Last week, as all the March Madness hoo-ha was getting started, I returned once again to the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, to play with my band Loaded.
South by Southwest began in 1987 down in Austin as a sort of meeting place for unsigned bands to gather. The original thought process was that if numerous bands play in the same week, perhaps major record-label representatives would be attracted by the fact that all this would make their job easier (Artist & Repertoire reps from major labels are, after all, supposed to go out and scout new talent).
The Austin-based festival has grown massively in the past 24 years, and now includes film, digital music-industry heads, "what's next" think tanks, music business forums and major bands coming down to play. The Foo Fighters, The Strokes, Queens Of The Stone Age and Duran Duran all headlined different venues this year.
But one gig in any given year always seems to become the talk of SXSW. This year was no different, and the re-formation of the original lineup of D.C. hard-core legends Bad Brains was the gig. The line was so damn long and the venue so small that only a lucky few could attend. (I arrived too late that night. Either way, this is not the type of gig for which you get your management to somehow try to circumnavigate the fray for you. For the Bad Brains and their ethic -- no matter who you are -- you stand in line like the others … at least that is the way I see it.)
The next day, I had lunch with Clown from Slipknot. He had been to the Bad Brains gig the night before, and was still reeling from the power and sheer majesty (as he put it) of that show. I know that some of you reading this right now might have been around back in the early 1980s punk scene. For those of you who missed it, I will try to gig a real quick history lesson -- and "suggested listens" for this era.
Rock and roll music went through a ground-breaking sea change somewhere in the mid- to late-1970s, in a sort of reaction to what seemed to be a general dulling of the edge of new music. Bands and artists such as Supertramp, Kansas, Styx and Kenny Loggins were dominating the airwaves. And while this is not meant to be a negative statement toward those artists -- the youth were not being served aurally. The "youth" went into a revolt musically, and punk music was born.
Luckily for me, I was 13 in 1977 and just beginning to play music myself. Being the last of eight kids, I was more than excited to find something -- anything -- that I could call my own. Being one of eight didn't give a kid much space to differentiate oneself, not in a bad way at all. It was totally awesome to be from a huge family, but a kid at 13 wants a place that is his own. Punk rock was my different "space," and I dove in headfirst.
Of course, the Ramones and Sex Pistols pretty much got everything started, but offshoots of punk in different American cities started to develop, and it seemed that every region had its own sort of slant.
Los Angeles had Black Flag, the Germs and Circle Jerks, to name a few.
Minneapolis had the Replacements and Husker Du.
The Northwest had DOA, the Subhumans and The Lewd.
New York-New Jersey had the Misfits and all of the Johnny Thunders-Richard Hell influence.
Washington, D.C., had Minor Threat and Bad Brains.
The thing about a band like the Bad Brains reuniting -- and what sets this apart in my opinion from, say, Journey getting back together -- is that this is not really in any way a commercial endeavor. No, the Bad Brains will not get rich because "H.R. is back" … or some such thing. This indeed is a thing they have to do because the passion to do so is just there.
Bands such as the Bad Brains are one of those things that just realign a guy. They reinstate passion into an audience's life. They dull all of the outside noise. If you are a father and feel that you aren't as good as you can be, go see a band like the Bad Brains. If your job seems more important than your soul, go see the Bad Brains. If the sports team you follow is sucking and you feel that your life is hollow because of that fact, go see a band like the Bad Brains. They give hope and breadth and scope and grace.
As I sat talking to Clown, we spoke of the tragic loss of Slipknot bass player Paul Gray last year. I sensed that Clown had to see that Bad Brains gig. His healing point with Gray is still very raw and brutal. He spoke of the gig the night before as an experience of purging and release. Perhaps even religious. Yes, rock and roll can still do that. I will see the Bad Brains this June in France … and I am counting the days.
Musician Duff McKagan, who writes for Seattle Weekly, has written for Playboy.com and is finishing his autobiography, writes a weekly sports column for ESPN.com.