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I Guess I'm Dying Old: Twenty Years In A Day With The Lawrence Arms, The Menzingers and Lagwagon

Wednesday, 22 August 2018 Written by Huw Baines

Illustration: Samuel Davies

There’s this great indie-rock song going around called Hope You Like Getting Old. It’s by the Seattle band Subways on the Sun and its video is full of stuff that used to clutter my shelves when I was a kid - a VHS copy of The Empire Strikes Back, an Optimus Prime figure, a lava lamp like the one my girlfriend got me for my 17th birthday. Watching it is to submit to that addictive, rose-tinted sadness that’s so hot right now. It’s Proust with power chords.

There’s no avoiding it, really. We’re all dying, and that process only becomes more visible over time. These days all your friends look like they wandered in from a late season episode of Seinfeld, and your back hurts. Rich, syrupy nostalgia is a handy crutch, but it can also drag you under. You don’t want to be that guy in the bar from Glory Days.

But when I shove open the balcony doors at the Forum in Kentish Town on a disgusting, sweltering Friday night, I’m already paddling ankle deep in dewy-eyed reminiscing. Wyoming’s finest sci-fi Ramonescore band, the Lillingtons, open the show and are followed by the gruff, rapid punk of Bad Cop, Bad Cop. Then, you’ve got the last 20 years of my life scrawled across a poster: the Lawrence Arms, Lagwagon and the Menzingers.

There are people in the room who feel the same way, others who are just there to drink and shout along, and some who don’t believe it’s necessary to view their lives through the lens of whatever they were listening to at the time. Sweat pouring out of me and lukewarm beer in hand, I find the whole thing quite comforting. It makes something inherently complex, and more than a little chaotic, seem organised and self-contained.

Lagwagon wander out a little after 9pm and play 1998’s ‘Let’s Talk About Feelings’ top to bottom to celebrate its two decades walking among us. It’s the night’s most obvious case of sweatin’ to the oldies. Joey Cape sounds great, drummer Dave Raun is metronomically fast and the band are as endearingly goofy and sloppy as always, neatly reflecting the sodden chaos of the pit. During May 16 someone plays air guitar using my mate’s arm as the neck.

Before their set starts we talk for a little while about a summer spent hearing the song through shitty TV speakers while playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in the cramped loft room of my parents’ house. Music like this is a way in. It’s obnoxious, loud and, given the distribution of Fat Wreck titles back in the peak CD era, it was available to people in small towns thousands of miles away from California. It exists at the corner of seeking out your individuality and adopting a uniform. In London, two thirds of the band are wearing 3/4s. It looks and sounds the same as it always did, which is why so many people in the room lose it - nothing hits like a simple, familiar pleasure.

Joan Didion once wrote that sometimes things appear in our childhoods and determine “forever the shape of certain of our dreams”. She was talking specifically about John Wayne, but for some people the swaggering gait belonged to Punk-O-Rama compilations. And a lot of them are here tonight. Those first footsteps don’t fade, even after you start devouring everything you can - anything on Epitaph, Fat, Asian Man, anything with a cover that’s even the tiniest bit transgressive - and then set about refining.

At this stage, the Menzingers are all about refining things. Polished to a point, battle-hardened and with a deep rotation, the Philadelphia quartet have unquestionably crossed the border from heroes of the punk scene to theatre-playing rock band. As usual, Greg Barnett and Tom May share the setlist between them, with a muscular In Remission serving as a particular highlight. The middle eight of The Obituaries, meanwhile, is roared back unaccompanied by the crowd in a manner that only sometimes works in rooms of this size. Because you are a grown up, you are happy that this excellent, hard-working band has made it this far.

But you didn’t arrive at that conclusion all on your own, as growing up isn’t a solitary pursuit. If Lagwagon are the sort of band that gets you started and the Menzingers are the sort of band capable of lighting dormant fires, then the Lawrence Arms have always been a band we can learn alongside. We couldn’t remain cloistered in childhood homes goofing over pixelated kickflips and skate punk. We had to figure out a way to function. So much of that is trial and error, and the Lawrence Arms are a trial and error band.

Their early records didn’t really work - some great songs aside - but each showed an idea being fleshed out by kids who were picking things up as they went along. By the time they settled upon their final form for ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ in 2003, they were telling us that it was fine to cross out a few things you couldn’t do on your way to realising what you could do.

They made it sound OK to go big and be a bit pretentious - bastardising Proust and Didion while discussing three minute punk songs, much? - because you shouldn’t be afraid to expose yourself to new, challenging things amid puerile, reassuring things. Life might work out for you that way, or you could die alone, drunk and laughing through your despair. They made sure we had both options in front of us. Fundamentally, they’re a band who can help you figure things out if you’re willing to accept that you won’t like all of the answers they scrawl down.

The release of ‘We Are The Champions of the World’, a greatest hits set featuring zero hits, earlier this year felt like the start of a well-earned victory lap. The Lawrence Arms might not have always been the best band, they’re definitely not the biggest, but that’s never stopped them being someone’s favourite band. “We were always fairly uncool and irrelevant,” is how bassist and vocalist Brendan Kelly recently put it. Us too man, us too.

Emerging to a heraldic version of Queen’s We Are The Champions (obviously) their set opens with The Slowest Drink At The Saddest Bar On The Snowiest Day In The Greatest City. Here’s the great thing about that song: it’s profound, sad, Imagistic and housed on a 7” called ‘Buttsweat and Tears’. If that isn’t having your cake and eating it, I don’t know what is. It’s also a song that contains one of their most concise answers to a question posed by Barnett later in the evening, during the Menzingers’ Tellin’ Lies: “Where are we gonna go now that our 20s are over?”

Maybe a shithole bar to drink slow, drink slow with nowhere to go? We can look at the Lawrence Arms and see a band that’s keenly aware of the minutes that depart us constantly. 100 Resolutions, one of their best loved songs, is a New Year’s staple - “this is our year for sure” - while their most recent LP, ‘Metropole’, could easily be misconstrued as a missive from beleaguered old punks.

There’s a bit of that, granted, but it’s also a forensic look at urban isolation and the loneliness we can feel as the world teems around us. Our friends leave town, start families and get jobs that mean they can’t while away the hours with us anymore, and we do the same. We have to get used to being a face in the crowd. And, as far as communal experiences go, shows offer a chance to experience that in miniature.

Each song that bursts overhead means something different to each person in the room, or nothing at all. Everyone in turn will have made the trip out for their own reasons: a quick blast of nostalgia, to see this band everyone keeps going on about, or maybe to witness three dudes who should know better snark and quip their way through songs that make more sense to you now than they did years ago.  

The day after the Forum date I’m walking home from a terrible football match when a friend says that he still feels like the Lawrence Arms are a ‘new’ band. They put out their first record almost 19 years ago, but we laugh because they do sort of feel like a new band. Eventually, we log enough identikit days and everything seems like it happened recently. As Kelly put it on Seventeener a couple of years back: dying young just didn’t work out, so I guess I’m dying old.

- Huw Baines is on Twitter.

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