Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Circle Jerks versus SNFU

Photo of Mr. Chi Pig and SNFU at the Cobalt, taken in October by Femke van Delft


Keith Morris’ lyrics have almost always been more overtly political than Mr. Chi Pig’s (tho’ not as articulate or charmingly smarmy as Jello’s); his best songs, while cleverly phrased and funny, tend to revolve around punk politics, either directly assaulting the status quo with threats of class-rage-spawned violence (“I Wanna Destroy You,” “Letter Bomb”) or deferring things one safe step into fantasy (“Wild in the Streets”) or geographically removed locales like that of “Coup D’Etat” (which Keith took pains to explain was a song about a Latin American condition, giving me time as he introduced it to make my sole venture into the mosh pit). Fitting, then, that between songs, Keith gave little quasi-political rants, even offering an ironic chorus of “Oh Canada” and a reference to the maple leaf after “Stars and Stripes.” It was the only thing about Canada that he really appeared to know (unlike Jello, who, between songs, will tell you things about Canadian politics that YOU haven’t heard about yet); but still, it’s nice that he did a little bit of homework, didn’t just take us for Americans by another name – kinda like musicians who learn how to say “arigatoo,” and nothing more, when touring through Japan.

In terms of lyrics, SNFU’s Mr. Chi Pig, rather than speechifying about corruption at the top, tends to write more on the level of the “politics of experience,” looking at what’s absurd and disturbed in suburban/urban life from a ground-view perspective, sketching little vignettes of outsiders trying to cope in a society not made for them. Chi’s quasi-narratives, fictional or not, invite us to join him and varied downtrodden sorts in a welfare line (“One Legged Bridge Jumper Breaks Good Leg in Plunge”); to meet his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease (“I Forget,” with which his current version of SNFU opened the Red Room show last night); or, more frivolously, to contemplate a restaurant that serves human body parts (“Cannibal CafĂ©”), or the plight of a dismembered zombie who just wants to be buried in one piece (“Where’s My Legs?”). They’re generally anti-authoritarian and alienated, but on the level of someone for whom alienation is a personal matter, not just something to bitch about. (I wonder if Chi’s lyrics get praised for their intelligence and craft as much as they should? He’s actually one of punk’s better storytellers).

So what does Chi do for stage patter? Mostly he jousts with his audience. He gives them the finger, mimes fellatio and rimjobs, or holds up a loose screw he found onstage and asks them, “Wanna screw?” His audience clearly loves him, and he clearly loves what he’s doing, but there’s some sorta faux-homophobic male bonding thing that dominates between him and the guys in the front row. For example, he often holds the mike out for people to sing along on the choruses, but will, at times, hold it between his legs like it’s his cock, so the guy singing along looks like he’s blowing him; or, even better, spinning around, bending over, and sticking the mike out from between his ass cheeks, again to be sung into. This jousting, mocking, teasing relationship appears to go both ways, too, if Chi’s requests not to be punched in the balls anymore are to be taken at face value. The closest he came to overt political commentary was cracking a couple of bad jokes before “Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump,” a song set at an Alberta landmark of import to First Nations people. For instance: Q: “Why did the Indians get their land back?” A: “They had reservations.”

Hnyuk hnyuk hnyuk.

All of that, actually, was very fun to watch. If I hadn’t actually been there, based on a written description, I think I’d assume I would be more interested in a concert with li’l political speeches between songs over one where the singer makes an asshole with his fingers and then waggles his tongue at the audience through the hole, but I guess I’m getting younger, because in fact, I didn’t really give a damn about anything Keith said between songs the other night. In fact, I couldn’t hear what he was talking about so well, which was part of the problem, but his manner suggested someone who really was just a little bit bored with the whole transaction, who knows that there are much, much more important things to do than be in a punk band, even if it pays the bills. His voice is still great – there were some amazing growls and roars - and he didn’t give a bad performance; I was particularly pleased that he namechecked a bunch of other great west coast bands -- saying hi's to Zippy Pinhead and Randy Rampage, both at the show -- before doing his version of "I and I" by Chris D. of the Flesheaters and Tito of the Plugz. It just didn’t necessarily seem like singing punk songs to a bunch of kids is his life’s passion these days. At one point, when the band fucked up, he even joked about how it was “just punk rock.” It kind of took me out of the performance, a bit, made me feel like I should be doing something more “mature” with my time, myself: there I was, rapidly nearing my 40’s, watching men in their 40’s (?) make music for teenagers. Kinda embarrassing, wot? He even undercut one of the songs people most wanted to hear; he prefaced the final encore, “Nervous Breakdown,” with an anecdote involving Bob from Thelonious Monster, that led to him quipping something about how he’s going to be singing this song for the rest of his fucking life; and finished the song by offering an alternative to the angsty collapse of which the song speaks – that he could just grow up. He roared “grow up” at the audience rather fiercely, like it was a command.

Yeah, jeez, Keith, you’re right – this is all a bunch of hyperconsumerist bullshit; why the fuck do I come to punk shows anymore at all? It’s a fucking wax museum of old folks trotting out their hits for cash, pretending that they haven't matured in the interim; it's like the Who singing "My Generation" into their 70's -- it's become exactly the lie it sought to replace, as safe and as false a consumable as anything else in rock. I shoulda stayed home.

Those sorts of thoughts were never anywhere near my mind watching SNFU (who did a much, much more cutting cover of “Nervous Breakdown” themselves for their final encore, alongside a version of Britney's - I think - hit "Wild World"). If Chi has something he'd rather be doing with his time than being the lead singer of SNFU, he didn't let on. Passion, playfulness, a genuine love of the music - SNFU had it over the Circle Jerks in a dozen ways, which is kind of ironic, because I should imagine their income is far lower; certainly the crowd was smaller (compare a near-sold-out Commodore to a barely-half-full Red Room). Maybe that actually helps, though? Punk rock really wasn’t meant to be played at venues the size or prestige of the Commodore: it’s an underclass music by definition, best consumed in small dingy pissholes (no offense) like the Cobalt. Even the Red Room is a bit upscale: in-between joking about how everyone had to leave early so the venue could turn into a disco – which spawned a brief riff on “Disco Sucks” – the emaciated, scarecrow-like Chi told the audience, “This is an unusual place for us to play – people usually don’t bring dates to our shows. And I bet every one of you here took a bath in the last day or so.”
I bet, so did the Circle Jerks.
Post-script

Did some weird reading on cartoonist Shawn Kerri, who designed the Circle Jerks’ “Skank Man” icon. Can’t vouch for the accuracy of any of what follows, but there’s an Amazon review -- that of Christopher Grayson -- with a disturbing story about how the Circle Jerks came to own that image; and two conflicting reports about the fate of Kerri, one saying she’s dead and the other that she’s a brain-damaged alcoholic. If anyone knows the real deal, do post.

4 comments:

Chris W said...

Actually, Cat Stevens wrote 'Wild World.'

ammacinn said...

Aha! Yes, right, that makes sense.

I stand corrected...

A.

anarchore said...

Thanks for this article... Mr Chi Pig has restored my faith in punk rock... been gone so long much too long...

Check my Youtube channel for their June 27 show in Fernie.

Richard Landry said...

A little late reading your praising of SNFU, but glad I stumbled here. It was well written, insightful, and still entirely accurate and relevant. I bumped into Chi on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton this weekend and he emanated good will and astute awareness. I am in my mid 40s and grew up with some guys who loved punk-rock and a few who indeed lived on that hard punk fringe you describe so well... I recognized him and shared those previous details (with the admission that I had never seen him perform but had heard a few records in the nineties)he insisted i hauil my ass out away from the wife and kids to see his show... and I felt compelled to do so. I walked to his show at the Starlite Room and bumped into him and a few of his tribe outside the venue only to find out the show was sold out. He instantly remembered me from his walk on Whyte avenue and provided me with entrance to the show. Nothing but good vibes- the man was for real and I was happy to come home with a bunch of merch I bought for my wife and kids who can appreciate passion, kindness, and good stories (even if they are averse to loud noise,and bad BO. :)