Punk rock is not aging very well. For example, The Sex Pistols, the band that once declared there is “No Future,” have now, 30 years later, rerecorded the song “Anarchy in the U.K.” to be featured on the soundtrack to the mainstream video game Guitar Hero III—not exactly a nihilistic or anti-establishment statement.
But, perhaps a more distressing example of punk’s somewhat anticlimactic fate could be horror-punk group The Misfits, who are currently on the road with their “30th AnniverSCARY Tour.”
But Jerry Only seems to shrug off this criticism with the characteristic optimism he shows when it comes to all things Misfits. As the man who has kept the band going since the departure of founding vocalist Glenn Danzig in the early 1980s, Only deflects any implication that the once unflinching, anti-authoritarian vanguard of punk is getting a bit, well, wish-washy.
“I think punk has grown,” explains Only via e-mail with Xpress. “And sometimes growth doesn’t sit well with everyone.”
Before this growth, back in their humble beginning, the New Jersey-born Misfits were part of a sort of second wave of American punk that took place after the musical movement broke big in England. Formed in 1977, the band made a name for itself with campy lyrics about horror movies, skull-face paint and Danzig’s unique doo-wop-and-rockabilly-inflected vocals.
For the next five years, the group would be at the forefront of the American punk movement, noted as much for their violent behavior as their music. Yet, even the band’s critics generally concede that albums like Walk Among Us, Earth A.D. and the collection Legacy of Brutality are among the undeniable classics of the punk era.
When Danzig split from the Misfits, though, he and bassist Only spent years hashing out the details of a bitter (not to mention intrinsically un-punk) merchandising disagreement. Eventually a deal was reached (Only could keep touring and recording under the Misfits name, but he and Danzig would split all merchandise royalties).
Only re-formed the band in 1996 with ex-Misfits guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein (Only’s brother), drummer Dr. Chud and new vocalist Michale Graves. Graves, an outspoken Republican who had never actually heard the Misfits before auditioning, was a mere 19 years old.
This lineup released an album, American Psycho, which, despite mixed reviews, reintroduced the band to both die-hard older audiences and new, younger ones, drawing worldwide attention to the band once again.
Graves and Dr. Chud left the band in 2000, and there have been a dizzying number of lineup changes in recent years. As of this writing, the current lineup features Only on bass and vocals, Dez Cadena (formerly of Black Flag) on guitar and ROBO (of both Black Flag and Danzig-era Misfits) on drums.
After all of this intra-band volatility, one might expect Only to consider just throwing in the (makeup-smeared) towel. But, when asked if he expects this current lineup to last, out comes that optimism again.
“Most definitely,” he says. “I think the biggest attribute of this lineup is that we’re still hungry to reach our full potential as a band. We try to go out there for an hour and a half and hit it harder than anyone else. I think anyone who’s been there can tell you that.”
And though Only’s comments on his band do feel a bit like he’s trying to sell you a used car, it’s not like he’s misrepresenting the band’s ideals. Although they’ve long been linked to the anti-establishment punk movement, the zombies-and-entrails lyrics of songs like “Skulls” and “Spinal Remains” never carried the revolutionary, anti-authoritarian promise of the Sex Pistols or The Clash. And the Misfits never claimed otherwise.
Only openly admits this on his Web site, saying, “People who buy our records and come to see us perform — from the guy all the way back in the balcony, to the guy getting his head banged around in the front — they come to have a good time. And we make sure they do. You can hear about social and political issues somewhere else.”
While the Misfits have never aimed to express a particular ideology, they’ve always targeted their music to a particular kind of listener. Misfits fans have a reputation for loyalty that borders on obsession, going beyond the standard badges of stenciled jackets and patches bearing the band’s iconic skull logo, and entering into the realm of the permanent.
“This kid had his entire face done,” recalls Only when asked about the most extreme Misfits tattoo he’s seen. “His whole face, with our skull logo.”
That kid must know something, right?
Perhaps, but if you’re expecting an all-their-glory reunion show, forget about it: There’s no Danzig—or for that matter, Graves—in sight. But, if you’re looking to hear classic Misfits songs belted out by dudes in makeup giving it their all, and get knocked around in the pit while you’re at it, you’re in luck. And for many Misfits fans, that’s as much as they could ever hope for.
[Ethan Clark is a freelance writer, ‘zinester and cartoonist based in New Orleans. His punk-lifestyle memoir Leaning With Intent to Fall will be published in November by Garrett County Press.]
who: The Misfits
what: Horror-punk legends
where: Orange Peel
when: Monday, Oct. 15 (9 p.m. $20. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)