme.