Since before The Jam uttered its “Youth Explosion” declaration, or Generation X laid down that “Youth Youth Youth” chant or Sham 69 got everyone riled up about kids who are united, punk rock’s been almost exclusively associated with adolescence. And can you blame the world for thinking so? The brash energy, us-against-them mentality and black-and-white worldview are perfectly suited to catering to adolescent angst and youthful rebellion. Toss in the exodus of the scene’s founding fathers into post-punk and other forms of music by the mid-’80s, and it’s no wonder punk’s firebrand mentality has frequently been associated with immaturity.
It’s been more than 25 years since punk shook the music world and permanently reorganized the way we look at music and the world beyond it. It evolved from a fad into a scene and, for some, into a lifestyle. As the new millennium slowly grows into itself and punk, now in its 30th year, the children of the punk revolution – the first ones born and raised in a world where punk drastically altered the cultural landscape – are coming into adulthood. For many of them, it means holding onto that lifestyle.
Dr. Dan Yemin of Philadelphia is one of that generation. By all superficial measures he’s just another Joe Paycheck, albeit a successful one, working as a self-employed psychologist treating teenagers and kids through the miracles of modern psychotherapy. It fills his days. It pays the bills and that mortgage payment each month. In one regard, he’s the model of the upwardly mobile, educated thirtysomething. Underneath it all, however, the former hardcore kid hasn’t let go of his roots.
Although the punk fashions and the weekly attendance at punk-rock concerts are a thing of the past, replaced by a more mature, balanced lifestyle, he hasn’t forgotten the lessons punk rock taught him. As the singer for Jade Tree Records’ Paint It Black, he’s spreading the gospel. After all, the lessons he learned from a canon of mixed tapes, 45s and from the stages of DIY all-ages shows aren’t the sort of thing you outgrow – even after settling, albeit somewhat uncomfortably, into the real world.
“Most of my politics were coalesced from being a punk rocker, from being a hardcore kid,” the well-spoken therapist explains over the phone, shortly after his final patient has left for the evening. “It was part of the process of me becoming a politicized adult, an intelligent, critically thinking adult, and I’ll always be grateful for that. A lot of my best friends are still people I know through the punk scene. There’s a very strong connection to that.”
A few seconds of Paint It Black’s sophomore effort, Paradise, should kill any doubts that Yemin’s career and maturity are incompatible with his punk-rock upbringing. The band lashes out with the ferocity, volume and ideological firepower that have more in common with SST Records’ hardcore-era glory days than any of today’s fashion-conscious hardcore acts. The 14-track affair’s over in just more than 21 minutes, though it’s a runaway-train ride of bristling, buzz-saw guitars, Molotov-cocktail rhythms and Yemin’s half-shouted political commentary. With that sort of intensity, 21 minutes is just about enough. It’s a reminder of the days when punks were more interested in righting the world’s wrongs than pleasing record-company executives.
While some underground lifers will say Yemin and company are too invested in the system to muster anything more than half-felt inspiration of true revolutionary artists, he argues the opposite: Bands whose paycheck, lifestyle and financial well-being depend upon wooing fans can’t ever truly cut loose to risk it all. For Paint It Black, day jobs are a way to ensure it doesn’t have to worry about sacrificing polemic for populism. Guitarist Colin McGinniss installs commercial HVAC systems. Drummer Dave Wagenshutz works for Jade Tree. Bassist Andy Nelson splits his time between knocking out some sort of computer code or another and pursuing a college education. Sure, the day jobs aren’t quite as glamorous as glossy-magazine photo shoots, spending weeks on end in the studio on the company dime or intercontinental touring. The careers pay for something more than just the band members’ living expenses: They buy Paint It Black a freedom that’s increasingly rare even in the punk underground.
“It is really the big upside to having our own careers that aren’t music,” Yemin says. “Careerism has killed independent music, in case you haven’t noticed. I’ve said this before. We bitched about that on the last record, with the topical stuff. There are just bands now that are more worried, a lot of bands now, that are more concerned with finding management and booking agents than they are about writing an album’s worth of strong and intimate songs. There’s loads of utter tripe out there. I kind of feel that we spent the ’90s playing in basements and eating peanut-butter sandwiches to pay for their haircuts.
”I don’t worry about people making a living off something that we invented. That’s not what I worry about. What I worry about is just the glut of crap in the independent music scene is in not a particularly great place right now.”
Yemin has every right to feel a little jilted, even if he’s not the sort to count missed opportunities. He first made a small name for himself playing house parties and tiny venues in New Jersey’s Lifetime. Between 1990 and 1997, it crafted furiously catchy pop punk (think Descendents or Buzzcocks rather than radio tripe) with Yemin playing guitar on four long-players, before it splintered; Yemin and Wagenschutz regrouped in Philadelphia’s Kid Dynamite, a hardcore outfit that broke up before it ever really received its due in 2000. Undaunted, Yemin bounced back as Paint It Black, dropping the band’s debut, CVA, from Jade Tree in 2003. To say he’s not just remained, but helped influence and shape the punk underground’s direction for the past 15 years is anything but hyperbole.
If there’s anything Yemin’s learned in his decade and a half in the underground, it’s how quickly minor ethical concerns can be erased when a livelihood is threatened. It’s not just the major-label/indie debate that’s been raging since The Clash signed to CBS, either: There’s a whole stew of problems that, in a more ideological world, more than just a handful of punk acts would consider: Punk songs appear in television commercials. The summer’s largest package tour – gleefully supported by dozens of top-tier punk bands, no less – is essentially nothing more than a gigantic, roving commercial for footwear. The Dead Kennedys, once a pinnacle in independence and disdain of commercial pressures, imploded in drawn-out and nasty litigation that’s turned it into a laughably vapid shadow of its former self. If there’s anything that’s been sacrificed as punk’s grown from a somewhat obscure underground movement into a catch-all for youth culture, it’s the all-important ethics that used to come part and parcel with punk rock – usually because bands compromise their ethics simply, to be crass, to stay in business. Paint It Black – essentially a tax write-off for Yemin and company – doesn’t even have to consider that kind of choice to keep a roof over its head.
“You always make compromises along the way,” Yemin says. “We’ve had to make some, but minor compromises. There are certain things we are not going to compromise. I’ve said we’re not going to play Clear Channel shows and we’re not going to play Clear Channel shows. Most of the bands I know, even punk-rock bands with a strong ethical component, really weigh their options because it can really hurt you in some cities. They call them markets now. I still call them cities. I’m old-fashioned. I don’t want to call my friend in Chicago and say: ?°»Hey, how’s life in the Windy Market?’ I don’t want to call my friend in Providence and be like: ?°»What’s it like living in a B market?’ Fuck all that shit. You can hurt yourself in a lot of cities by not playing a Clear Channel show because they have a monopoly and a bit of a stranglehold. I’m psyched that we don’t have to make that compromise. We don’t even have to think about it. I’ve turned down great shows at Clear Channel venues and I feel good about it. Not because I can get up and preach about staying true to my values, but because I like being able to sleep at night and not feel nauseous about that shit.”
Punk’s not dead, but it’s sure turning into an embarrassing parody of everything it used to want to destroy, at least in many places. You won’t find Paint It Black moving in those circles. Its fiery punk rock is as much a reaction against the smugness of post-9/11 America as the cult of bubblegum punk. Paradise roars with the sort of fury nearly forgotten in the sugary world of modern punk. After all, it falls on ears that have proclaimed the vague leftist leanings of Green Day’s American Idiot as a finely honed political manifesto. The days when acts such as Conflict, Crass and even The Clash’s politicking rocked the world seem very, very long ago.
“That’s why I kind of feel like it’s important, for me at least, for me to honor the tradition of punk rock as protest music,” he explains. “A lot of times people laugh when you talk about political music because they assume it’s going to be this adolescent, sloganeering kind of crap. I think we did a record that’s very political but also has subtlety to its politics. Certain elements are not subtle at all. I don’t feel like we’re a band that has to worry about bludgeoning you over the head with slogans.”
Now that Yemin has a steady client base in his therapy practice, conventional wisdom would dictate it’s time for him to outgrow his days as a punk-rock agitator, pay off the college loans and, eventually, starting living the fat, easy life. Of course, conventional wisdom can’t grasp the way punk ethics seep into someone’s soul, help form their personality and help guide them long after they cut their hair or stop attending shows every other night.
Maybe much of the reason that the mainstream sees punk as a stopping point on the way to adulthood isn’t because of its adolescent nature, but rather people’s tendencies to grow apart from the sweltering idealism associated with the scene, Yemin says. After all, when you’re juggling a sadist supervisor, wage-slave working conditions and all the other various headaches of adulthood, it’s tough to remember that, somewhere in the world, people are fighting the good fight.
“I think a lot of the times, being really concerned about values is a transient phase for people, unfortunately,” he reflects. “I think some of it is because people become kind of militant about their politics. Some of that is what’s developmentally appropriate for teenagers. You discover this other world that isn’t on the TV and it seems so important and right and it seems so immediate. Right now, we have to change the world. We have to scream about it. It’s the difference between right and wrong. We have to fight for it. A lot of that comes from the adolescent search for identity, that militant thing. You’re going to burn out pretty quick. Most people do. Some people grow up to be activists. Some people grow up to be into making exciting and aggressive art, and the politics become part of their lifestyle. For some people, the politics are too much work. It’s too hard to think of your life as something political.”
For Paint It Black, it’s just like the good ol’ days: There are no tour managers to employ, no agents taking their 15 points and no shareholder-conscious dude from the label breathing down their neck. There’s just punk rock, and a burning desire to combine youthful idealism with mature insight – and no market considerations, career implications or business concerns to foul things up. The day jobs may keep Paint It Black from becoming a “professional” act by many people’s standards, but the thunderclap of commerce-free music that’s Paradise proves they sure as hell aren’t amateurs, either.