Who’s Punk?! What’s the score?! Song #1/25: Boxcar by Jawbreaker.

NOTE: This post marks the start of a brand new series that is dedicated to one of my favourite genres of music….Punk Rock! There is just something about the energy, intimacy, idealism and simplicity of Punk music that does it for me. In each of the twenty-five posts in this series, it is my hope to profile one of Punk’s most influential, successful and/or notorious bands and, in doing so, hopefully provide you all with a greater understanding of the depth and breadth of this musical form. Now having said all of that, I am fully aware that Punk music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If that is true for you, then by all means, feel free to read these posts if you like. Perhaps you will end up broadening your musical perspectives. If not, then you can move on to the other genres I cover in the Classical, Canadian, Soundtrack/Show Tune or Reader’s Choice categories. I like lots of music. There is something for everyone. Today, that something revolves around one of Punk Rock’s most influential bands, Jawbreaker. So, welcome aboard to those of you who have decided to stay. I am happy that you are here. Let’s go!!!!!!

The title for this series, Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?! is taken from a line in the song “Boxcar” by Jawbreaker. The song itself, and this line, in particular, serve as an appropriate place to begin this series because they deal with the fundamental question of what exactly constitutes a Punk band in the first place. So let’s start with that. There are several traits that are demonstrated consistently by most singers/bands that are regarded as being Punk. First of all, the music is loud. Secondly, it is often played at breakneck speed. Thirdly, the music often has a political element to it. Punk bands tend to play in smaller, more intimate settings and interact with their fans more easily than standard arena rock bands tend to do. Finally, the lyrical structures and musical arrangements are usually simplistic and repetitive. Quick, loud, fast, forceful and sweaty are good attributes to define Punk music. However, there are also some misconceptions about Punk that people have. For example, the image that often comes to mind for people who have not spent a lot of time experiencing the Punk music genre is of bands like The Sex Pistols out of the UK. They were a band who ushered in the look of Punk music, with the torn clothing, the piercings, the spiked hair and so on. Well, that look was certainly part of the Punk Rock world for a time, but it was not how Punk bands originally looked, nor is it how bands look today, as Punk has evolved over the years. The other great misconception about Punk is that all Punk bands are Sex Pistols clones. That is not the case at all. Like many other musical genres, Punk Rock tends to be an umbrella term, under which reside several sub-genres of that style of music. So, as we move through this twenty-five post series, you will be introduced to many bands who came from the various evolutionary eras of this genre. Some will look like the Sex Pistols did but many will not. One of those bands that looks and sounds different is the focus of today’s post: Jawbreaker. Their story is an important one because it helps bring the question of who the real punk bands actually are out into the open. Here is their story. Welcome to the series everyone.

Jawbreaker became popular in the Punk music scene in the early 1990s. If you know your musical history then you will know that the early 1990s was when the big Grunge scene erupted, led by a band out of Seattle called Nirvana. And, if you know anything at all about Nirvana, then you will be aware that all throughout his life, lead singer Kurt Cobain wrestled with his involvement in the business side of the music industry. Ultimately, the pressure of trying to stay true to his musical vision and to who he was as a person while having to deal with money managers and promoters who cared mainly about money was a major factor in his decision to end his life via suicide. When Nirvana was first formed, they embodied a Punk Rock mentality. Their first album, Bleach, is heralded by Punk purists as being their best album. Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough album, Nevermind, was deemed by those same purists as being the beginning of the band becoming a corporate sellout. While Nirvana were the poster boys for bands who were caught in that endless tug of war between commercialism and idealism, there were many other local bands who were experiencing the very same thing.

Jawbreaker found themselves living and performing in and around San Francisco as Grunge exploded to the north. Like many smaller local bands, Jawbreaker began by playing at parties in basements and backyards, before moving on to play in Battle-of-the-Bands events in parks, and then to small pubs and community halls when they became old enough to be allowed inside. Jawbreaker was a trio that consisted of lead singer Blake Schwarzenbach, guitarist Chris Bauermeister and drummer Adam Pfahler. In time, Jawbreaker began to garner some word-of-mouth local buzz and ended up being invited to play at a Punk Rock hall known as Gilman’s. As it turned out, Gilman’s was more than just a physical space for bands to perform in. In a way, the space itself and those who ran it, became church-like in their influence. Part of how this came to be is that there was a rigid set of rules for those who attended Gilman concerts as well as those for bands who played there. For audiences, there were rules such as no violence being permitted. That may seem like an obvious expectation, but it was actually a very important means of separating themselves from the more rightwing, hardcore Punk acts who promoted violence as a means of enacting social change. At Gilman’s, safety was priority #1. Dancing and having fun in a safe, inclusive, alcohol and drug-free environment was strictly enforced. Consequently, Gilman’s developed a reputation in the Punk community as a safe place to be, which was especially important since many of the audience members were still in their teens. For the bands, there was one main rule and that was that no band who sought to play at Gilman’s could be signed to a major record label. The owners of Gilman’s and the kids who flocked there believed in the purity of Punk music. In their minds, even the mere hint that a band might be considering signing a contract with a record label tainted that band and would cause them to be banned from the premises permanently. The first band of note to feel the wrath of the Gilman world was Green Day. Green Day cut their musical teeth at Gilman’s only to find themselves permanently banned when they signed with a major label and released their major label debut album, Dookie, which launched them into superstardom.

So there sat the boys in Jawbreaker. Nirvana and Grunge had taken off. Local bands such as Green Day were being scouted by A & R types from major labels all in search of the next big thing. All the while, bands such as Jawbreaker were playing at Gilman’s and trying to live by the code of purity that fans and management insisted upon. For a while, it all worked well. Jawbreaker signed with a local record label and released their debut album, Unfun, locally only. That album, like Nirvana’s Bleach, was met with approval by the Gilman fans. Jawbreaker had managed to channel their frenetic live shows onto vinyl in a way that helped maintain their street cred. Unfortunately, Unfun didn’t sell that well. It wasn’t because the music was subpar or was poorly produced or received. It was simply because their small, local label didn’t have the marketing infrastructure necessary to promote the album beyond their small, devoted fanbase in San Francisco. Thus, the potential market for their music was limited before the album was ever even made. This placed the men from Jawbreaker squarely in the crosshairs of a conundrum.

The band loved making music. They were happy with the songs on Unfun and were proud to sing them anywhere. But, at the end of the day, they had rent to pay and food to buy and studio time didn’t come cheaply, either. The idealism of being a Punk rocker was crashing headlong into the reality of having to exist in a world that runs on commerce. All of this happened at a time when the band was given what appeared on the surface to be a big break. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana had become aware of Unfun and liked it a lot. He thought that Jawbreaker would be a perfect band to open for them as they toured California, so he invited them to open for Nirvana for six shows. When word leaked out that Jawbreaker might open for a band like Nirvana, who were now considered to be corporate sellouts by Punk purists, the stink of that association was enough to taint Jawbreaker as well. Before they knew what had happened, the fanbase that had nurtured them for years turned on them in an instant. The owners of Gilman’s demanded that the band make a public pledge of allegiance to the local punk scene and declare that they were not going to use this opportunity to open for Nirvana as a way to sign with a major record label. At the last Gilman’s show before embarking on the Nirvana tour, Jawbreaker’s lead singer announced that the band would never sell out. The crowd inside Gilman’s gave them a tepid round of applause. But, the truth was that the audience didn’t completely trust Jawbreaker anymore, and the bonds between audience and band were broken. Lead singer Blake Schwarzenbach took the fallout personally. All he and his bandmates ever wanted was to make music on their terms that they could be proud of. That’s all.

But once on tour, as fans had suspected, the siren song of the corporate rock world played for the boys in Jawbreaker. Knowing what would happen if they signed, the band negotiated a deal which allowed for creative control so they could still sing about their values and beliefs as they had always done. But, as soon as rumours began to swirl that discussions on a contract were being held, that was enough for the band to be banned from Gilman’s and for their fanbase to turn their backs for good. The very second that Jawbreaker signed their contract with Nirvana’s corporate label, they were cast out by their once devoted fanbase into the musical wilderness. With the release of their second album (and major label debut) 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, Jawbreaker found themselves a band in search of a new audience. Since they couldn’t return to San Francisco, Jawbreaker became a touring band. They played everywhere in search of new fans. But the fact was, outside of San Francisco, they were an unknown band, so it was hard for them to find themselves having to return to the beginning and invest years again building up word-of-mouth momentum. They couldn’t afford that creatively nor financially. The frustration and sense of betrayal that they all felt at the complete lack of support and encouragement from those folks who were there from the very beginning manifested itself in the lyrics of a song called “Boxcar”.

“Boxcar” is from 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and is a scathing indictment of Punk purists, especially those at Gilman’s. In a furious two and a half minutes, the song talks about how the scene that nurtured the band turned out to be akin to being with an obsessive dating partner who claimed to love you but would never actually let you exist out of their sight. In the video links I will provide below, listen to the lyrics video first. It will tell a far greater story now that you are aware of the context behind the lyrics. The second video is one that the band made at the time that “Boxcar” was attempting to gain some traction on college radio and on Alternative music radio stations across the U.S. The third video is a live recording of Jawbreaker’s two biggest commercial hits: “I Want You” and “Boxcar”. Besides the fact that both songs are rippin’ versions by a band that knows what it is doing, the key thing to note is that this video was recorded in 2019 at…..wait for it….Gilman’s!!! Wait, what? As time went on, Jawbreaker imploded from the financial pressures the band found itself under, The constant touring under those conditions led to conflicts within the band. Like too many other talented bands, Jawbreaker decided to break up. For over a decade, the members of the band did not play together at all. Meanwhile, back at Gilman’s, those who live by the purity sword ended up dying by it, too. Gilman’s fell upon hard financial times and was forced to close. The fall of Gilman’s created a musical vacuum within the San Francisco community. Eventually, diehard Gilman devotees rallied together and found the funding necessary to relaunch the club. However, in doing so, the new owners learned from the mistakes of the previous regime, specifically, that maintaining such rigid expectations of the bands that played there and helped to generate revenue for them was wrong and needed to be changed. Thus, the new owners of Gilman’s reached out to many of the original successful local acts that had received bans because of their attempts to better themselves and reach a wider audience through the help of major record labels and invited them to return to play. Green Day has played there three times now. As for Jawbreaker, the band reunited and remains playing and touring today. In the third video I will link to, you can see how intimate a venue Gilman’s really was, how close the fans were to the band and, most importantly, how great a band Jawbreaker remains today. “I Want You” and “Boxcar” look like lots of fun. I wish I was there. What a hoot that would have been.

So there you go. Post #1 in the new Punk Rock series has reached its conclusion. How was it? Hopefully, you will be able to see that Punk Rock exists in forms that extend beyond the stereotypical Sex Pistols imagery. When you watch Jawbreaker perform, there are no mohawk haircuts, no piercings that I can see and no violent imagery of any sort. All that there is are three guys who have created great music, playing as hard as they can for their fans and basking in the warm glow of their audience’s enthusiasm. To me, that is what music is all about. Please feel free to leave your comments below. I look forward to seeing where this Punk Rock journey takes us in the twenty-four weeks to come. I hope that you will come along for the ride. Until next time, that’s it for Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?! Bye for now.

The link for the lyrics video for the song “Boxcar” by Jawbreaker can be found here.

The link to the official video for the song “Boxcar” by Jawbreaker can be found here.

The link to the video for the live version of the songs “I Want You” and “Boxcar” as performed at Gilman’s in San Francisco can be found here.

The link to the official website for Jawbreaker can be found here.

The link to the official website for Gilman’s can be found here.

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