Monday, September 7, 2009

Some Band You've Never Heard of Made Me Who I Am

This piece will run in the Envoy issue due out September 16.

Take one middle-class, ADHD-diagnosed fourteen year-old boy who never quite fit in. Add a pinch of disdain for oppression and inequality. Slowly pour in two cups of defiance. Add a dash of intellectual curiosity. Throw contents into a bowl of late-nineties teen angst. Stir vigorously.

These ingredients came together in November of 1997 in a way I'll never forget. I was fourteen and in my first couple months of high school. Some kids I had met about a week before invited me to go with them to see some bands play at a church about a mile down the road from my house. That night, I had no plans, no expectations, and no idea what I was in for.

I don't even think The Broadways headlined the show. I don't really even remember their set. That's one of the strange things about those rare life-altering moments; more often than not, you can't see them coming long enough in advance to really take notice and commit every precious detail to memory. Especially when you're a clueless, hopelessly naive freshman in high school.

But I did buy their CD, Broken Star. It was one of only two full-length albums the band would put out in their brief time together. The other, Broken Van, is a compilation of miscellaneous tracks, mostly taken from various splits and EP's, and was released after they broke up. It's not as good. But hey, “Album That That Made Me Who I Am” is setting the bar pretty high.


Broken Star's melodic, yet grimy-sounding compositions listen like the musical embodiment of growing up as a rebel. It stays true throughout to the jagged punk rock aesthetic, but the band's two guitars and three singers help it break out of the well-worn three-chord rut and provide the space for some brilliant topical and musical exploration. Songs tend to last longer than the standard two to three minutes, and often indulge us with long intro's or outro's and meandering solo's rife with visceral emotional impact (I still get goosebumps just from some of Broken Star's yearning riffs wandering into my head). Each song stands entirely on its own two feet, and few attempts are made—very consciously, I suspect--to create an experience that flows smoothly between tracks.

That this band had a unique, yet accomplished sound is illuminated by a look at who was in it. Some high school kids from in and around Elgin, IL formed a ska-punk band called Slapstick in the mid-nineties. Fronted by the sandpapery-voiced Brendan Kelly, Slapstick was signed by the San Francisco Bay Area-based Asian Man Records when most of the band was still in high school. They developed a relatively large and loyal fan base, primarily in the Chicago-area punk scene, but not only there.

Slapstick, it turned out, was like a punk rock boot-camp for some of the most influential and talented musicians to come out of the Chicago area in a generation. The history looks a bit like a family genealogy chart, with a continually dividing lineage. On one side of the divide, Slapstick members went on to form the “emo” bands Alkaline Trio and a short-lived band called Tuesday. On the more straight-up punk side, we got The Broadways, whose members would later go on to form The Honor System and The Lawrence Arms. These bands have had (and in the case of The Lawrence Arms and Alkaline Trio, continue to have) a lasting impact not only on me, but on underground music throughout this country and the world.

Much of the irreverent flare and shrill-voiced contempt of Kelly's songwriting and singing with Slapstick seeped into his work with The Broadways. Those songs on Broken Star that were sung by him tended to have a more didactic, whiny quality to their lyrics and delivery (don't get me wrong: that was, and is, fine with me). They often dealt explicitly, as in “Everything I Ever Wanted To Know About Genocide I Learned In The Third Grade,” with specific political topics like the historical white-washing of the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. As I recall, owing pretty much solely to this song, I made a big deal about refusing to eat turkey at my family Thanksgiving dinner in 1997. Aunt Molly was horrified. I was coming (clumsily) into my own.

Even songs that I couldn't personally relate to, like “The Kitchen Floor,” a self-aware diatribe about its author's alcoholism, had a capacity to pull me into their emotional vortex and got me searching for aspects of my own life that the lyrics could apply to just as much what they were really about.

What had the most lasting and profound impact on me were the songs sung in part or entirely by Chris McCaughan or Dan Hanaway (who would later found and sing for The Honor System, another band I deeply love). The best of these songs were longer, and boasted a more intricate musical style and heartfelt songwriting. Like all Broadways songs, they eschewed the standard verse/chorus/verse lyrical structure in favor of something closer to a stream-of-consciousness rant. But in these songs especially, that formula helps to strike that illusive balance found in raw personal anguish born of a genuine largeness of mind about the beleaguered state of our world. The song “We'll Have A Party” offers a good example: “Motivation sometimes sinks deep in these couch cushions/sometimes sleep is my best friend/and it hurt me when my friends transformed into my parents/they don't call here anymore.”


It's not hyperbole to say that I would be a different person without this album. Seriously. Think back to when you were fourteen. I'd wager that like me, you hadn't heard a whole lot of music whose sound not only spoke to you, but whose lyrics and ethos dared you to rebel (and used swear words!). Well, I know I hadn't. And this album opened up doors of exploration that would lead to the discovery of countless other beloved albums and a whole world of questioning everything any teacher, politician, TV news anchorman or parent ever told me. And I'm proud to say, that impulse hasn't faded much over the years.

There's a way that the stars aligned with Broken Star. As tends to be the case with music that ends up shaping who people will become, the musicians were older than my friends and I, but not by that much. They had their fingers on the pulse of what it was like to be young and to hate the world you saw out your bedroom window in the suburbs. With a kind of magic that's hard for words to convey, two guitars, a bass, a drumset and some mic's became a conduit for all the all the rage, all the impotence, all the revelry of coming of age in a world you knew was no good, yet didn't know what could be done about it. Maybe that's part of the reason I fell so hard for it; I bet if I heard Broken Star for the first time now, it would get a tepid reception from my 26-year-old ears. But because it was so formative for me, it's locked-in. I'll never be able to not love it, even if I try.

I remember it like it was yesterday (maybe that's because I know I'll do the same thing for many tomorrow's to come): after midnight, driving back with a friend from some distant corner of the vast suburban labyrinth. Windows down, volume at “ten,” Broken Star on “repeat,” and our throats on the verge of bleeding from screaming every... single... word at the top of our lungs.

Whoops, we missed our exit. Fuck it.


There's a certain dark cynicism and a macabre sense of humor that came through in a lot of The Broadways' work (“and the only dream I have is for an H-bomb to come, and blow us fucking up so you won't have to hear me bitch anymore”). And while that side of them was real, it's not what defined the spirit of what I believe they were trying to do. I think it's fitting that the last tracks on the only two full-length records they ever put out have a much more uplifting, downright inspiring message. These were four guys who I think must have had a lot of faith in humanity, even if they spent a lot of time fixating on how badly it had screwed things up. The last lines from the song “The Nautical Mile” give eloquent expression to this faith: “And if it comes down to just you and I/standing on the last corner of the last town of the last city in the burning world/you'll still have someone on your side/life is bigger, so much bigger than all this.” That's the side of this band and of this record that I've tried to pick up and run through life with, stopping occasionally to scream out to the heavens for something better than this ugly, beautiful world I've inherited.


  1. Without a doubt my favorite album. This is the only album that I have listened to at least monthly since I first got it over 10 years ago.

    It could be that I have lived in Chicagoland my whole life and have known a lot of people over time who have at least heard the album, but it seems to generate a lot of conversation, with you most of all.

    Last summer a good friend of mine who grew up in the burbs but in high school moved to South Carolina visited me, bringing with him a native South Carolinian both of whom had memorized most of the album. As we drove around Chicago, especially Uptown they both broke into song as we passed many places that they recognized from the 30 some songs that the Broadways recorded.

    I keep waiting to find an album I care this much about but don't think I'm in the same stage in my life where one album can make the same sort of impact. I guess I'll keep hoping I find one that does.

  2. What about Boris the Sprinkler??!?! What, the lyrics "I do the sprinkler, tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh, I do the sprinkler, tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh" don't touch your heart?

    Or how about Skankin' Pickle? Example: "I missed the bus. I missed the bus again. I missed the bus. I missed the bus again." You can't tell me that isn't relevant to just about everyone.

    I guess this is why I am a goofy adult.

  3. PS the broadways make me think of the suburbs and dumpster diving.

  4. Everything I Ever Wanted To Know About Genocide I Learned In The Third Grade. That's just about the greatest song title ever.

    Also, I enjoyed this.

  5. As a Mom I often listened to the Broadways - sometimes, admittedly against my will. But I admit that I grew to love some of the Broadways and even choose to listen to certain songs, even now- with fondness and enjoyment that you wrote eloquently of Scott. I too grew up- as a parent and hopefully grew in my ability to be a parent because of some of these songs and the steadfast attachment of some of my children to this music.

    Thanks for an insightful post- which I am only reading now.