There is also my occasional flirtation with hardcore music.
I have a friend who is as devoted to hardcore as they come. He's from D.C., has the tattoos to prove it, and he introduced me to legendary bands like Minor Threat, Battery, and Fugazi, as well as to newer acts like Throwdown, Hatebreed, and Poison the Well. Over the years we've attempted multiple times to form our own hardcore band, he because he wants to inspire legions of kids to pump their fists, break their bones, and eat vegan, and me because I think the shit's just fun to play. Thing is, though, we've only managed to get decent material together once, about two years ago, when we were living in Oakland. In our band of five, I played bass, he played guitar, and we both screamed our guts out for three glorious shows before the group got lazy and fell apart.
Alas, those days feel long behind me. I live in the Lower Haight now, and lately I've been back to listening to pillow-soft electronica and clever indie rock, the kind of stuff that would make my D.C. friend want to kick me to the curb. I guess that's why, when I happened upon this new release from Oakland's the Dwarves, I felt a certain tug.
The Dwarves are infamous. Formed in the early '80s, they are ultra-offensive and über-punk, with album titles like Blood, Guts and Pussy and songs that span one or two minutes of thrashing, surprisingly catchy distorto-rock and deal with subjects like fucking, getting fucked, and fucking people up. One of the band's crowning achievements was when it announced that its guitarist, HeWhoCannotBeNamed, was dead and recorded a tribute to him. The whole thing turned out to be a prank, but the Dwarves' label, Sub Pop, which is not exactly squeamish, was so offended that it dropped the act in '93. Since then the Dwarves have soldiered on, bouncing from label to label, touring occasionally, and generally trying to avoid fading into obscurity.
The act's new release, The Dwarves Must Die, may help that effort. Featuring guests like Dexter Holland (the Offspring), Nick Olivieri (Queens of the Stone Age), Nash Kato (Urge Overkill), MC San Quinn, and even the guy who voiced the original Space Ghost, Gary Owens, the album is the Dwarves' most polished, accessible yet. It even features a foray into hip hop that's not as embarrassing as you'd think (though it is kind of embarrassing). Never a band to confuse accessible with inoffensive, though, the Dwarves feature a photo of a crucified dwarf on the cover of their latest, a trio of hot, butt-naked girls surrounding him, looking disturbingly sexy. Granted, the Dwarves are more punk than hardcore, with peppier rhythms and catchier choruses than that chugga-chugga D.C. stuff I mentioned above. But their big-big show last Saturday at the Bottom of the Hill featured two rough-and-tumble groups opening, and it promised some violent fun. I was so there.
The first band to go on was Oakland's Fracas, and it did its best to cause one. With a singer who looked fresh out of Cellblock D -- he sported a black pompadour, ample tattoos, and mutton-chop sideburns that hugged his face like a pair of pit bull paws -- the group played half an hour of songs, each tune sounding like a variation on Motörhead's "Ace of Spades." I can't say Fracas was particularly good, but I won't say the group was horrible either, mainly because I don't want that vocalist to serve me my nuts for afternoon tea ('cause you know the guy takes afternoon tea).
Next up was the Sick, also out of Oakland. The Sick is rad. In order to tell you how rad, let's flash back to earlier in the evening, when I happened to be at a pre-show barbecue with a handful of peeps, the members of the Sick included. The band's singer is a guy named Tony. Tony is a vegan and, like all but one of his bandmates, doesn't drink or use drugs. Tony is also an aspiring Zen master, and he likes to talk about things not in terms of right or wrong, but in terms of skilled or unskilled. According to Tony, being a vegan is more skillful than not. Smoking, which is Tony's only vice, is unskillful. I didn't exactly understand everything that Tony was talking about, but if his approach to living has anything to do with his ability to make music, then he may want to consider writing a book. Zen and the Art of Fucking Shit Up, or something.
Onstage with his shirt off, his body covered in tattoos -- including one that spans the width of his sculpted chest and depicts a muscle-y guy breaking a set of chains -- Tony looked like a kickboxer, like a fighter out of that Van Damme movie Bloodsport. As he kicked and flailed, screeching so loud you thought the sound was going to burst out the top of his head, his band played kamikaze punk, noisy, dive-bombing verses that crashed and burned, exploding into fiery, chugging hardcore. And knowing that behind his stage persona -- behind his jibes at the audience, his encouraging them to "tip your bartender" and "get fucked up" -- Tony is a sober aspiring-monk type made it all the more enjoyable.
By the time the Dwarves entered through the back door of the Bottom of the Hill, the crowd was packed so tight you could barely take a deep breath. When frontman Blag Dahlia and his buddies parted us all like prophets -- or just really tough dudes -- taking the stage to shrieking howls and shouts, I thought we were at a bare-knuckle boxing match. Much to my own personal disappointment, though, neither naked dwarfs nor naked hotties joined the Dwarves that night, but HeWhoCannotBeNamed did his best to make up for it by wearing his signature black thong, Mexican wrestling mask, and nothing else.
The Dwarves opened with "Dominator," a minute-and-two-second blast from Dwarves Must Die, and from then on in they had the crowd in the palm of their hands. "We're the motherfuckin' Dwarves," announced Dahlia. "San Francisco rock legends. Step the fuck back."
You know you're at a good Bottom of the Hill show when the typically stoic staff not only pays attention, but actually sings along with the songs, which is what that short, glasses-wearing bartender lady was doing during "Anybody Out There." You know you're at a super-amazing show when, one song later, that same bartender pulls a Bionic Woman, leaping like a cat on top of the bar and breaking up a fight. And while the place didn't explode into the giant bloody fuck-/fightfest that some veteran Dwarves fans had warned me it might, the crowd had its fists in the air the whole time, screaming along to new songs like "Relentless" and "Salt Lake City" as well as classics like "Back Seat of My Car" (yes, it's about what you think it is). In the words of one girl -- who saw me taking notes and commented on it, then accepted my invitation for her to take them for me: "My el-bone hurts b/c I probably fell on it (while moshing) and ... I'm pretty sure I broke my thumb, but ... wow ... great fuckin' show."
For a few lingering moments afterward, I felt satisfyingly tough. Shit, it was almost like spending a night in jail.