Untouchable Is Something to Be: The Rise and Continued Rise of Against Me!
I’ll never forget the feeling of shaking Against Me! drummer Warren Oakes’s hand as he pressed through the crushing crowd toward the front doors of CBGB. We locked eyes for half a second and I called out to him over the roar: “FIVE YEARS!” He smiled, or maybe shook his head—hard to tell what’s going on behind a beard like that. Then he had to go inside and I, ticketless, had to go home.
It’s weird when your local band sells out. I don’t mean artistically or ethically—that’s not weird at all; it just sucks. And AM! hasn’t. If their lyrics can be considered any indication, then it seems they are still the same old hardline leftists, just louder and with better distro. They’ve sold out nothing but all their shows.
I’d gotten used to AM! shows selling out in Gainesville, Fla., because hometown venues are small and hometown shows are as much family reunion and scene as they are actual show. But in New York City? Almost exactly a year ago I’d bought a door ticket to see AM! with the Blood Brothers at the Bowery Ballroom. But a year ago they hadn’t been on Conan O’Brien, weren’t getting their B-sides remixed by Mouse on Mars or finally meeting their goal of playing every state in the union; in short: selling out, in the most positive and disorienting connotations of that term.
“FIVE YEARS” is how long I’ve been an Against Me! fan. One day in late 2000 my friend Nick told me that this anarcho-folk outfit, his favorite band ever, was playing their last show ever and I had one chance to see them or die unfulfilled. At that time, Against Me! was a two-piece with one EP (Crime) available; Tom Gabel sang and played guitar while this little guy named Kevin took out what must have been two lifetimes’ worth of aggression on a drum kit built mostly out of buckets. They were the opening act for a local folk personality named Lars Din, a drunk who frequently missed his own shows.
Needless to say, the band didn’t break up. I saw Tom play alone a couple of times, including once in an apartment-complex laundromat: forty or so people crammed on top of and underneath the folding table; some crusty punk tapping out a beat with a drum stick on a drier. When the requisite cop arrived he didn’t bust anyone or even flush us out of the hijacked space. He just left. It was, if you’ll excuse the sentiment, a magic night.
Tom later cut an even more stripped-down record, The Acoustic EP, with Jordan Kleeman on bass and vocals, before ultimately reconfiguring AM! as a four-man band. That band put out a full-length release, Reinventing Axl Rose, on No Idea records. It was an oddly divisive record. Some people preferred the raw folk-punk sound of the EPs and some preferred the indisputable powerhouse that was the new sound. It sharply divided their audience, at least for a minute, and accusations of having sold out, among less coherent charges, were hurled. But one thing was clear: AM! was not going to spend the rest of their career playing $2 shows or making cameos at house parties (though they still do on occasion).
A scene nurtures its bands and its scenesters, but it needs insularity to stay coherent, and that leads to rigorous self-government through exclusivity and denunciations. It is the scenesters who must do the dirty work of the scene. Which isn’t to say that Against Me! was outcast. For the most part people were smart enough to be happy for them, our shared pride like the kind you might have in a football team (Gainesville also being home to the Florida Gators).
In 2002 AM! played a July 4 show at Common Grounds, a Gainesville coffeehouse/bar/venue that was the epicenter of the Gainesville scene, even though everyone liked to scorn it for being…wait for it…the epicenter of the Gainesville scene. The mood that night was one of unadulterated triumph. The place was past double capacity. The back door got propped open. The audience, drunk, earnest, and radical, kept calling for the self-aware and half-serious “Baby, I’m An Anarchist,” which, in their drunken radical earnestness, they had pretty much forgotten was supposed to be self-aware and only half-serious. My friend Maggie was on a boatload of mushrooms and melted into the firework-scarred night, which doubtless sang to her. AM! was kicking off their first cross-country tour.
Incidentally, so was I. The same day that AM! set out West, me and three of my buddies loaded all of our stuff into a 1979 VW Microbus and took off in the same direction. Our trajectories were mostly parallel, but intersected in San Francisco, where we caught AM! at the legendary 924 Gilman Street, an all-ages volunteer-run punk venue in Berkeley and the westernmost stop on both our summer tours. People had driven from as far away as Las Vegas to see them. I approached Tom after the show, while he was putting his equipment away. “I thought I saw familiar faces from the stage,” he said. Then, “this is seriously fucking with my reality.”
Live or on a stereo, Against Me! has soundtracked some of the best times in my life, and we ran in some of the same circles in Gainesville. Warren used to cashier at this gyro place in town, and one time we shared a pint of whiskey outside of a house party. Tom used to work the door at The Top, the other epicenter of the Gainesville scene. We weren’t friends, exactly, but it’s fun to say that I was there.
On January 2, 2003, when I was spending the night at a Bowery squat that had been opened up by some punks I knew from Gainesville, I had my first big “I was there” moment. This one guy was an AM! nut—he knew the band’s music inside and out, and considered himself a purist because he favored the early acoustic work over the later full-band stuff. He told me he’d heard that in the old days AM! would play shows in laundromats and tear the place up, and if cops came the band would just keep playing and the audience would run the cops out of there and it got to be that the cops were afraid to bother them anymore.
Hearing that story, a night from my own life distorted and pluralized, regurgitated as a kind of mythology, was a surreal and absolutely gratifying experience. The kid’s eyes shined. What could I say but I was there? At which gig? he asked. All of them, I said, and until the CBGB show, that was pretty close to the truth.
But this wasn’t. Quoth the AM! bio on Rolling Stone’s website: “Begun by guitarist and singer Tom Gabel, Against Me! were a folk-punk cult fave in Florida for years before breaking into the mainstream in 2005. Initially Gabel played his songs in anarchic shows inside local laundromats.” Now my scenester hackles are up! The implication of that word, “anarchic,” as thrown around by Rolling Stone, leaves a nasty taste. It was anarchism as socio-political project, as personal philosophy, as experience shared outside the mediating forces of government or economy; it was not anarchism as broken window, as washing machine filled with empty beer cans.
I should know; I was there.
And that refrain seems ultimately what you are left singing when your local band goes national (and beyond): “I was there,” “I was there.” It’s a function of a reversal in information-flow. Right now, as I sit writing this in a bar on Amsterdam Ave., their new single, “Don’t Lose Touch,” has just come on the XM radio for the second time tonight. It will play a third time before I’m finished. I spent years trying to turn people on to this band, this obscure but wonderful secret. Now they are a secret for everybody.
Justin Taylor is a freelance writer based in New York City.