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February 14, 2005

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Consider this punk’s political refractory period: After a year or so of a high-profile leftist agenda pushed by the Punk Voter and championed by the unlikeliest of spokesmen – NOFX – many punk rockers’ first taste of the body politic is one of failure. Despite the tours, the inflammatory album titles, the street teams, the CNN and Time coverage and the chart success of American Idiot, George W. Bush is back in the White House.

To say it’s frustrating for those parties heavily invested into the left – say, Fat Mike and Jello Biafra – is unnecessary. Its effects on thousands of first-time voters, however, may be less easy to pin down: Can youthful idealism and optimism withstand the reality check Bush’s slim majority win deals out? Did the election of 2004 sow the seeds of apathy in a generation of liberal, progressives and other miscellaneous lefties? Was the youth vote wasted once and for all in November?

If you answered “yes,” it’s time for a dose of Strike Anywhere. Before you hang up your bleeding-heart ideology and bury your idealist dreams once and for all, a spin of the band’s latest, To Live in Discontent (Jade Tree) might be beneficial. The Richmond, Va. punks round up their B-sides, rarities and other odds’n’ends for the career-spanning collection, showing that punk’s political activism stretches far beyond the realms of mere electoral politics. While the act (singer Thomas Barnett, guitarists Matt Sherwood and Matt Smith, bassist Garth Petrie and Eric Kane) is no stranger to punk’s activist streak, To Live in Discontent may serve to remind a lot of younger fans that losing the battle for the Oval Office doesn’t mean the left has lost the war.

“I think a lot of the people our music speaks to are already focused on that and are looking for a source of motivation, or they feel like they’re doing something when they’re really not,” Sherwood explains. “Sometimes I feel that way too, because we spend so much time being a band and talking about this stuff, we don’t really have a lot of time to be active in our community where it seems like real work gets done.

“I’m all marched out. I want to go participate in a city council where I can walk up and talk to the mayor and he’ll actually listen to me, which is amazing that, along with however many thousand of other people, that you can actually have a direction in your community.”

Sherwood and Strike Anywhere deal a double-edged reality check that should be loud enough to wake up punk’s dozing sense of political responsibility. On one hand, it’s nothing but defeatist apathy that’s making youngsters feel as if the November disaster is cause to bury their head in the sand and avoid politics for the rest of their lives. On the other, no amount of well intentioned tours, inflammatory album titles, smart-assed T-shirts or even the casual appropriation of Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore’s ideas is enough. Politics is a hands-on activity, and becoming active in punk culture alone isn’t going to change the world, no matter how enfranchised you feel singing along with Anti-Flag, it’s not enough. Dropping out won’t change the world: You have to step up and take action for yourself.

If that bursts your activist bubble, you haven’t been paying attention. Rather than discouraging anyone from taking part in the political process, it should be inspirational. Instead of the screaming rhetoric of blame and the politics of division, underneath Strike Anywhere’s punk lurks a guardedly optimistic message: Even in the worst political climate change starts with the voice and action of a single person.

“I think that our point of view as a group is to stay hopeful as we discuss politics,” Sherwood says. “Definitely we do spend time on societal and political ills, but I think a major part of what we do is finding a positive personal angle. That’s important for me individually. That’s how I go about my life, searching for personal peace. I think that’s something that we like to address. I don’t really care if it’s fashionable or not.

“I think there are kids in every community, even in the deeply red states, there are people who feel a need to dissent, even if they are doing it very quietly. Kids and older folks come out to shows. When I say kids, I mean like 11 and 12. We have them come out, which is pretty exciting, but I don’t if they’re getting the whole picture that we’re painting, but they do seem to react to loud, fast music. I think kids in those communities are ready to come into a safe environment like our shows and share in these ideas.”

If you’ve never heard a Strike Anywhere album, don’t expect the lightweight politics and sloganeering of Green Day or NOFX’s recent expansion into the world of socially conscious punk. Neither should you expect the incessant finger-pointing and negativity intertwined with leftist rhetoric you’d expect from classic Dead Kennedys or Crass albums. Instead, it finds a middle ground, using The Clash’s “anger can be power” mantra to channel discontent into a force that isn’t about laying blame as much as dealing with the problem. “Incendiary” urges listeners not to just complain about the world situation, but to step into the political arena to make a change. “Asleep,” To Live in Discontent’s most fiery rager doesn’t aim to bring down the regime, but rather looks to lend moral support to anyone fighting the good fight. While “Two Fuses” is virulently aware of soulless plastic heart of mainstream America, it’s more about escaping its grasp than sending it off in a tsunami of Molotov cocktails.

You don’t have to look too far to see Strike Anywhere put the power of positivity into action. Where many of its revolutionary brothers in arms are ready to cast the dumbed-down ideology of recent pop-punk forays into the political arena as anything from feeble fluff to treacherous turncoats, the upswing in light politics doesn’t ruffle Sherwood and his band mates’ feathers. In fact, he thinks just the opposite: Rather than berating Green Day or any of political punk’s other Johnny-come-latelies, he embraces them – even if they’re worlds away from what his band does.

“I think that it’s pretty remarkable that it’s on the charts now. That’s pretty amazing,” Sherwood gushes of Green Day’s latest, Bush-baiting album. “Last time I checked, the election’s over. That’s pretty cool that they can stay up there. That’s pretty cool that they can rock it with dumbed-down politics. You should never say that one should not try, but I think it’s very difficult to address complex political issues in a three-dimensional way in the space of a three- or four-minute song.

“In the case of Green Day songs, where they’re using a pretty standard pop structure, they pretty much introduce an idea, call it a name and they call it a name a whole lot because that’s the part that repeats, and then leave with a funny idea at the end. That’s not really how we do it. I don’t think that’s bad. I’m sure they’re doing it exactly the way they want to. I think it’s good that people are still willing to hate on the president a little bit! “I don’t know if I’d call it natural, necessarily, but it makes sense,” he continues. “I don’t think for most bands that was a carefully planned out strategy or something mysterious. We’re not upset because they’re invading our territory. We’re down with whoever wants to have a discussion about our society. We’re part of it, whether we like it or not. I guess we could leave, which is always an attractive option. It’s kind of like selling out. It’s funny, when we discuss moving to the European Union seriously in our band, everyone talks about how it’s like selling out. ?°»Let’s move to Australia! It’s awesome! But, we can’t leave our people behind.’ That’s sort of sad.”

After all, if Strike Anywhere packed its bags and headed for points east, who’d be there to lead the charge? There’s a lot at stake between now and the next election. With a little luck, Strike Anywhere can help keep the dissent bubbling loud enough to

“He’s a guy who’s in his last term who’s poised to do all kinds of terrible shit,” Sherwood says. “No one can really say much about it. Congress is Republican. So is the Executive branch. We’re going to get our judicial nominees that are insane, I’m sure and the future looks pretty bleak right now. It’s nice that people are keeping their head in it and not just looking the other way and waiting for this guy to go away, which is what I want to do.”

Thank goodness he and the rest of Strike Anywhere aren’t giving in to that urge.


Matt Schild